Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Snapshot: Table Talk

Tonight I took Twelve with me to an informal get-together. Sitting around the table at one point with us were a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, a social worker, a rocket scientist, a doctoral student in immunology, and a university residence hall coordinator. A software engineer and a materials scientist wandered in and out, I think.

To Twelve, this is a perfectly typical collection of adults.

Conversation topics ranged from "What do you think of the H5Nwhatever virus?" (Response: "Everyone's been asking me that!") to how written Ph. D. preliminary exams differ by department (mine start next week) to the Harry Potter franchise (Twelve is past the halfway point on the last book but hasn't seen any of the movies) to the headache medicine that caused an out-of-body experience that somehow involved trying to film oneself as a tricycle. There was a Roy Rogers with lots of cherries and a joke about balls in there somewhere too.

Still pretty typical.

Twelve does pretty well in this type of situation. She sits quietly for the most part, can reliably respond coherently to inquiries, and occasionally even tests out her ability to capture and hold a group's attention with a statement of her own. (In this group, that's quite a feat. If you've got a story to tell that's longer than about a sentence and a half, you've gotta earn the space in which to finish it.)

Pretty much her whole life, Twelve's spent a lot of time around adults. Somehow, though, it's taken on a new significance since she's been Twelve. It must be partly because she is starting to interact with them in a new way. Maybe she's participating more than she used to, or maybe just in a different way. Mostly, though, I see a difference in how people react to her. Now that she's five foot eight (or so), perhaps my friends are starting to see her as more of a person and less of a child.

Makes sense.

I worry about this shift, though; she's still a child in so many ways. She still loves her mommy, for starters. She still sleeps with Soft Blankie and wants to be tucked in at night. She still thinks it's ridiculous to be attracted to anyone (in my head, I can hear her exclaiming, "Mom!," aghast at the mere suggestion).

I am not looking forward to the (probably inevitable) realization that Twelve's adult friends - the men in particular - have started seeing her as a teenager before she feels like one. If they see her as a sexual being, they'll feel awkward around her, which is bound to result in her feeling awkward around them -- and about herself. Ugh! That's not what I want.

I want her to eat tacos around the table with nerdy and ridiculous conversations swirling around her. I want the books she's brought along to be greeted with eager expressions of delight. I want mechanical engineering doctoral students to tease her by suggesting that if she's chilly, she should add Tabasco to her taco. I want immunologists to commiserate with her over the perennial discontent of women with their straight or curly hair. I want red-haired rocket scientists to ask her to contribute to a discussion of childhood teasing regarding hair color.

I'm not asking for much here, really: I just want time to stand still for just a little while, so I can enjoy Twelve just a little bit more before she's gone.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Interstitial Parenting, Part Two: Beauty

Twelve's kinda pretty. Quite lovely, actually. She's tall and slender, with long thick hair, blue eyes, minimal acne, orthodontically-enhanced smile, the whole bit. She even has a great sense of fashion, even if this does mean that straightening her hair occasionally counts as an activity.

As a reasonably privilege-aware person and a parent, this puts me in a weird position. Do I ensure high self-esteem for Twelve by assuring her that she's beautiful and encouraging her to love herself (ie, sell out), or maintain my principles by eschewing the false values of the dominant culture and ignoring her looks, running the risk that she won't feel good about herself?

This may sound like I'm setting up a false dichotomy, all strawpersonlike, but when your perfectly healthy child experiments with claiming that she's fat, making her calf wobble to show you her 'chub,' that's precisely your position. Rock to the left, impossibly hard place to the right.

Principles out the window: "You're beautiful and your body is perfect, honey, don't be ridiculous," I said in a tone of voice that attempted to balance sincerity with a refusal to legitimize the possibility that there's anything wrong with her body. Because this is impossible, I followed up with a fairly desperate soliloquy about the complete unreality of media imagery and the ubiquity of these unreal portrayals of women's bodies.

Using pretty much those terms. Shockingly, she quickly lost interest.

Orthodontia is another point of departure from my principled positions. On paper, I scoff at the overvaluation of physical attractiveness, and hold that people with crooked teeth are every bit as worthy as folks with straight teeth. In reality, when my girl turned out to have inherited my overbite and huge front teeth, off to the orthodontist we went. I came across a box of old photos the other day and I'll freely admit to experiencing a distinct feeling of relief that Twelve's teeth are en route to perfection.

All of this conflict between principle and reality boils down to one possibly sad truth: As a parent, I want the best for my child. I want her to be happy. I want Twelve to be successful, even though the current construction of success requires the failure of some. I want Twelve to think of herself as being attractive. Even though I'd like her to be able to see the beauty inherent to everyone and work to deconstruct the cult of feminine beauty, I'll settle for her feeling good about herself because she's one of the pretty ones. Call me selfish if you must - I don't care.

This doesn't mean I'm not a 'good' social justice advocate (whatever that means). It doesn't mean I don't understand the many harms done by privilege and oppression. It doesn't mean that I'm teaching Twelve that she's better than other people because she's good-looking.

It means that I understand that we social justice advocates do not live in the world we are trying to create. It means that I'm pragmatic about beauty and the role it plays in our culture. We live in a crappy world, and we have to deal with that somehow. If we have to play by the rules to a certain extent to make the best of it on an individual level, then so be it. I'm not going to make my daughter miserable in an attempt to change the world. It's just not worth it.

For awhile, I wore my hair cut short in a deliberate attempt to relinquish the social power of having long hair. When it started growing out, I realized that I liked the feeling of long hair on my shoulders and its movement while dancing, and pretty soon I had long hair again. I decided that my own individual experience of enjoying my hair was more important than making a statement by keeping it short.

I'm not going to overwhelm Twelve with gushing compliments about her appearance. I'm not going to steer her toward the latest beauty products (she does quite enough of that on her own, thank you very much). I'm not going to tell her to watch what she eats (except to insist on the occasional green vegetable).

I am going to teach her to see through society's false values. I'll try really hard to frame comments about appearance in contexts of hygiene or age-appropriateness instead of social class or femininity. I'm going to encourage her to identify and work against privilege and oppression.

But you know what, Twelve? You're beautiful and you're wonderful and don't let anyone make you believe otherwise.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Snapshot: Dirty Sock Fight

I came out of the bathroom to discover Twelve and R having a dirty sock fight in the bedroom. I have retreated to the living room, pretending to be annoyed but actually enjoying it.

I'm not sure how it started, but it's a pretty simple game: Twelve is lying on the bed, throwing her dirty socks at R, standing at the foot of the bed, who bats or throws them back toward her. She's giggling hysterically. R doesn't really giggle, but his chuckle comes pretty close sometimes.

R finally calls it quits and heads to the kitchen in pursuit of coffee. Twelve drifts into her bedroom. All is quiet for about two minutes until R announces that she's cutting her toenails on the bed.

When Twelve comes back to sit on my lap a few minutes later, she assures me that she's washed her hands after the dirty sock throwing and toenail clipping. I am skeptical.

After farting in my lap twice, reaching toward my face one too many times, and a dozen other intentionally obnoxious and impossible to describe behaviors, Twelve is eventually banished from my lap to work on her tasks.

After doing a bit more work, R is going to go to the store for vegetables and I am going to make a curry. Twelve will, protesting, wash the dishes.

It's a good Friday night.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

How I Imagine Storytime with Twelve

What If Massage IS the Answer?

Last week I was starting to get worried. Twelve wasn't acting up or anything, but was just a bit more dismissive of Mom than usual. Tonight, though, she snuggled on my lap in the big blue chair during the Daily Show and complained that it's been awhile since she's had a back rub at bedtime ["awhile" = one day].

I was mega relieved. I'm not ready for this stage to be over.

How it actually works is that Twelve gets ready for bed, then calls out "I'm ready to be tucked in and cuddled with and back rubbed!" It's silly and charming, and she knows it. Normally she's not allowed to be so demanding, but we keep it silly and playful ("Oh, so you'll let me rub your back?") Perhaps being playfully demanding allows her to admit to wanting a back rub at bedtime.

Works for me.

I just wonder what will happen when she decides she's too old/mature/whatever for back rubs from mommy. We all need healthy physical touch, and it's not like we live in a society in which we get much of that, especially in adolescence. If you're not a child and you're not sexual, you're pretty much out of luck unless you're wealthy enough to purchase massage or proactive enough to establish a private realm in which to experience nonsexual healthy physical touch.

I dunno about you, but I'd prefer that Twelve not seek sexual activity as a source of physical touch when she's too-old-for-Mommy stage but not yet adult. I am seriously considering finding a way to pay for regular massages during that stage. Indulgent? Perhaps. Privilege to the max? Certainly. But I can't help but wonder about the effect of regular massage on teen sexual behavior.

Maybe it wouldn't do a thing. Society's influences - media - wouldn't change. Boys would still learn to conflate sexual desire and possession, and girls would still learn to think of themselves as objects of others' pleasure.

But maybe experiencing lots of positive touch would help young women feel better about their bodies. Maybe young men wouldn't resort to clumsily coercive sexual encounters in order to experience physical touch. Fewer teen pregnancies. Reduced STIs. Improved self-esteem. Lower stress, even.

Imagine the possibilities.

Now: Write to your elected officials, and demand public funding for massage therapy. If your representative is a Republican, call it an anti-abortion strategy. If a Democrat, throw in the bits about reduced STIs and improved self-esteem. If you happen to be represented by a parent of someone in the eleven-to-twenty-year-old range, write an impassioned, heartfelt couple of pages.

And maybe somewhere buried in the fine print we could include massage for the stressed-out parents of all these youngsters. After all, even if by some miracle they're not having sex, we still have to deal with driving, grades, college applications, curfews, clothing, piercings, hair color, tattoos ... awwww, hell.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

If I'm a Slacker Parent, Newt's a Loyal Spouse

I just read an article about a college student who got a C- on a test, starting crying and texted her mom, who called back and asked to talk to the professor. The article goes on to outline how generation Y and iY students have been set up for failure by an overly protective environment and discusses possible solutions. Basically, they're helpless whiners.

Right about now, I'm feeling like a parenting rockstar.

Without consciously intending to, I've raised Twelve with an assortment of anti-helplessness tactics - turns out being broke and wanting to maintain my own adult life works.

Financially, we're doing fine right now, which is awfully nice, but ordering the Downton Abbey DVDs was still a fairly major splurge. For most of Twelve's childhood, money has been much tighter, so there's been no chance of her becoming addicted to the latest gadgets, as is characteristic of her generation. (I wonder, though, whether the folks who generalize about Gen Y/iY are taking socioeconomic class into account? My knowledge on social class differences is a bit dated, to be sure, but I am still skeptical.)

I've also never been a terribly hands-on parent, mainly because I have other things going on. I've been a single parent since Twelve was a baby, and R did not enter our lives until she was six, so my college and work responsibilities have always shaped my involvement in Twelve's day-to-day activities. Guilt at not being involved enough? You bet.

Twelve went to our local Waldorf school through second grade, which required a certain amount of parental participation. At the very least, I had to pack her lunch and drive her to and fro, and there were definitely periods of time in which that was about all I could manage. Leaving Waldorf was not by choice - see 'broke,' above - but I will admit to being relieved when reduced-price cafeteria lunches at the scootering-distance-away public school became an option.

My social life picked up considerably at about the same time I met R; I had Twelve when I was barely 20, so I didn't do the early-20s thing until I was 26. (This worked out okay - you get to the same place, and probably much quicker and with fewer hangovers.) The older she got, the easier it was to arrange childcare, and finally - finally! - we got to the home-alone stage.

(Note to parents of young children: You will get here eventually. And it's awesome. Note to childless folk: Be very, very sure you want to have children. You can't do anything without them without a hassle. And it's expensive.)

As a result of all this, Twelve is fairly accustomed to not getting what she wants: Sometimes we can't afford it, and sometimes Mom has something else going on. This year, we're more likely to be able to afford it, and Mom is more likely to be home, but Twelve's expectations are well-formed. I can't even remember the last time she asked for something expensive, and she's joking when she asks to be driven to or picked up from school. When something pricey is an option - Downton Abbey DVDs, signing up for volleyball - Twelve gets that it's significant. When we discovered that the reasonably priced cake decorating class at JoAnns required about a gazillion dollars' worth of supplies (it's a TOTAL scam, by the way), she dismissed the idea entirely. Before arranging for me or R to drive her to something, she thinks about whether she can get there on her own by bus or bike.

A few months into the year, when I stopped by to meet a few teachers at her new school, they seemed surprised to meet Twelve's mother. I eventually realized that it was because the other parents at the school are extremely involved with their children's educations - SO involved that the school didn't bother to send home any information about fall parent-teacher conferences. The sign up sheets were in the hall, I was told, and "all the parents are in here so much we've never had a problem" with folks not getting the information. The tone was clear: You're a total slacker mom.

Excuse me? Twelve is by no means deprived or neglected. She has more clothes than I even pretend to keep track of, piles of books, participates in a manageable level of extra-curricular activities (though simultaneous volleyball and cross-country will not happen again), and gets good grades. She's responsible for herself, and I often have the sense that people are not quite sure how to deal with that.

If having raised this kind of child makes me a slacker, than I nominate Newt Gingrich for Loyal Husband of the Year.

I do have some idea of how her college professors will deal with that: Shock, awe, A+.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Crazytime with Twelve

It is usually impossible for me to convey the full extent of Twelve's wacky behavior at home, mostly because I can never remember enough of the crazy shit she says to record it properly. Tonight was no exception, but there was more than usual so I've actually managed to remember a few choice fragments:

"L and I made up silly names for each other with 'fart' in them. Want to hear them?"

"Want to know how I know? I have magical unicorns that fart butterflies and poop gold."

[after haphazardly applying lipstick on me] "Purse your lips like you're about to make out with a real hunk."

"What does "that's what she said" mean? I asked my teacher ... Okay, I didn't really ask my teacher."

[lying in bed, working up excess saliva] "I have rabies! Watch out, I'll give you my rabies and then I will be de-rabiesed."

I can't quite tell what's going on in her brain; it's clear that at least part of her motivation is the shock value, but I think she's mostly just cracking herself up. It's partially a performance, but she almost never does it when other people are around. When she gets going, it definitely snowballs until she can barely talk for the laughing. Of course, this quickly degenerates into you're-driving-mom-bonkers territory: Stop poking me or you're never watching Downton Abbey again! Threatening to take away the iPod Touch also does the trick. Who says there's no reason for children to have fancy gadgets?

Tonight, on the descent into Crazytime, Twelve proposed a new Mother-Daughter Bonding Time activity. On paper, Mother-Daughter Bonding Time is exactly what it sounds like. For example, I might say, "Want to come on a walk along the riverfront? It could be Mother-Daughter Bonding Time" and then we'd go for a walk. Lovely and sweet, yes. In practice, guess how often we go on walks? Yeah.

Most often, Mother-Daughter Bonding Time is shorthand for "Let's go shopping!" Don't get me wrong, this is fine with me. We combine this with Sewing Machine Hunting (for my "business" - let me know if you need a used sewing machine, and I'll hook you up, but it might be a bit of a drive) and have a grand time. We have a usual route through the secondhand stores in the nearby somewhat-larger town as well as the local shops. As we drive, Twelve talks to me without meaning to. Often I'll find a machine or two, and Twelve finds a pile of books and yet another super-cute garment that hangs in the closet while she wears the same blue hoodie every day.

Tonight's proposal was, "Let's have Mother-Daughter Bonding Time tomorrow. We can go to the mall, because there's a Claire's there and I need to get a present for the birthday party on Friday and there's a Bath & Body Works. I love you so much and we'll get to have Mother-Daughter Bonding Time and your hair is so pretty." Of course, she's dissolved into giggles about halfway through this nonsense, and they're very contagious giggles.

Well, I hate shopping malls. Can't stand them in general, and this one is particularly bad. Malls represent all that is cheap, tacky, greedy consumerism-driven, irresponsibly produced, and just plain messed up. Bah humbug.

Although ... I did have my shopping-in-malls stage, and now that you mention it I do remember a particularly nice Orange Ginger lotion from Bath & Body Works that I used to have in a pump bottle ... You love me so much? You want to have Mother-Daughter Bonding Time with me? You think my hair is pretty?

We'll probably go to the mall tomorrow. I promise to complain a lot, though, and point out the uneven hems on the clothes, and try not to buy anything but the lotion and maybe the bath gel.

Monday, February 6, 2012

In Which We Conclude That Size Does Indeed Matter

About three years ago I went back to school and couldn't afford to keep paying the inflated mortgage on the house I own. I was devastated, because I had been so determined to keep my house - shyster mortgage broker, adjustable rate mortgage, property taxes and underemployment be damned! Finally giving in, I found renters to pay the mortgage and rented a smaller, much less expensive house that we came across in a fortuitous chain of events.

I had found an affordable, craptastic apartment and was about to pay a non-refundable deposit. We happened to have dinner with some acquaintances the night before, because they were about to move. I mentioned our upcoming move and they said we could have their house, which they had been renting from some longtime family friends. It's an old Craftsman, close to downtown and the river, with a porch and a partially finished full basement. I laughed and said, sure, that would be great, but we won't be able to afford it. The punch line: Rent on the house was less than the crappy apartment. We moved in the next week. (Please do not kill me and take my house!)

While I soon discovered that I adore living downtown for lots of reasons, I am beginning to find that the small size and old-fashioned layout of this house are a boon when one is attempting to raise an adolescent. I can't quite say definitively, seeing as how Twelve may yet become awful, but I've begun developing theory in that direction.

Our house is tiny. Picture a square, with four rooms of approximately equal size; two bedrooms on one side, kitchen and living room on the other. The front door opens onto the living room. Walk in, and R's and my bedroom is on your left, with the kitchen straight ahead. Go into the kitchen, and Twelve's bedroom is on your left. The bathroom is between the bedrooms. That's all there is to the upstairs.

I'm pretty convinced that it takes more effort to perform stereotypical adolescent behaviors when the physical space isn't conducive to them, and this house sure isn't. It's not that there's no privacy - the doors close, and Twelve could go into her bedroom and shut herself off - but there's something about the layout that discourages self-isolation. There are no hallways to stomp down before slamming oneself into the bedroom to sulk. There's no way to spend inordinate amounts of time in the bathroom without somebody soon needing to brush their teeth or pee. There isn't a faraway family room or upstairs great room or anywhere really to go besides the places where the rest of us already are.

The smallness encourages frequent and positive interactions. We can poke our heads into Twelve's room to say hello and see what she's up to with relative ease. It's obvious when someone arrives home and greeting her/him requires no special effort. When R and I are in the kitchen, we're right there; Twelve can join in (read: interrupt and derail) our conversations from her customary seat on the bed. When somebody has taken the face wash out of the shower and left it by the sink, somebody can be easily summoned from aforementioned customary seat to hand the face wash back in. And then she leaves it out again the next day and dares to summon you to get it for her, at which point you comply with a somewhat sarcastic version of your very best Mr. Carson impression, "Can I get you anything else, Milady?" (Mr. Carson's voice is the most fun to try, you see.)

Nice theories, eh? We'll see how I feel about this tiny house when (perhaps if?) all adolescent hell breaks loose, but for now I'm just going to enjoy it, lack of closet space and all. Remind me of this the next time I'm trying to put away a few loads of clean clothes.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Lady Twelve, Shall I Ring for Tea?

We've discovered Downton Abbey. Needing a break from Breaking Bad a few days ago, I looked it up on the strength of a faint memory of someone having mentioned it on Facebook and a passing reference in an xkcd comic. So I searched for - wait for it - "Downtown Abbey."

Let's just say that I haven't accomplished much this week except resolve to actually learn something about the first World War.

Speaking of which, no one knows anything about WWI. Seriously. You know that Friends episode where Rachel and Phoebe think we fought Mexico? I lived that out a few years ago when not a single one of my friends knew why WWI started. Then when we looked it up and found out that it started when some Austrian archduke was assassinated, we still had no freaking clue. And I still don't.

Anyway, the clothing on Downton Abbey is pretty darn accurate as far as I can tell, the interiors are gorgeous, and they do address gender and class issues, so it practically counts as research for me. And, since it's a PBS production, I figured it would be okay for Twelve to watch it too. This will be great, I thought: We'll discuss early 20th Century class and gender norms! We'll look up period clothing and furniture in reference books! Enthusiastically I hauled them out and made a pile on the coffee table (which turns out not to be the best place to keep expensive textbooks).

Well, it's a good thing that I didn't bother to get out any Mary Wollestonecraft or John Stuart Mill. She does ask questions, but I can only get about a half a sentence in before she remembers that she's not supposed to care about the answers.

Tonight Twelve asked why they still have the disloyal (footman-turned-soldier) Thomas and (head ladies' maid) O'Brien on the show. Her logic seems to be that since they're so nasty, they should go. I agreed that they are indeed bad apples, and explained that they need to keep them around for dramatic purposes. As we discussed the mercurially loyal O'Brien, what struck me was Lady Grantham's total oblivion to her scheming. Cora seems incredibly perceptive when it comes to interpreting the behavior of her mother-in-law, her husband, her daughters, and so on; why can't she see through O'Brien's bullshit?

It's because one of the markers of social power is taking it for granted that your subordinates are performing their roles correctly. You assume they are loyal on such a fundamental level that you don't even know you're doing it. You don't ask yourself if your maid is manipulating you because that's not part of her role. Your mother-in-law might manipulate you - or try to - but it doesn't occur to you that your maid might. Lady Grantham refers to her maid as a close friend because she's decided that's part of O'Brien's role.

I worry a bit about Twelve's role at school. I don't want her to be a Lady Grantham or an O'Brien. I used to be afraid that she'd be a Mean Girl - she's smart enough to be. Lately, though, my concern is the reverse. She's awfully enamored of her new best friend, L, who is an incredibly privileged young woman. There's a note of reverence in the way Twelve speaks of L that bothers me somewhat: Twelve's interest in Downton Abbey increased dramatically when she discovered that L watches it too, she seems awfully attentive to L's preferences and perspectives, and she's currently reading her way through L's favorite series.

This could all be just fine, of course. L seems like a lovely young lady, and she could be just as eager to learn about, please, and emulate Twelve as Twelve is to her. The teachers I've spoken with haven't mentioned noticing anything, but then again they also haven't seemed to notice the elaborate note-passing methods that Twelve and L employ during study hall.

The bottom line is that I'm just going to have to make my peace with not knowing, and with not being able to do anything about it if I did. Of course I'll continue watching for danger signs (which would be ... what, exactly?), but I may never know if Twelve is playing O'Brien to L's Lady Grantham or if it's the other way around. She'll be who she is, and she'll be fine.

Now ... I'm just a few episodes into the second season, and may lightening strike and fleas infest anyone who tells me what happens!