Middle School Boys Body-Shamed Me More Than The Girls Ever Did

When I was at the height of puberty, the popular girls I was friends with at school decided to have a “spa weekend” sleepover. We brought bathing suits for the pool, razors and Nair to remove every inch of our body hair, and self-tanner to get our glow on. I had just gone bleach blonde and was feeling awesome about myself, even if I hated how I looked in a bikini.

As we lathered up the self-tan lotion, eradicated all of the peach fuzz from our legs and self-consciously compared each other’s bodies in the mirror, I couldn’t help but feel like I belonged to a group of peers who were so much cooler than the rest of my peers. All of these girls seemed to like me, and my self-esteem soared that weekend.

We had solemnly promised to wear sleeveless shirts and shorts to school on Monday to show off our newly smooth and tan limbs. When I got home from the sleepover, I noticed that my mom had a bottle of Neutrogena “Deep Glow” self-tanning lotion in our bathroom that seemed to be calling my name. I grabbed it and voraciously plastered the orange goo over my body to make myself even tanner. As I fantasized about how awesome I’d look as a sun-kissed babe, I failed to notice that my hair had turned a slight shade of green from being overly chlorinated in the pool.

In hindsight, I totally should have stayed home from school that week. But I didn’t. Because I desperately wanted everyone to see my societally approved body alongside the popular girls who had befriended me. While I was definitely a thin kid, these young ladies always appeared to be thinner than me, especially when puberty rolled around. I wanted whatever they had going on, and I went to great lengths to look exactly like them.

I remember walking down the locker-filled halls with an ear-to-ear smile, even though I kept getting strange looks from random classmates. To my great disappointment, I walked into my class and saw that none of my friends had kept their promise. I was the only one there with shorts and a tee-shirt on, and I immediately felt a wave of embarrassment as I found my seat.

Then lunchtime rolled around, and life as I knew it would never be the same.

I heard the loud chanting as soon as I entered the dining hall. A bunch of the most popular boys in my grade seemed to be playing some funny game at one of the tables. They all had dinner rolls and orange Snapple cans in their hands, and they were laughing up a storm while they belted out the words I wish I’d never heard. As I curiously walked closer to get an earful of what they were singing, my eyes welled up with tears. These middle school boys were taking the “Oompa Loompa” song from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and adding my name into it. Worst of all, they made faces to imply that I was fat as they sang the body-shaming anthem.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been made fun of, but it was definitely the most hurtful. I’d already been called a “grandma” in fourth grade because I liked to go sock-less in penny loafers and don vintage shirts. As a kid, I thought that what I wore would be the only source of appearance-based ridicule I’d encounter, but that assumption was painfully shattered after I got my period and started developing.

As soon as I entered middle school, I was told by some random 14-year-old guy that the reason no boys liked me was because I had a fat butt. My seventh-grade boyfriend called me “wide load” behind my back after I broke up with him. And my all-time biggest crush in the whole wide world laughed in my face and loudly said me I was a “tubby bitch” when I disagreed with something he said in class.

It bears repeating that I was told all of these hurtful things while living in a body that the world considered skinny. Sure, my hips had widened a bit, boobs had appeared for the first time on my chest, and there were new stretch marks cascading across the sides of my legs from the recent changes of puberty. I’ve also always had a little junk in my trunk, but that never seemed to be a problem until the male classmates at my school made it one. By the end of seventh grade, I got the message loud and clear – boys hated my body, I was much too big in all the wrong places, and nature was trying to punish me.

Maybe if this had been the only type of bullying I’d encountered, I might not have struggled so damn hard with my self-esteem. But life at home made things infinitely worse. I was a child who endured physical and mental abuse and was verbally bashed on many occasions for physically evolving. Comments were regularly made about parts of my body that left me riddled with self-hate. I learned quickly that the only way to be truly lovable was if I conformed, became scarily skinny, and pretended I was okay all of the time. And yet, despite successfully doing all of that shit, I still encountered cruelty from the boys at my school.

I had already spent years watching movies and television shows that had me blindly believing that mean girls were the enemies to fear, and their sole purpose was to make your life a living hell. When the boys unexpectedly became the real threat to my body image and the heartbreaking reality didn’t match up with the skewed media messages I had been inundated with, I just chalked it all up as the product of my own failure to get it right as a girl.

From that shame-based place, I started obsessively monitoring my food intake and ultimately dove headfirst into a diet pill addiction and an eating disorder. Body dysmorphia also became an insidious struggle in my daily life. I went to dangerous lengths to recreate images of the skinny models I saw in magazines, but I never felt thin enough, pretty enough, or good enough.

Thirteen-year-old Lindsay didn’t deserve any of this. She deserved to feel inherent worth no matter how much her body changed and to spend her days not totally hating herself for existing. I wish I could go back in time, give that little kid a big bear hug, and assure her that she was never the problem. It’s been 23 years since I was body-shamed by middle school boys, and I finally understand now that society – and not me – was the problem all along.

Here’s the information that my seventh-grade health teachers should have included in their curriculum, but sadly didn’t. On average, a girl can gain 40-50 pounds during puberty, and a boy can gain up to 60 pounds. Stretch marks, wider hips, and breasts of various sizes are natural fucking changes that many girls encounter when they get their period.

Astonishingly, many preteen children have already been overwhelmed by media imagery that idolizes thin bodies and unrealistic beauty ideals by the time they hit puberty. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 69% of elementary school-aged girls who read magazines say that the pictures influence their idea of a perfect body, and 47% report that the images they see make them want to lose weight.

We have got to start teaching our children, no matter their gender, how damaging appearance-based bullying can be. Teasing an adolescent about the size of her butt or the width of her hips can have grave consequences when combined with the toxic diet culture that pervades our society. Boys need to be held accountable as much, if not more, than girls and taught to value and respect people of all sizes. The moment we realize how damaging and destructive it is to incorrectly teach our kids that their worth exists outside of them is the very moment we can help them discover that it’s been living inside of them since the day they were born.

I’m a mother now to a four-year-old girl, and I am doing everything in my power to ensure that she will always feel at home in her body. It begins with giving myself the love that I lacked for way too many years and mourning all of the times when my inner light was dimmed because a bunch of boys thought that it was okay to shame a girl for taking up space however she did.

As painful (and a little funny) as it is to know that I’ll never go near self-tanner again after being traumatized by the experience, it’s also empowering as fuck to know that I never needed it in the first place. Younger Lindsay was awesome all on her own, and the boys were so fucking wrong about her body.

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What It Feels Like When You Have A ‘Constantly Misbehaving’ Kid

I got a call from my son’s school last week. As soon as I saw the number come up on my phone, my body was tense and my palms started to sweat. 

He’s always been my wild one. He came out kicking and screaming. As soon as he was strong enough, he started throwing furniture in his room when he was upset. His father is the most laid-back person I know. My other kids are relatively calm. And while I’m the most anxious person in our family, I certainly don’t have a temper or treat people with any disrespect. 

But my son has always had an issue keeping it together in group settings. He likes to do things to get attention. He can be impulsive and doesn’t like to quit if he hasn’t accomplished his mission.

These calls from school happen almost once a week, and I’m still not used to it. This time, the school was calling because my son thought it would be a good idea to throw an apple down the stairs in between classes. He’s already on the “no pass” list, which means he’s not allowed to have a hall pass to use the bathroom or get something from his locker because he’s shown he can’t handle it.

He has a sheet signed at the end of the day with scores from each teacher. He’s scored on a scale of one to four, one being the worst kind of behavior, four being the best. If he’s late to class, he automatically has to sit with a teacher during the 20 minutes of free time they get a day. 

His father and I have already had three meetings with his teachers this year to come up with a game plan to get him on the right track. We all sit in a room for an hour to discuss it, but nothing seems to help. 

“Did he hit anyone?” was my first question. After I heard he hadn’t, I was able to relax a bit, but I know this drill. My son will be punished, he will turn it around for a bit, then it will happen again.

I team up with his teachers by supporting them, having a talk with my son as soon as he gets home, and taking away all his devices and friend time for a few weeks. The punishments have become second nature, but clearly, I need to find a new solution because it’s just not sticking. 

But it doesn’t end there. You don’t have the luxury of giving your child a consequence and knowing it will fade away when you have the “bad” kid — the one who’s constantly getting into trouble and engaging in annoying behavior that disrupts other people. You know it will probably come up again. And you are utterly exhausted. 

I literally drop him off at school and say to him, “Please, I have a lot of work to do today and I better not get a call. You can hold yourself together.” 

When the phone rings and I see it’s the school calling, I get angry. Like, very angry. The kind of anger that seems to be simmering at the surface and doesn’t completely settle. I have to use every muscle in my body to pull it back because if I don’t handle this in a calm way, nobody wins.

I talk to my kids about not caring what others think, but I do care what others think about how my child’s behavior affects their children. I care very much. 

It’s another trigger for my anger because my son doesn’t understand that he isn’t just hurting himself, the teachers, and his classmates, but he’s hurting me and other moms who have to navigate this. He has a lot of friends and a lot of peers who follow his lead — kids who wouldn’t probably do things like spread Nutella on a locker if a boy like my son wasn’t telling them to join him.

Being the parent of “that” kid is terrifying because you don’t just think about how they are going to get through the day or school year, you worry about their future in a whole different way. 

You wonder if they are going to outgrow this and how much they are damaging their chances for other opportunities. You worry about whether they are going to lose friends because the other parents may throw their hands up and say, “No more.”

But I have to tell you, being the parent of “that” kid, regardless of how much they misbehave, makes you feel helpless and like you are failing. 

At this point, I feel like I’ve tried everything I can try: strong consequences, tough love, extra love and attention, therapy, a change in diet, lots of talk and time together, and he still doesn’t have a strong enough urge to change it around.

He’s been tested and observed. He knows he’s loved. He’s well taken care of and has friends at school, not to mention siblings who adore him.

The only conclusion I can think of is he just doesn’t care enough because he doesn’t understand the impact of his behavior. I just hope nothing too drastic will have to happen before he changes his tune. 

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Middle School Is ‘Only’ 540 Days And I Want To Make The Best Of It

A little over one year ago, I wrote about The Bridge between childhood and adolescence. Back then, I found myself somewhere in the middle of that bridge, longingly looking back towards the childhood side, yet hopeful as I moved apprehensively towards the adolescence side.

Well, it appears my bridge was an express bridge.

Here I am, on the other side.

You know what’s here? Cell phones, mustaches, Adam’s apples, deep booming voices, attitudes, challenges to limits, and boys who suddenly stand at eye-level to me.

You know what else is here?

Meaningful conversations, random tight hugs, trust, and young men who are mostly kind and learn from their mistakes. Surprisingly, it’s sort of nice over here, albeit a bit smelly and messy. On this side of the bridge, I am the parent of a young man, not a young boy, and I get to start taking a step back to let him take some risks on his own.

One of the first big events on this side of the bridge happened today: the first day of middle school. Or, as my son’s new principal told the parents last week, Day 1 of the 540 school days of his middle school career.

540.

In some areas of our lives, 540 seems like a lot.

540 squats: a lot.

540 crunches: a lot.

540 dollars: a lot.

But when we are talking about time in middle school, 540 days is nothing. It’s half the length of time he spent from kindergarten through 5th grade (1,080 school days for math dorks like myself). That period of time went by in the blink of an eye. Surely these next 540 days are going to fly by even quicker!

So, how do we, as new middle school parents, survive these next 540 days?

Well, I know how I spent the days leading up to Day 1 — letting the middle school version of me find her way to the surface. I color-coded binders, folders and schedules, circled rooms on maps, plotted out the best way to organize a backpack, role-played some scenarios, and had a nightmare that I was my son and I couldn’t find my math class on Day 1. I just wanted his middle school experience to not be awful like my own.

But, then I stopped myself. (Because, seriously, a nightmare??)

Adolescence is messy and painful. It’s supposed to be awkward. It’s supposed to be emotional. It’s supposed to be challenging. Some days are supposed to feel awful. And, aren’t middle school and adolescence synonymous?

Like most challenging, uncomfortable, and unpleasant things in life, when we look back on them later, we can see the good they brought to our lives. They are the catalytic events and change agents that shape our lives. Although I would never want to relive my own 540 days, I do see how they helped to shape me into who I am today. I see how some of the people I still care deeply for today are friends I made during those 540 days. I can see that in those 540 days were where many of my interests were born. My 540 days were certainly not filled with unicorns and rainbows and butterflies, but maybe I should be thankful that they weren’t.

As my middle schooler hugged me goodbye today, I tried to tell the middle school version of myself to settle down. I know many of his 540 days will be filled with some tough decisions, hurt feelings, hard lessons and uncomfortable moments. I know there will be lots of times where he feels just as I did during my 540 days. His 540 days will not be filled with unicorns and rainbows and butterflies.

So, how am I going to navigate my own 540 day journey as a parent? I am going to realize that in many ways the parental journey of 540 days mirrors the student’s journey. These 540 days will be challenging for me as a parent. If adolescence is awkward and painful, so to is parenting an adolescent. For parents, many of our 540 days will be filled with some tough decisions, hurt feelings, hard lessons and uncomfortable moments too.

It has been suggested that the most influential people in a teen’s life are not his teachers, coaches, parents, or professional athletes. It turns out that for many teens, their peers are the most influential presence. Middle schoolers need each other. I suspect that this holds true for middle school parents as well. Parents need other parents.

My plan for surviving the next 540 school days is simple: lean on my peers, be kind when mistakes are made, learn lessons where they can be learned. and remember that this time is going to fly by. While I am not in any rush, I look forward to seeing who we all are on Day 540.

Only 539 more days to go…

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We Need To Change The Way We Talk To Tween And Teen Boys

Truth time. Good things are happening in the way we raise our girls. As much as diet culture remains pervasive across every media our kids see, there is a growing campaign to fight it and teach our girls to love their bodies. We are talking to girls about sex, rather than pulling the blinds on the idea that they are or will be sexual beings who deserve to know how things work, how to protect themselves, and where the pleasure switches are. We are actively working to end the shame about periods, and encouraging our tween and teen girls to carry that tampon to the bathroom with pride! Because menstruation is not something girls should be embarrassed about.

All good stuff. And as a mom of a pre-adolescent girl, I am incredibly hopeful for her future, and look forward to the continued progress we as a society will make when it comes to raising confident girls who love themselves and believe they can do and be anything they dream.

However, one author says that for all the work we are doing to improve the world our girls are growing up in, we might be forgetting another important group of kids—our boys.

Boys who grow up with body image dysmorphia. Boys who grow up being told they should be one thing (masculine! tough! without emotion! loving sports!) when they may be none of those things. Boys who, like our girls, are just trying to find their way in a confusing world of mixed messages and unrealistic social media idols. And whose developing brains are flooded with a shit-ton more “information” (read: internet) than kids of previous generations ever had to deal with.

They need us too. They need us to campaign for their mental health and positive body image and emotional support and self-love the way we campaign for girls.

And that’s why Cara Natterson, M.D., who’d already worked as a medical consultant on The Care and Keeping of You (a book series for girls), decided to write Decoding Boys: New Science Behind the Subtle Art of Raising Sons

Because all of our kids—boys and girls—are “growing up in a playground we didn’t play in,” Dr. Natterson tells Scary Mommy. That—the doctor, author, and mom of teenagers says—is the greatest challenge 21st century parents face. “This is all new to us. What their sources of information and education are. And socialization. Particularly in the online world. And we’re struggling to figure out how to parent around that.”

She goes on to say that we spend so much time and energy “identifying the negatives and demonizing them”—i.e. the online world—and we need to a better job of seeing where there is good information and positive support for our kids. Because the truth is, they are all online. We can choose to either stomp our feet in denial or cower in fear over what they see, or we can embrace the modern technology that encompasses our kids’ world, and learn to parent through it.

As a mom of a boy who is online every day and who is also naturally more introverted, I have had to see the good that modern technology offers our family. Online gaming and communication provides my son with friendships and connections that he may not have at school. Through his headset and internet world, he can talk to kids who “get him” after spending eight hours in a school building with kids who don’t. Letting him be online, even as a tween, means he is less lonely and feels validated, feels seen, and feels normal. And although the online world may seem scary to parents who didn’t grow up with it, it is also a gift introverted kids of our generation didn’t have.

So if learning to parent kids through a technological world that we didn’t grow up in is the greatest challenge for 21st century parents, what then presents the biggest obstacle for 21st century boys?

According to Dr. Natterson, it’s the lack of conversation about what, exactly, they’re going through. She says we do a really good job talking to girls about “what words they need to know, what skills they need to have, what supplies they need, but we haven’t caught up for our boys.”

The truth is, we aren’t talking to boys enough about what’s happening with their bodies, and we aren’t giving them the social permission to discuss it they same way we are with girls. Dr. Natterson doesn’t mince words and states bluntly that boys “need to have open conversations about wet dreams and inconvenient erections and what they’re feeling when seeing pornography online.” They need to know why their voices crack, and they need to be able to talk about the pressures they feel to be a certain body type (because yes, boys feel those pressures too).

Much like young girls are growing increasingly vocal in this modern feminist age, boys need the opportunity to “grab the microphone” regarding puberty, Dr. Natterson says, in order to grow up into well-adjusted adults who are in tune with their bodies, emotions, and needs.

She says the problem is that we, as a society, have divided up information and conversation as if it’s a pie—a finite resource. “We’ve said to ourselves, ‘Our girls need all this information and all this conversation.’ And, by default, if our girls get it, our boys don’t.”And this, Dr. Natterson says, is the greatest struggle our boys are facing today. And we have ourselves to blame. But we can fix it. We can and must have all the same conversations with our boys—conversations about physical development, emotional well-being,

Another important point Dr. Natterson makes is that boys often aren’t visibly going through puberty as early as girls, so parents don’t realize that yes, emotionally and mentally, they’re in it. And they need us to talk to them about it—even if their voices haven’t changed yet or they’re still shorter than most of the middle school girls. (Her chapter “Yes, Your Nine-Year-Old Might Be in Puberty” is a sobering, but important read.)

Decoding Boys also addresses the fact that kids across the board are fighting insecurities about their bodies. This not a “girl” issue. Boys are inundated with images of what the “ideal” male body looks like. Boys look at themselves in the mirror and struggle to like what they see. Boys deprive themselves of food, over-exercise, try unsafe supplements, and become obsessed with weight, fat, and muscle tone. And they need as much guidance toward self-love and strong self-esteem as girls do. “We have gendered eating issues and body image issues in a way that’s totally inappropriate,” Dr. Natterson says, and that needs to change.

Because it’s a book about raising adolescent boys, not surprisingly, her book talks about sex, consent, and pornography too.

In the chapters entitled “Boys and ‘The Talk’: 21st-Century Information Disruptors” and “Boys and Sex: The Game-Changing Roles of Porn, Nudes, and Consent,” Dr. Natterson goes there—to a place a lot of us don’t want to go. But there’s no denying it—we can’t talk about consent and sex while we raise 21st century kids if we don’t talk about pornography. First of all, pretending our kids haven’t or won’t see it is naive and foolish. Maybe your kid doesn’t have a smartphone yet. Guess what? His friends do.

Gone are the days we grew up in where you and your friends might have discovered (gasp!) your dad’s Playboy under his bed and had limited one-time exposure before your parents caught you and sent you outside to ride your bike.

Now, those images are online, in our tween boys’ hands, all hours of the day.

Again, we can cross our arms and turn our backs and say “not my kid,” or we can face the truth and talk to our tweens and teens about what they’re seeing. Because the reality is, porn is everywhere. EV. ER. Y. WHERE. According to Decoding Boys, 90% of boys 18 and younger have seen it. 60% of girls have too. And newsflash: exposure doesn’t start at age 17 or 18. It starts when they get devices in their possession, which for a lot of kids, is as young as elementary school.

Dr. Natterson says that she’s spoken with so many parents—so many dads—who said, “I got quiet. I went through puberty. I hid in my room. No one talked to me about anything. And I came out on the other side and I talk now. I understand my feelings. I’m fine. Why do we have to do this with our sons?”

Again, our kids are playing on a different playground than we did. We cannot continue to pretend their world is the same as the one we lived in when we went through puberty. We owe it to all of our kids to give them resources and the language they need to talk about what they’re going through.

“The world has shifted. It’s a fact. It’s not good or bad. It’s just a fact,” Dr. Natterson says. Too many variables have changed for us to parent our kids the way we were parented. We need to make some changes in the way we parent, and we need to start by talking to our boys.

 

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Should I Have Another Baby — Or Am I Having A Midlife Crisis?

My one and only, Andrew turned ten in October. Months later I still cannot believe that he has been in my life for an entire decade. In ten more years he will be twenty and…wait, hold up. Oh my God, my baby will be twenty! In ten years, he will not be under my roof anymore. But I don’t even have ten years. I really only have eight. In eight short years, Andrew will graduate from high school and head off to college. He will leave me and I will be all alone (if my husband was reading this he would ask if he is chopped liver and then laugh at me for being dramatic).

Okay, so maybe I do need to get out of my own head. I need to think about something positive…something like the fact that my birthday is this month. I have a fun girls night out planned to celebrate that I am turning…40. I knew this day would come eventually so I was planning on taking it in stride by drinking from a shared fruity fish bowl and belting out “Sweet Caroline” and “Piano Man.” But now that I have only two weeks left in my thirties, I’m feeling less celebratory. I’m about to start a new decade of life that will probably include gray hair…a new decade where my one and only is going to leave me. What am I going to do?

Have another baby.

Whoa, where did that come from? Have a baby! Although I can tell myself that 40 is the new 30, 40 in reproductive years is old. Doctors use warm and fuzzy terms like geriatric pregnancy and advanced maternal age. I can’t have another baby.

But the thing is lots of women have babies after forty like Halle Berry, Gwen Stefani, Tina Fey, my cousin Emma, and my friend Kate. I guess God willing I could have another baby. But that would be more than a ten year age gap between Andrew and his sibling. The days of sleepless nights, changing diapers, toddler tantrums, and paying an arm and a leg for daycare are LONG behind me. Life with one ten-year-old kid is easy. Why would I want to go and make things complicated?

I know what may be going on here. Maybe I am having a midlife crisis. Is it possible to have one of those when you are happy and feel like you are living your best life? I have a great job, a caring husband, and a beautiful home. My extended family is supportive and I have a tribe of amazing girlfriends. I am a year away from completing my MBA and I get to take frequent vacations. Plus, I have my one and only…the light of my life. Nothing brings me more joy than being a mother.

Mom and son posing with sunglasses on
Courtesy of Angela Grossnickle

And now my baby is already ten. Every birthday celebrated means he needs me less and less. Don’t get me wrong, it has been an absolute privilege to watch him grow into the amazing young person that he has become. I am blessed and I look forward to seeing what the future holds for him. I am very important to him and we are close. He still cuddles with me, holds my hand, and tells me that he loves me to the moon and back. But I know that time is not on my side. His friends are becoming more and more a priority in his life. He is less excited to go on family outings such as bowling or mini golfing with just the three of us. Video games are now more fun than building Legos or making a puzzle with Mom. It’s only a matter of time before it will be uncool to be seen with me in public. And eventually girls will enter the picture and someone else will be the object of his affection.

Sigh.  

I miss being needed by Andrew. I miss being the center of his universe…when his face would light up when I entered a room and he would run and throw himself into my arms. Sometimes I miss pushing a stroller. I miss shopping for tiny clothes. I miss singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” I miss reading Goodnight Moon over and over again a hundred times.  I miss rocking him to sleep in my arms. So the question is, am just being nostalgic or do I really want another baby? How do I know the difference? Maybe this makes me sound silly. Maybe I sound whiny or even ungrateful. Or maybe this makes me sound selfish.

Sometimes I feel selfish…selfish that I didn’t give Andrew a sibling years ago. Guilt often rears its ugly head because I know that he would be an awesome big brother. Over the years, others have also made me feel guilty with their judgmental comments about only having one child, but guilt is not a good reason to have a baby. And I have to admit that while I absolutely love being a mom, it’s REALLY HARD sometimes! Andrew was a difficult baby and an even more difficult toddler. He was strong-willed and tested our patience constantly…he still does.

I guess all I can hope is that this internal struggle makes me sound human. That it is okay and completely normal to feel conflicted, emotional, and unsure of which path to take. I can take comfort in knowing that I am not alone in experiencing these types of feelings. That there are women of all ages out there who can relate because they are grappling with their own family size issues.

Have another baby.

I would REALLY miss wine though.

While my husband and I figure out which path we will travel down, I will embrace being 40. I will live a life of gratitude. I will fight off any feelings of guilt because at the end of the day there is no right or wrong decision. I will be present and enjoy every moment with my one and only…because the clock is ticking.

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The Key To Surviving Life With Tweens: Pick Your Battles

I have a tween. I mistakenly thought that because he was homeschooled, he wouldn’t act like a little snot, backtalk, or do all the weird things that tweens do. I was, of course, completely wrong, and you can laugh at me. When the tweenishness started, I picked at everything. But I’m learning slowly. There are bigger battles. I need to be strategic. I’m like a general. I don’t need to win the battle. I need to win the war: to raise a happy, healthy, whole human.

Many things do not factor into this.

My tween’s overall life choices are not affected by his decision to wear the same shirt three days in a row, especially since he hasn’t hit the smelly phase yet. When he does hit the smelly phase, we will so have that conversation. Then it’s on him to choose to be the smelly kid or not. I’m thinking he’ll pick option Odor Free Child with some gentle parental reminders (probably constituting, “Dude, you soooooo wore that shirt yesterday.”). But whatever. Wearing the same Star Wars shirt for three days won’t hurt his future job prospects. Bigger battles, people.

 

Speaking of clothes: if my kid wants to be cold, or claims he’s not cold, or steadfastly refuses to dress for the weather because he’s too cool for temperature regulation, WTFever. This is a decision he makes for himself. It does not affect me, except when I say, “I told you that you’d be cold in shorts, kid.” (substituting “asshat” for “kid” in my mind, because don’t you lie, you do that shit too). He’s the one who shivers, or perhaps doesn’t shiver, because maybe he really isn’t cold. Whatever.

There are also bigger battles to fight than the tween turn-around-and-huff. You know the move. You tell them to do something. They don’t want to do it. They don’t want to show blatant disrespect because they’re too cowardly or respectful or lazy, but they don’t want to let you off the hook either, so they wait until they turn their back before they huff at you loudly. You can either go righteously ballistic or ignore, ignore, ignore. Is it really worth flipping out over an exhalation?

I’ll answer that for you. No. No, it is not. You’ll just waste your breath over their breath and people will cry and yell and stomp and it’ll be a big dramatic thing and all over someone breathing. People, please. The teen years are coming when we’ll thank sweet baby Jesus in the manger all we got is a huff.

It’s also not worth flipping over the flopping. Their are bigger battles than flopping. Parents of tweens know what I mean by the groaning and flopping: you ask your kid to do something; they don’t want to do it, so they do at as dramatically as possible by groaning and flopping their limbs in exaggerated, weird gestures resembling an inept mime or a drunken frat boy.

And yes, it drives you ballistic. Yes, it makes you bonkers. Yes, it makes you want to chew your left arm off like a possum in a goddamn trap, but you will ask your tween to do things three times before they actually get off their ass and do them, and this will happen every single time you make a request, and that is the nature of tweens. Dude, bigger battles. If I lost my cool every time I asked my son to feed the dogs three times before he actually did it, I would be a giant green dude in a Marvel movie. Mama Hulk Smash. Nope. Not worth fighting about. Accept it. I’ve got bigger battles in this world.

And hey, all you people in the comment section who claim my kid is uniquely disrespectful because your kid does what you ask the first goddamn time: well, bully for you. STFU and sit the fuck down, Karen. No one asked about your perfect angel child who probably smells like flowers and sunshine and probably doesn’t flop or huff. Just you wait.

Tweens also whine. They whine a lot. They can whine like a hangry two-year-old trapped in an umbrella stroller stalled in the candy aisle. Bigger battles, people. Bigger battles. Ignore it. They will whine for a later bedtime. They will whine that it’s not their turn to let the dog out. They will whine that they didn’t do it, that they shouldn’t have to do it and that you should’ve done it instead. They will also whine that it isn’t their fault and it’s never their fault and you always blame it on them because you hate them, you all hate them, why do you all hate them? If you can imagine it, your tween will whine about it. Whatevs. You could spend your time telling your kid not to whine, or you could ignore them and tell them to get off their sweet butts and make you another cup of coffee. Ask three times and they’ll huff and flop but they’ll do it. Remind yourself: bigger battles.

And when they do all these things, steal one of their signature moves. Sigh.

Then roll your damn eyes.

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What I Worry About Most As My Autistic Daughter Nears The Teen Years

When she was born, she breathed loudly like an old man with a light snore, weird but … so cute.

When she was one, she didn’t walk; instead she clapped and begged to be held by wiggling her chubby fingers in the air … so cute.

When she was two, she didn’t talk; instead she said one word:“Hi.” Over and over and over and over. I was worried, but most agreed … so cute.

When she was three, she started having problems with sleep and would wake up at all hours of the night and stumble in the dark with her rolling curls and sleepy eyes… so cute.

When she was four, she started to become impulsive, particularly when eating, stuffing food in her mouth quickly, messily — which meant food would usually end up in her hair and eyebrows and hands and thighs, gosh… so cute.

When she was five, she began biting her nails, and chewing her hair, and nibbling on things that should not be nibbled on, regardless… so cute.

When she was six, she was diagnosed with autism and although everyone agreed, still … so cute. Only now that sentiment was followed by a smile of pity with “what a shame” written all over their faces.

When she was seven, she began urinating on herself as an escape mechanism from learning activities. But her momma didn’t share that with anyone, so in public, at parties, with family and friends, because they didn’t see any of that themselves, she was… so cute.

When she was eight, she began disrobing when she was anxious or overwhelmed. But her momma didn’t share that with anyone, so in public, at parties, with family and friends, because they didn’t see any of that themselves, she was… so cute.

When she was nine, she started to enjoy dancing, but the uninhibited I-don’t-give-a-crap-who-is-watching kind of dancing; her body moved different, awkward but… so cute.

When she was 10, she went back to public school and despite the fact that she couldn’t read or write, some would see her broken, scribbled tracing on pre-K level homework and think… awww… so cute.

Now she is 11.

Her body is changing.

She is over 5 feet tall and wears my size shoe.

She has body odor.

She sits with her legs wide open regardless of how she is dressed.

She picks her nose with no regard to onlookers.

She undresses with no consideration of her audience.

She has a speech delay and drools when she is tired or when she attempts to pronounce a difficult word.

She has accidents weekly because she gets so distracted or forgets to go to the bathroom.

She is goofy and awkward.

Courtesy of Lisa Peña

She laughs with her mouth wide open and usually full of food.

She eats with both hands as if she is in a race against time with the remnants usually falling all over her clothes and chair.

Still cute?

Over the past few months I’ve wrestled with this. This idea that we have passed the point of cuteness. We have officially crossed over.

I found myself moody and grouchy and annoyed and I couldn’t tell where that negativity was stemming from. But I think I figured it out now.

For the entirety of my daughter’s life, being “cute” has gone hand in hand with acceptance. Not my acceptance, but others’.

Being “cute” has gone hand in hand with tolerance. Not my tolerance, but others’.

Oddness can be so easily masked with aesthetic appeal.

But what now?

What happens to my girl when society realizes it’s not cute anymore?

The self-help gurus say, “don’t worry about others’ opinions” and “other people’s opinions are none of your business.” But what if the opinions of others about my most vulnerable child actually determine the way she is treated? Whether she is respected or not? How she is cared for? How she is spoken to?

Never in my life has the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” been so painfully true that it makes me wince when I read or hear it.

That’s a nice sentiment when the beholder is the momma, but what happens when it’s not?

I’m scared.

I’m mad.

All over again.

One minute I can rationalize it all in my head and find peace. The autism, the delays, her terrifying vulnerability, the foreverness, the constant nagging of the unknown future before us. All of it. Peace.

But the next minute, my mind is sent reeling.

I’m worried for her.

How do I make people see the beauty I see?
How many blog entries do I write?
How many stories do I tell?
How many trainings do we need?

This is where the negativity I was feeling was stemming from… from the crazy, heavy weight of something being too big, too hard and impossible for me to change or control.

As the gap widens between the rate at which her mind is developing and the rate at which her body is developing, I’m struggling to reach a new level of acceptance. I’m struggling to rediscover peace with it all.

But this is not just about my girl. This is about something way bigger. It’s a social awareness that needs to come to the forefront. It’s about a social movement that needs to catch fire.

Because guess what? All of the special needs children you know right now will be teenagers and adults one day. They too will cross the cuteness threshold.

I can’t control what society defines as “cute,” but I can try to change the perspective of the beholders. I can try to switch out the lens of their life’s camera.

We can behold a messy, compulsive eater and see beauty that is a healthy appetite, which some mommas desperately pray for.

We can behold the oral fixation as a sensory mechanism to cope with stress and see beauty in those that try to make her feel safe.

We can behold awkward public dancing and see the beauty in living a non-filtered, completely free life.

We can behold the weight gain and body odor and oily t-zone and see the beauty in puberty that makes her fit so perfectly in nature’s plan.

We can behold the homework that resembles preschool level at best and see the beauty in the effort.

We can behold a teenager that wears mismatched clothes and shoes on the wrong feet and see the beauty in a young woman who could give a flying flip about what she looks like. She will still say “Hi” to you and hug you and help you — just say the word.

We can behold a human being with the mind of a child and the body of a woman and see beauty in the preserved innocence and beauty in those that fiercely protect her.

If society engineers us to be more tolerant and accepting of that which is aesthetically pleasing … and if beauty is in fact in the eye of the beholder… let’s redefine beauty.

Isla’s life and spirit has literally forced my predetermined, preprogrammed mind to redefine all that I know to be beautiful. Simultaneously, I’m learning to cope with the ramifications when society does not agree. This is hard and uncomfortable work for me but I’m gonna lean in until my lens has changed and zoomed in and comes into focus.

So the next time you see someone in public who by your determination is vulnerable in anyway — it could be someone with an obvious and serious disability, or maybe it’s as subtle as a teenager or adult with mannerisms not quite matching up to the age their body suggests — my greatest dream is that your heart and mind immediately are drawn to protect them, not avoid them. Respect them, not judge them. Assure that while they are in your view, people are kind to them.

What will you choose to behold?

Man, I hope you don’t miss out on the beauty.

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7 Benefits Of Playing Video Games

I’ve read the studies and articles that claim video games are terrible for kids — that they rot their brains, stunt their cognitive development, and maybe even turn teens into violent criminals.

I still let my kids play video games though, and quite a lot if I’m being honest. Until I witness adverse effects from it, I have no plans to change that. Not because I’m stubborn and convinced my way is the right way, but because there are also plenty of studies on the other side of the video game debate that say video games not only aren’t as harmful as we thought, but that in a lot of ways, they are actually really good for our kids.

It’s true that my 13-year-old son has been known to throw the occasional tantrum when I tell him it’s time to shut electronics down. I sometimes institute video game moratoriums when I think he seems a little too attached to his computer. My 10-year-old daughter self-regulates her electronics and video game usage and has never had any trouble detaching herself.

Still, despite my son’s occasional difficulties in pulling himself away, for us, and for many other parents and their kids, video games have had far more positive effects than negative. Here are just a few of those, each backed by science:

1. Video games develop spatial awareness.

Early on, when my kids went through their Minecraft obsession, I couldn’t help but notice how the game improved their spatial awareness. My daughter built a Minecraft-sized model of our house, including every room and every piece of furniture, just as it was in real life. She had to carefully consider the layout of our house by adjusting her inner perspective to a “bird’s eye” view. A study from Molecular Psychiatry even found that gamers who played a platformer game for two months for at least 30 minutes a day had an increase in their brain’s gray matter in areas “crucial for spatial navigation, strategic planning, working memory and motor performance.”

2. Video games boost creativity.

Jessica Lewis/Pexels

Oh, the creativity of those Minecraft worlds! I’m still amazed at the structures my two kids have built within that weird, blocky game. My son also plays Kerbal Space Program, a game in which you design, build, and launch your own rockets, explore space, and build and manage resource-gathering colonies. My daughter uses design apps to practice drawing anime characters.

3. Video games build teamwork skills.

My kids had to work together as a team to build their Minecraft worlds — they had to communicate effectively to build their cities while avoiding the zombies. I love hearing them shout from one room to another their strategies for achieving their goals.

4. Video games develop sensorimotor skills.

In other words, they help with hand-eye coordination. Psychology researchers at the University of Toronto found that people who play action video games like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed picked up new sensorimotor skills quicker than non-gamers did.

I’m not surprised. Have you ever tried playing video games as a novice? The last game I played with any real intention of mastering it was Super Mario Brothers 3, and I tell you, I cannot freaking navigate these new 3-dimensional worlds with the damn controllers that have 82 buttons. I tried to play Minecraft with my kids after they begged me for months, and I got so frustrated I almost started crying. My hands simply could not coordinate with my brain to make my character move where I wanted him to go. Way to make me feel old, kids. Ugh.

5. Video games develop problem-solving skills.

Bruno Henrique/Reshot

Not just problem-solving, but problem-solving quickly. Researchers have found that even (maybe especially) “shooter games”– those games that are often violent in nature and most likely to be criticized by opponents of gaming, like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto — can lead to measurable cognitive boosts. The American Psychological Association published research finding that gamers who played shooter games showed “faster and more accurate attention allocation, higher spatial resolution in visual processing, and enhanced mental rotation abilities.” Not only that, but the improvements in these areas as a result of playing shooter games are long-lasting, and comparable to what one would get from a high school or college-level course aimed at improving those same skills.

6. Video games can be a great way to socialize, especially for kids who tend toward introversion.

As my son has gotten older (he’s about to turn 14), video games have been a way for him to socialize. He has a couple of good friends online he plays various games with, and I hear him laughing and joking with them every night. For a kid who takes time making friends, I’m happy he has this outlet.

7. Video games can be used as currency.

My son looks forward to his gaming time so much that we have designated it as a privilege that he can have only as long as his schoolwork, chores, and guitar practice are finished and he has been respectful and kind. Timeouts and other punitive consequences never really worked for him, and neither did having a nice, calm sit-down talk. Video games as currency has worked better than anything else we’ve tried.

So video games truly aren’t all bad, and in a lot of ways, they’re actually pretty great. That said, it makes sense to approach video games the same as we approach anything else — with moderation. My kids spend a ton of time playing video games, but they’re also good students with wonderful friends, great verbal communicators, and kind human beings. They have other interests besides video games. Their chores get done and their music gets practiced. And, for as long as all of that remains true, I’m totally fine with my kids playing video games.

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To My Almost-Teen Daughter: I’m Just As Confused As You Are

My dear daughter,

You will soon turn 12, and that might seem nothing, but for me it’s a huge deal.

You are one year away from the dreaded teenage years, and I’m afraid that if I blink my eyes, you will be a young woman.

You are not a child anymore, but you’re still not a grown-up, and for me you will always be that little girl in the pink tutu skirt, holding her imaginary microphone and singing.

I remember when I used to sit with you to watch Toy Story, and you were obsessed with Jessie, and when she said that her owner left her behind as she grew up, you cried and hugged your toys. You whispered in their ears that you’d never do the same thing.

Yet here I am sitting in your room tidying it, and that corner that used to have your dollhouse and your dolls is filled with art supplies, make-up boxes, and some Legos. Your side table has an alarm clock, a diary and a book, and the boxes that had your toys are gone.

I know you’re confused, but believe me, so am I.

I wish I had a manual to tell me the right thing to say or the right thing to do, because lately I feel everything I say makes you angry or pushes you to tears. I feel terrible. I always feel I’m disappointing you in one way or another. I picture you in a therapist’s office talking about how bad your mother was, how she never understood you.

As the adult, I’m supposed to know everything–at least that’s what you think–but I’m sailing in uncharted waters now. I don’t know whether I should treat you as a grown-up or a child, because to me you’ll always be my baby, so my judgment will always be somewhat cloudy.

Life wants you to grow up fast. The media, your friends, you. You want to rush everything. You ask me about the first kiss, about boys and about so many things, and all I can think of is the day you will come home crying because some jerk broke your heart.

What scares me the most are the stories I heard from so many adults, about their broken relationships with their moms. Many were a result of lack of understanding from their mothers during the teen years, and I wonder: Will I fall into that category? Will my love for you and my sincere will to try and turn every stone to find a means to communicate, be enough?

How can I provide a shield for you from all the hurt in the world that comes with growing up, yet let you try and learn?

How can I put my protective mama bear to slumber when I see your tears and you say that you don’t want to talk about it?

I know life hasn’t been easy for us. Having a mother with a chronic illness, and with so much uncertainty, probably made you worry more.

Sometimes I want you to open up to me, release those fears, open that Pandora’s box, and let go of all the darkness that lurks in your head. I know you’re afraid that what you’ll say would add more burden on me, but it won’t. Your mommy is stronger than you think.

You might think that you’re adding to my stress and feel guilty about that, but I want you to know that every obstacle I pass, every fight I take on, is because of you. I draw my strength from you, and perhaps that was too much to ask of a young girl. But you will grow up stronger than you think, you will be a fighter, your soul will always shine in this dark world, because you know first-hand how to fight for the ones you care about.

One of my favorite quotes from Little Women sums up my thoughts every day: “I think she is growing up, and so begins to dream dreams, and have hopes and fears and fidgets, without knowing why or being able to explain them.”

I want you to know that everything you’re going through is normal, those feelings are normal, and I’m not here to judge you nor will I ever be mad at you. I’m here to guide you, to help you navigate through those tides of highs and lows, just like my mother did with me, and I was also angry at her. (Sorry, Mom!)

Some days I feel I have let you down, that nothing I say or do is enough anymore to comfort you. I long for the days when it was just a kiss on that little “ouchie” you had that would make the whole world better.

But my reward at the end of the day, although you’ve been staying in your room all day, is when you ask me to come and sit next to you while you fall asleep — and there she is, my little baby girl again, needing her mommy for those scary few moments before bedtime.

When you smile and tell me “I love you Mommy,” I know that I can fight all the imaginary monsters lurking around me. I can take on the hardest fight, because that smile on your face is all I need to conquer this darkness.

Life and situations will try and change you, but remember to be true to yourself, remember that a smile and an act of kindness goes a long way, and finally: “My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who and how you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness. Continue to allow humor to lighten the burden of your tender heart.” – Maya Angelou.

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My Tween’s Sassiness Is Driving Me Bonkers

It’s started. The huffing. The puffing. The annoyed sighs. The “Ma-ma, I get it.” The “I don’t want to.” The “she/he hates me” (always about one parent, to the other parent). I thought that the mouthiness didn’t kick in until the teenage years. I was so wrong. My ten-year-old has entered the back-talk and disrespect phase — and it’s driving me bananas.

I used to have this wildly deluded idea (don’t laugh at me) that if we homeschooled — i.e., kept our children away from the negative influence of sassy kids — and restricted all those TV shows that glorify kids slinging clever comebacks at stupid adults (see: everything aimed at tweens), my kids wouldn’t be mouthy. They’d be respectful. They’d be sweet. I wouldn’t hear back-talk from my babies.

You can laugh at me now.

Once my oldest hit about 9-and-half years old, it started. He interrupts us to say what he did or didn’t do. He protests vociferously if asked to do simple tasks. He sulks. He mutters under his breath. He’s actually a delightful child, smart and fun and witty, but once at least once a day, he breaks out the back-talk.

It makes me nuts. When I was a kid, I’d always hear (usually shouted), “Don’t you speak that way to your mother/father!” “Disrespect” (i.e., back-talk) was never permitted or tolerated in our house, and I was definitely smacked/grounded/yelled at for it. I learned to STFU and keep my opinions to myself — and that my parents didn’t really give a damn for what I had to say. I also learned to be afraid of my father, the one who usually did the smacking/grounding/yelling.

But I grew up that way. So my immediate, kneejerk response to back-talk? “Don’t you talk to me that way!” or “Don’t you disrespect your father like that!”

It’s counterproductive though. I’m just repeating the same hateful cycle that made me feel small and powerless. It doesn’t teach my son anything except to keep his damn mouth shut, and I don’t want to raise a kid who keeps his damn mouth shut. I want to raise a kid who speaks up for himself and for others. But how the hell do I do that?

1. Stay Calm Amid the Back-Talk

It sets me off. I know it sets me off. I had to really step back and ask myself why: why did my child’s so-called disrespect make me so angry? I found that deep down, I thought children owed adults some kind of deference. Deference is different than politeness. Deference implies a difference in value or stature. My kid isn’t less valuable than me, and his opinions aren’t invalid because of his age. Talk about an ouch when I realized that deep-rooted belief.

So I had to learn to breathe. I had to learn to control myself. After all, how can I ask my kid to control myself when I can’t? If I’m yelling, he starts yelling (and some of you are shaking your heads at me: how could I let my kid yell at me? What a brat. But I’d rather he stand up for himself than back down, thanks). So I try to take a moment. I try to pause before I respond. I might even count to ten. Even those ten seconds help immensely.

2. Ask Yourself What’s Behind It

My son doesn’t back-talk for no reason. Usually he’s hangry, thirsty, or tired. Look, we all get hungry or thirsty or tired, and we’re not at our best then. If that’s what’s going on, I try to stay patient and meet whatever physical need is driving the so-called disrespect. It’s hard when your kid’s huffing, “You don’t have to be so mean about it!” But take that 10-second pause. I swear it works miracles.

Sometimes my son’s just feeling powerless. He can’t escape his little brothers. We’ve asked him to do things he doesn’t want to do. He feels small and bossed around. I don’t want a child to feel powerless. So I acknowledge the feeling: “You seem like you’re angry because (whatever provoked the backtalk). Can we talk about that?” This usually derails it. And if he snaps that he isn’t angry/sulky/mad/upset, I apologize mildly for ascribing that feeling to him, and explain, “Your tone/words/voice made it seem like you were. The way you spoke hurt my feelings and made me feel angry myself, because I don’t like it when people talk to me that way.”

3. Offer Them a Do-Over Instead of Back-Talk

Often a mild “let’s try to say that again” can work wonders. I might say something like, “It might seem like I never let you do anything. Can you try to say that in a kinder way so we can talk about it?” That opens a dialogue rather than shuts it down. When I was a kid, I felt like my parents didn’t care how I felt or what I had to say. When I give my son a do-over and ask to talk about it, I tell him that I care and value his opinion — while still making it clear that we don’t speak to people in that type of voice, or huff at people like that.

4. Watch Yourself

You know what’s totally embarrassing and unhelpful? When I realized I was huffing and snarking at my kids and my husband. Wonder where they picked that up, mama? Maybe from from you. I needed to check my own behavior. and oh God does that take effort and patience and time, time, time. I suck at it. But I’m learning. I try to count to ten. I try not to show I’m annoyed. I might say “I wish you had asked to pee five minutes ago when we were at the rest stop, not now,” but I try really, really hard not to huff it or snap it at them. They learned it from you, mom/dad/parental-ish figure. Check yourself.

I’m trying. I’m trying very, very hard. But dealing with this? It’s difficult. I’m confronting ugly beliefs and trying to fix my own behavior, and trying to stay patient when I want to go ballistic, and I’m not a patient person. But I want my son to feel valued. I want him to feel respected. I don’t want him to shut up. I want him to speak up — but I want him to do it in a kind, polite manner (at least to me). The back-talk needs to end, yeah — the nasty part of it. But I never want him to stop saying what he thinks, or believe that his feelings are invalid. I firmly believe that my son can learn to say, “I feel like you’re being unfair” instead of snarking, “You’re so mean.”

I just have to teach him how.

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