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.

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As a Woman: 40 Thoughts on Turning 40

You would think that being stranded for over 24 hours at the tail end of a business trip by cancelled flights (thanks to another climate-change-inspired Nor’easter) would result in more than one of my many overdue blog posts coming to fruition – but this is all I had in me. There were too many other overdue things that needed my attention, things that actually pay my bills. So here I sit, on a plane in a row of seats with two men, one snoring loudly after downing his beer, and one sleepily manspreading by the elbows into my writing space. (They spent the first 20 minutes of the flight comparing the size of each other’s watches.) I find that planes these days offer the best opportunities for self-reflection, if I can keep my eyes open, my headphones on, and my elbows off my armrests.

Me, circa 1980.

I’ve been meaning to remark on this milestone since it happened, and though this post insinuates I haven’t yet turned 40 (OH, but I have) – I consider this age a big enough turning point that I’ll probably be thinking about it all year. My therapist thinks I invest a little too much meaning in dates as markers, and she may have a point. But for me they are reminders to take stock, to recalibrate; if I don’t take these moments to slow down and gather my thoughts, when will I? (The answer is never. I never will.)

When I was 35, I wrote a post about turning 35 as a woman that continues to get the most search hits of any post on this blog. That means women all over are Googling what it means to age as a woman, maybe looking for camaraderie in their experience, since we still don’t really talk enough about that particular part of womanhood – the part where you feel like the years you rack up are just a countdown to irrelevance. Rather than insight or wisdom, that’s what these ruminations offer – camaraderie. Acknowledgment of shared bewilderment. Articulation of familiar questions rather than the provision of answers. More so even than finding a kindred spirit in these words, I hope you share your own revelations through the years. Because if there’s one thing that summarizes everything I’ve learned to date, it’s that the day I stop learning will be the day I die.

****

  1. As a woman turning 40, making sure you like me is no longer my biggest priority.
  2. As a woman turning 40, I’m still learning to live with two seemingly disparate feelings at once. Like being relieved that I’m done breastfeeding, and mourning the fact that I’ll never nurse a child again.
  3. As a woman turning 40, I still bring my laundry home.
  4. As a woman turning 40, I ask my mother if the world has always changed this fast, or is it my aging process that makes it seem that way. (She confirms that the world is changing faster than she’s ever seen, and this does not comfort me.)
  5. As a woman turning 40, I think every day about another thing I’m going to teach my daughter about being a woman in today’s world. And then I remember that all the things I know about being a woman in today’s world are changing.
  6. As a woman turning 40, I try in vain to memorize all the moments with my kids in which something small they do touches me so much that I try not to cry in front of them.
  7. As a woman turning 40, I’ve still never owned a home, and I’m kind of glad I don’t have to deal with owning a home.
  8. As a woman turning 40, I am more aware than ever how lucky I am to love my job.
  9. As a woman turning 40, I still get a little bit of childlike excitement about staying in hotel rooms.
  10. As a woman turning 40, I am beginning to understand that I can at once be unapologetic, and be better at apologizing.
  11. As a woman turning 40, the window of time in which it feels acceptable to get a tattoo that will not scream “midlife crisis” feels like it’s closing rapidly, so I should probably go get another tattoo.
  12. As a woman turning 40, social media is more of a resource than a community.
  13. As a woman turning 40, I remember being a kid and thinking how much every adult seemed to know, and realize only now how much they didn’t.
  14. As a woman turning 40, I talk about my kids during business meetings. On purpose.
  15. As a woman turning 40, every time my 20-month-old daughter throws herself on the floor because we took her crayon away, I try hard not to envision her as a 16-year-old.
  16. As a woman turning 40, I still have classmates having kids, and planning kids. #40isthenew30
  17. As a woman turning 40, I grudgingly admit that I see the attraction of Botox.
  18. As a woman turning 40, I find my body on the other side of having two kids. And I want my old digestive system back.
  19. As a woman turning 40, I still get catcalled, and that’s actually more of a bummer than a humblebrag.
  20. As a woman turning 40, I find I can be a mentor and still be seeking a mentor at the same time.
  21. As a woman turning 40, I’ve only lately come to realize how insanely rare it is to have a husband who actually splits our household duties 50-50.
  22. As a woman turning 40, I thought I would be less scared by now. But I’m not less scared than I was before, I’m just scared of different things.
  23. As a woman turning 40, I am coming to terms with the fact that it will never all get done. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, never. So, yeah.
  24. As a woman turning 40, I wish people would stop telling me that I’m in the best time of my life, since that insinuates it’s all downhill from here.
  25. As a woman turning 40, I wish people would stop telling me that the hardest part of parenting are the adolescent years, because the current part is no cake walk.
  26. As a woman turning 40, putting my feet in my husband’s lap at the end of the day as we watch John Oliver is like what happy hour on Fridays used to be (only we make better cocktails at home than the ones I used to buy).
  27. As a woman turning 40, I don’t like the feeling that from now on, I’m going have more frequent interaction with death.
  28. As a woman turning 40, I have learned that when I am having a hypochondriacal moment, I must with all my might resist the Google.
  29. As a woman turning 40, I frequently find myself caught between two clashing generations of women and their lack of empathy for one another.
  30. As a woman turning 40, I still have not yet put together an entire Thanksgiving dinner, and I’m cool with that.
  31. As a woman turning 40, I’m secretly happy about the fact that for another year I can still check the 36-40 age demographic box.
  32. As a woman turning 40, I’m not excited about the annual boob-crushing mammograms from here on out, though you couldn’t pay me to miss one.
  33. As a woman turning 40, I wish I could have known my grandmother through my 40-year-old feminist eyes. Like, was she ‘difficult’ or was she just too smart for her time?
  34. As a woman turning 40, it makes me a feel a little better (or worse?) that Madonna’s almost 60. #60isthenew40
  35. As a woman turning 40, I really miss having a pet, but also I really don’t need another creature around to keep alive.
  36. As a woman turning 40, I value women-centric spaces as deeply as I value therapy.
  37. As a woman turning 40, I still have plenty of stuff to work on, and my need to constantly work on myself is pretty high up on the list.
  38. As a woman turning 40, I’m pretty sure that as long as I retain my curiosity, I’ll retain my creativity.
  39. As a woman turning 40, I wore a sequined jumpsuit to my birthday dinner, and I pulled it off.
  40. As a woman turning 40, it may be a grave error to broadcast my age on the internet, but who knows how long this thing will be around anyway.

 

Changing the World, One Lactation Room at a Time

It may seem like I’ve been quiet for the last six months or so, but don’t let the slow traffic on this blog fool you – I’ve been writing, just not here. I do plan to crank out some posts that have been rattling around in my head in these last weeks of 2017 and into the new year (oh so many thoughts to organize about #metoo). But in the meantime I wanted to say hi, and repost my highly utilitarian piece that was published on HowlRound a week ago.

What I haven’t yet recorded in these annals is that earlier this year I joined up with firebrand theatre-mother activist-artist, Rachel Spencer-Hewitt, and her new initiative: Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL) for the Performing Arts. I’d been familiar with Rachel’s blog AuditioningMom.com for awhile, particularly her What She Looks Like series, a more robust and plentiful version of my Theatre Mom interviews. When I co-led a Gender Equity Think Tank as part of my most recent Theatre Communications Group (TCG) Conference, I made a point to invite Rachel to it. After hitting it off, she invited me to be a part of PAAL’s Steering Committee; I think I said yes before she finished her sentence.

Working with Rachel is an active exercise in Shine Theory. Never heard of it? I don’t know that many women have; I was introduced to it by one of my most well-read lady friends. It was coined by this piece, in which author Ann Friedman frames it simply like this: “When you meet a woman who is intimidatingly witty, stylish, beautiful, and professionally accomplished, befriend her. Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison. It makes you better.” In other words: there is enough shine to go around, sisters. We’d do best to share it equitably, rather than fight each other for it like its a finite commodity.

(Side Note: that same well-read friend also insisted I dig into Ann Friedman’s podcast with her long-distance BFF, Aminatou Sow, Call Your Girlfriend. I’d listened to it once a year or two ago and it didn’t take; but returned to it post-2016 election, and is so satisfying.)

This is all to say: my new superhero mom friend was asked to curate a blog series on HowlRound addressing parenting issues in theatre, and introducing folks to PAAL through the writing of some of its reps. She asked me to pen a piece on family-friendly work practices, otherwise known as my obsession for the last five years. Below is the post as it appeared on HowlRound.

This is a movement, y’all, and it’s gaining steam. Check out PAAL, check out my piece, and check out the pieces of the other PAAL reps in HowlRound. Get excited; this is only the beginning.


 

Me visiting my office with Nina, while on maternity leave. Photo credit: Salma Zohdi.

Creating a Family-Friendly Work Environment
by Devon Berkshire

“Theatre OR family.”

That was one of the responses to an article posted on the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) Facebook page—one that didn’t seem controversial until the comments started rolling in. The article, an interview with actor Romola Garai in the UK’s The Stage, contained an argument for making field-wide changes that would better support parents working in the theatre. The very first comment, which was met with heated debate, read: “If you choose to have children, you take the consequences. Don’t ask for special privileges just because you want kids.”

To me, and to the founder and representatives of Parent-Artist Advocacy League (PAAL) for the Performing Arts, such assertions—and the underlying bias against theatre professionals who attempt to raise families—are why PAAL and similar initiatives are so desperately needed.

I’ve been all too aware of the stigmas felt by theatre parents since I started leading sessions at TCG Conferences (which I also produce, and yes, they’re family-friendly) around the challenges of parenting in our field. From artists to administrators to production staff who are parents, the struggle is career-threatening, it is exhausting, and for theatre mothers, it is intrinsically tied to gender equity in our leadership and in our programming.

The goal here is to provide a framework for creating family-friendly environments in the theatre. But first, let’s look at the why. After all, doesn’t the above commenter have a point? The theatre is historically labor-intensive by all accounts, and if you take the path of having kids, shouldn’t you be prepared to make the necessary sacrifices?

To move this conversation forward, we must agree on the deep patriarchal and capitalistic exploitation embedded in that question, and in the problematic “sweat equity”-reliant business model of our field. Moral imperative aside, it’s also just not the way the world is headed. Even corporate America, particularly the tech industry, has picked up on the value of taking care of your employees with families and investing in their well-being. It’s been covered that millennial workers insist on better work-life balance than their baby boomer supervisors.

The future is family-friendly, and you’re either with us, or you’re left scratching your head in your ghost light, wondering where all the young people you hired five years ago went.

Now that we got that out of the way, I wanted to mention a couple of working assumptions for this piece, specifically:

  • Family-friendly policies should consider all kinds of caretakers. This post focuses on the specific needs of parents, but that is not meant to downplay the importance of other caretaking responsibilities.
  • Many of these recommendations may apply to any work environment, but focus on practices that will most support parents working on the staff of theatre organizations rather than freelance artists, because that’s where my knowledge and research is centered. I hope you’ll comment and write me or PAAL with more suggestions than I have room for here.

Let’s start with the macro view. There are some operating principles at play when considering new family-friendly work practices. No true change can be successful without:

  1. Making space for this in the fabric of your organization. These changes are not about creating a budget line item, but thoughtfully undergoing a shift in organizational culture. 
  2. Creating dialogue with your colleagues. Spaces only become more inclusive if people talk about what they need from each other. If people don’t ask you what you need, tell them anyway.
  3. Breaking down stigmas about parents (especially of young children) and their ability to perform, on our stages and off.
  4. Understanding the moral and business imperatives. Non-profit theatres could stand to avoid turnover and advance equity and inclusion. Making employees feel valued in the totality of their lives is one way to lead this charge.

Now for the micro. So, what are some things you can do? Let’s go chronologically on the journey of building a family with some DO’s and DON’Ts for decision-makers.

Families don’t always start with pregnancy, but often they do. If that’s what’s happening with a woman in your work environment:

  • DO give her more space, literally and figuratively. Provide a private place to rest. Offer her more frequent breaks, and more time to move between places and meetings.
  • If you have a parking lot, DO give her a reserved spot close to the entrance. Offer her a footrest. Ask her about specific accommodations she might need.
  • But DON’T assume she is incapable of doing something unless you ask her about her comfort level first. Pregnancy autonomy is especially important for our field’s production staff.
  • DON’T comment on her appearance, be the first to bring up her pregnancy all the time, or ask her if she’ll be coming back to work after she has the baby. Just…don’t.

For any expecting parent in your organization, including fathers and adopting parents:

  • DO work with them on a plan for leave and their transition into and out of leave, and offer at least twelve weeks. Be supportive, and put their needs first.
  • DO attempt to pay them, even at partial salary, for their leave. A 2012 TCG snapshot survey of one hundred and fifty-four theatres found that thirty-seven specifically offered paid maternity leave and twenty-eight offered paid paternity leave. (Did all those theatres offer paid parental leave regardless of stored-up vacation time and short-term disability? No. But they should.)
  • DON’T contact them while they’re on their leave. They’re busy figuring out how to keep a tiny person alive.

After the arrival of their child, once they return to work:

  • DO create a space for pumping, if they need it. Not all parents nurse, but take this opportunity to create the space for any future employees or artists. What does this space need? Ask Cleveland Play House (CPH), or TCG, both of whom call this their multi-purpose privacy space. Otherwise, there are plenty of online resources.*
  • DO open up the conversation about a flexible “in office” work schedule. Parents’ needs and schedules vary. Consider telecommuting as an option, even if it’s not your norm.
  • For artists, DO consider the possibility of an adjusted rehearsal schedule. If you worry that the work can’t get done with a more family-friendly rehearsal set-up, talk to Ten Thousand Things or True Colors Theatre Company. Also, aim to get schedules out with plenty of advance notice, and minimize last-minute changes for those who have to arrange childcare.
  • If being at the office all the time is a must for their job, DO let them bring their kid to work in tight childcare spots. How might that go? Ask Baltimore’s Center Stage, or again, CPH about their Flory Family Room.
  • For visiting artists or production staff, DO support them with childcare needs, including a two-bedroom housing accommodation if possible. At the very least, have recommendations of local caregivers, and ideally, pay for some or all of it. Get creative, ie. babysitters who would work for show tickets, anyone?
  • DO give them some breathing room as they adjust to being a working parent. They may still need naps, and some time to get into their groove. Because once they do, they will shine.

Even if you don’t have a single employee on the family track, launch a committee, roundtable, or series of brown bag lunches to discuss what your organization can do to address family needs, and the work-life balance of employees and visiting staff.

Even if you aren’t a decision-maker, or on the family track yourself, start the conversation. These incremental steps can be just the beginning of a larger paradigm shift.

Even if you put some or all of these changes into effect and they seem rarely utilized, at least you’ll be the kind of organization that made them.

 

 

*For HowlRound space reasons, I couldn’t include a succinct description of what a lactation space needs in the original post. At TCG, before I gave birth to Nina, I asked our operations team to convert a meeting room into a space that had: opaque walls, a locking door, a comfortable couch or chair, a box of tissues, a coffee table, an outlet,  a mini-fridge, and an “occupied/vacant” sign on the door to indicate when the room was in use. I actually didn’t expect my organization to have everything in place when I returned from leave. But when I did return and it was all there and ready for me, I nearly burst into tears. There was a really important message in that gesture from them: you are valued. Do not underestimate the importance of making your employees feel valued, and listened to, especially when they are in the exceedingly vulnerable state of being a new parent.

A Mother’s Life. A Mother’s Love.

She wasn’t one of my closest friends, and I wasn’t one of hers. We floated in the same circles, had friends in common, graduated from the same college. We attended each others’ celebrations, showers, and, eventually, our children’s birthday parties. She was in my orbit, but she was not part of my daily life.

Two days before she collapsed at work I went to her son’s second birthday party.

It had been some time since we’d seen her, and she’d recently announced her second pregnancy. By my math, she was going to have her baby girl almost two and a half years after she’d had her son, the same amount of time that had passed between the births of my son and daughter. I hugged her. Gestured to her growing belly. Congratulated her. Asked how she was feeling, and she gave an accentuated “Eh!”, rolled her eyes, smiled, and gave me a quick look that I took to mean, “I’m tired, but I’m hanging in there.” I nodded, with a silent, “I know what you mean.”

Kit Lai, with her son.

I suddenly remembered how exhausted I was for most of my second pregnancy, chasing after a toddler, a couple years older myself. The days are long but the years are short, they tell you. Some of those days were very, very long.

A wave of affection for her washed over me, one that almost took me by surprise. I listened to her wrangle her son for candles and cake, and felt her love for him somewhere in me (only registering it later, as her voice calling to him echoed through my skull). I changed my daughter’s diaper on her son’s changing table that day and admired the pristine nature of all of the objects in the room, down to the little contraption I tapped to borrow a wipe. Even the wipe dispenser is classy.

For whatever reason, I hugged her a half second longer than usual as we left, onto another birthday party in the parental whirlwind of a Saturday in June. Just an extra squeeze to say, “This is hard, but you’re doing great.”

There is no earthly reason why I (or any of us) could know that two days later she’d be rushed to the hospital from her office. Or that a few days after that her family would be told she wouldn’t wake up. Or that her baby girl wouldn’t leave the womb, and would instead exit the world with her mother, before really entering it. There is no earthly reason for any of it. There are only words. And even for someone who turns to words for comfort, words seem stunningly insufficient.

Music, maybe. And the echo of her voice calling her son’s name.

I was on eighth avenue when my husband told me the news. She didn’t make it. I cried out, stumbled a bit, going in circles, not able to figure out if I needed to sit down, get on a train, or just keep walking. Phone still to my ear, but not able to form real words. More than one stranger asked if I was all right.

yesthankyouyesI’mfinethankyouI’mfine

She wasn’t one of my closest friends, but after hearing the news that she was gone (But I just saw her), I moved through the following days in a fog, zeroing in on objects surrounding me and focusing keenly on moments that normally rush by, aware somehow every second that I was still breathing. And she was not.

I noticed Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever on my son’s shelf. She’d given it to him at my baby shower because, she said, it was her favorite book when she was little. He wanted to read it every night for months, so much so that I had to hide it for a time.

While washing dishes, my eyes paused on our hand soap. It was Yes to Carrots, a brand she’d introduced me to when it was her job to promote it. She did her job well; I still buy the brand. I was tickled to see they now make hand soap. In grapefruit.

My son’s art box was open and inside were the crayons she’d given him for his second birthday, sturdy big ones with little animal heads. I loved those crayons, even after he snapped off half the heads.

I stared at a garlic head in our kitchen, remembering the evening at her apartment in Little Italy when she roasted an entire head of garlic for us to spread on bread. I’d never seen anyone do that, before or since.

My husband and I took a slow walk in the Botanic Garden near our house. The first time we’d ever been there was to meet her. She introduced us to it, at the cherry blossom festival that year. It was so crowded that day. We go all the time now.

A few nights ago, I scrolled down the invitation list to our daughter’s first birthday, and stopped at her name and email address. I nearly panicked when I couldn’t figure out how to delete it from the list (please, Paperless Post, don’t send an email to my dead friend asking for an RSVP). I figured it out, and breathed. In the time since I’d invited her and her family to our party, she had died. She had. Died.

Shehaddiedshehaddiedshehaddiedshehaddied.

She was all around me, her fingerprints all over my life. And her voice in my head.

A couple nights later, my son’s eyelids drooped while I stroked his back and sang him his night-night song. Once he finally drifted off, I let the tears roll down my face with the thoughts that I couldn’t stave off. She is never going to do this with her son again. And he is never again going to have his mother put him to bed. Stroke his back. Sing him to sleep. 

I peeked in on my daughter asleep in her crib, with the tears still coming, my head aching, letting myself think the other unthinkable thoughts. She is never going meet her daughter. Her daughter will never be asleep in a crib in that room with the pristine objects. 

We were mothers together, exchanging silent nods and knowing sighs but rarely talking much about it. That above all was what was breaking me.

A mother’s love feels too big for just one life to hold. Words are as insufficient at containing the love of a mother for her children as they are in encapsulating grief.

Even as the rest of us slowly grow accustomed to her absence, and the grief gives way to new daily routines, and her family is able to smile again without pain behind it…that all-encompassing love will remain here among them. The care she took to cut his food into tiny pieces will be with him as he enters kindergarten. The nights she laid her hand on his back as he slept just to make sure it was still rising and falling will surround him as he loses his first tooth. The extra layer she dressed him in on the coldest of days will enshroud him like a cloak as he walks with his class. Has his first job interview. Meets his own first love. Her voice left a trail for him to follow; he will hear it even if he doesn’t remember it. Her reflection will shine back at him from the eyes of those she loved who are still here, caring for him like a village. None of this is enough, of course. But it is something.

The Best Word Book Ever. It’s a long book, with a lot of animal families and words for everything on every page. The last page shows Mother Elephant reading Baby Elephant a bedtime story. I used to skip pages sometimes without telling my son, just so we could get to the end a little faster. I don’t think I’ll do that anymore.

 

TO THE WORDS
W.S. Merwin

When it happens you are not there
O you beyond numbers
beyond recollection
passed on from breath to breath
given again
from day to day from age
to age
charged with knowledge
knowing nothing
indifferent elders
indispensable and sleepless
keepers of our names
before ever we came
to be called by them
you that were
formed to begin with
you that were cried out
you that were spoken
to begin with
to say what could not be said
ancient precious
and helpless ones
say it

—Written on September 17, 2001


Dedicated to the memory of Catherine Lai, or Kit, as we knew her.
www.youcaring.com/kitlai

Some Inconvenient Tips on Self-Care from a Mama in the Resistance

This morning, wearing red.

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare. –Audre Lorde

It feels so apropos that I started this post a couple weeks ago, but am finishing it on International Women’s Day, or rather, International Day Without a Woman. I have time today to finish this because, after a lot of deliberation about whether my schedule could handle it, I chose to strike today. Yes, I’m privileged to work at an organization from which I could safely take a day off. I recognize that privilege, I strike for the ones who can’t, and I also recognize that I’ve been socialized into an unbalanced priority system that had me hemming and hawing over whether I could pencil in a protest to my packed work calendar. Well, I don’t much separate my work and my life, but today I choose to live sans agenda and meeting-free, to commit time to political action, and to nurture my neglected self. What the hell, once I’m done I may even take a nap.

On with the post I started once upon a time….


My kids are perhaps the most lovable inconveniences I’ll ever invite into my life. I’ve heard it said, and I agree, that there is nothing convenient about having children. (Oh, did you think you were going to sleep past 6 today? Nope. Did you expect it to take under two-and-a-half hours for the whole family to leave the house fully clothed? Ha ha. Did you want to try to bring the kids out to brunch? JK, JK.) Having kids is like signing a contract with the universe that you will succumb to near constant inconvenience for at least 18 consecutive years, and the most you can do is get good at being inconvenienced, y’know, to take the edge off a bit.

I would say, for an impatient A personality type like myself, I am starting to get good at it. Slowly. Sometimes. When my toddler closes his hand in a door just as I’m leaving the house to go do school-cleaning duty at his daycare co-op, we pivot and go right to urgent care, because the school can manage without me and I’m not sure he can. (Yes, this is super specific because it happened.) I’m getting adept at fielding the curveballs, and I’m learning what it means to be cool with showering every other day, getting my wispy hair cut every 4-6 months, and saying no to 9 out of 10 invitations that involve doing anything past 5pm.

I say all this not to convince those of you who don’t yet have kids that you should stay in that boat, but to convince my fellow parents that we actually might be better equipped for this resistance business than we originally thought.

Think about how much everyone who has joined the resistance has had to alter their lives more than they bargained for since November 7. The protests and marches, the sheer amount of reading, the renewed obsession with social media, the phone calls, the dozens more emails in your inbox, the donations that hurt the wallet but matter, the dance-like conversations around the eventual discussion of the state of our country. I’ll be honest, between the sorrowful emails to my kids and the tears at work and the news-absorption and paralyzing fear and feminist coalition-building – there’s also a nagging mama voice in the back of my head about what a PAIN IN THE ASS this election turned out to be.

Not that I’m proud of this but if Hillary won, I’d mostly still be struggling just with figuring out how to have two kids, not figuring out how to have two kids and also teach myself Civics 101 and strategizing every day around what this country is going to look like when we come out on the other side of this nonsense. What this election did was not just put a sociopathic despot in the White House surrounded by a neo-Nazi guard – it threw me one more motherf##ker of a curveball. Aw man, now I gotta be all civically engaged? Who has time for that?!

But that’s where my three years of parenthood training comes in.

The hardest thing about having the second kid was foreseen: the last gasps and eventual draining away of any free time we managed to devote to our own self-care or grown-up needs. Just as we started learning how to steal time here and there to take a breath, the country elected that abhorrent man, and it quickly became apparent that “relaxing” into our two-child life was not going to be in the cards for awhile. That as we managed to find the time to devote to things that were not our kids’ bedtime or grocery shopping or laundry or work, that time would be needed elsewhere.

There’s a lot of talk in the air about self-care these days. How to take care of yourself while you charge forth with all the commitment you can muster to resist, to engage, and to not normalize. How people of color and those at the most risk can persevere amid all the incessant trauma. And those are important conversations.

Fortunately, I already calibrated my need for self-care to adjust to my new dual-kid lifestyle, so my threshold for stress was already way up. These very valuable lists flying around about making sure you get enough sleep and go out a take a brisk walk where you’re feeling overwhelmed? Those aren’t directed toward parents – certainly not toward parents of the very young.

Here are some more realistic suggestions for self-care and just keeping sane while being a parent in the resistance:

  1. Find a community with other parents doing the work – those are the folks that are going to operate on your schedule. Our Brooklyn daycare (which has made headlines by closing in support of its teachers on strike today) has been a great resource, hosting child-friendly social justice meetings during the day on Sundays. In November, they provided this list of post-election self-care resources for parents and teachers. A Facebook group has started in my neighborhood for Parents for Social Justice, which meets for brunch on Sundays, and makes sure there are equal parts juice boxes and mimosas on hand. These are all things I can do much more easily than joining a rally by Trump Tower after work, when I need to be tucking my little ones in.
  2. Find a therapist and make time to go. (And consider medicating if you’re super stressed.) This has been non-negotiable for me – therapy is the one item of self-care I haven’t let slide through all of this. It helps to be accountable to someone, and it’s partly possible because my insurance covers a lot of it. But I’ve been going to therapy since long before my insurance; there are resources out there. It also drives me bananas that women, particularly women who are still postpartum or breastfeeding, feel shame around taking anti-anxiety medication or anti-depressants – and yet, I know more women on medication than off. The world today is a hard one to cope with, and you don’t need to be a psychological superhero; there is nothing to be ashamed of if you need a little medical help getting your head right, and it doesn’t mean you’ll be on it forever.
  3. Make the work part of your parenting, and bring the kids along for the ride. Teaching my kids, in their tiny people ways, to be allies and making them part of my commitment has been big for me when I feel like I’m not doing enough. I brought my six-month-old daughter to the Women’s March. Today, I dressed my toddler in red and tried to teach him the word “ally.” (We’re not quite there yet.) We’ve started a collection of activist baby books. I haven’t gone as far as talking to them about the administration (I mean, my three-year-old doesn’t really know what a President is) but I just try to make our civic actions fun for them too, even if they have know idea what’s happening. ‘Cause really, it’s for me, and it’s so I can take a picture and tell them later, “You were part of this, and hopefully now, this is part of you.”
  4. Go outside. There is actually something to this whole “taking a walk” thing, but you’ll probably have to bring at least one kid. So take them to the park. To a zoo. To the beach. Run around with them to squeeze in that exercise you don’t have time for. Just go outdoors and get some Vitamin D and watch them be all carefree and goofy in their wonderful innocence and remember that that hasn’t been taken away.
  5. If you can’t join something, start something. My husband and I feel a little trapped by our evening schedule; it’s been tricky trying to make community or action meetings after work and during bedtime. But, even though we don’t have a huge place, we can host every once in awhile. So, we’re starting something called a “giving circle,” or a group of like-minded friends who will gather with us every few months to organize around giving to the same causes, to maximize the impact of our donations, but also to keep ourselves engaged and up to speed. Sound like something you could do? This is a good how-to. If you want to make it only for parents, maybe make it baby-friendly and organize group child care for your meetings.
  6. Make the bed. I know it sounds lame, but it’s a proven thing: the 30-second act of making your bed gives you a lift. It makes you feel more together, more productive, a little lighter. It’s nicer to crawl into at the end of the day. I’m a big bed-maker. If you have time, make your kids’ beds and teach them to make them. It cleans up the room without cleaning the room. We don’t have time to keep everything pristine, but we have time for this. It’s weird, it’s small, but it helps.
  7. Change just a handful of your everyday habits to be just a little bit better of a citizen. We young parents are not going to be on the front lines of most demonstrations these days, but this mama would argue that resistance isn’t just about sign-carrying and phone calls. It can be just about making just a few easy tweaks to any behavior that is antithetical to the beliefs you espouse all over social media. You care about climate change and the pollution of our oceans? Buy a travel coffee mug to replace the disposable ones you use every day. I got a whole list of plastic-ditching ideas here. You’re a parent with a new baby? Try cloth diapers. I did it for six months and then switched over (found it gets harder and not easier), but started making changes in my plastic-using habits to assuage my guilt. I’m far from perfect, but I’m trying to walk the walk, in baby steps.
  8. Tell your story, and lift up the stories that need to be heard. I think it was one of my many podcasts that championed the idea that we all need to be writing our way through this mess. Hence why I’m here in a cafe on my strike day, writingwritingwriting out all the ideas I’ve been hanging onto until I found a moment to get them out. Write in a journal. Write a blog. Write on the sidewalk or a wall. It helps. If it’s not your thing, read other people’s stories, and maybe make sure none of them are by or about cisgendered, heterosexual, white males. (Sorry to my friends who identify as such and are amazing storytellers; it’s not about you.) Read in the margins. Read for empathy.
  9. Look into Headspace. It’s a meditation app. And before you stop reading and move on, just give it a shot. It costs money if you subscribe, but there’s a free trial and I think it’s worth it. This is me being a hypocrite because I’ve had a hard time keeping up with it, but there are 10, 15 & 20-minute options for you to use on your commute, while you walk to the train, while you do dishes, etc. If you try you can squeeze it in anywhere, and it reminds you how to breathe, and how to not get all caught up in your dark thoughts about the dystopian reality we somehow find ourselves living in.
  10. Family dance parties. Do not underestimate the power of 90s hip hop. It’s not very feminist but to what other music might you do the running man and Cabbage Patch?

I offer all this to you as a dilettante, friends, when it comes to activism, parenting, and early hip hop dance moves. I am pretty good at self-care though; at least, I used to be. I agree with Audre Lorde in that it’s akin to self-preservation. And I have a lot of opinions about how important some version of self-care is as a parent (the oxygen mask rule, and so on), so you can show up with your best self for your kids. As a parent-activist, that importance only grows. So when the curveballs come and the inconveniences abound and the world feels like it’s on the verge of collapse, dance to some Bel Biv Devoe with your toddler, and remember that you were trained for this.

P.S. For the record, I did not take a nap today.