on victim blaming

The victim blaming that a sixteen-year-old and her mother are experiencing in the backlash since last week’s speakout against street harassment has been hitting me hard.

I spent two years in a domestic violence situation and three years afterward with the words of my abuser repeating in my head: “If people knew what you were really like then they’d understand.” I’ve held onto this fear for years that people would find out something about me that would make them believe that I deserved to be spat on, told that I was worthless, hit, choked, and told to get on my knees and beg for forgiveness. This fear has paralyzed me. When my abuser walked up to me in a DC bar as recently as last April, he asked me: “Can we talk alone?” And I went with him, because I was so afraid that he would say something in front of my friends that would let them know what I am really like, that I am someone who deserves to be abused.

So here’s what I’m really like:

I have a history of sleeping around.
I have been in a mental institution.
I have exchanged my body for housing, food, and money.
I have attempted suicide.
I have hit people in situations when physical violence wasn’t necessary.
I have been unfaithful to partners.
I used to hide my abuser’s ID to keep him out of bars.
I once poured a beer over my abuser’s head while he was napping, and I yelled, “So you want to drink, huh? Have a drink then.”
I engaged in abusive behaviors while I was in my abusive relationship.
I’d been in abusive situations before; I saw myself as the only common denominator.

This fear kept me from leaving. This fear kept me from speaking up. This fear made me reassure my friends that everything was fine and that things were getting better when they were actually getting worse. And now I know that I am not a perfect victim, and neither is anyone else. I am someone who has been hurt and has hurt people. At the same time as we cannot perpetuate victim blaming, we cannot be afraid of allowing victims and survivors to take responsibility for the harm we have caused. We cannot create this false dichotomy that there is only abuser and victim, and the victim can do no wrong. It’s this dichotomy that makes it difficult for us to see abusers as humans, as real people we know who live in our communities, people who cause harm and experience harm. It’s what makes it hard for us to believe that it could ever happen to us and to hold people in our lives accountable for abusive behaviors. I caused harm while I was experiencing abuse – and it’s OK, necessary even, to take responsibility for that without minimizing the abuse.

I am a loving mom and a violence survivor and a slut and an activist and a person who has caused harm, and I am all of these things all at once. It doesn’t change the fact that I deserve to feel safe. There is nothing that I have done in my life, or could do, that would make me deserve violence. If anything, it is these factors — and the fact that my history made me less likely to be believed — that make me more likely to be targeted.

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It is especially difficult for us to acknowledge and take responsibility for the harm and violence we’ve caused because the only response we know is the criminal legal system — arrests, punishments, more violence except from the state. We have to be honest about the realities of the problem we’re trying to solve, and we need to find another way to heal, seek justice, and build safety.

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silence & healing & mr. roboto

There’s something sort of silencing about being in the limelight. To be in the news every week, to have this incredible platform, to be heard – it makes you cautious about the things you say. Because your words have impact. Speaking out about one injustice might lead to some far worse consequence. Being open about feeling burnt out might bring down the energy that you need to keep up for people who are new to the movement and feel optimistic about change.

I always want to be on point. I always want to bring my best self. I always want to be enthusiastic and positive and chipper.

And I know that’s all impossible, but it feels so essential. We were in Upworthy this week and the Huffington Post last week. I’ll be on the radio this weekend and back on the Kojo Nnamdi Show next Wednesday. It’s exciting, it’s thrilling, and it’s meaningful. I feel free in a way that I couldn’t have been free when I had more traditional jobs. I was doubted so much that it made me doubt myself. I was silenced so often that I stopped speaking up. And now, I am free, and still finding myself sort of silenced in a way that I didn’t expect. Silent because I have to be responsible. And it’s hard, because I’m an open book. I believe so deeply in transparency. It’s a bad sign if organizers & organizations lack transparency, but we can’t pull down the veil on this broken system until we have a back-up plan, because having some support, however faulty, is better than having no support at all for those who are most vulnerable. I just want better for them, because I have been there, and in a way, making these systems right is healing for me.

It’s a challenge, too, to find the balance between being invested and disconnected in a way that maximizes my ability to be effective. I can’t let myself be overrun by emotion. I can’t put myself and my family at risk every time I want to help someone. I’ve been cautioned about it — about the importance of separating myself from the work, about self-care. But in many ways, it’s this level of investment that makes me effective. I am passionate because I know these problems are real because I have experienced many of them – homelessness, sexual assault, domestic violence, police violence, everyday racism, everyday sexism – and I understand how they’re all so very connected, and how the solutions must take all of these problems into account to be effective. And it’s my passion that gets people excited. And it’s my attitude of invincibility that makes people think that anything is possible. My mania is my greatest resource and my greatest weakness.

But I also don’t want to focus too much on my own healing because I know that makes me less available to help others heal in a way. I want to relate and share, but I am afraid to dominate a space where others should feel comfortable sharing, and so I find myself closing off and keeping things to myself. I have so many stories of trauma, but I am afraid to be remembered for my struggles; I want to be perceived as strong and bright and bubbly and fierce. Strong mostly, I think. And while my survivorship makes me strong, I’m also afraid of the ways that it makes me weak. Weak defined as emotional, defined as someone who may love too deeply and behave irrationally because of it, defined as needing love. It’s scary to think of the qualities that I’ve been socialized to associate with “weakness.”

And when it comes to healing myself, I am still stuck on healing others. I don’t know how to forgive in a way that’s not dependent on changing something that I can’t control. I don’t know how to heal in a way that doesn’t change the systems that failed me before they fail someone else. I don’t know how to heal in a way that doesn’t require those who have hurt me to want to change, to want to be better, to apologize and mean it. I have chosen forgiveness a thousand times, and it hasn’t helped because the people I have sought to forgive aren’t seeking forgiveness or change, and that’s still what I want. I don’t want to demonize you, I don’t want to paint you as some monster who abused me; I want healing and harmony and rainbows. Fucking rainbows.

I keep reading about this kind of reconciliation, and I don’t know how to make it real.

I shared this story last week about my abusive relationship. And I shared the details because I thought, there are probably people at different points of their abusive relationships, and they might not know yet that some behavior constitutes abuse or that it might escalate, and so I wanted to share as much as I could in an effort to reach them wherever they were. But I re-read it, and I worry about the way that it paints my abuser. My abuser. Is it fair to call him that, when he was more than that to me? He was someone I lived with, someone I loved. Someone I saw recently in a completely different light. I was saw him, and my mind had already branded him a monster, and I couldn’t see him as human. And I look back, and I want to see him as human and I want to paint him in a more compassionate light. Because I know that hurt people hurt people.

I wanted to reach out and reform him. I wanted my mother to go to therapy, to seek help. I wanted my father to take anger management seriously, to go not just because it was mandated by the court but because he needed to learn how to better process his emotions and communicate with people. I want real change, and I have enough will to change for all of my abusers, and it pains me that that’s not enough to make them change.

I am here, waiting anxiously because I want so badly to forgive.

Healing is complicated. It’s not linear, and sometimes I feel more healed than other times. Sometimes I heal through listening, through helping others who have faced similar or the same challenges; but I am not objective. I advise them as though I am them and they are me. I am so invested that I don’t see us as separate, and it’s a problem because then I worry that maybe I’m not really seeing them, and if I’m not seeing them then I cannot be truly listening and truly helping. Healing them becomes about healing me.

It feels like I should end this post with something really revelational and wise. I’ve come to feel like I’m supposed to be some source of wisdom, and I fall short. I am still this twenty-six year old single mom figuring out my own life every day and mothering a toddler who keeps growing and changing and saying hilarious things and throwing tantrums and giving me eskimo kisses. There’s a lot on my plate, and sometimes I feel invincible but other times I’m so overwhelmed.

So I’ll leave you with this video of me and Max performing Mr. Roboto (feat. Lucy Raven), my poor sweet child and my poor sweet cat, how did they get stuck with me?

ain’t i a woman

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This photo makes me so happy because it’s a reminder that I can and I do wear so many hats – mom and activist and feminist and coffee lover and sexy lady and twenty-something and nonprofit executive.

I wrote nonprofit executive on about two hundred thank you cards before that title seemed real. I am growing into the role.

I’ll be back tomorrow or Saturday to write about highlights from this year and my resolutions for next year.

In the meantime, gimme your money.

pumpkins and painting

I totally killed work-life balance today, though life for sure gets +1. Bonus points because I barely went outside, except for playing basketball and blowing bubbles in the morning and eating lunch on the patio in the late afternoon.

This morning, CASS’s strategic planning committee came over to strategically plan. I got some work done throughout the day, especially when Max napped, and then I took the rest of the day off to paint and play and make pumpkin things.

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We never got around to carving our pumpkin in time for Halloween, so we tried to paint handprint turkeys in honor of Thanksgiving instead. My handprint came out a lot better than Max’s tbh, but he rubbed paint in it before I could draw any turkey eyes or…beard (beard?).

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We got paint everywhere.

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Even a little on the sheets.

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…because a certain monkey decided he wanted to jump on the bed.

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I roasted pumpkin seeds – it’s super easy, you just wash ’em, season ’em, and bake ’em. And eat ’em.

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I also made pumpkin bread and pumpkin smoothies (not pictured because Max spilled both – possibly on purpose).

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He thinks it’s very funny.

Balancing relationships

Balancing work and parenting came as second nature to me. These are two huge aspects of my life. Working helps me remember that I’m more than a mother – that there’s more to me than caring for someone else, and there will be when he grows up and moves out on his own. I’ll still have myself; I don’t want to lose that. And parenting filled a void for me that had been empty for such a long time: motherhood gave me family. I already have everything.

But balancing relationships has proven to be so much trickier. For me, for whatever reason, it’s been easy to be a single mom. I’ve never had to compromise. My way is always the right way. I’ve never had to worry about how much time I was spending with my son versus with a partner. I’ve never had to share him or share responsibilities. I’ve never felt jealous because he wanted someone else; he always wants me. I’ve never felt overburdened because he only wants me; he always wants me. It is my reality; it has always been this way.

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Now I’m trying to be a mom and an activist, I’m trying to do a job and also have a social life. It’s sometimes hard to have conversations with my peers when the conversations aren’t about work, just because my life outside of work is very much still “Where the Wild Things Are” (and sometimes “Donde Viven Los Monstruos”). My life outside of work is, “Please don’t eat crumbs off the ground; you can have more Cheez its.”

What else is there?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve come to live for the late-night conversations with my lover about our pasts and about the ways we’re broken and the things we want to do in the future, on our own and together. I like brainstorming backyard projects and weekend trips. But I can’t help but feel guilty.

Max and I still have so much quality time together. We have our Spanish classes on Saturdays and our play groups on Fridays. We have dinner together every night. But this week has been hard. He hasn’t been waking up as happy as usual, and I think he senses that he doesn’t have as much of me as he always has.

(He’s also teething and has a canker sore, so it could be all that…)

I honestly don’t know how married people do it.

Finding independence

From the second he was born, Max has been engulfed in the principles of attachment parenting. After his natural Birth Center birth, he was placed on my chest for immediate skin-to-skin contact with his momma, and within minutes I breastfed him for the first time. He had the whole kit and caboodle — babywearing, breastfeeding, bedsharing, even a nightly infant massage with grapeseed oil. I’d pick him up the second I heard him whimper, and I’d rock him for hours on end if it kept him happy. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that he was happiest when he was being held.

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max just living his life, getting his infant massage on

We have grown very close. I’m not only his mother; I’m his caregiver and his friend.

Many people praised me, and some people criticized me — for extended breastfeeding, for allowing him to sleep in my bed, for never letting him just cry.

People suggested that he’d be spoiled, he’d never learn to be independent, and he’d never outgrow breastfeeding. But I’ve trusted my gut and the very many parenting books that I’ve read and the doctors and child care providers that I’ve consulted, and I’ve parented according to his needs and not the advice of people who don’t know him as well.

It’s hard, sometimes, to go with your gut. Especially when you’re a young woman of color. You’re constantly challenged and questioned by backseat drivers who want to tell you how it’s done. There was one time that Max’s daycare closed because there was a petroleum in the water scare, and since we were having a holiday party that day anyway, I decided to bring him to work. The first half of the day was a four-hour staff meeting, which Max (then ten months old) endured pretty patiently (and I’m not just saying that because I’m his mom and think he’s perfect!). There was a point that he was ready for his milk, so I took him back to my desk and breastfed him. I had brought some toys and random items to keep him occupied through the day, but in general, Max was (and still often is) very patient and happy as long as he’s being held. I brought him back to the conference room after the meeting, and he started to groan and whimper — not quite a cry but an expression of discomfort. I wasn’t surprised; it was naptime. I knew that he was going to fall asleep any minute, but he was grumbling because he was still at an age at which he didn’t quite understand the feeling that was overtaking him. Imagine that – being so tired and not knowing what’s happening to you. It’s probably uncomfortable. What did surprise me was the reaction of another mother in the room — a lovely woman who has a daughter just about the same age as Max. She asked me if she could get Max a toy, and I thanked her but declined. He’s just tired, I let her know. It was a kind gesture, and I appreciated it, but then she started to try to amuse him to make him stop crying. He grew increasingly frustrated, and I knew why: In trying to console him and make him laugh when he just wanted to fall asleep, she was telling him, “I don’t understand why you’re crying, so I’m going to try to distract you from what’s upsetting you.” This was upsetting to me because she ignored what I had told her and dismissed the idea that I could know what was wrong with my baby – the child that I was still nursing and closer to than anyone else. She is a white woman, and from my perspective, she was parenting through privilege.

Young mothers of color are constantly questioned and dismissed and challenged; it’s assumed that we do not know what’s best for our babies, how to hold our babies, how to console our babies, how to care for our babies. When a white woman sees another white woman doing something that she doesn’t necessarily agree with, it’s accepted as a different style of parenting; but when a white woman sees a woman of color doing something that she doesn’t necessarily agree with, it’s viewed as being wrong. She feels comfortable intervening and correcting her. It is a microaggression.

But I didn’t come here to talk about racism. I came here to say: My attachment parenting critics were wrong — not because attachment parenting is right for everyone, but because it was right for Max.

Max is more independent than I could’ve ever hoped. He can walk, run, climb, and play independently for long stretches of time. He doesn’t love to hold my hand when we walk down the street, but once we reach the end of the block, he reaches his hand out because he knows that he can’t cross the street on his own. He likes to try to climb off the curb along the way, and sometimes he gets upset when I stop him or guide him back into the direction that we’re going. When I try to hold his hand on the sidewalk, he sometimes throws himself on the ground dramatically. He wants to be independent; he wants to be free. He’s growing up so quickly, and I’m so proud of his growth.

There have been power struggles — the biggest one being that he hates holding my hand when we’re walking, and that makes it really hard to get him to stay the course when we’re on our way to daycare in the mornings. I’ve tried to cheer him on and praise him when he walks in the right direction. I’ve pulled him away from the stairs when he tried to climb them and go back home, and I redirect him. I’ve called him, over and over, in English and Spanish, to come and follow me. I’ve gotten frustrated and said, “Come on, Max, we’re going to be late.” I’ve given up and carried him the whole way.

But now, as I’m continuing to read Positive Discipline for Preschoolers, I’m learning new ways to encourage him to be independent and still do the things that he has to do, like walk to school in the morning without getting too distracted by dandelions.

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ok sometimes you do have to stop and smell the dandelions

I appreciate having spaces like our back patio where he can roam freely, and I don’t have to pull him away from an electronic device or something dangerous every three minutes. And when it comes to walking to school and walking back home, I’m finding ways to make it less of a chore for him. When he doesn’t want to hold my hand, I take both of his hands and turn our walk into a dance while I sing “Pop Goes the Weasel” (swinging him at the “popping” part), and it makes him forget that he’s holding my hand because he’s enjoying the dance. This evening, on the way home, I managed to get him to run in the right direction for a whole block by chasing after him saying “Momma’s gonna get you” and “I’m going to catch up with Max!” and then grabbing him and picking up a few times along the way to make him laugh (and confirm that I could indeed catch up).

The most important lesson I’ve learned from books on positive discipline is that discipline is teaching, not punishment. Even time outs should be used in a positive way that lets both child and parent cool off — it should be future-oriented, not past-dwelling. Power struggles, to me, are a sign that I’m trying to take control in an area that Max is seeking independence, so I need to find better balance to allow him to be independent while setting simple (but fun) guidelines to keep him safe. There’s no point in getting frustrated.

I think the next thing I need to do is learn to apply these principles in other areas of my life.