April 18, 2014

Five stars for all of us

by Catherine Anderson

Five Stars for UsMy son Sam, is a super energetic kid, who has a physical intelligence that surpasses 99.9% of the population. No, I am not exaggerating. He rode a two-wheeler, without training wheels at age two, and can hit a fast pitch baseball from a pitching machine going forty-five miles per hour. His hand eye coordination is extreme. His need to master all things physical is like a hunger he can never quite quench. Sitting quietly sorting blocks into colors and sizes, or waiting patiently in line for all of your friends to go to the bathroom is not an opportunity to master the parallel bars on the playground.

I prepped his teacher for this. I told her that Sam will be standing on the podium proudly showing his gold medal in some sport (he’ll have to pick which one) in fifteen or so years. He may well be receiving the Pulitzer too, but I wanted her to know that his physical intelligence is going to set him apart early. For him recess is not just an outlet, it is like a textbook for his body. I asked her to imagine a child who learned to read at one being told he had to be outside for six hours a day with no opportunity to crack a book. Then for twenty minutes twice a day you allowed that child to read. What would happen to them? She nodded with kind consideration, and reassured me that her husband had been the same way as a kid, and he was a tremendous resource for tips in working with energetic boys. She was only hired to be Sam’s teacher twenty-four hours before the start of the school year, so I had reason to be concerned that dealing with a physical prodigy like Sam might not be in her coveted teacher tool bag just yet.

Sam loves people, and people love Sam. He is a natural leader, and kids gravitate towards him. All kids. The quiet ones, and the outgoing ones. The athletic ones, and the uncoördinated ones. Kids like to do what the leader does. This is hard for a teacher, when your class appointed leader is doing arm farts, or jumping jacks when the expectation is to walk quietly through the halls, using only your little bird feet. She used it to her advantage though, appealing to Sam to channel his leadership gifts to help the class see how important it is to listen well like him!

It worked. We had the day with the sticker on his shirt for being a “super leader”. He came running out to me on the playground jubilant about that little smiley face sticker! Then days went by without any stickers.

My friends prepared me that the lack of communication about how your child was doing in school, was the hardest part of transition for them to kindergarten. As a teacher I didn’t want to become that parent.  But as a mom, I didn’t want my son to become the kid getting the message that  he was not doing well in school, even though I knew he was working his petunia off to do everything the teacher wanted. After all, he told me she was great, and had a beautiful smile.

When I checked in with her four days after the first sticker, I learned that he was indeed having a very hard week. Lots of reminders, and not lots of listening. As my heart sank, I reminded myself that this is all new to all of us; Sam, his teacher and me. My job was suddenly not only to support him, and remind myself how fantastic he is doing, but to remind her that transitions take time for Sam, and that he will master the expectations of school, like he can master a fast ball coming at him at break neck speed.  I asked her to tell me what was the most important thing we needed to help him focus on. And what words did she use to the class, so I could use them at home? I kept the conversation with her clear too.

The next day, Sam came out barreling out of the class (which open onto the play ground–talk about good design!) with two stickers and boasting that he was given computer time for eleven minutes! How did you earn that I asked? I listened to the teacher the first time, and got five stars next to my name. See mom, he added, I can do anything! In his take home folder for the week was a little slip of paper, with five hand written stars, next to a little image of a computer. I smiled and waved to his teacher at the door. We were all wearing stickers and stars this afternoon. It will be a great year, and a great school career for Sam, as long as this kind of collaboration and communication keeps the focus on Sam’s success.

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Are educators failing our young black men?

For those of you that follow my personal blog, you know that on July 30, I welcomed my second son into the world. While I am honored, overjoyed, head-over-heels and feeling super charmed at being charged with the task of raising another young black male, I, ever the forward-thinking-worry-wart (so aptly named by my Mama), have also been somewhat filled with apprehension at the task.  Now, I have discussed my concerns before as they relate to pressures within our own community.  Recently, however, I came across a video on CNN revealing some startling new facts about black male performance in our national schools.

In the video, CNN correspondents revealed that the national graduate rate for black males is 47%.  Even more appalling, in my hometown of New York City, the graduation rate for black males is just 28%.  While I prepared to watch a video about biased standardized tests and socio-economic disadvantages, I was surprised when CNN Educational Correspondent and author, Steve Perry, pointed the finger directly at the prejudice of educators.  When asked specifically what he thought accounted for the discrepancy, Perry repeated “expectations, expectations, expectations.”  In sum, Perry noted that black males are more likely to be suspended as their behavior is often unfairly categorized as dangerous as opposed to mischievous –   due to educators reacting more adversely to black male behaviors than white children.  He noted that educators often expect our black boys to fail as opposed to expecting them to perform well.  Perry went on to discuss successful charter and private schools whose focus is more on the children as opposed to the educators.  As the Principal and Founder of Capital Preparatory Magnet School, he used his own school as an example of children-focused environments where changing expectations produced better results.

While I am generally skeptical of statistics, this one and the conversation that followed was particularly intriguing to me.  First, while I like to consider myself a true libertarian, I realized as a professional, I have found myself feeling somewhat insulated by own socio-economic status.  Frankly, I just assume graduating high school, college and so forth will not be an issue for my children.  Therefore, it was easy for me to point to socio-economic disadvantages as the root cause of underperformance in our communities.  However, taking a closer look at this conversation and how it has applied to my own upbringing has cast a very bright light on just how true Perry’s commentary is.  I recalled a recent conversation I had with my older brother about an experience he had in high school with a teacher who made him sit in the front of the classroom because he “looked” like he would be trouble.   Knowing my brother and knowing how he was raised, I can confidently say his only offense was being a 6’5” black man.  My brother and I laughed about it but I can tell the incident still left a bitter taste in his mouth and although he graduated, I wondered if the incident contributed to his decision not to pursue higher education.  I know my mother had high expectations of all of her children but were they overshadowed by the low expectations of the school system?  How do we even begin to call educators out on such an innate and institutionalized bias?  Is it even realistic to think that you can change an individual’s expectations of an entire race or is a total overhaul of the education system the only solution? What are your thoughts MOH?

Tiara Faith McCray

Tiara Faith McCray

Tiara is native of New York City and reluctant resident of the DC Metro Area. She is a writer in her heart but a lawyer by profession. She is a wife and also a mom to two boys. She is a self proclaimed and self loving oddball. She is determined to find both spirituality and happiness and like any true totalitarian matriarch, impose both on her family. She is wise enough to know that this may not happen simultaneously.

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When motherhood takes a hit

by Catherine Anderson

The following post, came from a phone call I had with a dear friend who is going through a secretive, and very painful period of not feeling as connected to her son, as she always dreamed she would.  I am going to leave out specifics, to protect her identity, but what I hope my post here addresses is more of a universal.

While talking to her I was struck again by all the silence and shame we have around idealized visions of what it is to be maternal, let alone “the perfect mom” (which we know doesn’t exist).  What do we do with those feelings of disappointment when motherhood and our little angel aren’t what we were banking on? Is it just a phase sometimes? What happens when you fear it may be more of a life long disconnect?

This is the example I shared with her.  I imagine many of us, have our own.

A few nights ago  Marcel, Sam, and I were running a race on the little path behind our friend’s cottage.(OK it was to the outhouse if you must know.)  I was carrying Marcel (2.5) and Sam (closing in on 6) was losing. To make it worse, he was not able to pass us-the path was too small…

You know where this is going? Marcel and I were pushed from behind, and hard, into the ground- and to add deep worry to injury, even as we hit the ground, Sam just kept running.

Marcel’s back was whacked on a log and had the wind knocked out of him. Both my knees were scraped bloody, and sizzled in pain.  After being certain Marcel was not more badly hurt, my thought; Sam is ruthless, or worse.

I don’t know what hurt worse, that thought or my knees.

After grabbing Sam by the arms, and explaining how dangerous that was, and begging for some kind of why, and somehow not yelling, I regrouped, and sent him into his room without desert.

Everyone was freaked out. Probably he more than us. He had never physically hurt me before, other than a scratch, or a fat lip from a baseball thrown too hard.  When I came in to help him get his pjs on he just crawled into my lap and sobbed. His way of letting go. He is so strong physically and can’t control it always. To him it was a game, to me it was an attack. That’s where I feel like I drop the ball in the good mom department.

He is competitive to a fault, was stuck, and maybe mad inside about Marcel being the baby, and in my arms, and maybe even that he is biologically related to me.  Mad about leaving preschool soon, and going to kindergarten. Mad that he is not the best swimmer in the world, even after a day in the lake. Mad that there is no dad in this family unit, or just mad that he couldn’t get past me, plain and simple.

My friend’s dad, a retired elementary principal for forty years, said he thought Sam was trying to “be the little man” since I am not married/partnered. This is a hard role for him to manage, and he is acting out. I had never thought of that, and am not sure what to make of it, but considering my live in brother had been away for a few weeks, it makes sense in a way.

Bottom line: I am mother. Safe. Strong. Invincible. I should just fly out of the way when I am pushed, not fall!

My feelings of failing him in my rearing, not being the “right” mom, not being able to love ( that behavior) and always down deep worrying about what is going to happen as he gets older and STRONGER and could really hurt me come up often.

Then I remind myself that I am not alone. Gazillion moms with little boys-adopted or not-have struggles with their boys too. They doubt themselves too. They wish it were easier. They wish they knew what they could differently, to just get them to simmer down, or listen to the reuqest the first time around.

I deconstruct motherhood daily.  I try to remove the layers that the Brady Bunch or the Cosby Show heaped  on my young girl mind and what my own parents did not. Those moms never yelled, and always seemed to have agreeable, and reasonable children, without anger issues, or button pushing as their number one hobby, after tackling their brother when mom wasn’t looking.

On good days, I see myself as a champion of an at times very serious, angry, thoughtful, physically gifted and loving and if only-he-knew-how-loved child.

I’ll move mountains for him to be hopeful and seen on this planet. That is my understanding of why I am here for him most days. Marcel is a completely other story. He is a pat of warm butter melting on toast for the most part for the moment. That will shift, but temperamentally he and I are much better suited. I never knew that a parent could have a temperament that was not an ideal match for their child. You don’t learn that in high school, or college. There is so much that parenthood reveals only through experience. So much that I would have suffered so much less over if someone had just said; you may not be a great match temperamentally, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a tremendously powerful bond. It just takes more work, and its worth it.

Today we spent the day swimming at a lake. Hours and hours of it. Every once in a while I caught Sam looking at my grotesque boo-boos and looking away. Part of me wanted to make them go away, part of me wanted to yell--You know they sting!!!! Then the grown up in me, climbed up onto the dock next to him and did a giant cannon ball when he counted to three. When he asked out friend on the beach who made a bigger splash, he answered just right; It was a tie!

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Mothers of rage

by Catherine Anderson

Introduction

When I posted the following piece (below) on my blog earlier this week I was awed by the number of women who wrote, called, approached, and texted me offline to say “thank you.” One mother took me aside in the grocery store, her eyes welling with tears as she whispered; “I read your blog. It was such a relief Catherine. I really thought it was just us, dealing with this. I don’t know what to do when she gets so angry…” Mothers I knew, and mothers I didn’t shared in private their struggle around their children’s rage, and their own. When I returned their messages and asked them if they felt willing or able to share their comments in public, only one eventually did. It is time to take this to a larger audience, I thought. Will the Moms of Hue audience react in a similar way?

What is it about rage, that feels so private? What is it about rage that keeps us from owning it in our own homes? What is about our children’s rage that feels so shameful? When I originally posted the piece, I did not explicitly include the fact that both the parents sharing the pieces were adoptive parents of children of color. Only because rage is, I imagine, as an experience (by the parent and the child) a universal.

Reflections on Rage

Two women sit on a couch, visiting and eating their sandwiches from home-a lunch time reconnect. Within minutes, they gravitate to talking about their amazing, growing, and capable children, who they each know well, from birth.  Give or take a week or two.  T-ball swings, reading mastery, potty training success, and verbal acquisition -feed their longing for news and celebration. Motherhood becomes their friendship well. Adoptive transracial parenting is what brought them towards each other, one morning in a park, when phone numbers were exchanged, and welcoming words shared. They were not alone. That was five years ago.  With only an hour together, they make their way quickly to the murkiest part of the parenting pond.

Their faces change, as their soft smiles give way to weathered empathy, and understanding.  A large cloud will pass through the room of their parental expertise and dedication.  A rueful mounting bass line hammers as each word climbs up from caves of  frustration and pain like a tormented troll whose story must be told.

It is not their rage, it is not not their rage. It is their children’s rage at the world, and rage at them. It comes out in clenched fists, and thrown toys. It comes out in bared teeth, and broken skin on a sibling’s face. It threatens to run away, it hides under the bed. It yells horrible things at them, when they wrap their arms around it and rock it softly back and forth. It sobs and it kicks. It hits and it screams.  It sets things on fire, and it jumps in front of moving cars. It is exploring it’s own limitless power, and it is afraid of itself. It lives so deep within their children’s skin.

It is held by these even stronger mother women, until it passes this time.

The more they talk about it, the quieter it becomes. Their friendship does not shame, blame, or need to name the origins of their children’s rage, this time.  Each story they share from the trenches of their collective suffering makes them more able to imagine perhaps a future that is not held hostage to it. They find relief, and laughter in the bathroom that did not burn down when the tampon was held into the candle burning there. (It was a remarkable choice he made to get help, when the napkins started burning too.) They talk about the healing scar on the younger one’s cheek, and catching the football that was meant to knock them in the head, instead. A life time tucked into an hour, wiped away from the corners of their mouths with a cloth napkin brought from home.

Next steps

I am writing about rage, and talking about it. I am noticing my own, (yes, an entirely other topic too) and my son’s. I am keeping track of when he explodes, and what happened right before that, or days before. I am going to a see our family therapist today who specializes in adoption, and who is herself a mom of hue, so that we are taking it all into consideration as I explore what I can do best to help my family cope.

How do you mother rage? How has it evolved as your children grew, or how are you experiencing it now? Is it something you can talk about it? And if so with whom? Do you feel that it is OK to talk about it, or something mothers are shamed into keeping silent about-as if they are responsible for it happening, like we used to think about depression? What expertise and experience can you share?

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The rumpus room: co-parenting with my brother

by Catherine Anderson

When I invited my oldest brother Marc to live with us, it was not just because my mother was worried about her grandchildren not having a father figure-even though she never said as much. He didn’t have a job, and I was a single mom raising two boys under the age of five on my own. He landed in the United States a year before after his twelve year European chapter ended in divorce. He had no kids, and a 12×18 color picture of the beloved sail boat he had to sell when he moved stateside. Stateside could have meant Virginia, where we grew up, and where he has a zillion connections. Instead it meant Maine, where they have a zillion sailboats and two boys who call you Uncle-Daddy and say; I love you Uncle Rabbit Will You Play Airplane With Me Now Silly Head after they give you the bump, and lunge into their footy pajamas because you want them to explore their own “gravitational pull”.

That room off of the playroom in the damp basement apartment that was going to be my writing studio, my office, was just not being used. I prefer to write on my laptop near the boys, and the heat. But my brother likes the cold, and loved the idea of living rent free in exchange for playing with his nephews a few hours a week. Well, that isn’t exactly how I presented the idea, but that was the gist of it. He was eating through his savings faster than he hoped, and wasn’t ready to give up on the Maine dream yet. He was also growing very attached to those to boys, and said yes faster than he could toss Marcel into the air.

The boys were thrilled. From day one they were told that this was Uncle’s apartment, and not just a cold room downstairs.  Uncle had to agree when and if the boys could come down, as he had his own life too.  “Can I can come down now Uncle?” was practiced with animated repetition. From the onset, that we had things pretty well figured out, considering the lack of sibling co-parent models we had to follow. Clear limits and expectations were discussed for all of us. He’d have his life, I’d maintain some of my single mommy autonomy which I love, and we’d have a lot of shared time in the middle.

Alone he was just a single guy living in an apartment. In the basement, he became transformed into a super hero. What we offer, is relationship. He is living with his biological family, two nephews, and a sister, who need him, share meals with him, are entertained by him, cherish him, engage him, and redefine him. Being the Uncle who can teach you how to swing a pizza dough in the air, who can be the rough-house filling of a Sammy-Uncle-Marcel sandwich, and be the most important man in your life, is an obligation that makes you feel herculean just for walking up the basement stairs. Or at least that’s how it looks to me. [Read more...]

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