Thursday, May 14, 2015

Saturday



Then [the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee]
went home and prepared spices and perfumes.
But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.
 Luke 23:56


This is all the Bible tells us about what any of Jesus’ followers did on the day between his death and resurrection. On Saturday.

But we can imagine, can’t we?

It is a dark day. Emotions are raw. We hear the weeping of the women. We imagine the prayers, the pleading that his promise of resurrection would be fulfilled. We imagine their conversations, grief mingled with hope, wondering how Friday happened and what Sunday will bring. We bear witness to their vigil. It is a period of anxious waiting.

We can imagine this scene so clearly because many of us have experienced this passage from death to resurrection, from old to new. This transitional space when everything has been upended. Saturday.

It is Saturday in my life.

I have recently experienced a fracture in a relationship that is so deep and so agonizing that it feels like a death. Friday. The relationship hasn’t been severed, but the old relationship is gone and what the new relationship will look like is painfully unclear. It is a period of intense mourning and unwanted, if necessary, growth. It is a time of upheaval. Of waiting and awaiting. Saturday. But I know that at the end of this transition lies the promise of resurrection. Sunday.

Every Easter, my former pastor would leave the pulpit during his sermon, walk the center aisle, and declare, “Resurrection is not the same thing as resuscitation; it is a radical transformation into an utterly new state of being.”

I’m not sure I heard a single thing my pastor said after hearing this for the first time. I had never stopped to wonder why the women and the twelve mistook Jesus for the gardener or insisted on touching his wounds. He didn’t look the same; he had been transformed into something entirely different from his previous earthly form.

This makes perfect sense though, doesn’t it? The concept of resurrection is meaningless if it’s a process that returns us to precisely the state in which we began, if it’s merely resuscitation. There must be change.

I won’t return to my previous state of being on Sunday. Nor will my relationship. Friday can’t be undone, and Saturday can’t be avoided. I’m being transformed from my hurt and broken and utterly exhausted self. I don’t know what I will look like on Sunday, but I know that day is coming and that I will be a new creation. Wiser, maybe. Stronger. Softer. I don’t know. But definitely different. New.

But for now, my home is Saturday.

Every day, I’m inching toward the day of resurrection. Some days I’m being dragged. Others I’m being carried. Occasionally, I stubbornly refuse to move. Many days, I’m crawling and clawing toward the glorious promise.

Toward Sunday.




Thursday, March 12, 2015

Splurge on the Large Prints

At the end of this month, I will be entering a local, amateur photography competition. When I learned about the annual event at about this time last year, I promised myself I would enter this year. This year. Barely a year after I switched my camera from automatic to manual and started trying to learn what all those buttons and dials do. (Still learning. Forever learning, I suspect.) I read a little and asked questions of friends who know far more about photography than I do, but mostly, I spent the year taking approximately eleventy-million pictures and figuring out what I did and didn’t like, what did and didn’t work. Some of the pictures were awful. Many were ordinary. Some I loved. And a handful absolutely took my breath away.




The last few weeks have been exciting, as I’ve sought input from photographer friends on what caught their eyes and how to tweak my edits, as well as finalizing my (four) choices. But I’m nervous, too. This is a whole new level of vulnerability in which I’m actually asking people to critique my work. Good things will come, I know (and I’m not talking about blue ribbons – that’s not my goal and doesn’t feel at all attainable), but it’s still hard to open myself up like this.

Part of the process of preparing for the competition is, of course, ordering prints. Large prints. To be matted and framed and hung for display. When the box of prints arrived, I placed it on the dining room table and anxiously tore into the box.

And I was stopped in my tracks.




Most of my images I have never seen outside my computer screen. The images I have printed, I have never seen larger than what a standard tabletop frame would hold. But enlarged, details emerged: the rich green of mid-summer, the beautiful texture of wood grain, the pebbled appearance of galvanized metal, water droplets catching the afternoon light, perfect rosy lips. The simple act of printing these images in a larger size transformed them from mere photographs into art. Art.




I’ve only recently started becoming comfortable with the idea of calling myself a photographer. And when I do use the p-word, I’m always sure to firmly plant in front a descriptor that clearly indicates where I place myself in the hierarchy of photographers: “fledgling,” “beginner,” “new,” “amateur.” Barely worthy of calling myself a photographer.

But when I saw those large prints, something inside me shifted, and I realized that what makes one a photographer isn’t composition, lighting, exposure, and depth of field. Knowing how to do those things well is part of what makes a good photographer, but it isn’t what makes one a photographer. I’m a photographer because I strive to capture how I see the world – the beauty, the emotions, the shapes, the colors, the light (oh, the light) – in a still, digital image. Other people show us their worlds with their voices or fabric, clay or the movement of their bodies, a piano or a typewriter, acrylics or wood. Artists all.

Which means that not only do I have to come to terms with calling myself a photographer but, also, with calling myself an artist. This realization is maybe a little more than I’m capable of wrapping my head around right now. I’ve spent a long time waiting until I was “good enough” for such a label, waiting until I had achieved sufficient technical skill. But there are many other labels I have adopted, fully recognizing my (many) limitations (like “mother” and “Christian”). I could wait forever and still never feel worthy of being called an artist or photographer.

If I hadn’t decided to enter the photography competition and hadn’t needed to order those large prints, I wonder when, or even if, I would have decided I am a photographer. An artist. And I wonder how many others there are like me, attaching qualifiers to the label “artist,” questioning their value, downplaying the beautiful way they see and interact with the world.

Friends, trust me: Splurge on the large prints. And a mat and frame while you’re at it. You’re worthy.

Buy the domain name for the blog you’ve been contemplating, the leather-bound journal, the beautiful pad of sketch paper, or the nicest brushes. Hang your painting above the sofa. Audition for a talent show. Give your pottery as Christmas gifts. Sign up for the photography conference coming to your town. (Apply for the scholarship if you need to.) Reach out to someone you’d like to mentor you. Enroll in a dance class. Start an acting class in your neighborhood. Set aside time in your day to nurture your art. Sign your painting.

Do whatever little (or big!) thing you’ve been holding back on because you think you’re not good enough, because you don’t see yourself as the artist you are.

You may not feel ready. You may never feel ready. But you’re an artist. And you’re worthy. And that’s all that matters.



Monday, March 9, 2015

This Little Light of Mine

The summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school, I had jaw surgery. As was standard of care in my oral surgeon’s office, he referred me to a therapist for a pre-op visit. I sat in the therapist’s office for an hour as she asked routine questions about my family and friends and school. When she was done, she called my mother into the office and began telling her not only that I was cleared for surgery but that (and there’s no delicate way of sharing this) I was an all-around amazing teenager. As she was saying this, the therapist turned to me smiling and innocently, even jokingly, asked, “Do you ever feel pressure to be so perfect?”

At which point, I began to cry.

The therapist hurried my mother back out of the room. We chatted for a few more minutes, until she decided I really was okay and not under any excessive pressure, and sent me on my way.

I don’t know if anyone has ever spoken such truth to me, about me than that therapist (inadvertently) did that summer day. And I reacted in the most honest way I knew how:

I cried as I recognized myself in her words.

This story came to mind as I was preparing for publication My Story about my parents’ divorce. I sent the piece to my sister, requesting her thoughts. She wrote back and told me it was beautiful but asked if I really wanted to share something so personal. Was I sure?

Well, yes. Yes, of course, I was sure.

I worried about my parents’ reactions, but everyone else? I just knew good things would result from sharing my experience so openly.

However, the truth is there was a time that I wouldn’t have made the choice to share My Story. Lay my soul bare like that? Willingly risk criticism?

No, thank you.

The journey from the time when I presented to the world a carefully constructed image of a conscientious student and all-around good girl to the time when I was ready to share the joyful and shadowy and quirky and very real parts of my life was a long and meandering one, but I remember the precise moment I set upon that path…

I was a senior in high school when I decided to audition for my school’s annual talent show. I had been singing essentially my whole life, and, except for the first several years of my life when my mother (also a singer) anxiously wondered if I’d ever be able to carry a tune in a bucket, I was a pretty good singer. But very few people actually knew what my voice sounded like. Until I sang in the talent show.

After the show, many of my classmates congratulated me on a job well done, but looking back, I realize there was a warmth to their comments that conveyed more than just praise and encouragement. It was a warmth that comes from being let in.

For five minutes, standing on the corner of that stage, spotlight on me, I opened a deep, sacred part of myself to them. For the briefest moment, I let them see me. They received that offering with warmth, and I felt a connection to my classmates that I had never before felt, that I had been unknowingly longing for. A connection that comes only when you expose those well-guarded parts of yourself, when you allow yourself to be known. When you become vulnerable.

When I was a freshman in college, I had another similar moment. Not long after I first told friends that my parents were separated, I learned that the parents of a hallmate had just announced to her their separation. I knew just how devastated and alone she felt and wanted to reach out. I wasn’t ready to talk in person, so I wrote her a letter, walked down the hall to hand deliver it, and returned to my room where I waited anxiously. Minutes later, she appeared at my door, tears running down her face.

She was seen. I was seen. We were not alone.

Over the years, these experiences of intense vulnerability leading to deep connectedness piled up, but it wasn’t until recently I recognized the great joy that results from this connectedness, from allowing myself to be known and truly knowing others. I spent decades of my life trying to present what I thought was the most perfect me. The shiny parts. The good parts. It was exhausting. And it meant that people were rarely interacting with the real me. They didn’t love the real me or hate the real me. They weren’t reaching out to the real me or avoiding the real me. But at the time, it seemed good enough. I would have described myself as happy. I even might have been perfectly content to go through all of life like that. Until I finally recognized the joy of being vulnerable.

Now, I strive to live a life fully seen. This can be an unnerving way to live at times. Each time I publish an intensely personal piece, I sit on pins and needles, waiting for the comments. But I’ve always been rewarded many times over when people say, “I saw some of my own experiences in here,” “Was very similar for me,” “My story is different but feelings still very real,” Me, too.

I know at some point there will be a comment that stings, a criticism that brings tears. Not everyone will like me. But at least they’ll be reacting to the real me, rather than a prettied-up fa├žade. Inviting people to truly see and know me means opening myself up to pain. But the alternative is closing myself off and missing the connectedness and joy. I don’t want to miss the good stuff. I’ll take the pain if it means I get to experience the joy.

When I remember to drop my armor and stay vulnerable, life is so very good. Because then I am seen and known and loved just as I am. As me.

Me, who loves Jesus and leans so far left I might just tip over one day. Me, who twitches and shrieks when I have bits of Styrofoam stuck to my hands that I just can’t shake off and who organizes my house when I get overwhelmed by life. Me, who has a peculiar love of The People’s Court (and would probably, also, still watch Hee Haw if were on the air… because Granddaddy) and who has a passion for serving others. Me, who has heard often what a good mother I am but who knows those people haven’t heard me yell at my boys. Me.

So, yes, I’m sure this is how I want to live. Not hidden. Not pretending to be perfect. (Whatever that is.) Laying my soul bare.

This is me. Here I am. I’m going to let my light shine.


Froggy, who teaches us all how to let our lights shine.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

My Story

One ordinary day, the summer I was sixteen and a rising high school senior, my parents told my younger sister and me they were separating.

I don’t talk much about my parents’ divorce. For one thing, it’s been almost twenty-five years since my parents separated. My parents have been divorced longer than they were married. This is my normal. And divorce is so common that it, also, hardly seems worth discussing. But maybe that’s precisely why I should talk about how it affected me – how it still affects me – because being a child of divorce is an experience so many of us share.

Recently, my friend Julie posted a beautiful piece about divorce that left me in tears, as fresh pain from an old wound resurfaced. I knew I needed to share my experiences to help me – and, I hope, others – continue to work through this hurt. I do this with much trepidation, as I don’t want to hurt my parents, whom I love and who were, undoubtedly, doing the best they could.

These insights are born solely of my journey, so some may resonate with you, friends, others may not, and you may feel like I’ve missed big ones that are important to you. That’s okay. Divorce may unite many of us, but everyone’s experience is unique. This is my story…

1. Being eased into the separation was brutal. After the big announcement, my father moved out of the bedroom to the couch in the den and slept there for a few nights while he looked for an apartment. It was excruciating to have my father in the house, knowing it was no longer his home, aching both to rewind to the blissful ignorance of a few days prior and to fast forward to my new normal. There is no perfect, easy, painless way to make the transition out of one’s home, but being in limbo was agonizing for me. I wish my parents had taken a firm hold of the Band-Aid and ripped it off in one swift motion.

2. I didn’t want to be asked to do anything that made me feel complicit in the separation. During those painful days while the Band-Aid was ever so slowly being peeled back, my father asked my sister and me to go furniture shopping with him. I have a vivid memory of sitting on an ugly, blue sofa in the furniture section of a department store while my father chatted casually with us about the pros and cons of various pieces of living room furniture. I imagine my father felt free in a way that he hadn’t in a long time, but I felt physically ill. I wanted nothing to do with furniture shopping, packing boxes, apartment hunting, or anything at all that might have been construed as my aiding a parent in leaving the home and family. Please, no.

3. Things weren’t better post-separation, no matter what anyone said. Parents, like children, may be feeling crushed and may be trying to convince themselves, as much as their children, that things will be okay, or parents may be feeling the newfound freedom of being unencumbered by a dying marriage. Family friends may mean well with comments like, “It’s for the best.” But witnessing my parents’ separation was devastating, and there was no way to put a positive spin on that. Trying to just made me angry. I wanted people to respect me and honor my feelings by fully allowing me to feel heartbroken. However, comments like, “It will get better,” would have been welcome, especially from those who knew, firsthand, the pain of divorce.

Similarly, nothing my father could have said would have made his new apartment anything different from/better than what it was: the embodiment of the demise of my parents’ marriage. He could have moved into the actual Taj Mahal, and his home wouldn’t have been any less ugly or inadequate. I’m grateful my father didn’t try to sell me on the merits of his new home.

4. I desperately needed acknowledgement of how crappy the situation was (and is). I have one parent who excels at this and another who I felt never fully acknowledged the enormity of my loss. Maybe the latter is a coping mechanism; maybe the pain one’s child is experiencing feels too close; or maybe the parent feels blamed and doesn’t want to throw fuel on that fire. But it just added to my pain to feel unseen by a parent and, in fact, made healing even harder. A long, fancy speech was never required. Something as simple as, “I know this is hard. Thanks for muddling through with me,” would have sufficed. Early in my grieving process, I needed the crappiness of the situation acknowledged often. Now, I don’t. But it still helps when someone – anyone – recognizes my loss. Twenty-five years after my parents’ separation, I still feel an ache when I think about the family I lost, the childhood I deserved and should have had. I even still occasionally cry.

Like right now.

5. Sometimes I needed my parents to back off, and other times, I needed a gentle push. The day after my parents announced their separation, I stayed in bed for much of the day. I called in sick to my summer job at the pool. I didn’t eat much. I know now that I was depressed. But the next morning, my mother walked into my bedroom, opened the shades, and told me I was going to work. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do less, but she was right. There is comfort in routine. My routine, my foundation, had been ripped from me, so I had to find tiny fragments of it wherever I could. Going to work was hard, but good and necessary. There are times to be sad and angry and times to pick oneself up and carry on. I’m grateful my mother knew me well enough to help me navigate this tricky balance in those earliest days.

6. Shame is an insidious enemy. The first time I told anyone my parents were separated was in a tearful confession to two friends fourteen months later. Fourteen months. In the interim, when I talked about my family, I carefully chose words that didn’t reveal my secret. Yes, my secret, revealed in a confession. I wasn’t being private. I wasn’t merely embarrassed. I was filled with shame. I could have told you it wasn’t my fault, that I had nothing to do with my parents’ separation, that the end of their marriage wasn’t a reflection of my worth; but I didn’t live like I understood that.

The day after my parents announced their separation, my mother offered to call the mother of my best friend and break the news. I was so grateful for that gesture, so relieved that I didn’t have to speak the unspeakable, that I agreed. In hindsight, I suspect it would have been better for my grief and healing to do this myself. Because my mother (unwittingly, of course) had given me tacit approval to say nothing, to remain hidden.

But shame lurks and grows in the shadows, in the secrecy. Even after that tearful confession to my friends, for many years, I still choked out the words when revealing that my parents are divorced. It never should have been like that. I never should have felt shame, and I wish my parents had known how to help me talk openly about their separation. Because shame can’t survive being out in the open. It can’t survive the light.

7. I had mixed feelings about my parents’ second marriages. My father remarried less than a year after the divorce was final, and I was not in a particularly celebratory mood.  Yes, I wanted my father to be happy. Yes, I dearly love my stepmother. But I was still actively grieving the loss of my parents’ marriage. My life still felt like it was in turmoil. So what, surely, felt like a new beginning to my father felt like an ending to me. Witnessing my father marry someone else felt final in a way that his moving out or my learning that the divorce was final did not. I’m not suggesting that anyone needed to do anything different to accommodate me, but I wish someone had simply acknowledged how crappy this time, in particular, was for me.

My mother, on the other hand, got married eight years after the divorce. I was in an entirely different place in my grieving process and in my life in general (I had gotten married earlier the same year), and I could whole-heartedly celebrate with her and my wonderful stepfather.

Similarly, watching my parents begin to date again was difficult, at its worst, and awkward, at its best. I’m grateful that my parents waited to introduce me to their significant others only after it was clear relationships were serious.

8. At sixteen, I was just a child. My parents’ separation and divorce would have been hard at any age, but being a teenager brought with it special difficulties. I was sixteen when my parents separated, eighteen when they divorced, and nineteen when my father remarried.  I looked liked an adult. I felt like an adult. I was definitely NOT an adult. And as such, I should never have been expected to handle all that was thrown at me as if I had been one.

As far as teenagers go, I was incredibly responsible and levelheaded. That actually may have made it even harder to understand why I sometimes reacted more like a child than an adult to circumstances surrounding the divorce. I’m not suggesting that my parents should have excused any blatantly rude behavior, but there were times when I suspected my parents thought I was acting in an intentionally cold and callous manner when my actions were born of something else entirely.

The most painful example of this came when I missed my father and stepmother’s rehearsal dinner. I was at college an hour away from home. I had to leave choir rehearsal early to drive home and catch the bus that was driving all the dinner guests to an out-of-town restaurant. My beloved choir was a haven from the storms that swirled around me during my sophomore year (and there were many, not just related to the divorce). I waited until the last possible moment to duck out of rehearsal, lost a few minutes in some unexpected traffic, and arrived to a deserted home. I felt sick. I didn’t know the name of the restaurant, no one had left me directions, and this was long before everyone had cell phones. I gladly would have driven to dinner, but I had no idea where to go. I learned later that the bus left thirty minutes earlier than I thought it was supposed to, but I hadn’t left myself a sufficient buffer to compensate for that miscommunication. No number of apologies or explanations (not justifications) seemed to ease the hurt I had caused, which compounded the pain of an already crappy weekend. I so desperately needed to feel that I was being met with some measure of grace and compassion – if not possible in the moment, then later when feelings settled.

That said, I still needed to be approached in conversation as an adult. Lecturing me was a strategy that always backfired; it always made me angry.

9. I love you. Sometimes – often – “I love you” was the very last thing I wanted to say to my parents when I felt like they’d forever destroyed my world.  But I did love them. I do love them. I know this if for no other reason than because, if I didn’t, their divorce would have been painless.

And when I couldn’t tell them, I desperately needed them to tell me. Better yet, to show me. All the while remembering that I have always loved them.

I loved you during that first painful, post-separation holiday when everyone felt shortchanged. I loved you when you remembered to say, “I’m sorry,” and when you forgot. I loved you when you left. I loved you when you attempted that first awkward vacation as a single parent. I loved you when I just wanted to be left alone. I loved you when you were too spent to make dinner. I loved you when I remembered you were doing the best you could and when I was certain you were doing it all wrong. I loved you when you dragged me to counseling. I loved you when you gave me exactly what I needed and when you didn’t. I loved you even when I was thinking, “I hate you!”

Even then.


********


I’d love to know what you think of My Story. What resonated? What didn’t? What did I miss that is part of Your Story?



Friday, February 13, 2015

Warmth at First Sight

They told me it would be love at first sight.

They said that when the doctor placed that new baby on my chest for the first time that angels would sing. The world would smell sweeter than it ever had before. I would feel like I was floating. Waves of the most overwhelming love would come crashing over me.

But it wasn’t like that.

I loved him to be sure. I felt warmth. But I didn’t Love him.

When I saw my firstborn for the first time, I thought he was beautiful, precious, but the nurses couldn’t whisk him away fast enough to clean him up. I didn’t want to touch my newborn, much less kiss him. Yes, I probably would have gouged out the eyes of anyone who dared harm him, and I willingly took care of all his needs, but I expected more. I expected to feel changed. And I felt largely the same. Just a little more banged up than normal.

I didn’t have post-partum depression. I knew that. So I assumed something must be terribly wrong with me. “Do some women never feel Love toward their children?” I wondered. “Am I destined to be a horrible mother?” I despaired.

I continued to mother with love. I gently bathed him and changed him and nursed through the toe-curling pain. Until one day (days later? weeks?), I realized that a tenderness had grown, almost imperceptibly, so that I was now Mothering with Love.

When my second and third sons were born, the angels stubbornly refused to sing at their births, too. But this time, I knew that the Love would come, as it had before. I wasn’t a bad mother. There was nothing wrong with me. This was simply my normal.

I have since talked to other mothers who experienced the same slow growth of Love for their newborns. I wish I had known their stories before my eldest was born. I wish I had known that there was nothing to fear, that I was not unwell or destined to be a bad mother. If I had known that some mothers feel warmth but not overwhelming Love at first sight, I needn’t have worried.

So when the nurse placed my firstborn on my chest and I felt only warmth at first sight, I could have simply said to myself…

They said this might happen, too. And that’s okay.


Our first family photo (taken by my L&D nurse).

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

On Playing Cards and Doing Laundry

My beautiful friend Virginia told me years ago that, growing up, she fell asleep to the sounds of her parents playing cards at the kitchen table. That snapshot was the entirety of the story she shared, but it was precisely its simplicity that held such power. I don’t know Virginia’s parents (except through her stories), and I’ve never visited her childhood home, yet I have created a detailed mental image of those evenings: I can see her parents, sitting across a simple, oak table in an old, but tidy, kitchen. There are floral curtains hanging around the window over the sink and a damp towel hung on the empty dish-drying rack. The comfortable hum of conversation about the game and her parents’ days is punctuated only by an occasional shuffle of the deck. And in Virginia’s small, dark bedroom, where dolls and books line shelves and a few strays dot the floor, she lies in a cozy twin bed, quilt tucked to her chin, as her eyes flutter closed.

But more vivid still than the picture of that scene is the knowledge of precisely what Virginia must have felt in that moment. When that first shuffle of the deck pierced the quiet, she felt the security of routine, the comfort of the familiar rise and fall of her parents’ conversation, the certainty that she was safe and, above all, loved.

These are the things I hope home is for my boys. And so it is that Virginia’s story so often comes to mind in the evenings after I’ve kissed my boys goodnight, tucked them in, and turned out the lights (in rooms that aren’t nearly so idyllic looking as Virginia’s imagined room). Many evenings, I head straight for the laundry room. As I’m bumping around, doing the work that begs to be done, I wonder if the boys hear not sounds of tedious household chores, as I do, but rather sounds of tremendous comfort.

When my boys hear the familiar rush of water refilling the washer, are they soothed by the knowledge that I am near, always near? When they feel the angry shaking of the spin cycle, are they temporarily jolted awake just long enough to remember that they have parents who faithfully care for their every need? Does the rhythmic clicking of zippers and rocks and stray Legos hitting the dryer drum fill them with the security of routine as they close their eyes? When they hear the gentle scraping of drawers opening and closing as they’re refilled, do they rest comfortably in the knowledge that they are so very loved?

Today, my youngest got upset with me when I told him he couldn’t have a giant bowl of ice cream for dessert, but it was, also, I he turned to for a hug to ease his sadness. I watched as my middle son returned home from school, the anxieties of the day sliding off his shoulders and hitting the floor alongside his backpack, as he stepped over the threshold of our home. My oldest requested one-on-one time with me so he could tell me about a problem he’s having at school. And all the boys jostled for prime positions during evening reading time, snuggling into me but never quite being satisfied that they had gotten close enough. It is in these quiet moments that I wonder – hope, pray – that this is one area in which I’m getting it more right than wrong. That these precious boys know how completely they are loved. That there is nothing they could do or say to make me love them less. That I’ll always be right here, waiting for them.

And I’m quite certain they’ll know in which room to check for me first.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Why We Must Put an End to Kissing on the Playground

The other day, a friend posted the following status update on her Facebook page:

At school pick up, [my son in pre-K] tells me, ‘A girl kissed me at school, even though kissing is not allowed. She kissed me two times.’

She followed it with an emoticon expressing surprise, and a follow-up comment made it clear that her son had not wanted to be kissed by this little girl. Many people “liked” the status update, and comments were overwhelmingly positive: “That’s SOOO cute!!” “Heartbreaker.” “Love it!” There was exactly one comment expressing concern: mine.

There was a time when I would have grinned at my friend’s story, as well. Both of my big boys have had crushes on girls in their classes, and several girls have had crushes on my middle son. In fact, he used to come home every day from kindergarten grinning broadly about all the girls who chased him on the playground. My big guy could hardly sit still when he excitedly told me about his first crush. My littlest makes eyes at every girl he sees. And I vividly remember carefully grooming my brows with my Brownie pocket comb for my first crush, Brad, before school each day in first grade. There’s just something so sweet and innocent, giggly and fluttery about those first crushes. But in my friend’s story, the unwanted kissing crossed a line in my mind. The little girl who kissed her son was surely just as sweet and innocent as those who chased my son last year, but what do we do about the fact that her son didn’t want to be kissed?

When we tell our children it’s “cute” when others kiss them against their wishes, what are we teaching them about their ability to make decisions about their own bodies? When we don’t stop our children from kissing another child when he doesn’t want to be kissed, what are we teaching them about consent? Because we are teaching them something. I just fear it’s not what we wish to be.

In light of the horrific stories coming out of our nation’s colleges, in particular, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sexual assault, rape culture, and consent. As the mother of three boys (ages 10, 6, and 3), I think especially about the possibility that, one day, one of my boys might, heaven forbid, perpetrate an assault (though I certainly understand that they could, also, be victims). It’s a horrible thought – it’s difficult to force my mind to go there – but I must. I must because, apparently, not thinking and talking about this subject has gotten us to this awful place in which sexual assault among friends, acquaintances, and significant others is commonplace.

It would be easier for me to say, “It can wait.” A three year old is, after all, too young for discussions about sex, so how does one teach about something as weighty as consent? And I feel woefully unequipped to tackle such a big, important subject. But waiting doesn’t make it easier, just more urgent, and surely, there is something that can be done now. After all, parenting is about teaching our children, even the littlest ones, critical lessons that will guide them throughout their lives. We are constantly laying the groundwork to help them become amazing adults.

So Mister and I have three, simple rules for our boys that we view as precursors to the bigger, harder discussions about rape and consent that must and will come later:
  1. When someone says “no,” screams, cries, or in any other way expresses displeasure, stop. Immediately. This pertains almost exclusively to play right now, and it just about kills the boys, who delight, as siblings sometimes do, in some good-natured brother torture (pinning each other down, wrestling, tickling). But it’s very easy for a child to assume that because he’s playing, everyone else is in on the game and having fun. Almost daily, I have to break up play that has become too rough or frightening for one of the boys. 
  2. Take responsibility for your actions/reactions. Yes, your brother may have antagonized you by “not touching” you until you snapped and hit him. He shouldn’t have done that. (I’m looking at you, Froggy.) But that doesn’t excuse the inappropriate reaction; you can’t use that as a justification. You are capable of self-control, even under the most tempting of circumstances. 
  3. You never have to hug or kiss or otherwise touch anyone you don’t want to, any time you don’t want to. To be sure, this one doesn’t win us a lot of points with the boys’ grandparents. They want hugs every time they see the boys. I understand – so do I! – but it’s far more important to me that the boys learn that they have control over who touches their bodies and when. Also, their reluctance to hug any given relative is likely just a stage in which touching anyone else seems a little weird, but it could be a red flag. It could be. And I need to be paying attention.

Children learn through play. When my children play, they aren’t engaged in meaningless activity; they are exploring social cues and physical laws and so much else while they’re on the playground or building a Lego castle or playing dress-up. By the time my boys reach puberty, the groundwork for countless lessons, including consent and self-control, will have been laid, whether Mister and I did it passively or actively.  I hope by teaching our boys these three, simple rules early and by keeping them consistent in childhood and the teen years, we will avoid any confusion that might arise if we were to have contradicting rules and expectations for play than for sexual activity. It’s not the end of the conversation, to be sure; it’s merely the beginning. But I hope our boys will understand that they must stop if and when their partners signal they’re in distress, in part, because we insisted they stop rough-housing when a brother was no longer having fun. I pray that our never allowing the excuse that a brother got what was coming will lay the groundwork for our boys’ understanding that they are, similarly, fully in control of all their choices and should never, ever, EVER use any variation of “but she asked for it” as an excuse for assault. I hope our boys understand that they, as well as their partners, have the right to say “no” in any encounter and demand that their denial be heeded, in part, because we allowed them to decline relatives’ hugs and kisses and other unwanted touches.

Including kisses on the playground.