To my daughters: 15 truths about being female

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avniainsleyI was convinced I was having a boy. Complete strangers at coffee shops predicted it too, confidently sharing with me their unsolicited predictions while I was carrying my first baby.

Prepared for conversations full of gory villains and disgusting bowel movements, I imagined our closets would be filled with a tiny wardrobe of grass stains. In a few months, I thought I would comfortably hand off the leadership reins to my husband for him to share lessons of chivalry and tie tying, while sneaking in a few pointers about how to use cologne without smelling like a sock.

Later that September, I gave birth to a baby girl. I suddenly felt unprepared and quickly realized it would be my job to teach our daughter what it means to be a strong, independent and caring woman in a world filled with never-ending stereotypes, unrealistic expectations and unhealthy diets. Dove recently conducted a social experiment and showed just how critical women are of their own beauty.

Fast forward two and a half years. We have welcomed another little girl into our family and our toddler has no trouble wearing grass stains. While I know society will do its part to leave an impression in their young minds, I can only hope some of the advice I share with them about being a female in our society stands out a little more.

  1. It’s OK to get dirty (even in a skirt). Throw a baseball; dig for worms; sleep in a tent. Your clothes can be washed and won’t last forever. Memories will.
  2. Clean and cook because you want to, not because someone else expects you to. Knowing how to do both well will give you peace of mind.
  3. Don’t expect flowers.
  4. If you’re hungry, eat. It’s important to take care of and listen to your body. Eating will keep you healthy (and much happier!). Splurge on some chocolate every now and then, too.
  5. Be who you are. If you like science, great. If you would prefer to write a poem about the purple flowers blooming outside your window, that’s fine too. But, whatever you do, don’t be who you think others want you to be.
  6. Invest in a good bra.
  7. There’s only one man who loves you the most. Your Daddy loves you in a way no other man can. Even if he doesn’t always seem to know how to connect with you, he still loves you.
  8. Men don’t get it. They don’t understand females and it’s likely they never will. It’s hard enough for us to grasp the idea of periods, child birth and mood swings. It’s best to give them a break.
  9. Challenge yourself – physically, emotionally and mentally. Your body is more resilient than you can imagine. Find ways to test your limits and allow yourself to fail. Once in a while you might be surprised and do something you never thought possible.
  10. You will cry – sometimes for no good reason. There’s also a good chance you will fail to cry when others expect you to. Bring eye drops and thank your hormones.
  11. Speak up. Share your thoughts without apology and instead exhibit confidence, respect and tact. Anything you believe in is worth the fight.
  12. Be alone. Live by yourself and find out who you are. Find happiness and success by standing on your own two feet.
  13. Find an older brother. Well, not really – but, really. Every female should grow up with an older brother, and since you don’t have a biological older brother, find a male to stand in. While their pranks, burps and punches might not seem like an advantage now, you will thank them later.
  14. Wear comfortable shoes.  
  15.  Age is just a number. We are all in this together. Whether a teenage girl or a woman in her 80’s, all females share a common thread. You can choose to reject our differences or embrace the similarities.

I will always be a few decades older, ready to navigate this world alongside of you.  But for now, I am going to work on removing the grass stains.

 

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Dreaming for the Future

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If you were to ask me as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have confidently stood up and shared with you a glimpse of my future – I would someday become the President of the United States. If you were to ask my older brother the same question about my future, he would have quickly insisted there was no way I could do this because I was a girl. My parents never let him have the last word and left no room for confusion while explaining we could be whatever we aspired to be. In other words, they encouraged dreaming.

I recently attended the first TEDx Greensboro event, one of the many Tedx programs hosted around the world to share ideas, foster learning and inspire communities through a series of speakers. The particular focus of this event was dreams, with topics ranging from the future of aviation to the building of community through the act of turning strangers into neighbors.

tedx_briggsOne of the speakers, Dr. Cyndi Briggs, shared her personal and professional thoughts about dreaming through introduction of the Imagination Installation Project, a social capital movement that harnesses the collective power of community. As one of the organizers of the grassroots effort, she invited all attendees at the event to participate by finishing a statement beginning with “Imagine when…..” to tap into imaginations and initiate dreaming. The cards included each contributor’s name and were then posted on a wall for all to view throughout the day. The results were fascinating, thought provoking and interesting.

Even more interesting, though, was the nervousness and lack of confidence I felt (but didn’t expect to) seconds before mustering up enough courage to write down my own initial response on one of the cards. According to Cyndi, I was not unlike many of the other adults she’s witnessed participating in the exercise. In her presentation she explained that dreaming is a major part of childhood, but somewhere along the road adulthood we lose confidence to share ideas and future aspirations. Sad, but true.

Every morning I ask my  two year-old daughter what she dreamed about the night prior. I can usually count on a response including one of the following: doggies, Dora the Explorer or sunshine. She’s at a fun age with a budding imagination. Most days, she informs me that Dora and her friends are at our house and joining us at the dinner table, using plastic containers to hold their invisible food. I often drink invisible coffee out of toy buckets for her enjoyment and act surprised the seventeenth time she delivers a plastic farm animal to me as a new piece of “mail”. She’s just beginning to scrape the surface of her imagination and dreaming, while I am at an age it is no longer encouraged by society.

While I no longer believe I am headed to the White House, I am now a mother of two young daughters who will need me to encourage them to dream as they age, just as my parents have into adulthood. But just as important will be the reminders I share with them, pointing to the positive events, relationships and conversations in their life that they might not have dreamed of. These moments, along with their dreams, will shape their future and help make possible what once seemed impossible; simply by imagining when.

Clearing the Happiness Fog

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In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin accurately describes the way I’m feeling these days taking care of a defiant toddler and newborn baby – extremely happy, yet in a fog. It’s something she calls “fog happiness,” described as being the kind of happiness resulting from activities that, at the time, don’t seem enjoyable.  Instead, feelings of happiness are delayed and appear once the fog clears. For example, hosting a party may bring happiness, but it’s not usually until after the party that we realize it.

This is exactly the way I feel about parenting; enjoying every single moment, yet not realizing much of the happiness until about 11 p.m. each night when the house has settled down. After watching and listening to coffee shop patrons, I found I am not alone. My favorite example of this concept was the exchange between a father and son one morning.

The man rushed in the front door, wearing a flannel shirt and stained jeans. His hair was fluffy and uncombed. At his side was his son, a toddler with curly blonde hair. The boy was fidgety and impatient until his Dad brought him a scone to eat. As most toddlers do, he wanted to eat the treat at his own pace, his own way.

The Dad, noticeably impatient, began helping the young boy.

“It’s OK if it’s broken; you’re only going to eat one piece at a time,” he said softly.

The boy didn’t seem to care and wasn’t ready to take the advice and instead continued taking his time.

“Eat it, throw it away, or put it in a bag to take with you,” the Dad said before picking the boy up and carrying him out of the building as if resembling a human airplane.

While the Dad might not have thought so at the time, I found his words to be helpful and applicable to parenting experiences. Accept them, get rid of them, or take them with you to look at once the fog clears.

 

 

Sharing life’s cinnamon rolls

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Are you an innie or an outie?

This is the question a middle-aged woman posed to her friend as they sat down together at a local coffee shop. Noticeably pregnant and well into my third trimester, I couldn’t help buty wonder if she was directing the question toward me, talking about the belly button emerging from under my shirt.

I then noticed the woman point to a freshly baked cinnamon roll sitting on the table in-between them.

“Do you like to eat it from the inside or the outside?”

They were sharing the treat and it was clear from the excited look on the woman’s face that her friend answered with the preferred answer.

“Outside.”

I smiled at their shared logic, and also felt relieved not having to engage awkward dialogue about my bulging abdomen.

The conversation between these two friends reminded me of a quote I have posted in my office as a daily level-setting prompt: “Find yourself in everyone you meet.” I wish I remembered where I heard this for the first time, but regardless of its origin, the statement has continued to impact the way I look at the world. I’ve found that the more we can find ourselves in others, the easier it is to be understanding, kind and empathetic when it seems most difficult.

The two women found themselves in each other, but also celebrated their differences as complements – even if in a very small way.

On a separate occasion, I sat near an elderly couple who were a fine example of teamwork, friendship and love. The two sat close to each other, sharing one cup of coffee with a table full of large books in front of them. The wife read, while he pretended to be engaged in the words she was mumbling. Their actions were the true definition of marriage – laughing together one minute and bickering the next.

He held up a shiny iPhone in his hand with a seemingly defeated look on his face before turning toward his wife and handing her the device.

“It says you go ‘bink bink’ and you’re on your way, but I can’t figure it out.”

photoAfter speaking into the bottom of the phone, the wife stubbornly held up the phone as if trying to take a photo. Her husband held his hand up to stop her and then removed his glasses and smiled. Nothing happened.

The couple continued reading the books in front of them, all with titles aiming to help beginners navigate use of Apple products. Every new “trick” they stumble upon called for a minor celebration.

After burying his nose in a small, white paperback manual the size of a worn-out novel, the husband jumped up excitedly.

“Wallpaper!”

The wife seemed more frustrated than impressed, asking her husband how he found the new tool. He leaned over, taking on the role of teacher, while she eagerly watched him navigate to the wallpaper feature. An earlier scene began to play out again, as the wife snapped a photo of her husband with intentions of using it as ‘wallpaper’ on her new gadget. As the wife fumbled with the phone, her husband stood up and began heading to the restroom – but not without sharing newfound wisdom with his wife.

“Don’t forget wallpaper means it will be behind everything on your phone.”

She rolled her eyes. The two continued to work with their new mobile devices for more than an hour, together celebrating and secretly competing to be the first to find reach a new milestone.

“Oh, look here! I found the messages,” the wife said. The husband was silent and seemed to be avoiding the fact that his wife had beat him at his own game. He decided it was time to leave.

“We need to get going. We’ve been here too long.”

While attempting to navigate chaos during the holidays, we sometimes take for granted those closest to us, forgetting how they reflect a piece of who we are. Finding others as complements is not always easy, but it is necessary. This holiday season; remember to take time to think of how those in your life play a part in making a better you. After all, it doesn’t matter how you choose to consume your cinnamon roll, it’s finding a way to share the frosting that makes experiences most memorable.

Why we should live more like Gumby

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A few years ago, I received invaluable advice from a respected business leader: when in life you are presented with the opportunity to stretch yourself, take advantage of it. In other words, she was saying live like Gumby and embrace vulnerable situations.

After hearing these words, I began noticing something; these opportunities appear for all of us, and more than we recognize. Nearly every day, we are faced with decisions – personal, professional; large, small; easy and difficult. Those that seem more difficult are that way because they are unfamiliar, and therefore, will force us to experience something new.

Have you ever noticed it seems easier to take on a task or enter a new situation once you’ve already had a similar experience? That’s not a coincidence.

Brené Brown, Ph.D., a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has studied the topic of vulnerability for more than 10 years. Her work has been featured on national television, major publications and in multiple TED talks.

 

She says when people are vulnerable, they are willing to let go of who they thought they should be to be who they are and fully embrace vulnerability, believing it is what makes them beautiful.

I think she’s on to something.

When thinking about her definition and my own vulnerability, a few recent experiences immediately come to mind.

  • Signing up for a co-ed kickball team, not knowing there was such a thing and without knowing anyone playing, only months after moving to a new city. Did I mention sign-up was at a bar in a college town on a night my husband worked? Or that I realized on my way there that I didn’t know what the team captain (or anyone else for that matter) looked like? Yes, that awkward woman standing near the pinball machine scoping out the packed establishment with baby in tow was yours truly.
  • Meeting someone for coffee for the first time and not knowing what they look like. Asking other seemingly lost customers if they too are looking for their coffee date until the fourth person finally says yes.
  • Taking our two-year-old daughter to her first friend birthday party for a classmate at a local kid play zone, only to realize we were relying on her memory to help us navigate bouncy houses, slides and tunnels to find the little girl.

We all have the opportunity to place ourselves in vulnerable situations, to spark uncomfortable feelings and potentially embarrassing moments. However, instead of taking the plunge or enjoying the splash of a new experience, we continue repeating only those experiences we know and then wonder why we feel bored.

Now that I’ve embraced these situations, I want to have a few words with what used to be feelings of vulnerability. Sign me up for another kickball team. Schedule a meeting over coffee with a stranger. Invite my daughter to a birthday party at the local kid zone. Been there, done that.

The next time you have a chance to move your muscles and gain new experiences, give it a try. You don’t have to turn green; just wiggle your arms and get ready to stretch.

Raise your hand if you’ve had a miscarriage

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Almost 25 percent of all pregnancies are lost to miscarriage and chances are if you’ve been part of this statistic, you’re not raising your hand. Not because you don’t remember the experience or because it happened many years ago. Instead, it’s likely your hand is staying down because you have feelings of failure, guilt and embarrassment caused by the experience. Not because it’s right or makes sense, but because it’s a natural reaction caused by stigma associated with miscarriage in our society. Those who have not experienced a miscarriage likely know of someone who has and begin to feel uncomfortable at the very mention of the word.

After visiting my doctor alone during my second pregnancy, I was delivered devastating news that our baby no longer had a heartbeat. The news hit me like a ton of bricks and from that moment, I started on a long and lonely road many women quietly travel.  Rather than face the issue head-on, I found myself attempting to hop back on the fast train in life as if nothing had happened. It wasn’t that I didn’t continue thinking about what was happening, but at the time, it was the only way I knew how to cope.

Four days after the news, I hopped on a plane like “super mom” to embark on a week-long business trip I had committed to many months prior. Leaving my two dogs, husband and one-year old at home, I traveled a few states away, secretly hoping the hole I was feeling would no longer be there when I returned.

It was.

The painting we had made, now hanging in our playroom in memory of our “firecracker”

I continued living in a fog for a few months until it eventually began to dissipate and I started searching for books on the topic. The selection was surprisingly limited; a first indication to me that there is something odd about the way our society approaches miscarriage. In short, we don’t. We duck, hide, whisper and ignore the topic to shield the pain, misunderstanding and confusion from our lives.

After browsing numerous bookshelves, I read I Never Held You, by Ellen M. DuBois. The book is personal, real and was exactly what I needed – confirmation I was not alone. Just as an article in the Huffington Post reveals, miscarriage does not discriminate. The article shares news of television anchor Lisa Ling’s recent pregnancy announcement and includes details about the feelings of failure she experienced after suffering a miscarriage in 2010.

If miscarriage happens to so many women every year, why did it take so long to find a book? Why is the topic of miscarriage off limits to talk about? Why must we stifle our voices to a whisper?

In the weeks following my completion of the book, I decided to break the rules, finding ways to share my experience with others – both men and women –when appropriate. Initiating a conversation appeared to relieve others of weight they had been carrying after they themselves or someone they knew had also suffered a loss in miscarriage.

This is the part I find fascinating. Here is an experience many women and men are faced with in life, but at some point are made keenly aware it is not a topic to talk about; at least not publically.

So here I am, 25 weeks into my third pregnancy, raising my hand and sharing this journey with you. If you’re still sitting on your hands, don’t worry; moving them is the first step. For those of you with a hand in the air, try this – keep your hand up, move from behind the computer screen and begin waving, even if only to one other person.

Finding faith in unexpected places

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Sometimes faith can be found in places we least expect. A church or place of spirituality seems to make sense, but what about a coffee shop? Before this past week, I might have sided with the thinking that witnessing faith in a coffee shop may seem a bit bizarre or unlikely, but after a few recent encounters, I’m finding the aroma-filled establishments to actually bring out a soft spot in all of us. It’s a person’s willingness to share the said soft spot that sheds the light on faith.

It was a cool morning in October and on this particular day; I was head down at a local coffee shop, eyes glued to the computer screen in front of me. Only peering up every once in a while to check the time, I hardly noticed others sitting around me. I was working to meet a deadline and having a rough morning, questioning my parenting skills after arguing with my toddler about wearing a jacket to daycare.

An elderly lady sat down at the table located next to mine and was quick to strike up a conversation. After complimenting me on my typing skills, she saw a little girl with her father at the counter and began sharing stories with me about her four children – three girls and one boy. There was one story in particular that nudged my faith.

Her youngest boy, 18-months-old at the time and wearing nothing but a diaper, was outside in their family backyard helping his mother in the garden. She ran inside the house for a brief minute to fetch something she had forgotten and just after stepping foot inside the door, heard a noise no mother wants to hear – a child screaming. After rushing back out the door, she found her son next to a beehive, covered in black and yellow bodies. She grabbed the little boy and brushed off the bees, removing the stingers as quickly as possible before taking him inside the house.

“I couldn’t get ahold of his father or any of our neighbors, so I did all that I knew to do and prayed harder than ever before,” she said. “That little boy was so special to us.”

The lady, now probably in her upper eighties, went on to tell me how, after an hour passed since the horrific bee sting incident, her young son did not have one single mark on his body. She also said, to her knowledge, he has never been stung again since that day.

Faith.

That same week, I was engaged in small talk with a young woman who seemed to be having a morning similar to mine a few days before. Her hair was in a pony-tail high on her head, complementing the white collared shirt half-tucked into a pair of wrinkly tan dress pants she was wearing.

After exchanging a friendly greeting, we were both signaled by the barista to step aside while they brewed a new batch of fresh coffee. I asked the woman, about my age, if she was at the coffee shop to work, too. Her posture became more relaxed, eyes looking down at the floor.

“I am going through a rough time right now,” she said. “I was my way to work this morning but decided after crying nearlyhalf of the trip that it would be better for me to take the day for me. I ended up here.”

Showing empathy, I told her we all have bad days and then our drinks were ready.

The woman sat at a table to the left of mine and we each went on to finish what it was we came there to do. I was finishing up a writing piece, she was reading a Bible.

About a half hour later, a middle-aged woman passed by but then began backpedaling, stopping in front of the young woman’s table. I was close enough to hear their exchange.

“I don’t know you or what you are going through, but here is a card I just found that I got at a Bible study. Hopefully it will help and you will get through this,” the older woman said before leaving with her coffee in hand.

As the young woman opened the large piece of paper, I peeked over to read as if trying to cheat during an intense game of Poker.

I’ve never been good at Poker – or cheating for that matter – and this was no different. During my five-second peek show, I was only able to make out the first line on the index card. It read:

He will not allow your foot to slip; your…

Regardless of what the remaining text said, this message was coming at a perfect time and seemed to cause some relief for the young woman. Although we never said another word to each other, her willingness to share a moment of vulnerability with me was important in helping confirm something I know is true, but often forget.

Faith, in various forms, appears when we are willing to look for it – in ourselves and also in each other.

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