Thirteen Reasons

There’s been a lot of buzz lately around the new Netflix series “13 Reasons Why”. Some people thought it was a great, eye-opening series. Others thought it was dangerous and irresponsible. Either way, I should provide you with the following message before I go on: There are spoilers galore in here, so if you haven’t watched it and you don’t want to know what happens… maybe come back and read this after you’ve seen it.

It’s about a girl named Hannah Baker who decides, after a period of intense bullying by her classmates, to kill herself. She leaves a series of cassette tapes in the hands of one of her friends, who passes them on to the thirteen people who she felt contributed in some way to her decision.

It’s not an easy series to watch, especially as a parent. Hannah’s parents were completely oblivious to her growing despair and downward emotional spiral, and that was pretty shocking, because her parents seemed to love her dearly and no less than any other moms and dads I know.

I thought I was all big and tough having watched through several wrenching scenes in the show over the course of a couple of weeks. And then I watched her parents find her body in one of the final scenes, and all I can tell you is that I didn’t uncurl from the ball I was in until I could breathe again. It’s that painful if you have any empathy at all as a human being (and if you are a parent you are pretty much a walking empathy ball).

It’s gutting because we think we know our kids and we think those kids will come to us if they are being harassed or bullied or raped. We think we Will Just Know if something is really that wrong. As it happens, the author of this novel, the writers of this show, and many, many teenagers are telling us that we will not. Not necessarily.

So that’s pretty much like having a huge body-sized band aid ripped off, all at once. That’s some raw skin, right there.

But let’s set that aside for just a minute, right after you take a moment to go hug your kid and remind them that they can trust you and that you will believe them always, and they can come to you with any secret. Once they give you the Mom’s Really Lost It This Time look, come on back, because I have another box to unpack right here.

Let me be a teacher now, a teacher of young children who spends a great big chunk of their waking hours with them. Even at five years old, children know a word that has been tossed around so much these days that we don’t always remember what it means. That word is bullying. It’s super charged, and it’s very often poorly defined.

But that’s ok, because Merriam-Webster is online now, and they define bullying as: “abuse and mistreatment of someone vulnerable by someone stronger and more powerful”.

That means that bullying isn’t an argument or a disagreement between two friends. Bullying isn’t a fistfight in the school yard over a soccer rule dispute. Bullying happens anytime someone vulnerable is abused by someone in a position of power.

We all have a picture that jumps to attention in our minds when we hear the word “bully”. We think of a bully as a huge, loud, angry kid with a big uni-brow who waits outside the school gate every day to torment those who are unfortunate enough to have been brought to his or her attention.

But guess what? Bullies aren’t always big. They usually don’t have uni-brows. They aren’t bullies all the time. They often don’t even know that they are bullying.

Bullies can physically harm other people. But most of the time they cause far more damage emotionally. Bullying is social isolation, it is online torment, it is jokes at someone’s expense who isn’t in a good position to defend him/herself.

Sometimes a bully is simply:

  • someone who hands out invitations to everyone in the class to his party, except that one kid who isn’t really, you know, part of the gang.
  • someone who tells everyone else not to friend the new kid on Facebook.
  • someone who says cruel things to that quiet girl in front of his friends, because, come on, it’s funny.

Because when you’re a kid, those things are not always simple things. They matter. Sometimes they are everything. And they can completely devastate you.

A bully can be anyone’s child. A bully’s victim can be anyone’s child. And, to make things more complex, the roles can change.

If we are honest, we are most afraid that our children will be victims. But if we really care about and truly receive the messages in 13 Reasons Why, we will protect everyone’s children from becoming Hannah Bakers.

We will do it by teaching our own how to never become one of Hannah’s thirteen reasons to die. We will do it by teaching them that everyone’s life is precious. We will do it by teaching them to be kind.

column, 13

Children and Their Grief Journey

 

In every life there are pivotal moments that change everything. But even more importantly there are pivotal people, people whose impact is felt so strongly that your life becomes divided at the point of their arrival into it, and, often, their departure.

So it was for our family and Veronica. She came into my life first, when I moved to Mexico and started working at American School. She was my assistant and then, quickly, my friend. When I had children, she offered to babysit whenever we needed a hand. She proved herself to be reliable, loving, and consistent, and became the only person we asked to care for our children when we needed to go out.

But it wasn’t just that. She became a part of the inner circle in our lives, helping babies whack piñatas and bringing ponche to the Christmas table. To our children, she was the first adult with whom they had a relationship that was entirely their own. She was trusted with their thoughts and feelings and she treated them as friends. She told them Mexican legends and made up stories where they took the starring roles as superheroes and princesses. She was firm with them, but taught them that respect between adult and child was a two way street, and she gave hers in abundance.

They often asked us when we would be going out so that Veronica could come and play with them. I knew she felt the same way about being with them too. I’ll never forget the day I told her that it was time for her to raise her babysitting rates, since we had been paying the same hourly rate for about ten years. She looked in my eyes and said, “I love being with your kids. I’d come for free.”

vero 2 001-001

Not long after that conversation, she became very ill. She had to go into the emergency room at the social security hospital, where children were not allowed. But every evening I’d go in and they’d wait outside, stubbornly refusing to stay home, as though sitting against the glass could transmit love and comfort to their dear friend. They made her videos, cards and letters, and each one brought her to laughing tears.

column child grief

Sitting outside the public social security hospital with a little friend, smiling into the camera so I could show Veronica the proof that they were there for her

They only saw her once more in the two months before she passed away, thanks to hospital regulations. They visited her right before she was admitted to the last hospital, and held her hand while she told them she loved them. Later, when they left, she told me, “You have great kids, do you know that?” I told her that she had a pretty big part to play in that. I told her that I was grateful. I left her smiling through her tears.

I think my husband and I did a decent job of helping them grieve in those first terrible days. We were very conscious of their pain in this sudden loss. We surrounded them with love and understanding. We let them cry, we spoke of her often. We let them see us grieve as well, so they knew that it was ok and it was normal. Our son spoke at her funeral saying simply in Spanish, “I’ll miss her always, because she was my friend.”

Much of this is my children’s story to tell, and I will respect those boundaries, but I also think that it’s important to share and possibly help someone else learn from our experience.Because, shortly after that point, it was like we expected them to carry on, mostly because it seemed like there was nothing left to do.

I think that in our parental desire that our children be ok, we didn’t fully acknowledge that grief was their journey too. Not only that, most children don’t know exactly how to verbalize and process everything they are feeling, and the sadness often manifests itself in ways we wouldn’t expect.

My son is an honor student, and suddenly his grades started to slide. My husband and I immediately battened down the hatches to get him back on track. He just couldn’t tell us what it was that was causing him academic distress, but his science teacher told me, “It’s like he’s not there. It’s not like him.”

Not only that, our empathic child was becoming more angry and argumentative with his friends. He would come home terribly anxious and remorseful, unable to explain why he’d said something hurtful. He’d just tell us, “The words fly out of my mouth and I can’t get them back.”

My daughter began to worry when she or anyone else became ill, asking if it was cancer, or if they were going to die. Her teacher missed school for a couple of weeks due to illness, and she had trouble going to sleep wondering when she was coming back. She played songs that reminded her of Veronica, including one that she sang on a video message to her when she was in the hospital, reminding her of a time when she still believed that her friend could recover.

And then one night my son told me, “But mom, I’m sad. I’m just sad and I don’t know why, and no one understands. No one even knows how I feel.” My daughter added, “Yeah, I wish this year never happened.  It’s the worst year ever.”

With a heavy heart, I realized that we had been so busy trying to make things normal for all of us that we forgot that kids don’t have the grief handbook. They lost someone who had been one of their best friends, someone they had counted on from the time they were babies. The grownups were all just trying to fix the symptoms of a deeper issue, never reaching the core.

And so it goes for parents all over the planet: we live, we learn, and hopefully we change when we need to. What we learned was:

  • Children don’t grieve the way adults do. Children do not normally sustain long periods of intense emotion. For them, this emotion comes in short, intense bursts that blow your hair back and leave you feeling shaken and kinda concerned. But it’s going to be ok, because these bursts are ways of working through feelings that they’ve never known before.
  • Loss for children is often a double whammy: not only are they dealing with a loss of someone they loved, but they are dealing, often for the first time, with the fact that people who are close to them can and will die. And not come back in this life.
  • They will be surprised by grief at unexpected times; like watching Harry Potter, seeing Dumbledore die and feeling that sadness and loss all over again.
  • After a while, memories don’t hurt like before. And that’s because when you love somebody, and they knew how to make quesadillas better than your mom, it feels pretty good to think about them.

And, after all, Veronica was right: our kids are great kids. They will be ok. We listen, we hug, we understand. We keep the rules consistent and we try not to lose the plot of this beautiful thing called our family. Because that’s the last thing Vero would have wanted. She loved us a whole pile and seeing us happy and thriving was one of the things that made her smile. So we find things that make us happy and thrive. There are lots of those.

The other day we were reminiscing about Veronica, because it’s starting to feel good. My daughter smiled and said “You know, I made her a promise.”

I replied, “Oh you did? What was that?”

“I promised that I would always remember her. And I know I will.”

And so that’s what we do. We remember someone who came into our lives, stayed a moment, and changed us forever.

Putting the MIS in Adventure

I feel like I could probably start every weekly article with “last week was quite an adventure.”  Something is always going on around here that is either a) exhausting b) unexpected or c) disastrous. It’s probably based a lot around the fact that our family machine is about as organized as a well-oiled ferret. But this particular week we took things up a notch.

Our son’s excellent taekwondo teacher, Professor Lauro Perez, invited all the students in his class at the American School to a tournament in Guadalajara. Our son really wanted to go. More than he wanted to play Xbox. More than he wanted to play Xbox while reading Harry Potter’s Goblet of Fire for the third time. We decided to be supportive and go, traveling in a caravan with two other families going to the tournament.

guadalajara tae

On the way to our hotel, we all decided to stop at El Trompo Magico, which is a really great children’s museum with tons of activities and exhibits. We went around 4pm on a Saturday and had most of the place to ourselves. Admission was a super cheap 40 pesos per person. The children spent a couple of wonderful hours in workshops such as news casting and animation, and got to pretend they were in a supermarket and a hospital, among other activities.

We stayed in the Centro Historico, right in the heart of the city. The Centro Historico is rich with colonial architecture and history. Our hotel sat right beside the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady, which sits on the central plaza or zocalo, buzzing with buskers and artists of every type.

guadalajara church

Right on the zocolo is a restaurant we almost always visit, called La Antigua, a family-friendly Mexican restaurant with great views of the four hundred year old cathedral. It’s been open for over a hundred years and has a rich and interesting history, and also has an astonishingly tolerant attitude toward groups with children.

This was all both wonderful and chaotic (we were traveling with six adults and five children, so chaos wasn’t entirely unexpected). But the real fun happened on the way home while making some pretty steep climbs. Our car decided that it was hot and tired and sent us smoke signals right in the middle of a particularly steep ascent. We immediately pulled over, as did our friends who were kindly following us.

I have lived in Mexico for nearly sixteen years, and I’ve never broken down on the highway. Most people ask me if I feel comfortable driving in Mexico, and my answer has always been an unhesitant yes. This was put to the test while standing at the side of a busy four-lane highway, engine steaming and burbling merrily.

We tried calling the emergency number you always see on the highway signs, 074. They were very nice and very firm about us calling the “Angeles Verdes”, 078. This number rang and rang, but ultimately cut us off every time. The folks at 074 told us that this problem actually had nothing to do with them, and good day, before hanging up.

At that point, one could certainly start feeling a bit hopeless. I spent some tense moments squinting at the long brush beside the road, wondering what type of shelter I could fashion for the night. It was all a bit grim until we heard a shout and looked over at the truck of a Green Angel, who had been driving by on his regular route, looking for hapless folk in grass shelters and broken-down vehicles. As soon as he jumped over the cement meridian barrier, a tour bus stopped and the driver came out to lend a hand.

Long story short, these two wonderful humans got us back on the road (after being gifted with precious Krispy Kreme doughnuts). The Green Angel promised to keep behind us until his route ended. He said that, on all toll highways, the Angeles Verdes (a service provided by the Mexican Secretary of Tourism) are on the road from 8 – 6pm, looking for folks to help, and the hotline is open 24 hours. He also said that it usually works, but that it was probably just busy, so we should keep trying if we got cut off. Not only did we have the Green Angel’s support, our friends never left our coolant-dribbled wake. The world can be such a marvelous place to live.

Our family very often puts the capital “MIS” in adventure. But thanks to the Green Angels and some very kind Samaritans, this particular story ended well. Travel in Mexico? Absolutely. With the same car? Well, that might be another story that begins with “last week was quite an adventure.”

guadalajara car

You Are Enough

I know a lot of parenting secrets. I know that you should always scope out the washroom signs when you enter a new shopping center. I know the quickest way to clean up vomit from a couch cushion before throwing up yourself.  I know how to pack a purse when you go out with a preschooler (with Kleenex, wipes, goldfish crackers, water, two books and three minifigures, you and a four-year-old can survive a fairly serious natural disaster. I think there’s research on that).

But there’s still a lot I have to learn. One thing that I can’t seem to figure out is how to turn it off once in awhile and maybe even (gasp) cut myself an inch of slack.

I knew that last Saturday was going to be a busy day, but I was proud of the precision with which I had ironed out the schedule. It literally couldn’t have been more perfect. It was a wonderful mix of mani/pedi with my friends plus kid fun, and later a night out with my parents at the Boutique Theatre for a “Time to Play” performance and dinner.

Until I found out that there was a kids’ birthday party in my child’s class. Right in the middle of the dinner out for which the sitter was already booked.

I agonized over it, because I was sacrificing my CHILD’S FUN for my own entertainment. I went over the schedule in my mind but the only solution I could come up with was cloning myself. The problem was, I couldn’t remember if that was a real thing or just a Michael Keaton movie I saw back in the nineties.

So I went to my daughter and informed her gravely that I didn’t think she’d be able to go to the party, because I already had the tickets for my show and couldn’t find another way. I waited for her to get upset and tell me that she always misses all the fun things. But do you know what she actually said to me? She said, “Ok.” And then I think she went back to eating a sandwich and talking to her Shopkins minifigures.

I realized a few things right then. Maybe they will help you too.

  • You sacrifice every day. You are the one who brought them into this world. You gave up vein-free legs, a travel budget, a decent wine collection, the ability to reason. You have held their used Kleenex. You have BEEN their used Kleenex. Every day is another day that you are not reading from your bucket book list, another day that you buy football cleats instead of those great sandals. No one can ask more from you, and yet they do, and yet you feel guilty if you can’t come through. So maybe stop.
  • You are not perfect. So that means you will sit on the edge of your bed some nights and wonder how you could have let them fall asleep thinking you were still angry with them. But tomorrow is another chance to get it right. So, under NO CIRCUMSTANCES will you wake them up to tell them that you aren’t angry anymore. They don’t care right now, and they won’t go back to sleep until you get angry again. Just go to sleep, like immediately, and try again tomorrow.
  • It is absolutely ok that you can’t do it all. We are on the front lines, taking care of our children’s needs, usually before our own. Let go of the little things, and remember that your personal hygiene is not a little thing. You probably know moms who really do seem to do it all without breaking a single drop of sweat, and that confounds you. Let me give you a word of advice about these so called “Supermoms”: you should totally get them to do some stuff for you.
  • You are enough. Every time you forget to give them their snack money for school, every time you raise your voice over the marks on the car windows that look suspiciously salivary, every time you forget to leave the bathroom light on when you say goodnight… remember that you are a human, but a human who loves these people more than anyone else does, more than her very own self. Believe me, you are always enough.video mom's day 2010 003

 

Heart On a Plate, Part 2

Last week I started to write an article about raising resilient children. What I ended up with was an article about how to be a resilient parent so you won’t lose your mind raising resilient children. I gave my favorite analogy of what it’s like being a parent: walking around with your beating heart on a plate, a dagger sitting beside it with a note that says “Be Gentle”.

I thought it would be a one week article, covered in less than 600 words. This was not true, because by the time I had compared the heartrending nature of parenting to clubbing a saber tooth tiger (you had to be there), my word limit had been reached and I hadn’t offered any hope. This seemed unprofessional, so I promised that I would provide some tips on how to keep your club at home while still helping the kids deal with tough situations.

I think we are often unprepared to deal with social problems and our school aged children. We’ve busy just trying to survive sleep training and breastfeeding and the guilt about the disposable diapers. We forget that sooner or later there will be new things to lose sleep over.

But the key here is purposeful parenting BEFORE they experience rejection from their peers for having the wrong version of Plants Vs. Zombies. This will provide them with useful tools to deal with the mud-slinging before it begins.

Encourage children to try new things. If they feel confident to meet new challenges on their own, they will have the confidence to overcome rejection or bullying at school.

Help children think positively. Always encourage positive language at home and reframe experiences for them to look at in a positive light. This doesn’t mean ignoring their pain and sadness. However, showing them what can be learned from the situation, and avoiding talk that puts them in the victim’s chair helps them take more control of a situation.

Children need time to play and do what they enjoy. If their lives are overscheduled, they will feel more stress and this hampers their ability to deal with challenging situations.

Allow your child to find his/her talents and interests. Maybe your child isn’t an athlete, and this makes them feel excluded from the majority who are involved in sports. It’s important to show kids that there is always a place where they can shine. This will take some legwork, but it’s more than worth a child’s self-esteem.

If you find your child is being ostracized or bullied, it’s best not to let the situation sit for too long. Talk to the school. And yes, I think we all struggle with not wanting to look like “that parent”, the one that likes to comment about the coolness of the A/C, or seems to have a lot of rather pointed questions about the seating chart. But there are situations that will escalate without intervention. Besides, our children need to know that we are there for them, willing to step in when they really need us, and that we take their happiness and wellbeing very seriously.

Above all, look into your child’s eyes and let them know that you understand how they feel. Tell them a story of the time you had to eat alone at recess because of one lousy egg salad sandwich. Tell them you could never be a cheerleader because you couldn’t do a cartwheel and still can’t.

And then tell them that there came a day where you looked back and realized that those things didn’t matter much anymore. Tell them, finally, that the day will come for them too. But, until then, you are right there beside them, holding your beating heart on a plate.

Heart On a Plate

If you are the parent of very small children, you have probably been told that things get easier. People like to say this to other people who have not slept in 10 days. They say it because you look so sad, and so tired, and so confused. They say it because they fear what will happen to you if you don’t have something to hope for.

You are going to have a school-aged child someday, this is true. And then you’ll remember that you were told that it would be easier by now. But you will realize it was all a lie when you are rubbing your school-aged child’s back because someone made fun of his glasses, or told her about The Birds and The Bees before you got around to it, or decided it was his turn to not get invited to the playdate that EVERYONE is invited to.

To me, the age of Very Best Friendships has been the most heart wrenching stage of all. Oh sure, toilet training has its ups and downs.  Mostly downs, really, until the trainee is really invested in the sticker/gummy bear/cash prize.  And yeah, I felt the shame of the mid-aisle tantrum in Soriana.  But there is nothing that matches the pain of seeing your child freshly rejected by his/her bestie for someone else with a cooler video game system.

I often hear the saying about motherhood being about your heart walking outside your body. For me, it’s more like my beating heart on a plate with a dagger beside it and a note attached that reads “Be Gentle”. The hunting/gathering instinct seems to have dulled somewhat over time.  However, I think the maternal instinct has remained firmly intact since there’s been life on this planet. Sure, we are aren’t pushing our babies behind us while whacking saber tooth tigers with a club, but don’t mess with a mother whose child is being bullied on the basketball court by the Popular Kid.

Here’s the tricky part: The maternal instinct is strong because it is necessary. We are the first responders for our children when they need us. If we aren’t on their side, who will be? But there’s a fine line between being in our children’s corner and being in our children’s way. And there’s an equally fine line between letting them learn and letting them down.

Social problems are normal. If they don’t happen, they won’t learn how to deal with rejection, or conflict, or any of the other of the heinous things that happen to us as adults. Also, unfortunately, children learn how to be decent human beings by practicing with other children, which sometimes involves being a not-so-decent human being first.

So if your child sobs into your lap after school because they are being ostracized and they don’t know why, you can be assured (once the adrenaline has cleared your system) that there is much for them to learn. But they don’t have to learn it alone. That’s why they have us tall folk in their lives.

We are raising kids in a time when emotional trauma is just one click away. They don’t even have to be physically present to be crushed, it’s that convenient. Our instinct to protect our offspring is not going to be erased from the gene pool anytime soon.

If you would like to know more about raising resilient children, stay tuned for part two, coming up next week!