We’ve been a little worried about Callie lately. Grades came out a few weeks ago and hers were much lower than I expect to see (twos on a scale of one-to-four). She is very conscientious about her homework and seems to understand the concepts, and she reads late into the night. I really don’t want to be “that mom,” demanding that teachers recognize the Mensa-level brilliance my kids exude. I hope I’m aware enough to know that where I see fiercely-delicate, uncommonly superior children, others see pretty average, normal kids. On the other hand I want to be proactive, advocating for my kids just like my mom did for me.
(It’s kind of like trying to decided whether to take your kid to the doctor. Ninety-nine percent of the time I’m confident that Dr. Google and I know what’s going on, but that one percent is the time I’m in with one kid for a routine visit and the doctor hears her sister cough in the corner and whips her head around in concern. Five minutes later you’re out another copay and leaving with a “walking pneumonia” diagnosis.)
On St. Patrick’s Day Callie came home with a themed 6 x 6 Sudoku puzzle. I like logic puzzles (the kind you find on the GRE), and I’ve gotten really good at the word searches Avery brings home, but I hate actual puzzles and though I enjoy math, I’ve never done Sudoku. She struggled and struggled. It came with very few instructions. I tried to find it on Homework Google, but couldn’t find the exact puzzle (lots of other St Pat Sudokus tho, if you’re into that).
I figured this was a good time to remind the kids that they’re on their own when it comes to homework. Much more valuable for them to puzzle it out on their own. (hah!)
Tom came home and took pity on her. I said if they were really serious about it they should make tiles to move easily around instead of drawing, erasing, re-drawing, ad nauseum, harps/shamrocks/rainbows/etc. They worked and worked. Dinner and bedtime came and went. They worked and worked. It didn’t get solved. I was just about to fall asleep myself when Tom told me he’d found the key: cross-hatching. I did the Aged P nod (Great Expectations) as he explained the method and wished him good luck on his plan to brave Callie’s morning brain and breath to teach her.
The next morning Tom woke her up thirty minutes early. I don’t know how to underline this unless you have a kid who is like a hibernating bear every single morning. He explained, quietly-excitedly, how to solve the Sudoku and she (slowly, slowly) caught on. Tom took a later train in order to be there for her, and I don’t know how to underline that unless you have a spouse who doesn’t miss work unless he’s got something much worse than man cold.
As I dropped her off just a few minutes late, she told me she didn’t want to write “finishing my homework” as the reason for being late on her tardy slip. I said, “Why not?” and she said that usually that’s not a true excuse so it sounds weird. I said, but it is true today, so just write it.
All that day I felt pleasantly circle-of-life, remembering how my dad once patiently spent hours in front of a chalkboard with me, explaining that “borrowing” (now known more-helpfully as “re-grouping”) was actually a fair and okay way to treat your subtraction problems.
I spoke to Callie’s teacher and found that her low assessments are a result of the grandfathering in of Common Core Standards and that in reality she’s at the top of her class. There’s nothing to worry about, and Callie can get the new book we give as a reward for good grades, just like her sisters. And then as we walked home from school, Callie asked if we could find another Sudoku puzzle for her online and print it out. I said yes.
(Tom wrote about this on his blog too.)
Last week I was missing the social aspects of belonging in church. I dropped Callie and Lucy off at school and Molly (3 1/2) called to me from the back of the minivan that “We never go to church again, Mommy.” I agreed, and asked her what she missed about church. Her friends, she said, and Sunbeams. Then she spent three hours begging to go to IKEA now that she’s big enough for Smaland.
I missed church. Tom told me that the word religion comes from the Latin religare “to bind.” And I missed feeling bound.
A few days later my mom sent us some things we left in Utah last month and a copy of The Friend and The New Era. I flipped through The Friend — I always used to joke to Tom about how easy a crier I am. I can sniffle for hours over the story of a Downs Syndrome child being included at a birthday party.
But as I flipped through the March 2014 Friend, I was struck by how sexist it is. I’ve now read it closely four times, and each time I am amazed anew by the explicit and implicit messages, overall, of what a boy can do and become and what a girl can do and become.
I started keeping track, and categorized each significant item as gender-neutral, gender-positive or gender-negative.
I used the label gender-neutral for any story or feature that, taken alone, was a straightforward retelling of actual events without overt gender cliches or sexism.
For example, the article about President Uchtdorf recounts his childhood hardship of being a refugee. This story I labelled gender-neutral because it’s just what happened, and President Uchtdorf’s eventual success as an adult implies nothing about a girl’s (in)ability to do the same.
I labelled as gender-positive those things that seemed to promote a non-traditional representation of gender roles. I’m not saying that The Friend should prioritize non-traditional representations, but the fact that they occasionally do seems significant, especially since these non-traditional gender representations also seem to have a high correlation with racial diversity in The Friend, and they are also usually included in a high-profile or self-aware (Matt & Mandy) manner.
I considered the front cover gender-positive because there are three girls and three boys doing the same activity and the girls are portrayed wearing neutral clothing — including green overalls on a girl! This seems kind of thin now that I think of it.
Another gender-positive representation is the story of Katie attending church without her family. Although I don’t want my kids to attend, it is encouraging that they show a girl being brave and making her own choices about her spirituality.
There were only two really egregious gender-negative items. The first is the list of names on the publisher’s page. Although the managing editor is a woman, there are twenty-five men listed before her. On the writing and editing staff, there are four women and seven men. I don’t really count this though, because 1) men and women are equally capable of sexism and being champions of equality, and 2) this is not something my kids would ever notice without my pointing it out.
The other gender-negative feature is completely and utterly inexcusable. This. This is why I left. This is why I don’t want my children attending primary. This this this. On page three there is a Challenges in the Scriptures –Who am I? game. Five of the scripture heroes are male and one is female. And it’s not just this feature in isolation: It was my reaction to a similar feature in the January 2013 Primary Outline that led to my immediate release as a primary teacher.
The worst part is that this kind of thing would be so easy to fix. Eve, Mary (x3), Martha, Anna, Deborah, Sarah, the widow who fed Elijah, Abish, Emma: so many women in the scriptures to be role models for my daughters.
All told, I counted three gender-positive items, three gender-negative and approximately twenty-seven gender-neutral items. That sounds like a pretty fair balance, but then I started noticing the moral of each of the ostensibly gender-neutral stories. Here are the lessons one could easily learn from each and the page numbers they’re found on.
Gender-neutral stories in The Friend and their takeaways
A boy can overcome being a refugee to become the Silver Fox. (2)
A boy can fix bikes and forgive a little sister who plays pranks on him. (4-5)
A girl cannot challenge a male headstand-champion despite practicing. A boy can be headstand champion and win a gold medal for being the Pop Quiz Champion. (8-9)
A boy can be a Savior. (11)
A girl can be baptized (by a male missionary) and she can repent and receive the Atonement, an ordinance performed by another male. (12-13)
A boy can share his testimony in Zimbabwe and help his older sister with her schoolwork. (14-15)
A boy can learn to pray. (18-19)
A boy can be a Savior. (20-21)
A girl can have faith in a blessing given by male priesthood holders and can sing in church. (22)
If a boy practices he can become first chair clarinetist. If a girl doesn’t practice she can become second chair, and moreover, she can contribute, be happy and support her band best from that position. (26-27)
A boy can be director of the space shuttle program. (28)
A girl can grow fruits and vegetables. (32-35)
A boy can pray for and comfort his grandmother. (36-37)
A girl can be healed by a male Savior. (42)
A boy can serve hurricane survivors either when he’s grown or by helping his family when his father goes to serve them. (46-47)
A girl can serve breakfast to her family. (47)
A boy can be president of the church, travel “two million miles while serving the church” and oversee the dedication of 70 temples. A tree he plants as a young boy can become the pulpit in the Conference Center. (49)
Again, any one or two or five of these stories would be fine. But tallied up, it’s kind of depressing, isn’t it?
Perhaps it is unfair to include all the examples of a male Savior (because that’s just how things are?), but they and stories of a girl being baptized or healed, etc show girls and women always in a passive role, and that irritates me.
One aspect that particularly troubled me because of my girls’ ages was the three separate stories that celebrate a male for being superior in an academic setting (pages 8-9, 14-15, and 26-27). The least annoying of these is the Zimbabwe feature (14-15) where Tendai says “When I’m finished with my homework, I help my older sister with her lessons. She has some challenges that make it hard for her to learn.” Of course it’s wonderful that he helps his sister and that rather than teasing other kids with challenges he helps them as well.
But this story is preceded by Pop Quiz Champion (8-9) in which a boy resists the urge to join a (female) friend practicing handstands to instead do the assigned reading. There is a quiz and he is sure he has failed. Instead, he gets full credit and concludes “Not only was he the class handstand champion, but by being an example, he was a pop quiz champion too!”
The most insidiously damaging of these three stories is The Not-So-Perfect Clarinetist, which purports to teach the valuable lesson that one can only do one’s best when one practices, but the story doesn’t end with a resolve on the part of the newly-second-chair female clarinetist to practice and try harder next time, but rather with her realizating that she can contribute best to her band by being happy for her male first chair and by being a good supporting team player. She is put in her place (second to a male) and taught that it is for the best, for her, and for the group as a whole.
Another juxtaposition that is so blatantly bad it’s funny is the Hurricane Helpers feature, in which a boy isn’t quite old enough to go help with the hurricane himself and his mom has broken her foot. There’s some fascinating gender-role-in-the-family stuff going on, when the son asks his mother if he’ll be in charge when dad goes to help with the hurricane. Mom says she’ll be in charge, but the son will be “head helper.” She goes on:
“If it’s too much, Dad can stay home. I told him I thought you could handle it, but we wanted to ask you first. It would be your way of doing hurricane help, because if you help here, you’ll make it so he can help there.”
Now it was Scott’s turn to be serious. “Mom,” he said. “I can totally do this. You can count on me!”
There’s a big photo of the boy wearing a BYU shirt. And it’s awesome that he’s shown preparing food and helping with his siblings. He even gets them all together for prayers.
Then there’s a tiny inset of a girl who writes:
“One day I decided I wanted to serve breakfast to my family because I love them. Even though I couldn’t give them much, I remembered that I was good at cooking. I made a cup of my famous hot cocoa for everyone.”
They’re both, male and female, basically doing the same thing, helping in their families, but look at how it’s framed!
Boy is a HURRICANE HELPER. Girl makes hot cocoa.
And that’s why.
I have made this as impersonal as I can, but I think it’s almost impossible to criticize something that someone holds dear without it feeling like an attack on them personally. Please do not take this that way. I believe in the good intentions of Mormons generally and the Friend staff specifically. I regret that my critique is automatically suspect because I have outed myself as non-believing.
I’m starting to get used to that reaction, though.
When I was seventeen and president of the Laurel class, I remember reciting the Young Women’s theme as “We are daughters of our Heavenly Parents who love us and we love them.” This was indulged as a personal eccentricity. When I was thirty-six and standing with my thirteen year-old daughter at New Beginnings, I realized that the theme actually says “Heavenly Father.” My disappointment in that realization was taken as a nit-picky, typically-cynical criticism.
Perhaps what I miss most about belonging in church is the idealistic belief I had as a teenager that when I said “Heavenly Parents” it made a difference: to me, and to anyone who heard me recite it that way, in simultaneous solidarity and civil disobedience.
Hello old blog. I haven’t written here for almost a year because I didn’t know how to say this: Tom and I have taken a break from the Mormon Church. That only happened “officially” a couple of months ago, but this blog had become mostly a record of my struggles with my religious heritage, and as I lost (or won) that struggle, I felt so mixed about what to say.
Maybe faith should be a private matter, but being Mormon does not lend itself well to privacy, internet or no. I have also struggled with my desire to be at once honest, free and candid and also to be respectful, non-offensive and, above all else, not bitter or “anti-.”
But of course, Mormonism (perhaps moreso than other faiths) also does not lend itself well to neutrality. If we have left (and if not for sin or laziness, both of which I am incidentally guilty of), then obviously there are things we disagree with, things we find wrong, things we are “against” in the Mormon church.
Tom has decided and written about these things for himself elsewhere, and I feel that, disclaimers and professions of genuine respect in place, it would be okay for me to start to explain why we finally made a break with the church when it does have so many good things to offer. More on that later, and I’m happy to answer any questions, but today I have an actual post.
On Friday as I walked the girls home from school, Callie said she had something to talk about later. She resisted my prodding to talk about it right then, and in the after-school shuffle and Friday-night pizza making, I completely forgot about it. I asked Avery to say the prayer over our dinner, and then Tom started asking the kids about their day. A few months ago he instituted a system where we each take turns talking, shining the spotlight a little, formalizing what sometimes still descends into chaos as everyone babbles eagerly.
Callie’s turn came and she reminded me that she had something to tell us. Her deskmate at school, a boy called M– has been telling his friends to tell Callie, on the playground, that he is going to have sex with her. Callie is eight years old. All my attention, all the focus around the table centered on her in an instant, though Lucy and Molly and even Callie don’t really know what that means.
Callie was awkward and mumbly as I interrogated her as gently as I could. Has he touched you? (yes, but only on the arm) Has anyone else touched you? (not like that) Have you told anyone? Does he bully anyone else? (Yes, though as far as she knows she’s the only one offered that specific threat).
Our transition to California has been smoother and happier than I anticipated, and a large part of it is how welcoming an responsive the schools have been. This was a bit of a shock, but I know what elementary schools are like. When I was in kindergarten, I told the kids, a boy named Jim Leavitz had his friends tell me he had something to show me and then he ran towards me, unzipped his pants and showed me his penis.
I’ve never forgotten that, I told Callie, when she said she thought she would never be able to stop worrying about that boy, but I don’t have to think about it any more. You might not forget it, either, I said, but you don’t have to think about it.
I promised to talk to the teacher and we reminded the kids of our family rules: you can tell mom and dad anything; even if a trusted adult warns you you won’t be believed, or you’ll get in trouble, you won’t. You will be believed, and that person making bad choices will be the one who gets in trouble. And if you’re threatened, run away, or fight back if you can’t. Fight loud and hard, throw a tantrum, make as much noise as you can. Don’t be quiet. Scream no. You don’t have to please anyone. Ever.
This is why I’m a feminist, I told the kids, because boys and men are not allowed to say these kinds of things to women and girls. We are going to talk to the teacher and try to get this boy the help he needs to understand that that kind of behavior is completely inappropriate.
I am a feminist because I want a better world for my daughters. A world where rape culture doesn’t tell elementary school kids that sexual harassment is just boys being boys. Or worse, across the world, where girls get acid thrown in their face for even daring to go to school. Because while I want my daughters to know I will fight for them to be one hundred percent safe and comfortable in their environments, I also want them to be aware how many girls around the world face much worse.
Feminism allows me to care about every little thing threatening my daughters’ peace and each huge tragedy threatening the peace of our world. Feminism allows me to make pizza from scratch, from flour I have ground myself, if I want to, or to get in my car and drive to Little Caesars. But wherever our pizza comes from, on Friday nights we’ll be eating it together, around the family dinner table.
The first time I saw Alia she looked like a fertility goddess trapped in a dingy urban apartment, her belly softly bumping with her second child. She had shoulder-length wavy brown hair, vivid and sparkling brown eyes, a pixie smile and a mother’s tiredness. Her husband was home from work to check that I was what I said I was: a mid-thirties housewife, toddler in tow, who wanted to tutor her in English and maybe share some friendship.
Over the next few months we met for an hour every week, talked about cooking and child-rearing and friends we’d had and lost as we moved. Her previous English teacher had moved to Alaska for a job and she half-joked that she must be an unrewarding student. Every time I saw her she was in comfortable lounging clothes, short cotton shorts and matching tank top, a brief knit house dress that would’ve been freezing out in the Utah winter but was perfect for the very warm three rooms she shared with her husband and son.
She was worried about the coming birth, she admitted when pressed, though she felt foolish feeling that way when here in America the medical care was better than her country. Here in America she didn’t have her mother to be with her, though her husband would be allowed, even encouraged to share her hospital room. I had my mother with me for my first birth and my husband and two sisters and dear Chrysanthemum for my last. I had spent months preparing for that last one, reading and planning my way around that modern medical care as much as possible, and hoping. I couldn’t explain much of that in our easy words and sentences. I told her I understood and that Insha’Allah, everything would go well, but that I understood her fear, every mother worries.
I looked around her living room, spotting the towel-wrapped pot that held her culturing yogurt, the half-assembled secondhand aquarium in the corner that Omar had gotten for his birthday, next to the raggedy artificial Christmas tree he’d begged for. Omar was usually at preschool when we talked, except for the times he was sick or on vacation or exhausted from a late party of friends the night before.
He was typically indulged and caressed. He pushed Molly away from a toy one visit and called her stupid repeatedly. I tried to gather and distract her, not wanting to embarrass Alia. She was always trying to give me things, pineapple and blueberries and samples of lotion or candles, surplus from the charity she received gratefully and matter-of-factly. I tried to decline, but she insisted that they didn’t like blueberries, so I took a couple of pints home. They were delicious.
Each week we chatted, and then I carefully enunciated the naturalization test flashcards while she painstakingly copied them in English and a transliteration and then Arabic. Some words and concepts I could explain; others I turned to google translate, hoping that “branch” of government wouldn’t be rendered as a branch on a tree.
We got through the first third of the hundred questions. I got stupidly teary-eyed as I recited the ideals of our democracy, our freedom of speech and press and religion and assembly and to petition the government. That question was on the week before I wore pants to church and I thought, how could I not, when I believed in the freedom of speech and religion and the right to gather and petition those in authority.
I didn’t even try to explain the Pants movement to Alia (it’s hard to understand myself why it should need to be a thing), but I did ask her if there was a mosque close enough for her. There is, an Ethiopian one, she said, though she usually stays home when her husband goes. The Muslim God is happy for the woman to pray at home. Okay to go to the mosque, okay to pray at home, no problem if she is busy with the house and the children. The man must pray at the mosque, but the woman can pray at home.
One week I called from California, to tell her that I couldn’t come in two days because I was out of town with my husband. The next week we were back from Tom’s interviews and I told her, as I sat on her couch, that I was moving in two weeks and that next Wednesday would be my last time. She was sad, of course, but not as sad as I was. The coordinator had a college girl in mind for Alia’s next tutor and I could leave without guilt.
The last time I saw her was bittersweet and unreal in that way that last times always are. She showed me some photographs and gave me a shot of her wedding day, making me promise to never show it to any man, not even my husband, because she was uncovered in her lavish wedding gown. It was nearly time for me to go and that day she had to pick up Omar from school because her husband was working farther away than usual. She didn’t like to drive much, but it was okay just down to the school and back.
I asked for a picture of the two of us together, holding my phone up in front of our faces. She hurried to the closet and pulled out a loose tunic jacket and wide headband and scarf. As I watched she covered her arms, her hair, her neck. Her eyes were covered too, without the lashes ever touching, and I took another picture, though now for the first time she looked nothing like the woman I had met, and known and talked with for months.
That Alia was gone, and after I kissed her on each cheek, so was I.
Last week as we got ready for the day, Lucy requested that I tie her shoes. I love Lucy, from the tips of her little toes to the freckles on her nose, but sometimes it’s beyond me to respond nicely to her because her squeaky helium voice can turn demanding and grating even before I’ve had a moment to process her latest pressing need. There is no hierarchy of needs or triage of necessities in little Lucy’s world. Everything is urgent, crucial and imminent.
I tied her tennis shoes for her that morning, but I realized that, at six and a half, it is past time for Lucy to tie her own shoes. In fact, I remember it being a thing to teach the other kids to tie their shoes before they went to kindergarten. Nana Marian coached Avery. I scoured the internet to make sure I didn’t lead left-handed Callie astray. I don’t know how Lucy’s life skill education was overlooked. Poor, neglected third child.
So that afternoon I joined her on the bright blue rug in the bedroom she shares with Callie. The other girls were off snacking or playing, it was just Lucy and me, and I’m proud to say that I mustered my A-game of parental patience and praise. She got frustrated a couple of times; I moved her onto my lap, though, as I learned when I was teaching Callie, I tie like a left-hander, so I didn’t direct her in which hand to start with or which hand to hold which bunny ear.
Two minutes later she could tie her shoes. Five minutes later her double-knot was indistinguishable in form and symmetry to what I myself would produce. When her sisters learned to tie their shoes, it took a few hours of practice, and for a month or two their knots were slack and amateur.
I don’t know. This seems really basic. Maybe I have retrenched my expectations of life at this point for my own sanity and am having dumb big ah-hah moments all over the place, things that everyone else figured out a long time ago. Apparently it’s a lot easier to learn (or teach) a skill when the person is . . . get this . . . ready for it.
Now that I know this, I can do/teach anybody anything. Or, I can at least justify waiting a little while longer before potty training Molly.
(Molly actually showed a brief but intense interest in the toilet a year ago, but I wasn’t emotionally invested because, well, I have ambivalent feelings about my children’s milestones.)
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The Saturday before Easter we dyed some eggs. We didn’t last year, so I thought we were doing pretty good to have all the Easter-y treasures of yore unpacked from boxes and to have the time and energy to do an easy thing the kids have been asking about.
Callie has been sprouting lately. She’s reading Harry Potter, loping through school and solicitous of the baby. I cut her hair short again; it’s curling more in the humid California air. Some afternoons I can smell the ocean, though maybe it’s the bay: I should notice which way the breeze is blowing when it brings the salt and the cry of seagulls.
The kids had lots of options for decorating their eggs. Dyeing, painting, stickers and the most popular: magic crayon then dye. Callie wrote out her secret special message and then carefully dyed her egg. It said:
I hate you, Mom!
Perhaps this was a simple rebellious inversion of the dye carton’s suggested “I love you, Mom!” but it pretty much broke my heart. These past few months have been really hard, and harder still has been my frustrated feeling that things should not be this hard, that this should be an adventure, that it could be so much worse, that I am a terrible mother and that not only do I not blame Callie for hating me, I hate myself.
Tom has gently (and not so gently) prodded me, for using the mean voice, for being so impatient. Avery has escalated into almost-teenage emotional swings and I have found myself responding in kind, as if I am suffering a second, more violent and less-justified adolescence of swirling anger and inability to pull back and accept. To calmly respond and patiently redirect, to be more understanding and a safe haven for my children instead of their harping interrogator.
Then, this week, I don’t know what the turning point was. Maybe it was the Uchtdorf talk we discussed in church, about the five regrets of the dying. It kind of made me a little mad on Sunday. “I wish that I had let myself by happier,” when all I have been asking for for the past two months is to be just a little happier, to feel love for my children, to want to want to be with them, to be able to see and hear the endearing things they say and enjoy them, instead of standing helplessly as the fighting and whining and screaming bleed together over the whole of my horizon until my only recourse is to hide.
It is one thing to not like everything your children do while being able to recognize and rejoice in your deep and abiding love for the people they are, the souls that you catch a glimpse of at least once in awhile, and a completely other thing to spend days and weeks truly regretting having ever had them, feeling like it was a mistake, that you are not capable of being their mother, that it is an injustice to saddle them with you and you with them.
But the tide did turn, in the past few days.
I love my children again, and this morning I even liked them. And I realized that when they express anger or hatred for me or how I’m being at the time, when I was stuck in that morass of regret and entrapment, if felt like forever, if felt like, of course they don’t like me and I don’t like them, hasn’t it always been this way? It felt permanent and hopeless as if we have always and will always be like this. Unhappy.
But then I realized that the girls and Tom can criticize how I am acting, how our family is functioning, how I am yelling and swearing, because I am NOT always like that, we are NOT always unhappy, I do not always yell and swear. If they were used to that always from me, it wouldn’t be noticeable or worth pointing out.
So thanks, Callie, for telling me that most of the time you do love me. Ditto.