Last night, I set the clown traps on turbo. It helped my daughter go to sleep. Otherwise, she gets afraid. Then I researched what to say about her first active shooter drill, which they call a “lockdown drill.” It’s tomorrow. My daughter started kindergarten six days ago.
The more reliable articles I found online told me not to overreact when talking to my child about this event. There are fire drills, there are lockdown drills. It is important to stay calm and follow instructions. We do not need to give more context than “bad guys.” The word “gun” is unnecessary. Sharing our own fears is not helpful.
Tonight over dinner, my beautiful girl, who I first learned was a girl the morning of December 14, 2012, just after receiving the emerging news of a shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, brought up tomorrow’s lockdown drill.
She told me where they will go. She told me what they will do to the room to secure it. She explained that they need to practice waiting for the police in case there is “a bad guy in the school.” They need to sit close together and be quiet, she said.
I had practiced for this. I stayed calm. I reminded her how this is similar to things we have talked about before; that when there is danger or we are afraid, the best thing we can do is stay calm, because then we have more power to focus on choices that keep us safe.
This rolled off like I was explaining the rules of Go Fish.
I sat, present and focused on this short conversation that seemed to be over, and a girl who seemed matter-of-fact about a variation on the fire drill. I congratulated myself on remaining calm through a conversation I’ve been dreading for five years.
“If it helps, you can take little breaths,” she said.
I felt the love and anguish of teachers around the country who put their lives on the line for their students, some of whom have been killed in the process. I loved them back, I held their pain. I kept a straight face.
In these words, I also heard my daughter coaching me, a card-carrying member of the Littleton generation that should have stopped this.
Instead, the shootings have become expected. Our babies are going to school. What I can do now, she says, is take little breaths.
I get asked if I’m pregnant on the regular. At first this shit made me cry. But it’s happened so much that I’ve had to get used to it.
Sometimes I still cry.
My stomach sticks out. It has stuck out for years. I am not pregnant. I gave birth to a creative, healthy, playful girl five years ago. Today I have a tight stitch where a C-section once happened, and there’s a pouf above it that reflects my love of wine, cheese, and life.
Your reassurances that I am not fat do not help.
I have noticed that friends feel compelled to insist I’m not fat. Just because you say that I don’t look pregnant does not mean I don’t get asked this question, on average, a few times a month. Just because you say I’m so skinny doesn’t mean I won’t get asked about the baby I’m not expecting sometime real soon.
I have created a new rule:
Every time I’m asked about my pregnancy, I post a selfie to Instagram.
I love it.
It puts me back in the driver’s seat of my life.
No matter what I’m wearing, how I’m made up, or what I’m doing, I take a picture of myself and share it with people who know me, mostly in real life. I admit forthrightly what just happened. And then I move on.
When I do this, I no longer remain the person whose body is being reviewed and assessed by others. I become the person who has this body right now, and is living her life anyway.
If you get asked if you’re pregnant a lot, my recommendation is to find something to do immediately that feels good to you. Then keep doing it. Having something to draw upon that does not require thought can be helpful when hurt slaps you in the face, as it did in the comfort of my own home (indeed, no place is sacred) twelve days ago.
Erin here. I’m
self-conscious and nervous excited to see you in a few weeks for our high school reunion. During the past twenty years I have been a human diorama of someone who did not ‘peak too soon.’
Over the years I have grown wrinklier and larger. I take less shit. Given the choice of being tighter or taking less shit, I’d rather take less shit.
I’m grateful for each of us who are healthy and still here. Almost everything I cared about in high school didn’t really matter. It’s a privilege to age.
Dear Senators Collins and Murkowski,
I would like to tell you about my daughter, Winnie. She is five, and a mother’s dream come true. She is healthy, strong, compassionate. She loves to watch baseball and dress up like a princess. Frozen is her favorite movie. Against all odds, she thinks dentists are cool and wants to be one when she grows up. She has been active in politics her whole life — from getting out the vote as a baby in a carrier on my chest, to knocking doors in national and statewide elections, to attending inaugurations. I try to let her take this stuff at her own pace; she can’t get enough. She likes to ask questions about politics and I make a point to tell her the truth.
Tonight, I told her: Mommy is sad. Why, she asked. I explained to her that it hasn’t always been that girls were allowed to do all the things that boys do — and generally it’s gotten better and more fair for girls over the years. I explained that I’ve had more opportunities than grandma, and that grandma had more opportunities than her mom, but if some people have their way about who gets to say what the law is in this country, she might have fewer opportunities than me when she grows up. My daughter knows that I’m a feminist and that I’ve devoted my life to working for women and girls. I told her it makes me very sad to think that it could be worse for her than it was for me.
She wanted to know how, specifically, it could be worse, so I told her the truth. There are some people who think they can make girls have babies, instead of being fair and letting girls decide when they get to have babies. My daughter does pretend weddings like every other day, and says she would love to be a mommy. She also understands that pregnancy is hard and babies are a lot of work. She gets mad when she is not given a choice about what to eat for breakfast. I could see it sink in on her face — at five — how not right this is.
There is a chill in this country, and I just know that as women of conscience you feel it. What I feel is what I imagine it felt like in other repressive countries just before women lost considerable amounts of freedoms they had once enjoyed: a sense that it is coming, a sense that it is inevitable and there is nothing we can do, and some people who are concerned and others who are in denial that anything will change.
You are senators. It breaks my heart that, as a parent, writing an open letter about my daughter to the two of you seems so critical to her future. I wish it were not necessary. But I know, in my heart, that if in your capacity as senators you do not put your feet down and say you will not vote for a Supreme Court nominee that would overturn Roe v. Wade — and President Trump has been very clear that he will only nominate justices who would — that terrible things will happen to at least some of the beautiful and innocent girls who today come to my daughter’s birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese and someday will experience the complexity that comes with living in a woman’s body.
As a mother, I am horrified that our little girls could have demonstrably fewer freedoms than we do for generations to come. You have both indicated support for abortion rights and in this current political environment, much less the current Republican Party, I can try to appreciate the contorted, lonely spaces you must find yourselves in. I hope you will try to appreciate the spaces millions of us mothers find ourselves in: Looking at our daughters, trying not to cry, vowing to do our best to ensure they get the freedoms we have now, but knowing that ultimately the matter is not much in our hands. The matter is, practically speaking, very much in your hands.
More than any other senator, it is the two of you who will decide whether President Trump is able to convert the Supreme Court into one that will repeal the federal constitutional right to abortion for generations to come. I hope you will think about my little Winnie, and all the other little girls her age, and how much we as their mothers love them. You are our last resort. Please stand up for our girls.
Let’s just be done with excuses for why women aren’t running in Democratic primaries, shall we? Let’s be done with excuses for why it is always some other man’s turn.
Yes, we know who gets invited to the golf course.
We got it.
Yes, we know that you find our ambition grating, our knowledge overwhelming, our qualifications a symbol of being “too establishment” or a liability in our “ability to connect.”
We know that you are delving deep into the psychology of why women don’t run, how we have to be asked several times, and how if we just thought more highly of ourselves then maybe it would happen.
We are also uninterested in you blaming us and our inner states, personally, for why centuries of male dominance are continuing today — even though none of the men who are actually holding the power mean it in any sort of oppressive way, lass.
We are up to our ears with Republicans who fundamentally disrespect our humanity and Democratic men who are said to be better for women than, well, the women who are the backbone of the party.
I stopped accepting your excuses for why women aren’t taking the elected seats years ago; you can still tell them to me, and I will listen. I will nod for your reasons, for even if I haven’t heard them before, together they make the most lovely quilt we can present to our daughters with the shrug that maybe their generation can do better.
Well, no. I refuse to teach my daughter that women should wait their turn.
I got angry the first time I took her out in a baby carrier to get out the vote and realized that in the allegedly most progressive corner of the Commonwealth of Virginia we were working to elect nine men and no women. In the Democratic Party. Four years later, in 2017, Arlington Democrats added literally one woman to the picture — out of nine candidates they wanted us to elect. Now, in 2018, we have what The Washington Post calls “two newcomers [battling] for Democratic nomination to Arlington County Board.” No shade to these lovely men, but there is nothing new about having men hold the gavels and women hold the clipboards, and I’m just done.
Those moments in life when we stop accepting our own excuses are the most powerful. I am no longer accepting my own excuses about why I cannot run for office — if you know me personally, you know my No. 1 line is that Arlington is a big pond with political people from D.C. who have a long line of succession, and if I lived somewhere else, I’d do it. I realize now that my excuse sounds a lot like another patch on the quilt of excuses for why Charles is almost always in charge. I am giving up my own excuses now about why I can’t run for office. I can run for office, I’m just not doing it right now. I encourage you to give up your excuses with me.
By large, irrefutable margins, Ireland has voted to legalize abortion. People don’t want total abortion bans. Even in Catholic countries. This means the world to me, as someone who is half Irish by blood, was raised Catholic, and works for abortion rights.
I was born Erin Maureen Boylan. I do not share this name often; it’s a part of my identity that mostly slips under the radar. My biological father, where the Irish in me comes from, died suddenly and unexpectedly when my mom was five months pregnant with me. I have been told we share some things: a “sense of the outrageous,” a love for writing, and political activism.
In large part, it is because of what happened to my mom that I am so strongly pro-choice. Because of the circumstances surrounding my birth, and the hell, chaos, and poverty that created for her, I am well aware of how quickly circumstances can change. Instead of parroting blanket statements from men in robes who say that sex is bad and do not see me as equal, I choose compassion and love.
I was born into my life, specifically, and I do not believe in abortion bans. I am aware that my mom could have chosen to not continue the pregnancy that created me. I love her. I know her. I think the choice to have an abortion would have been fine, and if I could have held her hand had she chosen to make it, I would have.
I love my life, and I know I owe my life to a woman who was excited and in love and over the moon, and then suddenly very sad, traumatized, and alone. She was here and I was not yet; I put her first without question.
As I reflect on Ireland overturning the abortion ban, and the man who put the Irish and the political activism in my blood I know, on some visceral level, that what unites us more than anything is our deep and unconditional love for my mother. We trust her. We believe in her. We know that she is wise. We know that she is strong and can get through anything. We would have supported her together, from our own space in the spiritual ether, if she had made another choice.
There have been only a handful of times in my life when I have felt very close to my biological father, and the Saturday that the Irish abortion ban was to be overturned was one of them. I teared up on a long run, watching the sun rise. I felt him and how he would have reacted to what was about to happen in Ireland. I thought about how proud he would have been of me and my work, specifically my work to expand abortion access. I thought to myself in a loud, proud voice, Erin Maureen Boylan, reporting for duty. I kept running. I cried.
Recently, I took a vacation. I did not check Facebook, Twitter, or email.
It was glorious.
I am a heavy social media user, and much of the time I spend on social media is related to my social justice work and actually just work — learning, connecting, organizing, proselytizing, and speaking truth to power. Taking a break from being expected to consume, react, and be responsive to whomever jumps into my purse is transformative.
Over the course of one week I read three books. I paid attention to my companions and my surroundings. I did crossword puzzles every day. I read local newspapers. I had leisurely conversations about the material I had read hours or days before. I ran; I sat.
It’s difficult to just be when notifications are constantly popping up, demanding our attention, and projecting powerful light into our eyes. So, while I’m glad to be back to my ordinary routine, I am also recognizing that my vacation was not an exclusive function of a salty-smelling ocean and cracking up with my husband as we watched our daughter try to finish the eighth hole in her first round of miniature golf (“Let’s have a child,” I whispered as she threw the putter around like a machete and moved her lower half in pantomime of an ’80s exercise class gone wrong; “she will be athletic, graceful, and so perfect”).
It is a vacation in itself to leave my phone on the table for days at a time. In so doing, I give myself the gifts of calm, time, and presence.
I appeared on PBS’ To The Contrary, and discussed sexual harassment and its impact on the upcoming elections, Boy Scouts welcoming girls to their ranks, and how social movements effect change:
Twenty years ago, on Easter, I was losing my mind. I was basically dead. The worst picture that exists of me was taken that morning. You would cry if I shared it. I never will, because people with anorexia would use it to justify hurting themselves.
I rose each time we were supposed to in the Catholic Mass, blacking out a little bit each time. I had a real mental breakdown of sorts during the service; some of the ugliest thoughts of my life. And primarily because the calories in Communion freaked me out.
That Monday after Easter was a real come-to-Jesus moment; I had a several-hour medical assessment culminating in a doctor assembling my family together, and informing us that my pulse was 32 and I was probably going to have a heart attack that week.
When I set out to lose weight, I didn’t set out to do that.
My parents gave me the choice whether to go to the hospital or not. God bless them, that helped. They let me go home, they let me cry about it. They let me come to the awful realization on my own that I needed to go. The next morning I went into school early, and told my teachers what was happening. They wouldn’t see me again for awhile. I hoped I could get my work done and be able to graduate on time, but I didn’t know. It was a stressful moment for a straight-A student.
After telling my sad story one more time, I lingered in the door of the room where my math class would soon meet. “Mr. Talbot?” I said. “Yes?” He looked up at me. “I’m sorry I used to come late into class because I was outside smoking.” He smiled with such care. Men with beards can be harder to read, but those eyes communicated an encouragement by example to forgive myself. “I was never really that worried.”
Getting better was a bitch. I was able to graduate. I got better. I got worse. I went on a merry-go-round of recovery. Ultimately, I came out ahead by connecting the dots that my eating disorder was a personal, hellish manifestation of a society that oppresses women and girls. I found a way to fight what happened to me, which prevented me from going back into the darkness. In this way, feminism saved my life.
Over the years I have considered my relationship to God in light of what happened. As I described, I had a private breakdown in the Catholic Church when I was basically a walking corpse and, frankly, I don’t think that’s a total coincidence. As my consciousness grew, I connected the all-male Catholic hierarchy’s treatment of women to what happened to me, and the all-male Catholic hierarchy’s outsized role in the sexist systems that go unquestioned in both religious and secular settings.
It’s not acceptable that just a few years ago Pope Benedict said allowing women to be priests is a sin equivalent to pedophilia, particularly when the Catholic hierarchy was exposed to have suppressed the sexual abuse of children and adults by its own priests. As I grew older, I learned that the opposition to abortion and birth control that I heard through CCD classes is about controlling and shaming women’s sexuality. With more time I came to connect the dots that shame about sexuality and gender roles is about controlling people in order to ensure that white men retain the most power in society, period. At age 22, I saw the sex-abuse cover up stories and I snapped. I told my mother, “The Catholic Church is the embodiment of the patriarchy and I’m never going back.”
So I stopped going to church, which was something I barely did in the first place. I began to identify as an atheist. Of all the stigmatized identities I have occupied in my life, few get people as upset as saying “atheist.” How interesting that we are socially comfortable with people saying there is a God, or there are Gods, or there might be a God, but not saying, there is no God!
Recently, I have started attending an Episcopal Church on occasion. It gives me a certain level of ritual that I appreciate as someone raised in the Catholic Church, and I enjoy the community and find the frankness of explanation in the written materials refreshing. At this point, I am not going up for Communion, but I take the opportunity as it proceeds to get on my knees and pray. I pray for equality. I pray for girls who are struggling. I pray for Black women getting the recognition they deserve. I pray for people who have abortions to know that they are doing nothing wrong, and with gratitude for the safety of the compassionate people who serve them. I pray that the people who oppose women’s equality may gracefully find a way to join the community of people who respect women and our ability to make decisions about our own lives. I pray that I will find the grace to welcome people into my community working toward equality and justice — even people who have espoused views that harm women and girls — and lead by example to encourage welcoming in others.
Religion did not pull me out of the worst crises of my life; I pulled myself out, with love support from people who supported my agency and dignity as a human being. Here I am, twenty years later, improbably alive. Improbably, too, I am going to church. I brought my daughter this Easter Sunday, twenty years later. I am finding grace in song and stories, reclaiming prayer within my own life, and maybe even finding God. I am open to the journey.