Tag Archives: parenting

Traveling Away

After eight days of being gone, my boy came home a different child.

I put him on a bus in England and watched him drive away, across a country, across the Channel, across half a continent.  I got a text message from one of the teachers the next day telling me they’d arrived safely in Italy.

Then I spent eight days scouring occasional Facebook posts from the school, full of pictures of children covered entirely from head to toe in layers of winter gear wearing helmets and goggles and scarves, for a glimpse of his face.

I saw him twice, smiling at the base of the mountain on the first day and standing with his arm slung over a friend at the bowling alley near the end of the week.

For eight days I didn’t hear his voice.  My house, despite the three remaining children, was strangely empty, weirdly out of balance.  We were missing a piece that made the parts a whole.

I knew when he stepped off the bus after eight long days that he was a new man.  I could see it in his face, in his smile, in his body language.  In the way he said goodbye and thanked the teachers who’d chaperoned the trip and got his own bag out of the bottom of the bus.  He’d found an independence he’d never known, and now it was his to keep.

Still the same at heart, though, he flung his arms around me right there in the parking lot of his school and hugged me and kissed me hello in front of all his friends because if there’s one thing this boy isn’t, it’s embarrassed to show emotions. Thank every god there is for that, because I needed every last hug he had to give.

As he walked across the parking lot dragging his ski bag in his wake and shouting goodbyes to his friends, I had an uneasy realization that we’d crossed a bridge and left behind a little irretrievable piece of childhood.  

We went home and he showered for the first time in several days and I put on the first of at least three loads of his dirty ski laundry and made us both a cup of tea, and we sat on the couch and I gratefully listened to every last detail of the skiing and the sledding and the food and the two 12-hour bus rides.  I soaked in every word and smiled at the odd details an 11-yr old boy remembers and feels the need to share (“our instructor had really cool hair” and “the pasta at the hotel was a weird shape one night”).   And he hugged me, a dozen times at least, and said that even though he was never homesick, he did really miss us. 

Parenting is a series of heartbreaks.  When we do it right, we teach them how to stop needing us, how to move away and become themselves, and in doing so we make ourselves obsolete.  I know it’s for the best; that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult. 

But I’ll take a cup of tea together, some silly stories, and a few hugs for as long as he’s willing to give them.

Beauty and Shame

I’m thinking a lot lately about beauty standards, shame, body confidence, and how I want to be and how I want to parent.  It reminded me of something that happened on one of our trips last summer.

The beaches in Menorca are all topless.  Actually, at every beach we went to, bottoms seemed optional as well – many of the kids at the beach, up to even age 8 or 9, went naked.  And one older gentleman, deeply bronzed with nary a tan line to be seen anywhere on his body, was completely nude as well.

Shortly after we arrived at the beach the first day, I realized that it was topless.  I didn’t mention anything to the kids; I figured the less of a thing I made it into, the less of a thing it would be.  Bridget caught on pretty quickly though (to be honest, there were boobs everywhere) and shot me a wide-eyed look of shock. 

This seemed like a parenting watershed moment. My response would become her response.

So I shrugged.  “They’re just boobs,” I said. “It’s only weird if you make it weird. Every woman has them.”

She considered that and nodded. “And some men, actually,” she replied, “and they don’t cover them up!”  We both laughed.  And that was it.

As we were talking, though, Gabe walked over and caught the end of it.  He asked what we were talking about.

“It’s a topless beach,” Bridget said. 

Gabe hadn’t noticed, but his head whipped around at that, and, confirming that she was right, he turned back to me, mouth agape and eyes popping out of his head.

I repeated my statement: “It’s just a body part. It’s only weird if you make it weird. For everyone here, it’s totally normal to be topless at the beach.”

He looked around some more and then nodded.  He could accept that. 

Obviously though, Gabe went directly to both of his brothers and shared the information.  Two more sets of wide eyes and questions. Matt and I both made it clear that it was simply the way things were.  The boys asked why.  We said why not.  And that was it.

I realized over the course of the three days we spent on the beaches there though, how much healthier an attitude toward bodies everyone simply had, how much less shame there was all around.

There were women of every shape, size, weight, and age at the beach.  Nearly every one of them wore a bikini, and it didn’t matter what they looked like.  And many, many of those women took their tops off.  Old women, young women. Thin and fat, fit and not fit.  Moms and grandmothers.  Boobs everywhere. 

The women inhabited their bodies unapologetically. It was refreshing.  It was gorgeous.  It was so much healthier than the covered up shame you see in so many other places — England and America right on the top of that list.

I was jealous of all those women happily living in their own shapes and sizes.  I wanted to feel so completely comfortable that I didn’t think about sucking in my stomach or wish the bathing suit top I wore had a bit more padding or my butt took up just a bit less space.  I wanted to feel unencumbered.

I left my top on though, and I kept sucking in my stomach. 

Here’s why:

My children were not brought up in a place where seeing topless women is the norm.  They could handle it in Spain because, if nothing else in the last two years, they’ve learned to adapt to different cultural norms pretty quickly.

But having their own mother topless would not have sat well.  Not with them.  Not with me.  We can live with the norms of other cultures, but we live WITHIN our own.

So my top stayed put.  But I learned something about shame and beauty, and that will come with me wherever I go.

Pretty

When I was little, and didn’t want to sit through getting my hair brushed or styled, my nana would say “It hurts to be beautiful”. It’s a statement I’ve known all my life and one I still say to myself. 

And to my own daughter.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged and accepted.  If you’re a woman, it hurts to be beautiful. 

We color our hair, wear make-up, wax our eyebrows, our lips, our bikini lines.  Totter around on stilettos that make our feet bleed and bruise.  Cram ourselves into spanx and forego food for a day to fit in one specific dress.  Inject our faces with botox to eliminate wrinkles.  Undergo surgery to lift our boobs, tighten our necks, smooth our tummies, all to defy the effects of gravity and motherhood.

I’ve done most of those things.  In the end I’ll probably do them all.  If I leave the house without at least a bit of make-up on, you can be pretty sure the only place I’m heading is to the gym.  I’ve got a fair bit of grey in my hair, and I will continue to cover it up with dye for the foreseeable future.  I own — and wear — shoes that bruise my toes so badly that I can only wear sneakers for the next three days after a single night in them, and spanx that squeeze the thickest part of my thighs so hard they leave indentations that last for hours after I’ve taken them off.  I have worn clothes that made deep breaths difficult and eating impossible.  I regularly have hot wax smeared on my face and ripped off to remove the shadow on my upper lip and the caterpillar eyebrows I inherited from my dad.

I participate in my own torture, willingly, because I have been conditioned to believe that I am only beautiful if I do those things.

I hate the concept, but continue to play the game.  And I’m teaching my daughter to play it as well.  I wrestle with the messages and the practices, both as a mother and as a woman.  Am I doing the right thing?  Am I teaching her the right thing?  I’m uncomfortable with it all, but we live in a society that says “this is what it takes to be pretty” and so we follow along. 

Some of it I can paint as pretty harmless: I like make-up, and it’s fun to play with and it certainly doesn’t hurt.  Coloring my hair isn’t painful, just time-consuming, and I like changing my color to suit the season or my mood.  I enjoy getting dressed up and I don’t really mind sucking in my tummy for a while to make the line of a dress lie more smoothly.

But there’s nothing fun about getting the hair ripped off your body with hot wax.  Nothing fun about wearing shoes that bruise and pinch and underwear that squeezes and compresses and clothes that hinder your movement and breath.  I can’t pretend there’s any message but self-torture in there.  And yet I teach my daughter.

Society places a high premium on looks, and the standards to which men and women are held are comically different. 

Why doesn’t daddy look bad without make-up on? Because society hasn’t told him that he does.  His skin isn’t a blemish- and blotch-free poreless canvas, highlighted and contoured in all the right places.  He has circles under his eyes because he didn’t sleep great last night, but he doesn’t need to hide them.  His eyebrows are a bit scraggly.  He has grey in the hair on his temples.  He’s definitely not clean-shaven.  And yet all he has to do is run a warm wash cloth over his face, comb his hair, and he’s done.  Handsome even. 

Can you IMAGINE if men had to undergo the physical modification women regularly submit to in the name of beauty?  Good lord would our standards change quickly.

I have no answers, only questions.  I will still dye my hair and wear make-up.  I will still wear shoes that hurt and underwear that squeezes.  I will continue to have my hair waxed off.  And I will forever ask myself why I do it, what would really happen if I didn’t, and whether I’m teaching my daughter the right lessons.

It hurts to be beautiful.

March

Despite the cold and wet and snow, despite a train cancellation that added 90 minutes to our journey, despite a million other things we could have been doing on a Sunday afternoon after a busy week, yesterday the six of us made our way into London for the Women’s March. 

It was my babies’ first protest.  Not their last though, I’m willing to bet. 

When I first mentioned I’d like to go, Matt of course was all for it.  Love that man.  Bridget was ALL for it. Quinn was all for it, in his absolute unwavering happiness to do whatever it is we’re going to do.  Gabe and Owen were not as convinced.  But mama was adamant, and so we went.

It was COLD in London yesterday.  And so wet. But we made our way to Downing Street and saw the crowd and heard the chants and read the signs and it was all worth it.  My boys were ALL IN then. 

They chanted.  “We want justice, not revenge.”

“Time’s Up” they cheered. 

Bridget took the good camera, because she’s a good photographer and I am not, and wound her way as far into the crowd as she could get without losing sight of us, snapping pics all the while. 

And then it snowed, but not a light, dry snow.  Big, fat, wet flakes mixed with big, fat raindrops made a sloppy mess of the sidewalks.  And my children stood shivering and uncomplaining in a crowd of people who were all there to make a point and make a difference.

But a mama can only ask so much, and so we cut out after about 45 minutes and made our way 15 minutes across the Thames to Wagamama for a bowl of warm ramen.  And the restaurant was closed.  But the one wayyyyy back where we’d started was open, according to the sign.  I felt so guilty — we’d walked a long way and it was cold and windy and snowy and rainy and everyone was damp.  And they were all out there because of me, mostly.   

“Nevertheless, we persist!” Gabe shouted out.  The kids all cheered. 

I’m not gonna lie, I almost cried.  I held it together though, and Matt and I grinned at each other, and we rallied.  We walked back across town to the open Wagamama, ate our lovely spicy ramen, and warmed our freezing fingers and toes.

It was a good day.  One of those days that makes me proud to be their mother, proud to be his wife, and excited to see what the future holds for these babies who are paying attention and want to make a difference.

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