6 Things I Tell My Kids to Encourage Resilience

I’m a human parenting three distinctly unique humans, we are all making mistakes and encountering problems (some self-created) on the daily. But how we approach those challenges — and ourselves in relation to them — is key. Do we allow ourselves to get stuck? Or do we find a way forward?

Sometimes we humans get so focused on what isn’t working that we become incapable of seeing the solution. We may even completely surrender our own power for the role of situational victim. However, more often than not, if we just take a deep breath, zoom out, and look at the issue with an eye, not toward the problem, but toward the solution, we can find a positive outcome. And, in doing so, we regain our power.

These are some key phrases I say almost daily to encourage resilience in my children.

1.” If what you’re doing isn’t working, try doing it a different way.” My son was struggling to maneuver a scooter up a steep hill. Over and over again, his little 5-year-old legs would push-glide 3/4 of the way up the incline and, just at the steepest point, he’d come streaking down the slope. “It’s unpossible!” He finally declared in a fit of kindergartener angst. I knelt down and told him that I knew it was frustrating and saw him trying, then said, “If what you’re doing isn’t working, try doing it differently.” He took a deep breath, looked at the path, then began walking his scooter up the hill. He reached the top and grinned. All it took was a shift in approach, and isn’t that so very much the case in life? Often we get stuck in patterns of behavior that do nothing but derail and frustrate us. We keep repeating the same steps, same words, same actions (or reactions), and keep getting the same undesirable results. Just as often, all it takes to propel us towards our desired outcome is a change in our method. It could be as simple as holding the paper differently, mounting our bike on the curb, rewording our sentence, or changing one element of our morning routine, but that minute shift can make all of the difference.

2. “Look around you for your answer.” My sparkly son is quick to learn math, but spelling is his struggle point. When he’s writing, he’ll often ask me how to spell a word. So, I’ve begun to tell him to look around the room to see if there is a place where the word he’s looking for might be written. Is the desired word always neatly scrolled across a world map or included in a book? Not always, but it’s important for him to think of ways to solve the problem without relying on me or technology. And sometimes, the mere act of literally shifting focus brings about the recollection of how to spell the word or inspires substitution with a suitable synonym. He regains his power by solving his own problem. Sometimes all we need to do is look around to see more clearly.

3. “If you say you can’t, you can’t.” The mind is a powerful thing, as are words. When my daughter was learning to ride a bike, every time she said, “Mommy, I can’t!” She’d fall. Every. Single. Time. And when she didn’t say it, she didn’t fall. So, we banned the use of, “I can’t.” After all, telling ourselves that we can’t do something is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If doubt or fear is too much to stomach a heartfelt, “I can,” go with a solid, “I can try.” Flip the script and the trajectory all in one step!

4. “Don’t tell me the problem; ask for the solution.” “Mommy, I’m hungry.” How many times do we here that every day? One day, I realized that that simple and frequent statement was removing problem resolution practice for my children and tasking me with mind reading. Did they want an apple, an orange, a granola bar? Was this a ploy for midday treats? Instead of falling into the guessing game pattern, I began handing the responsibility back to them. “Don’t tell me the problem; ask for the solution.” I remind them. Now, of course this isn’t applicable to all problem scenarios, but simple situations like, “I’m bored”, “I’m hungry”, “I’m tired”… those are perfect opportunities to train thought towards solution rather than stagnating on the problem.

5. “Think outside of the box.” One morning, my daughter was struggling with a drawing section on a worksheet. It just wasn’t coming out the way she wanted, and I could see that she was spinning around the problem, positioning herself to get mired in a self-defeating cloud of negative self-talk. I asked if she wanted a hug, told her I understood that she was upset, then reminded her to, “Think outside of the box.” How could she get creative and solve the problem? We thought about ways of tweaking the drawing so that the blips were boons, but it wasn’t feasible. Instead, she decided to paste a blank piece of paper over the drawing portion of the worksheet and start fresh. She was, literally, breaking out of the printed box and creating her own solution! This happens to us so often in life. We make a mistake and think we have to scrap everything because it didn’t go as planned. But why waste an opportunity to be creative, when we can upcycle our mistakes? We shouldn’t hinder ourselves — or our children — because of perceived limitations. If we expand our minds and aim for creative thought, we are not just problem solvers and creators, we are turning that “mistake” into a masterpiece.

6. I believe in you. This. Is. Key. I tell my children this every day. I believe in them deeply and truly. I believe they can climb the hill, learn a new skill, conquer self-doubt, solve the problem, overcome fear, pursue goals, move towards positive outcomes. I believe wholeheartedly in them as unique individuals with hard-won and innate skills, as well as personal growth opportunities. They know this. They know that just as I love them unconditionally as individuals, my belief in them is unending. This awareness of my love for and belief in them inspires a belief in themselves. And that self-confidence is pivotal for resilience.

What do you do or say to inspire resilience in your own children?

My 5 Big Homeschool Struggles

Homeschool was a journey I didn’t expect to undertake, but one that has proven immensely beneficial to my family. But as positive a shift as it’s been for my kids, how has it manifested for me?

The answer to that question depends on the day, to be honest. Some days are easier and lighter than others. Then, there are the jagged days, the long days, the up-and-down or downright tired days. Humans are fickle and, well, we’ve got plenty of humans in their safe, free-to-be-my-full-self space involved in this scenario!

My top five personal struggles during my first year of homeschooling have been:

1. Having little personal time. This was to be the year I would have the most kid-free time since before I had our first child. For the first time in 9 years, I was supposed to have no children at home during the day. Oh my, all the things I could do with that time! I could teach more yoga classes, run more errands, meet friends for walks, or take up a new hobby. The world was my figurative oyster. And then… 2020 happened. So, now, instead of having all three kids in school full day, I AM the school each day. Even carving out an hour to walk with a friend or by myself is a feat. That lack of autonomy is probably the biggest struggle for me.

2. Being permanently on duty. We have instituted early bedtimes for our children for many reasons, one of which being the need for my husband and I to have time together when we’re not on kid duty. The problem: I’m always on duty. Whether it’s a late evening need for a hug, a headache from reading too long by flashlight, a sleepy tumble out of the bed, or a sleepwalk stroll to my bedside, I inevitably am the one the kids call upon. My husband is certainly an active co-parent, but there are some things kids insist that only Mom can manage. This makes for particularly long days and weeks, as there is little time in the day when I am not the default parent. It gets to be tiresome in every way. After all, even carrying a sack of feathers will get burdensome eventually.

3. Being perpetually flexible. When my husband’s schedule changes, when a pick-up time shifts, when an appointment runs long, or an errand becomes urgent, I must accommodate the change. Often, this sets my personal plans aside and adds another layer of impromptu planning and unanticipated responsibility onto my shoulders. I am the default parent. Still, as much as the last year has drilled into me the saying, “expect the unexpected” and the reality of rampant impermanence, as a Type-A planner, this is a lesson I never appreciate relearning.

4. Trying to undo the achievement mindset. I attended private school from preschool through college. Though not outwardly competitive, I was and am incredibly, detrimentally competitive with myself. Those pressures to meet certain expectations, to do and be and learn and achieve certain things by specific times in order to be deemed “successful” are still present. How ludicrous those expectancies are! How broadly applied, scantly valid, yet widely damaging they are! And as much as I strive to break away from those lists of must-have, -do, and -be for myself and my children, I find my own inner voice sneakily using them to indulge my self-doubt, tryingto wind theirway into my homeschooling. It is a lifetime of conditioning I am attempting to unravel instantaneously, and that’s not reasonable.

5. Navigating my own lofty standards. The standards I hold for myself as a parent are, generally, too high. The guilt I hold for not meeting those standards is immense. If I teach a yoga class midday and the kids are watching a movie in the playroom while my husband works from home, I feel guilty. No one else is upset or harmed by the situation, but I feel guilty. If it’s a beautiful day, and I don’t ensure that the kids are outside nearly all day long after learning, I feel guilty. If they have too few vegetables in a day, if I have short temper, if I don’t schedule a playdate for them during the week, if I drop off a child (I’m not exaggerating) 2 minutes late for an extracurricular activity, if I don’t call my mom during the week, if I vent too much to my husband during our evening time together, if I don’t take the dog on a 2-mile walk… I feel guilty. It’s ridiculous. I’m aware. And this is my perpetual struggle.

As challenging as these hurdles are, we are all FAR better off homeschooling than we were navigating brick-and-mortar school, especially private school. The kids are thriving. Our lives are more livable and less scheduled. The kids aren’t just learning faster but with greater joy and interest. But, as is the case for most everything in life, there are growth opportunities that present as discomfort.

Will this list upend our homeschool journey? Nope. In fact, the recognition of it may prove to aid us on our continued path.

Perhaps next year will be easier.

Our Typical Homeschool Day

Often, I’m asked by non-homeschooling, temporarily-homeschooling, and homeschool-curious friends and acquaintances what our typical homeschool day looks like. Considering the frequency with which I’ve been asked this reasonable question, I figured I’d just post my answer on my tiny corner of the interwebs.

First, a little clarifying background information regarding our homeschool situation. I have a very bright, engineering-minded 5-year-old; a highly creative and mathematically-inclined 7-year-old; and a science-loving 9-year-old leader who struggles with self-confidence.

Our eldest two were formerly enrolled in a private school, which did a great job shifting to online learning last year, but it also helped us realize that online learning simply does not work for us. What does prove most effective for us: workbooks. So, that’s what we use, in combination with a math tutor for our eldest– primarily to enhance her self-confidence — and some small, masked, in-person classes at a local homeschool enrichment academy.

5-year-old’s workbooks
7-year-old’s workbooks
9-year-old’s workbooks

Regarding assessments, we do no standardized testing. I have much life experience that has made the ineffectiveness of standardized testing clear. Instead, we opted to be evaluated each trimester by a certified teacher, though we are only required to hold this assessment annually.

That said, here it is… our typical homeschool day!

8:15/8:30AM- Watch a video, discuss, and journal about our social studies topic.

9:00- Workbook time! Subjects: reading comprehension, language arts, phonics (for 5- and 7-year-old), cursive (for 7- and 9-year-old), math, vocabulary (for 7- and 9-year-old), early literacy (for 5-year-old), writing (for 7-year-old and 9-year-old), and science (for 9-year-old.)

10:30/10:45AM- Work completed… usually. (Some days we move slower, whether it’s because of moodiness or more challenging lessons, but we are almost always done by 11:00AM.)

11:00/11:15AM- lunch

12:00PM- Play outside no matter the weather.

1:00PM- Quiet time (usually arts and crafts and/or an educational TV program.)

2:30PM- Head to a local playground or park.

This is what works for us and our family. It has enabled each child to progress at their own speed along their own trajectory. My 5-year-old is racing through first grade material, my 7-year-old is in a blend of second and third grade material, and my 9-year-old is solidly succeeding with fourth grade work.

What’s most important is that they are all developing a love of learning and honing a more nuanced awareness of U.S. history.

A Big Gender-Affirming Christmas

Isn’t it funny how change so often happens? With our biggest and scariest life shifts, so often things reach a point in transition at which resolution seems almost impossible, even hopeless, and then — suddenly — the change is completely normal. Entirely commonplace. It’s as if life has never been any other way.

For us, this sudden awareness came at Christmas. All three Christmases, to be precise.

2020 meant Christmas was small and multi-faceted to keep everyone safe. We saw my parents (who we’ve seen regularly since late Spring) on Christmas Eve. Just my husband, my daughter, my sparkly son, my youngest son, my parents, and me. Concise but fun, festive and delightfully undramatic.

We ate. We sang (poorly and loudly) the requisite “12 Days of Christmas” with dance moves. We opened presents. Then, we were home by bedtime. Perfect!

On Christmas Day, it was just our little party of five opening gifts in the morning. Then, my father-in-law and step-mother-in-law popped by (masked and distancing, as per their comfort and needs) to see the kids.

My sparkly son came prancing down the stairs to greet them in the outfit he’d been donning all morning: the pink, glittery fairy costume with moveable wings he’d received from my parents the night before. It was a beyond normal sight for us, so I didn’t even register the attire.

Until later that day.

Quietly reflecting on the morning, which whizzed by in the usual festive frenzy, I finally processed the morning scene. My sparkly son in full tulle-and-sparkle regalia and my lovely devout Catholic, imigrant in-laws casually and sweetly complimenting his new garb. How had I missed it? How had I not seen it… felt it… processed it sooner?

He was FULLY accepted. Fully affirmed. Fully able to be his truest self and receive nothing — not a hiccup, not a head tilt, not a questioning dig — nothing but familial love.

Then came this weekend: Christmas Part III. My cousin and my aunt met with us via Zoom for a belated Christmas present opening. My aunt nailed the gifts: a keyboard with microphone for my daughter, a unicorn-mermaid- hairstyling Barbie (one I didn’t even think existed!) for my sparkly son, and a roaring stegosaurus for my youngest son. Not only were the gifts perfect fits for each kid, this was the first year that she’d gifted my sparkly son a Barbie. And not just ANY Barbie, it was THE Barbie.

And that evening, as I reflected on our family’s three Christmases, I realized something. 2020 may have taken and killed and contorted countless precious parts of our life, but it gifted us something absolutely priceless too. Something that could never have come, but through years of dedicated effort, advocacy, battles, losses, shifts, and an ocean of tears.

My sparkly son was accepted. Fully. Completely. His gender expansiveness was not only common knowledge but commonplace in its expression. He was fully affirmed in his current experience as an individual.

If someone had told me two years ago, three years ago, or even last year that this would be the case — this level of pure, unencumbered acceptance and affirmation — I would never have believed them.

So, if you are where I was five years ago with a child diverting from gender norms, know that there’s hope. Know that if you fight for inclusion, if you demand acceptance (not just backhanded “tolerance”), if you openly share knowledge, if you stand fervently as your child’s greatest unwavering advocate and ally, it will get easier. It will get better. The world WILL see the beauty that is your uniquely and wonderfully made child.

Be brave. For them.

The Wisdom in Not Listening to Myself

I can really be a jerk sometimes — a lot of times — to myself. As a Type-A mom with Endometriosis who is newly homeschooling three close-in-age kids during a pandemic while simultaneously watching her beloved and newly established yoga career swirl down the toilet, I’ve hit some stumbling blocks. Some created by life, and others by myself. But today, today I did a good job.

Type-A to the bone, I push myself. I guilt myself. I demand more of myself than I ever would anyone else. My expectations of myself are notoriously unattainable and leave me with two choices: meet the goal by way of self-destructive levels of effort or fail and face the mental self-flagellation. Then you factor in mom guilt and, yikes!

It’s good times in this brain of mine.

Still, I’m far better off now than I was years ago. I know my triggers, my pitfalls, the things to watch out for and what to seek, the actions to take when I feel myself traveling down certain pathways and when to call upon quasi-omniscient intuition. I know myself.

A big issue though, is listening to my body. Considering I am a yoga teacher, it seems odd to have this problem. But you know how the saying goes, “Those who can’t, teach!” Having suffered from eating disorders — and once you have an eating disorder, you never don’t have one, you simply learn to harness it — my body and I aren’t always pleased with one another. I don’t always like paying attention to my body’s demands, and I certainly don’t do well adjusting my personal goals because of its limitations.

And because life has a sick sense of humor and a dark way of forcibly teaching us the lessons we don’t want to learn, I have Endometriosis. That means that I HAVE to listen to my body and that for the better part of each month, I am at its mercy. I also bloat numerous pounds due to no other reason but my Endometriosis. It’s lovely.

Now, if like most people, you don’t know a thing about Endometriosis — and if the thought, “That just means bad periods, right?” crossed your mind, you don’t know a thing about Endometriosis — you might not realize that there are a couple of widely experienced tough portions of the monthly cycle: ovulation and menstruation. Different people experience different things, and even one cycle to the next often varies widely for seemingly no reason at all, and this month for me ovulation was a bear.

I could tell it was going to be rough. I was hormonal leading up to ovulation, and that’s not good. That’s like being a famished, PMS’ing emotional eater in the grocery store snack aisle with an unlimited grocery budget on 2-for-1 Tuesday: perfect storm.

First, the inexplicable 4lbs of bloating. Then, lower abdominal twinges and low grade nausea. Next, migraine warning signs and the tightness in my back. Not good. Not good. Not good. Still, my Type-A self was commanding that I, “just push myself” and take the kids to the playground in the afternoon. My rational brain countered that real-deal ovulation pain was on its way and the combination of stress and standing were lighter fluid on the flames of ovulation woes. I knew the sheer act of walking would be painful in a matter of hours and pushing myself would only exacerbate this.

My Type-A self rallied, “But a GOOD mom would get the kids outside to the playground. They deserve it! You’ve kept them home from brick-and-mortar school, after all. And you know your littlest has been wanting to go to that far away playground for weeks. Who cares if it’s on the opposite side of town from where you need to be later this afternoon? Push yourself!” I wavered. My rational brain silently shook its head. Then my intuition chimed in: “Things are going to get much worse this afternoon. You need to stay home. You’ll be glad you did.”

My Type-A bulldozed with, “Ooo! You should try to arrange a playdate — your kids AND your friend deserve it — at the far away playground. Push yourself! A GOOD mom and GOOD friend would do it. Your friends probably think you don’t want to spend time with them. They must have hurt feelings. Don’t do that to them. Just push yourself!”

I mulled over the conflicting arguments as my pain worsened. And I decided to be wise.

I listened to my intuition but prepared myself for the wave of guilt. Then I saw my kids on the deck — two were painting and one was using Kinetic Sand — and they couldn’t have been happier. The ovulation pain soared and I had to lie down, and while I did, they rushed inside to play upstairs together. Dress-ups and music, giggles and make-believe… they were having a great time.

Eventually, the pain increased to the point that I had to take an epsom salt bath to reduce the nether region swelling. I looked at the clock and realized that, had I gone to the playground, I’d be in absolute misery now and, because I am the way I am, I’d be tasking myself with hiding every ounce of it.

As I waddled back downstairs following my bath, feeling as if my underwear was made of hot sandpaper and rocks had been implanted in my puffy abdomen, I heard that my children — whom I’d “selfishly” not taken to on a playdate — were still playing, joyfully reveling in their shared creativity. I realized the wisdom I’d shown in ignoring the inner Type-A self, in listening to my intuition and body. In NOT pushing myself.

I wasn’t a bad mom for not taking the kids to the playground. I wasn’t a bad friend for not scheduling a playdate while I was in pain. I wasn’t deserving of self-flagellation. In fact, I was wise.

I made the right choice.

No matter what my Type-A has to say.

Return to School — Gender-bending During a Pademic

As the school year neared, most people pondered which option was the best — or least bad — for their child(ren)’s educational, emotional, and health needs. I examined this too. But I also carried another boulder into my mental juggling: how can I cause the least damage to my gender-expansive son?

The moment I should’ve known my one option: the day we tried on uniforms.

Anyone who has worn uniforms to school knows the irritation that accompanies this try-on task. The chore inevitably takes place on a hot, steamy day, making the stiff, autumnal fabric feel even more torturous against the summery skin. The last thing anyone wants to do in July is think of September, so this is a whiney, fussy, loathsome undertaking all around. But this year, it was even worse.

I looked up from the pile of stiffly starched khaki and woolen green to see my portly rising-kindergartener struggling to shimmy the khakis over his belly. I reached to help him and my daughter tossed a pile of outgrown gym uniforms at my feet. Then, I saw my sparkly son. Arms crossed in coverage over his bare chest, oversized khakis drooping about his narrow waist, his face was nothing short of crestfallen.

Annoyed. Agitated. Those are reactions I expected. This? This was not that. This was damage. This was mourning. This needed to be stopped.

I ended the try-on session then and there. It was clearly too much.

You see, with school having gone virtual in March, there was no uniform or dress code for months. My three kids reveled in the freedom, unofficially deeming every day “costume day.” As long as they each accomplished their academic goals, I didn’t care how they were dressed (just so long as neither regions were covered come outdoor play time.) Clothes were far from my greatest concern, especially in a near-global shutdown.

My “sparkly son”, as he prefers to be called, used this opportunity to delve deeper into his gender exploration. He went from unicorn t-shirts and pink leggings to daily tutus in what seemed like days (but in real time, as opposed to “Covid time”, it was really more likely a couple of weeks.) He found himself and couldn’t be happier . Nor could I, seeing him so unabashedly comfortable in his truth.

Isn’t that what all parents (who are worth their salt) want for their children? To witness their offspring fully, happily, brightly, proudly being the truest versions of themselves? Being strong, vibrant, kind, resilient, healthy, happy individuals? It’s certainly what I wanted. I just didn’t expect it to come during a pandemic, or entail so much tulle!

Well, my sparkly son found himself, but now I had to determine how that newly discovered self fit into school requirements. Yep, I was not just having to evaluate educational and health elements as I mulled over the method in which my children would return to school, but gender identity concerns abounded, as well.

You see, my children attended a Catholic school. That may sound odd given my sparkly son, but it came from great consideration and recurrent, open discussions with school administration. Located in one of the most conservative archdiocese (translation: regional sections of the Catholic Church) in the nation, which is fascinating since I grew up 45 minutes away and was raised in one of the most liberal archdiocese, it’s a challenge. However, the order of priests that runs the school is the “hippie” sect of priests, if you will. So it takes the conservativism down a notch and the social justice bend up a notch. It evens things out a touch. A touch.

Despite all of that, the school has a zero tolerance bullying policy that they are more capable of upholding than our local public schools, who are bound and gagged so fervently by red tape, that they cannot dependably act on bullying matters. So, after being assured by administration prior to enrolling my sparkly son that this was the school for him, this is where we were. The problem: uniforms and antiquated approaches to gender.

Even though the American Academy of Pediatrics has openly stated that gender expansive/nonconforming children should be supported and not pressured into or shamed out of any gender expression, the Catholic Church has leaders who are behind on the research. Yes — absolutely, positively, YES — there are priest and nuns and countless laypeople who loudly advocate against this dangerous behavior of forcing individuals into gender molds. Still, the school uniform demands that boys wear pants and girls, well, the girls can wear a jumper or the boys’ uniform. (Trying to explain this undeniable sexism and discrimination to my gender-expansive son was beyond challenging.)

We found ways to make it work, though… in the past. A sparkly belt buckle, rainbow and jewel embellished P.E. sneakers, a hairstyle that juuuuust slipped under the radar. We worked with the system while ensuring his developing gender identity was unscathed. (The lack of peer bullying was a major driver in striving to keep my sparkly son happily enrolled.)

However things had turned. In December, administration began singling out my son for not, “dressing like a typical boy”, at after school events that had no dress code. The PE teacher refused my son’s self-advocacy in requesting that the class no longer be divided by sex and given completely different gym experiences based on sex-based stereotypes. A parent who was highly involved in the school told me directly that she took issue with my sparkly son being at the school because him being himself spurred her own son to ask her questions. Another parent, who was miffed that my efforts towards inclusion instigated change, told me that we should just leave the school. Then, there were constant exclusionary and downright dangerous allergy-unfriendly practices, that people without firsthand experience with food allergies absolutely refused to amend for the sake of inclusion. Tides had turned. Though many families were supportive of us, there was a growing chill from the outside.

All the while, my sparkly son enjoyed attending mass at school or joining my father-in-law for services more than any of my three children. And I waited for the shoe to drop. I waited for him to realize that this church that spoke of love and acceptance, of kindness and humility, of inclusion and welcoming in the “other”, didn’t want him. Didn’t support him. Didn’t consider him worthy unless he fit the mold. This church contributed in ways small and large to the continued damage of beautiful humans like him. I waited for the moment he’d realize and be heartbroken.

Still, I held out hope.

When the school laid out a plan that allowed for in-person and virtual learning, I listened with an open heart and voracious ears to the virtual townhall presentation. For us, it was draconian. The plan would not be emotionally healthy for any of my three children. Not for my strong-willed yet sensitive daughter. Not for my fearlessly flamboyant and creative sparkly son. Not for my highly social and empathetic youngest son. It simply wouldn’t do. Then, I factored in the uniform try-on experience.

So we left.

The school. The church. The bigotry. The exclusionary insensitivity. The constant battles. We left it all.

And we couldn’t be happier.

We are homeschooling with a piecemeal curriculum and no screen usage. We take weekly field trips, spend hours outside, and are thriving.

Was it scary to take the leap? Hell yeah it was. Did we figure it out? We sure did and still are. Do we have rough moments and irksome days? Sure. Do we have more authenticity and a life that resonates more with who we are? Yep. Do I navigate my own personal struggles? Recovering conformist, Type-A mom who in recent years toiled to regain her autonomy… yes! But that’s life.

Sure, there are things we all miss. But we’ve welcomed in far more beauty than that which we lost. And, to be honest, many of the things we miss simply don’t exist these days. Who knows when and if they ever will again?

So, here I am. Homeschooling a kindergartener, second grader, and fourth grader during a pandemic. And it’s actually kinda working.

My children can be themselves and KNOW that they are loved unconditionally. No molds required.

What Does the World See?

We’re at the beach, at my mom’s beach house, escaping the swampy DC area summer heat that exacerbates the challenge of COVID restrictions. I was watching my kids play in the sand and sea, in their quirky ways, contentedly navigating their imaginary worlds without a thought to outside viewers. Then I saw it.

For a moment I got a glimpse of what others might see.

When I look at my trio of unique children I see them. I see my eldest daughter: a small, bright, and in-all-ways strong girl who rules with an iron fist, struggles with her own self-doubt, and is one of the most strong-willed individuals I have ever met. I see my youngest: a broad, sweet boy with freckled cheeks and a soft heart so full of empathy and full-body horseplay, he is a beautiful combination of all things soft and hard. I see my middle son: a quick-learning, quirky, innately graceful boy who adores ballet, mermaids, unicorns, sparkles, creativity, and flamboyantly being his truest self in all settings.

But, I realized in that moment, that not everyone on the beach saw what I saw when they looked at my children. I began to wonder what they did perceive.

I’m sure if they listened for a few moments to the direct orders and unabashed decrees from my Rapunzel-haired, pint-sized daughter towards her barely-younger siblings, they would quickly gather her leadership skills. I’m sure if they looked upon my littlest — in his bright orange truck-emblazoned floatie, reveling in the waves washing him up the sand bank and laughing as his hair filled with sand — they would gather his rough-and-tumble, carefree nature. If they looked upon my middle son in his mermaid swim top, blue swim trunks, weathered pink mermaid baseball cap, and shoulder length ponytailed hair, they may think him a tomboy. Or maybe they’d think his sister dressed him. Or maybe, once they witnessed him pirouette’ing in the waves and styling his mermaid Barbies’ hair, they wouldn’t quite know what to think. And maybe, when they heard me call his full name — his first name sounding unisex but his middle name being firmly masculine — because he, per usual, decided to be the epitome of a middle child and annoy the bajeebers out of one or both of his siblings, they would simply look away not quite understanding what our situation was at all.

I don’t know what others see. I don’t know what others think. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Because it doesn’t really matter what they see or think or whisper. It doesn’t matter if my children do or don’t fit neatly into others’ boxes. It doesn’t matter if my children do or don’t ascribe to norms that others find comforting. None of that matters at all. Nor should it.

What does matter is that my children are growing into kind, resilient, happy, self-assured individuals who know that they are loved, supported, and appreciated for precisely who they are. And so, fellow beachgoers can smile or sneer or simply look away, because we will not change who we are or imply to our children that they should be anyone but themselves simply for the fleeting comfort and easy digestion of onlookers.

Each of my children are growing on their own trajectories and are on the precisely right tracks to be who they are each meant to be.

My Weird Perspective on the Pandemic

The pandemic has hit everyone, but it certainly hit me — as not only an able-bodied sibling to a brother with highly involved special needs, but as an allergy mom with a gender-bending (“sparkly”) son — differently than many. That singularity in my experience, that uniqueness of my perspective is not at all new. In fact, it is actually characteristic of me. But it is no less lonely.

I began the pandemic not overly concerned about the virus, itself. Not to say I didn’t take it seriously, but I didn’t fear it. I’d experienced ample medical melodrama — my own, my brother’s, others’… — throughout my life. However, what really built the emotional callouses was my medically alarmist family members. I was so accustomed to people insisting that they, and everyone around them, were in dire straits and facing near-certain death that it was no longer unsettling.

I was well-trained to shoulder the burden that my special needs brother was at serious risk. Drinking from a cup or facing a seasonal cold was equivalently dangerous for him, and that was daily life. In fact, he began the pandemic hospitalized for weeks with kidney stones and bowel obstructions. The virus was no more or less threatening to him than aspirating dinner.

I was adept at remaining steady while others spun out. It was a scenario not unfamiliar to me. If anything, it seemed oddly normal.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the ease I discovered amidst the pandemic. The lessened weight on my heart despite the increased burden on my shoulders.

My first and third graders had a half-day planned for that cursed March Friday, which was abruptly canceled, and by Monday the entire archdiocese was up and running seamlessly with online learning. The first day went as expected: horrendously, painfully, brutally awful… because new technology and change is hard. But each subsequent day things got easier. By the second week, we were in a steady rhythm of learning. Even my preschooler’s teacher pieced together educational packets, so not even he missed a beat!

To my children’s delight, every day was costume day. (Every. Single. Day.) One day all three kids would be soccer players, no doubt strong-armed into the collective ensemble by my tiny-yet-tyrannical third grade daughter. Another day, one would be a businesswoman, my sparkly son would be a fairy princess, and my youngest son a stormtrooper. It was a complete upending of the school dress code. And my sparkly son LOVED it.

Though my elementary schoolers were thriving academically, due to the hard work of their teachers and learning resources instructors who had somehow managed to pivot their entire syllabus on a dime in a matter of days, the benefits of not being in the school environment became clear. The camaraderie and independence were undeniably lacking without the standard classroom, but so were other elements.

No uniform meant no hair length rules, no confinement into easily digestible gender norms, and no bullying by educators who refused to be allies. It meant no judgment from strangers at the playground or store, no battles with administration to ensure true inclusivity, and no exposure to individuals who sneered at my efforts to safely include every single child (even their own.)

There weren’t even allergy fights anymore! No more cafeteria mix-ups placing my deathly-allergic son in the middle of peanut-eating classmates. No classroom events requiring triaging (Every. Single. Time.) in order for my own — and others’ — allergy kids to be safe and included in what were intended to be unifying class events. No pushback from non-allergy parents refusing to see the potentially lethal harm and notable unkindness in their attachment to keeping allergy-unsafe food traditions unchanged. It was a great time to be an allergy parent!

In this upside down world of masks and anxiety, isolation and Zoom ballet classes, financial ruin and grassroots community efforts, I’d found a bizarre sense of ease rooted in all of the struggles — past and present — that shaped me, my life, and my perspective. Yet still, as always, I felt quite alone in my position.

I felt alone in so many ways. Despite having no personal space and no independence, I was lonely. I missed my friends, my yoga students (adult and child), my autonomy. I ached. I cried. I felt lightness in my heart but a solemn pit in my stomach.

One day the pandemic — well, not the pandemic, exactly, but its related impacts — were so heavy that I sat down with a pen and paper to write down my list of pros and cons. Yep, I am so Type-A that I wrote a pro/con list for a worldwide pandemic. Who does that?

Me. I do that.

Five sheets of paper later, I felt a bit better. All that had been attempting to process in my head for nearly two months was finally evacuated. I had, at last, released the thoughts that had been continuously interrupted by my suddenly increased life responsibilities.

I had gone from an already busy life to a differently busy life. There were aspects I appreciated and parts I loathed. There were many elements that tested some of my fundamental shortcomings. Realizations demanded deeper examination into areas I truly did not want to peruse. But that list was more healing than I could possibly imagine. The “pro” side grew longer than I’d ever expected, though it was absolutely much shorter than the “con” side. I realized I was doing more than just existing.

I was surviving and savoring parenthood in a pandemic one day at a time. And that’s exactly what I needed to do.

Challenges of Having a Gender-bending Son

Having a child who naturally, innately side steps gender norms is both inspiring and terrifying. I am equal parts amazed by his self-assurance and self-awareness, and jittering with fear at the onslaught of “what ifs?” And, nearly 7-years into this journey, we’ve begun facing some new challenges.

My middle son is sparkly. He adores unicorns, rainbows, mermaids, and princesses. He enjoys styling hair, putting on colorful drag performances, figure skating, and is absolutely enamored with ballet. He is unapologetically himself. He knows who he is, what he likes, and that it’s not worth hiding any of that and unhappily living a lie all because of some fearmongering maybe-possibly-could-be hypothetical scenarios. (Can I have a little bit of that bravery and wisdom, please?)

Still, as unwaveringly supportive of him as I am, I worry. A lot. I’m his mom; I worry because I love. Also, as his mom and #1 supporter, I’ve become increasingly aware of some challenges creeping up on us.

Bathrooms. I grew up as an able-bodied sibling to a younger brother who had highly involved special needs. From feeding to bathing, dressing to toileting, I was heavily involved in his daily care during my formative years. That said, I learned early on that there was no one checking anatomy at restroom doorways. My brother came into the women’s room out of necessity through his teen years. Even in adulthood, if there’s no unisex/family bathroom and his caretaker is a female, my brother gets wheeled into the women’s room. That’s just the reality of things.

That said, I’ve brought my three children into the bathroom with me all of their lives. At 8-, 6-, and 4-years-old, we are nearing the time when some restroom users may question the presence of my two boys (4 and 6) in the ladies room.

The problem: my sparkly 6-year-old is often mistaken for a girl. Would you send your 6-year-old daughter into a public men’s room unattended?

At school — where he dons a uniform — my sparkly son uses the boy’s bathroom without issue. However, when we’re out and about outside of school, I have to think twice about how we handle restroom situations. My son’s aesthetic generally resting somewhere between “human disco ball” and “Prince in pastels”, makes standard sex-deliniated bathrooms tricky. And I know this matter will only worsen with age. All I can hope for is a significant upsurge in the number of unisex and family restrooms at public facilities.

Passing. Right now, my diminutive sparkly boy often passes as a girl. His name sounding unisex has proven to be an unexpected blessing, especially in areas where gender nonconformity is less than accepted. Right now, there is no reason any unfamiliar passersby would even question my son’s sex assigned at birth; they would undoubtedly (but incorrectly) assume he was female. This works for us. Most of the time.

Occasionally, my son’s ability to “pass” does put us in uncomfortable scenarios, though. Just this weekend, we were taking a family trip on the Metro and ran into a bit of an issue with the Metro card. While talking to the helpful Metro employee, I used my children’s pronouns: two “he”s and a “she.” “‘He’?” The employee questioned me, looking at my sparkly son. As is usually the case in these situations, butterflies erupted in my belly and I took a deep breath to repress my defensiveness and encourage kindness.

“Yep,” I replied. She wasn’t convinced. My mouth spoke words I didn’t know to say: “He just loves sparkles.” The woman gave a pensive slow nod then, after an uncomfortably long (for me… as I was unknowingly holding my breath) pause, she threw up her hands and declared, “There’s nothing wrong with that. I like sparkles too.” Then she offered the kids some candy and I tried to mask my efforts to recuperate my breath.

As much as my slight son can fly under the intolerance radar given his enormous blue eyes, exceptionally lush eyelashes, elfin features, soprano voice, and spritely form, I know this too shall pass. In too-short time, puberty will culminate in a muscular, broadened, masculine form. This will, inevitably, complicate things. The ability to “pass” will be less likely opening my son and us to judgment from the same passersby who currently glaze right over him. I try not to think too much about it.

Friends. I have learned to lead with my son’s sparkliness. It is an easy way for me to assess whether someone is an individual who would be accepting or not. It’s better to find out right away than to be sorely disappointed after facilitating a connection.

Still, I have recently been disappointed in the lurking intolerance in communities in which I had felt safe. Hearing that people consider my sparkly son — who has absolutely no behavior issues in school at all (despite being a spunky, mischievous, at times melodramatic middle child at home) — to be a negative influence or an unwelcome community member who represents unwholesome values is heartbreaking. Truly.

As a person who believes that humans are, for the most part, innately good with predominantly good (though sometimes misguided) intentions, it wounds me to uncover the unfeeling intolerance of others. As someone who fights — to my own detriment — for the safe and intentional inclusion of ALL children, it disappoints me greatly to witness the exclusionary tendencies of those who take comfort in judgmental divisions of fellow humans. Still, these are lessons for me to learn. I know my son will have to bear witness to this too as he bravely chooses to be true-to-self instead of betraying himself for the sake of maybe avoiding some bullies.

Loneliness. I’ve given voice to this very real sentiment before. This journey of parenting a child who rests outside of the norm is lonely. Few bravely and openly walk this path. It makes the inevitable battles feel larger when, leading the charge is my sparkly son and there I stand behind him, armed to the teeth, shivering with equal parts anger and fear, trying to lead with kindness but knowing confrontation is going to be a necessity. And I stand there alone. No one beside me. No one even immediately behind me but for a solid mile. There, in the recesses of the battlefield, is a loving hoard clapping and cheering for my victory. Supporting me in words and sentiment but unscathed by inevitable war wounds.

Then there’s the loneliness of knowing some dear friends cannot fully comprehend or accept my plight. The loneliness of having no partner with whom to link arms and walk in lockstep into each storm. The loneliness of knowing my experience is so unrelatable that it is abundantly easy for outsiders to judge.

Still, despite all of these challenges I would never dream of shrouding my child, hiding who he is from the world, insinuating to him in any way that he is wrong or broken, communicating that pretending to be that which he is not is wise because living in a shame- and fear-based lie may possibly help him avoid some of the potential intolerance of others. I will not do that. Not ever.

In my truest heart, I know he will be fine. He’s resilient and determined, courageous and clear-headed, confident and amiable. His is a smart kid and will do just fine. He manages to find friends and supporters no matter where he goes.

My son is sparkly. My son is beautiful. My son is who he is and that is for no one to judge. My son is perfectly imperfect just as he is. No matter the challenges ahead, granting him the strength, space, and ability to live his most authentic life offers him the greatest chance at happiness. And that is the greatest gift I can provide.

The Pep Talk

Sometimes you see stuff coming, and sometimes you just don’t. As in, not at all. Yesterday was one of those times I was blindsided… entirely so.

12 days into winter break. Survival mode and low parenting standards were in full swing. With three full days remaining in our lengthy school hiatus, we were at the playground with friends trying desperately to encourage interactions with others instead of continuing our sibling civil war.

My 8-year-old daughter, the self-proclaimed leader of our offspring herd, borrowed our friends’ scooter and a mohawk-festooned helmet. Off she went, pushing-and-rolling her way down to the tennis courts where a smattering of kids were scootering around the fenced perimeter.

My daughter entered the makeshift scooter rink as I half-watched (OK, three kids on a playground and a half-quadrillion hours into winter break with — FINALLY — semi-uninterrupted adult conversation, I was maybe 1/8-watching her. But still, I was somewhat aware. Kind of. Ish.) A few minutes in, she ran up to me, lugging the borrowed scooter and unfastening the spikey helmet.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, hugging her petite frame against my hip. “They said I look weird!” She whimpered. I turned away from my socializing and rubbed her back as I spoke, “I’m sorry! That’s not nice of them.” I paused, harnessing my inner helicopter mom who wanted to haul out and give those judgmental scootering snots a mommy monologue.

I looked down at the borrowed helmet she’d tossed at my feet. “That looks like a pretty cool warrior’s helmet to me,” I assessed. She was leaning against my side, gaze down. I clearly needed a different approach.

“What would Aaron do?” I asked her, referencing my middle son — her younger, incredibly annoying yet beloved brother who is fearlessly sparkly and unabashedly flamboyant. She looked me in the eyes and I had an oh-shit-where-am-I-going-with-this moment. Quite uncharacteristically, I began speaking without actually thinking about the words coming out of my mouth. The utterances just rattled out in some inspired semblance of poignancy. Thank goodness!

“He wouldn’t let those mean kids stop him. He’d say, ‘That sounds like a them problem.’ Right?” My mouth said. She nodded, hugged my hips, and popped the mohawk’ed helmet on her ash blond head.

“That worked!” I said to my friends with equal parts relief and surprise. “That worked?” I said to myself. “I need that pep talk when I look in the mirror,” one friend said, “‘That’s a them problem.'” She mimicked telling herself. We laughed but knew we could all use such confidence.

I wished it would work for me.

15 minutes — and numerous bouts of kid squabble mediation — later, my middle son chasse’d up to me in his unicorn-covered ensemble. “She’s being nice to me,” he said in reference to his sister. “That’s good.” I stood listening for the formal complaint or problem I had to resolve. “She said I helped her remember it was a ‘them problem’ and now she’s ok.” I smiled, relieved and still quite surprised my unplanned pep talk was — apparently — effective. “Good!” I replied, hugging his thin frame against me. And off he leapt and twirled to the impromptu scooter rink.

More chatting and more kid wrangling ensued in the passing 20’ish minutes. Then, my sparkly son returned to my side again. “What’s up?” I said, as he blankly stared up at my with his enormous, lushly fringed blue eyes. “She’s still being nice to me,” he said. “She told me that I can have her morning treat tomorrow.” I asked why she offered this reward. “Because she said that I helped her feel OK about liking things that the boys liked and that now she’s happy.” And right then tears welled in my eyes, my heart swelled, and a bubble of relief and love crowded my throat.

I smiled wide, blinked away the tears, and cleared my throat. “That’s so nice! I’m glad.” I said to him. And off he scampered.

I turned back to my friends who were kindly looking towards me with lovingly inquisitive faces. “Sometimes you’re surprised to find out you actually did something right,” I said and I gave myself a tiny pat on the back as I sighed out years of self-doubt.

Sometimes — sometimes — we get it right.