I’ve seen this article, “Former Stanford Dean Explains Why Helicopter Parenting is Ruining a Generation of Children,” highlighted several times this week by different folks and I have a few thoughts:


1. She notes that “incoming students were brilliant and accomplished and virtually flawless, on paper…” Could it be that this is part of the problem? That we expect kids, in order to get into college, to be absolutely perfect? When I was a kid, our hobbies were just that – things we did in our spare time because we enjoyed them. We played organized sports seasonally, not to get a college scholarship, and we didn’t specialize in one sport starting at the age of eight. We played multiple sports, joined scouting, learned to dance or knit or cook because it was part of our culture or our friends were doing it, not because it would look good on a college application.


2. This former dean of Stanford writes, “I’m interested in humans thriving, and it turns out over parenting is getting in the way of that.” Really? Or is ‘over parenting’ as she puts it simply trying to accommodate for the fact that our culture asks our kids to be busy and accomplished 24/7 which leaves little time for thriving, or finding joy and purpose, or learning life skills? Could it be that the ‘Race to Nowhere’ generation has bought into the cultural notion that their purpose lies somewhere outside themselves and the parents have jumped on board the competition train to help their kids get into college and succeed at all costs?


3. “She cites reams of statistics on the rise of depression and other mental and emotional health problems among the nation’s young people.” She doesn’t connect any of that to ‘over parenting’ so how do we know that it isn’t related to our hyper competitive culture that tells kids they have to know where they’re going to college by the time they are freshmen in high school? When I was in high school in the 1980s, we took the SAT. Now, kids not only take the PSAT, but this year, my daughter’s high school tried to get the sophomores to take a pre-PSAT to practice for the practice test so that they would all be good enough at it in their senior year to get into top schools and the high school could tout their scores as something they were responsible for. That’s just one example of the pressure put on kids by high schools and colleges. Perhaps if they don’t have enough bandwidth to learn how to cook their own meals, it’s understandable.


4. I am definitely not in favor of judging anyone’s parenting style (unless it results in physical or emotional harm to a child), and I find this whole college-level slam on ‘helicopter parents’ curious. As part of the “least parented generation,” isn’t it possible that the pendulum is simply swinging, and many of those parents are reacting to their own childhoods of latchkey kids and spending ten hours a day during the summer without any parental/adult supervision at all? No, my parents didn’t swoop in and solve my problems. They didn’t shield me from uncomfortable situations and try to ‘coddle’ me, but I could certainly have used a little bit of that. Instead, I grew up knowing that I was on my own and that if I asked for help I would either be told to ‘suck it up and quit whining’ or roundly ridiculed. I’m not sure that was much healthier. But I know that my parents were doing the best they could. Could it just be that parents everywhere are simply doing the best they can with the tools they have and the pressures they face right now?


5. Last but definitely not least, the notion that an entire generation of kids is “ruined” per the headline of the article is absurd. Even if an entire group of students doesn’t currently know how to manage the details of their own lives, that doesn’t presuppose that they won’t be able to learn those lessons at some point. And many of these students have spent time in high school doing the kinds of work my generation never even considered – starting their own business ventures, volunteering with nonprofit organizations, inventing solutions for some incredibly challenging problems – so pronouncing them “ruined” based on their inability to navigate the social-emotional stresses of the first year in a tough, prestigious university seems a little short-sighted. Basing this sweeping conclusion on a subset of students who were admitted to an elite, Ivy League college ignores all of the other kids out there who are going to community college or joining Americorps or putting off their college education because they can’t afford it right now.


To all you parents out there I say, go forth and love your children. Continue parenting them the best way you know how and listen to your own instincts. There will always be folks out there ready and willing to criticize your choices and catastrophize about what you might be doing to your kids (and their entire generation – no pressure). Time marches on. Kids grow up. The most important thing for any kid’s parents to do is show them that they are loved and valued.

It happened again. And there has been much acknowledgment that it keeps happening – we are killing each other at an unprecedented rate in this country and it is overwhelmingly sad and frustrating and I wish that we could find a different way to talk about it because, clearly, the way we have been approaching it isn’t working.

I popped in to my book club for an hour last night and, even though the topic was the book of historical fiction that we had all read, it quickly bled into discussing the shooting at Umpqua Community College. Someone noted that one positive aspect of all of these things – wars and terrorist attacks and mass shootings – is that it rallies communities, that we all notice each others’ humanity and come together to support each other.  But I couldn’t quite agree.  The other common aspect of all of those things that ostensibly bring communities together is that they are united against a common enemy. In war it is the other country, after 9/11 it was “terrorists,” after yesterday, it is either mentally ill people or mentally ill people with guns or, in some people’s minds, simply people with guns.  So while this may feel like solidarity, it is false, because while we may truly be recognizing the humanity of those who are suffering the same way we are, we are setting up a false dichotomy and altogether failing to recognize the humanity of the “other,” whomever we have decided they are.

The fact is, we are all in this together. How much must a person be suffering to pick up a weapon and shoot scores of people? How much pain must someone be in to want to inflict that much pain on others?

I have seen many posts on social media today from people and organizations vowing not to mention the name of the person responsible for yesterday’s shooting, and I can’t help but feel that that is part of the problem. His act was horrific and deplorable, to be certain, but we cannot deny his humanity. Pretending that there is an “Us” and a “Them” is simply perpetuating the problem. The fact is, Chris Mercer was one of us, but he didn’t know it and I doubt he felt that way. So often, we hear the stories of shooters in these incidents described as “loners,” “quirky,” “angry,” and “isolated.” In other words, not part of a community.

I absolutely believe that stricter gun laws are a vital necessity in this country. I have said that time and time again. But I also think that until we recognize the equal human rights of every person, to dignity and health care (including mental health care) and education, we are destined to see this repeat again and again. Uniting in the wake of tragedies like this, or against a common enemy is not a positive reaction, it is a reaction rooted in fear and scarcity. Coming together to fight AGAINST something drives us into a corner and forces us to erect walls. It is only a matter of time before those boundaries are breached, and being united in fear is a tenuous thing. It is high time we started uniting in purpose, finding a reason to include each and every person in our community and work toward a positive future for us ALL. Refusing to speak the name of someone who is hurting so intensely that they could plan and execute a horrific act like a mass shooting is just another way of burying our heads in the sand. We need to acknowledge the humanity of us all, recognize that we are all entitled to be part of the community of people who deserve happiness and liberty and that so long as we ignore and marginalize individuals out of fear, we are setting ourselves up for more acts of pain like this one.

In light of the most recent Congressional vote to de-fund Planned Parenthood, I would like my response to reflect the same approach I’ve had to this issue for most of my life. Some folks know that about ten years ago I embarked on a project called The Faces of Choice where I endeavored to provide a forum for women to tell their stories regarding difficult or unwanted pregnancies. I wanted to elevate the conversation to include women that chose termination as well as those who didn’t, but nonetheless struggled with the decision (because it is NEVER an easy one). I had hoped to publish these stories as a book and that didn’t work out. I then moved on to creating a website where a community could be established for women who wanted to share their stories and support each other. For a whole host of reasons, that didn’t take off, either. But the website still exists and I write here about why I was so passionate about the work. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but if anyone is on the fence about whether or not it is important to fund the work that organizations like Planned Parenthood does and to stay the hell out of a woman’s private medical decisions, I encourage you to go read it.

There are so many examples in my life lately of the
power of simple. The more I witness disagreements on social media, the more I
retreat inside to my own quiet authority. Everything from the Kentucky court clerk who refuses to issue same-sex
marriage licenses
 to arguments about immigration reform and how
we treat US immigrants; refugees desperately fleeing their homeland only to be
shunned in other countries when they reach the shore and the Pope offering absolution for Catholic women who chose
abortion
 tempt me to enter the fray. And when I sit and think
about why and how, I realize that countering arguments is batting at paper
tigers. 
I am increasingly horrified at the use of religious
writing to prop up acts of selfishness (often couched as “good
policy”) or terror. I am ever more disillusioned with statistics and
studies and numbers that justify treating human beings as problems to be
solved. 
I continue to know in the deepest core of my own
being that there is no external authority – religious text, political or
spiritual leader, or otherwise – that will ever lead me to act in the way that
expresses my best, highest, most human self. If a leader or book encourages me
to get very quiet and still, to look at the photos of the human beings drowning
and starving and fleeing their homes to save their children and really see,
that is something. If I am prompted to read about people who are suffering and
struggling no matter the circumstances or the choices they’ve made, and to open
my heart to them, that is something. Because when I do that, when I acknowledge
the humanity of each and every person on this planet without judgment, without
moving from my heart to my brain that wants to categorize and problem-solve and
blame, I am closer than ever to doing what is right. When I am driven by a
shared humanity as opposed to data or someone else’s interpretation, I am
certain. There are no conflicts, no pros and cons, no licking my fingertip and
flipping back and forth between pages that contain charts or someone else’s
words. The day that I can look upon another being who is suffering and only see
“the bigger picture” is the day that I will have lost myself, my own
internal sense of what is right. 
This doesn’t mean that I don’t disagree with
others, it only means that I wish others could do the same. If Donald Trump and
Jeb Bush and Kim Davis can see before them someone who needs their help and
deny it based on some external notion of what is right and just and moral, I
can’t change that. If soldiers in another part of the world are convinced that
raping and torturing women and children is justified by their religious
beliefs, I can’t change that. I can attempt to speak in the language of
scripture, find citations and passages that call for mercy or implore us to act
out of love. I could consult data and past precedent to counter a politician’s
words, but it is easy to twist words and numbers. It quickly becomes a question
of whose authority or perception is “more real,” and, ultimately, if
I am going to act from a place of certainty and clarity, the source isn’t a
book or a data set. I can only hope that in some quiet moment somewhere, each
of us is able to look within and find a connection, any small spark, that
reminds us that words and prophets are not our true authorities, that at the
end of the day, all we have is our own internal sense of what is real and right
and human, and that to not reach out and help goes against everything that we
are.

Time and time again, we hear stories of people who have had incredible
moments of insight – generally when they thought they were about to die. The
majority of them talk about suddenly realizing what is important, eschewing
external motivators and measurements of success and happiness. Instead they
strive for human connection, more time with family and friends, and a deeper
understanding of themselves. We are all born with a need to be connected to
others on a very basic level and as we move toward independence, we lose
something. I love Dr. Dan Siegel’s idea that instead of raising our children to
be independent, we raise them to be interdependent,
that is, to never forget that we are all connected and rely on each other. That
is the world I want to live in. The world where everyone sees the pictures of
the small boy drowning as he flees for his life and feels an enormous tug on
their heartstrings. A world where that pull of love, of connection, leads us to
talk and think about how to reach out, where we lead with our hearts instead of
our heads, where instead of distancing ourselves from the pain by closing our
eyes or explaining why that could never happen to us, we open further. A world
where we are not driven by numbers and statistics and policies, but where those
things become merely tools as we work to alleviate suffering and create support
instead of walls we build to keep us from listening, from seeing, from feeling.
It is in feeling where I find certainty. I don’t always know where to go from
there, but for me it is always the best place to start.

I had an entirely different post in mind for today, but I can’t let this one go.

Pope Allows Priests to Forgive Abortion if Women are ‘Contrite’

Being a long-lapsed Catholic, I am not really worried about this for myself. And I admit to having watched this Pope with a significant degree of awe because I feel like he really is being true to his Jesuit roots with regard to many of the decisions he makes and the things he says. I admire his commitment to being a voice for those in poverty and his courage when speaking about climate change. But this, well, perhaps there is something lost in translation, but this makes my blood begin to boil.

“I am well aware of the pressure that has led [women] to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal.”

I call bullshit.

With all due respect, you don’t know. You have no idea what a woman who is trying to make a decision like this goes through. And you have no right to assume that you know, especially as the head of the organization that puts many of the roadblocks in her way in the first place (what’s your church’s official position on birth control, again?)

I think that the Pope is trying to do the right thing here, and I can appreciate the sentiment. But the notion that a woman, any woman, needs a man to absolve her for making a private medical decision makes me sick to my stomach. Some folks have commented that priests have no business ‘forgiving’ anyone, that that is God’s job. Others have praised the Pope for his liberal stance on this issue. In the context of the Catholic Church, a horrifyingly patriarchal system in and of itself, I suppose this seemed like a noble thing to offer.  Indeed, devout Catholics can be forgiven for a whole host of sins if they just ask with contrition, regardless of whether they are male or female, but to ask a woman to be contrite for a choice she made that is entirely private is utterly ridiculous. What’s next, you can have birth control if every time you go to pick up your prescription you go straight to confessional afterward and ask for forgiveness?

Asking a woman to be ‘contrite’ is whitewashing the entire set of cultural pressures that Catholic women live under daily. The Pope’s slight nod to the church’s anti-birth control stance (if that is what it was) doesn’t erase the reality for many women around the globe that basically tells them their highest purpose is to get married and procreate and be subservient to their husbands. It ignores the reality that women are the main caregivers of these children and yet are powerless to determine how many of them they are willing to risk their health and life having and give up their careers to raise. It ignores the reality that the only alternative to birth control or abortion is to refuse their husbands, often at their own peril. It ignores the reality that women often have very little control over whether or not they will engage in sex, especially in areas of the world where sexual assault is used as a weapon of war, but that these women are the ones left behind to deal with the consequences of that violation. Are these women to feel ‘contrite?’ Are they to come to the church and beg a powerful male figure for forgiveness because they made a decision that that powerful man who has taken a vow of celibacy could not possibly understand or have the right to judge?

I call bullshit.

Nice try, but it’s time to move along. Perpetuating the idea that a woman’s sexuality either belongs to the church or to her husband is so last-Pope. Don’t even get me started on the fact that abortion isn’t mentioned in the Bible even once…. The bible is a religious text, not a medical one. It has no authority to tell a woman how to make a medical choice, nor to forgive her for making it.

Sexual assault weighs heavily on my mind of late. Between the former Subway pitchman admitting to child pornography and rape of children, and the New York Times story of ISIS using rape as a strategic tactic, and the trial of a prep school graduate who is alleged to have raped a fellow student as part of a graduation ritual, the news seems saturated with it. I am reading Jon Krakauer’s book on campus rape, “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town” at a snail’s pace because the stories give me a stomach ache, both with regard to what the students went through as they were sexually assaulted and the treatment they faced from police officers and prosecutors and school officials, not to mention the perpetrators. As the mother of two daughters, it is increasingly difficult to not see threats around every corner. As a sexual assault survivor, I know all to well the power of such violations and the trails they weave throughout a life.

This morning, I was particularly struck by the article on Jezebel (referenced above) pertaining to the testimony of the alleged victim in the prep school trial. She was quoted as saying,

“I didn’t want to come across as too offensive or rude….I didn’t want to cause conflict,”

 in response to a crude email invitation he sent to her to join him.  In other testimony, she said,

“I tried to be as polite as possible.”
“I wanted to not cause a conflict”
“I feel like I had objected as much as I felt I could at the time. And other than that I felt so powerless”

And while many people have (and will continue to) comment that this girl was stupid, that by making those choices, she clearly wasn’t really objecting to sexual contact with this man (he was over eighteen at the time and she was either 14 or 15), her words resonate with so many women and girls.

To this day, I still wrestle with telling my massage therapist or the dentist that I’m uncomfortable, to go easier, because I don’t want to be rude or tell them how to do their job. Saying it out loud sounds ludicrous, but I was brought up as a compliant Catholic girl who was to always assume that my elders knew what they were doing. I was not to question them or challenge them, but to defer to them and make them feel good. Not only was that the “Right” thing to do, but I quickly learned that it was the best way to get them to like me. It made me the perfect victim of childhood sexual abuse by an older boy. I never said a word. I’m certain that as I lie in his dank, sweat-scented, 17-year-old boy bedroom and he assaulted me multiple times over a period of months, I never cried out, fought back, said no. I know that it was decades before I ever told anyone, and every time I considered it, I saw his mother’s face in my mind and wondered what it would do to her. I saw my own mother’s face in my mind and wondered what impact it might have on her if I told – would she be seen as a horrible mother? Would she think of herself that way? It never occurred to me to ask whether or not anyone would believe me because I wasn’t going to tell – it would disrupt too many lives.  I wasn’t weighing my own life in this equation at all. I had absorbed the messages served up to me by the church and our culture too well. It was more important to be liked than it was to stand up for myself. It was more important to preserve the feelings of someone else (especially if they were older than me or male) than it was to express my own feelings.

Forgive us. And let us learn from this.

Let us teach our children that they can always apologize for being rude, but they can’t ever take back those moments where they didn’t stand up for themselves.

Let us teach our children that they matter as much as everyone else around them, that their opinions and thoughts are just as valid.

Let us teach our children to listen to their gut, to develop that spidey-sense that defies logic and is always right.

Let us teach them that they have a right to draw boundaries, whether anyone else likes it or not.

I have done my level best to help my daughters understand these things. They have been accused of being insolent or rude by some family members for “talking back,” but I’ll take that over being walked on any day. If they ruffle some feathers by being outspoken and opinionated, by refusing to do something they don’t want to do even if it will make someone else happy, I’m okay with that. And I sincerely hope that, with enough practice, if either of them ever finds themselves in a dark room with someone who is determined to overstep their boundaries, these lessons will come back to them and they will say to themselves, “F*ck rude – I said NO!” It is not a silver bullet, but it is something.

I am officially done with the culture that encourages girls to sublimate their own wishes in order to make anyone else feel good.

I am officially done with the culture that encourages boys to find conquests and ignore the wishes of others so that they can make themselves feel good.

It begins here, with a pledge to do better. To teach our girls and boys that they are, first and foremost, human beings deserving of respect, especially by themselves.

Related writings: Campus Rape
10 Things I Want My Daughters to Know About Sex
Rape in the Military

Another day, another abortion ban struck down. I am happy to see it happen, but frustrated at the vast sums of money and energy and time that are spent in the effort to keep women from having reproductive freedom in this country. I know it’s been said before, but it is so absurd to me that these resources aren’t directed toward things that would educate and support women and girls instead of punishing them.

I heard a story yesterday about a clinic in Montana that was so severely vandalized a year ago that it had to be shut down. And since the woman who has run the clinic for over thirty years can’t really afford to revive it, women in the Flathead region of that state are forced to drive 120 miles each way to receive care. Not just abortions, but any kind of reproductive health care, because the clinic provided a huge range of services to women in that rural area, like most clinics that are targeted by anti-choice lawmakers and protestors alike.

Toward the end of the story, the reporter noted that the man who destroyed the clinic was sentenced to 20 years in prison – fifteen of them deferred – and forced to pay restitution.  I won’t get into the sentence that was handed down for a variety of reasons, but the notion of restitution was what piqued my interest. So many questions flitted through my head:

  • like squeezing blood from a turnip. I wonder how much money he has, anyway, to pay restitution. Do you suppose it will ever be fully repaid? 
  • restitution to whom? To the clinic owner? To the staff that lost their jobs? To the scores of women whose lives are affected by his act? Does he have to give them gas money to get to Missoula? Does he have to pay child support for all of the babies that were born to mothers who now have no option but to raise them?
  • how do you calculate the proper amount of restitution to compensate for the trauma someone suffers when their life’s work is brutally destroyed? 
As a teenager, I worked in a small-town clinic that provided abortions two days a week. The rest of the time, we provided routine family practice services like treating infections and offering vaccines as well as contraceptives and vasectomies and OB care. Two days a week, the sidewalk was lined with protesters – many of them bused in from the big city 30 miles away. They laid spike strips across the entrance to the driveway, shoved their signs in patients’ faces, yelled and chanted, sang and cried and occasionally threatened both the staff and the patients. One day, as I left work, one of them started to follow me home and I drove around for an hour and finally parked outside the police station until he gave up and drove away.  Twice, the clinic was stink-bombed after hours and once there was a small fire set in the back of the building. The doctor and nurse practitioner wore bulletproof vests to work. My boyfriend begged me to quit. 
Decades later, I continue to be shocked at how blasé people are about these kinds of tactics. I am horrified that an organization could get away with putting together an “expose” on Planned Parenthood, alleging that they sell fetal tissue for profit, be exposed themselves for blatantly lying and creatively editing the footage to show things that never actually happened, and suffer no consequences. There is a vast difference between protected free speech and lying, bullying, in-your-face terror tactics. Make no mistake, these are terror tactics. It is terrifying to go to work and have to cross a line of angry protestors. It was surely terrifying to come to work and see your clinic burning, get death threats in the middle of the night on the phone, watch the protestors laughing and chatting in the quiet moments as they ate their lunches together as if this was just another day at the office.  
The continued legislative attacks on women’s reproductive rights – abortion bans at 20 weeks, at the first sign of a fetal heartbeat, restrictions on contraceptions, the latest bill that would allow employers to fire single women who get pregnant – these things add fuel to the fire of the protestors and the organizations that are adamant that women not be able to control their own bodies. They set up a climate in which it feels normal to tell women how to live their lives. It presents the view that a woman’s health is something to be parsed out by those in power. We will let you have fertility treatments, but not oral contraceptives. We will allow your employer’s insurance to pay for your hospital stay when you have a baby, but not if you have it at home with a midwife. We will pay for your mammogram but not your D&C.  
I have come to the conclusion that there is a culture of bullying that encompasses both right-wing legislators and protestors and everyone in-between who is determined to restrict a woman’s right to control her own body. The same groups of lawmakers continue to craft new bills restricting clinics and imposing time limits on abortion services. Even though the majority of them are ultimately overturned, the time and money that is spent by the target of this abuse is debilitating – a fact I’m sure the perpetrators of this brand of abuse are well aware of. Perhaps if the lawmakers had to pay restitution when their restrictions are deemed unconstitutional,  it would slow them down. What if we acknowledged these repeated efforts to curb reproductive freedom as frivolous and saw them for the bullying tactics that they were and forced those who push them to pay the legal fees for both sides when they lose? At this point, other than the punishments handed down by judges and juries to individuals who are caught vandalizing clinics or harming abortion providers, there is no real consequence for the organizations and politicians who continue to push women of childbearing age around. This is bullying, plain and simple, and until we figure out a way to make it hard for these kinds of laws to be written, we will continue to waste our time and money on taking them to higher courts.  
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Yesterday was one of the loveliest Mother’s Days I’ve had. My girls are old enough to temper their sibling interactions with each other and put up with my sentimental slobbering with minimal complaining.  They were sweet and kind, funny and gentle, and Bubba had planned the day with lots of relaxation in mind.

I saw lots of wonderful messages in texts and on social media and I was so happy that so many other mothers out there were feeling the love yesterday. But there were a few things that gave me pause, even though I know they were meant with love and gratitude.

The whole “Supermom” thing has a twist on it for me, especially when it is held up by corporations trying to sell us something or organizations that are designed to support or revere motherhood. I am no Supermom. I am hardworking-good-enough-human-mom, and it has taken me years to get to the point where that is all I aspire to.

Several years ago, in my therapist’s office, I began my journey toward good-enough-mom. As I described some of the pressures I put on myself on a daily basis, the lessons I wanted to be sure to impart to my daughters, the life I wanted to provide for them, the people I hoped they would become, I noticed my therapist’s face change. I can’t describe it, but her energy shifted from wholehearted agreement and mentally patting me on the back for my wonderful ideas and intentions to skeptical, thoughtful.  I stopped talking mid-sentence and asked, “What?”

“You are trying to be Supermom. Good, healthy, hot, nutritious meals three times a day, enough mental stimulation, lots of emotional support for your girls and your husband. Keeping a tidy house, never being late for anything, making sure the girls get enough social interaction and their doctor and dentist appointments happen on time. Seeing that everyone gets enough sleep and not too much TV and good exercise daily, right?”

None of that sounded bad to me. I was confused.

“Where is the time for you? Where is the flexibility for mistakes or spills or spontaneous resting time?”

There will be time for me when the girls are older, when Bubba isn’t traveling so much for work, when….I thought to myself.

“You know that your girls are learning as much or more from watching you as they are by listening to what you say, right? They see that you are putting all of your efforts into making everyone else’s life perfect and smooth. They see that you have no needs of your own, and that is what they think mothers do. They see you utterly exhausted to the point of tears at the end of most days and they will internalize the message that they are expected to be Supermoms, too, when they have kids. Is that what you want for them?”

Oh, shit.

As hard as it was, from that day forward, I did my best to give up on the idea that being a Supermom was the highest form of parenting. I began trying to give myself some slack, to give myself permission to make cereal and bananas for dinner some nights, or order a pizza. I began to work toward a goal of good-enough-mom, if only so that my daughters would see that as a viable path for themselves. I started working on saying no to things I didn’t want to do for them and articulating that my desires were just as important as theirs. And it took a long time, but most days that is where I am. And so when I see messages in the mass media about “Supermoms,” it makes me sad to think that there are folks out there who are setting our girls up to believe that being hard-working-full-of-love-most-of-the-time-good-enough-moms aren’t worth celebrating.  Because I’m here to tell you that we are.

I was reading a mental health journal this afternoon and the following phrase leaped off of the page and smacked me in the forehead,

” ‘Defiant, combative, hostile, and uncooperative,’ were labels used by many people who knew Sarah…but what if we saw her as “frightened, struggling to cope, confused, and abandoned” and dealing with the effects of extreme stress?”

Yeah.
What if?

It occurred to me that those labels used by so many mental health professionals, teachers, social workers, and other folks tasked with teaching and serving individuals with mental health issues and developmental disabilities are selfish. They reflect not the individual’s feelings or challenges, but the frustrations of those around them.

How many times have I seen someone from afar in public who is acting in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable or sad or afraid and labeled them according to what I feel instead of thinking about what they might be feeling? I would say, pretty much always.

And while it is important, to be certain, to protect ourselves if we feel as though we’re in danger from someone, these phrases – defiant, uncooperative, hostile, combative – are generally used to pigeonhole people who would benefit more from our help than our defensive posturing.

I am reminded of a time when Eve was little and we were meeting with our toddler group. The kids were all around 18 months old and had varying degrees of language. They had all had lunch and were tooling around the living room playing while the moms cleaned up and visited a little bit.  One of the boys walked up to the keyboard, climbed on the bench and sat down to play, but within seconds he was throwing an absolute fit, screaming, red-faced, flinging himself off the bench and causing all of us to come running in to see what was wrong. Nothing was immediately apparent – none of the other kids had touched him or tried to take his place, he was simply freaking out and nearly inconsolable.  When his mom picked him up and folded him into her arms, he arched his back and pulled away, screaming and clawing at her hair and face. We could have easily called those behaviors erratic, defiant, hostile, combative, uncooperative, and so on and so forth.  I remember pulling Eve close to me as she stared wide-eyed at the spectacle.

After running through a few options of what could be making him so angry, all the while fending off his little fists, his mom laid him down on the carpet and undid his overalls. None of us actually believed that a dirty diaper could be causing this much mayhem, but it was worth a shot.  When she undid the velcro fasteners and folded down the front of his diaper, she found a fork. Somehow, he had taken one from the lunch table, slipped it down the front of his overalls, and as he walked around and eventually climbed up onto the piano bench, it had fallen so far down inside his diaper that the tines were stabbing him in the penis. Every time his mom had moved him as she tried to console him, it poked him again. I’m pretty sure I’d scream and resist, too.

Even as we age and become more able to communicate with those around us, it isn’t always possible for us to find ways to express what we’re feeling, especially if we struggle with mental illness or developmental disabilities.  If we take the time to unravel the stories and really pay attention to the individual, it is possible to come to a point where we take their actions less personally and begin to see them as indicators of what this person is dealing with. Many people with mental illness have suffered significant trauma in their lives and while that doesn’t excuse all of their actions, labeling them with things that reflect how they make us feel rather than what they are feeling only serves to keep us at arm’s length, and connection is a powerful tool when you want to help someone. I have a feeling it’s going to take a lot of practice to shift my thinking, but I’m willing to try.

Elizabeth posted this comment on yesterday’s random thoughts in response to my words about condescension:

The more I think about it, though, the more I am convinced that the particular people I wrote about are never going to budge. That doesn’t depress me as much as it makes me realize that it’s not about vindication and that I will move forward even as they stay put. “

Yes. It isn’t about vindication at all and, if it was, we are all likely to remain incredibly disappointed by those in power who are not interested in shifting the dynamics.  For me, though, it is about being heard.

I am just naive enough (or maybe it’s idealism – I’ve been accused of both) to think that when someone invites me to be part of a conversation, they are actually open to hearing what I think. In the case of the meeting with the Surgeon General a few weeks ago, I was also naive/idealistic enough to think that it might really be a conversation, a dialogue between him and the parents in the room, but it was more like a transaction, a sales call where he showed up saying he was interested in what we wanted and ultimately sold us the only thing he had brought to sell – his canned comments and rhetoric. I don’t believe there was ever anything else on offer besides an opportunity to sit in a room and say his piece. Given the number of times he was asked a question that he failed to answer at all – instead steering his words toward another subject altogether – I am convinced that there was some preexisting agenda that included the rest of us as simply warm bodies to receive his message.

That, I am not interested in. I don’t want a transaction, whereby I simply sit passively and receive the information others want me to receive. Nor am I interested in vindication – some magical moment wherein the folks in power have an epiphany and shout, “You’re absolutely right! We should have seen it all along!” as they hang their heads in shame. That might feel really freaking amazing in the moment, but ultimately it doesn’t do anything to – as Elizabeth says, “move (us) forward.” And it doesn’t do anything to alleviate the frustration and/or suffering that came for years as I tried to get anyone to listen.

Last October when I was in New Mexico with the likes of Alice Walker and Gloria Steinem, someone said (I think it was Gloria, but I honestly can’t remember), “If you want to stop someone in their tracks, tell them you don’t believe them.” Yes. But, I would add, it is even more powerful to send them the message that you aren’t even interested in hearing them. And that is the message we get when these kinds of events are scheduled, ostensibly to hear various perspectives, and the only stories that are allowed any oxygen are the ones that have been told over and over again. This is a tactic that has been used for decades – deny that there is a problem. Pretend that those voices that tell a different story belong to folks who aren’t smart enough to really know what they see/feel/experience, or that they aren’t important enough to pay attention to and they will eventually go away or start questioning their own sanity.

The difference these days is that we have other ears. Social media has given us the opportunity to find others who are telling the same stories and band together to raise our voices. If we can’t have a dialogue, at least we can change the venue a little. Instead of continuing to hit our heads against that brick wall that the powers-that-be have put up for us to write our protests on, we can turn around and go somewhere else where we will be heard. We can validate each others’ perceptions and continue moving forward, with or without them.