Friday, January 19, 2018

How Do You Prepare for the Last 15 Minutes of Your Life?

The Cave of Refuge where Hawaiians sought shelter was miles away. Did I want my last minutes of life to be spent in a rental car?

Originally published on The Good Men Project. 

We received the message:
Ballistic Missile Threat Inbound to Hawaii. Seek Immediate Shelter. This is not a drill.
Could it be true? My husband and I checked our sources. Nothing on Google except Hawai’i re-implementing an emergency system because of North Korean threats. That was months ago. Could it be that this was the one? Nothing on Facebook. Nothing on Twitter. Our local host knew nothing. She scoffed at the idea and spoke of love and light. My head was full of Trump saying stupid shit. And then our son. Our six year-old son.
I asked my husband, “Where can we seek shelter?” We were in a wood-frame house on the lava fields. There are no basements here. The Cave of Refuge where Hawaiians sought shelter was miles away. Did I want my last minutes of life to be spent in a rental car?
“Let’s put down our phones,” my husband said. We sat together on a bench in a small hollow outside a wooden storage hut. The black lava around us had hardened into swirls years before. Even so, the lava fields are tenuous, and the land is cheap there. A confirmed lava junkie showed us pictures of his house burning down within the past few years. That’s how I felt in the moment. Would our world be burning soon?
How do you prepare for the last 15 minutes of your life? My husband grabbed his hat. I grabbed a banana. In the last 15 minutes of life, who would want to be hungry? We were in disbelief. How did we know it wasn’t a drill? How did we know it wasn’t Trump distracting us from more stupidity? That he hadn’t pulled another foolish “button” tweet?
We sat together, and I recalled the first time I had met my husband. What a dork. He was in a costume going around at a Valentine’s Day party acting like Cupid, poking people with arrows. His long limbs had flailed around like an awkward 12-year-old boy while he was dancing and jabbing. And then there was in the time in Pai, Thailand, when we had both gotten food poisoning. I’ll spare those details. And our son. Our vibrant six-year-old son Phoenix who had risen from the ashes of a complicated miscarriage. What would his life be like without his parents? Our estate plan was on the table upstairs, awaiting our completion.
I rested my head on my husband’s chest. His heart fluttered like a hummingbird. I imagined our deaths to be quick, painless. Outside my head, the mosquitoes buzzed and bit. I wasn’t trying to be brave as I sobbed. I couldn’t send any goodbye messages. All I could do was sit with the fear, the warmth of my body and my husband’s next to me. I thought of all the challenges we were working through. Maybe we would never work through those now. Of all the people to die with, I was grateful it was my husband. Coupled with a deep love, I fundamentally like the guy. He is incredible company. I had never figured he would be company on this last journey.
And then more news tumbled in. It was a mistake. A big fucking mistake. People began to emerge from lava tubes and laundry rooms. We felt our bodies on the earth, and I read the Washington Post. More political mudslinging. More research about the actual impact of a ballistic missile, how far the destruction would go, which was both comforting (I live close to San Francisco – a supposed target – but not in San Francisco), but not comforting (beloved friends live in San Francisco).
We finally received a message saying the previous message was false. False. Not a mistake, but false. I messaged Tulsi Gabbard. This was unacceptable.
And then we got down to the business of making breakfast. There is breakfast when you are hungry. Then, there’s breakfast when you have survived a false ballistic missile threat. The latter is the one where you savor every bite of eggs scrambled with sun-dried tomato chevre, the juiciness of ripe papaya, and the crunch of green salad accompanied with smooth Kona coffee. Moments of chewing were punctuated with soft touch and remnants of tears. When we were done, I turned to my husband and said, “So what do you want to do with the first day of the rest of your life?” While I normally hate such platitudes, this one rang true for the first time in my life. We sat together in the moments of stillness shot through with the realization that we are alive, gloriously alive.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Why I Don’t Want to Take Your Last Name

When asking “What’s in a name?” the answer certainly isn’t simple.

Originally published on The Good Man Project.

My first boyfriend was both a staunch feminist and at the same time cherry-picked his sexist traditions. He both insisted on calling me – at 18 years old – a woman, but also insisted (with equal vehemence) that any woman would be lucky – lucky! – to take his beautiful last name. Von Berger. It meant “from the mountains.” Really, what woman wouldn’t want that name? Apparently, me. My last name, I argued, goes perfectly well with my first name. And it is part of me. My feeble arguments didn’t make much of an impression on him. It didn’t stop his first wife from taking his last name. Nor his second wife.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have offered different arguments to his claims about his last name. I would have been an even stauncher no. In fact, I hope more men (and women) will reconsider what it means to take a man’s last name.
Seventy percent of U.S. adults believe a woman should take her husband’s last name
In a recent survey, more than 70% of U.S. adults believed that a woman should take her husband’s last name after she gets married. Frankly, I was shocked to read that, but I wasn’t prepared to find about half of those adults think it should be required that a woman take her husband’s last name after marriage. This same study showed that half of those who thought a woman should take her husband’s last name also said she should prioritize her family and marriage and marriage ahead of herself.
It saddened and angered me to read this, and I thought, Dear Men, where are you in this? Where is the support in women being who they need to be? And what about men who choose to prioritize their families and marriage over themselves because they need or want to? This sexism cuts both ways. Women are boxed into a singular focus on family and relationship whereas men are boxed into focusing on career and singular identity. Who wins in all of that?
Some might argue that having the same last name makes people a family. Last names don’t make a family. If they did, Icelanders would be screwed. In a culture where last names are derived from parents’ names, each member of the family could end up with a different last name. Furthermore, with current U.S. divorce rates hovering between 43% to 46%, what would it mean for those families? That which makes a family transcends their name.
When no Female Person had a Legal Identity
An article in Seattle Bride magazine (of all places) reported that women didn’t start taking their husband’s last names until the ninth century in England. And “taking” isn’t quite the right word. It was the law.
Lawmakers devoted time to families and marriage, where it intersected with the law, and that’s when we saw the birth of the doctrine of “coverture.”
If you don’t know that word (I didn’t), it is worthwhile checking out its meaning. Coverture held that no female person had a legal identity. At birth, a female would be given her father’s last name. It would change upon marriage to her husband’s last name. It meant women couldn’t enter into contracts, engage with the law, or have ownership with respect to real estate or personal property. It also meant a woman, once married, owned nothing. She had no rights to her children, her body (no such thing as marital rape), and no claim to money she earned. In as recent as 1966, in the United States Supreme Court case United States v. Yazell, we still saw the impact of coverture on a woman’s lack of ownership around her property. In fact, former Justice Abe Fortas claimed “[c]overture… rests on the old common-law fiction that the husband and wife are one, [and] the one is the husband.”
So, where do we stand with coverture now and why should we care? In her 2012 article, Catherine Allgor, Ph.D. details how a loan officer refused to make her the primary borrower of a loan even though she made more money than her husband, had a longer work history than he had, and was older. The loan officer (a woman) told her “it’s a man’s world.” Is that what we want for the women in our lives?
Now, bit by bit coverture has been disappearing but has never fully gone away. This is why women weren’t commonly on juries until the 1960’s and spousal rape first became a crime in 1979. The list goes on, but importantly, it highlights the inability of women to simply be their own person in society. Is this what men want for their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers? Is this what man would want as part of his marriage?
Choosing the Right Last Name
For some, knowing a history that has erased and oppressed women might be enough not to follow tradition. For others, acknowledging that history, what has changed, and what changes are coming is enough to empower them and choose to take a man’s last name. In this country, names can still be changed (not true in some other countries), which means some couples decide to hyphenate names, create new last names, or simply make no changes. For my own self, I never took my husband’s last name because it simply didn’t make sense to. In the end, is there one right choice around taking a new last name? Definitely not. But when asking “What’s in a name?” the answer certainly isn’t simple.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Truth About Parenting When You're Exhausted

Originally published on Perfection Pending.

The last few days had been exhausting. I’d felt worn down to the nubs. My husband had been gone for a work trip. I taught during the day, parented during the mornings, nights, and weekends. I tried to pour in friendships and movies to fill in the cracks like mortar around bricks, hoping the foundation would hold.

Things came to a head when I came home with my 5 year-old son. We were two exhausted creatures plowing through the molasses of mundanity. I was operating with abridged patience while my boy was pushing the boundaries at the worst possible moments. Bedtime was a series of stops and starts, half-begun games, deep sighs, and toothpaste. Listening on both sides was fraught with difficulty. Getting him into pajamas was like verbally sparring with a floppy fish: impossible at best. Finally, I tried to explain to my son that I really Just Needed Him To Listen. My voice quavered between sadness and anger until I broke down into tears. Tears were all I had, and then my boy started to cry as well.
In the midst of it all, I thought, I’m still the parent. In all of the chaos and fatigue, I was still the parent. Even in the wornout spaces, my son looked up to me, needed me, and I could reach down and find a deep strength I never knew I had. Parenting: the place where we find power beyond what we’ve known. And along with power, the greatest responsibility.

My child was also worn down to the nubs, and so something inside of me shifted. He needed his mama. His tears washed away my own anger and frustration. I reached down into the foundation, which really had no cracks at all. I was solid; he was the rain washing over me.
I sat my son on my lap, and listened while he told me about how tired he was, and how bored he was in aftercare. My listening capacity had grown. I was no longer a shallow stream but vast like the ocean. He had been wandering around school, waiting for me to arrive, and I had been late.
When the moment seemed right, I asked him why he hadn’t been listening to me, and why he was doing so many things, even after I had told him not to. He explained that there are so many rules to follow every day at school, and even more rules to follow during aftercare. When he got home, he didn’t want to follow any more rules.
And then it made sense to me. When he spoke of rules and more rules, my body felt weighed down by the heaviness, each set of rules like a brace of rocks. I empathized. I couldn’t disagree. I have chafed against rules, broken them, forged my own. I told him as much and could feel his clenched body relax.
In the end, we didn’t “figure it out.” I didn’t create more rules, and he didn’t push. For that moment we were just two souls trying to connect even through the fatigue and limited resources.
In those moments, I try to remember to:
Slow down. I sometimes get caught up in trying to get dinner, bedtime routine, in bed done in record speed. When we’re all stressed out we actually need more time to do these mundane activities. Really, does 5-10 extra minutes make that big of a difference?
Breathe. In those moments, I remember to breathe. My body is so tense, I can barely think. When I breathe, my child breathes, too. When I relax, he relaxes, too.
Parent. I am still the parent, and he is just learning. I can tell him I’m having a hard time, but ultimately, I need to lean on adults, not him. And, he needs to lean on me. He needs a parent.
Listen. The better my listening got, the less he misbehaved. It was hard to reach down and listen, but when I did, it made a world of difference.

That there are no solutions sometimes. Sometimes, it’s just about listening. Connecting. Being there.

It is not easy, this dance of parent and child. There are moments of supreme joy and laughter, and then there are those moments of rough edges, impatience, and fatigue. For those rough moments, we are two stones getting washed smooth in the same ocean of life. We are in it together, just figuring it out.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

My Husband: Not the Father We Thought He’d Be

He thought he’d glide effortlessly into fatherhood in the same way his father had. It turns out, he has his own path. 

Despite his affinity for kids, parenthood has been a rocky road for my husband.
Our son was planned. He’d come after a complicated miscarriage and fertility treatment. Loved, desired, ostensibly the most powerful creation we’d conceived of. We had created events together, masterminded courses for couples and singles around relationships, and yet … And yet, in the final months of my pregnancy, my husband would wake, gasping for breath. What were we doing? Did we know what we were about to embark on? Clearly, we didn’t.
I had confidence my husband would be an incredibly good father. I’d seen him with kids. He had a certain magic that had them gravitate towards him, an instant affinity and connection. Why then, was fatherhood such a rocky path for him?
Loss of Freedom
The loss of freedom was huge. Certainly, we had anticipated some of it, but we never fully realized the extent of our freedom and spontaneity until it was gone. For me, I was dunked in the ocean of motherhood and so overwhelmed, my focus was largely on learning to find my own true North in the watery nation of parenthood. For my husband, he could logically understand the importance, but internally he felt trapped with his own version of island fever. It felt like almost every aspect of our lives had changed: meals, sleep, exercise, sex. Everything was now dictated by a tiny helpless creature.
Loss of Connection
The loss of connection was huge. My husband felt like he had lost his person, his anchor. In a relationship where he often needed space (see the article I wrote called “Loving the Man Who Needs Space”), he now had more space than ever while I was breastfeeding. Only, with the vast space he found he actually wanted more connection with me. With this new creature in our lives, it was hard to find it. Date nights never seemed to give him enough time and even weekends away weren’t enough. In our minds, we had thought the child would be yet another source of connection between us. In one way, he has totally been that. In another, he has been the biggest cockblocker of our lives.
The Jealous Inner Child
Over time, my husband has realized that not only was he having a difficult time with the shift in our lives, but with his inner child was as well. As stated in “Essential Secrets of Psychotherapy: The Inner Child“, “We were all once children, and still have that child dwelling within us.” My husband certainly has an inner child, and boy is that kid pissed. You see, my husband is not a jealous person. We have incredible amounts of freedom within our relationship to explore with others. But when it came to our son, he found not only was he jealous, but his inner child was jealous, too. Talk about a brainfuck. I found the best thing I could do was be gentle. The amount of self-judgment my husband had was huge. Not only was it difficult enough to weather the changes in our lives, he was jealous of his son. This has certainly shifted over the six years of our son’s life, but in the beginning it was intense.
Needs vs. Neediness
While my husband intellectually understands everyone has needs, neither of us were prepared for the vast quantity of needs a baby has. And while it was all normal and healthy, it still had the odor of neediness to him. With time, he’s come to understand that he will unconsciously code needs as neediness, but in an equal opportunity fashion. Everyone’s needs – including his own – have been needy for years upon years. With this new understanding, he has been able to relax into the volume of needs a young child has as well as learn that his own needs are totally normal. What a journal that has been.
My husband had spent time on and off with children over the years. Each time I saw him, there was a natural spark and connection. With our infant son, however, he became easily bored. While I enjoyed motherhood – in a profoundly deep and satisfying way – he found the early years of parenthood painfully boring. Now, he is definitely someone who notices nuance and detail, so it honestly came as a surprise that he didn’t find the same in his own son. Recently he remarked, “Our son didn’t actually get any personality until he was about three years old.” It would be easy for me to jump all over him, judging this experience, but I know these words are not meant unkindly. For him, the ability to hold a conversation, create projects together, and have a meeting of the minds, is really important. That he can do that with our now six-year-old is eye-opening.
Falling in Love
I immediately loved our son, but it wasn’t until he was four or five months old that I actually fell in love. It was tipping over into the great abyss and being held in a vast warm ocean. For my husband, it wasn’t until our son was somewhere between a year and a year and a half old. Perhaps it was the lack of hormones. Perhaps he needed to wade through his own self-judgment, but it did happen on its own time and at its own pace. By giving him space to connect more with his son, he was able to move past the jealousy and find his own relationship.
It’s Like Becoming a Vampire
Jonathan Coulton tells us this story:
I was having a conversation with a friend who had recently become a parent, and she reminded me of something I had forgotten about since my daughter was born. She was describing this what-have-I-done feeling – I just got everything perfect in my life, and then I went and messed it all up by having a baby. I don’t feel that way anymore, but the thought certainly crossed my mind a few times at the beginning. Eventually, you just fall in love and forget about everything else, but it’s not a very comfortable transition. I compare the process to becoming a vampire, your old self dies in a sad and painful way, but then you come out the other side with immortality, super strength and a taste for human blood. At least that’s how it was for me. At any rate, it’s complicated.
Indeed, it is complicated. My husband is not the father we thought he’d be. He thought he’d glide effortlessly into fatherhood in the same way his father had. So did I. It turns out, he has his own path, one paved with vast unconditional love and moments of freakout and boredom.
I remember when our son was a year or two old, my husband turned to me and said, “I know if I keep turning him away because I’m having a hard time, there’ll be a time when he won’t come back.” So my husband keeps leaning in, growing, stretching, having moments of breathtaking, exquisite connection and almost painful beauty mingled with irritation and suffocation, but he keeps on trying. That’s how I know I chose the right man to be not only by my side but my son’s side as well.

Monday, December 25, 2017

11 Ways a Man is Successful

Originally published on The Good Man Project.

It’s not about money, looks, or fame.

In a recent conversation, a male friend was describing a group of his female friends discussing their ideal male partners, detailing how the define a “successful” man. This particular group of women are all financially successful and live in luxurious homes. Their measure of success? A man who made more money than they did.
Each time I hear of such things, I metaphorically vomit a little in my mouth. My own father worked long hours to bring home a six-figure salary. He left at 5 a.m. and returned at 7 p.m., tired and cranky. A female friend of mine is married to someone like that. They have a beautiful home, take beautiful vacations, but at the end of the day, all that’s left for her and her family are the scraps of a vibrant man working himself to the nubs.
This is not the measure of a successful man. Society may pressure a man into being this, wearing himself down day after day, but how is that the measure of success when there is nothing left for your partner, friends, family, or self after a long day at work?
When I look at the word “success,” it becomes incredibly problematic. For some, the notion of a success is a Trumpian world where the gleaming opulent lifestyle should somehow bleed inward, resulting in a magnificent internal world gilded by good looks.
For me, success doesn’t flow from outside to inside; it moves from inside to out. It transcends money, celebrity, height, weight, race, sexual orientation. This success has a man glow with purpose and integrity.
  1. 1. In my eyes, a successful man is one who is willing to quit his job when he realizes he is selling his soul. No amount of money will nourish a withering soul. My husband left a six-figure, eighty-hours-per-week job when he realized the money didn’t represent freedom. It represented being chained to his desk. In short, a successful man is not someone who brings home the bacon when he himself is the sacrificial animal.

  2. 2. A successful man embraces a partnership where both people contribute, where he might not make more money than his partner, or even less than fifty percent. When my husband and I first moved into together, I paid more of the rent. It simply made sense as I made more money. He was not a “kept man.” We were in a partnership of equals not defined by money.

  3. 3. A successful man is one who finds his purpose and creates a life where he can fulfill that purpose. He knows or seeks to find the balance between fueling that purpose and sacrificing himself and others to make it happen.

  4. 4. A successful man knows himself—or searches to find out who is he—so he can take responsibility for his choices and impact on others.

  5. 5. A successful man is one who has close friends, people he is willing to be vulnerable with. I know some men tend to be more introverted, but even introverts have friends. I want to see that when it man is down and out, he has other people support him, not just his intimate partner.

  6. 6. A successful man is internally resourced. He doesn’t look for others to do his emotional labor. He knows his own true north and can find ways to nourish and replenish himself alone or with others, but ultimately, he is responsible for it.

  7. 7. A successful man is one who will work to co-create a relationship, not dominate and try to control it.

  8. 8. A successful man chooses to be or not to be in an intimate relationship because he knows there is a choice and one that stems from being complete and whole as he is.

  9. 9. If a man is a father—and let’s be clear, contributing sperm is not a measure of success, but being a father is something else—he is willing to work on whatever issues come up for him. His children don’t bear the brunt of his dissatisfaction. My husband is not the father he or I thought he would be, yet he returns, again and again, trying to be the best he can.

  10. 10. A successful man is one who recognizes within himself the desire for freedom, is honest about it, and at the same time cultivates a nest where he can have a soft landing. He is not running; he is being himself without negatively impacting others. His freedom does not preclude integrity or commitment.

  11. 11. A successful man embodies commitment without suffocation. He gives his word when he knows he can follow through, and if he is unable to follow through, he examines whether or not this is an anomaly or pattern to change.

This is more of a beginning than a finite list when it comes to the qualities a successful man embodies. No amount of money, good looks, or fame can cultivate this.
When I heard my friend’s words, I imagined a group of women who might attract a man who played the game of life by the numbers. Perhaps his compass would be tuned to a north within himself, one magnetized by his core, guided by integrity. But when the first attribute relates to money, I have to wonder what kind of man that is: someone who measures his success by the digits in his bank accounts, or someone whose own vast worth goes beyond the external, the vast space uninhabited by a dollar symbol.
I chose the latter when I chose my husband. I see him rise daily to be a better man, father, husband, friend. For me, that makes him successful now and forever.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Parents: Invite Your Kids to Communicate by NOT Shutting Down the Difficult Questions

Originally posted on The Good Men Project.

Bodily fluids, ethical quandaries, genitalia, racism, there are no off-limits questions in this household.

“My daughter asked me if she could hit me. I told her she shouldn’t even ask that question,” my friend exclaimed, visibly annoyed.
“Why not? It’s not that you’re going to be a ‘yes,’ but why not allow her to ask?”
My friend stopped and looked at me. For me, no question is off-limits, at least at this point in my 6-year-old’s life. He asks with curiosity and never an intent to harm.
My friend paused to consider. I knew she came from an alcoholic family and this question was triggering for her.

“Maybe that would be okay,” she said. “Maybe my daughter can ask anything.” I knew this was huge for her. Asking a question about violence was not the same as condoning violence. In fact, the question might even open different healing possibilities for her.
The conversation reminded me of when I caught my son in the act of doing something suspicious with a friend. It involved wet sandy mud. Turns out it wasn’t just wet mud. It was special mud. And that “special mud” involved my son and his friend peeing in it.
My son studied my face when he told me about this special ingredient.
I knew he was testing me. I didn’t react negatively, so he continued his story.
At one point, I accidentally touched my friend’s pee. But it was my fault. AND, I washed my hands right after.
I knew my son had sussed out the situation, took a risk to tell me something, and the risk had paid off. This meant he might take future risks, share future scary things. After all, pee wasn’t the worst.
What about when he was older? I remember hearing the word “horny” when I was about nine years old. It felt forbidden, scary to ask other adults, but I knew my mother was open to answering such questions. My best friend knew it, too, but she also knew her mother was not open to such questions. This is one of the things I take from my mother and use with my son:
There is no off-limits question in my household.
I am open to answering any question. Nothing is off-limits. We talk about genitalia, I answer questions about why my son sees police pull over black men, and we talk about dynamics with his friends. I never shut down a conversation before it has started.
Sometimes I’m curious about how the question arose. My son is six and very willing to give source information, but I know this might not always be true. If his question isn’t about harming others or being harmed, I don’t need to know where it came from. Finding out the roots of his curiosity can be very interesting and illuminating.
I get out of the way and figure out what he’s really asking. My son once asked me why girls wear pants that are tight enough to show their vulvas. Instead of launching into an answer about sexism or fashion, I got curious about where he’s coming from first. Was this a conversation about clothing? Curiosity about bodies? Questions about gender differences? It’s easy for me to jump into conversations I’ve had a hundred times. For my son, it might be his first time. I don’t need to burden him with the weight of everything. I just need to answer what he needs.
Sometimes waiting is better than probing. In my son’s case, I sensed something was happening, but I was also under the impression we’d have a better conversation away from his friend. I know that can’t always happen, but in this case, it seemed to work. If the conversation is important, it will stick around. It also means if I have charge around the conversation, I can process my own feelings before I return to the conversation.
If I don’t know the answer, I don’t fake it. I certainly don’t know all of the answers. Thankfully, Google is my friend. If Google isn’t available, then my son will need to wait. In the meantime, he knows that I’ve heard him, and I’m not all-powerful.
My son is only six years old right now. Who knows how he’ll be when he’s a teenager. I don’t. I imagine he’ll want a much clearer private life where he isn’t disclosing all of the details to me. But for now, I’m building a foundation of open communication between us.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Reconsider the Break-up: The Value of Staying in a Relationship

A low-stakes healthy relationship is good practice. Don't leave too soon!

Published on The Good Men Project

“If a person really just isn’t that into you, then why waste your time?”
In Mark Manson’s article addressing this topic, he asks this crucial question about being in a relationship. This critical advice has hopefully saved a lot of heartache for those who have held on to relationship hope past the expiration date.
Recently, however, a different slice of the same pie was delivered to a friend. Beth had been casually dating Greg when he had a complete meltdown – something about her roommate. Riddled with anxiety, he completely broke down, and the two had a brief conversation about what was going on. My husband talked to her the next day, and the two agreed that the relationship between Beth and Greg seemed like more trouble than it was worth. After all, it was the early days, yet. Wasn’t this supposed to be the easy times? Beth decided that it was too much for her and broke it off. She decided she wasn’t so into Greg that she wanted to invest any time in the relationship.
My opinion about the matter differed. I saw total value in staying in the relationship long enough to talk about what had happened, using this as a practice run. Let me explain. Beth and Greg had little invested in the relationship as it was so new. Because of this, I felt it could be helpful for Beth to gain some relationship experience (she was very inexperienced) by having a more difficult conversation with Greg. She could have listened to his fears and revealed some of her own. She could have told him about her turn-off. She could have had a potentially crunchy conversation in a very low-stakes relationship. This would mean practicing her communication and transparency skills, so when she was in a high-stakes relationship, she’d have more skills. It means that if it didn’t go well and the relationship ended, then she wouldn’t be crushed. Hopefully, she’d reflect, learn, and move on. And if it did go well, then she might see if the relationship was truly workable, and perhaps it might evolve into a high-stakes relationship.
First things first: What is the difference between a low-stakes relationship and a high-stakes relationship? A low-stakes relationship—unlike a casual relationship—still has a level of commitment. It might mean seeing the person every two weeks, once a month, or once a year. It means you value the relationship; it’s not disposable or expendable or fast food. You nourish it even if you think it might only last a short time.
A high-stakes relationship has a higher level of commitment. Think life partner, long-term, family relationships. These have weight (sometimes baggage) and are deep in our hearts. These are the ones that often need the most work. This is where low-stakes healthy relationships can help. (Note: It’s always worthwhile checking in about whether or not you’re in a healthy or toxic relationship. Toxic relationships clearly aren’t worth your time or energy!)
In staying in such a low stakes relationship, it’s not about whether the relationship is right or wrong for you, it’s whether both of you can actually learn something from being in the relationship. Now, if there’s not enough connection from the get-go, then by all mean, don’t stay in. If, as Mark Manson says, the person just isn’t that into you, then leave. But if you seem to share values and enjoy one another’s company, then why let one upset upheave the whole thing? What can you learn by staying in? Lots, I’d say, but only if you really want to do the work.
You might ask yourself, Do I have a lot of healthy relationship experience? Have I learned how to communicate in a relationship? Do I know what it’s like to be transparent about my needs? Have I learned how to apologize when my words and actions have had a negative impact (seen or unforeseen)? How can this current low-stakes relationship teach both of us these skills?
If your answers are, “Yes, I can learn more; yes, I want to be able to weather the storms of an intimate relationship—maybe not with this person for long-term, but for right now,” then do it. Step into the storm. See what you can learn about connecting with this person. See how you can stretch and grow. See what it means to be messy, human, and compassionate. It’s not “why stay?” It’s “why not stay? I have everything to gain and so does my partner.”
A version of this post was originally published on and is republished here with permission from the author.

Monday, December 4, 2017

I Don't Want to Fail My Son

Originally published on The Good Man Project.

Only 77% of boys will currently graduate from high school. For Black males, this number is a dismal 47%. How are we failing our boys?

I see the future of my six-year-old son in the eyes of my teenage students. I see his moments of meltdown and separation, faulty logic and cautious steps, and I love him up even more. I step in closer. I don’t leave. I don’t give up. Boys are falling behindwhen it comes to graduating from high school. Only 77% will succeed. For Black males, that number drops to a dismal 47%. This fall, men will comprise 44 percent of students on college campuses, a number that continues to fall. I have to ask myself, how are we failing our boys? I don’t want to fail my son.
I started teaching college freshmen after a ten-year hiatus. I walked into the classroom the other day, greeted everyone with a cheery, “Good afternoon!” and got . . . nothing. Just nothing. Not even crickets. Well, one-half smile from one young lady, but that was it. Oddly, it warmed my heart. Let me explain.
Years ago, when I first began teaching undergrads, it would have unnerved me. I would have been dismayed, disheartened, disillusioned. But today, it doesn’t. In the past, I would have said I don’t care, but the truth is, I care now more than ever. Being a mother has done this. I don’t want to fail them in the same way that I don’t want to fail my son.
* * *
When I teach, I move in closer to my students. Their disinterest and boredom touch me. On the second day of class, I asked them if they are creative. Half said no. These are art students. Art students. I looked around solemnly, observing them. No judgment or pity. I didn’t need to reason or convince. I just needed to listen. And what about when they were children, the age of my son? What about then? Cracks of sunshine lit up the room. Yes, then. For moments they all remembered games and stories and vast imaginations. I had suspected it was there even if buried deep. I looked at the boys who broke with their fathers’ desire for them to be narrowly defined as men. I looked at the girls who were taught to play safe and risk nothing. All of them are here, taking a risk, growing into becoming adults. My son will be like them one day.
I sat with my students in the liminal space between creativity and the place where it had been beaten out of them or locked down or judged or wasn’t what the teacher or parent wanted. I try so hard to be a parent and guide, not to wring the creativity out of my son. Some days I do better than others.
Then, I asked my students a question because I am so full of questions (like my six-year-old and maybe because of him): “Could you learn to be creative again?” The student who had been so tight-lipped and certain of her uncreativity was the loudest. Yes! she proclaimed. Yes! The others nodded, and I listened.
We were all standing together in the delicate space of possibility. I didn’t want to spackle it all over with my 45 years of blah blah blah experience. I wanted them to feel that space as I have felt it and lost it and found it again. I wanted them to feel it as my 6-year-old feels it.
* * *
On the first day of class, after the initial rusty minutes of class creaked on, I felt my heart crack open and melt all over the classroom floor. I wrote my lesson plan on the board. I explained it to them, and then I got down to the dirty work of teaching. I loved every blank look, every withheld smile, every moment when they could have reached for their phones to check out but didn’t. I loved seeing the lights go on, the mouths open into smiles, the laughs (and probably more groans or silence). I loved them all as I want my son to be loved.
The suicide rate for the U.S. population as a whole increased 24 percent over a 15-year period. This was 14.2 percent of 100,000 males in 2015. Thirty percent of transgender youth reported a history of at least one suicide attempt. I sit with all of that as I raise my son. A few months ago he told me he feels like he is half-boy/half-girl inside. I listened and got curious. I asked him what he needed and if he needed anything. He didn’t. I keep an eye on what he says as I know he is most at risk.
One of my students—a young transgender woman—told me she was glad she had come back to class after she had disappeared for two weeks. She said it made her feel better to be there with me. I soaked in this ray of sunshine because I’ve been around the block long enough to know that not every student feels that way, and that’s okay, too. I still love those students fiercely.
In the meantime, life goes on and some students still come late to class. An unprecedented number seem to harbor strange ailments which prevent them from coming at all, but others are there, and others come back after absences.
You see, there may be a time when my son is that sullen teenager who distrusts the adults around him. He might be quiet and brooding. He might not feel creative or hopeful or interested. He might be suicidal or close to failing out. In my heart—the one that is teacher and mother, teenager and six-year-old—I hope the adults around him will still listen to everything he’s got and love him up all the same.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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