Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Missing Twelve

Twelve is spending spring break with her other biological parent, about two thousand miles away from where I'm spending spring break with R and three thousand away from our home. I've spent the last few days trying not to think about it, but I've finally given up and thought about it:

I hate this.

It's not so much that I don't like being away from Twelve. Her whole life, I've not minded taking a few days' break now and again. True, now that she's Twelve, I've been more reluctant to spend time apart because I am so cherishing this time and so fearing its end. However, the yucky feeling in the pit of my stomach these last few days is mostly about the 'other biological parent' part.

I don't want to go into too much detail here because I can feel the adrenaline flowing, so I'll just sketch out the basics. When Twelve was an infant, I was married to her dad, but his participation was minimal - let's just say I think he changed a diaper occasionally. When she was 18 months old, he moved out. He saw her a couple of times a month for a day at a time for the next couple of years. Then, when the army moved him out of state, we pretty much did not hear from him for about four years. I think he saw her once during that time, called a few times, never once put a stamp on anything addressed to her.

When Twelve was seven, I got an email demanding that I put her on an airplane and send her, alone, to the other side of the continent for Christmas. I demurred: Surely it would be better for her if you came here to visit? She's never been on a plane and she hasn't seen you in two years.

No. Put her on the plane. You are keeping me from seeing my child. I will take you to court.

Eventually, fearing expensive legal hassles, I gave in. I negotiated him down to a length of time that I could talk her into being comfortable with. Reluctantly, I packed her suitcase and drove her to the airport.

What did she do? My precious girl hugged me goodbye with a smile and sauntered nonchalantly down the gangway.

Even now, more than four years later, I still get choked up thinking about it. Somehow, all by myself, I had raised a girl who could do that. Just hop on a plane like it's no biggie. (When I tell this story in person, there's even a carefree sound effect: 'Doot doot doot doot dooooooo.')

Now, of course, Twelve is a seasoned traveler. She packs her own bags and complains about long flights. The last few times, she's flown on an airline that doesn't require her to have the special unaccompanied minor service, and she loves it. In December, I was reminding her to ask someone at the desk to help her find her connecting flight, and I could see the wheels turning: "I can see you thinking! You're thinking you're just going to figure it out for yourself, aren't you!" I exclaimed. Twelve smiled sheepishly and admitted to it. We both grinned.

That's my girl.

If only she was going to visit someone else, someone I trust. We've got people like that, in Colorado Springs and Boston and Winston-Salem and Atlanta and small towns in coastal Maine. But she's going to spend time with someone whose emails to me are hostile, threatening, demanding, and intimidating. Someone who recently dragged me through a ridiculously expensive court battle, even though I repeatedly offered to settle - and on terms much more favorable to him than what we got. Someone who has never once contacted me just to ask how Twelve's doing. Someone who, I've concluded, doesn't really give a shit about her except to 'have' her in his family.

To Twelve, I refer to him as 'your dad,' entirely for her benefit. I blame the English language for not providing a more accurate term for those who are a bare something more than sperm donors but don't do any of the parenting. It makes me crazy angry that such people are allowed to take credit for the wonderful children that other people raise. For twelve years, I've dedicated my life to the project of Twelve, and done it pretty well. Guess why she was able to hop on that plane with aplomb when she was eight? Guess why she's so helpful with your little girls? Guess why she's so much fun to give presents to? Because of me, you jackass. Admit you've done jack shit to raise her, quit being a douchebag to me, and take some time off work to actually get to know her.

Ugh. I keep hoping that eventually I'll make sense of this; that I'll achieve closure. Maybe I'm thinking about it too much, or not enough, or ineffectively. Maybe I am secretly hoping that someday it will just go away, somehow. On Saturday, Twelve and I will meet at the airport and take the train home, and - if I'm lucky once again - everything will be fine, back to ever-shifting normal.

Cross your fingers for me? Thanks.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

New Book, New Things to Worry About

I've finally gotten a copy of Odd Girl Out, which was in 2002 the first book to really discuss girls' hidden aggressive behaviors. I'd heard of relational aggression before, and read Queen Bees and Wannabees a few years ago, but Odd Girl Out is definitely giving me new things to think (read: worry) about.

I'm pretty sure that Twelve isn't a victim of girl bullying. She is fairly witty and is relatively good at repartee - at least with all of us smartypants adults. She comes home happy every day, has never once balked at going to school unless she's actually sick, and has an observable track record of not bothering to participate when other kids are mean. All in all, I am pretty sure that she isn't hiding a life of misery at school.

Pretty sure.

Mostly sure, fairly certain that, almost positive, nearly a hundred percent, probably sure ... aaaarrrghhh!

I could ask Twelve, but I can tell you right now what the answer will be: A big sigh (I'm so put upon by my mom who keeps asking all these annoying questions) and a dismissive, disinterested "No, mom."

I asked Twelve a couple of months back (in a very convincing offhanded manner because it had actually just occurred to me at that moment) if anyone was ever mean to her. With a note of incredulity in her voice, she replied "Of course not. I'm a head taller than everyone else" (It's so obvious, mom).

Okay, so Twelve doesn't act like a bullying victim or think she is one. Good. But what if she's the perpetrator? This I really do doubt. I used to worry that Twelve, being so smart and all, might use her powers for evil and be a mean girl, but now I'm pretty sure (fairly certain, etc) that she's not going to go there. I'm only a few chapters into Odd Girl Out (okay, and I also skipped ahead and read the last chapter), but I have figured out this much: Bullies are insecure. All that emotional manipulation and meanness is just the expression of very small, very scared souls who need to feed on other people because they aren't confident in who they are. Twelve is nothing if not confident in herself.

This may change as adolescence progresses - yes, thank you, I am aware of that. I read about that in Reviving Ophelia just like you, thanks for the reminder. I know that perfectly well-adjusted girls become nervous, insecure wrecks when the hormones hit. But Twelve has not experienced this particular change yet. She still likes to do her homework and read and putter around her room and rearrange her miniature hand sanitizers and come in the living room to sit on my lap. So I am fairly (mostly, almost) confident in stating that Twelve is not a bully. She simply does not need to be.

I've found myself thinking something else, as Rachel Simmons relates the experiences of eight, nine, ten, eleven year old girls who had been horribly manipulated and abused by other girls, supposedly their friends: This doesn't resonate with me at all.

The reason that it shocks me to learn that girls have started training to be manipulative wretches in third grade is that I didn't go to third grade. I was home-schooled until the seventh grade, when I enrolled in the local junior high, so I was twelve before I learned that people are mean to each other for no reason. I was well acquainted with being mean to my little brother because he was being annoying, of course, but I was also practiced in expressing my annoyance to him. There was none of this behind-your-back, subtle, you have no idea what you've done to upset me bullshit. You knock over my Barbie bathroom, I'm gonna get you. Period.

I guess I just don't have much of a frame of reference for the type of undercover aggressive behaviors that Simmons describes. I hated junior high school because the popular girls made fun of my clothes and picked on me, but at least they were open about it! I was miserable, but I had no illusions about trying to maintain friendships with girls that were being so mean. The enemy was clearly identifiable, even if I didn't have the verbal or social skills to call a spade a spade and deal effectively with the situation - i.e., make them stop.

Here's what I hope for Twelve. I hope that she gives attempted bullies the same response that she gives me when I bring up, say, the constraints of conventionally constructed gender norms: Disinterest, shrug, eye roll, walk away. I hope that she acknowledges conflict in a straightforward fashion: Quit knocking over my Barbie bathroom! I hope that she remains confident enough in her own self that the mercurial opinions of others won't matter so much: Jane is playing jacks with Mary today instead of with me? No biggie, I'll hopscotch with Sue.

You know what? All evidence suggests that Twelve is already doing these things.

Next term, I think I'll make a point to check in with her teachers about this again, but for now I think I'm going to finish reading Odd Girl Out and try not to find anything new to worry about.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Letter to Twelve on the Occasion of Spring Break Travels

My Dearest Twelve,
R and I spent today driving along undivided highways across the middle of nowhere, stopping at junk shops in tiny desert towns along the way. R found a solid brass pipe wrench (used for gas lines because it won't throw a spark), I found a couple of our little bread plates for 39 cents apiece, and we drank a tremendous amount of peach nectar mixed with fizzy water.

I want to tell you about these small towns in the middle of nowhere, my dear, because you have lived your entire life in a college town not too far from a major metropolitan area in an affluent region of our state and your considerable travels have been mostly by air. Between where you've been and who you've known, you've been kept so very ignorant of so many realities. As you may know (if you've been paying attention at key points in your informal education), while poverty is most culturally visible in inner cities, more poor people live in rural areas.

In small towns in the middle of nowhere, you would be surprised at the spaces in which human beings live. Many of the dwellings are falling apart: Porches sag, broken windows are patched with plywood, paint peels, roof panels are held down with tires against the wind. Trailers and decrepit mobile homes count as houses and have junk piled around them. Dogs live in dirt yards. Empty bottles and trash are scattered about.

Many - perhaps even half - of the storefronts and buildings in these towns are empty. Many are in disrepair. Businesses have gone out of business. All kinds of historic buildings are rotting, unremarked and not likely to tell their stories to coming generations. In my imagination, I've turned many of them into lovely hotels, shops, and restaurants, but for now they are for lease, boarded up, abandoned. For whatever reasons, these towns seem breaths away from achieving ghost town status.

In small towns in the middle of nowhere, there doesn't seem to be anywhere to purchase food. We passed one major supermarket today, hours ago. Note with me, in indignant astonishment, that this supermarket did not offer organic apples. At gas station convenience stores, drinking water is not available via a little button on the soda fountain, like we're used to; it comes in jugs, at four dollars a gallon. The clerk looked at me like I'm crazy when I asked him to fill my stainless steel bottle with tap water. Because it is crazy to drink tap water that contains chlorine and sulfur.

In small towns in the middle of nowhere, the cashiers and hotel clerks are not the familiar hiply dressed college graduates waiting for the economy to improve so they can get real jobs. The cashiers, hotel clerks, and junk shop proprietors with whom we have interacted tend to speak grammatically creative English. Many are missing a tooth or two. If they have fillings, and many of them do, they are the dark kind that show. Even I, knowing as little about fashion as you assure me I do, can tell that their clothes are hopelessly uncool.

Perhaps these are the people politicians euphemistically call the 'salt of the earth' - the better to treat them as an inexpensive commodity. Certainly, these are the people who believe their interests are better served by the Tea Party than the Progressive party - if the worn placards posted in several of these junk shops are any indication. Equally certainly, these are the people rendered foreign to you by the bubble of privilege in which you live.

I'm not sure what I think I'm going to do about this; I'm not sure there's much I can do. As you know, if you're not interested in something there's not a whole heck of a lot I can do about it. (Yes, you're kind of a stinker like that.) I guess I could take you on a road trip designed to show you rural poverty. The goal would be what, though?

I want you to have a well-rounded understanding of how the world works, yes. I want you to be empathetic toward other people, of course. I want you to be able to interact authentically and comfortably with anyone, naturally. I want you to get that you're a member of a group that gets benefits in most contexts and the benefit of the doubt in every other, indeed. But is treating tiny, impoverished towns along a lonely stretch of highway like zoo specimens the answer? Doubtful.

I would like to take a road trip with you one of these years; I've been thinking about this for awhile actually. Perhaps we will end up along a route that allows us to see a reasonably varied sample of the communities that make up our nation. Perhaps you will encounter people and places that make you think twice about something. Perhaps the trip, like the time you first saw urban homeless folks in San Francisco, will be a bit eye-opening. Perhaps we will have time to talk about things that are important to you at age twelve, and perhaps we will just save conversations about solving national economic injustice for another year.

Twelve, my dear, I miss you, and I wish you were here with us at the century-old hotel in the middle of nowhere that we've lucked into for tonight's stop. I wish we could take you on tomorrow's self-guided tour of the mining camp on the mountain behind the hotel. I wish I could make you roll your eyes by starting conversations about how differently people live a few states and a socioeconomic stratum away, and I wish you were here to help us eat our way through this giant box of snacks. I hope you're having a great time at your dad's house, and I'll see you when you get home.
With best love,
Mother of Twelve

P.S. Postcard to follow.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Interstitial Parenting, Part Two the Second: Beauty, Again

On Monday night, Twelve was told she's beautiful by a near-stranger. My cousin's husband's mother, to be more precise.

It was totally non-contextualized; it wasn't like we were discussing attractiveness or anything. It was just tacked on to the end of the ritual leave-taking exchange as we got up from the table to leave:

"Goodbye, it was really nice to see you again [to me], and you too [to Twelve]. How long have you had braces? You're such a beautiful young lady," something like that. A very sincere, very kind, totally inoffensive, grandmotherly remark.


Two things, first: Yes, we know. Except for the brief period between permanent teeth coming in and braces going on, Twelve has always been an attractive person. Her whole LIFE she's been hearing that the way she looks is acceptable. This has shaped the person she is, and will continue to shape the person she is becoming.

Second: Do you want to know why Twelve is beautiful at the moment? Because of those braces. Period. If she hadn't had braces, there would be no compliments for her except for very, very feature-specific ones about her eyes or hair or complexion. She could barely close her mouth around her front teeth in the third grade. The braces went on at exactly the right time for the orthodontist to work magic with a rapid palate expander and headgear.

Bullet dodged.

I can't even express how relieved I am that I was able to get braces on Twelve at the right moment. It's not that I've got thousands of dollars to throw around, either: It's a combination of partial insurance coverage, a tax return coming in at the right time, Twelve's other biological parent paying his half, and the orthodontist offering a manageable payment plan - at least, that's the financial part. The rest of it, the actual key to the whole process, is the middle class assumption that braces should happen when perfectly functional teeth don't look quite right.

Socioeconomic class differences are only partly about the money. It's our expectations that really divide us.

Middle class folks expect teeth to be made straight, so we find the money to make it happen. College is another example: Many middle class parents don't pay for their child's college education, but their kids go to college anyway because of the expectation. The kid might get a job, a Pell grant, work study, and/or a boatload of loans, but off to college she goes.

My relief, then, is partly about making Twelve's life 'better' by making sure she's beautiful. But the rest of it is about having managed to successfully enact middle class privilege; about ensuring that Twelve will fit in with the dominant class. It's astonishing to think about the differences between actual Twelve and alternate-reality-without-braces Twelve.

Actual Twelve gets the goodies in life: When she goes over to a friend's house in the historic district, she looks like she belongs. When she runs for high school student body president, her peers will vote for her. When she grows up and applies for a professional job, she will be taken seriously and regarded as an equal. Alternate reality Twelve will be questioned about her teeth by the pitying daughters of wealthy families, won't be confident enough to run for office, and will be politely passed over for the job she really wants.

Don't tell me about the person you know in x position of power in y organization who has terrible teeth; I know it's not as cut and dried as all this (and it's probably a man). My point is that adolescent teeth are contested ground in the struggle to embody class privilege, and winning matters.

That is all.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Twelve: Grocery Shopper Extraordinaire

This year, Twelve bikes to school. It's about eighteen blocks, the route is safe, it takes her about twelve minutes, no big deal. She's never been late and she has the freedom to stay after school to chat with L for 20 minutes. Responsibility meter ratcheted up one notch with this school year? Check.

We love the Grocery Outlet (Bargains Only!) It's not exactly on the way home from Twelve's school, but it's only a few blocks out of the way down a safe street. In addition to the organic cheeses, avocado, and crackers that we love to buy at half price, the "gross out" also often carries nail polishes, emery boards, and strongly scented soaps.

You see where this is going, don't you?

The inevitable result is that Twelve likes to stop at the Grocery Outlet on the way home. I've put a stop to going there for no reason, but if Twelve has a specific item in mind and has the cash, she usually receives permission to go there on the way home.

Yesterday, when Twelve asked if we could go shopping for lunch foods, I replied that we have perfectly suitable lunch foods but that she could go shopping on the way home the next day. I asked her to get sliced cheese, pesto, and crackers, provided the cash, and even laid out a cloth bag for her to take along.

Fast forward to just now. I finish teaching and call Twelve to check in, as is our usual practice. What did she oh-so-proudly bring home from the gross out, you might wonder? Some sort of Newman's Own tangerine twists ("I got us something new to try!" - this girl can spin anything), cereal, yogurt, blueberry muffin mix, and some sort of suspicious-sounding pasta-related item.

Twelve-year-old person responsibility level reality check? Check.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Helpless: The Soundtrack of Our Lives

Today a coworker and I were talking about music. Specifically, about music for Twelve and the foundational influence of music in the teen years. My coworker agreed that music is an important part of the developing psyche; he remembers realizing that he didn't just have to listen to whatever music was on the radio, that there was new and different music out there just waiting to be discovered.

Now, I'm not much of a music person; I own few CDs (Black Eyed Peas, Pink Martini, and the soundtrack to Ocean's Twelve that didn't even have the bit that I bought it for) and my iPod (20GB, 16GB available) has only whatever music that a former roommate put on it in a fit of compassion in 2006. At work, when I'm in charge, we listen to whatever Pandora station was on the day before; my coworkers are constantly seeding stations with stuff I've never heard of.

The upshot is that there's rarely music playing in our house: I can't concentrate on anything else when there's music playing and I can't ever figure out what the heck they're saying anyway. (And then when I do finally make out the words, most of the time it's racist, classist, or horribly degrading to women. Way too many catchy songs have been totally ruined for me.)

This means that for most of her life, Twelve's pretty much grown up in an unintentional music vacuum. About two years ago, she began to acquire a few CDs - Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato, Lady Gaga - all fairly innocuous I suppose, but it still bothered me that the entirety of her musical exposure was modern, mainstream crap.

I freaked out a tiny bit and sent out a pathetic message to several musically-inclined friends asking for suggestions/donations of empowering, non-sexist tunes to try and remedy the situation. One friend was kind enough to prepare five or six CDs of woman-friendly songs, complete with set lists. I couldn't wait for Twelve to claim women's music history for her own, discover a love for [insert your favorite woman artist here], and join the ranks of earnest feminists.

Didn't happen.

Okay, fine, no biggie, I let the matter drop. I continued to enforce the no-popular-radio ban, citing the awfulness of commercials, and Twelve continued to play Lady Gaga on incessant repeat and read lots of books. This was okay. Not ideal, but okay.

For Christmas, Twelve was given an iPod Touch. I won't bore you with the details of its giver, but suffice it to say that Twelve's other parent has never bothered to actually participate in her upbringing and does not bother to think critically about which cultural influences are appropriate for her.

I am mostly resigned to Twelve having this small device of the devil's design. We worked together to establish appropriate parameters for its use (no email or internet browsing without permission, but using the chat and text functions is okay), every now and then it turns out to be handy to have the internet at hand, and it's an excellent behavior modification incentive. ("Do you want to lose the privilege of your iPod?" works amazingly well when Twelve is in full I-know-I'm-driving-you-nuts-but-aren't-I-cute-and-I-can-see-you-trying-not-to-smile performance mode.)

I'm only mostly resigned to its presence in her life for two reasons: For one thing, it's frightening to see her so zoned in on a tiny screen. You know how unsettling it is to see a toddler sitting, slack-jawed and glassy-eyed, in front of a TV? It's pretty much the same thing with Twelve and the iPod. Increasingly frequently, she's made to just put the damn thing away for awhile.

The other thing I'm not totally okay with is that it's got music on it: Country music. Top-40 music. Vacuous pop music. Music with horrifying lyrics and worse subtexts. For example, have you every actually listened to the words of that 'Extraterrestrials' song? If you take out the aliens, it's a recipe for abusive relationships, plain and simple. Children - children! - are being taught and formed and shaped by this stuff, all the time, all over the place.

"It's a pretty helpless thing, being a parent," I concluded this morning, after admitting that I've been totally unsuccessful in shaping Twelve's taste in music. You just can't control what teaches and forms and shapes your children. You can try, up to a certain point. But you can only try, and the point at which you lose control comes very, very soon.

Monday, March 5, 2012

I'd like a copy of Dan Savage's Sex Toys Dictionary, Please

Today Twelve was reading a news magazine (she only reads them for the ads, I suspect whilst hoping that she actually learns something once in awhile) and started reading out loud from an article about women's achievements in various countries. Which country has the highest rate of abortion, the most Miss Universe winners, the highest per-capita vibrator use, and so on.

When she got to the part about vibrators, though, she quickly moved on, saying she didn't want to know what vibrators are. She used exactly the same tone that she had used a moment before to indicate that she didn't care which country has the highest representation of women at the national level. It's a tone very similar to the one she uses to dismiss the possibility of having a crush on anyone, ever. We are becoming quite familiar with this tone around here.

After wondering briefly how it's possible that she doesn't know about vibrators, I realized that I'm relieved that she doesn't: It means that she's still my little girl. It means that she hasn't learned as much from peers as I fear she might. It means that my sex education practices are working exactly how I've intended them to.

My sex ed policy with Twelve is twofold: First, ask what she thinks, then (if needed) answer her questions exactly, with no more information than she's requested. Sometimes, kids already know as much as they need to know, and after asking Twelve what she thinks, all I need to do is reassure her that she's got the right idea (this works well in response to questions about Santa, just fyi). If what she thinks isn't quite correct or if she just doesn't know, I answer the question. If that is satisfactory to her, fine. If not, she asks another question, I provide more information, and so on. There's a built-in age-appropriateness mechanism going on here. If they're asking, they're ready.

Twelve found out how babies are made when she was five, with a series of increasingly insistent questions: BUT HOW DOES IT GET IN THERE? Fine. There's an erect penis involved. (If I remember correctly, five-year-old Twelve received this information with equanimity.)

Seriously? This kid a) doesn't know about vibrators and b) doesn't want to know? They're right, adolescence does mess with you.

Anyway, I may one day have an opportunity to ask Twelve what she thinks a vibrator is and to clarify things for her a bit in the pleasure device department. But.

What if I don't?

What if Twelve is past the point at which she and I can have these healthy, productive conversations? What if she looks it up on the internet? What if she asks her peers and they tell her that vibrators are alien tracking devices that attack our eyeballs while we sleep?

What if she figures out what "That's what she said" means and I never get/have to explain it to her?

I need Dan Savage to come to the rescue. R and I are longtime fans of Savage Love, Dan's syndicated weekly sex advice column. We get a huge kick out of reading the letters, because then we get to try and seriously check in with each other just to be sure - really sure, since you never know what might have changed since the last time you asked - that neither of us would be sexually aroused by watching the other poop.

ANYWAY. I need Dan Savage to write a dictionary of all things sexual. I think he would be the obvious person to do this because a) he's an expert; b) he's so funny; and c) I just finished reading his book The Commitment, which means that I now feel like I'm his and Terry's new best friend.

This dictionary would be the substitute for conversations with mom about sex, for when people are in that difficult age when they don't know anything much about sex but can't be bothered to take their moms seriously. (AHEM, Twelve, that would be you.) Each entry would have a simple, basic definition of whatever the thing is (Vibrator: A device used to provide sexual pleasure), followed by additional details for those ready for more information ( ... I can't do it. Use your imagination).

Full confession (and something I hadn't thought of until just now): I looked up "condom" in the regular dictionary, in Mrs. S's English classroom, in the seventh grade. I'm kind of proud of my twelve-year-old self, actually: I wasn't quite sure if I knew what a condom was, so I looked it up. Worked pretty well; I didn't find out about flavored, colored, or glow-in-the dark condoms, but that was okay. Finding out more than I wanted to know might have freaked me out. I'd like the same to be possible for Twelve, given that regular dictionaries don't have entries for 'pegging' and 'santorum' and that she's known about condoms for some years already.

Okay, New Best Friend Dan, I think that the Dan Savage Sex Dictionary-o-Rama would be an excellent thirteenth birthday gift for Twelve. Her birthday's in October, it's already March, it will take a couple of months for editing and printing and then there's distribution ...