But What Happens When We Speak Our Dark Parenting Truths Out Loud?

So apparently I have a post over at mom.me that’s going “viral.” Or at least that’s what my editor called it.

My husband asked me last night if this means that my piece is getting millions of pageviews. I said, probably not. Probably more like, I don’t know, dozens of thousands. Or something.

Whatever the case, the piece is getting many of the reader-reactions that I had been expecting from the moment I finished writing it. A mix of “Oh yes, this speaks such a bold and brave truth!” to “This woman is terrible and she needs a therapist and her kids would probably do better with a different mother.”

All I did was give voice to ten of my deep, dark parenting truths.

I write about regret. Liking children less after having children of my own. Feeling unfulfilled by parenting. Experiencing blinding rage toward my children. Having my heart broken each and every day by my love for them.

Even in some of the less hand-wringy comments on my piece–and yes, I do try to avoid the comments on anything I write, but no, I don’t always succeed–people have wondered what might happen if our children were to stumble upon any our darker truths. What would happen if they discovered that we don’t always like being their parent? That we had to give up pieces of ourselves in order to raise them? That having an inconsolable baby can make us understand, for the briefest of moments, how some people shake babies? Wouldn’t our children become wracked with guilt or disappointment in us?

I don’t know what would happen if your children discovered your own dark parenting truths. But I do know how I reacted when my mother revealed her dark truths to me.

I remember, back when I was a teenager, the first time she told me the story about how, in the throes of my infant colic, she took a neighbor’s advice and set me down in my crib, walked away, poured herself a glass of wine, and sat on the porch for ten minutes while I screamed alone in my room.

“Why?” I’d asked her.

“So I wouldn’t shake you,” she’d told me.

There were future conversations where my mother discussed her flaws, the mistakes she thought she’d made as a parent. She told me that she often had no idea what she was doing as a parent–that many times, she was just winging it. She told me that she didn’t always love being a parent. She told me that, especially when my siblings and I were little, there were times that she locked herself in our bathroom to cry.

She had her own dark truths.

Instead of frightening me, these revelations often made my mother more three-dimensional and real to me. It was as if, each time she opened up, she blossomed from a two-dimensional paper doll of a mother who constrained me with her rules and annoyed me with her platitudes, into a fully-realized, flawed and wonderful human being of a mother.

She always delivered these messages with kindness and not resentment. This is crucial, I think. But she also never glossed over her real, gritty, and dark feelings.

Some day, when my kids are ready, when I’m in a moment where I’m feeling more kindness than resentment, I’ll reveal my own dark truths to them, too. In some ways, I’ve already begun these dark and honest revelations.

And I’m pretty sure that, when the time comes, the kids will be fine.

With a some luck, they’ll even find me to be a little more real, and a little more human.

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Why Young Readers Should Know Both Atticus Finches

Like many people, I first read To Kill Mockingbird in a high school English class. At the beginning of each period, we’d gather our desks into a circle, the legs of our chairs groaning against the classroom floor. We’d tuck our pencils into the spiral rings of our notebooks and stare blankly at each other until our teacher asked the question that finally provoked some semblance of discussion from us. Questions like:

Atticus always reminds Scout and Jem to try walking in other people’s shoes before judging them. In what ways do Atticus, Scout, and Jem have to walk in others’ shoes—to show compassion and empathy—throughout the book?

What does Atticus mean when he tells Scout that “most people are [nice]…when you finally see them”? How is Atticus able to see the good in all people despite everything that he endures?

Isn’t Atticus Finch just about the most magnificent, respectable, justice-seeking white savior in all of American literature?

No one ever actually asked this last question, but its sentiment ran throughout most of our conversations. Atticus Finch was a hero. Someone whom we could, and should, aspire to emulate. Someone who stood up against racism and injustice. Someone whom we placed on our highest moral pedestal.

I adored Atticus Finch so much that I almost named one of my children after him.

Nonetheless, I was initially skeptical about reading Harper Lee’s latest book, Go Set a Watchman. The murky story behind the manuscript’s discovery and publication—musings about Lee’s declining health, her ability to give consent, her long vow not to publish another novel—just didn’t sit right with me. And when Watchman’s early reviews revealed that Atticus Finch, the much-lauded anti-racist hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, is a bigoted, Klan meeting-attending segregationist in Watchman, I was all but ready to disavow the book.

Upon more careful consideration, however, I wondered if there weren’t something morally compelling about this new literary development. Maybe, I thought, there was some deep philosophical value in these new facets of Finch’s character: facets that highlight his imperfections and complicate his commitment to justice. Facets that would make great classroom discussion fodder for a new generation of readers. And so I ordered a copy of the book and prepared to deepen my understanding of the great Atticus Finch. I even decided to read Watchman alongside Mockingbird, alternating between chapters from each book so that I could measure the distance between the Atticus of Mockingbird and the Atticus of Watchman.

This act of side-by-side reading didn’t merely add new depth to Atticus’s character. It distorted the Atticus that I once knew. The Atticus I once knew—the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird—dismisses the Ku Klux Klan. He treats Calpurnia, the Finch family’s black maid and caretaker, with kindness. He wages a masterful courtroom defense of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, despite ridicule and threats of violence from his community.

The Atticus I once knew was not a racist.

Nonetheless, before I finished either book, I began to realize that the Atticus I once knew probably didn’t ever exist. Like many readers, I once viewed Atticus through the naïve, nostalgic eyes of Mockingbird’s narrator and Atticus’s daughter, Scout. Scout adores Atticus. She reveres him. She uses his lessons about justice and fairness to provide the foundation for her entire moral framework.

By Watchman, however, Scout is no longer a little girl. In fact, she is no longer “Scout”: she is Jean Louise, her given name, her adult self. And like Jean Louise, I shuddered to learn that Atticus is etched with deep, reprehensible grooves of imperfection. For in Watchman, he owns a pamphlet entitled “The Black Plague.” He attends a segregationist meeting and makes excuses for why it’s important for him to keep an eye on what the group is planning. He bemoans the NAACP and anyone who would claim that black people are equal to white people anywhere outside of a courtroom.

The Atticus of Watchman is indeed imperfect. He is human, he is flawed, and some of his flaws reek of the prison of his own time and place. One might wonder if, in fact, Atticus could have thought or believed otherwise, given that he, the child of slave owners, is a white man in the mid-century South.

Whatever the case, these flaws are present—subtle, though still present—in Mockingbird.

For even in Mockingbird, Atticus refers to the Klan as “a political organization more than anything”—one that, at least in Maycomb, “couldn’t find anybody to scare.” This is not a dismissal based on principles of justice and equality or on a deep-seated concern for black people. It’s more like disdain for the group’s inefficacy.

Moreover, he goes to enormous lengths to defend the truly heinous deeds of other white men in Maycomb. He refers to Mr. Cunningham—a former client who had joined an angry mob with the obvious intent to harm Atticus, and likely Tom Robinson, too—as “basically a good man” who has “blind spots along with the rest of us.” He never praises Tom Robinson’s general goodness. He appreciates Calpurnia, and he demands that his children respect her, but this appreciation and respect is based on her work as an employee of the family: not on her inherent goodness or humanity. And although he treats some black people with kindness—Calpurnia included—he never treats them as equals. His kindness is more an infantilizing kindness, which he confirms in Watchman when he refers to black people as being “still in their childhood as a people.”

Even Atticus’s courtroom defense of Tom Robinson reveals shades of what’s to come in Watchman. In his closing argument, he affirms that all men are created equal in the eyes of the United States court. He refers to the court as “the one place where a man ought to get a square deal,” regardless of color. But it is only under this court that he maintains this commitment to equality. He is heroic in his abstract convictions, wedded as he is to the legal principles that he so valiantly upholds. Beyond this abstraction, however, he does little to defend the equal rights, opportunities, or humanity of the black people who are so obviously oppressed in his town.

To be clear, Atticus is not a racist monster. He espouses some monstrous views in Watchman. But even in Mockingbird, he is not the fairytale, anti-racist hero that many of us have imagined him to be. He is principled, but perhaps all too principled.

Thus, despite anyone’s justified reservations about Watchman’s publication, the book provides a much-needed context for and confirmation of the implicit racism in Mockingbird. Even if Watchman fades from literary significance, I hope that it will always lurk on Mockingbird’s horizon, destabilizing the moral myth of the great Atticus Finch. And perhaps today’s teachers can ask their students to do some of this destabilizing work themselves.

They can ask young readers to get to know both Atticus Finches.

Instead of only praising Atticus’s moral virtues—and to be clear, he has many—teachers should also ask students to unearth his racism, hidden as it is beneath his unwavering politeness and gentility. They should ask what it means for Tom Robinson’s story to be told through the lens of a nice, white man and his two white children. They should ask students what it means for racism to look and sound genteel (as it does through the words of Atticus Finch), for unjust power dynamics to appear as sweet and slow-moving as Maycomb, Alabama itself.

The history of racism in the United States is ugly and brutal. But if young readers and learners only ever discuss it in the context of its most shocking brutality, it becomes all too easy for them to miss the many instances of structurally reinforced racism that persist in contemporary U.S. society, too. This racism is so socially instituted and so culturally embedded that many people can’t even see when it’s right in front of them—even when it’s right in the words of one of the great moral heroes of American literature.

The necessity of learning to see the racism that’s just right in front of us just might make both Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird timelier than ever.

 

Honey Toddler Doesn’t Care

You’ve seen The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger video. Or maybe you haven’t. Maybe you’re not one of the 70 million-plus people who have watched this prime piece of YouTube hilarity that has been on the Internet for over four years, why haven’t you seen it yet?

I’ll give you a second to watch it for the first time, or to re-watch it if you need to refresh your memory.

Recovered from your side-splitting laughter yet? Because now, I want you to see why my husband and I refer to our 17-month-old as “The Honey Toddler.”

The Crazy Nastyass Honey Toddler

This is the honey toddler. Watch him climb on top of the piano. He’s pretty badass. Look at him run all around. Now he’s climbing on the end table. “Woah, watch out!” says that mom.

Eww, he just threw a Lego in the toilet? Oh, he’s chasing a cat? And trying to touch its butt? Oh my gosh! The honey toddler is just crazy!

The honey toddler has been referred to by his parents as the most fearless and destructive person on the planet. He really doesn’t give a shit. If he’s hungry, he’s…eww, what’s that in his mouth? Is that some bread crusts that he took out of the trash can? Honey toddler don’t care. Honey toddler just takes what he wants, he doesn’t give a shit.

Oh my gosh, watch him climb. He just climbed on top of the dining room table. The honey toddler’s really pretty badass. He has no regard whatsoever for his personal safety. Look at him just running and…eww! Eating a piece of grass he found in his brother’s shoe! Eww, what’s that, dirt? Oh, that’s nasty. He’s so nasty! Look at him, climbing and eating.

The honey toddler has a fairly short, squat body, and his skin is distinctly squishy, allowing him to fall down gently and, you know, have some padding when he lands. Now look, here’s an angry big brother coming to get his baseball card back from the honey toddler. You think honey toddler cares? Honey toddler don’t give a shit. He just holds right onto that baseball card, and he starts chewing on it. Eww, that’s disgusting.

Now, the honey toddler just waits around until his brothers are done eating lunch and then swoops in to pick up the scraps. He says, “You do all the work for me, and I’ll just eat whatever I find. What do you say, stupid?” Look at that piece of grilled cheese that just fell on the floor. “Thanks for the treat, stupid!” “Hey, come back here!” says the older brother. But honey toddler doesn’t care. The brothers eat all their lunch while the honey toddler just picks up the scraps.

Before bedtime, the honey toddler throws a tantrum because he’s tired. Look! Honey toddler just threw himself on the ground face first. Honey toddler just smacked the shit out of his face. FYI, he’s bleeding. But does honey toddler care? Does it bother him that he bit his own lip and has blood all over his teeth? Honey toddler doesn’t care. Honey toddler doesn’t give a shit. Look at this! Like nothing ever happened, the honey toddler just gets right back up and starts drinking his milk out of his sippy cup. Bloody teeth and milk. How disgusting.

The honey toddler.

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This post was originally published on my former blog, Birthing Beautiful Ideas. My 17-month-old honey toddler is now a healthy, happy threenager who is slightly less destructive than his honey toddler self.

What’s So Great About Bad Pictures?

Last summer, my sisters and I spent a long afternoon in our parents’ basement. Our goal was, as my mother put it, to “help her clean out her family photo collection.” She’d told us that she had “some bins” and “lots of photos.” She didn’t tell us exactly how many bins (there were dozens) or how many photos (there were many thousands). She did, however, promise us wine and lunch, so we were more than happy to oblige.

As one might expect, our efforts took hours. They were mostly happy hours. Some of them were quite silly. (“Look at that hair!” “What was I thinking wearing that outfit?!” “Who is this person holding me as a baby, and why do they look like such a polyester nightmare?”) Some of them were wistful. (“How long since she died?” “Do you think we can get this picture to him even though they’re divorced?”)

In addition to food and drink and silliness, my mother had also promised us the chance to fill a whole box with whatever photos we wanted to keep for ourselves. I filled my box to the brim, mostly with old pictures of my parents, grandparents, and even a few of my great-grandparents. I kept a few fun photos of my sisters and me when we were little.

None of these photos were professionally taken. All of them were imperfect in some way. But they were all beautiful to me.

One of my favorites was a square-shaped snapshot of my father and grandfather. The image is blurry, the color is off, and neither man’s face is fully visible. I don’t think that they were doing anything remarkable besides walking together. It is a wholly imperfect photo: one that a 21st century photographer would likely delete from whatever memory device they are using. And yet I identify with the complete ordinariness of the picture. In all of its imperfection, it captures a moment and evokes a feeling that I wanted to preserve: these two men, two of the most important men in my life, being ordinary and imperfect and human.

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I have an emotional connection to the photo: not an artistic one. And with family photos, that’s an important difference.

Nonetheless, not all my mom’s pictures struck me that way. Not even most of them. And as my sisters and I sorted a few photos into our boxes and tossed hundreds of repeats and plain old terrible pictures into trash bags, we asked my mom why she’d kept so many pictures in the first place.

“These are my memories of you guys,” she said. “I’ll never get those moments back again. And then some of these people aren’t alive anymore, and this is all that I have of them. It’s hard to part with them.”

I didn’t know if by “them” she meant the pictures or the people. I suspect she meant a little of both.

Though my mom’s point was beautiful in its own right, my sisters and I still felt pretty smug about the fact that we didn’t have so many pictures spilling out of storage bins in our own basements.

“This is ridiculous,” we said to one another. “We’ll never have this many photos in our house.”

Of course, our smugness wasn’t all that justified. We do have that many photos. In fact, we might have that many photos from last year alone. But instead of taking up space in our basement, they’re taking up space in the overflowing digital corners of our lives.

Without being confined to 24 shots on a camera roll or the interminable wait of the picture development kiosk at the grocery story, the modern person can get immediate photographic gratification with the mere press of a button. And with our phones glued to our bodies, we can do that all day long. We can Instagram them. Post them on Facebook. Save them to a digital storage site. Upload them to our computers or external hard drives.

Our “bins” do indeed overfloweth.

When I returned to my own home later that weekend, I asked a few friends how many family photos they in their collections.

“Probably hundreds.”

“2,183. And that’s just on my phone. I’m not even counting the cloud or my computer or my external hard drive or even the hundreds of prints I have stashed away in the scrapbooking drawer that I’ll probably never use anyway.”

“Oh God, so many of my children, I can’t count.”

“30,000. Give or take.”

This overabundance of photos is a common experience for modern parents and non-parents alike.  For parents in particular, this overabundance involves loads of pictures of our children

With the exception of some trained or professional photographers, few of us parents have a mass collection of fine art prints. We have blurry, off-color, poorly-composed pictures of our kids walking, playing, eating, sliding, smiling, crying, and just, you know, standing. We have 12 different shots of the same pose from the first day of school. We have one professionally-taken photo for every hundred-or-so phone-snapped photos.

We love our kids. And we really love taking photos of our kids. It’s a love that resides somewhere between narcissism and nostalgia, excessiveness and happiness.

When I reflect on just how much narcissism and nostalgia I’ve amassed over the years, it’s enough to make me want to delete all the bad pictures—to trim the fat, so to speak—and keep only the best photos with the best light and the best composition and the best expressions on all my family’s faces. It’s time to get rid of all those hundreds of bad photos taking up space in all my digital “bins.”

But when I try to get into deleting mode, I stumble. I hesitate.

Like my mother before me, I find that it’s hard to part with my pictures and with my past. In some ways, it’s even harder to part with the imperfect, mundane pictures of my past. Especially the pictures of my children.

It’s the emotional connection I feel to those ordinary moments of imperfection. It’s the look of my kids’ squishy cheeks and pouty lips. The intent expressions on their faces when they’re fighting an army of zombies with a Buzz Lightyear figure. The blur of an arm trying to hit the tormenting brother. The hand-me-down pajamas with the too-long pants legs. The child who cried in his Halloween gnome costume. The crooked smiles and the peanut butter that I forgot to wipe off their cheeks.

Much like that blurry, imperfect photograph of my father and my grandfather, I imagine that the pictures I’ll treasure the most one day will be the ones that capture the ordinary moments of my parenting life, in all of its blurry imperfection.

So do I need 15 messy, imperfect shots of my children having a pillow fight in the living room? No, probably not: I can hit delete a few times on that one. But will it hurt to keep just one, along with the hundreds—or thousands—of other ordinary, “bad” pictures?

It won’t hurt. In fact, those unremarkable, uneventful moments are probably the ones that I’ll cherish most some day when my kids are grown and sorting through my photos (or files), wondering aloud why their mom hoarded so many bad pictures over the years.

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Why Babies Get Babied

The baby of my family is 3, and he will never be 3 again.

He says “snuggling” like “snug-a-wing.” He calls plums “cwums,” hermit crabs “herbit crabs.”

He waves to birds and squirrels and pouts quietly when they don’t come sit and rest on his outstretched hands.

His feet don’t stink, and I don’t recoil at the thought of kissing them. I kiss them every chance I get.

He’s given up calling me “Mommy,” but every so often he lets a “Mama” slip out, and it makes my heart flutter.

Sometimes he needs so much from me, makes such frequent requests and demands, that I must do all I can to keep from screaming. I could throw a tantrum that would rival one of his own, I really could. But he still wants me near–wants me to be close physically, doesn’t push away hugs, doesn’t begrudgingly settle for the quickest kiss on his forehead like his older brothers do.

He can fit in my arms and wrap his legs around my waist, and I call him “my little koala bear.”

He is absolutely delighted by waking up in the morning. Tasting lollipops. Watching butterflies. Jumping over cracks in the sidewalk. Studying a line of marching ants.

He is not embarrassed by his own imagination.

He sings to himself while he plays.

He associates rain with puddle-jumping, snow with snowman-building.

He thinks that school sounds exciting, that homework seems like some exotic, wonderful treat.

This doesn’t last forever. It doesn’t even last that long. Even when the days seem interminable–interminable because they are long, desperately long. But the time it takes for a day to pass, and the time it takes for a little boy to get too big and too self-conscious to snuggle with his mother any longer, are two different sorts of time.

baby of the family

I’ll never have a 3-year-old again. God-willing. Vasectomy-willing.

I’ll always have a baby of the family. God-willing. Time-willing.

And the struggle is, I think, to ensure that my babying is a type of wistful-loving: not coddling, not spoiling, but a sort of reverence toward time’s passing, its embodiment in my child’s squishy (and increasingly not-so-squishy) toes.