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Underbelly

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My mother was present in the crowd the day that Martin Luther King told us about his dream. She lived in Mississippi in a house staffed by a black yard man, an elderly black cook and a black nanny who left her own children behind every day to care for my mom and her three white siblings.

It will shock none of my readers to hear me say that my grandmother was racist. She was a “sweet” racist who believed that employing black people was a charitable thing to do; that they were simple, childish people who benefited greatly from her patronage.

My mother and her siblings have struggled all their lives to reconcile their cherished memories of their mother with the blatant reality of her racism. My uncle has made a career out of seeking social justice. My mother became a public health nurse, eager to find ways to give back to the underserved community that her favorite nanny introduced her to as a child. All of my relatives are slow to talk about racism and quick to point out the good qualities exemplified by the previous generation: grandmother always visited the yard man every time he went to jail. She used to take her kids to visit the elderly cook in the state-run nursing home she ended up in once her declining health forced her to stop working. Her African-American servants liked her; she was racist, but she was a nice racist, and I guess that is supposed to make it all better somehow.

I never met my grandmother. She died of ovarian cancer the year before I was born. I grew up in the South, though, in an all-white neighborhood not too far from where she raised my mother. I remember the first time a black family visited our Southern Baptist church; I was eight years old at the time, and fascinated by the way the light seemed to glow from within their skin, the colors they wore, the way ice purple eyeshadow shimmered against the mother’s perfect eyelids like a frost in early spring. Her name was Christine, and I still feel a thrill when I think of her, so tall, so stately, so perfectly composed and dignified as she graciously ignored my stares, let me observe her and her family without showing any of the completely justifiable fury I certainly would have felt if I’d been in her shoes. She must have guessed that I had never seen a black person before. She was patient and gracious and invited me to her home for tea. She listened quietly without interrupting when I asked her nine year old daughter why all of her Barbies were black, and shook with laughter when her daughter replied, “It’s because they drink too much chocolate milk. We love that stuff around here. Did you know I was white like you when I was born? But then I started drinking chocolate milk and would you look at me now!”

My mother still complains about the vast quantities of chocolate milk I consumed in the weeks after that visit. I mean, deep down I knew it wouldn’t really change the color of my skin, but…it didn’t hurt to try, right?

I will always be thankful for the gift Christine gave me in letting me get to know her family, being patient with my childishness and ignorance, not abandoning me to a de facto inheritance of racism and bigotry. It was because of Christine that I became obsessed with Addy the American Girl doll and devoured her accompanying books, begged to be taken to Civil War reenactments, memorized speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Booker T. Washington. Somewhere along the way I was introduced to feminism through Sojourner Truth. Later, I found myself completely swept away by Alice Walker, Billie Holiday, Maya Angelou, bell hooks, Audra Lorde.

These women’s lives and messages resonate with me in a way that I can’t fully explain. Part of it is what we share in common. I was denied access to education and prevented from making autonomous decisions. I still don’t feel like I’ve been able to claim my sexuality as my own. I have a long way to go, and honestly, I’m never going to fully recover from what’s been done to me. I was taught from infancy that I had a place in society, and that place was at the very bottom of the heap. And I knew in my soul that it was wrong, that I was hearing lies, that if I fought back hard enough and long enough I would eventually succeed in claiming control over my life. Other women’s stories of perseverance and anger are deeply meaningful to me because that same fire and innate sense of truth has been my salvation.

On the other hand, though, as I explore the lives of these great women I am torn apart by our differences. I think the differences between our lives impact me on an even deeper level, because I know that it’s not right. I hear Wanda Sykes laughing bitterly about the racial disparity in prisons and I know she’s right. I can get away with absolutely anything and I know it because I’ve done it. I stole candy from the store all the time as a kid. As an adult, I stole diaper cream when I was too broke to buy it and my son broke out in a painful rash. I have taken off with grocery carts when I had no other way of carrying food home. I have been let off the hook for letting my tabs go a month past their expiration date, snacking on leftover food at work, smoking on our non-smoking building property. I am never, ever carded, not even at my twenty-first birthday celebration. People assume (wrongly, often enough) that I am up to good things when they see me, because I look “normal,” meaning white. I consider myself to be a basically good person and think well of myself and my moral judgment, but when I consider how often I’ve intentionally screwed up it’s humiliatingly obvious that I have nothing to congratulate myself about. I have not had problems with the police because the police don’t suspect me, not because I am morally superior to people who get caught.

I don’t really know how to make sense of my racist heritage, or how to continue the trend of progress in my children’s lives. I find myself agonizing over the most ridiculous things sometimes, like, should I provide my children with multicultural dolls, or does that send the message that other races of people are commodities to be collected? This particular dilemma is exceptionally silly because neither of my kids are even a tiny bit interested in doll play, but I continue to cause myself to break out in hives over this and other questions like it because I deeply want my kids to just see people as people. I want them to feel free to marry a person of color and have babies who won’t share my frizzy red hair and know that that partner and those children will be loved and accepted into the family. I want them to feel free to dislike a person of color without going into hiding for a few weeks to unravel whether or not their negative feelings are fueled by racism. I want race to not be a thing for them. I want them to just have friends and know people and be seriously horrified someday when I tell them how far we’ve come as a family from the days when our ancestors were fighting in the Civil War on Stonewall Jackson’s side.

I don’t know how much progress you can realistically hope to make in one generation, but more than anything else…I just want this to be over.

Written by GRSeim

May 19, 2012 at 7:35 am

Active Beauty

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Have you seen this article, about how nearly 50% of kids don’t spend time outside each day? And, sad but not surprising, little girls are far more likely to spend their days indoors than than little boys.

Not at my house.

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P. S. yes, she did eat the dandelion. 🙂

Written by GRSeim

April 6, 2012 at 10:53 pm

Baby Fat

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You have probably heard that some studies have come out demonstrating that anorexia is a social disease, shocking no one.

The surprising element in all of this is just how early in life the fat-phobia is setting in. Peggy Orenstein noted in a recent blog post that many girls as young as three years old are showing serious warning signs of future body image disorders.

What’s a parent to do?!

It seems to me that, if anorexia is being transmitted through images, the first step is obvious: keep those images away form my kids.

Moving on from there, I am intentionally seeking out and surrounding my kids with positive media portrayals of a variety of body types, including some AWESOMELY BIG ONES (which, incidentally, are some of D’s favorites).

Here are 17 enormous and enormously awesome characters to start with if you are interested in doing something similar in your house.

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Clifford is huge, entertaining, imaginative and fun. I love the retro flashbacks in the original books, too. Watch out, though, because Clifford has been co-opted into some heavy duty preschool consumerism.

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You only see tummies like Barney’s on villains in kid entertainment these days. And I fully credit Barney for sparking my interest in “using your imagination” as a kid.

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Baby Beluga is round and adorable, and of course the accompanying Raffi song is preschool gold (aren’t they all). I love the pictures in this book in particular. Bonus points for some lovely images of an indigenous (Inupiat?) woman.

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Big Bird rules, but this is definitely a case where you just can’t beat the vintage stuff.

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The Snuffleupagus. Who doesn’t want to hug this guy? His little sister, Sally, was my dream pet as a kid.

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Everyone loves the BFG. My mom has quotes from this book taped up all over her kitchen. They always bring a smile to my face.

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I love all the Stillwater the Panda books. The images are compelling, the stories are fun. I think every kid wishes they had a giant panda tummy to bounce on. My son is a serious wiggler, but he has been sitting through Stillwater books since he was 18 months old. The pictures are breathtaking.

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FALKOR! Enough said.

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Aslan. Minus ten points for being the brainchild of C. S. Lewis, who is overwhelmingly popular among the most annoying kind of religious person, the know-it-all, argumentative 13 year old boy. Oh, the endless discussions I’ve listened to over the years. Is Narnia allegorical or not? I DON’T CARE. I like anything with talking animals in it, and I wanted to be a dryad more than anything from ages 5 through…basically…now. So plus twenty points for that.

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Alice in Wonderland. I love that we stay with Alice and see that her person is unaltered by her dramatic size fluctuations.

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You remember The Runaway Bunny, that creepy story about the stalker bunny mama with major issues with boundaries? I hated that book as a kid. This one follows a similar theme, but it’s brilliant because it shows the child testing her mother’s love through misbehavior rather than desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to break free from an obsessive mother. More beautiful images of native Alaskans, and hands down the most tender, respectful portrayal of a large woman I’ve ever encountered.

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Kipper is cute, calm, and he and his friends love chocolate cake and lollypops and have sweet, round little child tummies. Unfortunately there are no female characters in this show until the addition of Mouse, who remains a very minor character. I still love it, but it’s very disappointing to see how much more the creators of this show could have done with it.

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Now, Peppa, on the other hand, Peppa is all that and a bag of chips. A funny, cozy, adventurous family of pigs snorts, plays in the mud, puts out fires, visits the space museum…they are round, noisy and totally lovable. I also love that the Pig family is able to demonstrate the value of being able to laugh things off. Every member of the Pig family manages to mess something up and embarrass themselves at some point or another, but they are quick to laugh it off, clean up after themselves and move on with life. AND, as with Kipper, you can get movies or books, which makes them way better than Barney in my mind.

These last books I discovered while brainstorming for this post. I have not actually read, but plan to soon and will update the post with my thoughts.

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Do you have any favorite body-positive books, movies, songs, toys, or anything else you’d like to share? I’d love to generate some more ideas on this topic!

Written by GRSeim

March 18, 2012 at 8:45 pm

Beating the Seattle Freeze

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It snowed this morning. It is pretty unusual for us to get snow this late in the year in Seattle, so the city went into lockdown mode. My hearty bite-size adventurers and I ended up having Carkeek Park to ourselves, and enjoyed a private show courtesy of the Bubble Man before we finally meandered our way to the downtown REI in the late afternoon for dinner before returning home for the evening.

It is always interesting to parent your own children in a group setting, and it’s perhaps even a little weirder here in Seattle because…well, let’s face it. Seattle parents are weird. They will talk to your kid and ignore you, or instruct their children to talk to you for them even though you’re sitting right there and can obviously hear them. Some will swoop in to drive their children away from other kids when they try to make new friends on the playground. It can be hard to talk about this kind of behavior (at least for me), because there’s always the feeling that I must be doing something to cause these parents to dislike me. When you’ve been here as long as I have, though, you begin to realize that this kind of antisocial behavior is, for better or for worse, normal by Seattle standards.

The families we met at REI today were very typical Seattleites. I ended babysitting for this little boy’s mother briefly while she rushed her younger child to the bathroom, but she managed to get through that and an additional hour of standing side by side, watching our kids race around in the indoor treehouse, without ever speaking to me directly. By the end of the evening I knew her kids’ names, what schools they attend, their favorite colors, their favorite foods, their favorite tv shows, that their dad is fun to play with but doesn’t spend enough time with them, that the older brother doesn’t remember his little sister being a baby, but that she totally remembers being breastfed and misses it. I wasn’t even able to get the mom to tell me her name.

Seattle is a strange and lovely place, full of awkward, displaced people.

The good news is, this particular brand of awkwardness is hereditary doesn’t appear to be hereditary.

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Warming up at REI at 5 o’clock!

Written by GRSeim

March 7, 2012 at 5:21 am

Collision Course

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Loving Dina Goldstein’s artistic representation of the intersection between princess culture and reality. See it here.

Written by GRSeim

March 4, 2012 at 7:42 pm

Rubric

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“What is the normal child like? Does he just eat and grow and smile sweetly? No, that is not what he is like. The normal child, if he has confidence in mother and father, pulls out all the stops. In the course of time he tries out his power to disrupt, to destroy, to frighten, to wear down, to waste, to wangle, and to appropriate…at the start he absolutely needs to live in a circle of love and strength (with consequent tolerance) if he is not to be too fearful of his own thoughts and of his imaginings to make progress in his emotional development.”

-Donald W. Winnicott

Written by GRSeim

March 1, 2012 at 5:48 pm

The intensity of love

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“If having children is all about love, it’s also about passion, and once you have passion, there’s always this other side -of feeling desperately frustrated, perhaps feeling depressed, angry, all the other side of the intensity of love.”

-Sheila Kitzinger

Written by GRSeim

February 29, 2012 at 6:48 pm

Posted in Parenting Dilemmas