Monday, October 5, 2015

"I would hate to have to take the loss beads."

Yesterday my girls and I volunteered at the Out of the Darkness walk in Leesburg, VA. It was cold and windy and overcast and blah out, but wouldn't have stayed home even if it had been pouring. The reason we were there was too important. It is too important. It is the reason we are going to another walk next weekend. We must do everything we can to try to help the fight against suicide.

Being a part of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is a huge mix of emotions for me. On the one hand, it makes me feel powerful. I am actually doing something about a problem instead of just sitting on my couch feeling bad about it. On the other, it drags up a lot of emotions, especially when I listen to the stories of people who have lost someone to suicide.

When I was a little girl, I battled depression. Bad depression. I was suicidal by the time I was in fourth grade (nine years old). I was hospitalized because of my suicidal ideations in fifth grade and again my sophomore year of high school. It was a very long, very hard battle to come out of that darkness and become the person I am today. There were times I took one step forward, two steps back, but there were also times I took two steps forward and only one step back. Eventually, with a lot of help and support, I learned life skills to keep my head above water. I learned how to recognize when I was slipping back into depression and what I could do to stop that slide. I eventually was able to manage my life without the assistance of antidepressants (one common concern I hear is that people think they have to take them for life, but that isn't always the case). The girl I was, the one who didn't plan on living past high school, grew up to be a wife and mother.

Yesterday, one of the people being remembered was a teenage girl named Emma. As her family got up and spoke about her, and then as a long line of her family and friends filed off for their walk each saying her name into the microphone, my stomach twisted up in knots and I fought back tears. That really could have been me. That really could have been my family and friends saying Emma into the microphone to remember me. It really was that close. I had to shake off the What-Ifs and turn my attention to my daughters, though. I did survive and have them now. Instead of a memory, I am a mom. And I am so grateful.

That gratitude and my understanding of just how hard the fight is - not only to survive being suicidal but also to survive the stigma of mental illnesss - is what drives me now to support AFSP. At their walks, I am not the only person who nearly lost her life to suicide. I am not the only person who went to funerals for people who died by suicide. I am not the only person who wants more "struggled but lived" beads handed out instead of "loss of loved one" beads. Together we are stronger and we can change the discussion. We can support better research to identify what is causing suicide and how to help people before they die. We can get the word out about that research and break down the stigma. Nothing damages stigma like the truth. We can say SUICIDE over and over until others are willing to talk about it, too, without lowering their voices. We can support each other as we struggle.

My daughters are involved because they owe their lives to suicide prevention. They are involved because I want them to grow up knowing that mental illness is just like physical illness and should be addressed not hidden. They are involved, too, because on their own they care about people. Just as Yasya didn't want families broken by childhood cancer, the girls don't want families broken by suicide loss.

Next week they are walking in the DC walk and are fundraising to help support the life saving work AFSP does. If you would like to support them and help them be Super Heroes, please click their links.
Donate HERE

Donate HERE

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

"Mom, can we talk?"

Sometimes listening, sometimes doing the talking.
School has started up again which means after school conversations are starting up again. Don’t get me wrong; I talk to my girls all year, not just after school. Our after school chats, however, are extra important and why I’m glad I have a schedule that allows me to take that time with them.

You know in the movie Tinkerbell when she is going through the various talents to find hers? (If you don’t know what I am talking about, ask a preschooler or click here.) Well, if I were a fairy the talent that would have lit up and sent a shock wave around would be the talking talent. I’m a talker-fairy which is good because that was my job for years as a retreat leader. I got paid to talk to people – lots of people – and listen to their stories. It was perfect and great prep for being a mom now.

The fact is talk saves lives. That isn’t being hyperbolic. It is true. We must talk and connect. We must be aware of what is happening in the lives and minds of the people around us. We must talk with our children to help them understand their lives and minds. We must talk through problems to find realistic solutions and create actions plans. And we must talk with our children to affirm and reaffirm and reaffirm again their value as intelligent, amazing human beings. It’s important stuff.

I know from watching others come in and struggle with leading small groups that this isn’t a skill that everyone comes to naturally. I also know from listening to the teens that this isn’t something that all parents seem to be doing, or at least aren’t doing well. I wonder if it is because parents, like adults thrown into leading small groups of teens without any training, aren’t sure where to begin or how to do it. So here are my top tips for starting those conversations, keeping them going, and getting the most out of them so more and more adults can build meaningful connections with the kids and teens (and other adults) in their lives.

  1. Turn off the tv, computer, whatever screen is near you, and keep your phone put away. Have you ever tried having a conversation with someone who was looking at a screen instead of you? Did you really think you had their full attention? When we look at screens instead of the people we are with, we are nonverbally saying, “yeah, you’re important, but not interesting enough to drag me away from this more interesting thing.” Don’t think kids and teens pick up on that? They do. Just ask them.
  2. Stop multitasking all together. Again, this is about showing the person you are talking to that that person is the most important thing in your life at that moment. Chatting while doing dishes or driving or vacuuming (if you can even hear each other) is fine for light conversations, but for real, deep connecting conversations stop everything else. Let your kid know he or she is the single most important thing in your life and give him or her your full, total, complete, nondistracted attention. The dishes can wait.
    Giving the girls our full attention. listening to how life's going.
  3. Be genuine and 100% honest. Kids can smell a phony a mile away, and teens hate hypocrites and fakers. Once they think you are lying or putting on an act, you will have to work VERY hard to regain their trust. You want them to be honest with you? Be honest with them. Does this mean confessing all your sins in graphic detail or disclosing information about their emotional processing level? Of course not. What you do say, say truthfully. You don’t like broccoli? Say that! “I don’t really like broccoli, but I eat it because I know it is important for me to get vitamins and minerals from multiple food sources. It isn’t enjoyable, but the result of being healthy I do like.” If they pick up you are being honest, your words will carry more weight.
  4. Be open. One thing I discovered quickly as a retreat leader was that for every ounce of my story I shared, I got a pound of the teens’ stories in return. Once I showed that I was open enough to tell them things about me, they felt more comfortable sharing their stories with me. I usually had to go first, as an ice breaker. This means I need to be comfortable with my story, and I am very selective about what parts I tell and limit details as needed, but usually the details are less important than the act of sharing at all. An example would be telling about your experience with your fifth grade teacher. Then wait and see if they share their experience. If they don’t, gently prompt. To listen, first we have to talk sometimes.
  5. Open ended questions are the best prompts. Ask more specific things and follow them up with more questions. Follow up questions are key to getting to the heart of the matter. It’s unlikely I’ll ever get the full story from one question. I keep digging and never lose eye contact. Show them you really are interested and care about their stories. Keep digging! The simplest follow up is “why?” Just be sure to be clear with your questions. “Why do you think your teacher called on you less than the other kids?” “Why did you choose to play with those kids today instead of your usual crowd?” “Why do you think the principal made that a rule?”
  6. Acknowledge – without judgment – their feelings. Whether or not you think their feelings are rational or the feelings you would have, if they voice those as the emotions they are experiencing, those are the feelings they have. Repeat them back to let them know you heard them. “You’re feeling angry and frustrated because your whole class was punished for a few kids talking in the hall.” When our feelings are acknowledged, we feel empowered to express more which just leads to better mental health. It also helps us feel closer to the person we are talking to. Once those emotions are disregarded, the kid or teen who expressed them will shut down and not feel comfortable sharing more. That leads to a dark place of bottling up feelings which is not healthy for anyone of any age or gender.
  7. Finally, work TOGETHER to create an action plan if one is needed. Sometimes chat sessions are more about touching base or venting. Sometimes, though, change is needed. Rather than lecture (another way to shut down communication), say, “let’s find a solution together.” Listen to their thoughts about different options. If they say something is impossible, question further. Are they just overwhelmed? Can the problem be broken down in smaller parts that are more manageable and less overwhelming? They may have already tried to solve the problem on their own and know through trial and error that some things really don’t work. By working together, you not only tighten your bond and understanding, you also add a level of accountability. They have some ownership of the solution, and you know what steps to keep an eye out for progress on.
If in these chats you ever suspect your child or teen needs more help than you can give, never hesitate to seek the help. If you suspect they are battling depression or other mental health issues, get them connected to a professional to talk to. Because talk saves lives.

Blissful bonding - chatting, listening, sharing stories, touching base, etc.

Friday, September 4, 2015

“I can survive today.”

My younger daughter was having a rough morning, wanting to just go back to bed, but then she sat up and said, “I can survive today.” YES! That is the attitude that wins battles. We weren’t talking about lifetimes or years or months or even a whole week. Just one day at a time. That is how we get through life sometimes. One day at a time. It is a slogan for AA and it is a slogan that fits the fight against mental illness, too.
The fight is real and often feels like this - being the one face down while everyone else is smiling.

The fight is something I know very well. I have fought depression my whole life. I was hospitalized for the first time when I was just eleven years old. I have fought, and I am still alive. I have also been to funerals for people who have died by suicide and have had many friends reach that point of suicidal ideation, too. Mental illness seems to surround me. It is a very real illness, but it doesn’t have to be a fatal one.

First let me state unequivocally that depression is real. It has real, measurable effects on people’s bodies. Studies have shown that there are changes in the brains of depressed people. So let’s just stop saying it is an imaginary problem or people simply being weak. There is nothing simple about it and nothing imagined about it. It is a real, physical problem, and it is a real, complex problem. Don’t believe me? Check out a few of these studies about suicide, mental illness, and treatments.

That being said, like any other problem, it can and MUST be addressed. Just like kitty litter boxes, if ignored the crap just builds up. Is treating depression hard? YES. But hard is not the same as impossible. It does require time and commitment and struggles that often feel impossible, but that doesn’t mean that staying in bed is a better option. Doing what is hard is what is required. Just as people with cancer must go through treatments which feel impossible and are dreadful (my mother said she felt worse after her surgery to remove her cancer than she did before), but ignoring the cancer will just ensure it grows and spreads and eventually kills. My mother went through the hard part – the surgery and treatments – and survived. I went through the hard part – being separated from my family for hospitalization, facing many tough conversations with my family about life, accepting responsibility for my role in my depression and my treatment, and making significant life changes which often mean doing the opposite of what my brain/depression tell me to do – and I am not just surviving; I'm thriving. (It is also true that just as some people do everything to fight their cancer and still are killed by it, some people who do everything to fight their mental illness in the end still die by suicide. However, that doesn’t mean fighting shouldn’t be attempted or that suicide is inevitable.)

So how do we balance acknowledging depression is real and pushing the need for treatment? Advising people about their need to change their lives to ensure survival often sounds like the harsh criticism people ignorantly give (becoming internet cartoons). Get up. Do something about it. Shift your thinking. Open the curtains. Go to work or school. It is hard to sound sympathetic and compassionate while trying to help someone who is deep in depression. Do we simply let them stay in bed or on the couch stewing in their depressed thoughts? Do we hug them and leave them alone? That isn’t helpful.

The best, number one thing to do is to first and foremost get the person to a professional. They need someone to talk to. Talk saves lives. They need someone who will be able to offer them unbiased solutions and possibly medication to help adjust chemical levels in the brain (and then to monitor how those medications are used and how effective they are because not every medicine works for every patient and misuse can cause problems just like any other medicine). This cannot be stressed enough. Get them to help.

If the person is you, you also need to fight on your own. Fight for your life. Don’t be ashamed or fearful or throw in the towel thinking the fight is too big. Fight. Don’t wait for someone else to fix you or to fix your life for you. Kick yourself in the butt and get up and survive. This means, as I’ve said, doing the opposite of what your depression says. This means going through really, really uncomfortable situations. This means battling demons and spending time in what feels like a dark, horrible place for eternity. But fight. And make the lifestyle changes. This website has the best advice for that. was made with the input of people like me, people who survived their own suicidal ideations. The advice is compassionate, acknowledging this is a real and difficult battle, but also provides a kick in the butt and some real direction. I recommend it for everyone I talk to about depression. Getting to professional help can be a challenge, but while going through that challenge (remember hard does not equal impossible, so don’t give up on finding professional help) check out for things to start doing. Depression doesn’t just go away by napping through it like a cold. It takes active participation in treating it (and above all getting OUT of bed and out of the house).

These research studies and projects like NowMattersNow plus many other educational programs are funded by the American Foundation forSuicide Prevention. Their mission is to reduce the number of suicides 20% by 2025. This is possible. I am happy to volunteer with them because they really do put their money into valuable programs, and every person there truly is dedicated to intelligently fighting suicide and providing support to the people affected by it. If you would like to help, too, a good place to start is with one of their walks. The walks happen all across the US plus there are virtual walker options – participate without physically walking at the location.My family has a team participating October 10th in D.C., and my older daughter has set a personal goal of raising $1,000. She has seen how depression and suicide affect families and wants to help. You can help her reach her goal by making a donation here. Or join our team by clicking here. Walk with other families touched by suicide loss, learn more about the education, research, advocacy, and support programs offered by AFSP. This is a fight worth fighting and a fight that can be won.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

"They called me an LGBT advocate? That's so cool, Mom!"

Sharing joy, smiles, and love at the Supreme Court.

Yes, my children do participate in LGBT rights/pride events. It is not something my husband and I talked about before we had kids. I mean, we talked about LGBT rights, but we did not discuss whether or not we would be involved let alone whether or not our future children would be in Pride Parades or protests. This is something that just happened, and we are glad it worked out this way.

Determined to show love not hate.
My parents have been walking in their local Fourth of July parade with the area PFLAG chapter for many years. They do not have any LGBT children, but they do have many LGBT friends. They walk for their friends, for their friends’ children, and for all the people they don’t know but who deserve compassion even in anonymity. When my older daughter was about three years old, she was watching her grandparents and their friends march past in the parade. And she heard the people around us say mean things about them. Without hesitation, she got up and informed me she was joining her grandparents and their friends. She heard someone put them down, so she decided to stand up with them. She decided to be their friend and let them know they weren’t alone. I followed her with the double stroller, but she insisted on walking the whole remainder of the parade route. “I’m walking with Nana’s friends.”

That was the start of our involvement. My little girl led the way. Because of her and that moment, we began paying even closer attention to the fight for LGBT equality. My husband, who is from Ukraine, was overwhelmed at his first Gay Pride Parade in Chicago. I remember my stoic Slavic husband turning to me with tears welling up in his eyes and saying, “they could never do this back home.” We thought of all our friends, people we simply view as people but who others consider subhuman or monstrous or criminals, and we thought of our daughters. What if one of our daughters is LGBT? What kind of world do we want for our girls? This wasn’t just a matter of “others” to us. To us, this discussion was about human rights for some of our favorite humans as well as people we have never met.

Over the years, my husband has connected more with various human rights and LGBT rights groups. Here in the DC area, he made fast friends with the RUSA LGBT group (Russian speaking LGBT group). When they invited him to walk in the DC Pride Parade as part of their group, he immediately wanted to include the girls. We talk a lot at home and at church about sharing love. That is our purpose. We are loved, and we must share that love. This was a chance for them to show love to a group of people who had not been loved before. In the former USSR countries, people are not just hated, they are hounded. Many flee for their lives. Our girls had a chance to not only meet new, interesting people who have so much to share with them, but they were also able to say to others, “I care about these people! I am their friend!” Just like my daughter did as a three year old. We asked them first if they wanted to participate. The answer was a resounding, doubtless, “YES!”

Since then, they also had the chance to go to the Supreme Court to witness history being made with the marriage equality ruling and to join RUSA LGBT protesting Ukraine denying its LGBT community the chance to hold its own pride parade in Odessa.
press calling my girls "LGBT rights advocates" - here

When I asked my daughter why she continues to participate in these things, she answered simply, “It is raising me to not hate. I know these people, and I know to love people and not hate them for being different from other people. It is about love.” It is.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

"What's up with people today, Mama?"

The other day my younger daughter happily and carefully picked out an outfit and accessories. She even snuck on a little make-up. I let the make-up slide even though normally it is only allowed for dress-up at home because it was just a bit of peach eye shadow and some lip gloss. She was feeling proud, fierce, beautiful. Her older sister barely brushed her hair and threw on soccer shorts, a Puma tee, and some running shoes. The younger sister was definitely winning the effort award for the day. Then we went out.

The exact outfit she wore: white shirt, pink blazer, silver necklace and broach, metallic silver fedora with pink bow, skinny jeans, black patent leather booties with metallic silver laces. She was so proud of this combo!

She walked into the doctor's office with confidence and was discouraged almost instantly. The nurse came out and looked at my two kids saying, "A girl and a boy? Yeah, boy. Right?" I corrected her calmly saying, "No, I have two daughters."  "Oh, I couldn't tell because of the hat."

Three more people, including the doctor, called her a boy before we left that office prompting her to sigh, roll her eyes, and whisper to me, "what's up with people today, Mama?" I don't know. I was baffled and tired of politely saying, "she's a girl," repeatedly. I had watched my little girl start the day with glee and confidence then watch it get chipped away. I saw her shrink back inside herself a little more with every comment until even the compliments she got at the end of her time at the doctor's, as we were riding the elevator down to the lobby and multiple people raved about her hat and her outfit in general, didn't bring a smile. So what can I do? What can she do? We joked about people now being open minded enough to assume boys wear pink blazers with silver necklaces and then got on with our day.

My daughter has had short hair since preschool, so she has had to deal with people mistaking her for a boy for the last four years (half of her life at this point). In the past, at her old school in a different state, the children who were confused about her gender acted on it with violence - shoving her, jabbing her with a pencil, knocking her to the ground. At her new school, and in Maryland in general, people tend to simply ask her, "are you a girl or a boy?" then they move on with their lives. She complains a bit about it being annoying to constantly tell people she is a girl (she gets called a boy or has someone ask her what she is almost daily), but she says she prefers them asking to making assumptions. Most importantly, she feels safe now going to school. A couple (literally just two) kids give her a hard time, but that is manageable and the good far out number the cranky. She works hard to shift her focus away from the negative people and onto the positive ones. She works hard to shake off the "what are you?" comments and focus on the "I like your style" comments instead. She works hard at staying true to herself and drawing on her inner strength every single day as she goes out into a world full of people who seem unable to look past the length of her hair. As her mom, I work hard to not go into mama-bear mode and yell at people or completely cocoon my baby to protect her from weird stares and random strangers in restrooms glaring at her saying, "why is that boy using the girls' room? Ugh!" She works hard and it gets understandably tiring and draining.

I am not telling her story because I want people to feel sorry for her or view her as a victim. She is a strong, tough cookie. She doesn't view herself as a victim. Plus, honestly, life is so much better for her now. The day at the doctor's office was annoying, but she no longer worries about her physical safety every day. She was able to leave her bullies behind when she moved out of Illinois, and she tries now to keep them in the past. When people talk about people who are being bullied or tell stories of others who were attacked on a regular basis for not conforming, for not being a Stepford wife, they aren't asking for pity.
Here, girls. Be like this and everyone will be nice to you. *eyeroll*
The request is that, as civilized people living on a planet full of people from many different cultures, religions, traditions, etc., we treat each other politely. This is not a matter of political correctness gone to the extreme. It is about common decency. It is about being honest about how people treat each other. Bullying in schools now is NOT the same as it was in the 1950s or even the 1980s. Adults struggle with shaking off negativity yet expect children to "shake it off" constantly - 24/7 (the internet makes sure no one can escape their tormentor even after they retreat home to their bedrooms). People put the guilt on the targets of the bullies. I have been told over and over and over again, "well if she just acted/looked more normal, they wouldn't pick on her. What do you expect?" Seriously? I should tell my daughters to ignore their personal tastes and just be clones of the people harassing them? And when the tastes of the harassers change, my daughters must change, too? Does that sound healthy? "If someone bullied my kid, I'd tell my kid to just punch them. That's how you stop a bully!" Seriously? So my kid will then get expelled from school? Violence is the first and only answer? Why don't we try the, "hey, everyone, let's stop being jerks to each other." I think that would be better. "Forcing me to be so PC all the time is like bullying. I'm sick of being told to not hurt other people's feelings." Seriously? Um, no. Someone asking to not be beaten up or have people tell them they are worthless on a daily basis is not bullying. Someone asking to be treated like a fellow human being with feelings and value is fair. This is not about political correctness; it is about loving our neighbors as ourselves . . .  or at least not trying to make them think their lives are worth less than ours.

My point in writing this is to ask people to think about two things.

  • First, let's think about how we are defining genders and how we pass those gender expectations on to our kids. The kids who were harassing my daughter had picked up on strict gender norms from their parents, the adults they interacted with, and the subtle messages they picked up from the world around them (like gender defining signs in toy stores). Are we accepting gender as a minor defining feature of ourselves and others or is it a limiting factor? Are we viewing gender as a spectrum or polar opposites with no flexibility? And what the heck does hair length have to do with any of it anyway? 
  • Secondly, let's think about how we talk about other people, to their faces or behind their backs. Are we talking about physically hurting people just because they are different? Are we saying people who disagree with us are losers or idiots or stupid? And are we supporting or cheering for people who are mean, insulting, or use violence as a first option? Kids pick up on that and bring those attitudes to school. Between the 1980s and now, the level of snarkiness in schools spiked and the extremes people are now willing to go to in order to prove another person is less than them is astounding. Blaming the targets, calling them weak, is wrong. We need to nip our snark in the bud and raise children who choose kindness over insults. Let's raise children who know that their value does not depend on others being below them. Let's raise children who know that diversity strengthens a society.
 Let's raise children who can ask, "what's your gender?" then follow it up with, "wanna play?" That's my point.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Say Her Name

“Ugh, I hate when people call me that. That’s not my name.”

For some reason, people think it is ok to be wrong sometimes . . . all the time. I am guilty of saying, “I am bad with names,” just as much as the next person, however there is a difference between acknowledging our weakness – poor short term memory – and just giving up on even trying. I know I am bad at remembering names after hearing them only once. I am bad at remembering anything I hear. I know I am not an auditory learner. Over the years I have had to come up with tricks to try to help me be better. I do not like not knowing someone’s name. I do not like feeling rude.

That is what it is. It is rude. It is rude to tell someone his or her individual identity is not important, not worth the effort to remember. Our names are the most basic outward signs of who we are. They are our branding, our labels. My first name sets me apart from my three sisters. Being called Emma rather than “Fox Girl” makes a difference. Am I proud of the group I belong to? Sure. But I am more proud of the individual I am within that group. When people ask me, “Which Fox girl are you?” I’m ok with that. That means they are acknowledging they don’t remember my name, but want to be better and want to identify me as me. I’d rather answer the question than be called the wrong name or just called “nameless member of a group”.

For my daughters, they struggle with being called the right names because in one case people want to presumptively adjust a nickname and in the other people want to dismiss a name they find too ethnic.

Embracing her namesake.
My older daughter has a hyphenated first name. We were fully aware when we named her that people would struggle with the hyphen, and we call her by a nickname – Sofi.  For some reason, though, people take it upon themselves – no matter how much we tell them what her name is, even spelling it out for them – to call her Sophia. That is not and has never been her name. I understand Sofi sounds like it could be short for Sophia, but it isn’t. Once we have said it isn’t, the mistake should end. The mistake made once is understandable, and we honestly don’t mind the first time we have to correct a person. HOWEVER if we clearly fill out a form spelling her name the correct way or if she makes an effort to speak up and say, “my name is NOT Sophia, so please do not call me that,” then it is rude to use that as her name. To do so is to say, “Even though you put a lot of thought into what you named your daughter, and there are many very emotional reasons for her name being what it is, I am going to decide that MY way of spelling her name is better and that I know what is the best name for her. Also, I am not going to listen to her request to be called something else because, again, my desire to have a name sound and spell the way I am comfortable with it is more important than her individual identity.” Really. That is what is being said. 
Her name is hyphenated because she is also named after this amazing woman - Margaret. Dropping the Margaret hurts.
My younger daughter has a name which is not unheard of in other parts of the world and is in no way “made up” as people like to ask us. In the US, though, it is unusual. Again, we knew when we named her that people would struggle with it at first, but we liked the name. Considering we are the ones who say the name the most, really our opinions are the ones that matter most. Anyway, people had trouble with my name when I was growing up and now it is in the top 5 most common names in America. You never know. In the hospital, the woman who came to fill out the form for my daughter’s birth certificate actually insulted the name and criticized me as a mother for choosing that name. I pointed out to her that her opinion was narrow, the name has significance not only culturally but also IT’S NONE OF HER DAMN BUSINESS WHAT ETHNICITY OUR DAUGHTER’S NAME IS AND WHETHER OR NOT A RANDOM STRANGER LIKES IT. Since then, most people ask us to say our daughter’s name twice, then that’s the end of the conversation. They just accept it, call her by her name, and we all get on with our lives. Most people. About 5% of the people say, “I can’t say that,” and then give up trying (it is pronounced the way it is spelled – Yas-ya), make rude comments about ethnic/made up/uncommon names, or call her Yasha (which is actually a completely different name and is more commonly used as a nickname for boys translating-ish as Jake). Does this bother just me as her mom? Nope. Does she notice? Yes. You better believe it. She has an easy to pronounce third-option-name (Yasya is actually her nickname . . . her real name is longer and is what the lady in the hospital had a hissy fit about) which she offers to people she thinks won’t be able to handle her real name.
Looking up to the man she was named after.
For some reason, the people who can’t pronounce her nickname also tend to be the ones who think her real name is too intimidating, so they won’t use that, and they also refuse to call her by her third option name which is super easy to say. So what is left for her? With that group of 5% she has to deal with being called the wrong name or no name at all. While other people get the dignity of an individual identity, she does not. Not because of anything she has done, but because of that 5%’s comfort level. Have I ever been uncomfortable saying someone’s name? Sure. But I push myself. I need to be better. People deserve better.

I am not just being an overly sensitive woman about this and do not need to just get a thicker skin or accept people will be rude or people will change my daughters' names as they see fit. It is rude. Really. Imagine if someone changed your name and flat out refused to ever spell your name the way you do or call you by the name you prefer to be called. Would you just shrug that off? Really? Not be even a little bothered? At the end of the day, this is about dignity on a small scale. It is about pushing ourselves to do a tiny thing – whether it is easy for us or not – to recognize people as individual human beings. We look them in the eyes, we call them by name. Whether we have heard that name before or not. Whether we would have chosen that name for our child or not. Whether we would use a different nickname or not. Whether that name is from our ethnic group of not. Because opinions should not affect the amount of basic respect we show people. We should be better than that. People deserve better.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

When You Sit Right Down in the Middle of Yourself

“Wow, she looks amazing. I hope I look that good some day.”
I see the imperfections; they see the Mama.

“Don’t be silly, Mom. You already look that amazing.”

I love my girls. They are good for my ego (most of the time). But we do live in a tricky world where figuring out this whole self-image thing gets pretty complicated really fast and can be devastatingly destructive. I know it is an issue both males and females battle (my husband doesn’t go to the gym just because he likes to wake up early and smell other people’s sweat), but as a female raising females, the female battle is the one I am more familiar with and the one I have been trying to figure out how to talk about.

When I was younger, I did the whole mall modeling thing. I even had an agent. I exercised in my bedroom in the mornings and before bed, doing sit ups and leg lifts then measuring myself. I always knew my size. I also always knew every single flaw with my appearance. Eyebrows were waxed and plucked, skin was inspected for any blemishes, and I would spend hours pacing back and forth in front of a full length mirror. Then I’d go to school and hear someone say, “Sure Emma’s pretty, but then she opens her mouth.” Bam! And if people heard I was modeling, the comments were, “Seriously? Her?” Yeah. Their skepticism really rammed home my knowledge of my short comings (including my shortness . . . I’m only 5’8”).

Now as the size 2 mom people love to bash in blogs and songs, I wish I could say things are better, but people still love to be snarky. It is up to me to ignore the “skinny bitch” comments I hear from random strangers when I am shopping (wish I could say I was joking) and in songs (can’t love “All About That Bass” if it is calling me a bitch because I am not overweight). It is up to me to hold my head high and not feel responsible for people obsessing about their thighs just because mine don’t touch. Honestly, I don’t look at or measure other people’s thighs and didn’t know “thigh gap” was something to talk about until people started making such a fuss about it on facebook. I only think about my thigh gap when I drop my phone while I’m on the toilet. I cannot let other people’s visions of themselves define my vision of myself.

That is what I try to teach my daughters. They already get bombarded with pressure to look certain ways. Don’t believe me? Let your second grader shave her head. Count how many people tell her she is no longer a girl or no longer pretty or that she is weird, wrong, etc. Let your first grader wear shoes from the boys’ department. Less extreme action, but she’ll get similar comments. The pressure to look one way and fit a generic mold of “this is what little girls are” is intense and destructive. Not every person fits the same mold and trying to force them to breaks them. As parents, my husband and I decided our goal was to help our girls express themselves and be true to themselves - even if that means coming home from school and shaving their heads in the bathroom then rocking a Star Wars t-shirt and one of my blazers in the pediatrician's office. Looking fierce, Tuna!

My girls and I (and my husband, too!) watch America’s Next Top Model or Star Trek as our evening tv. These two shows were chosen intentionally because they help us teach our daughters to be "fierce" and embrace their differences (and remind us to do the same in our own lives!).  Their dad and I can say over and over, “you are beautiful as is,” but it doesn’t have the same impact as hearing a super model or star ship captain with perfect hair tell them that being true to themselves makes them strong and gorgeous.

Here are some of our favorite lessons the girls can take away from those shows to help them battle the pressures to “look perfect” all the time:
  • ·         Confidence is Beautiful – The judges on ANTM say this all the time. They send girls home for not being confident. They tell girls that beauty comes from within and that they must BELIEVE they are beautiful.
  • ·         Compassion is Powerful – This lesson the girls see on both shows. One of their favorite episodes of Star Trek is “Plato’s Stepchildren” because it shows Cpt Kirk and the other crew members showing compassion to a man, Alexander, who had only experienced bullying and abuse before he met them because he didn’t look the same as the other people. Alexander’s transformation is a result of that compassion and helps to defeat the bullies. The compassion was stronger than the hatred showered on him. We talk to the girls not only about the need for them to act as Kirk did to others, but also act that way to themselves. They must show themselves the same compassion.
  • ·         Diversity is Necessary – This is a Star Trek lesson that is evident just by looking at the make-up of the bridge. The crew comes from all over. Each character brings different strengths to the table, and Captain Kirk relies on all of them to help him.
  • ·         No One is Always Perfect Looking – ANTM is great for teaching this lesson. Every girl has something she doesn’t like about herself, including Tyra Banks. Plus, by watching old seasons and comparing them to new ones, the girls also see how the trends change. If a girl from season 20 made herself look and dress exactly like a girl from season one, she would be outdated and wrong. There is no point beating ourselves up to fit the idea of perfection of the moment because the moment changes. Also, the fact that the judges don’t always agree drives home the message that this idea of perfection is a myth. Perfection is an idea that varies from person to person, minute to minute. We should not change who we are or sacrifice ourselves to a false idea.
  • ·         Be True to YOU – Both shows teach this well. Captain Kirk and Tyra Banks in their own very different ways encourage the people around them to be strong by being true to themselves. When the girls do that, they can be more confident, embrace diversity, show compassion to themselves and others, ignore other people’s definitions of perfection, and – most importantly – be happy.

As Ani Di Franco, my other go-to for shareable wisdom for my girls, so nicely says, “when you sit right down in the middle of yourself, you’re gonna want to have a comfortable chair.”

Why I am ok with my daughter shaving her head.