I Said What?…What’s Cute Got To Do With It?

“To all the little girls watching…never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.” – HRC

During one of Bubbe’s sports clinics, I pulled out my writing notebook while Skootch was distracted by a fidget spinner. Two mothers, with their young daughters playing underfoot chatted nearby.

Mom 1 took out her phone.

Mom 2 leaned in. “Is that a picture of your babysitter? Wow. She’s cute. You don’t want to hire cute girls. They won’t be available to babysit on a Saturday night.”

I stopped mid-doodle and glared. Oh no she didn’t.

But she did. This woman, my peer, implied with conviction in front of her young daughter that the “cute” girl’s time, however she defined the adjective, was more valuable. A “cute” girl has more friends and a full social calendar. It is she who is considered successful and worthy. The less “cute” ones are not as good.

Skootch flicked at his spinner. “You okay, Mom?”

I lied. “Yes, sweetie. I’m fine.”

Growing up, I saw myself as the less cute and therefore less worthy girl in the photograph. Like many females, I was the recipient of direct and indirect messages equating physical appearance with societal and individual value.

The matriarchs in my family dipped their toes in feminist ideology. My mother was first in her family to pursue a college degree and worked throughout my childhood. My grandmother managed the household finances. But what overshadowed their progress, and what I remember more were the comments from adults about boys liking girls with long hair, quips highlighting my big bones and feet and being called belligerent whenever I voiced a passionate opinion.

A worthy woman was thin, pretty and pleasing; her role was to find a husband, care for him and raise his family. Anything beyond such convention made for trouble.

I was a trouble maker.

A women’s value being tied to and limited by her appearance as defined by tradition or opinion made zero sense from the outset. Still, it took me decades to apply the theory to myself. Even now, during the “this is who I am” phase of life, I will default to a negative personal narrative especially at first glance in a mirror or of a photograph.

The self-deprecation reflex feels unsettling because I know it’s wrong. It also reminds that the unhealthy messages and experiences we absorb as children leave a perpetual stain on one’s spirit. No matter how hard we scrub, they never fully disappear.

Today, countless organizations, authors, artists, public figures, communities and families are taking deliberate steps to reframe the conversation and encourage a generation of girls to equate worth and beauty with strength, curiosity, passion and personality.

The young ladies with whom I interact in my community are proof the shift is taking hold. There’s the middle schooler who competes as an Olympic weightlifter, the high school junior who uses food as fuel to build strength and endurance and the 18 year-old who responded, “It’s not about how I look, it’s about how I feel” after I told her she looked great.

Their sense of self is rooted in power, emotion and idea. Such wisdom at an early age will only nourish their confidence and embolden them to demand future employers, colleagues, friends and lovers to judge females based on human, not physical qualities.

Kudos to the mothers and fathers who are raising these women. And shame on those who didn’t get or care to read the Smart Girl  Like a Girl  Strong is the New Pretty memo.

While I can’t control what garbage spews from a random mom on a sideline, I can learn from inspirational young ladies and curtail personal comments rooted in insecurity. And I can use language around boys and girls that emphasize character over cute.

We adults have many things to be mindful of these days. Being careful not to perpetuate the “cute girl” cycle is no less significant.

Update: TODAY Parent’s Choice Award

As some of you know, Red said what? was a finalist for the TODAY Parent’s Choice Award. Thank you so much to those who took the time to vote. While I didn’t win, I feel lucky and humbled to be included on the ballot. If you like parenting reads, the winner was Mom Babble Blog. My favorite finalist was Tara Wood. Enjoy!

MOTHERWELL SAID WHAT?…Motherhood and Waiting: From Boys to Men

Motherwell is a digital publication created by Lauren Apfel and Randi Olin “that tells all sides of the parenting story.”

Lisa Romeo, the author of this essay which is part of Motherwell’s series on Motherhood and Waiting “teaches writing to graduate students, and publishes a blog for writers. She is proud of her two young adult sons, boy number one and boy number two, and is committed to the never-ending practice of motherhood and waiting.”

God willing, I too will reap the benefits of waiting.

“From Boys to Men”

Here you are again. Waiting. It’s what parents do, or at least what you think most mothers do, or anyway, it’s what you do.

First, you wait to conceive, wait for the fertility tests to reveal what flaws and whose, wait for the drugs to work, wait for that positive pregnancy test. You try to, but can’t describe the fearful waiting through a high risk pregnancy, the anxious waiting of prenatal testing, the watchful waiting for boy number one to blossom. Wait for the right time to have the second baby, wait after the miscarriage to try again, wait for that strangle-throated boy number two to leave the NICU.

Wait. Hope. Pray. Wait.

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To The Domestic Violence Survivors I Work With: About Your Children

I volunteer for the domestic violence organization you are brave enough to seek safety and assistance from.

We are acquaintances at best. Perhaps we’ve exchanged pleasantries in the common area after a session, but I don’t like to chat or linger too long out of respect for your privacy. When I visit the shelter, you often leave before I arrive.

My job is to care for your young sons and daughters so you may have a few uninterrupted hours to do what you need to do to move forward.

Since little ones aren’t armed with the emotional maturity and language to understand, let alone navigate trauma, I brace myself before each appointment. As an unknown adult in a position of authority, I show up expected to be tested with tantrums, outbursts and physical displays of anger.

Like you, I’m a parent. A mom who wonders how my boys conduct themselves and interact with others anytime I release them into the world. With this in mind, here are 5 observations I’ve made about your children.

Each one is remarkably capable. A preschool aged boy insists on opening his own snack wrapper. Another wants to search for parts to build a Lego tower without guidance from a grown up. A third takes the initiative to find and put on his own jacket, zip and bundle up. The phrase, “I can do it by myself” is prevalent.

They take care of one another, especially the siblings. A toddler with few words makes sure his older sister has a hat before going out to play. A big brother unties a knot in his younger brother’s necklace string. Their instinct is to help and protect.

The children are kind. A brother encourages his sister to ride the tunnel slide for the first time and waits so they can go together. A school-aged girl teaches a cranky toddler how to fold a paper airplane to distract him from his tired mood. A little brother lets his older sibling try out his new rubber snake. They lean toward what is positive and good.

They are loving. A young girl reaches out to hold my hand as we walk to the lunch table and asks me to rest beside her on a bench to watch the clouds. They talk about you with adoration and beam the moment they know you’re close enough to accept a knee high squeeze.

And filled with joy with every pump “to the moon” on the swings, every giggle as they cook up an invisible order of hamburger and fries, bounce and roll of a deflated basketball and stomp in a dwindling mound of crunchy snow. Amid the pain, your children’s default emotion is happiness.

Motherhood is challenging enough under less strenuous and terrifying circumstances. I respect your strength, determination and resilience. You are a survivor. Your children are survivors.

As you all continue to regain power and heal, please know I am here. Consider me part the village.

Feminist Rising

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My husband, Mac tells a story about his late father, a tough guy raised during the post-Depression era on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that ends with his dad referring to women as “broads.”

I unfortunately never had the chance to meet my father-in-law, but from what I gather such terms of endearment about the opposite sex were part of his everyday vocabulary.

Now anytime Mac’s sister or mom were privy to one of these tales, they chuckled but shook their heads. And whenever my husband tried to get away with using broad or even so much as said “girl” when referring to an adult female, they made sure promptly to correct him.

Not one to get my knickers in a knot about the occasional cat call or reference from a stranger as sweetie or hon, I couldn’t understood their issue. Why so sensitive? What’s the harm in benign synonyms or generational slang? Mac’s intention wasn’t to make me or his female relatives feel objectified, demeaned or less than.

My mother-in-law and sister-in-law would argue in favor of selective word choice. Had I pushed back, I’m pretty sure they would remind me words are powerful; slang and synonyms perpetuate the idea that women are subordinate to men. They’d then likely ask, “Aren’t you a feminist?”

My likely response? “Meh.”

A feminist, according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary is one who supports feminism or “the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities.”

Whenever I hear feminist, my mind is quick to gloss over the definition and hone in on a visceral image of a man-hating, braless lady in bell bottoms with unshaved pits marching in protest. For me, associating with this label feels passé and a wee embarrassing mostly because as a Generation Xer, I’ve spent a lifetime reaping the benefits of rights and opportunities. By 21st century standards, feminist ideals seem like bygone liberal gibberish that only widen any existing divide between women and men.

Then I woke up on November 9, 2016; my progressive, purple haze engulfed by a thick, hazardous fog in a land where those who brag about taking advantage of woman and dismiss sexual assault as boy talk are rewarded, where no doesn’t necessarily mean no, abortions are potential grounds for punishment, the notion of having it all is a men’s only club, equal pay in the workplace is not a priority, skinny women with pretty faces and big tits define feminine worth and where an exceptionally qualified woman got passed over for a job by a man with no related experience.

And I was horrified.

In a blink, the liberties I’d taken for granted were in jeopardy. As I trudged through the holiday season grappling with this alternative reality, I thought about those who poured decades of themselves into advocating for women’s voting, health, reproductive, education and gender equality rights in the workplace.

A sense of responsibility to our history and for future generations began to stoke the embers that lay tucked between ambivalence and pride, labels and perception. By the time New Year’s Eve rolled in, I was done with setting frivolous resolutions. Primed for a revolution, a feminist was rising.

After some reading and much Googling, I’ve learned that how one interprets or brands feminism varies and who feels included in the movement is still scrutinized. My understanding is simple and grounded in intersectionality and humanism. As then First Lady Hillary Clinton said in 1995, “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

My personal goals are also simple; take action in my community and be mindful of words.

In order to stand up for women’s rights, one first needs to believe she has the right to do so. During the final weeks of 2016, I had the privilege of supporting those on the road to empowerment by providing childcare at a local domestic abuse shelter and outreach program. I look forward to doing my small part to help these families as they find their voice.

I will also do my best to pay attention to my own voice as well as those closest to me.

On a New Year’s Day hike with Mac and the boys, Bubbe navigated us over rocks, through mud and moss. When we came to a clearing, he challenged me to a race. “C’mon Mom,” he said with a smirk, “Be a man.”

A few months ago, I would have laughed off his comment. Like his father and grandfather, I know my son’s intent wasn’t to make me feel inferior. But this time, I took a page out of his grandmother and aunt’s book and kindly corrected him. As we journey through the fog, it won’t be enough for the feminist in me to rise; I need to be the woman who raises my sons to be one too.

My Father’s Gift

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When my father called to tell me he was having major surgery to remove a malignant mass from his chest, I didn’t hesitate to buy a plane ticket.

“The doctors have to break open my rib cage to get the whole thing out. Safest way to keep it from spreading,” he explained.

“How long’s the recovery?” I asked.

“Six weeks.”

“I want to come down and see you.”

“Okay.” His voice cracked through the line. Then my father, who under reacts in times of crisis and barely smiles for a camera began to cry.

I did my best to console his fears and hold back tears. I failed. We exchanged I love yous and hung up the phone.

Twelve years ago, had someone told me I would be speaking to my father let alone making time to be by his bedside, I would have thought they were nuts.

Divorced from my mother when I was three, my parents managed feelings about their contentious relationship and bitter divorce by throwing me in the middle even long after each remarried and had new families of their own. On our scheduled visits, which lasted well into high school, I figured my father to be a stubborn workaholic. Time at his house was spent getting to know my step-mother. In between those visits, my mother shared more disgust for and information about her ex-husband than a daughter needed to know. As such, I can’t remember a single birthday or holiday spent with my dad. I assumed he was too busy or lived too far away; but it’s likely he was never extended an invitation.

Whether my parent’s choices were driven by self-interest, youthful inexperience or something more, I’ll never know. At that moment in their lives, healthy co-parenting was not an option. To add to the dysfunction was the abuse I simultaneously experienced at the hands of my step-father.

By age 17, my entire being was a giant, rage infested mess masked by sarcasm, perfectionism and dramatic flair. Needing to simplify the noise to ensure survival, I thrust myself into the middle of my parent’s fight de jour over college selection and payment and cut ties with my father.

But skeletons and wounds weigh on one’s spirit. Fifteen years later, I was knee deep in therapy trying to make sense of our relationship. My therapist recommended I write my dad a letter. I was to consider it a cathartic exercise or an attempt to communicate. Sending was optional.

With the pressure off, I put everything out there; the anger and hurt, grievances and resentment, his emotional distance, my abusive childhood and our lengthy estrangement.

Afterward, I thought about my unborn son and what I might say if he one day asked, “Who’s my grandfather?”

Then I dug up my father’s address and dropped the letter in the mail.

He wasted little time. What followed was a blur of email exchanges followed by a planned call. I barely said hello when the words came out.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “My point of view doesn’t matter. You’re the child. I’m the parent and I take full responsibility for everything that’s happened.”

During a time when I was trying to piece together my self-worth, build a meaningful relationship with my spouse and prepare for motherhood, my father’s words were the light in my darkness and the greatest gift.

Whoever my father was or how I perceived him to be when I was young no longer mattered. His ability to take ownership without caveat or blame and express himself with vulnerability and honesty showed me who he was at present. I knew the least I could do was begin to forgive the man and let him in.

A dozen years travel fast. While I’m grateful for this second chance, it’s not nearly enough. Those tears shed over his operation were not about any cancer, but my fear of losing a father I’ve only recently learned to love.

Thankfully, he’s made a full recovery. The doctors cut out the stage one growth and replaced it with a 12 inch scar. We can only hope health and time are on his side.

During our visit, my dad was feeling energized so we took a walk around the neighborhood; no grandkids, spouses or pets. Just us. We kibitzed about his upcoming retirement, the politics of the day and puppies. Being able to experience such a simple pleasure felt, as he likes to say whenever presented with good eats, “pretty damn good.”

Occasional strolls and weekly phone conversations won’t replace the birthday parties missed, lost Christmas Eves or the father-daughter wedding dance we never had, but it gives me great comfort knowing we will mourn those losses and create new memories – together.

Negative Norton And My Family’s Road To A Growth Mindset

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Meet Negative Norton.

Nort was born from a doodle sketched on our CrossFit gym’s white board by Coach Will who happens to be part Physical Education teacher, part aspiring Games Athlete and part Tarzan upon hearing the 9:30am crew kvetch about the workout of the day.

While the teaching coach warmed up the class, Will moseyed over to the board, picked up an Expo marker and outlined a chair frame.

“Looks like a rocking chair,” I said.

“It does? Good.” He addressed the group. “I’m hearing a lot of complaining this morning. Complaining is like a rocking chair; gives you something to do and gets you nowhere. There’s 2 workouts. Time to get ‘em done.”

Schooled by young Tarzan, we shut our middle-aged mouths and carried on. But Will’s rocking chair analogy stuck. I took a picture of his masterpiece and brought it home.

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Negative fumes fueled by complaints, self-doubt, whining, tantrums and profanity pollute my house. And the smog is thickening.

Bubbe often works himself up into a frenzy of I can’t, I’m stupid and There’s nothing I can do I’m just a negative person when challenged by school, home or relationship expectations.

Skootch, who prefers to grin through an existence void of conflict will lash out as a first line of defense when work gets hard or he feels wronged. While a 7 year-old hollering, “Shut the hell off you idiot!” can be comical, it doesn’t benefit anyone.

Mac who prefers to laugh and embrace a positive outlook still beats himself up when he makes a mistake.

I’m far from a stellar role model. Negativity was thrown at me as a child. Mix that with an upbringing tainted by mental illness and trauma and it’s no wonder self-deprecation and snark come easier than silver linings. While committed to breaking the cycle, chasing my children shouting “Rocking Chair” doesn’t encourage self-awareness or offer strategies to promote positive thinking.

Dr. Carol Dweck, author and developmental, social and personality psychologist coined the phrase growth mindset or “the belief you can develop your abilities.” With the understanding that the brain is a muscle we can train and in the spirit of Dr. Dweck’s work, I crafted Negative Norton.

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Each time any one of us exhibits the above behaviors, we must feed Norton a penny. I kept the rate to one cent to avoid going broke and for logistical ease, emptied the pennies from our piggy banks in advance and stored them next to our new house guest.

The reward is two-fold.

Bubbe came up with a tangible one. He suggested if Nort eats less than 20 pennies in the first week, our family would do something fun together. If our negative behavior declined over time, we would challenge ourselves by reducing the penny cap.

Mac loved the idea of Negative Norton but was skeptical. “How do we make it foolproof?”

“We can’t,” I said. But I think the visual and tactile element combined with a consequence and reward will trigger us to stop and think. Self-awareness is the intangible benefit and the first step to teaching the boys their mindset makes the difference.”

Within 90 minutes of Negative Norton’s activation, we fed him 4 times. Our family has been feeding Nort for 5 days now. There are 15 pennies in the jar. On average, he scarfs down 2 coins a day.

Mac and I like having Negative Norton around. The boys want him to move out.

Skootch equates “pennying up” with getting in trouble. “My friends don’t have a Negative Norton. Everybody has tantrums. Bad idea.” He wants Nort to smile and get the money anytime we do something good instead. He’s onto something. Still, our current system is making an impact. “I miss saying bad words,” he recently said.

Negative Norton has been hardest on Bubbe who’s realizing how much he complains. “I need to get them out so I can focus,” he told me. When I suggested positive self-talk, he pretended not to hear me and continued on. “Nope. Useless. Everything I say is negative.” But there’s hope. After making a nice golf putt, Bubbe told Mac, “Dad, I visualized the hole and believed in myself.”

Negative Norton will take up residence on our coffee table for now. There will always be pennies in his jar. The key is to feed him less.

More self-aware, our family is ready for phase two: strategy application. Time to get cracking on Nort’s roommate; smiling, penny loving Positive Pete.

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Picture Perfect Moments

The mother trailed behind her two girls down the lighthouse pier to the end where the bay empties into the Atlantic. Along the way, she watched her young daughters snap picture after picture on their smart phones. It didn’t take long for her to catch up. “You don’t have to take a picture of everything,” she declared. “Try and enjoy the moment.”

Mac, who was helping our boys and me collect rocks from the jetty below, heard the parent’s battle cry. He popped up from his hard labor, flashed a knowing grin and cheered, “Yes! Listen to your mother!”

The mom gave a half turn and returned the smirk. I couldn’t tell if she felt validated or violated. But as they moseyed away, I did hear her repeat the words – a little louder the second time.

I told Mac to mind his business, but couldn’t resist a response. “And here I thought I was the only one.”

Put down the phone flashes through my consciousness anytime I see it being used to record our every waking event. I think it to strangers and say it to our children and myself.

The televised parade of athletes during the Olympics’ opening ceremony, a tradition I’ve enjoyed since I was a girl seemed stained this year when several nations, in an effort to memorialize their experience, marched into the stadium accompanied by a blur of glowing screens held as high as the country’s flag.

This summer, family members designated Bubbe, “Spielberg”. He borrowed a defunct phone with a working camera to document a trip he took out west with his grandparents. It was the first time he had his hands on a device dubbed as his own and boy, did he go to town. Although it was great to see my son tap into the creative spirit, the child had a hard time letting go so much so that my in-laws sent me videos of him shooting videos.

I become engrossed with moment capturing too. Smart phones make the process sexy, easy and instant. Thanks to modern technology, I have a bulging photo folder of every cheeky smile, wave jump and sand marble run of our annual beach vacation since Bubbe and Skootch were small.

But there’s something satisfying about taking it all in. When swiping through the most flattering filter becomes a nuisance, I shut down the phone and keep my fingers crossed I’ll be able to recall the drippy ice cream faces, bike rides and hole-in-ones after the boys are grown.

I consider such restraint a generational skill. Unlike my children and the girls on the pier, their mom and I grew up in a low tech world; cameras had film, movie equipment was bulky, quality was a risk and we had to wait weeks to see the results. Even well into adulthood, camera viewfinders were small. We had no choice but to absorb the sights, sounds and smells; breathe, wonder and have the experience. And decades later, it’s those undocumented memories I return to when it’s quiet.

Had I stored those memories on the cloud, would I still consider them cherished moments?

If Mac had his choice, our family would implement a no picture taking policy. I prefer a balanced approach. We’ll continue to ban Bubbe and Skootch from tablets and phones while on vacation. If Spielberg gets inspired, he can borrow my camera. And I’ll still quick draw the iPhone when I get inspired by a pretty setting, Mac’s Dangerfield-esque antics and our growing sons.

At the same time, I’ll encourage the boys to join the parade, follow the drifting clouds as they take shape in the summer’s breeze and teach them that the picture perfect moments are not the ones they swipe click, caption and share; but the ones only they can see.