Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Traditional Family Values

19 Kids and Counting was a pretty boring show about a cultish family procreating with reckless abandon.  The public face of the Quiverfull religious movement, the Duggar family extolls “traditional family values” such as combined church and state,  homophobia, and misogyny.  (But they’re, like, super polite about it.) It was not a question of if a scandal would blight this family, but when.  I'll be honest, there is something a bit delightful about the public shaming of outspoken hypocrites.  Ted Haggard's fall was like poetry.  But when I heard the news about Josh Duggar, I felt no satisfaction.  In fact, it just made me very, very angry.  

Twelve years ago, eldest Duggar brother Josh molested several children, including his sisters.  The family handled this revelation by immediately seeking treatment for Josh and the victims, contacting the authorities when the behavior continued. 

Just kidding. 

They didn’t really do anything, and one year after they learned of the “incidents” there were more “incidents.”  The family confided in some guys from church and sent  Josh to stay with a family friend to help in the construction of a building. Because we all know that nothing treats unhealthy sexual behavior quite like manual labor.  And then there’s state trooper and family friend Joseph Hutchins who was enlisted to give Josh a stern talking-to about the dangerous path he was on. (And he would know, as Hutchins is now serving 56 years on child porn charges.)

One in five girls and one in twenty boys is a victim of child sexual abuse, and 75% of those cases involve someone the child knows (source).  Due to the stigma attached to it, sibling sexual abuse is incredibly underreported, so it’s hard to gauge exactly how common it is, but it is certainly not unheard of.  I imagine it would be devastating as a parent to discover something like that.  I imagine you would just want it to go away, like a bad dream.  However, refusing to acknowledge something does not make that thing cease to be. The Duggars lack of an adequate response was itself a response.    What message must their initial inaction have sent to their daughters?  If the family adheres to their religious homeschooling curriculum, Advanced Training Institute, perhaps they referenced the published guide Counseling Sexual Abuse.  It instructs victims to look inward, asking themselves “Why did God let it happen?” and offering “immodest dress,” “indecent exposure” and “being with evil friends” as possible reasons. (Yes.  That’s a real thing that someone wrote this century.)

So here's my plea to conservative religious parents:
Ignorance is not the same as innocence. Stop teaching your daughters that their worth is tied to their purity and modesty.  Stop instilling in them the belief that they are somehow responsible for the behavior of men around them.  Ensure that your sons view females as absolute equals. Teach your children about sex, in practical, healthy terms.  Stop using shame as an instrument to teach them about their bodies and sexuality.  Doing so fosters a purity culture in which children feel shameful and worthless when they are sexually victimized.  And please, stop using the term “traditional family values” as a cover for your outdated, ignorant, hateful notions of right and wrong.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Trade My Name

I am a war
I am implosion
The resolution of annihilation
Blood and bone and ash
Buried in the grass like a seed
Your Lilith in the garden
The original Eve
Swallowing misdeeds
With a swollen belly
And growing unease

I am a war
I am fire and brimstone
Traded my name for a backbone
Lost my pride in a bet
With vanity and debt
Gave it all to a boy
Who hasn't come for me yet
And I'm a little unsure
But not like I used to be
With head high and eyes shut
I finally see
It's not exile
I'm not banished
I'm free

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Things That I Forgot To Do

I was in bed, sick and useless,  basically all weekend. It had been building for a while. Last week I started to feel tired.  Overwhelmed.  Pulled too thin like a rubber band just before it snaps.  At work I say yes to basically any new project I’m offered, both because they’re interesting but also because I don’t want to miss any opportunity to learn a new skill.  At home I try to cook all the meals and pack all the lunches and go sledding and do laundry and make sure homework is done and fingernails are clipped and no one’s watching too much TV.  Sometimes I'm even social with other adult humans! (Hi mom!) And because I’m me I want to do all of this without any help from anyone, ever.  But even when I’m managing it all, I somehow still feel like I’m floundering.  Most nights I lay in bed and think about the things that I forgot to do.

I vented all of this to a friend last week, who assured me that I was a great mom. 
“I know I’m a great mom.” I replied.  “I must be with all this crushing guilt I feel all the time.”
I was half kidding, but half not.  I really do feel guilty most of the time, and it’s exhausting. 

Even as the progressive term "modern motherhood" is thrown around, the subtext continues to encourage a selflessness that to me seems both impractical and unattainable.  I think women have the unfortunate, inherited propensity of treating motherhood as a form of martyrdom; As though your success as a mother were measured solely by what you’ve given up.  Last year when I flew from Japan to the US for a week without my children, I had several friends comment that they were shocked that I was “leaving” my kids on their first day of school.  Mind you, they were with their father, safe and cared for, and it was the first time I had gone anywhere alone in more than five years.  Instead of a community of support and compassion I was faced with judgment and criticism.  

In the face of all this turmoil I reflected back on my own relationship with my mother.  It has never been solely her physical proximity to me that offered comfort, but her emotional availability.  I know that if I need her, she’ll be there. I don't need to hear her say she loves me for me to know without a doubt that I am loved.  When I was younger and she was in grad school she was very busy, but I never felt angry about that. I felt proud of what she was accomplishing. When she would on occasion go out with friends, or date, or go on trips, I never felt bitterness or abandonment. I felt a freedom to live my life knowing that she had one of her own.  She used to host Mardi Gras parties with all our friends and neighbors, and after I was ushered to bed in the early morning hours I remember lying there listening to her laughing, and I felt happy because she was happy.   

There’s this thing that parents say sometimes when explaining something to their children.  “I’m doing all of this for you!”  First of all, it’s a weird thing to say. It’s too much responsibility to place upon the shoulders of a child.  Second, it’s bullshit.   It’s a way to avoid responsibility or justify your decisions, because surely if you’re “doing it all” for someone else, then you’re absolved of personal accountability. So following that logic, if you go through life unhappy and unfulfilled, hey, you did it for your kids.  If you don’t accomplish what you want to in your lifetime, surely your children's success will negate that failure, right? THAT MAKES NO SENSE. Someday your kids will grow up and they will see you for what you are.  Not some perfect saint, but a flawed human no different from them.  They will not buy into this whole martyr thing then, if they ever did.  They will know of the sacrifices you made for them, but wouldn't you rather they remember the sound of your laughter?  Wouldn't that be more of a comfort and inspiration?  

We all know in theory that it takes a village to raise a child, but as a mother it’s hard to relinquish control to your village.  It’s hard to let other people, even family, help you raise your children.  It’s been hard every snow day in the past month to rely on friends and family to check on and entertain the boys while I work.  It will be hard to watch them get on a plane without me this summer. Alternately, it can be hard to withhold judgment when we see someone else seemingly doing this mothering thing with more ease, more help or more grace than we feel we have.  Motherhood is tough enough without all the outside influences and subliminal messages we're bombarded with on a daily basis.  Don't feed the machine.  It's broken and outdated and turns women against each other. We all mother differently.  Our children will be brilliantly diverse, isn't that great??! 

 I constantly find myself slipping back into this mindset of feeling like I should value certain ideals that I just don't.  So I get very silent and listen to myself.  I tune out the voices criticizing me for wanting a different kind of life.  I'm immensely lucky to have this village, so I'm going to let them help me.  I'm going to try to lead a life that I love, and in turn give my kids what they need, which is me, happy. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Want and Will

Growing up I was taught that God heard and would answer all of my prayers.  True, the answer might not come in a way I expected or hoped for, but it would always come.  A LOT of my childhood was spent in prayer.  I prayed in the morning and every night before bed.  I prayed at church.  I prayed at dinner. I prayed when I did something wrong, looked up at the sky and imagined God's all-seeing eyes on me, full of disapproval. I prayed when I did something right, felt prideful, then guilty.  I prayed for my pets, my teachers, my family and my friends. However, in true human form, I mainly prayed for myself.

"I cannot find my shoe and I have looked everywhere. Please find my shoe."
"Melanie is a horrible tranch.  Please make her be nice to me.  Or die. But only if it's her time."
"Please make Zach want to go out with me."
"Zach does not want to go out with me. Please make Zach move. Or die. But only if it's his time."

 Yeah, I was fairly terrible. But then most children are. Children are only able to see a very finite future for themselves and that makes them careless and impatient. They cannot imagine the myriad of unforeseeable events that will shape and change their lives.   A child does not see the danger in becoming too attached to the idea of a thing or a person.  They want what they want without a thought as to why or what the consequences might be. A child with severe allergies would happily reach for the very thing that might kill them without an adult nearby to stop them.

So I was that kid who wanted so much, so fiercely.  I bowed my head and fed my desire to the sky and called it prayer.  Over and over I did this, until I reached adolescence, when I began that awkward journey into adulthood and constant praying was discarded along with all the other silly kid ideals I'd once held.  But unlike my belief in prayer, my faith in wanting never wavered. I started to look like an adult and speak like one, but the desire remained. Even when I felt like it might kill me, I let it linger.  My one last silly kid vice.

I'm thirty now and I only recently started to pray again because I radically redefined what that meant to me. I still deal mainly in supplication, but it has taken on the form of introspective meditation rather than pleading for specific things. It's my way of releasing the want.  Reminding myself not to be taken by the idea of things or people or places.  It's a constant clash between that reactive kid who wants so much and the adult who needs to extricate herself from cyclic temporal and emotional traps.  It's tough to detach in this digital plane where there is so much to desire and comparison is currency, but it's a battle of wills and this want has been winning a little too long.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Hard Easy

I once bought an old kitchen table with the intention of painting it white.  I did, but I used the wrong paint so it looked terrible and uneven.  I should have stripped it and started over but I was lazy, so I just got new paint and painted over it.   The paint rippled and bubbled and looked even worse, yet I did that twice more before coming to terms with the fact that this table was a total loss and I didn’t care anymore.  The easy fix had become too hard. Repairing everything I had done to cover up my mistakes seemed too daunting. And somewhere in the dead of night Bob Vila awoke in a cold sweat and shed a solitary tear.

My head has become this manic courtroom waiting for a judge to pound the gavel and call for order.  I can’t stop thinking about that table I left in Japan and how beautiful it could have been had I taken the time and done things right.  I can’t stop thinking about all my mistakes and missteps, caked in cheap paint, quietly bubbling up to the surface no matter how many layers I blanket over them. I look back on the past few months and it almost seems as though I've been in a period of mourning.  Detaching yourself from the image of what you thought your life would be is no easy thing.   I'm not exactly sure how to articulate it, but I have become increasingly aware that I don't feel good.  I feel like a phony somehow. As though these layers have taken on a life of their own and have been running the show.

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Gaslight is a 1944 film about a woman whose husband deliberately attempts to make her think she’s going insane. He moves things around, creates auditory and visual illusions and ensures that she is the only one present to witness them.  He flickers the gaslight lamps to frighten her and makes the benign seem sinister and unfamiliar.  She becomes paranoid and confused, often hysterical when things happen that no one around her acknowledges. 

I suspect that’s how it was for my Mormor, or grandmother.  Alzheimer’s moved things around, erased memories and replaced them with smoke and mirrors.  Of course she was sometimes hysterical.  Of course she became angry and paranoid. Her mind was no longer her own, and as the disease took up more and more space she was quickly lost.  I had always thought of Alzheimer’s as a gradual degradation, but hers was swift and merciless; a horrible end to a most spectacularly beautiful life. 

She leaves behind a legacy of strength and elegance. A fierce love for her family and the most unselfish desire to help others I’ve ever known.  She sacrificed so much in her life to ensure the happiness of people she loved, but did not once complain or draw attention to it. 

One thing I keep coming back to was the way in which she carried herself.   Always with grace and the kind of confidence that comes from knowing exactly who you are.  Her illness robbed her of that self-possession and that quiet dignity.  She became angry and increasingly violent.  She no longer recognized the people she had loved the most in her life, and in the end, her brain stopped functioning.  Her passing is a blessing in that she is finally free of a body that ultimately betrayed her. No more smoke and mirrors.  No more flickering gaslight in the night. Just peace.