Using An Annoyance to Spark a Powerful Conversation with My Child

This singing Christmas tree is the bane of our holiday existence. But good things – even deep insights – can come from the most annoying of situations.

While some people can’t stand non-stop carols or mall parking lots during the holiday season, this tree bugs us the entire month of December. My mother-in-law bought it for my older son (nicknamed Sprout) a few years ago. Since then, he has played it as many times as we would possibly let him. First thing in the morning. Last thing before bedtime. Random times during the day until my husband finally gets sick of it and puts it away. While the song is cute the first time, it’s grating the 60th time. But I just don’t have the heart to get rid of it.

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How Moms Can Reduce the Mental Load that Leaves Us Sick and Tired

How Moms Can Reduce the Mental Load and Emotional Labor that Leaves Us Sick and Tired. (Photo: White woman holding her head with one hand and a crying baby with the other.)

When I faced going back to work after my maternity leave, my husband and I faced a very real and common challenge – how to balance household management and the mental load between the two of us.

I’m a “doer” at heart while my husband, Chris, is much more laid-back. So taking everything over was a legitimate risk for me. The mental burden of being a mom is very real, whether you embrace the role of being a “keeper” of everything or find it smothering.

Our situation had an additional twist on it. That’s because Chris was going to be taking on a role that 29% of moms hold, but only 7% of dads do – stay-at-home parent. Because I would be working outside the home and he wouldn’t, I could not be the de facto household manager. It wouldn’t be fair or practical.

So we had to find a balance of duties, both in terms of physical chores and management. Since then, we’ve learned to reduce my emotional labor and mental load as a mom. (Unfortunately, most of these don’t apply if you’re a single parent.)

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Seven Ways I’m Teaching My Young Sons to be Feminists

Photo: Toy kitchen from Little Tikes with a stove, cutting board, microwave and knife block. Text: "7 Ways I'm Teaching My Young Sons to be Feminists / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

When I was pregnant, I imagined what life might be like if I had a little girl. I envisioned teaching her to stand up for herself, buying her dresses with science symbols, letting her get dirty, and being an example of a strong woman for her. I wasn’t going to stereotype her or allow anyone else to, thank you very much. In short, I considered how to teach her to be a feminist.

But I turned out to have two sons.

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Nine Awesome Picture Books with Girls as Main Characters

Photo: Covers of the books Lola Loves Stories (girl and her dad reading a book), Ada Twist, Scientist (a girl with lab goggles and boy below her), One Hot Summer Day (a girl looking up at a city apartment) and The Paper Bag Princess (a girl in a paper bag facing a dragon). Text: "Nine Awesome Picture Books with Girls as Main Characters / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

The girls are missing.

Children’s literature is remarkably devoid of female main characters. As a recent video illustrates so drastically, in a study of more than 500 children’s books, 25% had zero female characters. Even though there are loads of animals that could easily be female, they’re almost always identified as male.

Even when there are female characters, they’re often relegated to a stereotypical role, like the stick-in-the-mud, the mom, or “the vain one.” In children’s media, just under 20% of female characters had jobs or specific aspirations.

Just like in the broader popular culture, boys in picture books get to go on adventures, solve problems, and save the day. These stories teach our children that either girls don’t get to do fun things or have to stay in society’s prescribed roles.

In contrast, both little girls and boys need female characters in books! While little girls need to see themselves represented, boys need need to know that the story isn’t always about them – and that it’s a good thing.

Bringing down the patriarchy can start at your child’s bookshelf. Here are some of my family’s favorite books featuring girls as main characters. In addition, a number of these books feature girls of color, which are even harder to find.

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Marching for the Future: The Women’s March on Washington

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“Tell us what democracy looks like – this is what democracy looks like!” chanted by countless voices rang through the National Mall. I and two of my friends were in the middle of the Women’s March on Washington yesterday, along with about a million other people. From creative signs to the chants, the crowd was seriously pissed off. At the same time, there was a serious sense of solidarity and dare I say – hope.

As Dave Engledow, the photographer of the World’s Best Father set of photos, says, it felt like the scene in The Grinch Stole Christmas when all of the Whos in Whoville sing together despite the Grinch trying to ruin everything.

Maybe democracy doesn’t come from a store – perhaps democracy means just a little bit more!

A few of my highlights from the day:

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Why I’m Thankful for Labor Day as a Mom

Why I'm Thankful for Labor Day as a Mom2

I’m thankful for Labor Day and the people who made it possible – both as a worker and a mom. But we still have so much more to do.

I’m thankful I have weekends off so I can spend them with my husband and kids. I already feel like this time is so stretched; I can’t imagine having even less. But before 1937 and the work of labor unions, there was no standard 40 hour workweek. Even now, there are moms who have to work two jobs just to get by, meaning they don’t get those precious hours.

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Songs to Grow Up With: Kids’ Music for Little Radicals

songs-to-grow-up-with_-kids-music-for-little-radicals

Listening to music can be a radical act. And I don’t mean in the 2112 or Footloose “music is evil” type of way. But more that the type of music we listen to is not only a reflection of our tastes and perspectives but an influence on them.

Nowhere is this more true than for kids, who either end up listening to music developed for their specific age group or are subjected to their parents’ musical tastes. While some kids music is absolutely inane, it doesn’t have to be. Without needing to go full-on Defiance of Anthropomorphic Sea Mammals (from Portlandia), here are a few songs that may help inspire your kids to be activists or at least anti-authoritarian. Not all of these were originally for kids – many of them are straight-up folk songs – but I think they all have a kid appeal.

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Book Club: The Little Engine that Could, A Feminist Reading

My Book Club – quirky critical and social justice takes on children’s literature. Otherwise known as what happens when someone interested pop culture and political analysis has read the same bedtime story for the 100th time.

The Little Engine that Could is best known for its signature line, “I think I can.” But while many adults remember nothing outside of that – I know I didn’t until my son went on an Little Engine kick – the core of the story is actually a groundbreaking feminist fable.

From the very start, The Little Engine that Could is notable for featuring female protagonists in a book first published in 1930. For those who don’t quite remember, the namesake Little Engine must go over the mountain because an engine pulling a train full of “toys and good things to eat for the boys and girls on the other side of the mountain” has broken down. Both the broken-down engine and the Little Engine who takes over her load are explicitly gendered as female. While they are referred to specifically as “she,” the rest of the trains are referred to as “he.” Compare this to Dr. Seuss, who of his 47 main characters had only three female protagonists. Even today, television and movie executives still say that boys won’t go to a movie or buy a toy starring a girl.

The book also illustrates how the patriarchy underserves and denigrates the needs of children and women. After the original engine breaks down, a little toy clown jumps off the train to flag down help. Three different trains pass by, each refusing to pull the toys and food. The first train states that he is too important to bother, explaining that he has a dining car with waiters. It connects the social power of the rich to not caring about the needy. The second similarly refuses, explaining that he is too powerful to bother, as he just came from carrying heavy equipment to print newspapers for adults. Simply, both are saying that feeding children and bringing them toys aren’t worth their time or effort. To add insult to injury, the first two trains aren’t even busy with different jobs! They’re headed back to the maintenance yard and just don’t feel like helping. The third train that rejects the clown does so for slightly different reasons – he is too old and tired – but is also notably male.

When the Little Engine comes on the scene, she shows how the glass ceiling affects even competent, hard-working women. Although she wants to help, she says she isn’t sure that she can – she’s never been over the mountain before. But her lack of experience isn’t for lack of effort. Instead, it’s lack of opportunity – she is only used for switching in the yard. It’s only when another female train needs help and no one else is willing to that she receives her chance.

And of course, everyone knows the ending – through grit, passion, and a good mantra, she gets over the mountain. She not only proves herself, but also brings the girls and boys in the city on the other side of the mountain good food to eat and toys to play with. In the end, it’s a story of one strong woman finding empowerment by helping out another woman and serving her greater community. A lesson far more complex than the easy “I think I can,” and even more worth cheering for.

Women’s History Month Role Models: Historical and Modern Advocates for Justice

Photo: Historical head-shot black-and-white photograph of Ida B. Wells, an African American woman with hair gathered in a high bun; Text: "Women's History Month Role Models: Advocates for Justice"

Reading all of the wonderful stories of women being shared for Women’s History Month inspired me to think about the women who have influenced me. I realized that they fell into three categories: women I personally know, women (and girls) in pop culture, and historical and modern women in advocacy. This week, I’m going highlight my female role-models and hope you find someone to be inspired by!

Today, I’m focusing on real-life women in history or the larger culture who are advocates for social justice. In particular, I’m focusing both on women who inspired me personally and who may not be quite as well-known. This list tends to be focused on my areas of interest – poverty, environmental issues, food systems – and this is just but the shortest of lists, so there are a lot of issues missed. Nonetheless, I hope to raise awareness about some of these women who aren’t always (although sometimes) mentioned in the history books.

Vandana Shiva: Shiva is one of the most compelling and unique advocates in the sustainable food movement. While much of the sustainable food movement is white, upper to middle-class Americans concerned about their personal exposure to bioengineering, Shiva is Indian and focuses her work on how corporate control of the food system affects farmers in non-Western countries. She’s spoken out against corporations and governments patenting plant species that farmers have been cultivating for centuries. She’s also done a lot of work in seed saving, helping farmers access to alternatives to “terminator seeds” that only produce sterile seeds. Her organization, Navdanya, has set up more than 100 community seed banks throughout India and is working with the government of Bhutan to convert 100% of their agriculture to organic. Plus, her PhD thesis was on “Hidden Variables and Non-locality in Quantum Theory,” which is inherently hardcore.

Sister Dorothy Stang: If Sister Lucy is the most badass nun I’ve ever met, Sister Dorothy Stang is probably the most badass one I haven’t. (At least in modern times – some of those saints had some very interesting backstories.) As a young woman, she traveled to Brazil to educate farmers in the Amazon jungle about land tenure and avoiding deforestation. However, her work quickly became political as she learned more about the farmers’ situation. As loggers, ranchers, and real estate speculators moved into the rainforest, they threatened the livelihoods and lives of the people she was trying to serve. She collaborated with the local people to fight against the profiteers trying to kick them off their land. She lobbied the local government and sat in vigil to blockade logging trucks trying to get into the forest. Because of her advocacy, she was put on a “death list” and later murdered by the local crime group. As they approached her, she pulled a Bible from her bag and began to read from the Beatitudes. In college, I read about her story in Outside Magazine and hung their obituary on my door. Both her story and my experience with H.O.M.E. strongly influenced my passion for social justice, especially in tandem with environmental justice.

Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells: When I aspired to be a high-flying journalist (ha) in high school, Nellie Bly was my gal. Perhaps most famous for faking severe mental illness to get admitted to an insane asylum, I admire how she put herself in serious danger to expose corrupt systems and inhumane treatment. She was in the asylum for 10 days, where the nurses fed them poorly, tied the “dangerous” patients up with ropes, didn’t clean up waste, forced the women to beat on hard wooden benches all day, and yelled at and beat the patients. The articles she published exposed the subhuman conditions that were common in the very broken mental health system, leading to reform. For bonus awesomeness, she also beat the world record for circumnavigating the globe. Similarly, besides both being named Ida, Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells also leveraged the power of the pen to sway people’s attitudes and actions. Ida Tarbell wrote a series of articles in McClure’s about the monopoly of Standard Oil and how it manipulated the economy. She pored over piles of public documents and interviewed people across the country. Her articles and the book that followed were the first examples of both investigative journalism and the corporate expose. Ida B. Wells was an early civil rights advocate. When forced to give up her seat in the first class cabin of a train because of her race, she refused, more than 70 years earlier than Rosa Parks did on a bus. She sued the railroad and at least initially, won her case. She was co-owner and editor of a black newspaper, where she wrote articles exposing the lies that white supremacists used to justify lynching, identifying as far more of a form of social control over the black community than anything related to punishment of individuals. All of these women show how fundamental communication is to social change and managed to do in a profession that has never been welcoming to females.

Ella Jo Baker: Baker was a key figure in the 1950s civil rights movement, but isn’t that well-known today. I actually hadn’t heard of her until recently. But she probably would have preferred it that way. Baker worked in the background of the movement, organizing people, mentoring new leaders, forging connections and building the foundation for the mass movement. She opposed the idea of charismatic leadership in advocacy and specifically rejected how the church was set up, with mostly male leadership over a female congregation. Instead, she embraced participatory democracy with a collective style of action rather than a hierarchical one. As someone who has only acted in an official leadership positions a few times, but dedicated many hours in the background, I highly appreciate this viewpoint. In addition, much of my learning curve of becoming a better ally and advocate has been about understanding how to listen, appreciate other people’s true needs and provide them the support they need. For me, leadership is much more about being a servant than having charisma. She’s such a great example of this philosophy.

There are so many more women around the world in the past and present who are making their communities stronger and the world a more just place. Oxfam America and ONE have been doing a number of profiles of women in non-Western countries that are both powerful and inspiring.

Who are your favorite female advocates for justice now or in the past?