High anxiety parenting

The therapist leaned in, looked me in the eyes and asked:

“Who can you trust completely?”

“Myself,” I answered without thinking.

“And what can you trust yourself to do?”

“Anything,” I said. “Anything I have to.”

“So relax, Danna,” she said, leaning back into her chair. “Relax into life.”

As if it’s just that easy.

While never clinically diagnosed with anxiety, I feel it humming through my veins. As a kid I was in and out of doctors offices complaining of constant tummy aches, and I terrified my parents by refusing to eat. Who can eat when there’s so much to worry about?

Come to think of it, maybe I’m not anxious. Maybe I’m just a melodramatic worrier with an overactive imagination.

I developed little tricks that seemed to help. There were mantras I’d repeat to myself nightly before falling asleep: “Everything is going to be OK tomorrow; you are not going to die,” I’d whisper into my pillow. I had a bear that slept with me every night. His name was Bear and he had a red bowtie. I don’t know why I speak of him in past tense, because he is currently in my room.

There was a cherry tree in the front yard and when I climbed it the tummy aches would go away. It quickly became known as the Magic Tree, and a place of escape when nothing else worked.

In my 20s there were a few trips to the ER for what felt like heart attacks. A couple of Ativan later, and I was able to get through planning a wedding.

Now I’m a grown up, and a worst-case scenario parent who can no longer just run outside and climb a tree. In need of more mature solutions, I sought out professional advice.

So I go to therapy. I also exercise a lot. I’ve tried to meditate, but I usually just end up making a grocery list in my head.

For me, anxiety is like a toxic security blanket. It’s killing me, but also makes me feel normal, comfortable, and super productive. When I’m not anxious, I get anxious, as if there’s something lurking around the corner that I haven’t wised up to yet. I’ll wander the house, randomly feeling my children’s foreheads for fever, checking the calendar to make sure I’m not missing a dentist appointment. I’ll call my parents and ask after their health.

But anxiety, I’ve learned, is about perfection and control. If I’m in control of a situation, then I don’t have to worry about it. And if I can see it coming (or imagine it in advance) then I can prepare for it, making me a worst-case scenario parent.

Anxiety is helping me get ready so that I can be really GREAT when disaster strikes.

However, according to my therapist, we can control about five to 10 per cent of the events that take place in our lives. As much as we’d like to, we can’t control other people, or the choices they make. I can’t even control the temperature in my office at work. And worry isn’t magical — if I can think of a terrible situation and speak it out loud, that doesn’t prevent it from happening. Jinxing, as it turns out, isn’t a weapon against chaos.

“Who can you trust?”

It was such a simple question, with such a profound internal response.

I can trust myself. And that’s enough. That’s pretty great, actually.

I’ve watched people I love handed their own worst-case-scenarios; death or diagnosis dropped into their laps out of nowhere. They didn’t see it coming, and if they had, would it have made bearing the weight of it any easier?

It was terrible. But they handled it. They are still handling it. And while they’ll never be the same, they will be OK.

Life has shit in it, and despite how active my imagination, I won’t see it coming. There’s no bracing for it.

But when it does hit — and it will — I’ll handle it, because that’s what I do.

When we have children, our worries shift from internal to external and there seems no end to them. What if something happens to my kids? What if they’re hurt, or worse? What if they become ill, or worse? What if they’re struggling and I don’t notice?

There’s no number of miles I can run, no tree high enough to climb my way out of these anxiety-producing thoughts that keep me awake, steal my life, and make me look fucking old.

And so I’m working my way to trusting myself — trusting that when the worst of the garbage arrives to stink up my sweet life, I’ll handle it. It will suck, but I’ll be OK.

And I’ll finally be able to relax into life.

Remember what harassment feels like?

I had forgotten what it felt like to be harassed. Honestly, it’s been awhile.

The sun was shining. I was walking home after dropping my children off at school. Ready for work, I was mentally adding items to my to-do list and wondering what I’d already forgotten.

I sensed a vehicle approaching from behind, but only paid attention as it began to slow, which was odd as it was nowhere near the intersection.

A dark blue Dodge with a lawnmower in the box pulled up alongside. Smiling, the driver leaned out and said something. I couldn’t hear him over the sound of the truck’s exhaust, so I stopped and turned; assuming he was lost, I smiled, ready to point the way.

He raised his voice: “You’re like an angel. You’re so beautiful,” he shouted, before laughing, reaching over and high-fiving the guy beside him on the passenger seat. He put the truck back into gear and drove off, not before giving me wink and a wave. I think he thought he had made my day. 

There I stood, dumbstruck, wondering what the hell had just happened. 

There was a time, back in my teens, twenties and early thirties, that I was always on the lookout for this type of situation, but always failed to see it coming. Now in my 40s, I’ve become complacent. I haven’t been harassed in, like, forever. One man leering out his truck window, however, and it flooded back. I know this feeling. Every single woman I know, and every woman I don’t, knows this feeling. 

It’s dread, combined with embarrassment, anxiety, fear, anger and helplessness. 

I remember the first time I felt this way. I was 13, it was halloween and I was dressed as a cheerleader. My mom, who taught elementary school during the week and Sunday school on the weekend, put the costume together for me to ensure it wasn’t too scandalous. The skirt was short, but with the tights I wore, she said it was OK. She stitched a letter on my sweater, and bought me pompoms, which I adored. My long brown hair was held up in a high ponytail by a thick red ribbon, and I’m sure that ponytail was swinging back and forth as I walked home from school.

The truck pulled up beside me and there were three young men inside seated together on the bench. I remember exactly where I was. There was no sidewalk on this part of my route. I was walking on an unpaved shoulder with the road on one side and a wooded ravine on the other. I remember thinking that I could turn around and run the other way and that they might not be able to catch up to me if they had to throw the truck in reverse.

My heart still pounds thinking about it, and about what might have happened but didn’t. They commented on my cute costume, laughed, and whistled as they drove away. It was my own fault, I thought. I should have worn pants. I should have waited and walked home with a friend. I wouldn’t make that mistake again. I’m an idiot. There was nothing to be afraid of. I should take it as a compliment. At least they weren’t insulting me. Or wait, maybe they were just making fun of me?

My best friend had a similar experience, but the man in the car was alone when he reached out his window with a quarter in his hand and said: “Give me a call when you turn 16.” She turned and fled. She was out of breath when she called me. She lived in a rural area and walked the same path home from the bus each day. There was no shortcut. We both wondered whether she should tell her mom. We both worried that maybe he’d come back. We both decided that she should just take it as a compliment. We were 13.

After a while, you get used to it. You get used to that feeling as you walk past a group of men and they stop talking, mumble to one another and then laugh. You get used to the feeling of people looking at you, leering. We cross streets, we walk in pairs, we look straight ahead and walk really, really fast.

I worked in a department store in my early 20s. If I had a dollar for every man who told me to smile, or who asked what I was up to after work, or who wondered what a pretty girl like me was doing working in a place like this, I wouldn’t have had to take out a student loan.

This is why we have ladies only gyms, and why we pretend to be on the phone when we use public transit. A male relative once observed that women drivers always stare straight ahead at stop lights: “Why is that,” he asked me, sincerely. 

I explained that we stare straight ahead because we can see you looking. If we make eye contact, or smile, you might think we’re interested. Sometimes you follow us. The scenery is not worth the risk.

Eventually, the catcalls stop, though. Eventually, we slow down, take out our earbuds, and remove the keys from between our knuckles. 

So we forget. And we think maybe times have changed. Maybe girls don’t have to put up with street harassment anymore. Maybe men have gotten better. 

And then this happens. I’m a grown ass woman walking in my middle-class suburban neighbourhood on a sunny Monday morning, but to a man in a truck, I was object on display — I was something he felt entitled to comment on.

To be honest, I debated posting this, worried that readers would tell me to be flattered, and to take it as a compliment. Perhaps the trolls would suggest that the driver must have been blind, or that I’m just too sensitive, and that our society is too politically correct, and why can’t women just lighten up and take a joke?

But I’ve been deflecting, walking quickly, making jokes, and saying “thank you,” to unsolicited comments about my body and my appearance my whole life, and it’s made me feel small, and stupid. It guts me to think of girls who are still made to feel this way as they walk home from school, work out, or try to do their jobs, and who are told to “just say thank you.” 

This has never been flattery; it has always been harassment, designed to make us feel small, and remind us that we are here for your pleasure.  

We are not. 

 

 

The day the school burned down

What is it about an elementary school that grabs at our hearts? When you think about it, it’s really just a place where cinderblock meets vinyl floors, and where the walls (not the windows) tell you the season. Autumn leaves are replaced by jack-o-lanterns before the poppies bloom only to be replaced by snowmen (and women).

There are a lot of irritating things about elementary schools. Like parking, and the drop-off zones in which one parent always decides to stop and get out and mess up the whole system; like the lost and found bin that fills up the first week of school and gets progressively smellier over time.

And then there’s our little community school, composed of a maze of interconnected classrooms in which one could easily get turned around. Our school was built in the early 1970s and was trendy back then. An open concept school, it followed the principle that children would learn more effectively in open, creative spaces. They would learn at their own pace, and let their interests lead them. Teachers would work together alongside the students, and would learn from each other. It sure sounded like a great idea, but open = noisy and distracting, and before long the walls went back up, and our little school became super confusing, a maze of interconnected classrooms without hallways.

My old elementary school had high-tech machines that beat up chalkboard erasers. This school has Smart Boards and Chrome Books.

But there is still carpet time; children still sit criss-cross applesauce, hands in their laps. There are still stars on reading charts and cubbies with little shoes in them. There are still swing sets and hockey nets and a little room in the office that you sit in when your tummy aches.

Or at least there was, before it burned to the ground last week.

Driving by the other night on my way to a parent meeting to find out where my children would spend the next two years while their school is rebuilt, I stopped by our school and cried for a bit. Its roof had caved in, and it sat, crooked in the rain, like a hodgepodge of scattered blocks destroyed by an angry toddler.

I didn’t expect the sight would make me cry. Everyone got out safely. Nobody was injured. The building will rise again even better than before.

Everything will be OK.

But everything will be different, and so much has been lost. The fire even took away the smell of crayons, new shoes, old shoes, leftover lunches and library books.

My old school, Fraserview Elementary, still stands. Today if I wanted to, I could wander its perimeter, sit on a swing, or look through the window of what was once Mrs. Taylor’s Grade 3 class.

Today, 36 years after I began kindergarten I can close my eyes and see Mrs. Greenwood’s classroom perfectly, and remember her face as if no time had passed. If I needed to use the bathroom, I’d know exactly where to go, and I can picture the playground perfectly, as though I’d chipped my front tooth on the monkey bars yesterday.

I can smell the glazed donuts on hot lunch day, and I remember faking injury in warm weather so the secretary would give me ice, which I’d eat and enjoy like it was the best dessert I’d ever tasted.

This was where I learned to read, learned to write, and learned all the words to Oh Canada! This was where I danced in front of the whole school to Pump Up The Jam, and when I’m drinking, I can still remember the moves.

So this is why I cried sitting in front of our school and watching it through the windshield wipers. It’s not the building, it’s the memories. It’s the teachers, and the friends. When you’re in it, when you are there, you have no idea that it’s all sinking in, that you’re becoming part of its history and that it is becoming part of your own.

My children will make new memories, but they’ll never forget the day that their school burned down.

***
Parkcrest Elementary in Kamloops, British Columbia, was destroyed by fire on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. The Parkcrest Parent Advisory Council is actively raising funds to replace many of the teaching materials lost in the fire. Please consider joining us, and help us meet our goal.

A bottomless pit of parenting guilt

If you asked my kids what they did this summer (as I’m sure their teachers did today), they’d respond with the classic, “nothing,” and further elucidate that it was “fine.”

But let me tell you, their summer has been amazing. Stupendous. Chock full of memories galore.

Funny thing, though, just as we all begin flossing two days before our semi-annual dentist visit, I busted out the home reading books and sight words four days before the start of school.

And I groaned, and mentally chastised myself for letting the book-learning slip. My littlest child, for whom reading has never come easy, struggled through words that had stars behind them when he left his classroom on that final day in June. He grew frustrated and annoyed with my choice of books, and flatly refused to sit still, insisting that he’d read with me, “tomorrow” (which coincides with the day that my diet always starts).

What have my kids done this summer?

They’ve gone swimming more times that I can count. They’ve sailed down water slides, and turned over rocks looking for crabs. They’ve scooped up fistfuls of sand in a quest for clams, and took turns announcing theirs as the biggest, or most beautiful.

They’ve trapped jellyfish in travel mugs just to watch them pulse, and named them before setting them free. They strapped on lifejackets and paddled out into the surf in a kayak, one of them spotting a family of otters along the beach.

They’ve visited with grandmas and grandpas and aunties and uncles and cousins and even a great grandpa who refused to turn up his hearing aid so he couldn’t hear about great adventures, but warned us loudly (as he always does) to visit more, because he won’t last much longer.

They stayed up way past their bedtimes, and rode bikes and scooters in the neighbourhood with friends. They’ve bobbed around on lakes, and learned how to do backflips into pools. They’ve gone camping; they’ve eaten in restaurants and around fires.

I’ve ensured that they’ve experienced summer, its sunsets, its weird bugs and its skinned knees. They still smell of sunscreen even after they’ve bathed, or maybe they just smell of sunshine?

They’ve been healthy. There have been zero trips to the doctor, or late nights with big bowls. There have been no fevers, coughs, or stuffed noses.

But as the new school dawns I have so much guilt — not for the things we did do, but for the things we didn’t.

When our routine went out the window, so did the homework. Teachers ask us every year to keep up the great work, and to practice over the summer, but we didn’t, and that’s on me.

As is the case with so much of parenting, it’s easier to dwell on the activities that you didn’t do than it is to congratulate yourself for all of the things that you did. Contriving such amazing experiences requires boatloads of effort, and quite a bit of cash. Nightly reading and flossing is cheap by comparison.

But what does dental hygiene have to do with literacy? Guilt.

The guilt kicked in during a visit to the dentist last week where several cavities were detected. It was in this moment of handwringing that I began tallying up all the other ways I’ve failed my sweet children. Flossing. Reading. Probably not enough vegetables. They went to Sunday school with their grandma twice though, so that had to count for something.

How did I let this happen? Was it too many campfire marshmallows, and not enough gargling around the fire? Probably.

While looking into my child’s mouth the dentist saw the thing I didn’t do well enough, not the 999 incredible things I did. When my children head back to school this week, their teachers will sigh and see where I cut corners. They may even imagine my nightly refrain: “That’s OK. You’re tired. We’ll read tomorrow.”

And the guilt makes my tummy hurt.

So, here’s to the start of the new school year, the start of a routine that includes fewer campfires and jellyfish, and more vowels and fractions. Let’s give a cheer to those food groups we’ll welcome back into our lives again, and for the oral health that will once again take centre stage.

Mind you, if you were to ask my children what they did this summer, and they answered, “brush, floss, and practice sight words,” I’d probably get a failing grade also.

There’s no climbing out of this bottomless pit of parenting guilt.

Adulting: Reflections of a youngish old person

I’ve read a lot about “adulting” these days, and I laugh (and cry inwardly) at the tweets that  speak so much #truth about the experience of aging.

I’m younger than some, but feel “old” creeping up on me, and never more so than now as I recover from a serious injury, which has made me fully aware of my own frailty. 

c8b846eec8044acad2a656af85c41ec0c05b818b780a0f10d177e154cedb123a_1I had similarly aged friends over this weekend, and noticed something interesting: When grown ups get together, we often find ourselves competing to see who is the most tired, or the most sore (I win); according to the Internets, our favourite childhood memory is of our backs not hurting. We welcome those to the Over 40 Club with phrases like, “I hope you like Advil,” and it’s funny (and sad) because it’s true. After nearly eight weeks convalescing from my first broken bone, and fielding comments from my weekend friends who placed bets on how long it will take to heal, “now that you’re old,” and who asked about whether I broke my ankle due to “low bone density,” I get it. I truly get it. 

We make noises now when we stand up after sitting, when we bend low to get something from a cupboard, or when we have to reach high (for the Advil). Our joints click as we walk down the stairs, or when we yawn.

Last week, when I saw the surgeon for what I hope to be the last time, he stared at me sadly when I asked about my recovery, and my swollen ankle. I enquired about whether or not I’d ever see my ankle bones again, or those adorable small bones in the top of my foot that I had always taken for granted. 

He met my question with a sigh: “It’s never going to be the same, Danna. I don’t want to lie to you, but as good as it might get, it’ll never be the same. You’ll always have your left ankle, though.”

So now, as a youngish old person, I finally get it when I hear others speak of their good and bad bones and joints — their bad knee, the one in which they can feel the change of weather. I now have a bad ankle, and it will also likely predict the future.

The surgeon seemed to be about my age. In the exam room, in that moment of shared sadness, we were literally speaking of my ankle, but I felt we were figuratively speaking about all the things: Our energy levels, the foods that we can no longer eat, how often we have sex, how late we stay up at night (or how early we go to bed), the way our clothes fit, the type of podcasts we listen to (because talk radio is for old people and music is for kids), and the type of documentaries that we fall asleep in front of every single night.

But it’s not all bad. Like the doctor says, there’s still plenty of life left in parts of me. And becoming a youngish old person provides a new perspective, and allows me to focus more on the important things — the things I can control.

Like flossing.

I am older, wicked tired and pretty sore most days, but I have healthy teeth and gums.

And stretching.  

At first, going to yoga was just a way to escape my toddlers for an hour at a time, and to give myself the mental space to avoid a breakdown when they’d get out of bed for the 12th time to ask why we even have mountains. Or Spanish. 

But as it turns out, stretching is important, and never more so now that I’m a youngish old person. Trust me, youngish young people, someday you’ll feel silly going to your chiropractor or massage therapist and telling them that you “stepped weird and felt something pop,” or that you “sneezed once and now you can’t take a deep breath.” I know how foolish these words sound because I’ve said them.

Be smarter than I was.

 

Lifelong learner

It has been 20 years since I graduated from university, ready to take a swing at journalism.

I thought about going back to school the moment my newspaper closed its doors, but then I got a job offer and shelved the idea. I was busy. I had two kids, a career, a partner. School was expensive, and unnecessary. And it would take time that I simply didn’t have.

And then it happened — life became complicated — and within that mad mess, there was a crushing moment that compelled me to look into the mirror and look really hard at the woman staring back.

What I saw was a woman who had been rushing around supporting and uplifting others for over a decade, gradually being crushed by the weight of it.

What I saw was a woman carrying around an empty bucket, having used everything she had to fill up the buckets of those around her. There was nothing left, and a sizeable crack in the bottom.

I’m alone more now than I have been in a decade. My children are outside, or they’re at their friend’s houses. They’re reading in their rooms, or playing independently.

Having a moment to catch my breath should be exciting, but it’s terrifying.

I’d been using the labels of “mother,” and “wife,” as an excuse. Those labels precluded “professional,” and made “student” seem impossible.

Days later, I voiced my idea outloud for the first time.

“I think I’d like to go back to school and get my masters degree,” I told my husband.

He nodded, said it was a great idea.

So I tried it out with my best friend.

“I think I’d like to go back to school.”

She sighed deeply through the phone: “Thank God! I’m so glad. Where are you going to go? What are you going to do it in? When do you need to apply? How many reference letters will you need? When does it start? Are you going to do course-based or thesis?”

I almost hung up. I hadn’t even started and already it sounded hard.

But I did the research, explored program options, timelines and costs. I made a trip to the bank; I ordered transcripts.

And then I told my boss: “I think I’d like to go back to school to get my masters degree.”

And he responded with a smile: “Figure out what you need, and we’ll do what we can to support you.”

I needed letters, and when I asked, people wrote them. And they were perfect. I’ve printed them off and tucked them away in my nightstand. I read them sometimes. They’re about a woman who is smart, and accomplished, and professional, and thorough, and funny, and insightful. She sounds amazing, and I can’t wait to meet her.

I needed time, and they agreed. I needed a little bit of money, and they provided what they could.

I started my first three courses last week, and I feel like I’m drowning — like I’ve just arrived in a new country that seems sort of familiar, but everyone speaks a different language, and I’m just faking it, hoping that at some point it’ll all begin to make sense.

I’m excited to start and terrified to fail. I’ve already learned so many new things, and am quickly realizing how much I don’t understand.

I’m meeting new people, and they’re so much smarter than me.

I’m being brave and it’s uncomfortable. When I lay awake at night I think about how much easier it might have been if I’d just kept my mouth shut. If I’d never said the words out loud. If I’d kept my dream a secret.

But then the sun comes up. And I’m one day closer to finishing. I’m one day closer to convocation, and I’m one day closer to meeting that woman that my references describe in their letters.

Please buy my “vintage” junk

There are people out there who “live simply,” which I assume means that they don’t have children.

I aspire to live simply, but currently, “live ordinarily,” meaning that my house contains a lot of useless junk. And because we’re busy, and because I consider it winning if I manage to wipe the toothpaste off the bathroom mirrors and occasionally run the vacuum around, organizing, arranging and disposing of this useless junk is always going to happen next weekend.

So as an experiment, when the notice went around the neighbourhood to participate in an upcoming community garage sale, I put my name down figuring that committing to this nonsense would force me to empty out the closets and root through toy bins. Short of moving, this was the only thing I could think of to reduce our mountain of useless excess.

I made this commitment a month ago, and I’ve been stressed the hell out ever since.

I’ve never hosted a garage sale. The garage sale will take place in two days. I am not prepared.

What if I don’t have enough stuff?

Are there a suitable number of things one must offer up to qualify as an appropriately-sized garage sale? What if I’ve been overestimating the volume of crap I have in my house, and when the day arrives, I set up my table in the driveway and it contains only four things?

I have literally lost sleep over this in the past month. What if I don’t have enough garbage?

Then I began combing through closets and it became clear that I was not at risk of running short of crap. It was at this point that I became nervous about displaying my crap with the right amount of flare.

Showing off the goods

When fun, carefree wanderers set up stalls at the market to sell jewelry made of forks, or driftwood wind chimes, their booths look charmingly whimsical, but I bet money they Pinterest the heck out of their retail displays before trundling into the market square at the break of dawn.

But what they’re selling is artistic and fanciful, what I’m selling are four pairs of gently used soccer cleats, every single season of Entourage on DVD (it was a phase), and a bucket full of action figures. My wares are not whimsical, and as such, will be dumped onto old sheets of plywood balanced across Rubbermaid bins with a sign above that reads, “Everything for a dollar.”

I envision brisk sales.

At the heart of it

I’m putting on a Bandaid without treating the infection. I’m purging the worst of the garbage, knowing full well that I’m just making way for more. I’m stemming the flow, but I can’t hold back the tide. I’m not dealing with the root of the problem, but she’s my mother in law and I love her.

So please, if you’re not busy Saturday, come buy my “vintage” DVDs.

Hands free

Imagine for a moment that it’s a spring day, and you’re walking down the street with all the time you need to pause, look in a window, fix your hair in the reflection, and keep on going.

You are sauntering; your long arms are swinging by your sides, and there’s a light breeze that’s keeping you cool but not messing with your mind. No jacket is required. Winter is over, and your arms can move without being imprisoned in their nylon jail; without that irritating “swipe, swipe, swipe” of a winter coat.

And you’ve got nothing in your hands.

Imagine that. Nothing in your hands.

Recently, I was listening to a podcast and the host was interviewing actress Amy Sedaris. During the interview she described a man they both knew as “the kind of guy who walks down the street with nothing in his hands.”

Listen: WTF with Marc Maron podcast with Amy Sedaris

I stopped listening at that point, and began imagining what that kind of freedom might feel like.

I can’t remember when I started carrying everything, but it’s been awhile. To walk down the street with nothing in my hands, or looped across my shoulder, would feel as foreign as writing with my left hand, standing up to pee, or being wrong.

I got my first purse when I was about five. It was shaped like a bunch of bananas and had a sharp metal zipper across the top. It held quarters and my Avon lip-gloss that came in the shape of a chocolate chip cookie.

Remember when your mom would take you to baby showers and they’d play the game “What’s in your purse?” Look it up, people still play it.

The winner of the game is the woman with the most ridiculous things in her purse. The ladies would all sit in a circle and someone would read out a random item — usually it started simply, with “keys,” before moving onto more obscure items, like bear spray, a spoon, a bottle of mouthwash, and a roll of duct tap (all of which, used together, could probably be turned into a bomb.)

Whenever you raised your hand and hoisted up your spoon or pepper spray to be admired by the crowd, you’d be awarded a clothes peg. By the end of the game, the woman with the most clothes pegs lining the hem of her skirt would take a prize home in her enormous handbag.

I was always annoyed that my own mother didn’t think ahead and salt her purse with random oddities, but as an adult, I recognize one clear truth: The winner of that game was the loser. The actual “winner,” is the one with the rotator cuff problems; she’s the one who can’t find her lip-gloss when it counts; she’s the one who can’t get through customs without a serious misunderstanding.

The real winner is woman without a single clothes peg, or the guy walking down the street with nothing in his hands.

This guy isn’t carrying anything for himself, or anyone else. Nobody’s asking this guy for snacks, or to please carry his BeyBlades. Nobody is begging him for gum, or a quarter so he can get a bouncy ball out of a machine. Nope. He’s so free he can’t even remember where he put his cellphone, and he’s so chill that he doesn’t even freak out about it.

The freedom of not carrying something — the freedom of not carrying everything — blows my mind.

I know I’ll never be described as “the kind of woman that walks down the street with nothing in her hands,” but as far as goals go, it’s not a bad one to strive for.

 

 

 

For the men in the office

March 8 (today) is International Women’s Day.

I could mark the occasion by writing about the mental load of motherhood; a subject that both fascinates and infuriates me. I could write about glass ceilings, about recognizing unconscious bias, about equity, diversity and inclusion, about how women need to be more intentional as they champion and empower other women, or I could write about some of the women who inspire me daily (there are so many).

But today I overheard a male colleague mention International Women’s Day, and he suggested showing his appreciation by bringing in flowers, or maybe pastry.

He wants to be an ally, but he’s missing the point. Shove your flowers and cake and whatnot. Creating balance in the boardroom isn’t easy, but there are simple things men can do, as colleagues, as allies, every single day. I’m not writing about institutional change. I’m talking about the small things that you do every day to remind us that we’re not like you. Bare with me if this sounds like womansplaining:

You take the notes
Next time you’re in a meeting, offer to take the minutes. I can’t count how many times I’ve been the only woman in a meeting, and when it comes time to decide who takes the minutes, all eyes turn to me. Today, and every day after, you’re going to offer to take the minutes. Minute-taking is gender neutral, and you’re going to be great at it! Let’s hear no more of this, “but you type so much faster than me,” garbage, either. I took Keyboarding 9 just like the rest of the 40-ish-year-old Canadians out there, so it’s not my fault if you haven’t applied yourself and you’ve let your skills lapse. Now’s the time to brush up.

Don’t ask me to bake (even though I’m amazing at it)
When that meeting concludes, don’t ask whether I’m going to bring goodies to the next one. Even if I had a refrigerator full of homemade cinnamon buns, I would NOT bring them to the boardroom so as not to set a precedent. How about you bring treats! (And don’t ask your wife to make them, either).

Share in the shit jobs
Does your office have a communal kitchen with a dishwasher? Mine does. It also has a refrigerator. The refrigerator gets cleaned when the women in the office finally get fed up, and I’ve yet to see a male colleague empty the dishwasher. That’s not to say it hasn’t happened, I just haven’t seen it. (While we’re at it, I won’t completely discount the Sasquatch. Canada’s a big country. It’s possible.) Our office kitchen also has laminated signs instructing people what to do should they notice the dishwasher full of clean or dirty dishes, or if they are confused about the difference between compost and garbage. Allied men — how about you read the signs?

Keep inviting me out for drinks, even when I say no
A big barrier to the advancement of women in the workplace is that we often miss the informal networking that takes place outside the office due to domestic demands. We’re less likely to go for drinks after work, or cut out early on a Friday to fit in nine holes — not because we don’t WANT to go out for drinks and create rich networks of powerful people — but because domestic responsibilities fall disproportionately on our shoulders. We’re often the ones picking children up from daycare, and making sure they eat and get to hockey practice on time. Often, we also end up missing out on the informal networking that takes place in the cafeteria, as we use our lunch breaks to run errands. And we’re barred from these informal boardrooms if they happen spontaneously. If I’m going out after work, I need to arrange things, so tell me the day before, please.

If I actually show up, don’t ask who’s looking after my kids
Hands up if you’ve been at a conference, or gone out with colleagues after work, only to have a male colleague ask who’s looking after your kids. Wait, my husband’s hand is not up! That’s weird!

Creating equity in the workplace isn’t a joke, and it isn’t simple. But there are some simple things that our colleagues can do as allies, as friends, to create a more inclusive workplace. And we’d all be better for it.

Three girls

I might have been four or five.

It was raining, and had probably been raining for days. It was a Saturday and my brother had a soccer game at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission, BC. This would have been in the early 1980s.

We arrived, my brother joined his team, my mom joined the parents on the sidelines, and I joined the other siblings on the playground.

There was a slide — one of those huge, skyscraper-sized metal ones that would have taken my short legs three straight minutes of climbing before reaching the summit. You’d never find these slides on a modern playground, but back then we took risks.

I don’t remember the ascent, nor do I remember pausing and wondering how foolish I’d look if I just shimmied back down. I don’t remember sailing along this metal ramp to the bottom, either.

But I remember the finale — my blue jean-wearing butt splashed straight into a mulch-filled puddle. It was my trademark move at this age; one I’d repeat many more times before nailing the landing.

I don’t recall trudging over to my mom, rubber boots squelching full of dirty mud puddle. I don’t remember how itchy I must have felt as the mulch jabbed and poked my legs inside my soggy jeans.

I don’t remember my mom shaking her head, sighing, and looking at her watch to see how much time was left in the game. I don’t know if she considered just pulling my brother out of the game and taking us both home.

I don’t recall her hand on my shivering back, ushering me inside the huge red and white school, or if she spoke to a grown up when she arrived, or what they might have said.

I remember walking downstairs, though, and entering a big, carpeted room. I remember that the curtains were orange and drawn and that the light filtering through gave everything an odd, ginger glow. There were three girls in the room, and they seemed old to me, but were probably only 13 or 14. They all had long dark hair and they smiled at us.

I don’t remember wedging myself behind my mom’s legs and peeking around them. But I suspect I might have done just that.

I know my mom spoke to the girls; she must have — my mom speaks to everyone whether they want to hear what she has to say or not. I don’t know what she said, but they must have come to an agreement, because one moment my mom was there and the next she was gone, and I was alone with the girls in the orange-tinted room.

There was a couch, and I sat on it wet jeans and all, scootching my butt into its deepest corner. I must have put my hands over my face, because I remember how the room looked through fingers. I probably cried. I did that a lot at four or five, so it seems probable.

The girls took turns leaning in and talking to me. And they had scarves, so many scarves. There was a bottomless drawer in my grandma’s bedroom full of flimsy rainbows that my cousin and I would dig through and twine around our necks, heads, wrists, and waists.

The girls had these scarves, too, and they whipped them around their faces, behind their heads, and they reached forward, tickling the hands in front of my face, trying to coax them away. They were laughing, and telling stories. I listened, rapt, and terrified. These were scary stories. I stopped crying at some point, but continued to shiver — perhaps it was cold, more likely it was fear. They told scary stories through delicate scarves until my mom came to collect me.

We would have clambered into the big green Jeep with the wooden side panels and made the short drive home. I would have undressed and maybe even jumped into a rare mid-morning bath to get the mulch off my skin. My mom, I presume, did laundry.

We would have had lunch, of that I’m sure, but whether my mom continued on with chores while my brother, sister and I played, or whether she put up her feet and read a book, I can’t say, but I hope she did the latter.

I rarely thought about those three girls; the ones who didn’t get to go home with their families after the game. Or about all the other children who wouldn’t spend lazy Saturdays playing, having baths, being cared for, nurtured, loved, included.

But I think about them now, and often; now that I have children of my own.

I got to go home that day. I got to go home every single day. I can still go home today if I want.

And I don’t know how to reconcile that.

St. Mary’s was the last functioning residential school in Canada, and closed in 1985.