Category Archives: General Identity

Privilege, White and Otherwise: When your Dignity is Affirmed at the expense of Another’s.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Sunday’s Magazine section of the New York Times was an article about Alice Goffman, a young, white sociology professor. In the article, by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Dr. Goffman shares a story about passing through a TSA checkpoint with a bag full of drug paraphernalia and becoming agitated—not at the thought of getting stopped—but simply because she wasn’t stopped while a man with brown skin, but nothing illegal in his possession, was apprehended. Goffman describes white privilege in this way:

“…people smiling at me, holding the door for me. You don’t think, as a white person, about how your whole day is boosted by people affirming your dignity all day long.”

Affirming your dignity. It’s such a subtle, immeasurable concept. How does any one person have the ability to affirm or deny another person’s dignity? What affirms one’s dignity in the first place? Having doors opened? Having sales people speak to you with respect? Having someone listen when you talk? Look you in the eye? Recognize that you have been waiting in line for a table? There are dozens of ways one human can show that he or she values, or does not value another. We are more or less sensitive to these positive or negative estimations, depending on subtle messages we receive from birth.

That’s not privilege, you might say. It’s it simply ordinary human treatment of other ordinary humans. But, what if an entire group of people is denied this basic respect? That’s when it becomes something out of the ordinary.

All privilege is relative. The word itself implies one who’s got it and another who is lacking—a have and a have-not.  Some tangible privileges—access to an exclusive country club, ownership of a Bentley convertible—people acquire consciously, either by invitation, gift or purchase. Others are unearned birthrights—like property, or social connections. These are conscious privileges that no one can deny.

Other privileges are unconscious—like not being followed around a store. Like never having to think about one’s ethnic, racial or gender status because it is considered mainstream. These feel like ordinary conveniences rather than true privileges. They go unnoticed—they’re only a by-product of being regular—until they are either pointed out or somehow taken away.

A few months back, I hit my head on a stone counter. Suspecting (correctly, it turned out) a concussion, I went to the local emergency room, accompanied by my husband, who happens to be white. Others waiting were people of color, like myself.

I was chatty with the receptionist at the desk who took my insurance card, self-deprecating about my mishap. I was bubbly with the nurse who took my vitals. Everyone was polite to me and seemed pleased to meet a nice, cheerful, educated woman who wasn’t bleeding, throwing up, or experiencing any devastating trauma that they had to attend to (and hence probably didn’t need to be in the ER in the first place). I was ushered through every screening in no time. The doctor (also white and about my age) lingered to schmooze with my husband and me for no particular reason, other than the appreciation of light conversation at midnight in a semi-urban emergency room. All in all, a pleasant experience, though, as we left, I noticed some of those who had been waiting when I’d arrived were still there. As we drove off, I realized that I had been on the receiving end of white-privilege-by proxy.

Fast forward: one week later. My son, then eleven, falls on an ice-skating trip and cuts his chin, requiring stitches. We wind up in the same emergency room. My (white) husband is not present. It is day time, not midnight, so the place is slightly more crowded than it was a week earlier, but not significantly. We wait longer. The receptionist and nurses are polite, but less receptive to my usual chattiness. When the attending physician arrives, she asks if I have insurance (I’d already presented my son’s card to the receptionist), then answers her own question: No, before I can respond.

Next, I ask that a plastic surgeon come to stitch up my son’s face. The doctor gives me a look and says that Medicaid won’t cover it. I am offended by her suggestion that if I have any insurance at all, it must be Medicaid, but muster my most polite (read: condescending) tone:

“That’s fine,” I say, the slightest tinge of haughtiness to my smile. “I’ll submit it to my insurance company and see what they’ll reimburse.”

The doctor gives me a dark look—I am, after all, suggesting that she is not competent to repair my son’s face—and asks to see my insurance card herself. I present it (it’s a freedom plan) and she walks off, presumably to check its validity.

When the doctor returns, she is a different person: all smiles, respectful, affirming of my dignity. A plastic surgeon appears at the snap of her fingers. (More or less.)

A year later, though you cannot see the slightest mark on my son’s chin, I am not proud of how I handled the situation. Instead of challenging racism head-on, I dodged it by falling back on my affluent-suburban-mom status. I didn’t have white privilege at my disposal, so I whipped out the class privilege card.

Change happens when people with privileges directly confront the oppression of their non-privileged counterparts. Where privilege meets discrimination—when one person’s privileges are dependent on society’s discrimination against the other—it is up to the person with the privilege to own it, acknowledge it and challenge the injustice.

For another example, as a cis-gender[1] woman, I am confident of being able to find a restroom that is designated for me, and secure in the belief that no one will challenge my presence there. By enjoying this privilege, one could argue that I am benefitting from transphobia or cis-sexism. I have the luxury of never have to consider that.

But now that I’ve written these words, I am less comfortable than I was a moment ago. I feel some guilt, some shame. Some privileges are best when you’re oblivious to them.

Think about something most people take for granted. How about legs? They’re down there beneath your hips like they were the last time you checked. Maybe you think they’re too pasty or ashy or dimpled or sticklike. But you don’t think about them when you go for a walk on a sunny day.  You have the luxury of taking them for granted—not seeing them as a privilege in any case—until you meet someone who lacks two legs. Suddenly you feel not only gratitude for your two whole, healthy legs, you also probably feel a touch of guilt for taking them for granted. As your given right.

I have the luxury not to think about my legs—unless they’re sore from a vigorous run or a ballet class—or about my gendered status if I don’t want to because I am “regular.” I have the luxury to be oblivious to the conditions of the “other” until someone brings them to my attention.

And in this way, obliviousness—to the group of people who have fewer rights, respect or resources than you—is power. If you make me aware of my own privileges, I may get defensive. I may feel shame. I may point out all the privileges I lack that you may have—all the ways in which I am not privileged. That might ease my guilt. It may not. Either way, once you have brought my privileges into the light, I will enjoy them less. At that point, I’ll have two choices: the first is to ignore them, and strive to rebuild my obliviousness. The second is to take action—to speak out against the discrimination that places me in a state of privilege in the first place.  Which might mean relinquishing them some day.

[1] Cisgender refers to the experience of identifying with the gender one was assigned at birth. Cis Is a Latin root, meaning “on this side of” as opposed to “trans” meaning, on the other side or across from.

 

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Mixed: A Canvas for the Assumptions of Others?

New Profile picI’ve let this blog grow cobwebs lately, focusing every bit of my writing energy on my fiction. A quick status report: I’m querying my YA novel again and have reserved a spot among the NaNoWriMo  ranks, hoping to complete a draft of a new novel by November 30th.

Full disclosure, I wrote the following a few months ago but never got around to posting it. I’m posting this now, in part because I know I won’t make it back here until December at the earliest. I’m also putting it up at this time because it feels very relevant to me.

Recently, another mother—a mother with children whose racial combination matches mine—a mother who is a wonderful advocate for her children, devoted to making sure they have positive identities—said something that I can’t quite get out of my head.

This mother, who is white and shares my own mother’s ethnicity, corrected me when I referred to myself as “mixed.” She offered a different word instead. A word which, to her, is the way to refer to oneself if one is the product of a white parent and a black parent. (As I am, as her children are, but as she is not.) We were having a fast conversation about something we’re working on together, so her correction came out quickly, too quickly for me to process what I was feeling. I corrected myself, used the word she had chosen, and we went on with our conversation. It was only afterward that I realized what had happened. I had allowed her to define me. The word she chose was just as good as “mixed.” It was in fact a word I sometimes do use to describe myself, but it was not my word choice at that time.

Those of us who are biracial, mixed-race, mulatto— whatever you wish to call us—must claim our own words—even if they don’t ring true for others. Many of us say “mixed,” which was once derogatory—like “mixed up”—but we embrace it the way a gay person might embrace “queer.” It’s empowerment by taking back language that was once designed to wound. Or, maybe it just feels right.

Anyway, here is my first post since the summer, as well as my last post until December.

A Canvas for the Assumptions of Others

You are the “other” box. Maybe not quite black, yet clearly not white. Or not visibly black, but something off-white. You are “exotic.” Possibly Armenian? Koori? Dominican? Really, really tan? No, you’re biracial, mixed, mulatto, colored, depending where in the world you hail from. You’re Both/And.

For some of us, the Barak Obama’s the Halle Berry’s and me, black is a convenient short-hand for our identity. It is how we appear to strangers, and doesn’t cause a stir or elicit extra questions. Black is also a way of adding our numbers to a much-maligned minority. But black skips out on half our story, half of our parentage and identity.

For the Jennifer Bealses, the Rashida Joneses, the black piece of the package is what people question. In both situations, there is a parent whose ancestry is less visible than the other.

And then there are those in the middle, the racially-ambiguous looking, where the trained eye can see a little of everything. In this spot, you’ll be facing the “what are you?” question more than the others, who tend to quickly be (if incorrectly) categorized by strangers. In the middle, you throw people off.

Now I’m wading into the deep waters of “Ascribed Identity,” a concept I first read about in graduate school when Dr. Elaine Pinderhughes came to present on her book, Understanding Race, Identity and Power.  Ascribed identity has little to do with who you actually are and everything to do with how others see you—their snap-judgments, the stories they tell themselves about who and what you are—based on your appearance alone. No matter how far from the truth these inferences are, you deal with them all day long—in the questions people ask, the treatment you receive. Other people’s stories and judgments—whether you believe them or not, whether you know about them or not—are part of your identity. Even when they are totally false. It’s that flicker of here-we-go-again awareness anytime someone compliments your diction or asks where you are “from.”

When you are mixed, this ascribed stuff can feel like a costume that doesn’t quite fit, but that’s always going to be somewhere in your closet nevertheless. It’s important to be aware of it, to be prepared for the things people say and assume. But the good news is that our ascribed identities need have no bearing on our self-concepts, our behavior or choices. For example, I have been judged for not speaking “black,” for not wearing my hair in braids, even for being the wrong weight for my color. (That really happened).

Sometimes, being biracial can feel like being a canvas for other people’s creative assumptions.

My favorite section of Dr. Maria Root’s Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage (that I think I quoted three or four posts ago) is this one: “I have the right to self-identify. To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify.”

Frankly, I think this right applies to everyone—not just those of mixed heritage. But when it comes to us biracial types, there are a great many opinions on how we should identify ourselves racially, ethnically and otherwise.

After hearing Pinderhughes speak, my fellow social work students and I were suddenly thinking about identity more than we ever had before. Our daily vocabulary included not just ascribed identity, but also terms like use-of-self and cross-cultural competence. Like everyone else, I was grappling with what it meant to be me—how I was perceived versus who I was and how my background affected my work with clients. When I identified as biracial, black and Jewish, I was challenged by my fellow students at every turn.

Some white students looked at me as a novelty.

“Wait—you’re Jewish? How did you get Jewish?”

“I guess you could be Jewish, like Ethiopian.” My Jewish ancestry is Ashkenazi, actually, regardless of my skintone.

On the other hand, many black students bristled when I identified as mixed, saying I was black, because it was how I was seen. (Ascribed identity.) If I claimed I was “both,” then I was denying or diluting my allegiance to my father’s African heritage. I countered that I had to embrace all of my heritage, and not deny my mother’s background. I was informed that white people didn’t need or want me; blacks did. If I identified myself as Jewish—which, to me, had nothing to do with my race—students of color said I was identifying with the oppressor.

My Jewish ancestors, by the way, arrived by boat at the turn of the last century. Not one of them owned slaves.

So, eighteen years later, imagine my confusion at this curious phenomenon I’m finding on the internet lately. Dismissiveness, in some cases contempt, toward mixed-race people who identify as black. Now people have always taken issue with the words biracial people use to self-identify. For example, when Tiger Woods called himself “Cablinasian,” people became incensed; he was trying to deny his blackness. When Vin Diesel referred to himself as having “ambiguous ethnicity” while playing one Italian American character after another—people had a lot to say, much of it not for tender eyes.

But lately, as I browse the comments on articles that feature mixed race celebrities—writers, filmmakers, athletes, I’m seeing the pendulum swing a new way.

When President Obama calls himself black, many argue that he’s not black, he’s biracial and should stop “pretending.” They say the same about Halle Berry, who grew up being encouraged by her white mother to identify as black. Again, people take umbrage over Lacey Schwartz, producer and subject of the film Little White Lie, identifying as a black woman. After her film aired on PBS, the internet was abuzz with outrage over the fact that Schwartz, who is the child of a white, Jewish mother and black father, could not “accept herself as a biracial person.” The shocking part is that these comments came from mixed people, who know all too well how it feels to be dismissed by the generalizations of others.

How can one biracial person judge another for identifying “wrong?” And how is it suddenly not okay for people like me to call ourselves black? Sure, you can argue that, as the product of a white and a black parent, I’m only as black as I am white (regardless of my appearance). Since I cannot call myself white (see my profile photo? That would just be silly) I should not be allowed to call myself black. The reason that logic doesn’t work is my appearance.

I am not white. But I am Jewish, by way of my mother’s ethnicity. And in this way, I embrace and embody both sides of my heritage. (If my mother weren’t Jewish, but Irish or Italian, for example, I’d identify the same way, black and Irish or black and Italian. Jewish is an ethnicity as well as a religion.)

That’s why to be mixed is to be both-and, as well as sometimes neither-nor. Our identities are fluid by nature. No matter how white or how black we appear. So, instead of being canvasses for other people’s creative assumptions, let us be fountains of our own multiple heritage.

I have no claim to monopoly over the words I use to identify myself. All I ask is to self-identify, to claim all my heritage without challenge. We are all-inclusive, often in flux, sometimes leaning one way, sometimes the other. We’re not confused or out of touch with reality.

We’re not tragic either.

Loving Day Re-post: Why I Believe Marriage Equality = Common Sense

In honor of Loving Day, June 12th, 2015, I am reposting this piece from three years ago. Great progress has been made since then. Gay marriage is now legal in thirty-seven states! But the fight for marriage equality is not yet over. There are still bans in place in thirteen states, as well as a number of organizations and individuals who cite religious beliefs to justify their right to discriminate (just as they once did against interracial unions).

TulipsAs fewer and fewer eyebrows are raised by interracial marriages, I look forward to the day where same-sex marriages elicit the same ho-hum reactions. A marriage is a marriage. Love has no room for bigotry.

So here’s the repost:

I am glad to say that by now—nearly a week after Valentine’s Day, 2012, the day  “The Loving Story” aired on HBO—interracial marriage is more accepted in this country than ever.  According to a new poll from the Pew Research Center, about one out of every seven new marriages in the U.S. is interracial.  (Which you can read about in this link from GOOD Magazine.)  On that note, I believe it’s time to extend marriage rights to same sex couples.

As the child of a very long and happy interracial marriage, I know that it is possible for two people to have a loving, lasting bond even if there are societal barriers to “their kind” of union.

I believe that a marriage between two people of different races is no less a marriage than one between two people of the same race.

I believe that a marriage between two people of the same sex is no less a marriage than one between two people of different sexes.

If you love and wish to marry someone of a different race, and I love and wish to marry someone of my same race, I do not believe that your marriage in any way undermines my marriage.

If I love and wish to marry someone of a different gender and you love and wish to marry someone of your own gender, I do not believe that your marriage in any way undermines my marriage.

But what about the children?  One reason people used to give (and still give) for opposing interracial marriage was the children.   As in: Think of the children!  Won’t they have issues?  Well, yes we do have issues, just as every other group or combination of groups has issues.  We are also teachers, doctors, lawyers, dancers, writers, husbands, wives, same-sex partners, parents … and—oh yeah—the U.S. president.  We’re doing OK.   As are children of same-sex parents, last I checked.

What about that business about undermining the sanctity of marriage in general? 

I believe that if one couple’s inter-sex marriage is undermined by another couple’s same-sex marriage, then the first marriage wasn’t particularly strong to begin with.  Same-sex marriages don’t undermine marriage any more than same-race marriages do.

What undermines marriage is marrying someone because your publicist told you to.   What undermines marriage is doing it for reality show ratings.  What undermines marriage is infidelity.  What undermines marriage is denigrating other peoples’ marriages when you are supplementing your marriage with extramarital partners.  What undermines marriage is going into it while keeping your options open.  What undermines marriage is violence.

My parents—a black man and a white, Jewish woman—got married in Chicago, Illinois in 1950, eight years before Richard and Mildred Loving wed.  At the time, interracial marriage was illegal in over thirty states.  My parents were married for forty-five years when my father died.  In four and a half decades, their interracial marriage did not threaten the sanctity of anyone’s same-race marriage.   Not even a little bit.

I think it is time to acknowledge that marriage is a loving, committed relationship between two people who love and commit to one another.

To Dance Again: Return to Self

teaching at MAD LOM

A few years back, when I started this blog about body image and identity, I was thinking a lot about my relationship to ballet. It defined me from late childhood, though adolescence and into my late twenties. It was my niche, my career, until I left to find out who I was without it.

To recap: some time in 2012, after who-can-even-count how many years of not dancing, a friend lured me back to ballet class. I was flooded with all kinds of emotions—excitement, dread, nostalgia—but most of all, an overpowering sense of return-to-self.

Return-to-self isn’t anything I learned about in social work school, but I’d have to define it as a process of acute identity repair.

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a sixty-something-year-old guy on the table next to mine at physical therapy. I was there for my knees—the culprits who’d distanced me from ballet. He was there for a leg or back injury, I never asked what. I should mention that my physical therapist, to distract patients from their agony, has large-screened TVs on every wall, all synced, streaming sit-coms from the 1990’s—Friends, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond. Depending on the hour of your appointment, you can usually predict what will be playing.

At the time of my narrative, Will and Grace was on. After my neighbor and I shared a chuckle over Karen’s alcohol-fueled antics, he mused about how the country had changed since the show had aired.

“You can’t make cracks about alcoholism anymore,” lamented the guy with the back-or-leg injury. “You can’t even say words like Jew or Black on primetime without a lawsuit.”

Whether that’s true or not, I kept listening. Soon, the conversation led to the guy sharing some of his history with me.  He’d been an outdoor sports guy, he said. Hunting, boating, motorcycle racing. Sure, he’d suffered various wounds from these high-risk diversions. He’d been shot Cheney-style more than once (he showed me a shoulder scar), thrown from bikes and boats—all minor events he’d shrugged off at the time. But the injury he faced now (again, he did not specify, but later I saw he walked with a severe limp) had sidelined him from everything he loved to do. Everything.

“But my faith is in him,” he aimed a thumb at our PT, “and Him.” He re-directed said thumb toward the ceiling. “You watch. I’ll get back on that bike if it’s the last thing I do.”

I could see he meant it. Getting back on his motorcycle was worth that much to him. Life just wasn’t life without the thrill-rides he loved. That I understood.

For me, the sine qua non endeavor was ballet, as I wrote back in 2012, when I went back to ballet for the first time. I didn’t stick with it back then; my knees wouldn’t permit it. But I kept ballet in my heart, blogging about it, watching my favorites on YouTube, penning a novel about teenage ballet dancers in New York City. Through my characters, I still lived ballet, still danced in my mind and through my fingers on the keyboard. I kept thinking, should I try dancing again? Or should I let this be enough? I ran for exercise, so it wasn’t like I was completely sedentary. (Running, oddly, has no negative impact on my knees.) But every so often I’d wonder: is it really over? Will I never dance again?  That sounded so sad, so final. I pushed the thought away, rather than try to challenge it.

I still dreamed I was dancing, though. One night I even dreamed I was still good. I got back my arabesque, my turns, my elevation. The very next day, I got an email from a friend, a former dancer who runs a dance, theater and drumming school in town. Would I teach ballet for her one night a week, she wanted to know? Two classes, for ten to twelve year old girls? I thought it over and rose to the challenge. How could I possibly say no? Especially after the dream I’d had.

So back again I went. It’s been over a month. I never thought I’d love teaching children to do something that could be painful and frustrating as well as beautiful. But, guess what? I do. Because I value ballet for its elegance, its purity and the way it lets you merge with the music, I believe I’m giving these children something precious. I’m stricter than I thought I’d be, but also loving, because I can see that they love what I’m sharing with them. I don’t allow them to not point their feet; I don’t allow them to give up. But I do lavish praise on effort and hard work. I say things my teachers used to say—grow taller as you plié, drop the tailbone, roll back your shoulders and keep breathing!—and I mean them.

I have begun taking a weekly ballet class in addition to the ones I teach. What has happened is curious and hard to describe. I don’t do everything full-out, but as I dance, I can almost hear my soul clicking into place.

I still have my psychotherapy practice; I am still writing fiction—both of which I love. But now, the dancer in me is back from hibernation.

So what about you? How many years has it been since you did that thing you used to live for? It might have been a hobby or a passion—dirt-biking, fly fishing or found-object sculpting—any activity that completed you, that was your dessert after a hard work week. Maybe you performed with a band whose members all had day jobs. Maybe you wrote poetry you never shared with anyone, but that sustained you nevertheless. Or maybe you were one of the lucky few whose passion—be it acting or football—was once your career.

What took you away from that passion? An injury? The practical reality of needing to make more money? Lack of time? Maybe you can’t immerse yourself in the activity like you once did, but there might be a way to reconnect yourself with it. For example, one woman I danced with years ago, benched by a back injury, became a dance photographer. A friend and former performer—another psychotherapist—writes plays in her “spare time.”

If you ever look back on the days when that activity was part of your life, and think: That was when I was most fully me, you deserve this. Dust off your old passion and find a way to take it back, in any way you still can. Whatever it is, I wish you hope, courage, and a safe return to your Self.

For Canines of Mixed Ethnic Heritage

IMG_0121He’s a golden doodle?” said the woman with the boxer, eyeing my sweet, black-and-white puppy with the same skepticism my mother had faced when I was little. Back then, everyone wondered how I—this brown, curly-haired baby—could belong to my white, straight-haired mother.

“He doesn’t look very golden to me,” said the boxer lady.

“Well he is,” I could almost hear my mom responding. Short, sweet and a little indignant. Just like she handled people who questioned my parentage.

I, on the other hand, lunged into an explanation. “He’s a quarter golden retriever and three quarters mini poodle. His parents were bred from black and white parti poodles. So …” Did the boxer lady need such detail? Did she deserve the lowdown on my puppy’s ancestry?

Of course not. But her question caught me off guard, triggering something in me. An age old response to having my own ancestry questioned.

When Rico came home I thought I was prepared for everything. I’d been researching puppy care for over a year, grilling every dog owner I knew—and some I didn’t know—for tips. I’d learned about crate-training, treat-training, leashes and harnesses, apple spray, and chew toys. I’d researched vets and arranged my schedule to accommodate a “new baby,” which is how everyone said a new puppy would feel.

We’d been trying for a rescue dog for some time also, getting turned down again and again because I’d never owned a dog before, I did not have a vet in place, and because my last pets (the gerbils) had perished in a house fire. And—the ultimate deal-killer for pet rescue organizations—we had children under fifteen. Finally we bit the bullet and started researching goldendoodle breeders. When we found a reputedly great one, I looked on the website for “waiting puppies” rather than signing up for an upcoming litter. You could click on the link and watch a YouTube video of each golden retriever-poodle mix pup interacting with the breeder’s young grandson. I fell for Rico immediately.

A mini-goldendoodle expected to top out at about thirty-five pounds (he’s thirty-three), Rico was sweet and playful with a curly coat—predicted not to shed much, which was a good thing for my husband’s and daughter’s allergies. Though plenty of pups on the website were golden goldendoodles, ranging in hue from off-white to rich amber, Rico and his litter mates were black and white, like Snoopy and Harry the Dirty Dog and the Pokey Little Puppy. Like us too.  Both his parents were half “parti” poodle, meaning black and white spotted.

Rico is a party dog it turns out. He’s a total charmer, loves people, loves other dogs, is even gentle with our neighbors’ toddler twins. He doesn’t chew shoes or furniture. He slept through the night and potty-trained with relative ease. His only vice—kind of a big one—is that he loves to eat debris. Sticks, rocks, socks, ace bandages—a habit that’s sent him to the pet ER more than once. And yes, everyone at the ER loves him too.

None of us can imagine family life without him. He fits us perfectly. As my son says, “he’s even a quarter black and three quarters white like me.” True. But that’s just what I wasn’t prepared for: having the same conversations about Rico’s heritage as I have about my children’s and my own.

For example, this is what people say about my son:

“Wow! You really can’t see the black in him.”

And about Rico:

“Wow! You can’t see the golden retriever in him at all!”

About my daughter:

“That hair is beautiful. It must be a lot of work.”

About Rico:

“That coat is beautiful. It must get so matted though.”

And the kicker (seriously this happened): “We were thinking our goldendoodle’s coat might get curly too. But Misty has that nice, smooth golden retriever fur. You can barely see the poodle in her.”

Now substitute the words “biracial child” for “goldendoodle” and “black” for “poodle” and you have something like what my mother used to hear when I was a kid.

“Are you sure he’s part golden retriever?” (Are you sure she’s yours?)

And I explain. In varying degrees of detail. You might ask, WHY must I answer to these curious passers-by and dog owners? Why do I need to answer prying questions about my dog’s, my own or my children’s ancestry? Why can’t I be more like my mother and give a simple—if snarky—response?

In Maria Root’sBill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage,” it says specifically, “I have the right to self-identify. To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify.”

In other words, I have the right not to explain my heritage. As someone who does not look mixed, I am called upon to do this less frequently than my racially ambiguous-looking mixed friends. Since I look black, I don’t get asked “what are you?” very often. People assume I’m black and leave it at that. It’s only when I mention a different piece of my background—that I’m Ashkenazi Jewish on my mother’s side, for example, that people ask How is that possible?  

Similarly, people assume Rico is a poodle or a Portuguese water dog. No one means anything by it; no one is judging him. But the word Golden hits strangers the same way Jewish hits them with me. Rico couldn’t care less. The words he knows are sit, stay, leave-it, drop-it, walk, bone, and Ruby (the little dog next door). But I care.  His heritage is what it is—not to be questioned any more than mine or my children’s.

photo 3This is why I explain. I explain to be understood. To acknowledge all my heritage, my children’s and my dog’s, not to deny any part, but to embrace all, even the parts that are unseen.

For the Soon-to-be Obsolete Mom Who “Leaned Out”

images[1]So you leaned out—not in. Now what?

For some time now, you’ve been a full-time mom—A.K.A. a cooking, errand-running, laundry-doing, schedule-making, care-taking, house-yard-and-pet-managing chauffeur. Or maybe you’ve been a mostly-full-time mom, working part-time like I have, arranging your work schedule around your kids, knowing yours is a second income, and sometimes a wash when you factor in expenses like childcare. How often have you looked at back wistfully at your pre-kid life, when you put on nice shoes, skirts and blazers every day for work, when your hair was coiffed, when you had fast-paced, intelligent discussions with other adults, when you went to the gym on your own schedule, and met your spouse for dinner after work without worrying about a sitter? Of course, back then, all you wanted was a baby. You got one—or two or more—and the subsequent years have been the most fulfilling imaginable. You wouldn’t trade a single day.

Also, you’re thankful to have been in a position to “lean-out” in the first place. Not everyone gets such a choice. You’re grateful to have a spouse whose income supports the family, grateful to be able to devote yourself to parenting.

Still, some part of you looks back on your full-time-work days, thinking what a great deal you had. You knew exactly what your purpose was, who you were. Your nose may have been to the grindstone, but that was what it took to compete in the “real world.” And now, every weekday morning, looking out of your kitchen window, you can see your leaning-in neighbor—in her suit and smart haircut—dashing, briefcase in hand, for her train to that same “real world.” There she goes, you think. She’s still in the running, still excelling. Fully competent, responsible for her family’s economic well-being, dependent on no one. Her children look up to her. They miss her when she travels, are still excited when she comes home. With a queasy mix of guilt and jealousy, you think, there but for my own choices go I.

And where did you go, exactly? Besides the pediatrician’s, the barber’s, the Tae kwon do studio, the PTA executive board meetings, the grocery store, the playground, Petco and Home Depot? Besides driving to two thousand piano lessons, three thousand dance classes, four thousand soccer practices and thirty thousand playdates? Sometimes it feels like the self you once had got submerged under all those obligations, crushed under the tires of your own SUV. I used to be competent, you think. I used to get respect. But the fact is, the daily endeavors of full-or-mostly-full-time mothers frequently go unnoticed and unapplauded because they are a given.

You and I know that supporting the status-quo of a family takes enormous effort and stamina. But if you do it right, no one else notices. It’s a mother’s job to render herself obsolete, right? Bit by bit, you’re supposed to do less and less for your children, so that gradually they learn to master their own lives and become happy, self-assured people who can care for themselves. That’s the challenge of being a full-or-mostly-full-time mom. If they don’t need you to do everything for them anymore—if you’ve achieved your goal of obsolescence—then who the heck are you?

I remember pushing my daughter’s stroller through our Brooklyn neighborhood, later pushing my son’s through our New Jersey suburb, thinking Now I am complete. Now I am fully me. I had wanted to be a mother so badly, for so long—after working in schools and adoption agencies for seven years—I felt actualized at last. Most of my leaning-out friends feel the same way.

Now, however, our kids are big, at least bigger than they were. We still drive them some places, but they walk to soccer practice and no longer need us to make playdates for them. We have no hand in their social lives whatsoever. As they race out the door, heading to school (without us taking them there), we shout after them that they must text to keep us apprised of their after school plans.

Then they’re gone. And here we are. Ready for something else to make us complete. What will it be? You’re a different you than you were before you had kids. You can’t go back, so what does forward look like?

Some moms look at what they used to do and combine it with the life experience they’ve gained over their parenting years. For example, a former neighbor whose child had verbal delays went back to school to become a speech-language pathologist after spending years immersed in that discipline. Another mom I know followed her passion for fashion and is now an executive for a clothing company. Still another mom—a former attorney who has spent several years advocating for her special-needs child, demanding services that the school district was slow to provide—is considering a run for office.

It might seem like a luxury to take stock and branch out like this. In most cases it does require significant resources. But some of my mom friends, suddenly under pressure to support themselves and their children following a divorce or job loss on the part of their partners, have done it out of necessity, scraping together help and support from friends and family.

A single mom whose ex is much less of a financial support than he could be,  took out loans for a degree in social work. Through connections, she landed her dream job while still in the MSW program. Now that she has her license, her career is moving in a direction she’s happy with.

Another mom turned her parenting blog—begun when she was pregnant with her second child, chasing the first around a playground—into a parent coaching business. Another blogger and mom-friend began researching her ancestry, blogged her efforts, and has transformed her life in the process. She has written a book and given lectures on her family’s remarkable history and the process of her search. (You can read her amazing blog here.)

These women looked at what they knew, combined it with who they were and what they loved. Each added some research and a little elbow grease and gave herself a second act in the work force. On her own terms.

What would it look like if you filled out this home questionnaire:

 

What did I do before I was a Mom?

What kind of paid and unpaid work have I done since becoming a mom?

What else have I done that might look nifty on a resume? (e.g. PTA treasurer, Local Soup Kitchen Volunteer Coordinator, or—in my case, choreographer of elementary school musicals.)

What have I learned about myself since becoming a Mom?

What skills and interests have I discovered?

What are my Passions?

 When you’re done, look to see if there is any overlap among the categories.  If so, is there a field out there that might combine your special mix of skills and passions? If not, is there one thing on your list that jumps out at you, begging for exploration? Once you cast your net wide—looking at all possibilities—the next step is to focus. Pick something, zero in and deepen.

To be honest, I didn’t “lean” in or out specifically. Instead, I’ve “leaned” a whole bunch of different directions. I’ve been a dancer, a choreographer, a teacher, a writer and a clinical social worker/psychotherapist. Instead of doing so many different things, I could have gotten farther in each by “zeroing in” more. For every field I’ve sampled, there’s an alternate reality I can picture where I’ve focused all my professional energy on that one thing—writing, psychotherapy, ballet—and achieved a higher level success. My fellow social work trainees at the Ackerman Institute are now faculty members who have published papers on their specialty areas of family therapy. Those I started out with in the corps of various ballet companies are now renowned ballet teachers and choreographers. n particular, a fellow classmate from the first and only creative writing course I took in college, is now a literary household name.  Jodi Picoult.

As for me, I’m a psychotherapist with a private practice I keep manageable enough that I have time to write, be available to my children, and teach ballet (a new development I’ve added to my plate). Or I’m a writer who’s a licensed psychotherapist and ballet teacher. Or a ballet teacher who … you get the idea. It’s working for me. Though I’ll admit, it would be nice to have a simple answer when someone asks what I do, there’s no part of my mix-n-match career that I would give up.

It’s an amazing thing to put together the pieces of you and—with equal parts focus, patience and effort—begin a journey to the next phase of your career. You’re doing it for yourself, but you’re also modeling something invaluable for your children.

Tears for Bridget Jones

Zellweger before

Zellweger before

Everybody’s talking about Renée’s face. Part of me—the self-righteous, PC part—is thinking, here we go again: women scapegoating other women. When will the madness end? Why don’t we live our lives and leave each other alone? But honestly there’s another part of me, clicking on the gossip link along with everyone else, comparing Bridget Jones to modern day Renée, thinking, okay, I can see it, eyes a little wider, forehead a little stiffer, speculating on what exactly she had done, hanging on every word as the Hollywood nip and tuck experts weigh in.*

Why is it so fascinating when one woman—a woman in the public eye—changes her appearance? From Jennifer Lawrence’s hair chop to Jennifer Hudson’s weight loss, we can’t get enough. On one hand, many of us are tempted to do something daring with our hair, our noses or our necks.  Many of us fantasize about dropping a load of weight or adding new boobs. Celebrities have the cash, the time, the clout, the personal chefs and trainers to pull these things off. But there’s more to this woman-on-woman voyeuristic judgment than living vicariously through the stars.

There is also a subconscious—or in many cases conscious—identification with these famous women, perpetually on display thanks to their publicists and the paparazzi. Recent studies suggest that women who spend time on line, bombarded with images of Hollywood stars, feel worse about their appearances than those who spend limited time on fan sites. It may be natural for women to compare themselves to other women, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be destructive. That automatic impulse, honed since adolescence, makes us look at a female peer, then check ourselves. Am I ok? Do I measure up? It that peer is a celebrity, chances are you don’t measure up. Why should you? It’s not your job!

As we age, it should get a little easier. Self-acceptance should come into play as we learn to value ourselves for the things we accomplish, the women we are inside as opposed to our outward presentations. But the checking still happens.  Women in their seventies have Jane Fonda to contend with; women in my age range have Jennifer Aniston and Halle Berry as guides to “what’s still possible.” Demi Moore looks pretty fabulous too, as does Helen Hunt. How are the rest of us holding up? Unfair question.

“Well, she must have had work done.” It’s a comforting way to explain another woman’s physical age defiance. It’s helps us feel okay about aging appropriately and, in many cases, it’s true. Plenty of women, famous and otherwise, go under the knife. For every woman out there who swears she would never consider such a thing, there is another secretly contemplating it, checking out celebrity “before-and-after” pictures, holding them up to the mirror, wondering what if?

It’s my guess that Renée Zellweger had her reasons for doing whatever she either did or did not do. Whatever those reasons were, it was her business. Some critics say, yes, but as a celebrity, she’s a role model like it or not. If she was dissatisfied with her naturally adorable face—how are the rest of us supposed to feel about our own?  I say, if Renée thought she had crows’ feet starting and sought to nip them in the bud, so be it.  To say that she abandoned me and other women with burgeoning wrinkles is like saying that Jennifer Hudson abandoned plus-sized women when she dropped her weight. We are talking about Renée’s eyes, not mine.

Other critics say, By removing her imperfections, Renée has lost her charm! Now she looks like everyone else in Hollywood. Again, they’re her eyes, to make as commonplace as she sees fit. Maybe Renée did have surgery because she couldn’t love the imperfections that gave her so much character. Or maybe she thought surgery would help her maintain what everyone loves about her. She can’t win. Her face and body—like those of all stars—are part of the public domain.

So, mourn if you will for hapless Bridget Jones, but leave Renee in her round-eyed peace. And swear off toxic comparisons to anyone you see online–Facebook friends included. Take comfort in the knowledge that the image you see in your mirror is beautiful because it is belongs to no one but you.

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*No post that touches on the topic of plastic surgery would be complete without homage to the late, great Joan Rivers, the brilliant, ground-breaking comedienne and tireless plastic surgery enthusiast. I am sure I am not alone in wishing Rivers were still alive—if only to weigh in on the burning topic of Renee’s new face.