Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What Gratitude Isn't

I have a gratitude practice. Sort of. It used to be a lot more robust, when it was a matter of life or death (I mean that honestly, by the way; there was a point in time when digging deep and listing off a few, measly things for which I was grateful kept me tethered to the planet when nothing else would). But now that I don't "need" it, it doesn't happen every day.

It is definitely one of the top things in my toolbox, though. One of the first that is pulled out when I'm feeling cranky or overwhelmed or just plain sad. And I know it's been a while when the first few things I run though mentally as things to be grateful for start with, "at least I'm not...." If I am comparing my life to someone else's, as in, "at least I'm not part of this oppressed group or that oppressed group" or thinking about all the ways my current situation could be worse, such as, "neither of my kids is suffering from some horrible illness and I'm not homeless," I'm not really being grateful. Even though those are things to be happy about, the fact that I am conjuring up ways that my life could run off the rails taints the whole process. Instead of helping me to feel calm and centered, it is a simple reminder that at some point, one or more of those things could potentially happen and for now, I'm just dodging a bullet.

If I am also making a mental note of the number of "good" things in my life as they compare to the number of "bad" ones, that is not gratitude. It is not helpful to weigh them against each other, ticking off one thing for which I am grateful in response to each thing that drags me down. They are not figures on a balance sheet. They both exist simultaneously in my life and in my mind, but gratitude is about the ones I choose to pay attention to, where I decide to place my focus in any given moment. It doesn't make the other things disappear, it simply allows me to notice that there are positive things in my life.

When the girls were little and I quit my job to stay at home with them full time, I quickly learned that the only way to gauge my level of tangible activity during the day was to note the absence of certain things. If the laundry was folded and put away, the dishes were washed and put away, the floors were devoid of dirt and debris, I had been productive. This was completely opposed to any system of determining productivity I had ever been a part of in my work life - there you were rewarded based on the things you created and they were present. It was incredibly frustrating to me to realize that outsiders would come into my house and only notice if I hadn't done something - if there were piles of laundry and dirty dishes and hungry children. For me, gratitude is like that. For most of my day, I go about things only noticing the items that need to be 'fixed' or that don't meet my expectations. This is not always a negative thing - often I am happy to know that there is something I can do to make things better. But unless I take the time to really engage in a gratitude practice, I rarely note the things that are just absolutely right in my world all around me.

I am loathe to imply that gratitude is a complicated thing, because when I'm in the zone, it really isn't. When I am feeling it, when I am really tuned in to the goodness and abundance in my life, it is simple and pure and I am hard pressed to stop finding things for which I am grateful. In fact, for me, the key to actual gratitude is to simplify things.  When I am frustrated and irritable, the best thing for me to do is to stop and look around. I see my computer and I am grateful for the ability to write and to connect with people who are important to me online. I catch sight of a glass of water on the counter and am grateful for clean water and a cupboard full of dishes. I note my sunglasses on the table next to me and close my eyes and thank goodness that I can so often feel the warm sun on my back. There is no context, no attempt to think beyond any of these things, just simple gratitude, and when I can find that place in my day, I suddenly feel as though there is more air in the room.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Can We Please Stop Telling Girls and Women to be Polite?

Sexual assault weighs heavily on my mind of late. Between the former Subway pitchman admitting to child pornography and rape of children, and the New York Times story of ISIS using rape as a strategic tactic, and the trial of a prep school graduate who is alleged to have raped a fellow student as part of a graduation ritual, the news seems saturated with it. I am reading Jon Krakauer's book on campus rape, "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town" at a snail's pace because the stories give me a stomach ache, both with regard to what the students went through as they were sexually assaulted and the treatment they faced from police officers and prosecutors and school officials, not to mention the perpetrators. As the mother of two daughters, it is increasingly difficult to not see threats around every corner. As a sexual assault survivor, I know all to well the power of such violations and the trails they weave throughout a life.

This morning, I was particularly struck by the article on Jezebel (referenced above) pertaining to the testimony of the alleged victim in the prep school trial. She was quoted as saying,
"I didn't want to come across as too offensive or rude....I didn't want to cause conflict,"
 in response to a crude email invitation he sent to her to join him.  In other testimony, she said,
“I tried to be as polite as possible.”
“I wanted to not cause a conflict”
“I feel like I had objected as much as I felt I could at the time. And other than that I felt so powerless”
And while many people have (and will continue to) comment that this girl was stupid, that by making those choices, she clearly wasn't really objecting to sexual contact with this man (he was over eighteen at the time and she was either 14 or 15), her words resonate with so many women and girls.

To this day, I still wrestle with telling my massage therapist or the dentist that I'm uncomfortable, to go easier, because I don't want to be rude or tell them how to do their job. Saying it out loud sounds ludicrous, but I was brought up as a compliant Catholic girl who was to always assume that my elders knew what they were doing. I was not to question them or challenge them, but to defer to them and make them feel good. Not only was that the "Right" thing to do, but I quickly learned that it was the best way to get them to like me. It made me the perfect victim of childhood sexual abuse by an older boy. I never said a word. I'm certain that as I lie in his dank, sweat-scented, 17-year-old boy bedroom and he assaulted me multiple times over a period of months, I never cried out, fought back, said no. I know that it was decades before I ever told anyone, and every time I considered it, I saw his mother's face in my mind and wondered what it would do to her. I saw my own mother's face in my mind and wondered what impact it might have on her if I told - would she be seen as a horrible mother? Would she think of herself that way? It never occurred to me to ask whether or not anyone would believe me because I wasn't going to tell - it would disrupt too many lives.  I wasn't weighing my own life in this equation at all. I had absorbed the messages served up to me by the church and our culture too well. It was more important to be liked than it was to stand up for myself. It was more important to preserve the feelings of someone else (especially if they were older than me or male) than it was to express my own feelings.

Forgive us. And let us learn from this.

Let us teach our children that they can always apologize for being rude, but they can't ever take back those moments where they didn't stand up for themselves.

Let us teach our children that they matter as much as everyone else around them, that their opinions and thoughts are just as valid.

Let us teach our children to listen to their gut, to develop that spidey-sense that defies logic and is always right.

Let us teach them that they have a right to draw boundaries, whether anyone else likes it or not.

I have done my level best to help my daughters understand these things. They have been accused of being insolent or rude by some family members for "talking back," but I'll take that over being walked on any day. If they ruffle some feathers by being outspoken and opinionated, by refusing to do something they don't want to do even if it will make someone else happy, I'm okay with that. And I sincerely hope that, with enough practice, if either of them ever finds themselves in a dark room with someone who is determined to overstep their boundaries, these lessons will come back to them and they will say to themselves, "F*ck rude - I said NO!" It is not a silver bullet, but it is something.

I am officially done with the culture that encourages girls to sublimate their own wishes in order to make anyone else feel good.

I am officially done with the culture that encourages boys to find conquests and ignore the wishes of others so that they can make themselves feel good.

It begins here, with a pledge to do better. To teach our girls and boys that they are, first and foremost, human beings deserving of respect, especially by themselves.

Related writings: Campus Rape
10 Things I Want My Daughters to Know About Sex
Rape in the Military

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Damaging Nature of Expectations

I have been thinking a lot about expectations lately and how often we see them as concrete scenarios that drive our actions and emotions.

It started with watching my girls this summer, observing times when they would hatch plans with friends over text, going so far as to figure out movie times and counting their cash on hand and solidify the details only to be foiled by me when I reminded them that I'm not available to drive or they were already obligated to a babysitting job or day of camp. Oh, the disappointment and frustration that ensued! Often, I was the target of anger for simply pointing out that they hadn't thought through the whole thing or asked the right people for input.

Then last week, Bernie Sanders came to Seattle for a few events and I watched the rage unfold on social media as he was preempted by two activists addressing the crowd about the Black Lives Matter  movement. Despite your personal feelings about the tactics or the movement or Sanders' presidential bid, I am curious about how much of the anger and frustration was as a result of the expectation of the crowd that they would hear Sanders speak. I suspect that, had the two women been on the program, people would have received them warmly and openly, but since they had stood outside in the hot (for Seattle) sun waiting for hours to hear Sanders and then were disappointed, many of them reacted poorly to the fact that he left without speaking more than to the message of the activists.

I think that, generally, there are three kinds of expectations we have, positive, neutral, and negative.  Positive expectations represent our hopes - calculating the hours on our paycheck in order to know whether we'll have the money to purchase the thing we really want, killing it on a job interview, giving birth to a healthy baby. They can be big or small, but these are the ones that really slay us when they don't come true. Negative expectations represent our fears, and instead of disappointing us when they don't come true, I think they often keep us from taking the kind of leaps that will help us grow or push boundaries that maybe need to be pushed. On more than one occasion, I have had to talk myself into approaching someone and asking for something that I think I deserve because my expectation is that I will be laughed at or turned down simply because I am not male.

Neutral expectations are those that are typically placed on us from the outside, either our family or friend groups or culture and, often, they aren't expressed specifically but we internalize them all the same. It can be a strong feeling that our parents expect us to do well in school and get into college, that as young women or men (because of our gender identity) we will act and speak and dress a certain way, but it can also be our way of placing expectations on other people - that because someone looks a certain way, they will act in accordance with our expectations.

As I was puzzling through this train of thought, I saw this headline:
JURY SELECTED IN NEW HAMPSHIRE PREP SCHOOL RAPE TRIAL
When I clicked through and read the very short article, I experienced such a toxic stew of feelings - sadness, anger, disappointment, fear - and I wondered about the accused and whether the culture "in which boys about to graduate attempt to 'score' with younger female students" (specifically, that they 'take the virginity of a freshman girl,' sets up an expectation that this behavior is normal - even desirable. In no way does this excuse or justify his behavior (this aspiring DIVINITY student), but could it be one more example of ways in which we human beings trick ourselves into believing that expectations almost always equal reality? That they somehow ought to come to fruition or that there is nothing we can do about it? 

It is terrifically hard to walk through a day without having any sort of expectations. But I wonder what would happen if I practiced noticing them and challenging them a little? What if, the next time I assume something positive is going to happen, I take a minute and acknowledge that things could go horribly awry and pledge to be flexible if they do? Or what if the next time there is a negative expectation, I ask myself where that comes from and what might happen if I dismantle that notion? I'm getting to the place where I think that all of those external expectations ought to be challenged and dissected so that I can decide whether they limit me or raise me up. 



Monday, August 03, 2015

Work-Life "Balance" for the Stay-at-Home Parent

First of all, I think that the way we generally talk about the entire concept of "work-life balance" misses the mark. All too often, I hear it spoken of as though it is a fixed point, something to achieve and then rest in. As I creep ever-closer to middle age, I am cognizant of the fact that assessing the time and energy I put forward into different areas of my life is an ongoing process. Before I was married, there were certain goals and values that drove how I spent my time. After marriage, they shifted. When Bubba and I bought our first house, they shifted again. Having kids threw a huge wrench into how I saw the minutes of every day, and now that they are older and more independent, I am re-evaluating again. There is no such thing as a fixed target to shoot for.

When I left my paying job to stay at home with my kids, there was this assumption that I had no "work," and to be completely honest, I bought into that idea for way too long. The fact is, because of my inability to compartmentalize the different aspects of my life, what really happened was that my work became my life. That is, everything mothering and household-running was so important and so pressing that I did it 99% of the time, but because I didn't consider it my job, I didn't fully acknowledge that I had ceased doing so many of the things I enjoyed doing before that I considered my "life." I had allowed everything to bleed together and become one which meant that I had very little that was just mine.  Because very few others recognized what I was spending the majority of my time doing as "work," it was hard to justify my frustrations with this dynamic, which made me all the more unhappy.

Prior to having children, I had lots of ideas about the kind of work I wanted to do, things I might find meaningful and worth spending 40+ hours a week doing. I wanted to enjoy my work, but I also wanted to be able to fully enjoy those other parts of my life like working in the yard and hiking with Bubba and having dinner with friends. As soon as I quit to stay home and the hours of "work" were not  clearly delineated, the shift was monumental. When I was at my office, I couldn't empty the dishwasher or fold a load of laundry or fix the bathroom toilet because I wasn't physically at home to do it. Now, suddenly, at home, it felt as though I were cheating if I chose to sit on the couch and read instead of doing any of those things because my home and my children had become my work and it was staring me in the face all the time.

Over the past fifteen years, my level of freedom from parenting and household work has ebbed and flowed, and I have had the opportunity to make choices over and over again about what other kind of meaningful work I can do - paid or not. I have obviously chosen writing as one of those things, but I have also found volunteer positions with organizations I want to support. I have come to understand that the most important question I can ask when I consider doing any kind of work is not "do I have time for this?" but "how will this feed me?" If I choose to spend my time engaged in activities that align with my passions and interests, even if they are intense and challenging, I know from experience that I will ultimately end up feeling energized and sated. There will be times when that work means I won't cook dinner from scratch for the family or the dog won't get his customary three to four walks a day or the laundry will pile up, and that's okay. The freedom to schedule my own time, to float between different types of work is something for which I am immensely grateful. Being the primary parent to my kids means that my work is often a reaction to something else - hunger, dirt, transportation needs - and it is generally satisfying, if only until the next meal or pile of laundry or basketball game. Having the ability to engage in other work that is proactive and creative is something that feeds me in a different way, and that is just as important. My work and my life are very closely intertwined and it is often hard to see where one leaves off and the other begins, but I'm not sure that it is important to discern those boundaries.  Knowing that there are some tasks I will engage in that I really don't enjoy is okay as long as they are part of the bigger picture and the larger goals I have. For me, the trick is to make sure that I am mindful of the tasks that ignite a fire in my belly and I find a way to do them with regularity. Often, emptying the dishwasher again can feel like a slog, but if I'm doing it because I know I will be able to sit down and write or read or go to a meeting without wishing I'd done it, I have more mental freedom to fully engage with what I'm doing.

The typical way that we talk about work-life balance sets up a dynamic where the two are pitted against each other in some surreal tug-of-war where one necessarily ends up losing and the other winning, at least for a while. But the fact is, if we are actively choosing to spend time not working for pay (at least not full-time) and staying home with our children, the most important thing is not to parse out bits of time for "work" and "life" but to recognize that within this setup, we can actively choose to engage in things that we find fulfilling and interesting. When we do that, we are enhancing our lives and, by extension, our children's lives because what they end up with is a happy, energized parent. This notion of some elusive "balance" between the energy we put into working and the energy we get from living is wholly false. If we are lucky, the two overlap in a Venn Diagram that allows us to find compensation and purpose and a sense of enjoyment without guilt. And as our children grow up and become more independent, we will have given ourselves the gift of meaningful work that we can continue to engage in more and more.

Bubba and I have recently begun having conversations about what our life will look like in five years when Eve and Lola are both gone to college. At that point, it will be important for both of us to have some shared purpose and some individual interests. If we apply this particular way of looking at "balance," and are able to identify the things that we enjoy doing together and apart, and fully support the others' need to engage in both, perhaps the shift to this new lifestyle will be smoother. (Not that I won't cry a big, ugly cry when my last one moves out, but, hey, it's a start...)
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