Thoughts on Responsibility

I have debated writing about this here, but something keeps asking to be shared. Bear with me as I ramble my way into this post. I’ve had variations on a cold for over two weeks now. I’m beginning to wonder if maybe I have the swine flu. (Who would know, really? It doesn’t necessarily look all that different than any other less famous flu. Greg says I would have a little curly tail, but so far the only curls are the ones in my hair.)

I feel like I spent the month of May on a train speeding through the countryside. When I put it that way, it sounds kind of lovely. Ah, a month on a speeding train, a month in one of those little rooms with the cot and the window and the samovar. Not quite the sensation I was getting at.

Today for the second time in as many weeks, I took what felt like an emergency nap. Not a luxurious, rare, mid-day snooze, but a near-collapse, one that didn’t suggest many alternatives. I even had my running clothes on! I felt as if my body had been infused with something leaden. I felt drugged, heavy. A ship run aground.

So now we have trains and ships.

Aviva’s class held an end-of-year literacy celebration this morning. Each of the kids had out their “browsing box” filled with things they’ve written and mastered reading this year. The parents nibbled on homemade coffee cake and drank coffee from a cardboard box, and then Aviva’s beloved teacher handed out special awards for each student. Aviva got a certificate recognizing her growth this year in “outstanding math thinking.” She was beaming.


I’m reading Eat, Pray, Love. I am reading this book, this book that the whole world has told me I MUST read, in my own sweet time, on such a slow burn it has been well over a year now and I’m still in Italy. I read a few pages at a time, sometimes separated by many weeks. This past week, I read a few sentences where she was describing the point at which she knew she had to end or leave her marriage. She wrote about the word “responsible,” how she suddenly looked at it differently, saw that it meant “having the ability to respond.” In my head, I expanded the definition as “demonstrating the ability to respond appropriately to any given situation.”

The ability to respond appropriately.

The story I’ve been wanting to write about relates to Pearl. Pearl has self-identified as “a big boy” and “big brother Sam” for many months now. In fact, she chose to go by her middle name, Renner, before she could walk. Later, she was “Eric” for a good stretch. To us, she is always herself, our Pearlie girl. She has a penchant for bulldozers and goes crazy for Lightning McQueen. She wanted to get her hair cut to match her cousin Caleb’s hair, a “big-boy haircut.” Her favorite color is orange, because it’s a “big-boy” color. So we got her haircut short. And lo and behold, the rest of the world began seeing her as a big boy, too.

Including my dad.

We were down in Amherst two weekends ago, and Pearlie had been over at my sister’s house with Aviva and the cousins. Her clothes had gotten wet, so she changed into Caleb’s clothes – some baggy cut-off sweatpant shorts and a “life is good” t-shirt, also about three sizes too big on her. When they all tromped across town back over to my parents’ house, where we were staying, my dad saw her standing in the kitchen doorway and asked, “Who’s the little guy?” “Dad,” I said, “It’s Pearl!” Later that night some friends of my parents also mistook her gender.

Greg and I have had our share of conversations about Pearl’s sense of self. We’d pretty much settled comfortably on feeling spacious about it, loving and trusting her to grow into herself. I did speak to her pediatrician at her three-year check-up about it, not out of concern but to share something that struck us as significant about her emerging identity. His only advice was “to keep it grounded in reality.” In other words, when she stood up in front of the toilet and asked, “When can I get my big-boy penis?” I would gently remind her that she’s a girl with a vagina and she can’t pee standing up. But hair? Feh. It grows back.

My dad called me to talk a little more about it all after I was back in Vermont. He shared some advice a friend of his had for us, someone in the psychoanalytic circles he travels in: “keep it grounded in reality.” I told my dad that that’s exactly what we were doing. He suggested that this friend and colleague of his might have some valuable insight based on his decades of experience working with children. It was a Sunday evening and Greg was out at a meeting, I was trying to move bedtime along all while being a “good daughter” and making time to listen to – and really try to hear – my dad’s perspective, as well as share some of my own conversations, resources, ideas, opinions, and perspectives on the subject of gender identity more generally.

I spent the next 48 hours getting myself all worked up in a lather. I wanted my parents to call me not to offer advice but to ask questions, be curious. I wanted my maternal instincts recognized, respected, and validated. I wanted to know that we were doing everything right, that if I trusted myself and trusted Pearl then how could there possibly be any room for “concern,” even the well-intentioned kind? I became the child, reacting, defending, appeasing. This was not the relationship I wanted with my parents. I did not want to distance myself from them, nor did I want to feel beholden to their opinions. I wanted an equal exchange, a mutual respect, healthy boundaries that were strong enough to support an open, trusting relationship. I could feel the impulse to talk to everybody I saw about the whole thing, but know better at this point. When I’m in a lather, it’s best to stay quiet, to wait, to listen.

Then I had an a-ha moment.

Pearl is in a class of ten children in her preschool. Eight of them are boys. Big boys. Boys who like Spiderman and Cars and plaid shorts. Two of them are girls, including Pearl. I saw how being a “big boy” is a useful, effective expression of belonging, of claiming her place in the group. At home, I suddenly saw Pearl’s choice of identity through new lenses, too. To be a big boy in a family where she is the younger sister of Aviva, who I must say is quite a force, self-possessed and a girl in no uncertain terms, well – it suddenly struck me as nothing short of brilliant. Her own way of being powerful. Feeling distinct. Special. The one and only Pearlie-Big-Boy.

And with this, the whole thing transcended questions of gender and became about something so much bigger, broader, deeper, more complete. My tension around responding to my dad dissolved. In fact, my energymust have shifted altogether, because ironically, in the week or so since this, I have only heard Pearl mention being a “big boy” a couple of times. She was even singing “Pearlie girl, Pearlie girl” in the bath to herself the other day, words I’ve never heard her say. Her own name. In the car on the way to school yesterday, she said, “I don’t call myself a big boy at school, just at home.”

If only we could all articulate things so well.

I emailed my dad yesterday. I wrote what felt like a centered, mature, loving, appreciative, honest response to the email he had sent with the psychoanalytic colleague’s phone number whom he’d suggested we contact. I thanked him, and shared some of what I’ve been thinking and seeing, and told him how much we value his place in our lives. I told him I feel secure and solid in my own sense of Pearl’s development, but without this having to be a door closed to him, without feeling belittled somehow, trapped in an old way, a limiting way, of relating to my dad.

He wrote back, thanking me for the “reassuring message.” And then Greg wrote back (I had cc’d him), telling me how much he had enjoyed watching this whole thing play out and resolve over the past couple of weeks.

And I felt like I had grown up a little more. Like at thirty-five, I am just now beginning to really claim my way of seeing, to trust it and own it, which means not having to hold tightly to it. Being secure and centered enough to be able to not only tolerate but to consider other perspectives and suggestions, but then having the tools to make the choices that will work for me, as a parent in this case, but in a larger sense, as myself, as a person.


I feel the train slowing down. I can see that we are traveling through cities and meadows and industrial parks and woodlands. I have my little room, the one with the samovar, sugar cubes melting into strong black Russian tea. There is room here for me, for my girls, whoever they may become, and for my parents, who have – I am learning, allowing – supported and empowered me to trust myself.

They’ve done this in the only ways the can, which is to say in their own hard-won, trial and error, self-adjusting and thoughtful and well-intentioned ways. How could it be otherwise? Just as I’m finding my own ways of living, parenting, loving, eating, praying responsibly, my girls will have to find – are finding – their own ways, too, of being in this family, with their peers, in an ever-evolving relationship with the world. My hope, my prayer really, is that we will all keep letting each other in as we learn and grow.

17 thoughts on “Thoughts on Responsibility

  1. GailNHB says:

    This is fabulous, Jena. Absolutely wonderful. The last three paragraphs are gonna get printed out and put into my journal. I hope you don’t mind that I print snippets and doodle on them and ask them questions and use them as answers to questions I have about my own way of parenting and living and eating and thinking.

    Your girls are sooooo blessed to have you as their mother. And we are blessed to read your words. Thanks yet again for wisdom and insights I will put to good use way down here in Charlotte!

    PS. I am glad we met in your dream. Here’s to bringing dreams to life…!!!


  2. Cassy Gardner says:

    Wish I’d read this the other night when I showed up at my parent’s place, bottle of Rodney Strong Pinot Blanc in hand… to celebrate purchasing the tickets to Guatemala.
    As I arrived I already noticed the magnum of cheap white and glass with cubes in my dad’s hand.. (was this a sign they wouldn’t appreciate my bottle? ((my life, my contribution)) no, ofcourse not, was that why I bought it?)

    Mom politely asked questions. Later, I realized in this strained, sort of half-smile, that I confused with being tired from her day.

    At dinner my dad finally poked out from behind the times and said loudly. Well, Everyone Including Michael thinks this trip is a bad idea. And your mother and I would like you to re-consider.

    Once my marriage therapist told me that when people in my family were saying really off the wall comments to me, that my best response, and ultimately the most quieting thing to say on the spot, is, “really?” And then: “Wow.” It really works.

    People have no idea if you are taking them all in, or putting them off. And it totally diffuses their energy, and yours, if you can get to the spot to remember to use it.

    Well, pause I did not. I grabbed my son from his seat, grabbed 2 cookies off the table and stuffed them into my kids mouths as I spouted off my own to my dad, practically running out the door.

    I did manage an email 2 days later. After I had come to the fact that I wanted the same type of relationship you mentioned. Not the one we have, which is general disinterest but tons of judgement for everything that I do.

    I put it out there that I would rather him be curious, and be a friend, and offer support in areas where my plan might be thin. Rather to wait until the day of blast-off to come in with the list of defects and list of names who agree.

    Not to mention, that very afternoon was the one that Michael had sworn to me that he was making it his life’s goal to prove I was an unfit parent and that he was planning on making it impossible to enjoy the summer because I would have to work so hard to defend myself. (Breathe)

    To align himself with Michael was a bit of a sore spot. So I said all this.To which, ofcourse, I got no response.

    And all along I was watching. Thinking. If I want to have a great relationship with dad and mom, I really have to get, it will not be through moments where I peal out of the driveway with my kids in tow, or craft emails with ideals and appeals before or after I inevitablely feel my temper rising…

    It’s going to be built out of those little moments, when I sit back, take a breath and say, “Really?” “Wow.” “Everyone?”


  3. Holly says:

    how blessed is pearlie-boy-girl and her big sister to have you as a mother. your grace is abounding in this post, jena. your heart is open and receiving and your wisdom is astounding.
    they are so lucky to have you and greg as their guides on this journey.
    i send you a huge mama-hug.


  4. deb says:

    It’s lovely that you let your daughter just be and that you stood your ground, quietly with your dad. My father and I never had a conversation our whole lives, this gives me hope for me and my children.


  5. Vicki says:

    I have no poetic words to share – only a willingness to witness your story and pour my love for you out through the windows until it wraps it’s warm self around you and your wee ones.


  6. The Sheck says:

    This post touches something deep down, something that often doesn’t find words. The train, the tale, the love that you share not only with your family but your honoring the god within yourself, as the Stoics would call it, is a special thing to share with the world. Amazing post, Jena.


  7. Karen Maezen Miller says:

    You have indeed traveled farther along the tracks than most, farther than self-serving concepts of responsibility to rationalize blaming others and legitimizing fears, much farther than the point of leaving one’s hapless husband as the cause of life’s ruination, and to a true and deep knowing of responsibility as first, doing no harm, and ultimately, doing nothing. Now you can responsibly take yourself to a doctor who may well tell you how to take responsibility for your health. Very often it involves the same healing wisdom. Setting your own anxieties to rest, and doing nothing.

    I’m proud of you.


  8. Beth P. says:

    Dear Jena–
    I am so very blessed to know you, even a smidge.

    This is a post of magnitude: compassion, integration and movement of spirit.

    Thank you for consistently putting your struggles, joys and insights out there for all of us to learn and grow from and with…


  9. Rowena says:

    I’ve always found gender identity to be fascinating. I mean, aside from the biological parts, what does it mean to be a girl? And perhaps there is more to general identity than just girl/boy. Especially for a toddler.

    I’m finding my 2 year old calling herself a big boy. I think it’s just a reflection of how she sees mostly her big brother as the growing one. The strong one. The learning new things one. This weekend, we went to their step cousins birthday party. She is 4 years old, and I watched Ivy watch her, and then begin to copy what the big girl was doing. She stopped paying attention to the wild big boys and started echoing the big girl, as if for the first time she realized that “girl” didn’t just mean the smallest and youngest person around, but could also be a BIG. I don’t know if this makes sense. Your story of Aviva reminded me of it, her creating an identity for herself outside of her big sister, modeling herself after the big boys she knows.

    The father issue is a whole separate thing.


  10. Lil says:

    Jena, that was really insightful to read. You and Greg being open to Pearl’s self-identifying…and then a deeper knowing of what is going on. I love those parental moments…and the sigh of relief that (usually) follows.

    And coming into your own (so to speak) with your parents is a huge thing…one that at 42 I’m still working on with one of my parents.

    Good for you Jena…I hope you’re patting yourself on the back!



  11. Stacy (mama-om) says:

    This post really built upon itself… great layering, powerful insights, interesting experiences…

    Thank you!!


  12. Shawn says:

    Girl, you have to submit this … other mommies need to read it. Seriously.

    Great, great, great post!

    Awesome, awesome, awesome you!


  13. Kristi Stender-Weessies says:

    Wow! Wow! Wow!! Jena, that was beautiful and inspiring. Thank you for sharing the thought process and elevating the world a little bit past the mundane (although, it probably didn’t feel mundane as you were going through it) question of gender to the more transcendent question of who a person is in their inner most being.

    Thank you for seeing that beautiful little person and by sharing it, encouraging us to do the same :)



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