A Birthday Song for My Mom

The inside cover of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is decorated with illustrations–a phoenix, Marilyn’s bust, an open Bible with a solitary rose. I’d lay on my belly and study them, every now and again looking up to see my mom dancing around the house in her bell-bottoms, lip-biting smile on her face.

The picture of Bennie and the Jets transfixed me the most– Bennie with her wild eye-shadow and unwavering stare, the spiky fringe on her crown and her band of booted men. She looked so much like my mom (had my mom been brunette), and I’d imagine my mom’s life before she had me–wearing a mohair suit in a smokey night club, turning down all the men who approached her.  I wanted to be just like her.

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The soundtrack changed as I grew up. Patsy Cline’s songs of heartache and heartbreak filled my pre-teen years. My shower rendition of “Crazy” upset my mom because I had “[woken] up the whole house.” (Though I think she was secretly pleased that Cline stuck with me, the way I thrill to hear my girl singing “Bennie and the Jets”). As a teen when I wanted to sleep the day away, my mom would wake me up blasting Aerosmith and jumping on my bed.

But of all the music over the years, the album that stays with me the most is Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I don’t know that Elton John was my mom’s favorite but the image of her dancing around the house, bell-bottoms swinging around her bare feet with that smile, stays with me. I play that album to this day whenever I’m feeling sad, nostalgic or simply in need of a touch of home.

The fourth of July is my mom’s birthday which always struck me as a great irony as she’s never been much for fireworks, or fighting, or even America really; but that’s a post for another day.

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Happy birthday Mom. Thanks for the music…and all the weird and wonderful.

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Reclaiming Space for Our Girls or How We Read Books in Our House

The night Jas returned from an extended business trip, Cookie wanted him to read a new book before bed. “Jas,” I said poking my head out of the kitchen “the moose is a she.” He rolled his eyes.

Changing the gender of characters in books started for our family with Little Blue Truck Leads the Way. Our girl, 18 months at the time had loved the first Little Blue Truck so much that we naturally picked up the second one in which Little Blue Truck goes to the city and encounters the mayor, who incidentally, is a man. The first time I read it to her I stumbled over the line, “His Honor, the mayor….” Why is the mayor a man? I wondered. Gender had no relevance to the story, no relevance to the mayor’s title, position, or character. (Really, does it ever?)

I began to pay closer and closer attention to the literature we read our girl looking mainly at gender. Children’s literature overall is more inclusive of females today … there are delightful, strong female characters such as Lady Bug Girl and The Paper Bag Princess. But males continue to dominate particularly in books for the toddler set. Lady Bug Girl and its ilk are written for girls specifically. Other books deemed “gender-neutral” continue to focus on and emphasize boys. Indeed, if gender is not central to the story, the default is to turn the bear, cat, moose, crocodile or bunny, male. If a female does show up (as Katha Pollitt points out in “The Smurfette Principle”), she is lone or a woeful minority.

The amount of female authors that take part in this male-centered writing is alarming. It’s as though they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a little girl wondering about her place in the world, bombarded with stories of boys and their heroics.

My daughter learns much from books and stories. They helped me to potty train her, to introduce sibling relationships when I was pregnant with Bean, even to teach lessons about positive behavior–what manners are, what sharing means. If the books we read to our girls predominately feature males, what else are they learning? Nothing good.

Adventure is for boys, not girls. Girls are never the center of a story and therefore they are not the center of life but rather accessories, there to help boys achieve greatness and glory. They also take away the idea that there is no space for them or if there is space, it is limited. This creates enmity in girls not only towards themselves, but towards other females as well. If there is only space for one, then all other females are a threat, competition, a rival to be taken down. Rather than encouraging a band of sisters, the literature we are reading to our girls, subliminally sends the message that they must be the one or the few. The competitive, jealous “nature” that women are stereotypically labeled with is planted and nourished in many ways, not least of which can be found in the literature read in most American nurseries.

And it’s for these reasons, that I will continue to change the genders in my daughters’ books, wielding a black marker to the pages  to ensure they’re read with a female bend. Jas can roll his eyes all he wants. I won’t let our girls grow up thinking the world is his.

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Maternity Leave & Where It’s Left Me & My Babe

It’s been awhile since I’ve written. Not because I haven’t had time or been at a loss for ideas, but because whenever I sat down to write about maternity leaves, I ‘d get angry and tongue-tied. Rather than waste another hour trying to decide how to approach the subject with a level head, I’ve chosen to write my angry post in the hopes it will help me move on both in my heart and with this blog.

I’m a college instructor in New Jersey. With my first daughter, I was a half-timer and only eligible 6 weeks leave (my other job at the time had no maternity leave protection and could not give me financial or job support until the following semester). This time I am at full-time status and yet because I gave birth to Bean during the summer outside of my contract, I lost all of the time allotted to me with full pay (4 – 6 weeks) had I given birth during the school year. Instead, I had the option to take up to twelve weeks of leave for 60% of my salary.

This may sound like a lot. It’s not. Financially I was only able to take six weeks and even then, I was stretching the family budget. As compared to the rest of the world*, maternity leave in America, the country that prides itself on upholding family values, is laughably hypocritical at best, and downright damaging at worst.

“I’m lucky” is the mantra of these early days of my second daughter’s life. Lucky that I love my job. Lucky that I work unorthodox hours and that I’m able to spend most of my days with my girls. Lucky that the days I can’t spend with them, they are still at my home with someone who loves them.

It’s what I tell myself when I receive a text with a video of Bean crawling–a moment I missed. It’s what I tell myself when I’m painfully hand-expressing milk in a bathroom stall during my lunch break. It’s what I tell myself when I receive a call in-between classes that Bean is crying inconsolably because she misses her mother, or that she refuses to eat only taking a few tugs from a bottle during an eight-hour day. “I’m lucky,” is what I say to mitigate the frustration, anger and sorrow I feel in these moments. I’m lucky, I’m lucky, I’m lucky, I’m lucky, I’m….

*Bosnia-Herzegovina makes this list of countries with enviable maternity leave policies. The policy however encourages female hiring discrimination in a country where the unemployment rate is 30%; and its inefficient and corrupt political system has led to childcare horrors such as those that spurred the Bosnia baby revolution just months ago. 

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The Great Purge–Clearing All the Clutter

Jas and I have some experience being strangers in strange lands though never more so than when we became parents, a naturally (though delightfully) bizarre state of being. This is to be expected. What we weren’t prepared for was how having children would change our home, not in the baby proofing sense but in the– holy crap! where did all this stuff come from?!– sense.  Two years into parenthood and our house was a glut of stuff, stuff, stuff. Despite having a designated playroom, some form of children’s entertainment (much of it plastic with a million pieces) had made its way into every room of our house and we found ourselves strangers in a strange land once again.  And all of us were suffocating.

Enter  Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids written by Kim John Payne, M.Ed., with Lisa M. Ross,  a book I picked up out of curiosity and a few pages in discovered a kindred spirit. Here was a licensed professional saying what I had suspected just from observing Cookie pass over her mountain of toys in favor of lining up toothpicks on the kitchen floor or using a pot as a bongo–children don’t need all that much– and what I had hoped for–it’s never too late to change course, to leave the land of too much.

Payne’s battle-cry is, “We are the adults in our children’s lives. We are the grown-ups. And as the parents who love them, we can help our children by limiting their choices. We can expand and protect their childhoods by not overloading them with the pseudochoices and the false power of so much stuff.  And as companies spend billions trying to influence our children, we can say no. We can say no to entitlement and overwhelm, by saying yes to simplifying.”

Yes.

The chapter that most spoke to our needs deals with toys. In a nutshell, Payne encourages parents to toss all but the favorites. You can donate some, put some away to rotate every few months, but toss anything that is broken or isn’t great for your children (you instinctually know which these are but he also gives some guidance e.g. toys that are loud and annoying). He claims, “As you decrease the quantity of your child’s toys and clutter, you increase their attention and their capacity for deep play.” I was on board. And it didn’t take much to get Jas on board either. When I shared with him this “new” approach to child-rearing with all the American swagger I could muster, he looked at me impassively.

“What?” I asked, surprised he wasn’t bowled over by my industrious research.

“You’re describing the way I grew up” he shrugged. “None of this is new to me.”

Ah.

We set aside a few days to conduct what I refer to as The Great Purge. As Payne suggested, we started with our stuff.

The panini press we hadn’t used since we started living in places with actual stoves? Out.

The seersucker blazer Jas had bought on sale and never worn as he hadn’t been asked to join a barber-shop quartet? Out.

The long-sleeved jumpsuit I hadn’t worn since my sister asked me what time I was heading to the dojo? Out.

The twelve eye-shadow brushes I consider before settling on the two I always use? Out.

No room was untouched, no corner ignored. Cookie was beside us the whole time. She saw us tossing and organizing. Making space. Breathing.

Then came the night we had been waiting for. After Cookie went to sleep (again, as Payne had suggested), we hit the toys. We had four piles–toss, recycle, donate, keep. As we let go of the stuffed animals she never hugged, the games she never played with, the books that were ripped or age inappropriate, we danced giddily our feet getting lighter and lighter as we moved from room to room. I was particularly proud of the bathroom purge where we said goodbye to the singing octopus, floating ball, seal, whale, polar bear, starfish and elephant. All that remained was a stacking triad of water flow cups. Throughout, we kept only the favorites which not surprisingly happen to be the “good” stuff like blocks and puzzles, instruments and dress-up clothes, construction paper and crayons.

I had a few fears–that Cookie would be overwhelmed by the loss. That she would wake up in shock and ask for things we had gotten rid of. Would she wonder where-oh-where did that stuffed hippo go? Would she cry and beg me to find her toys and bring them back? Would this buy her extra hours on the therapist’s couch?

It wouldn’t surprise Payne to know that not only did Cookie not look for the missing toys, she didn’t even notice they were gone. She exclaimed over the “new room” (which was the playroom stripped down)  happy to see and easily find all of her favorite toys which she now plays with more and for longer periods of time. She has not experienced a loss but rather freedom from the overwhelming amount of choice that she once had. By taking things away from her, we ended up giving to her.

A few days after The Great Purge, Cookie did ask about the missing toys. She climbed into the mini-tent on the floor of her bedroom, which had become a depository for an ark’s worth of stuffed animals, and poked her head out: “Mama! Where did all the guys go?!”

I pretended to be as surprised as she. “Huh! Maybe… they… went on vacation” I said.

“Oh! That should be fun” she said and ducked back in to make me a cup of tea.

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Celebrating Bosnia’s Beautiful Victory

It’s a big day for Bosnia as the country’s football team the Dragons, earned its first place ever in the sport’s greatest tournament, the World Cup, by beating Lithuania 1 – 0.

I woke to Jas and Cookie dressed head-to-toe in team regalia.

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While I was at work, the two spent the afternoon wrapping up Bean in the team logos,

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recording their own private celebration of the winning goal and sharing a chocolate bar following the victory.

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During all of the revelry Jas managed to even cook up a traditional Bosnian veal stew for dinner

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and send me a text declaring that our 2014 summer vacation would involve sleeping in tents in Brazil.

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Idemo u Brazil!

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Learning English Inside and Out

“When I first came to America, I was surprised how Americans used their language,” Jas told me.

Having learned British English during his schooling, Jas had some trouble adjusting to American slang and colloquialisms.

“When someone would say ‘What’s up?’ I’d look up. When they’d say ‘How’s it hanging?’–I’d look down.”

When I was just getting to know Jas, I remember how excited he would get upon discovering a new phrase and how quickly he would recycle it, no matter how odd he sounded. He once complimented a friendly co-worker on her “weave” looking “tight.”

At first I believed his mimicry reflected a lack of originality, but soon learned that this was his way of learning American English inside and out. Now, he’s become so comfortable with American English that he’s even created his own choice sayings which I refer to as Jas-isms. Pay attention–one of them is bound to sweep the nation at any moment:

“Broccoli”–Jas has turned this word for the cruciferous veg into a lovingly disparaging label and uses it the way one would use the word “silly,” such as: “I can’t believe you thought I forgot your birthday you broccoli!”

“Dripping like a watermelon”–is used to describe anything that is dripping, perspiring, or simply wet.

“Dumb as the night”–This is my all-time favorite used to describe anyone he feels is dim-witted. If you analyze this simile, it actually makes perfect sense.

While British English does creep into his vocabulary here and there (such as when he asks me if I’ve packed my “bathing costume” for the beach) Jas has made American English his and uses it like a native…albeit a sometimes outdated native. I didn’t realize how often he calls on our American colloquialisms until my two-year-old Cookie, began repeating them to me. Behold:

Nudging me awake– “Mama, let’s get this party started.”

When experiencing frustration– “Oh come on, Man!”

Running out the front door, she’ll toss me a “Later, homey!”

While getting out of the tub one day she smoothly paired a Jas-ism with a colloquialism–“Mama, I’m dripping like a watermelon! Let’s get some towels in this joint!”

After ladling ravioli onto her plate–“Alright! Let’s eat these puppies!”

It is just a matter of time before the student becomes the teacher, and one can only imagine what Jas will do with the language Cookie (and Bean!) will teach him.

Partners in language crime

Partners in language crime

The Big American is excited to announce our new baby girl, who we’ll refer to as Bean, born July 19. After a brief and wonderfully wild hiatus, we are ready to write again.

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Remembering Srebrenica

Today, July 11 is the eighteen year anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, the greatest act of genocide during the War in Bosnia. You can read the countless writings on the details of this day and the thousands of men, women and children who lost their lives online. Here at the big american, we’d like to take a moment to remember those who lost their lives, to send strength and love to those who were victimized and lost their families. For those who stood by and watched, it is our hope that you have spent and continue to spend every day having learned from your mistakes and living more courageous, more valiant lives.

 

For Akif, who we lost one year ago today. You are with us always. 

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