Mean girls come from mean grandmas

Hear me out, I have a theory. Girls end up like their moms, right? If your mom is a neat freak, you will probably be one too. You probably still remember the little red dress that your mom slipped on for date nights. Maybe you were unlucky enough to have a crazy mom who didn’t get out of bed in the morning to see you off to school; maybe love feels like making your own PB&J in the dark kitchen on a cold morning.

No, I don’t think so. Girls reject their moms. Somewhere around twelve or thirteen, moms start to gross us out. Even if your mom is beautiful – and perfect – you start to hate her beauty. It’s confusing. Somehow the very existence of your mom feels annihilating. Maybe this goes both ways, maybe the fact of her daughter’s becoming a teenager feels annihilating to the mom as well. Maybe they both reject each other.

In their mutual rejection, mother and daughter reach out, grope for another connection, an alternate link to life. I suspect that fathers often fill this role for the girls, but for me it was my grandma. If you’ve read here awhile, then you know that my Bubbie was mean. She made me rinse with Listerine before I’d even lost all of my baby teeth. She blamed me for my older sister’s mental illnesses, and she regularly withheld her love for me. Still, she had a huge effect on me. I couldn’t help myself from loving her anyway, from seeking her approval and even trying to be like her despite her despicable ways.

My Bubbie was incredibly strong. She knew how to protect herself, which my loving, kind, honest mom never learned. She set her limits and didn’t let anyone cross them. My Bubbie showed me how you can love people who you don’t like. She demonstrated that meanness is just another form of admiration, that it is the recognition of dangerous difference.

I’m not defending my grandma, nor advocating meanness. I’m only noticing two decades into my adulthood how valuable that alliance has been for me. At 36, I am probably more like my mom than my Bubbie, but I learned from the best how to be mean. On a daily basis, I let my mean side temper my loving side. I use it to demand the most from my friends, and I use it to set my kids free from unhealthy expectations.

My Bubbie taught me how to protect myself. What about you? Did your grandma give you a secret super power?

Thanks to this guy for inspiring my title. So, Jack B, is it true for men, too? Do mean guys come from mean grandpas? 

Let’s expose ourselves

I read an interesting article a couple of weeks ago, on exposure therapy for young rape victims. Edna Foa, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, led a study last year to test the results of this controversial technique, which is usually reserved for veterans with PTSD, on girls as young as 13.

The article noted that the traditional treatment for girls who have been raped is supportive counseling – kind words and protective environments aimed at helping the victims forget all about what happened to them. Unlike supportive counseling, exposure therapy requires the girls to talk. They tell what happened to them. They tell their horror stories over and over again until finally, they are not scared anymore.

Foa’s study had astounding results. After 14 weeks of exposure therapy, 83 percent of the girls in the study no longer had PTSD, compared with 54 percent of the girls who had traditional therapy. I’m not a scientist, but nearly a 30-percent improvement sounds impressive.

So what was it about the exposure therapy that worked so well? It seems counterintuitive. At first, the article admitted, exposure therapy is very traumatic for the victims. They have to re-live the rape, not just once, but during every therapy session. Foa explained that at the beginning of therapy, the patients get very upset about what happened to them. Their symptoms – presumably anxiety, fear, depression – worsen. At the point where a traditional therapist would veer back toward kind, helpful words, an exposure therapist continues to have her patient repeat her tale again at the next session. Somewhere along the line, after many sessions, the patient begins to realize that the story is in the past and that it doesn’t control the present. “They get a new perspective,” Foa explained.

I like this idea of perspective and of owning our stories, even the painful ones. If you’ve been reading here awhile, then you know that I’ve been rethinking my past. I’ve been retelling my own stories, thankfully none of them about rape. When I began this blog, I could not have explained why I felt drawn to dredge up the past. Now I can tell you that the experience of telling my stories has been hard but good. Sure enough, it makes me anxious at times. Medication and extra sleep help me deal with the side effects, but it’s not easy. Still, for me, feeling the pain has been life affirming. That’s my pain, and it’s okay to feel it.

To me, exposure is not so much a process of letting go as one of acknowledging what I hold onto and why. I think the same thing goes for the 13-year-old rape victims. Telling their stories is a concrete activity that gives them power over the past. Rather than fighting the memory of their trauma, they can shape it. It’s healing.

Mi mamá es mala

Last week I helped out in Gabe’s kindergarten class during a lesson on writing poetry. His teacher began with an example on the board, entitled Mi mamá. His class is bilingual and his teacher speaks mostly Spanish in class.

The kids volunteered descriptions of their moms – mi mamá es buena, mi mamá es linda. Mi mamá es divertido. You get the idea. At one point his teacher accidentally used English instead of Spanish and she quickly corrected herself. Then the kids took a turn writing their own poems, mostly about their moms. Everybody’s mom was nice, fun, pretty. Spanish speakers wrote in Spanish, English speakers in English, and there was no mixture.

It bugged me. Sure, I like being the nice, pretty, fun mom. But I don’t always pull it off. I often have to yell at the kids to get them to put on their coats in the morning just to get them to school on time. Sometimes I get really angry. Just a couple of weeks ago, Gabe told me that he likes to get to school because his teacher is nicer than me. The screaming stops when he gets to school. Somehow that truth just didn’t fit with the poem he wrote about me.

Later on in the day I came back to school for Anna’s Brownie meeting. While we cut out paper snowflakes, one of the girls announced that she never wants to be a mom. “Moms have to do all the work,” she complained. I nodded but didn’t say anything. I want the girls to speak their minds like that, even when it leaves me feeling sad. It’s true – moms have to do a lot of work. But we also get hugs, kisses on the butt, even poetry. “Trust me, it’s worth it,” part of me wanted to tell her.

I want my kids to know that being a mom is hard. I want them to fear parenthood a little, because it is a huge responsibility. I also want them to know that poetry isn’t only for sunshine and butterflies, but a place where they can get messy and real, where they can play with the good and the bad parts of life. I want them to pull all their feelings out and never worry about being nice or perfect. I want them to mix it up. Honestly, I hope that someday they curse me in Spanglish.

I wish I had been an orphan

The past few months I’ve been reading the kids Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. We just began book five, The Austere Academy. The kids are obsessed with it, and Geoff and I like it a lot, too. It’s dark and funny, with lots of big words. In other words, it’s awesome.

The stories are about three orphans, siblings whose parents died in a fire, who go on to have adventure after adventure. In each book the kids narrowly avoid a different disaster, and they regularly find themselves in situations that they never would have if their parents had survived.

When I was a kid I used to wish that my mom would die just so that I could have the kind of adventures that the Baudelaire orphans do. No, I didn’t actually want my mom to be dead, I just wanted my life to be more fun. If she died, I thought that I could go and live with my godmother, who seemed infinitely more interesting than my mom. I also wanted to live in an RV and travel around the country, something that was out of the question for my mom. Needless to say, my mom lived into my adulthood and I was at least seventeen before I ever had a real adventure.

My mom nearly gave me up for adoption – did I ever mention that? It’s a long story of its own, but when it came down to it, she changed her mind. She was single, poor, divorced, and unwed. She had little going for her in general, so when she found herself pregnant with me at 38, she first thought that adoption would be the best option. Then I was born two months early and my mom nearly died from complications. When things settled down, she decided that the universe had a message for her. She decided to take another stab at motherhood.

I’m glad that my mom did not give me up for adoption. I mean, I hope that goes without saying. I’m lucky in so many ways to have been raised by my mom. She gave me all that she had to give, and now I often wonder how she did it. Yet looking back, my life feels like a series of narrowly missed adventures. My childhood was safe and quiet, I went to college just 20 minutes from home, I got married at 23.

I’ve never been thrown to the wolves. I’ve never risked it all on my own in the world. I’ve never entrusted myself to the universe just for fun. Damn it, I want to.


I Don't Like Mondays Blog Hop

My door is red

Did you know that Georgia O’Keefe chose her home in Abiquiu, New Mexico, because she liked a door in its courtyard? She saw the door, and she knew she needed to paint it despite the house being in ruins. It took her years to buy the home and renovate it, but she finally did. And she painted her door many times, in all sorts of different ways.


I just finished reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Have you read it? I liked it. He talks about the phenomenon of snap decisions, how they work, and their strengths and weaknesses. He briefly explains that our minds have a “locked door” between the conscious and unconscious. All the mechanics of our snap decisions lie behind the locked door of our minds, which he says, we can’t ever really know.

Not being able to know my own mind feels infuriating. Gladwell writes about a tennis coach, blessed with the ability to predict whenever a player will double fault a serve, who lies awake at night trying to figure out why he knows what he knows. Isn’t that just so true? I want to know how my mind works. I want to open my locked door, don’t you?


In his conclusion, Gladwell writes, “the key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” Knowledge and understanding. Knowledge is an accessible set of facts, it’s what we find when we Google something, when we do our research. Understanding implies a relationship to that knowledge, a comprehension of it. Knowledge is easy to find, understanding takes time. Knowledge takes action, understanding takes patience.


I’m thinking of Georgia O’Keefe painting her courtyard door over and over again. Was she trying to create the perfect door? No. She was giving her unconscious a place to express itself. She was seeing what her door could produce. It’s true that we can’t ever know the mechanics lying behind our locked doors. Even the most intensive psychotherapy only offers the opportunity to watch ourselves and see what we do. What actions arise from our unconscious? Is there a pattern to the output? In the absence of facts – of knowledge – understanding comes from watching the door and seeing what we can create from it.


What’s yours is mine

So, remember a couple of weeks ago when I mentioned that Geoff might be getting fired? Well, it’s happening. Only, he’s getting laid off, with what will most likely be a big severance package. And – here’s the really funny part – he already has a new job. No kidding. He got the offer letter last week and he’s accepting it today. He even gets a big, fat signing bonus.

I know, I know. I sound awful. It’s not that I don’t feel lucky for this good fortune. I do. It’s not that I’m not happy for Geoff, because I am. Like I said before, he works hard. I’m glad that he has a great reputation that travels well. I’m excited for him for this new opportunity. Truly, I think everything will work out for the best for him.

But I’m jealous. I want what Geoff has. I want the recognition, the extra pay, the opportunity. I want an easy transition to my next phase of life. More than that, I want the necessity. Why would it be so much easier for me if I needed to do it for money?

Geoff did make me an offer yesterday. He promised to help out with the kids over the next few months before he starts the new job so I can work on my writing. He told me to take some of the extra money and hire a sitter during the day so I can write. He said something about being my benefactor. I’m thrilled and scared. Of course I’m taking him up on it.

Oh, and have I mentioned how much I love him?

Bring your egg in

Last night I had a hilarious conversation with my friends. We were out at dinner, sharing dim sum, and we started talking about working out. Working out led to horror stories about the Jillian Michael’s DVD Ripped in 30. (Most of my friends and I have suffered through it, have you?) Horror stories about trying to do a sit up. “Can you touch your foot? I can’t get past my knee!” More nightmares about the duck walk.

And then one friend mentioned how much she hates the background music. “But I like how Jillian makes up little motivational sayings,” she said.

“Like what?” I asked.

“Like when she says, ‘Bring your egg in,’” she laughed.

“Wait – do you mean ‘Bring your A-game?’” I asked, and we all burst out laughing. For about ten minutes.

I’m still trying to imagine what my friend thought of when she heard “Bring your egg in.” Are we farmers? Was it a jab at us stay-at-home moms who are too lazy to bring in the groceries? What? I don’t know. But it sure did make us laugh.

Now that I’m thinking about it, Jillian Michaels is incredibly motivating. First of all, she’s hot. You know, she follows her own advice. Plus she’s complicated. She’s mean and nice at the same time. She’s reminding you how awesome you are for showing up at the same time that she’s pushing you to work harder than you think you can. She is right there, in your face, kicking your ass. Killing you. She’s right, though, getting out of your comfort zone does make you stronger. It’s not just about getting in shape, it’s about life. Go take responsibility for whatever it is that you want and then go get it.

Go bring your egg in.

Now you see it, now you don’t

There’s a chance that Geoff might get fired today. I really wish that I were joking, but I’m not. If you know me, know him, then you probably want to laugh anyway. You’d know how crazy it sounds. Geoff gets promoted, not fired. In fact, he has been promoted twice in three years. You’d know – without me having to tell you – how hard he works and how much he accomplishes. He’s a doer. It’s a challenge to find him not doing something even in his free time. Imagine how much he can accomplish when you throw money into the mix.

If you know Geoff, then you know what a nice guy he is, how agreeable he is. He rarely ever gets angry. It’s one of the things that I love most about him. You’d know that he’s really smart and that he has an uncanny ability to teach himself anything that he wants to know. You’d know that he is an innovator, always thinking of ways to make things work faster, more efficiently, no matter how small.

So, if you knew all of these things about him, would you believe that it would ever be possible for someone to turn all of Geoff’s skills, all of his gifts, against him? Could you believe someone who cast a light in such a way as to make his attributes look like flaws? Would you buy it that he is a liability, not an asset to his company?

Well, it happened.

How, you ask? Well I’m not positive, but I have a suspicion that emotions are to blame. I could go into the gritty details, but I don’t think it really matters. Suffice it to say that emotions are like a magician’s bag of tricks. In one set of hands, a dove flies out of a top hat. In another set, the top hat holds a cloud of gloomy black smoke. It’s a simple illusion, nothing more than a manipulation.

Just remember, not everything is as it seems. I’m half hoping that he does get fired today. Maybe it’s just the kind of motivation that I need to find my way back to the workforce. Maybe we can use the time off and severance money to take a trip. I hear Hawaii is nice this time of year.

Postscript: Geoff just texted me — he’s still employed. Whew. I think.

Girls in prison


I’ve heard really good things about this new show, Orange is the New Black, and last night I finally got around to watching the first episode. Yeah, I liked it. I can see why I’ve heard so much about it. I’m drawn to the idea of prison as this sort of alternate reality where smartphones are obsolete and escapism is nearly impossible. I like that women get to be bad asses, drawing on their survival skills. I like the reverse-edginess, where the prison culture feels like it could break down into a knitting circle at any moment.

At one point, a male guard tells Chapman (the main character) not to make any friends. What? Don’t make any friends? Why not? Is is even possible for a group of women to live in close quarters without making friends? I say no. Ladies, making friends is our superpower. No wonder the male guard warned against it. It makes his job that much harder.

I did have one gripe, though. It bugged me how Chapman’s past and present are pointedly at odds with each other. Her decade-old lesbian relationship bought her a ticket to prison, forcing Chapman to put off her marriage to her nice-Jewish-boy fiance. Now, I’ve only watched one episode, so maybe the writers will redeem themselves. But really? The glaring stereotypes strike me as outdated.

Have you watched it? What did you think?