Preventing Child Abuse in a Pandemic: Helpful Tips

Our current national landscape is one of physical isolation. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll found that 9 out of 10 Americans are staying home right now, either because of stay-at-home orders, or because they fear getting or spreading the novel coronavirus. That almost 300 million Americans are homebound and probably will be for an extended period of time is extraordinary and unprecedented in our lifetime. A portion of the homebound are continuing to earn a paycheck and while the stressors of COVID-19 for that group of people are very real, there is another portion of the homebound suffering much great repercussions from this pandemic.

The Department of Labor reported that last week alone, 3.28 million people applied for unemployment. This is more than four times the previously highest recorded number. For the 75% of Americans already facing the stress of living paycheck to paycheck, things just got considerably worse. Add to that the strain of fear and anxiety of a pandemic; the social isolation we must all endure; that children are home without the support (and break) given by schools or childcare; and the strain on already overburdened social services and you have a recipe for domestic disaster. And that list barely scratches the surface of the host of family-specific issues each household bears.

If history is any indicator, the result of domestic disaster will fall disproportionally on our most vulnerable; cases of child abuse and neglect (as well as domestic violence) will rise sharply while reports of the same will drop drastically: with schools and childcare centers closed, the sharpest eyes and ears of our child welfare reporting system—our teachers—are closed as well. And like so many things with this pandemic, one problem becomes compounded by another: Even as more children than ever are home 24/7 with their families, social workers are unable to conduct home visits with those already in the child welfare system due to abuse and neglect and are similarly unable to visit homes when new reports do occur.

Services previously provided to families—such as drug treatment and mental health services—are severely limited or non-existent due to social distancing requirements, and family visitations are often not occurring, potentially leading to a downward spiral of hopelessness and depression for parents and teens who may turn towards drugs, alcohol, or other damaging acts to ease the pain. All of this combined leads to a significantly increased risk of harm behind the closed doors of American homes. Sadly, there is little most of us can do to fix these problems: Children’s outdoor areas are emptier now than ever, and we simply are unable to keep a collective eye on children and suffering families the way we need to.

But that isn’t to say there is nothing we can do, and what we can do, we should.

Stress of all kinds is a significant contributing factor to abuse and neglect. Tempers are short, resources scarce to non-existent, and tools some are fortunate enough to have for comfort—Zoom calls with friends; virtual “playdates” for children; paying for online games, movies, and school substitutes to keep the children occupied—are not easily obtained by lower income families. And even the families who have the resources may find they aren’t enough.

But don’t give up! There are ways we can help families from all backgrounds, though I will admit that many of the ones I’ve listed below assume that the person helping has resources of their own to draw from (time, money, or energy). A few of these might help our most significantly at-risk families—those with serious addictions, long family histories of abuse, or the types of terrible things we read about in the media—but others wouldn’t. But again, what we can do, we should.

Abuse knows no economic, cultural, or societal bounds. From my years working with families already in the child welfare system, I can promise you that. I can also say that the simplest assistance, and perhaps the silliest sounding, might be all that’s needed to avert a catastrophe.

Consider a morning from my own life:

I, an obsessively tidy mother, sit in the middle of an increasingly cluttered home. My back and feet hurt, and the younger kids are arguing loudly while the oldest child tries to get some much needed sleep. Andy, a hard-working and busy father, already stressed from hiding in the walk-in closet to do Zoom calls where kids can’t find him, too loudly shushes the arguing kids. The kids begin to complain about the unfairness of it all and I try to intervene while stumbling over the puppy pulling on my socks and biting my toes. The other dog begins to bark at a person walking by, and both Andy and I begin to shush the dogs. The kids’ voices grow louder to be heard over the din of shushes and barks, and my mom, who lives with us, suddenly appears in the kitchen, asking why her dog is barking and saying she may need to go to the hospital for stomach pains but is scared to because of the virus so what do I think she should do and can I please contact her doctor for her? The gardeners begin mowing next door and within a minute we all hear a door slam from upstairs because the 24-year-old has frustratingly given up on getting any sleep.

Our situation eventually resolves as best it can: Andy takes one kid to do a puzzle and I take the other to bake some bread, but not before I hop on one of the four laptops in our home to email a doctor, free of charge and easily accessible, about my mom. Sad to say, the oldest is still tired and the dogs still bark, but few things in life are perfect.

In this scenario, the main fridge is stocked, as are the one fridge and two freezers in the garage. We always buy in bulk so our toilet paper situation is fine. The same pay the adults usually get is still coming in, and the grandmother who walked into the kitchen at an inopportune time lives in the home and can watch the children should that be needed. Oh, and I have plenty of time to spend with the children and enough education to help them with their e-learning during our school’s closure.

And still, this isn’t a pretty situation. Imagine if:

  • The fridge was bare
  • The parents had just lost their jobs
  • There was no adult in the home with available time for the kids
  • Any one—or all—of the four adults had a substance abuse problem or untreated mental health issue

This scene could have ended in a very different and explosive way.

And so:

Think about your own circle of people, as far as it can go. Who in that circle is most in need of a break right now? Do you know any single parents? Someone who struggles with addiction? A family with a small home but a large number of kids? Someone who lost a job? Who is sick? Who is prone to anxiety and depression? The list could go on, and it should. Make an actual, physical list of people in your life facing larger-than-average stressors. Do you have their phone number? Their email addresses? Do they live within driving distance? Write those things down as well, then:

  • Call them. Talk to them. Ask to speak to the children for a while. Maybe read the kids a book over the phone or on FaceTime if possible.
  • Text them. Ask how they are. Tell them how you are. Send a funny meme. Ask if they need anything. Or don’t ask, but just assume they need something and then …
  • if possible, get it to them. Mail them $20 or a grocery store gift card. Leave food or other necessities (or non-necessities!) on their steps. Shop for them if they’re in a high-risk group. No, money doesn’t solve everything, but it can certainly help at times like this.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have a bit of income to spare (and hey, we’re all going without our lattes these days), order something online to send to the kids to keep them distracted. Or send chocolates for the parents. Loan them an extra laptop by leaving it on their porch and letting them use it for Google Hangout or online school or even just mindless show watching. Again, these are money and material things, but if you can do it, please do. We may not like to admit it, but material things do often help.
  • Kids are still going outside, even if not to designated playgrounds. When they’re out, pay attention. Do they seem okay? Do the adults who are with them seem okay? What do you notice? Don’t turn into the nosy neighbor peeking out from behind the curtain—that’s just weird. You’re likely a savvy enough person to find a non-stalking way to do this. If you see signs of abuse or neglect report it, even if your state’s current isolation situation means a social worker can’t make it out for a while the risk still needs to be recorded. Then make it your daily commitment to help that family any way possible.
  • Offer to watch younger kids (but who old enough not to need hand holding or carrying) outside while their adults take a break. You don’t have to forgo social distancing rules to make this happen.
  • Have a six-foot-away playdate with your kids and theirs.
  • Take a social distance walk together. Or talk to one another from your own front doors.
  • Send them a card in the mail. A homemade one is fine, so you only have to pay for the stamp.
  • Offer to walk their dogs (seriously, don’t underestimate the power of this!)
  • Volunteer with or donate to groups that are helping those in the most financial need.
  • Donate not just food, money, and cleaning products, but board games, movies, electronics, coloring books—anything that can entertain children/teens or provide relief for parents. Do the same with any and all income groups if/when you think it might be helpful.
  • And, of course, pray for them.

Here are some other resources for how you can help at-risk families during this pandemic:

End Violence Against Children

The Alliance for Children in Humanitarian Action

Prevent Child Abuse

What you will find using these resources is a significant emphasis on stress reduction. Because that is what so much of this is truly about. Stress decreases our abilities to appropriately cope with even typical events such as arguing or crying children. And without appropriate coping abilities, typical situations can quickly turn to situations of abuse, even for families who otherwise would never find themselves taking such harmful actions.

Feel free to make your own list of stress reduction ideas for how we can assist those in need during this time. Act on those ideas and do it now. It’s never too soon to help a family in need, but it is often too late.

Parents, You Are Rocking it Right Now. I Promise.

I’ve spent more time on Facebook and the interwebs in general in the last two weeks than I have perhaps all year. Not because I’m cooped up at home—I’m always home anyway—but because I so desperately want to know what’s next in this whole mess. Hitting refresh on pages or chatting with friends online or posting on Facebook helps pass the time but also helps me feel better somehow. Like since none of us know what’s next then it’s all okay. Which makes zero sense but there it is.

In my new life of Facebook binging, I’ve noticed several common COVID-19 themes:

  • Lots of accusations of parents hating their children because said parents are complaining about being with their kids
  • Lots of comments about alcohol consumption regarding those complaints
  • Lots of frustration by homeschooling parents at the use of the word “homeschool”
  • Lots of support for one another in this stupid crazy time

So. Let’s take them one by one.

1) Parents do not hate their kids. Parents love their kids. A lot. Parents are complaining for a multitude of reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the amount of love they have for their kids. This s**t is hard, folks. We are home 24/7 with kids who we love, but who are kids and therefore are not meant to be cooped at home and are thus going crazy just like we all are. They cannot (presumably) drink their frustrations away like many parents appear to be doing (more on that later), complain on Facebook about their crappy parents, or get in the car and go for a drive. All they can do is complain bitterly and turn up their music and rudeness level (teens); whine and ask for snacks, screen time, and answers to when this will end (pre-teens); and bounce of the walls, cry, complain, and protest their parents-turned-teachers demanding they sit down and work when home is supposed to be a place of refuge from the pressures of school (little kids/all kids).

We don’t have kids without thinking and then complain about them. We have kids, love them, complain anyway, then snuggle them to sleep. I mean, do we ever complain about spouses/jobs/pets/cars/houses/etc.? Of course. Does that mean we hate them? Nope! So parents, ignore those saying you hate your kids because you complain. Go ahead and vent because that’s what keeps so many of us sane. If it makes you feel better, add an obligatory “I love my kids but …” but know that you don’t have to. Most of us get it. We get you, because we are you.

2) Do folks really drink as much as the memes would imply? I had no idea! I’ll admit that does worry me a bit, and it worries me too that our kids (universal) will see the memes and jokes and think drinking is a way to solve problems. But, see number one above. Jokes are jokes, and many of these memes and comments are likely just that. I personally find it strange, but a strange without the teeth of judgment behind it. Hope that’s okay.

3) We are doing school. At home. So, given the rules of compound words, we are indeed homeschooling. I think we get that what we’re doing because of school closures is not the same as what those who homeschool on a daily basis are doing. There are co-ops and apps for that. Play groups and specialized resources. We are not there. But it’s semantics, folks, and this is no time to argue semantics or be offended by the use of a sensical combination of words to explain what we are doing to keep our children from suffering educational losses. It’s okay, really. So homeschool away, everyone, and may the force be with you. All of you. No matter what.

4) Oh, there are hearts. And rainbows. And chalk art and Zoom groups and driveway tea times and my kid had a playdate with the neighbor kids from literally across the street: He stood on one side and they stayed on the other and they called it playing “together.” We are in it to win it, folks, except maybe for those who are price gouging TP and hand sanitizer. (Seriously, today I saw a 12-pack of TP for $75 on Amazon!) The stories of support and caring are legion, and I am beyond impressed. For every story of craptasticness, there are 10 of awesomeness. So keep being awesome. I’ll try to as well, but on occasion I’ll likely complain about my kids. Maybe even my husband. But I promise that I love them.

For real, there is an increase right now in child abuse, domestic violence, and other horrific things. This is real stress about real things, and even though this too shall pass, it isn’t clear yet what it will look like on the other side. For some, like me, things will be nice and rosy. For others, not so much. Please, let’s hold each other in prayer, and in so doing, please remember our school districts and our teachers who are struggling along with the rest of us, deemed “non-essential,” yet working from home with their own kids screaming in the background and their own issues to deal with.

And now I will go because Jeffery, my Instacart shopper, is texting me that 800 of the items I ordered are out of stock and no, butter lettuce is not a sufficient replacement for a grain bowl.

Perhaps $75 for TP isn’t so bad after all.

A Weary, Teary, and Dreary Day (At home. Again. With No End in Sight.)

I have, unfortunately, been through a lot in life. Because of that I tend to disassociate and over-compartmentalize, which is a cross my husband too often bears when he’s stressed over something and I’m like, “eh, no biggie.” But Tuesday was the day that I finally began to feel what’s going on in America and across the world, and each day since (okay, the like 1 day and a few hours since), I have felt it more acutely.

Today I woke up feeling “off.” I don’t sleep well in spring or summer despite black-out curtains and sleep aids. Last night I tossed and turned, and this morning I woke well before anyone else but stayed in bed so I didn’t wake the dogs. Of course, that eventually ended, and our 6th day of distancing began.

I’ve been staying up each night to make the schedule for the next day. Yesterday we were a bit more loosey-goosey and home-ec-ish, and we had more fights and snappiness then usual. So, today we’re back to academics. Andy and the kids are walking the dogs right now, and I’m supposed to be setting up STEM projects because that’s what Aaron’s first subject is on Thursdays at school.

But then I realized we thankfully we have lots of Kiwi Crate boxes on hand, and so instead of setting up ropes and levers and magnets and pullies, I’m writing this.

I find myself on the verge of tears today, but I’m not quite sure why. It is true I have a family member (who lives elsewhere) who almost certainly has coronavirus given her symptoms and recent travel. But she’s in her forties and quite healthy so I’m sure she’ll be fine. It is true that I love having my kids at home, but as an introvert, it’s difficult to give up the seven hours of kid-free time to which I’ve become accustomed. It’s also true that all my attempts to grocery shop online are failing, even at Amazon, due to shortages. And yes, I may just end up paying $11 for a bag of sugar because options are limited and I need to be able to bake.

The same shirts needing to be hung have been on my couch since the weekend.

And today it’s wet out. No biggie, but it’s dreary.

I’m doing my makeup every day. Putting on sweats (as is my usual), and starting the school day at 9:15. I’m still having my 1:30 coffee, and we’re still putting the kids to bed on time.

Those are good things. Routine is good. So is being willing to leave routine behind for something different. For whatever this moment in time is to you.

Overall, I’m not quite sure where the teariness comes from. Are you feeling this way, and if so, do you know why? Or maybe it’s like my feeling … a slight overwhelm (if a “slight” overwhelm can exist?) not rooted in depression but … in something else. A feeling of not-quite-rightness that has no concrete end in sight. I am a creature of habit but habits have no place in an isolated, quarantined, and locked-down world. I am developing new habits, though. Habits of dog walks, being more careful with my resources, being sure to reach out to others, and to appreciate those who reach out to me.

So reach out. Let me know how you are. Post it here in the comments, or on Facebook or Twitter. If you know me personally, send me an email or a text! Phone calls are harder because, you know, kids. And dogs.

And in this moment, I hope you are making it through okay.

(Oh—and don’t forget to wash your hands!)

Love in the Time of Corona

This morning, I, like so many others around the world, worshiped from the confines of my home. I wore sweats, folded laundry, and did dishes, even as I prayed the Lord’s prayer, sang Amazing Grace, and passed the peace.

While I type these words, my youngest son is in the basement playing Legos. This may sound mundane, but it isn’t: he’s also having a FaceTime playdate while he sorts and builds.

As we all know, and we’ve certainly all been told, these are strange days.

Strange isn’t necessarily bad.

I loved my time of worship this morning. I managed to do chores, take in the Good Word, and spend time with my community by sending hearts and thumbs up and quick messages at the bottom of a tiny screen, all while in my slippers and without wearing a bra. What could be better than that?

As I listened to the sermon, my mind started making plans to stop physical church altogether, choosing instead to worship virtually while on the treadmill or cooking, thinking of all the time and energy I could save I didn’t have to shower, dress (appropriately), or spend time making small talk each week.

And then I remembered my Lenten sacrifice: to forgo complacent isolation. To take my community seriously instead of for granted, and to give in to the societal expectation of jeans and yes, even uncomfortable undergarments.

Several years ago, I discovered what I call my life verses:

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. (emphasis added) (Acts 2:4-6)

My love for these verses isn’t surprising. As a lawyer, a writer, an editor, even a Sunday School teacher, everything I find satisfaction and joy in revolves around language. The language of law, of stories, and of speaking into the vernacular of children and church. To me, these verses are powerful and validating. They represent the essential need of humans (and the church) to recognize, hear, understand, and speak to the spiritual and emotional needs of others. Through this, hearts are touched, healed, and filled. This is what language can do.

But I, you see, am an introvert—note the word “sacrifice” attached to my commitment of non-isolation. My preferred language is written, not spoken. I love to interact online and by blogging, but call me on the phone and you’ll find a socially awkward woman who isn’t quite sure when it’s her time to speak. This is an exaggeration of course; I’m only a little awkward on the phone, and I certainly love face-to-face interaction, though generally only on my terms. The days when the stars of
coffee,
and NSAIDS,
and sleep,
and spoons
have aligned.

But this morning, folding laundry while my pastor spoke to an empty room, looking out at faceless pews, nothing needed to align. I was isolated and in my element. My youngest was not crawling under the communion table, threatening to knock over the baptistry, or making fart jokes at the alter. It was good.

But it wasn’t church.

Because see, a few verses above 4-6, we read, “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. (emphasis added)

This morning when my pastor spoke of Abram and Sarai, we were not all together in one place. We were not sitting in a house soon to be filled with the violent wind of the Holy Spirit. I was here, and they were
there,
and there,
and there.

But nonetheless—and perhaps by now you see where this is going—while we may have been there and there and there instead of a common here, this morning’s service wasn’t not church.

In this moment of semi-forced isolation and distancing, I am faced with a choice: will I be complacent in my isolation, relishing the excuse to hide behind my door, or will I refuse complacency and reach into the scary places of phone calls, check-ins, sharing toilet paper, and sparing canned goods?

Watching a Facebook live stream isn’t a scary place. It’s easy peasy. But it would be even easier to shrug it off; who would even notice if I wasn’t there? Likely no one. And I likely wouldn’t notice if so-n-so didn’t watch, but actually, according to the numbers we had about as many viewers as we tend to have at in-person worship.

We showed up.

And in the act of showing up, we hearted and thumbs-upped one another, shared comments from our couches, and prayed together. We showed our screens to our dogs, let our kids hold our phones, gave honest feedback about the video feed. Knowing that in our private homes so many of us logged on and gave back is a tremendous gift. Perhaps it doesn’t seem so at first mention, but when the individualistic nature of American society is considered, paired with the amount of entertainment options in our homes, it truly is a countercultural decision—a gift of time and presence—to choose church and in so doing, to choose one another.

In a way, even for those of us who love language, who love to type away at our screens and turn pages until the wee hours of the morn, it is incredibly difficult to choose online church. Not because it’s easier to go in person, but because it’s easier to use this time of physical distancing as an excuse to relish isolation. For the healthy, COVID-19 provides excuse-free time to drink cocoa, read books, watch Netflix … even to break up fights between siblings.

But as life likes to remind us so often, easy isn’t always right.

It will be hard for a phone-hating introvert like me, but as a deacon for my church, I (and others) will be calling to check in on fellow church members as the days at home drag on. Even now, having only sent a handful of (non-scary-place) emails, I have heard stories of loneliness and frustration. Confusion and fear. And in my community, this is only day three of “distancing.”

For those of us who love our jammie-and-coffee time, all day every day, it will take work to overcome our natural tendency to settle in for a good read. But it is necessary work: even in a time when crowds are disallowed and gatherings are frowned upon, the task of speaking to one another’s heart does not end.

So friends, good luck making it through this journey, and if you want to talk (or not), you I know where to find me you.

Foreign Virus, Harvey Weinstein, and What COVID-19 is Teaching Us About Economics in America

I haven’t been able to get the phrase “foreign virus” out of my mind since the President first introduced it into our vernacular last night.

I similarly haven’t been able to get Harvey Weinstein’s well-deserved sentence out of my mind, or the fact that the United States Soccer Federation is using a grossly sexist legal defense to excuse paying female players less than their male counterparts.

And then of course there is the threat (and in some instances the actualization) of school shut-downs due to COVID-19 that will have the unintentional effect of depriving poor children of needed meals and safe spaces. Similarly, this novel pandemic has highlighted the plight of workers without health care or even sick leave. The men and women who go without are faced with losing their jobs or going to work and putting themselves and others at risk. Then there are the teachers who, even with sick leave and health care, continue to show up to work in germ-filled classrooms with Kleenex-filled trashcans and a short supply of hand sanitizer each and every day, despite their personal fears of becoming sick. And let’s not forget to mention congressmen who kill bills that might have eased the economic burden on those who need it the most.

From “foreign virus” to sexism and abuse and back to the virus again, these seemingly disparate things have one very specific thing in common: othering.

It was no mistake that Trump deemed COVID-19 “foreign.” Not because it started in China or because Europe didn’t make a good enough effort to contain the virus, but rather because it is inflammatory, self-protecting, and accusatory. If we—Americans—become ill, it is only because some other government, some other type or color or differently accented people, immorally allowed a virus to ravage not only its own people, but also ours. Economic and physical harms arising from this will continue to be laid at the feet of the other, even as Dr. Anthony Fauci says America is failing to appropriately address this pandemic.

Harvey Weinstein preyed upon women who went to him looking for work, for mentorship, for help in a cutthroat profession where women are already expected to acquiesce to nude scenes and subject themselves to playing roles that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. These women—like the female soccer players who are accused of not working as hard as or having the inherent physical talent of male players—apparently needed to pay their dues somehow and Weinstein found a way. Under these standards, the female body, whether as an athlete or sexual being, is no match for the prowess of men. Women are “other,” and in being so are less than.

But of course, that’s almost always the case.

It is the “other,” those who are “less than,” whose economic plight many are just now realizing as COVID-19 is sweeping our nation, bringing certain hardships into common conversation. It’s easy to see only the “top layer” of a story, but underneath there is always so much more. The plight of low-wage workers, food insecure kids, the homeless, and the chronically ill goes on each and every day, not just this particular moment in history. Sick leave, health care, child care, living wages; they are always relevant.

We live in a nation built on “othering.” There are moments in time that make that othering obvious, bring it to the forefront of public consciousness. But a Facebook meme showing white people in traditional Chinese garb holding a giant bottle of Corona is not a novel type of humor. The abuse Weinstein perpetrated upon women happens at every economic level and largely without public scrutiny or discussion. Women at all professions, not just professional athletes, continue to be underpaid, and the poor tend to remain that way.

Gratefully, a small but mighty portion of Americans wage a daily war against the disease of othering, though usually in ways that are underfunded, overworked, and underpaid. And as we too often do in important work sectors (such as education), we tend to push those in the trenches of this war into their own economic insecurity. Of course, with a president who continues to create new columns in which we can place those “different” than us, nationally televising and normalizing xenophobia, I think it’s safe to say these war wagers will not soon be out of a job.

An Email to My Husband so He Knows I’m as Tired as He is

Subject: Timeline of events between 5 and 6:30 this morning, because I know you’ll want to know

5:14am—Aaron gets in bed with us

Some point after that—Oscar scratches the bedroom door because I fell asleep without crating him and you likely didn’t think about it, which makes sense since I’m the one who wanted a dog and you told me from the beginning you weren’t doing dog-chores and Oscar doesn’t listen to you anyway

Some point after—you wake up and let Oscar in the bedroom. He immediately joins us in bed, circles 827 times, then tries to dig a hole in the mattress.

Aaron sniffs, snorts, coughs, and spoons an unwilling Me, while I lie very still and try to sleep while also trying to will Oscar and Aaron to sleep. I’m unsure of your sleep status, but I assume it isn’t good

5:54am—Oscar licks Aaron because Aaron moved slightly in his sleep, thus indicating a willingness to be licked

5:55am—I get up with Oscar so maybe you and Aaron can stay asleep, and also to avoid any later comments about perhaps “not getting another dog in the first place”

5:56am to 6:16am—Oscar frantically searches for Bear until Bear gets up and scratches at the basement door while barking one bark every 42 seconds

I don’t know Nana is downstairs getting her robe on to take Bear out on a leash, so I let Bear out in the backyard, unleashed. He immediately barks because that is what Bear does.

Every.

Single.

Morning.

Nana comes up in her robe, but only after tripping on the big beanbag and grabbing onto the armchair for support, which then falls on top of her

Nana heroically stops Bear from barking simply by yelling his name through a crack in the backdoor

I watch backdoor number 2 from my position at door number 1. Nana is at door 2; the plan is to let Oscar out door 1 as soon as Bear goes in door 2.

I pat myself on the back when this works beautifully, but then realize Oscar ran straight out of door 1 and into door 2.

I sit, knowing you are awake and feeling very sad about that, yet am hopeful that Aaron has fallen asleep and you are at least comfy in bed.

Many random things occur, mostly involving dogs

I write this email.

6:17am—You cough, and I realize sadly that at least 5 of 6 household inhabitants are awake. 😦

The end

 

The Problem with a Woman’s ‘No’

Like most women I know, I am a woman who “does things.” Whether in the church, classroom, or community, I volunteer for activities and events because I enjoy doing them.

The problem with this (one of a few) is that once a woman gains a reputation of saying yes to things, even more requests for stepping up come her way. There is some good that comes with that, but also some bad. The requests begin to broaden in scope until they encompass unenjoyable, un-called-to things. They also begin to pile up, as two hours of help turn to three, then ten, and before you know it, a whole month has gone by. Sleep is lost, kids ignored, husbands relegated to last in line for attention. Nutrition and exercise fall to the wayside, and, perhaps, stress begins to manifest in physical ways.

Hence the market for self-help books teaching women the seemingly-easy skill of saying no. There are actually books—plural!—that contain hundreds of pages explaining how “no” is a word women shouldn’t be afraid to say. Those two little letters, that tiny package of a word, is truly a linguistic barrier to a happier, healthier life. If we women who “do” things could just learn no’s value, the books claim, we could better live into our actual calling, better love ourselves, our husbands, and our children. But wait! There’s more! We also wouldn’t lose friends, professional opportunities, important roles in the community, or any of those other things we’re afraid of losing should our yesses stop coming.

It isn’t just books: Pastors give this advice. Therapists. Friends. TV doctors with good intentions. And I agree with them: no-saying is a necessary skill for those of us living in a world with too high expectations and too few people to fill the roles we’ve spontaneously created then deemed essential.

But knowing intellectually that we should balance our yesses with a handful of nos is one thing; putting it into play is another.

It’s hard to step back and let something fail, go fallow, or not be done to our personal specifications. It’s even harder to let go of things that fulfill us, that intellectually stimulate us, that give us more to talk about over dinner than laundry and homework. But sometimes there are reasons we must say no, even if we’re left not just with more family and “me” time on our hands, but also with isolation, unpracticed talents, unstimulated minds, and deep sadness.

A couple of years ago I was really sick. Like go-to-the-hospital-bi-weekly sick. In that two-year season I posted on this blog a grand total of FOUR TIMES. I couldn’t even write while at home in my PJs sipping cocoa! I was living off prednisone and even with that most hated of the best loved drugs propping me up, I still just couldn’t go on being someone who “did” things.

So my husband and I decided it was time I just said no.

I emailed heads of boards and bowed out of roles. I spoke for hours, days, years it seems, with my (very supportive and understanding) pastor about church roles I could no longer fill. I let folks at my children’s school think I’d fallen off the edge of the world. I rejected clients. I just … stopped.

So I’ve been there, and you can trust me when I say that sometimes saying no is way, way harder than the overburdening of all the yesses combined.

Being out and about in the world I knew without being an integral part of how it ran was devastating. Not because of the loss of control, but because some of us, like me, were created to be in the ranks of those who do. I thrive on the yesses.

But then … it got easy.

Don’t get me wrong—it wasn’t like easy easy. Just … easier. Enjoyable, even. After the boredom and sadness passed, I started to feel better. I went off the prednisone. I had the energy to switch to a vegan diet (one of the top five best decisions I’ve ever made, by the way. Feel free to ask me about it.). I watched TV. Read books. Had an actual conversation with my husband. And then I was able to go off the immunosuppressant medication that kept me living off antibiotics.

Through this I learned that while the yesses might be life-giving, saying no can be lifesaving.

But I’m sad to say I learned another lesson as well.

I learned that the books are wrong. That our well-intentioned friends are wrong. That the TV-doctors and celebrities are wrong. Even our religious leaders are wrong.

The hard truth is that few people want to hear a no.

While many are sympathetic to the need to step back, many are not.

I was told I didn’t care about my church.

I stopped hearing from friends I’d made through shared volunteer activities.

I was excluded from certain conversations and actions I still wanted to be a part of.

I was stunned.

I readily admit it’s true we can’t always have the best of both worlds. In some roles you’re either in or out; there is no in between. It’s also true we can’t expect place holders: we snooze, we lose. And, of course, there’s the issue of reliability: will she or won’t she back out at the last minute?

Showing up is crucial—when one takes on a role or task it’s expected that she will perform it. How, especially after repeated cancellations, can others continue to rely on and trust those who no longer seem reliable? Likely they can trust that the intentions are good, but good intentions never cleaned the church kitchen, taught a Sunday School lesson, or edited a manuscript. You need an actual person for that.

So this isn’t a bright line issue.

There’s a burden on the chronically ill person to know her limitations and establish firm boundaries, even if those boundaries are disappointing. Being on a particular board may be something really relevant, important, and desired, but if all the meetings start at 8pm and you need to be asleep by 8:30pm, then not accepting the board position to begin with is essential.

There are other roles, however, that are more fluid. Roles someone can more easily step into on the fly if needed, roles that can be quickly understood and executed. Roles where a bit of delay won’t actually cause as much of an issue as others might like to think it will.

There is definitely nuance to the conversation.

But the point here isn’t to delve into each possible scenario, rather it’s to bring a hard truth to the surface for conversation: though we are taught, preached to, advised, and counseled that “no” is a viable and even respectable option, the response received to it does not always correlate with that position.

As I write this, I’m wondering if some will think this is a pity party or indictment of my various communities.

I reject both of those notions.

Let me say that I am writing this only because I hope that by bringing a real-life experience to light, those on the receiving end of “nos” may reflect on their own responsibilities as leaders and respond the way we’re taught to believe they will: sympathetically, warmly, and with understanding.

I also hope that by reading this, those who need to take a step back from some responsibilities can go into the process as better-informed decision makers. Are there things you will lose, perhaps long-term? Will some—even those you think of as friends—respond with criticism? Will people second guess you? And worse—will you begin to second guess yourself? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding … maybe.

All this begs the question: should you say no if you don’t feel up to a yes? Yes! And should you say yes if it may sometimes be dotted with nos? Well, yeah, I think you should.

My mentor, who has her own chronic health issues, explained it this way: we don’t forgo our work in this world because of illness. Yet we don’t necessarily need to live it out in times of flares or in ways that push us to the brink. Instead, we establish systems and supports that can be put into place as needed. That is one of the many things community is for, and part of successful ministry is learning to use the strengths of community wisely.

As hard as some things have been post-season-of-nos, it was worth it. I got a significant-if-limited portion of health back, reconnected with my family and myself, and made radical life changes that I will continue to reap the benefits of in the years to come. There is nothing more important than that, even ministry, as we cannot give of ourselves if there’s nothing left to give.