Being a mother is a struggle. Most of the time I feel like I’m drowning. Once in a while I get my head above the water. No sooner than I manage to take a breath when another tidal wave comes straight at me. When my son was a baby, everyone would tell me that life would get easier as he aged. After all, he would sleep through the night and go potty in the bathroom. That’s all true. My son still gets up at night once in a while but it’s nothing like that first year.
What they forget to add is that the actual parenting gets harder. Now, at 6, he’s finding his voice–and using it against me. He wants to watch videos of kids playing with toys he will never have or already has. I say, “No!” He says, “I hate you.” He would rather play with his cousin Alex after school than do his homework. I say, “No!” He says, “I wish you weren’t my mom.” Even though I know these words are merely growing pains, they still break my heart just a little bit every time.
What Comes Next
My boy is growing up. He is testing me, trying to figure out his limits and mine. Mostly, he’s trying to gain some independence. I’ll admit I’m loathe to give it to him. I find such comfort in holding him close and keeping him little. Everything is still new to him. His eyes glisten. And those dimples turn up with every ear-to-ear smile. While the world outside is unjust and darkness is closing in on us, he brings in the sunshine. Our place is filled with light. This love I hold for my baby in my heart is my salvation. He is literally my everything.
Therefore, when he dishes up an “I like papa better than mamma,” line, I lose my temper. I yell or cry or both. Sometimes, I put myself in time out behind the locked bathroom door. Or I take a walk in the garden. In these quiet moments away from my child, I think about the long arc of justice. I too must have made my mother cry. It is only now that I recognize how deeply and profoundly she loved me. Now, I realize how much I took for granted those moments with her from childhood. And I see how mean I might have been. Surely, I told her I hated her. I always took it back. But once the words escape your mouth, your mother knows what is lurking in your mind. She knows the raw emotion. There’s no turning back really. My only option is to roast myself in my own guilt about how I treated my own mom, about how things are going with my son. For the moment, I hate myself.
How to Move Forward
In the silence, I hear my heart. I take a deep breath. Then, I envelope myself in the nostalgia of having a newborn, who needs you for everything. I relish the memories that dance in my mind – my son breathing, deep in sleep on my chest. Or what about that first smile? How about when he finally began to speak to us? He had delayed speech and didn’t start talking until he was about 4. Should I even be allowed to get angry at a child with delayed speech who is verbally attacking me? Probably not. This is all my fault, I think. I convince myself I’m too hard on him. Why can’t I be the one handing out chocolate Kinder eggs and playing Mario Kart with him? Why does my husband get that job? Guilt continues to wash over me like muslin rolling over a body in a coffin.
Before long, I miss my boy. It’s only been a few minutes, yet I feel like we are so far apart. The distance weighs on me like a hot iron pressing on my chest. What the hell am I going to do when he’s off to college? Now, I can’t resist.
So, I return to him. Tears are rolling down his cheeks. He is red in the face. “I want you mamma. I didn’t mean it,” he says. And I can’t help myself. I can’t stay angry or even sad. “You’re the love of my life,” I say as I lift him up to me. As I rub my cheek against his, my stomach settles, the world stops. For that second, everything is truly all right. I wish to the depths of my soul that I could hold this pose forever.
The truth is my son and I will be repeating this pattern of give and take, war and peace for years to come. Our arguments will evolve. As my grandmother used to say, “Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems; married kids, impossible problems.” My boy will have to seize his independence. And I’ll have to give it to him, even if reluctantly. Guilt and nostalgia will come and go, but they can’t stop me from raising him to be a good person. Still, they will torture me along the way. That is motherhood. That is for what I’ve signed up, for what every mother has signed up. Our reward is a full heart and a light spirit despite a heavy mind.
Yesterday my 5-year-old son told Nonna he was asking Jesus to send us a second baby. “He’ll be my friend,” he said. My eyes welled up with tears. At the moment, we’re in Italy. Here, he has much older cousins and is constantly surrounded by teenagers and adults. He’s lonely. It breaks my heart. I can not relate.
When I was his age, I had my brother, who is a year younger than I am. Our baby sister had just arrived. My father is the youngest of nine; my mother is the oldest of six. We were close to all our first cousins – and there are many of them. They were in our house all. the. time. I consider them, in fact, to be just like my siblings. We all lived within a 5-mile radius growing up. To be honest, most of us still live pretty close to one another. That’s probably why my husband and I had nearly 30 people in our American bridal party when my husband and I got married.
Guilt and Sadness Enough to Choke You
In previous posts, I’ve expressed how guilty I feel about failing to produce a sibling for my son. Despite his Italian passport and frequent visits to Italy, he is missing out on being Italian. Our big, intrusive but loving family makes us the most Italian. When he sits in our apartment in Italy or home in the United States all alone in a room, I feel it. I sense the doom. He will never have a constant playmate for make believe or even with whom to argue for attention.
True, in America he has two first cousins who are close in age to him. They are together virtually everyday when we’re in the country. My mother and often I take care of them while their parents work. But with every passing year, their time with us gets shorter. They live in a different town and have more and more responsibilities associated with school. My brother and sister-in-law carve out time to be with them, of course. When their parents are home, they don’t need us, rightfully so. A time will come when they are old enough to stay on their own and won’t need grown ups tending to them all the time. I dread the day.
Where Has the Family Gone?
What gets me to cry is when I think far into the future. What will happen if my son wants to have kids of his own? They will have no first cousins – at least not on his side of the family. Our cousins were our whole world. The biggest sense of belonging my son has had is with his two cousins. I feel responsible for failing to give my future grandchildren cousins of their own.
The broken family – not divorce mind you – is what’s killing us all now. The fact that we’re all disconnected from a community of people is our poison. We’ve lost the chosen family that used to be friends and neighbors. And we’re losing our extended family. We’re far away from those we still have. And we’re not creating more relatives. Yes, there is overpopulation. So, it’s better for the environment. But the heart is still lost.
It’s Economics, Stupid!
These losses stem mainly from economics. Pressures to find jobs, keep jobs, and earn money is one factor. It moves us all over the place, so we’re no longer physically near loved ones. The demands of our jobs force us to spend less and less time with our family anyway. By not being near loved ones, who might be able to tend to children, we have to invest in costly child care. Sometimes, even if we are near family, we have no choice if everyone is working. Now, with all the digital devices keeping us linked to work all day, it’s a wonder we are still having children at all. That is not even to mention the extraordinary costs of health care and higher education in the United States. Who can afford one child, let alone two or more?
So, thinking about having a second child makes me think I’m being greedy. We can’t financially afford another child. Actually, I suppose we could, but it would be hard. It’s hard enough already with one. I feel selfish for wanting to ask a baby, not to mention our first child, to make the necessary sacrifices. For one, they would be foregoing time with us. We’d have to work more to support us all. And they’d be giving up some luxuries for sure. Certainly, some of that would be character building. And a baby to enrich our family would be better than any treats, such as a nice vacation or eating out. But just paying for the necessities could be tough. You never know what could happen down the road. That hardly seems fair to little ones.
How Many Miracles Can One Person Get?
Never did I face the infertility struggles of some of the women of my generation. I was never injecting myself with anything, nor did I have one doctor’s appointment after another. I didn’t even take any medications to get pregnant. But we suffered a heartbreaking miscarriage that turned our world dark for a long while. And I do not ovulate, thanks to polycystic ovaries. So, it’s not easy to get pregnant. It happened twice. The second time, we were blessed with our son.
We had prayed and prayed to Jesus for a child. We lit candles asking St. Gerard to help us. Honestly, we’re not the most religious people in the world. But prayer and a little faith gave us hope. Indeed, our son arrived. Our baby has brought us so much love and joy. We are grateful. Every child is a miracle to his or her parents. It’s overwhelming. To ask for a second baby seems wrong. It seems like we’re asking for too much, more than anyone deserves.
Innocence is defined as “lack of guile or corruption; purity,” according to Google. As I prepare to send my 5-year-old son off to kindergarten next September, this is the word that is smacking my mind like a hammer. He is sweet and good and kind. He wants to be friends with everyone in his class. He has no airs about him. He doesn’t recognize differences in race or religion or politics. He reminds us that stupid is a bad word. Whenever I say I’m getting old, he says, “No, mamma, you’re beautiful.” And when one of his friends cries, he is willing to hold out his hand or offer a hug. He has not yet realized the world is pummeling him. For this, I’m grateful. And I want it to last.
The First Sign of Trouble
As many readers know, my son had delayed speech. He did not really start talking until a year and half ago. I’m proud to report that he recently tested out of speech. In fact, now, we usually can’t get him to shut up. We get to have full-fledged conversations, not to mention arguments, with him. That’s just fine with us. During testing, the school’s child study team wanted to have him tested for ADD and ADHD, so we headed to a local hospital. It turns out he doesn’t have any attention disorders either. But the doctor did talk to us about getting him kindergarten ready. What she said stunned me.
Now, I must preface this by writing that this doctor was helpful and kind hearted. She worked well with my son. She impressed my husband, mother, and me. She told us that our son seemed kindergarten ready. When I asked what we could do to help him prepare. She said he was immature and that the other kids would probably have more “street smarts.” They’re going to be rougher and might not be as sweet, she explained. He needed to toughen up and get more worldly. At 5. At 5. At 5?
“Hell no,” is what entered my mind. But I just said, “Thanks.”
Confirmation the Doc Was onto Something
My son has only gone to school with other children with speech delays and other challenges. The class is tight like a family. The kids all help each other. They are sympathetic and understanding. They don’t make fun of anyone for the obstacles they have had to overcome. Their teachers are special people, who serve as strong role models. They foster the culture of kindness in the classroom.
My son and 4-year-old nephew are playing on an in-town soccer league with some kids already in kindergarten and first grade. They are not nearly as skilled as their teammates. They are just learning the game. They are smaller. They have to develop their skills and better understand the rules. But they get out there and play. One of the other kids called my son a loser and asked why he couldn’t score a goal. I saw the smiles drain out of my son. He was pale and reluctant to keep participating. Where were the other kids’ parents?
We convinced him to get back on the field. It was not even a game. It was practice, and this was a chance to improve, we explained. I also told him to never listen to anyone who called him names. I was proud he didn’t stoop to the boy’s level. But I know he also would never stand up for himself, which wasn’t good either. Suddenly, it hit me like a soccer ball to the head; the doctor was right.
Meanies All Around
Those mean girls are not just in high school. They are not even just girls. I started looking around. My niece’s class was full of kids calling each other names. She often has stomach aches that disappear when she gets away from her “friends.” Another mom told me about first graders shunning another boy during a play date. We’ve all heard the stories of online bullies and maltreatment on the playground. Some of it is a tale as old as time. Some of it is a new kind of evil, more sinister and grown up.
My first instinct is to teach my son how to pull a good left hook and never let anyone mess with him. But just the thought breaks my heart. Instead, I’ve decided to hang onto that innocence. I want him to have a pure heart, to give everyone a chance. I want him to be kind. I want him to be the kid who goes over to that shunned boy and extend a hand. I have been talking to him about bringing others who are left out into a group.
Indeed, he played with another student who doesn’t yet speak the other day. They didn’t really interact, but they kept each other company in the play area. His teacher tells me he helps another little girl who doesn’t speak at all yet. He will take her by the hand and show her the classroom and what she has to do. “She doesn’t talk yet, but she’s trying,” my son said of this girl. “I can tell she has a lot to tell me.” That’s something. That’s a win for innocence. That means I’m not giving up on this. And I’m not trying to change him. Those “street smarts” and “maturity” will have to wait.
What I Tell My Son
Every day before he goes to school, I tell him to do the following:
Listen to your teachers
If your friends are misbehaving, you should not follow them
Lead your friends into good behavior
If any of your friends are in trouble (crying, upset, not feeling well, etc.), you must help them
Be nice (bears repeating)
No hitting, no kicking, no biting, no pushing or shoving (he’s never done this but I want him to know it’s wrong)
The photo above comes from a time before my son spoke to us. He really did not get a grasp for language until he was 4. Now that he’s 5, we’re still working on it. But the future is promising. Nowadays, I spend more time trying to convince him to be quiet for a minute than trying to get him to speak with me or worse trying to understand what he needs despite his silence. It’s a blessing and a curse, and I’ll take it.
Still, I can’t seem to forget the days when his inability to communicate led to the wildest tantrums, the stuff of poltergeist legends. One of the longest ones lasted more than six hours and consumed gallons upon gallons of my blood, sweat, and tears (literally). I may forever have nightmares. Since then, I’ve reflected and come to terms with the inevitable tantrums. Even kids, who speak on schedule and just fine, have ’em. I know because I’ve dealt with those of my niece and nephew, too. And I’ve studied the tantrum as though a doctor seeking a cure to a deadly disease. Ok, that’s somewhat hyperbolic, but that’s cool these days, so I’m not editing it. In fact, it might get this classified as fake news, which means more people might read it.
I digress. Anyway, here is the anatomy of a tantrum as I have observed:
The Precursor – That moment when mom realizes the end of the world is approaching. In the early days, she won’t recognize the red alert until the first tear is shed. When she becomes more experienced, she will understand what’s coming as soon as someone offers her baby the blue lollipop when the child in line before him received red. She will know that if Aunt Jackie fails to wave to him from the window, then he will melt down literally. It will look like Frosty in Hawaii on its hottest day. And mom will be left to clean up the flood.
Jello Shots – This next phase in the tantrum gets its name from the fact that mom will consider taking jello shots when this moment arrives but also because her baby will likely drop to the floor and all of his limbs will turn to jello. She will be unable to pick him up and take him away. Her face will turn as red as strawberry jello as she tries to pick up the gelatinous sack of flour otherwise known as her spawn in front of the crowd of people gathering. Indeed, spawn is the way she will describe her child in this phase of the tantrum. Now, sometimes, the tantrum happens at home. That is called good luck. Thank the heavens and try to ignore the wailing child. Lock yourself in the bathroom and eat your stash of chocolate while in there. Yep, every veteran mother has her goodies hidden in the bathroom or the closet. Your secret is safe with me.
Cool Down – Once mom has gotten hold of the monster she once knew as a cooing baby, she will continue sweating from places she didn’t know she had. Her body will radiate enough heat to melt an igloo. And she will try bouncing the child, the one she can barely keep in her arms, on her hip. She will try whispering, “It’s okay, calm down. Mommy’s here.” She will ask the child to stop. She might try her stern, bad cop face. “Santa is watching,” or “You’re going to time out as soon as we get home.” People around her will either pity her, ignore her, or try to help. All these reactions will annoy mom like nothing else has ever annoyed her, including the still wailing child. But suddenly mom will get a hold of herself. Maybe she’ll bring the child to a bathroom and they’ll both throw some water in their face. Or a few deep breaths will bring her back to Earth. Or one of those helpers will actually help and distract the child long enough for mom to collect herself. Then, she will calmly begin to sooth her child, even if he’s being a spoiled brat. (Sorry, but sometimes that’s what the tantrum is all about.) She will explain why he can’t always have his way, kiss, hug, or cuddle him.
No Warning Finish – At a certain moment, mom will be about to lose it all over again. And her child will simply stop. There will be no explanation. It’s probably just a result of pure exhaustion. But the storm will end. For five minutes all will be calm. Savor it. You don’t know when you’ll have this serenity again. Such is the life of a mother.
I famously peed my pants in front of my entire first grade class back in the day. When friends from home visited me at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., they regaled my dorm mates with this tale, replete with my nerdy reasoning for not going to the bathroom sooner – I was too afraid to miss a math lesson – and a detailed description of the yellow puddle that emerged beneath my feet. Another time, my leg fell asleep while sitting on the floor at an elementary school concert, and when I got up to perform, I fell right down. Everyone laughed and laughed, and I turned all shades of red. Of course, there were other fumbles through the years, but I thought those two would remain the worst of the worst. And I could push them to the back of my mind and forget all about them as I grew into a sophisticated adult.
Then, I had a son. Well, from the moment he entered the world, the embarrassing moments had a way of sneaking up on me and nearly five years later, they haven’t stopped. Delivering a baby – spread eagle and all, with sweat dripping down, all sorts of goo falling out of you, and feeling like a beached whale in front of strangers – set the tone for what was to come. Since many of you know what I’m talking about, here’s a list of the embarrassing moments I’ve had since having a kid:
Flooding the Flight with Stench My son and I often travel together to my husband’s native Italy. It’s basically torture for a mom to be on a plane with a young child. The others on the flight give you the stink eye and hate you from the moment you board. You sweat the entire time either because your child is screaming, or you fear he will start screaming. But this one flight from Naples to New York got worse, way worse. My son had diarrhea, which meant cleaning him up and changing him numerous times in the plane’s teeny tiny bathroom. Then, as we were descending, with everyone watching because he squirmed out of his seatbelt and jumped to the floor clutching his stomach, he projectile vomited all over the seats in front of us, him, and me. We needed to use an entire pack of baby wipes to clean the plane and needed a giant garbage bag for all our clothes, and we still stunk like skunks. Seriously. He was green until the next day. It took two baths for him and three showers for me to be able to go back out in public.
Target Nipples When my son was just 6 months old, we brought him to Italy for the first time, and I was still breast feeding. He latched on well at the start of the flight, but then a baby next to us began wailing. He wouldn’t stop. So, my son quit and would only take the bottle for the remaining trip, which was long (about 12 hours). I didn’t think to pump milk or bring any of my equipment with me in flight. Sure enough, I exited the plane in Naples and arrived in Ischia with soaking wet nipples. The milk seeped through my nursing bra and T-shirt, and it looked like I had two giant targets on my chest. My mother-in-law found it hilarious. “You walked around the airport like that, ha ha ha,” she said. Yeah, ha ha ha.
Poopie Head Nowadays, my son thinks he’s a poet, and he will sometimes say, “Mommy has poop hair.” He might be onto something. During that first trip to Italy, he became ill and had diarrhea for 40 days. It was terrifying. The first few times, the excrement was extreme. Poop bombs would blast out of his little bottom. I carried him covered in the stuff from our room to the bigger tub in my mother-in-law’s part of the house. After he was all cleaned up, my husband and I were sitting at our kitchen table talking about what to do about our poor baby. He kept saying, “I still smell poop.” I said, “The baby is clean now. What are you talking about?” Then, he came closer to me. I thought he wanted to kiss or hug me, especially after I endured a difficult day. Instead, he sniffed. He jumped back and shouted, “You have poop in your hair!” In fact, I had a large clump of baby poop right on the top of my head. I didn’t even notice. No kisses for me. Clearly, my son is right. My hair is poop colored if nothing else. And that’s dangerous when you have a wee baby.
Tantrum Torture Most moms have experienced the kicking and screaming at a store when their child wants a toy they can’t have. But my son had delayed speech, which meant the tantrums lasted 10 times longer in actual time and 150 times longer in my memory. The worst ones have happened at my in-laws’ house in Italy. We were living there when he was between 18 months and 2 and a 1/2 years old. He actually cried and kicked for five hours one time. Why? Well, it began because he didn’t want me changing a dirty diaper. Then, he wanted the dirty diaper back from the garbage, or at least that is what we assessed from his gestures and actions. My sister-in-law and I actually went in the garbage and gave it to him at one point. Desperation. My mother-in-law started crying at around hour 2 and didn’t stop until he did. I bounced him. I sang to him. I tried to comfort him. I tried explaining. I asked him what he needed, but he never responded back then. I had no idea what he wanted. My other sister-in-law gave him a suppository of the Italian version of baby Tylenol in case he was sick. We learned something. A child having a tantrum does not like stuff pushed up his rear end. Remember that. The cries grew louder and stronger. I – the Italian American mamma – was in a house full of Italian mammas (my in-laws), and I couldn’t get this under control. It was horrifying. They were kind. But I felt the failure. I was imagining what they were thinking – the inept Americana. In the end, my sister-in-law lit a match and had my son blow it out. He got distracted, and she did it over and over again until he started to relax and fell asleep in my arms. Five hours! Five hours!
“I Want to Show You Something” This is actually two for the price of one. My son was reluctant to potty train. He wasn’t fully trained until he was well past age 4, in fact. In the early days (not all that long ago mind you), he showed my husband and me every pee and poop he made. It was like a kid showing his parents art work. So proud! We encouraged this because we wanted him to learn. Big mistake. When my husband was back in Italy and we were home, my son would ask me to take pictures of his poop to share with his father. The photos I’ve missed deleting still haunt me. God forbid anyone ever flips through my phone album. What would they think? It took a while, but I finally convinced him not to do this. Still, he would always want to show us if we were in the house. Then, it happened. He had to poop in school recently. When I went to pick him up, his teacher stopped me to say that he insisted she go look. She was cool about it, because she’s a wonderful person. But I was horrified. I couldn’t wait to get my son home and explain you don’t show poop to people. I think he finally has understood. Let’s hope. School starts again in T-minus one month. Not that anyone’s counting.
Still, all the embarrassing moments in the world – including the many times newborn baby peed right into my face as though he was aiming for my mouth – wouldn’t keep me from continuing this joyous adventure with my Big Boy. He may have taken away any shot I ever had at being glamorous or sophisticated, and I may smell like a public bathroom on occasion, but his enduring love and bright smile have lit up my life in a way I never could have imagined. To all the parents in my boat, I commend you. Keep taking the shots, even if they are sometimes filled with poop.
Reaching unity can begin with parents. I’ve experienced firsthand the little bit of crazy that washes over every mother and father multiple times per day. No matter the race, religion, ethnicity, or sexuality, parents have all locked themselves in the closet or bathroom with a bag of chocolates (or booze). And they’ve considered those five minutes a mini vacation, even if most of it was spent screaming into a pillow before downing a shot. I’ve been there. If you’re a parent – regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or sexuality – you’ve been there, too. Admit it.
Recently, I visited Sesame Place with with my husband and our young son. On every line in which we stood, I noticed guests of every kind with their children. There were fathers shouting at their kids to pay attention. There were mothers drying the tears of the overtired. There were parents negotiating peace treaties between warring siblings. There were tantrums and tirades, laughs and hugs. A woman in a full burka was worrying about her young daughters in hijabs because they weren’t holding onto the stroller, and she feared they would get lost. There was a black family whose youngest child was scared of going on a water slide, and his mother was trying to give him courage. There was an Indian father and son laughing about who was going to get down the slide first. A Latino family stood with teen children, who were teasing each other about the ice cream flavors they were choosing. And my husband and I were taking turns holding my son, who was complaining about his bare feet on the scalding pavement and fighting sleep to go on one more water slide. “Please, Mommy, please!”
Parenthood is a shared experience that unites us all. Whether your kid is speaking Chinese, Spanish, English, or Italian, you’ve heard, “Please, Mommy, please.” You’ve treated boo-boos and offered love amid desperate cries. You’ve broken up fights between brothers and sisters or cousins, all of which has left you scarred mentally and physically. And you’ve felt the joys of scooping up your baby and taking a whiff of that intoxicating preciousness. You know what it means for your heart to swell as your child takes first steps. You know of the separation anxiety (yours, not your kids) on those first days of school. You’ve been moved by your child in a way you never expected and can’t quite put into words.
These shared sentiments are a way to shove us all forward, a reason to reach out to your fellow man or woman. We are parents. We all want better for our kids. We have a big stake in the next generation. Raising our babies right is great motivation to build bridges between us because we all vividly know the sweet pain of parenting. We are living in the most divisive of times in politics, yet Republicans and Democrats alike can relate to one another when it comes to the kids.
“There’s something about your daughters that just breaks your heart,” President Barack Obama has said, according to the Huffington Post. “The finite amount of time you have with your children, and the joy they bring on a minute-to-minute, day-by-day basis — the idea that that’s not there all the time is something that can hit me hard sometimes.” Me too, Mr. President. Me too.
On July 25, First Lady Michelle Obama took to the stage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and brought tears to the eyes of parents on both sides of the aisle when she delivered an eloquent and moving political speech about parenting. “That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves — and I watch my daughters — two beautiful, intelligent, black young women — playing with their dogs on the White House lawn,” she said.
Many a tweet has suggested that if you weren’t moved by that speech, then you’re not human. And I have to agree. Her words, our country, our unfolding history is remarkable. I don’t think it’s just Democrats who could relate to the idea that we need to invest in our children and serve as role models for them. They aren’t the only ones who love America and want to make it a better place for those who come next. No one wants to leave their children in the lurch.
“If we don’t make tough decisions today our children are going to have to make much, much tougher decisions tomorrow,” has said Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Despite the bad rep his party is getting for not being inclusive, they have those who see more of America than old white men and want to better represent that to young people.
“We are a nation of communities… a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky,” has said former Republican President George H.W. Bush. Yes, we want to make those stars shine as brightly as possible. Another famous leader, this time on the Democratic side, once said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Indeed, aspiring President Hillary Clinton was as right as Bush. In fact, my own village is vast and includes an increasingly multicultural family with roots in Italy and branches all over the world. Whether I’m speaking of my relatives or friends, who may as well be relatives, or complete strangers, wherever I go, whatever I do, I see parents demanding the best for their children in ways big and small. Can’t this shared desire to give our children a brighter tomorrow be enough to bring us all together, to help us cross party lines, to help us at least try to understand those who are different from us?
My 4-year-old son recently picked up and hugged and tugged at his best friend at soccer practice. I could tell the 5-year-old boy he was holding was uncomfortable, so I ran over and had my son put him down. I helped the boys get back into practice mode and moved on.
But on the way back to the car, when we were heading home, I told my boy that you have to respect people’s space. You can’t force anyone to do anything he doesn’t want. He apologized and said he would not do it again and that he just was so excited to be with his friend. He’s affectionate. I get it. But I want him to respect people’s boundaries, to take no for an answer, to know his own physical and emotional strength and use it (or not) appropriately.
Now, these lessons are a bit beyond the scope of a 4-year-old boy who had delayed speech and is just now beginning to communicate with us. But I’m planting seeds. Just days after this experience with my son, the world listened to an eloquent, moving letter from a rape survivor about the consequences of violence, disregard, privilege, entitlement, and disrespect. Reporters, who read the letter on air, could not help but cry. I cried. And the youth of the rapist – not even 20 when he committed the crime – had me wondering all the more what kind of people raised such a depraved human being. There’s a sad, sad irony in the fact that it seemed necessary to write the headline, “How to Teach Our Sons Not to Be Rapists.”
In March, Brock Turner, a Stanford University swimmer, was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman at a fraternity party in January 2015. He faced up to 14 years in prison, but prosecutors sought six, according to the Washington Post. The judge only gave him six months in prison for fear that jail would be too hard on him. Really? Too hard on him?
The problem with America today is that none of us are taking responsibility for anything. We throw blame around like it’s a ball. We protect our children from being grown ups, even when the time comes for them to be adults. Our priorities are completely off base. For starters, the fact that this rapist’s swim times were featured in the same articles reporting on the rape he committed (with two eye witnesses mind you) says a lot about where we are as a people. It’s very sad to think about raising a child here.
Frankly, one of my gravest concerns – ever since I learned I was carrying a boy – is teaching him to be kind, generous, and respectful of everyone. This rapist had a charmed life. He was a swimmer attending Stanford University, one of our nation’s most prominent institutions of higher learning. Clearly, he had the means to fulfill his greatest potential. The problem is that money doesn’t buy character or a moral compass, apparently.
I don’t like to judge other parents. This is a hard job, and we all have our own way of doing things. And I certainly have no idea what went on in the home of the rapist in the years leading up to his crime. But the response from his parents is nothing short of despicable. There seems to be no guilt, no disappointment, no responsibility for their role in their son’s behavior. There isn’t even shame. No one has truly apologized to this poor woman, who is struggling to put her life back together and had the strength and conviction to share her story and more importantly her feelings, including profound sorrow, loneliness, and anxiety.
As a mom and a woman, I wanted to reach into the screen and hold the hand of this survivor, known only as Emily Doe, to let her know she is not alone. We all care for her. We all are outraged. We all are sorry she has to face this trauma. We want to help her endure and thrive now. If I felt guilt and responsibility when my son lifted another child without his consent, how could these parents not feel genuine remorse and a desire to help when their son committed rape? Turner’s parents should have reached out to the survivor, tried to comfort her, or at least said they were sorry – and meant it. They didn’t.
Instead, Turner’s father wrote a letter so offensive that I’m unsure how his lawyers allowed it out into the open, where all of us could dissect every inch of distaste and insensitivity and vomit at its very existence. In it, he noted that his son’s dreams, which some have suggested included going to the Olympics, would be dashed now that he would have to register as a sex offender. Poor baby, right? Maybe he should have thought of that before he committed such a horrendous act of violence. Worst of all, the father does not acknowledge the crime as rape. Of jail time, as opposed to probation, the father actually writes, “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” For real? You’re referring to rape as “20 minutes of action”? It is literally unbelievable.
CNN reported that Turner’s mother begged for leniency because her son would not be able to endure the hardships of jail. Mothers the world over can relate to wanting to save your baby. But I’d like to think that if my son committed such a horrific act, I’d want him to pay the full price of his actions, to serve as an example, to right his wrong by taking responsibility and trying to help his victim and others. Of course, I’d like to think my son would have called for help rather than raping an unconscious girl behind a dumpster. Yes, that is where this disgraceful violence took place and where two Swedish students witnessed the crime, tackled the rapist, and called for help.
Here’s the problem. How do we teach our boys to respect our girls so that our men respect our women? This is my plan, which is a work in progress:
I will teach my son not to touch anyone who doesn’t want to be touched. Check! But the work must continue.
I will teach him to help his friends when they’re crying or hurt, so that if he ever sees anyone in trouble he will take action, whether that means comforting the person or calling for help. He will not take advantage of the situation or the person. If he sees others doing wrong, he will speak up. He will do this because I will teach him by caring for others myself, by talking to him about difficult situations he might face, by making it clear that empathy is encouraged.
I will teach him that his mistakes have consequences. This means following through on time outs or grounding or taking material items away. The punishment will fit the bad behavior and age. This also means encouraging authority figures, such as his teachers, to discipline him. How many parents do you know who have gone into schools and reprimanded teachers for putting their kid in time out or lowering their grade for bad behavior? Turner’s parents aren’t the only ones aiding and abetting their son. Earlier this year, the world was horrified at Ethan Couch, the kid claiming “affluenza,” being too privileged to understand right and wrong, when he was being charged for driving drunk and killing four people. Then, he shockingly got probation, was caught drinking again and breaking the terms of his probation, and ran off to another country with his mother to escape punishment. I will say no to my son. I will punish him when he deserves it. If the affluenza kid was my son, I would drag him by the ear to the courtroom, have him beg for forgiveness to the families of the victims, and go to jail because last I checked homicide is not the same thing as breaking curfew.
I will teach my son that we have a zero-tolerance policy for violence under any circumstance. I am already doing this every time he argues with my niece and nephew and someone starts throwing punches or scratching, or biting. They know any of this behavior results in time out and a loss of some privilege. It is simply unacceptable.
I will teach him the true meaning of consent and to accept no for an answer. I will teach him that consent is impossible if someone is inebriated, unconscious, or semi-conscious. I will teach him to help those who can’t help themselves and to respect others’ bodies.
I will teach him to say sorry and mean it when he does wrong. I’m doing my best to teach him to be responsible for his actions. I want him to recognize that everyone, regardless of their sex, sexuality, race, creed, or nationality, has worth and deserves his respect. When he hurts someone – knowingly or unwittingly – he should apologize and learn from his mistake.
I will hold his hand and show him love. I will not buy his love. I will not love him by making excuses for him. I will not make it possible for him to get whatever he wants, whenever he wants. I will not love him by fighting his battles for him or doing his homework for him. I will lift him up when he is down. I will help him navigate this harsh, harsh world. I will show him to love thy neighbor through my example. I will love thy neighbor.
Still, I don’t know if any of this will be enough. Since it takes a village, I’m open to your recommendations. Send them to me. Shout them from rooftops. Tell me at the schoolyard. We are in this together.
My fear lies with the rest of the world, which is becoming less and less recognizable to me. When everyone else, including people vying to be leaders of the free world, esteemed judges, and involved parents seem to be contradicting the lessons of decency and respect, it makes the already difficult job of parenting seem impossible. It makes me fear for the future of my son and children everywhere. It makes me scared we will lose the love we’ve fought so hard to get.
Pulling back the curtain, pressing the button next to my candidate’s name, pulling back the lever, I feel empowered. Today, I will be casting my vote in the 2016 presidential primary. The thrill never dies. In retrospect, registering to vote in 1996 was cooler to me than getting my driver’s license or turning 21 and being able to legally order a drink. I hate to drive (even though I do it) and I don’t drink alcohol (just don’t like it, never have).
Not everyone shares my love of voting. Many people forego the opportunity for reasons that range from “I’m too tired” to “My vote doesn’t matter.” I can’t get behind laziness, but I totally get why someone would think her choice makes little difference in the grand scheme of things. The system is somewhat rigged, people are buying elections these days, and the outcomes seem to be the same no matter who is in charge. And the middle class is vanishing. But here is why I vote and you should reconsider:
It is my civic duty. My people chose to become Americans. I’m the daughter of an immigrant. My mother is the daughter of an immigrant. My grandmother is the daughter of an immigrant. Our family easily could have been living in Italy today. Instead, my people came to a new world with a different language, cuisine, and culture. They shed blood, sweat, and tears to become Americans, so I could be an American. Voting is the least I can do to pay back the nation that gave me this family and opportunities I could only dream about back in Europe.
Other people fought for my right to vote. Women didn’t always have a right to vote. There are plenty of people trying to suppress people’s right to vote right at this very minute. Besides my family’s sacrifices as immigrants throwing their entire being into becoming citizens, good people fought a hard battle to win my right to vote. Their hardship and sacrifice could not be in vain. My vote is a show of gratitude and proof that the fight mattered.
I must vote for my son. Until my son turns 18, I am his advocate. I must make choices for him. I must vote for the leaders who will set the course for the rest of his life. Voting also allows me to be a good role model, to show him how to be involved in the process, inform himself, and cast a ballot.
My vote counts, I count. I know it doesn’t seem like it when you read your old civics books and learn about the Electoral College. I know it doesn’t seem like it when you see the blurring lines between the top 1 percent and our politicians. But failing to cast a vote is the same as remaining silent. If you never try to speak up, you can never be heard.
If we, the people – not the 1 percent, not the people throwing punches at protests and trying to block the First Amendment rights of others, not the lobbyists or inside-the-Beltway politicians – all informed ourselves on the issues and made reasonable decisions that resulted in thoughtful votes, the world could be a whole different place. It could be better than we’ve ever imagined. Our vote is all we have left to combat greed and evil. Our vote is all we have left to better ourselves and our children. This year, unlike any point in my lifetime, my vote is how I plan to just say no to hatred and bigotry, to incompetence and inequality of classes, races, religions, sexuality, and genders. Now, I must go and vote for my family, my country, and myself.
The sweetest pain I know is the weight of my 4-year-old son suffocating me as all 40 pounds of him sleeps soundly on my chest. This moment is precious because it is fleeting, because all too soon he will be embarrassed to be seen with me. In the next blink, he’ll have a life of his own, and I’ll be griping that he forgets to call. These were the thoughts rattling around in my brain in the wee hours of Sunday morning. They were shockingly interrupted when I began hearing a jarring noise just outside my bedroom window. Unwilling to give up the deliciousness of the heaviness on my heart by moving my son to the nearby pillow, I ignored the ruckus.
But the sound wouldn’t ignore me. It never ended. It was as though someone was shaking heavy metal doors on a big rig. I wondered why someone would begin moving at 4 a.m. on a Sunday when it was pouring rain outside. Or was it just the rain and wind causing the banging and clanging? I wondered if it was my parents, who live in the rear apartment of the home and run a landscaping business from the garage and driveway. I was furious that my stubborn, older Italian father was already up and at ’em and making this much noise so early in the morning. He wouldn’t do that, would he?
Maybe it was the marathon of Forensic Files I had been watching when I couldn’t sleep or the mamma bear in me, but I couldn’t shake it. Then, I heard what sounded like a big rock getting thrown against the pavement. I wondered if there was an animal, such as a raccoon, out there arguing with my father. It’s happened before. Don’t mess with Italians and their tomato gardens. Any pesky pest will tell you. But those are stories for another time, and this didn’t seem like one of those situations. I began to worry that it wasn’t my father playing garden police.
I gently moved my son and went to the window. I saw nothing. I looked a few other times. Still nothing. So, I went back to the bed believing my mind was deceiving me. Then, someone began jiggering my front door. It seemed as though someone was in my entryway. Heat radiated through my entire body. The hair on the back of my neck literally stood up. That seriously actually happens. I jumped up, locked the bedroom door, and grabbed the phone on the nightstand. But what would I say to the 911 operator? I just heard a series of strange noises…during a rain storm. I almost felt silly. That’s when I heard more noise coming from the driveway. This time when I looked out the window, I spotted a man I did not know crouching by my parent’s car and rummaging through my father’s landscaping tools, flowers, and equipment. He was frantically trying to open doors to the parked vehicles.
Shaking, I fell to my knees and slowly closed my bedroom windows. I didn’t want this man to hear me on the phone. I crawled to the other side of the room and put my hand on my son’s belly. He still angelically slept. First, I called my parents to tell them to stay locked in their house because there was a stranger near their front door. Many will fault me for this. But an Italian man, like my father, believes himself to be Superman, no matter his age or health. If someone threatens him or his family (not to mention those tomatoes), he will react. I had no idea whether this stranger was armed, but he had easy access to rakes, cages from lawn mowers, and those rocks and bricks. Any of those could have seriously injured or, God forbid, killed my father. That split-second decision to call Papa first was the right one for us.
Once my parents were staying inside, I called 911. The operator took the information quickly and told me to stay locked in the room with my son until the police came. My son woke up and laid perfectly still in the bed. I kept my shaking hand on him and planned to cover him with my body should someone get into the bedroom. I don’t know why that was my first thought, but it was. I whispered, “Are you all right?” He whispered, “Yes,” and clutched me. I prayed slow and hard. I felt heat radiating off me, and it felt as though blood was rushing to my heart, which swelled and raced and nearly burst. I could still hear the man but didn’t want to run to the window. I couldn’t bear letting him see us. The longest five minutes of my life were underway.
The next thing I heard was my father’s voice and then a stranger’s voice yelling, “Get inside! Get inside!” Apparently, the man had begun to try to open my parent’s door when he saw the police. My father thought the trespasser was the policeman and opened the door. Luckily, the police were right behind and grabbed the man and put him face down on my parent’s staircase, handcuffed him, and brought him to the front of our driveway. The police had my father go outside to confirm we had never seen this man, and he had never worked for my father or anything like that. No one asked us any other questions. My mother came to our door, and my son ran to the window, where he saw the “villain” (he’s in his superhero phase) and the policemen.
Just like that, we’re living in fear. I have not slept soundly since this happened. I obsess about every lock on every door and window. My son, who already feared being on a different floor of the house than me, won’t even stay in a different part of a room. He even demanded to sit on my lap while I was peeing. We were lucky. Nothing happened. The only crime that was committed was trespassing. But this makes no difference to my body, which is functioning on high-speed adrenaline, a queasy stomach, and a mind teeming with worst-case scenarios. Indeed, the instilled fear is the greater crime, and one I’m having a hard time erasing. Still, the moral of the story is to lock your doors and fight the fear. Or else, the villains will win.