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The Particulars of School Experience

schooolbusI was reading a general child development book and making note of all the assumptions we assume about children that really may say more about kids in the context of school than they do about kids. By which I mean that when studies naturally focus on peer relationships in school, which is a very specific context for peer relationships, those studies might miss out on the fact that peer relationships in school may be the default experience but it is not necessarily TRUE the way that a babies need to suck is TRUE.

There are a lot of similarities between what I’ve seen of my own children’s middle childhood and what the books say about middle childhood but when it comes to some of the peer experiences, I see a lot of differences, especially around the gender assumptions.

Around the local Columbus homeschool community kids do tend to group by age and gender but not nearly as much or as rigidly as much of the research says kids do. Instead homeschoolers tend to group around activity and interest and availability. Kids play with the kids who show up so big kids play with little kids and girls play with boys and sometimes they do sex or age segregate but most of the time they do not. Most of the time you just have packs of kids who are kinda around the same age (or ability) running around or standing around.

Now I’m not saying that homeschool is more TRUE anymore than school is more TRUE; I’m saying that it would be a mistake to assume that school is TRUE because it is more typical. Looking at atypical families (homeschoolers) might bring insight to more typical experiences (school). Because maybe it is not true that most kids naturally sex segregate to the point where most boys will actively avoid speaking to a girl unless they have to (see this chart); maybe that is true when you put large groups of same age children together for six hours a day. Maybe in schools where children are in mixed age this doesn’t happen in the same way.

I  wonder how much we assume is developmentally to be expected and instead it’s developmentally expected in a very particular context. Wouldn’t looking at children in other contexts give us insight into kids in general?

As a therapist who works with a lot of kids, I try to remember that we are all of us deeply affected by our environments and that a child who is having a particular experience in school is having that experience because of who he is AND what school is for him. For the child who is struggling, I hope to help him (and his parents) find a balance that honors the person who he fundamentally is and understands that he still needs to find a way to function in his environment.

Making sense of things

brightbulb-insideI’m working on my symposium presentation for next September and then last week I went with Kate to the Wells Conference on Adoption Law. Kate and I were talking about being at the point with adoption where we know what we know and it feels like commonsense and so it’s hard to figure out what other people don’t know. I thought of that a lot during the conference because I didn’t learn anything new. Well, that’s not true — I learned the names of some bills that theoretically exist to support adoption and I learned some about Hague but everything else I knew. It helped that the conference was supposed to address disruption and I wrote that article last summer so a lot of the stories the lawyers told in the last panel were stories I already heard from the people I interviewed.

But it was good to sit there because it got me thinking about the symposium and I took some notes that’ll help when I’m putting together the presentation.

A few weeks ago a woman wrote me and said she was adopted in a fully open adoption and it was awful and now she’s an anti-openness activist. She wanted to know if I knew of a forum where she could present her anti-open opinions. I got to talking to her and the reason her open adoption was awful is that her birth parents were manipulative and abusive and terrible. And I told her (she doesn’t really buy it — like all of us, she’s prone to thinking her experience is the norm) that the issue isn’t open adoption; the issue is abuse. It’d be like (I typed to her) if I was against fatherhood because my mother’s father was an abusive sonovabitch. But of course I’m not against fathers; I’m against abuse.

It’s frustrating to talk about openness and have people say, “Yeah, but what about THIS situation” because of COURSE in an unhealthy, damaging situation the family is going to have to be much more thoughtful about handling openness. It may mean supervised visits, it may mean no visits and contact only through a third-party. It may mean no contact until XYZ happens. It might even mean no contact ever but an attitude of openness. But instead of debating openness, we need to discuss HOW to do openness in the context of our children’s individual experiences and histories. In the case of my anti-openness emailer, I told her the issue there is an adoptive family who didn’t manage her birth family relationships well when she was a child, which speaks to post-adoption support but does not shore up an anti-openness argument IN GENERAL.

The other reason (besides philosophically) is that the era of closed adoption is OVER. I don’t believe you can adopt a child now and trust a closed adoption will stay closed — not in the age of the internet, no way. So better get a handle on it now and figure out how to manage it.

(NOTE: One thing Adam Pertman said is that the next project the Evan B. Donaldson Institute will be doing is looking at how social media and especially Facebook have changed and are changing adoption because boy howdy, it’s changing.)

Anyway, I think I’ve got some things to start my presentation, which I think will be good and helpful but I still need to work on the middle more.


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.)

It’s apparently official!

My essay, “Someone Else’s Shoes: How On-Blog Discourse Changed a Real Life Adoption” will appear in Mothering and Blogging: Practice and Theory to be published by Demeter Press spring 2009. This is a cleaned up and enlarged version of the presentation I gave on Shannon’s panel at the Philly adoption conference. All the edits are done and I just turned in my short bio but I kinda won’t believe it ’til I see it. (I’m superstitious about happy things!)

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