quit touching my child

Would you get your hands off my child, please? How would you like me to poke you in the belly? Want me to try and tickle you? Maybe I’ll insist you hug me and not take no for an answer? I’m sure we both think not.

Even the most well-intentioned adults around me lately have let me down. Sure, our daughter is off-the-charts-cute. Not just in the parents-always-think-their-kid-is-cute kind of way, she’s simply gorgeous by most objective standards. She’s also very small for her age with a huge head and huge eyes. Just calls out to the mother in most every person (male and female) she meets.

Why is it, though, so few adults on this earth seem to have a clue that children are people?

I heard the beginning of a great This American Life on the subject of “talking to children.” It began with interviews with children about what annoyed them most about adults talking to them. The children were obviously older than Maya (she’s 4 and a half), but they are still putting up with some of the same shit.

Adults seem to flail around wanting to say the right thing, thinking there’s some kind of code language children speak. The adults get goo-goo gah-gah when talking to them. Really sing-songy. Trying to connect, they instead treat the child as some kind of stuffed fluffy toy who might enjoy being bent this way or that.

Maya even has a defensive “cutsie wootsie” mode she goes into where she swings herself all around, hanging on to my legs, looking up in an almost flirting coy sort of way that shocked the hell out of me the first time she did it. I asked her after why she was behaving that way (didn’t say it was wrong, but was surprised) and she told me that when people talk to her in baby talk, she just wants to do that. The goo-goo-gaa-gaa talking tone that grownups often take with her sometimes slips past me until she begins her little “I’m just cute” dance behind my legs.

Some advice to those of you who really, truly would like to communicate with that little person in the shopping cart in front of you at the market? You are looking at a small person. An individual. A human being.

They like smiles, but feel weird if you stare at them too much. Sure, if they’re very small infants (not holding themselves up, yet), they might like a little peek-a-boo. For any child, though, your best bet is to just imagine children are just small adults.

Speak in your regular voice. Bring up something you might bring up to an adult if you were going to be so outgoing and bold as to talk to a stranger at the market. Perhaps you might comment on the pretty flowers nearby, or compliment an article of clothing the person is wearing. Maybe you, too, enjoy sweets, so you could empathize with the experience of enjoying a lollipop (that surely some bank teller thrust into the child’s hand without regard to her parents’ wishes).

Think of how odd you’d feel if someone came up to you and started cooing, “Oh, you are so beeeeeautiful!” Sure, you might feel flattered. If you were available, you might hope to get lucky later that night. But, under most circumstances you might feel pretty freaked out.

Yesterday at Target I decided I needed to help out my little girl. I said, “When someone says something like that (a woman had just said over and over and over, “you are so beautiful! adorable! so cuuuuuuuute!”), they would love to hear you say, ‘thank you.’ What that means is you are telling them you appreciate they are trying to be kind. You don’t have to say anything, but a ‘thank you’ is probably what they are hoping for.”

Maya, like any normal human being, tends to freeze up in shock when these strangers begin gawgling all over here. And, no, she’s not “shy,” she just thinks you’re being really strange and it makes her a little confused and uncomfortable.

And, no, I’m not going to make her give you a hug even if you are a relative. I’m not going to expect her to kiss you or even accept a hug from you. I understand she’s so cute you want to gobble her up, but even her Father and I check in before we slobber all over her (most of the time).

Thankfully, my closest family dwells in the realm of respect. I think they may sometimes wish they could force the issue (LET GRAMPA HOLD YOU we all sometimes want to say). But they see clearly that Maya gives her affection and receives her affection on her terms (she loves being held by Grampa when she’s in the mood). Knowing her body is hers, that she decides who touches it, how, and when, may be one of her greatest (thus far, well-learned) lessons.

We’ll continue giving her tools for responding to adults who mean well but don’t have a clue. We’ll continue not forcing her to interact with strangers, and we’ll continue not expecting her to give hugs or kisses to anyone when she doesn’t want to. Without apology.

Once again, let me encourage you. The next time you are interacting with a child, try to imagine the roles reversed. Whatever you do or say to that child, what if someone did or said that to you? Would you be comfortable? How would you respond?

Because, seriously, the next time someone tries to tickle my child or tries to get her to say something to them (“come on, tell me about your little doggy-woggy-woo”) I might just haul off and slug them. Now that’s not a lesson I want to teach my cute as a button sweet as a plum little angel girl.

christian with a lowercase c

My four year old says, “I’m Mary and this is baby Jesus” and proceeds to sing all the words to “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel.” The time has come for me to explain why I’m christian. And why I’m not a Christian.

“I’m a Christian” vs. “I’m christian.”

First let’s be clear. I’m not “a Christian.” The right-wing fundamentalists have taken over that term with disturbing voracity. It makes me sick to my stomach to risk being grouped with such generally hateful sorts. Christian (with a C) now means to me, and to so many I talk with, an almost drug induced state of bliss (denial of questions or doubts), glazed eyes (from crying tears of joy when someone is “saved”), rigid rules. Mostly, Christian with a C requires following the strict-father model of living. It means a woman has no right to say what happens to her body. It means taxing the wealthy, stripping social services to nothing, and expecting the poorest among us to support it all. It means same-gender love is wrong. I want nothing to do with Christian with a C.

I am christian, though. I strive to live like Jesus did. That’s the essence of it, how I explain it to my daughter. In four year old terms, it’s pretty simple. Love everyone. Do whatever you can to help rid the world of injustice. Forgive yourself and others for our human frailties. Know that all you can do is your best and that is enough.

The magical fairyland of miracles.

But what about the “miracles,” the loaves and fishes, the healing blindness, bringing people back from the dead? Or, as Maya asked today at lunch, “Are angels real?” My answer is also pretty simple. I don’t get hung up on whether or not those things are literally true (it might lean into the sort of magical fairyland kind of thing, would it not?) or if they are only metaphors and lessons. I recognize that humans wrote the Bible, so the stories are most likely stories. I take the lessons from them and move on.

But what about the rising from the dead? Again, I don’t get hung up. Literal or not it isn’t a huge deal to me. The lessons that we’re all Okay, that we are always forgiven for our mistakes, and that the power of god is bigger than any human — that’s enough for me.

The truth is, though, at this moment I believe Jesus literally came back to life. When I’m in my “maybe it didn’t literally happen” times, it doesn’t scare me. Those thoughts fit perfectly in my faith, believing the truth of it as miracle or metaphor doesn’t change the message.

I recognize being raised by a minister and faithfully christian mother has a great deal to do with the likelihood that I’ll not find the story of the resurrection in the land with dragons, trolls, and fairies. Then again, as we all know, it could have pushed me farther away from believing the story. And, again, while I do happen to believe it actually happened, it’s not the biggest part of christianity for me.

I believe christianity is a religion of social justice. Jesus ate with and talked with women. With tax collectors. With sinners and untouchables of all sorts. Talking seriously with such non-people was rebelious enough, but to wash their feet or share a table with them was truly radical. He told poor people that they were the most special of all. He said people should love their enemies. He was a teacher.

After the sadness and revulsion I feel for those people I feel are butchering Jesus’ messages, those cap C’s, I realized there was another great obstacle preventing me from embracing the christian label.

I don’t believe Jesus would want our worship. The Jesus I understand would not want us to bow down to him. He would not want to be treated as someone more special than any other person. He certainly wouldn’t want me calling him “Lord.” Teacher, sure, but Lord, no way.

So, how could I be christian if I won’t pray to Jesus? That’s the question I grappled with for about the last ten years. But my truth has found me and I know now that, for me, being christian means I want to be as much like Jesus as possible. I want to be bold, courageous, and intelligent. I want to stay centered in my connection with god in all times of my life, as much as I can. I want to forgive myself and others every minute of every day. And, most of all, I want to help change the world. I want to help my neighbors near and far. I want people who are suffering to find justice, and I want to help make that happen.

What about Jesus as 100% god and 100% human?

The other hangup I had when I didn’t consider myself christian was the stance that Jesus was 100% God, different than us humans. As with so many of my understandings of my christianity, I realize it’s an issue of translation. The miracles were probably story telling tools. Jesus was a great healer (this is historical fact, not religious belief, though the ideas of what kind of healing he did are disputed), but was he as powerful as god? In my view, no. In my view, Jesus was astoundingly good at staying connected to god. He was clearly “centered” as we might say today. Serene. At peace most of the time. In no great hurry.

Again, I find Jesus to be a role model for my spiritual life. I know from my own experience that staying connected to what I call god keeps me relatively sane. I know peace when I am strongly connected to that strength. It’s my view that Jesus really got it– he found a way to stay connected more often than he was distracted by daily life. He was the ultimately god-connected person. Whether that was through prayer and meditation, through yoga, through great conversations with loved ones, or through times of quiet, I don’t know. But from what I know of the man named Jesus, I can tell he wasn’t easily distracted from his source of peace and strength.

But surely, you won’t stand for the Father Lord King garbage, will you?

No. I won’t stand for it. Mostly. My conception of god is not at all paternal. I certainly don’t think Jesus would dig that kind of reference in this day and age. But, in those days when women were dismissed and not counted, using paternal references to describe power and strength makes sense. In the days of rulers like Kings and Emperors it makes sense that Jesus and others would use the language of the day. Shortcuts, if you will, to explain they believed that god was extraordinarily powerful.

When I go to church with my parents, or continue our search for a church that meets our own family’s needs, I spend a lot of time translating so I can tolerate the paternal and inegalitarian concepts and language used. I usually don’t even like to use a capital letter G on god, it’s too high-and-mighty for me. Through the translation, though, I can still hear the message:

  • Be kind.
  • Be just.
  • Be brave.
  • Care for those who need help.
  • Don’t put up with shit from hateful people.
  • Love yourself and others.
So as Maya plays Mary, sings the Christmas hymns with all her might, and hears a bit more of the Christmas story every morning when we sing Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel at breakfast, I feel good being christian. I feel honored that our child asks such probing questions, forcing me to articulate in the simplest terms what I believe. I always begin by saying, “Well, not everyone believes this,” or, “Some people believe that is true, but I don’t.” But I almost always end up telling her the truest truth I know. The most important thing is that we try to love everyone in the world and help people who need it most.
Later that day she was playing store and announced, “I work for the giving store. We prepare food to give to people who don’t have enough.”

I believe Jesus would be glad.


Ophelia’s ride

Lately, the evils of four year olds has me losing perspective. I keep telling myself, “they’re four, they’re only four, they’re just four year old little kids!” But, when my sweet daughter Maya tells me a classmate said, “you can’t play with us” within some particularly nasty context (playing doggy, no one would be her owner) I want to rip out the classmate’s hair and throw her into a locked dark closet. Would that be inappropriate?

Life is like ocean waves. My self-awareness and understanding always reaching and finding new sands, new treasures. Always uncovering new old rubble. I’ve come to love The Ride even when storms make it scary. The Ride always rocks and rolls me. I’m always safe.

From this perch, I’ve been revisiting what it was like. What it used to be like. My happy tendency these days is to live in what it’s like now, finding the past an ordinary place with the present full of mystery and joy. Then these little brats came along. These little excluding and nasty and superficial little crap heads.

I’ve started reading Reviving Ophelia.No matter what parents do, Pipher reports in Ophelia, young girls risk losing their authentic selves. It’s only by being “high in acceptance and strong in controls” that we parents have a chance to find our daughters reclaiming themselves in their later teens. Apparently, our daughter is doomed to begin hating herself and hiding herself at around 11 years old, just like every girl I’ve ever known. The parents are not to blame.

Overbearing parents, absent parents, cool parents, geeky parents, they’re all facing the same thing. Girls who used to be outgoing, unabashedly intelligent, confident, and creative turn into little puddles of quietude, bitterness, or fear. Everything the girls are is wrong — their hair, their bodies, their thoughts, their words.

Early on, I was entirely a Good Girl. I didn’t get in trouble, I followed the rules, I did my homework, I was Responsible. Before junior high, I was an artist. I wanted to be an architect, among many other things. Then on career day, an older woman groaned at me when I told her this and said, “Oh, no you don’t, dear! You’d have to major in math and science!” She said this in an honors seventh grade math class. Not only was she not accurate about the “majoring,” but she was talking to someone who (at the time) loved math!

In the seventh grade I decided to become popular. I set about it like I would any homework assignment, I read books, magazines, studied up. I realized I’d have to drop the friends I had, even the ones who were hoping to climb the social ladder with me. It would only be by publicly rejecting them that I’d move into the cool crowd. I did what it took. I began flirting with boys, too, and found them flirting back. My life began revolving almost entirely around how others perceived me and I did, as Pipher reports as so common, lose track of my real self.

In the 9th grade I wrote a play in AP English as a class assignment. I have no idea why I thought it a good idea, but the play ended with me, standing alone in front of the class saying, “I’m lonely.” It was meant to be a Waiting for Godot flavored performance, but I look back now and see that I was speaking the truth.

There are other pivotal moments that shoved me into the typical self-hatred so many of us experienced in the brutal years of junior high and beyond. For a while in my 20s I blamed my parents, of course. But I think Pipher’s on to something in her position that it is our culture, our misogynistic surroundings that damn girls (and boys, I could argue in another essay) to the Hell of self-annihilation. Blaming the culture may sound like a cop-out. But now that I’m living life as a parent of a child, and now that I’m reflecting on my own history from this perspective, I see no other explanation.

Now I’m examining my role as a grown woman, a mother. How can I help Maya survive with her Self intact? Or, help her have a chance of reviving her true self when the storm of adolescence calms?

I’ve already strayed. When Maya went to a summer camp (mornings doing crafts and music) I began to pack little “treats” in her lunch box that felt inconsistent with who we are. I bought the little sugar drinks (claiming to be yoghurt, with Disney characters on the bottles) or pre-sliced cheese. I included bits in her lunch bag I knew “all the other kids” would have. Already I was concerned about her experiencing the ostracizing that comes from having the “wrong” foods in a lunch bag. I was giddy doing this, knowing I was “helping her” be one of the “cool” kids. Oh my god. What was I thinking?

Last week I again packed a lunch for Maya, but this time I was grounded. I was joyful and held true to our family’s priorities. I did pack a little treat, but it was some plastic spider rings we got at the dollar store last year (the lunch was on Halloween) rather than some crap food that would only make her feel tired. The environment for this lunch was also not typical — I knew that in this group “cool” was actually healthy and wholesome and genuine. Authenticity and kindness are the norm and the children are much less likely to say, “eeeew” to Maya’s lunch choices (as they did when I once included a box of carrot juice).

Just as I am revisiting this insane pressure to be what others expect — the same pressure that forced me over the cliff into self-hatred as a young girl despite my loving supportive family — I’m finding my own life to be a comfortable, firm, and perfectly fitting shoe (is there a prettier more accurate metaphor? I’m sure there is…). I am coming into being myself, fully accepting and pleased.

As a mother, I think I’ve caught myself early enough — I’ll do my best to focus on being true to myself, modeling the self-respect I want for Maya. I don’t need to buy the Disney. I will also focus on supporting Maya’s choices, encouraging her to realize that she has choices, that she alone determines her value — no matter what those around her say.

Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today, I’ve read. What I got from the Ophelia book wasn’t despair or hopelessness. I got guidance. The book recalls a study done on strong and successful women like Eleanor Roosevelt. She describes a common theme for all the women was intellectual curiousity about something and a generally lonely adolescence filled with solitude or social rejection. Armed with this information, I feel encouraged. If Maya turns out to be a girl who loves horses, or a girl who loves Broadway musicals, or a girl who loves field hockey, I’ll be overjoyed. Passion for something, no matter how unfamiliar or even distasteful to me, will be her go-home-free card. I also won’t let myself get sucked back into the “if she’s liked, she’ll like herself” trap. As I begin experiencing the pain and joy of watching my daughter work her way through the system, I’ll try to remember to let go. I’ll practice having faith that everything will turn out okay.

Tonight a friend asked Maya who her best friend at school was. Wouldn’t you know her answer was that very same girl who had so wretchedly spurned her before? I can’t say I’m pleased about this since I am still nursing a tidy resentment. However, I am more comfortable remembering that not only is she only four, she’s out there practicing life. She’s learning about who she is just like I am. All I can do is just hang on for the ride.

NIP (nursing in public)

She climbed into my lap, assumed the nursing position and asked quietly, “nah-nah.” Without thinking about it, I lifted my shirt and unsnapped my bra. After her sucking began I was suddenly self-conscious. We were at the library story hour; a room full of mothers with their small children and babies. I believe I should never have to tell my daughter we can’t nurse because other people don’t like it. The thing is, as she gets older I’m uncovering levels of discomfort and ignorance that make my insides ache. Why should I have to tell my little girl some people don’t understand that nursing is a beautiful thing? Why should I have to say, we can’t nurse in the doctor’s office because I’m worried the person sitting next to me might get uncomfortable?

When I’m in line in the supermarket – the example even the most passionate “lactivists” use as a place where they might not nurse their toddlers – I want to shout, would you be uncomfortable if I gave her a bottle? Would you be uncomfortable if I gave her a favorite teddy bear or hugged her? Why should she have to give up this perfect source of comfort because our culture seems to think a plastic pacifier is more civilized and that breasts are just for sex?

Yesterday I was in a small hotel suite with my in-laws and Maya was painfully over-tired, obviously fighting a cold, and meeting new grandparents for just about the first time. She wanted to nurse. I had on a sling, so I found it easy to let her nurse even in such close quarters – I was surprised when my father-in-law bounded off of the couch we were all sitting on and burst into the other room, apparently finding a sudden desperate need to wash his hands. When he came back, he sat in the chair on the opposite side of the room and his eyes looked everywhere but at me and my beautiful two year old, who was snuggled inside the colorful fabric of her favorite “tsing.”

Today in the same little hotel room, I told her she’d have to wait – she grew more persistent, since she’s not used to me saying no to nah-nah for what must have seemed like no reason.

I began to tell her that some people don’t understand how special nursing is. Then I stopped myself.

The world can be such a hard place.

She has a lifetime to learn about pain and disappointment – I’m not going to force those lessons on her. Frankly, I think the people who don’t understand the power of the nursing bond are missing out on one of life’s greatest miracles. Until she wants it to be different, we’re going to have nah-nah whenever and wherever she wants it.

In fact, I’ve got to go now. Maya’s asking for some nah-nah.

mommy, stay

The last few weeks have been tough for our family. Emotionally exhausting. Maya made it clear it wasn’t okay for me to leave her with a babysitter, or her grandparents, or even her Daddy. I tried working from my home office, but every few minutes she would want to nurse or talk with me. Trying to get work done at a local coffee shop was out, too. When I started toward the door, she would tremble with tears in her eyes and plead, “Mommy, no! Don’t go now!”

Parenting is a series of choices. Josh and I follow our gut. If we discover later the research backs us up, that’s nifty. But, no matter what the experts suggest, we stay true to our instincts.

When Maya told me not to go, I heard choruses of outsiders in my mind telling me, “she’s testing you, trying to manipulate you; you are the adult and mustn’t let her push you around; she needs your consistency (I said I was going, so I should go for her sake),” and on and on.

Those were loud and pushy and misguided outsiders’ voices.

In my gut, in my heart, my soul, my core, I knew that Maya was testing me. She was saying, “I need you to stay. When I need you and I tell you so, will you hear?”

I passed the test.

I bulldozed through the swamp of voices predicting an overindulged and “spoiled” child and landed safely in the nest of comforting my daughter.

The need for Mommy to stay hasn’t wavered over the past several weeks; so, as I mentioned, it’s been an exhausting time for our family. Josh has taken up a great deal of slack in housekeeping (tasks for which he already pulls at least half the weight), has thickened his skin to the “no Daddy!” times, and has reassured me that he agrees our choices are right for our family. Respecting Maya’s needs is how we care for her, even if it means in the short-term all my emotional resources are being spent on her security.

When would it end? I thought many times. Surely, allowing her to nurse whenever she wants to (needs its own essay) and not leaving her with a sitter – not leaving her, period – surely all of this responsiveness would soon increase her sense of security?

Why, then, did it seem that Maya clung even more desperately to me – saying no to a trip to the market with Daddy (always a favorite jaunt for the pair), even at times not wanting Mommy to leave the room?

The responsibility of attending to her needs has been heavy, but small moments convince me the choices we are making are right for us. When she was falling asleep a few nights ago, Maya rested her hand on my cheek and said, “Stay, Mommy.”

“Yes, yes, I will stay,” I whispered, pressing my mouth against her sweet sweaty head.

I wondered if this was just the typical two-year-old stuff or something bigger. Maya answered my questions this weekend.

“Mommy’s not going to die,” she stated with a question’s tone while in her rocking chair.

“What?” I said, not quite sure I heard her, could she have said…?

“You’re not going to die,” she said, staring intensely at me with the widest big eyes a little girl could ever have.

“No! No, hunny, I am not going to die!”

“Daddy’s not going to die,” she said, almost without inflection.

“No! No, he’s not. He won’t.”

Throughout the weekend she continued on this theme, asking if we were going to die. Talking about her animal parents and friends dying, requesting the stories we tell be about parents or friends dying.

These thoughts are too big for a child. She is too tender for such dark fears!

I remembered, then, a conversation we had when she pointed to a picture of my Aunt Mary. I told Maya then that Mary had been my cousin Ali’s mother, but she had died much too young. The conversation was brief, but, as I look back the deep fears she’s had are making more sense.

In addition to talking about my beloved Aunt Mary, my grandmother has been very seriously ill and we have talked to Maya about the possibility of Gramma Jean dying.

The topic is one I assumed a two-year-old would only take in what she could handle. I chose to be blunt about the truth (everyone/everything dies, death is permanent, etc.) because I was sure she simply wouldn’t get in to the heavy stuff.

“Mommy’s not going to die,” she asked as she sat in her car seat waiting to be brought upstairs after a trip to the market.

“Mommy’s not going to die,” she stated firmly as we lay in bed going to sleep last night.

“No, hunny, I promise I will never leave you.” I said. “If I ever leave you it will only be for a short, short time and I will always, always come back home safe. I will not die.”

I justify the lie by adding in my mind, “in the next ten minutes…” knowing it would be cruel to ask this sweet babe to understand that her Mother could and would one day die.

When she begged me not to leave her with a sitter, what if I had discarded her need for me? What if I had decided the other things were more important than her cries for me to stay? Can you imagine how frightened she might have been? Can you imagine trying to get a handle on death all alone as a 28-month-old child?

When we continue caring for Maya in this way – that her cries for us are real needs, not attempts at control or manipulation – Josh and I both know we are doing the right thing for her. What a world around us, though, when the strongest message to the general public is that people like us are being “controlled” by our child! When Maya looks up at me, caressing my cheek and says, with satisfaction just seconds before drifting off to a milky sleep, “You’re not going to go,” I know we are doing what is best for her.

“That’s right, sweet love,” I say to her, long after she breathes the heavy slow rhythm of sleep, “I’m staying. Mommy is staying with you. Daddy is staying with you. We will never leave you.”

And we never will.