It’s so interesting how far the pendulum swings sometimes, isn’t it? In less than ten hours I’ve gone from being amped up about seeing some photographs of strong women leaders that I admire, to hearing, with much disappointment, on the playground this morning just how far some people have to go when it comes to how we view and talk about girls and women.
Last night, 10PM, on the couch
While reading the April 2014 issue of Vanity Fair, I was struck by how inspired I felt after seeing the seventeen women noted in the photographic piece, “Lean In, Lead On.” Some of my favorite women were there, including Elizabeth Warren and Jane Goodall. I was happy to see the wide spectrum of ages, much less the diversity, both in race and professional background, of these women. I especially loved how they asked us to “bend the knee to the quiet bravura of Jane Goodall and Alice Waters, who have been leading by example for decades . . . .” I liked that particular description because it not only shows that there is something to be said for measured stamina in this kind of leadership, but that it does not have to be bold and loud to be effective. In fact, I think this might be my new favorite phrase. As an introvert myself, and as the mother of a young girl who also seems to veer more toward introversion, and is sensitive in ways that are seemingly profound, these kind of women make tremendous role models.
This morning, 7:50AM, on the playground
M was off on the monkey bars, completely by herself, but a huge smile on her face. It doesn’t seem to matter to her that she can only go from the starting point to the first rung—this is the essence of why I love her so much. She doesn’t get discouraged that almost everyone else who comes along to take a shot at the monkey bars can now go all the way across. M can still only do one. But it doesn’t get her down. It’s not a competition for her. At the sweet age of 6.5, this is how I want it to be. As I was standing there watching her from afar, I saw her take a tumble when she jumped down from the first rung. Sometimes, if she gets hurt or falls like that, it is an instant trigger for tears. I think mainly because I’m still on the periphery with the other parents; I don’t think she’s like that when I’m not around, but it’s hard to say. Where some kids might just pick themselves up and get back on, she can still give a good wail if she bangs a leg or jams a finger on the way down. But today, no tears. She laughed off the temporary bang-up and got back on.
As I was standing there watching her, this conversation then ensued with the mother of a boy in M’s class:
Parent: Wow! She’s always all smiles!
Me: Yes, usually. It’s great! But sometimes, like just now when she falls off, she might start crying. So I was just watching her to see whether that was going to happen since it can make or break a drop-off in the mornings, ha-ha!
Parent: Yeah, well that’s because she’s a girl.
Me: Well, I don’t know about that. I think it’s because she’s a sensitive soul and has been like that for a while. It’s so nice to see the sun, no?
I stood there trying to take in what she just said to me, waiting for the school bell to ring. I was astonished that this mother, obviously a female, would make such a stereotypical declaration (to another woman) about a girl. I was sad that she has a son who might be growing up in an environment where sensitivity—or, let’s be real, tears—is only expected from girls, as a rule. I was flabbergasted that assigning traits and characteristics by mere gender is still a thing that some parents of this millennium continue to do, much less openly so. I was trying to reconcile how we can have a list like the one in Vanity Fair and then pigeonhole girls on the playground simply because of their XX chromosomes.
Knowing that there are often reported differences between boys and girls doesn’t help either. That’s the problem with the studies: they forget the outliers and, in my opinion, end up perpetuating unhelpful or unnecessary stereotypes. They also don’t take into consideration the cultural reinforcement of stereotypes rather than the truly innate differences. It all makes me want to re-read Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain.
The gender assumptions and prejudices just don’t sit well with me anymore because now there is someone more at stake than just myself. Yet, at the end of the day, I am completely uncertain about how to handle them when confronted in the parking lot or during schoolyard chit chat with people I hardly know. Ignoring these statements doesn’t seem right, at least not if I want to see some forward progress. But confronting someone or getting on a soapbox in these venues doesn’t seem quite right either. So what’s the solution? I’m not sure yet. My only hope is that through even small push backs like mine this morning, it will help others at least take a pause before declaring someone’s child is (or is not) a certain way simply because he is a boy or she is a girl. Maybe that will be my quiet bravura.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
If you have a highly sensitive child, one that maybe feels things “more” than his or her peers, then maybe you will relate to this. Maybe you are like this too. I know I am.
Yesterday, I took M to see the movie Frozen. We met up with another friend and her mom. We had made these plans at Halloween while the girls were trick-or-treating. I know that M was excited about the movie, though she knew very little about it as she had seen the trailer only a week before (strategic planning on my part to reduce the nagging of “is it the movie day yet!?”). I think it was more about actually going to the movies with a friend than the actual movie itself. She’s only been to a theater two other times in her six short years. Well, three, actually, but one was at a birthday party when she was four and spent the better part of it running up and down the stairs. She’s a homebody, that one. Likes her movies at home barefoot on the couch, with us by her side.
Anyway, I’m not interested in reviewing the movie here. It was typical Disney fare and a cute way to spend a few hours in stillness and darkness during a frenzied time of year.
But something did strike me during the movie: M and I tear up almost always at the same time during certain movies, music or experiences. I’ve been this way as long as I can remember. And she seems to be turning out that way too.
For me, the waterworks start during certain kinds of music, especially marching bands during parades, the Star Spangled Banner and violin-heavy classical music. If it’s a live show, of any kind of music, I cannot help but cry sometimes. I did it at the Elizabeth Mitchell concert this past summer. She’s not exactly dreary. With live music, I feel like I am levitating out of my seat and my heart swells in some magical, if not embarrassing, kind of way. The music almost feels like it is punctuating every single cell in my body. I’m sure some people think I might have some kind of tragic connection to the song that’s playing because quite often it’s not even a ballad. It’s like I’m being consumed by the music. I’ve noticed that M has had that kind of reaction a few times herself.
Some parts of movies? I am blubbering when everyone around me is seemingly cool and collected. It happened at the end of The Help. It happens during movies I’ve seen a million times over. It happened yesterday during one of the opening scenes of Frozen. I was dripping tears from my eyes, trying to keep it together in the dark, when M leaned over to me and said, with almost a surprise in her whisper, “Mommy, I can’t stop tearing up. I need a tissue.” It was like she didn’t understand why she was crying. She had a similar reaction to some other movies in the past couple of years too, to the point where we had to stop one for a while so that she (and I) could regain our composure.
Sunsets, a full moon, the clouds floating by on a bright summer day, a special gift that was obviously picked just for me (or her), acknowledging the brevity of life, hearing feel-good stories on the news . . . all triggers for tears.
Oh, my little heart. I know exactly how you feel. I’ve even written about it before.
I used to think it was a curse, this feeling things seemingly “more” than others. I mean, it certainly does not come in handy to be sniffling through a concert or a parade (even though I am elated) when everyone else around is smiling and giddy. It’s not really “normal” to be so visibly sensitive (just look at all the heat that John Boehner gets). It can make others feel uncomfortable. But as I get older, I embrace more and more that this is just who I am. And, because I am increasingly comfortable with what I now see as a positive trait rather than a detriment, I am able to understand the needs of M who seems very much like me in this regard. I will be able to show her, as she gets older, that this ability to perceive and receive the profundity in the seemingly mundane of everyday life, is a good thing, and not something to hide. Being highly sensitive allows someone to experience things often on another level; it’s managing the negative and allowing the positive to come forward that takes practice. I look forward to being M’s teacher (and, let’s face it, the student too) as she starts to encounter increasingly complex and emotionally charged stories both in fantasy and real life. It is just another way of appreciating life and all that it has to offer. Of course just thinking about it makes me tear up once again.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
The other night, right before I was about to head out the door to meet my neighbor for our weekly four mile walk, my daughter suggested to me that I take along a pair of gloves. There was a chill in the approaching New England dusk, so her advice was wise. But right after her suggestion, she added,
“You know, in case you and Abby* want to hold hands, your hands won’t be cold.”
After I conjured up a six year old’s way of thinking, I immediately understood what she was talking about. The sweetness of it brought tears to my eyes.
She genuinely thought that when I went walking with my female neighbor/friend, that we held hands. Just like she does with her own friends. The innocence of that assumption took my breath away.
It got me to thinking about children and holding hands. At first, we hold their hands to protect them from running off into the street or to help them keep pace while walking or just to keep them close to us. Of course, we also do it as a show of affection. But over time, and especially as they approach the ages of six and beyond, the need for holding hands to prevent wayward jaywalking diminishes sharply. Whatever is left—which, I’m finding, largely depends not only on the mood, but the child herself—is really just for comfort and affection.
M has always been a hand holder, and, at times, incessantly so. She loves to hold hands, both with us and with her friends, especially the girls. She is, almost always, the initiator. Sometimes it surprises me that she still wants to hold my hand in the mornings on the walk to school. I relish every day of it. I see the evidence before me in the older kids that it is not going to last forever.
Not all of her friends share her love of holding hands, but several do. I love to watch it happen. I think it is a magical sweetness that is so utterly pure and comes wholly from a place of love, comfort and friendship. I caught a glimpse of it in the spring concert when she laced her fingers with the girl next to her on the risers on stage. M swelled with the excitement of singing and found comfort before the large crowd in the warm grip of the friend next to her.
Just last week, I swooned as I watched her find security in the palm of a friend while they explored together the K-2 fall dance in the school gym, usually an overwhelming situation for M on her own (or even with us). They galloped hand in hand through the crowd, their joy and exuberance connected. This is what she thinks friends should do. This is was what informed her suggestion for my walk that chilly night.
I consider myself lucky that she still loves holding our hands. It is the one part of her that still feels small to me, though that is changing I know.
This photo was taken at the Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate in Canton, MA, a property of the Trustees of Reservations. It’s a great place to take kids on a woodland walk, and to hold hands.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
* Not her real name
For a long time now, I’ve beat myself up over some of the excessive worry I tend to carry around and transmit. I don’t want my bad habits to rub off on M or hold her back. This is because I want her nature, more so than my nurture, to ultimately shine through, no matter what that shakes out to look like.
And, until a few nights ago, I thought all of my dwelling and ruminating on certain things was just due to hard-wired worry and anxiety. But the vision of a skunk roaming the hallway at M’s school changed that. I’ve teased out what I think is actually at my core so much of the time: sorrow.
Let me back up. I was at the PTO meeting the other night and there was an announcement about the upcoming lockdown drill at her school. It was the first I had heard about it. After swallowing my heart and a few rising tears, I asked just how this drill would be explained to the young children in the school. M’s class and grade will be told there is a skunk in the building that the police need to find, so to help they need to turn off the lights, stay quiet and do other various things until they are given the all clear. My head swirled and my stomach turned with the whys and hows behind this whole endeavor and the ridiculous things we must tell our children and ourselves in spite of it.
My question was entirely self-serving: M has NO idea about any kind of school violence that’s taken place in the world to date. And at the tender age of six, can any of us say with a straight face that she or her peers should? Somehow, some way I was hoping that a strand of that innocence could still be protected even though she’s now in school. I’m not entirely sure that the notion of a skunk in school would necessarily give my six year old any peace of mind—alas this is the same girl who was worried there might be a bear or a fox in our (urban) garage the night we decided to test out the telescope—but sure, it is better than the raw truth. Or at least I tell myself that.
School violence is the sole reason for this exercise to begin with. I know tragic school violence is rare. I know that I can’t stop it from happening, here or anywhere, at least not without a lot of drastic personal life changes that involve finding a single-family rock to live under or the enlightenment of far too many policymakers. These are truths that I cannot change, and, in total honesty, I have accepted them so fully that I no longer find myself worrying about them.
And because I’ve released my worry about this particular issue long ago, it had me questioning why I still left the meeting with a pit in my stomach. I stewed for hours. I felt hot anger on the ride home. I was so consumed by the drill and its explanation that I honestly do not remember putting any of the contents into my cart during the shopping trip right afterwards. I was tearful. I tossed it around with my husband and friends near and far who reminded me that it is better to be safe than sorry or that we did similar drills when we were little and that our parents did too. Yes, true, but . . . I felt resignation creep in.
That’s when it dawned on me: this is sorrow, not worry. I am feeling grief, and all of its usual phases, about the loss of her innocence. I am lamenting that the surface of her bubble has worn through in yet another spot. A bubble with a perfection and iridescence that is fleeting. A bubble that cannot be repaired. The time to enjoy it is for mere seconds after it forms, because once you see its rainbow skin start to thin and fade to clear, it is no more. You hope that this bubble you’ve created will be the one that will last just a little bit longer than the rest, but ultimately it does not. It simply cannot be sustained in the atmosphere within which it came to be.
The thing about grief and sorrow is that everyone moves through it differently. You often hear that everyone grieves in different ways. We say this to remind others, and ourselves, that it is OK to deal with it however we need to. Some push past sorrow with breakneck speed and seemingly no emotions. Others with slow, slogging determination and red-rimmed eyes. There is no one right way. I seem to be in the latter group, often finding myself immobilized with the endless farewells we must say as parents, and all despite knowing that there are inversely wonderful beginnings yet to be encountered. So I will linger here awhile, in my sorrow. And I will not worry about that either.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
All I can think is, “wow, this is really it . . . the last time 7:45AM on a Thursday will be this slow-paced, at least until the end of next June.” I have mixed feelings about it all, though right now they are weighted heavily on the side of pensive sadness (at least if I ignore the massive amount of work for clients I have been unable to finish this past month, trying to keep things at bay until I have my routine work schedule back again). As I look back to last weekend and toward this coming Monday, so much has happened and is happening in the growing world of my so very soon-to-be six year old (tomorrow!). First camping trip under her belt (complete with sleeping in a thunderstorm with insane amounts of rain, which as most of you know is probably M’s biggest fear—she conquered it with much bravery, though the trip was ultimately cut short because she got sick from heat exhaustion very early Sunday AM). Having her first two VERY loose teeth gently nudged out yesterday by a very patient dentist (her unease with dangling chompers was unbearable to the point of tears and not eating much, though I think the impending start of Kindergarten amplified the discomfort beyond what she could otherwise normally cope with). Kindergarten orientation tomorrow, as well as her sixth birthday (which we are trying to not have become overshadowed by the start of school). And, on Monday, the official “drop-her-off-and-walk-away” first day of Kindergarten. The mountain that will soon seem like a mole hill, for both of us. The part where I have to once again learn to “hand over the keys” and trust those adults and children with whom she will spend the better part of her weekdays that they will get to know, really know, the beautiful person that she is and embrace all of her. Despite all these milestones and relative challenges, she smiles. This new toothless smile is melting my heart and leading me to indulge in a guilty pleasure: agreeing to “one more episode” of her daily TV allotment. I admit that I love to watch her get so absorbed and crack these genuine smiles to herself, finding something funny, at least to a young girl like her. I could watch her like this all day long. The sadness creeps in when I realize that in just days, I will no longer be privy to “all day long” as her world begins to expand. Soundtrack: the continuous chirp of distant crickets (or maybe cicadas?) through open windows, Strawberry Shortcake on the iPad, the ticking of the mantel clock and the low rumble of jet airplanes above the thick clouds.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
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