It’s high time to stop objectifying women and girls

What’s it going to take for our society to just STOP seeing women, and even girls, solely as sex objects?

This past couple of weeks, one woman’s blog post asking Target to stop the miniaturization (i.e. sexy-fication) of young girls’ clothing went viral. Rightly so. I have four daughters, ages 18 down to 7, and I have long chafed over the fact that retailers simply make girls’ clothes shorter, tighter, and smaller than boys’ clothes.

(Unfortunately, the one place this doesn’t seem to apply is in the waist and hips, because it’s dang hard to find a good variety of slim pants sizes for my slim girls. JCPenney makes them; Gap and Old Navy make some slim sizes; online retailer Lands’ End makes them. But this being a slightly-related but not completely-related topic, I’ll just keep it to this: can’t we have more sizing options? Yes, I know that, one, people — including kids — come in all shapes and sizes, and two, there are more and more heavy kids in what’s becoming an obesity epidemic, thus necessitating the plus sizes in kids’ clothes, but there still are some children out there who eat fairly healthy and are naturally slim. Argh.)

My oldest, in Bermuda shorts.

Anyway, back to the topic: Just because teen girls seemingly prefer short-shorts instead of Bermudas doesn’t mean mothers want to buy Daisy Dukes for their toddlers and elementary-school-age kids.

This goes as well for all the junior-department dresses that are about 16 inches long, particularly formals, that are strapless and end mid-thigh. Pair these with the also-trendy stilettos or huge platforms, and we have the stereotypical image that’s traditionally been reserved for prostitutes.

And look at what a really gorgeous and fun but not-skimpy dress we found for prom.
And look at what a really gorgeous and fun but not-skimpy dress we found for prom.

Mind you, I do like style, particularly dresses. I adore dresses! They’re so fun and girly and there are just SO many styles and interesting looks. I love to shop for myself; I love picking up new frocks for my girls (on sale, naturally; the better the bargain at a nice retailer, the bigger the smile on my face). But there is no reason for such a high proportion of dresses to skimp so much on fabric. And taking the sexy styles of teens (which are too sexy for girls who haven’t even reached adulthood yet) and adapting them into preteen styles is just NOT COOL.

More of us parents and shoppers should be ACTIVELY doing more to contact retailers and demand change. So kudos to this blogger. See? One person asking for change can make a difference.

Then there are the constant stream of images in the media, whether it’s music videos or movies and TV shows (to which our girls are looking for inspiration or, at the very least, simply can’t NOT see in their digital lives). The latest, apparently, is a horrific video by Maroon 5, “Animals,” featuring Adam Levine as a butcher who stalks a female customer. Oh, yeah. Let’s glorify the “fantasy” of a male stalker — a butcher surrounded by bloody carcasses, no less — with an “animal” lust that can’t be controlled.

What continues to elude me is why women who are participants in these blatant displays of demeaning women are willing to sign on. The Maroon 5 video features Levine’s new wife, Behati Prinsloo. No doubt the honeymoon phase hasn’t worn off yet. Otherwise one would hope she would be the first to say, “Look, Adam, honey, I don’t think that’s a great idea. Let’s try something else, shall we?”

Then there are Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea celebrating their barely-clad backsides in “Booty.” (Let me note that I have not watched these videos, just seen a few screenshots. I do NOT care to put any more images in my head of these things.) They are the stars of their own shows; J.Lo, with her clout, arguably does or could control her image and what kind of music she sings and videos she shoots, so I hold her more responsible. I believe the typical argument goes like this: “I’m a strong, empowered woman, and I’m taking control of my own sexuality and am CHOOSING to show my sexual side.”

My only response to this is this: Baloney.

You know that you’ll get lots of attention and more money by using your sexual side to sell your “brand.”

Think what these empowered women could do if they really put their money where their mouths are and CHOSE to send different messages, messages about how richly talented and diverse and interesting women and girls all are, starting with themselves. And think what we as consumers could do if we sent a message the other direction to these celebrities and the media who promote them: What if we truly did not buy their products? What if millions of us rose up in protest and sent emails and letters, showing that we really don’t want what they’re foisting on us?

In an age when many of us really are trying to teach our girls something better, to rise above worries about trivial matters of our appearances, why are the music industry, the film and TV industries, working so hard against us? (Rhetorical question, folks.)

I heartily agree with this sentiment expressed by a parenting researcher and author in The Daily Telegraph: “I am sick of trying to teach my daughters how much they have to offer the world, only to have everything I say undermined by the sleazy, unhealthy messages that someone with no respect for womanhood promotes to the mass market to make some more money. The wellbeing of our wives, sisters, and daughters is worth more than that. It’s not OK.”

Today we recognize the amazing determination of one teen girl in pushing for education for girls in her native Pakistan. Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: one of the finest achievements anyone could aspire to, and she’s only 17. We aren’t all in awe of her for her booty, her figure, her beauty, or her style; far from it — she covers her head in public with colorful scarves. She bears scars from being shot in the head for campaigning for girls’ right to education. No, everyone is impressed with her convictions and bravery to do the right thing, despite almost being killed.

That’s what matters. That’s what we want to encourage our girls to embrace about themselves: their strength, their bravery, their determination to find the best in themselves and make it better and share it with others, conviction to make the world a better place. They’re all different sizes, different colors, different backgrounds. But they all have so much to give! I speak from experience because I have amazing girls.

It is high time we ALL spoke up for the amazing girls and women of this world and helped them reject being reduced to mere one-dimensional sex objects.

Financial advice to a kid who’s getting ready to be an adult

In talking about education, and many of public education’s failings, the notion that kids simply aren’t taught about real-world, practical personal finance has come up a few times. I know people who are really great at handling money, regardless of how much they make. They make wise decisions in budgeting, spending, and saving, and they feel secure. Then I know plenty of others who really don’t know how to handle money, and it’s cost them, literally. The problem is usually this: no one ever taught them how to do it right. I don’t think many people really WANT to be “bad” at handling their money, but they just didn’t learn basic skills and rules.

I was blessed to be taught by my parents about wisely using my resources. For instance, I am a really great shopper (just ask me about all the dresses and other clothes I’ve gotten for myself and my kids at top-notch stores for totally cheap!). I also have been very careful going into any situation that might require me to take out a loan. My husband and I are now on our third house, and I think we’ve done pretty well each time we’ve purchased a home (with a mortgage, mind you). I don’t follow Dave Ramsay; I do respect the advice he gives when I read it and am thrilled he is a source of basic information for many who just didn’t know any better up until they came across him.

dollar light bulbSo I’ve been working over the years to make sure I consistently talk to my girls about money, with appropriate information at appropriate ages. With the oldest in high school, I’ve definitely given her very specific information and directions. I’ve talked to her about how banks work, about how loans and interest work. I’ve shown her how I budget for the month and how I pay bills. I am not sure how much she remembers, so I need to follow up again. But here I’m going to share a few of the top pieces of advice I hammer home to her.

  1. Learn how to make a budget, at least a fairly simple one. First, figure out what you have to spend monthly or yearly or at other regular intervals, and then break those things down to per-month units. If you don’t know how much you spend on food or incidentals or entertainment, keep a little booklet and write down every time you spend in whatever category you want to track. After a month (one that’s an “average” one, ideally, and try two, even, to get a better idea), tally it up. Enter that into your budget. You can use just a list in a Word program; you can use Excel or any other kind of software that makes you happy. You can have a paper list in a file folder. Doesn’t matter the type; just do it, whatever you like the best. And then — ONLY SPEND WHAT’S IN THE BUDGET (or less).
  2. Do not get a loan for anything you don’t absolutely need. Houses, cars, and education qualify. Pretty much everything else does not. Whenever someone gives you the option of paying for something on an installment plan, just firmly say “no, thanks.” If an appliance is more than you can afford with cash you’ve saved for a certain amount of time, for example, buy a simpler one or start with a used one. When I was first in a rental townhouse that provided washer/dryer hookups, for instance, I was thrilled just to not have to go to a laundromat. But I didn’t go and buy a new washer and dryer. I bought used ones at a local store that sold used appliances, and they worked great. In fact, I had used washer/dryers for probably a decade.
  3. Going along with point 2, if you’re buying a big-ticket item, do not allow the salesperson to give you numbers broken down according to “installment thinking.” If you have the money to pay for the item up-front, just say so and buy it. If you do need a loan, negotiate on the full price of the item (let’s think “used car” here, because that’s an acceptable option for something you can buy with a loan) and get the lowest possible interest rate. Shop around for this: there are plenty of options, like local credit unions, your bank, or even sometimes the credit available through the sales place (car dealership, for instance). Don’t let the person sweet-talk you by using monthly payment numbers. Tell him firmly you want interest rate deals and settle on the price of the item. If after all that, you find that the monthly payment is too much, you need to get a different car, one that costs less. Sorry if it has to be kind of a junker.
  4. Used cars are almost always the best deal. Even if you’re far enough along in your adult financial life that you have cash to pay for a car up-front, buying one that’s just a year old will likely be your best bet over the long haul. Homes generally hold their value or go up in value. You can buy one for $100,000 and sell it later for a profit, especially if you’re in it for a long time and there’s no recession. Cars automatically lose their value. New cars lose value the moment you drive them home. You can’t turn around and sell a car you bought new on the lot a month later for the price you paid for it, or even close. You’ll lose a lot.
  5. Don’t feel you have to have the newest of anything, particularly technology. Like cars, which depreciate immediately, brand-new technology immediately is eclipsed by better models. You can shop around and compare and figure out just what you need in a new TV or computer, and a month later you’ll wish you’d waited because technology evolves that quickly. But it’s OK. You don’t NEED those improvements. In fact, you’ll be fine without them for a good number of years. Unless your paid work is in the technology field, you don’t need to have or use the latest stuff at home.
  6. Watching money pile up in savings is a thrill. Spending can certainly be a thrill, too. But consciously socking away money you could have spent on something you didn’t need, for a particular purpose, whether it’s saving for something fun like a vacation or something necessary like a newer, better-running car or a newer appliance, is long-term satisfying. Nowadays, it’s easy to just go online at home and transfer money you were thinking about spending from your checking account into savings. And just enjoy watching your own dollars do a little work for you. That’s where interest comes in. …
  7. Interest can be your worst enemy. Or it can do your bidding. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that today, you don’t get paid much in interest for savings accounts. But at least you’re letting it work for you rather than being its slave. Loans always come with interest attached (unless you’re buying a brand-new car with a deal of 0% interest, which might sometimes be OK, but in general let’s stick with used, shall we?). And that interest keeps building the longer you have the loan, the longer you draw it out by paying the bare minimum or as little as possible. The concept of “compound interest” is essentially this: over time, a $1000 loan (let’s say) accrues interest, which then is added on to the original $1000, and then interest builds again over that sum that’s greater than the original. If you pay the tiniest amount (this is the worst when it comes to credit cards or consumer loans such as those at stores rather than banks), your $1000 will only decrease by that small amount you pay, even while interest is adding back onto it. Then interest is calculated on that. And on that bigger number. And so on. (Note that I am not a financial expert and am not trying to explain this from that kind of viewpoint. This is just basic advice.)
  8. Make sure you learn how to balance a checkbook/checking account/savings account. Whenever you write a check or take money out of the account by debit card (which are linked to checking accounts, by the way, and are not like credit cards except that they are the same size and shape) or transfer (hopefully to savings!!), WRITE IT DOWN and do the math. Subtract right then and there, or do it every evening if you make purchases/pay bills regularly during the day. If you get a deposit, then add! (Even better!) But then every month you need to do the double-checking. Your bank will give you a statement. Make sure you check off your own register, comparing it with the items on the bank’s statement. Sometimes you might have forgotten to write something down, you might have made a math error, or the bank might actually have made a mistake. So check as soon as you get the statement and compare and “balance.” You can avoid a lot of problems this way.
  9. Buy used for big items when you’re getting started. But in certain cases, when you have to buy something new, buy a good-quality (even more expensive) item. Then shop for a deal. Certain items are cheaper over the long run, when you have a little more money available in your budget, if you get a higher quality item now and then you won’t have to spend again to replace the item too soon. Shoes work this way; some kitchen items and technology work this way. It might be worth paying double or at least 50% more to get a really good-quality item that will last and perform better in the meantime than a cheaper one that is less well made and will need to be replaced sooner (and more frequently).
  10. The shopping strategy of buying higher quality goes along with this advice that might shock a lot of people: it is often cheaper to shop at nicer department stores that run regular sales than at cheaper all-purpose stores that don’t run sales. For example, I am a huge fan of Macy’s. It’s long been my go-to store for clothing and shoes. I’ve been able to come out of Macy’s with some nice-quality dresses or shirts for a quarter or less of their original “regular” price. (That leads to another note: most “regular” prices are just listed as a way for people to think they’re getting a great deal when the item is discounted, so don’t go too crazy.) What’s more, the final price is far less than I would have paid for a similar item at a store like Target or even discounters like Marshall’s or Ross. Sure, the latter stores are “always” discounted, but if you pay attention to sales, you can get a nicer item that’s not been run through the mill or was destined for a discounter from the beginning. And you have a much more pleasant shopping environment! 🙂 (Let me also note that I very rarely shop outlet stores for this very reason: the “discounts” aren’t any better than what you’d get by good shopping at the regular store, and often the products have never actually been in the real store; they’ve been made cut-rate specifically to sell at outlets.)
  11. When buying any item, keep track of the regular, everyday prices for things you buy on a regular basis (I just know in my head the usual prices for everything I buy regularly, but if you can’t do this, write it down!). This mostly applies to food and toiletries and cleaning supplies. But it works for clothes (note No. 10 above). This is important because when you’re shopping and see something you use a lot and can stock up on (pantry items, cleaning supplies, for instance) on sale and discounted significantly, you already know it’s a good deal and can buy a bunch and save yourself money in the longer run. I find this is far simpler than keeping track of coupons. Most coupons anymore don’t apply to my regular purchases, so I end up clipping very few coupons from the newspaper and mailed flyers.
  12. Credit cards aren’t necessarily bad. But this really depends on your personality. If you know you’re going to go crazy and just spend because it’s easy when you have “plastic,” then don’t use them. If you are pretty careful, though, they’re a valuable tool. They are (somewhat unfortunately, in reference to those who aren’t careful with their use) a vital part of building credit, which is important if you do need to take out a loan (for house or car or education…) in the future. They are also pretty handy for emergencies, traveling, or other situations where you need to pay for something but didn’t expect to need to do so. But don’t let “exceptions to the rule” become the rule and mess up your budget and/or credit. Make sure you budget a certain amount for the items you get regularly and can use a credit card for. Then pay that balance EVERY MONTH IN FULL. I do this. I have a budget with my couple of main credit cards and know I will buy certain things with them (toiletries and cleaning supplies and some food at places like Target and Wal-Mart; gasoline for the cars; online purchases; gifts, etc.). I know what I need to buy and how much I spend monthly on average, and I stick within that. Then, I get points for my purchases, and I can get cash back. I’m not paying any interest but I get extras. I also can keep my check register from being full. I really like simplicity in there. But that’s just me.

Last, when in doubt, ASK FOR HELP! Ask your parents if they’re good at finances. Ask someone you know from school or a church or community group. If you have enough connections, it’s highly likely you can pretty easily find someone who’s willing to give you some input before you make, particularly, a big decision.

Education system leaves kids behind left and right

I haven’t been a fan of “No Child Left Behind” since it started. It’s clear to me that essentially saying, “We’re going to make education the same for all kids and make them all perform well” isn’t going to work. I have two major gripes, addressing kids on both ends of the spectrum — and I know whereof I speak. I have a child with Down syndrome whose IQ and certain academic abilities are far below normal. Yes, she is a bright, alert and involved girl who’s eager to work and do lots of things, but she will never grasp certain concepts, at least not well enough to pass a test on par with her non-disabled peers. Though I do want to push a little to see where my daughter’s boundaries (and full capacities) lie, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some real limits to what she can do compared with people who don’t have her intellectual disabilities.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have daughters who do not have that genetic limitation, and they are very intelligent and talented. Problem is, though they have been tested and shown to have high capacities (IQ, academic abilities, creativity, what-have-you), there are no active programs to encourage them as they develop those skills. Our school system in this city has what’s called a Gifted and Talented program (GATE), but it’s essentially just a pretty, shiny sticker to put on my girls’ academic folders. It means absolutely nothing because it has no funding and no activities besides maybe a field trip once a year to see colleges or something similar.

I have to chuckle when I think about the contrast here with my experience in the great gifted program I enjoyed in my middle school years. Here’s why: it was in Mississippi, which many basically consider the educational laughing-stock of the country. But despite the truths and/or misconceptions in that assumption, it provided for the gifted students. We spent a good part of one day per week exploring other parts of our brains, creating and thinking differently. It was challenging, interesting, and lots of fun.

My oldest daughter has enjoyed the fun and creative challenge of the Odyssey of the Mind program.
My oldest daughter has enjoyed the fun and creative challenge of the Odyssey of the Mind program.

Now I find it extremely frustrating to have children who have the need to explore, create and “think outside of the box” but have no program that addresses those needs. My oldest has been lucky the past two years to get involved with a program called Odyssey of the Mind — but only because she had a friend who was already involved at another school. She was allowed to participate in the program by special arrangement, because she attends a different high school in the district. Thank goodness that was allowed to happen. This is a really neat opportunity for her to create, stretch herself, think outside the box, and so on. Now I would like to see my younger daughters involved. But I’m thinking the only way that’s going to happen is if I pay for the program and take charge of it myself. (I may very well do that.) It fits very nicely into what I envision as being a perfect GATE program. Why doesn’t our district use it?

So this has been on my mind for years, literally, and for the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about how to improve things a bit just here in my younger girls’ schools (middle school, elementary). But, again, this is a much bigger problem that’s not affecting just my kids; it’s affecting all the high achievers throughout the country. I read a great piece in the Boston Globe on the topic today, and I sat here nodding my head, shaking with frustration. Why can’t we actually tailor education to different kinds of students with differing natural abilities? Why do we have to act as if students all can be equal if we just say it’s so or should be so? (That’s another topic as well….)

Here’s a great excerpt from the article:

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which penalizes public schools that don’t bring the lowest-performing students up to grade level. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act regulates special education and provides schools with more than $11 billion annually. A provision of federal education law called Title I allocates some $14 billion to schools that have a higher proportion of students from low-income families, to pay for programs designed to keep them from falling behind.

The smartest kid in class, by contrast, is not an expensive problem. A boy or girl who finishes an assignment early can be handed a book and told to read quietly while the teacher works on getting other children caught up. What would clearly be neglect if it happened to a special-needs child tends to look different if the child is gifted: Being left alone might even feel like a reward, an acknowledgment of being a fast learner.

Not surprisingly, programs oriented toward gifted children get barely any federal funding.

Once again, we see a problem that affects kids from varying economic and social backgrounds. There are bright, capable kids from immigrant families, from families that are poor, from families that aren’t well educated. But they could really over-achieve and give back to society in a big way if given extra attention. Problem in our current climate is this: if they were underachieving, they’d get more attention. ISN’T THAT INSANE?

I am lucky to be able to give my daughters lots of enrichment because I’m college educated and well-to-do enough to have the funds to introduce them to museums, good classic films, art, books, etc. I also have time to spend with them. That’s great for my girls. But, as I said in my previous post, it would sure be nice if I didn’t feel I HAD to provide all their enrichment because the schools are shorting them. Given these issues, again, Why can’t education be tailored to kids with different abilities? Why can’t we say, Yes, these kids could use some enrichment and encouragement in their naturally gifted ways? And other kids who have disabilities need special help and concessions, and we need to help them reach their highest potential, but not expect that potential to necessarily be the same as kids who don’t have those intellectual disabilities?

Gah! It’s enough to make a mom and concerned citizen scream.

I will not admonish you to ‘enjoy this stage’

I think one of the worst things to hear as a parent, at least of young children and definitely of kids still at home, is “Enjoy this stage: they’re going to grow up before you know it!” Honestly, any unsolicited advice or “pseudo-advice,” which is what I’d call this admonishment, is generally unwelcome. Adjusting to parenting is hard enough — finding your own groove, your own way of handling all the changes, all the individual factors that combine to make your parenting experience unique in some ways — that getting told how to do better, or, worse, how to “think” or “feel” better about it, is a tough pill to swallow. You pretty much just wanna smack the well-intended but not-thinking person who dared to say it, perhaps with a squishy used diaper (OK, this is my reaction when I get ridiculously tired and cranky: I tend to overlook how people really can say things in well-meaning ways). Here’s my advice to improve that advice: be encouraging, give specific tips you’ve found useful, and provide a meal or babysitting if you really wanna make ’em smile!

Here’s what I know after 18 years of being a mom and being still in the middle of raising four daughters: parenting is tough. It’s physically and mentally and emotionally draining. It takes everything that’s in you and more. It makes you double- and triple-question yourself. And each stage of raising kids has its own set of challenges that exhaust your reserves (or try to) in various ways.

But I have come to appreciate that each parent, thanks to his or her particular backgrounds and skills, may be better at, more suited to, or at least enjoy certain stages more than others. I am pretty sure I was not a natural at parenting babies and toddlers, although by the time I got to my third, I was better prepared and, thus, more interested in it and wanting to “enjoy” it, “savor” it, more (as much as is possible). But with my first, who was honestly a very needy, demanding baby and gave me not a second to myself, to gather my thoughts or even shower, without fussing for me, I was always on edge. Tired is not an adequate adjective to describe how it feels to take care of a newborn in any circumstance, anyway. (This is why I reiterate: do NOT tell the mom or dad of a newborn to “just relax and enjoy it.” Enjoyment requires a level of consciousness that is precluded by the exhaustion that fogs up the brain and life in general. One can just catch snippets of enjoyment.) I did enjoy my subsequent babies more because I knew a little better what I was doing and they weren’t as demanding, naturally; plus, I had other kids by then to help with them. But I still just couldn’t dive in and fully enjoy because, like I said, that requires a lack of haziness.

What I have come to enjoy so far are the school years, in some small part because I generally get a full night’s sleep every night. Mostly, though, I love to teach my kids and help them learn, and read with them (and since I love reading, I must admit I’d rather read a book that at least has a rudimentary PLOT, rather than a long selection of letters or numbers, I don’t care how adorably illustrated and brightly colored those letters may be). I also like having them be gone for part of the day, so I can have a little time to gather my thoughts, be myself, and get some things done without their assistance or accompaniment. Yes. I admit that. When they are then home I can really have more fun with them. I like teaching them as part of our everyday life, not as a “lesson.” I chatted with my nearly-12-year-old last night about mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, including my interest in subatomic particles and my desire to eventually make time to stop at the (fairly close-by to me) Lawrence Livermore lab (ooh… particle acceleration!). I mean, really, who wouldn’t be excited by the tiniest, unobservable pieces of matter being slung around inside a tube for a mile to see what they’ll do?

My girls are just great fun.
My girls are just great fun.

I found myself grateful yesterday by the simple fact that I could run inside the library for a couple of minutes and tell the same nearly-12-year-old that, yes, since she has a good stack of books for the moment, she could stay in the locked car and (probably read while doing so) wait for me. You can’t do that with littler ones. I am grateful for this stage of parenting, with a daughter who’s about to graduate high school (but hasn’t yet) and younger ones down to a nearly-7-year-old who can all open and close the car doors, buckle and unbuckle themselves and get in and out themselves. They can walk with me in the store rather than have to be stuck in a cart (although it’s still generally preferable, because it’s faster and quieter, for me to shop at Target or the grocery store by myself). They’re all potty-trained and can give themselves baths and do all the other self-care. They can even prepare food for themselves, at various levels. Yep, I’m glad to be past the stage where I have to do every detail to keep them alive and healthy. Now it’s more fine-tuning and the heftier matter of getting them properly educated and prepared for the world. It’s daunting, but it’s a stage I mostly enjoy.

I have friends who adore when their children are out of school and can pursue all kinds of things; I have friends who are/were amazing in all the cute projects they did with their toddlers and preschoolers. I know some amazing grandparents. But I no longer feel bad about not having been more like them, for instance, when my kids were at earlier stages. I am liking where we are now, despite the raging female hormones and completely unfounded crying spells. It’s fun. They’re easier to talk to, to share things with, to joke with. No, I do not treat my kids like “equals” or “friends” in that I do not expect them to be respectful of adults and do what I ask since I’m the parent. But they are so fun and so interesting that I consider them friends now. And isn’t that the greatest thing in the world: to raise your own friends?

Letter to a child who’s grown up too fast

Dear oldest daughter,

So. Here we are, you with only one semester left of high school. I think this one semester has given me more grief than it has you. For years, I’ve vowed that I would not, would NOT, have specific expectations for you that were based more on my own experiences than on what should be your own. But this last month has certainly tested that vow. First, I was concerned about your unacceptably low grades in one admittedly very difficult class. Then the deadlines came and went for priority admissions to several universities you were interested in, and you hadn’t completed half of what needed to be done. Last was this past week: that challenging class ended with a very low grade, despite my (unsuccessful) efforts to reach the teacher earlier in the semester to ask what you could be doing to make it better. Yep, I admit I ended up coming home on that last day of school after trying to talk to the teacher and your counselor and collapsing into a puddle on my bedroom floor. Of course, it had more to do with all the other things I’ve been doing for you and the rest of my children, but that was the topper.

So I’ve succeeded pretty well in just letting you live your own life, with support and some guidance from me, without me choosing things for you (pretty much) or imposing my own will or interests on your plans. But now that it’s crunch time, it’s been very hard.

Marce, Cathy and baby BI think back to the day I gave birth to you, my first child, and how absolutely at a loss I was for knowing what to do next. I’d successfully navigated a pregnancy, but holding you in my arms left me gaping into a future that I had no idea how to handle. I barely knew what to do with a baby. In photos holding you, I can just see the look in my eyes of “what now?” Luckily, your dad was much more adept with handling baby stuff: changing diapers, swaddling, clipping tiny but sharp little fingernails that had scratched up your delicate face before birth. At least you took to breast-feeding pretty well; I could feed you.

I’ve become much more skilled at taking care of baby and kid stuff over the past 17 1/2 years, and I diapered and fed and toilet-trained three others after you with aplomb. Now, though, I’m feeling that same feeling I haven’t felt in so many years: “what now?” How do I let you loose on the world? How do I balance not taking over details (I would have just been on top of those priority applications, no question, when I was younger; I was a very focused and driven high school student) with giving some gentle guidance and continuing support? As a young woman who’s about to be a legal adult, you have to make your own mistakes and learn from them the way you need to. But as your parent, it’s my job to help you navigate your way, maybe minimize the number of those mistakes a bit, even tweak natural consequences a tad when I can.

Because this is transition time. I’ve always wanted my kids to grow up working hard and being confident and independent, much like my parents did for me. (My mom says it was tough, but there’s no question my sister and brother and I were independent. Rueful chuckle.) I’ve never wanted to step in and take over, to not let you carry much of your own life loads, because then you’d be in shock when you were forced to do that later in life. But it does kill me to see you bloody your knees too badly.

So if someone were to take a photo of me standing next to you right now, I suspect the look in my eyes is going to be that deer-in-the-headlights look again. “What do I do with this fledgling adult?” I have to let you fly more outside the nest, but you’re getting scraped up a bit much lately and I feel it keenly.

So forgive me for my freak-out moments; be patient as I try to navigate a new time in my life of parenting. Try to come to me for help before things get out of control so I can really help. But that’s a lesson I’m still learning too (ask for help; say no; learn your limits), so I guess it’s just the start for you.

We’ll do this together, and we’ll come through with flying colors. In the meantime, though, the colors might be a little muddled.

Love, your adoring and dedicated mom

Media portrayals of women won’t change until we demand them to

… and that means women need to teach girls to expect better of the media

The latest Photoshopping news item to grab online attention is proof that a magazine tweaked a cover photo of Jennifer Lawrence. Rightly so, people were outraged.

Question is this: will this just die down and go away and be forgotten? It’s already been a couple of days since the story hit the ‘net and I don’t hear much talk about it anymore. People’s attention spans are short, and the next juicy item follows behind so quickly. Today, it’s all about the Duck Dynasty gay-comments issue with Phil Robertson. Tomorrow, who knows?

So, really, since human nature, at least in our 24-hour-news-cycle age, means we’ll forget most outrages in a matter of hours, will this information change anything?

Sadly, I doubt it.

Here’s what needs to happen, though: both women and men need to consciously work to keep this topic in the forefront of their minds. And they need to act. We all need to stop buying and reading the magazines that Photoshop women (which is pretty much all of them, even the health and fitness ones). Stop watching the movies and TV shows that make women secondary characters and, then, feature them only as sexual beings, as scantily-clad “pretty props” or set dressing. With the media, the only way to make a change is to vote with your pocketbook. Stop feeding the beast. And speak out, directly to each media company, and discuss with friends and family.

After years of living in a world saturated with media images portraying women as sex objects and set dressing, it’s taking a while to get older, more experienced women (and men) to realize what’s been happening. We need to keep getting the word out to them (I firmly fall into that category: at 43, I’ve been marinating in this lopsided, demeaning, and oppressive culture for decades).

At the same time, once we older people get the idea, we absolutely must teach our younger family members and friends to see the truth. The media loves the young folks: they’re the ideal demographic, so everything is skewed to their supposed tastes. So if we’re going to get a message out to the media, we must make sure the young people understand it, get it, and act on it.

It would take many, many blog posts to “prove” just how damaging this Photoshopping nonsense is to girls and women, and not only to females, but to males. It changes everyone’s expectations and core beliefs for the worse. There are plenty of resources out there that talk about this. Beauty Redefined is a great one, but there are others (check out BR’s posts related to “recognizing” what’s happening to get a good start). So this little post is just another part of the call to action. Don’t just cheer internally for Jennifer Lawrence’s ideals (not liking Photoshop, wanting to get rid of body shaming, sending a better message to young girls about image) — take a stand and do something. Write to magazines and ask that they stop Photoshopping. Stop watching movies that relegate women to sex objects. Talk about the topic with young people, both boys and girls, and keep it in the forefront.

The media won’t change without huge pressure to do so. Be part of that change. It takes one person at a time, but one person and another and another all add up. Take that first step. Hey, even reblog/post this. Let’s just bombard people with this message. Maybe someday, maybe even by the time my teen daughters are mothers of teens themselves, our culture won’t be marinating us in negative portrayals of women anymore. It could happen.

(For ideas on “resisting” negative body-image messages in the media and our culture at large, read Beauty Redefined posts related to that topic.)

AND AS AN ADDENDUM, another great resource from a woman who’s “been there, done that” when it comes to being ultra-toned. Taryn Brumfitt at Body Image Movement says this (in a blog response to fit mom Maria Kang): “I AM a health advocate. I run, I lift weights, I eat healthily but I also have a cookie with my soy latte and knock back the odd burger or yiros when I feel like it. It’s called balance. And whilst I am getting on my soap box (I’ll just be here for another minute) health is not dictated by your looks. Health is physical, emotional and spiritual and so much more that is not visible and not always obvious to others” (emphasis was added by me). She also told the Daily Mail: “If what you value is your health then you’ll treat your body like a vehicle, not an ornament.” I LOVE that.

Value your body for what it can do, not for how it looks. I think it’s pretty simple.

Social “rules” and special kids

There are days I don’t think much about raising a child with a disability, and there are others that it seems overwhelming. I’ve written about a few of each of these kinds of days, I think, but today’s is going to be in the latter camp.

It’s funny: most posts I see online now that address Down syndrome are those “they are very special” or “they have impacted our family and others,”  etc. etc., inspirational kind. And they’re generally lovely and inspirational. At the same time, there are certain realities that come in between all that (just as with all child-rearing: the highlights are worth writing about, the so-crazy-they’re-funny-in-retrospect moments are worth a blog post, but the everyday stuff in between gets glossed over). In my case, as the mother of a 15-year-old daughter with Down syndrome, I have learned that there can be many, many moments of frustration and some embarrassment.

Here’s the thing: people with mental and emotional disabilities have a much more difficult time learning the social niceties. We take for granted that all of us after a pretty young age “get” the “rules” of appropriate behavior in our particular culture. But those who don’t “get” them stand out pretty starkly. Toddlers are excused from these rules, though their parents may smile ruefully. And, yes, people with obvious disabilities are kind of “excused” from the rules as well, or at least those who are mostly kind and observant are fairly understanding and downplay whatever’s said or done. But a toddler learns quickly and grows out of that stage and becomes another person who expects others to follow the rules.

My teen hasn’t grown out of that stage. She’s 15 now and still kisses people when she shouldn’t, pokes their belly buttons or other body parts, and shares all kinds of information that we deem to be private. Since she’s a young woman now, she has been menstruating for about a year or year and a half. That means we had to deal with her grasping the concept that she would bleed on a regular basis and it isn’t something to worry about. It also means we get to deal with her fluctuating hormones and moodiness, which isn’t quite as easy to explain or help her understand. And it means that she will say to anyone that “she has her pad.” Aiiieee! Whereas most teen girls would be mortified for anyone to know that they are having their period, even though chances are a quarter of the females around them are experiencing the same thing, mine is perfectly fine with declaring that information in any mixed company.

Here's the 17-year-old with the 15-year-old.
Here’s the patient older sister with the 15-year-old.

Then there’s the issue of boys and girls interacting. She’s at an age where her peers naturally are fixated on their relationships with the opposite sex. Her older sister and our exchange student, both older than she, are dating and sometimes kissing their boyfriends. All cute and sweet and perfectly innocent. Unfortunately, it’s another new and interesting phenomenon that Marissa has to talk about. She shared in Sunday School the other day to the whole class and the teacher that her sister had kissed her boyfriend. Older sister was there, wasn’t embarrassed about the information being known, but that it was being shared publicly at church. Just not the place or time, as most of the rest of us know per “the rules.”

Another issue: 15-year-old either insinuates herself between sister-and-boyfriend and exchange-student-and-boyfriend when they’re sitting or standing next to each other and possibly holding hands, OR she tries to push the two apart, even smacking the guy around a bit. Gah! I’m just hearing about all this secondhand, mind you; my 17-year-old is the kind and patient soul who is having to experience it firsthand regularly.

The latest: today, the elementary school office called to tell me my 6-year-old told a classmate a couple of days ago that she “has sex after school with her boyfriend.”


I think you can imagine how appalled I was to hear that. First, I don’t think the child has any idea what she’s talking about. Second, we are comfortable with the topic in the right conditions, but this isn’t one of them. I then found out that the youngest said she’d heard it from her sister. That would be the 15-year-old. All I can guess at this point is that she’s heard kids at school talk about the topic in some fashion, because high school students do talk. She somehow then shared that topic with the youngest, and the recipe for an embarrassing and frustrating incident was created.

We’ll be having a chat with the 15-year-old and 6-year-old to talk again about what’s appropriate to say in public. The youngest was told this briefly by the lady at school.

Here’s the problem: the 6-year-old probably won’t talk about that again. But the older one will. With all of the above incidents, we have said OVER AND OVER and OVER … AND OVER … and over… you get the idea… “Don’t say ________ around other people.” Or “don’t touch other people. Hug and kiss your family and maybe hug some people, but DON’T TOUCH THEIR BODY PARTS.” Or “don’t bother Sister and Exchange Student while they’re sitting/standing with their boyfriends.” It’s not that we’ve avoided the topics or just said these things a few times. We must mention them several times a week.

I just don’t know if it’ll ever sink in.

Nope, these are the things we don’t read about in the sweet, inspirational blog posts or the news stories about a girl with Down syndrome being crowned prom queen or the boy with Down’s being allowed to make a touchdown in the football game. Those moments are ones their parents will cherish forever, I am sure. But the thousand, million, other moments of real life are likely much like the ones I’ve just chronicled.

Parenting is tough. It’s rewarding. And parenting a child with a disability is even tougher and sometimes even more rewarding. I think I’ve mentioned before that it’s getting more interesting and challenging the older my daughter gets. I guess we’ll see just how much more so, but I’m hoping the teen years will be the trickiest. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Interacting with the world

I was thinking again about what a stark contrast there is between the kind of lives my kids and those of their generation lead and the childhood I experienced. I can’t help but lament the huge influence of electronics and other gadgets of today.

Here I am with my sister just watching the cows near our house in eastern Pennsylvania.
Here I am with my sister just watching the cows near our house in eastern Pennsylvania.

I have fond memories of spending lots of time outdoors. Let me make clear that I am not an “outdoorsy” type now and kind of wasn’t even then. I don’t really enjoy camping, I don’t hike, don’t fish, don’t go on trips out to natural wonders; rather, I really enjoy visiting cities with interesting historical sites, museums, and lots of other cultural wonders; I read, I spend time learning things online, editing, writing, etc. I guess it sounds odd I would then be nostalgic about my outdoorsy childhood. But I am. I’m pretty sure my mom forced me out the door when I was a kid, so I would get some fresh air, take a break from reading, and get out of her hair for a while. But I think back on all the beautiful country that lay around the old houses we lived in in various parts of Pennsylvania and just savor those memories. I made mud pies, incorporating wild little onions and carrots and the moist dirt that lay right along the burbling streams. In the winter, my siblings and I built great igloos and forts out of the snow that was so abundant.

Did I watch TV very much? Nah. Do I have fond memories of sitting around the TV set with my family? Not much. I do have some fond memories of going to see classic films with my dad and sister and brother. We watched “Oliver” and “Fantasia.” When teaching his occasional film class, Dad would bring us in to introduce us to Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” and even “Battleship Potemkin.” “Citizen Kane” was on the menu. But day-in, day-out, we didn’t have the option of watching videos in our living room. There were 13 channel options on the TV knob, and not all corresponded to an actual station (half were just static).

I love the scent of lilacs today because we had an amazing lilac bush outside a side door of one house, which had a kind of hollowed-out middle I could crawl into and think while smelling that intoxicating floral scent. While I don’t take the time today to find places to walk in nature, I did enjoy just setting out through woods and trails and seeing what I’d find, thinking about whatever while doing so.

Today, my kids and others have instant entertainment in the forms of hundreds of options of (mostly dreck) on TV; they have DVDs galore; there are computers with the Internet, Facebook, Google, YouTube, what have you; smartphones to access that same fun (and often the same level of dreck) stuff whenever they’re not sitting at a desktop computer, and so on. Even though I try to limit the amount of time they spend in front of any screen, just being entertained, I do lament that they aren’t forced as much to just entertain themselves. (Part of my sadness here is that my husband and I always lived “in town,” as opposed to the old houses out seemingly in the middle of nowhere my parents had us live. I admit I have caved to the convenience of having shopping, school, work, etc. easily and quickly accessible. Plus, my husband is a city boy.)

Yep, so here I am being one of those “old codgers” who talks about the good ol’ days and being sad about what’s happening with the young folk. Most of the time, I just do what I can to make my kids entertain themselves (they do love to read and we have a TON of books around, and we have plenty of paint, crayons, paper, etc. and other raw materials for play/learning) and keep them off the computer or away from the TV. But there are moments I wish they could have enjoyed the “simpler time” I had. Guess I’m just turning into my parents here. It’s bound to happen to all of us eventually.

My family dinner time is sacred

Here's my family gathered around the table to enjoy some homemade gumbo.
Here’s my family gathered around the table to enjoy some homemade gumbo.

Because of my involvement in some community organizations, I realized recently just how odd it is that my family actually gathers around the table for dinner. EVERY NIGHT. Yes, it’s true. I already knew that my practice of cooking homemade meals for my family was more than a little unusual, that many people don’t cook anymore but do some form of take-out most of the time instead (whether it’s fast food, mostly prepared food from groceries, etc.), but it just hadn’t hit me how few people eat meals together at home.

After running a few minutes late for a number of meetings for a booster club I volunteer for, I realized the reason I was the only one not there a few minutes early was that I was also the only one coming from home, from our dinner table (or maybe one of two). Our meetings have been at 6 or 6:30 p.m., right in the middle of mealtime. But rather than letting my family fend for themselves, even, I’ve just prepared meals earlier (though it’s been a little more stressful).

Everyone had told me for years that “once my kids got into high school,” they’d be so busy with extracurriculars that we’d stop our practice of mealtimes together. But my oldest is a senior in high school, and the one extracurricular that requires her to have an evening away (band practices in the evening) is only one night a week, and at 6:30. So we eat dinner together before she leaves. And our weekly youth church activity is at 7 p.m., so we all eat together before that. Other extracurriculars are late afternoon, before dinner. So, despite the dinner doomsday preachers, we have still eaten together as a family.

Yes, it’s taken some extra planning and a little extra work on my part. But it has been so worth it. I don’t think I need to point out that studies show how vital it is to eat together as a family, that each meal together bolsters teens’ emotional strength and happiness. I don’t really strive for meals together because of research. I do it because it’s fun, it’s enjoyable, it’s family bonding time. It contributes to our strength and happiness as a family unit. We’re not perfect or always happy, but we’re mostly happy together, and my kids feel secure and loved at home. Being together for dinner every night is just a part of the puzzle that makes home their refuge, their happy, secure place.

We talk about our days, we make jokes, we laugh as we quote from movies (we do that ALL the time; it’s just “our thing”: if we don’t slip in a quote from “The Princess Bride” at least a few times a week, something’s wrong). It’s all about togetherness, building and fortifying our camaraderie, our family identity.

Yeah, I think we’re now in the minority of families who eat together every night. I understand why many others have a hard time doing that; there are lots of good reasons for it. But I have fought to keep us together at dinner, and I will continue to do so, despite it being sometimes like swimming upstream, because it makes me happy. It makes us all happy. I hope I keep it up until our last little one has flown the coop, even when it’s just three of us sharing that camaraderie nightly.


They say that when you have a child with a disability, you must grieve the loss of the “normal” child you expected to have. I did this for a few days when I first found out through amniocentesis that my unborn baby would have Down syndrome. After that, I was as eager as any mother to give birth to a new baby. And her birth day was lovely and exciting and “normal.”

As I’ve adjusted expectations over the years and figured out at different stages what she has needed to aid her in developing and growing and achieving her potential, I’ve mostly rolled with the punches. But even as she walked and talked much later than my older daughter and did lots of things her very own way and at her own speed, I was mostly unconcerned. And she was so CUTE, and everyone she was around adored her.

Here she is at the high school, just a few days after starting.
Here she is at the high school, just a few days after starting.

I didn’t anticipate the interesting dilemmas that would face me as she reached adolescence and age out of elementary school. I certainly hadn’t given much thought to puberty (wha??!). Now, as of a few weeks ago, she is a freshman in high school. Just having her enter high school gave me a few little late aftershocks of grief; my oldest is a senior, and I’m right in the midst of being thrilled and excited for her and everything that’s ahead while simultaneously being struck smack in the chest with loss knowing she’ll be leaving home. I’m reflecting on the weeks three years ago, seemingly just yesterday, when SHE started high school and had all these new adventures and experiences awaiting her. How could my talented, sweet, fun little bird now be so close to flying out of our cozy nest?

So you see the stark contrast in experiences, in feelings, I’m facing as my second-born enters high school. She has a very different future ahead of her, not bad, but just different. It’s one I am unsure of, that is not nearly as clear as that of my oldest, because it’s not a path I’ve already forged myself.

Yesterday I had the yearly IEP (individualized education plan) meeting with the teachers and other interested parties at the school. But this time felt so different than every single IEP I’ve attended for the past 15 years. I was struck again by how far behind she is academically, that given her abilities, she simply will not graduate high school with a diploma, will not master algebra, even, which I’m informed is the “lowest” math class they have available at the high school. We still struggle with simple addition. But that wasn’t too surprising; I hadn’t really expected her to “graduate;” she can receive a certificate of completion, though, and that was an outcome I was already aware of.

No, what cut to the core was hearing that the classes she’s in right now are probably not where she needs to be, not because they’re too difficult academically (even though they’re the really basic versions geared for those who need extra help) but because they still are not attended by her true peers. The kids in these classes have struggles, but they perceive my sweet little girl as weaker, as a target, and they tease her. She’s on the outside. And I HAD NO IDEA. Sure, it’s only a few weeks in, and I imagine the teachers were just waiting to broach this topic at this IEP meeting, but knowing that my daughter has been treated just a little badly by classmates BROKE MY HEART.

(I did find out about another option for her class-wise that will probably be the better place for her when it comes to both academics and peers/potential friends, and I am going to look into it, visit, probably switch her, but that’s another story.)

I got through the rest of that meeting, signed paperwork, listened some more, asked questions, and considered, but I was really just hoping it would end so I could leave and not burst into tears there in the classroom. I came home and grieved for a few hours. Even as my oldest went to her band rehearsal and attended an open house on college options and scholarships and did all the kinds of things I did 25 years ago myself, I grieved that my second-born would not do these same things.

Did I think I’d already accepted that outcome? Yes, indeed. But it just started becoming reality, and it was such a stark contrast. I still am unsure of exactly what my daughter will do; she probably will eventually leave home and live on her own, with others in an apartment or in a group place that’s fun and friendly and warm; she will most likely have a job that’s simple for her to do that she enjoys. But it’s different. And will she always be able to find a place where she has peers, where she can make friends who are like her? Because right now that hasn’t been happening these past weeks. Will I miss something again in the future where she’s being teased or not fitting in? I can’t bear to think of it.

Sometimes grief comes anew and we must revisit what we thought we’d already “dealt with.” We must adjust expectations again and face the reality we could only see through the hazy, murky lens of an uncertain future. And it’s OK to do so. As I grieve, I know I will come out of it with clearer vision and a renewed determination to help forge a happy, workable life for my second child. No matter what, I do know that she will be happy and will make others around her happy as well. She’s already done that for 15 years.