The Best Cookie.

I have a daughter who always wants to pick the best of an available selection of items for herself. If there is a plate of 12 cookies, she will study the plate to determine which cookie is a) the biggest, b) has the most chocolate chips (if chocolate chips are in the equation), and c) the most perfect appearance. Sometimes she takes several minutes to pick the one she will have. You can imagine that in a house with three other people, this causes some friction. Even on other people’s birthdays, I’ve watched her ensure that she is getting the best of the deserts on offer.

I have a pretty deep ambivalence about breaking her of this habit. My husband wants her to stop and to think of others. To take a middle of the road cookie or muffin or desert or whatever. To put others ahead of self.

I get it. I want my kids to think of others. To sacrifice for the good of the community and to be aware of those less fortunate.

But they’re girls. Girls are so often told to accept, to make do, that their needs and wants should come after others. There is a world of men who were raised being awarded by default the best cookie by their adoring mothers and families. Who never question their worth and their status as the best cookie getter.

When I worked in a law firm, the better (more-senior) seat in our shared offices was by the window. One was either a window or a door seat lawyer. Once one graduated to a window seat, it was a demotion to move back to the door. It was an extremely obvious and in your face measure of seniority and value. At one point it was decided that, in an effort to consolidate offices, I should move back to a door seat from a window seat while one of my male colleagues with a year less experience was allowed to remain in his window seat.

And I thought about whether I should say something or if it would make me seem petty. I felt embarrassed that I cared about where I sat. I felt betrayed that I had to. That my male colleague could blithely continue working and rise, while I had to stand up and advocate for myself on something that I knew senior partners would feel I “shouldn’t” care about.

Girls are taught to get along. They’re taught to put others first. They’re taught to care what others think.

To leave the best cookie for others.

It wouldn’t occur to my male colleagues to take any cookie but the one that best met their needs, just like it didn’t occur to them to advocate on my behalf when something obviously based on my gender happened. (For those wondering how I know it was solely based on gender – when I pointed out that only months after they laid off the only female partner in the department, and none of the male partners, they chose the only female senior associate to be the only senior associate sitting in a door seat – they apologized, argued it was an oversight and moved my seat back to a window). I got the same cookie as my less-experienced male colleague, but I had to ask for it.

He was able to rise above AND keep his cookie.

How do we raise girls to ask for what they need. How do we raise girls to argue on their own behalf. I wish kindness was the answer. It isn’t. It’s so hard to balance the need to fight for yourself with being a good person. We settled on telling her to prioritize the needs of her family, but outside to take what she’s earned. To advocate and choose well on her own behalf. But outside this house, women who advocate for what they believe are called shrill. They’re called unlikeable. The message we receive about how to be as women is to be silent and to take what we get. That we have to be nice to succeed.

I want to raise girls with a social conscience. Girls with awareness of their privilege. I want them to be kind. But I also want it to be the case that knowing your worth IS likable and valuable in girls just as it is in boys. That standing up for yourself is considered valuable.

Leaning out in a post-COVID world

A few years ago, Sheryl Sandberg encouraged women to stay the course – to not abandon their corporate careers. To lean in to their professional identity. I’ve been thinking about this rallying cry, as it pertains to my own happiness and achievement, lately. If we all collectively lean in to success and ambitions will we be happier? Will we be more connected? Is that what it’s about?

I agree that women should be as able to pursue their passions and success as men have been in the past. Feminism is a deep and abiding value of mine – the belief that women are equally able to achieve and not achieve as men and that their choices should in no way be dictated by their gender. But in some ways this seems to mean that women can be as divorced from their family life and unhappily absent from home as men have been.

I loved my job as a corporate lawyer. I loved the travel, I loved the work. I loved the challenge and the people. I was good at it. I was promoted and put in charge of transactions and complimented and requested by past clients for future deals. It was the driving ambition of my life to be good at my job and to become a law firm partner.

Until it wasn’t.

Could I have stayed and built a career? Maybe. I would have had to overcome some preconceived notions that some of the partners I worked for harbored not-so-secretly about the ability of women with children to do the work. I would have had to employ our lovely nanny and probably a second one. I could have done that. My husband certainly didn’t stand in my way. I could have leaned in to my professional identity and still been a good mother.

I’ve done the research to make sure. A good mother doesn’t have to be constantly present as her kids grow. A good mother, like a good father, just needs to offer love and shelter. To listen when around her kids and avoid abusing them. A good mother is really just a good enough care giver. A good mother can provide them with all that they need without being there all the time. The best mothers fail their children and admit to their failings. Acknowledge their missteps and teach their kids that the perfect isn’t possible and not to let it be the enemy of the good. Would I have been a perfect mother? No. I’m not now. But I would have been a good mother even if I were working full time and employing two nannies to cover all the time I could not be physically present.

My husband certainly wouldn’t have stopped me. We met in law school and he has always been a partner willing to engage in the negotiation of which career takes precedence this week because one of us should remain in the same country as our children when we were living an ocean away from family. He will reschedule work calls to pick up if I have a client meeting, despite my current job being scarcely as lucrative in a month as his is in an hour.

But sometimes it seems that leaning in isn’t always the answer. That professional ambition is not the end all be all that we’ve made it out to be.

That ambition can change. I realized that mine had when, shortly before we left the United Kingdom, I was offered a dream legal job in Paris, France. If I had accepted it, we would have moved and it’s possible that my husband would have left his job and stayed home with the kids (he does NOT speak French and French law firms remain committed to only working in French). I didn’t even discuss it with him. I said no. My ambition was not to miss out. My ambition was not to be a good mother who hires help, but to be a good mother who is physically present (even if sometimes distracted by writing and working with clients).

My ambition was no longer to be a corporate success. Do I have some regrets? Yes. I sometimes miss the feeling I would get in the heat of a transaction at midnight when everyone’s negotiating and arguing and striving to succeed.

But I think I’m calmer and more settled now than I was then.

My girls went back to school in person today. Well, one went back on Monday, but today was the first day of driving them to and from two separate schools and then getting homework done before driving one to dance and waiting for the carpool to pick the other up. I’m tired from spending two hours in the carpool line and from getting up at 6AM to scrounge up a breakfast and clean uniforms for both before running to the drug store for a forgotten USB drive needed for the first day of class. It’s been one day and, while I love watching them reunite (or in the case of my 6th grader, unite for the first time) with friends and peers and to continue pursuing their interests and passions, I find myself missing the slower pace of quarantine.

We only have them under our roof for the next 4-6 years and I wonder to what extent leaning in to their passions and ambitions will make us a happier, more grounded family. To what extent seeing clients at night and during the day before driving and cooking will make me happier and more fulfilled. To what extent being back in his office will make my husband more energized and enthusiastic about his job. We do enjoy the things that we do, but the slower pace that we were lucky enough to have without financial consequences during COVID quarantine was actually pretty enjoyable.

Should we all actually be leaning out? Should we be finding ways not to work more, to pursue more, but to do less? To work more efficiently so as to have more time for our hobbies and care? More time as a family? Less fatigue and irritability?

Less time in Houston traffic?

I’m not sure of the answer and obviously I’m not rushing to cancel my kids’ activities and clubs. If they want to lean in, I want to support them. But I am pushing back on the idea that we HAVE to do everything. That we have to attend everything. I’m trying to work in a more efficient way so as to work less. I’m allowing myself breaks in the schedule to take care of myself and my interests.

This raises some anxiety about whether I’m missing things or doing the right thing for my family and myself and my clients and my boss. But I’m realizing, now that I’m coming up to being halfway through my life, that our ambitions can be small and personal. Yes, I want to contribute to the world, but my ambition is not to be a CEO or the President. It’s to be happy and fulfilled in my life. To advocate for the things I believe in and the people I care about.

We’re so focused on leaning in to work, to being present and engaged. To showing that its our priority that we forget that work is a place they pay us to be. Work is a thing we do so we can live. Sometimes leaning out is the answer to finding that life apart from work. To slowing down and finding happiness. To working better and more creatively. I realize now that sometimes I worked long rather than well. I leaned in to the identity of a corporate lawyer as always at the office, when I should have been focused on taking breaks to allow my brain to work efficiently. Exercising to build energy to go on. Seeing my kids to prevent burn out.

It seems to me that we all need that – to lean out in order to be able to lean in when necessary. To set a pace that is acceptable, even if it slows or changes our ambitions.

An interesting event and musings on freedom…

We had an interesting and “exciting” event happen last night. We were awakened at 11PM to the sound of screeching tires and the bright, insistent blue and red flash of police lights. It seems someone (or someones, since – spoiler alert – they weren’t caught) stole a car and, when chased, turned mistakenly down our dead end road. They ditched the car and escaped over the fences through our neighbor’s back yard. Within minutes there were more than five police cars on our street and within minutes of that a police helicopter circled low overhead, seeking the fleeing suspects.

We had to send the children into our bedroom since the cops who flooded the streets all had guns out and ready to fire from the moment they arrived on our street. They passed my children’s bedroom windows and, I have no doubt, they would have fired on the suspects if they felt a moment’s fear without thinking about my kids.

If it was about safety, it was about the safety of the officers.

I, at no point, felt worried about the people fleeing from the police. I didn’t doubt they were long gone. I also feel fairly safe in assuming they were kids or young adults who made a stupid decision. Who else steals a Nissan on a Thursday night at 11PM from a neighborhood where everyone has cameras on the front doors?

I don’t think these officers are bad people nor do I think they want to harm citizens. But I do think they’re completely mission focused on subduing those who break the laws at any cost.

There was a police dog in my backyard at midnight.

For a stolen car that was recovered with no damages – they parked it and left it running in my neighbors driveway.

The helicopter flight probably cost more than the car.

And I didn’t feel safer to have it overhead. I felt more afraid and more anxious about what the police would do than what the criminals would do.

I’m not advocating letting crime go unchecked. I absolutely admire the police for recovering the car and for working to keep community’s safe, when that is the priority. It just didn’t feel like that was the priority last night. They had the car, they fingerprinted it and, given the stupidity of the crime, I imagine the fingerprints will be in a database somewhere.

I just feel like the point has been lost. Safety of life is the priority, right? Safety of life for ALL citizens, even the dumb ones who steal cars. I can’t be sure, maybe the people in the car were dangerous, murderous, gang members responsible for trafficking children into sexual slavery. But I doubt it. Those people know better than to turn down a dead end street when they make their mistake (especially since it’s well-signed at the entrance – there were two of them according to the camera on the front door of my across the street neighbor’s house – see cameras EVERYWHERE, one could be a spotter of signs warning of deep flaws in their plan of escape).

We need to rethink if our priority is officer safety ahead of all else. Being a police officer is a difficult and dangerous job and it should be because being the arm of the state should be difficult. If it isn’t difficult we’re all a bit less free. We’re all a bit less safe if the priority is the safety of the state over the safety of its individual members – dumb car thieves included.

Today is September 11. I feel sad and on edge every year on this day. Nineteen years ago I was a first year law student, arrived in Washington DC less than a month before. I lived in student apartments six blocks from the US Capitol. The smoke from the Pentagon rose in the sky and we watched it helplessly from our rooms and from the roof of our building. We observed the tanks that parked on the street for several days afterwards and stayed inside. Unlike this pandemic quarantine, we huddled together and offered each other reassurance that, smoke in the sky to the contrary, the world wasn’t actually burning down. We struggled to contact friends in New York – young law students in Washington DC invariably know people who work on Wall Street in New York.

We collectively mourn the loss of the 2,977 people who died that day. Even more, we mourn the loss of our belief in our safety. That the arm of the state would encircle us and keep us free from harm. People were scared and uncertain and they were angry with the government for not keeping them safe.

I think about that rage and those hearings these days when I consider that interesting event last night and how it made me feel. It made me feel a bit like the tanks on the street corners made me feel – less safe. More aware of my smallness in the face of government priorities.

I’m privileged and I’m not often confronted with this feeling. I can’t imagine the weight and burden of living under these feelings every day and every time I went out in public. Why aren’t we, as a people, more angry that citizens have this feeling.

And I’m angry. I’m angry that the same outrage and intense focus on government failures hasn’t extended to the 192,000 Americans that have died because the long arm of the government failed to wrap around us and protect them. The government that failed us. This isn’t a failure of intelligence, it’s a failure of action. I’m angry that we didn’t act when we could have to eliminate even 1 of those deaths.

We are the richest country in the world. But we have our priorities wrong. We should want to keep everyone alive. The arm of the government should shelter us from outside threats and should elevate us within. We said never again after September 11 and our collective determination has been awesome, largely-successful, and historic. But it isn’t enough. We feel less safe.

The protests aren’t the problem. They’re the symptom. The problem is that we prioritize economic progress for the country as a whole over the safety and health of the individual members of society. On this day where we mourn 2,977 Americans lost, we often lose sight that they were 2,977 individuals. The 192,000 Americans we lost are lost in such numbers that the mind boggles at thinking of them as individuals.

I think of the people I huddled together with on that day. I think of the people I wanted to contact, who wanted to contact me. My mind struggles to come to terms with the loss to the families of the 2,977 and the 192,000 people lost. We need a government that prioritizes those families. The families in a motel in Florida that I read about in the Washington Post, who have nothing – who walk then very edge of despair and complete ruination (read here if you can stand to face true face our American indifference).

How can we stomach it?

So I’m thinking about my safety and the safety of my community and my fellow citizens on this day when we became certain that we were less safe than we thought. Is it because we already came to terms with it that we don’t feel the rage that we once felt about the 192,000 or about the 60-100 in that Florida motel?

There were six cars full of armed police on my lawn last night. Were they there for my safety?

It didn’t really feel like it. And that is a problem.

Imposter syndrome and female leadership

I have recently noticed a trend amongst my female clients. When offered an opportunity for a promotion or a new challenge, they frequently hesitate to accept it because of worries about how they will be perceived in this new position or activity. They worry about whether they will be able to master the new challenges and adapt to the heightened expectations. They worry about whether others will resent them and whether it is fair that they receive this opportunity over other colleagues.

What I do not hear from them is discussion about whether they want the job.

By contrast, when male clients are offered opportunities, I hear them worry about whether the opportunity will be fulfilling. Whether it is the right choice for them in the arc of their career. Worries about what effect it might have on their ability to pursue other interests are common, as are worries about compensation and whether it is adequate.

In other words, all of the wondering is about whether or not they want the job.

What’s causing this difference. Could it possibly be genetic? Of course it’s not. We learn how to place ourselves in the world from our families and peers. It starts from an early age when girls are admonished to be nice, to be good friends, to be caring. Boys are taught to be tough, to win, to compete.

Why is this still happening in 2020? Why are we still internalizing these messages? Why are girls so focused on how their wants affect others while boys are taught to ask for more (frankly, even when it’s to their detriment).

We have a President who is thoroughly unqualified for the job of President who ran against a woman who, regardless of her likability was infinitely prepared and qualified for the position. It never appeared that he questioned his ability to do the job. It never even mattered. Everyone focused on questioning her ability to do the job constantly, I think even she questioned her ability to manage the demands from time to time.

I’m not saying here that the President won because he was a man, nor am I reaching to compare preferred policy outcomes. Objectively, from a statistical and quantitative standard, one candidate had extensive policy education and experience, one did not. The one with the experience and education was heard to question her own competence, the one without never seemed to doubt and certainly never admitted to any uncertainty.

It really does amaze and befuddle me that this keeps happening.

And yet, there is something admirable and desirable about this empathy and self doubt. It leaves room for questioning and changing opinions. It leaves room for collecting a team of experts and allowing them room to convince. It resists snap judgments.

If only we could find a way to stop it from stopping us from accepting the promotion or the opportunity.

Fall and the things we keep…

It’s fall in Houston. Such as it is. Houston’s summer and fall are merged into one hot, muggy, sweaty time interspersed with the periodic and overarching terror of hurricane season. Texans watch the windows for signs of rain, check the radar hopefully each morning, and discuss a coming “cold front” in tones suggestive of a coming savior.

Summer and fall in Houston are almost impossible to distinguish climate wise, but are still marked in my mind with the hopeful energy of the new and changing.

Like clockwork I find myself pinning recipes for soups and chowders, pulling on a sweater (that I will inevitably sweat through by mid-day), and watching the waving green of the live oaks in hopes that this year will be the year that fall color will return to my life.

I grew up in Minnesota, a place where apple cider was not served chilled and where boots and sweaters were a necessity rather than a rejection of reality.

Fall is my favorite season of the year. It’s a season that makes me want to cosy up at home and spend Sundays cooking warm and comforting meals that we can eat for an early dinner while watching football. Where Halloween stress gives way to anticipation of pumpkin pie and family and Christmas shopping. Where the joy of a new school year and the anticipation of change settles into a comfortable and manageable daily rhythm – a rhythm that has not yet become monotonous and overwhelming like it so often does in the spring.

Fall also means putting up summer. Washing the suits and towels for the last time and packing them into their storage crates to await next spring’s try on season and inevitable purchase of multiple new swim suits. Changing the wreath of the front door is my last step in transition to my favorite season.

I never really understood the satisfaction that I could feel from changing house decor to match the season until I had my own house. In that house I have developed a deep and unrelenting obsession with glass pumpkins and gourds. I have somewhere around 20 of them. When I see them, I find it hard to resist buying just one more.

Some people like Christmas villages, I like glass pumpkins.

But the swim suits don’t actually get stored in Texas. They hang on until at least October when the outdoor pool season really winds down and there are no longer weekend birthday parties in someone’s pool to accommodate. They always remain for weekend trips and those friends with heated pools. Therefore, the swim suits don’t go into the deep storage realm that is the attic in our house.

We have an attic – though pro-tip for those new to Texas, don’t store anything wax up there, I learned this lesson on December when I opened a box of Christmas candles that I had mistakenly added to the attic stash the previous January and found a solid mass of melted wax shaped like the box that had once held 10 individual candles.

Of constant debate in our marriage is what should be stored in the attic. My husband, the pack rat, thinks nothing should be thrown away but is equally adamant that nothing should be stored in the attic as its “too hard” to put it up and to get it down. I am much less sentimental about things. I would eliminate the vast quantity of old toys, books, and stained clothing that we no longer need. I realized this aspect of my personality when my parents arrived for one visit with six huge crates of my childhood memorabilia. Scrap books, projects from first grade, mix tapes from high school, random rolls of film containing 20 pictures of various people’s chins and one good group shot, pins collected at figure skating competitions, and multiple unwritten postcards collected from various travels. I love that they kept these things, on one level, and was deeply furious that I was now expected not just to house them but to eliminate them. Had they never kept them, I doubt that I would have missed them. But now, I’ve been asked to do the work of throwing them out or convincing my husband to transport them into the attic and I’m frustrated.

It feels unceremonious to dispose of them. It feels painful and like I’m getting rid of part of myself. A part of myself that I no longer need or want – I remember the friends fine without the mix tapes we made together containing mostly the same six Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, and Ani DeFranco songs on each tape. Songs I still own in digital format – and probably could find on the collection of CDs I’m still dragging around from college.

Why is it so hard for me to get rid of them? Why does it feel painful in a way that it wouldn’t if my parents hadn’t kept them in the first place? Perhaps I’m wrong and it would have hurt if they hadn’t kept them. Perhaps I would have felt overlooked and rejected.

I can’t say because I haven’t experienced it. Now I know that I feel burdened by this memorabilia. Weighted down by it. It is a project to cull it and to store it. But I also know that I don’t need it. The poster of the freshman bonfire at Dartmouth seems meaningful at first glance, but it’s not the poster I think of when I think of that experience. What I remember most is the feeling of the heat on my left cheek as I ran our required laps around the bonfire (at Dartmouth freshman are paraded through the streets and then made to run laps around the bonfire equal to their graduating year – I graduated in 2001, there was some debate about whether we were obligated to complete 1 or 101 laps, clearly those who were to graduate in 1999, and were still on campus in 1997 during my freshman homecoming, believed it would be deeply unjust if we ONLY had to do 1 lap). I remember the smell of the smoke and the laughter of my friends. The pinching in my toes because of course I didn’t wear sensible shoes for this endeavor. I remember the splinter in my thumb obtained during the construction of the bonfire earlier that day and the lights of the campus buildings surrounding the campus green.

No poster needed for those memories. But seeing the poster among the things saved certainly did provide impetus for me to engage in that sensory remembrance.

So how to balance the burden and the inspiration of the things we keep? I’m not so practical as to be able to Marie Kondo my memories, but she does provide some guidance here. If the thing creates that emotional and sensory experiencing then I’m keeping it for now. If the sense of frustration at having to store it outweighs that flight of fancy then it goes.

While I know memory is not forever, the meaningful ones will outlast the poster or mixtape that activates them and being intentional about thinking about them more often will help me to keep them fresh and accessible.

Certainly that’s less of a strain on my marriage than convincing my husband to haul six huge boxes up the attic.

Reality Acceptance, Relationships, and Middle School in Quarantine.

I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been working with a lot of clients about reality acceptance. I know this is where I could go in the COVID direction, but I’m talking about it with clients as it relates to their relationships so that’s what I want to focus on here. In relationships, we often have resentments and frustrations with our counterparts. Partners enter marriage and inevitably discover things that they wish they had known about pre-commitment or things they would like to modify or improve in their partner.

I remind clients that, much as we might wish it, people are not fixer uppers. We don’t have the power to make people change or to change them ourselves. The only person who can change a person is that person themselves. We have to accept them as a fait accompli.

Or not accept them.

I find that clients often think this is harsh and unfair. “But if my partner could just understand my point of view they would want what I want.” Is a line of argument that I hear all the time.

Yes and no is generally my response.

If your partner loves you and you can communicate to them that something is important to you, they might be able to do the thing you want them to do BECAUSE they love you. But they won’t necessarily feel that it is justified or necessary organically or independent of you feeling it is necessary and them wanting you to be happy. If a partner is scared of heights, they might be willing to go eat in a restaurant on the top floor of a building if it was the only thing you want in the world, but they probably aren’t ever going to WANT to eat on the top floor of a tall building.

They’re certainly never going to ask you to go eat on the top floor of a tall building spontaneously and without encouragement from you.

Because you can’t make a partner want the things you want if they don’t. You can’t make them see things your way if they don’t. You can get them to go along with your desires, if they love you and are capable of it, but they likely won’t agree that they were as necessary to them as they were to you.

Which is ok. We don’t marry or develop relationships with our clones. We develop relationships with living, breathing, individuals who often don’t share our exact life experiences and perspective. With different genetic make ups and childhood environments, they have their own priorities and needs.

Our choice is whether to accept them or not.

Of course we can ask for things and I think we should. But we need to ask effectively and for the right things. An example I often use is that when I listen to the news on the radio in the car or read the newspaper, I tend to get upset about the things I hear and read. The state of the world is hard for me to accept and to process these days. As a result, I often find myself wanting to vent these emotional responses for my husband and have him comfort me (comfort me means tell me I’m right in whatever my response is to the situation). When he does this, I feel heard and I feel better. Unfortunately, he often wants me to feel better and believes that I’ll feel better if I understand why I don’t need to be upset about the thing I’m upset about. Why it won’t affect my life personally or isn’t as bad as it seems at first glance.

He’s trying to help me feel better in a way that would make him feel better.

This does not make me feel better.

It makes me angry. I feel like he’s telling me why I’m dumb to think about things the way that I do. He’s not, but that’s how it feels. So instead of succeeding in his goal, of making me feel better, I now feel worse. Instead of succeeding in my goal of feeling better and heard, I now feel discounted and worse.

So I started telling him to just agree with me that what I was upset about is terrible and, in return for that, I’m willing to feel better and not talk about that subject anymore after he does.

He does not agree with me that this SHOULD make me feel better, but he’s willing to do it since I’m telling him that it DOES make me feel better.

He’s never going to be a venter. That ain’t him.

He’s a rationalizer or a reasoner. That ain’t me.

But we accept this about each other. It might be reasonable, if this became a bigger problem and he wasn’t willing to do what works for me and I wasn’t willing to do what works for him from time to time (not push him to vent when he doesn’t want to), to consider whether we can stay in the relationship. Or not. It really depends on what the relationship means to each of us and what we get out of it apart from this area of conflict.

But the decision to stay is a choice and one we have to keep making.

To be in relationship or not. That’s the only real choice within my grasp.

There is a romance and a passion in continually choosing to stay. To see relationships for the continuous choice that they are. People who make that choice for decades are amazing. They’re determined. It’s romantic. Regardless of any hearts and flowers exchanged in the actual relationship.

It’s not harsh to say that staying is a choice and one we must make ourselves and over and over.

It’s really hard to take people as they are and to accept them for who they are. It’s really hard to accept ourselves for who we are too. Because that’s the other side. We have to accept that we probably won’t become different people just because our relationship partners want us to. We won’t suddenly love that which we hate just because our partner does. And that’s ok.

Or it’s not.

It’s really up to them.

But if we don’t accept the reality of who we are and allow our partners to meet that person, then we’ll never feel safe and accepted. We’ll always know that we’re tailoring the self that we present to be acceptable and to be accepted and that’s a difficult and exhausting exercise.


I’ve been thinking about this, in particular, as it relates to my kids. Since switching to virtual school, I’ve noticed that my now 8th grader has become much more comfortable and self-assured about who she is and what she cares about. Her political views have developed, her moral values have individualized, and her passions have become her own and not those of her friends.

I can’t help wondering if this is because the distance has helped to take the pressure to conform off of her. Middle school is a soul-crushing exercise in fitting in to group dynamics and adapting to what your community (of 13 year olds) expects of you.

I don’t know a single person who says “boy, middle school. Those were the days, wish I could do that again.” It’s so hard and painful to watch your child stamp out the individuality in themselves in order to fit in.

The therapist in me knows it is developmentally appropriate and the changes in my daughter are largely because she’s gotten through that phase and is into the next one where she wants to be different again. But I can’t help but wonder if this six month break has actually been somewhat good for her. That it has taken some of the pressure off.

The relationships are still there and still require maintenance, but some of the constant pressure has lifted now that they’re not in each other’s pockets all day every single day. It’s ok to actually listen to the teacher when no one can see you doing it and therefore there’s no risk that people will think you’re a, gasp, nerd who likes learning.

At the other end of middle school, my 6th grader has felt isolated because she’s starting at a new school (for middle school) and doesn’t know any of the kids. This month of distance learning in a new school has let her start to adapt to the increased academic requirements absent the normal social positioning and politics of a new school and new classmates. She’s able to focus on figuring out how to interact with teachers who expect her to independently manage homework and to turn it in unprompted without worrying what others think of her shoes or her hair or the way she speaks when she participates in class.

So I guess I’m wondering if the reality of middle school without the middle schoolers is actually kind of wonderful. If it’s actually releasing my kids from some of the pressure and worry.

Our schools are moving towards resuming in person learning, so I guess we’ll see. But this was an unexpected by-product of our changed reality. That’s for sure.

And I think I can accept it.

FOMO and the World

At any given time I have several trips to Disney World in the back of my mind. I monitor the resale market for Disney Vacation Club sales. I read several Disney World news sites almost every morning.

I would probably be qualified as an obsessive.

The reality is that I find it soothing and relaxing to imagine the family vacations we might yet take.

I know that we will certainly not take all of them or even most of them. After all there are many other places in the world that I would like to visit and to visit with my kids. Money is not infinite or even always plentiful in this the season of financial slow down and widespread unhappiness and unemployment.

Why do i do this if I know these trips are likely never to happen?

It’s fun and an escape and it costs me nothing to plan them.

The planning is a break from thinking about whether my sixth grader is really able to learn a foreign language via zoom meeting or my eighth grader is learning to manage social relationships when she can’t actually see most of her friends in person.

Planning a trip to Europe just reminds me that we aren’t allowed to travel overseas absent a two week quarantine (and, frankly, reminds me of how much I want to escape some of the political realities of the present political situation we find ourselves in here in the United States).

Disney seems lighter and less fraught. I know the company and the parks are far from perfect and that they present a sanitized version of America that does not exist in reality nor does it exist in history.

But sometimes we need to blink for a bit. Sometimes we need to live in a world where it’s ok just to enjoy a ice cream bar shaped like Mickey Mouse.

The problem is to bring myself back and keep myself grounded in reality often enough to continue to work on the things that I can work on in reality (making sure my sixth grader is at least turning in all of her French homework).

So today I booked a trip for Thanksgiving week. We may go, or we may not. We’re really not entirely sure if it’s safe. We’re not sure its a great idea to go to a vacation destination given the progress we have as a nation (or have not as the case seems to be) in keeping contagiousness under control. The Disney experience will not be what it has been. In some ways it will likely be better – drastically reduced crowds, no planning of FastPass+ – though that one is a double edged sword because I kind of like the planning as outlined above. In others it will most certainly be worse – no parades, no fireworks, no in person character meets. We have middle school aged children, they don’t love the three ways in which it will be worse anyway.

And I have FOMO.

Because of the above mentioned podcasts and news sites, I hear about the people going to the happiest place in the world and waiting in short lines and doing what they want in a shorter day with more time left over to spend at their hotels and in restaurants (I hear about restaurants period and feel desperate to get back to that pre-pandemic reality, but also accept the reality we are in is NOT back to that state).

It’s so hard to hear about people having fun and to not be having that fun.

It’s painful and makes us desperate to have fun too.

This is the danger of the denial of reality that many people are engaging in and the root of my concern about going on vacation. Do we just encourage the FOMO in others if we go? What if we go and don’t post it on social media?

What do you think? What’s appropriate? I think this is a thing I’ll have to think about in the coming months. My hope is that the decision will be made by reduced rates of infection and improvements in treatment and survival rates. But it’s hard to live in that “we don’t know” reality. It’s why we have a President that denies it with every thing he has. It’s uncomfortable not to know and to know that we need to maintain uncomfortable circumstances and restrictions when others aren’t.

So I’m considering it and wondering about it and worrying about it.

But sometimes I’m just thinking about that ice cream in the shadow of Cinderella Castle with the joy of starting the Christmas season the day after Thanksgiving in a place that decorates beautifully.

What are we doing?

I find myself wondering lately about what we’re doing. How soon can we get back to normal? What is normal? Should we be trying to get back to normal? How can we go back to normal given the horrible fault lines and ugly attitudes displayed lately.

Am I a bad person because I’m thinking about missing vacations and restaurants and getting together with friends (in person)? I know it is the height of privilege to be concerned about when my kids will be able to go back to school in person, but these are the things that occupy my mind on a day to day basis.

This dissonance between the every day worries of my particular circumstances and the bigger societal implications of our collective problems and concerns makes it difficult to relax and enjoy a beautiful, sunny morning in Texas.

I can’t get the idea of force out of my head. Why have we created and armed a police “force” that will go to war on us and I find I can’t get it out of my mind. The war on drugs created an idea that the police were to go to war with Americans on behalf of the government. That their job was to enforce and to create order rather than to keep all Americans safe – even the ones who use drugs or engage in speech or actions they don’t like. A person spray-painting a building is still a citizen in need of safe passage and treatment as a person.

Why are we arming police officers to go to war on us? Why are we militarizing them? Why are we giving them heavy vehicles and body armor and cannons?

What are we doing?

I read an article this morning that broke my heart. 10 years ago in Minneapolis a man with some cognitive and mental health issues went to a YMCA to play basketball. Because he had some cognitive and mental health issues he could be perceived from time to time as a little bit strange – particularly by teenage boys not known for their acceptance and tolerance of difference. One such teenage boy reported that he was making him uncomfortable to the front desk of the YMCA and they called the police. Two officers responded. They tased the man five times and knelt on his chest and legs until he died. (WashingtonPost Death of David Smith)

The man was black. The officers were white. They were allowed to continue serving unpunished, un-reprimanded, unchallenged.

What are we doing?

What were they doing?

The kid was uncomfortable, I get it. Why couldn’t the officers hang out in the gym for a bit to make sure everyone was safe but let the kid learn that we don’t get to be free from discomfort in a free society. We can expect safety if someone is genuinely threatening us, but it doesn’t sound like that was what happened here.

What were those officers thinking when they got out the handcuffs and the taser and listened to that man gasp for breath because he didn’t immediately comply with their orders to leave the gym? Why was he ordered to leave the gym?

What are we doing?

When did we decide that our comfort is most important. This is where I struggle because aren’t I putting my own comfort first when I worry about my daily concerns like school and restaurants?

What are we doing?

I’m genuinely struggling right now to engage in the daily self care that I need to engage in so that I can function as a wife and mother, while feeling swamped in feelings of despair to hear people like Tucker Carlson lionize a teenager who strapped on a gun and went looking for a fight and then shot three people.

What are we doing?

Where were his parents?

What was he doing?

Why do we think order is more important than the safety of ALL CITIZENS.

It’s incredibly difficult not to despair and to become overwhelmed by these kinds of thoughts. I get that people want to be distracted and to go back to normal. To focus on the here and now rather than the questions that feel too big to be answered.

I tell clients to focus on the next right thing because the big picture can be so overwhelming and stressful. It can cause despair and hopelessness because the big ideas can be so much.

So on a regular day I’m trying to focus on the next right thing. Seeing the next client. Finishing the next note. Dealing with waking the kids up. Running and putting one foot in front of the next for four miles.

But I don’t want to look away from the bigger questions. I want to contribute and to do what I can, but I also accept that I can’t do everything. If we could ALL spend some time each day on the bigger picture, we might be able to effect change – but we can’t all look away collectively all the time.

My advice to individual clients is good, but if we all ONLY focus on our feet and the next step forward we’ll start crashing into each other and, goodness knows, these days we want to avoid crashing into strangers in the street.

Anxiety and the Police

I have been thinking about anxiety and uncertainty recently. Mostly this is because it is hurricane season in Texas and we’ve been grappling with a near-miss over the last 24 hours with a hurricane approaching the coast and, after that, our city. Securing patio furniture, ensuring we have fuel for the generator, planning for ways to keep fed during the potential power outages. These are normal responses to anxiety – the attempts to cope ahead, to plan for the worst case scenario and establish a mechanism for managing the outcome should that scenario occur.

That kind of anxiety is useful. That’s the thing that nobody tells you. The anxiety that encourages actions and efforts to mitigate potential harm.

That anxiety helps with school – it can push you to care what your teachers think, to worry about how your performance and preparation will affect future success. Anxiety is why we study for tests. It’s why we work hard on papers.

Anxiety has another purpose, I see it a lot in clients that have ADHD or ADD, but have never been medicated or even officially diagnosed. It’s a natural way of counteracting the chemical imbalances that lead to the effects of ADHD or ADD. If you become anxious, your body releases adrenaline. It’s getting ready to act and react. Adrenaline causes intense focus (some would say tunnel vision). This tunnel vision or intense focus naturally counteracts the disorganized, scattered attention common in people with ADD or ADHD. It allows them to overcome their symptoms. It’s an effective way of coping with the symptoms, really, while in school or at work.

The problem is that anxiety is not easy to shut off. It leaves a hangover of irritability and fear. It can paralyze when it becomes too strong. It can leave us unable to react in our own best interests – the proverbial deer in the headlights, unable to race out of the road to safety. The alternative to the deer, is the aggressor. When anxiety becomes too strong the adrenaline can take over and force the brain to shut down and just act.

Here’s where we come to the problem that we have with policing in this country. Too often police are trained to see the public in general, and black people specifically, as a thing they are fighting against. They are trained to see their job as to subdue an unruly populace. To impose order. We arm them like the military. The uniforms and gear we have them wear reinforces this notion that they are at risk and fighting against a public that wishes them harm. That it is them or us.

We hype the police up on adrenaline in every interaction with the public and then expect that they’re going to be able to pull it back. To be able to react rationally when thwarted or denied their immediate wishes.

That’s not how anxiety works. Adrenaline doesn’t just shut off because we no longer have to be anxious. We need to do something to work it out of our system. Anxiety is not useful in policing. It leads to inaction or aggression.

Unless it is the anxiety about doing a good job. We need to fundamentally change the idea of the good job for police. It is not subduing people. It is not control. It’s safety for EVERY citizen. It is the minimization of harm. Minimization of harm to people. Buildings are not more valuable than people.

I saw Lindsay Graham ask in a press conference why Jacob Blake didn’t comply. I saw people on twitter arguing that there were existing arrest warrants for Jacob Blake’s arrest. We give officers the benefit of the doubt all the time when they shoot someone, “he was afraid for his life” we say. Even when it seems outlandish, that no reasonable person would actually be afraid for their life, juries are inclined to believe a police officer repeating this get out of jail free mantra. Why do we not give Jacob Blake the same benefit of the doubt? He stopped to break up a fight and was tased and menaced by the police at the scene. Why do we not assume he was afraid and worried about his children. Why do we even care about these things?

They shot him in the back because he wouldn’t stop walking to his car.

Imagine yourself with your small kids in the car. They’ve seen the police grab you, they’ve seen adults fighting. They’re scared and upset. Lindsay Graham are you sure you wouldn’t, without any thought, walk over to make sure they were alright? That tunnel vision wouldn’t lead you to focus on your kids’ need for reassurance? Is that a thing that is worthy of a lifetime of paralysis or death? Of being shot seven times?

I’ve tried to avoid the video of the shooting. I saw the video of Ahmad Arbery being lynched and I still see it in my mind at night. It’s horrific. But the still footage I’ve seen is the same, police frustrated that they are not in immediate control of a situation. Despite that situation not being immediately dangerous to them or to others, they become aggressive because they cannot tolerate their own unjustified fears.

It’s people thinking they can impose their will, they can resolve their anxiety about situation (whether that anxiety is warranted or not, in most of these cases the answer is NOT) with deadly force. That their need to feel in control is more important than someone else’s life.

It’s not.

This problem feels so big because anxiety is so hard to overcome. It’s one of our most primitive and powerful emotions. It’s the drive to survive that is hardwired into us. We won’t get rid of anxiety.

But we have to find a way to change the way we think about situations. TO change what we see as the threat to our survival. To fundamentally rewrite the narratives we carry about what is dangerous and what is reasonable. To refocus away from law and order and onto public safety. To renew our vision of police as public safety officers rather than a military force engaged in a peace-keeping mission through our cities and neighborhoods. We are not a war zone in need of subjugation.

So that’s it. I don’t have the answer, but training isn’t it. Or isn’t only it. We need to focus on rewriting the goals and ambitions of our police forces. We need to fundamentally alter their mission, staff, and equipment to serve the public rather than subdue the public.

It’s a huge and anxiety producing task. I’m just hoping that it will be motivating rather than paralyzing.

“Back” to school?

Both of my kids have gone back to school now. I say “gone back” because that’s the figure of speech we always use to describe returning to the educational environment and not because they’ve actually, well, gone, anywhere. They, along with my husband and I, have embarked on an online school odyssey of online platforms, zoom meetings, free-range physical education classes, and emails from teachers.

Lots of emails from teachers.

Every club or private activity has gone back to full practices and games, it seems, but schools are not ready for in person learning. This makes some sense as school is a much longer, much more compact setting than a soccer field or a dance studio for a couple hours where everyone has their own box of space and wears a mask.

So we spent the weekend wearing a mask in the 100 degree heat, watching our youngest compete in a soccer tournament.

And reading emails from administrators about how to access the various online portals they’ll be learning through this fall.

We’re so lucky the girls are old enough to largely monitor themselves and their own learning. We’ve settled for spot checks and surprise drop ins of their room to make sure they’re actually signed on to zoom at their regularly scheduled times.

I saw crumbs on the table when I went down to refresh my coffee in between client sessions, so I assume one of them fed themselves lunch of some sort.

This is going to be a seriously open-handed sort of fall. Open hands are how I teach clients to engage with reality acceptance. There are two real ways to approach circumstances that feel overwhelming or big – with an attempt to control the situation, a tight grip on the circumstances and ourselves, or with an open hand, ready to accept what comes and cope with it.

The closed, controlling fist, tries to modify and subdue the environment. To make it fit expectations or pre-conceived ideas about what it “should” be or how we wish it to be. The open hand isn’t steering so much as taking on.

We’re taking on this school year and feel like we’ll cope with problems as they arise. The idea that we can anticipate or plan for the problems that may or may not arise is mind-boggling. We have no way of knowing where this will go off the rails (I’m sure that it will in some way), but we have to assume that we CAN cope with what comes and that we WILL be alright after. Even if we don’t particularly want to cope with the eventual disasters and roadblocks of the unanticipated.

Can is very different from want. But can is what matters when it comes to coping. Because it is the thing that reduces fear of the unknown and allows for a reduction in anxiety. If you believe that you CAN cope with what comes, you don’t need to worry so much about what it might be that will eventually come.

This is a lesson parents learn with increasing urgency as our kids age. We don’t know what they will be or how they will grow, but we know that we can cope with what they become. We will have to accept it and, again as they age, learn that we don’t always get to control what that might be or how they will get there. Kids are their own people and as they become older and wiser and more familiar with themselves, they need us less to reflect and direct them to who they are than they do to accept and support them in being who they are.

I’ll never forget when my oldest was in pre-school. She was quiet and didn’t seem to request or want a large number of playdates. She had a few close friends that she asked to play with regularly, but she didn’t ask for a wide-variety of people and when I would pick her up she would often be playing by herself or with one or two other kids.

I worried.

“She doesn’t have friends,” I would say to my husband. “She’s not happy.”

Despite there being no evidence that she was actually unhappy. She didn’t cry or resist going to school. She never reported any discontent with the friends she played with and talked about them often enough at home. She learned and she engaged.

But I was convinced. She was unhappy. So I did what most-overly involved parents might do. I arranged multiple play dates with other kids in the class. Kids she hadn’t really mentioned or played with from what I’d seen.

She went. She was fine with it, but she wasn’t particularly interested.

Then one day it just hit me. Her happy didn’t look like my happy. I like a large group. I like a wide range of friends and acquaintances. I want to be popular with my peers.

She does not.

She was happy with a few close friends.

I was so busy imposing my version of happy on her that I missed for awhile that she already was. In my quest to make her happy, I was actually causing some unhappiness because she wasn’t really into playing with some of the kids I invited over.

They didn’t have similar styles or interests.

Since then I’ve really worked to see from her perspective. From the perspective of both of my kids. To ask what their happy looks like and to take them at their word. It won’t look like mine because they are not me. But I can cope with almost any kind of happy they like so long as they’re actually HAPPY.

Today, they were pretty happy with school. It doesn’t look like I thought it would and it’s not taking the shape that I would have wished, but so far they’re happy and that’s just going to have to be enough.

If only they’d stop with the emails.