Where Violence Begins

This was originally printed in the Cedar Rapids Gazette as part of my Pants-Free Parenting Column. I wasn’t going to put it on here, it seemed to be too local. But then, I read this article about the part women play in domestic violence and I thought, HELL NO. That is garbage. So, I’m putting it up here. I am also including some great commentary from another mother, writer and abuse survivor.


We were face-timing with a family member when my son pulled my daughter’s hair.

I could see him in the screen. Both children were in my lap and he was staring right at her hair, his little hand slowly reaching out as if compelled by a force far beyond his control. That force no doubt was a mixture of curiosity and the call of nature that compels all little brothers to torment their sisters.

I pulled him away, but it was too late. My daughter was screaming.

“Don’t pull hair, buddy,” I said gently. He did it again. This time, he was fast. My daughter screamed louder. “Brother, you are wrecking me!”

“Well,” my family member said over the iPad, “maybe you should move so he won’t pull your hair.”

I picked up my toddler son and put him on the ground, then turned to face the screen. “No, don’t blame the victim.”

“She should move, though.”

Suddenly, this wasn’t about brothers and sisters, fighting over lap real estate, curiosity or learning. This was about not blaming my daughter for her brother’s violence. And I knew my daughter was watching, so I stood my ground.

“No, she has a right not to be attacked,” I said. My family member sighed and changed the topic. I comforted both children, but I was angry.

A few days later, I related a story to a friend about my son hitting his sister with a pool noodle and my daughter just lying on the floor sobbing. “That’s just boys,” my friend said. She likes to tell me what boys are and what they aren’t, because she has two sons herself. She thinks I need to know. “But your daughter, she should have moved,” my friend added.

“No,” I said for the second time that week, “she has a right not to be attacked.”

The language we use when we talk about children reveals more about our society than we’d like to admit. I see parents laugh off their sons’ violence as “just boys” and harshly punish their daughters when they do the same. A parent who witnessed my daughter sitting still while her brother pummeled her with a pillow joked to me that my 4-year-old daughter has “battered wife syndrome.”

“Have you ever told her to just hit back?” he asked.

“How does that help?” I asked. “How does making his violence her responsibility help?”

These comments anger me because they hit close. Someone near to me has been in an abusive relationship for a long time. The responses she receives to her partner’s violence — emotional, verbal and physical — is to ask her why she doesn’t leave.

Currently in the county where I live, Linn County, there have been four domestic homicides. Each has involved men attacking and killing women. Husbands, boyfriends and exes, each man violently turning on a woman. Each time we ask, why didn’t she leave? Why didn’t she get away?

The real question should be, why wasn’t he stopped?

This is ostensibly a parenting blog, to be sure. But parenting issues are human issues. The ways in which we allow violence in our communities begins when children are small. We permit boys to be boys. Yet, we teach girls to restrain themselves. We allow men to be aggressive, while simultaneously blaming women for not leaving, moving and running away. We teach women from an early age that a man’s actions are her responsibility.

Think I’m wrong? Go talk to women in abusive situations. I have. They each take on the blame for their partner’s violence. “I made him mad,” they’ll say. “I shouldn’t have done that,” they’ll say. Domestic violence programs, rape programs, they all focus on women — on women staying safe, protecting themselves. But where in all of that do we teach men not to be violent? Not to hit? Not to use their fists when they lash out?

We don’t. In fact, it’s common to hear parents privilege the violence of men. “I like how boys just fight it out,” one mother told me. “It’s better than the way girls fight.”

I don’t believe my toddler son is a violent offender. He is just a baby, learning limits and boundaries. But I do know that how I treat his violence now will set a tone for the rest of his life. And I know my daughter is watching. I am not trying to deny the differences in my children. Children are different. But the standards of behavior are the same.

Surely, there is room for lessons on self-defense. Those will come later, when we face violence that is out of our control. But right now, I choose to teach my children that everyone has a right not to be attacked and no one should live life on the defensive.

9 Questions for My Mother

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My friend Claire Zulkey put an interview with her mom over on her blog. I thought it was sweet and interesting and I figured my mom might be up for it. So, I emailed her these questions. She emailed me back, but it turned out she was having my sister type for her (my mom’s nails frequently prevent her from typing because they are fancy), so the answers where like, “You were adopted! I NEVER LOVED YOU!” So, she made me call her. These are transcribed answers. Many of the answers were longer, but then she’d tell me I couldn’t put in like the last 20 sentences. (“Elizabeth, don’t you put in there that I said that about your sister!”) So, it got complicated.

It’s cliche, but having children has helped me understand my mother more. Having my own anxiety has helped me understand hers. Talking about my children with her has helped me see so much of what she saw and dealt with in us. Sometimes it feels like grace. Sometimes it feels like karma, but mostly I think it’s a form of redemption for everyone. She is a great woman my mother. The mother of eight. And whatever else I am, I am one of the reasons she went crazy. So, that’s on me.

1. What’s the one thing you would have done differently as a mom?

I wish I would had known how anxious I was and I wish I would have known about the drugs I could have taken. Anxiety made me crazy.

2. Why did you choose to be with my father?

He was funny, he made me laugh a lot and he had ambition.

3. In what ways do you think I’m like you? And not like you?

This one is hard, because you can see physical characteristics. Physically we are a lot alike. But your sense of humor and your intelligence, those like your dad. ( I am a smart woman, but you are smart in a different way.) And we are both creative, but in different ways. We both like to cook but you are better than me now, I would say. We both like to read. But you have a real logical mind. You could have made a really good lawyer.

Me: But who needs more of those, right?

Mom: Isn’t it like writing?

Me: Fair enough point.

4. Which one of us kids did you like the best?

That’s the worst question. I refuse to answer. There are things I like and don’t like about each of you. I mean, think about your brother Caleb. He is so funny, right? But isn’t in horrible how manipulative he is? I mean he can always get you girls to do anything for him. Elizabeth, don’t put that in there.

5. Is there anything you have always wanted to tell me but never have?

Yes.

6. Do you think it’s easier or harder to be a mother now than when you were raising our family?

Much harder. Economically it’s not as easy to be at home with your kids. There are a lot more pressures–emotional pressures. Pressures to produce. You can’t just be a mom, you have to be something else. Working with kids is harder now too. Kids have so many more problems. And maybe we had them then too but weren’t aware. But it is harder.

7. Is there anything you regret not having asked your parents?

I regret not asking my mom about her past, I suspect it was difficult. It’s something that I wish I would have asked about, but then, I know I couldn’t have asked. It was a different time.

8. What’s the best thing I can do for you right now?

Make me a coconut cake and bring me my grand kids. No. Although, I appreciate those things, I just appreciate being your mom. I like talking to you and being your mom and reading your stuff, even though it hurts sometimes. I just enjoy you and being with you. I wish we lived closer. I miss being near all my kids.

9. When did you realize you were no longer a child?

When your dad and I were in California and right before I had Jessica (my oldest sister). We had no support system and family was so far away and we were going to have a kid and I realized I had to do this on my own.

Advice for Princess Kate Upon Having Her Second Child

Like Princess Kate, I also have two kids. Unlike her, I have zero castles and no employees. But since we both saw fit to use our uteri to produce both male and female children, I’m sure she’s dying to have wisdom from me, a white lady living in Iowa, who has never met her and some days can’t even manage to brush her own hair.

A lady who looked like this coming home from the hospital after having her first child.

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And Kate looked like this. I mean, lol postpartum bodies am I right? Kate, my bestie? My soul mate.princess

And while our sons were born relatively close together, by the time she was having her first, I was having my second, so, despite the castles and the nannies, I know she really, really needs my advice.

So, here it goes: When your baby is up in the middle of the night and then baby Prince George wakes up and you are dying because you haven’t slept in days and now both children are sobbing and it’s two in the morning and your nipples are bleeding, and you don’t know what to do. That is when, my dear, you call the nanny. Or five of them. I DON’T KNOW YOU ARE A PRINCESS IN A CASTLE. YOU HAVE SERVANTS. WHY ARE YOUR NIPPLES BLEEDING ANYWAY? CAN’T SOMEONE SACRIFICE A GOAT TO THE GODS OF LACTATION FOR YOU AND CLEAR THAT UP?

I’m sure you are hands on and all. But “hands on” for a Royal simply means you have five nannies not 10 and you interact with them beyond a firm hand shake and and “Keep up the good word, lad.” Look, I’m not judging. If I could hire a million nannies, I would. I would do it in a heartbeat. I mean, hell. I’d hire a homeless guy to just let me have two minutes without someone saying mommomomomomomomomom in my ear over and over. But at this point even the homeless are more well-kept than I.

So my advice? My advice should you need some, is idk hire another nanny or better yet, ask someone with a PhD because let’s be honest, I don’t look much better now than I do in the photo above. And I’m having a good day.

The Most Beautiful Word

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A few nights ago, I was woken by the sound of my 21-month-old child calling my name.

“Mom! MOOOM! MAAAAAM!”

It was 1:30 in the morning. And he was really screaming, more than calling. “Mom! Mom! Mom! MAAAM!”

It was impressive really, the rhythms that he used. I was so proud of how loud he could be and how already he had out-grown the babyish “mommy” for the full on, “MOM!” My little guy is growing up.

After some Tylenol and rocking and several more minutes of shouting, he fell asleep. It was three in the morning. At five, it started all over again. “MOM! MOOOM! MAMAMAMAMAMAMAMAMAMAAM!”

I remember when my daughter was an infant. I would wave toys in front of her as she looked at me unimpressed from the bouncy seat. What will her voice sound like? What will she say? I didn’t have long to find out. My daughter started speaking  when she was about nine months old. Starting with “Hi, dada” and moving quickly onto, “Mo mo cookie!” and my personal favorite, “No, mom!”

In fact, she could scream at me in full sentences before she could walk. A feat, she finally mastered at 18 months old. Right after she learned to correctly identify a space shuttle and Venus.  It took maybe a month of her talking before I instantly regretted ever wanting to hear what she had to say. As it turns out, all babies have to tell you is how you are failing and that they want more syrup and waffles, no pancakes! How could you even think that they wanted waffles?

Today, my friend Natalie reminded me that one of the first things my daughter said to her was, “Stop dancin! No dancin!” She said this as Natalie tried to dance with her.

Recently, my sister was lamenting that her daughter hasn’t quite gotten the hang of talking yet. My niece is very intelligent. She toddles around frowning and making small marks in notebooks. They are probably alien code, relating back to her home planet just how disappointing we all are as humans. She’s going to have her first book out at the age of four titled. “Sleep Train This! How to Break Your Parents and Win Supremacy of the Home.”

I told my sister that she doesn’t want to hear what her daughter has to say. Because, sure, while “I yub you.” Is really sweet to hear. You literally only hear it after giving them a fourth cookie and when you tell them you are out, they scream and probably say some sort of garbled version of “you are dead to me.”

I used to think that hearing the words “Mommy” would be some sort of sweet reward for the bloody nipples and eyeball quaking exhaustion, but I know I know–“Mommy” is one of the worst words in the English language. My kids weld “Mom” like a weapon. “MOM! YOU DID NOT BUY DA RIGHT COOKIES!” “Mom! Is dat on sale? Daddy said we should only buy fings on sale.” Or, just the classic: “Mommomomomomomomomomomomomom!”

“What?”

“MOOOOOOOOM!”

Have you ever noticed how they never just say, “mom” like it always has to be screamed. It is always the verbal equivalent of the angry internet commenter who writes in all caps.

I’ve been working on teaching my son to say charming things like, “I’m gun be two!” (right now he just holds up five fingers and says, “FREE!” So, I’m nailing it.) And I successfully trained my daughter to sing, “Julio get the stretch!” But its all paltry comfort compared to “MOM! I HAVEN’T HAD ANY SCREEN TIME YET TODAY!”

Because no one ever says, “Mom” without some sort of expectation. It’s never, “Mom! Let me do the dishes.” Or “Mom, I bought you some scotch!” It’s always “Mom, my brudder put germs in my tacos and I won’t eat it.”

I have been at Target without my children and heard a child shout “MOM!” and I’ve whipped around and said, “What!?” Other parents don’t even judge you for that. They just look at you enviously, because even though you are having parenting PTSD, you are alone with your latte. Sweet glorious freedom that it is.

I understand kids are just little. They have needs and their needs mostly include wanting to sniff your breath to see if you were eating all the chocolate. I get it. But I’m beginning to think it doesn’t end. Like in 15 years I’ll be fielding phone calls: “Mom, can you do my laundry? My hovercraft broke again can I have a new one?”

I met someone recently who calls her mom Terry. That’s her name, Terry. And I just thought how Terry might have had this whole thing figured out already.  Good job, Terry.

How To Raise A Boy

Before I had a boy a lot of people said to me, “What will you do with a boy?”

This comment was probably prompted by my complete disregard of anything masculine, except whiskey and bourbon. Which, let’s be honest, why did that turn into a “guy thing”? Whiskey and bourbon are delicious and they are mine.

I’ve never played an organized sport. I hate watching them. I only go to baseball games for the beer and the hot dogs. Once my husband and I went to watch the Red Sox play at Fenway Park on the fourth of July. After a tour of the stadium and the obligatory stadium food, I asked to leave. My husband turned to me very seriously and said, “If you leave Fenway Park on the Fourth of July we will probably have to get a divorce and you’ll have to turn Canadian.” I stayed. But only because I brought a book.

So, having a boy? Well, how in the world could I ever prepare for that? I mean, how could a person raise a man without pelting him with all manner of sports balls from birth until 18?

The other reason people made this comment was because my first child is a girl, who loves all manner of sparkles and unicorns and her ideal day is wearing a princess dress and making mud pies for her imaginary baby chickies, who follow her around and give her crowns and jewels. Or so I am told.

My mother in law, the mother of three boys, took me aside in the weeks after my son was born and said, “Is your daughter ready for a brother? Boys are different, you know.”

I just shrugged. “I guess she’s ready enough.”

My mother-in-law sighed and shook her head. She didn’t think we were ready. In the intervening 21 months since he’s been born, my son has been a very different child than my first. He scales counters. He can always find a knife. He throws everything—food, rocks, sand, glitter. He turns wands into guns, despite never having seen a gun in his entire life. It’s like he just knows that a stick that shoots fire and hurts people would be cool. I have a theory that even cave toddlers, in the days before guns, intuitively understood what a gun was and spent their days pretending to shoot things with sticks.

I think the same about sports too. If civilization were completely wiped out and there only remained a small collective of men who remembered nothing of their past lives. They’d probably invent the NFL before they even had a reliable source of water.

So, a boy, what in the world do I do with a boy? And I hear other mother’s ask this question as well. And it’s truly one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. Let me tell you what we do with our boy. It’s really complicated, so pay attention.

We feed him. We love him. We read him books. We let him pretend to shoot things. We also let him wear dress ups. We do crafts. We paint. We knock over towers of blocks. He throws balls at my head. He runs and we chase him. We run and he chases us. We put him to sleep. We put clothes on him. I teach him lessons about not hitting, about being kind and gentle, about saying, “Sorry” and sharing. We have him set his plate at the table and clear it when he is done. These are not new lessons but the very same we still teach our daughter. Also, sometimes we bathe him. Although we might give that up because it’s futile.

Do you know what his sister does with him? She gives him horse rides and plays princess. Sometimes they play house and sometimes she pushes him in the baby carriage while he yells, “MORE!” Sometimes she reads him books. A lot of times they fight, mostly over play make up and hairbrushes.

You know how you raise a boy? You raise him exactly like you raise any other human or houseplant, with food, water, love, kindness and a cultivated and careful amount of neglect.

Despite the fact that my kids are so radically different, I bristle at the assumption that raising a boy is so inherently different than raising a girl. People are different. Children are all different. One kid has taught me about magic. The other kid has taught me how to take a weapon from an armed infant. Both lessons are valuable.  But in the end, they are both humans first, I try to treat them as such and let them guide me with the rest.

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This originally appeared in The Cedar Rapids Gazette.

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