The Messy Person’s Guide to Housekeeping

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Dear messy people: those “how to keep a clean house” articles aren’t meant for you and me. They’re meant for people who are prone to orderliness and cleanliness, whose internal state functions best in a spotless home, whose very souls scream out for mopped floors and organized toy shelves. Even if they say they were once messy (messier than you, even — imagine that), they are now experts with whole livelihoods built around cleaning and organizing. Do you care enough about cleaning and organizing to quit your job and start a full-time gig involving weekly tips and a book deal on organizing? No?

Point proven: They’re not one of us.

These people have three things that set them apart from us messy ones: (1) they care more than we do about cleaning and organization; (2) they have more time than we do to clean and organize because that’s their day job; and/or (3) there’s a strong chance they’re not starting out their hey-I-was-a-slob-but-now-I’m-not success story turned brand during those [early stages of motherhood where everything is sleep deprivation, ground-in raisins, and toddlers in the toy dumping phase]. (Insert your own chaotic life situation if that one doesn’t apply.)

As I finally figured out, if I’m not internally motivated by cleaning demons, if I’m busy with other things I care about, and if all of my hard work goes to pot the second the toddler wakes up, my house isn’t going to get clean.

The standard advice for messy moms struggling to survive is, “Just let things go.” I absolutely advocate for this as part of my messy housekeeping guide, but as even struggling new moms know, it’s not a sustainable way of living. Why? Because while we messy people don’t need spotless floors or color-coded closets, we’re still adversely affected by certain things. I can let things go for quite a bit longer than clean people can…but once I can’t find matching socks or a clean spoon, I’m starting to get frustrated, anxious, and overwhelmed. That leaves me open (and vulnerable) to the cleaning experts’ advice — an equally frustrating, overwhelming, and anxiety-inducing situation (I DON’T WANT TO FIGURE OUT A SCHEDULE FOR VACUUMING MY MATTRESS, KAREN, I JUST WANT TO STOP STEPPING ON CHEERIOS).

Letting things go is a helpful, adaptive, necessary strategy for me to prioritize other things, but there comes a point when letting things go creates even more work or anxiety in the long run. Scraping mold off weeks-old dirty dishes is a low I don’t care to revisit…for a third time. Desperately soaking a cute baby onesie in Oxyclean to kill the black mold that spread from a wet washcloth I dropped down the laundry chute a decade ago — another situation I’d like to avoid in the future. And I cannot stand grimy, grungy floors.

That was a big breakthrough for me: I didn’t have “low standards” for cleaning. I had different standards. I wasn’t a lazy slob. I just didn’t prioritize certain domestic tasks as much as other people did. (And who made different people with different lives and interests and mess tolerance thresholds in charge of what I should or shouldn’t care about?)

Once I determined what my standards and my priorities were, and cleared out the clutter of other people’s standards and priorities, bingo. There was my natural motivation, shining through. Now I had time and energy to focus on my short but meaningful list of things that made my home feel livable and lovable.

What matters to you? Do you care about making your bed every morning? And I mean care because it actually matters to you, not care because some military dude says self-discipline all starts with a neatly-made bed, or care because you’re embarrassed of what your friends would think if they dropped by, or care because a study linked productivity and success with made-up beds? Does a made-up bed matter to you? Does it affect your life in a meaningful way, whether mentally or practically? No? Then forget about the bed and do the things that actually spark joy in your life. (Sorry to twist your words, Marie Kondo.)

Getting rid of the stigma and anxiety around being a messy person woman — and worse, a messy wife and mother — created much more space and positive energy around the chores that absolutely needed to get done for me and my family’s functioning.

And yes, there’s a stigma. Nobody who walks through my door and into my messy living room thinks, “Wow, her husband is such a slob” — not unless it’s quickly followed by, “I can’t believe she lets him wreck her house like that!” Nope. It’s always my fault, especially because I stay home with my kids. (Oh, you didn’t know? Staying at home with children automatically means dedicating the rest of your spare time and energy to domestic duties. You couldn’t possibly have anything else meaningful to do with your life than run after your kids with a vacuum all day long, so yes, the state of your house will be a major factor in whether you’re Being a Good Mom.)

I’m messy. That’s just the way I am. I kind of like a lived in look, and I certainly don’t mind a level of clutter and a sink of unwashed dishes — especially if it means I’m choosing to spend my time doing things that matter to me. Not to go on about double standards, but if I was a man, we’d link my messiness to being a free, creative, thoughtful soul and delegate the mess to the woman in my life. Since I’ve no woman to delegate my mess to and I’m often busy with other things, domestic stuff just doesn’t get done.

I’m okay with that now.

Being messy is not a vice, I decided — not unless it starts to interfere with my mental health and daily functioning, just like any thing in this world (including neatness). So I turned my tentative guilty pleasures (like never folding laundry in a timely manner) into lifestyle choices. My litmus test: If the only reason I feel ashamed about not doing something is because of what a stranger or an organized friend or a Better Homes and Garden contributor might think of me, that’s not a good reason to prioritize it.

I am terrified of typing those words, because bucking any ingrained female expectation is a no-no — even among those of us who are literally losing our minds trying to meet those crushing expectations. I think it takes a lot of courage to admit, “Hey, I genuinely don’t care that my clean laundry is piled out of sight for a week, and since I find no compelling moral or practical argument for why I should focus on that in my current life situation, I’m not going to reorder my whole existence to become the kind of woman who wants to fold her laundry as soon as it comes out of the dryer.” It’s courageous, I think, because what we’re actually saying is, “Hey, I’m not going to let what the culture says or what other people might think of me set the priorities for my particular life at the cost of me and my family’s purpose, passions, and well-being.”

This is a gigantic Step 1. This is the it that wiser women really mean when they tell struggling moms to “let it all go.” Let go all these desperate and failing attempts at keeping up false, clean freak appearances. Repeat after me: You are a messier person than some people, and that’s okay. You don’t care about an organized pantry, and that’s okay.

You don’t notice the grime in the windowsills. You don’t care about artfully stacking your books on your bedside table. It takes you a few weeks (or months) to throw out whatever’s expiring in the Tupperware that got shoved to the back of the fridge.

But you do care about the cleaning things you care about — so make a list of those things and let the rest go. Speaking of letting go — that’s Step 2.

Step 2. Rest. The more I push and hustle when I’m burnt out, the more anxiety, frustration, and negativity builds up around chores — all huge motivation killers. I’m a low-energy person who needs lots of space to do nothing, to do something thoughtful or relational, and/or to sleep before I’m fit for the world of productivity. Once I embraced that side of me instead of pushing it away as a sign of laziness and failure, I was more productive. When my batteries were fully or mostly charged, I could go longer. I didn’t resent the time and energy I had to spend on housekeeping because I had time and energy to spend.

Now, when I start avoiding chores, or resenting chores, or feeling overwhelmed by chores, or experience that soul-burning agony of putting my dish in the dishwasher instead of the sink, I don’t beat myself up for being a lazy slob. I take them as signs that I’m burnt out. I use a little humor and compassion: “Wow, Bailey, it’s that exhausting to you to fold and put away your pants instead of dropping them on the floor? If you’re that tired, you need to go rest.”

This sometimes means letting things go to pot a bit more than I like, a bit longer than I like. I intentionally let them go. I say, “Yikes, I really want to get the kitchen cleaned up, but this is my only chance to take a nap before work, and I desperately need a nap because I’m 38 weeks pregnant. I am choosing to take a nap instead of resentfully plowing through the dishes and depleting my energy further.”

Without fail, every time I prioritize rest, I recharge more quickly and am able to get things done. Without fail, every time I push or belittle myself for feeling unmotivated, the house falls apart more and longer. Shame and resentment are only motivational in the very short run, and fail to address the burn-out underlying my lack of motivation.

Step 3. Set things up so that your priorities drive chores, not the other way around. For me, a big motivation killer is feeling like I’m constantly running around the house putting something away or cleaning something up. It makes me feel unfocused, unproductive, and unavailable to the people and passions I care most about. Cleaning schedules are hit and miss with my lifestyle too — rarely do they coincide with how my specific week actually goes, and I end up feeling ashamed or frustrated about abandoning them for a slew of non-negotiable errands and obligations that continually and unexpectedly crop up.

Instead of interrupting what I’m doing or how I’m living to clean, I now pair related tasks together as much as possible. If I’m running a bath for the toddler, I might quickly spray down the fixtures while still engaging with him. If I’m microwaving popcorn for movie night, I’ll empty the dishwasher until the timer beeps. I’ll stack my son’s laundry on the stairs to take up when I’m going up to tuck him in. I might quietly tidy up his room if he asks me to sit with him a few minutes longer at bedtime. If I’m bringing my coffee cup to the sink, I’ll also gather up any wrappers, tissues, and dirty dishes that never made it into the kitchen yesterday. I fold and stuff my clothes into drawers right after I undress at night. Things like that. I’m already there doing something absolutely necessary or wanted, so I tack on a little task I’ve been meaning to do.

This means that the dishes don’t always get done by bedtime, and my son’s room remains a disaster zone for a month (and counting), and stuff stays stacked on the stairs for a while. That’s okay with me, because stuff still gets done, and I don’t feel hounded by meaningless tasks. My house is never always clean, all of it — but it wasn’t all of it always clean back when I was struggling to follow the clean people’s advice and beating myself up about being a lazy slob because I couldn’t keep up. Nope, my house isn’t always clean and tidy — but it no longer feels unmanageable, and it’s no longer a source of chronic anxiety and shame.

For a messy person like me, that’s all I want out of a cleaning approach.

Pregnancy Is My Winter Season

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It’s winter, and I’m pregnant. Only five weeks left to go, but they’re still a whole five weeks.

These are my two least favorite seasons in the entire world. I shouldn’t have to explain why winter gets me in a funk, but here you go anyway: IT’S FREEZING. And for pregnancy: IT’S UTTER , ALL-CONSUMING EXHAUSTION.

Nobody told me about pregnancy exhaustion. You hear about the morning sickness — a bane that passed quickly for both my pregnancies — but not the exhaustion.

Surprise: It’s a whole thing.

I was chatting about it with my sister a trimester go, the trimester where your body’s supposed to hit an energy spike. Am I exaggerating? I wanted to know. Am I just a wimp? Is it possible that pregnancy is really this tiring?

Bailey, she said. I would take the sleep deprivation of having a newborn over pregnancy exhaustion anytime.

And she had two under two at the time. She knew a thing or two about tired.

I, like all women, possess the unique talent of being completely incapable of recognizing just how exhausted and burnt out I am. I err on the side of guilt and comparison. Other women get through it — with more children, tougher pregnancies, and cleaner houses! Slog it out, girlfriend.

And I do, usually, but I’ve been slogging more slowly lately, checking behind my shoulder to see who’s policing my pace and my output. Is anybody? And if they are, are they right to do so?

I just want to sleep. Forever. Or at the very least lie horizontally on a comfy couch with my two gigantic pillows and the cozy red throw.

But I haven’t been letting myself, because I’ve got a toddler. And I’ve got guilt about all the things I should be doing with him and for him. Mainly, I’ve got major guilt about not getting him outside everyday.

A couple winters ago, I got sucked into the wonderful world of nature-based play. We went outside almost every day, rain or shine, for two winters. I rhapsodized about all the fun we were having splashing in slush puddles and running around in freezing rain and hauling a sled in a real, actual blizzard (okay, that wasn’t such a fun time at all). I even started my own hashtag for all our nature adventure photos: #rainorshine365.

This winter, I was having none of it.

I remember sitting on the front porch, already too pregnant and tired to stand on two feet, and feeling the shift in the weather. There was this melodramatic, WINTER IS COMING moment, and there was my feeble, Nope, and then winter unleashed itself halfway through fall.

Not here for this.

Neither was my toddler. I’d take the ten minutes to bundle us both up, and I’d hunch on the porch, unmoving, and he’d sit on his tricycle, staring into space, and then he’d echo my heart’s cry of, “In! In!” Thank goodness. Whenever I asked him if he wanted to play outside, he’d say no. Praise Jesus.

It took me a good long time to let go of my #rainorshine365 goal this winter. Just today we won’t go out, I reasoned. Okay, just on days below 20 degrees we won’t go out. Just on gray dreary days we won’t go. Just on weekends we’ll get out, if the weather is nice.

But here I am, on a beautiful, sunshiney holiday day, temps in the 30’s, fresh white snow on the ground, and we are not outside.

The reason for this severe shift from hippy nature mama to couch potato is obviously because I am a wimpy, selfish, sad excuse of a mother. That’s the “fact” I struggle against daily.

I don’t why it’s so difficult for me to say, “Hey, I’m five weeks away from giving birth. I’m huge. I’m tired. I’m getting ready to recede into post-partum hibernation anyway. This is just a season. My spring is coming, but right now it’s winter. So curl up on that couch and nap away.”

Actually, I do know why it’s difficult for me to say that. It’s because our culture is not a seasonal culture. It didn’t teach me to connect with, much less honor, the ebb and flow of nature — of my body, of the day and night, of the four seasons. I didn’t run with the seasons — I honed an internal drive to motor a linear path through every. single. obstacle. Tiredness? Sickness? That time of month? Just temptations for laziness.

Life is about balance, I thought. It’s about habit. You figure out the middle ground between vice and virtue and carry it with you all day, every day, or you are a terrible failure of a human being.

My feasting was marked with moderation. My resting was marred with work. The seasons of my life and of nature all bled together into one overwhelming, never-ending thing to be overcome. The slog.

Fortunately, being a short-lived wildschooler put me in contact with a whole community of nature lovers and cold dwellers who encouraged living with and listening to the seasons.

Winter is not a season for any sort of plowing ahead. It’s a resting season. Nothing grows. Nothing is produced. It’s not the time for harvest or output or even getting things ready. Everything is dead, sleeping, waiting for resurrection. It’s a time for enjoying the abundance of what we have and what we’ve worked for. It’s a time for conserving resources, energy, light, and warmth, huddling closer to share them, curling in on ourselves to maintain them.

And here’s the thing: spring always comes. But first, winter. Always. Our ecosystem depends on it.

Pregnancy is my winter season — especially in winter. (I’ve only ever had winter babies.) I can’t motor through anymore. I don’t have much to give. Shutting the doors. Settling down. Curling up. Snuggling close. Sleeping.

I’m not giving up. I’m not failing. I’m hibernating.

This winter pregnancy, I’m trying to follow the rhythm of my body, the rhythm of nature, the rhythm of the life within me, and the rhythm of the seasons I’m in — seasons that might not be my personal favorites, but seasons that are critical for producing life.

Toddlers vs. Halloween Candy

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Ethical conundrum: How much of their toddlers’ Halloween candy can parents eat?

Related: How much of their own Halloween candy should toddlers eat?

Last Halloween, we guiltily ate most of our baby’s trick-or-treating haul. He was under a year, most of it was a choking hazard, and at the time, we erred on the side of not giving him much sugar.

This Halloween, we’d given up banning sugar, he knew what treats were, he had his molars, and honestly, we wanted him to participate fully in the holiday — and that meant candy. Since he was getting candy, little sibling would want candy too. (This, of course, complicated ethical conundrum #1. I told myself that Snickers were still a choking hazard — the nuts! the caramel! — and hoarded them all for myself.)

Our game plan was Ellyn Satter’s advice.

For everyday snacks and meals, Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility prevents parental tantrums and anxiety over our toddlers’ weird eating habits. Eats FOUR cheese sticks in one sitting, then refuses to eat them for weeks after that. Can’t get enough bananas one week, can’t throw them off the side of their tray fast enough the next. Eats so much pasta that I almost don’t get a decent serving, eats little to nothing for the next few meals. One of our toddlers regularly consumes nothing but milk at 1 or 2 meals a day, even when we offer tried-and-true favorites. WHY. The double whammy of food waste and potentially starving children is too much for my soul to take.

In comes DOR to restore sanity. The gist of DOR is this: Parents decide what, when, and where kids eat. Children decide what and how much (if anything) to eat of that selection. No coaxing, no threatening, no force-feeding, no little airplane spoon rides to transport peas into a determinedly closed toddler’s mouth. It’s all based in trusting children to regulate themselves and to learn to enjoy various foods through time and structure.

Even with Halloween candy.

Ellyn says,

When he comes home from trick-or-treating, let him lay out his booty, gloat over it, sort it and eat as much of it as he wants. Let him do the same the next day. Then have him put it away and relegate it to meal- and snack-time: a couple of small pieces at meals for dessert and as much as he wants for snack-time.

Harrowing advice, I must say, but we’ve been using DOR since Day 1 and we’ve liked the results so far. So we decided to stick to it and trust it, no matter what happened. And if it all exploded in our faces, we’d do something different next year.

I was okay with the initial night of celebration. Trick-or-treating ended at dinnertime (with meltdowns all around, Mommy included — do you know how exhausting it is to chaperone a tripping-prone child who insists on either meandering slowly by themselves or being carried around the block, no exceptions?!). They got to pick treats out at dinner, but honestly, the toddlers ate more of their auntie’s chocolate chip pumpkin muffins than their candy. (Excellent choice, by the way.) They enjoyed dumping out and throwing their candy at Daddy even more than eating it.

On Day 2, interest in eating treats appeared with a vengeance. Nonstop whining, tantrumming, and/or asking for treats all morning long. Hello, Terrible Twos. One of them skipped over their peanut butter waffles, thinking I’d offer Skittles for breakfast instead. I didn’t, and a packet of Gobstoppers went flying into my coffee. I know Ellyn said to give them free reign over treats the day after (probably to avoid this very post-Halloween cryfest), but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that because I still felt all judged and uncertain about toddlers indulging in unlimited sweets, and it’s a hassle to wipe sticky fingers and faces all morning long, and I planned on giving them as much as they wanted at snack time…if we all survived until 10:30 AM.

We did survive. I gave them full cups of milk and total control of the pumpkin treat bucket (minus choking hazards). I felt like I unwrapped hundreds of candies. I was shocked at how much anxiety was flooding my system. Hey-o, never knew I had this many negative associations with sugar. Didn’t know childhood obesity was a deep dark fear. Who’d’ve thunk that watching my toddler stuff their face with candy and — oh, horror! — enjoy every carefree bite could trigger so much worry? It felt like this would never end. It felt like their appetites were bottomless. It felt like I’d failed as a mother because my kids liked candy. We will never recover from this! They’ll never eat vegetables now!

It’s really sad that my anxious adult lens dampened my experience of their pure joy over trying new treats for the first time. In all actuality, one ate about five pieces and the other ate about six pieces, plus they chugged two cups of milk each. (I didn’t even bother offering an alternate snack.) They both stopped when their bodies told them to stop. We had a few conversations about treats after that, but even the Gobstopper-throwing child graciously accepted that treats would be served at meals and snacks only, and there was no more whining about candy for the entire week after Halloween.

They ate all of their lunch an hour later. I was genuinely shocked, what with the conventional wisdom that sugar before meals spoils the appetite. But I guess, in hindsight, we really hadn’t done anything differently: I let them eat their fill at snack as I always do. Snack just happened to be Halloween treats.

At afternoon snack, I offered a non-treat snack plus their Halloween treats. Along with some non-treat snack, one ate about four pieces, the other opened a bunch of candy to try but only ate a few pieces. Dinner was uneventful, both accepting that they were allowed only one treat at meals.

On Day Three, they ate snack on the wagon ride home from library storytime, so the treat bucket was unavailable. I told their babysitter they could eat one piece at lunch, but neither asked for one even though the bucket sat smack dab in front of them. I don’t remember afternoon snack or dinner (probably a couple treats at snack and one at dinner), but since the excitement of Halloween was dying off for them, I stopped offering treats as snack options and dessert on Day 4. Zero complaints.

The treat bucket now sits on my nightstand, where I have sadly eaten all the Snickers and am selflessly reserving the last few Reese’s peanut butter cups for my husband. The last time a toddler ate candy was yesterday, when they interrupted my nap by waking up early from their nap, and I said, yes, yes, eat the Skittles pouch you found between the couch cushions; sure, of course, watch some dad play with Disney trucks on YouTube; do whatever you want, JUST LET ME SLEEP. (I am a desperately exhausted pregnant woman, people.)

SO.

Regarding Ethical Conundrum #1: I’m not sure. After all, Snickers are on the line.

Regarding Ethical Conundrum #2: How much of their own candy should kiddos eat? As much as their bodies want — which, it turns out, isn’t as scary a proposition as I thought.

Learning to Lament, With Toddlers

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My #firsttimeparent moment came when two-month-old e.e. started crying more than his usual contented self. After all the kinds and lengths of cries and screams we’ve witnessed in two years of parenting, it’s utterly laughable that we were even concerned about this particular cry — much less concerned enough that we felt it best to take him to the pediatrician ASAP. He was fine. Apparently we weren’t the first new parents to worry over newborn cries, and our pediatrician assured us that the worst was yet to come.

Toddlers cry. A lot. They scream. They tantrum. They wail. They sob. They reach humanly impossible pitches and intensities. It’s just a thing that they do, even if you check off all the Basic Needs boxes: fed, changed, rested, warm, entertained, attended to. Consistent routines and nap/meal schedules help to stave of hunger- and exhaustion-related meltdowns, but I still cook many a lunch with toddlers screaming, “MAHHHHHHH!” at me, as if I’ve never given them any food in their lives.

It’s my favorite part of parenting, for sure.

Before crying underscored my existence, I resolved never to do that horribly dismissive things parents do — telling their kids to stop crying!, as if they’re miserable because they’re crying instead of crying because they’re miserable. I’m still resolved, but my success rate is far from 100%. Sometimes, I just can’t take it anymore. The crying is so incessant, so loud, so intrusive, and from my adult perspective, so irrational. Nothing triggers compassion fatigue faster than a whiny scream over no discernible thing, with all offers of kindness, solutions, and juice refused.

It’s not irrational, not when I step away from the screaming and process what the heck just happened. Life just sucks sometimes, for all of us, toddlers and adults. It’s not about wanting Mama to get the cup of water instead of Daddy, not really. It’s about the fears we have of losing connection with someone we love, and how little control we have over people, and how much we need them, anyway, and how are we supposed to function, needing someone we cannot control? It’s not about tripping over their feet and falling on their butt (again) as they’re learning to walk. It’s about the frustration of wanting to get to a solid, steady place in life, but development and obstacles constantly hold us back, no matter how much we try. Some days, we wake up on the wrong side of the bed. The world looks bleak, we feel crappy, and it’s just too overwhelming to make it downstairs to breakfast.

Once, a parent tried soothing their daughter who had burst into inconsolable tears. “It’s okay,” they soothed. “You’re okay.”

“I’m not okay!” she snapped.

Toddlers aren’t irrational. Toddlers are honest. They’re honest about the jagged edges of reality that we try to smooth over with the lies we tell ourselves about being in control and everything having a meaning and life always working out in the end.

Toddlers know how to lament. 

The impulse is to calm the child, to make things better. But the scream comes back, “Don’t even try to calm me down!” whether in words or equivalent. Why is this so unnerving? Doesn’t it evoke all the fear, resentment, frustration, which hasn’t really changed at all since our own childhood? And isn’t the impulse to get the child calmed down, by any means possible, an impulse to stifle this Pandora’s box? It’s an enormous challenge to really be with the child in its inconsolable state.

That child is ourself. We want love, which is always going to turn out to be less dependable than the infinite we hoped for. We want psychological security and it will never be enough. We want physical security. We want to continue as me forever. Our wants, and perceived needs come up bang against the wall of aloneness which wanting and hoping and grasping creates. Then, can we be with the sadness this evokes? Can we feel it, the impulse to run away from it, the absoluteness of it, the non-negotiable nature of our predicament as a vulnerable, scared human being? Perhaps if we truly perceive the fact that there is nothing I can do, then the child/adult may for the first time be free from an enormous burden of managing the unmanageable. — Anonymous, quoted in “When a Child Is Inconsolable: Stay Near”

I think that’s why we’re often deeply uncomfortable with crying children: they’re lamenting an unfixable grief. Why else are we still trying to get our children to stop crying when it’s obvious they feel a need to cry about something? Sure, we often get flat out annoyed and overstimulated and just want the crying to stop for our own sanity. But in other moments, we can’t deal with the helpless position we find ourselves in when our babies are sobbing, and we’ve tried everything, and nothing will fix it. We feel helpless, we feel guilty for feeling helpless, and we feel reminded of a deeply uncomfortable truth…that sometimes nothing can fix the hurts in this life, not in the way we want, and certainly not on our own timetable.

Sitting with a screaming toddler, it’s the exact process of sympathy, discomfort, and then avoidance I feel with people who’ve experienced adult pain. They’re single and they don’t want to be. Their family’s a wreck. They hate their job. They want something more out of life. The first few times, I knit my brow and listen intently. Yes, this is a valid pain. I get it. I’ve felt it myself. The next few times, when it gets clearer and clearer how badly this pain is affecting them, I get nervous. I don’t know how to help. I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to be in this support position anymore. Why are they telling me all this? I’m not a counselor.

The few times after that, I want to throw up my hands and tell them to get a grip — as if there’s a timeline on grief.

I find myself thinking of the story of Job a lot, how he drew the short stick in life just for being a righteous man, and how all his friends came, lamented, and sat with him for seven days and seven nights, holding space for his unspeakable grief. They must have got compassion fatigue from seven days of lamenting, because after Job starts verbalizing his grief in long, melodramatic monologues, the friends lose their empathy. They start trying to fix things: Here’s what you did wrong, Job; here’s what you can do; here’s how you can move on.

Just like me. I do that. I’m the obnoxious fix-it personality who’s quicker to Google possible remedies and analyze everything to make sure this never happens again. I do it to everyone, including myself. I haven’t learned to lament. I haven’t learned to hold space. I don’t think many of us have, even those of us who aren’t obnoxious fix-it personalities. We don’t know how it feels to have someone sit with us and let us scream or cry or rant for as long as we need, without judgment, without fidgeting, without Googling nearest counselors who price services on a sliding income scale.

There are, of course, things we can do to help. Sometimes someone needs a nap or a hug or a cup of juice to get blood sugar back up. Sometimes advice, a game plan, and counseling is absolutely critical to resolving or avoiding the issue in the future. But sometimes, at the core of the grief is an unfixable thing that just needs space to be.

One of my toddlers woke up from a nap screaming. They didn’t want to be touched. They didn’t want to be spoken to. They flung themselves away from me at great risk to their physical safety whenever I moved toward them or opened my mouth. Finally I just sat there. They screamed full volume, full heart for thirty minutes. I timed it. My husband had to take over lamenting, because the other toddler needed me (which might have prolonged the screaming). After thirty minutes, the tears abated, I picked them up, gave them a kiss, nuzzled them, fed them a snack, and we went about our day relatively tear-free.

They just needed to lament, and they needed me to sit with them and let their feelings be unfixable.

If I’m honest, I need that. We all need that. We aren’t as free or in touch with our grief as toddlers are. We’re less egotistical; we’re more conscious of how perspective and time work; we’re more considerate of how our sorrow and pain affect others. But we still need to lament more than we’d like to admit. And we still need friends who will sit with our lament in silent acceptance for as many days and nights as it takes to feel okay again.

Gently Teaching Breastfeeding Manners

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For all the convenience of whipping out a boob whenever your baby starts squawking, breastfeeding isn’t always a walk in the park. One of the hardest challenges was when e.e. started doing gymnastics at the breast, around nine months old. He was distracted, restless. He bit me a couple times. He started grabbing my glasses and my hair, and whacking my face and chest — hard. I wanted to wean him cold out of sheer self-preservation.

I didn’t really know how to handle it, because he was a baby, after all. How do you teach a baby? The only insight I knew about flailing baby hands was the punitive methods I’d heard in the past: pull his hair when he pulls yours; pinch him when he bites you; gently slap his hand if he smacks you. Show him how much it hurts.

Violence against my child was not option. Neither was violence against me, no matter how innocent or accidental.

My big breakthrough was giving up the idea that I could control my baby’s actions. That is, I couldn’t actually prevent him from trying to hit, pinch, bite, or pull my hair. It’s not like I could get inside his brain and flip an “off” switch for restless baby hands. Nor is that a developmentally appropriate expectation. Once I accepted that he would try to do those those things, I could focus on what I could control: preventing him from actually hitting, pinching, biting, or pulling my hair.

Babies don’t do anything out of malice. They do things to explore, to get a reaction. What happens if I pull on this long hair? What’s that fun sound Mommy’s skin makes when I slap it? Wow, Mommy yelled really loud when I did that! Why would she do that? Can I make her do it again?

A corollary insight: The more you make a big deal out of something, the more interesting to baby it becomes. For toddlers as mischievous, curious, and stubborn as mine (that is, most toddlers), Mommy’s big reactions are excellent opportunities to explore their power and influence — a healthy thing, a good thing, a normal thing, but a thing that gets old and hurtful real fast for Mommy.

It’s better to simply prevent the pain and redirect a baby toward a more pleasant way of being silly, stubborn, or curious.

When his little hand started whack-whack-whacking against me, I’d catch it in mine and kiss his palm. I’d turn it into a distraction far more fun than scratching Mommy’s cheek. I’d stroke my face with his hand, or stroke his face with his hand, or playfully shake his hand, or wiggle his fingers.  I’d play three little piggies on his toes, or the itsy bitsy spider on my fingers, or round and round the garden by his belly button. Usually he stopped trying to whack me fairly quickly, but sometimes he didn’t, and I’d just keep hold of his hand, blowing raspberries into his palm, until he was done eating.

In other words, I responded to what he really wanted: to move his hand, or be goofy with Mommy, or keep himself entertained while nursing. If I were to pinch him back or yank his hair or even cry, “NO! Bad touch!“, I’d be responding to a nonexistent impulse in babies: the impulse to be naughty or disobey or cause pain. The important thing is meeting him at his level, keeping myself safe, and reinforcing positive, pain-free things to do with his hands.

For biting, whether accidental from restlessness or purposeful from curiosity, I would yell out (an involuntary and unplanned response that I include only to keep it real). To reduce the restless acrobatics that led to bites, I learned to nurse him in distraction-free areas or pump a bottle to-go and avoid the issue altogether. If he was really restless, that was a sign to me that he either wasn’t hungry or wasn’t going to focus, anyways, and I set him down and tried again later. If he bit on purpose, I might set him down (not as a punishment, just to collect myself), or I might carry on with more intentional distraction. He didn’t bite more than a handful of times.

Last insight, a mantra really, a perspective that keeps me sane no matter what age of child I’m dealing with: this will not last forever. The standing-on-his-head, kicking, pinching, arm-flailing, tear-inducing, painful nursing stance he took as a nine-month-old only lasted a few months, at most. He naturally transitioned to a more mannerly nurser around age one.

My point is, there need not be any fear surrounding restless breastfeeding or slapping baby hands. He will not grow up to be a psychopath who delights in causing pain. It’s not a serious, ingrained character flaw that needs to be pinched out of him. It’s just a normal development in the breastfeeding relationship, and like all other aggravating parts of childhood, it will likely be short-lived, and it will certainly, eventually pass.

In the meantime, I grab hold of and kiss those flailing baby hands to keep my sanity and skin intact.

Raising Kids without Gender Stereotypes Isn’t About Getting Them to Like Certain Things. It’s About Acknowledging That They Already Do.

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Hurrah for floral prints!

Here’s the problem gender stereotypes: they say many true things about boys and girls — who they are, what they like, what they want, what they’re capable of — but they don’t say all of the true things. My son does indeed enjoy pushing his toy truck across the floor. He rough houses. He ate a handful of mud the other day. He loves the outdoors. He plays catch. He likes bears, lions, dragons, and dinosaurs because they growl and roar. One of his first words was “whoo whoo” — the sound of a choo choo train, obviously.

Name any toddler boy thing, and he’ll likely be into it. All of those “boy things” are great fun, and not remotely toxic.

What’s problematic is when a descriptive observation (most boys like trucks) becomes a prescriptive value that limits and shames boys who don’t conform — e.g., all boys should like trucks, and by extension, shouldn’t like a certain set of other things that only girls should like. It’s also problematic when those accurate descriptive observations ignore other accurate observations that give the whole story about boys and girls — such as, “most girls like trucks too.”

People being who they are and liking what they do is never a problem, even if their interests are stereotypical. There’s nothing wrong with statements such as, “Most boys I know prefer trucks to dolls,” and there’s nothing toxic, dangerous, or oppressive about boys enjoying trucks over dolls.

But gender stereotypes often get internalized not only as “the way things are” but also “the way things ought to be” — so much so that those generalities, however accurate, prevent us from seeing our individual kids as they actually are. In other words, we often miss when our descriptive observations become prescriptive, and oppressive, values.

Already someone has snatched a doll away from my son because “boys don’t play with dolls” — a funny observation, since a boy was literally just playing with a doll. “Pink is a girls’ color!” some of my former students shouted at the boy using pink scissors — an odd assertion, since a boy is currently using pink scissors without any evidence of a sex change.

We say “boys don’t,” but what we really mean is “boys shouldn’t.” Instead of changing our concept of masculinity to include all the things that boys can and often are interested in, we try to restrict the parameters of our sons’ unique beings based solely on “what most boys do.”

Do I really have to elaborate on how blind, repressive, and, frankly, silly this is? Even if it’s true that more boys like “boy things,” many boys do like many of the things girls like. That’s a fact. Why deny it? Why can’t “most boys prefer trucks to dolls” be an interesting factoid instead of a prescription for how our individual sons must be? My individual son is not “most boys.” He is himself. And there are many boys (and many girls) like him.

Gendered parenting says be this, not that. It takes all the different things and interests and traits in the world and divides them into two categories: masculine and feminine. It introduces a faulty, absolute division of the world: you can be like a girl, or you can be like a boy — as if that’s the only or primary value governing children’s interests. If a boy possesses too many things, interests, and traits from the “feminine side,” he allegedly becomes effeminate. Even though he may naturally value those “feminine” things and interests and naturally possess those “feminine” traits, gendered parenting says those things, interests, and traits cannot be a boy’s true masculine nature.

Gendered parenting is a lens that trains the eye to look only for masculine or feminine traits and interests in boys and girls, respectively, and thus reinforce only those things as good, normal, and desirable. And if children don’t respond to this subtler reinforcement, gendered parenting openly shames the “effeminate” or “unladylike” things their children do.

Basically, gendered parenting only values parts of our kids — everything that falls under a predetermined “masculine” and “feminine” category. 

Gendered parenting particularly hits hard against feminine traits — obviously in boys, but also in many girls raised in “gender-neutral” households. There is a kind of “gender-neutral” parenting that applies the same prescriptive censorship against “girly” things. Their girls will not wear pink. They will not like princesses. They will not wear dresses, or make up, or sparkly shoes. On principle. These gender-neutral households act as if there is only one way to be a strong woman — and that is to be like traditional masculinity, or at least not like traditional femininity.

Of course, many girls like “girly” things even in households where parents don’t introduce them or outright discourage them. Restricting our children to a predetermined way of being — even if it’s a less traditional, allegedly more subversive way — is just plain old gendered parenting. There’s nothing progressive about it.

My husband convinced me to get rid of the term “gender-neutral” altogether and replace it with “parenting without gender stereotypes” instead. For many, gender-neutral parenting implies an aim to make boys as feminine as possible and girls as masculine as possible, deleting and adding feminine and masculine traits until their child is completely androgynous.

This is not the parenting without gender stereotypes that I advocate. Parenting without gender stereotypes is not prescriptive. It doesn’t let gender concepts for either sex dictate how the child will be raised. It doesn’t place any inherent value on masculinity and femininity as distinct sets of virtues, interests, traits, colors, activities, and so on. It isn’t about making boys less like boys and more like girls; it’s about operating outside of the idea that boys should be one way because they’re boys, and girls should be another way because they’re girls.

Parenting without gender stereotypes draws awareness to gender stereotypes only to check parents’ own biases and tendencies — never to restrict a child’s being.

That needs to be understood clearly: parenting without gender stereotypes is not about “un-sexing” children. It’s not about confusing them about their biology, or discouraging stereotypical interests, or ignoring real differences between boys and girls and how the culture socializes them. It’s about un-gendering and un-stereotyping parents‘ perspectives that would cause them to miss, ignore, downplay, or shame certain of their children’s traits when they view their children primarily as boys or girls instead of as individuals who happen to be a boy or a girl.

Parenting without gender stereotypes challenges parents’ gendered assumptions. We assume that baby boys like blue, sports, bears, dinosaurs, and rough and tumble play, so we decorate their nurseries in “boy colors,” buy them dinosaur rompers, and purchase Little Tykes push mowers for their birthdays. Let me again be clear: nothing is wrong with any of those things, and nothing is wrong with the assumption that boys will enjoy them. In fact, I decorated e.e.’s nursery in primary colors, dressed him in dinosaur rompers for a good chunk of his babyhood, and bought him a Little Tykes push mower for his birthday. Those are all things that are good, fun, and likely to pique any kid’s interest.

A problematic assumption is that there’s something wrong with a boy if he doesn’t like those things, or an assumption that boys wouldn’t like the color pink, dance, cats, flowers, and make-believe dress-up — because let me assure you, they are just as likely to enjoy them as they enjoy all those wonderful “boy things.” e.e. chooses his pink sparkly hand-me-down shoes over his no-nonsense sports shoes every time. His first explorations in play involved a beloved leather purse, a teething necklace, and Mommy’s scarves. He spends the majority of his day “cooking,” and if I ever lose him in a crowded play place, I can generally find him at the play kitchen.

Gendered assumptions miss whole chunks of a child’s world. My e.e. still doesn’t play with his Little Tykes push mower, but he loves snuggling his Monkey stuffie. Going off gendered assumptions, who’d’ve thunk that?

Parenting without gender stereotypes also challenges parents’ gendered assumptions on the meaning of children’s play and interests. Many people would recoil at many of e.e.’s toys: He has a purse? You bought him a purple necklace for Christmas?! You’re emasculating your son!

But that’s superimposing a gendered understanding of the world onto my son’s play. He’s one years old. I guarantee you that he doesn’t gravitate toward or away from certain things based on the social pressure to be a boy, or to advance a feminist agenda. Even if I wanted to shape him into a particular kind of child, I couldn’t: I can’t get him interested in most of the stuff I set out for him. He plays with what he likes, for reasons that have nothing to do with gendered stereotypes. He doesn’t play with purses to challenge the status quo. All he knows about purses is that they’re fun to hang around his neck, pull around, fill with stuff, and fiddle with buckles, straps, and zippers.

Adults read far too much of their own beliefs and fears into their kids’ play. Because we’re hyper-aware of gender stereotypes, we often fail to see the context, the meaning, and the true appeal of a child’s particular interest. We might see the boys who come to my school with painted nails and assume that they’re secretly gay, or want to be girls, or will grow up to be fashion icons, or don’t want anything to do with “masculine” things.

We’d guess wrong, because every one of those boys fits the traditional rough-and-tumble stereotype. They like painted nails because colorful paint fun, especially on nails! It doesn’t stop them from digging for worms or tackling each other on the playground. Nor does it predict that they’ll be feminists or emotionally intelligent or anything like that. It’s just nail polish to them — no gendered thinking, whether traditional or subversive, attached.

Shame, oppression, toxicity; self-confidence, equality, freedom: they start with outside values that parents’ inculcate in their children, not with children’s innate interests. Parenting without gender stereotypes redirects parental influence toward teaching real virtues and values, rather than assuming that certain interests will predict a certain kind of virtue or value.

Of course, what children are interested in can and does influence their values. Play is their way of exploring the world — and it matters. So there’s nothing wrong with deliberately introducing or not introducing a child to something because you as a parent value and enjoy it (or don’t). Parenting without gender stereotypes asks us to examine the reasons why we do or don’t value that thing, and get rid of reasons that are based in gendered thinking — thinking that is entirely arbitrary and culturally bound.

I deliberately put my son in pinks and florals. Why? Because his dad and I like them. Sharing something we love with our son is a perfectly natural parenting instinct. Pink is a great color, floral fabrics are fun, and good grief, God created pink and flowers for everyone. Why shouldn’t naturally-occurring  parts of creation show up on my son’s sweatshirt? Once e.e. starts picking out his own clothes, I won’t mind if he prefers different prints or colors. There’s no inherent goodness in him liking pink or floral; no inherent danger in him picking out his truck pjs and dino shirts instead. His color and print preferences are not, in themselves, indicators about his values or personality.

But the fact that he can wear whatever he likes without having to worry about whether he’s less of a man — that’s an important value I hope to pass on through his pink shirts.

For me, parenting without gender stereotypes isn’t trying to get my son to prefer pink over blue or girl stuff over boy stuff. It’s trying to get him to see that every option is valuable in its own way and open to his choosing. Where gendered parenting says he can be this or that, parenting without gender stereotypes says he can be this and that. He can rough house and play in the mud and play kitchen and drive his trucks and read mermaid books and like lions and like all the colors of the rainbow (or only prefer blue). He can respect women and hate the color pink; he can be a firefighter and unwind with a latte; he can be completely, stereotypically masculine and still be not an ounce toxic in his thinking or behavior; he can be every inch gay and not be any less of a man.

He can like whatever he likes, and by extension, he can be whoever he is, and he doesn’t ever have to worry about conforming to what most boys do just because most boys do it. And I will love all of who he is.

It’s not that kids should enjoy a predetermined amount of “girl things” or “boy things.” It’s that they already do enjoy a whole bunch of diverse things that range from “girl” to “boy” to “neutral.” If we take away our gender blinders long enough to see, that would be the most obvious and accurate description of our children.

You Aren’t Wrong Just Because Someone Else Is Upset

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I’m indebted to Robin Einzig’s (above) and Harriet Lerner’s wisdom on this subject.

As a highly sensitive person, as a devoted wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend, and as a woman conditioned to care far more deeply about others’ feelings than her own, I find it difficult to say no, to disagree, to disappoint, or to be in conflict with others.

It comes out in different ways with different relationships. With anyone else besides my husband or son, I feel intense anxiety and sometimes terror about conflict, even on the most innocent of subjects, like personal preferences. I tend to clam up and nod along. If they find out my hatred of sausage pizza, our friendship is done for. 

With my husband, this discomfort with conflict comes out in, ironically, angry fights, criticism, and arguments. I’m not comfortable with actual differences between us, not okay with holding to an opinion that he doesn’t completely support too, certainly not able to take a stand that evokes a strong negative reaction in him. Since I have no faith in my own opinions, I have to be right — unequivocally, universally right. My opinion being not mine but God’s own truth, I must therefore argue my husband into submission.

Funny, isn’t it? Argumentative people are so crazy insecure about being wrong that they have to be right, especially when they’re not sure they are.

With my son, my anxiety over our differences in opinion (I want to make breakfast right after I take a quick bathroom break, he wants breakfast NOW) manifests in indecision, guilt, and, eventually, irritability.

I point out these different manifestations because I think both dogmatic, critical people and insecure, guilt-ridden people are just two sides of the same coin: uncomfortable with making decisions that others disagree with; uncomfortable with sitting with someone else’s loud, conflicting emotions; unable to see the difference between causing disagreement and causing harm. And as a result, we lose sight of our own agency and responsibility, as Einzig’s quote above demonstrates.

We are ultimately responsible for our own choices. We are responsible for believing what we believe and acting on what we believe in accordance with our conscience. For those of us with a neurotic need to be right (and thus safe from harming others or eternal judgment or loss of love or whatever it is we fear most), the scary reality is that we are sometimes wrong…or that there are several reasonable choices available to us, and we’ve got to pick one if we want to live a life. We’ve got to risk being wrong.

Other people’s opinions and reactions make that difficult. Of course, it’s good to consider people’s reactions to our choices, as those reactions indicate the effects of our choices on others. Making responsible, ethical choices for ourselves ought to factor in the impact of our lives on others. A good number of people ought to pay more attention to other people’s reactions, frankly.

And then there are people like me, who swing wildly between crying, “Hang it all, I’ll do what I want!” and cowering in the same spot, petrified of any negative reaction. More scary realities: there are many reasons why someone, somewhere would have a strong negative reaction to our choices — whether that’s our husbands or toddlers or the world wide web. We sensitive people must never construe the presence of a negative reaction to be a surefire indicator that our decision is wrong, selfish, or harmful. We must separate our agency from other people’s feelings.

We lose our agency, our responsibility, and thus our own selves when we cannot separate a decision and our ability to make a decision from someone else’s feelings. Just as Einzig points out, in our discomfort with others’ negative reactions, we start shifting the blame of our indecision or our own feelings onto others: “He won’t let me. I can’t do it.” Eventually we feel trapped. And this entrapment shrivels our souls and boils up into angry conflict with those we love.

There will always be consequences to our choices, for sure. It may be true that you can’t go to the bathroom without your toddler melting down, or that you can’t say no to sex without your husband stonewalling you. But that doesn’t take away your choice. It doesn’t take away your responsibility to make the best decision you see fit. Their reaction is only one piece to puzzle of decision making.

Often it comes down to choosing your consequences: Do you want to sit on the toilet while your toddler screams and bangs on the door, or do you want to take a pee while your toddler destroys your under-sink storage? Do you want to stand your ground and experience your husband’s bitter disappointment, or do you want to have a tiring, empty sexual experience that leaves you resentful?

There aren’t universally right or wrong answers. And to be clear, others’ emotions aren’t right or wrong either. Your toddler is entitled to feel unhappy and disappointed by your decision. Your husband is entitled to feel unhappy and disappointed by your decision. It’s unfair to expect that their emotions should align with yours, and it’s not okay to invalidate their feelings just because they make you uncomfortable. BUT. That doesn’t make your decision wrong. That doesn’t make your feelings invalid. And that doesn’t take away your ability and responsibility to make choices in line with what you think is best.

True boundaries allow you to sit with your own emotions and acknowledge that your feelings don’t take away someone else’s right to feel his own feelings. True boundaries allow you to sit with another person’s emotions and recognize that their emotions don’t take away your agency or responsibility.

It’s a scary but liberating reality.

A Day in the Life of a Mom with an Eight-Month-Old

Since I shared in intense detail the overwhelming experience of mothering a newborn, I thought I’d share a peek into a much more rewarding time of motherhood. I might be the only mom on earth who never wants to go back to the newborn stage. Yeah, itty bitty babies are the cutest, but I can’t function without sleep or with a nonexistent schedule, and I struggled with the limitations of an immobile baby. And newborns are hard, because they demand so much without responding.

Now that e.e. smiles and babbles and pulls his version of practical jokes on me, I finally can feel a connection. And now that I get enough sleep every night, I actually do feel it.

I love our mornings together. He wakes up somewhere between 4:30-6:00 AM for a morning feed. I gave up trying to designate a specific wake time, but I put him back to sleep if he wakes up before six. We hang out in bed, whispering, playing peek-a-boo with the covers, and annoying Daddy who valiantly sleeps in until past seven. We chat and giggle, and he scratches my face and pulls my hair and steps in my eye. That, and finally admitting that it’s a reasonable time to get out of bed, gets me up. I throw on a robe and make my coffee.

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Caffeine doesn’t make a difference to me, but I like the ritual of something sweet and warm every morning (no black coffee for me!). Plus, coffee draws me into the kitchen and motivates me to make breakfast. Whether or not I actually make breakfast depends on if he slept through the whole night or woke fitfully every two hours from teething pain. Since he still gets all his nutrition from breastmilk, I’m not as rigid about regular meals. And I rarely eat breakfast myself. I know. Bad mom. I’m just so slow in the morning, and I hate cooking.

To accommodate my lack of cooking motivation, I’ve got his breakfast routine down to a simple formula of grains, berries, and fruit. Normally I make porridge fingers or banana pancakes ahead of time and just toss one in the microwave each morning. That way I only have to muster up the energy to cook once every two weeks or so. Then I cut up some sort of berry and fruit (banana or clementine, usually, though I bought plums this week).

I drink my coffee at the table and toss food onto his tray while he feeds himself. We started baby-led weaning (a UK term for eating solids) at six months old. Once we got over the initial terror of choking (which he’s never done), it was smooth sailing. I love baby-led weaning — less cooking, more time eating my own food, and great entertainment. e.e. has developed quite a diverse and demanding appetite. He eats anything, and anytime he sees anybody else eating something, he protests loudly until the person in question caves. Not unlike a begging puppy, actually. His pincer skills are incredible, and he regulates how much food he ought to put in his mouth all on his own.

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After a quick swipe with the wash cloth, I ignore the messy booster chair and release e.e. to play while I finish my coffee. Normally he’s independent in the early mornings, and I read or stare into space while he explores within my peripheral vision. But I follow his lead: if he needs cuddles, we snuggle, sing, and read books until he crawls away, ready to explore.

I am a huge, huge advocate of babies playing independently, for their sake and for parents’ sanity. The paradoxical way of infant independence is connecting when baby wants to connect so that he feels attached and satisfied enough to go explore. I never demand that e.e. play by himself; I just connect when he wants to chat or snuggle, and I don’t interrupt him when he’s doing his own thing.

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Getting off my soapbox, we enjoy our morning until an hour-and-a-half after his wake up. We follow a flexible schedule based on wake times, and I adhere to it religiously. Our day falls apart if he doesn’t get enough sleep! He takes a long morning nap (1-2 hours), leaving me plenty of time to shower, get ready for the day, and clean. (I usually read or write, to be honest. Like I said: bad mom.)

For some reason, he needs more cuddles after this morning nap. We read one of the library board books obsessively curated for maximum social awareness and diversity. We sing some songs. I bounce him on my knee. I’m likely still not dressed at this point.

On Tuesdays we go to library storytime, where e.e. ignores all the colorful toys and inspects the perimeter of the room. He’ll crawl back to snuggle up with one of the adult strangers or use an infant as a stepstool. We’re making great progress with safe socialization and personal boundaries. /sarcasm

He goes back to sleep two hours after his morning nap and sleeps for an hour, waking up when Daddy comes home for lunch. 95% of the time I’m dressed (unless I’m really involved in a blog post), so we play outside or take a walk to a park. Ideally, I want him to get some outdoor time every day. Practically, I get fed up with digging dirt, leaves, and wood chips out of his mouth and sometimes we come in early.

I love our outdoor time, though. It’s fun to see the world through his wondering eyes, and there’s no pressure to be active or exercise. I just sit and think (or not think). It’s done a world of good for my mental health and creativity.

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Two and a half hours after his late morning nap, he goes to sleep again. My mother- or grandmother-in-law watches him for an hour while I go to work at my preschool for a couple hours, and then Erich comes home. e.e. reportedly sits up all excited when he hears the door open. He adores his daddy.

I get off around 6:15 PM and come home to a baby eager for snuggles and boobies. We’ll go outside again, maybe eat dinner if our lives are put together enough, or hang out in our apartment. When 7 PM rolls around, we go through our quick bedtime routine: pjs (sometimes), a lullaby, and our goodnight ritual borrowed from my granddad and punctuated by lots of kisses: “Good night! Sleep tight! Don’t let the bed bugs bite. Scrambo! Hasta mañana! I love you!” Then I kiss his cheek with his bunny lovey: “Here’s lovey!” And then I’ll kiss his cheek with his puppy lovey: “Here’s other lovey!” Then I’ll blow him one last kiss (unless I lose all self-control and smooch his chunky cheeks again) and close the door.

Unless he’s overtired (in which case he might cry for 5-10 minutes — getting off schedule makes a gigantic difference!), he’ll babble to himself before drifting off to sleep until around 6 AM the next morning.

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See? Motherhood isn’t all chaos. I wish my sleep-deprived newborn mom self could have seen this coming — these lazy mornings and those rested nights, and this giggly, snuggly, adventurous eight-month-old.

If We Want to Protect Our Kids from Sexual Abuse, We Need to Change the Way We Parent

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In the wake of the Me Too movement, I hope every parent commits to making sexual abuse prevention an urgent priority. Our kids need to know they can say no! to anyone wanting sexual contact with them — whether that’s a teen from high school messaging your daughter for explicit photos, an older sibling intimidating a younger sibling into sexual acts, or a youth group leader grooming the middle schoolers in his care.

But in order for a child to say no! and tell an adult, and in order for that child to grow up into an adult who can say no! and contact the proper authorities, she needs more than the cognitive understanding that nobody can violate her body. She needs more than the knowledge of good touch/bad touch. She needs more than the know-how that she can come to tell Mommy and Daddy anything.

She needs self-confidence. She needs courage. She needs a strong sense of self-worth. And she needs the tools and the practice saying no! to anyone who violates her body or gives off an “ick” vibe. She needs an inner conviction that her bodily autonomy matters more than respecting adults or being nice.

None of those things come from a few conversations about inappropriate touching. Those things come from regular practice and experience in everyday life. My concern is, the parenting promoted in our culture regularly undermines the self-confidence, courage, self-worth, and bodily autonomy of our children. When it comes time to stand up for herself or run and get help, her mind will know what to do, but she will shrink in fear and confusion, scared to offend, uncertain of how to assert herself.

This is true for both the ten-year-old and the twenty-year-old: how we parent daily sends stronger messages about our children’s worth, bodily autonomy, and self-confidence than a couple talks about sexual abuse prevention.

Today’s parenting emphasizes compliance in children and ultimate authority in adults. We demand respect for adults at any cost — and by “respect,” I don’t mean treating all people kindly; I mean treating all adults as authority figures with more say over a child’s life than the child herself possesses. If a child crosses an adult by asserting her own thoughts, feelings, and needs, she is treated as less than a person. She loses rights to her personal property (taking away her things for an unrelated infraction), her body (corporal punishment, grounding, time out), and her right to be treated kindly (screams, insults, humiliation, anger).

As a viral Reddit post says,

Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person,” and sometimes they use respect to mean “treating someone like an authority.” And sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say, “If you won’t respect me, I won’t respect you,” and they mean, “If you won’t treat me like an authority, I won’t treat you like a person.”

That’s American parenting in a nutshell.

This creates a dangerous power imbalance between all adults and all children. Adults feel entitled to treat children however they like in order to get the “respect” owed them. Children learn that their own ideas, values, thoughts, and feelings matter less than adults’. They internalize that adults always know better, even if the things they do hurt the child deeply. They learn they must always do what adults say, even if it hurts them, confuses them, or violates their sense of bodily autonomy or fairness. If they don’t do what adults tell them, they are “naughty” and will receive punishment. They fear questioning an adult, lest they be disrespectful. After all, what do they know? They’re just kids.

This is the sort of internal messaging driving a child or a grown adult into fearfully “consenting” to sexual abuse or feeling powerless to say no.

The people who are sexually abusing our children, both young and adult, are rarely strangers. They are older siblings, relatives, family friends, teachers, bosses, significant others, sometimes even parents themselves. They are the people we insist our children respect as authority figures, even if the child brings legitimate complaints about them to our attention. They are the ones about whom we say, “Yes, that’s not fair, but he’s your teacher, so you have to do what he says.” “Yeah, I know you don’t like Auntie’s kisses, but she’s your aunt. You’ll hurt her feelings if you don’t let her kiss you.” “No, it’s not right that Grandma spanked you, but you need to listen to her when she gives you a direction.”

Instead of standing up for our children’s bodies, feelings, and basic right to be treated as a person, we cave to social pressure, fearful of disrespecting or angering other adults.

Successful sexual abuse prevention hinges on dismantling the adult-as-authority/child-as-compliant power imbalance. We dismantle it by honoring our child’s limits; defending our child’s rights to control their bodies and property; respecting the real emotions hidden beneath inappropriate behavior; and giving children practice in conflict mediation.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Honor Your Child’s Limits

“Stop!”

“Don’t!”

“I don’t want to!”

“NO!”

Few things make authority figures angrier than hearing a kid assert her preferences in a way that shows she values her own thoughts and feelings over our own. In a culture where child compliance is the ultimate virtue, it’s embarrassing when our children refuse to participate in what other children are doing, and it’s humiliating when they do the opposite of what we ask them to do. We worry that other adults will be insulted if the child refuses to hug them, listen to the story they picked, or eat the meal prepared for them. We worry that our kids will grow up anti-social and rude.

But it’s imperative that we honor our child’s internal monitor of danger and dislike, no matter how irrational it seems to us. This is the same internal monitor she will have if someone tries to abuse her. All children feel an “ick” or “danger” factor when encountering sexual abuse. Not all children feel confident in the accuracy of that monitor. If we repeatedly insist that children disregard a strong dislike or fear in favor of social convention, she will learn to doubt the inner voice that helps her determine what’s safe and what’s not safe.

Honoring our child’s fears, dislikes, and assertions includes showing respect and support with our words, tone, and immediacy. It’s not enough to bargain with or bribe the child — “Oh, come on. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s okay!” — and then shrug in defeat. They need immediate validation and support without a hint of teasing, disapproval, or dismissiveness: “I see that you don’t want to join the library story time. Is there something worrying you? You said you don’t know, you just don’t want to. That’s okay. You can stand in the back and watch. I’m going to sit in the circle and listen to the story. If you change your mind, you can come sit with me.”

Any time we insist children ignore their fears and dislikes in favor of pleasing someone else or following social convention, we train them that other people’s desires matter more than their own safety, needs, or preferences. Conversely, every time we honor our child’s refusal to say hello, join the parachute play, or eat the meal Mom worked so hard to prepare, we teach the opposite: My wants, needs, and safety matter more than making other people happy. Mom and Dad won’t get mad at me for standing up for what I want or need. I can listen to what my gut tells me, and if I’m wrong about an initial judgment and decide that it’s safe and okay, I can change my mind. It doesn’t make me a bad or stupid person to listen to my intuition, even if it’s sometimes wrong.

This is exactly the kind of inner conviction and self-confidence we want to create in our children in matters of sexuality and consent: If I can’t give an enthusiastic yes, I will say no. I can always change my mind. I know how to assert myself respectfully and cope with other people’s disappointment. I know I am not a bad, disrespectful, or defiant person for valuing my needs, safety, and preferences.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Defend Your Child’s Right to Her Body and Property

“Be nice. Give her the shovel.”

“Oh, come on. It’s just a hug!”

“If I see you hitting your brother one more time, I’m giving you a spanking.”

“That’s it! Go to time out and sit there until I tell you you can come out.”

American parenting insists on generosity and respecting other people’s bodies and property, but we do so often at the expense of our own children’s bodies and property. We need a consistent ethic of bodily autonomy and respect that includes everyone, including our children and their property.

Children without a clear understanding of their own rights and property will not be able to give generously. They will clutch their toys and scream, “Mine!” They will hog ten cars and refuse to share one with their sobbing best friend. This vehement refusal to share stems from insecurity and confusion over what really is “mine.” Ironically, the same child who savagely protects his excessive number of toys can become a teenager who caves into unwanted sexual acts because he too isn’t clear on what’s “his” or if “his” is worth defending.

The difference lies in how parents treat this critical developmental stage where children need to differentiate themselves from others, and whether parents continue to support a child’s right to his body and property in the face of others’ disapproval.

Children need clear boundaries on what constitutes “theirs” and what constitutes “others’.” It’s sometimes a difficult line to walk, since parents, teachers, and babysitters are charged with tasks that involve children’s things and bodies. They must wipe and clothe private areas, physically block children from hurting others or themselves, and remove playthings that children use to hurt others or property. Children are more dependent on us for their belongings, safety, and impulse control than adults.

It’s all the more important that we give children as much control as is developmentally appropriate and that we defend our children’s right to control their bodies and property. In areas where it’s inevitable that a parent must intervene for a child’s health, safety, and well-being, this often looks like giving age-appropriate and parent-approved choices: “Do you want to lie down while I change your diaper, or stand up?” “What do you think are good rules for your iPhone?” “You may whack the stick on the ground or the tree, but not on the window. It’s not safe to whack windows; they can break. If you choose to whack the stick on the window again, I will take away the stick.”

Age-appropriate and parent-approved choices still respect children’s autonomy, and they make sense to children. A child will not like Dad taking away his stick and may throw a huge tantrum in protest, but it is fair: Dad gave him clear choices and consequences, and the child made a choice with an unpleasant but natural consequence. If he can’t use the stick safely, he can’t use the stick at all.

It makes less sense when parents take away property or infringe on bodily autonomy as an unrelated punishment. When a parent spanks a child for being disrespectful, it isn’t a fair or natural consequence. It’s an external punishment that leverages fear of pain to get the child to do what the parent wants. When a parent takes away a child’s Legos for hitting his sister, it isn’t a fair or natural consequence. It leverages fear of deprivation to get the child to do what the parent wants.

External punishment that violates bodily and property autonomy can work as a deterrent to bad behavior, but it also teaches the child that they should submit to unfair or illogical things if an adult says so. It teaches them that adults do not have to respect their children’s bodies or property and that it’s futile to protest punishment on those grounds. It also sends conflicting messages: Children can’t take things from others or hit others, but parents can take things from kids and hit children because they’re adults.

Forced sharing is another staple of American parenting that values the disappointment of others over a child’s rights. When a parent insists that their child shares, she sends the clear message that the other child’s feelings matter more than the first child’s right to her property and play. It also sends a dangerous message to the child requesting a toy that his wants matter more than another child’s rights.

Children need to see their parents defending their rights to their body and property. Immediately stop tickling or roughhousing the second the child yells “stop!” or appears in any distress, even if she’s giggling or wants to do it again a few minutes later. Give a child parent-approved choices if she balks at necessary caregiving tasks. Never give away or take away a child’s belongings without her permission, unless it’s for temporary safety reasons. Defend your child’s right to play how she likes, even if it makes another child sad or disappointed.

We want our children to give freely and wholeheartedly without compromising their safety or needs. By respecting their bodily autonomy and property now, we instill an inner conviction and self-worth that will serve them well in both consensual and non-consensual sexual encounters: My body is mine. I can do what I want with it unless it’s unsafe to me or others. I can stand up for myself even if that makes other people feel sad or disappointed. I will only let others touch me if I like it and feel safe. My parents will always defend my right to say no. I can go to them for help if other people will not respect my bodily autonomy.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Respect Your Child’s Feelings Even if Her Behavior Is Inappropriate

Why don’t children tell their parents if someone sexually abuses them? They’re terrified that they will get in trouble for “allowing” it or participating in it.

Many children feel that their parents’ love is conditional on their good behavior and that they are “bad” for making mistakes or acting inappropriately on legitimate feelings. “It doesn’t matter if he started it!” parents will snap at their kids. “You are the older one.”

“I don’t care if she yelled at you. You can’t hit her. Go to your room!”

“You know better!”

American parenting often sends the message that if kids do something wrong, their feelings, grievances, and reasons for the inappropriate behavior don’t matter. It also holds kids to an impossibly high standard: If they cognitively know something is wrong, they should be able to stop themselves from doing it.

Children are capable of a lot through practice and support. The key is practice and support. Impulse control originates in the prefrontal cortex, the last part of the brain to develop in children. This is why we can explain things until we’re blue in the face and our kids will still do stupid, inappropriate, or unkind things.

They’re not “being bad.” They’re impulsive and short-sighted because that’s their current developmental stage.

As adults who “know better,” we’re responsible for interpreting children’s behavior, meeting the need they’re trying to convey, and giving them tools to communicate more clearly and respectfully next time.

When we focus on the inappropriate behavior (for example, hitting or yelling “I hate you!”) to the exclusion of the feeling underneath it (“I’m scared,” “I’m mad”) and the cause of that emotion (“He tried to take my truck,” “She’s not listening to my point of view”), we push our kids away from us. This is especially true when we side with adults or our children’s friends, minimizing the harm they caused in order to focus on making sure our children show respect. Our child learns that Mom and Dad will usually side with other people. They won’t believe me, understand me, or support me. I have to be perfect in order for them to care about my feelings and grievances.

When we validate our child’s feelings and point of view and set a limit on inappropriate behavior, we build up an inner conviction in our child of self-worth: My feelings and thoughts matter. If I make mistakes, I can respond differently next time. My parents will support me and understand me even if I make a mistake. I don’t deserve bad treatment from others even if I’m not perfect or treat others badly too.

Abusers capitalize on children’s guilt: No one will believe you. You deserve to be treated this way. Don’t you dare tell anyone. Your parents will hate you for what you’ve done. You’re already a slut, so I can do whatever I want to you.

If a child knows her parents are on her side always, no matter what, those guilt messages won’t deter her. She feels an intrinsic self-worth and conviction in her parents’ support.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Let Children Practice Conflict Mediation

It’s terrifying telling people no. It doesn’t feel good. Many adults avoid it at all costs, going along with the unpleasant situation as long as possible. We operate on the conviction that we need to be as nice as possible and say yes as much as possible and just be a bit more flexible.

This messaging doesn’t disappear the second an intimidating guy starts giving you unwanted attention. If we set our foot down now, before anything really bad happens, we risk misinterpreting his friendliness as flirtatiousness and embarrassing him; we risk making a scene and looking inflexible and rude; we risk hurting his feelings or angering him.

If we’re not used to setting limits with peers, saying no or stop when it really, really matters will be a Herculean task.

It starts with spats over toys and the shrieks of “he looked at me!!!!” and the unwanted rough play. Parents often swoop in to rescue their child or their child’s victim, handing over the toy the other kid wants, yelling at the kid to stop looking at his sister, banning roughhousing completely. In other words, we set the limits and resolve the conflict.

While it’s great for kids to know that parents will be there to help, parents won’t always be there. Our job is to train kids how to handle conflict independently from us as much as possible.

I once supported two kids trying to cross stepping stones in the opposite direction. “She won’t move!” screamed one kid. “He won’t move!” screamed the other. “I want to go this way!” yelled the first kid. “I want to go the other way!” yelled the second. I could have easily required one or both to get off and let the other pass, but instead I coached them to ask the other to move or suggested that one of them get off and let the other pass. They stood there, asking and yelling at each other to move with no resolution, until they both got bored and ran off together to play.

Whenever a child gets hurt, either physically or emotionally, I ask them what they want to do. Do they want to keep playing but with a new rule against, say, throwing wood chips? Walk away? Confront their friend? If they decide on setting a limit or sharing their feelings, I go with them for support but require that they do the talking themselves.

I try to police kids’ interactions as little as possible unless there’s a real safety issue or a student is violating another kid’s clear or implied limits. When given the chance, they often work things out quite well, even if it’s louder, more disrespectful, and messier than I like. Instead of barging in and solving problems for them, even if kids are upset, I probe their self-awareness about their safety and feelings: “Are you okay with your friend grabbing your arm in this game? Yeah? Okay. You can always change your mind and tell your friend not to if you don’t feel safe. No, you’re not? Okay, tell your friend that you want to play but do not want to be grabbed. Are you okay with her tagging you but not grabbing you?”

This teaches skills clear confrontation skills and the importance of expressing their needs. It’s a courageous act to tell a friend no and mean it, even at the risk of the game ending or their friend’s anger. This also creates a culture where children learn that clearly set limits don’t mean that their friend no longer wants to play or thinks that they are bad people. Limits are good things that enable happiness for everyone.

Isn’t this the exact thing we want for our children when it comes to consent in sex — to values themselves enough to say no clearly, to value others enough to respect the other’s no, to be self-aware about what they like and don’t like and confident and articulate enough to communicate that?

If we want this confidence, clarity, courage, self-awareness, and respect for themselves and others, we need to start now, daily, by supporting peer conflict mediation and respectfully parenting our children.

The Practice of Loud Time

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I’ve been thinking a lot about how much of Christian spirituality overvalues the distinctly spiritual and undervalues the physical. There are plenty of reasons why this is, but one of them, I’m convinced, is because we’ve silenced or tuned out the voices of people who live an embodied spirituality — women.

Think about it. When you think of great historic Christians who influenced your understanding of spirituality, who comes to mind? Lots of men, who, even if married or fathers, dedicated themselves to full-time ministry or contemplation. Maybe some women, most likely single and dedicated to a life of celibacy and contemplation. People whose days revolve around thinking, reading, praying, silence, solitude. These are the people in our pulpits and seminaries and historical narratives.

The only spiritual experiences we hear are of those whose vocation sets them apart from the physical world as much as possible. Is it any wonder that when we want a closer walk with God, we think that quiet, solitude, contemplation, and Scriptural study are not merely critical components of devotion but THE THINGS that comprise a relationship with God?

Take the ubiquitous quiet time. We’re told that’s God’s time. That’s the place we meet God. If you don’t have that in your life as the TOP PRIORITY, are you even a Christian?

Jamie Wright, in The Very Worst Missionary, recounts her visceral reaction to a Christian mom’s group that encouraged young mothers to give up even more sleep to find quiet time with Jesus. The group was shocked at Jamie’s treasonous insistence that for these moms, sleep was more important than quiet time. But Jamie wanted to know why quiet time had to be quiet.

[W]hen the group leader made that little quip about quiet time needing to be quiet, an unexpected volcano of molten outrage burst forth from the depths of my soul. …

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, then call it ‘loud time’! Call it ‘chaos time.’ Call it what it’s supposed to be, which is ‘intentional time’! … I will not be getting up any earlier. Nope. I’m gonna honor God intentionally in my sleep, because I’m pretty sure God wants me to be the very best mother I can possibly be to my boys. I will listen for God’s voice in the wilderness, and at the water park, and under McDonald’s indoor play structure, because that is my daily loud time and God is faithful to meet me in the chaos” (pages 83-85).

As that mom group demonstrates, the female spiritual life is mostly about how to fit the vocation of the celibate, the contemplative, and the clergy into the insanely busy, physical, exhausting vocations of mom, wife, and housekeeper. Our spiritual reflections are on how to carve out a quiet time or wade through a busy season of life until you can get to another season with more quiet time. Hang in there!

There’s often a sense that our work is meaningful and eternal and spiritual, but only because of its future implications. We’re the cradle-rocking hand that rocks the world — that is, all our work matters because it raises kids who will change the world. We’re the great women behind the great men — our work matters because it enables men to do great spiritual things.

And that’s true. Behind every man who “dedicates his life to God” (as if laypeople don’t), there’s another person — most likely a woman — keeping him fed and cleaning his toilet.

What we women need to realize is that this work matters and is spiritual and eternally significant not just because it enables “greater” spiritual work. This is spiritual work. It is intrinsically meaningful because the human body and the everyday good life are intrinsically meaningful.

Redemption involves saving human souls and also tidying up the living room, bringing order to chaos, bringing balance and beauty to every aspect of life. Traditional women’s work is not lesser, merely a stepping stone to greater spiritual things. It is as great and as meaningful and as dedicated to God as joining a convent or taking priestly vows or shipping off to China as a missionary.

One of the church’s strengths is drawing from the experience of people with different vocations. I’m certainly not advocating that women shouldn’t listen to those with time and energy to contemplate, pray, and study, or that they shouldn’t try to incorporate these practices and insights into their own lives. I’m saying it should go both ways.

The everyday, physical, mundane spiritual practices women have faithfully lived for millennia are critical for a relationship with God. Women’s spiritual lives give unique insight into what it means to live an embodied spirituality. Our experience as mothers provides transformative information about the nature of God as love and about a sacrificial life. What other normal Christian experiences physical, emotional, and mental sacrifices than pregnant, nursing, and primary caretaking mothers? Getting up to a day full of exciting things like scrubbing the bathtub and wiping snotty noses forms the soul in unique ways. Dutifully doing things that must be done again the next day (or five minutes later) teaches us how to live with hope of the resurrection and restoration of all things, in defiance of the fallen world’s decay. There’s no better way of understanding sin and grace and salvation than raising children with love and patience.

The holy practices of cleaning, waiting for a slow toddler, budgeting, driving to a chorus of “are we there yet?” — these things are not only a meaningful, transformative spiritual experience for the women who live them, they are meaningful, transformative spiritual practices for everyone. Even the contemplatives, the celibate, and the clergy.

It is patently false that the contemplatives, the celibate, and the clergy have the edge on spirituality. That is not how an embodied, incarnational Christian spirituality works. All of us need the spiritual experience of women who are too busy and tired from motherhood and homemaking to preach sermons or write blog posts. Not just to hear how on earth they find quiet time for Jesus every morning at the crack of dawn, but how they practice loud time and how we can practice it too.