Monday, April 30, 2012

April Showers Bring May Flowers

If April is about growth, both personal and floral, than May is about flowers. I thought about what this could mean in terms of my blog and decided the perfect kind of flowers to talk about would be the kind that come from growth.

My logic went like this. The reason we seek growth is in order to make our lives better. One of the many reasons we want to make our lives better is so we can experience new and different kinds of flowering joy.

And yet, despite the power and importance of joy we often tend to overlook it.

What is joy?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as the following:

1. the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires : delight b: the expression or exhibition of such emotion : gaiety
 
2. a state of happiness or felicity : bliss
 
3 a source or cause of delight

If words like delight, gaiety, felicity and bliss aren't enough to make you smile then hopefully some of the moments I'm going to talk about this month will do the trick.

My plan is to explore all the ways, both small and big, we experience joy.

It goes, almost, without saying I'll spend a fair amount of time focusing on sources of joy at home.

But I also plan to look at the bigger picture. Do joy and writing go hand-in-hand? What about joy and giving? I can't wait to hear from my readers about this topic. I want to know what brings you joy and whether you actively seek it out or stumble into happiness haphazardly. Are you a joy junkie or do you think looking for joy dulls the sensation?

They're fun questions and I think it's going to be a fun topic. Oh, and one more thing. I know it's still April but I was so excited/joyous about my new theme that I just couldn't bring myself to wait until Wednesday.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Cartwheels and Swim Class

After I wrote Wednesday's post I came to two conclusions.

The first one is there aren't any easy answers or great programs (that I know of) on how to coach your child through early onset puberty. Open and honest communication are a necessity. But even if those lines are wide open there's no fail safe to make sure your daughter isn't teased or the recipient of unwanted attention.

Maybe the best approach is to remember that girls, whether they have breasts or not, are still girls. Talk to them about what the changes mean and then go out and turn cartwheels with them.

In other words, accept the reality of the changes but refuse to let early onset puberty define your daughter's childhood. Instead, make a point to celebrate every facet of who she is and where she is headed.

I know this conclusion doesn't contain a lot of research or wisdom but sometimes the best solutions can't fix the problem. Instead they just attempt to cope with the situation at hand.

The second realization I had based on Wednesday's post is that men are NOT comfortable leaving comments on the subject of early onset puberty.

Which is okay. I understand their general squeamishness. Men don't develop breasts or have periods so I can see how this might be a tricky subject to comment about. However, the complete lack of comments by men on a blog post that, otherwise, got a crazy amount of hits reminded me of a summer long ago in the swimming pool with Child #2.

It was the starfish swim class. The class where moms and dads dress their babies in swim diapers and bounce around in the shallow end while singing songs designed to encourage everyone to put their faces in the water and blow bubbles.

Our class was led by a darling teenage girl who, on the morning in question, displayed an extreme lack of inhibition when she arrived on the pool deck and announced to the moms and dads (already assembled in the pool) that she had just that very moment gotten her period and would be joining us in the water as soon as one of her friends brought back some tampons from the local grocery store.

This announcement was accompanied by a helpful demonstration that included pointing at the general area where a tampon is inserted each time she uttered the word....which was often. In fact, the announcement was repeated several times for the benefit of the few dads who straggled in late (with accompanying hand gestures for anyone still unclear about where a tampon goes).

The dads in the class retreated to the far end of the pool and uncomfortably bounced their babies. Even when our teacher was suited up and ready to lead us in rounds of bubble blowing they could only be coaxed back to the edge of the circle.

The point of this story, aside from making me giggle at the memory, is my way of saying guys please come back to this end of the pool. From here on out I promise to limit my use of the words tampons, breasts, puberty and menstruation.

And besides, next week I'm kicking off my fun new theme for May. April's been fun. We've done a lot of growing but May will be even better.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Early Bloomers

This month, in celebration of April, I've been talking about growth. In general, I think of growth as something to celebrate. But what happens when growth challenges our expectations of what we consider normal?

My bookclub met this week and one of our topics of conversation, aside from the book, was the early onset of girls' puberty. The New York Times Magazine section carried a long article on this subject recently. If you'd like to read the article the link is here:http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/magazine/puberty-before-age-10-a-new-normal.html?_r=3&pagewanted=1&hpw

If you don't subscribe or don't want to take the time to read it, the upshot is simple.

Girls are starting puberty at younger ages. Not younger ages like ten but younger ages like seven. They are developing curves, sprouting hair and needing to wear bras during the same years they are also hanging upside from monkey bars, learning to read and jump rope.

This makes most of us uncomfortable.

It's uncomfortable for parents because we don't want our seven year old daughters to be teased or our nine year old daughters to be approached by older boys. It's equally uncomfortable for the girls whose physical appearance belies their emotional age.

According to the reading I've done, early development can be caused by a variety of factors. One factor is excess weight but other factors are outside of parental control. Some studies lean towards the conclusion that what the parent ate as a child, the plastics and chemicals the parents were exposed to are contributing factors in their offspring's early development.

This is frustrating news for parents because whatever we were or weren't exposed to is ancient history. There's no way to go back and undo our T.V. dinner consumption or our time spent playing on pesticide laden grass.

What's even more frightening is that children who experience early onset puberty often experience more depression and feelings of self-loathing. These feelings stretch further into adulthood than do the similar feelings experienced by an adolescent entering puberty at a later age.

So what can we do?

How do we support and protect our children from the growth that is happening whether we want it to or not. Are hormone treatments the answer or does that compound the problem by further interfering with the body's biochemistry?

Do we encourage a broad societal redefinition of what is normal and take comfort in the knowledge that everyone, eventually, will end up in the same place? And given either path, how do we do these things in a way that will make sure our daughters reach adulthood with self-esteem intact?

I don't think there are clear cut answers but I'll talk about some of the best ideas I've heard and read about on Friday.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Girls, Girls, Girls

Last week I asked a question that touched a nerve with a lot of my readers. Many of you sent emails  and left comments lamenting the way society erodes your daughters' self-confidence and remembering the painful erosion process as you experienced it.

I don't claim to have any magical solutions or silver bullets. All I have are a few tools. Today I'm going to talk about those tools and how I use them in my ongoing war against the ravaging effects of adolescence and society upon female self-esteem.

The first one is easy. And it's the mirror image opposite of something many of you mentioned. In fact, it even involves mirrors.

From the time my daughter was tiny I made a point to say nothing but wonderful things about the way I look. It might sound egotistical or amusing to the casual listener who overhears me in a dressing room saying things like, "Wow, I look amazing in this swimsuit. Don't you think Mommy looks great?"

But here's the thing.

 I don't care what the casual listener thinks of me. It's much more important to me that my daughter hears me accept and rejoice in what I see in the mirror.

That's not to say there aren't things I don't like about my refection. But, as so many of you commented, if I focus on those things then I am giving an open invitation to my daughter to turn her own critical eye on herself.

In much the same way I make sure my kids see me reading, because I want them to know reading makes me happy, I make sure to verbalize, often and loudly, that I am content with what I see in the mirror.

The second thing is a girl's program I recently discovered. Even though this particular program is based in Oregon, my guess is, something similar exists in many communities.

Girls on the Run dishes up a mix of girl self-esteem building with good old fashioned running. It's an after-school activity that combines circle time with sessions of training that culminate in a 5K run. In the circle time the girls are led in discussions of various topics that include, but are not limited to, positive body image, personal goals, implementation of positive attitudes and healthy outlooks about eating.

During the running time they are asked to implement their circle time discussion by doing things like making positive statements about themselves each time they complete a lap. It's an incredible program and even though we didn't hear about it in time to sign up this year. It's already on our list for next spring.

The final tool is something else many of you mentioned in your comments on Friday's post.

Open and honest communication.

I make a point to have regular one-on-one time with my daughter. Sometimes we talk about things she deems "gross". Sometimes we're just silly. In the end, I don't think it matters what we talk about as long as she knows whatever it is, I'll be here to listen and help her find her way.


Friday, April 20, 2012

The Dreaded Three Letter Word.

Yesterday I volunteered with my daughter's class. The kids were quilting. As they made designs with their pieces of fabric, I watched the girls and wondered how they go from supreme self-confidence to debilitating lack thereof.

Where does it start and what can I do to prevent it?

The first thing that occurred to me is that putting a copy of Teen Vogue in my daughter's Easter basket might not have been one of my better ideas.

Except, I was so certain it was perfect!

My daughter loves fashion. She wants to be a designer. She keeps a sketch book of outfits and regularly pillages through my closet for inspiration.

True, it was three days before Easter and I was a little desperate to fill the basket. Also true, I thought she'd think it was fun and glamorous, cause who doesn't think the Easter bunny has a fun and glamorous side? What I didn't think about is that Teen Vogue isn't just about fashion.

The first thing she focused on, as she flipped through the magazine's glossy pages was the dresses. There was a prom feature and so we spent a lot of time talking about fancy dresses. Later, her sketchbook had several new Vogue inspired designs. The second thing she noticed was an article about The Hunger Games. Two weeks later, she's on chapter six of a book she had previously dismissed as not for her.

The third thing that happened was she overheard a conversation between her brother and her father. This conversation involved a three letter word. Maybe it was fun or cat, or sat. It's hard to say what the word really was because what my daughter heard was fat. "How dare you call me fat," screamed my fifty-five pound daughter as she threw a pillow at her brother.

And there it is.

Despite my enthusiastic pronouncements that "Mommy is perfect just the way she is, all sizes are beautiful, strong bodies are beautiful bodies," and many, many other variations on these sentiments my daughter has gotten the message that thin is the best currency.

Do I blame Teen Vogue, myself, High School Musical? I'm not sure if it even makes sense to try to assign blame. Instead I'm going to try to shift course a little bit, steer her back towards the place where the only currency she's worried about is what makes her happy.

On Monday I'll talk about my ideas and look forward to hearing all of yours too.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pretty Silly

Recently the whole family was eating dinner out at a local restaurant. Child #1 was eating a bacon wrapped hamburger minus the bun (in keeping with her South Beach approach to nourishment).

Child #2 was eating everyone's pickles (in keeping with his love of vinegar flavored foods).
I was drinking a Bloody Mary and my husband was checking something on his iphone. In other words, a perfectly typical night out with the family.

I looked at my pickle-noshing, meat-eating offspring and said, "I wonder what you guys will be like when you grow up?" The real surprise, given the general noise level of my children, is my statement was heard and answered.

Child #1 immediately set down the piece of bacon she was gnawing on and said, "No offense mom, but..." Then her statement tapered off into giggles.

"Child #1," I said. "Statements that begin with 'no offense' are almost always offensive."

She laughed. "Okay, It's something you've said lots of times but I'm worried you might be offended if I say it."

"Out with it," I told her.
"Well," she paused, took a reassuring bite of her bacon and said, "I think when I grow up I'm going to be just like you, except a whole lot prettier. No offense!"

Child #1 was more worried than she should have been.

I wasn't offended. Not even a little bit. But, there was a time when a statement like that would have brought forth all my insecurities. I told her she was absolutely right but even while I was reassuring her she hadn't offended me I couldn't help wondering how I got from point A to B.

Maybe I've grown up, maybe I've become less vain. It's hard to say, but in keeping with my growth theme for the month of April I'm going to look at that journey more closely and invite you to talk about it too.

When does it happen and where is the transition between worrying about whether we're pretty, have flabby thighs, our noses are too big/small or our hair is too curly/straight. How do go from obsession to acceptance and most importantly, how can we make that transition happen earlier for the little girls in our lives.





Monday, April 16, 2012

When is a book like a kid?

Writers compare their books to children all the time. Having two children of my own and being way too literal minded, I used to think this comparison was dumb.

How could I book be like a child?

True, writing requires bucket loads of time, energy, emotion and passion, just like raising children. And also true, writing is sometimes a thankless job, like parenting. True again, that writing is something that never feels finished, a lifelong job, just like parenting.

The similarities were plain but the comparison never felt apt because, say what you will about a good book, it's still not a living breathing human being. It took the publication of Losing Beauty for me to understand the comparison.

With kids, there are all kinds of rejections. The early ones get you ready for the later ones. At two years old Child #1 declared the French navy blue jumper decorated with pale pink rosebuds I had purchased for a special event to be a "no go." Instead she wore a baseball shirt proclaiming Brooklyn in big red letters and a pair of jeans.

Saturday night, on the way out to dinner I kissed her good bye. She stopped what she was doing long enough to look me up and down and say, "Umm, no offense, but I hope you're friends like what you're wearing better than I do. Jumpsuits are sort of weird." Which would have been offensive, if she hadn't been rejecting my fashion choices since the age of two.

Writers get similar rejections; the agent rejections, the magazine rejections and finally the publication rejections. Those first rejections hurt. I really wanted Child #1 to wear that navy blue jumper, in much the same way I wanted my first book to get published. In retrospect, I realize the unworn jumper and unpublished book made all the rejections that followed a tiny bit easier.

On Friday I mentioned my fears about sending my daughter to kindergarten. I was terrified the people she met wouldn't appreciate her or understand all her nuances.

Guess what? They didn't. Not all of them anyway.

In the years since kindergarten I've been forced to come to terms with the fact that when people look at my kids they don't always see the same things I do. I've also learned some people DO see the things I love about my kids.

In much the same way, there are people who love Losing Beauty and understand exactly what I was trying to convey. And there are people who don't.

Fortunately, sending my human babies off to school was the perfect preparation for the latter group. To the bad reviews or the people who don't see the good things about my children I have the same response; a small shrug and the knowledge that, in the end, it's really their loss.

And now I'm curious, what experiences have helped you develop thick skin and the ability to accept rejection?


Friday, April 13, 2012

Letting Go

On Monday I promised to tell you about the most difficult parts of publishing a book, aside from the actual work that goes into the book (the writing, editing, revising, swearing, etc). On Wednesday I talked about fear of failure and today I'm going to talk about control.

Even though we all know control is just an illusion most of us still seek it out. We know our plane could crash, we could die in that enormous earthquake that's supposed to hit or our employer could go belly up leaving us jobless and insecure BUT we don't focus on these arbitrary events.

Instead we focus on the little things. And when I say we, I mean me, but I also mean you, because I'm guessing that ninety percent of the readers of this blog also look for the little things that provide a sense of control over our experience of the external world.

Dual airbags, savings accounts or even something as simple as letting calls go to voice mail. I could make an argument that all these things, and many, many more are, to some degree, about control.

This dog would agree with me!
Even writing is about control. The writer shapes the plot, the characters and their experiences. Sometimes those characters seem to have a will of their own but we still choose their words and pull the strings that bring them to life.

After we've finished writing we comb through our manuscript trying to make it as tight as possible. It's crucial to control the typos, grammar glitches and awkward sentences. We spend years of our lives behind a keyboard controlling and then, one day, BAM. We have to let go.

On my daughter's first day of kindergarten, I tucked things away in her cubbie, kissed her good bye, kissed her good bye again and loitered in the doorway until the teacher told me to leave.

Afterwards I went home and called my best friend. Over the phone I sobbed, "I feel like Child #1 is an amazing piece of modern art, a masterpiece. But not everyone likes modern art. Some people hate it. What if she goes unrecognized? What if they don't love her the way I do? What if I'm the only one who ever notices her funny quirks and brilliant insights?"

And to a similar degree, this is the way I feel about my writing. It's defenseless and vulnerable. How can I bear to give it over to a harsh, cruel world where it might experience rejection? How on earth can I possibly let it go?

You wouldn't think kindergarten and publishing would have so much in common but they do. In fact kindergarten did a lot to help me prepare for publishing. I'll talk about all those commonalities on Monday.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What Do Writers Want?

I started Monday's post by saying sometimes it's hard to admit what you want. Today I'm going to look at that statement more closely. Why is it so hard? What holds us back? Over the course of the last year I've identified the components that caused me to hold back on announcing that I was a writer. Today I'm going to talk about one of them.

The first one, and the one I would guess is most common, is fear of failure.

I'm the kind of person who loves my A pluses. Or as one of my friend calls it, my A pluses with a circle around it and a smiley face in the middle. I don't like bad grades and I've never been graceful about receiving them.

In college, while some people my age were risking their lives fighting in a war I spent three days (yes THREE whole days) sobbing about getting a B on a report card.

If you tell me the steps to getting an A+ I will go through hell and high water in order to make sure it happens. And interestingly, most of life is set up that way. There are clear instructions and definitive steps. All you have to do is figure out the trick to doing each step well and you get the A+, the raise, the amazing review or the unanimous praise.

When I practiced law I specialized in transactional finance which is a special sort of heaven for people like me. Guess what a transactional lawyer uses to close a deal? A checklist!

Tell me you want to finance a bridge somewhere in Brazil and I will happily produce a twenty page checklist along with all the documentation necessary to make the deal happen. This might sound like a lot of work, and it is, but there's no ambiguity about how to get from point A to B. It's all clearly defined (and if it's not you can look it up in the definitions section that I would draft to go along with the deal).
Then there's writing.

I'm sure there are checklists about how to become a successful writer. In fact I've seen them. You can do every last thing on those checklists; read the works of great authors, write, rewrite and edit until your fingers are bloody, network, use social media, go to conferences, get your MFA and you still might not meet with success.

Writing is nothing like putting together a transaction for the financing of a bridge in Brazil. There is no clear path to success, no boxes to check, no formula to follow and A+'s are given out sporadically at best.

Which, for someone like me, produces a lot of anxiety.

How could I admit I wanted to be a writer when there were no boxes to check and ladders to climb? How could I claim to be good at something when someone, somewhere was going to tell me I was terrible at it? How could the person who spent three whole days crying about getting a B on her report card risk doing a career belly flop in front of the whole world?

I stewed about this.

I spent more time than could be considered healthy making up pros and cons lists. I even tried to rationalize keeping my writing a secret by promising myself I would shout it from the rooftops the minute my novel hit the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for three months straight.

But in the end it was much simpler than that. Of course, most solutions are. Hope you stop by on Friday as I continue my series on growth. And if you are holding tightly to your own failure fears I would love to hear about them in the comments.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Out of the Closet

Sometimes it's hard to admit what you want.

At least that's the way it was for me. For years I treated writing like a dirty, little secret. The thing I did in private and never talked about. Some people knew, my closest friends, my husband, but I begged them not to tell anyone.

And then a year ago I realized I was going to have to come out of the writing closet.

 Not only was I going to have to come out, I was going to have to sing the virtues of my writing far and wide. Post things on social media outlets, talk to book groups, own up to it in person when people asked me about it!!!! These thoughts terrified me. Literally, terrified me and caused me to lose sleep for weeks on end.

Which is odd, in retrospect, because for years I'd been daydreaming about being interviewed on the Today Show, front page coverage in the New York Times arts section or glossy magazine articles all focused on my amazing book. What my daydreams didn't take into account were the steps between publishing the first book and glossy media coverage.

I spent a lot of time before Losing Beauty came out thinking about exposure. The liklihood that my book would shoot immediately to the top of the NYT best seller list or receive unanimous adoring reviews was slim.

 I knew this.

But I also knew the chances were nonexistent if I didn't get behind my book, own up to my writing and let my fledgling attempt (which was not such a fledgling given the three "practice books" I wrote) out into the world.

The realizations in the not-quite-a-year since Losing Beauty has been released have come fast and furious. I realized I'm deeply uncomfortable with anything that is less than unqualified, unanimous success. In other words, I care way too much about what other people think. I realized I don't like to show weakness, in any form. And I realized I'm a complete and total control freak (okay, I kinda always knew that last one but the publication of Losing Beauty has underlined it with a black Sharpie marker).

Like I said last week, this month is about growth. I promised I wouldn't focus too much on my personal growth but all your comments and emails convinced me maybe my growth as a writer might be worth talking about.

On Wednesday I'm going to look more closely at my post-publication realizations. I'll tell you how I've come to terms with my fears, what I've learned and how I've grown. Hope you can stop by. Hope even more that these posts will inspire growth in each of you.


Friday, April 6, 2012

Personal Hygiene

I promised you growth this month. Now that I've made the promise I'm hoping the first growth disucssion doesn't cross the line into gross.

There we were last week, on vacation, walking back from the beach when Child #1 took my hand to cross the street. I looked down at her sandy little fingers entwined in mine and almost had a heart attack. It could have been a touchingly sweet moment but the long dirty talons that were digging into my palm turned it into something else.

"Child #1," I said. "We need to clip your fingernails."

"Nooooo," she screamed and hid both of her hands out of sight.

Here's the backstory.

We have a troubled history with fingernail maintenance. When the kids were babies I was terrified an accidental slip of the nails scissors might draw blood from their teeny, tiny little fingers. So, to my husband's complete revulsion, I practiced the art of oral nail maintenance on my babies, which is a fancy way of saying I bit their nails. I know, I know, a little disgusting but the combination of sleep deprivation and irrational fears of new motherhood was enough to make me do all kinds of wacky things.

Over the years we've progressed away from oral nail maintenance...slightly. Child #2 now bites his own nails. I consider this progress. Especially since little boy's hands are not known for their cleanliness. My current policy with respect to little boy hands is I refuse to taste, smell or have them rubbed on my face unless they've been thoroughly washed.
Right now they look like these, but...

Which leaves Child #1 and her fingernails. Clipping her nails involves a highly choreographed routine. She hides her fingers, makes me talk to them, insists each finger perform a little dance and sheds tears if I cut any of them too short. This turns a five minute chore into one that takes fifteen minutes.

So back to our vacation, our holding hands, our retreat from the beach. Child #1 screamed and instead of arguing with her I took a deep breath and said, "Okay, you can do it yourself."

"No," she said, eyes wide, shaking her head. "I won't do it."

"Then they'll grow even longer and break off. They might even bleed."

"Noooo," she shrieked again.
Maybe someday they'll look like these?

"I'm done being your manicurist." I told her and even though it had the sound of an empty threat I realized, at that moment it was true. She's no longer a baby. The stakes are low and she's fully capable of cutting them herself. If they're grimy or she breaks one then maybe that will force her down the path that I've been trying to lead her for ten years.

Yesterday she had piano practice. "Did your piano teacher ask you to cut your nails?" I asked after it was over.

"Nope," she said with a grin. "I cut them last night."

That was it. End of story. I let go and gave her room to grow. In retrospect, I think we both grew a little.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Growth

It's April.

Rather than spend the month playing April Fool's jokes on my blog, an idea supplied by Child #1 and #2 or blogging from A-Z like so many of my blogger friends, I thought I would spend the month talking about growth.

The idea came to me this morning when I walked out of my house. In the week that we were away my garden suddenly sprang to life. Everything is still wet, but it's lush pink, white and green wet. The grass is shaggy and the camellia's are hot pink. All the rampant growth outside made me think about all the other kinds of growth that has happened this year.

I've had a book published, started a blog, learned to use Twitter, figured out how to find my RSS feed, celebrated my daughter's tenth birthday and my son's seventh, written another book and started balancing a full-time writing schedule with the myriad of activities that make up our daily life.

It's been a big year.

And I've done a lot of growing. The interesting thing about it is I don't feel overwhelmed (okay, most of the time I don't) or unhappy. Instead I feel passionately curious and excited to see what else I can learn and what other ways I can stretch my wings.

I'm not going to discuss too many details of my personal growth because I suspect it might make for boring reading. Instead, I'm going to use this month to focus on the little things. The baby steps that we take to make us change and grow and stretch up towards the sun.

Of course, I have Child #1 and #2 to inspire me. Their growth has a lot in common with the growth that happens in my garden. It's the kind where, in the space of a week, they can put on leaves, bloom and start to look like a completely different plant.

I hope you'll stop by on Friday so you can check on our progress. I realize it's only two days away but this time of year, two days can be a lifetime, and there's no way to predict how quickly we'll change and grow.