Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Beyond Awareness Campaigns: A Step to Stop Bullying

In New Jersey schools this week is the Week of Respect. The Week of Respect is an annual week of awareness, education and action around harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB). It is mandated by New Jersey's Anti-Bullying Law. (Source: Garden State Equality). My kids are spending this week in their classrooms talking about being kind and respectful to one another. 

Coming up, October 15th is Spirit Day, GLAAD's campaign to stand against bullying and support LGBT youth by wearing purple and talking about the issue. You can take the Spirit Day pledge on the site and learn more about GLAAD's resources.

Here's the deal. I've talked to my kids, and we've done the respect activities. I took the pledge, and I'll wear my purple on Thursday. I stand with these efforts. I hope you do, too. I hope you stand for a world where we won't need respect weeks and spirit days to declare our intentions to stand with those on the edges of our communities. I hope you stand against bullying, every day and every week. If you do... here's the biggest thing you, we, can do.

Talk to our kids. Yes, we have to talk to our kids. Not about bullying and respect weeks and spirit days. We just need to talk to our kids about life, about community, about the world. Talk to our kids about people, places, and things that are not like them. 

I urge you. Teach your kids about the world. The whole world. Fill your homes with a respect for those different than you. Plant and nurture seeds of curiosity in your children. Curiosity instead of fear. Fill your bookshelves with what's beyond your four walls, beyond your town, your state, your culture. Read. Read about all the places, people, and experiences you possibly can. Learn WITH your child. You don't need to know it all already. That's exactly the point! Show your children you don't know it all. Meet all different kinds of people. Learn their stories. Acknowledge and celebrate your differences. 

He's only 5. He's not ready for that.

She's only 7. I have time.

But, when will they learn? When will we decide that it's time to teach our kids that not everyone is like them? Will we do it before they've decided that being different must be bad?

That's too young to learn about sexuality. Of course we don't teach young children about sexuality in whatever way you're thinking about. But, we can teach them about all different kinds of families. That will surely make it easier to relate to and understand classmates with two dads or friends who live with grandma.
He won't understand autism or down syndrome. Actually, there are kids in his school, in his class whose brain work different than his, and he knows something is different about them. But he's not sure what, and not knowing is uncomfortable and even a little scary.
This is what I know. We fear what we don't know. When we're scared, we make some pretty ugly choices about how we treat people. So let's know more, let's learn. Those of us who live in the country, let's teach our kids about city life and those with a mom and a dad at home can share stories with our kids of families with two moms and divorced families who live separately and so on. We can seek to hear the stories of others and we can share those stories with our children. We can hear stories of adoption, limb difference, and neuro-atypicality. We can learn about other faiths, cultures and belief systems. And yes, for the sake of my daughter, I hope we can learn that some girls were mistaken for boys at birth and that some boys were mistaken for girls.

There are difficult and heavy things our kids will need to learn about. Injustice, oppression, discrimination, and privilege are just a few. But the idea that people can look, think, and live differently than us is simply not one of those difficult and heavy things. The understanding that some people are differently-abled, transgender, speak with a different accent or in a different languages... that people come in all different sizes, shapes, and colors... and that families are made in a million different ways... this is not the difficult and heavy. If we have any hope of tackling the difficult and heavy (and yes, we most certainly need to), let's start here.

The world is rich with flavor, color, and diversity. There is no time too soon to share that with our children. It's not something that is accomplished in a day or week of awareness. Bullying ends and respect begins when we know that every person has their own story, that every person's story is valuable, and that no person's story can take away from your story. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

My kid won't fit in your box. Love him anyway.

I've worked with kids all my life. I've had those kids in my classes, groups, programs, etc. The ones that didn't fit the mold. The ones who were too loud, too active, too impulsive, just too much.  I've known their parents. I have loved those children, and I have worked in earnest to create the best environment for them. I have trained countless staff members on how best to program for these children, how to connect with them, and how to support them. I've seen the parent's relief when at the end of the day, I got to tell them their child had a good day. And I've seen the parent's heartbreak when I had to tell them it wasn't so good a day. I've gotten the hugs that say thank you in a way words cannot. Those hugs said "thank you for seeing me and not just my child's challenges, thank you for seeing my child and not just behavior, thank for you loving and caring about our family". 

I was always glad to help. I felt passionate that these kids were good kids (all kids are good kids) who just needed some extra support to excel in a particular environment. I knew what I was doing mattered, but I never fully got it. I mean I did an okay job. I supported parents and kids. Those kids taught me all sorts of things... one size doesn't fit all... we all bring something to the table... the goal isn't to fit in someone's box of expectations. 

But now... now I see those parents, those mothers especially, in a way I never could before.
Whether as an adult who still works with children or as another parent at pick up, I see them. Those mothers sighing when their kid screams or nervously exhaling in relief when it goes well, still tensely waiting for the other shoe to drop. I know their heart is breaking a little, or maybe a lot. Their heart is breaking because it's hard to be the mom of that kid. Their heart is breaking because they know their kid is struggling, they know their kid is not thriving. Their heart breaks because no one wants things to be difficult for their child, definitely not this difficult.  Their heart is breaking because they are tired and their buckets are empty. Their heart is breaking because they don't know what else they have left to give, what other tools to provide or what strategies to try. Their heart is breaking because nothing makes a person feel more like a failure as a parent than watching their child consistently fail to adapt, fail to fit in, fail to be happy and successful. 

Teachers, coaches, instructors, camp counselors, activity leaders... please just love my kid. 

Get to know him. See him for who he is, not just how he doesn't fit the system. He's interesting, unique, brilliantly creative, and sharply witty... and he's frustrating, exhausting, limit stretching, and button pushing. Group environments aren't his best place, but he wants to learn and he wants to be there, maybe more than any other kid I know. I know he's not easy. I also know he is sweet, loving, enthusiastic, perceptive, and driven. He's only 6. Please let's keep in mind exactly what are appropriate expectations for a 6 year old. I know this culture is pushing us to do more, do better, and do it all quicker. I know other parents are demanding metrics and results. I know the pressure is on for achievement and meeting standards. But pressure, standards, checkmarks, and boxes aren't going to help my kid. He's got something pretty amazing to bring to the table... to bring to the community, to the world. He's going to do it on his own time and in his own way, and he's going to blow your standards and expectations out of the water. Please just love him, support him, and encourage him. Make room for his passions when it's possible. Appreciate his humor. Help him figure out how to navigate this world that doesn't think at all like him and try not to squish him into a box he was never meant to fit. I assure you I am striving and struggling to do all that and more around the clock, and I would be forever grateful for one more person on our team.
My kid isn't going to fit in any of your boxes. Love him anyway.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

George: A Call to Be Who You Are #bookschangelives

I'm super excited to tell you about a book that came out this week, George. Written by Alex Gino and published by Scholastic Books, George is the story of a 10 year old transgender girl who wants everyone to know and understand that she is, actually, a girl named Melissa. With a beautiful and bold tagline of "BE WHO YOU ARE", the book is the first middle grades fiction book with a transgender main character.

We were fortunate enough to receive an early copy of George, through a friend who is an author (check her out, she even has some great short stories currently free for kindle!). Rebekah was so excited to receive such a special thing, a copy of a book about someone like her, before it was released, and signed to her by the author. How cool!

So Rebekah took the book to read before I had a chance, and she loved it! It was really affirming to read about a character with whom she strongly identified. In her words, these were her thoughts on the book...

George is a good book to explain what it can be like to be transgender. The story was enjoyable. I liked all the details. It was cool to read about someone like me. My favorite part of the book is the play, Charlotte's Web, because George surprised everyone and did what she really wanted to... she got to be herself in the play. Usually in a play you're acting, but it was on stage that she finally got to be herself. I liked that. The trip to the zoo was my other favorite part, because Kelly's uncle didn't even know George was transgender. She could just be herself at the zoo without anyone noticing she was different. She didn't have to worry about anything else. I think it's a good book for other kids to read because most kids don't know about being transgender and it's a fun thing to learn about.
I loved hearing Rebekah's thoughts on the book, and I was excited to read it myself. The book was honest and funny with likable characters. As a parent of a transgender kid, I admit I wince at some of the plot surrounding being bullied or not accepted. I want to pretend that's not out there, but of course, it is. In the end, I felt good that Rebekah was able to read about it, hurt with George, empathize with her story, and then rejoice with Melissa. Rebekah's life won't always be easy. There will be bumps.There will be mean kids and mean adults. George was a great story of being who you are in the face of adversity and surrounding yourself with friends and family who have your back! Like Rebekah, I'm excited there is a book for others to read that gives them a window into the experience of being transgender. The power of seeing yourself represented in literature can not be overstated.

Here are some additional resources about George:

Friday, July 3, 2015

Raspberries, Coffee & Self Care

Our raspberries are exploding right now. Each morning, there's a good sized bowl to pick. With a toddler who loves to eat sticks, grass, and pretty much anything that grows, raspberries are a pretty exciting discovery... a food that he can eat without anyone arguing, plus they taste way better than most sticks. It's become our morning ritual. Coffee and raspberry picking, barefoot and bleary eyed. It grounds me. It helps wake up my tired body and soul.

When the nights are not anywhere near as restful as I need them to be and the mornings much earlier and much louder than I want them to be, the entire waking up process is jarring. Often all I can do is grumble (to myself or sometimes not so much to myself) about needing more sleep and dread the long list of everyday life stuff before me while complaining that the kids won't let drink a single cup of coffee. It's not a good start to the day. I'd love to wake up before my kids, have some quiet moments with a cup of coffee, and take a deep breath before I start the day. But the baby wakes when I do, regardless of the time, so that will have to wait a bit longer. In the meantime, stumbling outside into the garden is the next best thing.

Outside, I can breathe. There's space. Everything isn't so loud. Everyone isn't so close. The grass tickles my feet, the baby picks berries, and the big kids march off to check the wild black raspberry bushes in the woods nearby. I wake up gentler and without the suffocating to do list that lives inside the house, the messes to be cleaned, the food to be prepped, the laundry, the projects, the bills.

Picking those raspberries has become a quiet meditation. It's a simple task. One that has to get done or we will lose the fruit. It doesn't take too long, but long enough. Pick, squat, reach, nibble a few. And, it feels like I've accomplished something when it's done. Something checked off my list before breakfast. Food provided for my family. A few set aside for snack, although mostly the kids pick for themselves what they want to eat fresh. The rest get frozen for snacks and smoothies through the year.

It's choices like this and moments like these that I'm focusing on this month. It's a continuation of #operationthrive. It's a month of me. It's ongoing self care. It's little shifts in perspective to let the light in, to make it easier to breathe. Happy July.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Letter From Home: Thoughts on Sleepaway Camp

I don't know how it happened, but on Sunday I'm sending my oldest child off to sleepaway camp for the first time. Sleepaway camp! How is that possible? 
A little background. I went to camp from the time I was 6. I loved camp with every ounce of my being. It remains one of the most sacred places on the planet for me, a place where I found my confidence, my passion, my spirituality, and my closest friends. I met my husband working at camp. We got married at camp. I've worked at many types of camps in different parts of the country. I have a Masters degree in, you guessed it, CAMP. My kids have been at camp with me consistently since before they were born as I volunteered, served on the Board of Directors, attended family camps, and even spent a year starting up a new satellite Day Camp program.
But now... my child is going to camp. As a camper. I won't be there. Heck, she's going to a brand new program although at least at a camp where I worked 10 years ago and directed by someone with whom I worked. But still... suddenly this professional camp mama is on the other end of the registration table. To be honest, I'm so darn excited for her, it hasn't really sunk in that she's going to be gone for an entire week.

As I do laundry, make checklists, write letters to mail each day making sure the first gets there on Monday (yep, I'm being *that* mom), and help pack her things... I wrote her this letter.
Dear Daughter,

I don't know where the time has gone, but you're an amazing human. I get to see just how amazing more and more every day. I'm so proud of you... who you are... how you love... the way you engage the world. I'm going to miss you like crazy this week, but I'm so proud of you for going to camp. I'm so proud of the ways you've grown, matured, and found yourself in the past year. Last year, you weren't ready. You told me. We listened. This year, you knew you were ready. We can all see you're ready.

I know you're equal parts excited and nervous. I know it's hard to do new things, but we can do hard things. I know you know that. Some of the hardest things are the best things. 

Camp is one of my most favorite places on the planet, and I know you're going to love it, too. You already do. How could you not? You've been a "camp kid" since you were in my belly. Camp is so many of the things you already love. Awesome people. Nature. Singing, games, swimming, art, hiking and all kinds of goofy fun. Thinking outside the box. Coloring outside the lines. Not being afraid to be yourself.

This week is for you. It's all yours, and you deserve it. For all the times you watch the baby or convince E to help you clean up. For the times you cook everyone's eggs for breakfast and for the times you wait for what seems like forever for your turn. This week is completely yours. There's no little brothers. There's no to-do lists. There's no schoolwork calling your name.  It's all you, kid. Live it up.

Be you. Be brave. Laugh hard. Speak up. Be seen. Don't hesitate to do something just because you might not do it at home. Don't do anything just because everyone else is doing it. Ask questions. Tell people what you want and need. Share your brilliant ideas. There are no limits. Make your voice heard. 

There are amazing people at camp who cannot wait to get to know you, and their entire job is to keep you safe and make this the best week possible. Let them help you. Forget where to put your dishes in the dining hall? Ask them. Need help putting your hair into a pony tail? Ask them. Want to know if you can hike/swim/build a rocketship? Ask them. Even if it's the middle of the night and you're scared because you had a bad dream or you have to go the bathroom. Ask. Whatever it is, just ask. They want you to ask, and they want to help. That's why they work at camp. Don't go it alone when you don't have to. You're never alone at camp.

You can be a helper, too. This is your community for the week. You work together. Look for the kids who need a friend, a hug, or a laugh. Listen to your gut. It knows what to do. Your huge heart will lead the way. Make the best decisions you can, know you're going to make mistakes, and remember always that it all comes back to love and grace. 

It's okay to miss home. It's even okay to not miss home. It's all part of the experience. All the feelings are okay, and all the feelings will pass. Just know that we are here, loving you just as much as ever, missing you, and counting the days until we can hear what an amazing week you had.
Love you more than words can say,

Thursday, June 4, 2015

God Doesn't Make Mistakes


Many nights, I join my daughter in her top bunk bed for a chat. It's her time to unwind from the day and prep for tomorrow. Ask her questions, share her fears, tell her stories. When her anxiety was at its most intense, it was our nightly ritual of talking her off the proverbial ledge so she could sleep. Now, it's much less desperate, but it is our time to connect, her time to air her concerns and let go of her worries.

One night in the midst of her transitioning to Rebekah, she was feeling a bit down. She's very intuitive and empathetic, and one of her biggest stresses during her transition was feeling guilty for the love and support she received. She felt bad that people, in her words, had to give her gifts or go out of her way to show love. We assured her that it was people's way of showing their support and no one had to do anything. They wanted to because they loved her and were inspired by her authenticity and courage.

I told her she was born to change the world. She laughed and said "it's still a cruel and terrible place" (which her dad was a little proud of, cynical jerk). But, I explained that just by being her, proudly and bravely, she's teaching others to be themselves and that they were made perfectly. I told her God made her perfectly. She shook her head quietly. "No... God made me a boy."

It knocked the breath right out of me. My beautiful child was carrying the weight of thinking God made her wrong on her very small shoulders. My child thought that being who she was wasn't what God intended her to be.

"Oh no, honey, but who are you inside?" 

Without hesitation, she responded, "I'm a beautiful girl named Rebekah". 

That's right she is. And God knows that. God knew that. God made her that way. God knows her inside and out and made her to be exactly who she is. God made her for great things. God knows she's going to change the world. That's what I told her. 

Wide-eyed and hopeful she looked at me, "Really? God made me this way?" Yes, God did. God made all of her and knows all of her. 

Later as I went to climb down from her bed, she reached out for one last hug. Squeezing tight, she said, "thanks mama, thanks for telling me about the God thing. That helps". 

I don't have all the answers about why and how people are born transgender, though the research about the brain and genetics is all very young and very interesting. I don't have all the answers as to what it will all mean for my daughter's future. But I do know this. God does not love her in spite of her gender identity. God did not give her this as something to trip her up or trick her into sinful behavior. God did not put her in the wrong body, or give her the the wrong heart or brain for her body. This is who she has always been, who God created her to be, and like I've heard from so many others in the past few days, "God doesn't make mistakes."

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Our Stories Matter: Meet Rebekah

I shared this on the blog’s Facebook page last week, but I wanted to share in it this space as well. LGBT Pride Month starts in just a few days so it seems fitting enough.

A few weeks ago, I shared the following message on my personal Facebook page. Since then we have been overwhelmed with messages of love and support from our family, friends, church, and community. Many have thanked us for sharing our story and asked for permission to continue to share it. If you've been following my blog for any amount of time, you know how important I think our stories are... our stories of joy, success, struggle, disappointment, and challenge. Our stories matter. So here is one of my family's stories, a story very much rooted in the love, grace, and courage that we both strive for and are saved by daily.

We’d like to re-introduce you to our firstborn child.

As some of you have no doubt noticed over the years, Ben doesn’t follow society’s expectations when it comes to gender. Ben is gender nonconforming. We learned this term about a year ago, after years of following Ben’s lead with his interests and style. Ben has loved all things pink and sparkly since he was a toddler, and over the years, Ben’s interests and passions continued to be strongly feminine with all of his closest friends being girls. We supported him in choosing friends, activities, and clothing that felt like the best fit for him. We knew Ben didn’t fit the mold that our culture sets for boys, and we supported him in expressing himself authentically.

At the same time, our bright, sensitive, and empathetic child struggled increasingly with anxiety and, eventually, depression. We worked through various medical and therapeutic resources over the years to support him in his anxiety, trying to give him the best tools possible to thrive in the world as someone whose huge heart just feels things too much. Despite our best efforts, the anxiety and depression reached a crisis point this past year. We were all feeling pretty scared and lost.

I am so incredibly thankful to say that we are in a very different place right now. With the support of various professionals, we’ve come to understand that Ben is transgender. While he was identified as a male at birth based on his outward appearance, he feels and knows that he is a girl. Gender is a spectrum, and we know that liking pink or things attributed culturally to girls does not, in and of itself, make you a girl. But in Ben’s case, his gender identity was the missing piece to the puzzle. Despite our support in being any kind of boy he’d like to be, including one that loves all things feminine, Ben knows in his heart that he IS a girl.

Within the last few months, Ben has socially transitioned so that she can live as the girl she knows she is. Together, we’ve chosen the name Rebekah Eleanor. With the transition to Rebekah, we have seen a significant shift in her energy and demeanor. She suddenly seems more comfortable in her own skin, and we are seeing that gorgeous smile of hers more than ever before.

While, Rebekah has always had and always will have our complete support, this has not been easy. Being transgender is not something anyone chooses. It is not something Rebekah has chosen. It is not something we are choosing for her. We are very aware that the road for her will not always be smooth. The suicide and depression rates for the transgender community are nothing short of terrifying, but we know that with love and support from us, our family, and our friends we are giving Rebekah the best possible chance at not being one of those statistics.

What we are asking of our friends and family is that you respect Rebekah’s gender identity as female by using her preferred name and pronouns. Though Rebekah specifically asked us to tell you that she will be gracious if you accidentally call her Ben as you get used to the change, as she knows this is quite an adjustment for everyone. We also encourage you to learn more about what it means to be transgender along with common misconceptions. We are not experts, but we are learning by necessity and are happy to talk about any of this with you. We will include some resources in the comments below. What Rebekah needs is your love and support. She is a bright, beautiful, and brave girl with a huge heart. We have no doubt she will change the world just by being who she is.

All this is posted with Rebekah's permission and with thanks to Maegan Dougherty Photography for the beautiful photos.

Some helpful resources: