Friday, February 24, 2012

Rotten Made of Cotton

Let’s be clear about this. I oppose bullying as much as the next parent. I was bullied myself as a tween, and it took years to get out from under it. Being objectified and intimidated by one’s classmates is a rotten way to go through school, and I absolutely support any effort to take bullying seriously and put a stop to it.

What I don’t much care for is this Townspeople-of-South-Park level of blind fervor and crippling lack of nuance that drives the dialogue. Or maybe it’s just the Internet I don’t like. No, I see it in real life too. Parents are so riled up against bullying and so vigilantly on the lookout for potential bullies that they do so at the children’s expense. There’s little or no consideration given to age, developmental stages, social skills, or special needs. It’s plain and simple Us vs. Them. And with particularly young children, it’s often in the eye of the beholder.*

Two babies, not even sitting up yet, lie side by side on a rug while their parents take pictures. One baby starts to practice her new rolling-over skills, inadvertently flopping into the baby next to her and poking him in the eye. She continues her attempt at rolling despite the other baby’s wails, only slightly perplexed by this noisy obstacle. It seems like the parents are joking when they start calling the rolling baby a bully. But there’s truth and anxiety behind that joke.

By preschool, it’s not so funny anymore. We’ve been warned by countless headlines, had our hearts broken by tragic suicide stories, been admonished by the news media to be on the lookout, always. (But don’t be a helicopter parent! That’s bad! Make up your mind, media.) And here he comes, a two-year-old on a mission. He snatches a toy out of another child’s hands. He runs up behind a child just as she’s reaching for a book and pushes her flat on the ground. He grabs a boy who accidentally bumped into him and bites him on the back of the head.

By the time they’re four, they run in packs and gather in circles. Friendship is a relatively new thing for them, and the power of belonging and not belonging is fascinating. “This slide is just for girls,” they might say. Or “You can’t be on our team because you don’t like Star Wars.” They might flout every well-meaning preschool rule and turn their fingers into guns (or volcanoes or freeze rays) for imaginary classroom assaults. And, sadly, they might single out a classmate to chase or tease.

How awful to be the parent of that kid who’s getting chased and teased. It awakens something visceral in us, unearths all our childhood baggage and brings every “Beware of Bullies” article we’ve ever read into terrifying focus. I remember consoling a fellow parent in this situation. “They’re just mean!” she said, hopelessly. I knew how she felt.

What I didn’t say was that I knew how the “mean” kids’ parents felt, too. Believe me, the only thing more horrifying than seeing your child become a target is seeing your child become part of the pack that’s doing the targeting. There’s this notion that the bully’s parents are oblivious, proud, perhaps bullies or queen bees themselves. Maybe there’s some truth to that in some cases, but it seems a little too convenient and unfair.

I don’t see myself that way, but I guess I can see how other parents might. I’m probably a touch on the spectrum myself and I tend to miss social cues, talk about myself too much, state an opinion where one clearly isn’t welcome, use bigger vocabulary words than, perhaps, the situation warrants. Or else I just plain keep to myself, which can arouse all kinds of suspicions of “She thinks she’s so great.” I guess I could see how someone might mistake me for a queen bee.

The Boy was four, just coming into full steam with his as-yet-undiagnosed Aspergers and all the sensory-seeking, socially challenged, lack of impulse control that goes with it. Or, you know, being a “bully.” Potato, potahto.

Somehow, that made it okay for a preschool dad to unleash a torrent of verbal abuse on us both on the playground after preschool. I’m sure that guy went home and posted on Facebook about how he totally mama-grizzly’d some bully’s mama on the playground and received all kinds of accolades and support. Meanwhile, I spent the rest of the year feeling isolated, intimidated, and ashamed. But I suppose the average Internet reader would agree that as the alleged queen bee parent of an alleged bully, I deserved it.

Well, folks…life is just a bit more complicated and nuanced than that. There are no heroes, victims, or villains here. Just people. School is an incredibly complex social landscape for anyone. And yet, we somehow expect even the youngest children to navigate it with the idealistic aplomb of liberal arts college sophomores who’ve just been to the rape-awareness fair.

But young children, let’s face it, aren’t quite there yet. Have you ever observed an elementary school recess? The power dynamics shift on a whim, and everyone (yes, even your kid) takes a turn being truly awful to someone else. You know when people use the line “He’s just doing it because he likes you”? I know it reads as a blow-off line, and I understand why people (including this blogger everyone was linking the other day) find it infuriating. But in many cases, especially with very young children or children with special needs, it is absolutely true. Children who struggle with social skills do tend to initiate play or friendship with inappropriate overtures like pushing, touching hair, shouting, and teasing. I see it all the time.

The good news is, young children also have boundless capacity for empathy and learning. And they can learn how to navigate the social landscape if we approach them with empathy, realistic expectations, patience, and forgiveness. We need to leave our baggage at the door and remember that a two-year-old (or a four-year-old or an eight-year-old) is not a future Columbine shooter or the kid who pulled down your pants in 4th grade. Children can and should learn socially acceptable ways to engage. But they don't learn it overnight, and slapping our narrow adult misreadings and baggage on the situation is not helping anyone.

The bit about parents being oblivious or thinking our little snowflakes can do no wrong? That’s just not true. Just because a parent’s first reaction may be defensive; just because a parent has built up a high tolerance for her active, possibly autistic or ADHD child’s antics and chooses her battles carefully so as not to be in a constant state of battling; just because a parent who has to hear every day what jerk her kid is chooses to instead emphasize his strengths…well, you just don’t know the whole story, do you?

And the bit about teachers not caring? Maybe some of them truly don’t, but lots more of them do. But the best teacher is the one who’s got every kid’s best interests in mind, not just the “good” ones or the ones whose parents’ wheels squeak the loudest. The best teacher isn’t going to knee-jerk assume “bully” when something goes awry. The best teacher isn’t going to use shame and ostracism and scapegoating to put the so-called bullies in their place. The best teacher is not going to commiserate with you about what a little shit someone else’s child is. The best teacher is going to help all the children develop the skills to handle the many complex social challenges they face. And as parents, that’s the best thing we can do, too.

Easier said than done, I know. I don’t always get it right even half the time myself. But I’ve read a lot of books and taken a lot of parenting classes over the years. Here are a few whose advice and insights I've used consistently with very positive results:

Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman

Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads by Rosalind Wiseman

Be Different by John Elder Robison

“Social Lives of Our Children” – a lecture by Julie Metzger (Summarized here. I strongly encourage you all to read it.)

*A few weeks ago, I wrote about our dreadful experience at The Boy’s first elementary school and characterized what happened to him there as bullying. What I neglected to mention is that everyone else thought HE was the bully. And they weren’t entirely wrong. Stuff like this is seldom black and white. More on that later.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Within Marriage

UPDATE: After last Thursday's anti-birth-control extravaganza, I posted an updated version of this story over on Open Salon. It's gotten a ton of traffic over there...almost like this issue resonates with people or something. Check it out if you like. I'll have something new up here soon.

Okay, people. I didn’t want to have to write this today. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love to delve into a good lady-parts story as much as the next gal. I just didn’t think I’d need to do it in response to this particular issue.

Really…birth control. How can birth control still be controversial in 2012? And yet, it seems like I can’t look at the news without reading about it. I thought it peaked last week, during the controversy over whether Catholic employers should have to cover birth control in their employees’ health plans. I kept sputtering half-articulate outrage at the computer like a freshman who’s 3 weeks into her first women’s studies course while Mr. Black rolled his eyes and reminded me that this is actually good news. A return to the culture wars means the economy must be improving.

I was sure we’d heard the last of it when President Obama worked out a compromise. Catholic employers who object to providing birth control won’t have to. Health insurance companies will have to provide it instead (which should be fine with them, since birth control is a hell of a lot less expensive than pregnancies). It seemed like the dust had settled and it was time to move on to greener culture war pastures…like whether marriage equality will force us all to marry our bacon cheeseburgers.

But then today, I read this:

Not satisfied with President Obama’s new religious accommodation, Republicans will move forward with legislation by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) that permits any employer to deny birth control coverage in their health insurance plans, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Sunday.

And let’s not forget this, from popular Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum:

Many in the Christian faith have said, ‘Well, that's OK, I mean y'know, contraception is OK.’ It's not OK. It’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. They're supposed to be within marriage.

Sigh. Okay, here’s the thing, Republicans. And I’m speaking from “within marriage” now, not pregnant at the moment but plenty barefoot; just a baby-loving, home-owning, field-trip-chaperoning, cookie-baking, husband-adoring, Target-shopping stay-at-home mom. So listen up:

Women like me need birth control too. Without birth control, I wouldn’t even be a mom.

When I was 24, my ovaries were covered with endometrial cysts. The biggest one was the size of a baseball, practically swallowing the ovary whole. It could have made me infertile. Even after surgery and hormone therapy, those cysts can always grow back and wreak all kinds of havoc. But my doctor knew a simple way to manage the endometriosis – birth control pills. Tell us all about it, WebMD:

Birth control pills are the first-choice treatment for controlling endometriosis growth and pain. This is because birth control hormones are the hormone therapy that is least likely to cause bad side effects. For this reason, they can be used for years, while other hormone therapies can only be used for several months to 2 years… Birth control pills can also be used to stop or further slow endometriosis growths after endometriosis surgery.

And that’s how I was able to heal up the lady-parts and go on to spawn these little cuties. Birth control and family values. Huzzah!

But it doesn’t end there. It doesn’t even begin there, really. There were miscarriages, too. Early ones, thankfully, but devastating losses nonetheless. Before The Boy, I lost three pregnancies in an 8-month period.

And then, when he was only 10 months old, I had my first and only unplanned pregnancy. Damn near immaculate conception, really. We were amazed, a little freaked out, and so happy. The most encouraging thing of all was that, without even knowing I’d been pregnant, this pregnancy had lasted longer than any of those earlier ill-fated ones. I’d made it safely past the “danger zone” where I would typically miscarry. Dreamily, I started shopping for all my old favorite pregnancy foods and thinking up baby names.

One week later, there was spotting. A blood test confirmed that the pregnancy had stopped growing. An ultrasound showed nothing but an empty embryonic sac. I was instructed to go home and wait for the inevitable miscarriage. They warned me that it wouldn’t be like the other ones, which were only slightly worse than an extremely heavy period. This one was going to hurt. Call us if there’s a lot of blood, they said. They even gave me a few maxi pads to take home. Um…thanks.

Because nothing happens around here without a little gallows humor, miscarriage #4 came mere minutes after the Philadelphia Eagles lost the Superbowl. I’d been lying on the living room floor letting the baby play with my hair and feeling crappy in general while Mr. Black watched the game. Suddenly, it was go time.

And it was awful. It hurt like labor, complete with contractions and dilation and pushing. With every wave of pain came a grisly expulsion of gnarly clumps of blood and tissue. We’d left the TV on, and the premiere of American Dad cavorted in the background. Mr. Black held my hand and rubbed my back, which was incredibly comforting but also reminded me that the last time we did this, we ended up with a baby. Overall, I’d have to say Worst Superbowl Ever.

Somehow, going through all that only strengthened my resolve to have another baby. But when we were finally lucky enough to welcome Little Grrl to the family, there was no doubt in our minds. The baby factory was now CLOSED. I have had all the miscarriages I am ever going to have. I don’t ever, ever want to go through something like that again. Hello, IUD.

Look, there are obviously lots of reasons to be in favor of birth control beyond my little middle-class-married-mama story. But do I really need to list them? Is it really anybody’s business in the first place? Honestly, I might as well write about why people should have access to penicillin or Vitamin C or something. Isn’t it obvious? Birth control makes us healthier and safer. It helps us build our families. It puts us in control of our bodies and our lives. And, let’s face it, birth control prevents abortions.

Why do I feel like the minute I start making arguments like this one, we’ve already lost? Why is it up for debate at all? I hope Mr. Black is right, that this is simply the latest song-and-dance number in the culture wars now that the economy is on the mend. Because a 42-year-old mother needing to defend her IUD is just a little too ridiculous.

Friday, February 3, 2012

We're Gonna Have More Fun and Be Less Weird...

It's a new day! No new post, unfortunately, but a new day nonetheless. In that spirit, please enjoy this song and dance number from our good friends at Greendale Community College:

New stuff coming soon. Really!
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