Writing about your kids? Watch your mouth.

She got her sons’ permission to write everything she writes.

Yeah. So what? They are your children. Your relationship with them is not a contractual obligation where one party can sign away their rights to dignity and privacy just because their mom has a deadline and a grievance

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

 

Summer Book Swap: The First List!

Last week, I wrote about my idea to get everyone reading more and better books by doing a reading swap with my kids. It’s a simple plan: They read a book I think they’ll like, and I’ll read a book they think I’ll like.

Here’s what we have so far. (Note: All links are Amazon Associate links, meaning I earn a small percentage of every sale. If you click through and end up buying something else, I still earn! Thank you!)

My 19-year-old daughter has me reading The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett,

and I gave her The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh.

My 18-year-old daughter is still mulling over my assignment, but I’m probably giving her The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth.

My 16-year-old daughter got me started on The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan,

and I’m giving her The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis.

My 15-year-old son gave me The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

and I’m giving him A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

My 13-year-old son assigned me Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

and I’m giving him Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

(if you order this book, beware of abridged editions!).

My 11-year-old daughter got me started on The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham,

and I gave her The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson (terrible, off-putting cover):

My 10-year-old daughter gave me The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann (here’s hoping the cover is misleading)

and I’m giving her The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald (the sequel to The Princess and the Goblin.)

My 8-year-old daughter gave me The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

and I’m giving her The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White.

My five-year-old is just learning how to read, so she’s not playing, but I did order a copy of The Complete Tales of Winnie-The-Pooh by A.A. Milne for us to read together.

If your family is only familiar with the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh, do yourself a tremendous favor and get ahold of the original. The stories are so weird and hilarious, highly entertaining for parents without being condescending for kids.

And we’re off! I’ll probably follow up with a bunch of quick reviews by me and the kids, and then we’ll get a second list going. So far, so good.

Are you interested in doing a book swap with your kids this summer? What books will you give them, and which books are they giving you? Please include their ages and maybe a little bit about why the books are on the list.

Well-behaved characters rarely make books (but here are some that do)

You know that irritating bumper sticker, “Well-behaved women rarely make history”? Well, poo. First, it’s not everyone’s job to make history. The world functions better for everyone when most people go to work, act decently, are thoughtful of others, and save the rebellion for emergencies.

Second, and more importantly, it depends what you mean by “well-behaved.” If you mean “The only possible way to change the world is to take your top off and scream at people,” then I’d have to demur (and so would the Virgin Mary).

It’s true, though, that well-behaved characters rarely carry books, and it’s hard to write a book full of people who are kind — by which I mean disposed toward helping and being generous toward others, preferably gently and good-naturedly. It’s possible to write such a book, but it’s rare.

Authors of children’s books, especially, tend to want to give their characters authenticity and appeal by making them sassy, prickly, bratty, rebellious, morose, or dysfunctional — or good at heart, but with a tremendous flaw to overcome. Kindness is often portrayed as weakness or naïveté, and not desirable as a dominant virtue.

Here are a few of my favorite characters who are not only basically virtuous, but who always, or almost always, show kindness to other people in the story.

First I’ll get the two wild cards out of the way: Dido Twite and Pippi Longstocking. You can argue with me if you like!

Dido just barely qualifies, because she learns kindness gradually — but it’s a trait that anchors her character. I’m rereading Joan Aiken’s Nightbirds On Nantucket and am just in love with Dido, who wants so badly to get back to London, but realizes that drippy old motherless Dutiful Penitence is more than just her ticket home.

Dido gradually takes responsibility for patiently teaching Pen to enjoy life, to become less fearful, to stand up for herself, and to practice loyalty. Dido and Pen’s characters both develop, and they ultimately escape their predicament, as Dido deliberately cultivates kindness and gentleness toward the fragile Pen.

(Joan Aiken is great at portraying kind but interesting, well-realized characters: see cheerful Nate in the stories with Dido, and also the resourceful and protective Simon (in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts In Battersea). To a lesser extent, Arabel of the Arabel and Mortimer series is also a kind and responsible kid, although she’s also just naturally mellow.)

Pippi Longstocking is outrageously kind, a trait is just as much a part of her character as her outrageous recklessness.

She spends her time alone cooking and packing picnics for her friends, hiding treasures, and organizing all sorts of surprises and adventures. She’s enraged only by bullies who prey on the weak; and she uses her own incredible strength only for good (and some showing off). When her teasing and storytelling confuse or upset someone, she is usually contrite. Without her kindness, her outsized personality and habits would be monstrous.

The Pippi Longstocking books aren’t about character development, anyway — partly because they’re episodic, and partly because they’re sort of mythical, with Pippi as a preternatural figure whose inexplicable strength, cleverness, generosity, and radical independence are entirely self-sufficient. It’s impossible to imagine Pippi growing into adulthood or marrying, because she is already a complete person. She’s not depthless, though. She does weep, briefly, over a dead bird; and once, Tommy and Annika see her alone in her kitchen at night and it occurs to them, for the first time, that it’s possible for someone so strong and cheerful to be lonely. These glimpses into her private life make her kindness more believable.

Which other books portray characters who are thoroughly kind, without reducing them to dull foils for naughty kids with more spirit?

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett plays fairly close to the line, as Sara Crewe is almost overwhelmingly virtuous in every way.

But the scene where she struggles mightily with herself to turn her long-coveted bun over to an even hungrier child is very moving, and the book is saved from absolute melodrama by the strength and suspense of the plot and by the writing itself.

Burnett’s The Secret Garden, published six years after A Little Princess, is the better book and has more complex character development. The main character and her foil are both selfish, immature, and self-pitying early on, and their conversion and development are gradual and believable. But Dickon, the outdoorsman, is gloriously kind and open-hearted, as is his whole family.

Most people would include Charlotte of Charlotte’s Web in a list of kind protagonists, but I have always struggled with this book. It includes too many hard truths and not enough comfort for my tastes; and I always thought Charlotte was much too hard on little Wilbur emotionally, even though her actions saved him in practice. Of E.B. White’s books, my very favorite is The Trumpet of the Swan,

which includes the watchful, helpful, and loyal Sam Beaver.

She’s not in a chapter book, but I can’t neglect the lovely Nyasha, the good daughter in Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe.

The unforgettable illustrations go a long way to filling out her character, but her words and actions also demonstrate unflagging kindness, patience, and civility toward every single creature she meets, from her nasty, scheming sister, to the apparently needy folks she meets in the woods, even to the snake she encounters on the throne at the end.

(In the category of fairy tales, the 2015 live action movie of Cinderella explicitly praises kindness as a virtue to be pursued. Recommended!)

Mrs. Trotter of The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Peterson?

Oh, my heart. Her kindness is a little complex. She acknowledges that poor William Ernest Teague’s education need a harder edge than she can provide, and so her kindness perhaps shades into weakness; but in a throwaway line, she stands by her basic character, acknowledging dryly to the social worker that she’s well aware the world doesn’t consider her a real mother. Oh, Trotter. The truest portrayal of a good Christian I’ve ever seen in literature, period, for kids or for adults.

Strangely enough, the wild, anti-authority, sometimes brutal Roald Dahl books often have central characters who are very kind. Some of them are kind to most, but vengeful toward their parents and enemies, and this response is portrayed as delightful and just; but some wish even their enemies well, and are willing to risk their own safety for their friends. Charlie of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory is like this, and so is James of James and the Giant Peach;

and the vengeance is wrought by fate, rather than the protagonist. I haven’t read The BFG in many years, but I recall that the BFG’s main trait was kindness. In Danny the Champion of the World, the father is meant to be a kind man, but the reader of conscience can’t ignore than he is a criminal and a vengeful man.

Honorable mention goes to the very helpful Elmer Elevator of My Father’s Dragon,

who takes everyone he meets at face value, never uses more force than necessary, and even remembers to bring a birthday present home for his father.

Likewise Freddy the Pig throughout Walter R. Brooks’ extensive series of books,

who sometimes gets irritated or falls into self-pity, but is ultimately the friend everyone needs to have. The trio of cows, Mrs. Wiggins, Mrs. Wogus, and Mrs. Wurtzburger are also kind sorts, and tremendously appealing.

Finally, a recommendation from Rebecca Salazar: John Carter from A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I haven’t read this series, but I trust Rebecca (although she warns that the series is 100 years old, and contains references to “red men” and savage Apaches and the like, and that the first three are the best).
She says: It is a cheesy pulp novel, but one of the overarching differences between John Carter and the martians is that he treats subordinates and defeated enemies with kindness, and he doesn’t just automatically kill someone because they’re an enemy.

One example of kindness in it is that the green Martian tribe Carter becomes a chieftain in have horse analogue animals that they basically subdue through force, and this they’re dangerous to their riders, but Carter treats his with kindness and tames them and the rest of the warriors are shocked by how superior his mounts are because of this.
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As you can see, my reading list needs some updating! I stand by all my recommendations, and hope that my kids will love these characters as much as I do; but I’d be happy to add to the list, especially to include newer books.
Who else in children’s literature is predominantly kind without being dull, two-dimensional, or drippy?

Hey, doctors: Big families are not on trial

The thing that finally relieved my anxiety about giving birth

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

A youngish mom with a bunch of kids goes to her doctor with a medical problem. Doesn’t even matter what the problem is: problems with excessive bleeding, problems with postpartum depression, problems with heartburn, problems with sleep. Problems with her knee, her skin, or the way her hair just won’t curl the way it used to.

Any problem, doesn’t matter. If she has more than a few kids, she already knows what comes next: A glance at the chart, the eyebrows go shooting up, and here it comes: “Ohh, I see you have [any number greater than two] kids.”

And that’s all they want to talk about from then on.

They certainly don’t want to listen to you when you tell them, “This isn’t about family size.” They tuck your multipara status into your buttonhole like a red poppy so you can never forget, never forget that you brought this on yourself in some way with allllll those kids, so let’s talk about that, then, eh?

You’ll think I’m exaggerating if it hasn’t happened to you; but ask around among women who have five, six, or seven, or even three or four kids, and you’ll see nods and eyerolls, or even tears. Because it hurts. Women with lots of kids have to prepare themselves mentally every time they step into a doctor’s office. Not only do they have to deal with whatever problem they’re actually there for, they have to defend themselves against insinuations, disapproval, patronizing jokes, and sometimes open scorn.

Now, sometimes, a woman’s maternal history is relevant. If a woman is trying desperately to stop having children, then it makes sense for her doctor to talk about how she can accomplish that (while being respectful of her religious concerns). If pregnancy and childbearing are damaging her health, it makes sense for her doctor to talk about her plans for the future. That is the doctor’s job, and a good doctor thinks more wholistically, beyond the immediate problem at hand.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.I’m talking about women with many children being treated as if their wombs are a pandora’s box from which all ills and troubles flow. I’m talking about doctors behaving as if we’re nothing but a walking, whimpering uterus, and there is no sense in even discussing any other medical issue until we figure out how to put a cork in it.

Here’s what happened to me in the last week of my last pregnancy:

I had already given birth nine times. I knew what it was going to be like. There was no maternal amnesia strong enough, and there was no new technique I was going to learn for pain control or emotional calm.  I knew what was coming, and that it was going to be rough, because that’s what childbirth is like. I was weeks or days away from giving birth, and I couldn’t sleep, night after night, because I was nervous about the delivery. Naturally, my exhaustion only fed into the anxiety.

So I went to the doctor and asked if she could prescribe something safe to soothe my anxiety and help me sleep, just to tide me over.

She refused. Their policy said I had to visit their staff psychiatrist first. Okay, could I make an appointment? Oh, sure — there was an opening in three days.

Three days may not sound like a lot to you, but I was within five days of my due date. I hadn’t slept in maybe four days. Everything hurt, all the time. And I knew with all my heart that I wasn’t going to magically enjoy peace of mind just because, thanks to my doctors, I could look forward to talking to a complete stranger about my emotional state at 39 weeks. Could I maybe get a three-day prescription to get me through until then, just to take the edge off? No, that wasn’t their policy.

I WAS SO ANGRY. There was no reason for this. No reason at all. But they wouldn’t budge.

So I cooled my heels at home (actually, my heels, like the rest of me, were puffy, inflamed, and in constant pain) and turned up for the stupid appointment. The first thing she wanted to know, after introducing herself, was how I felt about having so many children.

Yeah.

Imagine there’s a building on fire, so you called the fire department — only to discover that, before they would even unroll a hose, they wanted to file a request for documents proving that the contractors who built it had been unionized.

Would that be reasonable? Maybe they were unionized and maybe they weren’t, and maybe the answer to that question would shed light on the current situation and maybe it wouldn’t. But right now, maybe let’s PUT OUT THE FIRE.

So I knew already knew I was being treated badly. But I also knew that, the more I protested, the more likely I was to be flagged as a drug-seeking patient, so I tried to speak calmly. I had already plotted out what I was going to say.

I told the doctor, “I am happy with my family size, and I do not need advice about family planning. That is not why I am here. My anxiety is not related to anything but childbirth. It is purely situational anxiety. When I give birth, I will no longer feel anxiety about giving birth. What I need is something to help me through the next few days, because I can’t sleep. That is the problem I need help with.”

And you know what she did? She kept me in that room for another fifteen minutes, probing and questioning me about my history, my long-term psychological state, my experience in past deliveries, and anything else she could think of, based on nothing but the number of times I had given birth. There were no other red flags in my history, nothing that would signal to any medical professional that I was being abused, that I was unhappy beyond normal pregnancy ills, or even that I was overwhelmed with my life in general. But she kept asking. And I just kept repeating:  “That is not relevant. This is situational anxiety. I just need to get some sleep.”

Finally, with deep and obvious disapproval, she wrote out a prescription for a mild antihistamine, which didn’t work at all. I burned through the next week in a sleepless rage, angrily gave birth, and spent the next week remembering how to sleep, and calming the hell down.

Now, you tell me.

If I were, say, a topless dancer, and I told my doctor I was nervous about upcoming foot surgery, and I wanted a prescription to help me sleep for a few days until the big day, would I have gotten a slew of lifestyle questions, probing and digging for signs that I harbored some secret regret about how I spend my days?

If I were a trans man with AIDS, and was feeling tons of anxiety about an imminent job interview, would my doctor have given me a referral for next week with a psychiatrist who wanted to sit me down and have a chat about my past and future choices about my body, my family, my life goals?

If I were anyone at all, and I turned up in a doctor’s office with an obvious and solvable problem, wouldn’t the doctor just . . . help me solve that problem?

But I had lots of kids. Lots of kids, and I was in a long-term, stable marriage, and I was fully employed, a long-term patient with no criminal record, no history of drug or alcohol abuse, no smoking, no psych issues, no weird bruises, no nothing. I got regular exercise and took my vitamins. I had turned up at every appointment well-nourished and well-informed, with no panic, no hysteria, no delusions, no complaints about anything other than, “I am pregnant and my feet really hurt.” It was very easy to explain why I was feeling anxiety and dealing with insomnia. It was very easy to predict when I could conquer those issues.

But she didn’t want to hear that. She didn’t want to believe me, because I had a lot of kids.

Guess what? That experience of not being listened to was so frustrating and painful and infuriating, it made it ten times harder for me to make another appointment later, when I really did need help with larger psychological issues (also unrelated to childbearing!). I thought, “They’re just going to say, ‘Well, this is what you get when you have so many kids; sorry, we can’t help.'” Because that is what they have always said.

So I didn’t go, and I didn’t go, and I didn’t go.

That’s what happens when you treat women like they can’t be trusted: You lose their trust.  And that means you’re not doing your job.

Doctors, this has to stop. When you see a patient with lots of children, she should be treated like any other patient. Keep eyes and ears open for signs of abuse and signs of distress, just as you would with any other patient, but do not behave as if the large family itself is a red flag. It’s offensive and disrespectful beyond belief, and it puts women constantly on guard. It’s okay to ask if she’s happy with her current family planning; but if she says yes, then you simply must let it go. Even if you don’t get it. Even if you don’t approve.

Believe her when she tells you what the problem is. Believe her, even if she has a lot of kids.

Undeserving, unremarkable, unreliable, and beloved

Odd for the magi to know enough to prostrate themselves, in their jewels and flowing robes, before the seemingly unremarkable but truly extraordinary son of Mary; odder still, odd times a billion, for that Son to prostrate Himself for us, who are truly unremarkable.

Why? Why would He do this?

Because, to Him, every last one of us is that child who is unlike any other child. Each one of us is cherished like the “little man” who is adorable just because he enjoys eating eggs, or sweet beyond compare just because he has learned to blow kisses, like billions of other babies. To Christ, each of us is that special one, that cherished child, that singularly beloved one who makes his parent’s heart swell with affection.

Read the rest of my latest post at The Catholic Weekly.

Image: detail of photo by Andreĭ Osipovich Karelin, Public Domain

Oh, such depravity. Tell me more!

What interests me is how eager so many people were to believe that the sick, twisted, evil of California just got a little sicker, more twisted, and even eviller. There is a very fine line between drawing back in horror and swooping in with glee, and thousands of outraged readers, bloggers, pundits, and shock jocks vaulted right over that line.

Why? Because evil isn’t content with prowling around like a ravening lion, looking to devour this and that. It wants us to sit on the sidelines and cheer it on, munching popcorn as we enjoy the spectacle.

Read the rest of my latest for the Catholic Weekly here.

Can we celebrate Christmas as Syria burns?

Trying to tamp down the guilt that rose like a cloud of evil dust, I mentally ran through my week, comparing it to the week that my brothers and sisters have endured in Aleppo. I shouldn’t have bought any presents, I thought. How could I even dare? How can we light our Advent candles and sing “O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel?” We are not captives. We are healthy, wealthy, safe, pampered. Our walls our intact. We are home. Our children are with us, safe and warm in bed. The Syrians, they are the ones who need rescuing, Lord. Lord, isn’t there something I can do?

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly here.

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Image: By Ahill34 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At the Register: When Your Child Has Problems

Bouncing off Jen Fitz’s advice for Christian parents of transgendered children, I have a few things to say about children in general:

When a child begins to exhibit some behavior that is worrisome, it’s easy to panic, to jump to conclusions, to apply adult-style significance to juvenile behavior, or to assume that we can make a diagnosis based on a single symptom or habit.

Here’s the basic idea, whether we’re talking about a child who is actually fine, and just going through a phase, or a child who actually needs professional help:  remember that we’re talking about a person, not a problem.

Read the rest at the Register.

Because my husband said I should . . .

Here is an excerpt from the chapter I’m contributing to a book about marriage:

Children give our bodies purpose.  I always have to laugh when people complain, “The Church treats women like baby-making machines!”  The truth is, the secular world is the one that treats women that way—and expends tremendous amounts of money and effort in trying to find the “off” button, often putting women through years of physical and psychological contortions with one kind of contraception after another.

The Church, on the other hand, teaches that the bodies of men and women are designed the way they are, reproductive systems and all, because they have a specific purpose in life.  What is that purpose?  Something huge:  to make love, literally — to create something, to bring new love into the world.  Sometimes this looks like physically bearing children (whether many or few); sometimes it looks like adopting; sometimes it looks like simply becoming aware that we are all here to love and to be loved.

When we can witness our own, familiar bodies actually doing this right before our very eyes – making something where there used to be nothing, bringing something new into the world – we are compelled to think about why we are here, and why God made us, and what it means to make love.

The book is by Our Sunday Visitor Press.  Will share more details when I get the green light!  It looks like it’s going to be a great project.