Shame vs. consent

On a bright summer day early in the 1980s, I was running around a neighborhood just north of Boston with my older brother and two boys who lived next door. The sun was blazing and they took off their shirts with the confidence and abandon that all children possess and a percentage of lucky adults get to preserve. It was hot and that made good sense to me, so I joined them. I took my shirt off too. We ran some more until my mother spotted us and stopped me in my tracks: Put your shirt back on, NOW.

The message was clear; it was perfectly acceptable for the boys, ranging from ages 3-9, to run wild and topless. It was a dangerous and shameful act for me, a 3 year-old girl to do the same. I was not allowed to resume playing until I was fully clothed. I protested but eventually obliged. The boys witnessed everything.

That might not have even been the very first time I was taught to be ashamed of my body, but it’s the first time I can remember. It’s burned in there, next to so many of the moments where I was ridiculed for being tall and skinny and flat-chested and big-nosed, for the clothes I wore, for the way I didn’t smile and for the way I was not interested. Every woman has been taught a similar lesson, one way or another. Probably plenty of men too.

I have been thinking of this memory a lot this summer. Serafina is 3 and since the weather turned warm, she prefers to be naked pretty much at all times. Sometimes the babies follow suit. She is often seen in our neighborhood in nothing but a pair of shoes, sometimes a sun hat. She rides her bike this way, her scooter, swings on the neighbor’s swing, tends the garden, races through the sprinkler. She is completely unaware that there is anything strange or quirky or cute about this, and certainly she does not have a remote sense that there is anything shameful or possibly dangerous about this. She is just doing what feels good to her and her body, which is exactly what I believe she should be doing. Others would disagree and a few of them have told me so. Some have told her too.

She shouldn’t appear in public spaces without clothes on, they say. She most certainly should not appear in photos without clothes on (social media agrees and recently banned me for 24 hours). Why? It’s not OK. It’s not appropriate. Why? Because there are a lot of creeps out there and you never know. Because she is a little girl.

Well, that is hard to argue with. There sure are a lot of creeps out there. And not a single one of them goes around advertising that they are creepy with kids. With that in mind, those particular creeps could be anyone — someone you know and love and wouldn’t suspect, even. (Statistics show that ‘stranger danger’ is a bit of a myth and that most abuse occurs by a trusted adult.) One in 10 children is abused before they are 18. Thirty-percent will be abused by a family member. One in 4 women is sexually assaulted.

But what does any of that have to do with my little girl running around naked this summer?

Perhaps I am naive. I do not want to live in a world where I see a happy kid splashing in a river and wonder where are the pedophiles? That does not make me blind to the realities of what my children may face in their lifetimes. Abusers will persist whether or not my child enjoys a brief moment on this planet where she can feel and act like a wild animal. A pervert may be present at the very birthday party where she is the only kid playing in the sprinkler without a bathing suit on. Does this necessarily harm her?

My goal as a parent, in this moment anyway, is to cultivate a sense of self-love, strength, confidence and security for my three daughters. I want them to feel so resolute in who they are and what feels good and right that no one ever makes them do something they don’t want to do. Shame is the opposite of consent and they are both so subtle. I don’t think you can teach them at the same time.

Serafina will start to notice that other people keep their clothes on at birthday parties or swimming holes, all on her own. No one needs to tell her that. Also, how bizarre is this message to girls, which starts basically in infancy — “Don’t swim naked. Squeeze your body into this skimpy, uncomfortable and tiny piece of fabric if you want to enjoy summer.” And, for that matter, why is it any less “dangerous” to have preschoolers wearing bikinis in public or in photographs?

I’m not advocating for parents to encourage nudity or to have their daughters join their sons in shirtless romps around the neighborhood. But what if we didn’t forbid it?

I know we’ve horrified some guests when our kids run into the backyard specifically to pee outside and rip off their clothes at the sight of a hose. But for now I am trying  hard to not hear those criticisms or see that horror and create a space for my girls to develop a superhuman fearlessness about the space they occupy. Because they will need it. Even if I successfully keep them from shame, the world will show it to them over and over and over again.

Right now Serafina is quite proud of the distance she gets with a really big pee stream. I am proud of her too.

Spring/eternal

18033069_10154733565443264_280705639561914692_n

This is the week my dad died two years ago. He went to sleep when the world was waking up. Three weeks later, when every green thing was sprouting and every creature came to life, my brother died too. Spring became my season of loss. The stretching sun of the longer days was liminal, like a bridge between here and wherever people go.

I spent hours during that first month of grief ripping a dense patch of pachysandra from our garden, a futile and strenuous effort to yield some control over the total chaos of my world. The dirt on my hands was the only thing keeping me on Earth in those moments. The color was over-saturated on every beautiful thing about the changing season; I was eviscerated by it. I was afraid I would never love spring again.

It was a blessing last April to be so sleep deprived with six month old twins. I don’t remember the days growing lighter and then resolving into summer. I only recall a small but nagging panic as the year mark approached: the anniversary of one death and then another. And I was surprised by the relief that came when the calendar turned over.

Spring is back and the threshold between the worlds feels thin again. This week death has been close. A dear friend had a heart attack that could have taken her life. A friend of the family died while bringing her twins into the world. I woke up from a sleep this morning where I was back in my grandparents house, the place that defined the first half of my life. My children were there with the great-grandmother they’ll never meet. My dad was there too, the grandfather they’ll never know.

The threads that hold us in this lifetime are so delicate and precious. Maybe they are more delicate and precious in the spring.

My dad was diagnosed with a cancer that left only days or weeks for us to fix a relationship that was broken because I am gay and he was a Christian. But the sadness from our separation is not what remains. The bliss of singing Motown with him when I was young, full volume, from the backseat of the car is what I feel most clearly. He gave me music and a voice to love it with.

On the day he died, he gave me one more gift that I hold dear. I drove to Boston to share the sad news with my brother and look after him in his grief — I didn’t know it then, but it would be the last day we’d spend together before he died in May.

This week, I drove my three year-old home from school with her friend. They asked me to put on songs from Moana. We rolled down the windows and the air was warm. We sang together like I did on so many trips driving north with my father and brother. I am grateful for what endures.

In the belly

Today is the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The pagans sometimes call it imbolc, meaning “in the belly,” in Celtic. We are here, still in the quiet dark of February, but there is life inside and it is growing.

We celebrated in our house this morning. Serafina asked to put on her owl costume, a tutu, her Elsa dress and her “most slippery socks” so that she could dance and twirl on the kitchen floor. The party commenced while I got dressed in the other room. The party abruptly stopped when those slippery socks proved their worth and Serafina faceplanted, biting a nice chunk out of her lip and possibly breaking her nose.

Many tears and a few heart palpitations, she was OK, watching some PBS Kids and our progress toward the day continued. But I was not recovered. Outside a light snow fell. I cursed the weather and, a half hour later, still reeling from the stress of seeing my kid in panic and in pain, I unleashed a beast on poor Serafina when she was shoveling instead of climbing into the car. Then I felt awful.

Just a regular weekday morning for us. In the winter, though, everything is harder. We ache in the cold, we move slowly under the bulk of so much clothing, we are stagnant in the long gray hours of the day.

The duality of working and being a parent is put to the test in these months when the combination of holidays, snow days and sick days far outnumber the days you actually can show up at your job. Then there was that run of days so cold our cars didn’t start. The bit of flu a couple of us got. The cough that came around Halloween and never completely left. And snot that has haunted us every couple of weeks since the days got darker.

We have had a lot of concentrated family time. Much of it has been loving and even fun and in the best moments, it has felt like our crew is now fully formed and coalesced. The twins aren’t just lumps to worry about keeping alive. They are walking, talking, opinionated and hilarious tiny creatures that make our lives fuller, and our pile of children more brood like. They love each other, they love their big sister, she loves them and Darry and I love all three so much it feels impossible sometimes. Other times it feels like we would do anything to just get out of the house alone for the afternoon.

Years ago, when I was only weeks pregnant with Serafina, we went to an imbolc ceremony in Vermont. It was evening, freezing, under a full moon and by a icy stream with just the tiniest bit of flowing water. The snow was feet deep. We stood with friends and strangers to light candles to the four directions and take moments alone, in the darkness, to make peace with the tea-time of the soul that winter had imposed on us and to make plans for the light days ahead — how we would use the energy we’d saved and nurtured all winter long. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever done and the baby just growing in my belly felt like the perfect literal and figurative symbol for the shift in the season.

Our young family is that symbol this year. We are getting past the hardest time of having three little ones so close together. When I tune back into the natural rhythms, which I looked to always when life was less full, before we had children, then I can handle this winter. There is something happening when you’re trapped inside, if you give in to it. There is a clarity winter leaves you with, if you let it.

The new small things

This morning my throat is a bit raw from the screaming I did last night.

During our post-dinner playtime, without warning or reason, Serafina shoved her baby sister for the second time that day. Rowan toppled backwards and, for the second time, bashed her head with a powerful thud. She wailed. And Darry and I exploded in a protective, confused rage at our 3 year-old. I demanded she go upstairs to her room. She pleaded for her lovey, which had fallen out of her hand, and I told her I didn’t care.

Serafina sat in her room crying. Rowie sat in Darry’s lap crying. Mairead stood perplexed. Darry and I caught our breath. Thirty seconds later, I went upstairs to apologize to my toddler (again) and try to explain why it is scary and unacceptable when she does this to the twins. She just whimpered again for Giraffsie.

It was a spectacular failure.

Kids do this to their younger siblings. Someday the twins may do this to Serafina. Three year-olds don’t have the empathy yet to understand what they are doing. Babies are resilient. I know. I know. I know. I know. And yet why am I hearing from _everyone we know_ with more than one young child that their older kiddo is so simply in love with their baby brother or sister? Such a caretaker! So gentle! Obsessed!

The Good Kind Patient parents (and experts on parenting) will tell you the Right Thing to do here is model calmness, hug your offending child and tell them you understand they’re upset. They say you must *never* admonish or send a child away for such behavior. Instead you just offer a loving “I won’t let you hit her” statement and it magically repels any future attacks. They tell you take out some crayons and paper and encourage your kid to draw how angry they are.

These parents obviously do not work for a living. They are well rested and have children who have always slept through the night. They have no financial worries, job stress, extended family drama or awareness of the world outside their home. They were raised by wealthy, well-adjusted parents who were able to take the time, like their parents before them, to carefully coach them through every difficult moment in life. They are not us.

I get it. Having two babies arrive when you are still a baby — and a particularly sensitive, attached and dependent one at that — is a raw deal that we handed our dear Serafina. We look at photos now of her when the twins arrived and are baffled by how young she was, a few weeks shy of her second birthday. Which means we decided to make another baby when she was just past her first birthday. This is also baffling in retrospect. But we were hanging on to the efficiencies we perceived in that, to the hope of our kids being close in age and therefore necessary close to each other.

Twins disrupted that dream a little, shifted the dynamic both for us and for our child who has wanted full attention from both of us for so long and has only gotten attention from half of one of us since her sisters arrived. Twins have also redefined that dream into a bigger, more beautiful albeit messier dynamic.

Today when we were trying to leave for school, Serafina requested her vitamins, part of her routine each day. Darry (mommy) offered to get them and she threw her signature “mama only” fit — demanding only I was able to procure the vitamins and place them in her little hand. Mommy was not an acceptable substitute and she was resolute about this. I threw my signature “I want to die” fit because, really, we were one tiny step away from finally getting out the door and now we had to negotiate this. It seems these rejections of mommy come in response to times when Darry is particularly preoccupied by the babies. It’s a form of punishment for Darry, which, in turn, also punishes me. I know the real sadness here is that Serafina is suffering. But is she really? She still has two loving parents and now two sisters who adore her. None of us is suffering. We are just trying to work this out.

I want so much to understand the right course here and I know, at the same time, there is no right course. We have some bright spots, where the girls play happily together for a few seconds, or when Serafina seems excited to care for the girls. The other night we trimmed Mairead’s bangs and she offered a brave hand, “Don’t worry, your big sister is here to help you. Don’t be afraid.” These glimmers are unbelievably sweet, but they are still few. Much of the time Serafina moves through her time at home indifferent to her sisters; the rest of the time is split between outright rejection or not wanting to share anything with them and then the small moments of engaging with them happily. I cling to those. I pray there are so many more to come.

But the truth is we have no visibility on the future — who are kids will grow up to be, how they will grow (or not) to know each other, separate from us, and as the individuals they are destined to be. I want to demand they be kind to each other and take care of each other above everyone else. But I know there’s no demanding that and hardly any effective modeling for that when they are all still so small. The only course to just face this unknown with an open heart and to be OK when we face it instead with shouting and crying.

Relentless, in a word

marc
Me and my brother, Marc.

This week my brother would be 34. This is the second birthday that I will have to celebrate without him.

He was born when I was 4, a month premature, a sick and fragile baby. His illness was mysterious and serious and in my earliest memories meant he was sometimes swept away by an ambulance when he was having trouble breathing. In fact, that is my earliest memory.

His life was marked by medical interventions, diagnoses and a general worry that he would never be OK. When he was young, he had speech problems, heart defects, respiratory issues and physical delays. When he was older, he discovered his Asperger’s, he had OCD and he was obese. When he was alive it was often easier to see all of those things than it was to see all that he did, even in the face of them. But he did many remarkable things, even if they don’t register on a typical scale of success and ambition. And that he had to do them under so much pressure and judgment from the world because he was different, makes his brief life that much more magical.

Marc was mine and I cared for him, in some ways, like a parent and not just a big sister. Together we were latchkey kids, survivors of our dysfunctional family, bookworms, writers, outsiders in the insular world we came from. Pretty much all of my life was defined by the dynamic of me looking out for him, defending him, being older and wiser and more experienced than him.

Marc died on Mother’s Day in 2016 and that all changed instantly. He was on the other side, suddenly ahead of me and now a keeper of life’s biggest secrets. I was left here without a little brother to worry about for the rest of my life. But what I had instead was a whopping, paralyzing, breathtaking pile of grief to dig out from.

Grief demands attention. It consumes you. It hijacks your thoughts, burrows into your body, steals your sleep, sneaks into your dreams and slows you down. It is a profoundly physical experience. My grief over losing Marc came at a moment when I was already so weak, because our father died just three weeks before him. My grief was compounded. And this all happened at a time when I needed to be so strong, because Darry was pregnant with twins, I had a toddler to take care of and our lives were on the verge of becoming impossibly demanding and full.

But grieving, like parenting, is relentless. And I am seeing now how the absence of space for both my grief and the rest of life has put an ugly strain on my physical and emotional health. It’s coming out sideways, like in an occasional, irrational fear that one of the girls is going to become terribly ill beyond recovery. Or in irritable moments where I am not upset with anyone in particular, except with everyone. And despairing moments when it feels like there will never be a day when I can just sit and let this unbelievable string of events wash over me until they make sense. My dad died, my brother died, we had twins. Life now bears no resemblance to my whole life before this all happened.

In the last two weeks, we celebrated Rowan and Mairead’s first birthday and Serafina’s third birthday. My three little libras, just like Marc was. The milestone felt monumental, like we had truly survived something, all of us together. When I try to recall what it was like through those early months with three children, there is just blank space. We were so fundamentally exhausted, so thoroughly depleted, there is no memory there. And I was still so deep in the fog of loss.

There is some light peaking in, now that we are all on our way out of the most intense year, there is definitely more sleep and, I hope, one day there will be more space. Our children toddle around the house, for brief moments, happily together, laying ground, I pray, for their own beautiful sibling relationships. There is enough space, at least, that I was able to force myself to sit and write this, to be quiet and think about the next milestone: getting through another one of my brother’s birthdays.

Marc loved Serafina so much. He loved gift giving so much, too, often planning out what he’d buy everyone for holidays and birthdays, months in advance. And he loved receiving presents, of course. He had two birthdays after Serafina was born and made a point of saying, for each one, she was the best gift he ever got. He couldn’t wait for what we all thought at the time when he died, was going to be just one more baby. He would have been completely delighted by two. I am so sad the girls won’t learn from him about kindness and patience and empathy, which he taught me so much about.

 

Potty-mouth training

“I am trying to play with this, but these fucking babies are in my way!” Serafina said, like it was no big deal, while we were all sitting in the living room on Saturday morning.

When your not-yet-3-year-old drops an F bomb like a seasoned pro, you feel a complicated mix of pride and anxiety. You want to laugh, because it’s funny. You want to respond, but you aren’t sure what the right course is. And you scramble to mentally review all of the times you recently cursed in her presence.

“I can’t get this fucking thing open! I need some scissors!” she declared the next day, like a surly old sailor, while wrestling with the plastic packaging on a new toy.

When your toddler starts regularly inserting “fucking” into her sentences for emphasis, you swell with pride over her nuanced grasp of language, even as shame creeps up from your gut to form a lump in your throat. You shudder to think of all the other things you’ve said in her presence that she silently absorbed and will later, consciously or not, reflect back to you. And you agree with her, that packaging is fucking annoying.

So, Serafina’s been using the word fuck a bit. It started a couple weeks ago with a “fucking god!” when the babies were howling during baby witching hour. Darry and I were doing our circus act to keep everyone calm while also cooking and plating dinner. Serafina offered her “fucking god!” as commentary on the chaos.

She smirked while she said it, like she knew she was trying out something new and possibly dangerous. We didn’t offer any feedback and Darry and I agreed later it would be better to not respond if it happened again.

A few days later, it happened again. She yelled “fuck’s sake!” during another perfectly normal and hysterical moment. We ignored it again and she must have liked the way it felt coming out, because she just kept saying it, in a sing-song kind of way. “Fuck’s sake, fuck’s sake, fuck’s sake!”

Since then there have been a few more rounds of “fucking god” and “fuck’s sake” — impressively, always applied correctly to a situation. This feels like a sophisticated handle on slang to me. But each incident has, of course, given us pause and prompted us to review how frequently our own language is sprinkled with swear words.

Initially I got all the blame for this. I come from a loud, distinctly not-anglo family with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins screaming “shit” and “fuck” and everything else without reserve. Literally screaming, as part of normal conversation. Darry’s family has the pretense of more politeness.

Italian-Americans need these words and phrases to communicate the intensity of their experience every day, so I grew up hearing it all. I was also disciplined with an authoritarian hand and only repeated those words quietly, or when no adults were around. And now I struggle to shake off the verbal vestiges of where I am from. Phrases like “shut the fuck up” just pop into my head as normal speak, because I heard them so often in my young life.

I struggle with this one a lot. It is one of my working class badges. And it pains me to think I already transferred that directly to my kid. But when Serafina dropped the “fuck’s sake” — a Darryism. not mine — there was no denying we were both guilty.

Ahh, the guilt. And the shame. I am not so concerned about the “danger” of foul language. I have watched parents scold other adults when they swear in front of their children, I have seen them suppress and sensor their own vocabularies in ways that have felt arbitrary and artificial. I have seen them punish their kids harshly if they swear. Why scrub foul words but not necessarily foul sentiments?

I feel like we can safely and more effectively — even now, just days before her third birthday — start talking to Serafina about what it means to use words like this and how it might impact other people to hear them coming from her, or us. I also feel like we can just be more conscious because thoughts become words, words become actions, actions become habits, habits become character.

But this is easier said then done. We operate with frayed nerves, minimal sleep and an extremely high and persistent set of demands at all times. There will be “fucks.” I am more worried about other, more potent and less visible ways I am modeling to my children, my little sponges. I long for more time, patience and space to be careful. I don’t know how or if it will ever come.

Last night, I demonstrated a moment of restraint with technology while setting up the iPad for Serafina’s daily Daniel Tiger episode. The wifi was out and the PBS app wasn’t loading.  I didn’t have to curse about it. I just had to focus on getting through the moment.

Serafina watched me hold my breath and try to resolve the issue, so I could race off to finish dinner prep. “Fucking god, mama!” she said. “Fucking god.”