Nov 252013

I had a pretty low key birthday this year. But after dinner, Josie decided she wanted to do my hair. And then I decided it would be fun to take a picture. Josie and Mommy






Josie really liked the photobooth application on my laptop, especially when she found the special effects.

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Some of the special effects are particularly lovely.

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Some were more colorful.

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Others made us feel repetitive.

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By this time, we were laughing pretty hard. Hard enough that we attracted Noah’s attention.

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It got pretty silly around here.

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In fact, eventually, we started to come apart.

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We are even considering going into hiding until the next birthday around here.

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I am also feeling like the impulse towards getting Josie a digital camera for Christmas is an exactly right impulse.

 Posted by at 8:54 pm
Nov 202013

In the US, many of us live segregated lives, especially if we have the power of choice in the matter. White people tend to live in neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly white. Wealthy people tend to send their children to schools that are populated primarily by other wealthy people. Churches, playgrounds, summer camps, doctor’s offices — all of these things tend to draw in people who are, mostly, homogeneous.

We often forget the cost that the minorities in those places pay, emotionally. And it is easy to forget that we can make it better. When I read Jenn M. Jackson’s blog post, “I Was Black While Mothering Today…” and the comments that post generated on Kelly Wickham’s Facebook page, I realized I had to make a contribution to the discussion.

Please bear in mind, although I am writing about race, these ideas apply similarly to any kind of “out of the mainstream” family — multi-racial families, a child with a developmental disability, a child or adult with an observable physical disability, LGBTQ families, single parents, Orthodox Jewish families, observant Muslim families, families where the home language is not English….

What can you do to make all families feel welcome at your playground or park?

1. Smile and say hello. This is the easiest thing. It doesn’t require much effort, or any commitment. Even if you are uncomfortable, even if you feel like the person maybe shouldn’t be there, even if you have never had a conversation with someone from a different race or an obviously different religion or ethnic group, you can still smile and say hello. It makes them feel less like they have entered hostile territory. It makes you feel like a nice person. It might lead to a conversation, or it might not. This is the minimal first step, and creates the space to do one of the other suggestions on this list — if you want to!

2. Comment on the weather. This is the next-easiest thing available, after smiling. “Beautiful day, isn’t it? Cold enough for you? Too bad there aren’t going to be too many more days like this until spring. I’m so glad that today isn’t windy like it was last week.” We all have weather. And we all have opinions about it. Just because it is tried and true, doesn’t mean it isn’t useful!

3. Compliment something their child does or says. You might be uncomfortable commenting on someone’s personal appearance, even if you do think they have the most adorable braids, or delicious-looking coffee-colored skin. That’s fine — it might be too personal and sound “racially coded” for some people to hear from a stranger. Trust your instincts. But when a child runs and gives mom a dandelion, or babbles effusively about something before sprinting away at top speed, or fearlessly climbs to the top of the play structure — those are great openings. “Your child is so sweet/enthusiastic/fast/agile/fearless,” is a conversation opener. It is personal and open-ended, but it probably won’t occur as racially loaded. The parent knows that you have seen something real about their child, not just a stereotype. It gives them something to talk about with you, if they want to talk. If not, they’ll say thanks and move on.

4. Ask a question about some piece of child-related gear. Moms of babies, this is easiest for you. “What a cool stroller, is that one of those XYZs? Are those Spider Man shoes? I think my child would love some like those — did you get them around here? This kind of conversational opener is both open-ended and non-committal. If they don’t want to talk to you, the other parent will answer in a vague, brushing-it-off way.

5. Compliment them. “I love your shoes. What a cute baby sling! That scarf is really pretty.” Who doesn’t love to hear a compliment? This may be harder if the person you are trying to open a conversation with is someone from a modesty-focused religious background. Commenting that you like someone’s burqua might be a failure if it isn’t actually a burqua. But you can still comment on the child or children’s cute shoes or shirt.

6. Ask a question. “Does your child go to school? Is there a place nearby to get good coffee? Have you been to the playgroup at XYZ? The storytime at the local library/bookstore? The bouncy-castle indoor playground?” These may not be the best first lines — a smile and a little weather talk can evolve into these conversations. But sometimes, a child will make one of these logical early on — a child who seems mature, smart, or well-mannered for their apparent age might be at school, or mom or dad might be teaching them at home. And a weather conversation about what to do during a Wisconsin winter or an Atlanta summer can lead to story times and indoor playgrounds.

7. Don’t talk about race, but don’t avoid talking about it either. Context is important! You don’t want to come-across as heavy handed or like you want to become their friend because of just one aspect of their identity. Many middle-class white Americans are fearful of offending people of color by talking about race. Try not to let that fear control the conversation. Just have a conversation. If you observe something racist at the playground, or hear a child say something inappropriate or unkind, say something. Pretending that you can’t see race or racism will not make the person of color feel more welcome or included. If a child says something benign, or asks a question, don’t shut them down for talking about race — you can ask them why they said X, or what they think Y means.

Do not wait for the person of color to say something. It isn’t their job, and they are probably sick of everyone expecting them to be the person who says something. Your answer or interruption of the behavior does not have to be perfect to make a difference. Do your best, and trust that the random stranger will probably not get angry, even if your answer is imperfect, if they can see that you have good intentions.

8. Be careful about your assumptions! No mom likes to be mistaken for the nanny, or the babysitter, or grandma. Far fewer people will be upset if you assume the child is their child. This person might be at the park at 10 am on a Tuesday because the child has a doctor’s appointment at 11:30 am. Or because the daycare teacher called in sick. Or because the parent is on vacation. Or because the parent works part time, or an evening shift. Or they may have left the workforce to stay home with the child or children. Or they lost their job. Or they got laid off.

If you are an extrovert, these suggestions may come naturally to you, particularly when you are around people who are similar to you. For you, the biggest piece of advice I have is “don’t worry.” Yes, the person you talk to might not speak fluent English. Or they might live in a “bad” neighborhood. Or they might have a religious view that is very important to them and radically different from yours. Even if all of those things are true, AND they are a judgmental jerk, they still probably won’t be overtly mean or rude to you when you make conversation, even if you say something kind of stupid.

If you are an introvert, these things may seem really hard. If you are an introvert and considering this, I don’t think you’re doing it because you think it will be fun. I think you’re doing this because you want to model anti-racist, open-minded behavior for your children. And because you don’t want to be one of the moms in Jackson’s post. You want parents like Jackson and her husband to feel welcome in the parks you and your children visit.

If you and your family are “different” yourselves, you may have your own layers of concern with taking the initiative in the park. I would encourage you to try to be friendly and reach out anyway, especially if your difference is less obvious than race.

For example, I am white, and upper-middle class. When I open my mouth, you know I have an excellent education. I’m also part of a two-mom family, but I don’t “look like a lesbian,” to most people. My wife and I are able-bodied, and so are our children. Neither child appears to have a developmental disorder, or behavior disorder.

Because of all that general security and privilege, I feel a particular obligation to come out whenever context permits, but even I try to get a feel for the people around me before I do. And sometimes I don’t. Sometimes it feels just too forced in a context, and I let it go. Sometimes I’m scared. Sometimes I’m just too damn tired. But context is available more often than you would think, even at the playground. People ask what my husband does, if the kids get their height from my husband, if my husband minds that the children look so much like me.

I have a ready supply of answers that I intend to diffuse the discomfort of my honest answer. Some are short, simple corrections, with a shrug and an “I get that all the time” to their embarrassment. Some are funny. A few are not-very-subtle attempts to change the subject. I recommend having diffusion tactics in mind if you know that your family might surprise people — and I would be surprised if you don’t already. :)

Final Note: You should expect that most of these efforts will, if you are an extrovert, result in your having more fun at the park or the playground. And if you are an introvert, most of the efforts will at least show that some of your neighbors want to welcome and celebrate living in a diverse neighborhood.

BUT there is a chance that the target(s) of all of your friendly efforts will mostly ignore you.

I had that happen once, this summer. The family that was at “my” playground was obviously of a religious faith that was unusual for the neighborhood. They had 4 or 5 children, several of whom were close in age to my children. My daughter REALLY wanted to play with another little girl. The mom tolerated my chatty opening lines, providing minimally polite answers, and finally opening her book. I hated it. I still look back and try to think of something I could have done differently.

It does not matter. A tiny bit of rejection is, at best, a tiny bit of what these moms have experienced, and it is the least we can do to welcome people.


 Posted by at 12:45 am
Sep 172013

IMG_1099Dear Josie,

I haven’t written you a birthday letter in awhile, but this morning, I realized I had something I really wanted to say.

A few weeks ago, you turned five years old.

You are a high-spirited, determined, smart, funny, and beautiful girl. When you feel like being sweet and charming, you can wrap people around your little finger. You love to draw, paint, help me cook, dance, and sing. When you feel like being stubborn and angry, you can drive people insane with frustration. It is not unusual for you to do both in the space of 10 minutes. This morning, for example, you came downstairs in a ballet leotard, complaining that you were cold. When I suggested that you get dressed, you screamed that you were already dressed, then sat down on the kitchen floor. Approximately every 60 seconds, for more than five minutes, we had the following conversation:

Josie: I’m COLD!

That Mommy: Maybe you should go upstairs and get dressed.

Josie: NO!!! I don’t WANT to go upstairs! I am dressed!

That Mommy: Okay. You’re probably going to stay cold, though.


The week before you turned five, you got kicked out of “Sparkles and Princesses” camp. Apparently you were committing violence against the other princesses.

My friend Ms. Madelaine thinks that your college application essays should begin with the line, “The week before I turned five, I was kicked out of Sparkles & Princesses camp.” It is a compelling opening line, and of course, we don’t know yet where this story of your life will go. However, since you were also kicked out of ballet class during the fall that you were three years old, I think we are looking at something of a trend. It seems safe to say that you are not going to grow up to be a storybook-type of quiet, sweet, demure, or passive little girl. You have very strong opinions, although I think you are still trying to figure out what things you really like doing, as distinct from the things your brother likes, your parents like, or that you think you are supposed to like — like princesses and ballet.

I think you sincerely love the theatricality of ballet costumes and sparkly, shiny, over-the-top princess dresses. But you love running, throwing, kicking, digging in the dirt, and making fantastic artistic and cooking messes at least as much. Being your mom has made me believe in the accuracy of the Princeton researchers who coined the term “PFD phase” (“pink frilly dress”), describing how little girls often “self-socialize” gender rules.

You love these costume-like dresses so much that This Mommy and I have taken to buying them whenever we see one at Goodwill or a rummage sale, and we let you wear them pretty much whenever you want. Your favorite one was a gift from Aunt Susie, and is made of a deep red fabric, covered with red glitter. The first time you wore it, you left a trail of red glitter throughout the house. Now we only let you put it on right before it is time to go somewhere. You wore it to the Pride Parade, and in your own words, you “looked just like the grown-up princesses.” The glamorous drag queens on the floats thought you looked beautiful too. Sometimes, in these dresses, you look breathtakingly adorable. Other times, you look like a miniature drunken bridesmaid, disheveled, grubby, and exhausted, but basically happy.

I should also tell you that 90 minutes after the camp staff told me that you couldn’t come back to Sparkles and Princesses camp, you were invited to test for your next belt in Tae Kwon Do. You are also playing after school soccer, play with Legos almost every night before bed, and seem equally interested in watching a Barbie show on TV as in watching the Power Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or a show about little girls and horses. Unlike your brother, the Animal Planet show about puppies and kittens, “Too Cute,” holds no interest for you.

What else might you want to remember about this age? Your favorite foods are fruits, flour tortillas, bagels,  pepperoni, and yogurt with no pieces in it. Your favorite toy remains “Little Baby,” a doll you still refuse to dress and take with you to school for a nap toy almost every day. Your lovely friend Clara moved to Vermont this summer, but we still talk about her often. You have asked to be Wonder Woman for Halloween.

I love you. And as you reminded me last night, I love you no matter what, even when you are naughty. And I always will.

That Mommy


 Posted by at 9:24 am
Aug 132013

I Did It!Usually, when people asked why I was going to do the Iron Girl triathlon this summer, I gave them a funny answer. It was true, but incomplete.

The truth is that I’ve been thinking about doing a triathlon for years. This is a sort of strange truth, since I’ve never considered myself an athlete. But some part of me sensed that with a really big, kind of badass goal, maybe I would become one.

Three years ago, a group of moms from my children’s school formed a team to compete in a regional “sprint distance” (1/2 mile swim, 12 mile bike, 3.1 mile run) triathlon for women. I wanted to join them, but the timing just didn’t work that year, or last year.

Late last summer or early last fall, my mom and I were talking about health and a physical goal she had for turning 70, which she did this summer. I teased her about her goal, and suggested that we should do a triathlon together. Unfortunately, mom’s knees gave her trouble, so ultimately, her doctor and physical therapist recommended against the triathlon, but we did a bike race together, and we’re both excited to do more riding and racing together in the future.

I decided to do the triathlon anyway, with the team of moms, even though my kids are now at a different school. I wasn’t able to do as many of the team practices as I would have liked, but it was still a great decision. Our team, the Highland Honeys, was supportive, fun, and encouraging. In fact, the only things I want to do differently next year is that I want to be more tied into the team: more practices, more carpooling, and more teamwork.

Doing most of my own training had limitations. First, I didn’t “peak at game day.” I probably peaked a month early. The week after I swam my first mile, I had two bike accidents on the same day. In both cases, I wasn’t able to get my fancy clippy bike shoes off of the pedals before I fell over, and I bloodied both knees and badly bruised most of one shin. Although I kept riding (no clippy shoes!), I didn’t do another swim practice. It was really only on race day or the day before that I was finally fully healed.

I let up on my running practice too, although I didn’t quit completely. The fact is, I still don’t like running. I found a good bra that mashes the girls in place so that running doesn’t actually hurt, and I found a really fun app that keeps me entertained and motivated. I also learned that I run faster when I’m with people than when I run alone. I’m not going to quit, because running is an easy form of exercise that is pretty convenient to squeeze into my early morning, but I would be damn surprised to wake up one morning and find that I like running.

How the race was for me: Hard. Empowering. Kind of lonely. Exciting.

I wasn’t prepared for the swim. We swam across a lake, a distance of half a mile. I can swim half a mile. In fact, I can swim a mile. But I underestimated how much difference the short pauses every 25 yards makes. Swimming half a mile where I can’t touch the ground or pause to catch my breath is different, and a whole lot harder. Instead of my strong breaststroke with occasional bursts of freestyle, I barely put my face in the water, and frequently surged off-course. I didn’t find my groove until near the end.

The bike ride was fantastic. I pushed myself the hardest there, because I knew after the swim that the only segment I was likely to do “well” in was the biking. I pushed hard enough that I beat my anticipated time by one third. I thought it might take me a full hour, and I did it in 40 minutes.

The ride was also great because I’d changed into my Highland Honeys jersey. The families of the other moms yelled as I rode by. Each time one of the other moms spotted me, or I spotted them, we yelled “Go Highland!” or “Go Honeys!” and it felt wonderful.

I felt good going into the run. I knew I’d gone fast enough on the bike to make my goal of completing the triathlon in under two hours, even if I walked almost the entire way. My new question was, how much under two hours? I thought I might be able to make it in 1:45!

As it turned out, my weakness in running and my lack of practice made that impossible. I was pretty wiped out, but I kept moving. At my peak, I’d declared a running goal of a pace under 11 minutes/mile. In the end, my running and walking pace averaged out to 11:16/mile, and I finished the triathlon in 1:47:13.

Seeing all the Honeys kept my spirits up in the run, too. We said hello, we high-fived as we ran, and we cheered one another as we finished. Two other racers commented, as they passed me on the run, “You Honeys have great teamwork!”

We do.

I wish I’d carpooled with other Honeys. I wish we’d been confident that the kids would not have to walk a mile themselves to cheer for me, and that they’d have fun hanging out with the other Highland Honeys kids.

Other changes I plan for next time: I want a super-supportive, quick-drying bra. I want a great pair of socks. I’ll ramp up my running and swimming practices significantly, and make sure I get in practice swimming on the course, so that I really know what to expect. Besides the Honeys, I might sign up for a more formal triathlon training program, so I can really improve my swimming, especially.

Specific goals for next year:

  • Swim: 20 minutes or less
  • Bike: 39 minutes or less
  • Run: 10 minute mile pace or faster (holy shit, can I do that?)
  • Transitions: Reduce total transition time to 4 minutes or less

If I can do that, that’s a total time of roughly 1:35. It’s a big goal, but 3 of the top 10 overall finishers were over 40. If they can do THAT, I can certainly get faster.


 Posted by at 6:47 pm
Nov 182012
Liza with a Dalek

Liza in the lobby of the BBC at MediaCity-Salford. While traveling for work.

A couple of weeks ago, Babble posted “Don’t Phone Home from a Bar” — and other tips for “traveling dads.” Although I love many of the writers at Babble, they do some formatting things that I hate. For example, they do lots of “top ten” lists where you have to click through each item one at a time. Normally, I hate that so much, I won’t even read authors I love on their site. Babble has great taste in writers, but terrible taste in layout.

That’s not the point. The point is that my wife had just left for a 24 day work trip, and I found the temptation to read their advice to her irresistible. In spite of all the (stupid! pointless! annoying!) clicking.

The post is funny, and some of the ideas make sense, but it had such a strangely dated, uber-stereotypical heterosexual marriage vibe, that I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. Critical comments on Facebook, when I shared the link, have kept me thinking about the post. Are there really families where the traveler is expected to — and the family can afford for him (him, really) to come up with a sparkly gift or spa day valued at equal to or greater than the total amount of his meal per diem for the trip? Don’t have dinner with a woman younger than your mother? In a lot of lines of work, that’s going to be a serious challenge, not to mention making the traveling dad (again, him, really) look both sexist and egotistical.

My wife and I have had a lot of experience with work travel. Our children are 4 and 6, and during the 1.5 years after the 4 year old was born, we were apart for a total of 7 months. My trips are more frequent (3 or 4 times/year), and usually last between 3-7 days. Her trips, which normally only happen about twice/year, last between 12 days and 8 weeks, but the standard is 4 weeks. This year, we also survived my Ph.D. preliminary exams, a 60 day process in which my parenting and home responsibilities were drastically scaled back, though by no means eliminated. It wasn’t a work trip, but I think that for my wife, it was kind of like me traveling for work.

Based on my years of experience as both the at home parent and the traveling parent, here’s my list of recommendations and tips for parents who travel for work — and by travel, I mean either often, or for extended periods of time. If you have a night away once or twice/year, my advice to you is all in #5 below.

  1. Call home and call the traveler. Both parties should call. Figure out 1 or 2 times of day when it is reasonably likely the traveler will be able to speak to the child(ren), and try to call during those times. It may not always work, but if you try most days, at least it will mostly work. In my family, that usually means calling either during dinner, or from the car, on the way home before dinner.
  2. Offer support. This can work both ways, but is more the traveler’s responsibility than the parent at home. When the children are behaving as if they were possessed by demons, the traveling parent is not expected to solve the problem. That person should listen, sympathize, express hope that it will be better tomorrow, be sorry that that they aren’t there to help. They should NOT tell the at home parent what to do. Unless the at home parent explicitly asks, “here’s what you should do!” is never as helpful as you think it will be.
  3. Trust the parent at home. In my family, the biggest thing this means is that when I’m at home, I do NOT want to be nagged about exactly when I’m taking a child to an activity, or have cleaned the bathroom, or other similar regular features of daily life. When only one parent is present, some of these things slip, or are even skipped entirely. Nagging just makes me resentful about managing as well as I can. When I’m the traveling parent, I fret about what the kids are eating, but I do my damnedest to keep my mouth shut. Even if it is my worst case imagined scenario, a week of horrible eating won’t kill them.
  4. Trust the traveling parent. This ties back to the Babble article headline. Do you really want the traveling parent not to call you from a bar? Isn’t it a good thing that they’re calling? And isn’t it a good thing that in addition to working hard, they’re also having some fun on their trip? Maybe they’re out with work colleagues. Maybe this is the first time they’ve had a chance to call. Maybe they saw your favorite kind of beer and had a sudden desire to hear your voice. If you don’t trust your spouse, that they’re calling home while in a commercial establishment that serves alcohol is probably the least of your worries. (Of course, there may be exceptions. If the traveling parent is in AA and calls you from a bar, that’s a different set of circumstances than if the traveling parent is a healthy social/occasional drinker, and at the end of a long day at an academic conference, calls you from a bar.)
  5. Be sensitive. It isn’t about “don’t go have fun without your spouse” or “don’t have a nice dinner” or “don’t go to a concert/play/game” or whatever. In a mature relationship, both spouses should want the other one to enjoy themselves. But if the at home parent calls to vent about spending 5 hours at the ER because Child A hit Child B with a hammer causing Child B to fall down the stairs and land on Child C, breaking Child C’s leg, that’s probably the wrong time for the traveling parent to announce that they scored an amazing seat to The Big Game for half of face value. Or just ate the most delectable meal of their life. Save the thrilling detail for the next time you talk.
  6. Get a Sitter/Help. If you can afford it and make it work logistically, the at home parent should take some time to relax, do something fun, or at least get a break while they are solo parenting. (I like that term over “single parenting” for these circumstances. You still have a partner for making policy decisions, even if you are the solo adult at the moment.) How often and for how long you should get a sitter probably depends on how long the other parent is gone, and the rest of life’s circumstances. Turning to friends, grandparents, etc, if they are available, also makes sense. Once/week doesn’t seem unreasonable, but it really depends on what everyone needs. You might need more, you might not need quite that often. Even if money is tight, the traveling parent should support this kind of sanity-affirming (possibly saving) help for the at home parent.
  7. Make special occasions or conflicts work, if at all possible. We have had work trips that covered birthdays, both of a parent and of a kid. We have also had nested work trips — my partner had a 4 week trip extend to an 8 week trip, while I had a conference the weekend at the end of the 4th week. It is hard to do birthdays with someone gone, but you can start the celebration early, continue it late, and find ways to make it special. We once met in Chicago in the middle of one of her trips, because it was in driving distance of home and where her work needed her, and celebrated my partner’s birthday there. (Lucky for us, we were able to afford the weekend getaway for the family. But we made it a budget priority.) The nested trip? She came home for the weekend, got to spend some time with the kids, and I got a very nice, very needed break and conference trip. We barely saw one another, which was decidedly non-optimal. But our choice kept resentment, frustration, and loneliness down for both of us, even if it didn’t meet every need we could imagine. My son has enjoyed an extended birthday season when someone is gone over his special day.  
  8. Re-entry is hard. I think it takes about half the length of the trip for a family to re-adjust to having both parents back. The traveling parent wants to feel needed. The at home parent wants some help, and to be acknowledged for having kept life functioning all by themselves. The at home part of the family may have adjusted to a “new normal” if the traveling parent was gone for more than a week. Remember that everyone involved is doing their best, and give them the benefit of the doubt. Kids may test the traveler or both parents, or punish them. Try not to lose it.
  9. Give the at-home parent a break. Even if the kids are acting completely evil, the returned-traveler should give the at home parent a break, as soon as reasonably possible. Babble suggested an expensive spa day. If your world doesn’t contain quite that much disposable income, or free time, an afternoon or evening “off” the following weekend, so the at home parent can go out with friends, see a movie, get a cup of coffee, or even just take a solo adult trip to the library or go for a long walk might be more affordable options. Both parents will probably need these kinds of breaks during the re-adjustment process following a long trip. A two-to-one ratio of alone time, in favor of the at home parent, may be reasonable for 2 or 3 weekends, depending on the length of the trip.

Don’t get me wrong, honey. If you want to give me an expensive spa day, or something sparkly, (or the iPhone 5), I’m not going to turn them down. But I don’t think those things are a tax on spousal travel — not in our family, and not in most two-parent families. I don’t even really think they’re expected in the world I imagined when I read the Babble post — suburban, heterosexual, working dad/stay at home mom. Being thoughtful, supportive, and appreciative, however, is good for any kind of family.


 Posted by at 2:45 pm
Aug 072012

While at BlogHer’12 last weekend, I attended a fantastic panel on social media and electing women to public office.

During and after the panel, there was a lively Twitter thread happening, in parallel, on the topic. You can read the whole thread by searching for #BH12ElectWomen. It includes panelists, members of the live audience, and people following from other locations.

Moderator Jill Miller Zimon, whom I think is fantastic, made a comment during the panel, on which my brain has been chewing and debating ever since. What she said, more or less, is that for women to not run because they are afraid of the campaign, is a huge cop-out.

What I responded, on Twitter, is that I semi-agree and semi-disagree. This statement is both true, and useless. But there is no way I can say what I think in 140 characters. So.

I want to agree 100%.

Campaigns are a lot of work, but the work isn’t brain surgery, and lots of people are there to help. There are countless candidate training programs across the political spectrum. Depending on the size of your community and the level of office, there may be professional staff available for you to hire to help. No matter how small your community or the level of office is, you will have friends who want to help. There are even training programs for potential staff/critical volunteers. You can create campaign internships and work with local college students who want to learn how campaigns work.

But it isn’t wrong for you to be afraid.

I have an unusual perspective.

Both of my parents are elected officials.

For most of when I was growing up, my dad was an elected judge in the County Circuit Court. He ran for U.S. Congress twice. He took out an incumbent judge in a fierce battle — a judge who had sexually assaulted a woman in a courthouse elevator! That judge had been suspended from the bench, but was still so popular that my dad only won with 51% of the vote. And now, dad is a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly.

During most of those years, my mom was more of the “behind the scenes” type. She was a Presidentially appointed U.S. Attorney during the Carter Administration. During the 80s and 90s, she worked for a large law firm, doing complex civil litigation, which paid for my sister and I to go to college, and gave my dad the freedom to pursue his political dreams. But in 2004, mom ran for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, also against an incumbent, also winning with a less than 51% margin.

By the way, in that campaign, I learned that the most effective line EVER in political volunteerism is, “Would you help me help my mom?” Everyone wants to help you help your mom.

As I joked in the panel, I was raised by wolves. Politics, campaigning, and civic engagement is my native language.

And I could not be more proud of my parents. I think they are fantastic role models and effective leaders.

I learned so much from it, about people, about organizing, about getting things done, about politics, about power, about reputation, about communities, about languages and names, about demographics, about loyalty….

But it isn’t easy to learn those things as a kid.

Other kids mostly don’t learn what I was learning.

And some of what I learned was really hard. I wasn’t supposed to hate the mean jerky kids, because they might tell their parents I hated them, and then their parents might not vote for my dad. It goes without saying that I wasn’t supposed to be a naughty kid or act up at school, because teachers or administrators might think my parents were doing a bad job as parents.

The pressure to be a perfect kid was pretty intense, and I gauged how far I could rebel against it with a minutely exacting measure. I was a mostly B+ kid, because I could go that far down without getting in trouble, and I thought that not being a straight-A student would make me seem normal. (HA! I really did. I had no idea that there was no chance I wouldn’t be seen as the smart, geeky, oddball I am.) I did some naughty stuff (not that much, and not that naughty) with friends I totally trusted, because I knew I wouldn’t get caught, but I loathed being a goody-two-shoes. Or at least being perceived as one.

I tried not to let people know who my parents were, although if they knew and seemed not-freaked-out, I opened up. I’ll never forget the time in 5th grade that my mom took me with her to the White House for a meeting. When I got home, I didn’t tell a soul where I’d been.

Not all of the pressure to be both perfect and normal came from my parents. I watched the media coverage of Amy Carter, and I watched the little bubbles of coverage of Ron Reagan. Later, I watched coverage of Chelsea Clinton with my heart breaking for every cruel opinion I read. I knew every single kid, in every school I attended, whose parents either were also elected officials, or whose parents had run for office. I didn’t hang out with those kids, with one notable exception (David Stacy, high school friends and others who might be curious), but I always knew who they were, and what “people” thought about them.  David and I were friends because we were very much the same kind of geeks; I don’t recall politics playing a role in our friendship until we were in our 20s.

Back to the point — being afraid of the campaign.

Living under the microscope is hard. I watched my parents make very careful, very ethical choices, choices they almost certainly would have made no matter what — like paying the sitter’s Social Security taxes, never hiring undocumented workers to do yard work or house repairs, etc — with an explicit recognition of the political implications of those choices. They lived life expecting that someone would look into their choices in the future.

Most people don’t live like that.

Social media exacerbates how easy it is for common choices to be exploited in their worst light, and for “bad” choices to be broadcast to any part of the world that might care.

And when a person runs for office, she has to take responsibility for her choices at a level in which most people are never required to take responsibility. Her family gets to be included in that.

Although not every campaign is a mudslinging nightmare, you can’t assume that yours will be the nice one. Or that your family will react well to the pressure to perform — even if you bend over backwards not to apply that pressure yourself.

SOMEWHAT aside, I think the whole microscope is sort of ridiculous. Why should only “perfect” people who have been ambitious since birth represent us in elected office? Being an effective advocate and having bad credit aren’t mutually exclusive. Being a good negotiator and being a philanderer aren’t mutually exclusive. Making occasionally dopey personal decisions doesn’t mean you will make dopey decisions that affect your community. Having friends who are radical or weird or out there doesn’t mean that the candidate shares those views or outlooks. And in a representative democracy, surely some of the representatives should include people as flawed and human as their constituents.

So far, though, that message doesn’t seem to be getting very far. (In fact, I’m having a sudden moment of not wanting to know what’s hidden in Mitt Romney’s taxes. I don’t want him to be President because I disagree with him on most issues of public policy, without regard to his financial circumstances.)

I DO want women to run for office.

Even with my own experience — and my occasionally aggressively imperfect choices, some explicitly intended to preclude running for office (freshman year of college, I’m looking at you!)  — I’ve thought about it myself.

I will probably continue to think about it, although at this time, it seems like a choice likely, if at all, to be in the pattern of many women: after the kids are grown, possibly as a third career.

But I can’t say that fear of the campaign is a cop-out for women (or for anyone). I just can’t.

I hope that more women will take the plunge and run for office in spite of those fears.

 Posted by at 8:28 am
Mar 022012

Apparently the topic of women having safe, affordable access to birth control and other forms of health will just not die.

For a historical context of how insane it is that we are still having this conversation in 2012, see my former law professor Louise Trubek‘s New York Times op-ed yesterday, about her role in litigating this in 1957.


In 1983, two things happened to me that seem related. One I actively chose. The other one happened to me.

In health class, we had an assignment to write a research report. I don’t remember what the parameters of the assignment were,but I decided to write about different kinds of birth control. Mainly, I remember 2 things. The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective book, Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, was so chock full of good information that although it was the source for 90% of my information, the teacher gave me double credit for the work — 2 A’s for 1 report. And at the time, there was a “pill for men,” which was derived from cottonseed oil, being tested in China. (That was in Newsweek.)

Yes, I studied birth control options in my public school, and I kicked ass doing it.

Let me be perfectly clear: I was 13 years old. I had kissed one boy. That was the full extent of my sexual experience at the time, and for a good while after that. (Granted, we kissed a few times.)

The other thing was the thing that happened to me.

I suffered such severe menorrhagia that I began blacking out every time I stood up, or had to walk up stairs. No exaggeration. I would stand up, and my vision would go fuzzy and dark from the outside in; and, I usually had to clutch the handrail on the stairs, so that I wouldn’t collapse and fall down.

After 3 weeks, I was no longer able to hide what was going on from my mom, who took me to my first gynecological appointment. They gave me a massive dose of some kind of hormone to stop things, and told us that if I could not keep them down for 24 hours, I would have to be hospitalized.

14 hours later, at around 4 am, I threw up with the kind of drama that I can only describe as exorcisian. Mom rushed me to the hospital, where I got a blood transfusion, a lot of drugs, and finally the ability to stand without fainting.

And when I left the hospital, the doctor gave me a prescription for birth control pills. (And iron supplements.) The birth control pills were to make my body both menstruate, and STOP menstruating. On a regular, appropriate schedule.

I was no slut.

And the birth control pills I was on didn’t make me get sluttier, they didn’t make me have sex. But they did make my body work, they made me not need another blood transfusion, and they made me able to safely LIVE MY LIFE. You know, standing, sitting, walking up and down stairs — the basics. Concentrate on classes, conversations, not walking into traffic because I was no longer obsessing about whether or not I needed to rush to the bathroom, or in the alternative, die of embarassment — I’m not talking about anything too crazy.

I was lucky. My parents had good health insurance, and could afford my treatment and medications.

Everyone deserves the health care I had, although I really hope you don’t need it.

(Especially if you are a teenage girl.)

PS: I would have deserved that health care, and respect, even if I had been having sex. Even if I’d been having sex with every boy — and girl — I knew. I can tell you for damn sure, if I had gotten pregnant at 13, I would have had an abortion. I think we can all agree, 13 year olds should not become parents.

 Posted by at 9:54 pm