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.

My Tips for Raising a Sparkly Son

Being the mom of a gender-bending son (a “sparkly boy”, as we lovingly call it in our family) is lonely. Few are openly walking this path — often out of fear for their children and/or themselves — so it is near impossible to find a group of people — or even one other local family — who allow their sons to sparkle when, where, and how they so choose. This means there’s little opportunity to share insights, experience, guidance, or support.

As there’s little community for us, I offer this: my tips for raising a sparkly son. Take or leave what you will. Apply it as your heart sees fit for your life and your child. I simply extend efforts that have proven invaluable to us as suggestions for other parents seeking guidance.

Tip #1: Accept with no exceptions. “Mommy loves you always, no matter what, and more than you will ever know.” This is a constant reminder in our home since my children were but moments old. My children know that they are unendingly, unconditionally, and unabashedly loved no matter what they do, no matter who they love, no matter who they become. This goes for my hyper-competitive daughter, my sparkly middle son, and my rough-and-tumble marshmallow-centered youngest son. I practice acceptance so that they learn and see the habit. We read about acceptance. We discuss accepting others and self. Acceptance is a part of our family culture. They know that, in our home, grades will never be as important as being a kind human.

Tip#2: Talk about it. We talk about gender identity, gender norms, sexuality, and inclusion. We read kids books about kindness and inclusion. We peruse inclusive history books that note the contributions of individuals from all backgrounds and walks of life. We discuss my sparkly son’s gender-bending interests within and outside of the family. It is not presented as shameful or something to be hidden. We are open and fully accepting of his tendencies, thus outwardly and inwardly establishing the unwavering expectation that others should follow suit. We give it voice. We honor it. We recognize it. We establish the norm by presenting our own.

Tip #3: Be the biggest supporter. Show no fear. Show no shame. Be as proud of your sparkly son as you would be of any of your children. Be steadfast in your stance to allow him to sparkle when, where, and how he chooses. Be strong. Be lovingly fierce. Be determined to make this a world where future children and families shouldn’t even have to question whether it is safe or acceptable to allow their children to be true-to-self. Never give him reason to doubt your loving position as his greatest ally.

Tip #4: Communicate with the school. Out your family. It’s scary, but it’s the best and most valuable step you can take. Be brave. Schedule a meeting with your son’s principal and make sure the school will be a safe, supportive space for your child and establish firm steps for handling fallout. Meet with his teachers before each school year, being clear about your son’s tendencies, your family’s stance on those inclinations, and your expectations for classroom management as well as requesting open communication between school and home. Meet with any of your other children’s teachers to give them a heads-up on the sibling situation, as classrooms are not vacuums; your son’s sparkle will affect your other child(ren) in some way at some point. Communicate openly with fellow parents so that they know what discussions to initiate at home, and open yourself up as a resource to any of their questions. Establish a relationship between your child(ren) and the school counselor, just in case (there’s zero harm or risk in doing this… pure benefit.) It’s better to communicate clearly, establish expectations, and offer everyone a chance to succeed, rather than reactively putting out potentially avoidable fires. Plus, if your son is happily sparkling everywhere, it’s really not a secret anyway.

Tip #5: Be realistic. As much as we would like our fellow humans to be open, accepting, kind individuals, that’s not always going to be the case. It’s not our job to shelter or change our children in light of potential unkindness. Instead, we must help our children assess, prepare for, and address possible risks. So, before your son wears a pink tiara to the playground or a Rapunzel dress for Halloween, have a loving talk with him. Tell him that, though it’s not ok to do so, some people may react to his ensemble choice negatively. Tell him that he should only seek friends who are kind to him and love him, but that he should be prepared in case someone is unkind. Discuss how he would react and respond to such a situation. Really talk it through. Empower him. Remind him that his interests are ok and that he shouldn’t hide who he is simply because someone might possibly maybe be unfriendly. Guide him through this journey while reassuring him that he is loved, supported, and absolutely beautiful as he is.

Tip #6: Be creative. Think outside of the box… your son is! Right now, there’s a counterculture movement that celebrates females who buck the norm and dive into S.T.E.M., who reign in sports, or who rebuke stereotypical femininity. Males are not quite as empowered to shed their own gender norms yet. So you may find dinosaur hoodies and airplane t-shirts in the girls clothing section, but you’d be hard-pressed to encounter princess pajamas or unicorn flip-flops in the boys section. So, take your child’s lead and stop caring about labels and categories and gender sections. Dig in and shop the girls section. Scan the famous Olympic figure skater, Johnny Weir’s Instagram for outfit inspiration. Turn to tunics, shirtdresses, sequined tops, jeggings, kilts, and unisex-cut shimmery accessories. Be bold. Be resourceful. Make it fun.

Tip #7: Do not bend, so he will not break. Whether it’s family not accepting your son’s interests, classmates making unkind remarks, teachers not meeting the bar for classroom management, strangers being intolerant, or even your spouse having doubts, do not allow your son see you falter. Do not give him reason to doubt his right to be who he is. Do not let a whisper slip into his mind that he is not supported, not accepted, or that he is somehow lesser. Do not feed or create self-doubt (or, worse yet, self-loathing), and don’t let anyone else do it either. We all know the terrible, gut-wrenching statistics on self-harm for kids, teens, and adults who are not supported in their gender and sexuality journeys. Don’t let your child be one of those statistics! If you are iron-strong in your support of your child, if you lovingly yet firmly demand that others honor him for who he is, if you openly rebuke unkindness and intolerance, your child will hold that strength within himself. Give him no reason to doubt himself.

We are a rare breed, we moms to sparkly boys, and we are forced in love to navigate an uncharted, lonely path. But on we plod on because love matters most.

You can do this, and so can your son. Know that every victory and every struggle is worthwhile. When you are on the side of love, you are on the right side. And this, my fellow mama, is most definitely a journey of love.

Keep loving. Keep fighting. Keep listening to your mama heart.

You are not alone.

Birth Trauma and Birthdays

My heart is racing even considering typing this post, because writing it means thinking about it, and thinking about it means recalling it, and recalling it is just horrific. Isn’t that a terrible thing to say in regards to the birth of your first — and much wanted — child?

Despite my trepidation, I’ll keep diving — securely clinging to my safety rope to the present so as not to get sucked into the dark abyss of recollection — knowing someone somewhere needs to know they’re not broken or alone or wrong. That they needn’t shoulder the guilt others hoist upon them. That there is hope. That it does get better. It does.

I began having contractions on July18, 2011. Type-A and working from home on bedrest, I was still emailing and updating project implementation spreadsheets as I winced and grunted. Around midday, I stood to try to “walk off the pains” and I wound up on my knees, moaning, clutching the kitchen counter. I called my OB, whose office was closed for lunch, and left a message for her telling her that my husband and I were heading to the hospital.

Many hours and a traumatic birth later (story here), it was 3:36AM on July 19th. I had my daughter. We still had another round of resuscitation yet to go, a NICU stay, and some painful physical healing for my daughter and myself. But, it was over.

At least outwardly.

Inwardly, that event still haunts me 8 years later. I don’t sleepwalk or have baby-in-peril nightmares as I once did. I don’t get stuck seated on the toilet due to my physical wounds or cry during sitz baths as I once did. I don’t get faint or stop breathing at the mention of birth anymore. I don’t struggle to pull myself out of the vivid, palpable, horrific memories as I once did.

I do still find myself inexplicably tense, angry, flighty, and agitated as my daughter’s birthday approaches. Unwaveringly, I will look at the clock throughout the day of July 18th and be transported back to that Labor and Delivery room. I will get visions of the blank dry erase board that absorbed the sounds of my sobbing. And every year I awake at 3:36AM on July 19th and I shudder then sigh. But now I can return to sleep, the inky black bleed of the trauma now kept at bay. Throughout the day I will hide my ragged and raw emotions to celebrate my daughter. I will pretend all is well. This is “her day” after all. But the fact that I am capable of doing this is proof of healing not lost on me.

As real as my trauma is to me, birth traumas and birth-related PTSD like mine are dismissed. Shamed. Birth is positioned as beautiful and natural, as something to be regarded as sacred, spiritual, superhuman… not potentially lethal. Some of those who, like me, struggle(d) to conceive hoist their own pain upon mothers with birth trauma, insisting that the mother’s pain is negated by the birth of a child and wholly necessitates gratitude. Some say, “all births are tough” and shrug off the mothers’ pain. Some hold a sense of competition, perhaps rooted in self-preservation, to present their own birth story as more challenging or painful or trying that others’, which fuels them to discount other mothers’ traumas. Then there is the sect that views birth as an unsavory topic of conversation altogether and force mothers into stoic silence to quell their sensitivities. (As someone who openly discusses pelvic floor health or menstrual cups, digestive woes or breastfeeding with the same casual fluidity as chatting about Target purchases, this prudish leaning is a foreign mindset.)

The intent to shift public perspective of birth from medical to metaphysical is lovely. Beautiful. And yet the reverberations can hum as callous to those who do not share the glowing birth experience.

As hard as I try, I cannot perceive birth as anything but dangerous. As something to be brutally survived for the love of a child. Birth nearly killed my daughter and me; to me, its lethal potential, its dark and scarring qualities are unquestionable. As much as I wish this wasn’t true, it is. And I am not alone.

Mothers are expected to hide, bury, forget their birth traumas and heal physically and emotionally from the harrowing feat without perceptible scars. To bounce back in all ways. They are expected to tell and retell their children their birth stories. They are tasked with ignoring any of the day’s ghosts in favor of feigning joyous celebration. They are expected to feel sheer elation and abounding love at the mere glint of a birth recollection. Anything less is shameful, selfish, weak.

Any utterances regarding birth struggles will inevitably be met with, “but at least you had a baby” or “you should be grateful for your child.” A soldier’s PTSD would not be met with dismissive responses of, “you should be happy you got to serve” and “war is beautiful.” So, why are mothers’?

Eight years later, I am nearly a decade removed from my birth trauma. My physical wounds are long healed. My emotional wounds are in a state of healing. I am far from where I once was; happier, more present, capable of recalling without falling in. I am here. I am healing. I am trying. I am stronger than I ever knew.

It is better. So am I.

Now, to celebrate my daughter.

The Sting of Mis-gendering

So… preferred pronouns. A few years ago, I did not understand them. I didn’t balk, necessarily, (like some) but I didn’t get it. After yesterday, though, yeah. I do. At least from my own cis-gendered mom to a sparkly son perspective.

Yesterday was a day of frequent mis-gendering. None of it was bigoted or intentional, but innocently misguided. Now, I understand that my 6-year-old sparkly son was self-styled in feminine flair fabulousness, but it didn’t make the well-intentioned mis-gendering any less frustrating.

The first time a lovely librarian helped my son find a unicorn book. He’d asked me to help him in his search but I was in the middle of settling a Lego squabble at the block table between my littlest and another pint-sized builder. So, I recommended that my 6-year-old ask the kind librarian who was shelving books for guidance. Fearless as ever, he brushed a flyaway hair off of his brow and sashayed over to the librarian. A few minutes later, he happily returned with a book.

“What great book!” I responded when he happily showed me his find. “Thank you,” I said to the librarian who had resumed shelving duties nearby. The librarian smiled and replied, “She asked me for a unicorn book but that’s not my specialty so I looked around for her and we found one! I hope she likes it!” Despite the librarian’s kindness and warm smile, every mis-gendering pronoun landed like a bee sting to my heart. I struggled to hide my agitation and maintain my smile despite knowing my son just witnessed this entire exchange.

We’re used to this by now and it was a fleeting interaction, so — given that my son didn’t do the telling shirt tug and wide-eyed glance up at me reaction — I knew it wasn’t worth correction. I exhaled and shuddered, trying to release the unintentional offense.

Not 10 minutes later, my sparkly son approached an assistance desk. A young librarian with stunning red hair and a tiny nose ring that twinkled in the iridescent overhead lighting greeted him. My son drove right into his request; he wanted to open a library card for his little brother. My son looked across the children’s section to me and I smiled knowing he’d likely baffled the librarian with his request. “I don’t have I.D., Mommy.” He said locking eyes with me as he shrugged his delicate shoulders. “What? You didn’t bring your driver’s license?” I teased, nudging him with my elbow as I fished my license from my purse. I explained his request to the librarian. She asked my sparkly son his name. “We have the same name!” the librarian said kindly, not realizing that his name was the identically pronounced male version of her own. Then the librarian noted how brave “she” (referencing my sparkly son) was in approaching the desk on “her” own. Two rounds of bee stings in such a short time, ow!

My son hadn’t heard any of this last mis-gendering — thankfully — as he was too focused on finding a ballet book in the shelves nearby. I, on the other hand, was chafed by the two closely timed social stumbles. As this was a fleeting and understandable mistake that hadn’t impacted my child, I didn’t correct the librarian.

Shortly before leaving, I had a brief interaction with another patron who saw my three children and, upon seeing my middle son’s attire, witnessing his interest in ballet and unicorns, and seeing his floral-hued ensemble, logically assumed he was a second daughter of mine. She had complimented my littlest’s kind playing habits and I thanked her. She noted that he seemed to enjoy the blocks. (He was roaring around the block table while holding a Lego creation at that precise moment.) I commented that he had stereotypically “masculine” interests — trucks, dinosaurs, anything that destroys stuff — and she said, “all boys do!” I cocked my head to the side, entirely releasing my attempt to conceal my inner workings, and said, “Hmmmm. Both of my boys and my daughter are different from one another.” I smiled then continued, “It’s amazing how three kids can come out so differently. Same gene pool. Same playroom. Same home. All different.” The patron smiled and nodded, then we, in friendliness, went our different ways.

Our library adventure was positive experience as a whole, with kind librarians helping us at every turn. It’s a shame that the sting of mis-gendering sullied the outing.

Do I blame the individuals for assuming incorrectly that my son was a girl? No. Am I offended in some quietly sexist way that my SON was thought to be a DAUGHTER? No, absolutely not. Am I angry at those who unintentionally mis-gendered? No.

But I’m fed up. I was sick of having to accept the stings with a smile. I was exhausted being mama Canada goose constantly on guard to protect my child.

I’m frustrated and annoyed and sometimes, at the end of a long day of verbal bee stings, I just feel like inappropriately yelling at people who are doing the stinging. But that wouldn’t help anything. It would only leave a bitter taste in their mouth that may unfortunately linger and sully their next interaction with a gender-bending individual. And I can’t be responsible for that.

Still, it gets tiresome. It’s lonely.

I know only one other mom of a young boy who truly allows her child to sparkle when, where, and how HE chooses. This loneliness gets heavy.

And, full-disclosure, in some typically less liberal, generally unaccepting locales, my sparkly son’s unisex name and ability to “pass” as a female has offered us a safety bubble from potentially unsavory feedback. Those erroneous assumptions allow my son to frolic freely in his mermaid-unicorn top, pastel shorts, and carefully French braided cropped hair. Onlookers simply and incorrectly assume he is a petite little girl with an edgy haircut. Meanwhile, my husband and I look on with the protective inclinations Canada geese, ready to run in to his or nip if needed.

With all of this exposure to the intricacies and frustrations of what some may deem “microaggressions”, I have developed a greater understanding of the need, value, and reasons for “preferred pronouns.” Just because an individual strikes us as obviously fitting in one gender category or the other, solely due to our antiquated and faulty societal conditioning, it doesn’t mean we should impose our assumptions on that individual. We certainly shouldn’t regard ourselves as some sort of gendering judge whose assessments should be wholeheartedly accepted. Or, worse yet, consider our convenience and ego of such great importance that we should be able to make these assumptions without correction.

Prior to developing a growing understanding of preferred pronouns, I had a certain ego-check awareness. As confusing as all of the possible terms — him, her, per, they… — were, I knew full well that my own inability to understand the concept and necessity of preferred pronouns was not indicative the topic’s validity but was more so a reflection of my own reasoning and comprehension shortcomings. But life, in its usual tongue-in-cheek way, took hold and granted me lessons by way of personal experience to truly clarify the matter. Thanks??

One day I hope more families allow their children to shine when, where, and how they want to without fear of judgment or safety. One day I hope it becomes commonplace for more gender-neutral terms to be used and the gender variances are accepted more widely. One day I hope we’ll be better humans.

We are but in the infancy of this movement towards bettering ourselves as a community. I have hope for one day.

Bikini Body Revisited

I’m doing it again! Bikinis.

Yep, those scars are mine. My proof of life, of survival, of being beautifully human. And I refuse to hide them.

That’s right, no one-pieces for me. Not even when Endometriosis bloats my belly or when decades-old internal monologues pelt me with insults. But why?

Am I doing to to get attention? Am I doing it to show off my physique? Am I doing it to keep my diet in check? Nope. I’m doing it for my children.

I had four abdominal surgeries, three close-in-age children, breastfed my three offspring well beyond their first year, pumped breastmilk for donation that fed 30 other babies… this body has WORKED. This body has lived and struggled. This body has scars and strength, imperfections and curves, wrinkles and stories. This body deserves not to be hidden under sweaty layers of sandy lycra or regarded as “unworthy.” If it is a divine creation, it should be treated as such, with joyful celebration.

My children — my sons and my daughter — deserve to know that this is the body of a 36-year-old mom of three. That scars are not to be hidden but to be worn as badges of honor, because they mean I survived. That stretch marks are indicators of growth and life. That what makes us different makes us beautiful. That we shouldn’t hide ourselves out of fear of judgment and certainly never out of shame.

My children deserve to know that they should be proud of their own bodies and their own uniqueness. That they should accept others’ individual forms with loving appreciation. Because one day my children will have scars and stretch marks and individualities on their bodies. Because my children will encounter others with their own visible stories. Because one day they may love others whose bodies are different from their own, in one way or another. And I never want my children to regard those sacred memorials of life with anything other than love.

And as much as I’d love to communicate this message to my children from the flaw-hiding comfort of a perfectly ruched one-piece, how can I possibly effectively communicate this message of body acceptance if I am hiding my own frame? If I don’t demonstrate this, live this, and embody this, I cannot expect my children to love themselves and others without aesthetic prejudice. And, so, I must live it unabashedly myself. I must be an example. In a bikini.

When Memorial Day rolled around and Endometriosis had bloated my belly and winter stolen my tan, I truly wanted to reneg on my own self-imposed rule. Just for this summer. But I couldn’t. My children deserved better. I could do better. I had to be better.

So I put on my bikini and my smile. I ran and played and dug in the sun-warmed sand. And it was wonderful.

I wear a bikini because I want my children to see that THIS is a human body, a mother’s body, a real body. That THIS body, too, is beautiful. That THIS body is worthy of being shown and honored not in spite of, but because of, its imperfections.

The Sparkly Boy’s Doctor Visit

Yesterday I took my newly minted 6-year-old for his annual well-check. My son strolled in — flower-printed blouse, pale pink skinny jeans, rainbow sneakers, and a rainbow unicorn headband atop his short, French braided hair. I wasn’t sure of the reactions we’d receive or the questions we’d get — as he was far more flagrantly himself this year than last — but that’s life with my sparkly son.

As with most of my days, the well-check took a surprise turn. It went from health screening to gender-inclusive career advice in a heartbeat.

“What’s your name?” “What grade are you in?” “What’s your favorite food?” All the standard pediatrician conversational screening questions. Then, “What do you like to do outside of school?” “Play outside with my friends,” my flower-shirted son said, “and ballet.” Straightening his rainbow unicorn headband on his short French braided hair, he added, “Oh, and ice skating too.” He smiled at the pediatrician, my son’s striking blue eyes peeking through ebony eyelashes.

“Well then,” replied the doctor, wheeling his chair closer, “which one do you like better: ballet or skating?” This was clearly a humdinger of a question. My son tapped his delicate finger on the paper-sheathed exam table. “Hmmm… ballet.” “I was in a ballet performance. ‘Sleeping Beauty!'” “Did you like it?” Responded the physician. My son nodded emphatically and I added how even with 3- to 4-hour long ballet rehearsals, he still couldn’t wait to attend ballet classes afterwards. “You may have to step it up, then,” the doctor warmly grinned, “this is such a fun time when kids really begin to hone in on their interests. My daughter did the same with soccer. If he likes it, go for it!” My son beamed at the suggestion.

What’s your favorite color, the doctor asked, holding a light in front of my son’s eyes. “Glittery purple.” The pediatrician put down his light and grabbed his stethoscope and cellphone… both dark purple. “You see these?” He asked my son. “I searched to find ones that matched and this is as close as I got. I love purple. ANY shade of purple, from lavender to plum… but I really like this dark shade like my phone case best. We BOTH like purple!” Both my son and the physician grinned. The doctor returned his stethoscope and cellphone to their respective positions and resumed his eye examination.

“I never thought to say, ‘glittery purple’… that’s a great color! Very specific.” As he had my son follow the light with his eyes, the doctor continued, “Do you know I have SIX purple shirts I wear to work?! All shades of purple. I love purple.” My son smiled, clearly envisioning all six purple tops.

The visit continued with all of the usual wellness checks: ears, nose, throat, etc. “Can you hop down so I can check your back?” Requested the doctor. My son landed in soft precision on the gray speckled tiles.

“You know, you’ll be very strong if you become a ballet dancer,” the doctor said, lifting the back of my son’s blue and pink flowered shirt. “And I’ve never seen a ballet dancer with poor posture. You’ll stand so tall!” He patted my son’s head saying that his back looked healthy.

The doctor looked at me, pausing his chart notes, “Theater and dance are two professions people do because it’s what they love. You don’t hear people in that line of work moan, ‘Ugh I have to go to work.’ It’s not like an office job.” He looked towards the ceiling as if struck with a poignant realization, “That would be wonderful,” he said quietly with a gentle smile.

The doctor put down his pen and turned to my son, looking him kindly in the eye, “I really want that for you,” he said, “I want you to really enjoy what you do.” The doctor turned to me, “Wouldn’t that be fantastic?”

I nodded, tears in my eyes.

It would be.

One Year Since My Diagnosis

One year ago today, one word changed much of my life. That word destroyed me. It humiliated me. It turned my perspective upside down. It changed my already complicated relationship with food. It upended my sense of self. It empowered me.

“You have Endometriosis,” my OB/Gyn said after a painful pelvic exam and consultation. I’d waddled into her office in pain, holding back tears, positioning myself precariously on the edge of the exam table so as not to put any pressure on my painful nether regions.

“It feels like when I was pregnant with my second child,” I explained, “and he was stubbornly positioned head down from 19-weeks on.” Just as during those brutal weeks of pregnancy, I was swollen, my pelvis felt heavy, my intestines felt squished, I had the distinct feeling that a bowling ball was trying to exit via my perineum. But, unlike when I was pregnant, I didn’t have a baby-in-waiting to blame for my round-the-clock woes. So I’d visited my doctor hoping for relief and maybe even answers.

“You have almost every symptom,” the doctor explained. “You’re not a candidate for birth control,” I was a unicorn who managed to get every bad and unusual side-effect from hormone-altering medications and I was terribly cyst-prone when on such medicine. “…or Lupron,” she said. Lupron was a not-entirely-effective and sometimes worsening medication that induced temporary menopause, “so you have two options.” I listened intently, not breathing. “You can get pregnant and possibly get some temporary relief,” though I discovered later that my increasingly rough pregnancies were likely due to my Endometriosis flaring during pregnancy… because I’m a freakin’ unicorn. “Or…” I inhaled waiting for her next suggestion, “you can get a radical hysterectomy.”

Everything stopped. My breath. My heart. The world.

2.5-years postpartum from my third child, with a 6- and 4-year-old at home too, I wasn’t exactly looking to add to my youthful herd. But I wasn’t entirely set on nullifying that option either. And I certainly wasn’t looking to have an entire complex operating system within my body extracted either.

I cried. (I do not cry in public.)

I was in no way prepared for this news. My husband wasn’t going to be prepared for this news. I had made the appointment thinking maybe she’d tell me I had another ovarian cyst or some inflammation. I was not thinking organ removal was a possibility. Endometriosis was never on my radar.

After the months in college when I was painfully sick and ran the gamut of medical tests to no avail, after the invasive fertility tests and various doctors I’d seen in a quest to conceive our first child, after conceiving and birthing three children, after undergoing two c-sections, and after having gallbladder removal, NO ONE had even floated that diagnosis. Not in all those years. Not once.

I dried my eyes and waddled back to my car with nothing but a co-pay, an awful diagnosis, and two non-option “treatment” options to show for my doctor visit. I sat in the driver’s seat staring at the steering wheel. My mind was simultaneously spinning and standing still. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted someone to fix this. I wanted to understand what the hell this diagnosis even was!

All I’d ever “known” about Endometriosis prior to that day was that it involved painful PMS and bad periods. And I’d say that horrendously under-informed knowledge base is what most everyone in the general public shared.

Quickly, I discovered how much more Endometriosis entailed. Then I uncovered something else: I knew SO many women who directly suffered from the ailment but they never talked about it.

Like infertility and countless other women’s health issues, Endometriosis was rife with shame. It was considered a “private matter” something to keep secret. All of those “frigid women” we heard and read about in literature and movies, many could have been silently suffering from Endometriosis. And here society blamed and shamed them for a medical condition they never asked to have.

The more I researched, the angrier I got. By a month in, I was incensed. I was angry at the medical community for not researching treatments and for continuing to represent ineffective if not worsening and torturous methods as “solutions.” I was frustrated with perpetually transmitted misinformation. I was mad a fellow suffers’ silence. I was infuriated at society for blaming and shaming and degrading sufferers. I was livid at God/the universe, my body for giving me this curse. After all of my struggles, after all of my efforts, after all I’d conquered, why this? Why me?

But, then, reason descended. Why not this? Why not me? If everything else in my life — good, bad, beautiful, traumatic — had been fortuitous in its ability to lead me in growth and direction, how could this be any different?

So I accepted my diagnosis and decided to give it voice, to be the voice I had so desperately wanted to hear when I was initially diagnosed. If I could stand as an example of unashamed living, others might join me. Maybe. And together — or all on my own — we could chip away at the shame and misinformation and secrecy and medical ignorance that had plagued the Endometriosis community for so long. Maybe. Either way, it was worth a shot.

So, I researched treatments and realized that everything that had been presented to me as my “only options”, were not. Not only were they not likely to work for me, but they were incredibly likely to worsen my condition if not heap other medical woes on top of my already bountiful plate.

I came across two treatments that had some sturdy numbers behind them without all of the nasty side effects. 1) Excision by a vetted physician, 2) dietary adjustments.

I booked an appointment with a semi-local excision specialist to get a pre-op consult. My husband balked, afraid of the prospect of my going under the knife for a fourth time in our relationship. With three young children who relied on me as their primary caretaker and my body’s issues with sedation, he was understandably concerned. So, I cancelled the appointment and opted for diet.

Interestingly, though perhaps less than coincidentally, I had adopted the recommended gluten-free plant-based diet a year prior. However, additional adjustments needed to be made. Take specific supplements. Lower stress. Be active. Reduce, if not eliminate alcohol. Limit soy. Nix chocolate. Avoid processed sugar. Eat as much of a whole foods plant-based diet as possible. Eat like a bunny.

Basically, the goal was to reduce inflammation in the already inflamed body. So, over time, I adjusted my lifestyle and diet. I popped dietary supplements. I ensured I stuck to my daily yoga and meditation routine. I was physically active every day. And — much to my already-deprived chagrin — I relinquished one cherished indulgence after the next.

And now, I’m here. Where is that?

I still have pain. I’m still figuring it all out. BUT I’m better. I am so much better. My cycles are regular for the first time in my life. My pain is lessened. I can walk during ovulation, unlike before when I was bedridden or waddling for 1-3 days.

My flow is still far heavier than any average human, but my switch to using a menstrual cup has been a life changer. Not only am I aware of what is going on with my body and not soaking through three tampons and overnight pads within three waking hours, but I can live my life. No more bleeding through pants or waking up covered in blood. I feel human again, even in my superhuman hyper-menstrual state.

My supplements make a massive difference in my health and pain levels. When I have accidentally skipped one, I suffer for an entire menstrual cycle. I have learned their value.

My daily yoga and meditation is helpful in countless ways. Not only are my inner calm and my inner joy more easily accessible and now my natural inclinations, but I’m more in tune with my body. My stress level — though still in flux as a parent and a human — is lower than before. It takes far more to rile me than it used to. I still have my off days or temperamental times, but they’re less severe than before.

My diet is strict but notably helpful. So, as much as I miss my old dietary freedoms, I appreciate the reduced pain. I eat no gluten, no animal products or byproducts, no chocolate, limited soy, limited alcohol, and a mostly raw plant-based whole foods diet until 5PM each day, at which point I eat cooked gluten-free vegan food. Some days I’ll eat cooked food for lunch, but that is all. Other than coffee and hummus, my breakfast, lunch, and snacks are uncooked whole produce. I physically and energetically feel better. My inflammation is minute. I am comfortable most days.

In terms of how the diagnosis affected my marriage, we’ve been through it over the last year. At least the pain and related anxiety I felt were given an explanation, but they were also not provided any hope of a cure. As much as the struggles caused a rift between us and lead to many nights of tears and anger and resentment and frustration and loneliness while still together, my husband and I found a way to work together. To appreciate and celebrate when things DO work.

We communicate about what works and what doesn’t, what is working — in terms of my actual physical body — and what isn’t, what hurts and what doesn’t, where I am in my cycle. That communication is key. It keeps us connected, him aware, and helps me not feel so alone in my struggle. My journey.

And, so, a year later I am a year wiser. I am a year stronger. I am a year healthier. I am a year more determined not to let Endometriosis rule me.

After all, Endometriosis isn’t a death sentence; it’s a life sentence. And this is my life.