Suburban Snapshots

So, Your Kid Found Some Internet Porn

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

I'm at the school playground watching Anna run barefoot up a green, plastic slide. Two little girls squeal and pull her in by the wrists each time she reaches the top. Next to the play structure, a maybe-5th-grade boy is throwing clouds of wood chips at a girl who's probably his age but already looks three grades older and I think, That's him. That's the boy who's going to yell something about blow jobs during recess and trigger a dinnertime flurry of awkward conversations all across town.

Look, I know it's going to happen, whether it's this kid or some other one — amazingly it was neither Steve nor me but a girl in her 1st grade class who taught Anna the F-word — and I already feel like I'm behind in starting any of the bigger talks with her. She knows about periods and that babies typically exit vaginas, she knows that she has half the material to make a human already inside her body, that one day she'll have hair in all the most inconvenient places, she knows that she is the boss of her own body, that boys have penises and can pee standing up, and she knows that teenagers really like to kiss. It's this last part that started the trouble, because two of Anna's favorite subjects are teenagers and pranks.

It was after a night spent with family — the adults in one room and the seven- and eight-year-olds in another — when I received a series of texts that began with: "Anna and Ella were watching PORN!" Apparently they'd been using an unrestricted adult iPad to search the web for "kissing pranks." If you aren't familiar with Rule 34, now you know. Rule 34 was on and popping in this scenario.

The iPad's owner flipped it open to read a bit before bed and saw what was definitely not an age-appropriate video left up on the screen; I want to interject here my hope that our children are always this inept at covering their tracks. I didn't ask for graphic details and so Steve and I were forced to proceed not knowing exactly what Anna had watched. Would I have to give her The Talk: Director's Cut Featuring Commentary By Gloria Steinem, or just The Talk: I'm Not Mad But That Was Super Inappropriate? If you find yourself in a similar situation with your child, I recommend knowing more than we did going in. I couldn't really ask our witness without giving her the vapors, so I had to start with the culprit.

"Hey kiddo, listen. I'm not mad, not even a little, and I want you to know that you can talk to me and ask me any questions you can think of, okay? So, I heard you and Ella were watching some pretty inappropriate videos and..."[dramatic faceplant between sofa cushions and a now-muffled insistence that she told Ella to stop, she didn't even want to watch those stupid kissing pranks. I believe her about 20 percent.] Anna again says she has no questions, so I tell her that if she knew the videos weren't for kids, she should have told an adult. I add that if she wants to write questions down and leave notes for me, that's fine too. So far it's been a note-free week, and Anna's back to using only her own, restricted devices.

And that's what I did when my kid maybe watched porn. Since then, I've polled friends and crowdsourced to see where we're all at with The Talk, and it seems like I'm pretty on track. I've gotten two book recommendations from folks for when it's time to bring further mechanics into the conversation, which I anticipate will be sometime soonish. If you want to postpone this situation or at least mitigate the risk, here's a post listing all the ways Anna's devices are locked down.

Godspeed, parents.

Any One of Us Could Be the Cincinnati Zoo Mom

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Update: here's a first-hand account of the incident.

There was a group of us at the zoo one afternoon a few summers ago—Anna, at least 3 of her cousins, plus something like 5 adults. We said our goodbyes when a couple of friends opted to go drink away the loud, crowded park, and as I pulled out of a quick hug, Anna was gone from her seat in our wagon. She wasn't anywhere among the tanned, summer legs of our group, wasn't watching the ferris wheel a few feet away, she wasn't even up the path eyeballing the cotton candy vendor. My eyes darted in every direction, unsure which way my body should move. After an eternal few minutes or so, we found her standing at a hunting game, flanked by bigger kids shooting water at decoys. At home, drinks were had.

When I was little we lived in a high-rise on a military island off the tip of Manhattan. My mom wasn't feeling well one afternoon and had sent me alone down the elevator to the building's courtyard playground, where she kept an eye on me from the window of our apartment. On my ride back up, I exited at the wrong floor and wandered into a stranger's unit. She helped me find my way to the place I actually lived. I swear I have a memory of first seeing her stove and realizing it wasn't the same color as the one in our kitchen. In the story I am 3 or 4 and my mom aged 5 years.

There's a legend in my husband's family as well, though some of the smaller details are contested depending on who's doing the telling. During a vacation to the Jersey Shore ("down the Shore," he corrects me), Steve, his 3 siblings, a few cousins, both parents and some combination of aunts and uncles walked from their hotel to the beach, except that Steve decided he wanted to watch television instead, so he peeled off from the group and headed back to their room. In this story he's either 4 or 6, but the ensuing chaos remains pretty consistent. Eventually they found him and decided to let him live.

Just last week a friend of mine posted the story of her own slippery toddler, when, at a park, she had turned to comfort her tantruming middle child and in the midst of this fully-engaged, hardcore parenting, her 2-year-old wandered clear across the grass and sat himself in the middle of a baseball game. He was not awarded the MVP.

Anna didn't slip into the alligator pen, Steve wasn't snatched by a pedophile or riptide, I was safely returned to my mother, and my friend's toddler wasn't beaned with a foul ball. None of that happened because of probability and plain, dumb luck.

It seems though, that people forget these kinds of stories when they end in tragedy, and especially when they happen to strangers. A gorilla in Cincinnati had to be killed yesterday when a 4-year-old slipped from his parents and wandered into the animal's enclosure. Tranquilizers were not an option. The internet lashed out hard and fast at the boy's parents, going on just enough detail to condemn them, and a willful forgetting of any personal experience that would remind them how easily kids evade even the most attentive guardians, how you don't instinctively know which direction to move when your child has suddenly vanished from your side. Many drew a hard line, feeling for the gorilla only, as though compassion were that one-dimensional. Others touted their decades of flawless parenting, having themselves never experienced the cold panic of losing sight of a child—or maybe they've just forgotten, like we do with labor. Once in a restaurant a couple stopped to let me know that their children had never behaved the way mine was in public at that moment; I believe they were experiencing the same kind of selective parental memory.

I don't know the particular psychology behind what happens on internet comment threads, or the personal psychology that causes me to continue to read them, but my guess is that we soothe ourselves, trying to believe that we'd have avoided the tragic scenario because we're simply better parents. Our kids are safer, we're more attentive/smarter/vigilant than the parents we've just read about. We smugly type away, satisfied in our righteousness, then switch off. We hurl condemnation at people we know nothing about beyond 300 or so words, staunch in our sanctimony, ignoring completely what kind of horror it must have been to see their child in that kind of peril, refusing to feel it ourselves. We trade empathy for torches and pitchforks because those tools are easier to carry.

The loss of Harambe is tragic and heartbreaking, it's prompted new debates over the purpose of captivity. The gorilla was killed to save the life of a curious little boy who'd wandered away from his parents during a trip to the zoo, the way children wander away from their parents at amusement parks and beaches and playgrounds. If you have a child, you know this to be true; if you were a child, you've done it. But in our outrage over the loss of that majestic, endangered animal, we have to be careful to hold onto our humanity.

What I Need Men to Understand Before My Daughter Is Grown

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Men, I have to confess that I've been getting really upset with you lately. It mostly happens on the internet but sometimes even in my own home. I get especially mad when you get mad at me for being mad. You follow? But even as I mutter terrible things about you under my breath and resist posting retorts after reading yet another comment on some item about Trump or Kesha or Susan Sarandon's breasts, I understand that you can't understand where my anger comes from. You haven't been taught. You've lived as men your entire lives! I know you have your own struggles; you get mixed messages on whether or not housework is manly, you're under the impression that sending dick pics is the key to a woman's heart, your workouts are suddenly military-themed. It's weird out there for you, I see it.

Your mom may have never pulled you aside to give you the talk about what life is like for her. Your mom's life was probably really good, she was full of love and felt loved, she poured her energy into seeing you through, even puberty. But she didn't tell you some stuff, and it might have helped you to hear it. I'm going to tell you my stuff. These are some of the things I remember from the 42-years I've walked this planet with a lower half full of ovaries and folds. These are things that for most of my life I accepted as part of being a girl, "just how it goes." Daily things, seemingly small things, tiny events in an overall really good life.

I had my body critiqued and commented on by everyone from my grandfather to bullies in every grade. The first time I walked past a group of men on a New York City street who applauded my rear-end instead of mocking it, I felt truly grateful. I was thrilled that in the world outside of teenage suburban boys were men who liked the way I was built. They catcalled me for an entire block. The last time this happened, a carload of men shouted at me from open windows as I walked down the street with my husband. It was last summer, and I asked Steve to stop in a coffee shop until the car was no longer driving next to us in slow traffic. I'm older and I know better than to be grateful for it now.

In high school my best friend's boyfriend would relentlessly lift up my skirt, no matter where we were. I laughed it off, I hated him. Another boy would jab his fingers into the crotch of my clothing when he'd walk behind me up the school stairs. I started timing my pace to avoid him.

There was the guy in college my roommate wanted to hook me up with, who dove on top of me as soon as she'd left the room. I don't think he would have hurt me but I was uncomfortable, and grateful that my roommate forgot her keys and came back through the door a few minutes later.

Twice I saw two different men parked on a popular walking route to the high school, masturbating as they watched us go by in packs. Over the three years I rode the train to work I'd see many more men fondling themselves, including one whose rhythm I felt on my lower back for a second until I realized what was happening and exited the train three stops early.

Out shopping with my sister on a busy Saturday, a man in a large, black pick up stopped us to ask for directions. My sister helpfully offered them up, but I noticed that he was naked from the waist down and pulled her away.

There was the time I was out for a walk in broad daylight, in a "safe" suburb, and was followed by a man who landed an aggressive handful of my rear-end. And there was after that, when I showered and went to the police, and the officer reprimanded me for not walking in immediately after the assault. I'd just wanted to get home.

Last week I sat at a bar in a restaurant waiting for a girlfriend. The man to my left was alone, busy on his phone, and the older man to his left was staring at me. After a minute the older man said to the younger, "Hey! Since you're here alone tonight you should fuck her!" and gestured my way. I pretended not to notice, then beat myself up for staying quiet.

Those are just the ones that stand out in my memory. What I'm getting at is that women being angry isn't new, there's not some trend in man-hating that's a result of Obama or Beyoncé or Facebook. Some of us are just tired of being confused, ashamed, and non-confrontational. We're frustrated by ignorance. We have faith in you, we love you, and it's hard to see you get it so wrong sometimes.

We have lifetimes of these experiences and worse, much worse, and we've made lives for ourselves including and in spite of those events. You may bristle at the term "rape culture" as much as I'm irked by 8-year-old athletes being called "studs," but it's not a condemnation of you personally. You want to understand, you think you're pretty evolved and it offends you when someone insinuates otherwise.

I think you're getting there, and I need you to keep working at it. See, I'm on a deadline. I've got a daughter to send out into this world.

Tips for Parents Whose Kids are Getting Devices This Christmas

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Kids on devices: can't live with 'em, can't get a goddamn thing done without 'em. I am a technophile, I love social media, I love digital everything, I love communicating online almost as much as in person, and I didn't go to the mall once to shop for Christmas. My Internet experiences have been largely positive; I've made some true, wonderful friendships and learned really valuable things on the Web, all of which more than make up for the comments I've gotten on YouTube. I mean for real, YouTube commenters. Damn.

It's true that the Internet can be a scary place to let your kids loose, so I'm not even suggesting that a little bit. What I am hoping though, is that parents give their kids enough freedom to become smarter than we are, because technology is definitely going to evolve beyond what we can keep up with, and I want our kids to be right there with it. Someone's going to have to show us how to configure our Twitstasnaptimebook brain implants in 2045. Our children will eventually outsmart us in every way when it comes to electronics. I live online and still know this to be true.

If you've decided to connect your child to one of these magical voodoo instruments, here are some Apple-centric tips from a mom who's been employing the touch-screen babysitter for a few years.

Your Child's First iPad: Technical Parental Controls
  • We chose to set Anna's iPad up with its own email address under the Family Sharing controls. When we had her signed up using one of our iCloud addresses, she wasn't able to message or FaceTime us. The texts I get from her are usually a highlight of my day. If you choose to use an existing iCloud address or Apple user ID, your device will receive your child's interactions, which you may prefer (this is how Gwen discovered Gavin's romps with the nanny).
  • Choose an address that is generic enough to not reveal a child's age, name, gender, or location.
  • Don't tell your child what his or her address is, so you maintain control over who has it (I realize this will only work for a limited time because kids are crafty af.)
  • A reader suggested not telling your child what his or her iTunes password is. Anna knows hers because with Family Sharing, all downloads require permission from us. We get an iPhone notification telling us what she's requesting and locking her out until we approve or reject.
  • Allow only as much contact with the outside world as you're comfortable with. Anna doesn't have an Internet browser like Google Chrome, because that lets her navigate to unfiltered YouTube. She doesn't have the messaging app Kik either. YouTube Kids is about as off-leash as we go.
Your Child's First iPad: Actual Parental Guidance
  • GET A GOOD CASE. Totally unsponsored, this one has worked miracles. The one downside is that the stand only works horizontally.
  • Talk to your kids about what they shouldn't share across social media. The 4th grade girls mistakenly messaging Anna revealed a ton of personal information even after we replied telling them they had the wrong address.
  • Make a list with your child of approved contacts, then add them yourself to the address book.
  • Teach your kid a little etiquette, because we've ended far too many FaceTime conversations with "YOU DON'T JUST HANG UP ON GRANDMA WHEN YOU GET BORED."
  • Check at least daily the iMessage, FaceTime, and any other social app you've allowed your child to download.
  • We let Anna to use headphones as long as we're in glancing distance. She doesn't have access to adult content, but there are plenty of useless unboxing and haul videos that teach kids all the wrong lessons. There are also lots of really creative users, cooking shows and DIY tips she loves.
  • Set your rules for time allowed, or install an app to do it for you. I found this one, but don't use it. I prefer to repeat myself 500 times until I finally confiscate the whole gd thing.
If your kid is getting a device for Christmas, I hope this will help you be more at peace with it. It's our job as parents to expose them to the world beyond their tiny little selfish brains, and thankfully there are code developers who have our backs. If you have more tips please leave them in comments here or on the Facebook post. 

Sugar and Spice and Puppydog Tails

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

We decided against learning the sex of our baby at my first ultrasound. Our families let out a collective groan and we all waited for what I not secretly hoped would be the arrival of a daughter.

When Anna was born, my sister nearly burst an artery when I said we weren't interested in a pink deluge. Stereotypes aside, I'm just really more of a neutrals girl. Steve and I graciously accepted all hand-me-downs and Anna wore almost everything. Whatever required ironing stayed folded deep within a drawer, because that kind of thing doesn't belong in homes without staff.

Anna spared us a princess phase, except Elsa, which was intense and lasted almost a year despite my insistence that Anna was the real star. We didn't hide her from the princesses, and if you've ever tried to do this you'd quickly realize the futility. Their domination is thorough and unavoidable. She preferred "Yo Gabba Gabba" for a while, then switched to "My Little Pony." I was leery of her love for "Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse" but the schlond poofa jokes won me over.

Lately she's been asking me to buy her camouflage clothes "if you see some at Goodwill in the boys section." She's taken to wearing a wolf print tee-shirt the nurse gave her after one especially spectacular lunch spill and is obsessed with Michael Jackson. Her very best friend is Olivia, and the boy she's liked since last year still makes the after-school recap every single day. We ran into him and his family one Saturday and Anna reported that she got "really sweaty" when he spotted her. The language of her first crush is hilariously unfiltered.

In June she asked to cut her hair short. It was in the middle of little league and her first team experience. She and a set of twin boys would sit in the dugout spitting sunflower seeds far and wide, mostly onto their shirts. The part of her personality that's loud and rough found companions in them, as did the part of her that's better at climbing fences than playing baseball.

It's been interesting in this latest stage. I watch people trying to work out "what" she is, their eyes looking for the familiar cue, something to safely settle on like a pink shoe or pair of earrings. We get a lot of, "What can I get you, buddy?" and none of us mind, though sometimes I try to avoid the whole exchange by preemptively dropping a pronoun. Anna will correct other kids, including a couple of mean-girl run ins this summer. Already with the mean girls.

I realize that in reverse—if I had a son who preferred skirts—this post might be more angst-ridden. A girl who's more comfortable in camo cargo pants generally gets a pass, but what of parents whose sons love polka-dotted tights? That's a post for someone with more experience than I have. What's happening here is relatively uncomplicated as far as we and society at large are concerned, at least in this part of the world. We mostly follow her lead, the only time I've interjected was one afternoon when she announced that "Boys are just cooler than girls." I'll let her grow a beard but I won't have her thinking that girls are anything less-than.

I'm proud of her for going her own little way so soon. I hope I can help her hold onto the confidence she has now, which I was totally lacking through pretty much my entire school experience, and I give credit to the parents of all the friends who continue to love her however she is, however many days in a row she wears her pilfered wolf shirt, no matter who she plays with at recess.

The Summer We Lost

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Well folks, it's been weeks since I've written anything substantial. That's partly because we've had a full (I'm not going to say busy because busy is apparently a bad word now) summer, and partly because when something significant happens like my dog dies or my Nana dies or my other dog dies, I need to acknowledge those events before getting back to business as usual. I guess it's a good thing I waited, because three depressing posts in a row might be more than some of us could handle. Instead I'll compile this grief montage, throbbing 80s ballad not included.

It's never an easy thing to decide to put a dog down. I hate to say it's something we've gotten "better" at, but we have experience. You have to find the unique formula that balances your emotions, compassion, finances, and empathy. Four years ago, when our dog Bert grew a bone tumor that eventually led to blindness and pain, we knew we weren't going to put him through surgery that would dismantle much of his face or through the long recovery. We knew we couldn't front the thousands of dollars for the MRIs and procedures he'd require, and that there would still be a chance the growth would return. Bert was only six and wiggling like a puppy when we brought him in for his last appointment. God that sucked.

A photo posted by Brenna Jennings (@suburbansnapshots) on

We adopted Henry in 2004, already a handsome three-year-old and having fathered dozens of equally attractive pet store dachshunds. We were child-free with disposable income, so when he herniated a disk months later, we spent about $5,000 to bring him back to health. I learned to express his bladder while Steve would "walk" him outside our city condo, bent over to support Henry's back end. But 11 years later with another paralyzing injury, an estimate of $2,500 just for the diagnostic MRI and now a 14-year-old dog, surgery wasn't an option. We carried Henry in, sad but sure in our decision, and held him as he quietly went still. Then he peed all over Steve.

I'm going to awkwardly shim my Nana into this post because chronologically, this is where we lost her. There's no way I could fit all that she was and how much she meant into a paragraph, everyone should have so many stories. Nana always wore a suit, ready for church at any moment. She was born again, and so warm that I'd be confused when I'd meet the kind of born again you're thinking of each time I say "born again." She lost more children in her lifetime than even my highly-productive sister has birthed, and raised seven to adulthood. She was Italian but my uncle once joked that "Nana got a microwave so she can burn dinner in seconds." She was full of humor and faith, and I'll always think of her not just as a woman but as a force. Nana will always be around, just a prayer away. I still don't have my beliefs sorted out, but I know Nana's here. I guess that's a start.

It was a week after I heard from my sister's best friend via text that Nana was gone when Mauser started limping. We hoped it was a strain but two trips to the vet and continual worsening told my gut otherwise. We'd jokingly called him "The Temp," having adopted him at age 11 or 12, knowing we wouldn't put him through interventions at his decline. Mauser belonged to one of the children Nana lost, my Aunt Mair, had been well-loved, and had made his way to us. We recognized his first day here that he was too big and too hairy for this house, and that he would spend the balance of his life here anyway. Maui and I walked Anna to and from school every day. He learned that routine within a week and nudged me each morning and afternoon. He followed me everywhere to the point that I'd almost step on him getting out of the shower or find him on the front lawn, having squeezed his 86 pounds out of the terrier-sized doggie door to trail me to a neighbor's. I'm still finding his hair everywhere and wonder if there's enough DNA left in it to clone him.

Summer though, on balance, has been really nice. Sunny days, local adventures, far-flung visitors, many cocktails, weekend trips, we've enjoyed it all. Anna might remember this one as The Summer Mommy Cried Like Ten Times, or maybe she'll remember going to the water park with her cousins, the beach with her dad, swimming in a thousand pools, tasting her first lobster or moving into her new bedroom. My own summer memories are full of poolside Cheetos binges, bathing-suited bike rides and Tom & Jerry marathons. Maybe summertime makes the losing a little easier. 

My Wooden Spoons Are For Sauce

Thursday, July 30, 2015

"Get it through your head!"

It was the last sentence I heard my sister utter before watching my mom leap from her Volvo and up the stairs of our split ranch so quickly she seemed to teleport. This was the morning of Mom's Last Straw. My sister flung the crutches she'd been leaning on as she stood in the driveway, arguing at our mother who was trying to leave for work. She galloped desperately into the house where she tells me (because I remained safely in the driveway) Mom caught her on the couch and landed a sharp slap on her thigh.

It took a lot to get my mom this mad. She rarely cursed, didn't drink, and yelled sparingly, which frankly is a miracle if what I remember of my sisters' and my childhood is accurate. You didn't want to upset Mom not because she'd get angry and gesture for the wooden spoon (which never actually closed the deal), but because it took so much to upset her that if you got her there, you had undoubtedly been a complete asshole and you knew it. I didn't fear my mother, but I hated getting her upset.

There were other adults then who weren't as restrained. I never knew what might set them off—sometimes it was a rowdy mud fight, sometimes back talk, once it was because I didn't respond to a question about onions quickly enough, or the time my sister and I collapsed into giggles during dinner. I remember the lingering burn of that fear. It didn't make me feel strong, it made me want to run. I rarely had concern for the way my actions might affect these people like I did with my mom. I just didn't want them mad, period.

I don't believe that being hit or the threat of it made me tough, brave or conscientious. It may have made me more empathetic, better at putting myself in the shoes of people who hurt, but I have to believe that those good attributes can be modeled in a less menacing way. I know they can be.

Maybe if we spanked Anna regularly I'd only have to ask her once to clean her room. Maybe she'd eat more dinner or argue less often. But I have other tools available, I deliver consequences and try so hard to have patience. I'm grateful that I don't often yell because when I do raise my voice it lands hard. She still responds to my count of three by number two, she still reacts when I threaten to revoke her tablet/playdate/dessert because she knows we follow through.

Maybe sometimes you just have. had. it. It's been a horrible day and your kids have been relentless punks—well, we all have a frayed end to our ropes. It's happened here, not even including the time I slapped a tiny infant Anna on the forehead when she gnashed down on my nipple. I get frustration. I get running out of patience. I get How many goddamned times to I have to tell her not to cross without looking dear lord HOW MANY?

What I don't get is discipline by fear. I know she'll change and our struggles with her will constantly evolve. I know it's going to be harder to adapt to some phases than to others. I know that I don't know now how hard that will be. I'll certainly lose my patience, I'll say things and wish I could take them back, I'll want to slap her. I hope I'll have the restraint not to.

We're raising Anna just like any parent raises any kid, flailing around trying to figure it all out. What I'm sure of though, is that not all of our own lessons need to be handed down.