Tag Archives: parenting

becoming a young man

The same year Ben found out about Santa not being real was the same year he found out that his parents would be separating. It will be one of those years of his life, I imagine, that he will run through the sieve of therapists and romantic partners and his own mind again and again to see what kind of insight catches. I was 10 when my mom died. It’s a year I return to often. A month after Benjamin turned 10, our divorce was finalized.

Ben did not take the Santa thing well. Here was a boy who did not believe in God but clung fiercely to all things magical, like Muppets and the Easter Bunny. I promised myself when he asked me if Santa was real, I would tell him the truth. One night, he asked. “Do you want the truth?” I responded. Yes, he told me. He looked sure. I looked straight into those sweet blue eyes and told him. And he shot betrayal back at me, howled from somewhere deep inside, ran down the hall and into his room, and slammed the door shut. He cried in ugly heaves, his face smeared with tears and snot, and Ryan and I sat next to him and tried to calm him. He reminded us about this dream he had in which Santa broke into his room and “rifled” (he said rifled) through his things and determined that he was good. In his dream, he had seen Santa’s boots at the end of his bed and looked up to see Santa staring down at him. This sounded pretty terrifying to me, but he was certain it was real and good. We had to assure him it had all been just a dream. We petted his hair and gently scratched his back and gave him all of the best lines about Christmas being in your heart etc. etc. but nothing made it better. The magic was gone. The Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny fell in quick succession. He gradually came to accept it, but I felt horrible for lying to him in the first place.

Then, later that year, we had to sit Ben down and tell him we were separating. It went much the same way. He made a terrible noise from somewhere deep within. It cracked my heart. He ran away from us and slammed his bedroom door again, but this time he locked it against us. You promised me, he said. You promised. He was right. I had promised. Years before, he had asked my why my dad and stepmom lived in separate houses, and I told him about divorce. I told him not to worry because it would never happen to us. I believed that then. That was back during the time when I believed that I could simply bend everything to my will and make it the way I wanted it, that I could give the kids a childhood completely free of some of the struggles I faced as a kid. But we were not doing well, and hadn’t been doing well for a long time. We sat together, all three of us on the bed, and Ryan and I petted and tried to soothe him again. We listened to all of his worries. We told him we would always be friends, would always love each other, just in a different way, and, most importantly, would always love him and his brother. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know how much of it Ben believed. I can’t blame him.

Ben is growing up. In the past few months, he started asking about puberty. So I got out my trusty It’s Perfectly NormalHe knows all about male and female bodies, sex, the changes he will go through. Given his age, he still seems to see sex as primarily a way to make babies. He’s into science. That aspect isn’t yet upsetting. But the body thing, he isn’t happy about. He does not want acne and sweat or hair sprouting out everywhere. He told me he is going to make an invention to stop all of it. I try to make it sillier. I make up a song about puberty. I ask him to imagine what his dad would sound like with a young boy’s voice. He laughs and then his little forehead wrinkles again with worry. He thinks so much, all of the time, in all directions. I’m sure he tells me just a fraction of it. He does not want to grow up.

I remember when I was a little older than Ben, and I looked around, and everything seemed less magical. I had seen divorce and my mother had died and my family was weird and I didn’t have any friends at school. I went to Disneyland for a school field trip and found myself calculating ride line times and performing price comparisons with increased efficiency and reduced joy. I could see, plainly, how crowded and expensive it was. It seemed small and hot and not worth it. I didn’t enjoy it again until I got to take my own children there and see it again through them.

Ben is growing up and seeing that life can be difficult. Magical things are tarnished, or gone altogether. I hope he will forgive me for my role in helping him to realize that. I want to smooth everything in his life that is rough, but I can’t. I am just trying to love him through it, even the wounds that I inflict. I want him to avoid growing as cynical as I can be, but I don’t know how to stop it.

I, too, have grown up and seen that life can be difficult. I had a bunch of illusions about myself that have just imploded. But it’s not necessarily bad. Being more uncertain has opened me up, too. There is so much to still learn about and see in a new way. There are so many small things to marvel at, like that spot of moonlight I notice on the floor of my bedroom at 3 a.m. when I am awake, worrying.

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self-promotion, yo

I have an essay in my brain about hard work and taking myself seriously as a writer and taking risks and being scared and excited all at the same time. It’s there; I just need to grade about 1,132 things before I write it. And help my kids with their homework. And help my friend with his cover letter. And prepare for a talk I’m giving in less than 48 hours.I love all of the millions of things I’m involved in, but I’m also sometimes worn down and stretched thin. My life is living me right now. Basically, I’m trying to work at and take seriously something I care about, writing. For now, I’m posting an essay I wrote called “An Open Letter to the Adorable Young Couple Leisurely Strolling by As I Frantically Usher My Children into My Rav4” that got published in McSweeney’s. I’m very excited about it. Please read. It’s short; I promise.

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are you my mother?

It will be Mother’s Day again soon. I am not scheduled to have the boys on that day, but Ryan is being more than accommodating. We will feel our way through this holiday like we have done with the past several, and we will be a little stiff but kind to one another. I have no biological mother to buy flowers for and celebrate. I have no stepmother. And though the paperwork is still unfiled, I now have no mother-in-law. The latter was the closest I ever had to a mother.

In P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?, a confused baby bird asks one animal after the next if it is his mother.


He naively thinks a kitten, a hen, a dog, a cow, a car, a boat, and a plane are his mother. He bumps around from one to the next, growing more and more frantic. He finally winds up on top of a seemingly dangerous, harmful-to-the-environment bulldozer-type machine. He feels panicked and trapped. He pleads for his mother. Fortunately, at the most crucial moment, he is miraculously dropped back into his nest, and they are reunited.

I was 10 when my biological mother died, but only 4 when she left me. I was raised by a stepmother who could be cruel and irrational, who hit me often. Like the baby bird, I bumped around, seeking the nurturing I lacked. I felt fortunate when I met my future mother-in-law at 15, and I eventually became part of her family when I married her son. We are both tall and brunette, with broad smiles. In public, people often mistook her for my mother, and I loved that. She told me she loved me like a daughter, and I believed her.

But circumstances change. People say parents love unconditionally, but I’m not sure I believe in that sort of love. Or maybe it’s the blood that makes the difference. I have moved from one mother to the next, but they either die, or resent, or give up on me.

I get the feeling that it would be much easier for Ryan’s parents, especially his mother, if I could somehow be erased. I understand that this is painful for them, too. Like that photo of the McFly siblings in Back to the Future, maybe they wish I could just gently fade away and disappear.


The problem is, I am everywhere. I am in all of the family photos from the past two decades. I am at birthday parties for my nieces. Their grandchildren have my DNA. Worse, I am in their memories. I won’t fade away because I exist.

I am no baby bird. I am an adult now, and nothing will drop me into the comfort of a mother’s arms. I only wish I could kill that instinct in me that still longs for that kind of connection. Fortunately, this feeling lives in a tiny corner inside of me, and on most days I don’t notice it. I try to give my boys the unconditional love and connection no mother ever gave me. I am lucky to have plenty of people who love and support me, even if I will never have a mother. I have figured out how to fly, and most of the time I fly just fine on my own.

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My body knew before I did. I woke every morning, for weeks, my stomach roiling and angry. I forced myself out of bed and tied my running shoes on and threw my body out into the freezing morning for my training. I ran 6 miles, 8, 10, 15, 18, on nothing to eat, only water and gels I forced down for the longer runs. I came home and stretched and took a shower and waited to be hungry. I just wasn’t. I’d make a smoothie and drink it down. I’d have a piece of toast. Or I’d just have nothing at all. I have posted before about how much I love eating, all types of food, how I would think about food when I’d first wake up, or on my commute to work, or mid-yoga class, when my mind was not supposed to be on anything at all. This was not me.

After we decided it was over, it got worse. My belts became bigger. I bought a size smaller, and then a size smaller. The pants I once spilled out of hung loosely. My sister, who hadn’t seen me in a while, told me my ass is gone, my prized bodily possession, but that I refuse to believe. It’s there still, and it is good. I did lose 20 pounds in about a month, however, and I now weigh less than what I lied about on my driver’s license. I am not an unhealthy weight, but the drastic nature of all of it is unhealthy. I know that. I had some baby carrots and a beer for dinner the other night. My dad, who has been through four divorces, told me that he lived on beer, coffee, and cigarettes for about a year when he divorced my mother. I’ve been sticking to beer and coffee, but cigarettes don’t sound half bad, either.

I wanted to make a life for my kids that was different than my life growing up. I have tried to be smart and practical and make all of the best decisions. It didn’t matter. I still somehow fucked everything up. My body knows. This probably sounds strange and irresponsible, but in some ways I can understand a little bit about eating disorders. There’s something a little intriguing and exhilarating about not caring about food anymore. I like to be in control, and I am not anymore, so I have been cleaning the house daily and not eating.

This whole experience has been like an episode of Out of This World, that terrible 80s show, when the teenaged protagonist, secretly an alien, would touch her fingers together and freeze the world around her so she could reassess the predicament in which she found herself.


In the weeks immediately following my moving out, I feel like an outsider, removed from the world in which I once lived, and the one that everyone else still seems to be a part of.  It has given me a sad and bizarre but almost comforting sense of clarity.

In that song “Crazy,” Gnarls Barkley sings,

                          I remember when I lost my mind

                          There was something so pleasant about that place.

                          Even your emotions had an echo

                          In so much space.

I know exactly what he means.

In the past week or so, my appetite has returned. I think about food again, all of the time, and I am always hungry. Before school let out, several students gave me baked goods for Christmas, and I eyed them in their square, holiday-themed plastic containers and thought, I will never eat all of this. But then I did. I ate orange scones, ginger cookies, lemon muffins, and brownies. I ate it all.

I’m still drinking too much beer, and I don’t sleep very well, or enough. But my appetite is back. My body knows. Things will be better.

Photo credit: http://www.fourthgradenothing.com/2012/01/out-of-this-world-tv-series.html

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an element of your condition

20131012-092848.jpgI love you, I say, and you say I love you, too. You stare at shadows or reflections or your iPad, and the structure of your words is hollow. You place your tiny, perfect hand on top of mine, all scarred and veiny. Your bones are so small. I examine them in those seconds, the rippling movements beneath the skin. They remind me of the hummingbird skeletons we saw through glass at the nature preserve in Austin this summer. I could snap them. You are so small for your age. The man at the electronics store today thought you were two years younger. He told me a story about a woman on the news who didn’t feed her toddler. As he spoke, he watched my face.

I tickle you and you roar into my ear. It is too loud, almost painful, but your breath is hot against my skin. When you hug me, you turn away, all vertabrae and elbows. An element of your condition is your discomfort with touching, and being touched. Your eyes are cartoonishly large, beautiful, deep gray blue ocean, and they are always fixed elsewhere. But I am your mother and I want to drink you in. There were years lost when you would scream and cover your ears if my fork made even a tiny clink against my plate. You banged your head against hard floors, slapped your own tear-carved cheeks, compulsively opened and closed doors, flipped light switches on and off. You couldn’t stand photographs. You couldn’t say mommy. But none of that mattered as much as when you screeched, like an injured, angry animal, every time I tried to touch you. I knew not to take it personally. I couldn’t help it.

You are doing better. You are only six. I want desperately to see the future. You are obsessed with yellow, so I try to picture you living in a yellow house, driving a yellow car. I can’t imagine very long. I can only see your round face, your full lips, those enormous eyes, the face of a little boy. Soon, the questions invade. Will you be able to live alone? Will you be able to go to college? Will you be able to have a job? Will you have a partner? Will you have children? Will you have friends? Will you continue to rage and scream? I try and put them away. I count the ways in which everything has improved. One thing at a time, everyone tells you. One thing at a time, I say.

It has been three years since your diagnosis. You have been instructed to tell me you love me. You have been taught to allow me to touch you. Sometimes it feels real. Sometimes I believe you. But I am not so different from any other parent. I always want more and more and more and more and more.

Photo credit: http://menagerieofminds.wordpress.com/

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hitting kids

Lots of parents I know and respect spank their children. But I never have and never will.

I was spanked as a kid. From the ages of 5 to about 16, I was also subjected to a variety of additional punishments. My stepmother made me kneel on rocks holding heavy items, hit me with her high heel shoes, forced socks or underwear, clean and sometimes dirty, into my mouth if I laughed or talked too loudly. I didn’t realize how much this impacted me until I had my own kids. I could not imagine doing these things to them. When I look at my children and I think back on all of this, I get a flush of anger, but also embarrassment. It was humiliating, all of it.

My kids have not been “easy.” Ben screamed nearly constantly from the moment he was born until he was almost four years old. He was always mad, always defiant. He spit on my face. He punched me. He peed on the floor on purpose. There was only one moment during all of this when I thought I might spank him. When he was three, he went into his bedroom and ripped every item from the wall, tipped his bookshelf over, destroyed several of his toys, and pulled the mattress off of the bed. In that exhausted, desperate moment, I took it very personally. I looked into that angry red toddler face of his and I thought about all of the things he had that I didn’t at his age, from his own room, to all of the toys and books, to a stable household. I picked him up and he thrashed in my arms, and I placed him, roughly, on his mattress, which was now haphazardly placed on the floor. I looked down at him and I took a deep breath and I walked out of the room and shut the door. Later, when he had stopped yelling, and I had stopped breathing so hard, I went into his room and took everything he had destroyed away from him, which worked very well. If I hadn’t walked away, I would definitely have spanked him. But I was committed to not hitting my kids.

And then there is Elliott. This morning, I went to check on whether or not he had put his school clothes on, and he was sitting on the couch with no pants on, casually flicking his penis. I asked him to put his clothes on, and he screamed at me, and when I tried to help him, he screamed at me. And then he screamed at me that he wants to be nice but that he does not want to try harder. I feel the anger rise and I let it go and we get through it.

With many years of patience and time outs (which I know are also controversial) and positive reinforcement and redirection and all of those things you read about in books, Benjamin is one of the most delightful and caring people I know. And given Elliott’s challenges with autism, he is making huge strides. Applied behavior analysis has helped tremendously. His empathy and self-awareness grow every year. He tells me he loves me and crawls into my arms and asks me if I am okay. He gets frustrated when he can’t control his impulses and he tries to do better, which is all I can ask.

When I was 16, my stepmother hit me for the last time. I don’t remember what I had done wrong, but I cowered in a corner of the upstairs hallway and she hit me again and again with her shoes. It didn’t hurt very much anymore because I was older. It didn’t stop being humiliating, though. As I curled into myself, I grew angrier and angrier. I was very tall, about 5′ 9″, and my stepmother was 5′ 0″. I watched her face as she hit me and I hated her in that moment. I stood up, and, surprised, she stopped. I was trembling with rage. I felt the largeness of my body in comparison to hers, and, feeling a new sense of power, I looked down on her. Fear flashed across her face for just a second. “What are you going to do?” she asked. “Hit me? You don’t hit your mother.” My feelings were complicated. I felt a twinge of guilt for making her afraid. I didn’t know what I wanted. It might have felt good to hit her, but I don’t think that was it. I just wanted her to stop. For good. I was done. “Don’t ever hit me again,” I said. I stared into her eyes, hard. I believe I would have hit her if she hit me again, but she didn’t. So I just walked away. I didn’t feel good about this, but I didn’t know what else to do.

I realize that spanking is not the same thing as some of the more abusive things my stepmother did to me. But to me, it is the same to a lesser extent. It still makes children feel afraid, humiliated, and powerless. It makes them feel their smallness acutely, and they already are made to feel so small. We romanticize being “old school,” but old school isn’t always better. Reading parenting books, striving to do better, and being thoughtful about the ways in which our actions impact our children is something to be proud of. I am strict with my children. I am consistent. I set firm boundaries. I do not allow them to misbehave. And both of them have challenged me a great deal. If I have been able to discipline these two crazy boys without ever hurting them physically, I believe anyone can. I never want them to feel about me the way that I feel about my stepmother, not even a little bit. And I know that they never will.

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high / low

woman-bipolar-disorder-290x300I cried once during our family vacation to Austin last week. Elliott and I were locked in the “family” bathroom stall of a movie theater. He was screaming at me, threatening to throw his chew necklace onto the bathroom floor. We had been watching Monsters U in 3D. (Side note: I hate 3D for the headache it causes me and the extra expense, but it was all that was playing at that time.) During the climax of the film, Elliott accidentally bit his finger. He roared in response. I threw everything in my lap onto the floor and whisked him up into my arms, as the whole theater seemed to turn and stare at us. He was angry that he had bitten himself. He was angry that I was rushing him down the dimly lit stairs and away from the movie. We were in the last row, and it seemed to take hours. I wasn’t worried about him. I know the difference between his screams of rage and his screams of real pain. I was mortified. I was frustrated. I was exhausted. It had been a difficult day.

We burst out of the theater door, and the ushers stared at this screaming, kicking child and his mother who had forgotten she was still wearing the goddamned 3D glasses. They seemed to find us mildly amusing. In the bathroom, I put Elliott down and caught a glimpse of my ridiculous self in the mirror. “I WANT TO WATCH THE MOVIE I WANT MY GLASSES I HAVE BOOGERS EXCUSE ME I HAVE BOOGERS I WANT TO WATCH THE MOVIE NO THANK YOU NO THANK YOU,” he screeched. As calmly as I could, I told him he needed to stop screaming or we would not be going back. He screamed for several more minutes. I considered my haggard, pathetic face in the mirror. I wondered if the people in the hallway could hear us, the horrible things they must be thinking about my parenting abilities. I felt tears well up but I pushed them away.

He finally stopped screaming. We watched the last two minutes of the movie, which no longer made any sense. He wore my 3D glasses because I couldn’t find his, so the final scenes were blurred for me. As the credits scrolled, he said, “Did you like this movie, Mommy?” as if nothing had happened. I had to put my face against the filthy, cold theater floor to reach far enough under my seat to collect all of the items I had dropped.

We stepped out into the blinding light and overwhelming heat and humidity. He demanded his sunglasses, which I produced from my purse. We walked to the car, the boys happily chatting about the movie. Meanwhile, horrible thoughts ran through my brain. I wondered if he loves me, if he has a conscience, if he will be like this, or worse, when he gets older, when puberty hits, when he is bigger than I am. Will he still kick me and scream at me? Will he hurt me? I thought about the woman I know whose autistic son nearly drowned her. He was 22 and had a tantrum in the pool. She had bruises all over her body.

My thoughts were very bleak, and I was feeling very sorry for myself, and I am not proud. As we walked to the car, my face twisted up and tears started pouring. Ben saw me and got upset. Unlike Elliott, Ben has a surplus of empathy. One kid couldn’t care less, and the other cares too much. I know I shouldn’t have cried in front of him, but I couldn’t stop.

Most of the time, I don’t feel like this. Most of the time, being Elliott’s parent is pretty incredible. Every year, every week, every day he is doing something new, and every accomplishment feels like an occasion to celebrate. Most parents are happy when their kids are potty trained, but when Elliott finally pissed in a potty chair, we jumped around the house, giddy with excitement. I felt like shutting down the streets and throwing a parade. It had taken him nearly 3 years.

This morning, I had to wake Elliott up very early to go to an occupational therapy appointment we had been anticipating for months. Elliott has been doing this for years. The appointments are generally several hours long, and the assessors are sometimes patient and kind, and sometimes not. Elliott is asked to perform task after task, often with no breaks. Balance on one foot, skip, do this puzzle, spin, close one eye, do this with your tongue, wear this cap, go into this tube, say this, etc. During the long, traffic-filled drive, Elliott and I played word games, listened to music, looked for sight words in the billboards. I marveled at him. Most kids don’t have to do the crap he has to do, and he is generally so amazing about it. During the assessment, he listened well and tried his hardest. It was over after 2 hours, and he was allowed to play for a few minutes while the therapist discussed the results with me. As he laughed in the other room, she told me everything that is wrong with him, and there were a lot of things. My face grew warm and it became difficult to swallow, but I pushed it away.

I cried as quietly as possible in the car as Elliott sang along to the Hairspray soundtrack. Somewhere inside, I already knew the things she told me, but it didn’t make it less difficult to hear. I took him out to lunch, and as we waited for our food, we played Rock, Paper, Scissors, and he cheated, like always. Then, he grew serious and said, “I love you, Mommy.” He almost never says this unprompted. He was immediately silly again, doing crazy dances to the music playing over the restaurant speakers. I watched him and wondered if he knew that I had been sad, if he was trying to make me feel better in his own way. Who knows.

My highs are a little too high and my lows are a little too low, and that’s how I’ve always been. Maybe it has something to do with my mother’s bipolar disorder. Or maybe that’s just what it’s like being a parent of a kid with special needs. Maybe it’s a little of both. In any case, after some time alone, during which I chainsawed some vines outside and bought a cute new dress, I felt so much better.

My friend Lashawn reminded me of Elliott’s epic tantrums last summer. He would scream and rip away his shoes and clothing, throwing each item in our direction, his face angry and red and tearful. Once naked, he’d throw his body around, slap his own cheeks, writhe against the rough carpet. This would go on for 20 or 30 minutes. This was his response to our first family vacation, to Portland and San Francisco. This went on for weeks, nearly the entire summer. I had actually forgotten about it, maybe because I wanted to. This year, he whined a little and had one major tantrum (fully clothed!), and now he is back to normal. He threatened to throw the necklace, but he ultimately put it back on.

Things still need to get better, but I need to remember how things keep getting better.

Photo credit: http://www.basicspine.com/blog/bipolar-disorder-treatment/

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mother’s day

Sunday is Mother’s Day. This year, I decided to end my relationship with my stepmother, who raised me, and my biological mother is dead. Both of these women lacked the resources or capabilities to be effective parents. My mother-in-law is amazing, but she did not raise me. And so there is a bit of an empty space where a mother should be. Most of the time, this does not feel like sadness. It feels like relief. Every year, I used to try and find a neutral card to give my stepmother. There were rows and rows of cards with pictures of flowers and heartfelt, saccharine poetry. Generally, I’d find something blank and scrawl something inside.

Dear Mom (I don’t want to call you Mom, but remember how you forced me to when I was 8?):

I don’t really know you even though we lived in the same household for many years. Please accept this candle/lotion/chocolate that I felt obligated to purchase for you. I hope the weather is satisfactory today.



That’s what I always felt like saying, anyway.

This dumb photo of Gwyneth Paltrow and her mother made me cry one time.


My friend recently lost his mother. Although I wasn’t close to my mother, and I didn’t know her very well, and I have in my possession only one photograph of us together, and I rarely think about her or cry about her, I feel that absence intensely from time to time, like  pain in an amputated limb. I am so sorry for my friend, who was close to his mother. I know the pain he must feel is 1000 times more intense than what I feel, and that there is nothing anyone can do to change any of that.

I guess what I am trying to say is that Mother’s Day, like all holidays, can be complicated.

I have two lovely boys, and I hope I know I am a good mother to them and I know I can do better. Last night, I helped Ben cast his Mario Bros. toys as characters in Hairspray (again). Mario is Link. Luigi is Corny. Princess Peach is Amber. Toadette is Tracy. I was exhausted after work, and this made me laugh and laugh. This morning, Elliott insisted he didn’t need a sweater, and I told him to step outside and see. I watched as he stood alone in the backyard and felt the breeze wash over him, squinting into the sunlight. He finally agreed to the sweater. Like me, he is stubborn. It is sometimes frustrating, but I also love that he needs to decide for himself.

I want to say thank you to these little guys for teaching me what it is to be a mother even as I am still figuring it out. I want to say thank you to them for making Mother’s Day meaningful to me, something to celebrate. And I want to say that I am sorry to those of you out there for whom this holiday is painful and complicated and nothing like the cards or commercials try to convince you to believe that it should be.

Let’s make this day, and every day, our own.

Photo credit: http://jjscholl.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/i-heart-mom/

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boy toys

Ben used to carry a purse, a purple, beaded, sparkly thing, with a long strap. He usually kept a little doll inside of it, Daphne from Scooby Doo or Tinkerbell. He loved Daphne so much. I ordered her from Ebay, and she arrived just in time to come with us for a weekend beach trip. I buried Ben in the sand, and I buried Daphne right beside him. They both smiled, sand in their hair, as I took their picture.

We didn’t let him take the purse everywhere. We never explicitly told him he couldn’t; we just redirected him, enticing him with something even more amazing to bring with him instead. I felt bad not letting him take it with him, but I didn’t want him to deal with the stares and awfulness of strangers. We did let him carry it whenever he wanted at our house or at the house of family members. But even family members say things sometimes. Surprising, terrible things.

When he was two, he really wanted a broom for Christmas (I swear.) So, I walked into Toys r’ Us, which I hadn’t visited since childhood, and discovered that there was still a visible divide between “girl toys” and “boy toys.” I knew where to look for the broom. On occasion, we’d let the kids get Happy Meals at McDonald’s. “Girl toy or boy toy?” they would ask at the drive-through (not thru) window. “The Hello Kitty watch,” I would snap, refusing to identify it by gender, hoping my son hadn’t heard what they said. Knowing that he had.

Up until he was about six, Ben regularly played with Barbies, a Strawberry Shortcake, mermaids, a dollhouse (which we still have). His favorite movie was Cinderella. His favorite colors were pink and purple. Still, I persuaded him to not take his Strawberry Shortcake to kindergarten for sharing. Because although I believe passionately that he should not be ashamed of doing so, I also know the cruel reality of a classroom, and I didn’t want to set him up for ridicule.

Ben’s predilection for “girl toys” gradually changed as he became more interested in comic books, Mario Brothers, Legos, and superheroes. Barbie now frequented the Batman lair. Mario slept in the doll house. His favorite color is now green. Eventually, the dolls receded to the bottom of the toy box, seemingly forgotten. When we moved last year, I found a pile of them, and asked Ben if he was ready to give them away to his baby cousin. He thought for a few seconds, and nodded. He was ready.

We kept two Barbies, named Peehead Sr. and Peehead Jr. Ryan tells the boys these insane and hilarious stories based on the dolls and figures they own, and the Peeheads, who are naked and maimed after years of play, are often featured in those stories.

Peehead Jr. She has had a hard life.

Peehead Jr. She has lived a hard life.

A couple of days ago, Ben was playing with Peehead Jr. and said he would like to buy her some clothes. On the way to Target, he excitedly discussed outfit possibilities and thanked me profusely for taking him. But as we neared the parking lot, his demeanor changed. “I just feel a little embarrassed,” he said. I parked and turned around and looked him in his sweet little face and we talked about how there shouldn’t be a such thing as boy toys and girl toys, that kids can and should be able to play with any kind of toy they want. Ben seemed slightly reassured, but he’s not a dumb kid. He knows the difference between the ideal and reality. “Listen,” I told him. “In our home, you are safe to play with whatever you want to play with.” That seemed to work okay.

After perusing the options, he chose an assortment of rainy day Barbie clothes–the package included a rain coat, rain boots, a coffee mug, and two dresses. “This is perfect,” he said. “Because it’s raining outside.” He wanted to carry it at first, but I noticed as people walked by him, particularly one older boy with a skateboard balancing on his head, he would hide it behind his back. I offered to carry it for him, and he seemed relieved. “Ben,” I said. “If someone says something mean to you about those Barbie clothes, I will punch them.” I did not intend to say this, and I shouldn’t teach him to resolve problems with violence. But I was so angry that he had to feel ashamed of wanting something as innocuous as tiny rain-appropriate attire. He just laughed. I told him I didn’t mean it. But I think I did mean it. If a stranger made fun of my son in the throw pillow aisle at Target, I don’t actually know if I could stop myself from punching that stranger.

After buying it, we stopped at the “cafe” for a snack. The Target Cafe. Because I’m classy like that. He went to find us seats, and I watched him as I waited for our order. He slipped the box out of the bag and studied it, smiling. But when a family walked by outside, on the other side of the window, he threw it onto the table and covered it with his hands. The family didn’t notice. This was very difficult to watch.

Ben asked me what my favorite kind of Barbie was when I was a kid. I told him about this one Barbie I had, Perfume Pretty Barbie, that I received one year for my birthday. I didn’t tell him about how I pretended to be excited when I opened the present, how I maneuvered her arms and legs and wondered what the point was. I was not interested in Barbie, ever. I was interested in Thundercats and Transformers and tetherball and arm wrestling. I had neither an interest nor an inclination to be inside of the house, strapping infuriatingly delicate sandals onto plastic feet. But that, of course, was okay. I had the ability to move between “girl toys” and “boy toys” with fluidity, because the stigma wasn’t as great.

As I got older, however, girls stopped playing and began walking in groups, chattering about boys, and I wanted to play basketball, or softball, or whatever game was going. Eventually, both girls and boys began calling me a “dyke.” I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing, what every other girl was doing. And this apparently meant I wanted to have sex with other girls. There’s nothing wrong with having sex with other girls, of course. But one thing clearly doesn’t lead to the other.

On the way home, Ben spoke of the possibilities for Peehead Jr. “Maybe she can have a friend now that she has clothes…Maybe we can make her a closet…Did you know that her real name is Francisca?” I want to lock all of that sweetness inside some sort of bulletproof structure and protect him inside of it. But I can’t. I know that.

I don’t know whether Ben’s interest in Barbies means he will be gay. I suspect that’s why people punish their boys for even wanting a baby doll or a purse. Do they really believe that playing with a certain type of toy will somehow alter the genetic composition of their children? Why do ignorant bigots get to make my child feel badly just for being an open, loving, amazing person? What I do know is that Ben does not fit neatly inside of the box these people have created. And I never have either. And, to be honest, neither does anyone I know. What I do know is that we should abolish the terms “girl toys” and “boy toys.” These terms serve no purpose, except to limit and harm.

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There have been a rash of burglaries on our quiet suburban street, and the neighbors are whispering suspicions in front of our kids. Who was that dark man in the white car parked outside your house the other morning? It was my brother-in-law, actually, and we were going for a nice suburban jog through these quiet suburban streets. Oh, okay, they say. We should all keep an eye out. Yes, we should. Thank you, I say.

I have a son who is an obsessive worrier. He’s also too smart to fool. The what ifs fire rapidly. What if someone breaks into our house? What if they steal our car? What if they kidnap me? What if they hurt me? What if…? It will be okay. It won’t happen. I promise you it won’t happen. Your dad and I would never let that happen. “But it’s always a possibility,” he says, effectively dismantling any assurance I could ever offer. That night, he runs screaming into our bed in the dark, early morning. I wrap my arms around him and rub his back and he settles into sleep. The next night, he does not want to go to bed, but we convince him that it will be okay. When he’s finally asleep, I sneak in and make sure the blinds are closed tight, that no lurker could see him if they tried.

All of this is to say that I am going to work and I am caring for my children, and I am not spending my days thinking mean thoughts about my stepmother or her son, my half-brother, Jaden.

My father was looking for a babysitter so he can spend a weekend with one of his lady friends. He is at my house for a visit this morning when my stepmother texts him. She doesn’t want my little brother to stay at my house. She is worried that I hate him, that I will be mean to him, that I think I am a better parent. The bar is set very low on that last one. I do not abuse my children. I do not hit my children with high heel shoes, or make them kneel on gravel, or tell them they are worthless, or force them to hug their uncle who touches them inappropriately, so, yes, at the very least, I am a little bit better. “I am concerned,” she says. She is concerned that I will damage him. Oh, the irony! I love my brother Jaden. I am only ever kind to him. He’s not even two years older than my eldest.

I interact with this woman a few times a year. I send her a text message on her birthday. I send her a card when her mother dies. It takes a tremendous effort to squeeze out these tiny kindnesses. This woman was physically and emotionally abusive to me for my entire childhood, and I have managed to say hello and even I love you and continued to call her Mom instead of Lucy at the biannual family gatherings.

For some reason, this was it. We are finished. Here is the dictionary definition of write-off: “an elimination of an item from the books of account.” Lucy, consider yourself written off.

Photo credit: http://www.carfinderservice.com/car-advice/5-steps-in-preparing-a-write-off-interest-for-taxes-on-a-car-loan

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