Incompetent Stepmother

This is from last week.

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Today is Friday the 13th and we are now also out of rice, pasta and name-brand frozen pizza. Next week doesn’t have the time change or the other stuff, but I’m not looking forward to it. This COVID19 panic is getting all real n’ shit.

We have been trying not to talk about it around Ethan because he can get a bit anxious and we don’t want him to worry. He knows the basics but he honestly doesn’t seem that interested. He’s seven. He has other things to think about.

This morning, I was trying to rush him out to the car so I could take him to school when he suddenly started dashing around looking for something. “Where’s my coat?” he asked.

I picked it up of the wall hanger and said, “it’s right here!”

“No, not that one. Mom bought me a new one. I KNOW I took it to school yesterday!”

“Oh,” I said. Handing him the one that is suddenly no longer “the new one.” I searched through my memory bank of images from the day before. “You weren’t wearing a coat when you got out of your dad’s car, I remember that. Was it IN the car?”

“Maybe.”

We got belted in and started toward school. The radio was reporting on The Virus so I quickly turned it off and put on some music. My car is a 2007 Toyota and plays CDs, which Ethan finds a bit fascinating. He was asking me about it and wanted to know how many CDs it held. I told him it holds six. “What is the most a CD player can hold? Like, six hundred?”

“If it had six hundred CDs there wouldn’t be room for the engine!” I said, and he laughed.

We got to school and I noticed right away that there wasn’t the usual throng of people and cars. I’ve heard that a lot of people are keeping their kids home so I didn’t think much about it. I parked and hopped out of the car. Ethan is at that age where he still likes being walked in to class and I like to take advantage while that lasts. I will be the totally uncool stepmom before I know it. “And another thing,” I can almost hear his tweenaged voice telling his future friends. “She still listens to CDs!”

We walked into the school and again I noticed just how empty it was. One of Ethan’s teachers called out to him and said something to that might have been just to him or to both of us, but he was across the corridor and I couldn’t make it out, so we just waved. We walked to the vestibule where the they keep the lost and found items. It was overflowing with coats. It usually is full, but now that the spring weather is cool in the mornings but warm in the afternoons, kids have apparently been forgetting coats left and right. He looked and looked but didn’t find it. Ethan gave me a side hug and started to walk off to class but I decided to walk him all the way to the door so I could check his locker.

As we walked past Ethan’s old first grade classroom, his Spanish teacher from last year said something to us with a somewhat exasperated expression. I couldn’t make it out. I actually wasn’t sure if she had spoken in English or Spanish. I asked Ethan, “what did she say?” He just shrugged. As we walked past I smiled and said, “Hola!”

We were almost to the lockers when Ethan’s current teacher walked toward me and said, “We are asking parents not to enter the school because of the new restrictions. You should just drop him off outside.”

I stopped and looked around again. Yes, that was what was different! I was the only parent in the building! Suddenly I noticed all these little eyes staring at me. Ethan’s school is majority minority and Ethan is one of the whitest students, even though he is one quarter Korean. One little girl in particular was glaring at me and I felt like I could read the thought bubbles above her little head. “There goes one of those white ladies who thinks the rules don’t apply to her!”

“I’m so sorry!” I said, clutching my Kate Spade bag closer to my chest. “I didn’t know…”

“It’s okay,” Ethan’s teacher told me, but she was pointing at the door and it didn’t feel okay.

I bounced so quickly I forgot to ask her about the coat. (Dammit!) I felt like yelling over my shoulder as I left, my germ cloud trailing behind me, “Steps don’t get the emails; it isn’t my fault.”

The worst part is: right before I was stopped by the teacher, I asked Ethan, “what does the coat even looked like?”

“White camo,” he said. What? What even is that? I can’t picture it, but am still certain that if rednecks had a flag (a new flag, I know they have the stars and bars), it would be made of white camouflage.

I’m actually relieved to think that they will probably close the school soon so I won’t have to show my face there in the near future. My white white face with the bright red cheeks. I will be keeping all of those (and my germs) at home.

 

 

Wicked Stepmother

Ethan (seven) has been having a little trouble at school. He’s bright and motivated and his teachers love him. He has lots of friends. AND (I’m deliberately not saying “but”) he has really big feelings. He gets frustrated when something happens out of the usual order and he doesn’t feel prepared, for instance. We (both our family unit and the family unit of his mother’s and stepfather’s house) have always made sure he knows that it is okay to cry. We set the example; we show our emotions and encourage him to check in with and express his own. Unfortunately, some of his fellow classmates (you couldn’t hear it but I just sneezed and it sounded just like ‘dumb boys.’ It was weird) have started calling him “cry baby.”

We talked about it a lot over the weekend. His school is supposed to have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to bullying, which seems nice. When I was in school in the 80s, bullying was a perfectly acceptable hobby for a lot of kids, encouraged by parents and gym teachers alike. But really there’s zero-tolerance for bullying that happens directly in front of an un-distracted authority figure, which typically isn’t the setting the these little butt holes choose. So we discussed some strategies that he could try, such as going to a teacher if the issue persists, and gave him some reassurance that he’s fine, just the way he is.

I hate this stuff because it brings up my own childhood crap. But also because I HATE the way school breaks our kids. I see it with my nieces and nephews and my friend’s children. Everyone starts out confident and quirky and excited about school and then they get dumped into the sausage machine and the shitty little kids who need everyone to be the same will appoint themselves the gatekeepers of what is allowed and beat the quirks to a pulp. It makes me so sad.

In response, I did something bad. I knew it was bad, and I did it anyway. I was driving Ethan to school so it was just the two of us and I brought up the situation. I waited so that I could get him to myself and not have his Dad hear me and have to correct me for my terrible advice.

“You know,” I said, stopping at a traffic light. “I was thinking of something you could say to [Kid’s Name].”

“What?” Ethan asked.

“Next time he calls you a crybaby, say ‘yeah, but I can stop crying and you will still be ugly.”

“Oh, Rachel!” Ethan said, his eyes bright with a smile, but shaking his splayed hands in front of him, as if refusing another slice of cake. “I would get in so much trouble!”

This is the problem with zero-tolerance policies. The kids who don’t care about following the rules won’t be dissuaded, but the kids who just want to do the right thing won’t even defend themselves.

“You could tell your teacher that I told you to say it,” I said. “I will take the blame!”

“Actually, I thought of something else I could say,” he said.

“What is that?”

“I’m just going to say, ‘how would you feel if someone said that to you?’ And then they will realize it isn’t nice.”

I made myself say, “Yeah… that’s good… too.” I checked the rear-view mirror. “But you could still think about my response. It might make you laugh.”

I got a good smile and a little chuckle then. “Yeah,” he said. “It is funny.”

We don’t get him again until the weekend so I won’t get to check in with him for a few days. I feel so much pressure to enjoy him now, while he is cute and sweet and small. And as purely him as he will be again. Every day those shitty little dumb-asses change him a little more. This is the price we pay for being social animals, I guess. Now I understand why people choose to home-school. I wouldn’t go that far, however. At the risk of offending someone, I’ve met home-schooled kids and some of them could stand having some weirdness smoothed down in the sausage machine.

A Sad Farewell

I never really allowed myself to believe that my dog might die one day. Wensley always looked like a puppy, so even when he started limping from arthritis and sleeping most of the day I thought we would still have years together. I was wrong.

Wensleydale Danger McDoggiepants, my partner in crime and Netflix binging, passed away on Sunday. No, that’s a lie. I called a veterinarian and asked him to come to my house to give my dog a life ending shot and he died. It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Maybe the hardest.

The only kindness in this is that it happened so fast. He lost interest in eating so I made an appointment with the vet. Last Wednesday I got the diagnosis: Chronic Kidney Disease. I read several articles on the internet and thought, “Okay, this is bad, but I don’t know what phase of the disease he is in. We are just learning about it so maybe it is early?”

Nope. I put him in an animal hospital and they tried to flush the toxins that his kidneys were no longer dealing with, but he didn’t respond to treatment. We brought him home on Friday and made him as comfortable as possible. On Saturday he rested but could still walk around outside and even ate a little. But on Sunday he threw up everything he ate the day before and couldn’t even stand when I took him outside. He was shaking as if he were freezing but when I wrapped and spooned him it didn’t let up, which meant that he wasn’t cold, he was in pain. The moment I knew it was over when when I got up to get some pain medication for him and his eyes didn’t follow me as I walked across the room. Matt’s Dad always joked that Wensley was “my shadow” because he padded after me everywhere, and even if he was to tired or sore to follow me on foot he followed me with his eyes.

I’ll spare you the rest. Or rather, I’ll spare myself having to write down the rest. I’m sure you can imagine.

Wensley was a small dog. (Only twelve pounds for most of his life, but significantly less by the last day.) And yet, the hole he has left is unfathomable to me. I’ve always said that we were codependent, but it was more true than I realized. This entire week I’ve been struggling just to feel like I’m still myself without him. I feel pain at every meal because I don’t have the soundtrack of whimpering at my feet, begging for a bite, that I have had at every meal for nearly fifteen years. I don’t have anyone putting their paws on my leg in the morning reminding me to make breakfast because he knew I’d let him lick the bowl of oatmeal glue when I was done. I always remembered to give Wensley his pills, even though I could never remember to take my own.  So we took them together. I haven’t had breakfast or my meds all week. Every time I come home, there is no wagging tail or urgent whine of a dog needing to go out to pee. I don’t have a first order of business any more, so I just stand in the kitchen not sure what to do.

Then there is everything else. By which I mean, the crazy thoughts. Like the fact that I feel cheated every time my neighbor’s dog barks because why does she get to be alive? And how is it possible that everything that has eyes reminds me of Wensley? People, birds, stuffed animals – in person or in a two dimensional image – all of it hurts me because I can never gaze in those deep brown eyes again. He would sit at the top of the stairs and I would lay on the steps so we could be eye to eye and we would stare at each other. It made me feel so calm and connected. Everyone, stop having eyes! And then there is the guilt for every bit of human food I gave him. I should never have done that! And also all the guilt for everything – all the Cheetos and fries – I denied him. I should have given him everything he ever asked for!

God fucking damn this hurts. I now understand why people go straight out and buy another dog after a loss like this. The void is crushing. Only I don’t want a new dog. I want a new house. One that doesn’t remind me of Wensley everywhere I look. Part of me keeps waiting for him to walk into every room I am in, his black nails clattering on the wood floor.

I’m not going to buy a new house. If I were obscenely rich, I might not be able to stop myself. Is that why rich people have so many houses? One for every beloved pet they have lost? I wonder.

There is nothing to do but let it hurt. I need to give myself time to grieve, and time to build some post-Wensley memories in this new house. It’s unbearable to think of still, but that is what has to happen.

I’m sure I sound like a crazy person, but Wensley was a once in a lifetime dog. He was with me through the most difficult years of my life. I was only 26 when I got him; it’s crazy to think of that! He was there through a divorce, multiple moves, countless loses and heartbreaks, and stressful shake-ups at work. For more than ten years, it was just Wensley and me, and he got me through. He was a the life raft that delivered me safely through the dangers and into the hands of my new family, Matt and Ethan.

They have been amazingly supportive, by the way. (All of my friends and family have been.) I broke down doing dishes the other night because there was a little chunk of celery left on someone’s plate that Wensley would have LOVED and I couldn’t give it to him. Ethan (who is seven) jumped up from his homework and ran over and wrapped his arms around my waist, telling me how much he loved me and how glad he is that we are a family. That made me cry harder but with gratitude.

I guess that is where I start. There is one new memory I have made in this “after Wensley” period. I guess I’m creating another one right now, as I’m writing in my too quiet house, and I’m feeling grief and gratitude at the same time, and I’m having a big sloppy cry as I get through this entry. Baby steps.

There are few things that have been running through my mind all week.  One is this song by Holcombe Waller called Hardliners. Maybe listen, but don’t watch? It’s not a terrible video but I worry that the cheesiness distracts from the lyrics. I’m trying to figure out why it keeps popping into my head, other than the line that goes, “you’re so sad you just might die” which feels apt. I think it is because I need to be reminded that I have permission to feel all of this grief that is washing over me, but I don’t have permission to stop loving. It’s been exhausting to be a member of my family this week when I really wanted to be in bed with the blinds drawn, but my life raft didn’t get me all this way just so I could throw myself back in the rapids and go under.

This is the other brain worm that has been whispering in my ear. It’s a quote from Jamie Anderson (who according to the internet wrote Dr. Who).

Grief-no-place-to-go.

That is so spot on, I think. Grief and love are just two sides of the same doggie biscuit, or similar.

This morning I dropped Ethan off and school and turned the car back toward home. My first thought was about going to a Starbucks that I know of near that area, but with a sharp sting I decided not to, because it is so close to Wensley’s Veterinarian’s office.  My second thought was about Ethan. I started thinking about his breakfast routine and wondering if he is getting enough protein. I have a few ideas about what he might like, but I want to talk to Matt about it.  Then I realized with a smile that I’m transferring my grief for my dog into anxiety for my stepson. Where else is all that worry going to go? So I suppose the healing has begun. Which is painful, but natural.

I don’t have a great ending and I’ve reached that point where I might start singing “The Circle of Life,” and no one needs that. Instead, here are a few favorite pics of Wensley, including one of both of us from 2005 when he was about five months old.

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In the Pink

I was recently reminded that I am a NEW stepparent, and as such I have MUCH to learn. It was a weird “off” moment that I’m still trying to make sense of, but here are the basics:

It was a Monday a few weeks ago and Ethan (seven) had the day off from school, but was a regular workday for us. My work has been slow so I took the day off. He has a friend in his second grade class who’s mother has kindly watched Ethan a few times this year when school got out early, so I volunteered to take her son, also. Let’s call him Chad.

Chad is a good kid. I sometimes get a little annoyed with him because he is obsessed with what is cool and what is not. The last time I had him in my car I was listening to the Beatles and he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to think about them, so he asked me how many followers they had. I remember how important that stuff felt when I was in grade school, so I get it. I just wish I could protect Ethan from that crap

Ethan asked to go to a trampoline park and I got permission from Chad’s parents to take him. I don’t know if this is a thing everywhere but trampoline parks are big in Salt Lake City right now. It’s basically a warehouse with a raised floor made of a series of trampolines and play equipment that pairs well with trampolines, such as basketball hoops and zip lines. The kids love it. (I actually tried to bounce for a minute once, but quickly realized that my spine is too old for that kind of jarring action, and that my bra was not designed for anti gravitational maneuvers. I managed to get back on to solid ground without doing permanent damage to my body and then got myself tucked back in without breaking any decency laws, but lessons were learned.)

I got the boys buckled in the car and pulled up the address on my phone. As soon as Siri’s voice came up, however, the boys groaned and launched into throwing shade at my phone, which basically consisted of repeating the tirades they have heard from their fathers about Siri. I have personally witnessed several arguments between Ethan’s dad and GPS technology and mostly have found myself taking Siri’s side. Of course it won’t work if you follow every other thing she says, then decide she doesn’t know what she was talking about to begin with, make an abrupt turn in a nonsensical direction, and get yourself lost. Remember the good old days where men just wouldn’t ask for directions? Now we foist directions on them, leading them to mansplain to a robot who can’t pick up on the passive aggression or sarcasm, and the result is the same: arriving dismally late and frustrated to a place you only sorta wanted to go to anyway. Which isn’t to say the old way was better. I just remember it being quieter.

I was ignoring the boys posturing and focusing instead in Siri’s helpful and completely correct directions when I heard this from the back seat:

“Siri is a girl and Alexa is a boy,” Chad said. “Alexa can multiply in the thousands and Siri can’t even add one plus one.” This was followed by laughter.

Before I could stop myself I interjected, “Siri and Alexa are BOTH girls.”

As if that was remotely germane. I should have said that neither are girls! They are both robots! Their developers gave them female voices because it feels natural to give a woman the bitch work of timing your abdominal crunches, reminding you to pick up the dry-cleaning, and to “find out if Burt Reynolds is still alive and report back to me.” (Yes, these are examples of my recent Siri activity. Burt Reynolds died, by the way.)

The boys didn’t respond to my inane interjection. They seemed to be surprised to discover that I was still in the car and heard this conversation. Nothing like being made to feel like a chauffer driving two little lords around in my own goddamned car.

What the fuck? I thought. I know Chad’s mom and she is a badass. She’s an athlete and she teaches advanced education techniques at the university. Does he say crap like that around her? He certainly seems comfortable saying it in front of me.

We parked at the place and I signed them up for three hours of bouncing. Then the guy at the front desk told me that I’d have to buy them each a pair of anti-slip socks if I didn’t bring some from home, so he threw that on the total, which came to around $60. I tried to hide my reaction to the number, but I could hear my mother’s voice in my head saying, “Good gracious; for that price they should leave with a framed degree in bouncing!” I handed over my credit card and the man gave me two pairs of socks. They were black, with little pink ribbons printed all over them. The boys looked at them in horror. Before anyone could ask, the man at the desk said, “October is breast cancer awareness month.”

The boys took them with frowns but they put them on and skittered off to bounce. This time I didn’t bother to hide my reaction, which was a wide smile and a thought bubble that said, Thanks for the justice, Karma! Totally worth the $60.

 I happily settled in with my Real Simple magazine and a coconut La Croix and waited for the three hours to pass, which it did uneventfully. By then, the boys were bounced out and ready for lunch. It wasn’t until they went to the lockers to get their shoes that they remembered the pink ribbons on their socks.

“Gross! I HATE pink!” Chad yelled. “He peeled them off and kicked them away from him. “Pink is the WORST color! I’m throwing these in the trash.” He pinched them between his thumb and index finger like a bag full of dog shit and threw them into the trash with a dramatic gesture.

Ethan laughed. “Me too!” he said. “I HATE pink!” He had already given the socks to me to hold while he changed back into his (oh so masculine) Pikachu socks and I had dropped them into my purse. He dove into my bag (which is oversized and full of odds and ends; I call it my Mary Poppins bag) and started rooting around for them.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I want to throw mine away, too!”

“Well, too bad. I didn’t spend good money on those just so that you could wear them a few hours and then throw them away. If you don’t want them just because they are pink I’m sure some other kid at Goodwill would be happy to have them.” I knew even as I said this that you can’t donate used socks to Goodwill, and that my refusal to allow him to follow Chad’s lead had nothing to do with the wastefulness of the action, but yet again, it was the best response that came to my mind. “Reduce, reuse, recycle!” won out over calling two second graders “a couple of chauvinistic-shit-for-brains-assholes!” in public.

We got to the car and the boys buckled in. It was quiet for a minute and then Ethan said, “Rachel, I don’t have to like pink. It’s just a color.”

I took a deep breath. “That’s true,” I said, starting the car. “But is that all it is about? Just the way you feel about a particular color? Or does it have to do with the fact that you are both boys, and pink is a ‘girl’s’ color?”

I couldn’t take my eyes off to road to check the rearview mirror as I pulled out of the parking lot and merged onto the busy road, but I imagined them exchanging a glance that said, How did she know? I thought that was our thing! We didn’t even mention girls! In that way that every generation thinks it is completely original and paving its own path. But I don’t know what they did. Probably just stare at their shoes. It was only the long pause between the question and Ethan’s answer, “No…” with an implied ellipsis or even a faint question mark at the end that told me I hit home.

“Oh, okay,” I said. “I guess I misunderstood. But I want to talk to you more about this later.” My mom never hesitated to blast me with a correction when my friends around, but I always told myself I wouldn’t do that if I became a parent.

We got home and I got them set up downstairs with food and a movie and then I went out to rake leaves. I had dozens of thoughts and emotions pushing down on me and I needed to get some space to try to manage my oversized reaction. Maybe, if I had given birth to the child and spent every day since with him, this little exchange wouldn’t have bothered me. Maybe I would have picked up on that point, years ago, when he started pre-school and began taking his cues and values from the other children. He would have started the process early – the process of learning that boys were the best and the things they like is cool and girls are bad and the things they like is shit. Maybe he would have bought into it so gradually I wouldn’t have noticed it. Or maybe I would heard some of these statements before and thought, Oh, this is normal. This is the way it goes. The girls say the same things about the boys and how they hate… blue? Maybe?

But I’ve known Ethan for three years now and I haven’t heard anything like that from him. And it wasn’t just showing a preference. The thing that shocked me was the hatred. The disgust in Chad’s voice and his forceful declaration of male supremacy with the Siri thing, and then the way he threw those socks in the trash. It was boastful, actually. “Look at how much I can hate this!” he seemed to say. And it was so infectious. Ethan wanted to be just like that; hateful and cool! Clearly they were trying to impress one another and that was leading to some gleeful one-upmanship. But still. The HATE!

I realize, of course, that I’m primed to be triggered by something like this. The last few years have been focused on stories of the systematic misogyny that women experience in this “developed” country and I’ve spent countless hours thinking about my own stories and what we have learned and how I want our culture to change as a result of all this difficult work that has been done bringing about a reckoning. One question in particular that I have been meditating on is, “Where does it start? Who plants the seed?”

I grew up in a decidedly patriarchal religion that made it clear to me from an early age that being female limited me in the role I could play in the world. I remember being told that women will always be paying for the sins of Eve. That is not official Mormon church doctrine, but it sure seems to be a precious grudge for a lot of Christian folks. Then, when I was a teenager, I had my first experience dealing with a boy who was too hopped up on hormones to take my sweet and ladylike “no, thank you” for an answer. Like me, he was raised on stories about how ‘boys will be boys’ and that it is the girl’s responsibility to save both parties with her own clear headed dedication to her own chastity, so I knew that was “my job.” But damn, no one had prepared me for how many times the hand will reach out to be smacked away, or how many times “no” won’t be taken for a final answer. Finally, before he could wear me down, I managed to escape. As I drove home in the dark I suddenly thought about Eve. Am I really supposed to believe that Eve pressured Adam into this? Because there is no way. I bet Adam bit into ALL the apples, wore Eve down until she ate one or two, and then asked her to take the blame. And when she hesitated he told her she was pretty and then she lost all ability to resist because she was a damn fool and no one prepared her for this bullshit.

But I digress.

Growing up, I was told I couldn’t do certain things and simply not encouraged to do others. At university, I experienced the way men pursued women and then viciously retaliated if their advances were denied. I sought help from university resources and got shrugs. What do you want us to do about it? They seemed to say. I heard stories about women at parties being taken advantage of while unable to consent to sex and the event being witnessed by other male party attendants who did nothing. Because, Bros before hos? I guess? Finally, my senior year, a friend of mine was murdered by a sexual predator who decided he needed what he needed more than he thought my friend deserved to have the rest of her life.

That was twenty years ago. Last year, a student at the same university was murdered on campus by a boy she dated briefly and then rejected. She reported his stalking behavior to campus police, but nothing was done. What do you want us to do about it? They seemed to say.

That’s when I realized that this world is no more safe for my nieces than is was twenty years ago when I was a young woman being told that I should always be nice and likable and respectful of the priesthood, but also to avoid short skirts and walk home in the dark with my keys in my hand in “ready position.”

Again, I ask: where does it start? When do men learn that their needs come first? Obviously the murderers in these examples are the extreme cases. But if you walk into a room at a frat party and you see an unconscious woman being raped and you back out slowly and go get more beer instead of intervening, what is going on in your mind? At the risk of making an oversimplification of the matter, it seems to me that you do not see the two people in that scenario as equals. That there is some port in your mind harboring the belief that a woman is less than a man. Maybe a 70% person.

It probably seems completely insane to suggest that the seed of that belief was planted by little boys on playgrounds, repeating what they have heard from older brothers and fathers, reassuring each other that they are, in fact, the best! Boys rule! Girls drool! But what if that is where it starts? What if that is the genesis of the darkness? What if those shitty little kid thoughts take root and you don’t even think about it, and then you grow up and one day you are that ex of mine (who totally thought he was a feminist) who told me that it didn’t think it made sense to force companies to fix the gender pay gap because it would be difficult and expensive. Then, when I asked him, “what if it were a racial pay gap?” he said, “Oh, that would be different!” Because somewhere deep in the brain he thought that a woman is only 70% of a person! (And no, that is not the day we broke up, because I was lonely and probably had just bought tickets to something and didn’t want to go alone.)

Maybe I’m totally off on this one, but I gotta tell you… the Mormons I knew as a kid who told me that men had special God given powers but a woman’s job was to make babies and do what they were told were not much more articulate than a couple of grade-school-aged boys.

All these thoughts were hitting me like hail stones as I raked leaves and cried freely behind my sunglasses. I thought with sudden sympathy about the deadbeat parents that claim to be going out for some cigarettes and then drive into the sunset, never to return. Which is when I remembered that all this anguish started over a pair of socks, and I had to stop and laugh.

I took a deep breath and told myself that the lifetime’s worth of shit that this incident brought up for me was not about Ethan and that I was not going to put that on him. But I was genuinely upset, and I needed him to understand at least a small part of why.

Later in the evening, after Chad went home, I was in the kitchen making dinner when Ethan came in and asked for a snack. I got him settled and then I asked if we could talk for a minute.

“I’m a little upset,” I said. “I’m wondering if you can guess why?”

He looked down at his snack and deflated by about 20% as he said, “the pink.”

“Yeah, that’s part of it,” I said. I don’t know how to have heavy conversations with children, but back when I was a boss with 10 or so people reporting to me, I read a book about keeping disciplinary messages short. Get to it, make the point, move on by turning the page onto another topic. So that was what I decided to do.

“I’m glad that you and Chad are friends,” I said, “but he has some stupid ideas.” I waited for him to remind me that we aren’t supposed to say ‘stupid,’ which is his rule not ours, but he didn’t. “That thing about Siri being a girl and not being able to do math? That’s not okay. And like I said today, you don’t have to like pink. But you didn’t say ‘I don’t like pink,’ you said, ‘I hate pink!’ And I’m not stupid. I know what that means. You know that?”

He didn’t try to argue; he just nodded this time.

“It’s not okay to believe that boys are better than girls, just like it is not okay to believe that white people are better than Asian people, or black people, or anyone.” Ethan is one quarter Korean so I knew that would get his attention.

“You know, there are things that I am better at than your dad, and there are things that your dad is better at than I am. I’m better at fixing things, which is something that typically people think of as a boy thing. And you know your dad is a brilliant teacher. Did you know that, not that long ago, public school teachers were all women? It’s true; that was something people thought of as a woman’s job.”

The boisterous kid who was showing off for his friend was completely gone. He was looking down at the counter taking his punishment until I said this bit about school teachers and then he looked up, surprised. I knew I’d managed to get something across to him and started to wrap up the lecture.

“Look, like I said. I like Chad and I’m glad you are friends. But I think I can speak for both myself and your mom when I say that there is no way we are raising a boy who doesn’t treat girls as equals. So whenever I hear your friends telling you to hate girls and things associated with girls and I don’t hear you respond and say, ‘no you are wrong,’ then you can expect to hear from me at some point after because my job is to make sure that you aren’t getting bad programing like that.”

Ethan nodded. After a pause, maybe once he realized I wasn’t going to say any more, he said, “I’m sorry, Rachel.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I accept your apology.” Then it was time to turn the page. I asked him I needed help deciding on a dessert. “I have ice cream or frozen chocolate chip cookies that I can throw in the oven. What do you think?”

I didn’t typically reward my employees with fresh baked cookies to bribe them into liking me again after I told them off, but I wanted Ethan to know we were fine after our first memorable disagreement. And anyway, I was the boss. It was their job to give me cookies. My motto as a boss was: Make me like you, if you can!

I know it wasn’t perfect, but I’m proud of that conversation. I think I handled it well. And I haven’t decided that misogyny begins on the playground. I’m sure it is more complicated than that, but honestly, it’s as convincing an origin story as any other I have heard. But working through my reaction to this incident, I did have a thought that, as I have been given the gift of becoming a stepparent after years of thinking I would never have a child in my life, I am not going to squander this opportunity. I am not going to tell my nieces to watch their hem length or carry their keys at the ready. I’m going to tell my little boy that pink is beautiful and that girls are badasses, who grow up to be badass women like his mom and me.

When he is older, I’ll tell him that “no” means “no” and “yes” means “yes” and that boys are feminists who look out for others. But not yet; that conversation is a few years off yet. I’ll have to make a note, once we get there, to stock up on cookie dough. We’ll need a lot of cookies for that.

Chicken Tenders

The other night, we were having roast chicken for dinner. Matt went back to carve off some seconds.
Ethan (age 7): Dad, are you cutting the off the chicken’s “tenders”?

(“Tenders” is his word for the male genitalia, which he learned from the Kung Fu Panda Movies).

Matt: Chickens don’t have “tenders”.

Ethan: I eat chicken tenders all the time!

Me (putting my hands in the air to make the “time out” gesture): Wait… wait… wait… this whole time you have been eating chicken tenders, you thought they were a chicken’s “tenders”?

Ethan: Ye-ah! (Said in two syllables, like “Du-uh!”)

Oy Vey. I blame Jack Black.

Stepparent of the Year?

This is the kind of stepparent I am:

Last summer, we went to a wedding for one of Matt’s cousins. Ethan, then six, looked dashing in his suit. We accepted that he would play in it and get it dirty, so there was only one problem: the clip on tie.

Apparently the metal of the clip was touching his neck and irritating him. We made it as comfortable as possible but it’s not like we could loosen it.

After the pictures were taken, I got an idea. I told him, “you know, if you clipped it to your back buckle loop, it wouldn’t touch your skin. And it would look like a tail!”

Ethan was delighted and he wore it on his butt the rest of the wedding, which delighted others as well. But Matt was not pleased. I’m not sure his parents approved either, though usually Ethan can do no wrong.

“He’s wearing it!” I protested. “I’m a genius!”

No more was said about it, but next time I guess I need to go through Matt before I make any more of my costuming compromises.