June 4, 2014

Mom, They Hate Each Other

When Emma and Michelle were young, I often called my mom, the wise mother of 6, lamenting, "Mom, they hate each other." Emma was born April 3, 1973; Michelle, June 17, 1975. Even now,  42 years after I became a mother, I don't want to masquerade as an all-wise grandma. No mother of 4 daughters ever masters sibling rivalry.

I am so glad I kept journals when the two oldest were young. i could not possibly recapture my earnestness, my conviction I had a magic solution to sibling rivalry.

Fall 1976--When Emma  (3 1/2) came home from nursery school, she asked me to read Green Eggs and Ham. She settled on my lap in the small black chair, and I began the book.  Michelle (17 months) immediately came over protesting, tried to climb into the chair. I assumed she wanted to listen to the story, so I asked Emma to move to the couch, so we all could fit. But then Michelle grabbed the book, bringing me her books to read.

I discouraged her, feeling she had had my exclusive attention for 4 hours; now it was Emma's turn. My friend Anne offered to read to Michelle, but she struggled down from her lap 2 or 3 times. I finished reading Green Eggs and Ham. Anne started to read to Emma and  and her daughter Elizabeth, so I could read to Michelle. Michelle got down from my lap and tried to grab the book away from Anne. When that failed, she tried bribery--3 books, her blanket, a slip, her rabbit skin. Elizabeth wanted the rabbit skin, but every time she took it away from Michelle she protested and only stopped when Anne took it back from her daughter.

Finally Michelle used one of the cardboard blocks to climb on the ottoman; from there she lunged for the big black chair where Emma was sitting with Anne and Elizabeth. She didn't quite make it and had to be rescued, but she had achieved her purpose--the reading stopped. I've noticed that she often starts fussing if someone picks up Emma, reads to her, pays her exclusive attention in any way, shape, or form

I'm glad to see such self-assertion on her part, even though I feel pulled in two directions now, with both of them clamoring for exclusive attention. It frees me from being Michelle's defender. More and more I can let them learn to handle their disputes by themselves. I know Emma's worst won't really hurt Michelle, and Michelle protests more than enough to warn me if any mayhem is actually occurring. Once or twice lately I've rushed in ready to scold Emma, when Michelle's protests had absolutely nothing to do with her. Emma's being away at school mornings seems to have encouraged Michelle to increase her demands. If she could get rid of Emma in the mornings, why not all day?

May 19, 2014

Drugging Kids Instead of Changing America

I am a psychiatric social worker and children's and young adult librarian. I  have 5 younger brothers, 4 grown daughters, 4  sons-in-law, 5 grandkids, 4 and under, 11 first cousins, 7 great nieces and nephews,  and 45 Younger first cousins, the mother of 4, the grandma of 4. I am also a manic depressive. It took ten years to find a medication that helped; I read about it on the Internet and shopped for a psychiatrist that would partner with me to experiment.   The other meds did far more harm than good.

I am not denying a role for medication.  I am not talking about ADHD drugs like ritalin. However, childhood bipolar disorder has only been discovered in the last 15 years, mostly in America. Many discovers have close ties to Big Pharm. Until 1995 conventional psychiatric wisdom was that bipolar disorder could only be diagnosed in the late teens.  There is no conclusive study that proves childhood bipolar disorder leads to adult bipolar disorder. Psychiatrists still debate whether it exists.

May 1, 2014

What Is Your Birth Order?

To Only Children: Being the oldest child dooms you to the responsibility chip, whether you have no siblings or 7. Until both your parents die, you are being parented by people who have no clue what they are doing.  Their grandparenting skills are nonexistent. Children raise their parents to be grownups. Being outnumbered makes the job more challenging and stimulating, but you are always up to it.

My five brothers are 18 months, 3 years, 7 years, 11 years, and 13 years younger.

. Sibling closeness has mattered more to me than to my brothers. I try much harder to keep the family connected. Being both the oldest and the only girl seems central. I was my adult height when my two younger brothers were born; they were only 5 and 7 when I left home for college. I must have seemed a maternal figure to them. In some pictures I look like their young mother.

We did not grow up in the same family. My mother returned to school full-time when my youngest brother  Brian was 5; she started teaching high school when he was 7. The 3 oldest Koch sibs  had a stay-at-homehome mother until we went to college. Brian doesn't remember my mom staying at home full-time. My father retired before Brian finished college.

We have very different perceptions of our parents. The 4 oldest remember our dad as a brilliant intellectual and mathematician; The 2 youngest remember a grail old man who disappeared into Alzheimer's Disease. The three oldest remember our childhood perceptions of my mom as "just a housewife" who never went to college. My younger brothers remember her the way her obituary describes her: "teacher, activist, trailblazer."

April 14, 2014

Confessions of Misogyny

 My four daughters would reassure you that I am one of the worst misogynists they know. Until I became a mother at age 28, I would always join the circle of men, never the circle of women. I was positive the conversation would be more stimulating. I despise women's fashion magazines and all the talk of diets , hair, shoes, and makeup. Being forced to watch Sex and the City would be cruel and unusual punishment.

Spending a year in a Catholic girls college in Rochester was the most alienating experience of my life. I was sarcastic, and no one seemed to realize I didn't necessarily mean it. One night my friends and I stayed up all night, discussing politics, sex, religion, life, death, etc. The rumor rapidly spread that we were gossiping about everyone on the floor. Learning from the college dean that "there was something in the nature of a woman that unsuits her for intellectual debate with men" elicited my jail beak to being the only girl in the political science classes at Fordham.

Working in the female-dominated fields of public librarianship and social work was a disaster for me. I never can accept that is the way it is and you can't do anything about it. I am a trouble maker pure and simple. When I am upset, I defend myself by getting more ascerbic and intellectual. I perceive that men enjoy gutsy women who giggle and smile and tease and insult and debate with them lots more than women do. I have always gone to male shrinks.

My most successful social work job was working with a great group of seriously mentally ill guys who were absolutely trapped in the system. Some had been in jail; most had substance abuse problems. I never was so appreciated by a group of people in my whole life. They were so wonderful to hang out with. I excel at eliciting the sanity in crazy people and the craziness in apparently sane people. There are lots of the latter in social work and public librarianship.

I also did extremely well with male gay clients. One told me I must have been a gay male in a previous lifetime I understand him so well. I Another paid me the greatest compliment I got as a shrink: he said I was his only experience of unconditional love. We had a strange therapeutic relationship. Until I treated him, an Irishmen from an utterly abusive family, I never realized how Irish I was.

I have never been hassled on the street by a guy in my entire life. I do smile a lot. I am perfectly comfortable being the only women in a subway car full of men. African American men and immigrants tend to find older, curvier women attractive, which is lovely fun. In the early days of women's lib, women whined incessantly about street hassles. I wondered if I was the ugliest woman in the entire women's liberation movement. I often have long conversations with homeless men. One street person teased me that I looked very friendly ,approachable, happy to talk, sometimes generous depending upon whether I had exceeded my day's handout limit, but I subtly conveyed that I could turn him to stone if he messed with me.

March 15, 2014

To My Oldest Daughter on Her 13th Birthday, 4/4/86

Dearest Emma,

Happy 13th birthday.  This will be such an exciting year of change and growth for you that I particularly want us to keep in close touch with one another.  Both of us are undergoing major transitions, so I  hope we can understand and empathize with each other.  I asked Grandma what she wished she had said to me on my thirteenth birthday.  She didn't have to think about her answer.  "Tell me everything.  There's nothing you could conceivably do or say that I don't handle.   You don't have to protect me from anything  you feel or do."  I liked that.  I wished she had told me that when I was 13  What was left unsaid did far more lasting damage than anything that was said.  So that's part of what I want to say to you as you blossom into womanhood.

I have lived 27 and 3/4 more years in the world than you have.  I will be delighted to share any of my experiences with you, well aware that you have to find your own path.  Sometimes I will forget and try to turn you into a newer, better me.  I want you to point out what I'm doing when I do that.  As you grow older, I identify more and more with you, so I will have to struggle not to force my old aspirations on you.  But I have tried very hard in the past to respect your individuality.  You were a distinct, dynamic individual from the moment you were born.  I remember looking into  your gorgeous, alert, intelligent eyes the day you were born and wondering if you would be too much for me.  And sometimes you are.  I am trying very hard to grow up enough to be a good mother to you.  I have always loved  your spirited determination to be your own person, what Barbara Williams, your nursery school teacher, called "your considerable sense of self."  I want you to continue to feel free to tell me when I am making an obvious mistake with you or a not so obvious one.

I am glad you are so close to your father.  My own teenage years would have been far happier if I hadn't been so intimidated by my father, so afraid of arguing with him, so afraid of getting close.  You never have to choose between us; we will try to give you opportunities to be alone with each of us.  You already know what very different people we are, but we are equally proud of our beautiful, brilliant, spirited daughter.

The worst thing that happened to me as a teenager is that I felt compelled to choose between my feminine and my intellectual sides.  You live in a very different world, but you still will receive a lot of contradictory messages about what is really important.  Don't choose.  You can be both.  Look at Aunt Jackie and Aunt Lynn, for example.  A boy who holds your intelligence against you isn't capable of befriending or loving the real you.  Don't waste time on such boys or men.

At this stage of your life close female friendships are far more important than boyfriends.  At no stage of your life will close women friends cease to be vitally important.  The longer I live, the more convinced I am that men and women are very different.  Our world desperately needs women's unique qualities.  Women need not become like men to succeed in life.  Women need to support and understand one another.  I would never go so far as one psychologist did when she wrote a book entitled, "Men Are Just Desserts."  But don't ever neglect your girlfriends for some boy.  I hope you continue to have friends like Michael who happen to be boys.  I think that is particularly important because you don't have brothers or male cousins you see regularly.  Peer pressure still discourages men and women from being "just friends," but I hope you can withstand that premature emphasis on pairing off.  Daddy was my friend before he was my lover and my husband.

For most of this century mothers and daughters have been at odds with each other.  That has been a tragic loss for women in general. Ideally your mother should be your most ardent supporter and confidant.  No one, except your future husband, will probably ever love you more.  In fact mothers have an even better track record than husbands.  I hope we can continue to be friends.  I know we will fight, but fighting doesn't diminish our closeness. Look at me and Daddy.  When you were born, Uncle Stephen said, "Good, Mary Jo has a daughter she can fight with.  That should make her very happy."  He remembered my epic battles with my mother.

I hope we can continue to share books with each other.  That might be one of the best ways for you to teach me lessons that you think I need to learn.  Find me the right book to read.  I often learn more from books than from my own mistakes.  And you can always write notes to me if you find something too difficult to say.  I can express myself in writing far better than I can face-to-face. I don't know if you're the same way, but you could try.  I promise to save all your letters to hand down to your daughters.  Wouldn't you have loved to see a letter from me to my mother at age 13?  I would love to see it too.  Recently I have remembered more of my teenage years.  I'm glad.  Getting to know  teenage Mary Jo again will help me to be kinder to  teenage Emma.

More than anything else, I wish I had kept a journal when I was a teenager. It would have helped me so much to mother my teenagers.  It would be a priceless legacy to had down from one generation to another.  So much rich human experience is lost when women don't write down the details of their lives.  I've only recently rediscovered journal keeping, and it has helped me clarify my own life more than anything.  Writing letters is equally important. I am delighted that you, Erin, and Liz are letter writers.  Keep them.  You'll really enjoy them in the future. I've thrown out too much of my past. (She has kept all the letters, even the intricately folded notes she and her best friend used to pass each other during boring high school classes

I should have started this a month ago. I cou ld fill up the entire book with my hopes for you and my pride in you. I hope someday you have a daughter.  Only then will you understand how much I love you, how proud of you I am.  I have learned so much about music and makeup this year:)  What remedial lessons await me next year?  With five brothers I often tried to raise myself as a boy, so I am delighted to get a second chance to experience the adolescent years with you.

You seem so much older than you did a year ago.  I know you will change even more this year.  Being a woman is wonderful, Emma.  All human experience is open to you.  Men are denied many of the most wonderful experiences.  I have never regretted being a woman.  Don't ever be afraid of your body.  It's God's most glorious creation.  Own it and glory in it.  Don't ever be afraid to ask me any questions . I might know all the answers, but I almost certainly will have heard of the book where answers can be found.  I believe knowledge never hurt anyone. I would far rather you know too much, stuff you never need to know, then know too little.  I have always tried to be open with you, so never stop bringing your questions to me.  My mother and I were never comfortable talking about sex. I had to find out the most basic information on my own.  That shouldn't happen with us.  Believe me, you are much better learning what you need to know from me, than from rumors and dirty jokes.

I have far less firsthand experience with drugs and alcohol, but I will help you find out anything you need to know.  I'm sure you will never do anything to damage your perfect body and  your perfect mind.  But no matter what, I'll always be there for you.  Not telling me something I should know is the only thing you could do that I would find hard to understand and forgive.

Emma, Emma,  only five years from now you will be finishing high school.  The last thirteen years seem but a blink of my eyes.  I have made many mistakes, expected too much, haven't been patient enough,  haven't listened enough, haven't spent enough time alone with you.  How rarely have Daddy and I spent an evening alone with you like we are doing tonight.  Too often  you have gotten lost in the shuffle of our chaotic family life.  As you undergo so many changes in your life, we need to find more ways to spend time together so we don't become strangers to one another. Maybe I should write letters to you more often--not just once a year on your birthday, but whenever I have something important to share with you.  Keep this book for my letters to you.  Whenever I have something more to say, I will leave this book under your pillow.  We can have a secret correspondence.  I enjoy writing to you.  Wouldn't it be helpful to have several books filled with words of wisdom or words of frivolity from me?  At the very least we could have a good laugh over them when my granddaughter is 13 years old.  Wouldn't you have loved to read letters form Grandma Nolan to Grandma Mary when she was 13?  Writing is one of the greatest gifts you can give your daughter--the gift of yourself.

Daddy is dying to see what I am writing,  yet part of me wants to keep it private, our special time with each other. I want to post Keep Out Signs.  This Means You, Chris and Rosalind.  A mother and her oldest daughter should be able to talk with each other without everyone else's eavesdropping.

I remember 13 years ago so vividly.  Someday I'll share with you a paper I wrote about childbirth with a detailed description of your birth.  I hope I can spend every birthday with you, that you won't move so far away that I can't make it to your birthday party every year of my life.

Emma, you have been such a joy to me--so beautiful, so brilliant, so talented, so observant, so spirited. I love to love the same books you love. I love to enjoy sharing Liz's letters together.  I am glad you are sharing school life with us.  I enjoyed being made over, but you have been making me over for 13 years since that glorious moment in the middle of the night when I first held in my arms the most beautiful baby I had ever seen and she stuck her tongue out at me.  I don't have words to tell you how joyous I am  to have a 13 year old daughter Emma, who will make me over all my life.

PS  I wish I had some words of wisdom about sisters,  but you are teaching me about sisters. If a fairy godmother suddenly offered to grant my fondest wish, I'd wish for some sisters.  Don't take your fights too seriously.  When people constantly share such small quarters, they inevitably rub against each other, irritate each other, infuriate each other.  I could happily endure any number of fights if you would be close friends when you are grown up.  Despite all the ways they drive you crazy, I envy you your sisters.

Mother's Day, May 1986
Dear Mommy,
 Here’s to the memories.  All the laughter, tears, happiness, and sorrow that we as your children have experienced with you right beside us every step of the way, making sure we didn’t stray off the path.  Thanks, Mommy, for who would we be without you.
 Love, Emma

January 20, 2014

How Revolutions Become Trademarks

Dear Mary Joan,

Hi sister feminist - from Redstockings - the actual organization. We like some of the political views you posted on your blog titled Redstocking (http://redstockinggrandma1945.blogspot.com/). Unfortunately though, we have to ask you to find another name besides "Redstockings." Perhaps RadFem Grandma?

We ask this because Redstockings is real live operating organization - a 501(c)(3), with archives, publications, fundraising, public classes and more. For more information, you can find us at www.redstockings.org. You can also find us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Redstockings

In order to be able to keep others from randomly using the name, and thus causing confusion for people, we have to ask others not to use it.  We have to be diligent to ensure that the Redstocking's trademark is used correctly. We find your blog a good read and think you're making a contribution with it. However, if we allow uses like this one, we run the very real risk that our trademark will be weakened. As a fan of the name, I'm sure that is not something you intended or would want to see happen.

 Please do seek another name for your interesting blog. We hope to stay in touch.

Thank you,  
Redstockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement