Suburban Snapshots

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.

Three Home Hacks for Lazy People

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

I'm not particularly crafty, but when I am it's out of pure laziness. I come up with hacks that make things more convenient so that I can spend my time farting around on Facebook or ogling my husband while he folds the five loads of laundry I let mold over on the basement floor. I've read a lot of hack lists and usually I think, "Hey that's so clever! I'll never fucking do that."

Still, there are things I've been doing without realizing their hackishness until now. Here are three of them.

My house is small and tends to get stinky really fast. In summer the dishwasher smells like a crypt, our two dogs smell like six, and opening the under-sink cabinet to throw something away requires EPA clearance. My friend Dina helped me solve that last one with this tip:

1. If you have to toss a potentially stinky item days before trash pick up, put it in the freezer until garbage day. Here's a touching photo of some chicken parts stored safely and odorlessly until the men in safety yellow roll up in what my husband tells me is called a packer, and not a "maggot mobile."

2. When we moved into this house we didn't have a child, so only our pristine rear-ends ever touched the dining room chairs. Once the dining room became a "multi-purpose" eating-slash-artspace, the upholstery went straight to hell. I wandered into the local fabric store hoping to find something new and cute to re-cover the chairs when a ray of light shone down from the heavens and enlightened me to the miracle that is raincoat fabric. My friend Amy and I stapled this on in about an hour. I love the design and I can clean it with a sponge. It's as practical as my Aunt Fran's plastic-covered sofas but less thigh-sticky. Two thumbs up even when a bowl of Spaghetti-Os goes down.

3. I don't remember how I was first turned onto natural peanut butter, but I'm a convert. Blended varieties just don't have the same peanut flavor, though their creaminess still can't be beat. I stirred and sloshed for years before learning this simple little trick: Store your natural, oily peanut butter upside down in the fridge. Gravity or whatever causes the oil to float away from the lid so when you open it, no stirring! No sloshing peanut juice all over your shoes. It's still not smoother than a fresh jar of Skippy, but it's hella tasty.

I probably won't have my own show on HGTV anytime soon, but maybe some of you will find one or two of these useful. At the very least you have to admit that the raincoat fabric business is the tits.

The Upside of Catastrophe

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

I remember when I was pregnant, my godmother was dying of pancreatic cancer and I thought, this is life now. Not that life would always be untimely death and anxiety, but in my stress over becoming surprise-pregnant and for the first time in my life witnessing at close range the process of dying, I realized that yes, growing up, moving out, heartache and success are all parts of life, but the big things, those are the shape of it.

I'll be 42 this September. In those decades I have met many, many people. It's true what they say about everyone having a story, and what I've learned from the friends and acquaintances who've crossed my path is abundant. For all the obvious reasons I can't be glad my loved ones have struggled, but I've been bettered by their triumphs and catastrophes, and I hope that counts for something.

To my dear friend with M.S. — you live every day with independence. You don't feel brave or especially inspirational, but I think you are amazing. (For the record, this is the only time I've ever referred to you as "my friend with M.S.")

My co-worker, caring for her husband after his traumatic brain injury — I have learned so much from you about the realities caregiving and recovery. Your honesty gives a person like me a clearer path toward understanding your world.

All of the single and coupled gay humans in my life — there has never been a time when I've questioned your equality, and I celebrate with you every victory toward recognizing your humanity.

For Sarah — I know you had terrible days and that I mostly saw you on the better ones. I sat with you just for a precious few minutes during what would be your last one. None of it was fair, but you made me less afraid. There was so much love in that room. You are written on my heart.

The woman who posts to Facebook about her motorcycle rides, her crushes, her nights out and her arduous chemo treatments — you also make me less afraid. You are life going on.

For my friend fighting lymphoma who shares the funniest and most sincere updates — you remind me that humor is alive in struggle. I have a good feeling about you.

(So much fucking cancer.)

I have many friends managing their children's emotional, intellectual and physical needs — your likes on my silly observations remind me that despite all you've adapted to, we are all parenting together. Thank you for keeping it real.

The lost children crush me, and I've met so many grieving parents these past few years — thank you for showing me how to be a friend through the uncertainty of grief. Thank you for sharing your intensity with me. Thank you for continuing to give when you have already given too much.

There are so many of you — the recovering and struggling addicts, the leavers and the left, the people with pasts, the ones with secrets. Sometimes I've easily empathized with you, sometimes I've had to question myself to understand you, always I have learned from you.

We are the sum of our relationships and experiences, and surely we are the sum of the experiences of our relations. I've been taught by your trials and lessons and I am a better person for our collective adversity. What you remind me of every day though, is that each of us is so much more than our struggle.