A 13 Year-Old’s Holiday Plea

Milly, my 13 year-old daughter, is a very serious girl.  She always has been.  Yes, she is on the autism spectrum, but it doesn’t seem to be much of an issue anymore.  Sure, she has an IEP.  Yep.  She has a social skills class.  Of course, she thinks that it’s all a big ol’ waste of time.  She experiences the world differently.  Why do her peers preen and wear make-up and worry about their hair? Why bother impressing the boys? They are so unimpressive right now anyway according to her.  They are nothing like the totally impressive K-Pop boys of EXO and Super Junior who Eadaoin, Milly’s sister, has been more than happy to introduce us to.

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Super Junior

Milly prefers to watch Good Mythical Morning , read books, build massive LEGO structures, and watch important documentaries that make her feel “uncomfortable”, as she puts it.  She says, “Mom, I know that this is hard to watch, but I feel that it’s important for me know this because I’m a part of the world.  And, I need to know about things even if they’re hard to know.  How else will I ever be able to help?”

Something crystallized for her this morning when she saw the photos on the cover of the New York Times.

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A starving Sudanese girl in 1993 (Kevin Carter/Sygma via Getty Images)

 

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Phan Thi Kim Phuc after an accidental South Vietnamese napalm strike near Trang Bang in 1972 (Nick UL/Associated Press)

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The body of Alan Kurdi in Bodrum, Turkey (Agence France-Presse)

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5 year-old Omran Daqneesh in Aleppo in August (Mahmoud Raslan/Aleppo Media Center)

My daughter saw these images this morning as we sat in our local Caribou waiting for school to start and asked, “What…is…this? What is happening?”

I explained.  Syria.  Civil war.  The refugee crisis.  She started crying as she looked around.  She banged her fist on the table.  She then asked, “May I take this to school? I need to show my teachers.  They aren’t telling us any of this! We aren’t learning about this! Everyone talks about wanting new this and new that.  But this? I bet things would be different if my peers knew about this! I might get in trouble, Mom.  Is it okay if I get in trouble for this?”

“Knock yourself out,” I said.

She came home looking defeated.  “No one seemed to really care, Mom.  Everyone just wants stuff.  People are dying.  People have died.  I can’t live with it.  The school wants us to buy gift cards for all the staff.  What if we donated all that money to the refugees instead? Wouldn’t that do something?! I’m so angry.  I wrote this in class just to get out my feelings, but I have nowhere to put it.  I wish I could post it or something.”

“I’ll post it,” I told her.

This is what she wrote:

SCHOOL: “Shower your staff with gift cards!” NO! Donate to Syrian Refugees. YES!

Kids here want new phones.  They want new outfits and hate school.  Why wouldn’t parents educate their children about this? They’re teaching their kids to be racist and unkind (there has been racist language used in Milly’s school by other students).  There are kids in Syria who are being killed and left for vultures.  I think at least half of the kids at my school don’t know anything about this.  They say that they hate school.  Look at our school.  We have iPads! Kids in Syria would do ANYTHING to go to school, to have nice clothes, to be SAFE.  We need to do what we can to help.  Donate.  Do something.  Or at the very least learn about it to understand what’s going on and how privileged we are.  We need to make a change.  Our school wants us to “shower our staff with gift cards”.  Why do that when we could help people who need it? Children are struck with terror running for their lives and being publicly humiliated.  And our school wants us to donate gift cards to the staff.  Our staff already has homes, clothes, food.  We should be giving our money not to our staff but to help Syrian refugees who need it.

Donald J. Trump doesn’t want to help them.  He says that “they will steal our jobs”.  They don’t want to steal our jobs.  They just want to be safe and to survive.  We should be letting them into our country and we should help.  Our country should create more jobs and that would help the economy grow.  Kids say that immigrants are bad and that they will take our jobs.  They say these things because this is what they were taught.  We need to make a change, to be kind, and help other people who are less fortunate than we are.

The 7th grade Social Studies curriculum is ridiculous because there is no current events taught.  Instead we learn about the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and the presidents which are all important, but we could at least talk about what’s going on a little bit.  That’s why it’s up to us, the students, to make a change.  Before today, I barely knew anything about what’s going on in Syria.  No thanks to our school who didn’t teach us anything about what’s happening there.  Today I looked at the New York Times and was shocked to find out what is happening.  In school we are supposed to learn.  It doesn’t have to be a part of our curriculum.  If more kids learn about what is happening, the more help Syrians could get.  So, do your part.”

Strong opinions from a strong-minded girl, but she’s a girl of action.  She asked me to forgo giving her this month’s allowance and donate it instead.  She also asked me not to spend any money on gifts for her this holiday season.  Instead, she wanted any money I spent on her to go to the Syrian refugees.  She didn’t need anything.

All politics aside, she is right.  If we have more than we need, then we are blessed.  Stop for a moment and think about what you might be able to do.  Donate $10? Do it then.  Millions of human beings have been displaced.  They have lost everything.  They are no different from you and me.  It is our obligation as human beings first, all other views and opinions second, to come alongside them and help.  As Milly said, “Do your part.”

This is how you can:

The White Helmets Hero Fund

The White Helmets captured international attention through their bravery, and were reportedly in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year. The 2,900 strong group of civilians have been carrying out rescue missions after government airstrikes since 2013, united by their motto of ‘to save one life, is to save all of humanity’.

The International Rescue Committee

IRC aid workers are meeting people who have fled Aleppo as they reach the nearby town of Al Dana, one of the many neighboring areas bracing themselves for the influx of displaced people driven from their homes in the city. Donations will go toward providing families who have escaped the city with food, fuel and emergency supplies including mattresses, blankets, soap and towels.

Hand in Hand for Syria

Hand in Hand for Syria was set up soon after the beginning of the war in 2011, and uses its extensive networks on the ground to implement aid in some of the most difficult-to-reach places. Some of the organization’s members living in Eastern Aleppo were forced to abandon their work after pro-government forces took control of the area. Donors can contribute toward the emergency appeal for families fleeing from the city, which will provide food, medical aid and winter supplies.

International Committee of the Red Cross

The ICRC and its local partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), have remained committed “to act as a neutral and impartial humanitarian intermediary” throughout the Syrian Civil War. Donations to the Red Cross and the Red Crescent have enabled food and medical deliveries to those in need, and the two groups issued a plea on Tuesday to those involved in fighting “to put humanity ahead of military objectives.”

Save the Children

Save the Children has been working to provide children and their families with warm clothes, shelters, protection, clean water and emergency care. In a statement on Tuesday, the charity said “Families who are desperate to leave are being shown no dignity or humanity. We must at least now end this carnage and safely evacuate the remaining civilians.” (courtesy of TIME)

Milly’s originally penned Letter to Everyone

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6 Words You Should Say Today

In an effort to be less verbose, I’ll just say this: This is so worth reading. Thank you Team Kindness for posting it.

Kindness Blog

6 Words You Should Say Today

by Rachel Macy Stafford – New York Times Best Selling Author and Certified Special Education Teacher

Rachel Macy Stafford

Very rarely does one sentence have immediate impact on me.

Very rarely does one sentence change the way I interact with my family.

But this one did. It was not from Henry Thoreau or some renowned child psychologist. It was invaluable feedback from children themselves. And if I’ve learned anything on my Hands Free journey, it is that children are the true experts when it comes to grasping what really matters in life.

Here are the words that changed it all:

“… college athletes were asked what their parents said that made them feel great, that amplified their joy during and after a ballgame.

Their overwhelming response: ‘I love to watch you play.'”

The life-changing sentence came at the beginning of an article entitled, “What Makes a…

View original post 1,536 more words

Raising The Standard

Yesterday morning, Grace was struggling with self-harming ideation.  She’s hit a dip in the road.  I don’t know why.  I don’t know that anyone knows why.  Sometimes people like to blame the progression or evolution of her condition on her budding hormones.  We are a family of late bloomers.  Grace is 13 but still looks very boyish in her body.  Visually, ain’t nothin’ goin’ on there, but I’m sure her endocrine system is busy priming the pump.  As soon as puberty hits and her brain is bathed in estrogen and progesterone, I’m sure we’ll be riding the roller coaster ride again as everyone keeps reminding me.  She’ll get her period, and then she’ll really go crazy.

I, however, get really tired of everyone telling me that.  Like Doomsday is waiting for us.  When you’re a parent to girls, you hear a lot of people talking smack about females.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out and about with my girls when some stranger has approached me and asked, “Are these girls all yours?”  I look at my daughters to ensure that I haven’t picked up a few stragglers on the way and then respond in the affirmative.  Yep, they’re all mine.  “Wow.  Four girls, huh? You’re really in for it when they all hit puberty.  Good luck to you, ma’am.”  I look back at my daughters who have all heard this statement or something very similar countless times before.  Doireann is usually rolling her eyes.  Eadaoin looks offended.  Grace has always been very vocal so she’ll ask, “What’s that supposed to mean?”  Milly is Captain Logic so she is the most rational: “Who was that man, and why was he talking to you?” Exactly.

Is this a common experience for parents of boys? Do random strangers approach mothers and fathers with a group of boys and ask if that gaggle of boys following them all belong to them? Do they make sexist remarks like, “Good luck to you when they hit puberty.  You’ll be finding crusty socks under their beds, porn on their laptops, and changing the sheets every other day! Best to just lock ’em up to protect the general population from being forced to associate with your sons while they experience The Change.”  No, this is not common, but it’s okay to tell the parents of girls that they’re in for a bloodbath of both a physical and emotional nature? Why?

You even hear this in the medical community as well.  When Grace was in the prodromal phase of her illness, I tried to mention some of her symptoms to a specialist.  He told me that she was probably just hormonal.  She was 10.  As a girl, her symptoms were dismissed, even as a 10 year-old girl, because at some point in the next four years of her life she would begin menstruating.  I find that to be unacceptable.  When I mentioned this oversight to a friend who loved this particular specialist, I was dismissed.  “Oh, well, you know how it is.”  No, I don’t.  How is it? Great doctors can’t miss the boat, or it’s acceptable to lump mental health symptoms in girls in with stereotypical female hysteria based on gender bias? Or both?

Where am I going with this? For those of us involved in the world of mental health care by choice or by force of circumstances, we are aware of the gender bias.  Getting angry over it isn’t fruitful.  I think I am feeling something like frustration over the fact that what people like to call ‘realism’ is really just another name for cynical naysaying and a very real lack of awareness.

For example, there are some people in my life that might call themselves ‘hopeful realists’ when it comes to difficult circumstances, but they’re not.  They’re actually quite negative.  I have to be careful with what I share.  They ask how Grace is doing.  If I share that she did well in her skills training, they might say, “That’s good.  We’ll see how long she can hold onto that new skill.”  Or, “Well, she’s stable now but just wait until the hormones hit.  You’ll be right back in the hospital again.”  Please tell me how either of those statements is in any way helpful.  Are they truly affirming or helpful? No.  They are meant to produce fear and anxiety.  Do these people think that I’m lacking self-awareness? Do they think that I’m living under a rock? Do these strangers that approach me in malls and cafés assume that I have no idea what happens to the female body during the adolescent years?

“Really? Something is going to happen to my daughters’ bodies at some point in the future? What’s puberty? Is that a big deal? Please do tell me, strange man, what will happen to my family? Will it be significant? You took the time to come over here and warn me.  Surely, it must be a terrifying experience because you look like you’re scared of little girls.  You even look a little scared of me.  Will there be…blood?”

The people who are the most aware regarding what’s facing their families are the primary caregivers.  Mothers know what’s in store for their daughters.  If a woman had a difficult time with the onset of her period, then she knows exactly what’s facing her daughters.  If a woman was a Judy Blume fan girl who read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret over and over again, then she’ll be tuned in to her daughters’ experiences out of empathy.  We don’t need strangers and society at large treating our daughters like the Ragnarök of our family life.  More than that, we certainly don’t need the people in our lives undermining our support system by participating in this paradigm by insinuating that the hard work that our kids have done will be destroyed by a very normal part of human development.  We need support! Our young women need support.  We need someone to just sit with us and be our friends as well as be real friends to our kids.  People who will show humility and authentic kindness, treat our kids like human beings with rights, witness the suffering that’s going on in our lives, and not attempt to fix it.

Being a caregiver is one of the loneliest jobs because we don’t ever get to stop really.  Our friends can ask.  People can bring a meal.  Others can stop over or take us out, but, at the end of the day, everyone else gets to leave and go back to their own lives.  The people that we care for are our responsibility.  No one else’s.  We plan our lives–our minutes, hours, and days–around the person or people we take care of.  We often can’t even eat or go to the bathroom if the person requiring care is with us.  It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t live like we do.  They might think they understand, but they can’t.  I thought I understood until it was my turn.  I thought I had a grasp of what it meant because I had an autistic child, but I wasn’t prepared for schizophrenia or a potential mitochondrial disease.  I wasn’t prepared to watch my child disintegrate before my eyes, and I wasn’t prepared to feel so left behind.  I wasn’t prepared to feel so happy about the small victories and so sucker punched when others minimized them.  If you wonder why parents of special needs kids or even primary caregivers to those with profound needs seem closed off or excessively private, this is why.  People seem to feel compelled to remind us of the reality of our situation and future as if we are ignorant, and, at least for me, I find myself, at times, terribly weary of it.  Sometimes I want to shout out, “I know! Do you really think that we don’t know? Why can’t you just be happy for us in this one moment? Just rest in this minute with me.  Just experience this moment of victory to the fullest before it passes.” Mindfulness is not easily experienced by many people.  I am just now realizing this.  There are people who will try very hard to pull you down with their own dark gravity.  They cannot let you stay in your orbit.  They must find a reason to catastrophize and blame.  They can’t allow you to celebrate.  Not even a little.

Yes, it’s true that the onset of puberty is often the time at which certain neuropsychiatric illnesses present.  I’m not denying that, but correlation is not causation.  As much as certain men (and women) would like to believe that the menstrual cycle makes women crazy bitches, there’s simply a lot more to it than that.  Women (and men) can always reserve the right to make very bad choices which will have nothing to do with Shark Week:

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My period made me do it.

And women (and men) can always implement those decisions with a very, very bad attitude–menstruating or not.

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Blame has always been a popular choice.  It’s easy.  Personal responsibility is hard.  Empathy is even harder.  Compassion is the hardest.  It is entirely up to me to create a life that is rewarding even as I take care of Grace and Milly…and Eadaoin.  Life will not stop moving just because I can’t keep up or because, Heaven forbid, I have my period!

 If I need help, then I have to ask for it.  I have to be sure that I’m not participating in blame either.  Caregivers often don’t have a lot of personal time so we have to be very deliberate in how we live our daily lives.  It’s vital to our well-being so that we can provide the care that our dependents rely on.  We have to make sure that our thought lives are healthy.  If we are giving into fear, cognitive distortions, and feelings of helplessness, then it’s up to us to pursue mental health supports so that we can stay healthy.  Is this easy? Hell, no! Is it vital? Hell, yes! There are days when I walk into my therapist’s office and simply declare, “I just need you to check my reality for me.  I think I’ve lost my compass.”  I can take a lot, but, between stupid remarks from strangers, dealing with the insurance company and the Ned Flanders types at the behavioral health company that my insurance company uses to provide coverage for all mental health claims, insensitive remarks from a spouse, paying the bills, normal daily human interactions, and all the pressure that comes with life and what it means to have children with special needs not to mention a parent with mental illness, we need an outside observer to reset us sometimes.  We need someone to hook us up with resources that we don’t have time to track down ourselves.  It’s important.

At heart, I’m an idealist, but I’ve been alive long enough to be a hopeful realist now.  I can’t control other people.  We create our lives even if we live in a pressure cooker.  We still bring a lot of the ingredients to the pot.  I can’t stop well-meaning people from saying insensitive things.  I can only stop myself from saying something equally insensitive in return.  I know that I am not going to be able to stop strangers from saying stupid things to me.  I hear something from someone almost every time I’m out with my daughters.  Admittedly, I’m tempted to create a scene wherein we all grab our stomachs, walk like Quasimodo, cry and moan, and carry boxes of tampons while asking people where the Midol is.  Perhaps Grace could throw herself to the ground and writhe just for good measure.  Doireann could hiss at anyone who attempted to help and shriek, “The light! The light! It burns…”   I could just stand there and cry, “My life….my life…”

I’m sure at that moment an acquaintance will walk by, observe the scene, and nonchalantly quip, “I called it.  Puberty hit and they all went crazy.  Women.  Am I right?”

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Or this…

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Isn’t the media great? Someone thought these were a good idea.

Me? I disagree.  I would like to say something different about girls and women and caregivers because I know that there are male caregivers who are giving it their all, and it takes a special male caregiver to care for a daughter with special needs.  Girls and our bodies must seem foreign and strange at times, but I know that there are fathers and uncles and even older brothers who are helping their loved ones navigate adolescence because they have to.  There is no one else.  They have to be father and mother to a special needs child, and that’s a profoundly difficult role.  Combine being a caregiver with being a caregiver to a child of a different gender, and it gets tricky.  Put it all together with what society at large has to say, and you’ll find that there’s just not a lot of support.  Misogyny is still alive and well.  Shaming girls for their physiology is still “a thing”:

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I’d like to say that a girl, be she neurotypical or not, mentally healthy or not, living on her own or not, feeling well or not, managing her menstrual cycles with aplomb or not, is 100% valuable.

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Caregivers Are Awesome, Too!

And, you know, maybe we’re not mean or nasty or bitchy or unreasonable or unkind or irrational at all.  Maybe all of us are just being true to our generous natures…

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It’s a joke, but true humor starts with a kernel of truth

Maybe it’s time to stop ridiculing girls and women for having bodies that create life, but, at the same time, accept that it’s not romantic in any way.  Enough with the girly commercials already.  It’s gross and messy and nothing like a Massengill commercial.  It smells.  It’s really inconvenient.  We don’t like it.  It hurts, and I’m pretty sure most women couldn’t care less that our cycles match that of the lunar cycle.  So what? When the moon bleeds, cramps, and experiences moodiness on a monthly basis, we’ll start bonding with it.  Let’s just be honest.  Telling the truth often takes away a lot of the mystique as well as the prejudices.

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Maybe it’s time to stop approaching mother and fathers with girls and warning them of the tumultuous years ahead of them because your ex-girlfriend’s daughter was a real bitch when she was on the rag and crazy the rest of the time.  Maybe it’s time to stop saying negative things altogether to strangers with children, be they special needs or not.  If a woman is in pain, how about offering to help? If a father is struggling with his daughter, offer him a smile and a word of encouragement.  Take him out for a beer! If a young woman looks discouraged, encourage her.  If you know a caregiver who has daughters, don’t point your finger at the future and paint a picture of darkness and doom citing blood and rage.  Hell hath no fury like a woman on her period! Hades hath no rage like a schizo during Shark Week! Instead, tell her that you’ll be there for her and her family as long as you’re needed.  Tell her that you love her.  Tell her that you think her children are special and have a lot to offer.  Offer to persevere alongside her.  Offer to be another healthy adult and resource to her children.  Sex education is difficult for some families.  Sometimes it’s easier to talk about periods and sex with an adult outside the immediate family.  Sometimes kids have questions about their own development that they just don’t feel comfortable asking their parents or family members.  Just think of what a powerful ally friends can be! And, of course, the boys in our culture need the same thing!

Shame and empowerment don’t go together.  We’re either all in or not.  A man can’t say in one breath, “I’m pro-woman,” and follow it up with, “Women.  Am I right?”  We either surround ourselves with people who truly value and love girls and women, both neurotypical and not, and instill in them a sense of worth…or we don’t.

Oddly enough, that starts with how we caregivers treat ourselves.  If you are a woman, then your language, what you model around your own femininity, how you talk about other women, and how you treat your body speak volumes to the girls, boys, and men in your life.  Raise a standard, keep it, and then make sure that your standard never comes at anyone else’s expense.  Especially yours.