Friday, May 31, 2013

Cast from Eden

Guest Post by Lynn Shattuck, a writer in Portland, Maine
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We are Skyping with my parents when I realize it is time for the talk.

My mom and dad’s disembodied heads grin as my four-year-old disrobes. “Oh, Max, can you please keep your clothes on?” I beg. It is just after 1:00 PM and we have already had four costume changes. Lately Max demands to dress monochromatically. His favorite such outfit is his gray sweatpants and grey shirt, which my husband says makes him look like a 1950’s gym teacher. He just needs a whistle. “I want my grays!” are among the first words out of his mouth in the morning. But now, his grays lie on the floor near his bare ankles.

Max opens his mouth, cackles a bit and does a little jig in his Cars underwear. Except that he is removing that now, too. “Maxie! That’s private,” I say. As I say it, I realize I have never said that to him before. I have begged for privacy myself: Can I please just go to the bathroom without an audience, just this once? I have stopped him from barging in on unsuspecting friends as they use the potty: Maxie, Addie probably wants a little privacy. On the computer screen, my parents shake their heads, still smiling.
We have taken a very relaxed approach to nudity thus far. I am amazed and awed by the way that my children are strangers to shame. Having had a long history with negative body image and shame, I ache to preserve this feeling for them for as long as possible. Soon enough, societal pressures and rules will have their way with my babies and they will be exposed to our culture’s strange and conflicting ideas about bodies and sex.

My husband and I have tried hard to create a little slice of Eden in our home; we use the correct parlance for body parts. We don’t make a big deal if of our children see our naked bodies while we are bathing or getting dressed. Max recently asked me, “Mama? Why are your nimples so big? Are you gonna have another baby?”

But lately, Max has been removing his fig leaf a bit too often. His penis has joined us during playdates with friends, at an indoor play space, and recently, on our windowsill. He is four now. He can count and write his name. Soon he will be in grade school, and it seems unlikely that his kindergarten teacher will encourage the unleashing of genitals during show and tell.

“Bye Baba! Bye Papa!” Max bellows at the computer, his fingers rushing to push buttons to disconnect from Skype. “Bye Ma--!” they say, the screen going black.  

I take a deep breath and begin. “Maxie, I need to talk to you about something.”

“What?” He looks at me. I can tell by the light in his eyes that he thinks I am going to tell him something exciting. Yes, you can have that Easter candy for breakfast after all! We are going to watch Cars movies all day long, only taking short breaks to eat pepperoni and Easter candy!

“Sweetie, there’s nothing wrong with your penis,” I begin. Already I am saying it all wrong. The expectant light will now drain from his eyes forever, and all he will hear is “Wrong with your penis!” This will be the moment he will someday pinpoint in therapy, the beginning of his downward shame spiral.
“But it’s a private part of your body,” I stumble. “We just don’t show our privates to everybody, okay?”

 “Okay,” he says, prancing off to pound on his drum set.

 I head into the kitchen to scavenge for lunch for him and Violet. I am slicing a pear, gauging at the stiff core and seeds, when I spy something pink out of the bottom right corner of my eye.

“Maxie!” His underwear is pulled down just far enough that his penis rests atop Lighting McQueen’s bulging eyes. “Remember what we just talked about?” I ask.
“Pitano is a monster who puts his penis out!” he blurts.

What? I think.

“What?” I say.

“Pitano is a monster who puts his penis out!” he restates.
“Where did that come from?” I ask.
“I made it up!” I laugh, unable to stop myself. Who is Pitano? Does Max now think he’s a monster because he’s exposing himself? I imagine a future Max in a shadowy room, flogging himself like the tormented Silas from The Da Vinci Code. Bad Pitano! Bad Pitano! He will chant.

Max is trying so hard to understand the world. He asks things like, “Why does mans not care if they get their shoes wet?” and “Why isn’t Aunt Sue’s dad alive?” and “But where were Violet and I before we were in your belly?”

They are questions I mostly don’t know the answers to. And truthfully, I don’t really know why it’s not acceptable to display one’s genitals publicly. Perhaps our bodies and sex would seem like less of a big deal if we all were privy to one another’s privates. If, like Muppets with their uniquely colored heads and hair, our bodies, with all their quirks and variations, were exposed. We could go about our business, Muppet genitals flopping in the breeze.

The kids and I eat lunch, then head to the playground. Pitano doesn’t make any more appearances. After the kids are both in bed, I try to read, but something nags at me. Though it seems to not have sunk in, I hate that I severed a little slice of my son’s innocence today. I cast him from Eden, never to return. It aches, the same way it aches when I catch a glimpse of him at his daycare before he sees me. There is Max, out in the world.

Which is, of course, exactly why we have to teach him about privacy. A big part of our job as parents is to help our kids learn to be okay out in the world. Wearing clothes. Even if they’re monochromatic.

How do you teach your children about nudity and privacy? Or other societal rules that you don’t 100% buy in to or understand?

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Perfectionism Monster

Guest Post by Lynn Shattuck, a writer in Portland, Maine

It is spring and my perfectionism is in full bloom.
It happens at the playground: Why is my child licking the statue like it's a giant metal ice cream cone? It rears up regarding career and ambition: How come she is younger than me, but has already published a book and has a story in the New Yorker? And at the gym: Did you see her butt? It doesn’t move when she runs! My butt is so big, it has its own pair of running shoes!
Needless to say, this voice sucks. It is not helpful. It doesn’t inspire me. But it is loud, bossy and persistent.
Sometimes, when I’m smack in the midst of struggling with a life lesson, the universe gives me a little extra material:
“Mommy, you left your underwear at my school,” my son says. Four year olds say many weird things, flailing from the existential: “But where were me and Violet before we were in your belly?” To the bizarre: “Pitano is a monster who puts his penis out!” To the embarrassing: “Why are your nimples so big? Are you going to have another baby?”

I have become used to fielding bizarre questions and statements. So the underwear comment semi-permeates my consciousness, but quickly glurps beneath the surface of my quicksand mama brain.
But the next day, he says it again. “Max, what are you talking about?” I ask.
“Deb was holding it up,” he says, his arm outstretched to demonstrate.
 Oh dear God. I can instantly feel the static that his school nap blanket and sheet create when they come out of the dryer, clinging to each other like new lovers. I remember not taking the three seconds to shake them out and fold them before I dropped Max off at preschool on Wednesday morning. This must be why most people wash their sheets or towels separately from the rest of their clothing instead of tossing it all together, a bright stew of darks and lights, nap sheets and panties.
I bet the other mommies all shake and fold. They probably even do it the night before school, right after they finish cleaning up from the five-course organic meal they made for dinner, I think.
When I drop Max off at school the following day, my fears are confirmed. In his cubby slumps a crumpled plastic Hannaford bag, the kind that his clothes come home in when he gets pee or vomit on them. I peek in and spy a flash of bright pink.
“Hiiiii Deb!” Max bellows to his teacher as he struts into his classroom. Violet makes her bowlegged way after him, heading straight for a tray of small, shiny beads that are exactly the same size as her esophagus.

“Hey, Deb,” I say. We make brief small talk about the upcoming auction for the school while my underwear blazes in my son’s cubby. I take a breath and decide to confront the situation head on. “So… Max tells me a pair of my underwear made it to school the other day?”

“He told you?” she says, surprised.
“You’re not the first,” she says. A breeze of relief flushes over me.
“Really?” I ask.
“I’ve seen thongs…all kinds of things…” She trails off, a war veteran trying not to summon up the horrors her eyes have beheld.
“At least it was clean,” I quip. And not the enormous, leftover maternity panties that I drag out once a month, I think.

After I hug and kiss Max goodbye, I grab Violet and my underwear.
Maybe that wasn’t so bad, I think. I’m so tired of trying to gauge how I measure up, always coming up short. It takes so much energy. I make mostly good choices. My kids are healthy and loved, and they seem to be kind human beings. It is unlikely that the underwear incident will be mentioned at my funeral. It is doubtful that my inability to get a meal on the table that doesn’t contain peanut butter or pepperoni will come up. We are human. We have body parts and children that don't always behave as we'd like them to. We are wildly imperfect, shimmeringly flawed creatures.

That being said, I will probably shake and fold my son’s nap gear next week.
How do you battle the perfectionism monster?