Wednesday, July 22, 2015

#BlogHer15 - the journey home

In May of 2013, my son was nearly four, and I told my story of how difficult it had been for me to go back to work when he was born as a member of the Listen To Your Mother cast. I had wanted to quit my job since he was born, but it wasn't time yet - we needed my income still, and I had just begun building my blog presence to feed my creative side in my free time.

In August of that year, I resigned. My husband had been working hard for a few years to build his company, and it was time for a change. Standing on the edge between relative safety and nothingness, I jumped from the cliff, not knowing what was ahead. After more than two decades on a professional career path, I was stepping off the track, and I wasn't exactly sure who I was going to be.

One thing I knew, courtesy of the BlogHer conference I attended that July, was that a spark of possibility was waiting to come to light.

Making the most of my time in Chicago, I arrived early and packed in as much of the experience as I could. Lizz Porter, whom I had never met but knew through online interactions, was in the lobby when I walked into the hotel, and her bear hug said "welcome" in the best way possible. The sessions were interesting, the people fascinating, and the networking opportunities as wide and as far as the eye could see.

The real magic, for me, occurred during the Voice of the Year presentation. I knew of Ann Imig through my Listen To Your Mother experience, and she seemed larger than life up on stage. Casey Carey-Brown's essay about her experiences as a gay woman astonished me with its honesty. Tears rolled down my face as I listened to Adrienne Jones. And Kelly Wickham blew me away with her emotional and vivid story.

I want to be one of them, I thought to myself. I want to be up there on that stage.

That January, I set my goals for the year, and it seemed a major stretch goal to be a Voice of the Year myself. When I got the news in March that I had been chosen to read my piece "More Than Words" in front of the BlogHer crowd, I picked my son up and swung him around with a smile that split my face in half.

There are people who look at me now and say, "I want to be like her." Opportunities opened up. My career started to soar. And stepping into that abyss felt like stepping right over a rain puddle instead.

The annual BlogHer conference is the experiential learning in workshops like Rita Arens' "Build a Better Headline" session and the HerStories team's session on personal essay writing. It's seeing someone you recognize from her picture and saying, "Hey! It's you!" and sharing the excitement of an in-person meeting. It's having pizza at midnight with some of your closest friends, the ones you met online and cemented your love for each other with a real hug. It's Elisa and Jory - two of the founders of BlogHer recognizing you and saying, "Welcome back!" It's the emphasis on #blacklivesmatter and amplifying black voices and listening and learning.

The friendships are the key - forging these relationships one at a time builds a network so tight and so sturdy that you could fall down and be lifted right back up. This net gives you the chance to try new things and speak up on topics you never dreamed you would speak about in public in any forum. This circle of friends give you the strength to help others through your words.

BlogHer brought me this: my net, my circle, my home.

Highlights of the conference:

  • The Listen To Your Mother Open Mic night
  • Seeing the Marvel Ant-Man movie premiere, hosted by Paul Rudd
  • Boys II Men live at Pier 84
  • These women, and so many more: my net. 
Me, Arnebya, and Angela
With Ellen McGirt - she inspires me always

Angela, Me, Devon, and Jamie

In Times Square with Kir, Angela, Angela, and Leigh Ann

Love, Kristin

Monday, July 13, 2015

The mythical ideal family

My son is looking at the pictures of a book about superheroes in the back seat, and I am driving the long stretch of highway 12 across the southwest edge of Michigan. The road feels as automatic as a well-trod path through the woods, as I have been driving it since I was 16; my teenage summers were spent on the beaches of Lake Michigan, about an hour from my hometown.

I press seek on the radio station, and hear a Sunday morning talk show with two men talking about family. It is clear, very quickly, that they are talking about marriage equality.

We need to make the family unit more attractive, one says. We need families in order to procreate. It’s in the interest of the survival of our species.

That’s right, says the other. It’s important that we continue to show the country what the ideal family looks like. A traditional marriage. 

And, the first one continues. Siblings. My siblings shaped my life, and a child needs siblings. 

I change the station, but their words stick with me.

What is an ideal family? I wonder.  These talk show hosts presented the ideal family as one with a mother and a father and a sibling. Looking back at my son, I am glad he hasn’t heard this snippet of conversation. I wonder if he has learned the word ideal yet.

I think about the friend I am going to meet at the beach, with her husband and eight children. Mother, father, siblings – check. And yet, some might say that she has too many children. Some have questioned her decision to homeschool her children. Some have told her that she should stop having children. These children of hers are some of the most loving, helpful, intelligent children I know.  But for many, her family is not the ideal – they might think hers is too large, too homeschooled, too Catholic.

Then I think of another friend who has been engaged but never married, but she wanted with all of her heart to be a mother. So she adopted a baby girl. I have never seen her face light up with such happiness as it does with her little girl. She is radiating joy. My friend is white, and her baby is black. She, perhaps, would not be considered the ideal family either – a single mother raising a child in an interracial family.

Another friend is gay. She and her partner of many, many years are raising twins in a loving, comfortable, educated household with two mothers. Mothers – check. Siblings – check. Too many people want to tell them that they are not the ideal family because they are not straight. These kind, loving, and generous women are told that they are offensive, disgusting, even disgraceful.

One of my best friends from college is married without children. She and her spouse decided to adopt two dogs they love with all of their hearts, and they are happy, fulfilled, and enjoying their life to the fullest. According to some, they shouldn’t have bothered getting married, because they’re not procreating.

And there is also me. I went through a divorce after years in an unhealthy relationship. Remarrying at 34, my second husband and I had the child we always wanted when I was 38, and then decided that one pregnancy was enough for me after complications both during pregnancy and after his birth.  Mother, father – check. Siblings – none. Divorce – black mark. I guess we’re not the ideal family, either.

It is talk-show hosts like the two men I heard who are also spreading a message that anything different than what they consider ideal is not good enough. It is subtly insidious; too many people listen and think, maybe they’re right. Then they start to think: maybe I should also work toward the invalidation of families that are not “traditional”.

Even the definition of the traditional family is outdated: in the 50s, the men worked, the women stayed home, and TV shows portrayed families as a homogeneous version of “Leave it to Beaver”. Today, some men stay home with the kids, some women work, and some families are blended in various ways. I feel certain that no blueprint exists for an ideal person or of an ideal family. There is no “ideal family.”

Family can be inherited or chosen. Family means fellowship. A group of people with common ideas. Friendship. Family does not have just one definition.

Merriam-Webster says the definition of ideal is “exactly right for a particular purpose, situation, or person.” With that in mind, ideal can mean many things. For me, ideal is my little family of three.  But most of all, ideal is fluid. Ideal is in the moment. Ideal is what you make it.

Ideally, a family has love.

Ideally, a family has respect.

Ideally, a family has happiness. 

A family is not about the way it looks or a specific A-B-C formula. There is not only one religion in our country. There is not only one color. And there is not only one kind of family.

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Songs That Made Me

In May, Rolling Stone featured a cover story called “The Songs That Made Me”, in which artists shared six to eight songs that influenced their lives. I have always been a huge music fan, and I love teaching my son about some of the music of my youth, and exposing him to new music so we can both keep up. Music, for me, is more evocative than smell; it is my 6th sense.

Thank you, Nancy Kho of Midlife Mixtape for inviting me to weigh in with my choices too.

These are the Songs That Made ME.

1)  Heart of Glass by Blondie

My friend Michelle and I used to put this 45 on her record player and dance around her frilly room with the door closed - it's one of the earliest memories I have of playdates with my friends independent of my parents. To this day, Michelle and I are still friends, but we don’t dance when we get together anymore. We may have to change that.

2)  Paradise by the Dashboard Light by Meat Loaf

The house that built me (nod to Miranda Lambert) is in northern Indiana, in a mid-size house in a mid-size town. There is a screened-in porch in that house, still, and every summer, I go back for a visit. It as if nothing has changed except for the furniture and the updated turf carpeting. However, one major change has been made: there is no longer an 8-track player emitting the sounds of Michael Lee Aday (better known as Meat Loaf) singing about getting hot and heavy in his car. As a kid, I had no idea what I was singing about, but I knew every word of it.

3)  Take it Easy by The Eagles

I remember when my dad brought home a big blue panel van and converted it, with shag carpet and a bench seat in the back that converted to a flat bed; my sister and I had many road trips in that van, comfortably playing with our Barbies sans seatbelts. This song reminds me of watching my dad work on that van, sitting at his workbench in the garage.

4)  Let’s go Crazy by Prince

My 7th-grade year was a transforming one; I opted to be bused across town for a special program, away from most of the people I knew, I ditched my glasses for contact lenses, and chopped my hair from waist-length to a short, feathered helmet. I was a cheerleader that year and started hanging out with a whole new group of kids. We jumped on the trampoline in Carrie’s back yard on the river and went crazy with the Purple One.

Link to original MTV video

5)  Can You Stand the Rain by New Edition

My first love made me a mixtape, of course, and this was my favorite song. Right after we graduated from high school, we went to a baseball game and he gave me a sapphire ring. I knew I was moving five hours away to go to college, and we had some deep discussions about what was going to be realistic when I left. I wanted to be free, and he let me go gracefully. I'm friends with his beautiful wife today, and they are a beautiful family with two boys... it's the life he always wanted, and he is happy, and it makes me happy.

6)  Firewoman by The Cult

When I moved into Siddall Hall at the University of Cincinnati, I knew exactly no one and the sounds of Squeeze and Bon Jovi filled the hallways. I had recently joined Columbia’s CD club and ordered myself a whole batch of new CDs, and The Cult’s Firewoman album was one of my favorites. When I hear the opening riffs, I am taken back to that first year of independence, when I could live with the door to my dorm room open and peek my head into the hall to find a new friend.

7)  Black by Pearl Jam

In Mt. Lookout, just outside of Cincinnati, there was a tiny bar called Muz’s. I don’t know what possessed me to apply for a job as a bartender, but I did, and I loved it for a summer. The place was as narrow as a bowling alley, with a wall-mounted jukebox next to the cash register; as soon as I walked in to start my shift, I punched the buttons to start this song. I was fearless then, closing down the bar by myself at 3 AM and carrying the money to a drop box, then heading home to my apartment on the edge of the most dangerous part of town. My poor worried mother, in those years.

8)  With or Without You by U2

U2 made me fall in love with them with “New Year’s Day” and cemented my adoration at “With or Without You”.  It reminds me of sunset at Warren Dunes State Park and all of the girlfriends in my life through high school. I can still feel the breeze at the lake and the sand growing cooler as the sun went down.  Later, when I went through my divorce in 2004, this song was a favorite of the first guy I dated that summer. He and I would drive around and play this song and sing together; we entered into our dating relationship with no strings attached, and he was the balm I needed to get through the first, worst part of being single again. We stopped seeing each other easily, with no malice or drama, and this song reminds me of him and the gift he gave to me: getting my groove back.

9)  Believe by Cher

In 1999, I moved to Atlanta by myself, reeling from a punch to the jaw and an unsure future in a volatile relationship. I was working for a Belgian company and did quite a bit of traveling overseas, which satisfied my wanderlust and helped me escape, temporarily, from my life. Europe had a version of MTV that wasn’t quite the same, but it was close enough for me in the late hours when I was alone in my hotel room. “Believe” reached the Top 40 in early 1999, and I listened to the lyrics and cried, knowing I was in the wrong relationship, but not knowing how to get out. I knew that I was the one who wasn’t strong enough, at the time, but when I finally made it through, I was ready to make this my anthem.

10)  Time to Say Goodbye by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman

My first niece was born in 1999, and on her first Christmas, we danced in my Grandmother's living room to this song, gliding along to the haunting refrain. At the time, it was just a song we loved, my grandmother, my mother, my sister, and I. It was the last Christmas we would spend with my beloved grandmother, who passed away at age 83 in her sleep in January of 2000. It seemed that this song followed me everywhere; the memories were bittersweet. I still miss her more than ever when I hear the gorgeous chorus.

11)  You’ll Think of Me by Keith Urban

When I met my now-husband, Will, I was a mess. I was in the process of a divorce that, while it didn’t break me, bent me in half. But this Texan saw something in me, and he stuck by me, introducing me to some of his favorite country songs along the way. When I first heard this breakup song, I cried in Will’s arms for the relationship I was still grieving, and he let me feel it all without judgement, waiting patiently for me to come around and see what was ahead.

"Take your records, take your freedom, take your memories, I don't need them..."

12)  Dream Big by Ryan Shupe and the Rubberband

Finally, I was ready for my happily ever after. Will and I were married in October of 2006, and this was our wedding song.

“And when you dream, dream big,
As big as the ocean, blue.
'Cause when you dream it might come true.
But when you dream, dream big.”

And thanks to Nancy, there are several other bloggers who weighed in on their songs, too. Check them out:
The Songs That Made:


Friday, May 29, 2015

Friday favorites: May 29

Schoooooooool's out for the summer. I'm looking forward to vacationing in Indiana with my family, soon, and spending quality time with my sister and my parents and hometown friends. I'm not sure how much I'll be publishing or posting over the summer, but I'll be around sporadically. It seems like a good time to chill out and take the pressure off for the season.

In case you missed it, I was featured at BonBon Break this week with a very personal post about rape, sexual harassment, and the cost of silence. I have heard from former colleagues and close friends with their "me too" stories, which break my heart but also buoy us. We are in this together.

Also, Susan Maccarelli of Beyond Your Blog syndicated my post on goal-setting. Which reminds me that I have some to work on, since we're halfway through the year already.

Posts I loved included this post on chores at The Washington Post. In fact, if you have tips about chores for a five year old, I'd love to know more.

Yes, they are real brothers. My friend Jill Robbins has so many excellent essays on adoption, so check her out here at BonBon Break or at Ripped Jeans and Bifocals.

Mom Playdates: we NEED them. YES. Thank you, Kim Bongiorno of Let Me Start By Saying.

Lisa Rosenberg of Smacksy has a quiet, beautiful way of writing that sometimes takes my breath away when I least expect it. Case in point, here. 

Elaine Alguire, a fellow Listen To Your Mother producer in Southeast Texas, wrote a post about personal space and kids, and I thought it was real and lovely.

Did you grow up in the 80s and do you have a teenager now? I loved this essay from Kari, which was both good advice and a walk down memory lane.

My friend Jennifer Williams always offered the best advice, and I said to her, "You are as good - or better than - Dear Abby." Look at her now: she has an advice column! And she's spot on about making friends as an adult.

They won't all like you. I am applauding through Kim's post about being true to yourself.

Nighttime is my favorite time to connect with my son, too, so I appreciate Stephanie's words about listening to her son and learning.

And last, but not least, these calming and beautiful words from Amanda Magee:
"If you are feeling helplessly quiet or inexplicably weighted with something that you can’t define, maybe stop trying. Be patient with the words, understanding with your heart, and, perhaps most importantly, less demanding of the minutes and how they end up passing. They’re yours to have, even if you don’t spend them “productively,” I think some minutes are just meant for being."


Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Favorites: May 22

Photo by Daune O'Brien
Happy Friday!

This weekend, I am going to celebrate the veterans I know and love for Memorial Day. Two of my dad's older brothers were in the service, and my dad was planning to enlist too, if he hadn't lost his right arm in a car crash at 16. Thank you to all who have served.

In case you missed it, I was featured at Brain, Child magazine this week with an essay about faking bravery in the face of anxiety for the sake of my son.

The Mid syndicated my most popular post about the weight of motherhood and picking up my son as long as I'm able (and as long as he'll let me).

Also at The Mid, a post I originally wrote for Midlife Mixtape about my first crush, and one of my favorite albums from Bon Jovi.

Some posts I loved this week:

This one from the NTY Motherlode, about the impact of an unexpected role model.

A beautiful post at Buzzfeed about being pregnant at 40.

Thought-provoking post from a mother who does not limit screen time, and why.

Very important story about paying attention around kids and water; timely for the summer pool season.

Ready for some cuteness? These photos of baby animals and their parents will make you say "Awwww..."

Molly's post about making mistakes and learning from them is fierce and brave. I love this message.

Kirsten Brunner is a counselor in Austin, and she is fantastically wise. This post about marriage was an excellent reminder for me.

As we age, and especially as we have children, our bodies change. Jamie covers it perfectly.

Gail is speaking my language about boys here at HuffPost Parents.

This is an excellent example of the good kind of parental hovering, from The Stir Journal.

I have had one major phobia since I was a little kid: stinging insects. I'm terrified of those tiny creatures, so this piece at NYT Motherlode was great food for thought for me, and for my son.

We are way into Legos at our house, so I thought these Lego photo scenes were fabulous.

If you like roundups, this one from Shell and this one from Angela have great selections of posts too.

Heather asked me to post this link about her story - she is an amazing survivor!

My friend Brian and his wife launched a site to help children with autism, inspired by their daughter Ady.

Have a wonderful holiday weekend.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Four things I learned teaching preschool music

My son never heard the typical kids' music in our house; he was brought up on country music, popular music, and some of the 80s and 90s tunes I loved. .

So when I saw the email from his preschool that read “We need volunteers to teach music at the preschool next year; please let us know if you or someone you know would like to help out” I have no idea what I was thinking. I took piano lessons for ten years and French horn lessons for eight years; I had a musical background and figured it would be easy to play the kids some music and dance around.

Almost as soon as I had reviewed the curriculum and participated in the first training class, I started to worry that I couldn't do it. Just because you can read music doesn't mean you can teach it, my doubtful voice mocked me.

The first class felt awkward, from where I was sitting on a blue throw pillow on the floor. One wouldn't think that a class full of preschool kids could make a fully-grown woman nervous, but it's true. At least, it was for me. There they were, looking at me with those eager, adorable eyes. I looked down the barrel of several months' worth of weekly music classes and thought:

What in the world have I done?

But a funny thing happened along the way… not only did I fall in love with the kids, they taught me much more than I taught them. Here I am, about to teach the last class of the season today. I'll never forget these four lessons:

1) You can’t judge a child in an hour.  There was one particular boy who was a bit stubborn. When I walked around the room to re-collect the shakers or bells or instruments, I practically had to pry them from his hands. I cajoled and pleaded and then left it to his teachers, who were also in the room, to enforce. This boy had eyes of cornflower blue and when he looked at me, I saw the face of a boy I loved when I was much younger, and it melted me. Honestly, though, I thought he might have been a little spoiled, until the day I heard his father telling the school director that he was taking the boy to his occupational therapy appointment. BAM. Reality check. Humble pie, please.

2) Every kid wants to be seen. It’s easy to make eye contact with the kids who are participating and laughing and singing along, and doing what they’re told. But ALL of them want and need interaction, and some of them need a little push. One particular dark-haired, dark-eyed bilingual boy stared at me during class, but refused to sing or shake a tambourine or dance. I tried speaking to him in Spanish, thinking that perhaps he didn’t understand what I was saying. After several classes with me, he waved to me from the playground when I came in. A few weeks later, he flashed a beautiful smile. When I would see him at pickup, I got to know him and his mother and while he still didn’t like to talk very much, his smile would be wide and his eyes would light up. His eyes lit up. For me.

3) I needed to get out of my comfort zone. Teaching has never been a career to which I aspired, and my first class was an exercise in restraint; I restrained myself from running out of the room. However, teaching a classroom full of three-year-old kids the chicken dance helps you get over yourself very quickly.

4) Speaking of getting over yourself, I needed that too. Far from my life of part-time freelance writing and Listen To Your Mother and TV appearances, and even the more pedestrian things like laundry, making dinner, and so on, there is this classroom.  I had to stop, focus, and BE in the moment. Reading the mood of the classroom is important when 11 little pairs of eyes are on you, and if they're not feeling it, when I had to adjust. Sometimes I added instruments, maracas, bells... anything to shake it up (literally).

Every week, my son had his music class on Tuesday with another teacher, and he would tell me all about class and I'd get ready for mine. Now my son and I can sing in Arabic, Mandarin, Ghanian, and Spanish, and we have a much larger musical repertoire to share.

And we can do a wicked chicken dance. 

Class dismissed.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Friday Favorites: May 15

Happy Friday!

Listen To Your Mother is over for the year. Touch-a-Truck is also finished. I am teaching my last preschool music class on Wednesday. I should be able to coast into the summer, right? 

In case you missed it, I was featured at the Washington Post's On Parenting blog on May 1. It's an essay about the ways I was raised by a feminist mother, and how I have translated some of those messages (and adjusted them) now that I'm the mother of a boy.

And Austin Woman magazine featured me and my Listen To Your Mother co-producer Leigh Ann Torres in this month's issue, and the writer followed up with rave reviews about the show.

Now, for some reading material for your weekend:

This essay from Kristen Howerton made me give my son extra snuggles this morning.

Speaking of kids growing up, this one from Katie Sluiter about completing her family is beautiful and introspective.

Wendy Wisner is one of my new favorite writers. I have never met her, but she seems to be the kind of mom I would like to have in my circle of friends. I love the way she loves her kids.

Lindsey Mead has long been one of my favorite writers. She's whip smart, and her pieces lead me to think about things in ways I hadn't before. This essay is about defining achievement and looking at your life through the lens of "resume virtues" vs "eulogy virtues".

This post from Rochelle Dukes Fritsch at BonBon Break is a wonderful perspective on interracial marriage and her hopes for the future.

In Baltimore, there is much healing and change to come. In the meantime, the Big Brothers Big Sisters program has seen a 3,000% increase in mentor applications, which is amazing.

Nobody writes about grief with more love and compassion than Anna Whiston-Donaldson. Heavy but hopeful. Beautiful, with joy too.

Are you a military spouse? These tips from Kristina Wright at are very helpful. 

Need more reading material? This list from Shell at Things I Can't Say contains several gems.

My dear friend Rachel Macy Stafford asked me to create a graphic reminder for her readers called "20 soul-building words for the ones you love".

Ready for some funny stuff? This one from Anna at My Life and Kids, about her worst day at work, is hilarious.  And this one from my friend Ava Love Hanna, featuring nursery rhymes with click-bait headlines, is awesome.  Just at the buzzer, before I published this, this one came in from Buzzfeed, and I was giggling all the way through [warning: copious 4-letter words].

* * *
I started reading a new e-book Lose the Cape that was just released by two bloggers in April. It contains real-life strategies for coping with everyday motherhood challenges, and I am loving it so far.  When I finish it, I'll offer more tips from the book.



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