More Than the Sum of Our Lady Parts

A friend posted an article recently about talking to girls about, ahem, menstruation. The author described how she imagined the conversation might go. She hoped it would be empowering, maybe even magical. And featured prominently in the article was a picture of a uterus-shaped pillow, in fleshy pink, embroidered and embellished to represent the ovaries and Fallopian tubes and I don’t know what else. Polyps, perhaps? I shuddered.

It wasn’t just the pillow. (Incidentally, you can also buy penis pillows complete with testicles – but the pictures are censored by the vendor site as “mature.” That’s worth another blog post.) And it wasn’t just that the author opened by describing the young lady with whom she would soon be sharing this mystical moment as “the girl in my life,” either. (Another shudder.)

It was because the message seemed to me to be, “This – your magical menstrual cycle – is what makes you a woman.” And, you know what? I call bullshit.

I wasn’t the first or the last to get my period – but there was a lot of nail-biting going on in my junior high as we waited for that magical day when we would become women. Before it became the hot topic of conversation, a girl whose mother had not told her about her cycle started. She spent a few days thinking she was dying before sobbing out the story to a friend. Another friend got hers on the first day of seventh grade! And her mother had to bring her a change of pants!!! Oh, the agony! One of my closest friends also started before I did and I was so ugly with jealousy that the day ended with her smashing a Twinkie on the end of my nose. One friend listened in dismay as reports came in of other newly-minted women among us. “Don’t worry. It will happen…someday,” I said gently, patting her on the back. And when I finally got my period? Oh, the joy! The rapture! The delight! I was…still in junior high and not a woman at all. Bummer, that.

There’s a reason they sell Motrin and heat patches. And there’s a reason there are PMS jokes – and herbs and vitamins and diets promising to end PMS.  And there’s a reason they sell forty-seven varieties of feminine napkins and sixty-four of tampons. Marketers of feminine hygiene products know we will keep trying new products, searching in vain for something that doesn’t bunch, leak or adhere to our lady parts, all the way until that brief break called menopause when we switch to adult diapers.

Yes, I  know, I know. The menstrual cycle can have beautiful results. I have had two breathtakingly gorgeous children because of menstruation – and I conceived them exactly when I wanted to because I knew all about my stupendous cycle.

But, I also have beloved friends whose parts don’t function as nature intended. Their uterus and ovaries and Fallopian tubes seem to be on the fritz – so their lady parts aren’t doing all of those magical, mystical, womanly things.

And I have other friends who have chosen to let their lady parts live a life of leisure. These are the women who joyfully hold my children – and then hand them back just as joyfully when playtime is over.

And both of these groups – childless by choice or circumstance – are women just like me. They are. Complete and magical and mystical in every way.

So, I get it. I do. Menstruation is a rite of passage and it should be handled with sensitivity and respect. If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t want her to be that little girl crying in the bathroom because she thought she was dying or the little girl who felt left behind because hers hadn’t happened yet. And I certainly wouldn’t want her to be the little girl with the Twinkie on her schnoz. We are amazing – the potential power to create and nurture life inside us is awesome – and girls should know how to care for and listen to their bodies.

But, I also think putting so much emphasis on the menstrual cycle sends a harmful and unintended message. We are more than our ability to conceive. We are more than our ability to birth. And isn’t that what we’ve been struggling for through millennia? To be seen as something other than vessels? We are so much more than the sum of our lady parts – more than a pillow can ever convey.

Teaching and Parenting: The Same, but Different…

There have been many moments – too many to count, really – when I am confronted with the fact that I am grossly ill-prepared for parenthood.

Sure, I took child development and classroom management in preparation for becoming a teacher. Yeah, I managed rooms full of teenagers suffering from intermittent hormone-induced psychosis. But, nothing – and I mean NOTHING – really prepared me for this gig.

There is no principal, no bell, no textbook for parenting.

Now as any teacher worth her salt knows, the best teachers rarely send kids to the principal. But the principal is there. She’s a backup, a Plan G, a not-so-secret weapon. And even if the principal doesn’t actually do anything about the child’s problem behavior (be it throwing desks or shouting the f-bomb in class), when you send a kid to the principal’s office they are gone, even if it’s just for the remainder of the class period. And that little break is heavenly.

And, oh, the bell! Its clarion call heralds the end of your forty-seven minutes of heaven or hell. It is bliss, Nirvana, Paradise. It reminds you that no matter what madness you have endured, this too, shall pass.

And I’m not sure a textbook would have helped, but I’ve never had a lesson go so wrong, so fast as a conversation yesterday about the human skeleton. (Except for the time a girl stood up and began preaching in class because I was teaching a Hanukkah song.)

Scooter: “Mom, what’s that?” [Points to my handy visual aid.]

Me: “Oh, that’s the pelvis.”

Scooter: “Is that your butt?”

Me: “Well, it’s what your butt hangs on.”

Scooter: “Oh. [Points to lower part of spine.] And there’s the penis bone.”

Me: [Long pause.] “No, that’s not the penis bone. There isn’t a penis bone.”

Scooter: “Well, there is.” [He points to another visual aid.]

Me: [No pause.] “No, no there’s not. I know it sometimes feels like there’s a bone, but…”

Scooter: “Well, there is a bone in there.”

Me: “So, how about a snack?”

So when Scooter launches a hard plastic alligator into my gut, I can’t send him down the river. I am it. I am the prosecutor, judge, jury and bailiff. And I certainly don’t have a bell. Cheech wants to nurse for the forty-seventh time today? Moo. Scooter wants me to read “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” again, and this time, in a pirate voice? Argh. There’s poop on the bedroom curtains? Bleach. And there isn’t a book to help you explain why some animals have legs and some don’t, why Mommy isn’t going to go commando, and what to say when your kid asks you exactly how people die in fires.

No principal, no bell, no textbook. It’s a tough gig.

But, you know what? Some things are the same. The pay is still crummy.

Today, I still love “I hate you!”

I began writing this post yesterday morning – before the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Before images of shattered bodies and shattered lives filled my television screen and my Facebook feed. Before. I wanted it to be light-hearted, funny even. But today, it has taken on a more serious tone.

Yesterday at breakfast Scooter said, in his sweetest, most agreeable four-year-old voice, “Mom, sometimes I hate you.” And yesterday, I was sincerely happy to hear those words.

I was happy yesterday because, as Scooter gets older, I know there will likely be some really tough conversations. Where do babies come from?…Why doesn’t that girl (or guy) like me back?…I tried [x] yesterday…I just want to end it all… And I want him to have those conversations with me. Not alone inside his mixed up head. Not in an anonymous chat room. Not on Facebook. With me. And if he can’t tell me he hates me, then how will he find the courage to talk to me about any of those other things?

Today, as I look at images of genuine hatred and I wonder about the perpetrators, I know even more than I did yesterday how essential it is for my children to be able to say terrible things out loud. Not just so that we keep the lines of communication open, not just so those terrible things don’t take root in the dark – but so that I can teach him about love in the face of hatred. Whereas hatred has the power to eat a person alive from the inside, to lash out at others to wound and destroy, love brings life. Love restores, love heals. Love makes things better, richer and more beautiful.

So, the next time he tells me, “I hate you!” my answer will be, “I know. But, I love you and I always will.” Because I need to believe today that he is learning that love is always bigger than hate. Always.

What a Difference a Year Makes

As I schlepped through the grocery store parking lot today in my yoga pants, hefted Cheech’s carrier into the car seat base and zipped to Scooter’s school to make it in time for carpool pickup, I realized what a tremendous difference a year makes.

Rewind to April 12, 2012. I was a choir teacher in a public Texas high school and I was en route to take my Varsity Women’s Choir to UIL Concert and Sightreading Contest. For the uninitiated, this translates “Hell Week.”

Concert and Sightreading Contest is to choir what high-stakes standardized testing is to academics – in many districts, jobs are won and lost based on the outcome. Hopes will soar and dreams will be dashed. Directors and students alike eat, sleep and drink contest for months in advance, hoping to come home with the coveted “Sweepstakes” – i.e. top scores in both the concert portion and the sight reading portion.

But, like all things in education, an excellent rating on one year’s contest isn’t the result of one year’s work. Building the kind of program that performs well on that one snapshot day often takes years. And for a host of reasons that I won’t explain now, my students had only had 2-3 years of preparation instead of the 5-7 years expected of a group with the name “Varsity Women’s Choir.” Were they on track and even ahead for third-year choral students? Absolutely. But, in the world of U.I.L. Concert & Sightreading, they were David facing a Goliath-sized shopping list of expectations and requirements.

Add to that the sad fact that being in choir on our campus was a rather nerdy thing to do. In the high school social pecking order, we were not only lower than band nerds, we were lower than theater geeks. Really. Even the theater teacher agreed.

Also, we had been handed our hats at Contest the year before and the girls had been working ever since for a better rating. They had stretched themselves way beyond what they thought they could do – subjecting themselves to individual tests in sight reading and song literature, working on small groups together before and after school, extra rehearsals [within U.I.L. guidelines, of course], practicing at home.

I wasn’t sleeping. I was subsisting on crackers and diet soda. I recorded our rehearsals and nit-picked them at home. Scooter fell ill and I left him with the (“He’s No Florence Nightingale”) Hubs because I. Could. Not. Miss. Rehearsal!!! I consulted a bevy of seasoned vets for improvements, suggestions, good karma. And, oh, yes, I was three months pregnant and leaving at the end of the school year, and my precious students had had to be told because I was showing.

So, Contest wasn’t just about Contest. It was about making a good memory with a teacher they loved, about being rewarded for their efforts, about revenge, about being recognized and validated. And in no small part, it was about being seen as worthy of positive attention. Worthy of a larger investment of time and resources by their school and community.

The air on that bus was clouded with fear, love, determination and hope. And bus exhaust, of course.

Now, skip to the end. We won. For the first time in a really long time, they won a real award at a real contest. Not a Sweepstakes – but the highest possible rating in Concert. And, it was delicious and deserved. It was beautiful. Tears-in-your eyes, moment-of-hush-before-applause beautiful. I had traveled with a bunch of scared little girls, but I got to ride home with a band of proud, war-whooping warriors. They were full of vision. They had tasted victory. Next year is going to be awesome! Sweepstakes, here we come!

Except, it isn’t.

The program is all but dead. And next week is Contest – but, they aren’t going.

There are a lot of reasons. But, that’s not why I’m writing today. I’m not writing to finger-point or be snarky. I’ll save that for something less holy than the death of children’s dreams.

I’m writing today because those kids are and will always be worthy of my attention. Worthy of an investment of my time. And I think they are worthy of yours. I thank you for reading about them.

I Hate Waiting

Today I sent off my first children’s picture book submission. To a real publisher. (And no, it’s not “Robert and Roberta.”)

It’s a story that I think is pretty great. My ninth grade English teacher and my mother concur. It has a quirky protagonist, a dragon who wants to be an organic farmer and a good bit of alliteration (but no rhyming, rest assured). Here’s a sample:

“Good morning, mortal. I saw the smoke from your fire and have come to satisfy my appetite.” Hunwald licked his lips.

“Appetite?” gulped Gavert.

“Yes,” crooned Hunwald, his eyes narrowing. “A voracious appetite! For something…succulent!” and he licked his lips again.

“Perhaps some liverwurst?” squeaked Gavert.

“Hm. I’ve never had liverwurst. I’ll give it a try,” said Hunwald skeptically.

Gavert had some of the gruel left over and Hunwald licked the kettle clean. “Hm. A most delicate presentation with a soupcon of tarragon,” Hunwald crooned appreciatively. “Anything else?”

I’ve spent a lot of time revising and rewriting, tightening up the prose and reading it out loud, agonizing over word choice. Does Governor Floppensnout hoot when he laughs or does he snort? Does Hunwald have gleaming claws or razor-sharp claws? Agony, I tell you. Agony. And, I’ve asked people who know about these things to read it. I’ve read it to children (none were harmed in the testing process). I painstakingly researched the publishing house, combing through their catalogue, reviewing books they’ve recently published. Then, I cyber-stalked the editors to decide which one might be the most receptive. I tore my hair out writing a cover letter, scrounged up a nice (yet plain) envelope, hand-addressed it so that it wouldn’t look like a bulk submission, stamped it (perfectly aligning the little suckers) and now, it’s out there. In the world. Making its way to the desk of Ms. Fantastic Editor. Or perhaps, her secretary/intern/coffee lackey. I’m hoping it gets read. I’m hoping whoever reads it likes it. Enough to bring it to Ms. Fantastic Editor’s attention. Enough for Ms. Fantastic Editor to say, “Eureka! I’ve found it!” and maybe even to yell, “Stop the presses!” (Though I know they don’t actually have the presses at the publisher’s office.)

It’s like waiting to be asked to the dance.

In the words of Inigo Montoya, I hate waiting.

This publisher promises they read every submission and that they respond within twelve weeks if they are interested. I am skeptical. They get a lot of submissions. Forests-worth. I imagine them, like Gringotts goblins, riding high on piles and piles of envelopes like mine, slightly grouchy (from paper cuts on their hind-quarters), working diligently, but with little patience for drivel and slop.

“Oh. Another counting book! NEXT!”

“Vampire book. YAWN!”

“Oh. My. God. If I see one more cover letter saying their style is like J. K. Rowling or William Steig, I’m going to lose it, people! Lose. It!”

I hate waiting.

And I really hope the coffee lackey likes my book. Really, really.

AWOL

Dear Loyal Followers (all 8 of you):

I apologize for the delay in updating this humble blog. I am sure there has been much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth as you awaited my next installment, so send me the bills for your psychotherapy – mama’s feeling generous today.

Please know that I have thought of you often in this past week.

On Easter Sunday as I forced Scooter into a raccoon mask for the children’s spring pantomime at church, I thought perhaps there was something newsworthy there. Things really looked promising when he subsequently refused to sit in the pew and insisted instead on “helping” mommy at the piano. But, when I had to take him to the foyer (and by “take,” I mean carry like a log – a screaming banshee log) my hopes were dashed. No one wants to hear about that.

Then, I played for a memorial service. I had never met the deceased – but after hearing his family and friends reminisce about his life, I really wished I had. There was a lot of deep, thought-provoking material there. But, I’m not a ghoul and writing about that in detail seems indecent and a little too “heavy.”

On a much lighter note, I thought about writing about Scooter’s recent trip to the zoo where he made an instant best friend. I ended up spending several hours at the zoo following him and his new pal around – and making new friends myself with the little guy’s equally amused parents. Everyone loves to hear about how beautiful children are – but my ears are still ringing from Easter Sunday and I’m not in a good place to write about the joys of motherhood today.

As for Cheech, he continues to delight and amaze with his wicked mad skills: scooting backwards and farting large. But, I realize my bar for “delightful” and “amazing” is likely rather low so I’ll save that shiznit for Facebook.

So, dear reader, while I feel I have absolutely  nothing at all to write about, I’m sure I’ll come up with something. In the meantime, know that I am thinking about you and will deliver the goods soon.

Yours.