Boys Can’t Be Princesses: Thoughts on Gender Norms

In the last 50 years we (as a culture) have spent a lot of time trying to give girls the same opportunities as boys. I could write a whole book about all the things girls couldn’t do, and the ways were trying to extend them the same opportunities that boys have, but that isn’t what this post is about. What I’ve been thinking about lately, is how it seems like boys are considerably more restricted and restrained by gender norms than girls are, and what that might mean for their self-expression and their happiness.

I will admit, when I was told I was having a boy, one of my first thoughts was, “Now I have to learn, and worry, about all the developmental stuff for boys AND girls! How am I going to do it?!” The idea that I’d have to be an expert on what boys AND girls face growing up in this world was totally overwhelming.

It still is.

I am a woman, I know what it’s like to grow up as a girl and live life as a woman. I know what challenges girls face and I have some ideas of how to help my daughter navigate them. Despite having more male than female friends growing up, boys feel foreign to me. I am close with my father, but I didn’t grow up with brothers. When it comes to what boys need to thrive, I feel wholly inadequate. I’m paying more attention now, as I read articles and books, and I’m starting to compile a list of the lessons I will teach my son, the pitfalls I’ll try to avoid and the societal messages I’ll need to be aware of. I no longer feel as clueless as I did the day I opened the envelope and saw a circle around that tell tale piece of anatomy, with “BOY!!!!” scrawled above it.

Already I see one of the biggest challenges we’ll face in my son’s early life, and that is restrictions put on him by gender norms. In the four years since my daughter was born, I’ve never felt she has been constricted by being a girl. She loves Batman as much as she loves the Disney Princesses. I’ve been buying her clothing from the boys’ section since she was a baby. I still buy her comic book hero shirts from the boys’ section all the time. Just this weekend I got her a pair of Justice League tennis shoes. She wore them, with her Elsa nightgown, out on Sunday. It makes me so happy that she can express herself in whatever way she wants, without worrying if she’s being “girlie” enough.

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A pretty impressive amount of Monito’s clothes are actually hand-me-downs from his big sister. I never thought twice about buying her stuff from that was meant for boys. No color was off limits–I got her anything I liked. But those rules don’t seem to apply to the clothes I can buy for Monito. Not only do most of the boys’ clothes herald from a limited section of the color wheel, there are some colors that are clearly completely off limits. I’ve never seen pink in the boys’ section and purple is scarce. There isn’t much glitter, and fewer rainbows. Even the appropriate themes are limited: sports, animals, robots, dinosaurs, things that go and of course, super heros. Evidently boys aren’t allowed to branch out much.

It makes me sad to think that my son will feel that he can’t wear the things his sister wears. Even seemingly innocent articles of clothing can seem suspect. I recently ordered Osita a pair of purple, fleece lined Crock tennis shoes online. When they arrived it was clear they were too small, but I couldn’t return them. At first I didn’t even consider keeping them for Monito; purple is not a color you see most boys wearing. In the end I decided I would keep them and let him decide if he was interested in wearing them, but that knee-jerk assumption got me thinking about how limited boys are in the colors and styles they can wear.

And what if Monito not only wants to wear those purple shoes, but is also interested in rainbows and glitter and fairy wings? What if he wants to don Osita’s hand-me-down princess dresses. What if he does wear them and is ridiculed for it? Even if we support those decisions at home, he’ll certainly hear from other kids that boys don’t wear skirts, dresses or anything pink. Just recently Osita had two friends over for a playdate–a girl and a boy–and the boy refused to put on a princess dress, despite his mom assurances that there isn’t anything that he can’t wear because he’s a boy. He could not be convinced. Already, at the tender age of three, he knows that certain things are off limits, and even in the privacy of a friends’ home, with his mom gentle support, he refused to put on a dress.

Osita loves Batman and adults applaud her for it, but when boys like girl-designated shows and toys, like My Little Pony, we give them a special name (Bronies) and ridicule them. Why is it okay for my daughter to like Batman, or any other super hero, but it’s not okay for boys to like My Little Pony? It seems so unfair that my daughter has the pick of whatever toy strikes her fancy–and is even congratulated for playing with boy-designated toys–while my son will be limited to only half of what is available.

We’ve spent a lot of time and effort on tearing down the restrictions girls face, but we’ve done almost nothing to tear down the restrictions placed on boys. I suppose we don’t think playing house, or pretending to mother baby dolls, or dressing up as a princess are desirable activities, so there is no point in open them up for boys to get involved. Boys already have access to the cool stuff, they don’t need to be allowed to play with girl stuff too. I don’t know which is more alarming, the fact that boys aren’t expected to participate in this kind of play after a certain age, or the fact that we don’t think enough about it to even discuss it, let alone try to change it.

Because what if boys want to play princess and feel like they can’t? What if their desire to play dolls or dress up, or put on a tutu and throw glitter all over the faces, brings them shame? What if we can’t support them enough at home to erase the intense messages they get from their friends at school or on sports teams?

I live in San Francisco, where my son has more chance of being accepted in typical “girl” attire than he would in many other parts of the country. Still, even here it seems clear that boys are expected to act, and dress, a certain way. Not long ago we went to a Little Mermaid sing-a-long at the famous Castro Theater (the Castro is San Francisco’s well-known gay neighborhood). Many children from Osita’s preschool were there, including several girl friends of hers who were all dressed up as various princesses. There was also one boy dressed as Ariel–he even had his fingernails painted blue and purple. Before the movie, any kid in a costume was invited to be introduced on the stage. Of a hundred or so kids that paraded in front of the audience, about 80 of them were girls in princess attire, and the rest were boys dressed as Prince Eric, the chef, Flounder or Sebastian. Osita’s friend was the ONLY boy who walked across the stage in a princess dress. My guess is that in most places, there wouldn’t have been even one boy dressed like that.

This might seem like a silly thing to be worried about, as the mom of a boy; surely violence on TV and in video games is one of many more important concerns. But it is something that hurts my heart, because I hate to think that boys are pushed into such a restrictive mold from such an early age. I hope that Monito, with his big sister (and us) at his side, will feel comfortable exploring all the ways he wants to express himself, even if that includes pinks tutus and fairy wings.

Do you notice the gender restrictions placed on boys?

Do you plan to fight them, or follow them, with your boy(s)?

Conflicting Information About Eczema and Dairy

I emailed my son’s pediatrician yesterday, requesting an appointment in a month so we could discuss his possible dairy sensitivities and what it might mean for starting formula. She wrote me back saying that eczema is almost never the result of food sensitivities or allergies.

What? But SO MANY people have told me that was most likely the problem.

So I went on WebMD and found this:

Eczema is not an allergic reaction. Even so, a large number of children who have eczema also have food allergies. That doesn’t mean that certain foods such as dairy, eggs, and nuts — common food allergy triggers in children with eczema — cause it or make it worse. Before removing particular foods from your child’s diet, talk with your health care provider to be sure your child’s nutritional needs will be met.

Now I’m confused. Why, if the medical establishment believes that eczema is NOT caused by food allergies, are so many people telling me that it is?

Is this one of those situations in which Western Medicine doesn’t attribute a connection but Eastern Medicine and/or homeopaths do? Or is it just a confusion about the correlation of children with food allergies being more susceptible to the condition?

I just want to do what is best for my son. I stopped eating dairy about two weeks ago, but have only really been dairy free in earnest for about a week. My son’s skin seems to have cleared up a lot in that time, but it also corresponds to when we started our skin “regimen,” and reduced baths. Plus I heard it takes two weeks for dairy to leave your system, AND I found out my inlaws have been using frozen milk almost every day this week, when their fresh stores ran out. So… it seems clear that the restricted dairy is probably NOT the cause of the recent clear up. Of course that doesn’t mean it isn’t helping and/or wouldn’t further help.

I guess the other fact that makes me suspicious is that Monito has never suffered from colic of any kind. The kid is as serene as they come–he barely even spits up. As I started to research hypoallergenic formulas, ALL the posts and comments were about severely colicky babies whose tummies were soothed switching to dairy-free, not their skin. Could my son really be dairy sensitive and yet have no tummy issues whatsoever?

Now I’m at a loss. Do I keep restricting dairy even though the medical establishment tells me it isn’t causing my son’s eczema, or do I keep it up, just in case?

If anyone has any thoughts or information about this (especially the people who originally told me it was probably a reaction to dairy) I’d be much obliged. The more I know the better!

The P Word

Earlier this week I employed the P Word in my posts about the “breast is best” campaign. Privilege. It’s a hot button word these days–you see it everywhere. In 2013 the term “check your privilege” blew up on social media, when people started using the term to remind others where they come from, that their position in society might make it difficult for them to understand where someone else is coming from.

In December of last year, Schrodinger’s Catbox wrote a two part installment on fertility privilege that I found very fascinating, and I think anybody in the ALI community could relate to. I was also impressed with her understanding of privilege. Here is how she defines the word:

Privilege is any societal advantage you hold because your skin color, your gender, your sexual identity, your able-bodiedness, your age, your class, your education, your language, or your religion are accepted and prioritized by dominant culture. Privilege means that there are benefits you enjoy – whether consciously or unconsciously, and that part’s really important – because of something about you that society values more than something else. Frequently these are things you were born with, or into. People get very upset when it is pointed out to them that something that is not their “fault” carries implicit potential to harm and dehumanize others. This is usually the place that most folks shut down and say, “I didn’t own slaves, so I don’t know why Black people are so angry at ME”, or “Hey, things are hard for me too!” or “Some of my best friends are (fill in the disenfranchised identity blank).” It is uncomfortable to confront the ways in which we unintentionally contribute to suffering.

She goes on to itemize the privilege “she inhabits,” including being white, educated, middle-class and straight. Of course, one kind of privilege she does not enjoy is “fertility privilege,” a term she created herself to describe what it’s like to walk through the a fertile world as an infertile.

If I try to talk about the differences between my body and those of people who can reproduce, my experience is often patronized and minimized, even by thoroughly well-meaning people. I am told that someday, I might just be normal. If I just have hope. It’s like telling someone with cerebral palsy that they should just buck up and one day they’ll shake it off. Or that really there’s nothing different about me, I’m just like everyone else, which is essentially telling me that the thing that makes me different is so aberrant and intolerable that you can’t even allow yourself to see it.

I’m quoting these passages because I would venture to guess that most of the people who read this blog inhabit some forms of privilege, but that we may not realize it. My assumption is that most of my readers are educated, middle class women, who at the very least have a stable internet connection and the time to read my blatherings on a regular basis (and having the time to waste on this blog signals a significant amount of privilege in and of itself 😉 ). In fact, I assume a significant number of you inhabit most, if not all, of the privilege that I occupy. And lord knows, I enjoy an extensive amount of privilege.

Seeing that many of us are quite privileged–and probably spend a good portion of our lives taking that privilege for granted (because that is one of the tenants of privilege, that it is overlooked by the people who inhabit it)–I think it’s valuable to identify with a way in which we are not privileged. And since most, if not all of us (I’m not sure what the reproductive histories are of the many, many women who read but never comment) are part of the ALI community, we can all recognize “fertility privilege” and understand what it feels like to NOT identify with that particular advantage.

As I mentioned before, in my posts a few days ago, I referred to women who enjoy the privilege of a positive breastfeeding experience. I used the phrase in passing, to make a point, but I realized later that I didn’t examine that idea in the way that I should have, and I was especially remiss in neglecting to acknowledge my own breastfeeding privilege, of which I enjoy plenty.

I mentioned breastfeeding privilege in my previous posts because it seems like most (but definitely not all) of the women who defend the “breast is best” rhetoric have experienced success in breastfeeding (and I don’t mean specifically on my posts, but anywhere the conversation takes place). That’s not to say that many of them did not struggle significantly to get to a positive place (and I am absolutely not trying to belittle or disregard anyone’s struggle to achieve a successful breastfeeding experience), but most of them ultimately achieved a rewarding breastfeeding relationship that they enjoy, if not cherish (and at the very least appreciate). I think it’s hard to understand how damaging the “breast is best” rhetoric can be if your experience has ultimately been positive, or at least advantageous.

Of course, people could argue that I have been successful in breastfeeding, because at 4.5 months old, my son is still exclusively fed breast milk. And those people would be right. I enjoy all sorts of breastfeeding privilege. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t still be breastfeeding today. I have the choice to continue providing breast milk for my son, and at the foundation of that choice, is my privilege.

Here are some of the breastfeeding privileges I inhabit:

– the time and resources to work at my breastfeeding relationship with my son, and eventually exclusively pump (including almost four months of maternity leave)

– access to lactation consultants and La Leche League leaders.

– access to treatments for breastfeeding-related maladies like thrush and mastitis (including health insurance to cover my hospitalization due to mastitis and the antibiotics used to treat it)

– the education required to research and advocate for myself

– a (more than) ample milk supply

– a good quality pump

– a schedule that accommodates exclusively pumping

– the financial resources needed to purchase pump parts, nursing pads, nursing bras, and other breastfeeding accoutrements

– a husband who supported me during my breastfeeding difficulties and continues to support me in my commitment to exclusively pump

– the ability to stay off my non-breastfeeding compatible medications for an extended period of time

{I’m sure there are more that I’m forgetting, or don’t even recognize. That is the thing about privilege, it’s so easy to look past it, to not even acknowledge it’s there, informing everything about our experience.}

Yes, I enjoy a great deal of breastfeeding privilege, but there is much breastfeeding privilege that I don’t enjoy. In the end I toe the line, the razor thing line separating breastfeeding success and failure. I am able to provide breast milk for my son, but I do so at (what I deem a) great cost to myself. (I also am not able to provide breast milk in a way that is recognized as positive, or even “normal” by society). In order to feed my son breast milk: I endure constant physical pain, and discomfort; I deprive myself of medications that allow me to function in a way that feels normal; and I sacrifice huge amounts of time to pumping. Absolutely no part of my breastfeeding experience is positive, except for providing my son with breast milk. I have just enough breastfeeding privilege that it’s assumed I will continue to provide breast milk, even when doing so makes me unhappy. In the eyes of the majority of LCs and LLLs who espouse “breast is best,” my suffering is not ENOUGH to warrant me quitting. Providing my son with breast milk is more important than sparing myself physical, mental and emotional suffering.

So that is why I take issue with “breast is best.” But I understand why other women support the “breast is best” campaign and worry that studies like the one I celebrated might damage its message. And ironically, I think their concern comes down to privilege as well, but in a different way. What those women want (at least the ones who are not militant lactivists who think every woman should breast feed, no matter what challenges they face), is for as many of the privileges that are now required for women to have successful breastfeeding experiences, to not be privileges at all, but basic rights. They want adequate maternity leave, access to breastfeeding support or the assurance of space and time for pumping at work to not be privileges, but rights, rights that all women have. They want women to have the choice to breastfeed without prejudice, just like I want women to have the choice to not breastfeed without prejudice. Ultimately we want the same things, we just see them through different lenses–different lenses of privilege, in fact.

There will always be some form of privilege inherent in a successful breastfeeding experience–the privilege to have a milk supply that meets your baby’s demands, the privilege of having a baby who can learn to latch and suck productively, the privilege of not requiring medications that are unsafe while breastfeeding, the list goes on and on. But there are even more privileges that don’t need to be privileges at all. Those privileges, like access to information, support and resources, are what the “breast is best” campaign was created to break down. So while I may not support what the “breast is best” campaign has become in my area, for women like me, I will “check my privilege,” and hope that we can stop fighting with each other about which is best–breast milk or formula–and work to create a world in which not only the privileged get to choose how to best feed their kids.

Do you recognize your own privilege, and the ways in which it informs your understanding of the world?

My issue with “Breast is Best”

First I want to thank everyone for keeping the discourse civil on my last post. I was grateful (and interested) to hear other takes on the study. I’m not surprised that it’s findings are being contested, they always are. I hope they can create a study where the results are more convincing, because I absolutely do believe that children who are given formula in their first year go on to thrive in all the same ways that babies who are breastfed thrive.

What happened as I wrote that post, and then read and responded to comments, as I finally figured out exactly where I stand on the “breast is best” issue. As you know, this issue is VERY close to my heart, one that has occupied my thoughts for many long hours, days weeks and months. I literally think about this EVERY SINGLE DAY, as I decide if I want to keep pumping despite pain and discomfort that gets worse with each passing day (not to mention dietary restrictions). Obviously I believe breast milk is worth fighting for, but I still take issue with “breast is best.” How can that be? I finally figured it out in a comment on another post, and it’s important enough for me to publish it as an actual post on my blog. So here it is (with a few clean-ups here and there):

I think what it comes down to is this (and Jjiraffe stated this really well) is that I believe you can’t understand what it’s like to be on the other side of it, unless you’ve actually been there yourself. Most (not all) women who defend the “breast is best” campaign have been able to breastfeed in the manner, and for the duration, that they had hoped. I think it’s impossible to understand how damaging the “breast is best” rhetoric can be until you’ve been forced to make the choice, especially when you’re forced to make that choice due to circumstances beyond your control. (And I recognize that some women are more secure in using formula, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find a woman who hasn’t struggled under the pressure and guilt of not providing breast milk, no matter what their circumstances.)

I also think it’s unhelpful (and potentially damaging) that the “breast is best” campaign does not address the downsides of breastfeeding, which all affect the mother, who is already struggling the most in the early days of postpartum life. It’s an incredible responsibility, and for many women a burden, to be the only person who can feed the baby. Even if they pump to give a bottle, they are still required to sacrifice their time pumping, time that could be used to get precious sleep or tend to other children. It’s REALLY HARD to be the sole food source for your child, to have limitation put on when you can eat and what medicines you can take, to deal with the physical discomforts (and sometimes unbearable pain) of producing and extracting milk, and that is never (in my experience) a part of the “breast is best” conversation. It’s hardly acknowledged at all. And then when women, who are very likely suffering from “the baby blues,” and maybe even PPD, are struggling, they don’t see their struggles validated, they just see “breast is best,” and the pressure to provide breast milk to their baby. That can be so incredibly damaging, especially if breast feeding is not going well for them. The feelings of failure that you’re not able to do something that is supposed to be “natural,” along with the guilt that you might be offering you child something that could be potentially harmful, can be so, so harmful. I’ve read about a woman who felt so pressured to keep breastfeeding, in her severely PPD state, that she killed herself. These things happen! And it’s not right. And I don’t understand why it can’t be a positive thing that there might be new evidence that babies who are formula fed do fine, so that women who are struggling feel they have positive options to turn to.

So yes, I will concede that breast milk is “better” than formula, but I will not concede that “breast is best” because “breast is best” is about so much more than breast milk. And that needs to be acknowledged.

And that is where the disconnect happens for me. I do believe that breast milk is superior to formula, most naturally occurring substances are preferable to synthesized reproductions. I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would argue with you on that. But just because breast milk is better than formula does not mean that breast feeding is better than formula feeding. Breast feeding is about SO MUCH MORE than breast milk, and until that is a part of the “breast is best” rhetoric, I just can’t support it.

This topic is obviously very close to my heart. I am exactly the person that lactivists would argue should be breast feeding her child (because clearly I have the milk supply), despite a very real cost to my physical, mental and emotional well being. Being that person, living that experience, I can only try to explain how damaging it can be. I know it’s hard to understand, when coming from the privileged place of a positive breastfeeding experience, but please believe me when I say that it’s not something anyone would wish on herself or any other new mother. I know there are all sorts of reasons that “breast is best” came to be, and I appreciate and support all of them, but right now the conversation is not complete, and it’s creating casualties.

The first weeks and months with our babies are so precious–and many of us will never have those early moments again. Women should be supported through that time, and I don’t believe we should be pushing women to sacrifice those moments with their babies, just so they can provide breast milk. It’s so hard, in those early weeks and months, to see the forest for the trees, and quick, catchy phrases like “breast is best,” can do real damage. I absolutely believe that. Because I am a causality of that phrase, that mentality. And I want to spare others from the emotional anguish that marked the first months of both my children’s lives.

Thank you for helping me figure out how I feel about this with your respectful comments on my last post. I would appreciate the same courtesy here.

Breast Is (Not Actually?) Best

Last week the Fearless Formula Feeder wrote about a study that just came out, a study suggesting that children who are fed breast milk don’t actually outperform children who are fed formula on a series of metrics. In previous studies, breastfed babies out performed their formula fed peers, but in this study they did not. The difference? SIBLINGS!!!!

In a study based out of Ohio, 8,000 children were compared. 25% of them were siblings who were fed differently (one breastfed, one formula fed) during infancy. When comparing children from different households, the breastfed children measured better on 10 of 11 outcomes, but when comparing the “discordant sibling pairs” there was virtually no difference between the children.

Slate.com’s New Study Confirms it: Breast-Feeding Benefits Have Been Drastically Overstated states it like this:

When children from different families were compared, the kids who were breast-fed did better on those 11 measures than kids who were not breast-fed. But, as Colen points out, mothers who breast-feed their kids are disproportionately advantaged—they tend to be wealthier and better educated. When children fed differently within the same family were compared—those discordant sibling pairs—there was no statistically significant difference in any of the measures, except for asthma. Children who were breast-fed were at a higher risk for asthma than children who drank formula.

Wow. So the only significant difference between children who were breastfed and those who were not is that the children who were breastfed were at GREATER risk for asthma. Eye opening, isn’t it?

A review of the study on Babble.com, explains why this shows us what others studies could not:

Studying siblings is the key component here. Siblings raised in the same family — one who was breastfed and another who was bottle fed — were compared, as opposed to children from different families. This factor is hugely important because as the study’s lead author, Ohio State University assistant professor Cynthia Colen notes in a press release, “Many previous studies suffer from selection bias. They either do not or cannot statistically control for factors such as race, age, family income, mother’s employment — things we know that can affect both breast-feeding and health outcomes.” The study then measured those siblings for 11 outcomes, including BMI, obesity, asthma, different measures of intelligence, hyperactivity, and parental attachment. Guess what? There was no difference in the siblings who were breastfed over those who were bottle-fed.

I, for one, am immensely grateful for this study and its implications. I believe the “breast is best” campaign has gotten out of hand and studies like this go a long way in supporting women who are finding that breastfeeding is just not working for them (or simply didn’t want to breastfeed in the first place). I love the way Jessica Shortall describes it on Has “Breast is Best” Jumped The Shark: (spoiler: yes, it has):

The “breast is best” thing has totally jumped the shark. I understand, and applaud and am grateful for, the early crusading work of women who have fought the fight to make sure that breastfeeding is promoted, valued, and legally protected – because there was a time when it was none of these things. Every single time I nurse my child somewhere while I’m out and about (never a fun or comfortable experience, but one has to leave the house eventually, and it’s frowned upon to leave the baby alone at home), I think about these women with gratitude. I am grateful to them because I know that if someone approaches (and reproaches) me about it, I am protected by law – even here in the grand old State of Texas – to feed my child.

But here’s the thing – this “breast is best” thing has taken on a tinge of accusation and a tone of judgment. “Breast is best” no longer comes across only as “…so leave the poor woman alone who is trying to nurse her hungry baby on a park bench.” It no longer comes across as just “provide a lactation room for new mothers at your workplace – one that does not require her to sit on a germy toilet while she produces food for a baby.”

Lately, it’s starting to sound a bit like “…so if you don’t do it, you obviously don’t love your baby or want what’s best for he/she.”

That is exactly what it’s starting to sound like. And when studies like this come out, I don’t see how any woman can be made to feel guilty for making the best choice for her, even if that means not breast feeding.

I think breastfeeding is great. I WISH I could have a positive breastfeeding experience. Unfortunately, that has not been the case for me. At all. In fact, breastfeeding has been the opposite of positive, and I know I’m not the only one. Yes, I think breastfeeding is great, but I don’t think it’s great that women feel pressured to breastfeed, despite low milk supply, treatment resistant thrush, recurrent mastitis, unsupportive pumping situations at work, prescribed medications that are not safe while breastfeeding. Many women choose not to breastfeed, and many don’t even have a choice. These women shouldn’t be made to feel inferior, and the “breast is best” campaign has become a force that can do just that. I’m so glad this study helps clarify that while breast milk is great, it’s not the end all, be all of infant feeding, that babies who are formula fed do just as well as their breast fed cohorts. In fact, they have exactly the same chances of being happy, healthy babies who grow up into happy, healthy kids as breastfed babies have. And I, for one, think that is truly awesome news.

Are you surprised by these findings? How do you think they will shape the “breast is best” rhetoric? Do you feel differently about your infant feeding choices/circumstances knowing these results?

The Loss to Come

I just recently started reading The Fault in Our Stars. My mom lent it to me ages ago but when she told me it was about kids with cancer I promptly left it on my bookshelf, with no real plans to pick it up again. I mean, who wants to read about kids dying of cancer? Even if it is fiction, that is some morbid subject matter.

Then I heard a few reviews about it on other blogs. All good. Glowing actually. My mom’s review had been similarly positive. That is why she gave it to me to read.

But I still wasn’t all that interested in reading a book about teenagers with cancer.

When I went back to work last week I noticed a few girls devouring the book. I asked them if it was good and they couldn’t stop raving about it. I decided to read it when a girl in my study skills class, who I’ve been trying to win over, recommended it. You could tell she was excited, the next day, when I had it on my desk. (She and I just might make it through this year.)

So I started reading the book. And you know what? It’s funny. A book about kids with cancer and it cracks me up. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

{And here’s the part where I seem to go off on a seemingly unrelated tangent but you keep reading because you believe me when I tell you I’ll tie it all up at the end.}

I realize–now that I don’t have any big life changes or transitions to look forward to–that I depended on those big events to jump start personal growth and self-discovery. Without those challenging moments I worry I will become stagnant, and eventually bored. How do I learn more about myself, how do I grow as a person, if every day looks the same?

When I read books like The Fault in Our Stars, I’m forced to consider the possibility that my children might be diagnosed with a terminal illness. What would that feel like? How would I react? It’s terrifying to imagine the devastation of losing my child at the age of five, or fifteen or twenty-five. The sad fact of the matter is, though, that tragedy and loss are now the only big transitions I have ahead of me. In a few short years I will cross from that time in my life where I’m celebrating people’s big, happy events like marriages and the birth of children, to supporting them through the sorrow of divorce, sickness and death. The big transitions that still loom are mostly negative (or viewed as negative by our culture). And while I will try not to let the fear of divorce or sickness or death cast dark shadows over my days, it’s unrealistic to believe that loss will never touch me. At the very least I know my parents will eventually die and while I can hope that I’ll be very old myself before they pass; the only way I can avoid morning their deaths is if I die myself, before them.

I don’t mean to be morbid here. I guess I am just trying to remind myself to be grateful that things are kind of monotonous right now, because the only way they will be different and challenging is if they are also tragic and sad. I mean, I’m guessing I would undergo profound personal growth if I had to deal with my daughter’s cancer diagnosis, but I sure as hell don’t want to experience that.

I used to think that mid-life crises were about getting old and facing one’s own mortality. Now that I’m in a prime position to experience my own, I wonder if it’s just a reaction to moving from the first half of you life, which is a work in progress, to the second half of your life, in which the masterpiece is (hopefully) revealed.

The first half of you life you spend painting the canvas, making it look exactly the way you’d hoped. Sure you don’t always have the paints you wanted, but you are creating something with what you are given, with what you work for. There is at least some creative license involved, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. The second half of your life is about enjoying that masterpiece. You may get to make some touch ups here and there, but it’s hard to paint over large parts and even harder to start over, so most of us just move through the painting, hoping it doesn’t fade too much in the sunlight of our lives (or get ravaged too much by the storms).

I suppose, in the middle of one’s life, it’s easy to take the completeness of that masterpiece for granted. It’s convenient to forget what the future holds, the ripping away of huge swaths of canvas. Even if you only ever experience the death of loved ones in their old age (and you’d be incredibly lucky if this were the case), important parts of your canvas will be torn or faded beyond recognition. Death will leave it’s mark on the artwork of my life; I better appreciate these moments when my painting it complete.

I promise I’m not sitting around all day, having morbid thoughts about the possible (and in some cases eventual) deaths of the people I love. I’m just trying to use a book like The Fault in Our Stars to remember what I have, to not take the completeness of my life for granted. I am so lucky to have experienced a relatively small amount of loss so far. That won’t always be the case, and I’d hate to look back and think I squandered my easy, mostly loss-free life, when I was living it.

What are you thoughts on life and death at this point in your life? How do books that stare death in the face make you feel?

Budgeting Blunders

So it turns out I am REALLY bad at budgeting. Actually, what I’m really bad at is FOLLOWING a budget.

Actually, I already knew this. I’ve never been able to stick to a budget. It’s never really been a problem in that I’ve always had enough (or almost enough) to cover my expenses but now things are dire and I really need to figure out how to stay within a strict budget or we are headed toward financial ruin.

I should have learned all this before. We’ve never had much money and sadly I’ve always spent most of what I’ve made. It’s because I’ve never followed a budget that we don’t have much money now to fall back on. I’m learning the hard way what happens when one is not financially responsibility. If it weren’t for Mi.Vida’s inherent frugalness we’d be totally effed right now.

The thing is, I’m not angry or upset about the money situation. I just REALLY need to figure out how to keep myself within our new budget and honestly I don’t really know how to do that. You might think, just DON’T SPEND MONEY. And of course it seems so simple on the surface, but I am failing miserably at it. I’m definitely making better decisions and not buying nearly as much as I would have, but I’m still buying things that in reality we don’t really need and I’m buying them because it FEELS like we need them.

Take my making space project. I’ve been meaning to buy drawers for under our bed for ages and I finally did, spending $120 at IKEA to buy four big drawers for under our queen. Now it’s easy to argue that those drawers were a legitimate purchase, seeing as I always intended to buy them (they weren’t an impulse purchase) and they will greatly help us organize/maintain organization in our house but the reality is we don’t really have that money right now (okay, we absolutely do not have that money right now) and really we probably should have filled a bunch of trash bags with clothes, shoved them under the bed and called it a day.

So this is where I have a hard time, not buying the things that feel like important purchases, the things I wouldn’t think twice about before. Sure it’s been hard not to buy a few things for the baby but I KNOW that I don’t really need them–they would just be nice to have–so I can say no to them, even though it’s hard. It’s the other things that I feel like we need that are harder to say “no” to. That is what I don’t know how not to get.

Groceries and food are another thing we really have to change our habits on. Right now we buy pretty much whatever we want at the grocery store. I don’t really buy snacky foods or desserts but Mi.Vida sometimes does and there are other things we buy that we don’t really need, like parmesan cheese or certain kinds of cereals. I have an idea of what we should be spending on our groceries and I know how much less that is than what we generally spend but I’m not quite sure how I make that change. Do I just abstain from anything “frivolous” the next time and see if I hit my goal or do I painstakingly add up the amounts of everything as I’m putting them in my cart to make sure I’ll stay under my allowance. I know once I have an idea of what I can get I won’t need to do add everything up before check-out, but is tallying it all up the first few times the only answer?

I honestly don’t know. If anyone has any tips on how to start living within a much stricter budget I’d really appreciate hearing them. My plan right now is to take out $200 in cash every two weeks to live on that. Everything I spend money on (minus gas and groceries) will be paid for in cash. If I do need to use my card (like on Amazon) I will pay myself with the cash, putting it away for the next week. I can’t really afford to spend $100 a week on “everything else” but I hope to start with that and then next month cut it down to $75 a week and then finally to $50 a week. I worry if I start with $50 I will be doomed to fail and I will abandon the whole thing so I’m giving myself a little leeway in the first month.

So yeah, I’m really struggling with this new budget. I know this has always been one of my biggest weaknesses and I REALLY want to finally learn how to do this. The reality is, I absolutely need to. The last time we were this short on funds we had A LOT of savings to fall back on (and we blew through a significant amount of it). Now we don’t have those rainy day funds, in fact by the end of my maternity leave we’re going to have VERY LITTLE saved at all. If either of us lose our jobs we’ll almost immediately be in danger of losing our house. So yeah, things are not looking good and we need to step up and do a LOT of work to make our new lives financially feasible. I just really, really REALLY hope we can manage it.

Basically, I refuse to be the weak link and the cause of our financial demise. I will learn how to do this. And if anyone has any tips on how to save money on the essentials, PLEASE SHARE THEM! I’m really clueless on all of this and I could use all the help I can get.

Have you ever had to drastically change the way you spent money? What do you do to stay inside your budget?