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Welfare and Legos

June 18, 2014

The words we choose and the messages we send are not always as clear or as innocuous as we think they are. From messages on the Internet to marketing of toys, everything has a potential impact. The following is adapted from a paper I wrote for a class, but I wanted to share my thoughts with the broader world as well.

Image reads: So you're on food stamps, but you can afford an iPhone... Seems legit.

So you’re on food stamps, but you can afford an iPhone… Seems legit.

Issue #1:  Welfare Fraud “memes.” (See example to the left.)

Obviously those most directly affected by this type of discriminatory statement are those who are actually receiving food stamps or other types of public assistance. However, I think there is an indirect effect on anyone who sees the meme. Certainly some of us will look at this with a critical eye and think, “There is more to this story,” but some people will view it at face value only. The latter may begin to form their own negative opinions, probably unconsciously. Judgments of this type cannot benefit anyone. At best, they can be ignored, but at worst they can lead to discrimination, negativity, misanthropy, and hatred.

Misunderstandings about the welfare system are ever-present in our society. The one thing we can all agree on is that it is not an ideal system, but some people believe it is too easy to get help and some believe it is too difficult. Some people believe there is far more abuse of the system (and yes, abuses certainly do exist) than is actually present. However, the perpetuators of these memes can not possibly understand the whole story of the person about whom they are making these derogatory statements. They do not know where the alleged iPhone came from, or if it even belongs to them. The myth they are spreading is borne of ignorance.

 

Issue #2: Gender Segregation in the Toy Industry

Most major retail chains have their toy departments arranged according to gender. Dolls and dress up clothes are in one aisle, superheros, weapons, and vehicles are in another. In many cases, they are even labeled as “Girl Toys” and “Boy Toys.” This type of gender segregation leads to false ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl – leaving aside the entire issue of transgender, which would be a long discussion in itself. My own child went through a period of calling himself a girl, and I believe it was his way of reconciling the fact that he liked toys and TV shows that are typically marketed towards girls.

This issue of gender-based toys was taken to a new level when Lego announced its new line, Lego Friends, in 2012. These pink and purple toys with entirely female mini-figures were marketed as Legos for girls, as if girls were somehow unable to play with Legos before this fabulous new invention.

Why do we need different toys for boys than for girls in general? In my opinion, this is damaging not just to children, who are still figuring out who they are and do not need society to tell them it is or is not acceptable to play with certain toys, but also to adults. As adults, we are responsible for social change. If we are allowing our children to grow up with the belief that playing with certain toys is “wrong,” then we are furthering society’s imbalances and the gender roles and limitations which we outgrew a generation or two ago.

As both a parent and a social worker, I see it as my responsibility to show my child, his friends, and any children with whom I work that gender is not a black and white (or pink and blue) issue. Boys need not stick to superheroes and violence; girls need not play only with dolls and kitchen sets. A child’s favorite color is only indicative of his or her aesthetic preference, not gender or sexuality.

 

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Breathe in Peace, Breathe out Love

June 11, 2014

When I breathe in, I breathe in peace…

When I breathe out, I breathe out love…

The above words first came to my attention via the supplemental Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the JourneyThey were a favorite of our minister at the time, a woman who was – and continues to be – a source of great inspiration to me. But these words have meaning to me on a deeper, more personal level, even beyond that of a spiritual and religious nature.

Long time readers will know that I have struggled with anxiety throughout my life. It has taken many forms – anger, fear, avoidance, lack of confidence – and at times I have allowed it to define me and to take over my life. I have also tried numerous strategies for managing it, from yoga to therapy (cognitive behavioral and hypnotherapy, among others) to medication, and any combination of the three. Different strategies have worked at different times in my life. Recently, I have added mantras to my “anxiety toolkit,” and the above words are my go-to.

I’ve used this mantra in a couple of different ways, including as a calming technique when I’m feeling frustrated or agitated, but one of the ways I find that it works best is as part of my yoga practice. I’ve been a semi-regular yoga practitioner for just over ten years now (wow, I hadn’t realized it had been that long!), though I have gone through periods of practicing daily and times of giving it up entirely for months at a time. I am currently returning to the practice with which I started, which involves daily or every-other-day practice of the Core Routine from this book. The routine follows a pattern of “repeat three times, then hold for 4-8 breaths,” for many of the positions. As I breathe through the positions, I repeat the mantra in my head, “Breathe in peace… breathe out love…” and I find it incredibly soothing. I also find that it forces me to slow my breathing. Before adding in this mantra to my practice, I would often find that my breathing would speed up as I counted my breaths – especially in less-comfortable positions.

Breathing peace into my lungs and into my body also serves to remind me to be peaceful and gentle with myself. It helps me to relax my tense muscles and to be patient with myself. As I exhale and breathe out love, I am likewise reminded to be loving and compassionate towards others. As I feel the peace and love flow through my body, my focus shifts from a place of dysmorphia to a love and appreciation of myself. I remember that I am doing this practice as an act of love – treating my body well and creating inner peace, and through this learning to project an air of love for myself and others as well.

10152564_10152287590756136_2765339735072004650_n

Image courtesy of Alison Carville

 

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Self-Care for Counselors

April 30, 2014

For my Grief Counseling class, we have spent this week exploring the importance of self-care. This topic reminds me of struggles I had when my son was born.  My postpartum depression/anxiety was particularly bad, and I just did not know how to cope. My therapist at the time pointed out a sentiment which I have heard echoed (and have in fact repeated to others, as well) numerous times since then:  You cannot take care of anyone else if you are not taking care of yourself.  If I was falling apart on the inside, then I could not properly care for anyone else on the outside.  My son needed me to be fully together, and that meant caring for my own needs and not focusing solely on his.

Parenting means caregiving.  Counseling also means caregiving, and caregiving is difficult, taxing work.  It is also often considered selfless work, and I believe that is one of the places where we fall down. Caregiving cannot be selfless; it must be done in tandem with caring for the self. However, we live in a society where working hard is considered good and taking downtime is considered lazy.  Caring for others is admirable while caring for oneself is selfish and egocentric.

Also, many of us go into the field because we want to help other people. Perhaps we know what it is like to feel alone, or put aside, and we do not want to inflict that on others. Perhaps we are passionate about our work and we forget that the hottest flames burn out the fastest. There are as many reasons for ignoring self-care as there are practitioners in the field, I would imagine.  Yet self-care is one of the most important gifts we can give to ourselves and to our practice.

I expect my own self-care regimen to look much the same in practice as it does now: yoga and exercise, periodic days/evenings/even an hour “off” just for myself, meditative practices to clear my head (especially between clients), and continuing a relationship with my own therapist to remind me of these tools when I forget.  These methods have saved my sanity as a parent, a student, a wife, an employee, etc.  I expect they will be just as worthy tools for me as a counselor.

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Intellect and Fish

October 9, 2013

For a class, I was asked to write about the whether or not intellect is a social and cultural construct, based on the Einstein quote in the picture below.  The quote reads: “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”  Below is what I wrote on the subject.  

Poster from RedBubble.com

I believe that intellect is partially – but not entirely – a social/cultural construct. As in the Einstein quote, we are to some degree a product of our environments and our ability or inability to fit in to them. However, I believe there is also a natural, inherent potential in each of us. Some people, no matter what their environment, will simply never develop intellectually beyond a certain point. They simply aren’t “wired” for it. Likewise, there are some people who take Einstein’s fish analogy and (pardon the pun) blow it out of the water by becoming a tree-climbing fish. (Note, this is specifically regarding intellect, and not the various types of intelligence. We may use intellect and intelligence interchangeably, but they are actually quite different concepts.)

Obviously, a supportive environment increases our chances of healthy intellectual environment. Strong communication and literacy skills in the home, as an example, are likely to increase a child’s capacity for understanding language. This is one type of intelligence, but I believe it is also a piece of the intellect puzzle. However, if that child has a learning disability, a biological impairment, or even a lack of interest in this type of learning, he or she is still never going to excel in the area of language arts and literacy. The fish must have the desire as well as the ability to climb the tree.

Conversely, a child who is always told that he or she is stupid is likely to give up before he or she can even come close to reaching his/her ultimate potential. If you tell the fish he can’t climb the tree, maybe he won’t even try. If you encourage him to try his best, then maybe he will somehow manage to defy all logic and expectation.

Does this make the fish crazy? Does it make the fish-parents also crazy for encouraging the impossible? I suppose by some definitions it does. There can sometimes be a fine line between seeing the world a little bit differently than other people do, and being mentally unstable. Does that mean that a healthy and active imagination is just a slip away from schizophrenia or other dissociative diseases? After all, if you’ve seen the movie A Beautiful Mind, sometimes extreme genius and mental illness do in fact go hand in hand.

Mind you, this is not to say that mental illness should just be ignored because it can be a sign of great intelligence, imagination, or intellect. True mental illness should certainly be treated appropriately. My point is simply that sometimes the line is less clear than others between what is a matter of “thinking outside the box,” and what is truly unhealthy.

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Allergies in The Bathroom

May 15, 2013

For the food allergic, it seems logical the kitchen (and school cafeterias, and restaurants, and bake sales … ) would be a tricky area to navigate. I expect these challenges, as the parent of a food-allergic child. Where I don’t expect it is in my bathroom.

bottles of shampoo and body washed lined up

In recent years, I’ve tried to use more and more in the way of natural products for my hair, skin, and body. Likewise, my husband and I try to be mindful of which products I’m using for my son. Let’s use sunscreen as an example. Over the past few years, there have been more and more articles about how certain ingredients are bad, so I try to stick with more natural options. The Bug and I both have fairly sensitive skin, as well, and he is very fair-complected. During our occasional Florida vacations – and especially during the years we lived there – daily sunblock is/was a must, so we wanted to be extra careful, but finding products without the scary-sounding chemicals can be tricky. Imagine our surprise when we found, in our chosen brand, a substance called arachidyl alcohol, which is derived from peanuts. Were it not for my Italian-speaking husband, who recognized this word root as being akin to the word arachidi, Italian for peanuts, we’d never have known! There was no allergy warning anywhere on the label!

Now, around this time, I had also discovered that my shampoo at the time contained soy protein, and thus stopped using it – at least during showers with my son. That, I admit, was probably overkill, as reactions to soy are usually mild and not contact-based. However, reactions to nuts – and especially to peanuts – often are contact-based. At home, if my husband or I eat peanut butter, we have to wash our hands and faces before touching Bug. If I kiss him before I have rinsed out my mouth, he will get a red welt on his skin where my lips were. So I can’t help but to imagine his whole little body covered in red splotches from using a nut-based sunscreen! At the time, he had eczema flareups so often, it’s impossible to say whether or not we saw a direct reaction from the few times we used the lotion before noticing the label, but considering how deadly these allergies can be in some people, it wasn’t a chance I was willing to keep taking.

Fast forward to the present. I’ve been experimenting with different shampoo and conditioner options, trying to find the best balance of “works well,” “doesn’t cost a fortune,” and “isn’t full of scary unpronounceable chemicals.” I had a solution I absolutely loved… until one day I was in the shower and took a closer look at the label. Almond oil. Again, no allergy warning on the bottle, nothing to tip me off unless I looked very carefully at the ingredients list. Sighing, I planned another trip to the grocery store and packed the offenders into my gym bag where I didn’t have to worry about contaminating the shower or bath my son would be using. (Which of course then makes me wonder how the severely allergic manage in public showers!)

Now, I know it is my responsibility as a consumer to read labels and to be aware of what it is I am purchasing. I’m not writing this to blame anyone, nor to spew righteous indignation all over my computer screen. Though I do think it would be nice if the FD&C required allergen labels for substances which come into contact with skin, I admit.

More than anything else, though, I am simply shocked and disappointed at how difficult it is to find products without nuts in them, when shopping for natural/organic skin-care products. Maybe it’s time to start looking into how to make my own shampoos and conditioners! Perhaps that will be a fun summertime activity for me.

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Love

February 14, 2013

Image of a teddy bear holding a heart and a ribbon which reads "Be Mine."

It’s Valentine’s Day, a day which has so many meanings and connotations.  To some, it is all hearts and flowers and romance.  To others it is another “black” day.  I’ve been in both camps over the years, from hosting an anti-Valentine’s Day party for my fellow singles in college to receiving a teddy bear with the pictured t-shirt from my husband the year we met.

But this post isn’t about Valentine’s Day specifically, nor even about romantic love.  For Unitarian Universalists, today is Standing on the Side of Love Day, which to me is about the embodiment of our First Principle: To Respect the Inherent Worth and Dignity Of Every Person.  I struggle with this; I suspect we all do.  But it is an ideal, something to strive for and to remind ourselves of when we catch ourselves slipping away from it.  It is hard to remember to love someone when they’ve done something wrong – to you, or to the world at large.  It is hard to remember to love when our differences divide us.

Hard, but important!

This post is also about self-love, another concept with which I have personally struggled.  From a young age, I remember being fed platitudes about how we cannot love another until we learn to love ourselves.  I don’t know that I agree with that absolutely and literally, but self-love is the foundation of so many other things in life.  If we do not love and respect ourselves, how can we be successful and happy?  If we do not treat ourselves well, how will anyone else treat us well in turn?

I think these two types of love are what can unify us all – the romantics and the skeptics.  We are ALL a part of this world together, and we all have a sense of self.  So whether you’re spending Valentine’s Day with your loved one(s), or on your own, remember that Love is more than the roses and the candy.  It is worth, it is dignity, and it is respect.

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2012

December 31, 2012

When I look back at 2012, all I think of is facing fears.  Death, pregnancy and loss, failure, success, public speaking, tragic events… even the end of the world.  Sure, a number of other things occurred throughout the year, but these were the defining moments for me – defining the year and newly-defining me as a person.

I want to say that I can face down these fears and tell them, “Ha! You can’t hurt me anymore!” but I’m not convinced (and I don’t like to tempt Fate).  Sure, that’s true of some of them: I’ve actually come to enjoy speaking in public, where just half a year ago the prospect terrified me.  But I’m not sure I want to find out whether the others still have the power they held before this year.  I’d rather just … not know.

But what is unmistakeable to me is this: I came through it! I faced all of the above, and I got through. Maybe I didn’t handle each situation with grace and aplomb. Maybe I needed some help along the way – support from my husband and family, extra sessions now and again with my therapist. But here we are, on the edge of 2012 into 2013, and I can honestly say, “I survived!”

Sometimes it’s hard for me to take credit if I had to ask for help. Sometimes it’s hard not to criticize myself for breaking down or falling apart or wanting to hide. Sometimes I have trouble remembering my strength, or I simply get tired of being strong all the time. 2012 was a very tiring year in that regard.

I’ve found it hard to say goodbye to 2012 because it means, well, just one more ending in a year full of endings.  So instead, I’ll do what I have tried (not always successfully) to do all year, and focus on beginnings.

Instead of “So Long, 2012,” I will say, “Welcome, 2013!” Let’s see what new beginnings the coming year can bring.

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