This morning, I listened to this episode of NPR’s The Hidden Brain in which they talked about the power of advertising. The idea being is that we are being advertised to and we don’t even realize it. They discussed a unique way of advertising to people through social media accounts such as Instagram. A light bulb went on inside my head, and immediately I thought, “Those mommy Instagrammers!” Their #ads and #sponsored content and how they show up every once in a while in my feed, talking about product ABC and how much it has improved their lives. Oh, the holy trinity of marketing have appeared in the supposedly simple lives of non-famous moms around the country.
For the past few years, ever since I became a mom, I entered the world of social media where I kicked Facebook to the curb and became active on Instagram. It was through photographers accounts and links in their accounts that I found many moms on Instagram. These moms are (no surprise there) white and middle class…at least, that’s what it appears to be from their pictures. They also appear to be stay-at-home moms, although that’s not always the case. Some moms do have jobs outside the home, but they don’t talk about their jobs. Instead, they post pictures of their glamorous, well-decorated “minimalist” home with fancy floor tiles and high end refrigerators and soft, comfy couches from West Elm. Even worse is when they post pictures of the outside of their homes–it makes you feel like the house you live in comparison is minuscule and ugly, because oh my gosh these homes are HUGE. It makes it seem like all they do all the time is decorate, decorate, and decorate.
Whether or not they actually occupy the majority of their home is unknown to me. Sometimes they display pictures or other household items that are so beautiful that I’d think, “Did they just buy that for the picture? Or clean it up for Instagram?” These acts, I realize now, are all tactics of implicit advertising.
Sometimes there would be links to other Instagram business accounts or coupon codes at checkout. For example, “I love these @briarhandmade bonnets! Avery loves it too. You can get one for your little one on their website for 20% off with the code SAVEME20 at checkout!”
Yep, all this time I’ve been advertised to, and although I can’t say that I actually used any of the codes to save me money, but I have visited the business’s Instagram account as a result. And because I viewed their Instagram feed, I was tempted to follow them, so I did. It wasn’t until the other day I realized that I have followed over 100 accounts, and around 40 them are mommy accounts and/or business and mommy accounts (the ones who are moms who also have a business). And I wondered to myself, “How is this benefiting me? What joy do I get from seeing these perfect homes with their somewhat adorable children?” (Trust me, some of those kids are just downright ugly, but the moms sure know how to correctly take a photo of them in the right light so they appear to not be so ugly).
Armed with this knowledge, I decided to unfollow about 30 of them. The exception to that is photographers who are also moms whom I’ve never met and the moms that I’ve actually met in person (around five). I kept the photography-related feeds because as a photography enthusiast, I enjoy looking at beautiful pictures of landscapes and food. It gives me inspiration, whereas looking at the unattainable mom ideal in my feed gives me anxiety. After all, I am not a middle class, white mom in my mid-to-late thirties. I’m a lower class mom in my early thirties. I live in a small two-bedroom apartment, where I sleep on the couch with my husband (our kids occupy the two rooms for a reason), and our closets, bathroom, and kitchen are the size of a standard walk-in closet for most people.
Just as the advent of Facebook and how people have expressed themselves online went in a downward spiral, I feel that Instagram is becoming that way too. Oftentimes, we are shown pictures of what is, when that is not really what truly is. Take, for example, one of the moms mentioned in the Hidden Brain podcast–despite having pictures of herself using the Google pixel phone, she is still an iPhone user, she admits. It makes me wonder just how much of it is just for show, and how much money these moms actually make every time they post something linking it to a product or another Instagram account.
With the popularity of parenting blogs, it feels like the “mommies of Instagram” is its own exclusive club, one that I’ve tried desperately to portray in the past five years. I’ve learned to edit my iPhone photos to reflect the light airiness of the things that I’m portraying and used hashtags to make sure people find me. But I have yet to figure out how an “average mom” from the suburbs can garner 50,000 followers when she doesn’t seem to have a blog, a professional portfolio or a website. I wish I knew. But at the same time, I am also glad to let them fade out of my feed forever.
There is a picture of my mother and I standing in front of a cactus that sits directly in front of our house in Vietnam, next to the wrought-iron gate. I must’ve been around seven or eight years old, so this was in 1992 or 1993, several years before my family and I came to America. My mom and I both appear happy, with big smiles on our faces. Her face is hollow, while mine is chubby. I remember posing for this picture, which in essence, is one of the few remnants of my childhood, along with the picture of me as a baby being baptized, another one of me as a grumpy-looking toddler (presumably because I didn’t want my picture taken), and another one of us when I was around 12 years old, at a relative’s barbecue.
In these pictures, my mom appears to be a relaxed, fun-loving mom who was always around, but in reality, she was anything but. In fact, my mother was an untactful, hard-to-please, working mother. Minus the working part, she is still alive and kicking. My mother is a tough woman–she survives on a cocktail of pills (including vitamins), religion, and spewing out words that goes into the ear of an individual (like myself) and out the other in less than a minute.
For as long as I’ve known her, my mother has never been without “words of wisdom.” I put this in quotation marks because I’ve never really taken her words seriously until I became a mom myself. With five years and two kids under my belt, I feel like I know something about motherhood, but certainly not everything. For one, there’s the fact that you make sacrifices for your kids. If you’re down to the last bit of food, you’re going to give it to your kid and allow yourself to starve. At least, that’s what my mother claimed she did during those years of suffering, as she calls it, from 1976 to 1979, right before the Vietnam War ended.
I don’t know much about those years of suffering, just as she doesn’t know much about mine. She survived the War in her twenties whereas I survived the Great Recession of 2008-2009 in my twenties. It’s one of those things that we don’t discuss in depth, because for one, due to my lack of communication skills in Vietnamese (I can understand a lot and read a little bit, but not to the point of deep conversation), and also because it brings back treacherous thoughts that are much better off being bottled up and left in the attic of someone’s mind. It’s the fact that we survived that matters more, I think.
My mom was born in 1947, thus she became a woman and a mother in the midst of a historic war in our country. She married my father at the age of 17 through an arranged marriage, and four years later, had her first baby, my brother Long. Because she wasn’t the most fertile woman in our village, or perhaps because she wasn’t that interested in making babies with my father, she didn’t have another child for six years. After that, God deemed her too unhealthy to have another kid–she had certain medical issues that required operations–and was told that she would most likely never have another child. That must’ve been hard for a 27-year-old woman to hear, I bet. I was not supposed to be born, and yet I was, ten years later, in 1985. By then, she was 37, normal by today’s standards, but very old by our country’s standards.
Because of the fact that I was born to an older mother, I always felt that this was a barrier to our relationship. The age gap created an invisible path that I couldn’t cross, and that she couldn’t pave the way for me to cross.
My mom in her twenties
Growing up, I saw her as a working mother. She’d wake up very early in the morning, prepare the food that she would sell, then put all that food in two baskets strung by ropes held together by a long wooden stick, similar to this one, and she’d be gone for many hours. Often, she wouldn’t come back until the wee hours of the evening. She either left me with one of my aunts or my father. She used to tell me that I was a tough customer–I wouldn’t let anyone give me a bath except her. Although this may indicate fondness and preference for my mother, I never thought of her as the type of individual who I would “prefer” to be around, the favorite parent, or even the lovable one.
Our personalities clashed as I grew up and she continued to work. She was absent from my life a lot, and I resented her for that. I didn’t understand why she wasn’t there to provide snuggles or kisses like other moms. It took me awhile to understand that she wasn’t the affectionate type–my father was. Whereas I was/am a complete introvert, she is more of an ambivert. She thrives in certain social situations but also prefers to retreat to a quiet world with God.
So it should not have been surprising to her when I decided to leave for college after my father died. After all, why stay for something I never had in the first place? Frankly, I wanted to get away from her as fast as I could.
Throughout college, there were periods of time when we didn’t talk at all. She continued working while I continued college. Months would pass by without conversation. Whenever we did talk, it was a one-sided conversation in which she called me, and immediately after I answered the phone, she’d spew out a slur of criticisms, starting with, “Why haven’t you called me?” I didn’t really have an answer, except for, “I don’t want to talk to you,” but of course, I didn’t tell her that. Instead, I’d mumble something about being busy with schoolwork and whatnot. She’d then proceed to talk for the next five minutes, and in one continuous motion, let out more complaints than I cared to hear about. If all she wants is to complain, why would she call me? I thought. Needless to say, I ignored her phone calls a lot. Simply put, I did not want to be yelled at. I wanted to avoid any contact with her, because I knew she wasn’t calling to give me advice; she was calling to get on my nerves.
I always thought of my mother as someone who’d tell it like it is. My husband always says that she has no sense of tact, and he’s right. She never had it. But where she lacked the ability to maintain an intimate relationship with other human beings, she held a strong belief in a relationship with God. This was, and still is, one of the things that bothers her the most about me, the fact that I strayed away from God. In reality, I still believe in God, but not in the doctrines of Catholicism anymore. The main issue that I have with the religion, or faith in general, is the fact that I was never given the option to choose my religion. Instead, I was born into it, and according to my mother, if you’re born into a religion, you have to stay in it, no matter what.
It’s hard to convince her otherwise, so I gave up trying. And she continued to believe that I was following the devil, that I betrayed God. She’s not completely wrong, but she’s not right either. I don’t follow the devil, but I also have betrayed God, in a sense. I don’t frequent the church as I used to, mainly because I don’t feel like I could connect with God in an intimate way.
Last night, a New Yorker article serendipitously appeared in my inbox called, “The Unmothered” by Ruth Margalit. Although the author talked about loss and grief, about losing her mother to cancer, she used the term coined by another writer to describe the absence of a mother, I felt that the term “unmothered” also applies to me. For many years, I felt unmothered–the absence of a mother in my life. Even though she is still alive, she was not physically in my life that much. I did not see her for long stretches of time for over a decade.
It wasn’t until the past few years that our relationship started to move in a different direction. I felt that she started to dial down the criticisms a little bit, and I became softer when I became a mom. I understood the struggles of having to take care of kids, of trying to make money while also balancing familial responsibilities. My mother always said, “When you have kids, you’ll understand,” so often that I came to associate the phrase as my mom’s mantra, the other religion that she lives by.
Perhaps because of the fact that she was a working mother, or because she felt guilty, my mother chose to help with daycare after my daughter was born so I could go back to work full time. I say “chose” because my husband and I gave her a choice–it wasn’t like she had to spend time with my daughter all day, especially since she was still working the graveyard shift at the time. But in the end, she reasoned that she wanted to have an influence on our daughter’s life, so she decided to do it. I felt that she knew she was being given a second chance. She wasn’t there for me, but she could be there for her granddaughter, and start fresh with her. Giving her that opportunity, knowing that it might not work, terrified me. Fortunately, she became a strong influence in my daughter’s life, something that I am truly grateful for.
These days, we talk a lot more on the phone. She calls me if she needs help with something, or if she wants to see her grandchildren. We don’t have in-depth conversations–we never have, but because she loves my kids, I decided that the least I could do is make an effort to stay in touch with her for their sake. If I have a missed call from her, I’d call her back. We still do not understand each other on a deep level, but we are united by my children and liaised by my husband. She’s still hard to understand, but at least we’ve come to a point in our lives where we can remain neutral.
One of the facts of life is this–none of us are perfect, we all have flaws, right? But for some reason, these flaws don’t make their appearance until we become parents. At least, for me anyway. When you’re young and self-absorbed, you tend to push your flaws aside, thinking that while you acknowledge their existence they don’t make a full impact in your everyday lifestyle.
Then you become a parent, and things start coming out of the closet.
Just 10 days after turning 28, my daughter was born. I officially became a parent. My world from that point on changed completely. I learned to take care of someone else besides myself, and if you are one of these people (parents) then you know what I mean. I worried like most parents worry. I slept little like most new parents slept. I handled explosive poops and temper tantrums like most parents have to do.
Like many parents, I wondered how my daughter would turn out. And everything I did seemed to revolved around the thought of, “How will this look like in her eyes?” Her perceptions of me were more important than what other parents thought of me.
When Lily was three and a half years old, she started preschool. I remember dropping her off on the first day and feeling a sense of nostalgia–my baby was growing up, but I wanted her to stay little. She was a talking, walking and discovering little toddler, with thoughts and questions now. I gave her a hug and a kiss goodbye, and for the most part, she was excited to start preschool. She was perfectly okay with me leaving her there for half the day. As soon as we arrived at her school, she’d start in on an activity, as if to say, “Mom, I’m good, thanks. You can go now.”
Fast forward another year or so, this separation agreement evaporated completely. It started at home, when my husband told me one day that Lily had a problem with him going outside for a bit. He had to take out the trash, do the laundry, etc.–things that involved stepping outside our apartment. She’s always been one of those kids who were okay with this, but all of a sudden she was not.
Did it make it hard to do chores? You bet. Every time he had to step out, she’d dissolve into a pool of tears which ballooned into a full freakout. I was not there for the majority of these freakouts (because I was at work), but got the full frontal experience one day when my husband was at work himself.
As any typical day goes, there is laundry and trash and dishes to be done. After doing the dishes one Saturday morning, I had a bag of trash that needed to be taken out. Not only that, there was the looming presence of laundry–so full that it looked like it was about to burst out of the hamper, and I needed to take care of these things immediately.
This is the part where I feel like Homer Simpson whenever he goes, “Doh!” and slaps his head, because it was not very smart. I thought I could get away with it, if I was quick enough. And I planned on being as fast as possible, to not allow Lily to figure out what I was doing. I was a ninja in my head, I thought.
So, while she and her brother were playing in her room, I sneaked out with the bag of trash and laundry. I ran to the dumpster as fast as I could, dumped the trash in, and rushed to the basement of our quad, turned the laundry on, and felt relieved that I only took about five minutes or so.
As I stepped out of the basement, I heard what was no doubt cries–piercing cries coming from my apartment upstairs. I walked up the stairs, and not surprisingly, the cries were doubled. Turns out, whenever Lily freaks out, her brother also freaks out, because he’s a baby and other people crying and screaming that loud scares him.
I let out an exasperated sigh, and braced myself for the drama. Deep breaths, I told myself, but all I could feel was anger rising in my chest. I mean, for God’s sakes, it was only a few minutes! What the hell.
When I stepped in and opened the door, there she was in her full crying glory–babbling away incoherently words I didn’t understand, and her brother being completely freaked out next to her. By this time, things are getting LOUD in the living room.
It was then that I just lost it. I mean, completely lost it. I don’t remember the exact words I yelled, but it was something like, “What the hell’s wrong with you?!?! I was only gone for like five minutes! What’s your problem?!? Can’t a person go outside for a few minutes to do chores without coming home to this??? WHAT THE FUCK!!!” I slammed the door hard and demanded that she go to her room.
By this time, all three of us were crying–me because my toddler wouldn’t allow me to leave for a few minutes to do chores, her because of the fact that I did it, then yelled her at her, and James because he was scared at the commotion between the two of us.
Because the crying was amplified, my neighbor from downstairs came up to see what was going on. I had my door opened by that time, and she just walked in and immediately gave me a hug. She didn’t say very much, but I knew she understood because she’s a mom herself. I cried and cried, feeling resigned, like I couldn’t handle any more of this drama.
Then she left me be and went to my daughter, gave her a hug, and whispered something in her ears that made everything a little bit quieter. For the next few minutes, Lily and I were in separate rooms, stewing by ourselves. It was that toxic.
And that, my readers, is one of the lowest, if not the lowest moment of parenting in the past five years to me. You know it’s bad when the neighbor comes up to help you. The last time she did that was when James was born. That’s another story.
In retrospect, that incident taught me a lot about patience. Heck, becoming a parent taught me a lot about patience! But when your toddler pushes you to your breaking point, and you don’t know what to do…well, there’s a sense of helplessness there. It’s a vulnerability that we all have, but a trait that rarely comes up for some of us. On that day, I felt a lot like Homer Simpson, not just because I had a “Doh!” moment, but also because I wanted to wring her neck. I felt like Homer whenever he grabs Bart by the neck and say, “Why you little…!!!”
With all dreams of abuse aside, I knew I would never do that. After all, she was going through what is typically known as the “terrible” ages–Terrible Twos transformed into Terrible Threes. Anyone who tells you that you only get to experience the Terrible Twos is lying. I think that the terrible ages last well into early 4th year. As soon as you start feeling like they’re on a good schedule, sleep-wise, they enter the Terrible Two stage, which by itself, is a test of your physical and mental endurance.
As I’m writing this, I’m happy to report that the phase she was in have dissolved. Finally, we can go out to the dumpster by ourselves! And down to the basement to do laundry! Or to the car to pick up something! Hallelujah!
I never thought I’d be so glad to say, “I can go out to the dumpster by myself,” but I am. There you have it.
Confession of the day: I am notorious at almost finishing articles. If you’re a parent, you know what I mean. You browse the ‘net and you see an interesting article that you want to read. But as many parents face this all-too-common dilemma, time doesn’t allow you to finish. Rather, your kids don’t allow you to finish.
So what do you do? In my case, I leave the article(s) open on my phone’s Safari browser. That browser gets inundated with more open web sites than it knows what to do with. The other night, as I’m making an effort to clear out my baggage, I came upon this article about parental fear. The points made in this article is relatable–that parents, especially new ones, have this innate fear of their child getting hurt and it reminded me about the time that it happened to me…and my husband. It made me wonder–why the hell didn’t anyone tell me about this?!?!
It was perhaps fall of 2013, when Lily was about five or six months. She had reached the semi-mobile stage where she could roll over and lift her head up sturdily. One day while I was at work, I got a call from my husband. He sounded frantic on the phone as he explained what had just happened to our daughter, making it sound like she was almost near death.
“Oh my god! Lily just fell off the bed.” Ahh, those magic words. I was immediately alarmed.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I just left the room for maybe a minute, or two tops, and then I hear this screaming. I left her on the bed so I can go grab something…and next thing I know, she’s off the bed!”
“Oh. My. God. That’s terrible!” I exclaimed. “Is she okay?”
“She’s freaked out, crying. And then your mom came rushing into the room and starting rubbing tiger balm on her. What the fuck.”
[disclosure: this is probably not the exact words spoken by us, but it was pretty darn close].
At this particular point in time, I faced a personal dilemma. One side of me said, “Tell him that it’s not the first time she’s fallen off the bed. Tell him that it happened to you too.”
But the other side (the devil side) said, “Hell no! You’re crazy if you tell him that! You gotta make yourself look like the good parent by NOT disclosing your bad decisions.”
The good side of me responded with, “Don’t listen to her. She’s crazy. You tell him that it already happened, at least you’ll feel a bond, a connection because you understand what he’s going through right now.”
The devil side retorted with, “That’s just baloney, and you know it.”
Do I tell him? Do I tell him? I was being pulled in two different directions by two separate forces.
Guess which side won? The devil side.
I decided to keep my mouth shut and uttered my condolences to my husband, who reacted like any new parent would–with feelings of horror and guilt, that they’re the worst parent ever, that their kid might possibly be heading towards a brain injury.
It’s exactly the same kind of feeling that I felt when it happened to me. Just a short period of time (perhaps a month or so) before it happened to my husband, I was at home by myself with Lily. With the naivete of a new parent who didn’t think their kid was capable of rolling any further than two inches, I put her in the middle of the bed. Mind you, it was at least two inches inward from the edge. Our bed was about three feet off the ground and rested on top of hardwood floors. Yikes. If we had carpet, the fall wouldn’t have been so bad, but we had hardwood floors and there was no rug underneath or anywhere near the bed. Just a clear landing for my little girl.
I needed to grab a diaper for her, so I went into the other room, where we kept our diapering supplies to get one. I thought she was safe where she was, but within a minute I hear this awful scream. My heart had palpitations as I walked into the room and discovered that she had fallen off the bed.
How the heck did that happen?? I asked myself. After all, I wasn’t gone that long. How did she manage to get that far?
Luckily, her landing was perfect, just like the landing on the moon. She was inches away from hitting the foot of the crib, spared from brain injury. She landed on the floor with a quick thud, and a shocked expression, but that’s about it. She cried and cried and cried, and I picked her up and consoled her for what felt like forever. The whole time I’m holding her, I thought to myself, “Man, I am the WORST parent ever. How did I let this happen? And how on earth could she have rolled that far? What the hell!”
Guilt and indignation followed me the rest of the day. So, when my husband called me to confess right after it happened, I was faced with the dilemma and even more shame, because I didn’t tell him right away. I kept it zipped up, because you know, she was fine. We were both fine several hours later. No harm, right? Besides, I didn’t want to make myself look like the bad parent.
I told myself that if I ever have another kid, I would make sure that it doesn’t happen again. I was wrong. It happened to James after he started rolling over too.
It’s an inevitable truth that one day, your child will hurt themselves and you won’t be there to prevent it. And it happens sooner than you think. It happens when they’re little. Life does that to you, just to test your morals. It’s like the devil saying, “How do you like them apples?”
Now that I’ve been a parent for five years, with two kids who’ve managed to roll off the bed under my watch, I can say that it’s one of those things that affects parents way more than it affects the kids. What no one tells you before you become a parent is that kids are more resilient than you think. We’re all made to believe that babies are fragile–and yes, some of them really are–but in general healthy, normal babies will do things that are normal in their development, but terrifying to the parents who raise them. They roll off the bed, fall into things, touch things that are dangerous, so on and so forth. As a parent, we feel the need to protect our kids from all harm’s way, and while that’s good in theory, it’s impossible to do. After all, one day your baby will no longer be a baby–he/she will grow up and go out into the world, and they’re going to get hurt, no matter what they do, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Just like how there’s no way to preventing falls, or bruises, cuts, etc. there’s no way to prevent hurt. And it’s not the fact that it happens, it’s what you do afterwards that matters. I may have felt terrible for “allowing” my daughter to fall off the bed, or my son to do the same, but then again, I was there to console them afterwards. I checked to make sure they didn’t have any signs of physical trauma, and then held them for awhile after it happened. I think that is really the best thing that you can do as a parent.
Last year, I was talking to an old coworker of mine and she mentioned how terrified she was of her daughter beginning to roll over. I chuckled…quietly, of course. As the devil would have it, I didn’t tell her that her daughter will probably roll off the bed at some point, or do something to get hurt, because I didn’t want to scare her. She was a new parent. It’s not something I’m proud of doing, but I can remedy that by telling all new parents–if you are one of them–that it’s going to be okay. Things will happen, but kids are not china dishes. They’re strong, resilient, and they will survive, but their survival depends on you. You are the force that can help them get back up.
Back when I used to read Portland Monthly magazine, there was a small section in which the editorial staff listed who they would invite to a dinner party. Displayed at the bottom of the page before feature stories were names of about four or five individuals (and an artist’s rendering of that individual) who are either well known in the local community or have done something to be noticed, anyone from business owners to artists to sports players. The names change with every issue, but the point remains—these are the people who are most likely going to turn your dinner party into an unforgettable night.
It made me wonder—if I were to host a dinner party, who would I invite?
In this fictional dinner, I’m a woman in her late forties hosting with my daughter, who is in her early twenties. I’d imagine this would be a “women’s supper club” of sorts, where men are not allowed (sorry guys) because we’re going to be talking about some serious woman stuff—the kind of stuff usually discussed behind closed doors, hidden under the sheets, or tucked away in a closet in someone’s home.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about sex. Female pleasure. Perceptions and expectations. Where we get our knowledge from. Stereotypes against men and women. How society views sexual desires and activities. And most importantly, what women (young and old) think about their bodies and how that translates into their sexual activities.
But first—let me give you a little background before I reveal my dinner guests. As an adult, I can say that I’ve never had a conversation with my mother about sex. In fact, I don’t think we ever talked about how babies are made. Most of what I learned about sex came from books, TV shows and movies. One particular favorite of mine resonates strongly with who I was as a teenager—a book called, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” by Judy Blume. It’s a story about an adolescent girl caught in a crossroad between religion and sex. Like Margaret, I grew up in a religious home. Practically everyone in my village was Catholic and went to church every week. I was educated by nuns yielding whips and threats. But unlike Margaret, Catholicism was my only religion, whereas in Margaret’s case, her parents came from two different religions. Her mom is Christian and her dad is Jewish. She doesn’t identify with either religion but instead talks to a God. She has a lot of questions about her growing body and forms a secret club with her friends to discuss “womanly” things like getting your period, bras, boys, etc.
Besides young adult novels, I had the media to inform me about change. Shows like Sweet Valley High and Saved by the Bell introduced me to the world of high school drama. Now, as an adult with two kids, I feel like I have a responsibility to pave a better road for my own daughter, so she doesn’t grow up with these misconceptions about her body, or sex, or anything in between. In short, I’d rather be frank with her, no pun intended.
Lately, I’ve been doing research on how sex education has been taught in America. Not surprisingly, for the past two decades (since the early 90s), sex education has been primarily focused on abstinence-only education. For me, there was no sex education at all. Neither my middle school or high school offered it. Sure, there were health and PE classes, but none provided the information necessary for growing adolescents at their peak hormone levels. There were school nurses, yes, but I never felt comfortable going to her and asking for anything other than a Band-Aid. Sounds familiar to you?
As a teenager, I went to Planned Parenthood for birth control, medical exams, and the morning after pill. I went there instead of my mother because it was the only place where I knew I wouldn’t be judged. I would get the care I needed and move on, whereas if I had gone to my mother, she would’ve had a heart attack knowing that her daughter was sexually active and seeking birth control.
The other night, I asked my husband if his parents ever gave him the sex talk. He told me that his mom attempted to give him one, but it was vague. Later, as a teenager, his dad gave him a talk about the dangers of sexual activity. He was told that he should not get a girl pregnant, because if he did, then he would have the responsibility for the rest of his life. For a teenage boy, this kind of talk is terrifying. The weight of responsibility for another human being is not something that teenagers want to deal with. But then again, it was typical American parent activity—to scare their children away from having sex by translating it into a devious, risky behavior.
I think it’s time we change that. Thus, for my dinner party, the first person that I would invite is Peggy Orenstein, author and journalist. Peggy has done many interviews with young women and asked them personal questions about their perceptions and behaviors regarding sexual activity, which she outlined in her Ted Talk here. She said that a lot of women do not take into consideration their own pleasure—after all, society has dictated that male pleasure takes precedence. In her talk, she referenced a study done on 300 young Dutch women and young American women and their early experiences. Published in the International Journal of Sexual Health, this study noted that American women had engaged in sexual activity at an earlier age and were less likely to use birth control. They’re also more likely to feel pressured to have sex. By contrast, Dutch women’s experiences involved open communication with their partners about what they liked and didn’t like, along with using protection appropriately. They were more comfortable about their bodies and more in tune with their own pleasure.
The main difference between Dutch and American parents is that Dutch parents instilled a sense of responsibility and joy. From an early age, they talked to their kids openly about sex, pleasure and mutual trust, whereas American parents either provided the “risky sex talk” or didn’t talk about it at all. My experience along with my husband’s experience fits into this mold perfectly.
Speaking openly about sexual thoughts and behaviors is difficult for many of us, men and women included. But one person who has talked candidly about her sexual escapades is Amy Schumer. She is the second person that I would invite to my dinner party. In her book, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, she talks openly about her childhood, her family, her thoughts and sexual adventures. The first chapter of her book is titled, “An open letter to my vagina,” which, as you would expect, is funny and raw. Her “openness” might be misconstrued as overzealous confidence. Whether or not that’s true, I think her “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” attitude has helped her fit well in to the male-dominated world of comedy. As a woman, she’s had doubts and uncertainties about herself and her abilities, and I think it would be great to bring that to the table.
And while we’re at it, I’d also bring the author of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, E.L. James. For someone who wrote one of the best-selling series in the world, I was surprised to find that she is currently in her mid-fifties. She has truly opened a lion’s den regarding people’s sexual adventures, turning something that surely has been common (but kept secret) in America into something acceptable and extremely erotic. She has redefined female sexual pleasure to a whole new level.
Recently, I watched Fifty Shades Darker with my husband. Even though it was almost 10 o’clock, our bedtime, our eyes perked up at the sex scenes. I’m not going to lie—it was hot. This movie challenges many cultural norms, such as where pleasure should be directed to. It’s clear that outside the bedroom, it’s all about him, but inside the bedroom, it’s all about her. A woman’s desires and articulation for that desire was brought forth in this film. For example, in one scene, Anastasia says to Christian, “Kiss me,” a euphemism for oral sex. In another scene, she asks him to take her to the Red Room, a secret room where he keeps his chains and whips.
What E.L. James brought forth in her novels is that women are sexual creatures too. They want to be loved, yes, but they also want to be open and exploratory. Women’s desires are just as important as men’s. Thus, she created this young woman who is just barely out of college as an anchor for what young women should be like today—confident, self-assured, and knows what she wants.
On that same note, the party wouldn’t be complete without Anastasia Steele, James’ main protagonist, as my last dinner guest. I realize that she’s fictional, but Ana is a raunchy character who keeps up her “good girl” image in the professional world (evidenced by her refusal to submit to her boss Jack Hyde’s sexual advances), but instead allows her man to take control of her in bed while telling him exactly what she wants. She is, in theory, more Dutch than American.
As a society, particularly in American society, we often undermine girls’ self-pleasure. We don’t talk about girls masturbating; instead, the attention is on boys’ masturbation. We often make a joke out of it, saying that boys are bottles of hormones waiting to be expelled, whereas it’s lewd for girls to pleasure themselves. The result is that these girls grow up into women who doesn’t know how to articulate their sexual desires to their partners.
While I don’t disagree that you should warn your kids about the dangers of unprotected sex and sexually transmitted diseases, I do think that it’s important to give kids a straight talk rather than the danger talk or avoiding it altogether. Recently, I thought about how in approximately 7 years, my daughter will be 12 and in the swing of puberty. No doubt she will have questions about her body and boys and sex (she’s already asked me, “Why do women have boobs and little girls don’t?”) and I thought about how I would have “the talk” with her and what I would tell her about her body. So I wrote down a list of what I called, “Body Advice That My Mother Never Gave Me.” One of things on the list is about her hymen, how it will bleed the first time she has sex. Then I discovered this Ted Talk called “The Virginity Fraud” and it took me a step back. Whoa. Here I was, thinking that the hymen was like a piece of sensitive skin that breaks during first sexual intercourse, when reality, it’s more malleable than that.
After listening to the talk, I had to re-examine what I knew about the female body, and I realized that misconceptions such as the one about the hymen have been extrapolated from a variety of sources that I came into contact with growing up in America, such as books, TV shows, movies and my peers. It was then I realized that I, too, need to overcome certain misconceptions. I need to do my research before I tell my daughter that our bodies are the same, because it’s not. According to the speakers, hymens come in all shapes and sizes. Thus, hers might not be the same as mine. Lastly, her sexual experiences will not be the same as mine either.
At the end of this dinner party, I hope that we all can come to the consensus that while it’s important to give the talk, it’s more important to give the right kind of talk, the right kind of information, and be open and honest about our desires and experiences. As a woman, articulating my wants is something that I’m still working on. It is quite difficult to do when one grows up in an environment of secrecy, unmentionables and filled with abstinence-only education backed by religious beliefs. Still, I look forward to the day when I can talk to Lily about all of this.
Want to start thinking about sex education in a different way? Start with this Ted Talk.
It feels like ages ago, but when I was pregnant with James, my second child, I had a bad case of fatigue. I felt like it plagued me all throughout the pregnancy. Day in and day out, I was tired. Perhaps it was because I was working nights at a local grocery store, often flopping down onto my bed at half past midnight that contributed to the tiredness. Or perhaps it was because I had an energetic two-year-old toddler in tow, who constantly needed me and who constantly chatted, that I fell prey to the lovely technology piece called an iPad.
If the nights go well, then I’d be in bed by 12:30 am and passed out by 12:45 am. Then, approximately six hours later, between 6:00-6:30 am, Lily would wake me up. Her father is usually long gone by then. In the early afternoons while my husband was working, my fatigue settled in and told me that it wasn’t going anywhere. According to my time clock, I still had another three hours before my husband got off work, and another 9+ hours before I could go to bed. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time counting down the hours and minutes until I could go to bed. Unfortunately, my toddler was out of the napping phase at the time, so I couldn’t put her down for a nap and then take one of my own. Thus, my solution was the iPad. I gave it to her often in the early afternoon, so I could have an hour or so of quiet time. When she started playing, I’d immediately lay down on my bed, often staring at the ceiling, eyes wide open, and wondering to myself why I wasn’t asleep already.
My inability to take naps is another story. The point is, the whole time I laid there staring at the ceiling, sometimes crying (because, you know, pregnancy hormones), I felt incredibly guilty at having to use a technology device as a crutch for relief. I felt guilty at not having more energy to spend on her. I felt guilty because I wanted to do things, like clean the house, or even get out of the house, but my body couldn’t face it. The baby was draining all the energy out of me.
Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m allowing her to play on the iPad so I could write. I can hear her mumbling through the door of her room, the sound of her voice inquisitive. I know what she’s playing—a bubble pop game designed after the movie Inside Out.
This small level of parental guilt never quite diminished…until recently, while browsing the TED app on my phone, I came upon Sarah DeWitt’s Ted Talk called “3 fears about screen time for kids—and why they’re not true” and felt prompted to watch it immediately. In her 12-minute engaging talk, Sarah outlined the fears and perceptions about screen time for children, then weaved in her research and work at PBS to demystify the fears that a lot of parents face. Finally, she related the research on children with a very important idea—that what we should do as parents is engage with our kids about what they’re watching and playing.
Such insight on parental engagement in relation to children’s media has been validated through a study done at Vanderbilt University. In this study, researchers found that in order for children to learn best with media, such as television, parents need to engage in a dialogue with their kids. It makes perfect sense, because as Sarah had put it, engaging in conversation with your kids about what they’re watching opens up opportunities for discussion, thereby developing the child’s communication and critical thinking skills.
Fears about how screen time might be a waste of time and how it takes away children’s educational opportunities are valid. Fears about the content of videos being inappropriate to a child are also valid, given the recent criticism of Google’s Youtube Kids web site. Somehow Google allowed a few videos “slip through the cracks” and as a result, a myriad of videos with adult content circulated the web site, causing a lot of uprising amongst adults and parents around.
Look, I get it. Sometimes we can’t stop videos from appearing on our feeds. I recall awhile back, Lily was obsessed with Youtube Kids. It was an app on her iPad, and she was always watching. I saw a few videos that I thought were strange on the app, but never gave much further thought, until the issue with adult content on Youtube Kids came to the surface. From that point on, my husband and I decided to delete the app from the iPad.
When Lily was approximately eight months to 20 months, she was completely obsessed with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a TV show based on Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. Mr. Rogers, as we know, have gone away to a better place, but his legacy lives on in the lives of Daniel Tiger and his friends. Sarah mentioned in her talk that what Mr. Rogers did was revolutionary—he started talking to the children as if they were there, when in reality, they were behind a screen watching him in front of a TV. He paved the way for other shows to follow, besides Daniel Tiger and the lessons about life that a child can learn by watching TV.
I wish I had shows like Daniel Tiger to teach me about life when I was a kid. Growing up, we had a small black & white television (this was, after all, a third world country in the early ‘90s) and we reveled in the television and what it offered. Then, when my family came to America, we stayed with my uncle and his family, who owned a large Panasonic television that was about as heavy as construction equipment hooked up to a video game system for their kids to enjoy in the basement on hot summer days. It was there that I realized televisions can be in color! (oh the excitement!) and how much of an entertainment experience that was.
The point is—whether we like it or not, we live in a world filled with technology today. It’s part of our every day lives. The truth is, many of us check our phones as soon as we wake up in the morning (myself included) and can’t stay away from checking emails on our commute to work daily. I often see many people, from all ages and ethnicities on the train with their headphones on, either watching a video or listening to music or checking social media. Technology is embedded in our every day lives, and it would be ironic if you are a person who is a frequent user of technology who revokes the same privilege to your kids. After all, what are you teaching them by doing so? That perhaps it’s something forbidden, or something that carries a certain level of excitement simply because it’s forbidden?
These days, Lily likes to play the drawing game on her iPad. She also likes to play the bubble pop games. When I’m sitting there with her, she often turns to me and gives a sports anchor’s minute-by-minute play on what she’s doing on the game. I’d often nod, smile, and listen to her words, amazed by her inquisitiveness and curiosity.
I really believe that when used appropriately, technology can be our friend. It can teach us a lot of things. Learning apps are aplenty nowadays, and as a parent, I try to choose games or apps that have an education component so that Lily gets the best of both worlds—to have fun and to learn something.
One chilly Thursday morning in January, I dropped my daughter off at her preschool. After saying goodbye to her, I ventured into the Family Resource Room, nestled to the side of the school’s main lobby paneled with wall to ceiling glass. It was there that I saw three women strike up a conversation with each other. All three appeared to be in their mid-to-late thirties with short brown hair and average height. As they talked among themselves I overheard one of them saying that they were a little early for “SMART time,” meaning reading time; hence, that’s why they were waiting in the room.
SMART stands for Start Making A Reader Today, one of the largest and most successful nonprofits in Oregon. Every year, they bring together thousands of individuals into elementary school classrooms to read books to children from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds. However, it should be noted that SMART tends to focus mainly on inner city schools, lower performing schools, and schools with a high concentration of minorities and children of color, including African Americans.
The three women continued talking amongst themselves about a variety of subjects, one of which I caught was the perils of obtaining childcare. One woman noted that someone she knew had to take their kid to work once a week because of a babysitter snafu…and the talk went on. As typical as their conversation seemed to be, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “It can’t possibly be that the only type of people who care about reading are white, middle class women.” Where is everyone else?!? I imagined that if any of them had children of their own, their kids must be at least 15 years old. Perhaps their kids have already left the nest, and they’re feeling lonely. Or perhaps they’re not that old. Maybe they’re just stay-at-home moms who have the means to go volunteer every week at an inner city elementary school filled with African American children, just to make themselves feel better about contributing to society.
Later that evening, I talked with my husband about this observation. Our conversation quickly molded into the subject of storytimes at the library, something I do on a regular basis. He asked me if this racial representation also applies to storytimes. The thought of who attends storytimes isn’t necessarily something that I think about often; it was only when he brought it up that I began to realize that yes—the people who typically bring their children to storytimes are white, middle class women! Most likely stay-at-home moms, sometimes fathers. Oftentimes, they look much older than me. But then again, I look like I could be my kids’ babysitter.
I’m no stranger to literacy. I’ve been reading to my daughter since she was about 14 months old, and now at the age of four (almost five), she is a fantastic reader. She is well beyond the reading level of her peers, so much that her teacher this year was beyond surprised because she is only one out of two children who can really read amongst her 15 classmates.
Of course, I’m not here to brag about my child’s reading abilities, because that would seem selfish. Research has shown that reading to your child at an earlier age sets the stage for their academic and professional development later down the road. It enforces certain skill sets such as critical thinking and analysis, as well as written communication. The sooner the better, they say, so they don’t fall behind. That is why I began when Lily was just a year old, and why I’ve also introduced books to my son, who at 17 months doesn’t appear to be too much into books yet—however, he is slowly starting to engage with them.
According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, an organization that collects data for educational purposes, they noted in their July 2017 report that about 43% of adults read at Basic or Below Basic levels, as compared to 57% of people who can read at Proficient or Intermediate levels. Digging deeper into this statistic, you might be surprised to find out that Hispanics are part of the majority—41% of them read at Below Basic level, followed by African Americans at 24%. This is really troubling, because a large majority of minorities and people of color cannot read good enough to be able to do basic, everyday tasks such as signing a form, balance a checkbook, compare ticket prices, and use a TV guide to look for certain information, according to the National Center for Education Statistics report.
At Lily’s school, the evidence is there—roughly 34% of the student population is African American, followed by 30% Hispanic, the rest is variety of multi-racial, Caucasian, and Native Americans. On a global scale, approximately 757 million adults are illiterate. Girls account for the majority of this illiteracy rate, with two thirds of the world’s women unable to read. This is startling because there are many more girls than there are boys in the world, and girls play a pivotal role running the household as well as in the real world. Women can conquer the world by owning their own businesses, doing their own taxes, and managing their own employees.
I’m not saying that educating boys aren’t important—I’m simply saying that the gender educational gap has been long withstanding. We all know that many girls, particularly in the poorest parts of the world, such as the Middle East and Africa, have less advantages when it comes to obtaining an education. And part of obtaining an education means learning how to read. It all comes down to granting independence for girls, and unfortunately, many countries are not ready to do so.
Of course, the problem is not just a global problem. It’s also a United States problem. By the age of five, one third of children entering kindergarten lack the skills necessary to be successful in school, and this number increases dramatically by the time they’re in fourth grade. The disparity comes from a lack of early literacy. Language development is the most pivotal from birth to age three, when babies’ brains are the most malleable because they’re developing fast; hence, vocabulary development plays a role in reading achievement by third grade, according to SMART.
Reading was a big thing for me growing up—I had a father who was a voracious reader. Despite the fact that we lived in a poor country with limited resources, he read the newspaper every single morning, and he’d read books every chance he got. Thus, I can attribute my love of reading to him. Both of my parents believed in the value of an education, but my dad was key in developing me into a lover of books.
Luckily, the skills that I gained from reading at an earlier age helped me in my English studies after my family immigrated to America. Due to a miscommunication, I was enrolled in a regular classroom, not an ESL class, and it was there that I sat with a volunteer reader (none other than a blonde hair, blue-eyed white middle aged woman whose name I’ve long forgotten) who read books to me as a way to help me learn English (this was after they figured out my lack of English skills and it was too late to put me in an ESL class), and later on, encouraged me to read by myself.
It was that kind of support that gave me the confidence to further learn English on my own. During my free time at home, I watched TV shows with subtitles on, listened to American music on the radio, and read as many young adult novels as I could possibly get my hands on, always with a dictionary in tow. That method proved successful, for I became proficient in about a year and a half. It’s still my preferred method of language learning today—to immerse oneself in the culture and language with as little assistance as possible. I believe that an average person like me has the brain capacity to figure things out when I didn’t have too many resources, like an after-school tutor.
After the conversation I had with my husband, and the realization about the scarcity of non-white parents showing up at story times and children’s events, I began to question why. WHY are there hardly any people of color volunteering to read in schools? Despite what I do, why am I still a minority, both at the physical level and the cultural level? Are there any underlying reasons as to why this is happening?
I read that the first three years of a child’s life are the most critical for language development. Babies learn from the words that they hear and the touches that they receive from their caregivers. Research has shown there is a link between vocabulary development and socioeconomic backgrounds. By the time they’re three years old, babies from poor families will have heard 30 million words less than their more affluent peers. A Stanford University study found that amongst 18 to 24-month-old children, there is a language gap between the rich and the poor. The rich were defined as those with an average annual income of $69,000 per year, and the poor with an average income of $23,900 per year. The study found that children who came from higher socioeconomic backgrounds understood more words by the age of two than children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The reason why? They speculated that children from lower income families had parents whotalk less to their children, hence the 30 million word gap by age three.
“The greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.” – Tina Rosenberg, The New York Times “The Power of Talking to Your Baby.”
Unfortunately, this word knowledge disadvantage continues well into fourth grade. Kids from lower income backgrounds tend to fall behind their more affluent peers, and the struggle becomes harder as they get older. More children continue to fall behind by the time they enter grade school, with minorities and people of color fall into this category the most.
Now, let’s think about this for a second. Is it really true that white, middle class parents talk more to their children or is it because they have the means to hire nannies, and require the nannies to speak and play with their children, thereby relinquishing the responsibilities of teaching their children about language? I may not be rich, but I am aware that “rich” parents are rich for a reason—they work long hours to be able to provide for their families, and unlike their lower class peers, they actually have the ability to hire help. Tutors, nannies, enrichment classes—you name it, they can afford it, whereas low income parents are struggling every day to pay for the bare necessities like food, shelter, and clothing.
It’s not to say that low income parents don’t have the time to talk to their children—it’s how they talk and what they say. Parents who are on welfare typically have multiple children, and oftentimes, their talk involves an authoritative or scolding tone, such as, “Stop hitting your brother!” or “Clean up your toys!”
I’m going to declare right here and now that I do not consider myself part of that trend. As with many parents, my husband and I exhibit a certain level of authority when it’s necessary, and other times, we talk a lot as a family. I’m not a big talker but my husband is, and this was passed down to my daughter. So, while I think there are some truth to the study and the statistics above, I also think that it is not representative of a lot of families in America, especially ones who are minorities. Just simply talk to your children more sounds great in theory, but one must take note of the privileges that rich kids have—being that their parents are more educated and have less children; therefore, the stakes are higher for these kids.
I wondered to myself –what would’ve happened if I didn’t have a parent who was so into reading? I would’ve become a statistic, a stereotype. Of course, the statistics mentioned above do not reflect wholly on the number of low income parents out there who are avid readers and writers. And my experience at my daughter’s school is in no way reflective of the reality of literacy, but there is some truth to it, I believe.
In a way, I am a statistic, but I’m trying not to become the obvious statistic—that because I don’t make that much money means that I don’t have the time or money to give the gift of reading to my children.
As an adult or parent, regardless of your socioeconomic background, I believe we can ALL play a role in supporting children’s literacy. We need to. Our future depends on it. For birthdays and holidays, instead of giving them the latest gadgets or toys, give the gift of books instead. And instead of going to the mall, a compendium of material things, head to the nearest library for story time—they’re free events that allow children to socialize with each other and hear stories. Finally, instead of simply tucking your child in bed at night, make time to read to them. They say that it only takes 20 minutes of reading each night to a child at least 3 times a week for it to make a difference in their life.
Every night, we ask my daughter to pick out books—usually 3 books, because that takes up 20 minutes of reading—from the stack of books that I choose based on her reading level at the library. It’s a ritual that we’ve done for years and will continue for many more. As a working mom nowadays, I don’t have as much time to take her to the library as I used to, but I make an effort to go at least once a week for story time and other children’s related events. She gets incredibly excited each time, and I believe it’s a culmination of the hundreds of times that I’ve taken her in the past.
This past Christmas, we gave my newest nephew a book—his first one. Even though he’s only three months old, I’m hoping that his parents will read to him, thereby instilling a sense that reading is important for learning and developing the mind.
Remember that kids don’t care where you get the books from. You can scout the library stacks, go to Barnes & Noble children’s section, browse through Amazon’s enormous selection, or get it at Goodwill—it doesn’t matter. It’s the fact that you are giving the gift of books that matters more. Lastly, when gifting books or reading to a child, it’s important to be as excited as possible and allow them to ask questions. You may not realize it, but kids do model their behavior after you (the adult), so if you’re not excited about books, then why should they be?
Reading sets the stage for future success. We can’t allow kids, especially ones from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to fall behind simply because we don’t talk to them enough or read to them enough. It’s our job as adults to propel them towards common core skills that are going to be useful for them to function in society.