Grumpitude & Grace

We’ve entered the season of snark with Jane. And, dear God, it is wearing me down.

The morning light hadn’t quite made its way into my daughter’s room yet. Instead, her green bug nightlight cast a soft glow across her pink fuzzy rug. I stepped carefully, to avoid being impaled by a stray Lego or a doll earring that had escaped her tidying up efforts. I crept closer to her loft and whispered up to her. “Jane.” Only soft snores in reply. She lay hidden somewhere underneath her unicorn dream tent and her fluffy comforter. “Jane!” I stage whispered, gently touching what was likely her foot. Could have been a stuffed bunny, though. These things become difficult to decipher from 2 feet below the edge of her bed.

Finally, she stirred. A little groan escaped from underneath the covers. “Good morning,” I chirped, and immediately regretted my overt chiperness. Nobody needs to be bowled down by cheer on a Monday morning before they’ve even opened their eyes. I toned it down and tried again. “Morning, bear. It’s 6:30. Want to get up and make your lunch?”

My uncannily self-sufficient seven year old makes her own lunch every day. I’ve ceased being amazed by this (although I didn’t make my own lunch until high school). It’s just who she is. She enjoys independence. And she’s proven herself responsible enough that I don’t need to hover over her. Sure, occasionally she’s headed off to school without a fruit or a vegetable gracing her lunchbox. But that’s not the norm. Typically, she at least attempts nutritional balance. Her hatred of the cafeteria’s food fuels her motivation. But, if she doesn’t get up early enough to make lunch, well it’s cafeteria mystery food for her.

When I didn’t hear a response from the top of the loft, I started backing slowly out of her room. Typically, Jane pops out of bed. She loves mornings. She’s one of those kids that wakes up at 6 a.m. even on the weekend. But not the past week or so. Twice last week, she ran into school just as the tardy bell rang. Being late makes her grumpy. In this way, and so many others if I’m honest, she’s just like me. This child is incapable of being rushed. Truly, the faster I try to coax her to move, the more I swear time begins to move backward. It was an effort to avoid this unpleasantness that drove me into her room at 6:30 in the morning in the first place. But when she didn’t exclaim, “Mommy! Good morning!” first thing, I knew my morning was about to go really wrong.

I made it back out to the dining room table, sat down with my book, and was sipping coffee before Captain Gloom appeared in the doorway. My face almost melted off from the heat of her scowl.

“Hey, buddy. What’s up?”

More scowling. “WHY did someone turn off my white noise?”

I looked at my kid, hair looking like something might still be nesting in it, eyes narrowed to slits in a combination of sleepiness and grumpiness, and I knew I needed to tread lightly. In my most neutral, yet comforting voice—well, the best one I could muster before I’d even finished my first cup of coffee—I tried reason, “I don’t think anyone turned it off love, I think…”

Apparently, thinking was a big mistake. Because my thinking made her stomp past me and into the kitchen. Now it was my turn to practice some deep breathing. I looked down at my book, willing myself to concentrate. But all the yelling that I wanted to do about her bad attitude was bouncing around in my head, crowding out the words on the page.

We’ve entered the season of snark with Jane. And, dear God, it is wearing me down.

Jane usually feels things intensely and lets them go. She can be happy, sad, then happy again in the time it takes me to finish a latte. But lately she’s been broodier. She rolls her eyes so hard that I feel sure they’re going to get stuck somewhere up in her head. She stomps off. And she holds on to these moods for a while, picking at her feelings, crying about things that are over and done—or at least they would’ve been over and done a few weeks ago. But now, we brood.

As I tried to maintain my composure in the dining room, I heard muffled sobs coming from the kitchen. I walked over, accompanied by the dog who looked confused, too. “Buddy, what is wrong?” Through tears, she shared her exquisite agony over awaking to the absence of white noise.

Seriously?

Look, I try to be understanding. And I’m sure that her tears were not actually about white noise. Maybe she felt disrespected because she thought we’d touched her things. Maybe she felt out-of-control because her morning didn’t start precisely the way she thought it would. Kids are super-complex little beings. I totally get that. But I get that a lot more once I’ve had enough caffeine to function.

“Jane, you’re going to have to let go of the white noise thing. Okay?”

“Can I have a hug?” she responded, her voice small and muffled through tears and all that hair that was still a wild mess atop her head.

I pulled her into a hug. I felt her relax a little. “Can you come in here with me while I make my lunch?” she asked.

I felt my heart catch a little. “No,” I said, quietly. “I got up early to take care of some things. I’m going to do those things now.”

Even as I was claiming my right to my own personhood, to be able to control the outcome of my morning even in the face of her meltdown, I felt guilty. Maybe I should drop everything to be there for whatever it was she was struggling through. But that isn’t really love. That’s servitude. There are times my world stops for her. But part of my job as her mother is to teach her what she can reasonably expect from people she loves. She can expect grace. We’ve been known to completely call a do-over on our morning and start again from scratch. She can expect understanding. Everyone has a bad day. Everyone gets grumpy. But she can’t expect people she loves to be her emotional punching bag. Being Jane’s mom uniquely qualifies me to be her safe space. But for that to work, like any relationship, we have to have boundaries. By not rearranging my morning for her grumpitude, I set my boundaries. Clearly.

And the world did not end. She dried her tears. She made her lunch, just like always. She even found time to snuggle with the dog (in the dog’s crate—but that’s another story for another day). By the time we left to walk to school, Jane was talking and laughing, anticipating her day ahead.

Parenting is about love, boundaries, messy hair, and redeemed mornings. And about a helluva lot of grace.

 

 

Chester and Mr. Pips

Chester grabbed Mr. Pips and headed toward the front door. He’d had just enough of Mommy’s sighing and the baby’s squawking. He wanted things to be like they used to be. He wanted someone to be interested in his stories again. His wonderful, magical stories full of fierce and beautiful creatures and brilliantly brave heroes (who, admittedly, always looked and acted a bit like Chester himself). Now Chester sighed. This new baby had ruined everything. Mr. Pips gazed at Chester sympathetically, and he gave the old, battered stuff bunny a squeeze. 

Chester grabbed Mr. Pips and headed toward the front door. He’d had just enough of Mommy’s sighing and the baby’s squawking. He wanted things to be like they used to be. He wanted someone to be interested in his stories again. His wonderful, magical stories full of fierce and beautiful creatures and brilliantly brave heroes (who, admittedly, always looked and acted a bit like Chester himself). Now Chester sighed. This new baby had ruined everything. Mr. Pips gazed at Chester sympathetically, and he gave the old, battered stuffed bunny a squeeze.

“Never you mind, Mr. Pips!” Chester said, forcing a bit of cheer into his voice. “We’ll go out and make our own great adventure.”

Chester drug Mr. Pips through the mud that spread out gooily beyond the front mat. Mr. Pips was always such a sport about getting dirty. Chester pushed his glasses up on his nose (they were always sliding down. Such a bother) and looked around for the most perfect place for imagination and magic. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be such a place in his front yard. Chester and Mr. Pips did, however, finally settle on place that lay between the shrubbery and the house. It was familiar and shady. Besides, Chester almost always closed his eyes when he was creating an epic adventure. It helped him see into his imagination better, like a telescope into his mind.

Chester lay down on the damp ground and propped Mr. Pips up on his chest. “Now, Mr. Pips,” he began, “did I ever tell you about the time I rode a Sparkle-Horned-Rainbow-Spotted-Cinder-Dragon through a storm of stars? That was an epic adventure, for sure…”

Fire

Wind swept wildly against the windows, rattling the panes, sending embers shooting through the air–miniature meteors bright and angry.

 

Wind swept wildly against the windows, rattling the panes, sending embers shooting through the air–miniature meteors bright and angry. The low, smoky haze cast a gray pall. But even the blanket of smoke couldn’t obscure the mountains, blazing red against the darkening sky. I stood transfixed, watching fire devour the mountain I’d hiked… what was that? A week ago? Shaking off the fire’s spell, I grabbed my notebook and my laptop. My Irish Setter tugged at my shirt, whining. I flung the door open. Smoke rolled in, heavy and acrid. I darted toward the truck, praying it would start.

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

Raising a Kid Who Sees (and Celebrates) Color

Our daughter’s start in the world was less than traditional–conceived with donor sperm and born to lesbian parents. Then, when Jane was 4, her Bobby (Jane’s non-biological parent), transitioned from female to male. Que the crash course in gender, acceptance, and celebrating who we are—even if who we are makes us a little different. 

 

Our daughter’s start in the world was less than traditional–conceived with donor sperm and born to lesbian parents. Then, when Jane was 4, her Bobby (Jane’s non-biological parent), transitioned from female to male. Que the crash course in genderacceptance, and celebrating who we are—even if who we are makes us a little different.

Teaching Jane about diversity hasn’t been without challenges. Take, for instance, the day we were walking through our neighborhood, admiring the pride flags fluttering in the breeze. “Do we know anyone that’s gay?” she asked earnestly. Um…

So, we started back at square one about what being gay means, what being trans means, and what it means to identify as queer. Just a typical, everyday conversation with the 7 year old. As laborious as it can be to explain concepts like gender and sexual orientation to a very curious and analytical kid, I’m grateful that she asks questions (and asks, and asks, and asks…) until I offer up a nugget of truth that resonates with her. I want to help her understand and connect with the world whenever I can. Even if that means I’m stuck in a never-ending round of 21 Questions.

Moving into a Broader World-View

The open, frank way that we dealt with her Bobby’s transition has bled into the way our family discusses almost everything. No question is off limits. Which is good, because our move from suburban Tampa, Florida, to intown Atlanta during Jane’s fifth year of life led to A LOT of questions.

Moving from the suburbs to a markedly more urban area looks and feels different. We no longer have to take the car everywhere. Transit is an option. So is walking (which I do a lot more of than Jane would prefer). We can see the Atlanta skyline from our neighborhood. And, perhaps most notably, we left an almost entirely white suburb and moved to Atlanta, which has a rich Civil Rights history and a vibrant black population.

We live in Southeast Atlanta; it’s not uncommon for us to walk into a restaurant and be one of only a handful of white people. This is different—for us and for her. And we never hesitated to say so.

We also identified that feeling of “differentness” as something black people experience more often, as they navigate predominantly white spaces that insist on assimilation. I mean, that was the idea, but the actual wording was more like: “How would you feel if people looked at you funny because you looked different than they do?”

Her empathy radar went off. “Bad,” she said, looking puzzled and a bit put out.

“And what if they felt that way just because you had brown skin?”

Now she was mad: “That’s stupid,” she sputtered.

I saved the lecture about calling things stupid for another day. Because racism is stupid. Sometimes you just have to call it like you see it.

Living Life in Vivid Colorand Picking Your Battles

My generation often likes to claim “colorblindness.” But studies show that kids notice racial differences early on. They also quickly identify things we refuse to talk about or name as “bad.” When we wanted to avoid negative, shameful feelings around her Bobby’s transition, we gave Jane the language to discuss it. When we enrolled Jane in our local public school, which is both racially and economically diverse, we took a similar approach. We wanted her to celebrate the diversity of her school, not ignore it. So we never shied away from her copious observations about, well, everything.

For example, Jane’s always been quick to notice and admire different hairstyles, especially if they include braids, bright hair bows or beads that clickity-clack. She noticed and started talking about other kids’ hair long before she seemed to notice their skin color. In Kindergarten, she asked me to buy hair ties to go in the top and bottom of her two braids, like her black friends. While we picked out new hair ties with brightly colored, interlocking balls, she chattered on about who has super-cool braids and pretty beads.

Next came the most obvious request ever: she wanted braids like her friends at school. I felt panicked for a minute—because cultural appropriation. But I circumvented that whole conversation by reminding her that she becomes a teary mess in the time it takes me to pull her hair back into ONE ponytail. Which, incidentally, takes no longer than 120 seconds. Cool braids take intense fortitude and patience, I informed her. One day, she and I will talk about cultural appropriation and the problem with being white and “borrowing” bits of black culture while systemic racism and white supremacy run rampant. But, right now, she’s 7. Cultural appropriation is a bit nuanced. Instead, we celebrate the joyous noise hair beads make when they clickity-clack together—and how amazingly cool it is to enjoy that at school every day.

Confronting Racism Wherever It Crops Up

Raising a kid to think critically sometimes means even the easy things aren’t so easy anymore. Take, for example, reading Little House on the Prairie. I figured Jane and I would read the books together, then watch the television show –a nostalgic passing on of tradition between mother and daughter.

But these things so rarely go as planned.

Seems I’d forgotten a little bit of the story. Like when Laura and her family move to “Indian country.” When I ran across the reference to Indian country, I stopped, reminded Jane that while people used to refer to Native Americans as Indians, we know better and do better now. Because Jane’s a curious kid, I anticipated she’d have more questions.

She did not disappoint: “Why did they go into the country if it was Indian Country?”

Ah, yes. The perfect late afternoon conversation: manifest destiny. But, because we’d already talked about judging people on the color of their skin—and about some white people thinking they are better simply because they are white—it was relatively easy to explain that, white people thought they deserved the land the Indians were on.

“But why?”

I won’t lie—I wondered whether it wouldn’t just be easier to dismiss the book as racist and move on. But if I did that, wouldn’t that be teaching her to just ignore racism instead of confronting it?

I kept reading Jane Little House on the Prairie because I don’t want her to think that when she encounters ideas that run counter to her own, she should dismiss them without critical thought. Turns out, scholars support the need for critical inquiry (even in kids’ lit): “…racism exists in the world. Children are going to encounter it, and a safer way to learn how to encounter it is via fiction. If you’re reading a racist children’s book with a child, you can help them read it critically, you can help them learn that it’s okay to be angry at a book.”

Topics like white supremacy and manifest destiny are big topics. But the principles that underlie them are accessible to kids. They see injustice unfold around them. But they often don’t have the words to give voice to what they see. Talking about racism and injustice is hard work. But it’s work worth doing.

 

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Coraline (the Scientist)

Coraline pressed her hand gently against the rough, wooden door. It looked weathered, like it had absorbed all the brightness of Spring and the darkness of Winter. The wood settled into a deep gray, still splintered in places. Coraline wondered briefly if some sandpaper might restore it to a brighter hue.

The door creaked slowly open to reveal a single room. The wood inside reminded Coraline of wildflower honey. The air felt soft and cool. Damp, maybe. But, if she left the door open, the luminous buzzing of Spring would make its way in eventually. No clouds of dust arose as Coraline slowly walked the length of the room. The dirt remained packed tight, determined to serve its designated purpose. A rug would do nicely in the middle of the room, Coraline thought. She’d need a place to sit and read or to spread out and play solitaire. A rug was just the thing.

On one wall, a low set of shelves provided a space for storage and a countertop of sorts. The perfect space for her books and her makeshift science lab. She would still take dinner with her parents, she supposed. Coraline would be perfectly happy with a steady diet of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, with an apple on the side. Her mother, however, insisted on a wide variety of foods—Pad Thai, grilled eggplant, Tuscan Pizza, tofu and bean burritos. And a salad. Her mother insisted on a salad at every meal.

Coraline felt a tiny tug at her heart when she thought of her mother. Her mother smelled of sandalwood and citrus. She always looked freshly scrubbed, freckles beaming radiantly on her face. Coraline shook her head almost imperceptibly. She loved her mother. Adored her, really. But they had irreconcilable differences that prohibited them from sharing living quarters. And that was that.

Coraline continued to survey the room. She would need a cot to sleep on, and perhaps a bean bag chair to read in. She also vowed to get a few new toys for Cricket. The cat seemed concerned about Coraline taking leave of her parents’ house. She constantly paced back and forth in Coraline’s (current) room, meowing incessantly. Coraline, for her part, packed boxes of her belongings rather nonchalantly. She felt an inkling of surprise that her parents did not seem frantic over her planned departure but rather a bit bemused. Her father offered his camping sleeping bag to keep her warm, as evenings in Spring were known for their briskness. Coraline graciously accepted. And that seemed to mostly settle things between them.

Coraline surveyed the little room once more. It didn’t seem like much right now. But once Haniford, her beloved pink stuffed bunny, took up residence, Corline was sure this would feel much more like home. And no one would ever again be vexed about science experiments gone awry. No, everyone in this residence would be a friend of science—even when science exploded and flung mossy-green residue all about the room.

Photo Credit: Veronika Homchis on Unsplash

My Kid’s Complicated Relationship with Black Panther

We took Jane to see Black Panther on Sunday. (Trust me…This is just another in a string of questionable parenting choices.) In our house, we are all about REPRESENTATION and EMPOWERMENT (and, yeah, I get excited enough when I talk about these things to warrant all caps). I wanted her to see a black superhero on the big screen–because it’s epic and groundbreaking (although it shouldn’t be. This is 2018, after all). Jane left her viewing of Wonder Woman feeling empowered and proud (see what I told you about questionable parenting choices… she was 6 when she saw Wonder Woman). I know that, for a lot of black folks, Black Panther is more significant than that. It’s a celebration of black culture, black talent, and, well, blackness…

Truth be told, I wanted to give her a narrative that competes the with story she already knows–slavery, systemic racism, oppression. She gets the gift of being witness to black joy often–at school, at church, around Atlanta–but Black Panther is a story (mostly) devoid of white people. It’s black utopia. Very few colonizers, you see. So, yeah, I totally wanted my kid to see Wakanda.

Here’s where the questionable parenting comes in: I took my 7 year old to see Black Panther without knowing a damn thing about it. I was all starry eyed about Wakanda. Know what Jane was? Terrified of the guns.

Because, in our house, we are just as anti-gun as we are anti-racism. And, in Black Panther, lots of people get shot. With guns. Damn.

Truth? She was real, real scared. Harder truth? She had nightmares.

BUT…

This morning on the way to school, Jane said, “Remember how funny it was when the girl in Black Panther said, “‘Great! Another broken white boy for us to fix!’” YES! I totally remember! And then we got to talking. Talking how, because the history she gets in school was mostly written by white people, black contributions to science, medicine, and technology are downplayed. I started chattering on about Katherine Johnson’s contributions to NASA –and how most folks didn’t even know she was part of the team until Hidden Figures came out–and Jane lit up. She’d heard about that! In school! Hooray for teachers dedicated to Black History all school year–not just in February.

Representation DOES matter. A lot. When I asked Jane what her favorite part of Black Panther was, you know what she said? The science. Know who was in charge of the science? Shuri. The princess of Wakanda. A teenager with kick-ass braids and a wit that won’t quit. Shuri is the one sent to California to liberate the people–not with guns, but with science and knowledge. That’s a message worth hearing.

Black Panther didn’t mean to my kid what it means to lots of black kids in America. But it was an opportunity for her to see black brilliance at work. And I’m not sorry about that. Black Panther also powerfully drove home a message that I hold close to my heart: only light can cast out darkness. The answer to guns, violence, and oppression isn’t more guns. It’s more knowledge, more opportunity, more goodness. It’s leadership and activism and love.

That’s a message I firmly support.

Pocket Sized

“Ooff,” I muttered, rubbing my head. I batted away the pink fluff that hung over my face and called for Yelpi. Where was she anyway? “Yelp….” I trailed off mid-yell. I had found Yelpi alright. Except something was up. Either Yelpi was really, really big… or I was really, really small. Either way, our experiment seemed to have gone exponentially wrong.

Maybe I should give you some background, to keep you from being completely lost. Yelpi is my best friend. I met her in second grade. She had braces on her legs to help her walk, and she wore glasses. My family has a rule about being kind to other people—especially people who might be left out or lonely—and this girl looked like she was going to need a friend. So, I introduced myself, “I’m Persephone. But you can call me Persi. Everyone does.”

I don’t know if I expected her to be shy or what. But I definitely didn’t expect her to laugh. At my NAME. I mean, your name’s your mark in the world, you know? I was going to be mad. But there was something amazing about her laugh that made me feel… good. Peaceful. “Persi,” she said, still giggling. “Well, my name’s Yolanda. But, maybe you should call me Yelpi or something.”

If Yelpi had been anyone else, I would have lectured her on how my name marked me as something special. Persephone was the daughter of two Greek gods, after all. And she was the bringer of Spring—new life, rebirth… The way I figured it, my name made me kind of a big deal. But right away I knew two things about Yelpi: 1) she already knew this stuff about the Greek gods without me telling her, and 2) she was going to treat me like I was sort of a big deal no matter what my name was. That’s just the kind of person she is.

Turns out I was right. Yelpi was the smartest kid I’d ever met. She was always reading something. She loved stories about far off places. And she read book after book about science—lightning, grasshoppers, chemistry. Yelpi was unapologetically a nerd. Even in the second grade. And she was also the most amazing person ever. I totally didn’t need to feel sorry for her. The braces on her legs slowed her down a little. And she kind of bounced when she walked. But it didn’t matter. She’d take on any challenge, even if it took her ten times more effort than most of the kids. Like the time we had to run a mile in PE. Coach was gonna give Yelpi a pass on that. But she insisted that she could do it. It took her the whole PE class—45 minutes!—to go the whole mile. But she never gave up. Kids respect that kind of stuff. So, one by one, as kids finished running their mile, they went back to walk with Yelpi. Coach acted like it was a big deal that we all “supported Yelpi”—whatever that means. We were just being her friend. Adults can get so weird about stuff.

Anyway, basically from the day we met, Yelpi & I have been inseparable. My mom says we’re attached at the hip. That’s silly. I mean, how could we even get around to play aliens bodysnatchers or to look for fairies in the backyard if we were attached at the hip? See? Adults = weird. But, if we actually were attached at the hip, we’d probably get in a lot less trouble. And for sure I wouldn’t be three inches tall right now.

Oh, man… I got ahead of myself again. Okay, okay. Remember how I said Yelpi is a total science nerd? Well, she got me into science, too. And our favorite thing to do on a Saturday is to look up experiments and preform them in my room. Usually, we just go to a few science websites for kids and find experiments there. But today Yelpi showed up at my house with a dusty old book that she’d found in a big steamer trunk in her attic. Bet you want to know how she even got up into the attic with those braces on her legs? I knew you were paying attention. She got them off a few months ago. Over the summer. She still bounces when she walks, but she’s gotten a lot faster. And, honestly, I spend so much time with Yelpi that I bounce when I walk, too. It’s kind of just a habit. But it is more fun to walk like that. You should try it.

So, Yelpi has this strange, big book that she’s all excited over. It’s got old, loopy script handwriting in it instead of printed words. It looks like someone spent a lot of time putting together all kinds of potions—potions for love, for curing illnesses, for getting rich. Now, Yelpi and I are in fourth grade. I don’t give a fig about love, at least not the kind of love that makes Aiden Smith always try to kiss me on the playground. And Yelpi and I are real lucky that we don’t know anyone that’s sick. So, we figured we’d try to get rich. Seemed like a reasonable way to spend our Saturday afternoon.

We gathered all kinds of stuff for the potion. Some of the stuff we had to kind of guess on—neither of us could exactly get our hands on an eye of newt or on a fragment of turtle shell stewed in sage. Maybe it was our improvising that was the problem. Because by late Saturday afternoon, we were no richer. But I certainly was smaller. 45 inches smaller, to be exact.