Why you’re all welcome in my exclusive bad boy club

For those of you who don’t keep obsessive tabs on the goings on here (gasp! You don’t?!) I’ll catch you up real quick.

I wrote about a parenting breakthrough I had with Jo who will kick, bite, hit, head-butt and then laugh when angry. The post got lots of attention, and 60 or 70 parents, mostly moms, responded about how their kids, mostly boys, did this same thing. I was so moved by all the comments and struck by this pattern of boys behaving this way that I wrote another post speculating about where all this boy raging was coming from. Then I re-wrote that post due to an insightful comment on my Facebook page about gender. I re-wrote it because I realized that while my experience is about boys and while I see and hear this happening a lot with boys, I’m sure it also happens with some girls too, and I honestly can’t imagine the additional challenges of having a girl behaving this way. So I re-wrote the parts where I generalized about boys into generalizing to kids.

Since I did that, there have been some interesting comments in the vein of “Wait?! I thought we were now in this great raging boys club and now you’re expanding it to all kids, and we’re parents of boys. I liked it when you firmly identified as a mom of a boy. Don’t stop doing that!” I also got a fair number of, “Yes, my girl is like this too, so thank you for including me.”

And I’m left here pondering what I think about all of this—the old “are boys and girls wired differently?” conversation. The old nature vs. nurture conversation. The old “how do you talk about your specific experience and bond with people like you and also keep things open enough for different voices to join in?” conversation.

So here’s what I have to say about all that.

I think boys and girls are wired differently. Boys have penises. Girls have vaginas. They have different hormone combinations coursing through their little bodies. I also think boys and girls are wired very similarly. They both have brains and eyes and hands and are human and tend to prefer macaroni and cheese over most any other food in the world.

Here now, courtesy of my friend Jen with a witty blog that always makes me guffaw, are some examples of boy wiring:

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Anyone else appreciate the “nails” theme in this series?!

In terms of inclusion/exclusion, I think something is lost when we try to include everyone in everything because one of my most profound joys in this lifetime is seeking comfort in people who share my experience. I’m talking to you, mom’s of “bad” boys! Also, I think something is lost when we get super exclusive, because one of my other most profound joys is learning from people who are really different than me. And having my mind blown by them. Hello, dads of mild-mannered, craft loving girls.

I want both things, damn it.

I am the mom of a particular breed of boy, and I’m going to talk about that without any apologies. I want you all to write from the hip here too, and not worry about generalizing about patterns you see in boy and girl behavior. I get it. We all see patterns. My big caveat is this: while some of the differences between boys and girls are rooted in biology, the differences between them that we see and talk about are culturally re-enforced to the max. We think boys are like this and girls are like this, we notice what confirms our thoughts (ignore what doesn’t) and make it true.

Also, I want to make room for our boys and girls to surprise us. For the record, when Jo is flinging his limbs wildly about, he’s often wearing one of his favorite shirts–it’s (gasp!) a turquoise “girl” shirt with puffed sleeves and a starfish on it.

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He’s also very nurturing of Cal and regularly shouts, “Mom, Cal’s on the stairs again—it’s a safety problem!”

He’s a big, complicated, easy-to-generalize kid.

Probably a lot like yours.

That slippery fish of parenting mastery

There are moments of mastery.

Because there are so many more moments of barely getting by and utter failure, I have to mark these somehow.

Not to toot my own horn…

To finish reading this post, get ye over to Get Born, a radical blog of unflinchingly real women writers where I post once a month. It’s a dream come true over there.

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Why I re-wrote my last post

Thanks to a really insightful comment from one of you on my Facebook page, I decided to go back and change the title and some of the content of my last post about raging boys.

I like this post, but I must admit I’m not keen on the slight ‘gender essentialism’ edge to it. Labeling this type of behavior as somehow a ‘boy’ thing isn’t really a good thing for either boys or girls. Also in my opinion it’s really not that clear cut. I have a boy who is (at least so far) the total opposite of this- very physically cautious etc. this describes our friend’s daughter far more accurately. A mom I talked to recently with a wonderful spirited ‘wild’ daughter was lamenting the fact that everyone seemed to think this kind of behavior was fine from boys and wrote it off as ‘boys will be boys’ type stuff, but saw it as almost unnatural and totally unacceptable in a girl. Since having kids I see so many examples of how much we try to stereotype them. When we see behavior that confirms our bias we note it, but when we see anything that runs counter to our bias we ignore it. Boys or girls, the same principles, solutions and dilemmas apply so why pigeon hole?

Since honesty is my bag here, I have to admit that I felt really defensive after reading Ruth’s comment at first. “But I wrote it because I have a boy, and 99% of the comments on my post about Jo’s badness were from parents of boys.” And then I thought some more, and had a back and forth with Ruth and decided that she was right. Parents of raging, wild, aggressive girls probably feel less open about it than those of boys, so I probably hear less from them. And like it or not, this kind of behavior is something that’s more tolerated in boys. Based on my own experience at the playground, I can only imagine what onlooking parental wrath I’d incur if my 4-year-old girl kicked and then dumped sand on the little boy sitting by the slide.

So I want to broaden this discussion from parents of boys to parents of kids. Are you the parent of a kid? Do they rage? Do they head-butt you and then laugh? Well then step right up. I re-wrote this for you.

Our raging kids and where they come from

Well hot damn. Hells bells. Sheesh-ka-bob.

Things have been really hopping over here since I wrote my last post.

I’m a chronic over-sharer in my day-to-day, so writing about my life, all splayed open for the world to see, comes naturally and feels good. Necessary, even. And so I write and I keep writing and I hope it strikes a chord somewhere. Hope someone else feels a little less nuts, a little more jovial about their particular mess, a little bit encouraged by the good company of us other bumbling humans, just trying to see what sticks.

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And then BAM. For whatever reason, I struck a chord last week. A relatively big one.

The things you’ve shared with me have left me stunned.

There are so many of us.

This is my son ALL over the place.

Wow. Just Wow. Your story resonated with our boy word for word.

The attitude of mum, the elder child’s personality and spunk, and the shock when it actually worked all ring so true.

My beautiful bad seed is all girl..lovely, opinionated, strong-willed, thoughtful, loving, commanding, and gorgeously all girl. With a temper that can send giants to the corner, silently weeping and hugging their knees.

What you wrote has an impact for me right now. I can be that padded wall.

This is our house, so thanks-

Like a few of you have said above, he hits, kicks, head butts, body slams me, bites, throws things, ect, and laughs all the while doing it. And I know he is not laughing to be malicious, but because he cannot get his emotions under control, and he doesn’t understand them. It’s damn hard though. And he’s a strong little bugger.

Ladies, this was so my son when he was younger. I think I still have PTSD from his first month or so of kindergarten when he was 5.

I’m trying to find a way with my 3 years old boy that plays –often– the agressive kid, usually against me.

I have four boys – two are like your son. Your piece had me in tears as not an hour ago I had numerous sets of eyes glaring at me at a park as a meltdown occurred. I stayed calm, told myself to ignore the judgement and to love my boy. But gosh was it hard. Even after two years of practice staying calm with him during his outbursts (since I finally learned not staying calm made it infinitely worse!) I still struggle.

Thank you for putting in words what I’ve been trying to do with my nearly-3yr old bundle of energy boy.

My very spirited 2 1/2 year old can be aggressive and violent like this to his very gentle 6 year old brother!

I needed this today.

my son is Jo…

This is exactly my 4yo.

When my son goes berserk he tries to hit and scratch and bite and he’s like a wild beast. If it’s not that it’s chucking things at me and knocking things down.

I am in exactly the same boat with my almost 3 year old and little ‘accidents’ with his younger brother.

My son is only 6-months and I feel like this already fits him to a T. Love the insight and I’ll be sharing this with my wife as we prepare for the next stage!

We have a Jo of our own in the form of Eli. Thank you very much for sharing this.

Your description of the sadistic smile that he gets is so like my William’s! He is so much more than that mask. Your post brought me to tears, because you showed me I am not alone.

Maria, I thought of you when I read this, especially the head-butting part.

And this isn’t even all of them.

I had no idea how many of us were in this boat. Parents with young ones who are scratching, hitting, throwing, biting and yes, as Maria well knows, head-butting; they’re hurting things and people in their path and then tossing off a sadistic laugh to boot. Even though I know these behaviors intimately because we’ve lived them all for the past couple years, it still baffles me to write it all out. Why is this happening? And to so many of us?

Maybe this has been going on for centuries with human kids. But if that were the case, wouldn’t there be a How-To-Handle-Your-Young-Child-Who-Often-Behaves-Very-Much-Like-a-Sociopath manual out there? Written and tried and tested by the droves of mothers who have come before us, and sat where we sit, staring, glazed-over, at a loss?

I’m working out a theory for why we’re seeing this particular kind of child so much.

First, there are a bunch of us parents who are suspicious of going straight to punishment when our kids’ behavior goes south. We don’t go straight to spanking or time out when the block goes whizzing by our head. That is not to say we don’t ever go the punishment route. After a long LONG day when I’m over it, I bust out some yelling and forceful placement in the room, to “not come out until you can touch your brother the right way.” But sometimes I have the energy and time to try other stuff. I listen. I give eye contact. For those of us who are willing to try this stuff, we don’t (or can’t!) stop the cyclone of destruction dead in its tracks (as much as we might like to!), so we see our kids’ raging as it gains steam and plays out.

Second is this article. It has me floored.

Atlantic Overprotected Kid

My friend Meg brought it up as we were talking about the response to my post about “bad” Jo and all the droves of moms of kids like him that were moved to share their thoughts here. It’s a long read, but worth the time, about the dramatic trend away from unsupervised and risky play since the 1970s and how, these days, children expect to be constantly supervised. While the hyper-supervision trend seems to be rooted in parents’ fear of injury or abduction, instances of those things haven’t gone up since the 70s, though our awareness of them has. And I have a hunch that all this reigning in of our kiddos has something to do with these little psychopath boy moments we’re trying to contain out in the world and in our houses.

For example, beginning in 2011, Swanson Primary School in New Zealand submitted itself to a university experiment and agreed to suspend all playground rules, allowing the kids to run, climb trees, slide down a muddy hill, jump off swings, and play in a “loose-parts pit” that was like a mini adventure playground. The teachers feared chaos, but in fact what they got was less naughtiness and bullying—because the kids were too busy and engaged to want to cause trouble, the principal said.

Are our kids so bored out of their skulls with their wooden train sets and soccer practice and happy cartoons that they’re seeking out the juicy-dangerous-aliveness that comes from risk-taking with us? If they could wander, unfettered with their neighborhood friends and build forts and cut down tree limbs and explore on their own more often, would they rage less at home?

Something tells me yes.

How my bad 4-year-old and I found our way home

There’s simplicity parenting, attachment parenting, parenting by temperament. Authoritative parenting, French parenting, parenting the spirited child.
And one I think we’re all familiar with: parenting by the seat of our pants.

That, whether I like it or not, is where I parent from most of the time. And let me tell you, the seat of my pants is battered and worn. As I have mentioned before, parenting Jo since I got pregnant with Cal has been no cake walk. We’re talking hitting, kicking and throwing things at me when I was pregnant, having big physical outbursts with other kids and trying to contain his massive physical energy in a small house with a newborn.

I sought advice everywhere I could—books, friends, my mom. I dissolved into tears while asking Jo’s teacher what I should do after his first morning of preschool, all while bouncing Cal in his carrier.

So this last fall, I went to an introductory talk for a Hand-in-Hand parenting class that was recommended by a mom I’ve been admiring for months. Her daughter goes to Jo’s preschool and she’s a kick ass and very real mom of 3 exuberant children, including a very physical, eldest boy which is why I sought out her sage advice.

At the end of the talk, I was the woman raising my hand, “Sure Angela, that all sounds great, but then what do I do when my 4 year old starts head-butting me?” I walked out of there with the massive chip on my shoulder that only a mother of a super-physical and sometimes-aggressive boy can have: Your slick limit setting ideas won’t work in my house. My child will chew up your parenting tools and spit them directly into my face.

But I was at the end of what felt like every one of my ropes, so I tried what she talked about.

I actually stopped the 7 things I was trying to do at once while making dinner and got down on the floor with Jo the next time he tried to hit me. AJ happened to be home, so I had the pleasure of being able to try this without having Cal in tow. I tried to set the limit with a “firm and warm tone while making lots of eye contact.” I just kept saying things like, “I can’t let you hit me.” And “I know you’re angry because we’re not going to watch a video.” And “Nope. I can’t let you kick me either.” I stayed with him while he flipped out.

It was the parenting equivalent of walking straight into enemy fire.

And it effing worked.

He cried and screamed and thrashed. And then the hitting stopped. And he melted into a hug.

I was stunned.

I signed up for the class.

Like any parenting advice worth its salt, the things I learned there and practice now are just good habits for living as a human being. And they happen to apply really well to the under-developed brains of children and the calcified brains of parents.

There’s so much to say here because the whole Hand-in-Hand approach is a sweeping understanding of human relationships in general.

It’s rooted in brain science, in particular the functioning of the social or limbic part of our brains that is fully formed when we’re born. When we feel connected to others, our limbic system is happy. When we don’t, the red flag is raised, the alarm sounds. Babies cry. Toddlers tantrum. Moms want to fly far far away from here.

So, in short, the answer when things are going pear-shaped is to find a way to connect if you can. If you can’t, it’s okay. Try again next time. Angela, the same Angela I grilled with chip-on-my-shoulder questions at the intro talk, would repeat this kindness over and over: sometimes you just can’t stop everything and connect. Surprise! You’re human. Each time she’d say this, I could feel every parent in the room deflate into relief. She understood. Sometimes, you just need to sit your child down in front of 6 episodes of Animal Babies on Netflix until you get your sanity back.

The other thing the class reminded me about was how crucial listening is. Often, our kids desperately want to be listened to when they’re upset. (Shockingly, I also want this.) And if we’re not getting listened to as parents, about the relentlessness of it, the trials and triumphs and mind-numbing Tuesdays, then it’s really hard for us to listen to our kids.

Eureka.

Getting listened to over the course of the 6 week class felt like cleaning out some backed-up old pipes. Week after week I was allowed and even encouraged to let ‘er rip: “When he bit me, I wanted to hit him. I wanted to scream, ‘What the hell is your problem?!’” And slowly, I de-gunked. And the water ran clear again.

I credit what I learned in my Hand-in-Hand class with helping me recover the relationship with Jo that I loved. The way I see his outbursts and respond to them has changed subtly, and we recover faster.

As a result of all this listening and limbic system learning, I was able to make a radical mental shift:

I was able to see Jo as a good kid.

After so many months of having him try to hurt me (and sometimes succeeding) and watching him lash out at the baby, I started to believe that Jo was bad. Damaged. Wrong.

This may come as a huge surprise, but when you’re parenting your child from the perspective that they are The Bad Seed, your relationship with that child does not tend to flourish.

I’ve witnessed now, time after time, that if I have the presence and time to connect with Jo when he’s going off the rails, (which sometimes I don’t—see Netflix option above) if I can stay warm and firm, it reminds him (AND ME!) that I’m the grown up. I’m the big padded wall he can fling himself against. I’m not going anywhere. And I see that he’s okay and that we’re okay deep down. He can unfurl in that safety, flip out, and then come back. I show him that I know he’s great even when he’s at his worst. And then he knows how to find his way back.

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‘The Long Way Home’ by Christine und David Schmitt

Case in point:

Cal was crawling around with some toys in the living room and Jo was running and jumping everywhere at ludicrous speed. I stopped Jo and looked in his eyes and asked him to please slow down, because he might accidentally knock Cal over, and I know he doesn’t want to hurt him. Not 2 minutes later, Cal got knocked over, fell on his face and came up with a bloody, screaming mouth. My face crumpled and started to get that angry look towards Jo. I scooped up Cal, and Jo looked back with this horrifying grin on his face as if to say, “See how bad I am?”

I had the presence in that moment to remember his goodness. So instead of talking to the sadistic nutcase in front of me, I talked to the kid I know he is.

Don’t worry, Jo. Cal is going to be okay. I know you didn’t want to hurt him and that it’s really scary to see him bleeding. But he’s going to be just fine. He needs to cry because he’s hurting. But I know you didn’t do that on purpose and I know how much you love him.

I brought him in close and just kept talking about how I knew he was scared and sad and that he loved Cal to pieces. He kept playing the cruel jerk. But I just kept right on.

When Cal’s crying died down, it was time for us to go meet a friend. Jo fell quiet while we were getting in the car, and as I was buckling him in, he asked, “Can I hug him?”

Why yes, dear boy. You can.

“Can I kiss him too?”

By all means.

And then, after the gentlest hugging and kissing that I’ve ever witnessed from my little dynamo, he settled into his seat, looked straight into my eyes and said, “Mama, I’m never going to do that again.”

Yowza. We made it.

I’m filing for a time divorce

I want a time divorce.

I have a few friends who have separated from or divorced their partners after having kids, and from my vantage point, this is the biggest difference between their lives and mine: they have scheduled time alone. Sometimes 2 or 3 days in a row. While the kids are with their partner, they go dancing. They stay out late. They hang out at home and sit in their quiet, empty houses.

And I know it’s not all shiny triumphant alone time. I’ve listened to their heart ache and debilitating sadness and anger and disappointment. And when their kids are around, they’re the one on the hook. Solo. But they have more kid-free-time than I do.
Scheduled kid-free-time.

I want the marriage and the time.

Relaxed Foot

I want this to be my relaxed foot.
Photo by ShaneTeee

I had this eureka over lunch with a friend, while we tried to corral Cal and eat dim sum. She explained the revelation of unstructured time without kids.

Unstructured. Time. Without. Kids.

If you’ve been at this for a while, the mere thought of that might just blow your skull.

So I just called AJ and requested a time divorce. Why the hell can’t we schedule time during the week when one or the other of us is off?! Just clocked out. Not because we have a class or a plan or a thing we need to do. Just because we both need time when there’s nothing to do but what we want just then. We could alternate so that every other Wednesday night is ours to do whatever the eff we want. Or one Sunday a month. Or both!

Sure, there have been plenty of times in the last 5 years when AJ or I have gotten away for a few hours, a day, a whole string of nights even.

But every time, it’s a full-on negotiation. You have to ask, consider the delicate balance of getting both parents’ needs sort-of met, coordinate your schedule with your friends or the dance class and make sure it works for your partner and various feeding/napping schedules. Not to mention transportation if you happen to only have one car. Which we do. It can be a real palava.

This is why the time divorce is genius.

It’s pre-scheduled. No need to scramble or quibble or squabble. No need to “go to yoga class” and instead drive a revelatory 2 blocks to the park by your house where you feel emancipated and strange. And then you just sit in the grass in your yoga pants talking to friends on the phone for the next hour because you can.

You see, under the agreement set forth in ye olde time divorce, sitting in the park in your yoga pants talking on the phone is allowed–encouraged even!

Imagine yourself frolicking in an open field of unstructured time that is scheduled into your week.

Now, wipe the drool from your chin. And go file for a time divorce.

Waxing poetic about time, treasure and sisters

There are moments of sweetness I can hardly describe. The kind of sweetness that aches, that wraps its tiny fingers around your heart and squeezes a little bit too hard. It’s the sweetness of endings and beginnings. Of beginnings as endings.

My sister had a baby this week, and I was there. She rested her head on my shoulder as she slumped her back forward to receive an epidural. I rubbed her feet and laughed with her while we waited. I was there, and I looked into her face while she collected her energy and courage between pushes. Her face calm, fierce, focused.

Today is Jo’s last day of preschool before summer. I lingered with Cal at circle time and listened while Jo’s teacher told him and his class about the treasure hunt. All those smooth, soft, warm 3 and 4 year olds sitting cross legged on the carpet, listening.

“There might be times when you’re hunting that you just want everything. When you see a big pile of treasure and you want it and all the treasure in the world for yourself. When you feel that way, you can put your hand on your heart like this and say, ‘I have gold fever.’ When you have gold fever, it’s a good idea to slow down, and come in to the snack table and have a little bit of water, and maybe a snack. And then you can put your hand on your chest again and say, ‘There’s enough treasure for everybody.’”

As I sit here, writing this, Jo is probably surveying his gold, nestled in his treasure bag, or digging deeper into the sandbox for more booty, or treating his gold fever with some celery and hummus. And my sister is probably looking down at that new girl of hers, cupping her tiny head in her palm, smoothing her black hair down with the rhythmic stroke of a thumb.

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Time is passing, just flowing right through. It brings babies, it takes childhoods, it grows chickens and firmly closes doors behind us. No more preschool. No more pregnancy. But this now. Treasure hunting. Newborn nieces. Tree limbs arcing up to sun and wind.

The passage of time is not lost on us. But we get lost inside it sometimes. The monotony can be a real trickster. Today is the same as yesterday. Time for the Wednesday routine again. Wake, run around, sleep, repeat.

Thank goodness for endings. And beginnings. The bookends of time. They hold us upright and keep us honest. They remind, with their firmness, that things can change. Sisters can become mothers. Boys can become treasure hunters. Life can be unbearably good.

Saying goodbye to birth: a love letter

Since I’m a total birth junkie, I can’t let any moment with obsess-about-birth potential go by without properly obsessing.

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So I made this little altar in the corner of our back patio where I meditated for 3 interrupted minutes on birthing Cal.

I’m diving in today because it was almost exactly a year ago to the minute that Cal was born. Even as I write them, the words “Cal was born” are a passive and withered description of what actually happened. No single human in the history of the world “was born.” Someone birthed them while they simultaneously birthed themselves. In reality, Cal and I and pitocin and AJ and my midwife and doula and nurses did a magical, timeless birthing together. Cal navigated out of the most cramped but yielding passage. I faced all of my yeses and my nos and a deep, dark, holy abyss. I stood on the very pin prick point where the breathless height of awe tips over into terror.

I’ve been marinating all day in the birth log my doula kept, announcing to a friend at a 5 year old birthday party today,

Right now a year ago I was puking. Yep. 12:15. Puke time.

After I got Cal down for his nap this afternoon, I positively skipped down the stairs to my laptop where I flicked through all our Cal birth photos. I gushed over little snippets of video too. I forgot how lucid I was between contractions. And how quiet I was in the beginning. How loud at the end.

Now I’m feeling high. Just the thoughts and scenes and sounds of our birthing a year ago have left my body feeling like a slightly jostled bottle of sparkling water. I’m actually fizzing.

Birth is unequivocaly the peak experience of my life. Both of my births. Celebrating Jo’s and now Cal’s birth feels so much deeper and more real than celebrating my own. And it’s not because of my unending love for each of them. It’s because I remember being there. Because I had no choice but to go straight into the depths of my body with each of them. And the only way out was straight through the pain and intensity and I-can’t-do-this of it all. There has never been anything like it for me.

I’ve been skirting around the edges of my grief about the decision that AJ and I have made to stop making babies. I’m firmly rooted in our choice–I do not want to raise any more children. About that I am crystal clear. Oh, but birth. I would do you again in a heartbeat. Even after having just listened to this.

 

Nay, BECAUSE I just listened to that.

There will never be another thing in my life that will take me to that place. The small, smooth stone of that truth drops down and leaves an ache. There is an emptiness. I’m on the other end of my births, and I can never go back again.

It is this minute. This very minute a year ago that I felt that shockingly insanely huge hard round head coming out. Between contractions, it just lodged there, expanding me, and there was nothing but that smooth, molded skull and my voice and the vast shock of awe.

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And then, it was over.

***

If you’d like to read more about Cal’s birth, help yourself to Part 1 and Part 2. And here’s my sappy nod to Jo’s.

Guest post: On Passing as a Single Mom

A few months ago, a friend sent me this practical account of how a woman got rid of a placenta she never wanted in the first place. It casually flew in the face of the false dichotomy between crunchy, placenta-eating home birthers and epidural princesses. On a whim, I sent an admiring email to the author. Any woman willing to reveal her own complexity in an embarrassing tale of human waste disposal is a friend of mine. I invited her to write a guest post here, and hot damn, she wrote one.
Enjoy.

My boyfriend, Scott, was in Arizona with his dying father and I was at a diner with our two sons. My older son was rolling creamers across the table for the younger one to fling on the ground. I overheard our waitress say to an older couple who had just walked in, “Someone is in your booth.”

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Photo by Ben Husmann

She nodded in our direction. Unknowingly we had occupied “their” booth. Aware of how territorial old people can be about booths, I stiffened. The couple sat down near us, and then the husband began to silently watch us.

“Whatever,” I said to myself and then became distracted with the blue crayon my youngest was chewing.

The old folks ate swiftly and left. My children were covered in syrup, so I asked for the check.

“It’s been taken care of,” the waitress said and nodded to the booth where the couple had been sitting. I had spent the better part of my twenties—a time before back flab and pregnancy-induced skin tags—in Mission District bars and no stranger had ever picked up my tab. I asked the waitress to mind my sons while I ran into the rain to thank the Samaritans, but they were gone.

“What was that all about?” I asked her when I returned. She smiled in a certain way. Like the way you smile when you assume you’re in the company of your own kind.

It was really early; I was alone with my kids; I don’t have a wedding ring. Of course the couple—and the waitress—thought I was a single mom, which I’m not.

At this point, I became aware that silence was a form of deception and what I should say was, “What a goddamn nice gesture. It’s been a rough week because my boyfriend (super strong emphasis) is away with his sick father.”

Why did I lie by omission? Because there was something shamefully thrilling about passing as a single mom, who as everyone knows is society’s toughest of the tough.

I asked about her life. Her shift had started at 6 a.m., so she had to wake both her kids at 5:30. Then they went back to sleep on the babysitter’s couch. “Not so bad,” she said.

She had parted ways with her kids at the crack of dawn, and the suspenders on her diner uniform were pushing her boobs out to either side. But she wasn’t complaining.

I complain. For what? Not only do I have a partner, but he’s of the best stock, scooping baby poop out of the bath drain, telling me he wants me, working his ass off. I have my mom who not only watches our baby once a week but also lugs the recycling to the curb. I have the hardest working nanny in the North Bay. The list goes on.

After our first son was born, neither for the love of Christ nor money could Scott and I stop playing the who-has-it-harder game. Thankfully we’ve let that go.

But in my mind, I’m still a contestant with other moms. Why? Because Scott works nights? Because I have two boys? Because my kids are less than two years apart in age? Because all my friends live at least an hour away?

It’s not sympathy I’m after. Just acknowledgement: What you’re doing is hard. But does anything I’m doing even qualify as hard? Some people handle hard better than others. I’m ashamed that I’m not one of them.

I left the restaurant with the waitress still under the impression that we were in the good fight together.

Several months later, I returned to the diner with my family. Scott and the boys were there, as was my dad and his wife. I was telling them the story and getting close to the climax – “they picked up our bill” – when the same waitress came to take our order.

She acknowledged me. And then she scanned the full table, took in my reality, pursed her lips, and poured the coffee.

***

Jennifer Liss enjoys writing about life in the great parched state of California. She lives in Napa with her boyfriend and two young sons. She makes her living as an education and curriculum writer.

Why leaning in and minding the confidence gap is a help, not a hindrance, to feminism

The thing I love most about blogging is the conversation it inspires. I have a whip-smart blogger friend who responded to my Mother’s Day post about Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s article The Confidence Gap. She wrote,

I don’t disagree with the sentiments in this article, but in general I’m not wildly keen on this new direction feminism seems to be taking, of the Lean In ilk – i.e. the reason women don’t have equality with men is an intrinsic problem with women, e.g. that we aren’t confident enough, or that we don’t “Lean In” enough rather than external factors such as discrimination, workplace policies etc.

i.e. it’s not the system that needs fixing- it’s you.

This kind of thinking is becoming increasingly common and gives a way too easy get out clause for employers and law makers in my opinion.

She shared Jessica Valenti’s article that calls the confidence gap “a sham,” citing it as a good summary of her own criticism of Kay and Shipman’s (and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In) focus on addressing sexism from an internal, confidence-building perspective.

This argument has become very familiar because I’m a woman and I live in the Bay Area and I’ve read Lean In. I’ve had a version of this conversation too many times to count.

Photo by Mark Biddle

Photo by Mark Biddle

I understand the worry that my friend and Valenti and a lot of the feminist critics of Lean In have — shifting our focus to ways that women can/should “fix” themselves blames inequality on women and lets the larger structural forces of inequality off the hook. I see their point. If the whole story isn’t told, then it is an easy way out–if the towering structures of sexist oppression go unmentioned, then discussions like these can easily slip into a 101 on why women are the problem. But doing the equal and opposite–throwing Sandberg and Kay and Shipman under the bus in order to defend a focus on structural inequality–deprives all of us of a revealing and potentially empowering part of this story. And ultimately, it weakens the cause we’re all trying to advance.

The reason I and many other women dig Lean In and The Confidence Gap is because they reveal to us that our chronic self-doubt or perfectionism or shrinking back in meetings is not an isolated personal problem, but rather it’s an individual reaction to a structural problem–a micro symptom of a macro structural issue.

Suddenly, I can see the forest for the trees! I doubt myself because as a woman, I’m constantly being doubted. My talking less and making sure my proposal is perfect and only applying for the job when I meet every single qualification are all fair responses to a system that’s stacked against me. It’s not because I’m a terrible communicator or because I’m an idiot, it’s because I exist within a structure that breeds that kind of behavior.

Feminism is a cause that needs to be championed internally and externally, because its effects are both internal and external. And when we throw out the baby with the bathwater, as Valenti does in her article, we waste the energy of our cause on posturing rather than parsing out the specifics of our disagreements.

Even so, this criticism of Valenti’s is well-founded.

Kay and Shipman dismiss the importance of institutional barriers upfront, writing in the introduction that, while there’s truth behind concerns about sexism, the “more profound” issue is women’s “lack of self-belief”.

Women’s lack of self-belief is a huge effing problem. Is it “more profound” than their earning less than men for the same work or receiving the world’s worst maternity leave? No. But is it a symptom created by the larger structural issue? Yes. And we do ourselves and our cause no favors by leveling such blunt criticism at writers who are analyzing research that reveals the individual symptoms of structural gender inequality. We desperately need to illuminate both the symptoms and the causes if we’re going to cure the disease of sexism.

Maybe it’s because of the radical worldview shift that threw me for a huge loop in my 20s. On any given day, I would toggle my wholehearted agreement between both sides of any major political issue. Because of that experience and the cause of feminism being so near and dear to my heart, I feel particularly defeated when I stand in the midst of all this either/or posturing.

Don’t we all agree that structural sexism sucks and needs to be addressed? Can’t we also gain some liberation from seeing how those structures influence the way we see ourselves and choose to act in our every day lives? This is a case of the micro and the macro both feeding into each other. Pitting one against the other is not productive.

I’m all for addressing the towering structures of misogyny and inequality built into our system. I’ve also felt better and bigger and stronger in my few days since reading Kay and Shipman. I resisted my own urge to over-prepare for a meeting yesterday and was able to think more creatively and on my feet as a result. And instead of saying, “I know a little bit about script writing” in response to an inquiry at work, I replied, “I’ve freelanced as a script writer. I’d love to help.” Surprise, surprise, I’m now on the script writing project. And I love it.

In leaning in and addressing my own internal confidence gap, do I feel like I’m shouldering responsibility for gender inequality and letting the system off the hook? Hell no. In fact, I feel pretty kick-ass and more equipped to go out and deal with all that structural crap.

The cause of feminism will only benefit from sexism being addressed both internally and externally. Let’s support women who contribute to telling the whole, complex story of inequality and throw this either/or thinking out the window.

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