Feminism and the family dinner

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.

Alia

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.

 

Ready

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.)

Backhanded

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.