An experiment in interestingness

Consider, if you will, these Fall movies:

A band of women are determined to protect a 19th-century Western outpost from a malevolent industrialist (Annette Bening). Charlize Theron leads the women, as Winona Ryder (a hard-drinking ne’er-do-well) helps – and hinders – the fight.

A baby is dropped on the doorstep of an unsuspecting British man, and he must figure out which of his recent lovers is her mother. Is it the romantic, American businesswoman or the attractive, but cold, ex-girlfriend? This blunder-prone man must stumble his way through this hilarious situation!

An autistic forensic accountant (Jennifer Garner) is recruited by a robotics company to locate a money leak, and she discovers a whistleblowing CPA (Chris Pratt) while also revealing her Beautiful Mind-esque math ability.

A boxing champ (Lupita Nyong’o) faces impossible odds to fight her way back into the ring after breaking her neck in a car accident.

A luckless prospector (Naomi Watts) tries to strike it rich in the Indonesian jungle while her steadfast boyfriend (Brad Pitt) works multiple jobs to keep the couple afloat.

These are all actual movies, but I reversed the genders. Does that make you want to see the movies more? Less? Does it make any difference? This is a game I like to play when I get my Entertainment Weekly, and it has a TV Preview, or a Movie Preview. I also like to do it with book reviews. Switch the gender. Change the race. How does that affect the story being told? Does it affect the story? I have to say that more often than not, the story seems A LOT more interesting. We lose the run-of-the-mill storylines, and open things up to broader topics and statements. The Bridget Jones riff up there looks pretty stupid when the genders are switched. (Though, arguably, it’s pretty dumb to begin with).

Anyway, one could hope that Hollywood execs and TV producers, when reading a script, would also experiment with the gender of the characters. “What would this story be like, if… all the humans on the oil rig were women, all the lawyers fighting over the Very Important Thing were women, the person having the midlife crisis and then going a road trip with a crusty old person was a woman… of color! What happens to the jokes when you switch the characters like this? Do they work? Are they still lazy? Do the caricatures they come across/interact with suddenly hold less (or more) import?

I don’t imagine Hollywood will do this. I imagine they already feel a bit hamstrung and hand-wring-y about the amount of female-driven movies they’re currently producing. (omgwtfbbq the internets hate ladies and movies have ladies and we made two movies with ladies and now we will only make $384658 billion instead of $384659 billion and what is happeninnnnnggg)

So maybe it’s up to the writers? Maybe you finish your screenplay or television treatment or your book (or if you’re lucky, you finish the outline and the first few pages/chapters instead of the whole thing) and then you go back and say “Huh. What happens if…” And you change things up. Maybe you ultimately keep the characters the same gender and same race, but in the exercise of switching them you see the blatant sexism/racism/lazy writing that happens when you depend on every day observations and assumptions. Maybe putting your characters into different shoes makes you a stronger writer, and your characters more interesting. And possibly, doing this will convince you to leave the characters that way and see what happens.

Women can pilot spaceships, and men can clean kitchens. Koreans can have their hearts broken, and African-Americans can be magicians.

I know a lot more needs to be done to diversify the pop culture we all consume, and I don’t have answers to solving that (other than, “shut your whiny pie holes, and make movies about ANYONE OTHER THAN WHITE DUDES that are written by ANYONE OTHER THAN WHITE DUDES and directed by ANYONE OTHER THAN WHITE DUDES”) but since Hollywood, just like my children, will never listen to me this seems like an interesting exercise for the rest of us.

When “Pets OK: see agent” actually means “Pets OK: but no lesbians”

 

In June 2015 SCOTUS gave the final say: gay marriage is the law of the land. Everyone shares equal rights now and WHEW that was a long battle and let’s all go get a drink and wear cute rainbow shirts and celebrate.

Or, wait.

Could it possibly be that in the first half of 2016 alone, 87 bills have been introduced nationwide that attempt to limit rights for LGBT people? That would be crazy, right? I mean, the *majority* of Americans support equality. Gay marriage is a done deal. It really is an amazing time to be out in America. And yet, suddenly the party of anti-big-government and pro-states-rights, is encouraging (and funding) new laws that not only attempt to limit equality, but that attempt to use a heavy governmental fist to prevent localities from providing equal rights for all? Huh?

So maybe it shouldn’t be shocking to go hunting for a rental house and to learn that the  application my girlfriend and I turned in was denied. Maybe I shouldn’t find that as galling and preposterous as I do. But here we are.

Was there a giant stamp on our denied application that said “NO LESBIANS ALLOWED!”? Nope. Because in my city that would be against one of those everyone-has-the-same-rights ordinances that defies state and federal doctrine. Instead of a NO LESBIANS stamp, we were denied because of our pets. Curiously, the listing for the house says “Pets OK, up to 3, See Agent.” But after our realtor discussed everything with the agent and turned in all our paperwork (wherein two women were listed as partners), we found out that Lo! “Pets OK, up to 3” actually means no cats and small dogs only.

Hmm.

Maybe it’s as simple as that. The listing was unspecific. Perhaps the landlord truly isn’t into cats or 40 pound dogs. Possibly that’s true. Possibly, instead of filling out the listing like every other agent does, saying “no cats” and “small dogs only” he just thought that “Pets OK, see agent” would cover pesky details like that.

I mean, when I googled the guy and found out that he’s an executive pastor at a conservative local church that condemns gay marriage, that probably has nothing to do with how he feels about people renting the house, right? That’s probably just me piling my own baggage onto him? There’s no way he would put in a nebulous pet policy as a loophole for discriminatory behavior, right? Only a conspiracy theorist/crazy person would think that! The fact that his church held a post-SCOTUS ruling seminar on “not sitting back silently while the world celebrates perversion of God’s design for sexuality” probably has nothing to do with any of this. Right? RIGHT?

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Or maybe this kind of insidious discrimination has been going on since the dawn of time. Maybe the political climate is giving people a new boldness to deny others equal rights and opportunities. Maybe the abundance of “religious freedom” laws are creating a sense of “but it’s not discriminatory if my religion says you’re gross.”

Maybe I shouldn’t be shocked to be faced with this kind of conundrum. Is it insipid discrimination? Or are there just some craaaaazy coincidences designed to make ME look like the one who’s targeting an innocent person?

My gut-feeling could be completely wrong. The application denial could be completely unbiased and legit. I have no definitive proof in this particular case. But I do have definitive proof that the desire to discriminate is being heartily encouraged across the country. I can be told it’s not my sexuality that’s the problem, it’s really the cat’s fault. I can report the landlord to the local housing authority and the tenant’s council, and find out nothing can be done. I can make a donation in his name to a lesbian charity, to try to balance the scales a bit. I can feel lucky that it’s “only” something like housing discrimination I’ve faced and not the barrel of a gun at a traffic stop.

But what can you do? What can we all do together? I think the first step is just recognizing that this shit happens. Is happening. All. The. Time. And it has been, forever. It’s time to raise awareness instead of our shrugging shoulders. And it’s time to vote. Not just in national elections, but in the small local ones. These podunk asshole politicians who make it OK to discriminate give power to the non-politican assholes who feel threatened. And how are the asshole politicians elected when the majority of people support equality? They are voted into state office BECAUSE THE MAJORITY OF PEOPLE DO NOT VOTE IN LOCAL ELECTIONS. Get out the vote, y’all, and let’s stop giving power to those who would take it away.

 

Get off my lawn

Growing up in the 80s, I got my ass handed to me a million times as I struggled to find my way. I was a shitty dancer, never earning trophies. I lost more than one speech competition because I went over time and got disqualified. I tried out for volleyball and I didn’t make the team because the other girls who tried out were better.

Guess what? Not making the team did not ruin my life. Losing competitions did not crush my fragile soul. Has my adult life been adversely affected by having grown-ups tell my kid-self I wasn’t good enough and should find something different to try? It has not.

In high school, I wanted the lead in a play. I did not get the lead. I got a supporting role where I learned that memorizing lines is hard, acting is sweaty, and though I loved the stage, I wanted to try something different. So I wrote a play. And that led me to write short stories. And novels. And boom, here we are.

What is my point? My point is that learning to fail is what taught me to succeed.

And I wonder if some of these Bernie-or-Bust supporters have ever had that experience in their lives. What must it be like to be young and privileged and earnest and to have grown up in a world where every little league player gets a trophy and no one keeps score? What must it be like to navigate the ugly real world now when all you’ve known is that there were 35 cheerleaders on the squad because if you didn’t make the squad your parents threatened to sue? What is it like to always hear that you’re special, and to never hear the word no? It must be really, really hard to be an adult and to learn these lessons for the first time.

It’s not that I’m advocating destroying the hearts and minds of children in order to make them toughened adults, it’s that I’m sighing deeply over “progressive” adult humans having multi-day temper tantrums because they did not get their way. I’m sighing deeply over weeping white boys with duct tape over their mouths that reads “silenced.” I’m driving in disbelief as I listen to NPR interviews with young women who say, “I see your basic point, but it’s, like, the principle of the thing?” when the interviewer points out that a protest vote for Trump actually endorses pretty much everything Bernie stands against.

Most of the time, losing sucks. Having someone tell you No sucks, too. Finding out there were dirty shenanigans behind the scenes really, really sucks. You’re pissed. You’re sad. You totally get to be those things. Feel the feelings, baby. Roll around in them. But then, grow the fuck up.

You know what happens after someone tells you No? You learn from it. You grow. You affect change. Understand that your temper tantrums do not affect change. Taking your anger to every single election in the next four years, the next eight years, the next twelve years, THAT affects change. Rallying people to start from the ground-up and revamp a shitty system, THAT affects change. Just because it feels like you lost this round doesn’t mean that you pitch a fit and boo public speakers and stick out your lower lip and refuse to vote. You know what it does mean? It means you feel like you lost, but take a deep breath and look around you. The party platform includes things it never would have included if you hadn’t made your voice heard. Bernie Sanders – who is not actually a Democrat, you know – has his arm elbow-deep in the muck of the Democratic party and he’s swirling it around. He’s frothing up that muck, y’all. He’s getting down and dirty, making allies, and jamming his foot in the fucking door.

Bernie is not the nominee, but his words have made a difference. His policy is already affecting change. Don’t you see that, Crying Children At The Convention? Don’t you see the leaps and bounds that have already occurred? And don’t you understand YOU WILL LOSE ALL OF THIS if Donald Trump is elected president? Everything you worked so hard for is going down in a flaming pile of shit if you abstain from voting, or if you vote third-party. You WANT the system to be ready for a third-party revolution. The system is not ready. What the system IS primed and ready for is a demagogue to rise to power on the backs of whiny baby special snowflakes who don’t know how to turn the word No into the word Change.

So buck up, buttercups. Feel your feelings. And then take your medicine, vote for Hillary, protect your loved ones from a world where hate and racism and bigotry are all state-sanctioned, and then vote, vote, vote in every local and state election until the assholes are gone.

And the best part about channeling your earnestness into down-in-the-local-trenches civic duty? You get a sticker every time you vote. EVERYONE GETS A STICKER! EVERY TIME!

Bernie didn’t get the nomination. It sucks, and it doesn’t feel fair because you wanted it to happen. You really, really wanted it and you didn’t get what you want, and you are lost.  But now is the time to learn what you should have learned when you were eight. Now is the time to realize your lack of a trophy at this very instant doesn’t mean you will never have that trophy. It means you are going to have to work for it. It means you take this failure to fuel future success. You do not take this failure to fuel future flaming shit piles. Shit piles governed by fascists do not offer very many trophy opportunities.

You hear me? Good.

Now get off my lawn.

 

 

What can we do?

What happens when voices are silenced?
What happens when-even worse-voices are never even heard to begin with?
What happens when children don’t see themselves in the books they read, in the media they consume?
What happens when the news cycle never ends, when talking heads search and destroy as they grasp to find something, anything to keep talktalktalking about?
What happens when it is discovered that fear creates more ratings than joy?
What happens when the majority of people feel afraid, targeted, misunderstood, and isolated?
What happens when bite-sized, news-bubble fear-mongering becomes so popular, so comfortable it runs the legitimate news business into the ground?
What happens when facts are replaced with “facts”?
What happens when empathy is replaced by fear?
What happens when kindness is replaced by entitlement?
What happens when institutional racism just gets a head shake and a sigh?
What happens when institutional sexism just gets a joke and some memes?
What happens when an entire group of people experiences state-sponsored discrimination?
What happens when another group of people experiences this?
And then another?
And then another?
What happens?

I am not a sociologist. I am not a psychologist. I am not a statistician. I am not an anthropologist or a historian. I have no expertise in politics or economics. But I am a human. I am a human who is very good at watching other humans. I am a human who sees stories from miles away. And I am a human who never stops asking questions.

“Well what good is that?” You ask. “We are obviously a society in pain. We are obviously at some kind of crossroads. Who cares if you’re good at watching people? Who cares if you ask questions? We need answers. We need people to act. We need people to fight back. We don’t need watchers. We need doers.”

And how could I argue with you, really? Complacency is complicity. But do you know what is the opposite of complicity and complacency? Empathy and education. I don’t mean school everyday, then college kind of education. I mean education of the world at large. I mean getting out in it, seeing, meeting, befriending people who are different than you are. I mean learning how to have a conversation with a person who has different ideological beliefs than you, and not spiraling into name-calling. I mean being educated as a human being.

This crazy thing happens when you meet other people, when you go outside of your bubble and you talk to other humans, when you hear their personal stories. You learn that they are people just like you. You discover they are not just caricatures, they are not unfamiliar faces in a sea of more unfamiliar faces. Strangers are not strangers. Strangers are us. You learn that just because someone speaks another language he is not stupid. You learn that because a woman covers her head, she is not weak. You learn that two women kissing is not anathema, it is universal love. You learn everyone loves someone. And everyone is loved by someone.

Complacency is complicity and education is empathy.

And this is where our expertise as artists come into play. There’s a reason that when society begins to crumble the artists are some of the first people rounded up and silenced. It’s because artists tell the hard truth. Artists give voices to those who are not heard, are ignored, are unseen, are abandoned, are scary, are terrifying reminders of what life could be.

Artists allow those who cannot go out into the world to do it anyway. They bring you to city streets. They bring you behind shuttered windows of ticky-tacky houses. They put you in a car with a gun pointed at you. They put weapons in your own hands. They show you consequences without putting you jeopardy. They give YOU a voice. They give you validation. They prove you are not alone. They give you answers when no one else can.

A child might not be able to go out into the world to see how others live. It might be difficult for her to even get to school in the mornings, much less strike up a conversation at the bus stop. A teen might be ashamed, afraid or too stuck in his or her own head to be able to reach out — the feeling of isolation so overwhelming that they know in their bones no one else could have ever felt the same way. An adult might feel too much fear to be kind. So what happens then?

I’ll tell you what happens.

We put books in their hands.
We open library doors.
We fill schools with stories about everyone. Everyone.
We provide outlets for the angry and confused by giving them characters who are angry and confused — and yet these characters still find a way to clarity.
We stop being afraid that children will read books where gay people are equals.
We stop saying that books containing people of color “won’t sell.”
We stop sanitizing our shelves, afraid that kids will learn the ugliness of the world too early. (Newsflash: the world is ugly, and children bear the brunt of it)
We teach children empathy through storytelling.
We encourage everyone to learn about people different from themselves, through books, through music, through art, through conversation.
We tell the hard stories.
We offer them up.
We ask questions.
We answer questions – not with dogma, but with thoughtfulness.
We put books in their hands.
We put books in their hands.
We put books in their hands.

And maybe by doing this, the next generation will be better than we are at empathy and kindness. Maybe our legacy will simply be: learn more, do more, be more, read more. Maybe that will be enough. Maybe it’s not too late.

Do not go gentle into that dark night

Two words have been bouncing around in my head today: Gaslighting and Complicity.

In 1944 Ingrid Bergman starred in a movie called Gaslight. The basic premise of the movie is that, in order to get something he secretly wants, a woman’s husband slowly and insidiously convinces her that she’s going insane.

Over time, the term “gaslighting” has become a kind of slang term used when someone tries to trick you into thinking you must be making things up. They tell you you’re crazy, a conspiracy theorist, seeing shadows where shadows don’t exist. You then feel confused. Are you just seeing something that isn’t there? Maybe you’re paranoid. Maybe you only think the worst of people. And so as this person questions the questions you’re asking, the tables are turned, the focus is blurred, and the subject quietly moves from the problem you were addressing to something completely different. Gaslighting. A famed tactic of emotional abuse perpetrators and of politicians.

Donald Trump doesn’t condemn an endorsement from David Duke for juuuust long enough that the people he’s getting his message to receive it loud and clear. Then comes the “oh gosh, sorry, right, that guy is terrible” wink wink, nod nod.

Gaslighting.

Dan Patrick releases a hateful and disgusting tweet after a shooting at a gay nightclub. It stays online juuuuuuust long enough that the people he’s getting his message to receive it loud and clear. Then comes the “oh gosh, that was a strange and serendipitous accident” wink wink, nod nod.

Gaslighting.

A school district decides to un-invite a renowned children’s book author after he book talks a middle grade book dealing with a transgender protagonist. The district is silent for juuuuuuust long enough that the people they’re getting their message to receive it loud and clear. Then comes the “that’s not what we meant at all, we just don’t like authors teaching kids to talk back to authority figures” wink wink, nod nod.

Gaslighting.

And do not even get me STARTED on “religious freedom.”

“Oh, we aren’t racists/bigots/intolerant, YOU’RE the one imagining things.” Right. Just like we’ve been imagining things for decades. Just like the senators who voted against the Civil Rights Act were doing it for states’ rights. Just like the law in North Carolina is to prevent child molesters from wearing lady-costumes and lurking in restrooms.

Why can’t politicians just say what they mean? Why can’t they cop to their hatred, their bigotry, their intolerance? Why do they hide behind the cloaks of religion and provisions of safety? Do we dare hope that the reason why is because they know they’re being terrible human beings? Deep in their caustic, bigoted hearts is a glimmer of guilt? Is this why? Or, are they offering an easy out for their trying-to-be-less-horrible constituents? It isn’t a stretch to think that vile gasbags like Dan Patrick are sending two messages. One is for their foul base – the people who are openly, blatantly full of hate. And the second? That one is for the people looking for an out; the voters who would never think of themselves as racist or intolerant, and yet they vote for racist and intolerant men and women every chance they get.

This is when the second word that’s been rolling around in my brain comes into play. This is when I think about complicity. Gaslighting provides the perfect cover for complicity, especially when people join the ruse. “He said he doesn’t want the support of the Ku Klux Klan! I can vote for him!” Really? Is that what he said? “That tweet saying gay people deserve to be killed was just a crazy coincidental accident. Whew! I can totally still vote for him!” These justifications don’t come from lunatics, they come from people we all know and love. They support some of the politician’s positions, but not all of his ideals. So they vote for him anyway. No harm, no foul, right?

Complicity.

Voting for someone who carefully calculates ways to denigrate, shame, and marginalize is an act of complicity. Plain and simple.

“But I have gay friends,” you say. “I support marriage for everyone.”
“My working buddy is black, and he does all right,” you say. “Look how far we’ve come!”
“I can offer any book to my kid, let’s not get too riled up here,” you say. “It’s just a book.”

Complicity.

“It’s taxes and jobs I worry about.”
“We can’t let the government get too heavy handed.”
“Women and children must be protected.”

Complicity.

My friends, do not go gentle into that dark night. Do not align yourselves with the perpetrators of evil. And do not roll your eyes at me and accuse me of hyperbole. These people ARE perpetrators of evil. They quietly gaslight everyone, giving a complicit nod and handshake to anyone who wants to pick up a rifle and take matters into their own hands. They offer thoughts and prayers, they condemn terrorism, and then they take thousands of dollars to ensure possible terrorists have no obstacles in getting the guns they need to wreak havoc. They preach love and Jesus out of one side of their mouthes and hate and intolerance out of the other side. They cry over Big Government and then try to legislate women’s bodies, restroom policies, and “religious freedom.”

Do not go gentle into that dark night. Please. I know it’s easy to look the other way. I know politicians are bred to be distasteful. But my God, Hitler wasn’t Hitler until suddenly he was. (And do not invoke Godwin’s law here — when there are riots in the streets and mass murders happening regularly, an open discussion on xenophobia and fascism should be welcomed.)

Demagoguery is easy. It is a coward’s way of gaining power, and a weak-minded excuse for support. It gets a lot of response for a little bit of effort, and it doesn’t require thought or facts.

Be smarter.

Be kinder.

Don’t be complicit.

Don’t let the gaslight blur your vision.

Please.

 

Rainbows and unicorns, y’all

I’ve been watching a lot of coming out videos lately, and a common theme these days is whether or not a “Hey, I’m gay!” announcement is even necessary anymore. DOMA is done. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is done. The world is opening up. Does it even matter anymore for someone to make a proclamation? Has it become ho hum, lost in the noise of so much other information flying at us every day? Does anyone care if a famous athlete is bisexual, when we could all be watching a video of a baby moose being born in a Lowe’s parking lot?

It’s easy to say (and to think) the world is moving on — that coming out stories have lost their shock and awe. It’s easy to say that being gay isn’t a thing anymore, that people shrug and move on, knowing that their sister or cousin or brother or friend is the same person they’ve always been, and can’t we just go shoe shopping like we’d already planned on?

But the reality is, while people do seem to be considerably more accepting now than in the past (hi, Stonewall Inn as a national historic site), there is a LONG way to go before proclamations and videos and sweaty-near-passing-out discussions with one’s parents aren’t necessary. When terrible human beings like Dan Patrick actively request school districts to give up federal funding and violate Title IX laws for the specific reason of discriminating against children, then it becomes pretty clear that we still need to make a big deal when someone celebrates their queerness. (Or, if we don’t make a big deal, it can still be acknowledged in some way; there can still be a “we’re all in this weird game of being humans together” head nod. You know?)

How would my own life have been different had I known, at 10, that Sally Ride had a wife? That Lily Tomlin wasn’t into men. That Louise Fitzhugh dressed in men’s clothes and had girlfriends rather than boyfriends. What would it have meant to a young girl in rural Florida to experience a world where gay wasn’t a slur and where gender was unimportant when it came to partnering and having children? Maybe nothing would have been different. Maybe everything would have been different. What does it mean to a young girl today who *does* know that Sally Ride had a wife? Who knows Ellen and Portia are Hollywood mainstays, and who understands the kid in her school who looked like a girl last year looks like a boy now, because he’s always *been* a boy, he just needed to be able to match his outside self with his inside self? We certainly can’t discount these revelations, can we? Even if we want the world to be a place where it doesn’t matter, it still matters very much.

Then there’s another tricky thing… is there a responsibility to be one of the people who others look to? Is there a requirement to take this small part of you and put it on display so that your own fists get muddy while you help tear the barricades down? I don’t have the answer to these questions, but I think about them a lot. If you are a person who is congratulated for writing with openness and rawness and honesty and emotion, are you being disingenuous to leave out a very important aspect of your own life? Or is it really anyone’s damn business other than your own? Is it shameful to worry that while you could have a positive impact on children – you could be their Louise Fitzhugh living an open life – you could also harm your career, making it more difficult to buy groceries for your own children? Is it ridiculous to even have this worry in 21st century America? Based on some of the political rhetoric of late it isn’t ridiculous at all. How can we be moving forward and backward at the same time?

Eight months ago I needed to make a choice about moving forward even if it required some backward leaps to get there: was I going to continue to quietly suffer, or was I going to allow myself to be happy. It sounds so simple, but in reality, I was terrified. Could I really choose my own happiness over everyone else’s? Even if I desperately hoped my family would be happier in the long run, could I cause the kind of irreparable change that would leave an indelible mark on everyone?  Initially, I felt like the collateral damage I would cause wasn’t going to be worth it. I felt like my best choice was probably to keep quiet, learn to make do with the status quo, and then one day make a deathbed confession to my children, telling them I had stayed quiet to protect them, I had lived a secret life to make sure their lives would be better. But then I realized that was really stupid. Really, really stupid and the opposite of what I want to teach them — the opposite of what I’ve taught them already. I also realized that while initially the news was going to cause confusion and hurt, in the long run it really would be better for everyone.

So I did it. I came out to my family and close friends. I wanted to feel free. I wanted to celebrate finally being able to be the me I’ve always been. I wanted to shake off the years of being an outsider in nearly every world I was part of. I wanted to be ok.

I didn’t feel ok, though. And I didn’t feel free. Not at first. I felt selfish. I felt guilty. But then… there was a lightness that overtook me. And while I concentrated on talking to the kids, and answering every question, and being as open as possible… while I tried desperately to maintain a relationship with my now former spouse… the lightness prevailed. I do get to be me now. Does it tear through me that for me to get to be me I have to cause pain in others? Of course. Do I hope with a kind of flailing desperation that their pain will fade over time? Of course. Do I expect to be torn apart by people who think mothers should be living embodiments of the Giving Tree, sacrificing everything for their children until their own identity just disappears? I do. But here’s the thing… I am not just a mother. I am a human. I am a woman. I will sacrifice sleep and food and money and pretty much anything else to ensure my children are happy, but I will no longer sacrifice my own ability to feel quiet joy in just being alive. A mother’s joy and her children’s joy are not mutually exclusive.

In Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, Ole Golly gives Harriet some advice: “Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.” In the 60s this might have been life-saving advice to a girl like Harriet (and in the 1980s to a girl like me). But it isn’t the 60s or the 80s anymore, and I don’t want to just tell the truth to myself. I want to tell the truth to everyone else, too.

I might not put on a rainbow cape so I can make a flamboyant video, and I might feel the guilt that comes with having watched others pave a path while I was too scared to help. But I’m here now, better late than never. My own little tributary path is now connected to the bigger road. Where that road leads isn’t something I know, and for the first time in my life I’m happy that the future is a bit blurry.

Kids made fun of me when I was in the 8th grade and still reading Harriet the Spy, but you know what? I’m 39 now and Harriet continues to be a guiding light. She’s an independent, sassy, pain-in-the-ass young woman, and I can only hope that in some way I’ll be able to help inspire another generation of women just like her.

 

 

Who are you when you aren’t just Mom?

When you become a mother people warn you about sleepless nights. They warn you about your heart suddenly walking around outside your body. They talk about worry, they talk about body changes, they talk about hormones and breast milk and diapers. They talk about first days of school and last days of school. They talk about organic foods and safe television. They talk about Net Nannies and real nannies. They talk about “putting your own oxygen mask on first” and valuing time spent on your own.

But what they don’t always talk about is guilt. When your heart is walking around outside your body, how can you put yourself first? When the tiny humans running amok in your house need to be protected and nurtured and carefully introduced to the world-at-large, how do you make them happy and make yourself happy? How can you be their nest, their star system, their home base, and not lose your own view from the trees, your own energy, your own touchstones? How can you be you and Mom?

One day you realize you don’t recognize yourself anymore. Sure, you’re happy in the day-to-day. Kids can be hilarious, parenting is often rewarding, the rat race is in full swing, there’s take-out on hard days, margaritas and TV to relax… but who are you? When you’re out somewhere and a stranger who doesn’t know you’re a mom starts up a conversation, what happens when you don’t talk about the kids; when you don’t talk about school or your commute or laundry or dinner plans. Underneath the layers of Mom, who is the woman lying dormant? Maybe she isn’t dormant, but she’s looking for a way to claw through the shell, like a scuba diver trapped beneath ice. The sunlight is there, but how do you reach it?

Who is this woman? This person under the ice? How can she surface? And when she does surface, what happens if the shattered ice keeps shattering, the cracks snaking far and deep until suddenly the surface and everything below are one? The scuba diver bursts free, but everyone else loses their footing. The people closest to you are plunged into this new world of Mom vs. You. You’re there to keep them afloat, but you also must keep yourself afloat. And you must trust that they can tread water while you take the first breaths of fresh, new air you’ve had in years, in decades. You must trust that they not only can see you as You and Mom, but that you can be You and Mom.

So, yes. Guilt. By allowing your own self to finally surface, you plunge everyone else into an unknown world — a world where suddenly Mom has a name and feelings and desires. When Mom becomes a fallible human, does she lose her ability to protect and nurture? Of course not. But it can feel that way.

After a particularly challenging seven months, I got a Mother’s Day card from my almost 14-year-old, and it said, “Thank you for teaching me to value my own happiness above all others.” At first, I was taken aback. My thoughts went immediately to, “Oh, God, he really is angry with me about the divorce. He feels abandoned by his selfish mother. If he’s old enough to articulate these feelings, then what does that mean about the little ones? They must feel like I’ve just tossed them in the deep end. What have I done? Mothers aren’t supposed to put themselves first, not really. Mothers make sacrifices. Have I not made enough sacrifices? Does he really think I value my own happiness above all others? Am I a selfish, horrible person?”

So I did what you do… I casually brought up the card a few days later, mentioning that it might be possible to interpret it as a kind of dig… an expression of anger. His eyes went wide and he laughed. “What?!” Was his incredulous answer. “That’s so funny! I’m glad you get to be happy. I want you to be happy. Knowing that it’s OK for me to find happiness… that’s an important lesson, Mom.”

And so it is. It doesn’t fully assuage my guilt, but it does tell me that the conversations we’ve been having, and the openness I’m trying to convey might actually be working. One of my worst fears as a mother is to traumatize my children. The idea that in order for me to be happy, I have to make others unhappy, is so unpalatable I was unable to even bear the thought — until suddenly, it was the only thought I had. Then, being able to muster the courage to find myself, extricate myself, and not ostracize myself took even more time.

Even writing this post makes me feel squeamish, as if I’m putting my selfishness on display. Society seems to have no room for mothers who are also women. (Society seems to be reaching a point where it has no room for women at all, but that’s another post.) It feels important, though, for me to acknowledge that yes, I am a woman and I am a mother. Yes, I get to be happy, too. And I can only fall to my knees, prostrate, and hope that by reaching out, crying out, trying to achieve solid footing and a way to be happy and fulfilled within my own self, that everyone else in my family will some day be more happy and more fulfilled their own selves, too. At 14 you can kind of see this. At nearly 10 and nearly 8, it’s more difficult. You don’t want two new houses, you want the old house. You don’t want separate and emotional parents, you want unity and solid footing. You want things to be the way they were. But maybe, hopefully, over time you will understand why temporary discomfort is often the way to greater peace. You will see that when the adults in your life find happiness, everyone finds happiness. Can that be true? Will it be true? Can my children find peace from turmoil?

I am thankful for the years of conversations I’ve had with other mothers-other women-about how to soothe a teething baby, how to treat a tummy ache, where to find shoes that don’t fall apart, which dinner plans work and which ones don’t. But what I want to bring to the conversation now that I am older and possibly wiser is an unwavering voice that says, “Don’t suppress who you are because you are so busy creating new humans. Being a mother and being you isn’t an either/or prospect. You are a human, too, and you deserve the love and attention you share with others. You deserve to be nurtured and protected. You deserve to be loved and respected.”

And as difficult as it may be to accept… you deserve to be you.