Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On Bullying. On Wonder. On the Narrow Road. And on Ovations of the Standing Kind.

On Bullying.  On Wonder.  On the Narrow Road. And on Ovations of the Standing Kind.


I opened his backpack only to pull out 4 individually foil wrapped chocolate chip cookies, stale and crumbled.  “Why?” 

“I thought I ate those.”
 “Well, clearly Joe, you didn’t.  Why?” 
Silence.
 “Please just tell me.” 
“I thought I ate them.” 
“The truth!” 
Silence.  Then.  “Someone made fun of me for bringing in a cookie.  He said it was weird.”


My oldest son.  Bright, funny, fine in all respects has been bullied since the start of the school year.  Something he never even talked about, just swallowing the sadness of isolation and uncertainty until it started showing up in likely places: stomach pain that wouldn’t go away, sloppy errors that have cost him in his favorite subjects, staring off into space, books left untouched. 

I consider myself a vigilant parent, but I didn’t see the signs because I wasn’t looking for them.  I saw them clearly in his younger brother, and Sam also will tell me when something is bothering him.  But Joe?  He’s getting older.  The lines that divide fitting in and not, appearing cool and not being are becoming cloudy and unclear. 

Small for his age with a smile that can take on the world, he has always made friends easily.  Not altogether that strong, but eager to participate, he’s always picked for games outside.  But the factions that I thought would come later, and to be very honest, I believed would not affect his gender this early, have come and Joe has found himself on the outside of the 4th grade in crowd.

Joe is my introduction to motherhood.  And it isn’t easy.  Missing my own mother, used to being entirely on my own, finding myself responsible for a child who would never sleep, and couldn’t nap unless he was held, was an exercise in daily, relentless torture.  Some days we’d have a staring contest, me looking into eyes that resembled my own, eyelashes that WERE mine once, and wondering if we’d ever be on the same side.




That day came.  And fast, and I’ve found him to be exactly like me, but the souped-up version.  The better one, the more compassionate, the more
"Just lean on me Mommy, when it hurts."
forgiving, the smarter.  Every day he amazes me with his mind, his insight and his uncanny ability to read people with a precision that he doesn’t just save for books.

This child.  Extraordinary.  This child has been isolated.  Told he’s weird.  Told he’s “too pretty.”  Told he’s not wanted.  His difference has struck constantly, as swift and painful as any weapon in the wrong hands…. 







 “They say I must be one of the wonders of God’s own creation.  
And as far as they see they can offer no explanation.”  
Natalie Merchant, "Wonder," Tigerlily

When I heard “Wonder” for the first time off of Natalie Merchant’s 1995 album, I loved it.  Because it gave voice to something not often spoken, and that was of an exceptional child who could manage and better, inspire and transcend any limitations given.  R.J. Palacio was inspired by the song too, and moreover an encounter with just such a child, outside an ice cream shop in NYC.  An episode that left her shaken due to her own visible and unkind reaction to a child with Treacher Collins syndrome and how she was ever, ever going to be able to address it and teach her sons how to as well.  (In fact, her chapter called “Carvel” in the book narrated by Jack Will is an almost verbatim rendition of that real life scene that planted the seed for Wonder, the
Wonder
novel.)  It was a sum of experience and song, I guess that gave rise to what I think should be required reading for every parent and child and others in this family human.

The novel is supposed to be about August Pullman, who enters the 5th grade as a regular middle school student.  Until this time he’s been homeschooled; while Palacio doesn’t make it clear whether or not Auggie has TC, she seems to allude to the fact that his condition is even more rare, a combination of TC and something else that cause his abnormalities to be extreme.  But that’s what Auggie’s got on the outside.  On the inside he has a devoted older sister Olivia “Via,” parents who’ve remained together and love him to distraction.  ….and new friends at this hive of absolutely shocking displays of bullying, fitting in and puberty called Middle School.  

You can imagine the story.  You can imagine the backlash.  My heart hurt just to consider it.  And your own flashbacks of instances when you were left wanting come back in a ferocity of needing the injustices to come to be righted immediately.  Because it’s clear that he’ll be bullied.  And you hope the young children chosen by the administrator, Mr. Tushman, will ease August’s way through.  And for me, well, I would hope that my child, if placed in that circumstance, would be one of them. 

My son Joe is 9 and a voracious reader.  We are kin in more ways than one.  So this summer before he started 4th grade, I started him on WonderBecause we talk often about the moments when you can choose what is right instead of what is easy.  And this book amplifies just those choices.  For Summer Dawson, a pretty and popular girl, it is negotiating that gap between childhood and girlhood with unease.  She simply refuses to go blindly into conformity.  She’s chosen to remain true to herself, which means sitting with a kid who’s different just because she likes him.  And still believing in unicorns, and escaping a popular kid Halloween
party because she’s confronted with abandoning Auggie as a friend, and as a reward, to have full entry into the popular clique of girls as well as a chance to be Auggie's tormentor, Julian Alban’s, girlfriend.  Her decision shocked me, because she asks to use the bathroom, calls her mom and quietly slips out into the night, watching the Halloween parade and noting, sadly, that among the “Skeletons. Pirates. Princesses. Vampires. Superheroes” there is not a single unicorn.  Her courage doesn’t seem to shake her; it’s a deep sense of knowing herself, knowing what she is ready for and not being moved a minute earlier than she needs to be. 

Miranda, Via’s former best friend opts into the in-crowd just as Via is standing on her own.  But what she finds there among the bright shining stars is vast space and emptiness.  No comfort.  No love.  So she winds her way back like an errant slack yo-yo to the Pullmans.  After severing your friendship, finding there a hopeful soft spot on which to land takes not a small part of grit and none of it graceful and yet, Miranda navigates between the two.

 For Via.  So long in the shadow of a sibling who needs so much.  A crusader and mouthpiece for her family.  But also a teenage girl.  She never had to make a choice, it was made for her.  And the daily amount of audacity needed to brave the world not of her choosing, where nothing is quite that easy and everything requires patience and compassion, that is something else altogether. 

 And Jack Will a popular, good-looking boy, it is a struggle to fit his new feelings of genuine friendship with August over his discomfort in aligning himself with the school “freak.”  He’ll put himself in direct opposition to Julian, the wealthy, popular child who runs a pretty tight crew.  And his innate understanding that in choosing August over Julian meant that he wasn’t going to be popular.  But he didn’t know that the “entire grade would be turned against” him for doing it.  As he says, “It just feels so weird to not have people talking to you, pretending you don’t even exist.” 




The cast is set against a progressive private school
where an English teacher, Mr. Browne introduces everyone to his precepts, which are “Rules about really important things.”  And more, his one for back-to-school, for September:  

 “When given the choice between being right or being kind.  Choose kind.” 

So that’s what we see.  The characters trying to navigate what it means to not be right and be kind and realizing that most often, they coincide.  Wonder strikes a deep blue soul chord because of this.  Because we, as readers, as people, as family, know this is all true.  I think it is amazing that Jack can take the ostracism.  More so that Summer marches to her own unicorn beat without thought of the perception of others.  That Miranda finds herself back into the fold that is unpopular but better for her soul.  That Via finds balance.  But I never thought truth would play out of the fiction.  And I never thought that my bright, beautiful, engaging and compassionate boy would be on the receiving end of unkind.  And I am broken for it.

It started innocuously enough, at one of the two events that make up a young child’s entire social component of school: lunch (recess being the other).  Table seating is assigned and Joe started hearing jokes and stories that he still refuses to repeat.  He wouldn’t join in the mocking of teachers, students and the curses that other children threw into the air like confetti.  He didn’t want to engage in it, so he remained silent, then when pushed, "I don't think that's right."  Condemning the action without hurting another.  And that was enough to get him blackballed, marked from the outset.

Before too long, even though he would go up to the ringleader, my own son’s “Julian,” and say, “hi,” he heard the boy say to others, “Did you hear anything?  I didn’t hear anything?”  Just like what happens to Jack Will, the campaign of slow freeze had begun. 

We’ve talked about this, constantly.  I want my children to be the ones to stand up for the lonely.  Befriend those who don’t have anyone.  Sit at the lunch table with the new kid. 

Stand on the side of what is “right” rather than “what is easy.”  Because I remember how much I would have longed for it as the teasing for me increased in elementary and then the horrors of middle school boys whose collective torment is still enough for a quick heart stop nightmare of remembrance.  I wish I’d had the courage to do it later, but suffering under my own cloud of difference I didn’t want anything else marking me as other, even if it meant standing with someone else who was.  But I suffered, and I wanted to be sure that my children wouldn’t instigate or participate in the othering, choosing instead to be better.  Take a higher road, consider the person rather than the cool.

So Joe, obedient and cognizant, did.  Just like Jack.  But it was a failure because I didn’t prepare him.  I didn’t prepare him, and didn’t consider, the loneliness that accompanies the right side.

And I am sorry for that.  So sorry Joe.  Because being right isn’t like the movies or in books.  It can be very, very, very lonely. 

It’s easier to go with the crowd.  To say that you don’t like someone, or say nothing at all while someone else spews venom at another.  It is the complicity in hatred that causes all the hurt.  And it hurts.  It hurts to know it and it hurts to do nothing about it.  And it hurts just as much to do the right thing for it.  It will require courage, tremendous courage to stand in the face of what you know will hurt you and say, “no.” 

It will require even more courage to try again after being told no in return.  That’s the more difficult, the narrow, the harder path.  It’s what you’ve been taught.  It’s what we believe.  Our family follows the instruction of a God whose son walked that same
road and walks it with you today.  Many stones in the path and a lot of maddening crowd all around.  And still it’s the path that I am asking you to choose.  Despite the pain I know you will face.  I see more of God’s sacrifice now.  Because being on the side of right means asking you to endure pain.  And that is not anything I would knowingly wish for you.

When your life is spent with a maximum height of 5’, your perspective necessarily shifts that way, and a school’s concrete walls can seem like insurmountable barriers erected for the sole purpose of loneliness.  Left alone in the lunchroom, ignored at his table, not invited to play at recess, Joe looked around to eliminate anything else that would mark him.  And he never told.  Not once.  Bright and quiet, he retreated to a shy spot.  His teacher hasn’t had long enough to get to know the Joe BEFORE.  He just is not equipped with the language of exclusion.  It’s a country that no one wants to be in.

So I told his homeroom teacher, and she has taken decisive and quick action.  Because she gets it.  And because she’s compassionate and kind and amazing and made sense of my stumbly words.  We made a plan.  She changed his lunch table in front of me.  She understood just what this is.  I asked his math and science teachers to allow him to sit with friends until the acute crisis had passed.  While their sluggish response, for whatever reason only known to them, has lagged longer than I would have liked, Joe has squared his small shoulders and told me that Friday was a “better day.”  We talked and talked and talked about anything but that this weekend allowing his personality to shake itself off on the shores of what is familiar. 

But this morning, I pulled out those cookies.  And I realized how deep and dark this place is for him.   How treacherous the terrain is for a child once
difference is realized and utilized against him.  How disappointed I am that children this young are using newly found and formed language to belittle and repel.  How saddened I am that parental neglect finds itself exactly in the formation of character because that’s how we are judged.  How lonely the isle of right is.  How much I wish other children at his table would land there too.

I could have told him to retreat.  Allowed him to stay in front of a computer or another flashing screen to lose himself in virtual reality.  But that’s not life; that is not reality.    Life is a gift meant to be lived.  Virtual simulation holds no candle to it.  And that’s what God wants for Joe.  And for all the kids in his class. 
"It's a beautiful evening when you can be
sitting on a stone step and
looking up into the night sky." --Joe, a very wise 9.
And living life means standing in the face of it: the brutality and the beauty of it.  It means engaging more with other children, no matter how scary, rather than less.  It means ripping off the shielding bandage so the sun and light and air can begin to heal the wound.  Those scars are going to fade over time.  It doesn’t matter that you know that I wish they had never been made.

The fact is that I cannot spare him what is to come.  I can meet, talk and plead for understanding.  But I cannot take away the children who choose to place my son on the outside of the circle.  He will see it again, and again and again.  This is the first of many moments where he will have to find words, and use them to rent his way and stay his ground and fight for his right to be there.  “Tell them,” I say, “tell them that you love cookies and it’s completely fine to bring them.”  He looks at me.  “Offer to bring them in one too.”  But Joe is cautious.  “I’ll try the first one,” he says uncertainly. 

At the end of Wonder, August is given an award for outstanding student. He finds himself called to the podium by the awesome Mr. Tushman who quotes the American social reformer and abolitionist, Henry Ward Beecher, “Greatness lies not in being strong but in the right using of strength….  He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.”  August deserves the
award because of his quiet strength has carried the most hearts.  But I don’t think it’s actually true and neither does August.  “To me, though, I’m just me.  An ordinary kid,” he says, “But hey, if they want to give me a medal for being me, that’s okay.  I’ll take it.”

Because I think the medal isn’t for August, the standing ovation seems to be for him but it isn’t.  It’s for all of them.  For Jack and for Summer.  For Via and Miranda.  For the kids who chose to be right when it isn’t easy.  An ovation for living your life despite what may be hard and going through with it anyway.  For having the confidence to push through the dark corridor and to the other side.  Quiet acts of bravery that are amplified in childhood and set a luminous stage for growth when the choices become more difficult and fraught with consequences unforeseen.
“Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once
 in their life because we all overcometh the world.”  --August Pullman

 The novel closes with the children’s precepts and the last one is Auggie’s, “Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their life because we all overcometh the world.”  Joe is still in Jack’s chapter when he was mean at Halloween, but I am hoping he makes it to this part soon.  When I got up last Friday after a knackering day of conferences and plans and worries and emails and an equally exhausting evening of reliving a greatest hits album of school rejection, I saw that my morning birds were still soundly sleeping.  I turned on the light and curled up next to Joe, tracing his nose, and kissing his cheek, singing his name off key.  “Time to get up.  Are you awake yet?”  He nods and smiles.  Hugs and even a laugh.  Lately, he’s clung to me in the morning.  Burying his head in my side of a fuzzy blue robe that’s certainly seen better days and breathing me in the same way I used to breathe my own mother.  Her very smell would calm me and that fragrance memory is barely there anymore; it’s a heavy loss.  So I understand it.  Some smells of love and security are strong and unique and unknown.  I am that for him.  Maybe a day will come when he will not need this.  But I am glad it is not today.

“Will you wake me up every day just like that Mommy?”

Yes, Joe I will.  Because you have to know, you just have to know in your marrow that every time I see you, hold you to me, hear you speak there is a resounding chorus.  I hear it over, and over and over again because you Joe, you, are my standing ovation.  You are my wonder. 



  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"Shaken by a Low Sound": A Marriage Power Ballad and Getting Brave

“Shaken by a Low Sound”: A Marriage Power Ballad and Getting Brave

© Dr. Michelle Johnson, BMWK

John was having a rough time of it.  Another head cold and when you live in perpetual summer in Florida that is no joke.  I resent it really, if I can be honest with you for a minute.  Because I rely on him to say hi and deal with the grumpies when he gets home.  I resent then that I have to do it all while he lies in bed.  But even if I huff and puff in my mind about it, I know it’s not fair.  And that a lot of folks have so much more in the way of challenge and grumpies.  Still, I have no tolerance for shenanigans at bedtime, and John usually does it.  Often invoking me as a threat, come to think of it. 

Anyway, we’d been performing this dog and pony show for awhile and most of the time, we get along just fine.  I’m even coming around to thinking he MIGHT actually be funny (please don't tell him I said so!).  But mostly, between the children and work and school and financial worry, we often just allow our marriage to lie untended.  And that’s when I hear it.

It’s a low, slow beat that usually makes me sit up and take notice.  A tinnitus of the mind that won’t stop, the itch at the just past point of your arm's reach on your back that you cannot get at.  That beat that suggests that vows are starting to shake.  It may seem to be overstating the case, but it isn’t.  Not really.  God gives us gut instincts for a reason.  Most of the time we push them away for fear, or disgust, tiredness or rage, but I think we need to listen to that low sound and begin to get brave about marriage.   I know I do.

I’ve been married for 14 years and with the guy I married for almost 18.  When I met him, I thought he was kind and smart and a horrifying dresser.  In fact, when we hit some dating bumps, I often wondered if all my hard work in getting him to realize stripes and plaid did NOT work well and not to always dress like a waiter (blue shirt, black pants), would end up benefiting another girl who would have nothing left to do but bask. 

God had other plans, however, and here we are, 3 kids and countless hours later.  There’ve been so many reports and stories about how we focus on the wedding and not the life after and how bad, bad, bad that is…but I know I did.  Did you?

I’m an only child.  My parents who had first wanted me to marry an Indian-Christian-boy-from-a-good-family nudged me more than once, then realized that the Indian-Christian-boy-from-a-good-family did not necessarily translate into good husband material and left me to figure it out on my own.  Then, they quickly began to despair that I wasn’t going to marry anyone, from any kind of family, ever.

I wanted to get married, but I’d had a bad time of it, and needed to figure out a lot about what I was about before I was in any kind of shape to figure out what I wanted.  Enter then John.  We met through friends and began a long distance relationship while I was in Cambridge and John, in Connecticut. 

When we finally did tie the proverbial knot, it was a sweltering day in June, and I was planned OUT.  It was a great party.  And then, we headed back to my apartment on Garden Street and I remember a slow burn panic begin to reach its way up from my stomach to my heart, “what do I do now?”
A warm day in June

I got lucky.  I really did, because the guy I married figured out that there was an “after” to the “happily ever” and reckoned with it even before he produced the ring.  Even though there were times I didn’t think so, John really has been pretty steady.  We both had some growing up to do, and so we bumped and moved, argued and were silent all around each other for those first few years of finding our feet and then planting them.

But it didn’t happen right away.  John had family obligations that he had never really understood how to break the tethers to, and wasn’t all that convinced he should.  I was just plain old lonely.  We both worked.   And then life threw us.  My mom got sick and passed away four months later.  I then got pregnant with our first child.  Then my Dad developed dementia, a business collapsed, we had children, we lost children


All the language that we needed to develop to deal with each other and create an understanding of our expectations lay wasted and wanting; not a complete collapse, but just an abandoned project.  (This particular folly would come to revisit us, as scary as any theme park ride when it would rear its ugly head.)  And it has, over the years; in the pain of crises, big things have evaporated to the essence of the small things that were the planks across that relationship bridge that we never finished building.  And fights, prayer, help and sometimes just plain old ignoring it were the strategies that either stalled or full out failed to make a dent of difference.  


But this is what I know.  As tough as it is, I wouldn’t want to undo it.  And I cannot imagine going through all of this with anyone else. In a world where so much is disposable, where mistakes can be quickly rectified and challenges walked away from, it means something to stand and say this means something.  You know, maybe the experts that Gwenyth Paltrow consulted before her own “conscious uncoupling” may be right, because, reasons the authors, there is no historical precedent for a commitment to last many years.  Earlier humans didn’t survive very long, seems to be the thesis, it is folly to assume that anything should last “for life” when life expectancy has exceeded past anything in prior generations.

 

But I don’t think so.  For example, we do have better dental care now than in the past, and typically when there’s a problem, the doctor will work to save the tooth, rather than yanking it out.  That’s cultural evolution at work too.



© Love and Life Toolbox

 

You are only one of two people who knows your story.  And so you need to captain that ship however works the best for you and your family.  But for me,
I’ve understood that there is a deep need to begin again, laying the boards, pushing in the screws, connecting work together, allowing patches to come before time slips away and sound becomes loud volume and then loud volume to quiet echo of emptiness. 

 

I wish that I had the husband that brought me “no reason” flowers or wrote to me or planned surprises, but I don’t—at least those boards have yet to be laid.   But I do have the one that always remembers to leave me a night glass of ice water, reminds me that I have a lot left to write and an eager audience to read it, who clips my Dad's distracted fingernails, and who is the first one to say, "It's going to be fine" while clearing away assorted papers and books from our bed and taking a pen out of my completely tired and unfocused hands--all without complaint.  So, before I allow that buzzing to get too high or too hard, I’ve learned to pay attention to it.



Look at the awesome we accomplished!
 When I hear it that discordant noise, I know now that I’ve got to mind it.  Before it becomes so loud and brash that it drowns out everything else and then all you think about is discord and wrong and never about harmony or right.  And this requires courage on my part, because I believe that I am always right.  Always.  That’s just the way it is.  And because of that fervent belief, it becomes difficult to listen to another storyteller’s rendition of the same.

Brave on some days of a low beat may mean putting away the shoes/clothes/books/papers/insert-annoying-thing-here that have been waiting for some kind of millennial strike to actually happen.  And then, here’s the peach: saying NOTHING about it.

Brave on another day may be just saying, “hey you’re even better looking now than when we got married.”  Even if I haven’t heard any such thing in return or first for more than a little while.

And then brave may be me getting to the heart of the trouble by just asking a simple question and focusing for an entire 5 minutes on the answer.  Even if nothing else is said, just waiting out the silence for the rest to come.   

And then there’s the brave that comes with 80s power ballads like those from Chicago.  Because after a whole evening full of feeding and bathing and snuggles and last drinks of water and irritation and threats, I hobbled off to bed myself instead of leaving John alone and me reading in the family room.  I'd heard the low sound, and decided that our marriage couldn't be alone and cold remedied.  And that’s what, looking through my phone, I decided to serenade John with that night.  And it wasn’t the Chicago classics that this “true rock-n-roll” guy likes (25 or 6 to 4, Saturday in the Park), no sir, it was full on “Hard Habit to Break,” “You’re the Inspiration,” and when the groans of “please stop, my ears are bleeding," to a final “Will You Still Love Me?”  



We both started laughing, and John, coughing, and I finally let him sleep while I wondered whatever happened to the Thompson Twins.  But the next morning, he asked me, “Hey, was it a Nyquil terror or were you singing bad Chicago to me last night?”  “Oh, no.  That was AWESOME Chicago, and you are so welcome!”  Pause.  “Ah.  Okay, that was fun.”  And the accompanying grin that went with it, seemed to send the sound right back below, down deep to rest until it could hear a fissure from above to crawl to.


Sometimes life is just about being brave and reaching out without thinking a lot.  Sometimes connections are strung and held with fine silver thin filament.  Sometimes those are the strongest to hold and the most difficult to disengage.  Sometimes repairs need to be made under the exhaustingly relentless eye of a microscope where you are standing, in clunky shoes staring down for hours with careful hands, ready to cauterize whatever is hopelessly broken.  And sometimes that has a soundtrack; and that soundtrack is a Diane Warren compiled, David Foster produced, 80s MTV permed mullet power ballad.  For today that worked.  Tomorrow it may be another song entirely.



© Joyce Shor Johnson



What about you friend?  Are you shaken by a low sound?  What are you going to do today to get brave?


*Images above may be subject to copyright.  Original artists' names could not be found for attribution.
**"Shaken bya Low Sound" is the amazing title track off of Crooked Still's album.    

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

“The Worst Beginning-of-School Mom Ever,” My Answer to What Do I Do Now?

“The Worst Beginning-of-School Mom Ever,” My Answer to What Do I Do Now?


“What kind of fun are we having today?”

“When are we going?”

“Can I have a snack?”

“What is molecular kinesis?”

“How long is it gonna take?”

“Can I have a snack?”

“Why do fish go belly-up when they die?”

“I need a tissue.”

“Can I have a snack?”

And then suddenly…poof!  They are gone.  At school and away from me.  There are all of these pictures of back-to-school and they all have moms (primarily) yelling, cheering or literally jumping for joy. 
Back to  School
And I get it, I do.  Because after literally 10,000 times of these statements, you may wish that your dearest and darlingest children would be somewhere else, even for five solitary, delicious minutes. 

But that’s not me.

My boys, with the exception of a few mornings, were with me all 71 days of the summer break.  I have the pictures to prove it!  And we went all over the place.  To museums and parks to pools and movies.  And usually, after an outing they resorted back to being relentlessly bored.  So we played board games, and we read.  Probably not as much as we should have but we did.  We just were and I cast a melancholic look toward Fall.

Their school supplies, which I ordered through a company, lay in its substantial box in a corner, untouched and unopened.  I didn’t want to know.  I didn’t want to sort.  I didn’t want to have anything at all to do with it.  Because once that launch sequence of sorting and separating and backpacks began, then it signaled school…like it or not.

You know what?  I miss them terribly.  I used to send the kids to camp.  And when they were so small and so ferociously needing of attention to minor things, it was a wonderful option, a heaven sent opportunity to have them safely guided by a capable adult and entertained for some hours so I could battle an infant.  But now, now that they can feed themselves (sort of), wipe themselves (hopefully) and do not need the minutiae of care they required when they were so very small, they’re more than a little all right.

So when we would go out the last few days of break
Back to School shopping
and they’d act like their squirrely whirly selves, I’d get more than one sympathetic glance and a conspirator-like, “Boy, three boys huh?  You’re brave.  You must be so glad school is starting.”  I would smile most of the time because Jake would most likely be in a headlock and I was actually worried that we’d need to take a third trip for stitches that form his very very short life on this earth.  But the last few times, I looked the conspirator in the eye and said, “Nope.  I’m not happy in the least.  I’ll miss them terribly.  They are the highlight of my summer.”  And another, “They are the best handful of anything I’ve ever had in my life.”  And another, “I’ve had more cool and weird conversations than any I’ve been a part of.”

I never, ever signed up for this.  Staying at home, filling out endless forms when occupation is listed not being able to put down “teacher/lecturer/assistant professor” something I trained a long, long time for and went through countless graduate seminars, and wrote a really long book to achieve.  I have watched my colleagues all go on and get tenured positions throughout the country and a lot of them have found ways to balance having a family with the work they find valuable and rewarding.  But circumstances placed me here and life shifted as it often does.  I had to rework who I was.  I had to find new friends.  My world became necessarily smaller. 

“You can finally write now,” my earnest husband
told me, but between the infant that wouldn’t sleep and my sadness about my mother, I couldn’t come
up with much of anything.  Then, he grew and we had another and more life spilled out and around and we had a third and the things that I thought I would do or be about seemed to take a necessary step back from changing and feeding and caring and showing and aching and talking and running and looking always downward at wee feet and faces and soothing hurts real and perceived.  Who I thought I’d grow up to be seemed to be staring conversely at me through a telescope of unknown.

My writing, my hope for writing, took a long and dusty back seat to the life that was happening rightthisinstant.  Because that’s what my children needed.  Not the “wait just a second while I finish this,” because if I did, paint was all over the carpet in defiant rebellion or something else.  Engagement requires presence.  And back then, television provided no (happy) substitute for my time.  When they started school, I was hard pressed to find filler.  

I had gone 100mph for so long, reading into the small hours, grading papers, talking with students, and you have no idea what a joy-killer is a faculty meeting.  So I volunteered, with the encouragement of my friends who thought I needed to keep busy.  And I brought all my skills with me.  I volunteered at the boys’ preschool and I made wonderful friends, some of the best people I’ve known, and I worked long and hard and difficult hours for no pay because I was trained in my work-brain to do that.  I dealt with an unreasonable and angry and ungrateful Director of the school, again who had no sense that I was a volunteer while she was being paid.  I did this for 3 years. 

Yep, not me.
© Warner Brothers
And then we moved, and I still had my youngest child, an ill father and now a new predicament: an abject allergy to all things “volunteer.”  I needed a torrential amount of recovery from that experience, despite the good I’d done and the friends I’d made.  And it truly wasn’t the volunteering in and of itself, because I enjoyed learning more about the boys’ school and I think teachers require all the support they don’t often have (and that’s a whole other story.  You know it all already; I know you do.  That they do back/bank breaking work for our kids and contrary to what common impressions might be, there are no summers off, they are always working for our children). 

The point of the blotchy hives my mind made when suggestions of the “V” word came up were self-inflicted.  I worked hard, but only the way in which I knew how to work.  And that brings up the other piece of this back to school business: the echoing negative space that surrounded me once my youngest started Kindergarten this Fall. 

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I have now 6 hours during a normal school day, give or take, in which to “do something else.”  I began to wonder if, in fact, my identity had been so absorbed in anticipating the needs of my children that that’s “all” that I was, or if that is what I’ve chosen to believe.

Here’s what I think: yes, your perspective necessarily shifts when you decide to stay at home and it has to, there is a very immediate and necessary being that needs to be kept alive and whose sole existence is dependent upon you.  But here is something else, as much as it seems that we uphold motherhood as a “very tough job” we simultaneously belittle it.  (i.e. So you “just stay at home?”)  I don’t have to convince you about how difficult it is, chances are you have lived it or are living it now.  But this worrisome, nagging fear that you need to be doing more, or that you aren’t doing enough.  It isn’t coming from you—it’s coming from the schizophrenic world that cannot decide a woman’s worth

The women who I’ve met since I’ve been at home with my kids are among the most fascinating people I’ve ever met.  They’ve come from all fields and areas of the world.  Their lived experiences are vastly different from my own and chances are I wouldn’t have met them any other way—my working life almost made sure of it.  (It was difficult to engage with anyone else, for me, who wasn’t also an academic.)  These women worked in fields that boggled the brain and they had extraordinary, prodigious output and ethic.  These are women who can, and probably should, run the world.  Instead they’ve turned the entirety of their immeasurable focus inward towards their homes and, specifically, their children taking that time and talent, thirst for knowledge, ceaseless energy and hunger for good and put it toward small people who would benefit from it…and still are.

Because there is no negative space.  That’s all just playing with us, that “who am I now?” stuff?  That’s not you; it’s the wide world that cannot understand the importance of supporting women.  Despite the hugely successful work of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn casting urgent light on the needs of improving and empowering women across the world, in the West there still seems to still be this division in how we value women and their role in the marketplace and the home. 

Consider, this mother who has stayed home for 5 to 6 years full time until her child was at a point that they could go to school.  She still wants and needs to be there for her children when they get home, and studies have shown that the hours of 3-6pm are typically when unsupervised children get into trouble.  She needs to find a job that will allow her to see those children off safely and be there when they get home, because the economy is still in free fall and she could use the money or maybe she just wants to flex some muscles that haven’t had that particular exercise in awhile.

Imagine, if you will, if this crazy world decided to tap into this amazing mind market and hire these women from 10-1, these former passionate and brilliant go-getters in their chosen fields, imagine how their cost overhead would be lowered and how productive they would be.

Imagine if they tapped into the 
world’s best investment: mothers.

They could begin again to bring that extraordinary strength that they’ve devoted to making their children into competent and kind citizens back out to your company.  And let me tell you, they’ve perfected it.  And I don’t know about you, but I’ll take 100 great citizens over a 1000 anybody elses any day.

But until that happens, until they get it, I understand that it is a struggle.  But it doesn’t have to be.  Please know that, I’m the girlfriend telling you this, please, please, please, give yourself a break.  You have not wasted your training or your time, your degree or your life.  It all prepared you for this ride, for this moment when you put your child on that bus or in that classroom and they looked at you with confidence and joy letting you know that they had this.

You are being promoted.  That’s what this is.  It’s not a matter of “what am I” but “what can’t I do?”  you’ve just prepared a person who came into the world utterly vulnerable into a confident child who is
prepared to absorb and be a vital part of community.  It’s a promotion to look at what’s next, because you still have that job too, and from what I hear, that job of keeping the joy and confidence in check grows in challenge.  But because you are so capable of doing that job that God has equipped you for mama, you!; you can now turn your eye inward towards something that is not sacrificial, but something you want to do.  And I’m going to cheer you on. 

I could look back and wonder at what could have been, but in doing so I will never really able to keep my gaze clearly forward.  I can get an administrative job and have my check go toward gas, parking, fees and childcare for those critical hours (because that is what it would happen in my family).  But what I’ve
©Jamie Lee Hergott
chosen to do is double down on my ability to write and my dream of finishing a book.  A story I’ve nurtured and researched for years that I can finally begin to write now. (And also why I haven’t been as consistent in posting as I’ve been in the past.  Know that you’ve helped me start this heart’s desire.  It’s so exciting.)

I know you’ll have my back, because that’s what women do.  The world needs to catch on.

While this promotion to full-time writer is a great one, I am still necessarily invested in my primary all-day job of mom.  Because these children that I didn’t think would survive me and my own whackadoodleness?  They are the most inspiring, supportive people I know.  Their dreaming gives my writing a voice.  It’s interchangeable.  There was a time I breathed for them, now they do it for me.  However you begin the step of reclamation in addition to who you are now, however you wish to begin a new narrative of self, do so with great excitement and courage because you’ve done every single thing you have tackled well, and you deserve this.  And so do the small people watching you.

They are going to school.  Under the talented and thorough eyes of adults that are not me, they will learn not only subjects but life skills of communication and interaction and citizenship that I could not undertake alone.  But…I will not be jumping for joy.  I will not be coolly relieved.  I will go back into my all too quiet house, make a cup of tea and sit down at the computer all the while looking at the time in the corner.  And I will wait for my house to be filled with life and yelling and laughter and joy, because that’s exactly what I signed up for, and lucky for me—the ride is turning out to be better than I ever thought it would.

Congratulations Mommy, here’s to the next unbelievable chapter in your continuing story.  I can’t wait to watch it unfold.