Friday, July 29, 2016

Strong Women - Know Them, Be Them, Raise Them

I'm a thirty-something mom to three kids. I'm not in the best shape of my life. I have baby weight I'm still carrying around, "baby weight" that is as much a part of me as the two year old I frequently carry alongside it. My identity is wrapped up in mama, chauffeur, advocate, and housekeeper. I'm afraid of heights. I've never in my life used the word "rad", and I would sound like an idiot if I did. I haven't rode a bike beyond the church parking lot where I teach my kids to ride since long before I had kids.

But if my kid is going to fall in love with mountain biking, I'm going to find a way to support her. If my kid can push outside her comfort zone and get a real life lesson in falling down, then I can do it, too.  So, I grabbed a friend and braved two days of Women's Camp at Mountain Creek Bike Park.

Photo credit: Christopher Vanderyajt
Photo credit: Christopher Vanderyajt
I was nothing short of terrified going in. I asked multiple times for reassurance that I wouldn't die. Walking into the bike shop, sneaking a peak at people flying down the mountain, I thought I'd made a terrible choice. The people I saw were rad. I couldn't even say the word, but these people seemed to live it. They were athletic, laid-back, seemingly fearless, and way more appropriately dressed than I was. I didn't fit here. But, I didn't have a choice. My good friend had driven up for the weekend to do this with me. I couldn't back out now.
Photo credit: Christopher Vanderyajt

We spent the morning on a tennis court learning the basics and doing drills. Most of the women in our camp group had been mountain biking before with varying levels of experience but all were looking to learn and improve. Many had taught themselves what they knew or been taught by their boyfriends or husbands, so getting back to basics and learning the fundamentals was a game changer for them. I was totally new, awkward, and nervous.

Photo credit: Christopher Vanderyajt
I quickly discovered something about the women's mountain biking community. They're amazing. In a sport still often dominated by men, women have banded together to own their place on the mountain and to get more women to join them. So inspiring. That was the beauty of Women's Camp, learning from and surrounded by women. Thanks to caring and supportive coaches along with the sweetest, most eclectic group of women, I somehow got the idea that I could do this.

The first run down the mountain was dicey. Let's be honest, just getting on the lift, riding it up, and getting off was dicey. I thought I was going to throw up. Then, I actually had to ride my bike down a mountain. Whose freaking idea was this?! I was so scared. My stomach hurt. I was on the edge of tears. My anxiety was out of control. But I did it.... one section of the trail at a time, encouraged by our group of women riders, and with a coach behind me giving me reminders as I went.

heels down, head up, elbows out... 
heels down, head up, elbows out... knees loose... 
heels down, head up, elbows out...

I chanted as I rode... my mantras, the many things I had to remember to successfully make it down the mountain. There was no space in my brain to be self-conscious about my fluffy waist or not looking the part. I couldn't worry about my body, because I was too busy using it. My muscles burned. I couldn't get distracted, the trail called me back each time. I began to intuitively adjust body in small ways for turns and different terrain. The intense focus it required was almost meditative. For two days, I wasn't mom. I was just me. I couldn't worry about my to-do lists, the schedule, the kids, or anything else. 

Photo credit: Christopher Vanderyajt
Surviving that first run changed things. I was finally able to exhale. I knew I could do this. I always tell myself I can do hard things. This time I proved it to myself. I wanted to do it again. I got braver, a little faster, and I started to have fun with it. I'm still a totally awkward beginner, but I'm grateful for the experience and am excited to keep learning.

I talk a good talk with my kids about being brave and trying new things, learning from our falls, and doing things that scare us so we can grow into the people we're meant to be. This was me walking the walk, and I'm so grateful to an amazing group awesome women riders and coaches for making it possible. I couldn't be more proud of myself. I went into the weekend thinking I was learning how to survive mountain biking for my daughter, but I spent the weekend learning how to mountain bike for me. 

Photo credit: Christopher Vanderyajt

Here's to strong women... 
may we know them, 
may we be them, 
may we raise them.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Transgender Kids and the Church - A Perspective for Youth and Family Ministry

I recently had the opportunity to write about Rebekah's story for the most recent issue of the Connect Journal, a quarterly publication of the ELCA Youth Ministry Network. The Network is a rich resource for those who work with children, youth, and families in the church. I was blessed to spend time serving on their Board of Directors as well as the event team for their annual event, Extravaganza. I highly encourage you to check out their site and offerings. Membership to the network includes a subscription to the Connect Journal along with a host of other benefits. They were kind enough to grant permission for me to run the article here on my blog as well. It's a little longer than what I usually publish here. For those of you who have followed our story, Rebekah's story is not new, but this is shared with the hope of raising awareness, starting a conversation, and calling our churches and faith-based organizations to consider how they do ministry for and with transgender children and youth.

Rebekah is an excellent student with a deep love of learning. She's a passionate writer and reader. She is adored by classmates and teachers. Singing and dancing bring her joy. She's articulate and wise beyond her years. She loves to climb mountains, rock hop down streams and swim in waterfalls. She is strong and her heart is bigger than any of us can handle at times. She is a beloved child of God. She is nine years old, and she is transgender. strongly believe that our stories, the stories of who we are, where we come from, and the way we interact with the world deeply matter.  With the recent explosion of transgender issues in the media, people know more than they have ever before but there are also more questions than ever before. If you're not transgender, the idea of being transgender is confusing. It's okay to say that. It’s important to say that.

I cannot speak to the transgender experience. I was born biologically female, and I have never in my life felt anything but female. Even while playing sports, refusing to wear a dress, and muddily stomping through the woods, I knew I was a girl. I don't understand what my daughter feels, but I don't have to understand it to support her. As beloved children of God, we are one. We are one body in Christ. When we claim our stories, tell our stories, and hear each other’s stories we are better able to enter into community with all God’s children and care for each member of the body. My daughter is transgender, and she is okay.

Some might say Rebekah was a born a boy, but that's not entirely accurate. She's always been the person she is now. She was assigned male at birth, meaning that when she was born everyone took a look at her genitals and assumed she was a boy. It turns out we were wrong. Over the years, our daughter was drawn to all things typically feminine. Her favorite color was pink. She loved to paint her nails and play dress up. Her closest friends were girls. We learned there was a name for this; she was gender non-conforming. We assured her that colors and clothes are for everyone and that she could be any kind of boy she wanted to be. But she wasn't a boy, she was a girl. After years of insistent, consistent, and persistent behavior and self-identification she socially transitioned at age eight and has been living as her affirmed gender since April 2015.

In the nine months prior to her social transition, Rebekah struggled. She went through an intense period of depression and her previously mild anxiety became crippling. At seven years old, she was a danger to herself and others. I don’t know what to do with that, even having lived through it and come out the other side. Seven is so little. Her pain and struggle were so deep. I have never been so scared in my life. We lived in crisis mode; all joy had gone. Our only goal on any given day was keeping us all safe. Through counseling, nutritional therapy, a wonderfully supportive doctor, and a deep trust in our kid, we were able to peel back the layers until we were left with the core issue of her identity, an issue she didn’t even realize was at the core until we sat there together staring at it.

When I used to explain that my young child struggled with anxiety and depression people were shocked and skeptical. What did she have to be stressed about? We are bombarded with messages about today’s youth and their idleness, irresponsibility, and self-centeredness. Struggling young people are labeled manipulative, defiant, or dismissed as looking for attention.  

As adults who work with young people, I hope and pray that we think better of them than society. I hope and pray that we see these Children of God for who they are and know that, like everyone else, they are born broken and also made perfect in God’s love. Cultivating a deep respect and awareness for a child’s own self-understanding is at the core of what we do in youth ministry. If we cannot respect these young people as called, claimed, and sent Children of God, then we cannot minister to and with them. We must be prepared to truly listen in order to initiate and respond to conversations about anything in their lives, including gender and sexuality.

A few months before Rebekah officially transitioned by going by a new name and declaring her gender to our community, she tentatively explored how people would respond. That exploration started with us, her immediate family. Her little brother did the best job of listening and responding with trust and compassion. Excited for a birthday outing with two close friends, both female, she chatted with him. “There is going to be three girls and three boys at the playdate today! Trinity, Sophie, and I will each be there with our little brothers.” Rebekah had never asserted herself as a girl prior to this point despite her consistent gender non-conformity. Elijah paused. Rebekah could see that he was doing the math and added “because I’m a girl”. Elijah didn’t flinch. He responded matter-of-factly, “No, you’re a boy.” Rebekah reasserted herself, “No, I’m a girl.” Elijah didn’t miss a beat. He said, “Oh, you’re a girl?” Rebekah affirmed, “Yes, I’m a girl.” Then Elijah said, “Oh, you didn’t tell me before so I didn’t know. Now I know.” That was it. Elijah, with the wisdom of a six year old, understood the situation clearly. 

Still, some people ask, “how can such a young child be transgender, what do they know about sexuality?” Pretty much nothing, thankfully! This is not about sexuality. Gender and sexuality are different. Rebekah knows her gender. The simplest description I've heard is that gender is “who you go to bed as” while sexuality is “who you to go bed with”. Gender is about who you are as a person and has nothing to do with who you find attractive. While sexual orientation emerges somewhere near adolescence, gender identity is generally established between the ages of two and five. 

Other concerned adults wonder about the life altering decisions transgender children and teens are making. It’s important to know that medical treatment and transition is a process that doesn’t start until puberty at its earliest, spans many years, and is not irreversible until the later stages. These are challenging decisions families and youth are making, but these are also lifesaving treatments they are seeking. My husband is pastor in an area not known its diversity or progressivism. One member, a bit of a walking stereotype when it comes to traditional gender roles, pulled my husband aside the first day Rebekah came to church as herself. He said, “You know, before, she never talked to me. She looked at the ground and hid behind your wife whenever she could. Today, she bounced up to me with the biggest smile, twirled around in her dress, and we had a real conversation. That says it all, doesn’t it?” Yes, transitioning to live as one’s affirmed gender is life altering. It’s the most life affirming thing I’ve ever seen someone experience. 

There's a lot we don't know or understand about gender identity. My family is living into this in the most authentic and supportive way we know. We have spent hours reading the available literature, consulting with top notch medical professionals, and connecting with others who have gone before us on this road. We are grateful to see a wonderful team of professionals in the Gender Clinic at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

On our most recent visit, the psychologist spent some time talking to Rebekah before connecting with us. The psychologist explained that when talking to Rebekah, she had asked if Rebekah had ever had to explain what it means to be transgender to someone who just didn't understand. Rebekah's initial answer was no, a huge testament to the overwhelming support we have received. The psychologist pressed on wanting to know how Rebekah might respond if that did happen. In relaying the story to us, the psychologist paused to wipe away tears, “Your daughter’s answer took my breath away. She said that being transgender is being who God made her to be.” Rebekah knows exactly what it means to be transgender.

As we deal with the everyday elements of a young transgender person’s life - church, camp, youth group, school, and even dance class - there are always questions about what this means in practice. What bathroom does she use? Where will she change? What about lock-ins, room assignments, or cabins at camp? I understand these questions, and we navigate them as they come. All current research points to the importance of transgender youth being allowed to access the facilities and programs of their affirmed gender for their physical and emotional well-being.

There will be uncomfortable conversations and situations as we, in the Church, work to provide a safe place for all, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Most importantly, the Church is called to act in love and compassion, working towards justice for the least of us. There is no “but” that follows that sentence. Our response cannot be that we affirm your gender, but you can’t use the bathroom where you feel safest. It cannot be that we welcome you as a Child of God, but you can sleep with the chaperones because you don’t fit anywhere else. We cannot say that we will walk on this journey alongside you, but we have to make sure no one else feels uncomfortable. I’m not dismissing the legitimacy of logistical questions, but we are the Church. We must strive to be a refuge of love and grace in a world filled with hate and fear, and we do that not just with our words but with our actions. 

Being transgender is just one small piece of who my daughter is, so much so that I sometimes forget it entirely. She’s just Rebekah, a little girl full of life, love, and all the sass a nine year old can muster. Sometimes I want to believe that this transgender thing, this label, doesn’t matter, but other days I’m forced to remember that it does matter. I remember that simply because of her identity, she is at much greater risk for violence, bullying, drug abuse, depression, suicide, and homelessness. I remember that there are people who think she shouldn’t be allowed to go to the bathroom safely. I remember that we keep a “safe folder” full of documents proving Rebekah’s gender identity, medical care, and general good health to protect her and us in the very real likelihood that someone calls Child Protective Services with claims of abuse and negligence.

There are people who have never met my daughter and already hate her. There are churches who would not welcome my family or my husband as pastor. I have to remember that every time she makes a new friend, I will need to carefully judge when and if I have a conversation with the parents about my child’s genitals. I’m reminded of the difficult and expensive medical decisions that lie ahead. My heart aches knowing that Rebekah’s journey has been far less challenging than many other transgender youth because she has a supportive family and community. And then, she bounces into my office so I can put her hair into a bun for ballet class where she is just one of the girls.

Written By Jamie Bruesehoff. Originally published in the Connect Journal of Children, Youth and Family Ministry (Summer 2016 issue) published by the ELCA Youth Ministry Network.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

It's Okay To Fall Down

Photo Credit: Christopher Vanderyajt
So last month, Rebekah tried mountain biking. We took both our big kids to Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day at Mountain Creek Bike Park. They got instruction from pros, played on the pump track, and tried out bikes that are designed for this kind of thing. Elijah had fun; Rebekah fell in love. She came home with big plans to save up for one of the bikes she tried and to learn more. After that, she had an opportunity to do Kids Camp at Mountain Creek and jumped at the chance!

A lot of things come easily for Rebekah. She's the kind of kid that picks things up without any experience and looks like she's been doing them forever. She does amazing in school without even trying. She's naturally musical. She's graceful. We sometimes joke that she's the girl you'd hate if you could, but she makes you love her. It all sounds wonderful, but it's not. It's hard. It's hard because she thinks if she's not instantly great at something, it means she's completely terrible... not just at that thing, but as a person. (Did I mention she has a flare for the dramatic?) It's really difficult to find that sweet spot of challenging her without scaring her into giving up.

Photo Credit: Christopher Vanderyajt

So, she went to Kids Camp. She worked hard, had fun, and came home absolutely exhausted. It was all good for a few hours... and then just before bed it started. "I'm the worst mountain biker in the world." "I'm horrible. I'm the only one who fell, and I fell TWICE." "I'm never mountain biking again." Her anxiety and perfectionism were in full force.
Photo Credit: Christopher Vanderyajt
But by morning, something had shifted. She was talking about when she could go to the pump track to practice. She was making plans to earn money for a bike. She was asking about the next Kids Camp date. In her words, she feels good mountain biking because "it's outdoors, in nature, and it's active, using [her] muscles."

She said, "It makes me feel pressured. If I do this wrong then I might fall. But it's fun. I feel awesome. It makes me have adrenaline, and I like that."

I asked her about falling. She paused, "When I fall, I feel a little upset. But I get up and try again, and that feels good. I know that making mistakes makes me better. I know if I fall, it means I'm trying something hard so I can grow."

YOU GUYS! That's it right there. If she's learns nothing else, I'll still call it a success.

Photo Credit: Christopher Vanderyajt

We do not grow unless we push ourselves out of our comfort zones, unless we risk falling and failing. She's got it. She's learning to trust her body, her mind, and her coaching. Spending time on the mountain, with amazing coaches and professionals, she's in an environment that supports healthy risk taking that inspires growth, empowerment, and confidence. 

In a sport still often dominated by men, in a world still often dominated by men, being a girl on that mountain is even more powerful. At some point, the world is going to tell Rebekah she can't do something, whether because of her age, her gender, or whatever else. But she's going to know, that even if it's hard, even if she falls the first dozen times, she CAN do it and that the failure and hard work is totally worth it.

Photo Credit: Christopher Vanderyajt

Don't get me wrong. I'm not expecting her to become a professional mountain biker. She's 9, and she loves lots of things like theater, dance, music, writing, and more. If this passion fades away, I don't mind. If this is a fun hobby she enjoys when she can, that's cool. What I love is that she tried something new... something that I think was harder than she expected... and walked away saying "If I work at this, I can get better. I want to do that." 

Photo Credit: Christopher Vanderyajt

Or maybe, I have a little adrenaline junkie in the making and this will be a passion for years to come.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

A Week of Possibility: Sleepaway Camp

We are solidly into the summer, and one of my favorite things on social media the past few weeks has been seeing posts of happy kids heading off to sleepaway camp! I get so excited every. single. time. I can't help but think of all the adventures they'll have, the friends they'll make, the things they'll try, the fun they'll have, and the ways they'll grow. There's just so much possibility. I know the life changing impact summer camp can have on kids. As a long time camper, counselor, program director, board member, and parent... I  think all kids should get to experience camp, ideally again and again! 

Last summer, we sent our oldest to sleepaway camp for the first time. I wrote her a letter and shared my thoughts and love for camp. She had the best time, telling me to go home when I showed up to pick her up because she didn't want to leave. I was only the tiniest bit offended. She gained confidence, built friendships, and claimed independence.

But tomorrow... tomorrow, I send another kid to camp for the first time. He's 7 years old, my outside of the box kid. He does things his own way and on his own terms. He's a brilliant thinker and builder. He has a burning passion for understanding the world around him. He feels and thinks things intensely. All too often, the world doesn't quite know what to do with him and he doesn't know what to do with the world. I'm both a little terrified and so excited for him.

He needs camp. Camp is a place where you don't need to fit into any box. Everyone gets to show up as they are, leaving anyone else's expectations or ideas about them at home. Everyone deeply matters. At camp there's both amazing freedom and significant responsibility. You are part of an intentional community, living closely with people you've probably never met before. Radical empathy, conflict resolution, and collaborative problem solving lay the groundwork to a successful week. After that, everything else is space for creativity, big ideas, messy games, ridiculous fun, and the immense growth that happens without kids even realizing.

He's not saying much about the whole thing, but he's definitely excited and anxious. He doesn't like to think too hard about things ahead of time. He doesn't like waiting or anticipation. As much as he talks nonstop, he still keeps a lot of stuff to himself. Meanwhile, this anxious mama just wants to hear what he's thinking, what he's worrying about and talk him through whatever I can. But this is his week and his experience. I get to hold my breath and keep quiet.

I hope he feels safe and loved. I hope he senses the possibility and relaxes into it. I hope he tries new things. I hope he gets space and time to make things, his biggest love. I hope he asks for help, shares his ideas, and makes new friends. I hope he sleeps well at night, with the paperbag puppets he's chosen to pack instead of a stuffed animal (told you, outside of the box, this kid). I hope he gets a glimpse of how amazing he is, and not just because his parents say it. I hope he makes mistakes and figures out how to make them right with the help of the community. I hope he sees some of his strength and ability. I hope he finds joy, silly joy, gleeful joy, laughter-filled joy... so much joy. I hope he loves every second without a toddler chasing him around or getting into his stuff. I hope the week is everything he wants it to be and more.

This looks like a random Lego creation, but it's not. E brought it to me one more morning a month ago and told me he made it with each item as a reminder. The bird reminds him that he can do anything. The horse reminds him that he is different. The one Lego person reminds him that he is giving. And the other Lego person with the flame reminds him that he is brave. He is brave and giving and different, and he can do anything.  

I think I'll send it with him. With phenomenal staff, an incredible program, and these reminders... he's going to do just fine, and I can't wait to hear all about it.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

We Cannot Be Quiet

 We recently celebrated the one year anniversary of our transgender daughter's transition. A year ago, after weeks of conversations and wonderings about gender identity, names, and who we are in the world with our then eight year old, we decided to try out her new name. Rebekah Eleanor. Eleanor was my grandmother's name, may she rest in peace. She was a strong, spitfire of a woman. She may have thought we were crazy had she lived to know Rebekah's story. I understand that. But I also know that her strength and resolve is something Rebekah carries.

It's been a wonderful year filled joy, freedom, and affirmation. More days than not, we don't even think about Rebekah being transgender. She's just your typical third grader. It's also been a year of enormous change. I get a lot of questions about what's that looked like, how she's doing, and especially what's that been like for me and my husband as her parents.

Over the past year we've cleaned out the last few items in the wardrobes that didn't feel right, we've boxed up mementos with her old name on them, we've updated the pictures that hang on the wall, and replaced Christmas stockings and ornaments for the tree. As far as anyone who meets us now knows Rebekah was never anyone but herself, a girl. Of course, that's true. She's always been Rebekah, but we didn't fully understand that until this year. We've worked with excellent medical professionals to be ensure we have the right information at the right time to make decisions as they come, while being grateful that we haven't had to make any of those decisions yet.

It's been interesting to watch as in the last year we've told our story over and over again. First, to close friends and family, and then expanding from there. We've told our church council president and the bishop for our church in the state. We've sat and met with dance school directors, camp directors, and faith-based arts school leaders and board members. We've explained our situation to school principals, teachers, and the superintendent. We've told our story to others who know a friend or a family member who needs support. We've told our story in some form or another, however brief, to anyone we run into who once knew our child as a boy and sees that she is not a boy. For months, it felt like all we did was tell our story. I'm okay with that. I think our stories matter, and I will tell it over and over again. 

But somewhere along the way, there was a shift in how and when we tell our story. You see, it's no secret. Obviously, I'm right here on the internet writing about it. But at a new school, a new dance studio, and a million other new places, Rebekah is simply Rebekah. She's a girl like any other. There's no memo that precedes her. There's no announcement needed to clarify my child's genitalia. But over time, as she builds relationships and gets to know people, there are people who she wants to know this part of her or who enter far enough into our lives to learn her story. She's not hiding it. It just doesn't come up in "hi, nice to meet you, want to play?" and you certainly can't tell when you meet her or even spend time with her. She's just a girl, proved by the fact that when she has tried to tell friends at school they don't believe her! Suddenly, we're having conversations with people who have no idea of our daughter's history to explain it to them. We know with every conversation, it could go badly. We know with every conversation, there's a chance it will all explode in our face. 

You see, while there's been bumps along the way, we have been met with an overwhelming amount of support. Rebekah knows that there are people who do not understand or what to understand what it means to be transgender, but she hasn't had to deal with them yet. We know the time is limited on that, and so does she. So we tread carefully, we consider each encounter and disclosure, we hold our breath and pray that all will be well.

Recently, I've been posting a lot about transgender issues and news on my personal social media. It's not something I was doing a lot before. Occasionally, I'd share a really well written article or something that struck me, but our life is full beyond having a trans kid and our daughter is so much more than her gender identity. I didn't want to be *that* person flooding my friends' feeds with my pet cause. Even in this space, on the blog, I've quieted. There's so much to say, so much people have asked me to share more about our story... and yet it's not my story, it's Rebekah's. So I balance carefully on the edge of respecting her privacy and raising awareness.

But here's the thing. It's more than a pet cause. It's my kid's life, rights, and safety. While, we will continue to tread carefully, being aware of her story versus ours and protecting her privacy, I've realized we cannot be silent. We cannot even be quiet. When you have a child who is afraid to go on family vacation in North Carolina and who wisely asks about the leadership making these decisions. When you explain a super brief take on politics and mention upcoming elections both for a governor in North Carolina and for the United States President and your child quietly ask, with fear that even you can feel, "but what if we get a bad president", well it's time to talk about these things. She knows her rights and safety are in jeopardy despite being surrounded by nothing short of an army of support. 

Rebekah knows that people knowing her and her story helps the entire transgender community. She knows it helps other kids, and she believes that is important. We will continue to tell our story. I will write more. We will find strength, courage, and hope in love and grace. I want my daughter to know that she is loved, as she is, with no strings attached. I want her to proud of who she is. She is bright, creative, joyful, adventurous, and intuitive. And, she is transgender. She can be proud to be exactly who she is. 

With visibility comes backlash. This has been an exciting and scary year for the trans community. This has been an exciting and scary year for our family. There are people in the world, some of whom have frightening amounts of power, who would have her be ashamed. Their actions suggest that my daughter should live in fear or be satisfied with 'separate but equal'. We won't settle for that. I will fight for her and for all trans kids, youth, and adults. And if that means, we speak louder and more frequently, so be it.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A Letter to My Transgender Daughter

Dear Daughter,

One year ago today we affirmed your identity with a new name. It was one of the names we considered for you before you were born, when we loved you so but hadn't yet met you. It was fitting to use it now that we finally do know who you are. A year later, I can't imagine calling you anything else. You are our Rebekah, or "Beba" as your littlest brother calls you. 

I'm in awe of your strength and determination. I've never seen anything more beautiful than watching you be yourself, and I feel so blessed that I get to watch you grow. You're a spirited human, and you always have been. We've told you time and time again how as a baby you kept us up all hours of the night, refusing to sleep unless you were held, swaddled, rocked, nursed, and bounced in just the right order and the right way. You were born telling us what you needed, loudly. People would ask, "oh are they a good baby?" Of course, they meant did you sleep all night long and were you easy going. The answer to that would have been no, but were you a good baby? Yes, you were. All babies are good. But you were a spirited, intense, joyful, demanding, and affectionate baby... and none of those things have changed. 

You didn't just make daddy and I parents, you schooled us on what it meant to love a little person with their own big feelings, thoughts, and personality. You showed us we were capable of things we had never imagined, or never wanted to imagine like not sleeping for more than twenty minutes at a time for months on end. You demanded that your voice be heard. You've known that your thoughts, feelings, and ideas mattered just as much as the next person from the start. Your age never mattered. In truly listening to one another and responding as best we can to each other's needs, magic happens. That's what our family is built on, and you taught us that. 

In the same way you made your voice heard at home, you made your voice heard in the world. You asked questions, you took in information, and you decided what that meant for you. At 3, you declared you would be a pink bird for the school play, even if you were supposed to be a seagull. Before you even turned four, you were calmly asserting that colors were for everyone, not just boys or just girls, to the preschoolers at school. In kindergarten, I remember your teacher telling me at pick up that you had corrected her when she said your little brother couldn't marry his best friend, a boy. You told her how boys can marry boys and girls can marry girls. Love is love. 

You've dressed the way you want to dress and liked the things you want to like for your whole life. It's not that people always thought it was okay. Sometimes kids, and even adults, didn't. Sometimes they parroted whatever they'd been taught about colors or nail polish and gender norms. That hurt. I know it hurt. But you worked it out. There was a very short time period where your favorite color was "anything but pink or purple", but it didn't last long. You've always known who you are and wanted to express yourself on your terms. It hasn't always been easy, but you've handled it with more grace than I could have dreamed.

In the months leading up to you becoming Rebekah, you continued in this way. Quiet questions. Lots of thinking. Careful choices. You felt your way around the possibilities, you wrestled with what was in your heart versus what was in the world in ways that most adults haven't. Like a little caterpillar, you explored, soaking up information and chomping your way towards an understanding of the world. Then you created a cocoon where you digested all these thoughts and sorted your feelings. When you were ready, you emerged as a brilliant butterfly. 

You laughter is infectious. Your smile lights the world. You make friends everywhere you go, and your teachers tell us they wish they had a WHOLE class of Rebekahs (although we're certain the world couldn't handle that!). You have a spark in you that drives you to love and care for people while dreaming big and making change. 
You are still so very spirited, joyful, determined, and affectionate. Mommy and daddy love your snuggles, your humor, and we survive your sass. You are still the strong little person you were when you were born, gently but firmly demanding that the world meet you on your terms, and teaching mommy and daddy the fullest meaning of unconditional love and grace. 

You know who you are in this world, and we are so incredibly blessed to know and love you.


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Beyond Awareness Campaigns: A Step to Stop Bullying

In New Jersey schools this week is the Week of Respect. The Week of Respect is an annual week of awareness, education and action around harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB). It is mandated by New Jersey's Anti-Bullying Law. (Source: Garden State Equality). My kids are spending this week in their classrooms talking about being kind and respectful to one another. 

Coming up, October 15th is Spirit Day, GLAAD's campaign to stand against bullying and support LGBT youth by wearing purple and talking about the issue. You can take the Spirit Day pledge on the site and learn more about GLAAD's resources.

Here's the deal. I've talked to my kids, and we've done the respect activities. I took the pledge, and I'll wear my purple on Thursday. I stand with these efforts. I hope you do, too. I hope you stand for a world where we won't need respect weeks and spirit days to declare our intentions to stand with those on the edges of our communities. I hope you stand against bullying, every day and every week. If you do... here's the biggest thing you, we, can do.

Talk to our kids. Yes, we have to talk to our kids. Not about bullying and respect weeks and spirit days. We just need to talk to our kids about life, about community, about the world. Talk to our kids about people, places, and things that are not like them. 

I urge you. Teach your kids about the world. The whole world. Fill your homes with a respect for those different than you. Plant and nurture seeds of curiosity in your children. Curiosity instead of fear. Fill your bookshelves with what's beyond your four walls, beyond your town, your state, your culture. Read. Read about all the places, people, and experiences you possibly can. Learn WITH your child. You don't need to know it all already. That's exactly the point! Show your children you don't know it all. Meet all different kinds of people. Learn their stories. Acknowledge and celebrate your differences. 

He's only 5. He's not ready for that.

She's only 7. I have time.

But, when will they learn? When will we decide that it's time to teach our kids that not everyone is like them? Will we do it before they've decided that being different must be bad?

That's too young to learn about sexuality. Of course we don't teach young children about sexuality in whatever way you're thinking about. But, we can teach them about all different kinds of families. That will surely make it easier to relate to and understand classmates with two dads or friends who live with grandma.
He won't understand autism or down syndrome. Actually, there are kids in his school, in his class whose brain work different than his, and he knows something is different about them. But he's not sure what, and not knowing is uncomfortable and even a little scary.
This is what I know. We fear what we don't know. When we're scared, we make some pretty ugly choices about how we treat people. So let's know more, let's learn. Those of us who live in the country, let's teach our kids about city life and those with a mom and a dad at home can share stories with our kids of families with two moms and divorced families who live separately and so on. We can seek to hear the stories of others and we can share those stories with our children. We can hear stories of adoption, limb difference, and neuro-atypicality. We can learn about other faiths, cultures and belief systems. And yes, for the sake of my daughter, I hope we can learn that some girls were mistaken for boys at birth and that some boys were mistaken for girls.

There are difficult and heavy things our kids will need to learn about. Injustice, oppression, discrimination, and privilege are just a few. But the idea that people can look, think, and live differently than us is simply not one of those difficult and heavy things. The understanding that some people are differently-abled, transgender, speak with a different accent or in a different languages... that people come in all different sizes, shapes, and colors... and that families are made in a million different ways... this is not the difficult and heavy. If we have any hope of tackling the difficult and heavy (and yes, we most certainly need to), let's start here.

The world is rich with flavor, color, and diversity. There is no time too soon to share that with our children. It's not something that is accomplished in a day or week of awareness. Bullying ends and respect begins when we know that every person has their own story, that every person's story is valuable, and that no person's story can take away from your story.