Episode 1: Gatherings, The Mall
By Lynntia (Kir-Stimon) Sutton
The simple intention is for two friends to take their children to the mall over spring break, meet for coffee and treats, and then see a movie together. First, pokey kids thwart any plans the mothers might have had to meet first to catch-up. Then, even though the movie starts in just a few minutes, the kids have quickly reversed speed and scattered. A dash to grab a hot dog, a warm pretzel, into a clothing store to return an item, to another mall level for an accessory purchase and more. This group is everywhere and then nowhere, and then suddenly there is movement toward the theatre. As rapidly as the group disappeared, all are now miraculously seated for the start of the previews.
From first description, our gathering may seem rather ordinary. A typical mall outing? Yes.. for us. No, likely… as viewed by those around us.
We look strikingly dissimilar to others in this environment; two Caucasian moms with a small group of the United Nations who are managing a lot more than most. Our group includes…
A severely autistic Romanian-born young adult, at times displaying broad exaggerated physical motions. A petite Russian-born middle schooler with head shaved in the back and a long strand of dyed orange hair in front. A college student, Chinese-born, who is navigating a hearing challenge. Several African-American high school teens; one with flamboyant make-up more typically seen on a fashion runway than in the mall; the other looming large but extremely cuddly, with Afro displaying a distinct bleached spot in the front and a pick on the side. A sometimes hard to identify mix of cis-gender and gender-fluid identities.
Yeah, we are in an upscale, extremely homogeneous suburban environment and stick out like sore thumbs. But, we are not sore thumbs. We are, in fact, beautiful thumbs of various shapes, sizes and colors. And, we are fine.
This is everyday life for us and, for the most part, we navigate it pretty well. This includes the quick changes in group dynamics, appearances that often don’t match the environment, and the constant compromising and adjusting of plans. Not only are we fine with being here, but note this incredibly important point… we have found our stance within our own community without isolating from the larger community.
To elaborate on this point, I recall an uncomfortable and unproductive discussion about inclusion when I confronted an ex-in-law with a question. I asked why our family was not invited to outings with extended family or even to birthday parties with other neighborhood kids. “I just can’t envision what that would be like…” was the reply. Both saddened and outraged by this, today my response would likely be less talk, more statement. I imagine now that I’d say, “I can tell you exactly what it would be like; it would be fine. It would be the way it’s supposed to be with family and with community. Inclusive. Accepting. Open. Fine.” Maybe a little flip on my part, but honest.
In a similar story, a friend accepted an invitation to a neighborhood party to watch the Academy Awards. This mom attended the simple gathering with her nearly adult daughter, who was fully dressed for a fantasy gala walk on the red carpet- complete with gown, tiara and long gloves. Was it uncomfortable? Perhaps. Did my friend overcome that discomfort, and in doing so make an ideal statement to all present in a perfectly confident way? Yes, she did. Even among neighbors who had made previous unkind reference to “that special bus” her daughter took, she allowed her wonderful daughter to be her wonderful self. Our family members don't always relate to the external world, to each other, to us, or even to themselves in the ways one would typically expect. Again, this is ok. It’s fine.
It’s normal for extended family to be accepting and handle anything that might come up with love and compassion and non-judgement. It's not normal or o.k. to isolate families or people in community due to differences. Judgement and ostracizing causes hurt, shame and pain. Damage. This harm exacerbates any challenges that may already exist, and impacts not only the individual, but also all members of the family and community.
My good friends and I have been able to find some remedy for this. We did so by creating another type of family, a tolerant group that could allow for what others, unfortunately, could not. In our own community we’ve shared our successful experiences conquering awkward situations. We’ve proudly owned our personal stories and those of our kids. Although it will never fix scars left from shame and isolation, we have worked hard to find ways for our family members to feel fully embraced as the valuable individuals they are.
There is profound joy in grasping the opportunity for compassion and acceptance instead of creating harm in the face of discomfort or a little bit of the unknown. There is power in knowing that whatever the concerns, we can and must try to handle them in community with all our united families- nuclear, extended and created.
We never give pause to standing tall when our external appearances, needs and behaviors may not match the scene. In doing so we give aid to expanding the boundaries of comfort and openness for others- whether with race, sexual identity, mental health, physical abilities or other. We also know that underneath the often seen “everything is fine” external persona, there’s really a lot more going on for most all of those around us. We are, after all, human.
So, here we are, at our movie. We are the epitome of Diversity contrasting a more Vanilla environment. Again, it’s fine. Drawing side-glances or flat-out stares, we are together in life and openly embracing our ability devices, our wild movements, our multi-textured and multi-colored hair choices and all facets of who we are.
By Lynntia Kir-Stimon Sutton
I recall a mostly unconventional mix of jellybeans that I bravely shared with my child. The assortment contained such flavors as Cotton Candy, Dirt, Grass, Marshmallow, Vomit, Lemon Drop, Watermelon, Earthworm, Rotten Egg, Cherry. And Ear Wax.
So, what if you are a Lemon Drop kind of person, but your kid is all about Dirt? Or Rotten Egg. Or Earthworm. How do you manage a connected relationship when you are so very different from your child? Do you resist their flavor of choice, or do you try and learn to tolerate that new repulsive Earthworm flavor… just for them?
Recently, as I spoke with a college friend, my thoughts were drawn to how such distinct differences can appear in our children at such young ages, and what a challenge it can sometimes be for acceptance and balance within the same family.
My friend shared his story of a pet shop owner who gifted their family a rabbit who was in need of a home. They took the rabbit, but the pet was unfortunately not long for life. My friend described his concern over how this loss, and the ensuing burial, might affect his then 6-year old daughter. His worry for his child’s reaction quickly faded as she commented, “Well, Dad, at least we have a good start on our pet cemetery.” This, he shared, pretty much summed up her [pragmatic] personality at this early age. His child, now in her 2nd year of business school also works part-time in a legal firm and part-time in a bank... and is quite different from his other child.
In contrast, having demonstrated artistic talent at an early age, my friend’s son is now a recent graduate of a prestigious art school. He has experienced some success with his personal artwork and also engages in some alternative art [high-end graffiti] activities. My friend has realistically suggested to this child that saving some of his art sale income as jail bond back-up might be a wise idea.
We all know balancing diverse personalities and interests within a larger family along with healthy management of our own individual relationships with our children can be quite complex. Developmental delays, neuro-diversities, mood disorders or mental illness, physically differently-abled challenges or other can further impact our attempt at family balance. This can become more complicated by the historical family systems we may carry with us. And, if you care to go there with me, many of us believe these patterns re-create well beyond biological boundaries.
Our children may have been adopted. They may have been born into what they’ve discovered is the wrong gender body. They may decide to date or marry a person of a culture or race unfamiliar to us. Perhaps they show early math aptitude when we stumble in that area. It could be your child is an extreme extrovert while you are a complete introvert, or maybe you were thinking engineering or pre-med would be a perfect fit for them, but stand-up comedy became their calling. As individuals, they could be everything or anything other than what you imagined they would be.
As ethical human beings and as good parents, we the people don’t really have an option for choosing a path other than that of tolerance and love.
Yes, it can be extremely difficult to do this when we may have no experience with what our child has chosen or may be experiencing… but isn’t acceptance of your child the greatest gift we can offer? Isn’t this blessing of unconditional love what all religions hold in common, what each of us deserve personally, and what we are ultimately commissioned to do when we become parents?
We can support that our children may prefer Bach over Cubs, and as we share our sports interests with them we can strive to learn a little bit more about classical music ourselves. We can come to embrace them in their choice of gender or career path or religion because that is how very much we care about them and how much we value them as human beings. These things we must do. And, in the end, we might find we enjoy that odd Dirt taste, just because we associate it with the positive connections we have created with our child, with our family.
When is too much and too different, just too much? For me, it comes to hate. Purposeful intent to harm others won’t fly. No hate marches, no destructive condemnation of others, no inflicting of pain, no intent to destroy personal rights. Although we morally can never condone or engage in these actions, even in the face of those who fall into these fear-filled and extreme paths we must somehow find an element of compassion - for we are all human beings.
If hate and destructiveness don’t fit into those categories that make up the “unique” of those I care about, then I will gladly try the Marshmallow jellybean and even warm up to the idea of eventually tasting Ear Wax or Vomit. If support means braving huge self-change or just a little bit of letting our guard down, let’s hop on. Let’s embrace all the odd flavors and see what happens. I suspect it will bring us all closer to laughter and giggling together about all the unusual tastes that life has to offer…
by Liz DeStefanis Rosenzweig
One end of the yellow yarn's tied to Princess Jasmine's turquoise harem pants and the other end's wrapped around a swaddled baby. Jasmine's held up in the air, as if drifting off into the sky, while the baby remains below, alone. During my daughter's preschool years, this play therapy scene was reenacted on a weekly basis—two characters connected, despite the distance between them.
As enacted by her play scenario, connected by an "invisible string" is how my daughter has characterized her relationship to her birthmother. Even though they have never met, she feels reassured by this allegiance, as I have learned to be as well. Recently we were introduced to the children's book, aptly titled, Invisible String, by Patrice Karst. The story is about a mother reassuring her young son and daughter that they will always be connected to her, even though they may be physically apart. The story eases separation anxiety and provides a way for children to feel bonded to their parents by imagining this attachment.
There's no denying the biological bond between mother and child. Adoption, for some, can feel forced, because those bonds are not automatic and need to be earned. There was a time when I could not compete with such a powerful connection—"Jasmine", the represented birthmother, was just too significant. My daughter was conflicted and felt she had to choose between two mother figures, as if we were in opposition to one another. This mandate to choose manifested in other therapeutic play scenes. One involved an orphanage. I would play the role of myself, the adoptive mother, and the therapist played the role of the birth mother. The repeating plot involved our kidnapping and fighting over this desired baby. As my daughter matured, this theme of forced choice evolved into her being a bride and having to choose between two potential husbands. The therapist and I would each hold one of her arms and pull her to ourselves—a literal tug-of-war. We had to earn her affections and prove our worthiness and she delighted in her ability to control who to choose. I began to appreciate how important it was for my daughter to have some say in her destiny.
This appreciation opened the door to therapeutic parenting, which came to mean the ability to set aside personal expectations and feelings, and to approach a child from an observational and objective point-of-view. It requires looking at behaviors in light of posing questions: "Why is she doing that?", "What's the feeling behind the behavior?". In my case, it also required tabling my needs and accepting that I was not the desired mother, and yet at the same time, reassuring my daughter that I wouldn't leave her; that she was "stuck with me"--something I was coached to consistently verbalize. It was a tricky tightrope to walk. Eventually, these themes ended and my daughter's anxiety around choosing faded away. It was such a relief when we eventually forged our own string tying the two of us together.
Strings as symbols and structures of connective forces have manifested both mythically and scientifically. There is an Asian myth called the "Red Thread of Fate". The myth says that those destined to meet have invisible red cords tied around their ankles. The cords, tied by the gods, never break, no matter how far they stretch, or become entangled. This is often referred to in terms of finding one's soul mate, or marriage partner, or in our case, mother/daughter. Our red anklets led us to create a destined experience together.
Scientifically, according to string theory, as explained by the Harvard physicist, Lisa Randall, in her book, Warped Passages, "String theory's basic premise is that strings—not particles—are the most fundamental objects of nature. The particles we observe in the world around us are mere consequences of strings; they arise from the different vibrational modes of an oscillating string, much as different musical notes arise from a vibrating violin string." In more tangible terms, the yarn a cat plays with is made of atoms that are ultimately composed of the vibrations of strings. I may not get this theory from a literal standpoint, but I do get it metaphorically. I like to think that the universe is made up of a myriad of veiled connections providing a grounding structure for attachments.
As for my daughter's attachments, I have come to respect and honor the invisible string spanning the globe and reaching into the country of Bulgaria; "Jasmine's" country of origin. What once was a source of conflict is now a source of comfort, for the both of us. I picture multiple strings intertwining and offering a unified tether that my daughter can grasp hold of as she navigates life's currents.
Recipes for Identity
by Lynntia Kir-Stimon Sutton
It's dark, cold and staying inside to bake holiday cookies with my daughter is a good activity choice for this dreary day. We make Rosemary Shortbread Cookies, a wonderful recipe that a special girlfriend has shared with me. The scents are intense, soul filling and connect me irrevocably to this friend relationship that has lasted for so many years. I am struck by what a significant act this is for me… the experience of baking with grandmother, mother, daughter, friend.
Our recipes can certainly reflect our diverse cultures, but it’s clear to me that as women we are also able to hold strength, and even personal power, in our unique individual recipes. Our identity recipes take on different meaning when viewed from the perspective of ownership.
With repetition and time, our recipes can become deeply intimate layers of our identity as women, and notably a part of ourselves that we don’t have to share with others unless we decide to. Not dismissing the importance of father/child bonding through cooking, or other gender needs for identity strength and support here- those are for writing explorations on another day. Today’s news, highly focused on the sexual harassment of women, is currently in mind.
I have a vivid memory of one cooking experience with my Czech grandmother. On the kind of easy New Jersey day that feels like it just slowly unfolds, we took a meandering trip to the local grocery store. After a walk and a nap, we made her fruit-dumpling recipe. She lovingly shared this recipe from memory alone, and as we ate the warm treats, I quickly scribbled her recipe down on paper. In doing so I captured the memory of the delicious day, and also a small part of her identity that I wanted to add to a piece of my own.
Images of women in many situations emerge for me, and with this comes greater realization about the importance of women’s power through cooking. For women who have been abused. For women who fear for what can be taken from them. For women who don't possess anything of their own. Even a simple recipe, or an intangible recipe held only in memory, can represent a bit of power and secure ownership in an otherwise insecure situation. This is something that won't ever belong to and can’t be taken away from us without our willingness; not by spouse, former spouse, employer, government, friend or foe. In our food recipes there is potency.
The final batch of cookies my daughter and I make are my Italian mother's anisette knot cookies. My child has waited patiently for these, her holiday favorite. I am so grateful to have this moment of connection with her that I've left it for last, to savor the experience. This bonding is often what many women treasure with their children and what much of holiday joy can be about. This connection sadly doesn’t happen nearly enough for me, so I am soaking up every moment.
As I breathe in the strong anise scent, the aroma of my childhood, I know this as my recipe, my identity. Not my daughter's yet, even as she eyes the paper that the original handwritten recipe is on, she tells me "it feels good to see that writing, Mom."
Power of ownership with this recipe comes carrying the history of many generations, from my childhood experience and personal familiarity knowing the feel of the dough; the right stickiness, the right frosting consistency, the right thickness for rolling. This is something I will share with my daughter that will be all hers to own someday too. For now, like many women, I relish knowing this history, this identity, is still mine. And I hold it dearly, as I will gift it dearly, through our connected times.
Put a Little Jelly on the Saltines
by Lynntia Kir-Stimon Sutton
Hard, stick-in-your throat dry. Plain and not too exciting. Sometimes our lives are just like that. Flat. Thin. Saltine crackers.
As I walked today, the beach offered me a lovely gift. Amid favorite natural elements, my mosaic of sand, stone and pebble, one small rainbow paper heart washed ashore. This bright colorful icon appeared for me when I was immersed in sorting out a concern, and it allowed me to pause.
A breath. A view outside of myself with opportunity to reflect on what today offered. A realization that on this particular morning, I could not fix my issue. I could barely identify the elements of this issue! It was time, instead, to let go of my intent and find a way to change focus. As I saw colors, and fun, and love in this unusual little heart gift, I was able to let go of my determined thought process and in that instant, just be present in the moment.
We all need to find ways to shift gears in our lives. Within our diverse community we often experience deeper layers of complexity. Those with parenting challenges may feel in a constant uphill battle, trying to sustain momentum when they are worn thin and exhausted. And then, as if that isn’t enough, there it is again - Summer.
Long, long summer. Hopefully a break from school and work, and a time filled with pleasure and creating wonderful vacation memories. But for many of us, this can be a period filled with more than the usual complications. These may include medical procedures or evaluations, pending school changes, excursions to experience the native culture of our partner or child, single parenting logistics, travel concerns, and much more. Some of our kids, still working to gain the maturity to step out of pretty firmly fixed mindsets, are faced with needing to make pliable adjustments over many, many weeks…
Even those who are able to experience summer as a time of fun and adventure, may reach that time of - Just Done! Of being more than ready for summer to end. Enough of the bee stings/mosquito bites, sunblock/sunburn, packing/unpacking, visitors, school lists, supplies, clothes needs, and oh the transitions. Way too many transitions. For many, the daunting task of child supervision for multiple long, unstructured days has taken its toll. All ways around, it can be exhausting and monotonous for kids, parents, and families.
How do we make the best of difficult situations? As the long summer draws to an end, and throughout the year, how do we find a way to make life more palatable?
A little sweet, a little jelly. A brief hug or a song. A walk in nature to find a special rock. A “re-start” button for ourselves. The offer of a “re-do” or a “re-mix” for our kids, or whatever we call our personal method to enable a momentary shift.
Finding faith and hope (and happy) during disruptive or dull times is not always easy. So sometimes, when our intended direction doesn’t work, we just need to pick one tiny new direction to allow for movement of some kind to occur. This is often just a small tilt or altered view to make things work in the moment instead of attempting to figure it all out or make it all better. Sometimes it’s enough. Sometimes it’s just all we can do. A chance to make it very, very simple for now… and to find a way to sweeten those dry, flat, soda cracker days.
by Liz DeStefanis Rosenzweig
The word abstract comes from Latin meaning "pull away, detached". An ironic origin, since an abstract form of art can symbolize the exact opposite. For the past twelve years, I have been obsessed with the process and significance of attachment. As an adoptive mother, I faced the challenge of building trust and a maternal bond on a daily basis. Every interaction, every play time, every therapy session was an opportunity to build the attachment between my daughter and I. My parenting experience prompted me to fall in love with the Pearson Family of the NBC series "This is Us". In the eighth episode, the loving complexity of this family is presented in the form of an abstract painting.
In this scene an uncle apologizes to his nieces for his insensitive approach in trying to explain death. He humbly presents the girls with a painting that he's created while preparing for an acting role. He explains that the spatters and layers of color represent their family's random, yet interdependent and loving bonds, ultimately describing it as "this is us".
This scene affected me deeply, because it reminds me of my journey. How difficult and mysterious it has been to try to find a collective "us" that made sense and brought all of our differences and expectations together. Family cohesion has been a messy process for me. Maybe there are others who reach it more smoothly, or without the traumatic emotions related to trying to build attachment, but from what I know, our cohesive painting required a great deal of empathy, flexibility and extreme patience.
I have often felt that I am just reacting to everyone's emotional needs with flecks of random effort, but then when I am able to gain perspective, usually with time, I realize those flecks are perfectly placed in the scheme of the overall picture, and tailored to the challenges at hand. I now am able to see our abstract image as a complex, yet incredibly connective effort of love in action.
Pulling in all the forces of family members—their own emotional ancestry and inherited personality traits, and keeping these meandering energies together has been strenuous. As "This is Us" displays each week, it requires self-sacrifice and compromise—often putting ourselves last, for the greater good, and for the benefit of the desired end result: cohesion and attachment.
When standing back and viewing my own family picture, I find immense gratitude for being able to have built powerful attachment between these seemingly unconnected people and events to form our own "us".
Rolling Where Life Leads
by Lynntia Kir-Stimon Sutton
I find peace through solitary walks. I especially find peace and contemplation during my very long beach walks. These offer me the respite I need from life's many complications.
Before me, an array of pebbles tossed across the sand have left thin lines, slight descriptions of their past experiences.
A dense collection of rocks behind me, even as unmanufactured and apparently random, I am drawn to notice the various patterns within this grouping.
The moment of spiritual reflection now upon me, I ponder how perfectly as individuals we are meant to be together, how we fit together in this Mosaic of Life. Tossed together, often by choice and sometimes not, our unique family combinations and circumstances are perhaps not so random after all. Although in honesty, at times we may dislike the threads and the connections or find them almost too hard to bear, our greatest gift is in fully accepting that these connections exist and are there for some perfect fated reason.
Some of our diversities are certainly the result of firm choices and seem easier to track than others. Those are the easily identifiable, key decisive moments that we know have resulted in the framework around our lives.
Then, there are the other places where we find ourselves just somehow arrived. Those are the circumstances not founded solely on personal choice and where I have come to believe and feel other forces to be at play. I have certainly felt tossed in a certain direction at various times in my life; and that direction has not always been obvious at the time or of my command.
Swept sometimes close to the comfort of whatever we call “home” and sometimes far from. These waves push, sometimes gently and sometimes rough. We are often thrown straight into a tide of circumstance, dilemma, challenge, and blessing we did not intend or expect.
Like many stones that jettison quickly into or simply roll past each other, it’s difficult at times to track where and how we are propelled. Without a lingering sand-line, however faint, to use in guidance we can be burdened with wondering about the overall pattern here. What exactly was presented for us, how might we have altered that course in life, where do our lessons lie?
Continuing to walk the beach, I know the smattering of rocks especially after last night’s storm, are left in a maybe-not-so-random pattern along the shore. In accepting the pattern, in accepting our lives and who we are in our diversities and differences, we find the answers. Our “different” offers most of us great challenge. Within that we can find the presence to design and act.
One answer for many of us is often not in the “why” but in the “how”. We just learn to creatively make it work. And we do it again. And again. And again. Through ongoing acceptance, we tame the forces of shame and divisiveness and fear.
Strength, service, love, hope and connection are the elements that we use to piece our lives together within the challenge of “different”. The glue, the substance, that holds us together in our diverse elements, is authentically embracing and accepting who we are and realizing our individual lives somehow fit together beautifully in our own perfectly imperfect Mosaic.
We trust our whole is greater than its parts.
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