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Book Review: A Big Mistake

A Big MistakeThis picture book is out of print but I love it so much that I wanted to write it up anyway. It’s not impossible (or super expensive) to get and the message is such a good one that I keep it on my bookshelf even though my children have long gone on to chapter books.

A Big Mistake written by Lenore Rinder and illustrated by Susan Horn takes a first person point of view so that you, the reader, are looking at the pictures as if you are creating them. The artist is creating a picture when — whoops! — she makes a mistake. A big mistake. The picture is ruined! But no, wait, she incorporates the mistake into her art. The mistake becomes art.

This book is terrific for kids who want to do every thing just right but it’s also nice to share with adults who suffer from the same constraint. The message is that screw ups are inevitable but it’s o.k. because it’s not the mistakes that make us. No, it’s how we manage those inevitable blunders.

Unfortunately we will all drip paint on our paper or fall off our bikes or fall in love with people who don’t love us back. We will also get fired, flunk tests and wear white after labor day. Mistakes are part of learning to live and life is all about learning.

I think about some of my clients who carry tremendous shame for bad decisions and I think about the tough love school of therapy that has Dr. Phil wannabes barking, “How’s that working for ya?” My clients often know that there’s paint all over their life canvases but they don’t know how to fix it. They don’t know how to respond to those bad decisions because they see themselves as people who are locked into perpetual mistakes.

They’re not. None of us are. Every mistake is an opportunity to learn something and some of us need to make more mistakes because we have bigger lessons to learn.

If you don’t want to buy this excellent book used online, see if your local library has a copy and share it with a perfectionist you love.

OA Book Club: Megan’s Birthday Tree

Open Adoption Book Club @ OpenAdoptionBloggers.comHeather and Kat sent a whole slew of questions along for the first segment of the Open Adoption Book Club. We’re talking about Megan’s Birthday Tree: A Story About Open Adoption.

This is the one I chose to write about:

In the story, Megan struggles with the fear that her birthmother will forget her if she no longer has the Birthday Tree to remind her. What fears have you struggled with in your adoption journey? What helped you overcome those fears?

One of the things we were told repeatedly by some of the workers at our agency and the world at large is that our child-to-be’s birthmother would “move on” and become less of a presence in our open adoptions. This was often stated as a selling point. Even the agency expectation that we send cards and letters once a month for the first year and then annually thereafter was a nod to the myth that open adoptions naturally become less open as time goes on. The philosophy behind those annual cards and letters is that once the raw first year was over, everyone could get back to “normal.” Normal, apparently, meant not necessarily forgetting but at least less need.

That has most decidedly not been our experience and in talking to many adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees, that is not most people’s experience. Although it’s true that some families lose touch with each other, I have yet to meet anyone who forgets and blithely moves on.

Still that cultural idea is very present in adoption and Megan’s concern is common to adopted kids whether or not the adoption is open. And certainly one thing is very true about life post-adoption; nobody stands still. People don’t move on but they do move and big changes (new babies, new homes, new jobs, etc.) require what can sometimes be hard adjustment.

Not every child feels safe to voice the fear that their birth families have forgotten or will forget them. Some are afraid of saying out loud something that feels so true because it might confirm it’s truth. Others are afraid that birth or adoptive parents won’t understand or will be dismissive. Or maybe it’s both those fears all wrapped up and tied together.

Many  parents are afraid to ask their children if they worry about this for similar reasons. What if their child isn’t worried about it until their parent asks? This is why Megan’s Birthday Tree can be a valuable book to open a discussion. Birth and adoptive parents who read this book with their children may feel more comfortable observing Megan’s feelings and then asking their child, “What do you think about Megan’s being afraid that her birth mom will forget her? Is this something you think about?” Having some distance (speaking about imaginary Megan instead of themselves) can also give kids space to address their worries in the guise of helping Megan address hers. What advice would they give her during different points of the book? What do they think about how the story ended?

Very often parents tell me that their children won’t talk about their feelings around adoption but our goal isn’t necessarily to get them talk; it’s to let them know that it’s safe to talk. Safe means bringing hard subjects up without pressure and respecting their boundaries so don’t fret if your child rejects your overtures. Knowing that you will give them room to talk and room to not talk will go a long way. Meanwhile make sure books Megan’s Birthday Tree is out and easy to access so that children can revisit the story without making a fuss about it.


Remaining constant

Portrait of PiaThis is from A Portrait of Pia, a young adult book by Marisabina Russo about a 13-year old girl who goes looking for her — and finds — her long-lost father.

Pia could see herself standing in front of the class holding the [self-portrait] upside down. How foolish she had felt! Then she remembered Mrs. Lavelle pointing out the negative space behind her hair. It made her think of her father, the part of her life that was not here, but still defined her.

I was pleased to see that she wrote The Line-Up Book, too, because this was one of son’s favorites when he was little.

I’m always looking for books that aren’t just about adoption but also about kids finding themselves in unusual family circumstances. In this one, Pia’s mom’s boyfriend tells her that he was adopted. He tells her about finding his birth mother while he’s sitting with her at the airport before she gets on a plane with her mom to go meet her father. He tells her:

“In that instant I realized that although I’d found her, the woman who had given birth to me, I was still Greg Finer … I remember feeling really relieved because you know …” Here Greg finally took a deep breath. “I didn’t want to change. I liked who I was.”

Our children — most especially our children separated by birth parents for whatever reason — need to know that while they become better everyday, they are who they are. They are right and strong and true and they are exactly who they should be.

This is a great long review of the book and I encourage you to check it out.

A slog of a book but thought provoking

The-Lives-They-Left-Behind-Penney-Darby-9781934137147So after reading that this new-to-me blogger read it, I picked up The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic from my library. (Note, if you click the title it takes you to the NYT review and I pretty much agree with the review.)

While the authors spend a lot of time arguing that mental illness doesn’t exist — at least in the patients they’re writing about — they didn’t convince me. Still you don’t have to deny mental illness to understand intuitively that the way we treat (and treated) those who struggle with mental health issues is (and most decidedly was) wrong wrong wrong. I finished the book last night and it was a nice segue from the lecture I attended last night about crisis care. The people on the panel all work for Netcare, which is basically Central Ohio’s emergency room for people having a mental health crisis. People who are suicidal, homicidal or actively psychotic end up there and Netcare acts as a sort of triage to help them get back on their feet. It’s true crisis care and from what I can tell the counselors there act more like social workers. As they talked about their jobs and the (lack of) resources for their clients it was a reminder of what we faced at shelter in the mid-90s. Clearly things haven’t improved since then. There just aren’t enough services for people with mental illness and while I agree that tearing down the old mental health “hospitals” was a good decision on humanitarian grounds, sending the people who need help out into the community without support systems in place was a recipe for disaster.

(It would have been nice if the hospitals had been revamped to go back to their Quaker roots.)

When we were at shelter we’d lament that there was no place to send our mentally ill clients that would just protect them and nurture them and let them be as crazy as they wanted to be. Obviously active suicidal or homicidal ideation needs intervention but many of the clients we kicked out of shelter were no danger to themselves or others. They weren’t mean or scary or dangerous; they just heard voices or struggled with paranoid delusions. They didn’t want medication but they also weren’t able to function (i.e., get a job, secure housing) without it. Some of them were lovely, kind people who just couldn’t follow a case plan. That made them wrong for our short-term, solutions-focused shelter but it would have been lovely if there was more housing for them. There was a very little but no where near enough and the wait list was impossible.

I was thinking of that especially when I got to this passage in the book:

Hearing voices in itself is not a symptom of an illness, but is apparent in 2-3% of the population. One in three becomes a psychiatric patient — but two in three can cope well,” according to Marius Romme, emeritus professor at the University of Maastricht in The Netherlands, and one of the key researchers in this area. “The difference between patients hearing voices, and non-patients hearing voices, is their relationship with the voices. Those who never became patients accepted their voices and used them as advisor. … When you identify hearing voices with illness and try to kill the voices with neuroleptic medication, you just miss the personal problems that lay at the roots of hearing voices — and you will not help the person solving those problems. You just make a chronic patient.”

p. 53 of The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic

The text goes on to say that most people who hear voices do so after a traumatic event — a triggering event — and that drugs are only effective in about 1/3 of the patients who receive them. It makes me wonder about helping people manage the voices differently and I’m going to look further into Dr. Romme to see if there is more about this. The text argues that if therapists address the underlying emotional event that triggered the voices that medication will not be needed at all and this may be true for some (if not all) so I’m going to look Dr. Romme up for that, too.

I’ve been mildly surprised by how many counseling theories deny that organic mental illness exists. I’m not talking like a philosophical discussion about how culture defines illness; I’m talking about how some theorists think mental illness is always an emotional disorder. I don’t buy that. I think cultural discussions are interesting (and necessary) but I think it’s pretty dang clear that some people have brains that make them unhappily mentally ill and that for those people the drugs that work effectively are a god send. There is a murky area though when we’re talking about patients’ rights and individual experience. When I think about some of our shelter clients and whether or not it was reasonable to expect them to conform in order to get food and shelter.

Also if you want to see the exhibit that the book is based on, here it is: The Willard Suitcase Exhibition

Racism in the Time Traveler’s Wife

When I was a teenager and first getting my feminism on, I used to have a test for movies and books. Where am I? Where am I in this story? Who could I get to be? Asking myself this helped me identify why reading some books (Philip Roth, Jerzy Kosinski) left me feeling so … empty/scared/lonely/depressed/angry. Because very often the who I could be (the woman or women in the book) were empty stereotypes. Those stereotypes left me feeling worse than if I hadn’t been there at all. In other words, having women’s roles limited by sexist stereotyping felt worse to me than reading a book where women didn’t even appear. Because I could read a book, say, The Chocolate War and know that the lack of women was about the focus of the book and not about the unimportance of me and women like me in all of our technicolor detail.

It’s not that I’m arguing for a complete lack of representation but I am saying that token representation can feel just as bad if not worse. Because I would read those books and think, “Is this all I am to men? Is this all they see of me? Is all the scope I’m allowed to be?”

I sometimes still use this tool to point sexism out to, say, my husband who doesn’t have a lifetime of evaluating media under his belt. For me, understanding the limited range of my imaginary role-models helped me not to take that subtext on as my own. Seeing that my empty feelings after one of those books or movies had to do with the limited imagination of the artist let me reject it.

Let me say right off that as a writer, I didn’t like The Time Traveler’s Wife. I thought it was a lumpy story full of unnecessary detail that detracted from the narrative. I felt that the complex structure of the plot didn’t make up for the unfinished main characters, stilted dialogue or self-indulgent trivialities. I wanted to like it but I didn’t. I felt about it the same way I felt about Mr. Holland’s Opus; I cried at the sad parts even while cursing the master manipulation at work. I knew I was being strung along but gave into my base emotions anyway.

Still, you can’t argue with numbers and the sales attest to the skill of the author. People loved this book. Writers whose opinions I admire loved this book. Readers who read with a discerning eye loved this book. Besides which, Becca has done a good job in reminding me always that to sit down and write a book is an endeavor worthy of admiration in and of itself. So there’s that.

Thing is, The Time Traveler’s Wife is also really racist and that I can’t forgive.

Two of the characters of color have supporting roles. (And by supporting, I mean they literally support the main characters. Hero Henry gets one and heroine Clare gets the other.)

Clare’s supporting character is Nell, who cooks for Clare’s wealthy family. “Nell is like cordon bleu meets Detroit; she’s how Aretha Franklin would be if she was Julia Child.” That’s how Clare introduces us to her. The first time Henry meets Nell she is “sticking her broad, snub-nosed face out of the dining room, grinning” to see Clare coming home for the holidays. And this is how Nell talks:

“What you’re smellin’ is a Thompson’s Turkey … Don’t look so dubious, boy. Underneath that crust is the best eatin’ turkey on Planet Earth. … That’s your Christmas dinner, son; you want to pick one out? … Awright, then. Now scat so I can get on, here.”

In other words, Nell is that stereotype of the black servant — talented beyond reason and sassy to boot. Plus her employers are like family as evidenced by the lack of her own family life and apparent contentment with this. She’s working on Christmas, mind you.

“In the midst of it all stands Nell with her back to me, singing ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’ and waggling her large hips, waving a baster at a young black girl who points at me mutely. Nell turns around and smiles a huge gap-toothed smile and then says, ‘What are you doin’ in my kitchen, Mister Boyfriend?”

Just put a red kerchief on her head and call her mammy. I mean, seriously.

Let’s move on to Kimy. Kimy is Henry’s parents’ landlord and his mother-figure after his mom dies. Kimy is also Korean. We know this because Henry tells you, “Mrs. Kim (Kimy, my nickname for her) was my buddy, my crazy Korean card-playing babysitter.”

Kimy, like Nell, is wise and warm in the way that only ethnic stereotypes can be.

She appraises me. Kimy has piercing black eyes, which seem to see the very back of my brain. Her flat Korean face conceals all emotion unless she wants you to see it.

And like Nell, she’s got dialogue to match:

Okay. Yeah, I go in once, ’cause I worry about him. He’s got trash everywhere; we’re gonna get bugs if he keep this up. He’s got nothing in that fridge but beer and lemons. He’s got so much clothes on the bed I don’t think he sleeps in it. I don’t know what he’s doing. I never seen him this bad since when your mom died.

There’s another supporting character of color and she’s an African American woman who is also sassy (of course) and exotic. “Her voice is like butter” and “her laugh is caramel.” “The light from the street turns her burnt-umber skin blue and then purple. She looks like a glamorous martian.”

Now you gotta ask — there aren’t a lot of characters who aren’t white in this book. What literary device is she using when she chooses to make these three of color? You can’t argue it’s just happenstance — the book is too meticulously plotted. What is she trying to convey? In what way is she using their ethnicity and is it necessary to the plot or is it — as stereotypes are — lazy.

It makes me wonder, how could the book have been better if she left the stereotypes out? What if she created characters of color that weren’t one-dimensional? How would that have changed and deepened the book? How did using stereotypes hurt her story?

(Also, since this book is really hard to dig around in, you can use the google version to make it easier.)

Having an Only Child

jump2On the advice of my friend L, I finally got myself a copy of Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families by Bill McKibben. It’s pretty good.

Bill McKibben is an environmentalist who began the book, really, when he and his wife first started thinking about how many children they would have. He is the father of one daughter and he feels strongly that it’s important that some of us have smaller families for environmental reasons. He doesn’t argue that we *all* should have one child or that people shouldn’t have large families. Children, he says, “are magnificent” and people should have the families they want to have. But, he argues, if more of us knew that it was ok — even wonderful — to have smaller families than maybe more of us would make that choice.

The book talks about the environmental impact of larger families as well as the economic repercussions of a lower birthrate but the first part of the book, which argues that smaller families are wonderful, was the part that for obvious reasons that I found most compelling.

According to McKibben, the negative stereotypes we have about only children (selfish, lonely, socially inept) are untrue. The “science” cited by the many articles warning us about the danger of having “only” one child is based on one poorly done “study” from the late 1800s. (Reading about the study is hilarious; it’s worth it to glance a the book just for that!) Since that one study there has been a lot of research that proves that only children look a lot like children from larger families. They are no more selfish, egocentric, or neurotic than any other kids.

In fact, researchers found that “only children scored significantly better than other groups in achievement motivation and personal adjustment.” They also argue that “because only children receive more attention from their parents, they are likely to exhibit more ‘character’ than other children, character here consisting of such traits as maturity and cooperativeness,” and “they are more likely to develop a sense of personal control than other children.” There’s more. According to the studies cited here, only children are more popular (being most often chosen first for games), appear to have more “flexible sex-role orientation, which is to say that researchers find boys playing with dolls and girls with trucks” (although I’m unfortunately not really seeing this in my family), and apparently only children are smarter. Says one study: “there are marked negative effects on IQ of increasing sib size … only children remained significantly superior in average vocabulary performance to children in all other family sizes.”

There’s a whole bunch of stuff about how the relationship between parents and the first-born change when the sibling arrives, which is a little heart-rending to read.

You may also want to glance at Only Child, the publication for parents of one child.

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