Happy Healthy Boobies Day!

At 46 years of age, I am keenly aware that I am on the edge of the last half of my life on this earth. I don’t take it for granted. Most people would say they are middle aged because it makes them feel a little less vulnerable and I get that. I take good care of myself because I have two children and a husband that need me around for a very long time. I eat well (okay, sweets are my vice), I exercise, maintain a healthy weight, limit caffeine and alcohol, I don’t smoke or do drugs and I always get my annual mammogram. I have had one every year since I was 39 years old. I know my risks. I have a familial history of breast cancer, my first pregnancy was after 30, my breasts are apparently very dense and lord knows what I put my body through from the endless injections, hormones and medications associated with two years of fertility treatments.

Last Friday I made the annual trek to the imaging center. I always have a good experience. The techs are professional, gentle and efficient. I am usually in and out in 20 minutes and then I am on my way, until next year.  This year was a little different. Three days after my  mammogram, I received a call.

The cell phone rang and I didn’t recognize the number so I let it go to voicemail. A few minutes later my phone buzzed with a voicemail so I listened. It was a woman, named Nell, from the imaging center asking me to return her call. My heart sank and I felt a little nauseous. I immediately returned her call and identified myself. She did not waste any time.

“Mrs. Brandenburger, we found something….on your mammogram results.”

I froze, my stomach flipped and my heart skipped a beat.

“Okay.” That was all I could say at the moment as my brain desperately tried to comprehend and process what she was saying.

Nell was very skilled. It was obvious to me that she delivers this kind of news on a regular basis. She was calm, matter of fact, and thorough. Every time I thought of a question, she would answer before I even got a chance to ask. Nell is really good at what she does and probably deserves a raise.

She went on to explain that because my breasts are particularly dense, sometimes shadows or masses may appear as the tissue folds over on itself. She also explained that women often have benign cysts that are completely harmless but, given my familial history and other risk factors, she was recommending a more thorough 3D mammogram and ultrasound. She made an appointment for me, three days later at the Sarah Cannon Cancer institute. The fact that the title of the facility includes the word “cancer” was extremely unnerving and made me want to throw up.

I immediately texted Mark. My husband, who knows me better than anyone, responded in the only way that would make me feel better. He texted a funny meme about how fabulous my breasts are and I laughed out loud.

For three days, I suppressed my feelings. I was determined to think positive thoughts, go on about my day and not put anything negative out into the universe. It was really freakin’ hard. In fact, it was impossible to not think about the what if.

As I pulled into the parking lot and saw the letters on the outside of the brand spanking new medical building of the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute, a chill ran up my spine and I felt nauseous again.

Taking a deep breath I soldiered on, walking into the building to the registration desk. I spent the next 20 minutes filling out paperwork and answering some of the same questions I had already answered at last weeks’ mammogram.

Do you have a family history of breast cancer?

Do you have a medical directive?

What is your insurance?

When was your last period?

Who is your primary care provider? And so on and so on.

She explained that the medical center requires a deposit of $100 because we had not met our deductible for the year. She told me that insurance would likely cover most of it and we would receive a bill for any outstanding payment. I swallowed hard as I remembered that Leah’s swim team registration is due next week, we just had the driveway sealed, Thomas needs new shoes for Parkour and I need to start looking at registering the kids for summer camps. I reluctantly handed her my credit card and she placed one of those hospital bands on my arm similar to what you receive when you are admitted for surgery.

In the lobby of the registration desk, a TV was tuned into one of those HGTV house hunting shows. Featured was an annoying couple in their late 20s. The husband had way too much gel in his thinning hair and the wife was dressed like she was a contestant on The Bachelor. They quickly realized they were in way over their heads but they had a first time home buying budget of $750,000! What the hell?

After registering, I was sent upstairs to another waiting area and greeted by a nice lady who put more paperwork in front of me with more questions, many of which were the same as the registration desk questions. I sighed, looked up and saw a little table in the corner with a Keurig and a shiny tray lined with Starbucks cookies. I wasn’t hungry but I  needed something for my stomach to digest because I was nauseous again.

I handed my paperwork over to the greeter who then walked me back to a changing area, instructing me to undress from the waste up. She handed me a robe and one of those alcohol wipes to remove the deodorant from my underarms. Once I was undressed, robed and deodorantless (yes, I just made up that word), I waited.

After about five minutes, another woman greeted me politely, leading me to a locker room where she suggested I store my coat and purse. After securing my personal items she lead me to another waiting area to wait once more. I spotted a People magazine and on the cover was Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. I flipped through the pages, glancing at pictures of celebrities on the beach, a red carpet event and movie stars eating lunch in restaurants. I scanned an article about a man whose two children have been missing for two years and he swears that his wife knows where they are. My stomach was churning and my hands began to shake from nervous energy. I tossed the magazine onto the table, pulled out my phone, and glanced through Facebook posts, an attempt to occupy my mind.

Eventually a pregnant radiology tech, named Sara, greeted me and led me to another room. As we walked, I asked her how far along she was.  She told me this was her second pregnancy and she was due in June.  I smiled at the distraction of her story as she manipulated my breast and body to conform to the position I needed to be in for my  boobs to be squeezed into pancakes. She was very nice and I was grateful that she did most of the talking because I was trying hard to suppress the fear, willing myself to not feel vulnerable and cry.

As the glass shield clamped down, the muscles in my neck and chest strained against the firm tug.  I held my breath, as instructed, and waited until the machine released me from it’s grasp. Sara explained that the radiologist would review the 3D image and I would know something in about 10 minutes. As she walked me back toward another waiting area, she indicated that typically the 3D image is efficient enough to ascertain a negative result, meaning that I would likely not need an ultrasound.  She wished me luck and walked away, leaving me to sort through several more outdated and torn magazines. I glanced at my phone and took note of the time. Ten minutes, she said. That won’t be so bad.

Almost exactly 10 minutes later another tech peeked her head around the corner and introduced herself.

“Hi there, I am Nancy. I am going to be doing your ultrasound today.”

Wait, what? I thought to myself because I was too shocked to actually speak the words. Didn’t Pregnant Sara say the 3D image would be enough? Didn’t she say that I would not need an ultrasound? I felt the panic rise from my stomach, to my chest, my throat and my face. I was sweating like a horse and the fact that I had removed my deodorant with that freezing cold alcohol pad made me worry that I probably smelled as bad as my 12 year old son’s laundry.

 

Nancy led me to a dark room with an ultrasound machine next to a bed. She gently encouraged me to lie down on my back and put my right arm above my head. I did as she said, while fighting back the tears and anxiety that were beginning to take over. She was polite and professional, guiding me along with what she needed to do to perform the ultrasound. She squeezed an ample amount of gel onto my right breast and began to move the wand to capture the ultrasound image. Although the gel was warm, it was unsettling and somewhat irreverent.  The tears that blurred my vision began to flow down the side of my face, across my temple and into my hair line as I silently cried, hoping that she would not notice. I resisted the urge to wipe at my face because then it would be obvious that I was crying. Nancy suddenly paused, reached over my head for something that I could not see and placed a box of tissues in front of my face, smiling gently with calm and kind eyes. And that is when the flood gates opened. Every ounce of suppressed trepidation came flowing out of me all at once and I sobbed, wiping at my eyes and blowing my nose, while Nancy softly encouraged me.

“Go ahead and cry. This is a safe place for tears and fears.” she said.

“I’m sorry. I have been holding it in for days.” I said between sobs.

“I know this might not be the best time to spout out statistics but in 80% of the cases, the results indicate nothing to worry about.” Nancy said as she began to move the wand once again up and down and around my breast. I thought to myself, but what if this is one of the 20% cases?

Eventually, she finished the ultrasound and informed me that the radiologist would deliver the results in just a few minutes. Then she quietly left the room, closing the door behind her, leaving me to process my fear all alone. I took several deep breaths and used one of the grounding exercises that I encourage my son to use when he is having an anxiety attack. I closed my eyes and tried to calm my mind and regulate my breathing. Eventually there was a knock at the door.

A woman, about my age walked in and introduced herself as the radiologist. She smiled and handed me a clean tissue to wipe the tears that were beginning to dry up. Working quickly and efficiently, she spread more of the warm gel onto my breast, guided the wand up, down and around a few times as I continued to take deep breaths to calm my nerves.

“Well Mrs Brandenburger, everything appears to be normal.” she said with a warm smile.

And the waterworks started again. She handed me another tissue as she explained that my dense breast tissue, made the conclusion more challenging. Apparently the original tech saw a shadow that was most likely dense tissue folder over on itself.

 

As the tension left my body, I thanked all of the staff for their diligence, dressed myself and walked swiftly to my car, texting my husband that I and my healthy breasts were headed home! On the drive home, the sun seemed a little bit brighter and the spring blossoms a little more colorful.

When I drove up to the house, Leah, who had been riding her bike, hopped off and ran over to give me a hug, nearly bringing me to my knees with gratitude. I kissed my husband who made a silly remark about his willingness to conduct daily breast exams on me because it’s best to be “proactive”. I walked into the kitchen and on the counter was a cute little stainless steel wine tumbler that I had recently mentioned I wanted. Mark had wrapped it with a note that said “Happy Healthy Boobies Day”.  My breasts may be a little more deflated after breastfeeding two babies but they are still healthy and I am so grateful.

Beautiful women of the world, please don’t forget to do regular self exams and get your mammograms. We need more healthy boobies out there! From now on, April 5 will be officially known as Healthy Boobie Day in my house!

 

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What I learned from watching Designing Women

I am a child of the 70s and 80s, more specifically, a southern child of the 70s and 80s. I grew up in a farming community in eastern North Carolina where cotton and tobacco fields stretched far and wide. I knew the names of every single one of my neighbors and everyone went to church on Sunday. Our community was filled with hard working people who looked out for one another.

Most of us had lived in that community for generations and generations, children attending the same schools and churches as their parents, grandparents and great grandparents. If you opened a local phone book, there were pages and pages of the same surnames, Hardison, Manning, Roberson, Leggett and Griffin. I used to think that I had hundreds of cousins because so many of my classmates neighbors and teachers  shared my last name. I played with the other kids in my community endlessly, for hours. We built tree forts in the woods behind our homes and played in the water logged ditches in front of our houses when it rained in the summer. We would wave to the farmers as they drove their tractors and combines down the road in front of our house and told stories of being chased by a neighbor’s German Shepherd who ran loose, barking and growling at us kids when we got too close to his property.  To this day, I am still petrified of German Shepherds.  The majority of the boys played baseball in the spring and football in the fall. Many of the girls took ballet and dance lessons and cheered for the boy’s teams.  We all had the same eastern North Carolina accent, distinctive in it’s drawl and dialect. We dressed the same and ate the same delicious home cooking because our mamas shared recipes. All the women and girls had perms, many of which were done at home instead of a hair salon.  It was a wholesome place to grow up and I can honestly say has shaped me into who I am today.

Even though there was always someone to play with and some adventure to be had, I found myself daydreaming often. I was an introverted book worm who enjoyed reading, writing short stories and playing alone with my barbies in my room.  Both my brother and I were naturally curious about others, very creative and had huge imaginations.  We found outlets through the local community theater, music and like so many of us children from the 70s and 80s, the world of television sitcoms.

I have fond memories of plopping down in front of the TV at 8:00 pm, just in time to watch our favorite sitcoms.  Growing up in a conservative southern community, I did not have much exposure to other cultures and religions therefore the sitcoms of the 70s and 80s were a way for me to fuel my natural curiosity. Three’s Company was a riot. The concept of a man and two women living together in a platonic relationship was not something that was done in my community. I loved watching John Ritter’s physicality and I thought he was a comedic genius. I had a huge crush on Michael J Fox in Family Ties but, who didn’t? The hippie parents on that show were fascinating to me. Different Strokes introduced me to a type of family in which I had never interacted.  I would giggle at the antics of George in The Jefferson’s and wondered what it would be like to live in a high rise apartment in New York.  My brother and I would do impersonations of the actors from Perfect Strangers. We memorized the scenes between “Cousin Larry” and Balki Bartokomous, endlessly acted them out, laughing until we had tears in our eyes and our stomach muscles ached.  After watching the sitcoms, I would often retire to my room and write a short story based on one of the TV characters or daydream about what it would be like to live in their shoes for a day.

We lived in that same small farming community until 1986, when my dad got a new job in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was a rising freshman and Greg, a rising junior. We were scared out of our minds to move away from everything and everyone we had known but secretly, I was also really excited about the new opportunities because I knew there was more to this world and I wanted to experience all of it.

We were enrolled in Albemarle High School and those first few months were really tough for a shy 14 year old girl with a thick North Carolina accent and a bad perm. Charlottesville, although relatively small, is quite eclectic and liberal. The University of Virginia draws a lot of students and professionals from all over the country and different parts of the world, hence my high school was comprised of their offspring.  All of my classmates were so exotic to me. Their accents were different, their clothes were different, their religions were different and their cultures were different.  I met kids who were Jewish, Catholic and agnostic. I met kids who were “transplants” just like me. They too had moved from other parts of the country, and had their own accents, fashion trends and cultures and none of them sounded like me.

I was thrust into a world of diversity and, at times, I found it overwhelming as my brain quickly processed the differences and scanned for the similarities among my peers. These kids were raised with different family values, their last names were hard to pronounce and spell and we were the only Hardisons in the phone book. Every year, when the new phone books were printed, I quickly scanned the pages for another entry that matched our surname and inevitably, never found what I was looking for.  Eventually, I learned to appreciate the fact that I was one of a kind in my new school. On a side note, I have married a man with a surname that is typically the ONLY one in the phone book….kind of funny how that worked out.

My school had so many different options for sports teams, many of which I had never been exposed to or even heard of. Field hockey, lacrosse and soccer were not sports that were traditionally played in the small community in which I was raised. I was intrigued that so many of the girls in my school participated in the sports teams rather than choosing to cheer or dance.  These girls were more sure of themselves, and many did not have perms, even though it was the 80s, go figure. They chose to wear their hair in it’s natural state….the horror! It would take another three years for me to totally give up on perms. I missed the kids I grew up with, I missed the woods behind my house and I longed for some familiarity among my peers. As I adjusted to my new school and community, I learned to cope in a number of ways, one of which was watching sitcoms. A month after our move to Charlottesville, I sat down to watch a new sitcom that was airing on CBS, Designing Women.

It was a new sitcom about four women in the south. I was smitten with the characters, Mary Jo’s sarcasm, Suzanne’s self-absorption, Charlene’s naivete and Julia’s sophistication. I loved everything about it, the accents, the perms, the food, the eccentrics and the familiarity of our shared southern heritage was comforting to me.  Even though Charlottesville is technically located in the south, it felt millions of miles away from eastern North Carolina.  I had found a television show that merged the love for my southern roots and introduced me to issues and topics that challenged me to see things from a different perspective. Over the next several years, I would watch the sitcom every week, soaking up the humor. I once wrote and submitted an assignment for a high school creative writing class based on the Designing Women sitcom.  It was hysterical and if I recall, my teacher gave me an A for the assignment.  The writing for the show was ahead of it’s time in terms of the topics addressed including AIDs, homosexuality, male chauvinism, negative southern stereotypes, politics, religion and mental illness to name a few. Mary Jo, Suzanne, Charlene and Julia took on each topic with courage, intelligence and wit. It was my first experience watching a cast of women challenge the negative stereotypes of the south while taking on politics and social injustice. Designing Women showed viewers that southern women can be brave, perceptive and funny.  Even though I loved all of the characters, Julia Sugarbaker was my favorite. She was sophisticated and sharp-tongued and I loved watching her unleash on a narrow minded racist or an unsuspecting misogynist.

Today, I was browsing through social media and saw a clip of Julia Sugarbaker. In the video clip, she was challenging a male political opponent who had made some assumptions about her liberal views. I watched the clip over and over again and showed it to my son, explaining the relevance it holds 30 years later. Even the name of the sitcom, Designing Women, implies so much more than four gorgeous women performing for a few laughs. The term designing means inventing, planning and creating. I started to see the parallels with has been happening in our country regarding politics, especially those specific to women including reproductive rights, equal pay and sexual misconduct. I grabbed my computer, which I had not turned on for two weeks because well, it’s Christmas break, and I started typing.  It’s been thirty years and we are still arguing about some of the same issues, drawing lines in the sand, making assumptions and stereotyping.

Today is the first day of a new year and I could not be more excited to put 2017 behind me. I hope and pray that our leaders, on both sides, will find the common ground and stop drawing lines in the sand, making assumptions and stereotyping. I hope they will begin designing, inventing, planning and creating options that will make everyone feel safe and keep us healthy. And with that, I wish everyone a Happy New Year and I leave you with this quote from the fabulous Julia Sugarbaker of Designing Women.

“One of the things I pray for is that people with power will get good sense and people with good sense will get power and that the rest of us will be blessed with the patience and the strength to survive people like you in the meantime.”

Here is a clip to the video I referenced, if you are so inclined.

I have had the most fun, browsing through old Designing Women clips and laughing until I cried.

Me Too…

 

 

 

Last week, when I heard the news regarding the sexual misconduct of a prominent movie executive I was not shocked. I was disgusted, incensed and hopeless but, not shocked. As a 45 year old woman, I have witnessed and experienced enough sexual harassment that shock, unfortunately, will never be my first reaction.

I feel disgusted because I know that sexual harassment occurs every single day to woman, teenage girls, pre-teen girls and, sadly, even little girls.

I feel incensed because it is 2017 and women STILL suffer in silence because they are scared to speak up about it.

I feel hopeless because sometimes I think it will never get any better and I worry about what kind of world my daughter will have to face as a pre-teen, teenager and grown woman.

Last night, I was browsing through social media and came across a post that said the following:

            Because our silence will not protect us.   ME TOO.   If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ME  TOO, as a  status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the  problem.        

I immediately copied the post and shared it on Facebook. Slowly, over the next 24 hours I noticed more and more women sharing and posting ME TOO. The familiar pangs of disgust, incense and hopelessness surfaced but, I still was not shocked.

All too often, young girls have their first experience with unwanted advances when they are much too young to comprehend what is happening and too innocent to realize it was not their fault. As young teenagers, our bodies reach their sexual maturity  far sooner than our brains are ready to comprehend what is happening. Just as teenage girls are getting used to their new curves, they become intensely aware of how others begin to judge the shape and size of their new bodies. As older women, it’s important that we remind our up and coming young women that their bodies are amazing! A woman’s body brings life into the world, it feeds children, it nurtures, it runs, it sleeps, it is strong, and it is resilient.

This past June our family enjoyed the first few weeks of summer with almost daily visits to our neighborhood pool. One particularly hot afternoon my six year old daughter asked me if I would buy her a bikini. My first thought was Hell no, you are way too young to be wearing a sexy bikini! Of course, I chose to keep that thought to myself and simply said, No honey.

She put her hands on her hips and said, “Why not?” she went on to explain to me that it had been really hot and her one piece made her tummy feel sweaty. She also explained to me, quite eloquently, that when she had to use the bathroom it was really hard to take off and put back on a wet one piece. She rationalized that a two piece would keep her cooler and she would not have to spend so much time in the bathroom.  That is when I had an epiphany. I realized that sometimes we start to shame girls about their body at a very young age. For God’s sake Nickie, I thought to myself. She is just hot and wants to be able to get in and out of the bathroom without having to squeeze her body into a wet bathing suit like a wiggling sausage. It was that simple. So we went to Kohl’s and she picked out a sporty bikini that was sure to stay put when jumping off the diving board and surfing at the beach. Some days, I struggle with how to explain the school’s dress code when Leah chooses to wear a spaghetti strap sundress when it is still 90 degrees in September. For now, I’m just grateful that I can blame the air conditioning on why she has to wear a t-shirt under that spaghetti strap sundress. I know that these experiences are only the beginning for her and that scares the crap out of me.

As a mother of a tween boy who is quickly approaching puberty, I have a moral obligation to teach him to not only respect women but to stand up when he sees other boys being disrespectful to girls. This past spring, I received a call from his school about an incident he had with another boy. Apparently, another male student called a girl a whore and a slut. Thomas saw the girl’s reaction and he immediately confronted the other boy. As you would expect, the situation quickly escalated resulting in some pushing and shoving. I realize that school has a no tolerance policy for physical aggression and as responsible parents we talked with our son about his actions. At the same time, I was secretly super proud of him for defending the girl in front of the entire class even if it meant getting in trouble.  It know that he is not perfect and one day he may very well find himself in a situation where a girl is uncomfortable with something he has said. I just hope and pray that he will own up to his mistakes and make it right. He has a great role model in his father, who is one of the most respectful men I have ever met. I love that the other moms in the neighborhood and his female students can talk to Mark without feeling uncomfortable, without feeling judged and without feeling disgusted, incensed or hopeless. I watch the way my husband respectfully interacts with women and I know that Thomas is watching as well.

It is so easy to place blame on women. It was the way she was dressed, she was drinking alcohol, she went willingly to his hotel room. That is total crap! I have been standing in the middle of the produce section at the grocery store, in sweats with my greasy hair pulled into a sweaty bun on the top of my head, no makeup, no shower while picking out bananas to bring home to my family and some jerk has felt the need to comment on my ass and remind me that the bananas I just picked up are smaller than his manhood.  I can remember being cornered, at 22 years of age, by a 50 year old male co-worker who felt the need to comment on my looks and tell me how sexy I was, just before we entered a board room for a team meeting. I can remember the time I was at a bar with a group of friends and someone grabbed my bottom from behind. I turned around and faced a group of at least 10 men and every single one of them pretended as though they did not see what had just happened. They were just as guilty as the jerk who grabbed me. It is because of these countless incidents that I am no longer shocked when I read the headlines about another man who has gotten away with sexual harassment or sexual assault. It is also because of these countless incidents, 45 years of experience and the benefit of middle aged wisdom and confidence that I can spot these jerks from miles away. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen to me anymore because it does, way too much to count. It’s just that I can handle it better than I could when I was in my 20s and that, my friends, is the sad truth behind why it no longer shocks me to hear about sexual harassment.

To all the brave men who confront the behavior when they see it, thank you for having our backs! To all the brave mothers and fathers raising boys and girls, please continue to teach our children about respect for one another.  To all the brave women who are speaking up and telling their stories, power on you amazing Wonder Women and by the way….ME TOO!

 

Running on Empty

Today marks the end of the 2016-2017 school year and I could not be more excited about summer break.  Our oldest just finished his first year in middle school and our youngest her first year of elementary school. It goes without saying that this school year was challenging yet inspiring, long yet swift, but most importantly this school year is complete. The past 10 months has been filled with homework, school projects, learning to read, band rehearsals, parent teacher conferences, school fundraisers, school newsletters, data, box top collection sheets, report cards, lost lunch boxes, tears, celebrations, frustration and pride.  Since mid-May I have felt completely drained, feeling as though my tank was running on empty, desperately hoping to coast into June 16th ready to be re-fueled by summer break. Just when my brain was about to explode and my nerves were about to break, June 16th finally arrived!

Summer is a time for our family to slow down and relax. Mark finally gets some much needed time off from teaching and I enjoy the extra help around the house, albeit only for a couple of months. Summer is also a time for our children to just be kids. They can swim at our neighborhood pool any day of the week.  They can stay up late and sleep in the next morning. They can catch fireflies while we roast marshmallows in the back yard. They have time to actually be bored for once.

Earlier this week, the pressures of sixth grade were weighing heavily on my boy.  When I picked him up from school on Tuesday, he was weary and ready to give up. He did not feel that he had it in him to finish the last three days of school and he admitted apprehension for 7th and 8th grade.

“I hate middle school!” he confessed.

I took a deep breath and paused for a second, gathering my thoughts. I knew exactly how he was feeling because I had been experiencing the same weariness, frustration and apprehension since mid-May. My tank was almost bone dry.

“Buddy,” I started “We are Brandenburgers and Brandenburgers can do hard things.” I reached out and ruffled his hair as he hung his head low.

I used the analogy of the glass being half full instead of half empty. I encouraged him to be proud of how much time and effort he has already put into middle school. Thomas raised his head and looked at me, waiting for more explanation. Thank god he still listens to me and welcomes my advice because I know that sooner rather than later, he will look at me like I am an idiot, roll his eyes and turn his back to me.

“Think about it this way. You are one third of the way finished with middle school, that’s like .….. 33%, I think.” I said.

With a sideways smirk he said, “Pretty good mom. I’m impressed that you got that right because you suck at math.” And there it was, tween sarcasm at it’s best. I laughed and so did he.

“Well,” I winked at him, “One day you will appreciate how smart I really am.”

“Whatever.” He said playfully. He looked away for a second and then turned back to me, “So that means that by December, I will have completed 50% of middle school.”

I laughed, “That’s my boy.” And I reached out to hug him as he accepted willingly. I buried my face into the top of his head like I used to do when he was little. I inhaled his boy smell, a mix of faded shampoo, greasy head oil and sweat. I let his embrace re-fuel my empty tank so that I too could make it through the next few days.

I am grateful to live in a county with exceptional public schools. Okay, maybe I am a little biased since my husband is a public school teacher in Henrico County but still, we are very fortunate. My kids have been blessed with excellent teachers who truly care about their well-being and education. I hope each and every teacher will take this summer to recharge their batteries, fill up their tanks and celebrate another productive school year because I know that my family sure will.

 

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.

Mom Judging

I recently read an article about mom judging. Many of the moms reading this will admit that they have been subjected to judging by other moms and if they are really being honest, they will admit to judging those exact same moms. We see Facebook rants, we gossip just before the PTA meeting and we whisper at the bus stop.

This article got me thinking about an incident that occurred at our pool in 2014. It was the end of summer and the kids and I were at the pool swimming. Leah was about 3 and a half at the time and she was swimming around in the baby pool. It was time for us to leave so I wrangled Thomas out of the big pool and the two of us walked over to the baby pool to get Leah. Several children, under the age of five were swimming while their parents chatted and watched from the deck. Leah was playing with her Barbie inter-tube when I called out to her that we needed to leave.

She made a little pouty face and crossed her arms across her chest to let me know she was not happy that she had to leave. The inter-tube floated away from her and into the hands of a little girl who was about 18 months old. She was just like any other toddler, mostly steady on her feet but she wore one of those baby flotation devices around her arms and waist just in case she toppled over. My kids used to wear those when they were toddlers. As I re-directed Leah to gather her things she realized that the toddler had grabbed the inter-tube and was playing with it.

I glanced around for the toddler’s mom, because I had seen this little girl at the pool before and I was familiar with her mother. I noticed the mom was chatting on the side of the baby pool with several other moms so I turned my attention back to the two girls.

Leah, being 3 and a half and still learning about sharing said, “Hey, that’s mine” and grabbed the other side of the tube.

I walked closer to the edge of the pool and said , “Be careful Leah. She’s just a baby. She doesn’t realize it is your toy.”

I glanced over to the little girl’s mom and noticed her back was to us, engrossed in conversation.

No big deal, I thought.

The toddler, not fully understanding and perhaps also thinking, Hey that’s mine, pulled onto the side of the inter-tube she was holding. Leah responded by pulling back, a little harder this time, and saying “It’s mine” and the toddler was pulled forward, a little unsteady on her feet but still upright.

I quickly responded by saying, “Honey she doesn’t understand. You need to….” and before I could finish my sentence the mother of the toddler leapt into the baby pool.

I watched her drag her legs through the mid-calf deep water of the pool and it looked as though she were running in slow motion. I wrinkled my forehead wondering to myself, what is she doing? Does she see something I don’t see?

And then the woman reached the two girls. She grabbed Leah by the arm, spun her around, placed both hands onto her shoulders and shook my baby girl back and forth, while screaming at her, “Don’t do that again! You scared her.”
It was truly one of those out of body experiences.  It was as if I watching a movie as I observed my daughter’s head snap back and forth as she was shook repeatedly. I can remember wrinkling my forehead in confusion because it did not seem real, the expression on Leah’s face, vacant with shock and confusion. Suddenly it felt as though a switch was flipped. As I watched my daughter’s head snap back and forth over and over again, I felt a primal rage stir within the pit of my stomach, making it’s way up and down my spine, every nerve in my body, firing at full capacity. I felt a rush of heat in my face and before I knew it, my legs were moving and I leapt from the pool’s edge to the middle of the baby pool. I must have cleared at least 4 feet in a milisecond. Surprised at my body’s reaction, I realized my heart was racing, my jaw clenched, hands balled into tight fists. I fought the urge to raise my hand to this woman’s face. I tried to blink away the blind fury that literally made my vision blurry.  Now I understand the phrase “Blind Fury.”

I took a deep breath and with every ounce of self control I could muster I spoke for the first time.

“Don’t touch my child!” I was matter of fact and even in my tone but I’m fairly certain that my body language indicated that I meant business. What I wanted to say and what I was really thinking was Get your F#*%@ING hands off my daughter.

The woman immediately realized her mistake and backed away, as her own daughter began to cry, scared and startled by the sight of her mother’s aggression.

“I’m so sorry. I should not have done that. I apologize.” the other mom said over and over, waving her hands in the air, as if to ask for a truce, as she backed further and further away from me. I never moved toward her, cognizant and thankful for my broad five foot nine inch frame. It is times like this that I really appreciate my tall body because I realize how my height can be beneficial in instances where I REALLY want someone to pay attention to me. This was one of those moments. I REALLY wanted to make sure this woman knew that I meant business.

I was suddenly aware that every single adult and child, including my own son, was watching our interaction. Thomas stood on the side of the pool with eyes wide, his mouth hanging open, watching my every move. Several moms guided their children away from our interaction, wise to not interfere yet thoughtful enough to continue to pay attention.

I tilted my head in confusion as I watched this mom continue to create space between the two of us. Did she actually think I would hurt her? Would I ever do that?

That is when I turned my attention to my daughter, who stood beside me, open mouthed, white as a sheet, and said, “Leah, grab your inter-tube. We are leaving.”

She did as she was told and quickly exited the pool reaching for her big brother’s hand as my oldest child stood trying to process what had just happened.

The toddler was still crying, standing all by herself in the middle of the pool as I turned to face the woman once again, feeling some of the tension release from my body. She must have noticed the change in my body language and began to close the gap between us, offering explanations and excuses.

“She was just so scared.She doesn’t swim and she is very scared of getting her face wet.” she explained wringing her hands together.

I said nothing but continued to face her.

“If you could have seen her face when your daughter was pulling the tube….” she said lifting her hands apologetically and shuffling her feet.”She was just so scared.”

I paused for a second, letting the uncomfortable silence make her squirm a little. She was clearly nervous, eyes darting in every direction, running her hands through her hair over and over. It was as if she was in some sort of oblivious trance, completely unaware of her crying daughter and the side glances from the other parents. I caught her eyes and turned my head to look at the toddler, who continued to stand alone, crying, snot running down her nose, puzzled as to why her mom would not console her.

“I was standing right here watching.” I said a little more calm this time. What I really wanted to say was If you had been watching instead of gossiping with the other moms, you would have seen that it was under control.  I chose to keep that thought to myself.

“She was just so scared.” the woman said a third time with pleading hands, still trying to close the gap between us.

I paused once again and said, “Well, now she really is scared. Maybe you should pick her up.” And at that, I turned my back to her, exited the pool and lead my children to the car.

The entire ride home, I had to work hard to regulate my heart beat, taking deep breaths and squeezing the steering wheel to try and relieve some of the tension that continued to course through my body. The kids were very quiet until I broke the silence. I explained to Leah that she did nothing wrong. I told her that sometimes grown ups make bad choices. Thomas reminded me that when grown ups make bad choices they are breaking the law and should go to jail. I acknowledged his statements but assured him that this was not one of those instances. We talked about forgiveness and having compassion for others that might be having a bad day. Once home, I told Mark what happened and decided to take a long walk around the neighborhood.

While walking on that hot sticky August night, I rehashed the incident over and over in my head trying to figure out what part of the interaction between the two girls seemed aggressive enough to cause a mom to react so strongly. Eventually I came to the conclusion that none of this was my fault or Leah’s fault, nor was it the fault of the other woman or the other child. What we had was a misunderstanding. Maybe this mom was having a really bad day. Maybe she has an anxiety disorder, maybe the child has a medical condition or a disability that was not obvious to me. Regardless, I was proud that I was able to remain outwardly calm for the sake of not only my children but, the other moms and children that were witnesses.

A few days later, I was at the pool when a couple of the moms called me over. One woman, started giggling and then leaned in to me.

“So tell me what happened.” she said, a mischievous look on her face.

“What are you talking about?” I asked, genuinely confused.

“I heard about your little incident at the baby pool the other day.” At this point the attention of two other moms, who were in on this little gossip session leaned in closer and started to giggle like school girls.

“How did you hear about that?” I wondered.

This mom proceeded to inform me that she heard about it from another mom who was at the baby pool that afternoon. She went on to tell me that she does not like the woman with whom I had the incident because she is “annoying” and “over protective” of her children. This mom went on to tell me that she and several other moms make fun of the woman and they were happy that I had “told her off”.

I paused for a second to gather my thoughts. “Well, that’s not what really happened. I started thinking about it and I’m sure there is a reasonable explanation.”

I continued to explain that I was no longer angry at the other woman because it was quite possible that she might be struggling in her own way. As I began to express a little compassion for the woman from the baby pool, I actually noticed a look of disappointment in the face of the mom with whom I was talking. Wait, was she actually disappointed that I was no longer angry? Was she actually disappointed that I was not going to share more juicy details? And it was at that exact moment that I chose to take the higher ground and end the conversation, much to her dismay.

Being a mama is hard work. There are days that make you feel as though you might be loosing your mind. There are days when you second guess yourself and days when you are judged so harshly by others that you feel as though you will not make it another day. That day at the baby pool, I made a promise to myself. I promised myself that I would try really hard to NOT judge other moms regardless of the situation because more often than not, I do not have all the facts. I do not know what she is struggling with. Maybe she is going through a divorce, maybe she is sick, maybe her baby has not slept through the night for the past 3 months. Because I made that promise to myself, I hope that other moms will make a promise to stop the mom judging and show a little compassion. Sure, I had a right to be angry with that woman but, I made a choice to show her some compassion and perhaps set a good example for others. Would you do the same?