50 Shades of Gray

Maybe the title of this post sparked your interest. No, it is not about the book and movie by the same name. This post is about something that has been on my mind since November 8, 2016, election day.

Over the past several months, I have been reading, listening, observing and sometimes commenting on what is happening in our country. I have done my best to keep my emotions at bay and show my children that it is important for us to be tolerant and patient with others who might not agree with our views. When it comes to deliberation, I never see the answer as black or white. I tend to see the gray in every debate. Sometimes the shade of gray is a deep charcoal and sometimes it is silver. Trying to navigate the last few months has been challenging however, my children continue to teach me about acceptance and tolerance.

My first lesson in acceptance of our new reality was from my son. During the last few weeks of the 2016 presidential campaigns, my son grew very interested in what was happening. We did our best to allow him to come to conclusions on his own rather than encourage him to agree with his father and me. Several times, I remember Thomas coming home after school, quiet and thoughtful, trying to process what he had heard on the bus, during lunch, on a YouTube video or from the older kids at school. Sometimes he would talk to me about the things he was hearing and other times he chose to process the information on his own, trying to culminate an opinion. When he decided to talk about it, I would listen, interject as needed, substantiate facts when appropriate and caution him when the information was hearsay.

On Election day, I took him with me to the polls, answering his questions and educating him on how lucky we are to live in the United States. That evening, Thomas wanted to watch some of the news coverage stating “This is my country and I want to know what happens.”  We sat on the couch and watched together.  We talked about women’s rights, religious freedom, and democracy. I explained the meaning of white privilege and that he need not feel guilty about the color of his skin but rather, use his privilege for the betterment of others. Around 9:00 pm, it appeared as though Clinton was going to be our next president. Thomas was growing tired and decided to head upstairs and retire for the evening. I kissed my boy goodnight and reminded my 11, going on 20 year old, to brush his teeth. He fell asleep feeling hopeful and excited.

Mark and I continued to follow the election night coverage and as the evening progressed we were able to predict the outcome. By the time I went to sleep, I was disappointed, worried and could not stop thinking about my son. What would I say to him when he awoke in the morning?

The next day, I got up, dressed myself and Leah and walked her to the school bus. Usually Mark wakes Thomas on school mornings so needless to say, he was alarmed when I woke him instead of his father.  The first thing out of his mouth was “Did she win?” I fought back the urge to spew my raw emotions, took a trembling breath and looked him in the eye. He knew the answer to his question before I spoke my first word. Over the next few minutes, I explained to my wide eyed 11 year old what had happened. I watched his tears form and did my best to stay positive and ease his fears. I explained that it was important for us to keep an open mind, be kind and respect the opinions of others. I warned that some of his classmates might be celebrating and some might be sad. We rehearsed different ways he might respond if a peer was sad or happy.  After several minutes of discussion, he got himself ready and headed out the door to face the day. He handled it like a champ. Sure he was disappointed. Sure he was a little bit scared. He made the choice to accept reality and move on with his day. It was as simple as that.

My second lesson in the acceptance of our new reality was several days after the election, Leah and I went to a local Children’s consignment store to shop for a few things. While I shopped, Leah wandered over to the next aisle and began to play with some of the toys that were on display. I could hear her begin a conversation with another little girl. They exchanged names, giggled and starting playing together. I peeked around the corner to get a glimpse to make sure the girls were not making a mess. They sat in the middle of the floor, playing with barbies, completely content. I saw the girl’s mother standing near by and I attempted to catch her eye and smile. She looked at me briefly, without expression and turned away.

I decided to try a little harder so I walked a closer to the mom, whose back was to me and I said, “They are having such a great time together.”

She turned briefly to look at the girls, avoided eye contact with me, and turned away. I was a little puzzled by her reaction but, tried to convince myself that perhaps she is just a shy person. I looked up and saw the cashier watching the interaction. She smiled and I smiled back.

Eventually, the other mother paid for her items at the register and called to her daughter, who was still on the floor playing with Leah. The little girl stood and walked toward her mom. As is customary with my children, I encouraged Leah to say goodbye to the little girl.

“Bye friend. Thanks for playing with me.” Leah said, and the two girls embraced. I smiled at my sweet girl and admired how easy it is for young children to show affection and acceptance of others.

I looked toward the other mother who caught my eye briefly. I smiled once again and just before she turned away from me, I saw that her expression changed and I noticed that she looked sad, or perhaps even despondent. She and her daughter walked out the door and I found myself watching after, deep in my thoughts about our interaction, or the lack thereof.

“Don’t you wish everyone could be as kind and accepting as young children?” The cashier said, interrupting my thoughts.

I turned toward her and she was smiling, one of those smiles that warms the entire room and invites one to strike up a conversation. I walked over to the register and we began to talk. She told me that she had been watching my daughter and the other little girl play together and she was moved to tell me how much it made her feel hopeful and optimistic about the future. I was a little confused at her confession so I asked for clarification.

Let me back up a second. What I did not mention earlier is that the other mother and her daughter were African-American. The cashier was also African-American. I didn’t mention that detail in the beginning of my story because, at the time of the event, I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t think that it mattered that my daughter has white skin and the other little girl has black skin. As far as I was concerned, they were playing and having fun together, so I was content. What I realize now is that when I chose to not pay attention to that important detail, I failed to acknowledge what that mother might have been struggling with at the time.

As the cashier spoke, I listened closely, intensely aware of the color of my skin, self-conscious of my white privilege. At that moment, I realized how important it was for me to shut up and listen. She explained that many African Americans were feeling anger and suspicion and needed time and space to work through those emotions.  I nodded in agreement with her as I fought back tears.  She continued by stating that as an African American woman, she had viewed the world as black and white for far too long. For her, she confessed, it was time to begin looking for the gray.  She paused after she finished speaking and I stood there silently processing her words.

As my throat began to tighten I asked, “Can I give you a hug?” and without hesitation she wrapped her arms around my neck and we embraced. Two strangers, one white, one black, consoling one another while my daughter watched.

I suddenly realized why the tears were falling down my cheeks. I was grieving. I was grieving the loss of something but I was not sure what that something was. Perhaps it was the loss of unity in my country, the loss of pride, the loss of security. Whatever it was I was feeling, I can only imagine what Americans, who are marginalized, were feeling. I said my goodbyes to the cashier and Leah and I headed home.

The other day, Leah asked if she could paint. Being that craft time is one of my least favorite mom activities, I begrudgingly obliged. I took out a paper plate and quickly squeezed a quarter size dollop of each color so that Leah could more easily access the paint. Initially, she took painstaking care to wash her brush when she changed colors.

“That looks great honey. I like how careful you are to not mix the colors.” I said.

Suddenly my precocious six year old, decided it was time to mix things up so she thrust her paintbrush onto the plate and started to mix the dollops of paint into one big messy blob. I stared at the blob of paint and noticed the swirling colors begin to bleed into one another, slowly loosing the original hues, merging and assimilating into 50 shades of gray.

Since those first few days after the election, I have continued to allow space to process my grief.  What makes this country great is the complexities of our diversity.  One can list all of the ethnic and racial descriptions that make up this colorful country but in the end, if you mix all of us into one messy blob, you will notice the swirling colors begin to bleed into one another, slowly loosing the original hue, merging and assimilating into 50 shades of gray. There are no easy solutions to the problems our country is facing but I do know that we need to meet somewhere in the middle. No one can be certain whether the solutions will be charcoal or silver but, I am certain that the solutions cannot be black or white.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Women are remarkable creatures. A woman’s ability to nurture allows her to bond with her children and others through social connections. Her brain is extraordinarily hard wired to multi-task. She wears her emotions on her shoulder and is not scared to cry. Alone, she is amazing but within a group of fellow amazing women, she can move mountains. I have a confession to make. Many of the attributes that I listed above do not come naturally to me.

I recently read a research article about how men and women show compassion. The study explained that, historically, people have viewed compassion as a more feminine trait exhibited by gentleness and oriented toward emotion and communication.  Women seek to build emotional bonds, heal wounded feelings, open rapport, find common ground, and create comfort.  The research indicated that men show compassion as well, but in a different way.  A man will show compassion by exhibiting more protective behaviors to help ensure survival.  They tend to be more pragmatic and focus on cultivating strength and problem solving. Men seek to help make others stronger, give them tools to overcome problems, assist in tasks, participate in team efforts, and empower others to take care of themselves. When I read this article, I had sort of an “Aha” moment. Let me explain.

Over the years, I have fallen into the belief that somehow I got shortchanged in the estrogen department because I have never been very comfortable building emotional bonds, talking about my feelings and creating emotional comfort for others.  When others are emotional and crying, I have a tendency to disconnect and help problem solve, which is, according to this study, more masculine in nature. I am also very aware that many women might conclude my response to their tears to be somewhat aloof or insensitive. This logical approach to emotional discomfort is how I approach empathy when I am working with families of children with disabilities. Perhaps others find it ironic that I chose to work in the disability/mental health field which is typically considered to be a nurturing and compassionate line of work, dominated by women. When I tell people what I do for a living, they usually respond by tilting their head, as they wrinkle up their face with a sympathetic expression that says, oh it is just so wonderful that you are helping those people. Sometimes they say “You must have so much patience” or “It takes an especially kind person to do that.”  What is even MORE ironic is that I am not very patient nor do I consider myself especially kind.  I chose this profession because I enjoy using a straightforward approach when working with families. I tend to share practical information, give them tools they can use to help themselves, and ultimately empower them to be better advocates for their children. I consider my work successful if a family no longer needs my support or help. Sure, there is empathy in what I do but not in the more traditionally female methodology. After reading the research article it became clear to me that I feel unsettled around other women because I tend to show compassion with a more traditional male mindset. So this got me thinking…..How does that expression of compassion equate to how I raise my children?

My son is especially sensitive and cries often (a couple of times a day) as a way to release his frustration. His anxiety disorder can make an ordinary day feel as though you are on an emotional roller coaster. For the first few years of Thomas’s life I thought to myself, why on earth did God see fit to give a woman, who struggles with compassion and nurturing, a boy who needs an immense amount of compassion and nurturing? I still struggle with giving him what he needs emotionally but perhaps I was given the extraordinary task of raising this boy because I tend to approach compassion and nurturing from a more traditional male perspective. Perhaps Thomas responds best to a more pragmatic approach so that he can learn better ways to problem solve.

This brings me to my daughter, Leah. Remember how I said earlier that I feel as though I got short changed in the estrogen department? Well, I’m pretty sure that Leah did NOT get short changed in the estrogen department. She is not scared to show her emotions, loves princesses and all things pink, wants to feel emotionally connected to me and needs a more typically feminine approach to compassion. As the mother of a young girl, I am profoundly aware that she adores me, is watching and learning from me and, quite frankly, that makes me feel anxious and somewhat inadequate. Mark and I joke that Leah is a mama’s girl who, if she could, would crawl back up into my uterus and stay there forever. During my pregnancy with Leah, I suffered from morning sickness the ENTIRE 9 months. Sometimes I wonder if it was because my body was just not used to all that estrogen. When I was in labor with her, my contractions were very powerful and I progressed fairly quickly however she was determined to stay inside as long as she could. By the time I progressed to 9.5 centimeters dilated, Leah was very high in my abdomen and my water had yet to break. My OB joked that my baby was just too comfortable in there and wanted to stay. I envisioned her in my uterus, curled up in a ball, snug against my rib cage, refusing to exit. When she was a newborn, she would scream whenever Mark would hold her. She only wanted me and literally slept on my chest and in my arms, 24 hours a day for the first 3 months of her life.  I thought for sure that the stupid baby sling would be permanently fused into my torso from wearing it so often. As she grew older, she was happiest when she is in my arms. I had to learn to do laundry, cook and clean with a baby on my hip. Thomas was never that attached to me so it came as quite a shock after Leah was born. Sometimes, her need to be with me was so overwhelming that I literally felt as though I would suffocate under the weight of her devoted attachment. I was not used to another female (albiet a tiny female), being so enamored with me and there was a part of me that worried I was not worthy of her devotion.

As a child, I did not consider myself very girly and I’m pretty sure I gave my mother a hard time (sorry Mom) about wearing frilly dresses and patent leather shoes. I hated to have my hair brushed and to this day, I am not a big fan of pink! I have an older brother and we grew up in the country so I was accustomed to rough housing, building forts in the woods and playing in the dirt. I did participate in some feminine activities, for example ballet. Although I enjoyed dancing, I always felt a bit out of place around the other girls who had a more typical ballerina frame as opposed to my lanky, thin and broad shouldered body. Because I struggled with the complexities of being a young girl, I observed other women and choose female mentors of whom I revered as exceptional and motivating. There was my eccentric fifth grade teacher who took a special interest in me, encouraging me to overcome my inhibitions and grow more confident in my academic skills.  My ballet instructor was beautiful, graceful and kind and I loved watching her dance at our annual recitals. At a young age, I became curious about writing and took a special interest in a professional writer from Eastern North Carolina who inspired me to begin journaling and writing stories at a very young age.  When I left college and started my professional career, there were other women who made an impression. One such woman hired me right out of college when I had no idea what the heck I was doing. She saw something in me that I could not recognize within myself and she is the person with whom I give credit for launching my career in the field of disabilities.  Some of these women might not have realized their impact on me. Others were keenly aware that I was watching and learning and I believe that they made it their responsibility to take that mentoring seriously.

For the first few years of Leah’s life, I worked three days a week and stayed home with her four days a week.  Since I started my new job a few months ago, I have been able to travel more, which I absolutely love! It’s been an adjustment for all of us as we figure out how to manage the household with my new work schedule. Mark has been great and really stepped up but Leah has had a more difficult time adjusting to mommy being gone. I recently spent five days, in Arizona, on a work trip. Shortly after I returned from my trip, I chose to go into the office early, before Mark and the kids woke up. When Leah came downstairs for breakfast she realized that I was not there and demanded that Mark Facetime me. Once she saw my face on the phone she started bawling and asked if I was on a plane again. I cringed at her outward display of emotion and tears and bit my lip to keep from saying,  “There is no reason to cry, you will be fine.”  I took a deep breath and mustered every ounce of energy I could to offer her the emotional support she needed and help her feel more connected to me. I did it!

Now that I am raising a little woman I realize that she is looking to me as a mentor. I also realize that other young women might be looking to me as their mentor and I have a responsibility to those girls. My neighbor across the street has a fantastic teenage daughter who is a senior in high school. She has taken a special interest in my children and me and she is often at our house just hanging out. At first, I wondered why on earth she would want to hang out with a boring middle-aged mom. Only recently, have I started to become aware that perhaps she is studying me as as I did my ballet teacher, my fifth grade teacher, and my professional mentor. The other night, I did something that I don’t typically do with my daughter or any other woman for that matter. I took Leah, and the awesome teenage girl across the street, to the salon for a pedicure. I have never in my life gotten a pedicure with another women. It’s something I do by myself, in solitary, with a book or my laptop. I went outside of my comfort zone and took two  young women with me to the salon and we had a blast! My daughter was in heaven because the nail tech let her choose three nail polish colors and painted cute little flowers on her big toenail. Leah listened as my neighbor’s daughter and I chatted about girl stuff and she was grinning from ear to ear.

When Leah plays mommy, it usually involves putting on some of my work clothes, kissing her babies goodbye and heading off to work with a “Have a great day, sweetie, I’m going to work.”  Some moms might be heart broken or feel guilty if their daughter chose this impression of their mother.  I, on the contrary, found it delightful. Perhaps it means that Leah is aware that she and I are different in some ways. She needs the emotional comfort and bonding that it is hard for me and I feel the need to show her how to take care of herself and feel empowered. I’m trying to meet her in the middle and I like to think that she is trying to meet me there too. Perhaps her impression of mommy is her way of showing me that she understands our differences. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Even though it might not be the most traditional impression of a mother, my daughter’s imitation of me is her way of showing compassion toward her quirky mother and I find that rather flattering.

Pretty Toes
Pretty Toes

Beauty

When you are from the southeastern United States, you are raised to take pride in the most beautiful natural resources including gorgeous beaches, magnolia trees and blooming cotton fields. Perhaps our most important asset in the south is our women. Southern women are beautiful, fearless creatures. We can dig up potatoes from the garden early in the morning and by mid-afternoon clean up and put on our best sundress for the church picnic. We love our makeup, curling irons and beauty pageants but we also love our families, food, and hard work.

I would be lying if I said that I do not worry about the culture of our world today, specific to woman and what society considers beautiful. I worry about it every day. I find myself looking at my 43 year old reflection in the mirror, wondering where that new sunspot came from, frowning at my frown lines and pretending to not notice the sagging skin on my neck or the gray hair that I just found in my eyebrow, what the heck? There is so much emphasis placed on women to take care of ourselves and look our best. Some days I feel like going out in public with no make up and no bra could be considered an act of aggression (nobody wants to see that).  I am NOT in a place where I can honestly say that I do not care that my appearance is changing but, I am working on it. I want to see a reflection of myself that is more than just what I look like on the outside.

When others define a woman as “beautiful” it is easy for her to feel that her looks are all that she has. I never want Leah to feel that way but sometimes I look at her and I think “Oh my god she is the most beautiful little girl I have ever seen.” She is a true southern belle with hair the color and texture of corn silk, eyes as blue as the Atlantic ocean and a contagious smile. Often times, I open my mouth to say “you are so beautiful” but I stop myself and replace the word with a more well rounded adjective like smart, funny, creative, compassionate, independent or adventurous. I want her to be all these things but most importantly I want her to believe that she IS beautiful, smart, funny, creative, compassionate, independent and adventurous.

I want her to enjoy getting her toenails painted and then scuffing up those same toenails by walking barefoot in the grass.

I want to teach her how to apply makeup to enhance her natural beauty and at the same time, I don’t want her to worry when she rubs the sweat from her face during her varsity Volleyball game, and smears her mascara.

I want her to have compassion for others without ignoring her instincts that something is just not quite right.

I want her to be adventurous enough to go with a group of college friends to a concert but disciplined enough to know when it is time to call it a night.

I want her to feel comfortable saying “NO” in uncomfortable situations but thoughtful enough to say “No thank you” when it is appropriate.

I want her to be a good friend but also have the strength to know when to end a toxic friendship.

I want her to understand that it is HER choice whether or not she wants to be a working mother or a stay at home mother. Her grandmothers fought for the right to make that choice and she need not feel guilty about her decision.

I want her to be faster than all the boys in the race but also gentle enough to go back and run alongside the slowest child and cross the finish line with him, hand in hand.

I hope she never experiences the vicious cruelty of other girls who don’t like her because she is beautiful and may she have the courage to stand up for another girl who is being criticized for not being pretty enough.

I hope she has the wisdom to not judge a book by it’s cover and to see through the bullshit of the clean cut star of the baseball team and appreciate the kind soul behind the boy with long hair and tattoos.

Leah was born just a few weeks before my 39th birthday and trust me, I do the math every single day.  Will she be embarrassed when her older gray haired mother volunteers to take her and her girlfriends to the latest “Boy Band” concert? I realize that I will likely be going through menopause when she gets her first period, God Bless my poor husband and son! I worry that I might not be able to retire as early as my friends because she will still be in college. But most of all, I worry that she will place too much emphasis on what she looks like on the outside.

Tonight, Leah and I went on a walk around the neighborhood. She was in the jogging stroller, talking and talking and talking and I was just listening. Every once in a while I would interject something but mostly, I just listened. She talked about her friends at pre-school, the pretty leaves on the magnolia tree and how much fun she had at the Beach last week. After our walk, she headed straight to my bedroom closet and closed the door. After a minute or two, I slowly opened the door and she was struggling to put on a pair of my pants and shoes.

She looked up at me with a sheepish grin and said, “I’m you, mommy and you are Leah.”

“Is that right?” I said putting my hands on my hips and smiling back at her.

And that is when it hit me, she is me and I am her. People say she looks like me ( I think she looks more like Mark).  She is very tall for her age with long thin legs, broad shoulders, cowlicks, and blue eyes, just like me.  She likes to have her back rubbed when she falls asleep, just like me.  She is intuitive and head strong, just like me. She is also smart, funny, creative, compassionate, independent and adventurous.

Tonight, as I washed the makeup from my face and gazed into the mirror, I saw past the sun spots, frown lines, sagging skin and gray hairs. I saw a woman who is the mother to a young girl who looks at this same face every day, seeking guidance and direction.  I hope that Leah sees a woman who is smart, funny, creative, compassionate, independent and adventurous. For my daughter will only become a reflection of what she sees in front of her each and every day.

Leah in my pants and shoes

Leah in my pants and shoes.

Mommy's Shoes

Mommy’s Shoes.

Simple Acts of Kindness

I originally wrote this on May 6 2014. I found it in my archives and decided to publish it.  I am fortunate enough to have a part time job with flexible hours. On the days that I am home with my children, I like to have at least one outing a day. On this particular day, Leah, who was 3 at the time,  and I decided to go swimming at the YMCA indoor pool. This is my account of our outing.

Today, Leah and I went swimming at our local YMCA. As we entered the pool area, a water aerobics class for older adults was underway.

As we exited the locker room to enter the pool area, Leah stopped in her tracks, gasped with excitement, pointed and said, “Look mommy. It’s a bunch of grandmas and grandpas!” She bounced up and down and clapped her hands with the sheer joy and excitement that only a three year old can muster. I should mention that Leah is the youngest grandchild of three sets of grandparents, so you can understand why she might get excited around anyone close in age to Maggie, Papa Greg, Grammy, Papa, B or Gran Jan.

As we entered the pool, Leah slipped her hand in mine and stood chest deep in the shallow end, quietly observing the water aerobics class . Several times, I prompted her to play with the other children, to no avail.

After a couple of minutes, the class came to an end and the adults began walking up the exit ramp. I watched as several of the class participants struggled to make it the top, holding tight to the rails, likely recovering from knee or hip surgery. Some of the men and woman spoke to one another, others were quiet and kept to themselves. I caught the eye of one gentleman who looked as though he might be experiencing some discomfort. He looked sad to me, his face down-turned as he concentrated on each step. I found myself looking away, slightly embarrassed at myself and perhaps for the older gentleman.

Leah continued to observe as the group moved in unsteady unison, toward the top of the exit ramp.  As the first woman rounded the top of the ramp, Leah dropped my hand, kicked to the side of the pool, crawled out and scurried over to the entrance of the ramp. I worried that she might get in the way of one of the adults as they exited the pool. I opened my mouth to remind her to be careful and suddenly stopped myself from saying anything as I marveled at what I saw her do next.

As the seniors made their way to the top of the ramp, Leah greeted each and every one of them with a hug or a high five, a giant smile across on her face. Every once in a while she would say something like “Yeah Grandma” or “good job”. Most of the ladies were enamored with Leah and would kiss her on the head as she hugged their legs. The older gentleman, with the sad eyes, patted her head, his frown turning upside as he smiled back at her.

Another woman was so touched by Leah’s sweet little gesture, she was brought to tears. She came over, thanked me and said, “Some people don’t realize that just a simple little smile or some kind words is all one needs to hear to make another person’s day.”  And at that, my sweet little one wrapped her arms around the woman’s knees and gave her a great big hug. My heart just melted.

So, what did I take from Leah’s Life Lesson? Make someone’s day today. Smile at the grumpy grocery store cashier, who might have just gotten a rejection letter from the college he has always dreamed of attending. Say “thank you and have a nice day” to the guy in the toll booth, who has to inhale automotive fumes and handle dirty money all day long. And when you are standing in line at Starbucks and look over to see the sad woman eating a bagel all by herself, tell her you like her blouse.

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Tell it like it is

I love the honesty of children. They usually say what is on their mind and always ask the questions that everyone else is too scared to ask.

Today, while Leah and I shared a bowl of grapes, she turned to me, cupped her chubby little hands on my face and looked me straight in the eye.

We sat there for a few seconds while her eyes moved from my forehead, to my cheeks, and then my chin. At first, it was a little awkward. I smiled and began to soak in her sweet baby face, that faint tiny little mole above her right eyebrow, her round cheeks and the adorable cowlick that parts her hair perfectly without much effort.

Then she said, “You loot lite me mommy.” She still substitutes the “k” with the “t” sound, which I think is charming.

She pointed to her eye and said “You eyes are boo (blue) too!”

Smitten with my sweet little one I returned, “I know baby, we both have blue eyes.”

She paused for a second, examined my face again and said, “Our stin (skin) is the same too.”

“That’s right baby. I’m your mommy so we look the same. I have a cowlick like you.” And I touched the spot on her hairline. She then reached up and touched my forehead, mirroring what I did.

Then she opened her heart-shaped little mouth and said, “I not have you nose, mommy. You nose is big.”

Leah’s Life Lesson…Tell it like it is.

 

Look at these sweet freckles
Look at these sweet freckles