Friday, January 17, 2014

Explaining Anna's rape to the 9-year-old



Watching Downton Abbey is a weekly treat in our family.  The 13-year-old boys get to watch it with me on Sundays.  The 9-year-old girl is in bed before the show begins so we watch it on DVR the next day.  Being on the west side of the pond means I have worked very hard since the fall to avoid all discussion about season 4 or read any spoilers.

However, this past Sunday's episode was not like any other.  I probably should have paid attention to the warning on the screen before the dog's backside appeared but I was lulled by the sweeping piano and strings and the excitement for a weekend of parties!

Anna's story unfolded - unfortunately - very well.  Her assailant grooms her with his flattery, fun game (what was that card game all about?) and small talk.  So when he violently rapes her it comes out of no where because, well, he had been so nice.  Although Anna's husband, Mr. Bates, of course knew the guy was a good-for-nothing.

As the credits rolled, the boys and I sat stunned.  We talked about how horrible it was to watch and how unfair it was that Anna was now hiding a secret.  I also reiterated to my not-quite-men that women are not for men's (or boys') pleasure.

But how to talk about it with my 9-year-old daughter?  That Monday, after school, I didn't offer to play the recorded show and she didn't ask to watch.  On Tuesday driving to ballet class she asked about it and I told her that I was sad that Tom and that new maid were spending time together (I call her O'Brien 2.0).  Other days have passed and now we're almost at a new episode.  I believe Anna was pregnant before the violent sexual assault (dropping Lady Mary's perfume, getting all emotional about Moseley's debts, that fateful headache) but I think the writers will (cruelly) cause her to think the rape led to her pregnancy.   This means the crime will be a key part of several episodes and my daughter would not understand what was upsetting Anna and (hopefully) others when she finally shares this horrible secret.

This afternoon we had the talk.  I stressed that this was a make-believe show and everyone was actors.  Then I told her what happened and how they showed it on the screen.  But I made some key points.

1. Explain what actually happened
"Inappropriate touch" or "he hurt her" does not fully convey the horrible crime and abuse this fictional character (and sadly so many real people) suffer through.  My boys were about her age when the Sandusky scandal broke and they asked me what the former football coach did to the boys.  I told them so that it wouldn't be a mystery.  And I told my daughter today what happened to Anna.

2. Reassure that she could tell me and her dad anything
I told her, several times, that no matter what happens to her she can tell me.  No matter how bad she feels, how wrong she may believe she was, whatever the outcome she can tell me and her dad because we will love her and help her.

3. Trust her feelings
I explained that part of the assailant's plan to attack Anna was to make her feel comfortable with him.  I told her that unfortunately most rapes are done by people who know their victim.  So that means that if someone she cares about starts treating her differently, making her feel bad, or pushing her to do things she is not comfortable with she needs to trust that funny feeling in her stomach and get away.  This is harder said then done but hopefully talking about it now means she'll be brave later.

I asked her if she had any questions or anything she wanted to say.

"Mom, I think I'll skip this week's Downton Abbey.  I like it when it's happy and has parties."

Me too, darling girl.  Me too.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Love, more


My sons - who were born ten weeks early and spent eight weeks in the NICU - are turning 13 years old today.  Feel free to sob with me.

Dear not-so-little-man,

During a week of no camps or activities I dragged took you and your siblings to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Museum and Library.  The building alone is stunning.  It is designed by I. M. Pei and juts out onto Boston Harbor.  Inside this beautiful space is history of an era that we are not familiar with but impacts our daily lives.  You were enthralled with the faux White House hallway, the real letters and news footage from the time.  That and television channels were only changed with knobs that you had to get up from the couch to change.

As we finished the special exhibit about the Cuban Missile Crisis you begged me to buy you Profiles in Courage, the book the then Senator Kennedy wrote while he recovered from back surgery caused by injuries from World War II.  Surprisingly you have been reading it, telling me all about Robert Kennedy's forward to the book and interesting facts about the Kennedys.

A few days after our visit to the museum a good family friend who has his own wonderful career in politics offered us two barely used twin-sized mattresses and box springs.  After I happily accepted he threw in two headboards which had been used by a certain newly elected Congressman and his twin brother when they were boys.

So now you've been reading Profiles in Courage propped up against the same headboard of Robert Kennedy's grandson.  And President Kennedy's great-nephew.  Which only feeds into your belief that you are going to make a difference in the world, in a really big way.

And I have no doubt you will.

I love you,
Mom


****

Dear not-so-little-man,

We, as a family, had to give up one of our dogs to animal rescue in June.  You, your brother and your younger sister seemed to handle this development well.  You all appeared to understand that Zeke was becoming increasingly violent and our family could not provide him a safe home.  We had a scheduled time to drop him off while you were at school.

The morning we were to drop off Zeke your brother woke up and was inconsolable.  He sobbed and sobbed, unable to even get to school never mind manage the day.  You were fine and trooped off to school with barely a lowered shoulder.  I promised your brother I would take him out of school to say goodbye to Zeke and be part of leaving him at the shelter.

When I got to school your brother told me you wanted to go as well which mildly ticked me off since I figured you were only asking so you could miss a class or two.  Eventually we got to the shelter, finished the paperwork and said goodbye to Zeke.  Everyone's eyes stayed dry.

Until we got out the door when your brother lost it.  You told him to sit in the front seat of the car and you sat behind him.  Once we climbed in you reached forward, grabbed his shoulders and told him that Zeke was safe now. You reminded him that you both could now have friends at our home (since Zeke was particularly hostile towards/would bite 12-year-old boys).  You rubbed his shoulders and told him it eventually wouldn't hurt so much.  Your brother calmed down - so much so he walked back into school with a smile.

You were not at the shelter to skip a class.  You weren't there to say goodbye to the family dog we had for four years.

You were there to help your twin brother grieve.

I was dry eyed as we left the shelter.  I was practically clicking my heals - a la Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain" - as we walked out the door since Zeke had been a struggle for a while.

But as you comforted your brother I slipped my sunglasses on.  Because that was when I started to cry.

I love you.  More than you will ever really understand.
Mom




Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Happy Birthday, Happiness


Dear Daughter,

You love to perform.  Last month you had your own song for our local production of Schoolhouse Rock Live which you memorized in one week.  At Christmas time you were in The Urban Nutcracker and never has anyone been so proud of dancing on a blue and yellow-polkadotted bouncing ball.

But the work it takes to get there, to get to the performing, is something you don't love.

You manage the expectation of learning your part with both unrealistic fantasy ("Maybe I'll be the lead!!") and stoic team player attitude.  You accept your role and find something to get excited about ("I am the first person on stage for the second act!!").

Then the dreaded learning of the parts begins.  You squirm in your seat as the cast learns songs ("WHEN do we get ON STAGE?!?") and grumble as the dance sequence is gone over again.  And again.  And again.

But when tech week begins, when costumes are worn, when bright lights are tested, you stand taller, throw your shoulders back and look out into the seats with eager anticipation.  When the shows begin you are both an eager kid goofing with friends backstage and focused performer quietly centering yourself (sometimes doing both within a minute).

This confidence carries through to school, standing up for yourself with your two older brothers, and your playing.

Because when I walk into the kitchen in the middle of you doing an imaginary cooking show you don't recoil from embarrassment that I am seeing this.  You smile, nonchalantly face the "camera" and say "and here is my mom.  Say 'hi', Mom!"

And I say "Hi" to the imaginary camera just as you direct me.

Happy Birthday.
I love you,
Mom


Photo by the always wonderful friend
Steven Davey.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Love, more


Once again, I'm writing letters to my sons.  For their birthday.



Dear not-so-little man,

This summer you and your brother started to do the lawns of several neighbors.  You announced it was a company, started "hiring" friends to do jobs and even used money from your godmother to invest in a new weed whacker.

I really did not take this all seriously.  Until an 11-year-old called the house in July asking if there was a meeting that Friday night to discuss the weekend jobs.  I was informed by you there was such a meeting and sure enough several boys were in my front yard promptly at 5:00 pm discussing cutting lawns, pulling weeds and laying mulch.

According to the neighbors who hired "the company" you are the taskmaster of the group.  You assign the jobs, keep people focused and save most of your fussing for your brother.  I've heard many an argument between you two about who "owns" the company and who is the "boss".

However, what I also saw this summer was a commitment to getting a job done well, being courteous to customers in the hopes they will rehire you, and worrying about the conditions of neighbor's lawns while they were out-of-town but hadn't hired you to tend them.  "Should I just cut their lawn?" you would ask.

So when you are lazy on the couch, laughing hysterically over sit-coms like Reba, I think about your company.  And know you are going to be just fine.

Happy 12th birthday.  You are my not-so-little man.

Love,
Mom


Dear not-so-little man,

A few weeks ago your brother was going off the deep end about something ridiculous and became very rude to me in the process.  The three of us had two more errands, both fun, and I informed him that not only was he not going with us I was taking him back to the house to stay home alone.

The last fun errand was to get junk food for watching the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics (because it is our family tradition to watch athletic matches while eating horrible food - think Super Bowl).  Since your brother was not with us we were not getting him any special food.

You, however, would not stand for it.  You got a bag of chips you knew your brother liked, turned to me and declared "He's my brother and I am sharing with him."  That was fine with me. This was not your punishment so if you chose to share with him that was fine.

You were also very antsy to get home to him.  "He can't be alone" you informed me.

"More like you miss him?" I asked.

"Yes" you said quietly, looking down.

So home we went.  Because your brother's punishment shouldn't make you suffer too.

Happy 12 birthday not-so-little man.  Who won't admit that he is a big softie inside.

Love,
Mom

Monday, April 23, 2012

Happy Birthday, Happiness


Dear Daughter,

In New York City last week you were happily chomping on a chocolate chip pancake as a singing server at Ellen's on Broadway started to belt out "Notice Me Horton" from Seussical, the musical you were in earlier this month.  While you were a Bird Girl, you knew just about every other part.  The singer noticed you crooning, came up behind you and stuck the microphone into your face as you finished chewing.

She was clearly expecting you to recoil, to cringe at the thought of singing so publicly in front of strangers eating their breakfast in a Broadway diner.

She had not met you.

You proceeded to sing the rest of the introduction to the song as the wide-eyed server cheered you on.  Other servers noticed and started to clap.

But when you told the story the next day you made it sound like you were reluctant and did not sing very well.  Even though our neighbors were impressed with the story you lowered you shoulders, looked down and acted as if it was not a big deal.

It made me think of a quote by Bobbe Sommer:  

“Having a low opinion of yourself is not ‘modesty’.  It’s self-destruction.  Holding your uniqueness in high regard is not ‘egotism’.  It’s a necessary precondition to happiness and success.”

I told you to be proud of your confidence and talents.  You should not be embarrassed that you like to perform.  You enjoy it and your family enjoys watching you.

Earlier this month a reporter from our local paper was at the first big dress rehearsal for Seussical.  She was interviewing cast members when you charged up to her and said,
“Have you heard of Harper?  Well here I am!”

The reporter could not get enough of you.  I spoke to her a few weeks later and she still thought you were funny, confident and talented.
Which you are.  As you start your 8th year, please stay that way.

Happy birthday.
I love you,
Mom


Monday, August 22, 2011

Love, more

Once again, I return from blogging oblivion - and vacation mode - to acknowledge the boys' birthday. They turn 11 today. And as is my custom they get their own letters.

**************

Dear little man,

I recently read in Sophie's World (a fictional novel about the history of philosophy) the following quote:



"The most subversive people are those who ask questions."
You, my son, are the most subversive of subversive people.

When you and your brother were less than two years old, I encouraged you both to use words to describe how you felt, in an attempt to thwart the oncoming "terrible twos". I thought if you could articulate what was going on inside your brain you would be able to calmly explain your toddler angst with grace and dignity.

That clearly didn't happen. But it did lead to a relative asking, incredulously, if you as a 20-month-old had explained you were feeling blue. You were able to saying that you were sad by using the word "blue".

Fast forward to today. This has been a year of incredible horrors - the shooting of an elected official and murder of others in Arizona, natural and man-made calamities in Japan, gruesome mass slaying in Norway, drownings and murders closer to home, the return of an old man to our big city that was on the FBI's most wanted list. And through it all you keep asking questions. Hard questions. About the root of evil. About goodness. The details of events. Who did it. Why they did it. Why didn't their parents stop them. As if an 81-year-old man has parents who are still alive to punish him.

Sometimes your questions wear me down and I just say "that is all I know". And you stew. I don't know what your stewing about. Is it that I let you down. That I couldn't answer all your questions. That I am fallible.

Or, maybe, are you realizing there are still questions to answer. Still mysteries - some great, some horrible - that need to be solved. Are you realizing that you could be the one to answer one of them? Maybe several?

Because I knew when you were nearly two years old. When you were telling me that you were blue.

Happy birthday little man. I love you,

Mama


***********

Dear little man,

During 2010 you were two musicals within 8 months of each other with the amateur theater group our family is a part of. You played a young gambler in Guys and Dolls and had a solo in "Learn Your Lessons Well" in Godspell. The director, Diane, made it clear that she had plans for you in future productions. One of them was to resurrect a simple staging of Amahl and the Night Visitor. Diane was the only one who would mount that show and she had been waiting for a boy to become old enough to handle the singing. You were even given the music to get to know it.

Then Diane got sick. We didn't understand how sick. She had cancer and was dead in a matter of weeks. You were devastated. Within a week of her dying you had to write a school essay about someone who made a big difference in your life.

This is what partly what you wrote:



The person that made a big difference in my life is Diane W. First, she was a beautiful singer, and she acted. Next, we attended the same church. Last, she got sick 5 weeks ago. We had big plans for future shows....

The effect she had on me was important. First, I am more confident on stage, and this carries in the outside world. Also, she made me more mature. To conclude, I know more songs because of her. She made a big difference in my life.


You cried as you wrote this. But you worked through it. To write this tribute to Diane. And to show that you will always make music. And act. And sing.

Earlier this month we all saw All Shook Up, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night set to Elvis' songs. And you have already decided that the first post-Diane production of our little community theater group will be All Shook Up. And you're going to be the lead. The Elvis character.

And Diane would've loved it.

Happy Birthday. I love you,
Mama

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Birthday Happiness

Dear daughter,


Your confidence continues to amaze me. It is as if you have a core of steel. You will boldly try a new task, dance move or experience with barely a blink. Although as you turn 7 years old it seems that strong confidence is starting to become a bit shaky. You complain that certain steps in ballet are too hard. Your bicycle peddles are not properly placed for you to get started. You can't figure out a math problem. But then you are presented a challenge and never look back.

Last fall you were the second youngest cast member in an intergenerational production of Godspell. For the final dress rehearsals the actress playing John the Baptist/Judas had laryngitis. Heading into opening night it was becoming apparent she wasn't going to be able to sing the opening to "Prepare Ye" as she walked from the back of the hall towards the stage. An hour before the show the director asked me if you could sing "Prepare Ye" by yourself, walking in front of the actress. I said yes but only if you agreed.

Of course you agreed.

After the opening song you appeared at the back of the hall, arms outstretched singing

"Prepare ye the way of the lord, prepare ye the way of the lord."


While the audience was indeed prepared for the lord, they were also warned to watch for you. Because in spite of your budding concerns and occasional lapses in confidence, you still have that fearless core of steel.

Happy Birthday. I love you,

Mama