School Nightmares

For some reason, my husband and I lucked out with our kids in the sleep department.  They’ve always been great sleepers; typically they’ll sleep a good twelve hours no matter what time we put them to bed, and they rarely wake up with bad dreams (although our son had several sleepless nights after seeing Cats; Mr. Mistoffelees was just too much for him to handle…or maybe it was the hackneyed music).  In the past few months though, our daughter has woken up in the middle of the night with school-related nightmares.

A month or two ago, I had a trying day at school.  My kids will likely go to the school where I’m currently teaching, and feeling downtrodden on that particular day, I sarcastically broached a touchy subject over dinner.

“How would you guys feel if we moved?  You could go to a new school!”  The kids gave me a double take, and my husband rolled his eyes.  “Whatever…it was just a thought.”

Later that night, our daughter woke up inconsolably crying, and when my husband went to check on her, she told him through her sobs that she had a nightmare about going to a new school and missing all of her friends.  I’m sure he was really happy with me at that moment, but I can’t know for sure because I had already gone back to sleep.

Last night, she woke up from another nightmare, this one not quite as powerful but enough to produce some saddened moans that stirred me when I went in to turn off her night light.  I rubbed her back, and she slowly opened her eyes.

“Daddy, I had a nightmare.”

“What happened honey?”

“I dreamed that I was at school and every class I went to I was the only black kid.”

This is of course nearly a reality for her living in our mostly white suburban town.  Our daughter just turned eight, and she’s been showing more and more interest in her racial identity, which couldn’t make me prouder while at the same time making me very nervous.  I want to make sure we’re providing a sound foundation for her, and I’m constantly worrying that what we’re doing isn’t enough.

“That’s unfortunately going to be pretty close to what your experience will have to be going to school in this town because there aren’t very many black people who live here.”  Had this been a daytime conversation, I certainly would have given her a little age-appropriate lesson on redlining, but it was late and I was just about to head to bed myself.  “You know that because we live where we do, Daddy and Poppy try hard to make sure you have black people in your life.”  I named a few key individuals, including two friends who had attended her birthday party who are kids of color and also have gay parents.

“But they don’t have skin as dark as me.”  Another teachable moment on the realities of colorism, but again, it was late.

“No, but black people come in all different shades, and they’re still going to be identified as black; they’ll be great friends that you can turn to as you all grow up because you’ll each know what it’s like to be in a different kind of family like ours.”  I could tell she was starting to come around; I decided to remind her of last year’s classroom teacher.  “And you know what?  I’m sure Ms. H. would be happy to talk to you any time.  You know she’s the only black teacher in your school, so she knows kind of what you’re going through.  I’m sure if you just stopped by before school, she’d find time to talk to you.”  She smiled a bit remembering that connection.  “And as you get older, there will be a few more black kids that join you.  When you get to middle school, there will be a few from each of the elementary schools in town that will all go to school together, and then more when you get to high school.  And then for college, you might decide you want to go to an all-black college.”

“They have those?” she asked, her eyes widening.

“Yup, and that’s why learning everything you can in school is important because it will give you options down the road.”

“I want to go to one of those schools.”  I was suddenly reminded of a video I show in professional development courses I teach where a black Boston student attending school in the white suburbs describes her impending shift to a historic black college.  She says that she had felt like an exchange student her whole life, and she was excited about finally getting the chance to relax that aspect of herself in college.

“Well that’s totally up to you.  If at some point before college, you decide that being around other people that look like you is important, then we’ll talk about you going to a different school, but right now, I think you’d rather stay with your friends right?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, but if that ever changes, you let us know.”

I kissed her good night, and as she drifted back to sleep, I did what every great parent does: I questioned every decision we’ve ever made on behalf of our kids and hoped for the thousandth time that it would all turn out alright.

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In Our Dreams

Today should have been my first day of teaching in 2015.  My kids should have been returning to their elementary classrooms with tales of holiday gatherings and showing off their wearable holiday gifts.  Instead, we were 3000 miles from home saying goodbye to my grandfather who passed away the week before Christmas.

The death wasn’t a surprise.  I wrote about his failing health last November.  And the last two weeks have really been a combined family reunion-vacation-funeral trip.  The majority of my very large family is in California, and we get out her so seldom that even when we’re here for a difficult event like this, there are many new memories to be made at the same time.  And of course my children are just six and seven years old; two weeks of grieving just isn’t in the cards given their youth.

Last weekend, my dad and his wife hosted a small gathering of friends, including some of my high school friends.  They’ll typically do this during our visits so we can see a bunch of friends and family at once.  During the festivities while I was catching up with friends, one of my dad’s neighbors leaned over to me and said, “Does anyone even miss your grandfather?”  I was a little taken aback by the comment, and after a deep breath, I assured him that my grandfather was missed deeply.  The neighbor just shrugged his shoulders and gestured to the room, as if to suggest that he certainly couldn’t tell given the context.

Today, a few dozen family and friends gathered at the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery for veterans where my grandfather’s ashes are being interred.  As my immediate family of four headed toward the outdoor pavilion where the military send off would take place, I fought back the tears and held my son tightly to my shoulders.  My daughter was walking with my husband, and after looking at me, she said to my husband, “Poppy, why aren’t you sad?”

“I am sad,” he told her.

“You don’t look sad,” she replied.

“People show sadness in different ways.  You can’t always tell how people feel based on the way they look,” he explained.

And this was definitely a sad occasion.  My grandfather as a great and amazing man, and I’m so proud to have been a part of his family and a benefactor of his parenting–both directly and through his son, my dad.  Prior to the ceremony, my kids were fighting like normal, which means just shy of bodily harm.  I counted to ten and dropped down to their level.

“This is a really hard day for Daddy, and I really need you and Poppy here with me.  If you can’t behave, Poppy will have to take you out, and I can’t do this by myself.  I’m really sad and having the three of you near me helps me feel better.  Do you understand?”  They nodded silently, and a few minutes later in the car, my daughter was complaining that her brother was looking at her funny.  I wasn’t sure they’d make it, and I worried I wouldn’t be ready to forgive them for being so young any time soon.

Then during the ceremony, my daughter clung to me while the volley shots were fired, and she brought my hand to her face lovingly while “Taps” was played.  When we were seated for the few short words shared about my grandfather’s life, my son climbed into my lap and hugged me as tightly as he ever has.  The entire thing was overwhelming for me–saying goodbye to my grandfather, hearing some of the wonderful memories about him, the majesty of a military funeral, and feeling the loving pressure of my family so close to me.  When it was over, I turned to my son with tears in my eyes and saw my emotional state mirrored in his own.  Through his own tears, he said, “I’m just so sad Daddy.”  We held each other and just cried for a bit before he shared some of his tiny hugs with his great-grandmother and my dad.

My aunt had printed up my grandfather’s obituary with a few color photos on it.  My daughter noticed something she thought might cheer up her brother: “That’s you in the picture!”  We looked, and sure enough, the photo of my grandad had been cropped from a photo with my son.  We could just make out the corner of my son’s short afro in the bottom of the frame.  He smiled, proud to feel so permanently connected his great-grandfather.

In the car, we all talked a bit about our feelings.  My son told us, “I’m just so sad because I used to dream about my great-grandfather all the time, and now I can’t do that any more.”

“Of course you can buddy.  That’s where he’ll live forever.  When you miss him and you want to see him, you can do it in your dreams.”  This apparently made an impression on him, because during the reception he mustered the strength to get up in front of the crowd and say so into the microphone.

I can count the number of times my son met my grandfather on one hand, yet he feels connected to him in this totally tangible way.  I’m sure it’s got something to do with his status as an adoptee, like he’s subconsciously clinging to the things that validate his permanence in this family.  And that’s something that my grandfather did for him.  The two of them are separated by 82 years in age, but it’s comforting to see the impact his presence had on the next generation of this family.

It’s something I’m sure I’ll talk over with my grandpa in my dreams tonight.

Tryptophan and Back

My son has always had a hard time eating appropriately.  Before he turned two, our pediatrician told us he clearly had a problem “pocketing” his food, which meant that he would stuff his mouth with more and more food, “pocketing” it in his cheeks like a hamster.  Sometimes, we’d be brushing his teeth hours after dinner, and when he spit out his toothpaste, out would come half his dinner.  I would dry heave into the toilet in disgust, trying not to shame him but having a hard time hiding my frustration between gagging fits.

We’ve tried lots of different strategies over the years with different goals in mind.  We’ve tried the “you need to take at least a bite of something and swallow it before you decide you don’t like it” strategy, which resulted in more pocketing than ever.  We’ve tried the “you don’t have to finish everything but don’t ask for more bread unless your plate is clean” strategy when he got a little older, and he ended up chewing and chewing the same bite of food for half an hour while we washed the dishes and cleaned the table around him.  The doctor gave us suggestions (recently she became mildly concerned about his lack of vegetable intake), but nothing has ever really worked.  These days, we’ve settled on making one dinner for the family; the rule is he doesn’t have to eat anything he doesn’t want to eat, but if he’s still hungry and doesn’t want the food on his plate, he gets a piece of bread with butter.  We’re not making multiple meals each night.  He eats a lot of bread with butter these days.

This has all been exasperated by his maturing psyche that begs to be treated like a “big kid.”  He gets jealous of his older sister at restaurants when she orders like a matronly food connoisseur: “I’ll start with the lobster bisque and for my entree I’d like the truffle oiled baked mac’n’cheese.”  It doesn’t help that we heap praise on her adventurous and varied palate, and he yearns for that kind of attention.  What happens of course is that he orders something that he’ll never eat in a million years and then pushes it around his plate sheepishly wondering whether one bite or two will be enough to get dessert.

For now, we’ve taken to giving him tiny portions of protein and vegetables, which seem to cause him the most trouble, and heaping servings of carbs.  A typical dinner plate for him will include about two cups of white rice, a barely visible morsel of chicken, and two green beans.  He usually eats the rice, carefully maneuvering his fork around the chicken and beans, and then asks for his bread and butter.

Today at Thanksgiving dinner, he threw a fit when we didn’t serve him enough stuffing.  I tried to reason with him that if he ate all of what little stuffing we gave him, he could have more, but that wasn’t good enough.  “You aren’t me!  You don’t know what I’ll eat!” he cried.  I rolled my eyes, which egged him on even more.  My husband gave me that “why can’t you just let him be six?” look and gave him a second spoonful of stuffing.  Thirty minutes later, the entire pile of stuffing stood untouched on my son’s plate while he resisted the urge to pocket a second helping of turkey he insisted on receiving only because his sister asked for more.  I looked at him and pleaded with him to just spit out the food in his mouth and be done, but he stalwartly chewed on.  I think he’s still working on it now.

I think this all bothers me so much because of the complete lack of logic in it.  If he doesn’t like the food, why does he put it in his mouth?  Why can’t he just try a tiny bite and then swallow it down and say he doesn’t want any more?  When we give him an option to just spit out his food with impunity, why doesn’t he take the opportunity and move on?

I have friends with underweight toddlers who probably cringe at reading something like this.  I don’t know why I even choose to fight this battle night after night.  We all have these pet peeves with our children that drive us nuts, and if other families are anything like ours, they even cause discord between the adults.  My husband and I have completely different irritations when it comes to each individual kid.  One of us will try to support the other while at the same time say with our eyes, “Does this really matter?”

We all know the answer.  Of course it doesn’t matter.  And at the same time it really does.  The adult voice in our heads tells us that logically we should let it go, and in the moment, letting go feels like it will send our children down a slippery slope that ends in spoiled debauchery.

I’m getting better at letting it go, about not falling into the same routines night after night after night.  It’s a slow process, but I guess I’m technically an old dog learning new tricks at this point.  There are aspects of helping a young person lead a good and a right life that end up doing precisely the same thing for us as adults.  As my kids gets older, I find that I’m maturing a bit too.  Tonight, I’ll just sit and chew on that thought for a while as my son chews on that extra turkey he asked for.

Racism Explained to a Toddler

A really great friend of mine moved to St. Louis in pursuit of love more than a decade ago.  Being raised on the east coast, she was anticipating having to shift her fairly liberal mindset for her move to the midwest.  Thankfully, the amazing man she followed to St. Louis, a lifelong Missourian, helped ease her into this new life.  They settled in a liberal part of downtown, and as she quickly popped out three kids in succession following her marriage, she felt a loaded decision looming: where should they send the kids to school.

She’s an educator like me; we actually met teaching at a pseudo-urban school district outside of Boston.  At this school, most of the parents were working class, a large percentage of students lived in the projects, and the AP classes were populated with the children of upper-middle class parents who wanted to stay close to the city without being directly in it.  After the move, she found herself in a fairly similar suburban school in St. Louis County, although the cultural identity of the school was clearly very different than where we met.  A few years went by and she had the opportunity to apply for a job in a wealthy suburban school district; we lived strangely parallels lives, as I was making a similar shift at the same time.  We both ended up taking jobs with these new districts, and we both ended up moving our families out of the city into those districts where I children can earn a top-notch education.  And go to school with mostly white kids.

Of course my friend and her family are all white, yet the decision to move her kids out of the city and into the suburban schools was one that she weighed just as heavily as my husband and I did.  She is an amazing ally for equity of all sorts, and she often pushes herself to have tough conversations with friends and family simply because she knows she has the privilege not to.  She’s referenced on many occasions that knowing the way my family must live its life has often influenced her decisions in what issues she feels she must address in her world.

Then this past August, she found herself near the epicenter of racial tensions in this country when Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer.  She says that Facebook became a place she could no longer frequent due to the vitriolic postings that she felt she couldn’t ignore.  The result of course were rampant flame wars battled out online with people she felt had always been measured and calm in their understanding of the social constructs of this world.

I spoke with her on the phone this weekend.  As the country eagerly awaits word on whether the grand jury will indict Darren Wilson on murder charges, the anticipation of violence has permeated the media where we live.  She assured me she was safe, and she told me some of her struggles:

“This is going to be in my kids’ textbooks in twenty years, and I don’t want them to wonder why they had no idea this was going on right down the road when they were kids.  But how do I tell them about this without totally betraying their innocence?  I’m just so completely aware that I don’t have to have this conversation, but families like yours do.  And that feels really horrible.”

I told her I think she need to have the conversation.  She needs to lay the foundation for the more in-depth conversations that will occur as her children grow older.  She needs to provide a bedrock for the inevitable loss of innocence that her children will go through when they really see how race works in this country.  Without that, she runs the risk of shielding them from every knowing their privilege and actually contributing to the problem.  (I may be elaborating a bit more here than I actually did on the phone.)  Of course, she needs to do all of this in an age-appropriate way.  I took a stab at it and took on her role:

“Listen, mommy needs to talk to you about something very serious.  There is a lot going on in St. Louis county right now.  We’re safe where we are, and there are a lot of people nearby who don’t feel as safe as we do.  We feel comfortable knowing that the police officers in our town will protect us, and there are some people who don’t feel that way.  Isn’t that awful?  Well you know that sometimes police officers have to hurt people in order to keep them from doing bad things to good people right?  A few months ago, a police officer with white skin made a mistake and hurt a young man with black skin who wasn’t doing anything wrong.  The police officer was acting on impulse, which means he just acted without thinking, and a lot of people think he had a bad reaction simply because of the color of the other man’s skin.  Is that really bad that someone would react like that?  What has made people really mad is that this has happened a bunch of times before, and people are just tired of it.  Mommy is really sad about it and wants it to stop happening too.  Think about the people we know with black skin.  If someone hurt them, even by accident, we would probably be really mad and sad right?  Well that’s what’s happening right now.”

No work of art, but that’s essentially what I suggested she do.  I’m not sure if she’ll be able to follow through, but it makes me incredibly happy to know that she is pushing herself beyond her comfort zone to educate her children about what the world is like for others; she surely doing her job as an amazing parent by improving her kids’ empathy and guiding them to consider the world from a perspective other than their own.

Maybe her kids will have questions, and she might have to say, “I don’t know.  Let me know think about that and get back to you,” or maybe her kids will simply ask if they can go play with their Legos.  The important thing is to have the conversation so that they start hearing that dissonance to the message being promoted by the high decibel silence in most white families’ homes.

Who knows what will happen when the grand jury verdict comes out, which may happen any minute now.  Whatever does happen, it will likely result in another difficult conversation for every black household in this country and the choice to ignore the conversation in so many more.

A Recipe for Marital Bliss

As good showmos, my husband and I have a few theater subscriptions in Boston.  When the show is kid-appropriate, we bring the children, but they aren’t ready for non-musical plays so more often than not we end up getting a sitter and heading to the city alone.  We find that these theater subscriptions serve two key purposes:

  1. We are kept up-to-date with our theater experiences.
  2. We get a chance to speak to each other.

If we didn’t purchase these theater tickets 6-12 months in advance, we probably wouldn’t get out of the house.  Weekdays consist of one of us taking the kids to gymnastics/dance/piano/soccer practice while the other one stays home so that dinner is ready when we come home from gymnastics/dance/piano/soccer practice.  After dinner, we throw the kids in the bath, put them in pajamas, let them read for a bit and turn out the light.  Soon after, we settle down on the sofa for me to catch up on my TV and my husband to catch up on some Z’s.

Weekends aren’t much different, except that Saturdays are consumed with soccer and Sundays are spent hitting the reset button for the coming week: laundry, groceries, hair braiding, homework, etc.  After all that daytime activity, we’ll settle in for the same sofa routine that takes place on workdays.  If we had to decide on a whim whether we were going out or not, we’d indubitably choose lounging on the sofa in our pajamas and hitting the sack by 9:00 pm.

Because of all of this, we almost never speak about anything of substance at home.  The few times we try, we’re interrupted a thousand times by one of the kids, usually telling us something supremely important like “the pink Angry Bird is actually pretty mean.”  We’ve tried sending them to the other room while we chat, but usually that ends in tears: “She said the red Angry Bird is meaner than the pink Angry Bird!”  After the kids are in bed, we’re simply too exhausted to have a meaningful conversation that doesn’t end in one of us getting annoyed because the other one is too tired to follow an important line of thought.

Hence the theater nights.

Today, I worked all day (yes, I taught on a Saturday), raced home to attend our daughter’s piano recital up the street, and then stopped in at the house for an hour or two to make dinner while my husband fixed a broken toilet.  Then tonight, a sitter will come over and we’ll have a little bit of time to chat in the car and grab a drink before tonight’s theatrical experience.  It’s not our usual full pre-theater dining experience, but it will have to do since our sitter can’t be here until after dinner.

I used to feel guilty about wanting this time away from the kids.  And I felt guilty about being too exhausted to explain to my husband what’s been ailing me at work during the week.  But so many good friends who have made it through these fatiguing years of young children have helped us to understand that we shouldn’t begrudge ourselves any of these small pleasures or desires of isolation.  We both work full time, and we both work really hard to raise these kids right.  By my count, that’s two full time jobs.  Maintaining a healthy marriage simply has to fly an auto-pilot most days, waiting for those refueling stops where we can ditch the kids and remind each other why we fell in love in the first place.

That’s our recipe for marital bliss while parenting young children: buy lots of theater tickets.

Leaves of God

photo

Holy Art

My daughter came home today with a Thanksgiving plant she’d constructed in her first grade classroom.  Little leaves of thanks were attached to twigs via green chenille stems.  On each leaf, the teacher had pre-printed “I am thankful for:” and the students were expected to write in their personal thanks, using the leaves to create the overall tree.  Here is what my daughter is thankful for:

  • Family
  • Her brother
  • School
  • Dog
  • God

The first three make me happy.  The last two leave me a little ambivalent.

First of all, we don’t have a dog.  We are gay cat people!  Our family of four humans is rounded out with two cats.  The kids treat them like part of the family and they even get little stockings at Christmas.  Where did this thanks for a dog come from?!

More concerning is the God issue.  I don’t know what to do about it.  It’s obviously a touchy subject, and I am absolutely fine with both of my children choosing whatever spiritual path they choose.  I just don’t want them to choose a particular path because it is the one most traveled.

With this latest leaf of thanks, she’s certainly not following in either of her dads’ footsteps.  My husband considers himself an agnostic, though he was raised Methodist.  I was raised by a self-professed “recovering Catholic,” and thus developed a penchant for atheism pretty early on.  Of course, my development was augmented by the constant vitriol being spewed at me as a young closeted gay teenager via the nightly news.  The anti-gay rhetoric I was regularly subjected to in the media growing up in the 80s and early 90s did far more to create an aversion to God than anything my Catholic-challenged step-father did for me.

Hmmmm…

I’ve tried to be religious.  I joined a Bible study group with some Christian friends in high school, thinking that maybe if I just read the good book I’d be attracted to its content.  During the first session, a zealous classmate from school went on and on about Sodom and Gomorrah and how it proves that homosexuality is bad.  I didn’t go back to that study group, and it wasn’t until I read the Bible as literature years later that I discovered how narrow that interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah was.  I mean this is essentially a story about people raping one another, and a small portion of that assault is homosexual.  There’s lots of heterosexual assault going on in Sodom and Gomorrah too, but that doesn’t make for good sound bites.

When we first moved back to the Boston area, my husband took a second job as music director at a United Church of Christ.  The people were amazingly lovely, and I made the trip to church with him on special holidays like Christmas and Easter: I even sang with the choir a few times.  I remember a conversation with my husband after one of these visits where I said something like, “I just wish I could believe.  I just love the sense of community here.  They all believe, but I just don’t.  I feel like a charlatan forging these relationships when there’s zero chance of me believing in this God of theirs.”

I’m too rational a thinker.  I just can’t get all enthused about something that I’ll never know actually factually exists.  And of course there is the fact that the anti-gay mud is still being slung in the name of God regularly on the nightly news.  It might be more tempered than it was twenty years ago, but it’s still there.

I have so many friends that run the gambit from devoutly religious to culturally pious, and they accept me and my family and provide us the love we so happily return to them.  We consider ourselves close friends with some especially faithful churchgoers who speak openly with us about their beliefs and don’t push too hard on us.  As my kids get older though and they start to have conversations about God on the playground, which then comes home to the dinner table in the form of a conversation about how the clouds my daughter is studying in first grade science are actually the home of Jesus, I start to question what kind of guidance I’m supposed to give my kids.  We’ve talked to them about what we believe and what most people in this country believe and the different things that people believe around the world, but they still have this magnetic pull towards the mainstream.  I’m willing to let them give in to that attraction if it’s what they really want, but if it’s merely a desire to be mainstream, I have a problem with it.

They’re still pretty young.  When I asked my daughter about the God leaf, she said her teacher used that as an example on her own tree and she didn’t really believe in it.  I think she was just telling me what I wanted to hear.  She’s got time to figure it out though, and I’ll do my best to support her.

I didn’t ask about the dog.  That probably would have been an easier conversation.