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Book Review: Hunger by Roxane Gay

Today I’m doing something I don’t usually do on this blog, which I should do more of: post a book review. I just reviewed Hunger for Goodreads, and I was thinking back to the original tagline of this blog: “Writings on Body Image and Identity.” Nothing could be more fitting than a review of Roxane Gay’s heart-searing new memoir. I highly recommend it to anyone following this blog.

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I finished Hunger three days ago and am still reeling from Ms. Gay’s incredibly candid, courageous memoir. This book is hard to read, mostly because it is so honest, but I found it impossible to put down. It is beautifully written, but Gay never hides raw emotion behind flowery language. Her words are pure, true and vivid, bringing you inside her mind and her world.

By now, Gay has been interviewed about the book so many times, I think most people know something about the story of her body, but briefly: Gay was horrifically gang raped at the age of twelve by boys she knew. She blamed herself and could not bring herself to tell her religious parents or seek help from any significant adult. Instead, she submerged her pain in food, overeating to make her body into a fortress so no one could touch her or harm her again. As she moves through adolescence and young adulthood, she continues to eat, arriving at a point her doctors refer to as “super morbidly obese.”

Gay presents a window into the complications of life as a woman of size, about how cruelly fat people are treated, how painful it is physically, psychologically and emotionally to be extremely large in an unaccommodating world. Gay touches on many “isms” from fat-phobia to sexism to racism.

However, the book is so much more than that. It a book about devastating childhood trauma, the way it arrests the victim’s entire life, coloring her self-concept, worldview and relationships for decades after the event. Gay is very clear that this not a story with a triumphant ending, where she loses all the weight her doctors and parents want her to, or where she finally comes to accept and love herself as is. But she does evolve from a place of self-loathing and self-abandonment to an adult self-love that is indeed a victory.

I recommend this memoir to anyone who has lived through trauma. I also think every woman, every person of color, everyone who has experienced isolation, will be touched by Gay’s powerful new work.

Published on Mamalode!

I am honored to say I’ve been published on Mamalode, the top-rated online magazine dedicated to the stories of mothers. My article is a slightly updated version of a post that appeared several years ago on this blog.

The Bittersweet Healing Power Of Raising A Daughter Who Looks Like Me

The Bittersweet Healing Power Of Raising A Daughter Who Looks Like Me

When I arrived at Parents’ Night and met Zoe’s middle school teachers for the first time, they all said, “Well, we can guess whose mother you are!”

The truth is, our faces don’t look all that much alike; her features are more Eastern European whereas mine are more African. But our skin color and hair textures are closely matched, and that is what strangers pick up on most often. Besides, our posture and builds are similar, as are our facial expressions and the shape of our foreheads and chins. In a bad, blurry profile shot, if you took a hurried look, you might mistake one of us for the other. In any case, people easily and readily place Zoe and me together. Unlike most mothers with daughters who resemble them, I don’t take this for granted.

Read More …

 

 

Mother’s Day Postscript: Four Tweaks to help you Enjoy Your Teenage Daughter

zoe baby (19)

With my daughter in Brooklyn, some years back

Close your eyes and picture that sweet, little bundle of a girl you had twelve, thirteen, fifteen years ago—that tiny little thing you used to hold, oh, so close and hug and kiss a million times a day and she—not only let you—she soaked it up. When Mommy was a compliment, not an accusation. When you, and not a rectangular piece of metal, were first to learn her secrets and won the best of her smiles.

Remember that kid?

Open your eyes. You still have her. She’s just bigger, with a vocabulary to match—sometimes one that would put Drake to shame—and a peer group that’s more influential than you are.

We’re at a tricky time with them: just when your daughter and the most troublesome features of life—sex, drugs, booze, and general cyber-madness—have more access to one another—just when you have more reasons to want to protect her and tighten the controls, she has the developmental task of challenging you, breaking away and asserting herself as a separate entity from all you stand for.

You can’t control her; you can’t put her in time out like you once did. You can take away her devices, but that may amount to cruel and unusual punishment that may be more of a headache for you than for her. But you can improve your relationship and make both your lives easier by changing your responses to the behavior she dishes out.

Here are four common issues I’ve run into in my family therapy practice as well as in my interactions with my own teen daughter—and four tweaks to improve the outcome.

Issue #1: You personalize what she says and does.

Your daughter gets home from school, barely grunts in response to your greeting, grabs a snack and goes to her room, presumably to do homework. This irks you, so you go and knock. There’s no answer, so you open the door to find her earbuds in as she scrolls away on her computer.

You: I think I said hello.

Her: I said hello.

You: That was not a greeting.

Her: Hello, Mother. How was your day. Better?

You sigh. You leave. It’s the best you can get when she’s in a mood. But an hour later, when her grandmother pops by for a visit, your surly child becomes an angel.

“Nanna! Hiiii!!” She hugs Nanna and tells her all about everything—her favorite teacher, her favorite boy, the cupcake recipe she just learned on YouTube—the sort of tidbits you have not been able to pry from her lips in years.

Nanna goes home and it’s the cold shoulder for you all over again. Then, from the kitchen, you hear your daughter laugh in delight. You remember that laugh. You love that laugh. But don’t kid yourself. She will not be sharing the joke with you. She’s snapchatting with her friend, Samantha. You wouldn’t understand.

You do everything for your kid, yet everyone gets a better version of her than you do. What did you do wrong? Were you not around enough when she was little? Were you around too much, leading her to take you for granted? Were you too strict? Not strict enough? Did you favor her sister? Compare her to her brother?

Maybe you did. Maybe you didn’t. It doesn’t matter. You can’t change the past, but you can make the most of the present no matter what she’s mad about.

How to Flip it and give yourself a break:

Grow a thick skin. Recognize that your child is developing her identity—trying out new personas, trying to impress new teachers, mentors, friends. This is exhausting work. You—the most stable entity in her life—are the only one she doesn’t need to try so hard with.

That said, you are still her mother and deserving of respect. But keep your emotion out of it. You choose to let her hurt your feelings or not. When she stomps in with barely a grunt, try some levity. Say:

“Hold up my friend. Do-over. Repeat after me: Hi mom, how was your day? Mine was good. And for extra credit throw in a hug.” When she hugs you, say, “Ok. Love, you too. Now go get your snack.”

She may actually laugh.

Issue # 2: You kitchen-sink her.

You can’t stop picking:

“You owe grandma a thank you note.”

“You forgot to walk the dog.”

“When are you going to do something about your hair?”

“You are not going out of the house dressed like that.”

“I checked the parents’ porthole: why are you marked absent from global studies three days in a row?”

“Your room is a mess.”

No surprise that she ducks and heads the other way when she sees you coming. She knows you’re going to tell her she’s done something wrong or failed to do something right. One problem with this is that she will be inclined to tune you out, since everything she does elicits the same kind of complaint.

Another problem with this is that you can fall into the trap of failing to see and acknowledge her accomplishments because her flaws loom so large for you.

How to Flip it and give yourself a break:

Choose your battles, pick the most important issue or issues and make those the priorities. I think cutting a class trumps the messy room every time. If everything is a priority? Then space them out. Don’t deliver all your gripes at once.

Most importantly, look for opportunities to praise her efforts, just like you did when she was younger. Don’t forget to celebrate her successes–that A on a lit paper, or a the great assist in a soccer game–to balance out the criticisms.

Issue #3: Your worries shut down communication

You haven’t had a good talk in ages. Maybe years. Then one day in the car—when you are not asking her questions or looking at her, so her guard is down—she starts gabbing:

“So guess what happened yesterday when we were all at Samantha’s house? We were making a video with this guy Tony’s phone and then—”

You cut her off: “Yesterday? You told me you were at a Key club meeting yesterday. And I told you you couldn’t go to Stephanie’s house after that whole house party thing. And who’s Tony? You’re not supposed to be hanging out with boys when there are no parents home!”

Congratulations. You just missed out on an opportunity to learn something about your daughter’s inner life.

How to flip it:

The thing to do here is separate Rules Mom from Confidante Mom. Bite your tongue and listen to her with open ears, an open heart and an open mind. She is sharing a story with you, possibly sharing her feelings and opinions. These are gifts.

If she mentions worrisome behavior or dangerous activities, wait till the conversation is over and till there is a change of scenery to talk to her about that. For example, while you are making dinner together, you can say:

“I’m glad you told me about Tony’s video. It sounds like you guys had fun. But now we need to talk about a few things.”

And again, choose your priorities. Which matters more: That she lied about going to Stephanie’s house? Or that there was a boy there? You may also need to have a conversation to renegotiate ground rules about hanging out.

Issue # 4: You mistake her for yourself.

When you were your daughter’s age, you were passionate about the cello. You wrote for the school newspaper and volunteered at your church every day. You wanted to do these things. She has no interest in them. She tries sports and clubs, but only because you make her. She isn’t passionate about anything. This drives you crazy. You raised your children to stand out from the crowd like you did.

Or:

You were outgoing and sporty as a kid. You had a million friends, boyfriends too. Your daughter is quiet and bookish and has just one close friend. What’s wrong? Is she lonely? Why doesn’t she talk more? What about dating?

How to Flip it and give yourself a break:

Be accepting of who she is and how she is different from you. Then, be patient and wait for her to find what makes her happy. Find out what she likes and support it.

Here’s my personal story about this one:

I was a ballet dancer in my first professional life. When my daughter was five, I could see from her elegant posture and the shape of her feet that she had the potential to go even farther than I did in dance if she chose to pursue it. And with those feet and my genes, of course she would choose to pursue it—who wouldn’t?

Well, it turned out she wouldn’t. For years I tried her in different types of dance—from ballet to hip-hop. She’d show some promise in all of them, but no love for any. That’s the thing about children and passions: you can expose them to a dozen different disciplines, but you cannot make them fall in love. That requires the magic of what I call the experiential cupid. The out-of-nowhere spark that ignites a child’s interest and imagination. You can’t force it if it isn’t there.

So two years ago, I stopped trying to get my daughter to love dancing. She switched to gym and was instantly more confident and joyful. Now she plays on the tennis team at school and recently fell hook line and sinker for a brand new sport into which she is pouring her whole heart: ice hockey.  Something you couldn’t have paid me to try at her age.

I celebrate her new passion and am relieved that I saw how guilty I was for mistaking my dream for her own.

The Bottom line:

Your child is still that wonderful creature you used to hold, hug and kiss. She’s just a new, transitional version. Accordingly, you need to respond to her in new ways.

  • Do Listen as much as possible, without judgment, to what she has to tell you.
  • Do drop everything on those rare and inconvenient times when she’s being communicative. (Even if it’s one am. That’s when teens tend to be the most open.)

The more you are open, the more you refrain from criticizing or judging, the more she will give you and the better you will get to know this new version of her.

  • Do embrace her Individuality; acknowledge the differences in your temperaments.
  • Do remember this: as long as she is taking care of the basics—doing her best in school, staying healthy, avoiding negative influences, and making good choices—you can give yourself permission to relax a little about some of the other stuff.

In any case, when you change up your viewpoint, lighten up, let certain things go, it’s easier to appreciate the unique, magical young woman your teenage daughter is.

zoe and mom yosemite

Happy Mother’s Day to All!

Martin Luther King, Jr. Was Jewish, Right?

I’m re-posting this one today, as Black History Month Draws to a close–another post within a post–thinking about the wonderful and original ways children interpret our words and their world.

Lisa W. Rosenberg

“Martin Luther King Jr. Was Jewish, Right?”  And Other Stuff Kids from Multicultural Families come up With.

“I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  1963, Washington D.C.

On the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1960s, King’s dream of racial harmony was already thriving in many households.  Growing up biracial in that locale and era I was in good company. Brownish kids with wild, free form hair were visible at every turn.  Whatever wasn’t perfect in my life, having parents of different races didn’t feel unusual.

When my husband and I were planning our family, we knew we wanted what I’d had: a hometown where being mixed was as ordinary as breathing.  That’s what we’ve got.  Our town is full…

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Bone Marrow Donor Registry Drive

Hi all, still taking a blogging break, but I’m happy to announce a special event that will take place here in Montclair at the wonderful Watchung Booksellers.

Here is the Press Release:

Local businesses, organizations, and community members are sponsoring a bone marrow donor registry drive on Saturday, November 14, 2015 from 3 to 5 pm at Montclair’s Watchung Booksellers, 54 Fairfield St, Montclair, NJ 07043. The sponsors are the bookstore itself, multiracial advocacy organization Project RACE, family therapist Lisa W. Rosenberg, comic and writer Alex Barnett, bone marrow registry organization Be the Match, and the authors of Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide.

The drive will highlight an important issue within the multiracial community: the lack of bone marrow donor matches. For patients diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma and other life-threatening diseases, a bone marrow transplant may be their only hope for a cure. Yet 70% of patients who need a transplant don’t have a matched donor in their family. For multiracial people, finding a match can be especially hard. “As a multiracial person myself, whose father benefitted from a bone marrow transplant, I am committed to helping those who may otherwise have had difficulty finding a bone marrow donor,” said Ms. Rosenberg. “The other sponsors and I are proud and honored to work on such an important cause.”

The first 50 donors will receive a multiracial crayon pack in appreciation for their support!

The Sponsors of the Drive are:

Be the Match (https://bethematch.org/) has a registry of nearly 12.5 million volunteers ready to be life-saving bone marrow donors. Because there are patients who can’t find a match, Be the Match encourages more people to join the registry and be there when they are called as a match.

Project RACE (http://www.ProjectRACE.com/) advocates for multiracial people and their families primarily through education and community awareness. It supports policies that make a positive impact on people of multiracial heritage at local, state, and national levels. Project RACE is active in the effort to find bone marrow donors for multiracial people and sponsors countless donor registry drives throughout the United States.

Watchung Booksellers (http://www.watchungbooksellers.com/) is a vibrant, independent community bookstore located in the heart of Montclair. It is a fierce supporter of the community, contributing to and working with the public and private schools serving Montclair’s children, the Montclair Public Library, Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, the Adult School of Montclair, and Montclair’s civic, political and religious institutions.

Lisa W. Rosenberg (https://lisawrosenberg.com/) is a psychotherapist, writer and speaker specializing on topics related to body image, parenting and identity. She previously was a ballet dancer with the Pennsylvania and Pacific Northwest Ballet Companies. She lives in Montclair with her husband and two children.

Alex Barnett (http://www.alexbarnettcomic.com/) is a comic and writer. He also is the host of the podcast Multiracial Family Man (http://multiracialfamilyman.libsyn.com/) that explores issues of concern to multiracial people and families.

Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide (http://beingbiracial.com) authors, Sarah Ratliff writes about gender and race advocacy and is Biracial, and Bryony Sutherland is a ten-time published author and the mother of three Biracial sons.

Thinking of everyone who has lost a Valentine, a long term spouse or partner (and I have several family friends who have, this very year, said goodbye to the loves of their lives, partners for half a century and more). I’m reposting this–from a year ago–dedicating it to my mother, who misses Dad in her way as I do in mine. With love.

Lisa W. Rosenberg

When you lose someone you love, the loss becomes part of you.  As time passes the loss changes shape, weight, texture, but you carry it everywhere.  It’s experience that changes you, wisdom to share in measured doses, depending on how willing another is to receive.

My father died of cancer seventeen years ago today:  February 13th, 1995, the day before Valentine’s Day.  We sat shiva for just three days before we felt him urging us to get back out into the world and live—on his behalf, on our own.  I remember walking outside on February 17th and thinking what a lonely place it was without Mel Williamson.  Lonelier still for those who’d never known him.  And then something happened—I don’t remember what—I saw some interaction between strangers on the street: something Dad would have made a comment about or laughed at, and I remember smiling.  A private…

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Someone Else’s Nanny

My children’s babysitter, Monique (whose name I’m changing here), came
to me with just one reference, and no background check. All I had to go on was
a good feeling about her in my gut coupled with a sense of total desperation about finding a sitter.

When we lived in Brooklyn, until Zoe was a year old, I had enough family around to watch her when I worked. When we first moved to Montclair–I was working three days a week then–I was fortunate enough to find a sitter—a cousin of a friend’s sitter—who came once a week. My mother came out another day and my husband was home when I worked Saturdays. Then that sitter left me to become a crossing guard, explaining she needed five full days of work.

I needed help quickly. Someone who could work two long days a week but didn’t need five, who could manage a newborn and a highly opinionated preschooler, who could read with inflection (that was a must for me, since I had strict TV limits), who played games and could run around after Zoe with ease.

I found someone quickly, though it would turn out to be a dead end.  Candy was the daughter of a friend’s babysitter, twenty years old, with a one year old son–but assured me she had plenty of childcare for him.  I had misgivings about her age, but my daughter loved her and the girl seemed to have a lot of family support around town.  I hired her on a trial basis, and everything worked out well for about a week.

Then, five days before I was supposed to start working, Candy informed me that she couldn’t come anymore because her own childcare had fallen through.

Trough an agency, I hastily interviewed about ten different women, all of whom seemed far more interested in newborn Theo than talking, walking Zoe.  Then, on Candy’s second last day, she brought home a woman she’d met in the playground.   (A stranger, which shed light on Candy’s judgment, frankly.)

“This is Monique.” Candy said. “She’s a baby sitter.”

I barely looked at Monique, because I’d been up all night and had interviewed three  sitters already that day.  I was also nursing every two hours and coping with a jealous two-year-old who thought it was high time we sent the baby back to the hospital where it came from.

I said to Monique,  “Look, why don’t you come back Monday?”  Meaning–but not communicating well enough to convey–that I’d interview her Monday. Instead, Monique thought I’d hired her.   She arrived Monday ready to work.

I said we’d try it for a day, since I’d be home. But I stressed that I needed, above all things, for her to win over Zoe. Well, Monique did it. She was bright and energetic and attentive. In no time she had my daughter giggling, asking for another story. (Yes, Monique read with inflection.)  She was also wonderful with baby Theo, with whom she fell in love immediately.

It was a happy story. Monique wound up caring for my children, two days a week (the other three, she cared for the children of a friend) from eight until eight, for six years. She stopped only when I went on my hiatus to write. Monique still sits for my kids sometimes, still does my daughter’s hair if ever I need it braided (like we did for sleep-away camp). I consider her a big part of my childrens’ early years, a wonderful influence, someone we care for, who cares for our children. I was lucky, so lucky to have met her, and so were my kids.

We were all lucky.
The most important thing you do as a working mom–responsible for finding responsible childcare–once you have chosen that special person who will make your complicated life at all possible–is take a huge leap of faith . Every day that you leave your children, you must make a choice to trust this person whom you’d never have met if you hadn’t been looking for childcare.

This is a truth between nannies* and moms: if not for the children, if not for the mutual need for work—their lives would likely have never intersected.  Nannies and moms tend to differ in childcare style, culture, class, education level, and also frequently race. With all those differences, not to mention the odd check-and-balance of power (Mom has the money; Nanny has the kids), there is much room for tension and even conflict.

In such a complicated relationship, trust is paramount. And I mean Trust as a two way street. Mom trusts that her children will be safe and cared for and (best case scenario) truly loved by the nanny. Nanny trusts that she will be compensated for hours worked, warned if those hours are going to be drastically increased or cut, respected, treated like a valued human being and not taken advantage of.

Trust, respect, balance. Only when all that’s  in place can a mother breathe easily and finally begin to relax into the rhythm of her life.

And then …

A news story breaks, horrifying and gruesome.  About a nanny on the Upper West Side of Manhattan who was found, her own throat slit, apparently by her own hand (which still held the blade) and the two small children left in her care, both fatally stabbed. About their mother, returning home with their  sibling in tow, who found the above scene.

I can only imagine what must have gone through that mother’s mind, the disbelief, the anguish, rage and profound despair. As a mother myself it is impossible to think of this mother’s feelings without tearing up. The father, too, who was away on business, and who—hearing about the tragedy—could not immediately put his arms around his grieving wife or bewildered, surviving child.  (Of course, the therapist in me cannot help thinking of that surviving child herself, wondering how her life will be, how they’ll wind up parenting her—the whole family reeling with grief, guilt, fear and other residue from the trauma.)

I wonder too about the nanny in question, the suspected murderer, who was loved by the family, who loved the children. The family had visited the nanny’s home in the Dominican Republic and had met her extended family—an experience cheerfully blogged about by the mother. I can only imagine the brutality of learning that someone you thought you knew–someone you trusted with your heart and soul–is the ultimate monster.

But something else gives me a great sense of foreboding about the case: the implications for every other nanny in the tri-state area. Going forward, what will life be like for these women?

As noted in Saturday’s New York Times, nannies will hereafter be under intense scrutiny.  I can only imagine the mistrust, the questions forming that no parent wants to ask, but has to for the safety of their children. This was a family who thought such a thing could never happen to them.  Yet it did, which makes it seem like it could happen to anyone.

How then, does a good nanny prove she is who she says she is? How can she convince them: that will never be me, I will never lose my mind, I will never put your children at risk.  How can she make them believe?

For now she can’t. Good women will be doubted. Mothers will hesitate before hiring. When they do hire, they will still be wary, thinking: It was someone else’s Nanny, but it could have been you. Could still be you. Suspician and resentment, and finally guilt–because no one wants to feel these things–will pervade the playgrounds of New York, where both nannies and moms can be found. The aftertaste of this unspeakable tragedy will haunt them for months, years, to come.
*Where I live, in Montclair, NJ, I have never heard a mother refer to her kids’ baby-sitter as a nanny.  I use the word here because it is the word used in the New York Times describing the case.  Monique always prefered “babysitter.” Nanny, to her–to us–felt too formal and old school.