Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I choose to stay and fight

You may know that I live in Santa Barbara county. The tragic events last Friday night at UCSB have enveloped all of us. It is a sad time, one in which the ongoing discussions of lack of services for mental illness, gun control, and the pervasive misogyny in our culture have resurfaced with renewed vigor.

I have been hit particularly hard by both the violence and the fervor in defending assault weapon ownership, but even worse, I've been paralyzed with disgust at the multitude of comments defending the demented beliefs of the shooter that drove him to kill 6 innocent people and injure 7 more. Because the tragedy happened on our doorstep, I've talked to our kids at length about it. Even though we don't watch tv and they've been mainly protected from some of the more heart-wrenching details, they have a lot of questions. I have done my best to answer them, but they are not easy conversations.

What's particularly difficult is to talk to them about WHY he was so angry that he wanted to kill people. The truth, the horrible truth of how he thought about women, is more difficult for me to talk about than mental illness or gun control. Misogyny is not a grey area, so it should be easy...but it is so accepted in so many subtle and not so subtle ways in our culture that as a mom, it's difficult for me to explain to my 7 year old daughter that there are groups of people, mainly men, who are creating fan pages on Facebook holding up the Isla Vista shooter as a hero of their misogynistic beliefs. There are many, many people who sympathize with him. There are many, many people who believe that his violence was justified.

But it's worse than that. Many women I know have reported these fan pages to Facebook for Hate Speech and Facebook has denied requests to have these pages taken down. I AM ANGRY. A mom posts a picture on Facebook of breastfeeding and is taken down for obscenity, but a fan page for a woman-hating mass murderer is ok? What the hell is wrong with us, all of us, if these things just happen and we let them?

I'm a mom, a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a co-worker...I have every right to choose who has access to my body and when. So does your mom, your wife, your girlfriend, your sister, your daughter, your friends, your co-workers. Thinking otherwise is not just misogynistic, it's obscene. It IS hate speech to say I don't have that right, just because I happened to be born with a vagina instead of a penis. It doesn't matter what I look like. It doesn't matter what I'm wearing. It doesn't matter if I said yes before I said no. It doesn't matter if I've been drinking. It doesn't matter what time it is. You're not entitled to anything without my permission and I have the right to revoke that permission at any time.

When I read that Facebook is protecting these hate pages against women and allowing them to be hosted on their platform, I was going to quit Facebook. It's tempting to walk away, to simply say "I'm out." But that doesn't solve the problem, does it? Because I may leave, but then who will say this is not ok? Who will say it if I don't? How can I have these conversations with my daughters about men who marginalize, sexualize, objectify and victimize women if I don't stand up and say it's not ok? How does this get better if I don't work to make it better?

I'm staying on Facebook, but I'm not here just to post pics of my kiddos and beach selfies and geeky memes. I'm staying to be vigilant and to fight. I'm staying to say it's not ok to tell girls they need to dress more modestly because boys can't control themselves. I'm staying to say it's not ok to victim blame. I'm staying to report pages that hold up misogynist extremist mass murderers as role models. I'm staying to try to be a feminist role model for my sons and daughters.

Why are you on Facebook?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Becoming a mom

When Jackson, my firstborn, was about to turn 1, I knew I wanted another child. My pregnancy with him had not been easy, and with 3 months of bed rest fresh in my mind and the complications I experienced with a second round of fertility medication, another pregnancy seemed too great a risk. We decided to adopt. In the late summer of 2004, I traveled to Russia to meet my son Vardan. 

When people ask, I've compared the process of international adoption to pregnancy. The first trimester is filled with emotion, anxiety, and trying to figure out what all of this means to you...with adoption, it also means A LOT of paperwork. More than you can even imagine. It also means a lot of decisions. One of the unique decisions that you can make in the adoption process is selecting the gender of your child. I agonized over that decision, until one day, sitting alone in the car and talking to...I don't know. Myself? the Universe? God? I heard myself say, "Jackson needs a brother." And so the decision was made. 

The next few months, like the second trimester, is just waiting. And waiting. Your paperwork has been submitted and you fill your days thinking about your new child, wishing, wondering and trying to make plans. The last few months are just like the last trimester of pregnancy. Can I just have this kid already? I want to meet him! The wait is almost painful with anticipation.

My last trimester of the adoption process began with the arrival of an email with two pictures attached of our "referral." He was beautiful. Big brown eyes, chubby cheeks, and curly brown ringlets covering his head. From the minute I saw him, I was in love. We had a name picked out for him, but when we saw him, we knew he'd already been appropriately named Vardan. Every day waiting to meet him after receiving that email was agony, but a few weeks later, he was cuddled up in my arms for the first time. Our first trip was to officially accept him as our son, and then we had to leave him at the orphanage and wait 6 horrible weeks until our second trip to Russia and court finalization of the adoption, when we could bring him home.

It was that second trip, after leaving the orphanage and walking around the streets of Sochi with him, that I feel like I actually became a mom. Sure, when I had Jackson, I had that moment too, holding him in the hospital, the nurse came in to give me a shot and he cried in empathetic pain and I knew that he was MINE and I was a mom. But it wasn't until I had Vardan, 18 months old and holding on to me like a koala bear, that I really felt what it meant to be a mom. 

Some people have asked me why I chose international adoption. The selfish truth is that it seemed easier. There is an abundance of babies in overseas orphanages who need homes and families to love them. But it wasn't even that. I didn't want my son's "real mom" showing up some day. I didn't think I could handle the competition of another mom. This little boy was mine and I didn't want to share him.

As I walked along the Black Sea shore, holding my son, I felt desperate. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I wanted to meet Vardan's birth mom. I knew that it was not a competition for who was more of his mother, and I desperately wanted this stranger who had given birth to my son to know that he was going to be ok. I don't know much about her. I know he was her first child, that she was an immigrant from Armenia, and that she was only 4'10". I know that she was a hairdresser, was homeless and living with a friend, she didn't smoke, and before she gave birth to our beautiful boy, she visited the orphanage on numerous occasions to make sure that he was going to be ok. That's the piece that stuck with me: she wanted to know he was going to be ok and there was no way for me to tell her.

I can only imagine her life, and the circumstances that led to her decision. I can only project my own experience of motherhood on her, this woman who lives on the other side of the planet, who gave me the most precious gift in all the world. When I was flying back from Moscow to New York City, all I could think was: I want her to know he's ok. He's safe, he's beautiful and he's going to be ok. I wanted her to know that it didn't even phase me on that flight when he stayed awake for 36 hours and only wanted me to hold him, feeding him Cheerios one-by-one. I wanted her to know when Jackson met him for the first time after our long trip home from Russia, the first thing he said was "Oh brother, I've missed you so much." Later, I wanted her to know when we got his asthma controlled and he said his first English sentence (I want that!) and he got his hearing aids. I want her to know how he's shockingly gifted at Legos and that he plays a mean trombone. I want her to know that he's got a big heart. I want her to know that he asks about her, and wants to learn Russian so that if he meets her someday, she'll understand him.

If you've seen my family and I walk in to church on Sunday, you know that we take up a full pew. Together, my husband John and I have six children. Some people have said, "Oh, you're a blended family!" and usually we reply, "No, we're just a family." And this is why:  our family is not defined by biology, but by choice.

Your heart, the love you can give, is not finite or discriminate. It multiplies and grows in ways you can't anticipate. When you have a child, you think, I could never love another person as much as I love this baby. And then, miraculously, you do, with the next child, and the next and the next. There is no limit, and that love is not tempered by the circumstances that brought a child to you, only by the openness with which you bring her into your heart.

John tells me that I have a big heart, and if I do, it's because each kiddo that came into our family...by birth, by adoption, or in our big fat geek wedding last summer: Jackson, Vardan, Sallie, Clarisse, Elvis and Zevon, have shown me how to open my heart bigger and wider, not just to them, but to the people, history and circumstances that brought us together. I've learned that being a mom is very little about giving birth to someone and everything about the choices and sacrifices you make for another to help them grow. I understand now that it’s only a good thing to have more people to love and nurture our children. Our family is big and complicated and, more than anything, loving. 

On this Mother's Day, I'm thinking about Vardan's first mom, his Russian mom, his biological mom. Maybe I'll be able to share the blessing she gave me with her someday. Until then, thank you - cpaceba, Anna, for helping me see what it means to be a mom.