Tag Archives: parenting

On heartbreak and clean teeth

Two years ago Saturday, I met my foster son, known on this blog as HBE. That first night was difficult, in ways that are hard to fully appreciate unless you’ve instantly become the mother of a traumatized stranger, shortly after swimming lessons and right before dinner. The most difficult moment for me happened after all three kids were asleep, as I sat on the floor unpacking the large shopping bag of HBE’s belongings.

Until that point, I hadn’t thought much about HBE’s history. His relatives and relationships had been reduced to a handful of sentences on a DSHS form, which I had read only 24 hours earlier. But here was proof that he had real connections to other people: a stuffed dog, a box of favorite snacks, pajamas. At the bottom of the bag I found a tiny toothbrush, carefully wrapped in a paper towel.

Earlier that evening — when we learned for sure that a 16-month old would be joining our family — Bus Nerd had gone to the store to buy supplies, including a toothbrush. We had used that toothbrush to clean HBE’s teeth at bedtime, before I was faced with this evidence that someone else cared for him, someone who had likely brushed his teeth mere hours earlier, at the beginning of a day that turned his world upside down.

I set the toothbrush down and wept, for all of us.

On July 20th, 2015, HBE was reunified with his relatives. Nine months after unpacking his things, I was the one doing the packing. To keep focused on something other than my sadness, I took my time, making sure to include everything he might want or need: a photo book of our family, clothes for now and later, bath toys, favorite stories, the stuffed pig he slept with every night. The final item I packed was his toothbrush. As I slid the plastic baggie into the front of his suitcase, the tears began to fall. They haven’t stopped.

HBE’s other toothbrush is still in the kids’ toothbrush cup in our bathroom. That one I saved, in case he ever returned for a visit. We haven’t laid eyes on him or heard his voice since he left our care 460 days ago. But the toothbrush is still here. It is the evidence that we care.

toothbrush

 

 

Context

My Chicklet is a woman’s woman. Almost as soon as she could talk, she was proudly asserting her gender identity – and allegiance. Now she’s eight and a half, and for the last few months, she’s been talking about feminism and women’s rights in ways I hadn’t even thought to introduce to her yet. Her delivery is a bit on the self-righteous and unforgiving side – she comes by that naturally (ahem) – but she’s not wrong about any of it.

Chicklet’s newfound feminism has caused some sibling tension. Whenever she makes an assertion about men’s role in women’s oppression, or asks to participate in something that is for girls only, her little brother gets upset. Really upset.

In their most recent exchange, he burst into tears as soon as the subject came up. “Don’t say stuff like that,” he sobbed. “You’re making me feel bad about my gender!”

Some background:

Sweet Busling is one of the most open-hearted, fair, and inclusive people I have ever known. In his world, the power balance is clearly tilted in favor of his older sister, whom he adores and looks up to. And, though his dad and I have been proactive about teaching the historical roots of racism, we have kept most of our discussions about gender to general concepts of equality, which Busling has taken to heart. He simply doesn’t see sexism as something that hurts women. Instead, he sees any attempt to single out or exclude someone based on their gender as wrong. And, he is personally offended by any suggestion that there is something wrong with being male.

For months, I have struggled with how to handle Busling’s reactions to his sister’s gender-related complaints and assertions. My instinct has been to comfort him, to push aside my daughter’s very valid critiques in the interest of protecting his feelings. After all, he has no context for understanding women’s oppression. And he certainly didn’t have anything to do with it. Plus, he’s my baby! Every time I look at his sweet face, I want to reassure him that everything is OK.

But here’s the thing: Everything is not OK. Sexism and misogyny pervade our culture. If I avoid or dismiss or sugar coat the truth so that my child can feel good, I have done him – and all of the girls and women he will interact with in the future – a disservice. And really, we’ve had enough recent examples of self-absorbed, entitled young men who see their feelings as more important than someone else’s freedom or safety.

solidarityMy son’s perspective about women’s equality is my responsibility. (Actually, it’s mine and his father’s, but you get the idea.) He doesn’t have any context about women’s oppression because he is new to the world, so it’s my job to provide it. This doesn’t mean I should teach him to feel bad or guilty about being a boy. Instead, I must teach him that oppressive, hierarchical systems hurt everyone, that his freedom is bound up with everyone else’s, and that it is his responsibility to challenge systems that harm people.

Experiencing my own child’s inability to recognize sexism has helped clarify many things for me, including the refusal of many seemingly sane white people to acknowledge the existence of racism. In the past, I assumed that such people feigned ignorance to mask their hostility or indifference to black and brown pain. But now, I am starting to understand that they simply have no context.

Racism, anti-blackness, and white supremacy are facts of life in the United States — part of the very foundation of our country. And yet, it is possible for white children to make it to adulthood without ever being forced to deal with this reality. Schools do not teach the truth, and parents – even those who consider themselves anti-racist – often exacerbate the problem by avoiding difficult conversations or substituting platitudes like “skin color doesn’t matter” for substantive dialog.

Of course we want our children to feel good and have a pleasant life, but our children’s comfort cannot come at the expense of justice. Parents of white children must educate their families (starting with themselves) about racism. They must teach the truth about our nation’s history. They must point out examples of racism and give their children the tools to recognize and resist it in their own lives.

We are all born into systems of oppression we had no hand in creating. Sometimes, they benefit us (in an immediate, individual sense, though certainly not in a long-term collective one); often, they don’t. Either way, it’s our responsibility to help dismantle them. Even if it’s uncomfortable.

Moving beyond the margins

Last week, Portland bicycle activist* Elly Blue published a piece in Bicycling magazine about how her decision not to have children has enabled her carfree activism: both her ability to afford life as an full-time rabble rouser and her general freedom to cycle without the physical encumbrance and time constraints of transporting children.

Some UCLA researchers have thrown down some science about women and bicycling. The gender gap in cycling is so huge in the US (by comparison, to say, the Netherlands) not because women are particularly afraid or particularly fussy about their hair, but because of the pure logistics of the combination of errands, drop-offs, pick-ups required to run the Mom Taxi.

I read about this new work with interest. I’ve never owned a car. And I’ve never had kids. Both these factors have contributed to my ability to get around by bike, write about bicycling, live a bike-obsessed life. Otherwise, there isn’t really a practical connection between these two definitive—and in some circles, oddball—life choices, but they’re linked in my mind, in my own story of my life. And that link is very much economic.

While Blue’s piece is on the one hand a celebration of her freedom to make these choices, it is also an implicit acknowledgement that her circumstances are unlikely to be replicated on a broad scale.

As someone who, in over 11 years of living without a car, has taken fewer than a dozen bicycle trips**, I am hardly the right person to say what will get folks on bikes. (Or, perhaps I’m exactly the right person.) But, I do know a thing or two about what it’s like to parent without a car. And I have some thoughts.

On the one hand, we should definitely challenge the concept of the “mom taxi,” both the mom part and the taxi part. It is past time for us to address the cultural (and economic) conditions that chain mothers to their cars.

On the other hand, people need to live their lives. And currently, just getting to the most basic destinations is not feasible by bike (or transit, for that matter) for most parents–most people–in most parts of the country. To have any hope of shifting the paradigm, we must provide robust, affordable***, accessible, safe, reliable alternatives to driving.

We aren’t.

***
* Or, as I affectionately refer to her, “bike hustler.”
** I am working hard to raise two cyclists, though!
*** And by “affordable,” I mean free.