, , , , ,

Midlife Crisis #LikeAGirl – Writing, Running, Rocking, and Red Wine.

Since about my 39th birthday I have been in the throes of a mid-life crisis. I don’t think it’s commonplace for people to think of women as candidates for mid-life crises. Mid-life crisis is a term that has a negative aura around it for the sad cliché it evokes of a man in a convertible sports car with a new earring and a hot younger woman in the passenger seat. But I think women are just as likely, and more entitled, to experience mid-life insanity. Why? Because, in my opinion, it is more acceptable for men to take off, explore, work late, adventure, and separate from the family for extended periods of time throughout their lives than it is for women. Yes, some women do this. But for most of us mothers/wives/career women, we are the primary nurturers, career or not. Moms are expected to be around. Wives are expected to be around. And many of us moms choose to be around, forsaking the freedom of an adventurous life.  Is it any wonder we might get antsy?

After years of being around, caring for the kids, caring for the husband, working hard at gaining career recognition, and generally being a nurturer, there came a moment in time when every fiber of my being screamed, “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” I was shaken. Even though I had a great job. Even though I had great kids. Even though I had a great husband, and a nice house, and lived in a warm, sunny place, I felt as if my life was mediocre and stagnant. I cannot explain why, I just did. For the first time in my life I felt entitled to pursue stuff just for me. Just. For. Me. The most momentous decision that resulted from this inner earthquake was the decision to write, for real. To get back to a core passion that had quietly lived inside me, like a hermit, for years, never daring to emerge lest it rock the boat. I had wanted to be a writer from a young age, and entered college with aspirations of being a reporter, while fostering my creative writing on the side. Writing is a compulsion. It is entwined with my cells. But I have always ignored it, believing that my path was clearly laid before me and all I needed to do was follow it to ensure success. But at 39, acutely aware of the “something’s missing” feeling taking hold of my guts, I decided it was time to revisit that old compulsion and give it the time and reverence it deserved. It was time to dust off the old writing skills, dig deep, and produce some shit I was proud of.

My first project was the memoir of my life changing trips to Tibet, and my transformation from sheltered suburban girl to full on mountain woman. I kept a journal every day when I was in Tibet, and a couple of years ago I re-read it with fresh, middle-aged eyes. I was astounded at how more than a decade of removal from those experiences gave me new perspective on what Tibet had meant to me as a woman and a person. I threw myself wholeheartedly into the writing of that book and am extremely proud of what I ended up with (p.s. – it’s coming out next year!).

My first trip to Tibet, 1999, getting to know a local. He wanted my sunglasses.  I obliged.

My first trip to Tibet, 1999, getting to know a local. I wanted a picture and he wanted my sunglasses. I obliged.

But perhaps the most surprising thing I discovered was my desire to write short stories. Fictional short stories seem to have taken root somewhere in my brain, and have been sprouting buds that need the light of day. I have always loved short stories. Now, at forty, I find that writing these stories allows me to explore the feelings, frustrations and frightening doubts that pop up in a woman’s mind in middle age. I don’t think many women talk about these feelings, because that would mean admitting that everything ain’t always peachy, even if you have a great job, a great man, and great kids. It is NOT CRAZY to have doubts about where your life is going, and if the path ahead is the one you want to travel forever and ever. It is not indulgent to pursue something solely for the purpose of feeling good about yourself, having fun, or just getting the hell out of your normal routine. Men do this shit all the time. Women need to. I am not ashamed to say hell yes I am having a mid-life crisis. It’s scary when you realize you are half way finished with your life and might want to do more, see more, BE more than you already are. I mean, shit, what the hell do you DO with that information!

Here’s what I am doing with that information. I am writing about it. I am writing about women in mid-life and all of the beautiful, complicated shit that entails. It doesn’t make me a bad person to explore these notions. It doesn’t mean I am unhappy, or unfaithful, or unstable. It means I am human. One of my stories will be published in a local magazine this year – it makes me giddy, and scared, and shy, and proud, all at the same time. It’s going to be out there for anyone to see. Well, shit. And, wow!

In addition to writing my heart out, I am also running, rocking out on guitar, and drinking a lot of red wine. That’s rocking a midlife crisis #LikeAGirl. Here’s to another forty years of living the hell out of this life. No convertible sports car necessary.  Cheers!

Lovin' on the guitar.

Lovin’ on the guitar.

, ,

This Old House

I often doubt myself for decisions I make, but never so harshly as I have since this spring. Why? In March, my family moved into a new house. There were many reasons we decided to move, including getting the boys into a better school district, wanting more space, and wanting to be in a quieter, safer neighborhood. It had nothing to do with our old house, which we absolutely loved and poured our hearts and souls into when we remodeled it seven years ago. In fact, leaving that house was very difficult for us, but most of all for our two young boys who associate their young childhood with that place. When we bought the old house, Paul and I were newlyweds, and it would be our first home together. We were desperate to be in the neighborhood adjacent to campus and were lucky enough to find a small little bungalow that we could afford. The house was 950 square feet when we bought it. It was 1930 square feet when we moved out. The house was a labor of love and sweat, and held many of our most precious memories, including having two babies brought home to it, raised through infancy and toddlerhood, and starting elementary school. When we remodeled we honestly never considered that we would sell it. We had images of us growing old in that house, walking or riding our bikes to work until the day we retired, our boys coming back to visit for holidays. But somewhere along the way other considerations became significant and we began to consider a change. Actually, I was the one who was desperate for a change, and it manifested in me pushing for a move.

The old house, my kids first childhood haven.

The old house, my kids’ first childhood haven.

Why was I so desperate for a change? Well, to put it plainly, I was freaking out about my fortieth birthday looming, and suddenly felt as if my life was a thick, murky sludge of stagnant water that needed to be flushed out by a good, hard storm.   I had never thought of myself as a mid-life crisis type, always believing I would take every birthday as it came, aging gracefully and accepting whatever life had in store for me. I was dead wrong. I lost my fucking mind. I started to think of my life as half over. I began to feel as if I was sliding fast on the downslope to death, and that the only way to feel better was for something major to shake shit up.

Me and Drew on my 39th birthday, when the midlife crisis really set in!

Me and Drew on my 39th birthday, when the midlife crisis really set in. This is in the dining room of our old house.

Prior to the desperate desire to move I tried other avenues of exploration in the hopes that they would satiate my thirst for a life-changing shake up. The first exploration was guitar lessons, which are still going strong almost two years later and have been a fabulous foray away from my everyday grind. But it wasn’t enough. Another attempt came in the form of trying to land an agent for my book, before I was ready to do so. I spent weeks researching what I needed to do, how to write a great query letter, what a perfect proposal was supposed to be like, what my target market was, who was my competition, why my book was special, etcetera, etcetera, and I went guns blazing into the task of landing an agent. I actually had a lot of interest, with many agents asking for my proposal, and it all seemed peachy up until the point when I would get the dreaded, “Your project sounds fantastic but it isn’t for me. Best of luck.” What the what? I went from ecstatic highs, full of hopes and wildest dreams, to ugly lows full of, “what made me think I was a writer?” It was months of rejections, trickling in slowly as agent after agent denied my request for representation. It was gut wrenching and humiliating and mortifying and put me off the book publishing process entirely for almost a year. What logically follows months of devastating rejection about your manuscript? Buying a new house, of course.

Paul and I had discussed the possibility of moving once the kids neared middle school age, as the local public middle school in our old neighborhood was not exactly a good option, and the local charter school was an academic boot camp that even us PhDs think sounds unnecessarily intense. That meant we really had a couple of years to do this house-hunting thing. Our house wasn’t ready to be on the market anyway, and we had no idea how long it would take to sell it. But one weekend, while Paul was away on a guys’ trip, a friend of mine took me to see a house she was interested in. It was in a great area of town with fantastic views, and just so happened to be pretty close to where we already lived but still in the school district we wanted. On a whim, I asked my mother, a realtor, to do a search for houses in the area that might work for us. That night, she sent me a list, and the next day, we went to an open house. I walked in and knew that this was going to be our next house. I texted Paul, who was on his way home from his guys’ weekend, and told him, “We are buying a new house.” Balls-to-the-wall girl had reared her ugly head and I was not looking back. Somehow, this house felt like my life raft. My life-changing shake up. My shelter in the storm of a raging mid-life crisis. It gave me hope that there were still things to look forward to.

Long story short, Paul saw the house the next day and we made an offer that night. We got the house, and have been living in it happily for six months. We love it, for many reasons, even though it isn’t perfect (it leaks like a sieve when it storms, which luckily isn’t often in Tucson). But it was a breath of fresh air for this mid-life crazy lady. I doubt myself about this all the time.   I wonder if I made the right decision, to push my family into this huge change. We went back to our old house recently (we still own it – still trying to sell it), and both of my boys sighed and announced they miss the old house. I asked them if they liked it better than the new house and their immediate response was, “Yes!” “Really?” I asked. They conceded that actually, they really like our new house but they also really miss the old house. It was heart-wrenching, and made me question even more if we made the right decision. It feels like it was my decision, mostly, and here my sweet boys were telling me they kind of wished we were still in the old house. What a fuck up I am.

The new house, a desert hideaway with tons of space, critters, and peace and quiet.

The new house, a desert hideaway with tons of space, critters, and peace and quiet.

The first house I grew up in is still my favorite house of all time. My fondest childhood memories live there, as does the part of my heart occupied by my still together parents. They divorced when I was seven, but up to that point my whole life revolved around our little nuclear family in that little house. My husband feels the same way about his first house. Now, our boys feel that way about their first house. Everyone has a first home they remember from their childhood, one that secures a slice of their hearts and roots into it deeply. For my boys, it is the yellow house on 5th street that Paul and I took from two-bedroom bungalow to three bedroom family house so we could raise our babies there. As I write this, we have signed an offer on our old house, and it is likely we will be saying goodbye to it in the next few weeks. As much as we have wanted this for months, as paying two mortgages and accruing debt have not been exactly stress free, the reality of letting go of that house is deeply profound and utterly terrifying. A part of my essence is defined by that house. Twelve years of my adult life, moving through the phases of liquid newlyweds to solid four-person family, are cemented forever into the very foundation of that house. Twelve years seeped into the walls, etched into the tile, ground into the wood floors, suspended in the atmosphere around the place. How do I let that old house go while keeping those pieces of me that will live there forever? Maybe I don’t. Maybe it makes sense to leave them there, a kind of last respects paid to the place that started our family life.

But what about my boys? Moving is always hard on kids, and I expected nothing less than tears and protests and maybe even a period of adjustment during which there would be behavioral abnormalities related to settling into a new home. All of these things have come to fruition, and then some, with my youngest still, six months later, waking many nights, disoriented and scared, unable to put himself back to sleep for fear that some critter will get into the house and get him. Since moving from the city to the ‘burbs, (which, in Tucson means the desert wilds), we have had encounters with Bobcats, Javelinas, Coyotes, Snakes, Ground Squirrels, Pack Rats, Scorpions, and a Tarantula. My little guy is afraid of many of these things, and I didn’t realize how afraid until we were already settled here and the animals descended on our new abode. Imagine my despair, the mom who uprooted her kids from a house they loved, a school they loved, to drag them out into the desert wild, and plop them down among strange animals and prickly plants, all the while trying to satisfy my own need for change but not really considering if they needed the change. What a selfish mom. What an utterly self absorbed, middle-aged, addle brained lunatic I am.

Or am I? Is it valid for me to doubt myself in this instance? Or should I be recognizing the fact that hey, if it weren’t for me we never would have moved, and our kids would still be living in a smaller house in a crappier area where we weren’t comfortable letting them outside alone to play or ride their bikes? Should I be thanking myself for having the foresight to impose this change on them before an age where kids get really mean and hormonal, and making new friends is even harder than it is at ages 8 and 6? Should I be secure in the knowledge that my kids are in a better school district, with friends just around the corner whose houses they can walk and bike to with ease? I have asked my husband a million times since the move, “Are you happy we moved? Do you like the new house? Do you wish we were still in our old house?” I have asked the boys the same questions a million times. But I haven’t asked myself. I have just questioned, and judged, and blamed, and doubted myself, allowing myself to spiral into uncertainty every time one of my boys has a nightmare or says he misses the old house.

But missing the old house is healthy. And loving the old house is healthy. And moving your family to a better, safer, quieter neighborhood where the kids can roam free and enjoy the outdoors is also healthy. I can only hope that as time goes on, the boys will come to appreciate the lifestyle they can enjoy here that they couldn’t enjoy there. I hope that my youngest will come to be fascinated by the wildlife, not fear it, and believe that he is safe in our home from any wild animals that might scare him. I hope my husband will come to accept we are no longer bikers but commuters, and that it isn’t so bad considering we are a twenty-minute drive from a desert hideaway to our city workplace. But most of all, I hope we sell that old house, tuck our memories safely away inside of us, and throw ourselves into the making of memories in this new desert haven. Moving might be outside our comfort zone, but if we never moved we would never know what else was waiting for us beyond the safety of the familiar.

A house is just a house. But a home – that’s anyplace you decide is a place worth opening your heart to.

 

 

, , , ,

Gone Girl

Haven’t you ever just wanted to disappear? Be a gone girl? Just take off on a personal journey and not worry about anyone else but yourself? Or maybe it isn’t even as meaningful as taking a personal journey, but just get the hell outta Dodge and take a break from reality? I have a friend, an amazing woman, who recently decided to take off for Kashmir for several weeks because, well, she wanted to. While she was there she discovered some interesting pathways she could follow in her PhD research, which was an added bonus, but she was initially driven by her deep desire to experience this place that she felt a longing for, a connection to. This all sounds great, right? Here’s the rub – she is a mother of three and she caught some heat because of her decision. She didn’t go for very long, but she still experienced judgment and disapproval. It got me thinking about being a woman and a mother and an adventurer, and how those things sometimes have a hard time coexisting, especially when women are often quick to judge and criticize other women for their choices.

Back in the 90s I used to watch the sitcom Mad About You with the incredible Helen Hunt and hilarious Paul Reiser. They played an adorable married couple, Paul and Jaime Buchman, navigating life in NYC, marriage, careers, and all of the other things young married couples must navigate. In the last season of the show they had a baby. I will never forget the scene when, before the baby is born, it hits Jaime that she is going to be tied to this child in a way that Paul isn’t. She is spinning out a bit, ranting about how she doesn’t understand why Paul won’t be able to assume more of the responsibility, and why will she have to stay home more, work less, etc. His response is, “Because you’re the mommy.” She stops dead, her face drops, and she responds with heart racing, “Oh My God, I’m the mommy, I’M THE MOMMY!” Paul immediately rushes to her side to comfort her, but calmly affirms that yes, you are going to be the primary care giver because you will, in fact, be the mommy. This scene has stayed with me all these years because I remember feeling what she was feeling in that moment, that as a woman, if you have a child, like it or not you are the mommy! You are the one who will be expected to be the primary nurturer of the child. Yes, I know there are all sorts of modern families, and more and more families are non traditional, with moms working more and dads staying home, or two moms raising children together, or two dads, and all of that is absolutely fantastic! But the bottom line is, even with the changing landscape of what defines a family, women are still expected to be around more than men. If my friend’s husband had taken off to Kashmir for two weeks, nobody would have batted an eye. After all, she would have been the one home with the children, and isn’t that how it is supposed to be?

It turns out I have many more female friends who have never left their children for more than one or two overnights than female friends who have gone on an extended adventure sans offspring. For some of them it is simply lack of opportunity. For others, overwhelming guilt about the idea of leaving the kids for a few days, or a week, or more. And for others it is simply that with the limited amount of time off that they get, they don’t want to go somewhere without their families. There are all sorts of reasons it is hard to disconnect from our kids for more than a day or two, not the least of which is our desire to be the best moms we can be. Something definitely feels wrong about packing up and taking off for a week or two, and leaving our children in the hands of someone else. But when that someone else is their father (or other parent), it seems to me it should be perfectly okay to disconnect for a period of time to foster our own personal growth. That might be in the form of two nights away with our girlfriends. It could be two weeks in a country we have always wanted to see. In the world of geology, it could even be a month away doing fieldwork for our research. In my wildest fantasies it could be a week on a beach with a cocktail and a good book! None of these situations should cause anyone to brand a woman a bad mother. But the reality is, people are quick to judge, especially when you are a mom. I read an article recently about how modern American parenting is ruining modern American marriages. The idea is that we are so committed to our children’s every need and desire that we often forget ourselves. We give up opportunities to be alone, or be with our spouses, because we think we are bad parents if we don’t put our children above all else.

http://qz.com/273255/how-american-parenting-is-killing-the-american-marriage/

I would go a step further and say as women, we are more prone to sacrificing our own needs and desires to keep the kids, the spouse, the employer, and the family happy. If putting our kids on a pedestal is ruining modern marriages, couldn’t us putting everyone else but ourselves on a pedestal ruin the modern woman?

I have personal experience with this. My husband and I are both geologists. When we were graduate students we both did fieldwork in Tibet for months at a time. We disappeared, went off the grid for 100 days at a time, blissfully unplugging from our regular lives. At the time, we were not married, we did not have children, and the disappearing was part of our work, so it was never really questioned or judged. Actually, my mom questioned and judged it, mainly because she was terrified I was going to die out there and she would never see me again. She also questioned my choice to live in a tent with no running water for months at a time, as that seemed extremely unappealing to her. Whose kid was I who wanted to go for months without a shower? Surely not hers. Anyway, taking off was accepted as part of our lifestyle back then, and we were lucky to have the opportunities that we had to do this before the responsibilities of real life crept in. Now, the responsibilities of real life have crept in, set down roots and taken over like Kudzu. You might be thinking that we stopped going to places like Tibet for extended periods of time because we have kids and jobs, and that makes sense. In fact, I have stopped going anywhere for field research, mainly because my position doesn’t require me to do field research, but also because with two young children it has never seemed opportune for me to disappear for extended periods of time, and I know I would miss the little monsters terribly. However, my husband never stopped doing fieldwork. It was never even discussed as a possibility. He misses them when he travels, but doesn’t seem to worry that his absence will fuck them up monumentally. Shortly after our first son was born he was diagnosed with a type of pulmonary stenosis. It manifested as a murmur that the pediatrician picked up on during a routine check. His aorta was too narrow and his heart couldn’t pump the blood out efficiently. This caused a build up of pressure inside of his heart. They were hopeful that he would outgrow this issue, but we had to take him in for monitoring every couple of months. He had a limited amount of time in which this needed to resolve or they would perform open-heart surgery to expand the aorta. This was terrifying to me, a first time mother, with this tiny little baby who seemed to be in perfect health. All of this was happening right before the start of one of my husband’s field seasons. Our son was diagnosed with this problem in late February and Paul (hubby) was supposed to leave for Tibet in May. We talked about him canceling his field trip but in the end decided he should go. It was only six weeks of fieldwork (yes, that is considered short for us), and even if our son needed the surgery it would be at least six weeks on a wait list before the surgery could take place. So off Paul went, with my blessing, and home I stayed with my little baby boy, a brand new mom, facing the possibility that I would be told this precious little guy would need open-heart surgery. I never faulted Paul for going in the field – we made the decision together and if I had wanted him to stay home he would have stayed home. But what would have happened if I were the one who had to go into the field for research? What kind of mother would people have judged me to be if I took off while we were waiting to hear if our six month old needed open-heart surgery? I suspect I would have been labeled a horrible, heartless mother and shamed for the rest of my days. And I probably would have believed it.

To be fair, Paul is primarily a field geologist, and fieldwork is a necessary part of his work. It is also his passion, the main reason he got into geology in the first place. I never even considered that he would stop doing fieldwork, so it is not like I wanted him to stop and he refused. His fieldwork excursions are just part of our yearly experience. The reality of fieldwork lives inside our relationship like a permanent pillar. It isn’t going anywhere. On some level I am completely fine with this – I mean, I married a field geologist after all, and wouldn’t it be crazy to expect a field geologist to give up fieldwork? Yes, it would, at least for my husband who would probably lose him marbles if he couldn’t get into the field at least once a year and flex his mental (and physical) muscles. On another level, though, I wonder why it has never really come up that I don’t get to unplug every year, for several weeks at a time, from the daily realities of being a parent. Yes, when my husband does it, it is for work, so it is not like he is taking off on vacation. But if you were to ask him about fieldwork he would not describe it as strictly work. It is not as if he grudgingly goes because he has to. He chooses to keep fieldwork as a vital component of his research because he absolutely loves it. He tells me that he is calm, happy, and revitalized after a trip to Tibet, or South America, or Egypt, or Tajikistan, or any of the places he has visited for fieldwork. That sounds a lot like a vacation to me! I believe this revitalization he feels is only partly because of the rush of the work and of being in the field, but also in large part because he can spend several weeks not being a dad, and just being a geologist, a scientist, a man. Doesn’t that sound excellent?

I have been able to escape for ten days at a stretch, which is absolutely amazing and don’t knock it till you try it. Seriously. I highly recommend it. I am lucky that I have a mother who is happy to take our boys for ten days at a time so Paul and I can adventure together. On one of these trips we kayaked the NaPali coast of Kauai, one of the top 10 adventures in the world according to National Geographic magazine. On another trip, we spent ten days exploring Uganda and tracked mountain gorillas in the impenetrable forest, a mind-blowing, once in a lifetime adventure. I am thankful for these opportunities and don’t want to downplay their importance in my life. But not once have I ever considered leaving for two or three weeks without my husband, just me, to pursue a passion, do research, or just plain unplug from life. It just doesn’t seem like an option. In fact, the first time Paul and I were leaving our son to go on a trip together, I was talking with a great aunt of mine on the phone, and I told her about how excited I was for our first vacation away from the baby. Her response was, “Oh, how nice. My granddaughter would never dream of vacationing without the kids. The kids are part of the family, why would they go anywhere without them? Oh well, whatever works for you, I guess.” Her voice dripped with judgment and sarcasm. Why would they go anywhere without the kids? Because they are human, and need time alone together to foster their marital relationship, and kids are exhausting and we all need a break from them, and there is nothing wrong with wanting to be something besides mommy sometimes…etc. I was dumbstruck and didn’t reply. I also have heard, many times, from friends and family, “How can you let Paul take off for weeks at a time and leave you alone with the kids? I couldn’t do it.” Well, some of it is that I am the type of person who likes a challenge, likes to be independent, and honestly CAN do it without him. Also, everyone needs time apart, and it really does make the heart grow fonder, which is great for our relationship. And finally, I married a field geologist and never considered that long stretches away would stop being a part of our lives. But I also never really considered that I, too, would need time away. I just assumed I would be at home and that would be just fine. Mostly it is. What isn’t fine is the assumption that I will be home, and that if I am not home I am neglectful. That sucks.

Now on to a different example, fellow geologists Paul and I went to graduate school with who are married with two kids, and both incorporate fieldwork into their lives. It didn’t start out that way. It began with the husband being the primary fieldworker, and the wife being the primary care giver, and resentment started to build. She had just as much need to be in the field as he did, but as is common, it was assumed she would be home with the kids. It just made more sense. Or did it? It wasn’t making sense for her, and she told her husband that she needed more time to do her work. They ended up keeping track of every day, every hour that each of them gets away from the kids, and making sure the other gets the exact same amount of time kid free. He tells us it is hard, and that he often gets much more time away from the kids, and finds himself facing quite a debt of time that he owes his wife. But ultimately, it works for them. It keeps any resentment from flourishing. Just last night Paul and I were out to dinner with friends and someone asked me if he was planning on going to Tibet next summer. I replied that he was done with Tibet fieldwork for a while, but he would be going to northern China, or Tajikistan, or somewhere else because a year cannot go by without some sort of fieldwork. My friend commented, “He owes you quite a bit of time away, doesn’t he?” This friend is a man, and I was a bit stunned, and grateful, to hear him say that. Hell yeah, he does owe me quite a bit of time away. I don’t think I can ever cash in, though, as I would end up missing a year or two of my kids’ lives. Even if I spread them out, I don’t have enough time off of work to make good on the cashing in of all my accrued away days. But we don’t keep track, and I don’t make plans to disappear, and that is my choice, but it is also my curse. It just doesn’t feel possible. It just doesn’t feel right. Because I’m the mommy. Oh. My. God. I’M THE MOMMY!

My friend who went to Kashmir told me it was one of the most wonderful experiences of her life. She went back not long after her first trip, for a couple of weeks, and again was given hell by many people for abandoning her kids. Both times her kids were home with their father, by the way, and were perfectly well cared for. She came home a happier, healthier human being, which I would argue benefits her kids. They may not know it now, but seeing their mom be independent and adventurous will influence how they expect their lives, and wives, to be. It is especially great for her daughter to have that kind of female role model in her life. If I could take off somewhere and spend two weeks doing nothing but writing I know I would come back a happier, healthier human being, which would also benefit my kids. I don’t think I know of one woman who would not benefit from being a gone girl at some point in their adult lives, making a conscious decision to disconnect from kids, spouses, and daily life to do something purely for themselves. Whether it be work related (doing research, writing, meeting new colleagues, marketing, networking), pursuing a passion, adventuring, or just plain taking a break, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting, needing, and expecting time to yourself beyond the occasional hour or two when dad takes the kids to the movies so you can stay home alone and paint your toenails. Don’t get me wrong, those little snippets of time are a delightful treat and we should expect them (not beg for them). But we should expect more, too. And if our spouses don’t have to go do fieldwork, or travel for work, they should also expect more. Men and women, moms and dads, we all need time away from reality to recharge our souls in one way or another. Lucky for men, it seems to be acceptable when they do it. But it should be acceptable for women too. It doesn’t have to be weeks, maybe just a few days will suffice. There are no rules. The point is, we all need to take a trip, take a break, and be able to do it guilt free. We shouldn’t shame a woman for going on an adventure without her kids, or her spouse. We should applaud her for knowing what she needs and going after it. We should support her for accepting that she will miss her children, but doing something outside her comfort zone anyway because she knows it will better her life in some way. Especially us ladies…we should support the other ladies in our lives who take these chances, not make them feel worse for doing so. I guarantee any woman who leaves her kids for more than a day or two feels guilt, misses them, and worries they will feel abandoned. Women worry about that stuff. We don’t need others telling us we should be guilty and that our kids are going to be fucked up for life because we chose to take a couple of weeks for ourselves. It doesn’t seem to fuck them up royally when daddy takes off for a few weeks to bang on rocks. I think they will survive if mommy does the same. Our kids may not know it, but their lives will probably benefit too, because mommy will come home with a big, happy smile plastered on her face, and maybe a healthy glow from some sun exposure that didn’t involve chasing her kids around the zoo all afternoon.

So get out there, girl. Get going, girl. If you need to do it, do it. If you want to see it, see it. Be gone, girl. Everyone will survive and be better for it. Including you.

, ,

President Grandma and the Shrill Working Mothers

Women are just more emotional than men. Have you heard this statement before? I sure have. Much like, “Like a girl,” it seems to have a negative energy surrounding it. It is never said like, “Wow, women are so much more emotional than men,” but more like, “ugh, women are just so emotional.” It belongs in the same pile of crap as statements such as, “Women aren’t as tough as men,” or, “Women don’t have a thick enough skin,” or, “How will she make good decisions when she is on her period?” Or maybe even the dreaded, “She is a mother. How will she do her job and be a mother?” Yes, we have probably all heard something along these lines in our lives, if not directed at us, then in mainstream media stories, or from friends or family members who have experienced it. Example: Charlie Rose asks Bill Clinton on “CBS This Morning” whether Hillary would rather be a grandmother or president of the United States. Excuse me, what? Would Hillary rather be a grandmother or the president? How about both? How about all of us smart, capable, working women would rather you not ask fluffy, idiotic, useless questions about how our dedication to our families might impact our work. Sorry, I had to rant for a second, but seriously…come on with this shit. In my experience, women who are dedicated to their careers are perfectly capable of doing amazing things in their jobs AND being good mothers. Or grandmothers, sisters, daughters, friends, aunties, cousins, wives, and the multitude of other roles they play. Women who want to make it work, make it work. Women are great multi-taskers, way better than men (I have lots of anecdotal evidence to support this).   The way Mr. Rose asks the question about Hillary, with a gentle, sweet intonation and tilt of the head, is so saccharine sweet it makes me want to barf. (If you want to see for yourself check it out here – I am particularly loving how Bill almost chokes on his drink)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/24/bill-clinton-hillary-clinton-grandmother_n_3981223.html

The way Chuck dances into the question is almost an admission that the question is completely insulting. It makes it seem as though he is conveying, “I am not really saying she cannot do both, but we want to know how a woman is going to do the extremely difficult task of being president while her daughter is raising a child, because that means she will be a grandmother and she couldn’t possibly be a grandmother and run the country.” Has anyone EVER IN THE HISTORY OF BROADCAST MEDIA asked a man who was running for office (or thinking about running for office), “How will you manage to be a dad and a public official!” No. Because it doesn’t even cross our minds that a man’s familial connections might interfere with his ability to be a strong leader. Now a woman, that is another story. Is it possible that a woman, with estrogen coursing through her body and her brain clouded by emotions, could be a strong leader when the going gets tough? (In case you haven’t noticed, this is dripping with sarcasm). This notion that women are too soft, too meek, too tied up in familial roles to thrive in high powered careers, is completely outdated and not supported by any concrete evidence. And, it makes me want to barf (wait…I said that already. It is worth repeating. Barf.)

In my own life, having children has made me way more efficient in my job. That is really just a more formal way of saying I have limited time to fuck off. Basically, I have no time to fuck off, and have to get the most out of every minute of my workday. Additionally, when I do have time with my boys, I have to be present, engaged, and fully embrace the limited time I have with them. In that way I cut down on the time I waste worrying about work when I am with my kids, and the time I waste worrying about my kids when I am at work. When I spent a summer working part time at a large petroleum company (I won’t say which one, but it is LARGE), I witnessed men standing around drinking coffee shooting the shit every single day, for hours at a time. I never once saw a woman engaged in this nonsense. Why?   I suspect it is because by and large working women are at work to get shit done. They often have kids to get home to at the end of the day so they buckle down and get shit done. I am sure there are exceptions, but in general I see men wasting time at work more often than women. It might have something to do with the fact that they don’t necessarily have to be home at a certain time to be with the kids, or maybe it’s just that they feel it is accepted to need to work late, but to working mothers working late can feel unacceptable. Even with all that coffee drinking and shit shooting men get paid more than women do, on average. They must need the extra cash for all that coffee.

I believe whole heartedly that children, boys and girls, benefit immensely from seeing their mother as an independent, self sufficient woman who has a fulfilling career or other passion that sometimes takes her away from the home and the family. Kids, Mama has a life outside of this house and it is important to me. Get used to it. But it also might be important for kids to see Dad spend more time at home, or at least for them to get the sense that being home is a priority. Just like it is accepted for Moms to be the ones to rush home for kid duty, it is generally accepted that Dads will be at work late more often than Moms. I know there are cases in which this is reversed, but even when Mom is the breadwinner, kids want Mom home. If Mom has to go out for some reason, after work hours, kids balk. When it’s Dad, kids seem fine with it. Kids are pretty honest, saying it like it is, and the truth is, Moms are just expected to be less engaged with work and more engaged with kids.  But spend too little time at work and a woman risks the criticism that she cannot be both a good mom and a good career woman.

A couple of days ago a friend of mine posted an article on Facebook, an opinion piece from the NY Times. It was written by Tara Mohr (see link to her website in my links at right), and is entitled Learning to Love Criticism (see article below).

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/28/opinion/sunday/learning-to-love-criticism.html?_r=0

Tara writes about a study that looked at workplace performance reviews given to both men and women, that found that managers (both male and female) generally had more negative feedback for female employees, and that much of the negative feedback given to women had to do with their personalities. 76% of negative feedback to women included personality criticism, while only 2% of men’s negative reviews included anything related to their personalities. This is not surprising to me at all. I have written before about the double standard women face at work, and how as a teacher I have felt this double standard personally. If I am tough in the classroom I am a bitch, but when my male colleagues are tough they are considered, well, tough. The study explored some interesting ideas, such as the impossibility of doing substantive work without being criticized in some way, because to make progress sometimes you have to make tough decisions that not everyone is pleased with. I think it is much like parenting in that way – sometimes the troops don’t like the tough love, but it might just be the best thing for ‘em. But perhaps the most frustrating interpretation of the study is that women have to strive to be liked, by everyone, all the time. And when we are not liked, we are supposed to have a thick skin and take it like a man. Wait. What?  Let me get this straight. I am supposed to be tough, but not so tough that people don’t like me, but if someone doesn’t like something I do or say I should expect to be told, and to deal with it without any emotional reaction, but if I don’t have emotions people won’t like me…AAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!! Should I be bitchy sweet or sweetie pie bitch? How about I should be myself and see how that goes? It seems as a woman, being myself is not always good enough when it comes to being liked in the workplace. Being trapped in an impossible situation seems to be a common theme for women across many careers. It is also that way in motherhood, as we strive to make our children happy while simultaneously proving our worth in the workplace.

What is really interesting in Tara’s piece is how she draws a parallel between how women used to need to be friendly to survive (literally), and how being friendly in our work life allows us to survive in our careers. When women couldn’t own property or have money of their own they relied on others in power to take care of them. It helped to be liked. Now, women can take care of themselves, but we are still held to the impossible standard of being liked by all, while still being tough, smart, strong, and able to make hard decisions. Does a male leader have to be liked? No way. In fact, in movies, television, and books, the male leaders are often surly and gruff, with a strong exterior that is hard to penetrate. We never quite know what their emotions are, and it makes them seem formidable and deserving of respect. The women usually wear their hearts on their sleeves and are often portrayed as weepy messes, just trying to survive among all the tough men.

The last part of the NY Times piece suggests that women should learn to accept criticism, not let it bother them, and take from it clues about what our clients or employers need from us. In other words, it is all just feedback and we can use that feedback to our advantage. I agree that feedback, both positive and negative, is extremely valuable in propelling us forward to increased success. Hell, most of the feedback I ever got as a PhD student was negative, but somehow I graduated, published some stuff, and got a pretty darn good job. Trying to break into the world of writing is full of negative feedback (as evidenced by the many rejections I received when trying to land an agent). Look ladies, rejection sucks, criticism sucks, and it is never going to feel good. What we do with it is what really matters, and I agree with Tara on this point. We can rage, get pissed off, let it hurt our feelings, throw up our hands, yell at the people who are criticizing us, run and hide. Or, we can try and find something valuable in the criticism that we can use in our mission to climb the ladder, find an agent, achieve that goal, publish that book, and move forward.

I would add, though, the observation that the statistics from the study are quite striking and should have us all concerned. WHY are women criticized about personality traits so much more than men in the workplace? It can’t be because all women have crappy personalities and all men are just delightful. In my experience women work harder to be liked, and yet, women are being criticized for personality traits more often than men. There is something going on here that is deeply disturbing, and women finding a way to learn from it is only one part of the solution. We should be asking why so many women are criticized about their personality traits. Is this even appropriate for a performance review? Unless your personality traits are interfering with your job performance I would argue, no. Does it truly serve a purpose to tell a woman she is abrasive or judgmental?   How about strident, which means having a shrill, irritating quality. This was one of the words frequently used in the evaluations of female employees. Strident. Shrill and irritating. I cannot think of two more insulting words someone could use to describe a woman.  Shrill and irritating.  I wonder how many men were called strident? How is telling me I am strident, or abrasive, going to help me improve as an employee? It isn’t. These descriptive words are used simply to highlight something negative about a person. “Hey, you are shrill and irritating but you can learn from that and grow in your career.” Really? I don’t think so. You are calling me shrill, and that is a flat out insult. Why do you even want me on your team if you think I am shrill and irritating? Why should I have to find the lesson in that and learn from it?  I just learned that you think I am shrill and irritating, but I cannot change who I am.  Even more shocking is that women managers criticize their female employees’ personalities too! A woman telling another woman she is shrill and irritating, that is irritating. Ladies…where’s the love, the support, the constructive criticism?

And why is it a bad thing to have an emotional reaction to something? Call me crazy (or maybe, shrill), but to me having an emotional reaction means you are human. You have feelings. You have empathy, and sympathy, and you care deeply about other human beings. Aren’t these qualities you would want in a leader? If someone is going to be making decisions about the well being of an entire nation, and possibly intervening on behalf of those who are oppressed or abused, don’t you want them to have empathy, sympathy, and a deep caring for others? Being a tough as nails automaton with limited emotional investment doesn’t make you better, stronger, or more capable. It kind of makes you a jerk. (Oops, sorry, maybe that was too direct.  Just take it and learn from it).

So yes, ladies, feedback in all its forms can be useful. We can learn from the suggestions, observations, and constructive criticisms of our peers, bosses, and mentors. But being called shrill, or abrasive, or judgmental…this is not constructive criticism. This is woman bashing, and serves no professional purpose. If men are going to be evaluated on their personalities in the workplace then fine, bring it on. If personality traits become part of the mainstream career evaluation criteria of both genders well, okay then. But until that day, we as women should expect no less than to be evaluated on our skills, abilities, and performance in our careers.

Is that too straightforward (i.e., barefaced, direct, veracious, outspoken, frank, or guileless) of me? Should I be nicer about it? Maybe say, “pretty please could you find it in your heart to judge me on my merits?” Would it be too straightforward for a man to expect to be judged solely on his skills, abilities, and performance?  Would he beg sweetly for that appropriate type of evaluation?

Well, I’m not gonna beg.  Give me something valuable and constructive that I can use or get the fuck out of my pretty little face. How’s that for shrill?

 

 

Boys Don’t Cry?

There has been a lot of talk about the violence against women and children being perpetrated by members of the NFL lately. It got me thinking about how much we, as parents, as women, talk about the importance of empowering our daughters to be strong, to be vocal, and to respect themselves. As a mother who has no daughters, I wonder why we don’t talk more about empowering our sons to be strong, to be vocal, and to respect themselves. While driving in to work yesterday morning the local radio station was discussing this issue of violence among NFL players and a caller made the statement that we need to raise our young boys to be respectful of women. I completely agree. She went on to discuss how we need to raise our daughters to respect themselves. Again, I’m down with that. But why don’t we talk much about raising our young boys to respect themselves? Why don’t we hear as much hype around teaching our sons to be strong and stand up for what they believe in, what they want to do, and who they are? Is it because we are so concerned with raising our boys to be gentle, respectful men that we dare not encourage them to have a strong sense of individuality? I realize there are differences in the way messages can be received by boys and girls, and as a mother of sons I do want to be careful not to give my sons a sense that they should ever “fight back” in ways that involve physical violence. But I do want my sons to feel just as confident in their right to be who they are as I would want a daughter to feel. That doesn’t mean I would condone any violent behavior on their parts, but I think sometimes we forget that our little boys are just that – little! They are children, too, with feelings that can get hurt and emotions that should be accepted and encouraged. And as children they are vulnerable, and being taught to protect themselves is not a bad thing.

Let me give you an example from my own experience. My sons are eight and six. They are very active. They love to run and climb and ride bikes and build forts and explore the desert. Their little bodies are all muscle, and they are physically capable of so many things I never would have dreamed an eight and six year old would be capable of. My six-year-old plays soccer and he moves like an adult on the soccer field. No clumsy kid moves happening – when he is on the field he is ON! In contrast, my eight year old is completely uncoordinated on the soccer field but is like poetry in motion on a climbing wall or a rock face. The kid was born to climb. It is like watching a spider make its way effortlessly up a vertical face, and he has absolutely no fear when he hits the rock. It is amazing to watch. When they are in their physical element, it is easy to look at them and think they are strong. They are tough. They are little men in miniature navigating life effortlessly. But the truth is, they are LITTLE BOYS! Sometimes I forget this. Sometimes I am guilty of not taking their tender little emotions to heart. But the other night I had my first truly heartbreaking experience as a mom that was not related to physical illness but emotional turmoil, and it rocked my world.

I’ll set it up for you. My younger son is a ham. He is a goof ball. He likes to stir shit up. He is the life of the party. He has a loud voice and a big personality! My older son is shy. He is extremely sensitive. It takes him time to open up to people. Once he does, kids and adults alike tend to absolutely love him. He is sweet, empathetic, and a deep thinker who is curious and intuitive. But he has a hard time in a group, especially if he doesn’t know many of the people. We recently moved to a new home and changed school districts, which is a good thing, except that we had to pull the boys out of a school they had been in for a while and plop them into a new one. This is always hard for kids, but I knew it would be extremely difficult for my older son, as he has difficulty reaching out to new kids and making friends. I worked hard to set up some play dates before the school year started so he could meet some of the local kids. The boys both met some other boys from our neighborhood who ride the bus with them to school, and our older son has even had these boys over to play after school.  I thought everything was going great! Then two days ago, my older son comes home from school and his first words to me as he walks through the front door are, “I don’t like school anymore, I have no friends.” Wait, what? What about the boys from our neighborhood who are in your class, I ask him. He says that yes, they are nice to him, but that he doesn’t sit with them at lunch and he doesn’t play with them at recess because they have a “group” they are a part of and he is not a part of it. They play games at recess that he doesn’t know how to play. When he does ask them if he can play, they put him on the team with the boys he doesn’t know, and he is instantly feeling uncomfortable and bows out. At this point I start to feel like I am dealing with a problem that girls have, not boys. What is this, “I need to be part of a group,” mentality and why is it coming from my strapping young son? How ignorant of me. How utterly fucking stupid of me not to think that he would have these issues. He is just a kid. And, he is a sensitive, shy kid who struggles to make new friends. What did I think was going to happen? My beautiful, sweet, empathetic boy, who helps the kids who fall down at school and always goes to sit with the loner kid in class, proceeded to walk into his room, shoulders bouncing up and down amidst sobs of despair, and lock himself in to cry it out. I was stunned, and speechless, and could barely keep myself from bursting into tears. This is not what I pictured raising boys would be like. But why not? I mean, he is a kid! He is young and has not been exposed to this feeling of being outside the group before. Daughters or sons, kids are going to get hurt, feel pain, and need help. Boy or girl, being part of a group feels important.

I don’t know if it is because he is a boy, but I was reluctant to bother him while he was locked in his room. I didn’t want to embarrass him. But eventually I knocked, and he let me in, and I told him I would leave him alone if it made him uncomfortable to talk to me. He said it did not make him uncomfortable. It was clear he wanted me there. He cried and cried, and told me he just wants to feel like he fits into a group. He knows these boys from the neighborhood are his friends, but he wants to have someone to play with at recess. He doesn’t like sitting alone at lunch. He doesn’t like sitting alone on the bench at recess. Of course he doesn’t. Who would? I tried to express to him that I understand how hard it is, and that I feel for him. I tried to be supportive. I even started blaming myself, doubting the decision to move to a new neighborhood.  But ultimately I told him nobody is going to make things happen for you. If you want to be part of that group, you need to go sit with those boys and see what happens! Just take a seat at their table during lunch and I bet they will start to include you in their conversations. He told me it is hard for him because he is shy, and I acknowledged that. But this is a tough life lesson that we all need to learn, sooner rather than later. Nobody is going to beg you to be part of his or her circle. If you want to make friends you have to walk up to somebody and say, “Hi,” and see what happens. It is hard to put yourself out there, but that is how progress is made, not just with friendships, but also with your education, careers, hobbies, etc. You gotta go for it or nothing will ever change. Thinking back on our interaction I am curious if I would have reacted differently had he been a girl. Would I have rushed in and hugged her and stroked her hair and told her everything was going to be ok? Why did I feel so uncomfortable consoling my son? Somewhere deep inside me there is a false sense that boys are tougher than girls. I am guilty of subconsciously buying into this idiotic stereotype.

We talked for a long time, and ended up delving in to broader ideas of self worth and self-respect. He mentioned that he has a friend at school who is also a new kid, but lately this friend has been blowing him off for another kid. He was bummed about this. I tried to relay to him to forget that kid! If that boy doesn’t see what a great friend you are then don’t waste your time. I was trying to make the point that you have to love yourself for who you are and not compromise your feelings for someone else, especially if that someone else doesn’t give you the time of day. “But mom,” he says, “when he fell down and scraped his leg I got him a wet paper towel and took him to the nurse, and then later that day he wouldn’t sit with me at lunch.” Guess what? That kid is a jerk. Forget him. I mean, wouldn’t we tell our daughters to forget someone who treated them that way? You know, that whole, you are a queen or a princess and deserve better, or whatever else we tell our little girls? Why not our sons?

There is something interesting going on here, and it feels like a shift of epic proportions in the way we talk to our kids about their self worth. Girl power is infused in everything these days, from clothing to toys to the stories the media brings us about amazing young girls (which I am all for). Boy power, as an idea, doesn’t exist.  Admittedly, I only bring the perspective of having young boys, not daughters, but I was a young girl once and I remember what that was like. When I was little, I didn’t get a lot of talk about being a strong, independent girl. There was no “Girl Power” movement. Nobody said, “You go girl.” Girls were not as prevalent in roles of power and prestige. It was still very common for the women who were our role models to be housewives or teachers or dancers. I never once met a woman scientist, or doctor, or athlete, when I was growing up. It was considered unladylike to yell or scream or even stand up and fight for what we wanted. It didn’t seem to be that way for the boys. Boy power was an unspoken reality while girl power wasn’t even considered.  I remember getting into a scuffle with a boy in third grade – I was on the swing and I jumped off and bashed into him on accident, knocking him to the dirt. I apologized. He got pissed. He came at me, and we were in a lock, arms extended, trying to push each other down. I remember feeling like what I was doing was not what a girl would do, that I should run away, and I was scared of what everyone would think of me. But I didn’t run away, because I was pissed too.

It is so common for little boys to be physical and we often hear, well, they’re just being boys. When girls scuffle, it seems shocking!   I am not condoning anyone scuffling, but I find it interesting how, in this time of redefining gender roles, of women fighting hard for equal pay in the workplace, and equal recognition, and in some cases just equal opportunities for education and jobs, we find it uncomfortable when girls exert their strength physically, but when boys do it, even though we may not like it, we think it is normal. Why, then, are we surprised that men who make their living being physical, who spend all day bashing into other men as hard as they can, and are cheered on, sometimes get physical with their partners? I know, I know…there is more to it than that. Lots of boys and men play football and are not abusers. I get it. But I cannot imagine strapping a helmet on to my sweet young son and telling him to run as hard as he can into another child, and then expecting him to understand that it is not ok to be violent. Honestly, I am not judging anyone whose sons are football players, and I am quite sure there are many of you out there who would say that football was great for your son in a variety of ways. (In fact, my younger son has asked about playing football, and for now the answer is no, but when he is older, if he chooses to do that I will support him). I am just wondering aloud about this strange and somewhat incongruous mentality of wanting to empower our young girls (without encouraging physicality), and teach our young boys to be gentle and respectful (while encouraging sometimes brutal physicality). How many mothers of daughters consider putting them in a full contact sport as children? How many mothers of sons consider signing them up for ballet? Is it any wonder that our daughters are sometimes confused about how to exert their power, and our sons still grow up thinking boys don’t cry?

It is a great time to be a woman. Regardless of the fights we still have to fight over equal pay, health care, controlling our own bodies and so forth, women have never been so prominent in the public eye or so successful in every field imaginable. Our daughters are fortunate to live in a time when they can choose to be whatever they want to be, and will likely have a way to make that happen (even if it requires a struggle). Girl power is its own franchise in this country, and having a tough, opinionated daughter seems to be more important to mothers these days than having a pretty little sugar and spice daughter. Less pretty princess and more witty badass – I am all for that. As a mother of boys, I encourage my boys to be tough and opinionated, while still trying hard to teach them that violence is never the answer. I model that behavior by never hitting them, nor striking out at anyone else, and by trying very hard not to scream like a banshee when they are being naughty (this works sometimes, but I am not perfect, and there are days that I fail and the voice reaches screech level).  My husband is gentle and caring, and rarely raises his voice.  He is an amazing male role model.  I am hopeful that even though we live in a time of intense girl empowerment, my sons will also learn how to have their own self-respect (without disrespecting women). And when my boys are sad, I tell them it is ok to cry it out, and hope that they continue to stay in touch with the feelings that make life hard sometimes, and find appropriate ways of dealing with these emotions.

And so it turns out boys do cry. And it is heartbreaking for this mom to watch. But I would rather spend all day holding my crying son than spend one second watching him put his fist through a wall.   Let’s push for boy power, defined by strength of character, self-respect, respect for others, and emotional awareness. No violence necessary.