Me opening a box wrapped in yellow with polka dot wrapping paper

The (Dis)Advantage of One Child Families

When people learn that I’m an “only child,” their response most often takes the form of one of these:

  1. “I would never have guessed that!”
  2. “Do you wish that you had a siblings?”
  3. “Me too!”

First, let’s be clear, I had zero sway in my parents’ pursuit of child-rearing. According to my mom, her pregnancy with me at age 34 was a welcomed surprise. After more than a dozen years of marriage and subsequent efforts to procreate, the attitude shifted from “when” to “if” to even allow such possibility to remain a hope.

And then, here I came, tumbling out after 22 hours of labor and delivery (still sorry, Mom), ready to take my throne as the “only child.” My existence bucked the trend of my parents’ families (both had four siblings; my mother the oldest, my father the baby). Moreover, we fell below-average in comparison to the standard 2.5 American household. At least we had two dogs.

Where did the phrase “only child” come from? How does my existence as a fully-formed human being still put my family in a state of scarcity? Do families with two or more children take reassurance knowing that if something happens to one child that at least the others will make-up for it? No doubt that line of justification provided “relief” during much of our human evolution. In modern day, such an approach doesn’t lend itself well to social graces.

Child crying
Oh, your parent said no to something? Time for the only child waterworks show.
Photo by Arwan Sutanto on Unsplash

Here I am, the only child. How should I be perceived as acting? Pop culture has not been kind to us only children. We’re portrayed as petulant, spoiled, and greedy. At least, that’s the narrative embedded in historical texts, film, and throughout other creative mediums. (Fear not: there’s a host of strong protagonists that may bring the selfish, bratty only child trope to its demise).

Let me get one thing clear: I was spoiled. Without question. I had unfettered access to attention from two individuals who loved me. My family’s racial and class privileges also afforded me with access to the material goods most often ascribed to only child status. Did I get everything I wanted? Absolutely not. Did I get to do things that may have been diminished or even non-existent if there was a sibling? Probably. Finances and time often dictate choice; I had the luxury, for the most part, of living a free range life.

However, no amount of stuffed animals or books could ever fully fill the void of loneliness. I did want for a sibling many times growing up. Perhaps it was less about having a sibling but having a companion, blood-related or not, to be a part of play. If a parent wasn’t home or preoccupied (or couldn’t take one more round of Candy Land), I would play board games by myself. Yahtzee and Parcheesi were easier to manage; Clue proved more difficult. [Side story about Clue: the red pawn representing Miss Scarlet disappeared from our set. Now, I have a visceral connection between cherry chapstick, which served as Miss Scarlet’s surrogate on the board, and the potential for murder in the conservatory with a candlestick.]


White car with four people-shaped game pieces (two blue, two pink) on the Game of Life board

There’s a touch of irony playing the Game of Life alone.
Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Fortunately, I found friends whose family sizes more than compensated for my solo existence. I participated in a combination of group and individual extra-curricular activities [classical Millennial!] and tried to establish a core group of playmates to quench my appetite for socialization (and to make playing Clue much easier).

Did not having siblings stunt some of my abilities to relate to another person? I think so. I never had to share a bedroom before moving into a dormitory at the University of Arizona. I lived among piles of clothes, toys, and books; I affixed glow-in-the-dark stars to my ceiling after graduating from a nightlight. To help me fall asleep, I would talk aloud to myself, scheming scenarios that I hoped to see again in my dreams. [I freaked out several sitters over the course of the years because of this behavior as their minds thought someone had broken into the house.]

Arriving to campus in the fall of 2007 to share a confined space with another human being brought waves of excitement and nerves. Alas, whatever hope I had for such a union to manifest in the perceived camaraderie that may befall siblings who share a room, particularly sisters, disappeared quickly. Our personalities clashed; our sense of space did not jive. Upon deeper reflection, I think I was disappointed that she wasn’t who I wanted her to be. Perhaps that’s what truly tainted what could have been a more positive relationship. Me and my expectations. They are far too often the source of my own pain and disappointment rather than any sort of satisfaction.

I do feel instant connection with another “only child.” Granted, our living situations could look vastly different. Yet, that common bond isn’t concerned with those externalities. You and me, we have to push back against the stereotypes placed at our feet. Your status as an only child doesn’t keep you from being selfless, compassionate, or grateful. Your behavior doesn’t rely solely upon whether or not you had a sister or brother. At this point in our evolution, I think most of us know that, right?

Still, I had a friend confide in me that she was concerned because her and her partner had decided to only have one child. When I reminded her that I was an only child, she expressed her relief. And she asked:

“Were you lonely?”

“Sometimes,” I shrugged. But, as a person without siblings, I am curious to know: even with a house full of people, were you ever lonely?

That whole no regrets thing? BS

I’m going to write three words that is going to make most women between the ages of 30 and 70 squeal with pleasure:

Dr. Brené Brown

brene

IN THE FLESH. (Photo credit: SuperSoul TV)

If you haven’t checked out this amazing shame researcher-turned TED Talk celebrity-now author of multiple best-selling books-who is warm and real and vulnerable and wicked smart, then I would highly recommend starting with her website and allowing yourself to fall in love.

Point of clarification: just because I identified women in my introductory sentence doesn’t mean Dr. Brown’s work is exclusively for women. Far from it. No matter your gender expression, the odds are that you know shame well and how it manifests inside you. The hissing voice of criticism that seems to get louder and louder at all the wrong times. 

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You know this feeling, right? (Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash)

Last week, I’m listening to Brené on Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversation podcast and she begins talking about regret. Apparently, she put this out on social last year, but alas, I wasn’t a superfan back then. Here’s what she wrote on Facebook:

I’ve found regret to be one of the most powerful emotional reminders that change and growth are necessary. In fact, I’ve come to believe that regret is a kind of package deal: A function of empathy, it’s a call to courage and a path toward wisdom.

Like all emotions, regret can be used constructively or destructively, but the wholesale dismissal of regret is wrongheaded and dangerous. “No regrets” doesn’t mean living with courage, it means living without reflection.

To live without regret is to believe you have nothing to learn, no amends to make, and no opportunity to be braver with your life. I’m not suggesting that we have to live with regret, but I do think it’s important to allow ourselves to experience and feel it.

One of the truest things I’ve ever heard about regret came from George Saunders’s 2013 commencement address at Syracuse University. He said, “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”

Time out, girl. You’re saying that we SHOULD have regrets? Because there were times in our lives where we could have made a better choice? Treated someone with kindness? Walked away from a situation? Taken action? Said “that’s not acceptable”?

I’ve always viewed regrets more from the FOMO (fear of missing out) frame. You’ll regret if you don’t study abroad! You’ll regret if you don’t take this job opportunity! Often, regrets had to do with major experiences or experiences.

But, it’s the little things that count, right? We talk about that in the positive sense all of the time. Small acts make big impacts. What about the small acts that didn’t lead to someone feeling empowered or seen? What about those times where we elected to be cruel or silent? If we were willing to accept the role of regret, what could we then learn, upon reflection, that would help us make a different decision in a future situation?

Here are two random regrets that came up in my reflection:

#1: When I was in elementary school, I made fun of Jenny Lee. Most kids in our grade did. Why? Jenny Lee was taller than average. I can’t remember if she was perceived as smart. She had a penchant for horses and would pretend to play make believe as a horse during first grade recess.

One day in particular, I must have been extra mean to Jenny Lee because I got my name written on the board. It was May 22, the day before my birthday 7th birthday. My friend Marissa, who was in fact celebrating her birthday that day, also had her name written on the board. I’m sure there were mumbled apologies. I was probably more ashamed at the public record of my bad deeds than the actual hurt I inflicted on Jenny Lee.

Jenny Lee was killed in a car accident a few years later. I never chose to speak with her or build a friendship. I labeled her as a weirdo and left her on the bench with the rest of my classmates deemed untouchable and unpopular.

Why did I choose to follow the crowd? Why did I feel the need to make fun of her in the first place? How did her presence threaten me? It didn’t. She was just a kid trying to navigate her way through growing up. I didn’t know anything about her family or the world she hailed from. All I knew was the others had deemed her different. And I needed to remind her of that on May 22, 1991.

#2: There was a boy in my 7th grade P.E. class, Jamorial. He sat behind me in our assigned grid-like pattern on the gym floor (or on the outdoor basketball courts when the weather cooperated…which was like every freaking day in Phoenix). Jamorial was probably the only Black kid at my middle school. (Ugh, talk about regret: I can’t even tell you whether we had more than one Black student at my junior high? Needless to say, I attended White-majority schools throughout primary education).

Jamorial was small for his age, if that’s a real thing. He had ashy knees (I even have regret typing this). He just wanted someone to talk to as we sat baking under the 90+ degree sun during final period. Sometimes I decided to be nice. But, I more often chose to whisper about him behind his back, commenting on his weirdness to my friend Amanda. I teased her that he had a crush on her and wanted to marry her and all of the juvenile patter that runs of our mouths.

I’m sorry, Jamorial, for being racist and further ostracizing a young man of color who had to ensure the unimaginable in our school. I don’t even know if you finished at Mountain Sky or went elsewhere. I’m not even sure to this day I am spelling your name right. I’m sorry I never took the time to learn.

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I think this image is called: “privileged white girl stands in her guilt in front of  her beach front property”

There isn’t enough time to list all of my regrets. Or yours. Definitely not time to list yours, assuming you are willing to have regrets as well. Heck, I regretted something I did yesterday. I decided to air my grievances with one individual in front of many (who DOES that?!) when I could have made the more respectful, compassionate choice of talking with that individual one-on-one later.

Apologies, if able to give, are part of this empathy/regret relationship. Not only extending sympathy to the inflicted party but also to yourself. Y’all, we’re human! We screw up. Constantly. Putting feet in mouths or fingers in eyes or whatever other strange bodily metaphors we devise to describe our continual ability to make mistakes.

Regrets, I got ’em. Or, better yet, the photo used in Dr. Brown’s post:

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📷@IMDb
🎥We’re the Millers (2013)
Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

 

 

 

 

Catalyst for commitment

Major observances, such as birthdays and holidays, often provide the catalyst for commitment, at least in my experience.

Last week, I celebrated with family and friends, near and far, the “achievement” of completing around rotation around the sun. I argue that luck and privilege served as the two driving forces behind that achievement. Still, I won’t squander the opportunity to give gratitude for more time to give and receive love; to build community; to learn; to fail; and to fight for a more just, equitable world [dismantling racism, white folks. Let’s name it.]

A re-branding of this blog seemed in order as I have (for the nth time) reaffirmed that I want to be a writer. And I want to be a good writer. Such ambition requires continual practice, reflection, and refinement. As a budding pianist, I recall drawn out fights with my parents, particularly my mother, when it came to carving out time for the dreaded “p” word. My seven-year-old entitled self truly believed that I could merely show up to each lesson and have improved by the grace of the Almighty without tickling a single ivory over the previous seven days.

I’m a tad ashamed to admit this, but this attitude followed me through much of my younger life. In 4th grade, I joined our elementary school concert band as a clarinetist. Again, I chalked up practicing as something other people did. That’s not to say that I never practiced throughout my  brief musical career. In high school, as I picked up the saxophone and melaphone, I recognized a need for me to spend time building my embouchure, finding the right pitch, and running through the various scales.

But how much better could I have been! (she types with regret)

This older (and much wiser) version of Katie recognizes and embraces commitment and persistence to a degree that younger Katie couldn’t fathom. However, I still find opportunities to derail myself in pursuit of how I want to be spending the limited resource of time.

Who do I want to be? When people look at my life, what would they say? While I’m not *quite* ready to write my obituary (a very uncomfortable exercise I experienced last year), I want to end the mindsets, attitudes, and behaviors that keep me from growing into my desired identities.  What I want to be requires work. I could continue to show up. I could continue to coast. But, why? And how would that reflect my core values? Short answer: it wouldn’t.

Passion. Bliss. Contentment. These outcomes thrive in settings when your actions align with your values, personal mission, and vision. I’ve spent the last few months (ok, let’s be real, the last 20+ years) defining and re-defining each of those based on new information received, relationships gained and lost, and experiences processed. I hope that I maintain a growth and stretch mindset when it comes to self-awareness and self-assessment. In order to be the type of person that I want to be — for you and for the rest of the world — I must continue to check my assumptions, my bias, and my adherence to positions.

As of May 28, 2018, I want to work toward being a person who is known as:

  1. A trusted, honest, and loving wife/friend/family member.
  2. A person committed to antiracist work in all aspects of life.
  3. A writer who avoids wasting your time or her breath.
  4. A student hungry for knowledge.
  5. A future farmer who wants to cultivate a healthier, more sustainable natural world.
  6. A leader who is unabashedly relentless in demanding respect and justice and who can throw her head back and laugh loudly without apologizing.

The mindfulness practice that I started six months ago has created the mental space for me to explore each of these six areas to various degrees. Now, with more mindful prioritizing of my time, I look forward to improving upon each of these hats, one day at a time.

Today is day one.

Humbled and afraid

It’s been a week where carving out time to write dropped in my priority list (old habits creeping back?) yet I did not want to pass up on this opportunity right now to extend my deepest appreciation for people in my life who reached out after my last post.

I have had the honor of being surrounded by brave individuals willing to peel back their pain and sorrow to talk through their experiences in trying to become a parent. Some of those journeys successfully accomplished their pursuits of bringing a child into the world with their partner. Others have paved their desired paths to parenthood via adoption, foster care, surrogate. And others have found peace and acceptance as a childfree individual or couple, fueled by the desire to pour into others who may have gone through a similar experience and the continued fight to ensure that our world remains the type of place we want to bring children into.

The horror of another mass school shooting this week can make any of us afraid to bring any life into our violent world. It isn’t just these terrifying incidents that underscore how frightening America can feel and appear. We operate in a nation under a mindset of scarcity and competition. That means people win, and people lose. That means there will never be enough to go around. We can’t show each other compassion because we’re locked in battle to do all we can to get out ahead. We’re so fearful of losing that we close off the opportunity to forge connection and community with others.

That’s what scares me the most about our world right now. How quickly we back into our corners, no matter what political ideology we espouse. It feels like we’ve lost our ability to see our shared humanity. We will all die. That is inevitable. And we will all live, for some amount of time. And in this time, how do we maximize the gifts we’re given as human beings to bring joy to others; to love; to be grateful; to offer help; to comfort. You can be an individual and be a part of the whole. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Have you seen this Ted Talk from Celeste Headlee: “Help Make America Talk Again”?

I don’t ascribe to the belief that people should ever put themselves in physical/emotional/mental/spiritual danger, which can happen in trying to seek understanding of how others view the world. I do think there are opportunities given to us each day where we can be safe and we can start to forge connection again.

You have shown that when it comes to the deeply personal and often private topic of fertility, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable creates the space to see each other in new, profound ways. We aren’t alone in those journeys or in life. I hope that we can continue to find ways to be there for each other, behind the scenes or in center stage, throughout our lives. Not just during these dark moments but also when the light is bright.

I’m grateful for you. I respect you. I love you.

Establishing a gratitude practice

I feel like it would be remiss if I didn’t begin this blog post by extending my appreciation to you, reader. Thank you for reading these words and visiting this random assortment of thoughts, ideas, reflections, and calls for action. While I can envision a scenario where my ruminations echo in a uninhabited universe of the Internet, I prefer to imagine a space full of individuals — like yourself — participating in the conversation.

On of this journey to be a more mindful and centered person, I kept stumbling on this notion of a ‘gratitude practice.’ Now, over the years, I’ve seen friends use the social media platform of Facebook to take on a “X number day” challenge to share appreciation for other people, special places, basic needs, etc. I would see those posts (when the Facebook algorithm decided that I should) and think: “Awww, that’s so nice!”

And then I was like: “Where are the cat photos?”

catmeme

Seeing other people publicly acknowledge their gratitude is inspiring. Showing thanks in our world can feel so perfunctory. Like many others, my parents made sure I said “thank you” after receiving a gift or being the recipient of something special. Does this sound familiar:

Did you say thank you to your Aunt?”

Public shaming can be an effective tool to form what should be a kind habit. As adults, how do we get back to the root of why we express gratitude? How do we turn those words into feelings that sit with us, in our hearts and minds, and fill us with joy and celebration?

One of the tools that could help, according to gratitude gurus, is to start keeping a gratitude journal (mindfulness folks love their journals!) I’m a notorious start-a-writing-outlet-and-lose-interest-in-three-weeks person. I always have been (minus sophomore year of high school where our English teacher required us to keep a journal for the year. Some hilarious entries, I assure you, including a recap of my first date with my “long” term high school boyfriend, who I treated poorly looking back. I’m sorry Eric.).

Back to gratitude: in concert with the Calm app’s “7 days of Gratitude” meditation series, I’ve been physically noting what I’m grateful for each morning. In most cases, I reflect on the prior day and the people and experiences that positively impacted me. I’ve also tried to step back and extend appreciation for the seemingly mundane in my life, but from the perspective of others, are enormous gifts: running water, a heating unit, access to the public library, the ability to own a car, living in a neighborhood where I can freely walk or run outside.

Sometimes acknowledging these pieces of my life make me feel weird — it forces me to stare at my privilege head-on. I need that reminder because it’s easy to let these gifts gloss over me — the entitlements and opportunities. When I pause to appreciate the electricity in my home and my ability to talk on a phone with my parents, I feel the flame of injustice flicker in me, as I don’t want these gifts to be exclusive. I want them to be universal. And that requires me to be a part of the fight.

The initial steps to establish a gratitude practice are more private and hidden. Whether through journaling or running through a list mentally, we keep these actions behind closed doors. The next iteration is extending our thanks outwards (hence, going back to friends on Facebook). For me, I am less interested in sweeping displays of gratitude; I want to ensure that people I interact with feel my appreciation in genuine ways for me and for them. That looks like me sending a quick text or email letting them know how grateful I am for their willingness to give advice or attend an event. Or leaving a voicemail that ends with me saying “I love you.”

Gratitude

Gratitude rocks! Get it? Yeah…

This is a work in process, like everything else in life. Some days I will excel in expressing gratitude; other days, I will lie in a dark pit and cover myself with self-pity and dark chocolate. Over time, I hope that I will become more in tune with the gifts the world offers me — in the form of adventure, friendships, convenience, comfort — and give myself the time to acknowledge and appreciate those gifts, both internally and externally.

I am thankful for the ability to have time and space to write this morning. I am grateful for the Wifi connection that bridges people and communities across the globe. I am appreciative of having access to a coffee maker and coffee that provides the fuel for mornings…and afternoons…and sometimes evenings.

What are you grateful for in your life today? How do you share your appreciation for these gifts?

 

How to help? Stop the advice and create space

In the last week, I’ve had two interactions where — with all of my being — I wanted to be able to help but felt hampered by not having a clear action to take. One situation centered around my mother experiencing a deeply personal loss of a friend, and the other involved one of my close friends who had a fairly tumultuous 2017.

As both leaders and people who generally care about others, our first reaction in these situations is often to offer advice, provide comforting words, or relate a personal experience. But, this desire to fix or help may only benefit our own selfish desire and not the other person.

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Oh, you want to get healthy? Here is a gym you can join! (But seriously, if you live in the Triangle, you should join the 360 Approach family).

What can we do instead? Create a nonjudgmental space for sharing, reflection, and even silence. For me, this is hard. And uncomfortable! Sitting in silence with another person is not how I would describe a good time. I start to fidget; my brain begins racing; sweat beads at my wrists and temples.

Why does this happen? Our culture doesn’t embrace silence as a value. In fact, we want the opposite of stillness: movement! sounds! notifications! Fill the void with chatter, innovation, progress.

These actions can make us feel like we’re moving forward. In reality, these actions can limit our ability to fully connect with our own emotions and with the emotions of others. While we can now check off a box, the jumble left behind inside of us remains just that: jumbled. This mess often finds its way out of us through less desirable means: anger or sadness; overindulgence; self-harm; fighting with others; sickness.

Let’s make a pledge together in 2018 to try and create spaces for others when they need it. We’ll keep our mouths closed and our advice to ourselves. We will be present, and we will listen. Actively listen. We can ask open-ended questions that give the person we love more opportunities to unearth what they want (and likely need) to say as they process. We need to grow more comfortable with silence and with allowing things to be left unsaid.

During the conversation with my mom, I fought myself to not interject with some trite commentary on grief and loss, on friendship. I wanted to so badly, but I could also hear in my mom’s voice that she needed to just talk. For many of those that we love, they often carry the burden of being the sounding board for their family members and friends. When faced with their own hardships, they don’t necessarily have anyone offering their ears and time.

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A #throwback photo: sometimes creating space involves booze.

After reading this post, what resonates with you? Has someone created space for you recently? How did that make you feel?

Who is your community?

We throw this word around a lot in the nonprofit sector. Community can refer to a geographic place; a particular subset of the population, or a loosely-affiliated network of folks with some commonality.

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Some of the YNPN community at 2015 national conference

As I reflect on what role I can help play in dismantling systemic racism and infusing our world with love and compassion, I want to ensure that I am fulfilling my obligations to this idea of community. What I mean by that is: who is in my community? Who is not? How am I nurturing my community?

My Durham YMCA community

My Durham YMCA community

For instance, do you know the names of all of your neighbors? Have you broken bread together? I know some, but not all. And why is that? Sure, we wave as we drive in, drive out. But, that’s all surface level. We don’t all have to be best friends but certainly we can become stronger allies together in this shared space.

My craft beer community

My craft beer community

Who do I spend time with? The truth is: most of my friends are white. Thanks to YNPN and my job, people with different racial, religious, and gender identifies have entered into my life, allowing me to have a richer human experience. Yet, there are still voices that I want (and need) to draw from in order to help me become a better, more understanding human. This requires me to be intentional in seeking out opportunities to engage with more diverse perspectives. This is not easy. It takes time. It could take a sense of feeling uncomfortable. Oh, and how we love to avoid discomfort!

uncomfortable

I remember the first time I was the only white person in a room. It was during my first year teaching, and one of my students invited me to her baby shower. This was one of those transformative experiences as I had lived the previous 22+ years of my life with not even an inkling of how it feels to be “the only” in such a visibly telling way. While this event was prior to my own learning and growth in racial equity and social justice, it was part of my broader awakening. I am so grateful for my student wanting me to be a part of her community. I hope I conveyed my appreciation fully.

In this digital age, community takes on a whole new meaning. We forge connections with folks that we don’t really “know” in the traditional sense and may never meet. But, we have found a commonality that has drawn us together. These shape our opinions and our reference points. But, the question is: are these online relationships broadening our ideas of community and humanity? Or do we only plug into what is safe? Building out our choirs isn’t necessarily a negative. Yet, if we refuse to stretch ourselves, we end up becoming more and more inflexible, wound up tight – no yoga pose will change that.

VH-cat-yoga

My goal is to be thoughtful in cultivating deeper relationships within my current communities, by taking simple steps like inviting our neighbors over for a beer or backyard meal. I also commit to finding new communities to listen to, learn from, and grow with. If I want to see such change in the world, I need to be at the frontlines of living it.

Are you with me?

How you define your communities? What ways have you sought to grow those? In what ways do you still need to grow?