Stranger Things, Sons Included

Dear #MeToo

Dear #MeToo:

My sons don’t know what to do about you. I mean, I have told them what to do about violence and harassment toward women, a lot, actually. They have listened to many female friends and cousins, and of course, me, too.

But when it comes to discussions, whether they are in a classroom, casual conversation, or among their friends, they have become silent.

Do you realize that the consequence of this movement, which has become part support group, has also, at times, become an arena in which people like my sons feel they cannot honestly take part without losing?

That is truly unfortunate and also dangerous. If we are to have a meaningful conversation about sexual subjugation, suppression and violence, the men have to be involved. Except as scapegoats and the occasional accessory, increasingly, they have not been. They have been silent.

These men are everywhere. Take the recent Golden Globes. While there were plenty of #Time’sUp pins on the lapels of the men in attendance, the men were largely silent. Seth Rogan, the moderator, made a few light comments about the situation in Hollywood, and then the show went on, punctuated by groups of women either celebrating that there were all female groups of award winners or doing little more than ranting, often, against men.

Is this the new version of gender equality?

I hope not.

Yes, it is true that women have been long marginalized from equal access, pay, recognition, and safety. In light of the exposure of the Weinstein violations, it is time for significant social and legal justice, and it needs to be publicized, not only because the stories need to be told, but also so that, to borrow the words of another human rights cause, “never again” should this sort of thing happen.

Those are worthy and necessary aspects to this. But it leaves the good guys out in the cold. Similar to many of the male attendees of the Golden Globes, my sons don’t know what to say or do right now.

They’ve seen the YouTube exposes of manspreading and mansplaining and Amazon selling the coffee mugs of Man Tears. They have had to listen to well intentioned (but still gender biased) diatribes about why girls are better during many school and team based events. They have girls on their high school sports teams, girls who are not merely tokens, but who get play time and respect in the locker room. This last part is all good, and it’s about time. But when it comes to discussion and the opportunity for making a contribution to the dialogue about gender equality, they have learned to be silent.

That’s because, depending upon who feels either perpetually watchful, irreparably victimized or generally justified in her “anger”, they feel that they can’t say or do much that might not be misconstrued. A month ago, there was a shortage of one chair in a classroom where Bigs attends high school. He pulled a chair into the classroom for his teacher in order to be a “gentleman”. I should say that Bigs is 6’1” and much physically stronger than his female teacher. He knew she could have done it herself, but he was raised to help others. She was having none of it and made a case of his comment that he was trying to be a gentleman, while, in reality, he was trying to be a “gentle man”. He came home confused and a bit frustrated.

It would have been nice if there was a Bigs around when I was in 4th grade and a boy who had lots of problems at home ran by me in gym class and at the last minute, flailed his arms out to hit me, deliberately, in the chest. I wish there was a Bigs around when I was 16 and lured by a 19 year old to the back room of a deli where we were all hanging out after hours and who took some liberties with me that I won’t discuss here. I could have used having someone like Bigs with me during one of my first business trips when my boss suggested a walk on the dunes after a “business” dinner, and I wondered if the reason why I wasn’t promoted for a year afterwards was because I had declined. I could go on. I could make a list to add to the #MeToo hashtag queue. It all would have been much easier for me to have a strong male ally, but I handled all of that myself, and it hurt. Yes, it was hard and unfair. It made me a stronger person.  It made me look out for others, too.

But those incidents didn’t make all men my enemies, and they didn’t cloak me in a victimhood that I couldn’t remove.

French sex symbol and actress Catherine Deneuve recently wrote a response to the #MeToo movement in which she asserted that a clumsy romantic overture doesn’t equal sexual assault. She’s right. She also cautioned that women who cling too hard to their victim status are keeping women defined as the weaker sex. While the #MeToo movement has interpreted her letter as an attack or diminishment of legitimate complaints by victimized women, they believe they are exposing their attackers and proclaiming a new world order for women’s rights, but in reality, they are forgetting the world that we actually live in.

The sheer number of women who are objectified and hurt because of their gender is legion and it is unacceptable. That is not going to change based on a social media hashtag or the foregone conclusion by some so-called feminists that most men are pigs. The only thing that will change this dynamic is dialogue. Shaming and confusing men into silence and submission, or threatening them with an instant conviction in the court of public opinion, will only detach them from a conversation in which they need to be a party. Getting them to see women as human beings they can relate to, instead of mysterious creatures who will report or humiliate them, will only waste the opportunity that we have for us to connect and drive us farther apart.

If we truly want gender equality, as women, we have to let go of anger and vitriol and reach out with the parts of our bodies – our brains, our voices and our hearts – that appeal most to the countless men – our fathers, our friends, and our sons – who want to be our allies. A finger poised on a virtual hair trigger to scapegoat and alienate men won’t accomplish that. True, some men need to be told what they need to stop doing and what they need to start doing to help. Some women need the same direction, #ThemToo.

Hold on Loosely, but Don’t Let Go

I plan to write much, much more about this, but parents, if you are financing your kid’s phone, network, or room and board (or any combination of the above), it is within your rights to monitor their comings and going and doings, even and especially the virtual ones.  You can learn a lot about your kid if you really want to know.

And I will be honest and tell you that it is hard to see some of it.

But ignoring it won’t solve emerging issues or potential problems, and having an open dialogue, albeit a loud and potentially unpleasant one, is still something you can do while your kids are not adults yet.

“Wisely and slow,” said Friar Laurence, Romeo’s advisor.  “They stumble who run fast.”

You will have to let go.  Much sooner than you maybe planned to.  But don’t let go totally.

It stinks, and it’s hard, but when they’re teens, they need you, sometimes to push against, sometimes to be the only person who tells them to check themselves or to say, “No.”

No, you can’t stay up until 3 a.m. even on a weeknight to add to the drivel of “interaction” on Snapchat.

No, you can’t respond to hatred with more hatred.

No, you can’t make a joke at someone’s expense.  And the Post or Enter button on your comments and well intentioned humor needs marinating and ripening.  Wait. And expect that somewhere, someone has screenshot what you wrote, or at least perhaps it will be engraved on their heart.

Which can also be beautiful.

Monitor avidly (for now) so they can choose wisely.

Lipstick and Pit Bulls

“You don’t have to be crazy to be a goalie. But it helps.” -Bernie Parent

Being a goalie means you are part of a special breed.  Being the parent of a goalie means that you are part of a special club.

I hate being the mother of the goalie.  But for some reason, Little is drawn to it.  It could be that hates running.  It could be that he loves the limelight.  It could be that he is comfortable barking orders at defense and that he fancies himself a Leader of Men.  Be those as they may, I still hate being the mother of a goalie.  I think that Mothers of Goalies (MOGs) should have special accommodations and support systems.  I also think we need a padded cell from which to watch the game.  Kind of the like the luxury box at TD Garden, but soundproofed.

But since we don’t, I look for the other goalie mom in the stands.  Usually, she is the mother of another boy in the same league or the mother of the other goalie on the team.  Sometimes, I find her when I am not looking for her.  Like the last time Little played lacrosse.

The game was heated, and for good reason.  This season, my son’s school was able to field a real lacrosse team.  Last season, they fielded a team – technically- but our coach was a father who had tons of good intentions but no coaching experience.  My husband, a more experienced coach, was not able to help out.  The team lost. Every. Game.  And they didn’t just lose:  in one game in particular, against a very established team with older, experienced players, they got destroyed.  The destruction wasn’t just limited to the field.  Six of our players came off of the field injured.  Physical pain and extremely low morale make for a slaughter.  That’s what it was: there is really no other way to describe it.  Parents are usually not allowed in the pen with players, but there was no assistant coach, so I played Florence Nightingale, ministering to bruises on the shin, elbow and ego.  No one on the opposing team was trying to hurt our players, but it happened.  It was a shut out and we couldn’t leave the pain on the field.  At the end of the game, the coach swore that next year would be better.

And it was.  It has been.  We have three coaches and a seasoned team now.  The veteran coach jumped at the chance to vindicate last year’s season with the same team that slaughtered us.  So we met again on their field.  And we started to win.

One of the reasons was that the older kids, last year’s eighth graders, moved up to the high school and a bumper crop of sixth graders replaced them.  Some of them are smaller.  One in particular was checked by one of our defenders, prompting screams of outrage from some of the parents of the opposing team:  “That’s a dirty check!” (It wasn’t.)  “Hey, ref, get your eyes checked.” (He didn’t need to.) And the coup de grace, “What do you expect from kids like that? Playing dirty is the only way they can win.”

“Now, hold on just a cotton pickin’ minute,” I almost said on the sidelines to my friend, the parent of another of our players.  We were shocked at first.  Then, as our score and the barrage of character insults piled up, we couldn’t take it anymore.  We both stared at the parent.  Really? Our glares spoke volumes.  She still wouldn’t shut up.  “We can hear you,” my friend said, evenly but with malice.

“Oh, yeah?  Good: you heard me.  Your players can’t win fairly so they have to hurt our kids.  And you’re not my mother, so you can’t tell me what not to say.” My friend and I looked at each other incredulously.  Before she could stop herself, my friend countered, “Well, your own mother obviously didn’t do such a good job of teaching you how to behave.”  Two generations of mothers were involved now, albeit one virtually, and it was getting nasty.

My blood was boiling.  Our children could hear us, I was sure.  (They could have if they listened, but turns out, they were too focused on the game, I learned later from Little.) But at the time, I felt certain that some rabid sports parent was doing irreparable damage to my kid’s team’s reputation.

As we were preparing for our own battle, which I hoped would be short and only verbal, my friend, Ed*, the town league president for the opposing town, walked over.  I made a huge show of greeting him loudly by name and he stood next to us.  “Good game,” he said.  “Lots different from last year, huh?” I forced a laugh to be congenial: “Yeah, you guys slaughtered us last year.”  Then, pulling him aside, I nodded to the woman on the sidelines.  “Who the hell is that?”

“Oh,” he said.  “That’s Linda.  She’s Connor’s mom.*Not their real names.  Because, duh.  It’s the last game of the season for him.  He’s an eighth grader, and the high school team already has a goalie for next year.  It’s a tough way to end the season.”

“I’ll say,” I muttered.

One of the things I like about Ed is his inability to get riled up easily, although sometimes, when it doesn’t serve my purposes, it’s downright annoying. He shrugged.  “She’s the goalie’s mother.  She’s having a tough game, too.”

Of course.  She was one of my people.  And I didn’t recognize her through all of her bluster, her put-on toughness.  To their credit, her son’s team wasn’t outwardly blaming her son for the goals he let in, but I could tell by the way he held himself, standing less tall as the game went on, that he felt responsible for the loss.  And she couldn’t make him feel any other way about it.  Losing is an important way that character can be built, and as parents, we know this, but it doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

The last seconds of the game elapsed, and we won by a landslide.  I saw Linda * wipe her eyes with the end of her sweatshirt and decided to approach her.

“Your son did a great job in net today.  I wanted to tell you that before we left.”

Her tears flowed freely.  It seemed that, instantly, they washed away all of the anger that she had expressed only minutes before. “It’s his last game on this team and he probably won’t play next year because he’ll only be a freshman.  He loves playing,” she started to explain.  I just reached out and gave her a hug.

“Good game,” I said again, my own vision clearer.

Not so shocking.


We got a puppy in June.  She’s become an essential part of the family, and my kids tell me all the time that we need an electric fence. They’re very responsible with her, especially Little.  He gets nervous at night when she’s outside because of the coyotes.

So I bought the Cabela’s portable electric collar and boundary for her, and Big took it upon himself to set up the flags and start to train her.

She will start off with the “beep” mode as he walks her around the yard near the flags and not experience the “shock” setting until later.

But in the meantime, he has tested the setting for shock.  On himself (his leg, not his neck).  And tried to convince his brother to do it.  Who has (smartly) refused.  Little videotaped Big running to the outer reaches of the boundary and hopping around yelling when he hit it.

But I can tell Little is curious.  He might just cave and try it.  Big is planning on getting another collar and turning it into a race to the shed.

And while I’d love to think all this is borne of empathy for another living creature (the dog), this isn’t my first rodeo.


Stop Test-ing your Luck


Dear Little:

I’d like to introduce myself. I’m a guardian angel, the one on the candle that your mother lights from time to time to ask for my protection for your brother and you.

It has recently come to my attention that you haven’t been wearing your athletic cup when you’ve been playing lacrosse.   Do you know how dangerous that is?! Do you realize how badly that can end for you?! After hearing all those stories your dad tells the team about “uni-ball” and guys who got a nickname like “Lefty”, surely, you know better.

I’ve been doing a lot of heavy lifting for you, and I’m pretty good at my job, but I’m very busy keeping kids around the world who don’t have quick or easy solutions to their problems safe.

You do. So can you please help me focus on the real threats, and take care of your own safety concerns when you can? Your parents and I will still look out for you, but I’ve got to help out children who are in war zones, babies born to drug addicts, and kids with ass cancer.

(Yes, obviously, I also know you’ve been playing Cards Against Humanity, but there’s only so much I can do.)


Your guardian angel


Not Fair


“He’s not going to get any scholarships. He might not even get in anywhere competitive because he’s not disadvantaged, he’s upper middle class and he’s white. He is a solid kid. It’s not fair.” My neighbor and I were talking about her high school senior son’s prospects for getting into a good college. He’s a B+ student – a really nice kid, an Eagle Scout, and he did pretty well on his SATs. But she’s worried that no college will see all the things that he is, that he will be defined based on demographics and numbers that do not fully define him. It’s a pretty competitive cycle in college acceptances, as I well know from being a high school teacher.

This, by the way, is Bigs’ rationale for having me consider that I should use his college fund to buy him a pick up truck and a backhoe. It’s a cop out, and I’m not buying it, but he does have a point, although I won’t admit it to him right now. He is a pretty advantaged kid, and we let him know it from time to time.

No one is going to feel sorry enough for him to affirm any action toward acceptance or funding toward higher education when they compare his demographics and the circumstances of his life to those who don’t share those same traits and opportunities. We encourage him to stop looking around him and keep looking ahead, to his own strengths and opportunities. College admissions officers may not see all the things he has to offer, but at least he will know.

He’s a lucky kid. If he works hard, he will end up doing exactly what he is meant to do with his life, and it will be a good life. But once in a while, I hear – whether it’s about someone getting a little more recognition or a leg up -that it’s not fair. And I know it’s a bit dramatic, but “It’s not fair” resonates differently for me after this summer.

After this summer, I keep thinking about four young men who I’ve never met. Because right before school let out for the summer, a young white man walked into a prayer meeting of the American Methodist Church of Charleston and killed nine people. They were all black, and that is why he killed them.

Well, that is not the only reason why he killed them. More on that later.

As the week wore on, America learned the names of the victims and just what kind of people they were. To the shooter, they were merely black people. That is what defined them to him.

From reports of one survivor of the massacre, the shooter said, “[Y]ou’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country…I have to do what I have to do.” He then pulled out a semi-automatic weapon and killed the very people who welcomed him into their midst and prayed with them. He later said that he almost didn’t do it because they were so nice to him.

It looks as if he did it because they were black. And if you had to pick one reason why, it would be the obvious one. In talking to my children, I asked them what they think the lesson is here – if there can be a lesson from such a bitter piece of news. Little said, predictably, “Don’t be racist.” And Bigs said, “They shouldn’t let crazy people buy guns.” Yes, and yes, boys. But look deeper. What does it take to hate so much? What does it take to gun down peaceful, kind people who greet you and welcome you and pray with you, even as they sense that you are there to hurt them? After thinking about this for a long time, I’d say the shooter was motivated by hatred of himself, a deep, destructive form of poor self-esteem. And he rationalized his actions by telling himself that life wasn’t fair.

The shooter, 28 years old now, had to repeat ninth grade. He had a criminal record, most recently for illegal possession of narcotics. He had no job. He was an angry young man. He was a failure in his own eyes and probably in the eyes of almost everyone else. But in his own mind, he had one and only one thing going for him – his skin color. He once wrote that, since there were no Klansmen and no skinheads in Charleston to keep African Americans in check, “Well, someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world and I guess that has to be me.” This warped notion of heroism – based on a mere biological trait and not anything he had accomplished – became what defined him.

I keep thinking of two other young men who were involved in this situation and the type of unfairness that defined them.

One of them was a victim, Tywanza Sanders, 26, a college graduate, employed as a barber, whose dying act in his church was to reach out to his 87 year old great aunt and stroke her hair to comfort her even as he bled to death.

Another young man is Sharonda Coleman Singleton’s older son Chris, who forgave Dylann Roof at the arraignment. Ms. Coleman Singleton also leaves a daughter and another son who is Little’s age, and I can’t stop thinking about them either. Her children will forever be defined by the unfairness of what happened to their mother, and Chris will forever be defined by his forgiveness because, as he told reporters, “that is what my mother would have done.”

It wasn’t fair, what any of these young men did. On one hand, Dylann Roof defined himself by hating people he had never met. On the other hand, Tywanza and Chris defined themselves by love – impossible love in the face of unspeakable loss. It wasn’t fair. But each defined himself, despite how others did.

It is truly senseless to me, but it has been in my thoughts all summer. It has permeated much of what I’ve seen and read.

I just finished reading Harper Lee’s new release, Go Set A Watchman. The central conflict is that Scout (yes, Scout, the pre-pubescent heroine of To Kill A Mockingbird) is all grown up at the time of the novel’s setting in the 1960s and has to negotiate her recognition that her fiancé, Hank, and her father -her hero, her God -if you will believe what Harper Lee has to say about him in the voice of Uncle Jack, are on a town planning board with racists. And they seem to be getting along with them just fine.

I won’t go into the plot here, but suffice it to say that Scout is horrified. She also has a bit of an identity crisis, for herself and for her family and town. She can’t believe that Atticus and Hank would even sit at the same table and listen to racist ideology at such a crucial turning point in the Civil Rights Era. She has to decide how to define herself and she pushes back mightily against the idea that being white gives her an automatic privilege in her society.

Uncle Jack, who loves her and who loves his brother, tries to explain why progress is slow in coming in her community – why Atticus must pull up a chair to speak with those whose ideology is so different from his.

He tells Scout, “For years and years all that (white) man thought he had that made him any better than his black brothers was the color of his skin. He was just as dirty, he smelled just as bad, he was just as poor. Nowadays he’s got more than he ever had in this life, he has everything but breeding, he’s freed himself from every stigma, but he sits nursing his hangover of hatred” (197).

This reminds me of something else I read in June, right before the shooting happened. It is a historical note by Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow. Alexander writes, “In the antebellum South, the lowliest white person at least possessed his or her white skin – a badge of superiority over even the most skilled slave or prosperous free African American”(27). Alexander goes on to say that the post Civil War economic and political degradation – plus an overwhelming task of rebuilding the country – was most distressing to whites. This new reality did not mesh with the world view of the whites who had been successful, who believed that they were entitled to success because of their position in society – in short, because of their race.

This is, sadly, not a viewpoint relegated to the era of Reconstruction in the United States. It is the last vestige of self-esteem for racist white men and in some cases, it is becoming an excuse for their behavior. It is the warped rationale for a senseless act performed by a young man who couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t winning at life.

So I ask my children, when they are treated unfairly, when they are misunderstood, when they think they are missing out on some perceived advantage, such as acceptance or privilege based on athletic ability, social connections, or demographics, what kind of boy they’re going to be now, and how that will grow them into men.

And that has everything to do with what is inside of them, what other people might not see or even bother to look for.  There may not be time for my sons to explain, quantify or negotiate it.

It will have to be enough that they know it themselves, no matter how unfair life can be.

Je Suis Desolee


It was a warm, May Friday in 2010.  The birds were chirping, the air was fragrant with blooming, and as the big yellow school bus pulled out of our cul-de-sac, our then-third grader, Big, ran through the door of our mudroom, backpack flung to the side, and all hugs and smiles.  My husband and I were both home, waiting to kick off what would be a gorgeous Spring weekend a little early.

“Mom,” Big said as he pulled off his socks and tossed them on the heap of school things that littered the mudroom floor, “what’s a douchebag?”

The birds still chirped merrily as everything around me grew dim and silent.

Big looked up at me quizzically.  I darted my eyes at my husband, whose own were wide as he almost perceptibly shook his head: Not me, I didn’t teach him that one, his look said.

Drawing a breath, I centered my energy and decided that I would handle this one.

“Oh, um, honey, I think you mean “Deutsche-bahg“.  Yes, that’s probably what you meant to say.  DOY-shuh-bahg, I repeated, drawing the first part of the word out into two distinct syllables and softening the last “a” to an “ahhhh”.  “Like…Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Marks.  You know – the hot dog? Deutsche Maker?”

“Uh…I guess,” Big said.  “But what’s it mean?”

Glancing at my husband, who was curious at this point to find out exactly how I was going to redirect this conversation, I held up a hand and answered, “Well, I’m not totally sure, but I know that it’s a German word, and it’s impolite to say it.  It’s offensive to Germans, but I’m not sure why.  And you never can really tell who’s German, can you? So it’s best not to say it.”

I have to say, I impressed the heck out of myself with my explanation.

Big, who, back then, didn’t want to offend anyone, accepted the answer and moved on.

As he walked into the kitchen for a snack, I smirked in my husband’s direction, and continued to pat myself on the back for neutralizing any blight on my son’s developing vocabulary.  For gracefully dismantling any discomfort that we would have to deal with on that beautiful day, when we had such pleasant plans.  And, now that I look back on it, for lying to my kid.

But as Fate often has it with me, I get away with nothing.  And the payment for the delay in my eventual honesty would be settled with compounded interest.

On another day, an equally beautiful day in August of that same year, Big was invited to go to the beach with another family that has two sons, both of whom are older by two and a half years and nine months, respectively, than Big.  That morning, off he went on his seaside adventure.  Meanwhile, I spent the day in blissful ignorance of what was unfolding.

At 4:00 p.m., Big rolled into the driveway, then stomped into the mudroom, dropping his beach towel and shedding sand.

One look was all it took.  Well, except for one statement:

“It’s DOOOOSH-bag, Mom, and you knew it, and I looked like an idiot, and I lost a bet.”

“Uh…” was all I could say, standing now in the very same spot where, months earlier, I had basked in the glow of my own smug brilliance.

After he washed up, I climbed the stairs to his room, where I said nothing but let him continue his story.

“We were on the beach, and Tim told Tommy to stop being a DOOOSHBAG, and I said, ‘Oh no: it’s not pronounced that way.  It’s DOY-shuh-BAHG, and my mom knows for sure, and she should know anyways because she’s an English teacher.  And you never should say it because you just don’t know who could be German.”

Once they had stopped being stunned, they laughed.  And kept laughing.  And then asked if he wanted to bet on it.

And of course he did, because his very own mother had told him that it was so.  And she should know.

And of course, on the way home, right there at the pharmacist’s counter at CVS, my kid found out exactly how douchebag is pronounced, and furthermore, what one is.  And had to pay off his lost bet in bubblegum.  And narrowly escaped earning himself an unfortunate nickname.

He heard the word he had come home from the bus ride with, a word, actually, that is French in its roots and pronunciation, one that, implausibly and irrationally, but commonly, nonetheless, is used in masculine circles.

But even worse than having an 8 year old know how to use a French word for a feminine product so indelicately was something I couldn’t blame on an older kid on the same bus that day in May, or an inattentive bus monitor, or even Tim and Tommy:  I had only myself to blame for lying to my son about something that made me, personally, uncomfortable.  Looking back, I could have told him simply that it was a perfectly decent word, used impolitely in this case, and once I had decided on exactly how to explain such an item to an 8 year old with different anatomy, I could have found the age appropriate words.  I write and read for a living; really, I have no excuse.

So I had to get honest with myself.  And I had to apologize to Big, in many ways, including English, German (“Verzeihung”) , French (“Je suis desolee”), Looking Remorseful, and Baking Cookies, and then promise him – and mean it – that I would answer any question that he posed as truthfully – and as appropriately to the occasion –  as I could, even if it made me uncomfortable.

The truth will set you free and pay dividends.  And it has for us:  we broach difficult topics more honestly now, we are both learning how much and when to explain about delicate subjects at certain times, and if I get annoyed at someone when I’m driving, I can call him or her a Deutsche Mark with impunity.

Verzeihung, Germany.

Just the Way You Are


Little storms in the door from school, a sullen look on his face.

“How was your day?” I venture, knowing that is a loaded question.

“Terrible! I suck at everything. Everybody hates me. Everybody is mean. I have no friends,” he says, louder than it needs to be. It’s already loud and prickly in my heart. It’s hard for a parent to hear those words coming from her child.

“What happened?” I ask, not really wanting to hear the gory details, but trying to be supportive.

“They said I suck. I can’t play goalie, and I missed a bunch of saves. Then they made fun of my goalie equipment. They said it’s cheap and dumb.”

Even the Tuuka Rask mask? I query incredulously.

“They said I was a ‘try-hard’, that I tried too hard and I still suck.”

Even his best friend? I ask. Not even his best friend had nice things to say. He pulled him aside and told him to leave his stuff at home so he wouldn’t be embarrassed when he didn’t make every save.

In truth, I am not surprised to hear this. This is 6th grade, the grade, by Bigs’ description, which was the worst of middle school for him, now that he can look back on it avuncularly from his 8th grade perch. It’s the apex (so far) of masculinity and identity issues that I could smell from a distance in 5th grade, where there already were brief skirmishes on the play ground for alpha male status.

Did I really believe that Little would be immune from it? Well, maybe I did, a bit. I mean, he’s a pretty socially adept kid. He’s the kind of kid who blends in with all sorts of groups, the birthday party ambassador who crosses a room to make friends with kids from another birthday party and then introduces everyone, and the kid who makes up nicknames for other kids who like to call themselves those nicknames. So why is this happening to him, and what should I make of it?

I once attended a book talk with Natalie Babbitt, who wrote Tuck Everlasting, she said, for 5th graders because that is when kids decide who they are going to be: either themselves – and try to discover, accept, and develop what that really means – or pale imitations of someone else, someone who is athletic, attractive, popular and cool. Someone whose feelings never get hurt, because he never lets anyone know who he really is, and therefore, cannot be rejected.

The cost of this, as I try to point out to Little, is that, if he chose option #2, no matter how many friends he would have, they wouldn’t be true friends because they wouldn’t really know him. They wouldn’t know that he loves babies and little kids, stays loyal to the Bruins – even when they lose – (like this season…), wants a gray, tiger striped kitten with all his heart, once followed the Star Wars trilogy like a religion, has a crush on ———- (do you think I’d betray his confidence here?!), and gets his feelings hurt pretty easily.

After some reflection and a cookie, we try to focus on the positives. He has to at least consider that his best friend might have been trying to help him out without showing his critics that he needed rescuing. Little might have felt things worse than they really were. (Though he insists it was Really That Bad.) And speaking of rescuing, I can’t do it. I can’t fix this. Only he can do it, or at least grapple with the big feelings that come with the sort of interaction that happened during gym class.

After a cap-off comment I make about how this is an opportunity for him to feel some compassion for kids who get picked on all the time, I run out of things to say, and I realize that the rest of this is work that he needs to do on his own.

And as much as I want, in my heart, to ensure that he never feels pain, that’s not possible. He has to live his life, and every human life, inevitably, includes pain. So I will sit on the sidelines and let him do that hard work that every human being has to do, and remind him, from time to time, that he is enough for the world, just as he is.

The Angel in the House


It’s the saddest day of my holiday season: the day we take down the tree. This year, however, before I put the ornaments and lights away, I took a long last look at the angel we put at the top of it each year.

And decided that she would be my inspiration this year.

There’s a backstory to this angel. I brought her home during the phase of my early motherhood shopping years I like to call the “Grab and Run (and keep the receipt)” years. The day we put up our tree that year, I realized that we had no tree topper. So I sprang to my sleigh, and out to Michael’s Crafts I went. As I dashed into the Tree Trimmings aisle at Michael’s Crafts, I scanned the shelf for something – anything – that I could plunk on top of my tree. And then I saw her in her plastic sleeve, her taffeta dress and wings folded and pressed against it. A 50% off sign sealed the deal.

I jumped into line, ten customers deep at the time, and as I drew closer to the cash register, I caught sight of a Christmas star with colored lights that would have matched the small colored bulbs that adorned our tree each year, instead of the angel’s dignified, tiny white lights. No matter: I had a topper for the tree, and I was good to go.

We got home, she and I, and we set about finishing the tree trimming. Bigs was pretty small then – about 3 ½, and of course, he wanted to help. I just wanted to be finished, in all honesty. I had cookies to make for a swap, after all, then all the Christmas photocards to address! My husband clipped the top branch so she could fit on top of it and we plugged her in, where she cast a soft light over her dominion of cardboard cutout pictures, noodle wreaths, and various PBS cartoon character ornaments that were so central to my children’s early Christmases. Nothing matched: she really belonged in a white, silver and gold montage. But good enough, I thought, turning to the next holiday obligation.

“Mommy, is that you?” I heard a small voice say in the living room. “No, sweetie. I’m in the kitchen,” I called out, rummaging through my spice rack for ginger.

“No, Mommy. Look!” Big’s voice became insistent.

I stepped away from the countertop and went into the living room. Big was pointing to the top of the tree at the angel.

“That’s YOU, Mommy,” he said, as sure as he could be.

I was wearing yoga pants; she was in a long, flowing white dress. She had wings; the hood of my sweatshirt covered my shoulders. Her hair was golden and flowed in perfect waves to her back: mine, while blond, was bundled up in an elastic and hadn’t been washed since the day before. Her face was an image of contented joy. Up until that moment, mine was a reflection of how overwhelmed and cranky I had felt all day. But my little boy thought that we had everything in common. He told me that night that I was his angel. I scooped up Big in my arms, overwhelmed by such plain, strong love and approval.

I have heard many kind remarks come my way; I am lucky to be good at what I do for a living, one that I might consider, even, a calling. I fit the description of what most would call attractive. I have a good singing voice, and an even better sense of humor, I’ve been told on more than one occasion. But I doubt, though I may live to a very ripe age, that I will ever hear a better compliment than the one Bigs gave me that night. It was exactly what I needed to hear, precisely the message that I craved, and, ironically, the one that I was walking and busying myself away from, when what I needed was right there in the room I had just walked out of.

There’s a famous Victorian poem, “The Angel in the House”, written by Coventry Patmore about his ideal of the perfect wife and mother. It’s completely unrealistic and describes a woman – his helpmeet- as wooden a character as my tree topper is plastic. The poem is an example of why I think people have angels all wrong. They think that angels represent a standard that we can’t possibly reach. We describe our children, usually when they are sleeping and not actively being themselves, as angels. We put them on pedestals, where we can’t reach them, or they us. They are God’s “wing-men”, and either with Him or relegated to the heavenly host, those who are already perfect – and we believe, too often, that we certainly can’t say that about ourselves. They speak wisely and calmly, are always put together, and never make mistakes.

Kind of like the mothers we think we should be, especially during the holidays.

But angels are, really, messengers. That is what the Greek word for angel, aggelos, really means. And people can be messengers. So as much as I will, even on my most together days, not look or even act totally angelic, I will be a messenger to my family and those I care about, and I will consider carefully what message I give them.

And when I looked into our angel’s eyes as I put her gently back in the tote where she lives for the other eleven months of the year, I thanked her for being the vehicle for the message that Big gave me.

A fine site