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Thinking about the ones who aren’t

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Babies are lovely and they smell divine and holding them makes us all goopy. This day is a good reminder, though, of all the shades of loss around babies. Oct. 15 is the national day for honoring miscarriages and infants who died close to birth. It’s a painful enough wound when it’s fresh — maybe you see a joyful, very pregnant woman shopping for baby clothes and spend the next 40 minutes sobbing in the Nordstrom bathroom — and even odder when years later after the psychic scars have faded a bit, you crumple up a sweet baby shower invite and just feel like hurling it into the deepest sea. I know the horror of an incomplete pregnancy three times over, though I can’t begin to even imagine losing a newborn.

I’d like to add one more category to this day: The loss that happens around adoption. There are so many levels. To name a few: Loss of being able to conceive or carry a child biologically; the child’s loss of her original parents; and obviously, the loss of the baby and the chance at parenthood for the birth parents.

I see now that all the things that happened in my life, good or bad, stupid or clever, deliberate and accidental, all led up to me being Grace’s mom. I met her very pregnant birth mother, Bridgett, four days before Grace came into the world. Grace knows her story and her birth parents stayed with us over the holidays last year. She knows she grew inside Bridgett, but even at 3, won’t have anything to do with adoption books, even the heavily veiled one about the penguins (“Let’s give this to the library,” she said, after only one read).

I picked Grace up at school today and she handed me this picture she drew.

“Is that you carrying your doll? Or me carrying you when you were a baby?” I asked. Because, you know, kid art. Very interpretive, and I’m often so wrong.

“No,” she said, quite plainly. “It’s me inside your tummy.”

I gave some kind of modern mom answer. Still. There are no words. Today.

Peace to all you aching mamas and not-mamas out there. And especially to the one who brought me to Gracie. And of course, to Grace.

Vanessa McGradyThinking about the ones who aren’t

Lindy West Brings Light to the Darkness of Sexual Abuse

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The fabulous and fierce Lindy West

Nearly everyone has stories of abuse that transcend a horrific spectrum, men and women, adults and children. Playground teasing that escalates into groping and coercion. Repeated clandestine rape by a family member or “friend.” Jokes and remarks with a subcurrent meant to sexually humiliate someone in the moment, but stay with them forever.

It took the ragevision of one woman, Lindy West, (formerly an editorial dynamo at Jezebel, now kicking some minsogynst ass over at GQ) to bring these stories to light, so people can start to bleach out the stain of shame, so that nobody feels alone in this struggle, so that maybe, just maybe, someone can read something that makes them realize that it doesn’t have to be this way. Sparked by a story of a pre-teen girl pressured into lifting her shirt, then feeling shamed after she reported it, West jumped into action and started i believe you | it’s not your fault, a clearinghouse for tales of abuse.

I submitted one, a story about my neighbor in the building where I grew up. I was humbled and surprised by the outpouring of support I received from friends and family members. It even sparked conversations among mothers and daughters I know.

Here’s an interview with the woman brave enough to lift the sun and shine it into the darkest, deepest places we know as humans.

“What you really get when you read IBY/INYF is the cumulative weight of all these stories. They are relentless. They are everywhere. There are more of them than we could ever put down on paper. And inside of each story is just so much pain.”

Swerve: Why was it important for you to start IBYINYF?

Lindy West: Well, the most immediate impetus, at this point in my life, was that I’m the soon-to-be-stepmother to two pre-teen girls. They’re just getting to the age where some of these issues–sexual harassment, sexual assault, abusive relationships, drugs, drinking, and so on–stop being scary abstractions you learn about in health class, and start affecting their peers’ lives in tangible, devastating ways. (Obviously there are some kids who are confronted with those issues much, much earlier and in much more violent ways than anyone ever should be–a frequent, heartbreaking theme at IBY/INYF.) 

So they’re getting to that age, and I know they have questions, and I also know that sometimes it’s hard for kids and parents to communicate with the candor and detail that these issues really need (if kids have any sympathetic adult to talk to at all, which they often don’t). Parents want to believe that their kids are innocent and carefree, and kids can feel the pressure of that expectation. Kids don’t want to shatter their parents’ illusions, don’t want to disappoint them. Plus, talking about sex is awkward. IBY/INYF provides a buffer–kids can ask anything they need to ask, and adults can give frank, non-sugar-coated advice. I want to do whatever I can to make sure that no kid is sitting alone, in pain, full of questions.

It’s therapeutic for both sides, because a lot of our adult contributors have never told these stories to anyone before. We’ve all grown up in this culture of silence–where being a victim is shameful, and perpetrators are given the benefit of the doubt–and you don’t realize how massive that silence is, how many stories are out there, until you give people a safe space and say, “I believe you. It’s not your fault.”

Swerve: What do you hope people will take away from it?

LW: I hope–and this has already been happening, which is gratifying–that people will open their eyes to just how ubiquitous sexual assault and sexual harassment are in our culture. Every single woman I’ve talked to about this project has a story. Multiple stories. Every single one. And they also carry around a lot of confusion and doubt and self-hatred, because we tend to downplay certain violations as not “real,” as oversensitivity. So the most common question I get, probably, is, “Does this count? Was this assault/rape/harassment/boundary-crossing? Am I allowed to feel bad?” As though you need to be violently assaulted by a stranger in an alley in order for your trauma to be justified. As though being, say, insidiously groomed and molested by someone you love isn’t “as bad.”

Every trauma is “bad,” and every trauma “counts.” 

Swerve: What’s been the reaction from men, and do you have any fears that some might use it in the opposite way it’s intended?

LW: The reaction from male readers so far has been really heartening. I’ve heard from multiple men who’ve said, “I had no idea it was this bad.” Because of course we know that rape is bad, sexual assault is bad, domestic violence is bad–we can process these bad things individually, case by case, person by person–but what you really get when you read IBY/INYF is the cumulative weight of all these stories. They are relentless. They are everywhere. There are more of them than we could ever put down on paper. And inside of each story is just so much pain.

A lot of us feel that cumulative weight all the time, and–for example–it’s what makes feminists react so fiercely to seemingly benign issues like “anti-rape nail polish.” No, the nail polish itself in a vacuum wouldn’t be an outrage. It’s being asked to say thank you for the nail polish, to be satisfied with ineffectual security theater that puts the onus on victims to prevent their own victimization, while all these accumulated stories, all this accumulated pain and victimization, is ignored, actively silenced, and stigmatized. My hope is that IBY/INYF makes that burden visible in a way that’s educational for people who are privileged enough to be blind to it.

We’ve also heard a fair amount from male victims, and their stories are just as heartbreaking. More so, in certain ways, because there’s so much shame compounding the pain. Female victims are shamed too, but, to a certain extent, victimhood is coded as female. Male victims are taught that they shouldn’t cry, they shouldn’t be vulnerable–that reporting and processing their trauma undermines their gender identity. I hope more men find our site. I hope they know that they can talk to us anonymously, without shame.

Of course there are always concerns that people will exploit the site, harass our contributors, send us bad-faith “gotcha” questions to prove some anti-feminist point. But that hasn’t happened so far, and our contributors know the risks of writing publicly on the internet. To me, at least, the risk is worth it if we can help people who are alone, confused, and hurting.

Swerve: What’s been the most surprising result of this project to you so far?

LW: The energy, the enthusiasm, people’s eagerness to help. I can’t remember the last time I felt so inspired by a project. I have to restrain myself from spending all my free time on it. Community-building is powerful.

Yes, Lindy. Yes yes yes yes. Thank you for all you do. You are a hero in the truest and most pure form.

Vanessa McGradyLindy West Brings Light to the Darkness of Sexual Abuse
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We Find Each Other

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It’s midnight and I’m working late, almost done, it’s due first thing in the morning. Exhaustion is constant, in my bones, and sometimes I have macabre thoughts that if I were in the hospital or jail for two weeks I could just sleep, undisturbed.

She pads out from her bedroom, pink elephant pajamas and freshly washed curls, eyes half-mast. Without a word, she climbs on to my lap, and rests her head on my chest, where she will sleep for a few more minutes until I finish up and hit send.

I put her into my bed. She has an internal mommy magnet that snaps her to my side, no matter how big the mattress or where we are on it.

It is dark and so so quiet.  Tears slip down my face as I think about how many ways we keep finding each other, over and over again.

Vanessa McGradyWe Find Each Other
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Three Things Making Me Mad & One Hilariously Sad Thing

1. This. Does this Jon Benet and the Chocolate Factory cover need any further explanation? What was Random House’s approval process on this new release of an iconic children’s classic? I betcha there wasn’t one mom or dad with a young kid on the creative team for this one. Unless Patsy Ramesy was somehow involved.

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2. That a spectrum of truly horrific things happens on the regular to so many kids, and the cycle perpetuates itself through the generations. However, I am slightly at peace, knowing that Lindy West has begun to hold space for their stories with the I Believe You / It’s Not Your Fault Tumblr. (I contributed one too.) I don’t know if all the right people will see this. But I hope to high holy hell that a young girl will be able to see what’s coming and dodge it; that a dad will use this as a conversation starter for one of the hardest conversations he will ever have with a child; and that someone feels like she is not alone with a secret that shames her to her core. Because she is not.

3. This ass-hattery from Nine West. I cannot. Cannot. Even. Cannot.

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4. This geniusness by Mallory Ortberg in The Toast. It’s sad but true, there is still just as much mansplaining going on now as there was through the ages. In related news, today at a meeting, upon being interrupted by a man who had JUST GONE ON TALKING TOO LONG, I had to press my palm on the table, look him in the eye and say, “I’m not finished,” and stare him down until he STFU. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long in my professional life to do this, but damn, it felt good.

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Want more? Running like a ticker in my brain, there’s the Ukraine situation. Gaza. The kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls that have fallen off the media radar. Deep and bad issues in my family I don’t know how to fix, that make me ill and feeling punched in the face whenever I try to address them. That there are different razors for men and women and NO ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE OR INEXPENSIVE SOLUTION for shaving your legs that I can find.

That I am tired. All the time. I want to scream at the top of my lungs but it wouldn’t matter, nothing would change, my good-hearted neighbors would worry. Plus, I am too tired, did I mention that?

 

Vanessa McGradyThree Things Making Me Mad & One Hilariously Sad Thing
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In Praise of the 55-Year-Old Man

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This guy is 56. (NPR photo)

I want to respond to Tom Junod‘s piece that essentially declares 42-year-old women acceptable — and possibly even desirable — for goodsexyfuntime. After all, Tom essentially says, this is not your father’s 42-year-old!

Were I to craft such a piece, I would praise, for sake of a number and because Junod was born in 1958, a 55-year-old man. I would talk about the sexy vulnerability of that man’s thinning hair (“Did you put sunscreen up there, baby? Do you want me to do it?”) and poochy tummy, unvanquished by the weekly basketball pickup game. I could wax empirically about how cute he is when he reaches over to use your reading glasses to order wine, because he is too vain to buy his own. Glasses. Not wine. He will buy the wine, of course, or you would not be having dinner with him. (Nor does he have a purse in which to carry said spectacles, a problem that plagues men young and old. Except for European men. And the fanny-packers, God love ‘em.) And when your 55-year-old man orders wine, as you know, he’ll have to make a choice later in the evening: Viagra, some herbal male enhancement shit from 7-11,  or just cuddling. It’s a win-win either way!

That 55-year-old man’s 401(K) can squash your 27-year-old massage therapist-with-benefits’ 401(K) like a Miami cockroach. He probably has kids already, which either spares you the burden and stretch marks from his having to “carry on the gene pool,” or gives you an experienced dad who can make no excuse for not understanding the complex mechanics of diaper changing and poop removal.

I’ll admit to blushing at the part where Junod says, “Go to a party: There is simply no one as unclothed as a forty-two-year-old woman in a summer dress,”  Oh shit, so that explains why, at 42, I was escorted by police from EVERY party where I wore a summer dress. It does also add clarity to the Trader Joe’s incident from 2009. Thank you, Tom.

When you’re with a 55-year-old man, I would write, chuckling to myself, you are not just dating, you’re carbon dating!

But you know what? I wouldn’t write a piece like this. I wouldn’t determine a person’s fuckability by their age alone. Here’s what’s attractive about the men I love over 50:  They are smart and generous and funny. They have battle scars from ex-wives and teenagers, which give them depth of sympathy impossible to find in someone who hasn’t been there and back. They know to bring over Mexican food from the divey place in the strip mall on a Friday night because you simply can’t do one more thing. A man over 50 has your orgasm covered, hands down, heh heh. Because, at some point around 35, they stopped looking in the mirror and started looking out into the world.

Full disclosure: The author is currently dating someone who is turning 50, but looks 55 in heels.

Vanessa McGradyIn Praise of the 55-Year-Old Man
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Letter to my favorite grad

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Dear A,

The second you were introduced to me as our new intern, I knew I liked you. You’re cheerful and cheeky without being sticky or cloying. You’re capable and ‘fessed up immediately when there was a mistake, and we could fix it together. I like your long ombre hair and I want to know what mascara you use. Most of all, I like that we became friends. You have a bountiful sense of adventure, a deep well of kindness, and a rollicking ride ahead of you.

I’m so proud of your newly minted masters’ degree, something I probably won’t get around to getting, ever. I know you didn’t ask for it, but here’s some advice you can take or leave as you see fit, but I wish someone had told me these things:

1. Understand the power you have: You are fiercely intelligent and boundlessly energetic. You have nothing to lose, yet. The people you will work for in big companies will be educated and experienced, but they haven’t been on the outside in a while, and they like things as they are. They will look puzzled when you tell them about your Google Glass PR class project that offered a secret parallel movie-going experience. Ignore those people, and find the people who get you, who get excited about what you can do and the places your mind can go. You will learn in five years what it took today’s directors and managers 25 years to understand. People will be jealous of you, but instead of waging a war, understand this and find a “compassion hook:” Think of them as sick wounded puppies and it will go a lot smoother.

2. If you want kids, find their father, sooner rather than later: Keep an eye out for someone who won’t run off to a Peace Corps gig in Uzbekistan, never to be heard from again, upon the news of your pregnancy. He should be able to look good on paper, stand completely against violence of any kind, and be willing to get on the floor and figure out the 12-piece school bus puzzle for the 487th time with your kid, and act like he’s effing Amerigo Vespucci discovering the New World. He will and should want to marry you. You may or may not want to do this, and chances are you will be over him by the time the first kid is in kindergarten. I don’t want you to wait until you’re 35 to start hunting for the guy you desperately want to have it all. It messes up your chakras and forces you to make poor decisions and gives all the power to the man, and then when you’re 38 or 40, you’re battling all kinds of fertility issues, like me and pretty much every single one of my friends. All I’m saying is to get pregnant while the gettin’ is good, because there’s a 50 percent chance you won’t end up with Baby Daddy anyway. But, hey, maybe it will be amazing and you’ll be one of those lucky couples who get to grow up together.

3. Watch out for too many heat-styling tools and hair chemicals. I know that hair grows out, but it’s never really the same.

4. Ask for crazy shit and see what you get. Work from home? Open a branch office in Paris? Develop a pet project that could skyrocket your personal stock? Someday, the right person will say yes. I wish I had asked for more money, more responsibility, more things that I wanted.

5. Read everything you can about money. And sock it away. Figure out a way to report a decent income so you can get a better deal on a car, a mortgage, and things you’ll probably need. When I was 22, I was making $100 to $200 a night bartending and cocktail waitressing. I would hang out with my other restaurant friends when I got off my shift, around midnight, then spend $40 on cabs zipping around New York, where we’d slap a $20 bill on the bar and not pay a cent for another drink. Then at 4 a.m., when the bars closed, we’d go to H & H bagels and watch the sun come up by the Hudson River Boat Basin. And I still had cash until I followed the love of my life to Gallup, New Mexico, where I’d blow the money I’d saved on a Ford F-150 pickup with dual gas tanks. There were no good service jobs to be had, but I did land an overnight gig at a radio station pre-recording the weather report from midnight until 6 a.m. six nights a week. I got paid less than the minimum wage. I would wander through the new Wal-Mart in town buying shit I didn’t need to mask the despair of whatever choices I’d made, and fell into a rabbit hole of debt. It took a long time to recover. Don’t be like me. But it is good to follow love, at least once.

6. You know everything in the first three seconds. When you walk into your prospective new workplace, and you think, “My, this seems like a dumpy and depressing place,” you will be right, despite the forced cheer of Friday waffles, “jeans day,” or whatever “motivation” they provide for people. When you meet a charming rogue and think immediately, “Oh, he’s an alcoholic,” you will be right, even though he will plaster over this fact by taking you to the ballet and getting you hot by reading Rumi to you in bed. When you know you should get a fresh set of eyes on an important email, your resume, your website and anything else critical to your success, you’re right. Wait, even if you have to ask people on Facebook to help you. There’s always someone up at 3 a.m. dying for something to do.

7. Your friends and your network will help you. Keep in touch with the people you did good work for. Ten years from now, you will be at a crossroads, and you’ll wonder what’s next. Then you will go on LinkedIn, or whatever takes its place, and scroll down a list of 20 key people and tell them you’re thinking of making a move, and can they please look out for something for you? And one of them will answer, “How much do you charge and when can you start?” And you will have restored faith in your abilities, and know that there is much greater possibility for you beyond the horizon you’ve set for yourself.

Go, go, go, my girl, blazing a trail in your bright and shiny new world. I will be watching, tears shimmering in my eyes, as you find your way. And I will be up at 3 a.m. to proof your resume if you need me to. Or, more likely, I may someday come asking you to proof mine.

Love,

Vanessa

 

Vanessa McGradyLetter to my favorite grad