My Secret Passion: God

Last week, one of the NaBloPoMo prompts at BlogHer was: “What is your secret (or not-so-secret) passion?” This is what I wrote.

This is my Guru, Paramahansa Yogananda. Click here for more info on the church he founded, Self-Realization Fellowship.

I wait for the look: “I am religious,” I say, and pause. For what? Surprise, I suppose. Instead, I see simple acceptance of this as a simple fact. No questions. Nobody says, “But you’re smart” as though this necessarily precludes any belief in God. They just wait for me to get to my point about how my religion and values fit in to the conversation. In my former professional life, I hid my belief in God. It wasn’t necessarily a secret, but it wasn’t something I wanted to talk about. I needed my classmates and colleagues to see me as smart, more than anything. My intelligence comprised my worth, or so I believed.

My world has changed so much in the past eleven months that this particular perk of a non-academic life rises to the surface only after I have processed other, less subtle changes:

  • January, 2011: I leave the PhD Program in English Literature in which I have been enrolled since fall, 2007. This marks the end of a twenty-year career as a full-time student. (I am twenty-six.) I decide to look for a career in child care after briefly playing with the idea of a structured office job. I never even hit send on the application I write for an administrative assistant position at a nonprofit, even though I still think it’s an amazing company.
  • Late January, 2011: I begin to read for fun. I cannot remember the last time I have read a book that is recently published. But now… No one cares what I am reading? Really? At some point, I consume Steig Larsson’s The Millenium Trilogy on audio book, stopping only to sleep.
  • Spring, 2011: I meet two of the most adorable toddlers anyone has ever met, and I’m lucky enough to care for them every week. These two jobs feel light compared to full-time grad-studenthood coupled with a teaching load of two distinct courses with different syllabi. I find great joy in repeating “Look at the birdies!” day after day, instead of repeating “No, I have not graded your paper, yet.” (I really hated grading papers.)
  • Summer, 2011: I begin to work part-time at a professional, well-respected child care center. It is just a summer position, but there is structure. There is “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” There are hugs from tiny, pudgy arms. There are conversations about the progress of the seeds planted by the preschoolers–green sprouts! I am the only witness to a trouble child’s first success at using his words instead of his fists to resolve a conflict. I get to congratulate him. I get to tell his teachers. I get to see the beaming pride on his face at the enormity of this accomplishment. When I go home at the end of each day, I truly believe that I am free to do whatever I please–no homework. I stop feeling guilty for doing “nothing.”
  • Fall, 2011: I go back to babysitting and continue to look for more permanent work in a formal child care center. I revel in watching television, knitting, sewing, spending hours on Twitter, Facebook, reading blogs. I create my own blog, where I write for fun. I have not written anything for fun in years. I cannot remember the last time I wrote anything for fun! My literary heart feels better each time I hit “publish.” My bookish soul is healing.
  • November 10, 2011: I tell two intelligent, well-respected women that I am religious in the course of a job interview; the conversation is about values and early childhood education. Neither professional bats an eye. I think, “Of course! Working with very young children and their parents means interacting with all kinds of people. Discussions about values and beliefs are common, here!” No one asks me to explain myself, because no one cares about the particulars of my religion.

There is no competition in my new professional life. Yes, I do see teachers covet other teachers’ salaries or job titles; I see them archly disapprove of another teacher’s habits or methods. It flickers past. I rarely see this become intense enough for the children to pick up on it. (Very small children pick up on hostility very quickly.) But I do not yet feel the need to compete with anyone.

I do not need to be The Smartest, The Favorite, The One With the Long CV, The One Who Is Published, The One Who Has Read Everything, The One With the Good Fellowship, The One With the Tenure-Track Job Offer. The world I left behind is a world for people who have thicker skin than I. They can rise above the competition, or thrive on it. I simply find myself paranoid and hyper-reactive, seeing competition and judgment everywhere.

As it turns out, my professional wants are very simple. I want to spend my days with small children, playing, soothing, laughing, teaching. I want to leave my job, go home and have that time to give freely to my family. I want to have a baby of my own and a career that welcomes that choice. I want to take my time. I want to feel at home in my professional skin. This is matters in this new professional life: am I kind, compassionate, honest, caring, patient, flexible? Can I work well with the other teachers? Can I accommodate the different needs of the individual infants and toddlers and interact well with them as a group? I want to prove myself by showing that I can do and be these things. My devotion, my prayers, my belief in a kind and compassionate God–these are not secrets. I still do not advertise my beliefs at work; I have no interest in proselytism and God just doesn’t come up that often. But I do not hide them, either.

My point is not that academics must pretend agnosticism. My point is that in my old life, I felt afraid that someone would learn something about me that would prove, once and for all, that I was not smart enough to be a professor of anything. Everyone would know that I didn’t belong. In my new life, I feel that everything I am and everything I believe makes me a better caregiver. I am not afraid that I am a fraud. That is why I have no more secrets. That is the biggest clue that I made the right choice when I changed careers.

This is Bhagavan Krishna, one of the most important (to me) teachers God has sent to us. Click on the photo to learn more about how my church views Krishna.

But, I’m laughing right now, because I feel nervous about posting this. What will all of you think of me, now that I’ve put it in writing?

I believe in God. Passionately. With devotion and with all of my heart. It’s a big part of who I am. My relationship with God has helped me through the very darkest moments of my life, including my time as an inpatient in the psych ward. I am proud to have cultivated such a strong relationship with God. Now you know.

No Relation: The Nanny’s Heartache

The hardest thing about working as a nanny is that when it’s great, it’s a lot like living in the middle of a doomed love affair (if a bit less melodramatic). I know the good-bye is coming, eventually, but I just can’t help myself. I fall in love, hard, every time. I suppose it’s possible that one of “my” kids will stay in my life forever, but until we have settled down someplace, it’s just not likely.

I’ve been thinking of all the kids I don’t see anymore ever since I got to chat online for a minute with a mom I was close to before the family moved back to Norway. I watched her baby turn into a toddler. Several of her words are still English words, because I spoke English to her consistently (due to my complete ignorance of Norwegian). We talk about a visit to Norway, which Nathan and I would love, and they talk about coming back

I’m also thinking about love and good-bye because I watched The Nanny Diaries on TV. It’s hard to admit it publicly, since the movie is pretty terrible, but while I’m at it, I might as well also admit to having read the book. Both had me rolling my eyes and both made it hard to sympathize with any of the adult characters/caricatures. But there’s one moment in both the book and the movie that makes me want to watch/read–the first time the child tells the nanny that he loves her. She narrates something about how it’s going to make it hard to leave her job but she loves him back so she’ll say so. And she tells him she loves him, too. But it’s just that few seconds where the kid looks up with all that love in his eyes that gets to me. I don’t take the jobs with the crazy families, and I have a policy against raising other people’s children, no matter how good the money might be. (In reality, wealthy families usually pay less than middle-class families. Just FYI.) The point is this: while I don’t relate to the heartache of spending days with and being ripped apart from a child whose parents treat him like a custom-made accessory to a fabulous life, I have experienced love for a child I know I will eventually leave.

They move away, go to school, grow up, and I am not a relative. This is one reason I would like to teach in my own classroom; I didn’t feel like an auntie to the kids at the school where I worked over the summer. But who am I kidding? I would miss them; it would hurt. Still–there is something different about spending hours alone with a child over the course of months or even years. I find myself scrambling to capture “firsts” on camera and calling my husband, thrilled to tell him that the baby pointed at something for the first time or practiced standing by herself. (Pointing is a pretty major developmental milestone.) I never feel like their mother. But when the toddler I was babysitting twice a week got into a rather exclusive preschool, I beamed like a proud aunt. This news meant that I would lose a source of income; and yet, I was thrilled. It was probably a matter of names crossed off a waiting list, not even the kind of school that makes two-year-olds “interview.” And yet, I felt pride. I brag about their eyes, their smiles, their curls, their dispositions, as though I share the gene pool these traits came from. This summer, two children I love moved away and, this fall, one went to school.

I don’t want to be treated like a relative by the families I work for. Relatives have fewer boundaries and don’t have to pay me as much, if anything, for childcare. Because I’m not a relative, it would be a strange almost lie, too. Friend of the family is the best I can hope for, and I do enjoy that role. But again–friends of the family just don’t usually bond with the baby while feeding him a bottle, all alone, in a silent house.

I wonder if my desire to have a baby of my own would have taken on this sense of urgency even if I didn’t spend my workdays caring for children. I suspect that the same thing that feeds that desire is what lets me feel so close to the tiny humans whose lives I am privileged to witness for a short time. There are never any tearful good-byes in my world, because in real life, the nanny isn’t fired suddenly one morning and shoved into a waiting taxi, leaving a screaming child on the driveway. I also spend most of my time with children under three, and time exists very differently for the infant/toddler set. Most of them won’t remember me. Their complete absorption in the present moment is what pulls me into the beauty of sunlight dancing through trees. I’m being literal, here: babies love to watch shadows and light. Their despair at Mom’s departure reminds me that yes, it does hurt to see your favorite person in the whole world go, even if she will be back in a few hours. And I love them all the more desperately for not understanding that, this time, our good-bye just might be forever.

Tips For Ignoring Stupid Parenting Advice

When I’m caring for other people’s children, I sometimes get unwanted and unnecessary advice and/or commentary. I’m told that this happens to their actual parents as well, so I feel like it’s good practice for becoming a mother. My favorite is the commentary: “Oh, no! He’s so unhappy!” Wow, thank you. Is that what the crying means? Good thing you were here, random lady at the park! So here are my top five tips for dealing with Random Park Lady, Opinionated Relative and I-Don’t-Have-Kids-But-I-Have-A-Dog Neighbor.[hr]
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  1. Listen/pretend to listen to her, if at all possible. Smile and nod. Or not. She probably won’t notice if you’re frowning. She just wants to feel like you heard her, in my experience, and probably gets more out of dispensing advice than anything else.
  2. Do not say “I tried that, but it didn’t work.” Even if you did exactly what your “friend” advises, she will claim that her tip is brand new information
  3. Along the same vein, do not point out that she is wrong. Example from real life: she says “Oh, he’s so unhappy!” but he is actually very happy and screeching and squawking just for fun. I learned from previous experience that this particularly obnoxious woman loves to argue; so I shrug. I do not commit to agreeing or disagreeing with her. She usually looses interest. If I argue and try to convince her that he is happy, she will argue back, whether it makes sense or not.
  4. If she’s going to be around consistently (like a relative), do not back down, even if it makes you uncomfortable. “No. Thank you. No. Thank you.” Rinse. Repeat. Back down now, and she’ll feel all the more eager to dispense advice in the future. “No. Thank you.”
  5. If it’s absolutely necessary that you not offend this person (or, I suppose, if you’re just really keen on avoiding confrontation), fall back on a higher authority. For the babysitter, that’s Mom. With my own kids, I plan on using The Doctor. Pediatrician, child psychologist, real or imaginary. “Oh, his doctor feels really strongly about that.” It’s vague, and I can always go to “It’s really hard to talk about it” if I feel like making things really awkward.

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Happy Parents, Happy Baby

laughing mother & baby

This is my friend Avi & her son. (Not the family in this post, but aren't they CUTE?) Go visit Avi at her blog, www.themamafesto.com!

[hr] I spend three full days each week with a baby who is, to paraphrase a family friend, the kind of baby who makes me want babies. More than I’ve ever wanted one before. I spend so much time smiling back at this fat and happy baby that my cheeks often hurt at the end of the day.

This baby’s schedule is a bit complicated, however, so I get a lot of questions about this family, sometimes impertinent questions. Yes, there are two nannies. Dad takes the baby one day a week. Grandma takes for one afternoon. Yes, mom works 9-6, sometimes more. Here are some of the more annoying things people say:

“Why did she have a baby now if her work takes up so much of her time?”

“I don’t understand why people have kids if they’re just going to put them in childcare all the time.”

“So it wasn’t a planned pregnancy?”

Note that the pronoun is always “she.” As if only one half of a married couple just decided to have a kid, all by herself. As if anyone outside that nuclear family has any idea what really happened around that pregnancy. (I also don’t want to know–I don’t want the set mental images that would come with those answers.)

So, I would like to state for the record that I have rarely seen any family do such a great job finding exactly the combination of childcare solutions to suit them. Since those questions usually contain thinly veiled hostility towards this child’s mother, usually because she works a lot, it’s also important to me to advertise how creativity keeps everybody as happy as any I’ve ever seen.

About today’s featured mom: she who works very hard and, this week, travelled for work for the first time since her son was born. I totally admire this woman’s career and the business she started. I admire the fact that she had an idea that would actually improve this planet, followed through with it, hired employees to help her and committed to promoting the heck out of her business. I admire the persistence that is visible when she’s doing something as basic as asking her own mother for advice about a promotional email. She also happens to be a great mom. A great mom with a great partner who is a great dad. Together, they have assembled a team that is comprised of nannies (two), grandma (one) and, of course, Dad. With some help from a dog and two cats.

The genius of this family’s plan lies in the size of this team–the very thing that I hear criticized most often. I’m thinking of making flyers, so that I don’t have to keep repeating myself:

  1. Why not put the kid in day care? Because she runs her business from an office that is located just yards from her own parents’ home. If a nanny cares for the baby at the grandparents’ home, Baby and Mom can enjoy breastfeeding every two to three hours. You know what’s really awesome to see? Mom and baby taking a few minutes out of a busy day to bond. I just sort of stand back and let them have their moment. It’s so beautiful. That’s not available to moms who put their kids in group childcare; they don’t suffer irreparable damage or anything, but I’m sure lots of those moms would love a setup like the one this mom has! [FYI, the plan is to put the baby in group childcare when he’s older because they understand that socializing with other children is healthy.]
  2. Why hire someone outside the family? This one is obvious to me, but whatever. First, because this is my JOB, I have a lot of training in current thoughts about infant safety, how to put the baby to sleep, infant nutrition, child development, etc. And no matter how much they know, Grandma and Grandpa don’t want to give their entire week over to providing free childcare. I wouldn’t! And Mom doesn’t want to give them free reign. She has thought a lot about what this baby will eat, wear on his adorable little tushie and, especially, how to put him to sleep consistently. She has a lot more control over what her nannies do than she has over what her mom does. If you don’t understand that, you clearly have never seen a mother and daughter argue.  Also, the nannies carefully record our entire days with Baby, so mom gets a detailed record of what happened, when he ate, what we played, time outside–you name it, we write it down. And that’s just more reliable when you’ve paid someone to do it! Grandma does a good job, too, when it’s her turn, but I still think the system works best when the employees do it on most days.
  3. Why are there are two nannies? I am there most days and a student spends time with the baby one day a week. If I get sick, Mom has someone else she can call. (And, for the record, Dad is in charge one whole day a week.) Oh, and if Mom goes out of town, Dad has two different people to call to help while he teaches a night class at a local university.

The point: There is NO RIGHT ANSWER when it comes to childcare. Mom staying at home is not always the right answer. Dad staying at home is not always the right answer. Take this family’s effort to heart: they looked at their priorities–not just what Baby “needs” but what Mom and Dad need, too. Everybody in this family is happy whenever I see them! Mom and Dad love their jobs. They are passionate about what they do. They are so passionate about being parents. They miss Baby when they’re gone, which means that they give him their full attention when they come back. Baby loves his playmates. And, in case you missed it the first time, I’ll repeat this: I spend so much time smiling back at this baby that my cheeks actually hurt.

It doesn’t bother me that people in general are especially curious when it comes to families. It’s the one thing everybody has in common, so we’re obviously interested in how other people’s families work. It definitely bothers me that so many people are so quick to judge, as though a woman becomes public property the minute she conceives a child. Example: complete strangers fascinated by a pregnant women often feel compelled touch her belly. Is there any other time when people feel comfortable asking if they can touch a woman’s body? Or worse, they might not ask and just put a hand on her! And why is it ok for strangers to ask me when I’m going to have kids? To give me advice about when to have kids? How many kids to have? What gender to wish for? They never ask Nathan!

I know that it’s going to be hard to brush off this kind of criticism when I am a mother. But I really hope that I can learn to look at our choices and ask: are we happy? If everyone is happy, more or less, then we are doing just fine. If I stay home, I will eventually cry about money and wonder if I should have worked full-time. If I work full-time, I will cry about missing a milestone and wonder if I should have stayed home. I hope that I remember to ask, “Am I happy?” Because chances if I am happy in my day-to-day life, my kid(s) have a much better chance of being happy themselves.

Kids Are Smart: How I Learned to Love Science Again

Somewhere along my own path from girl to woman, I got the impression that I was not good at science. My talents definitely lay in the humanities, but I got darn good grades in IB (International Baccalaureate) Chemistry and Physics. I even got a decent grade on my IB Physics exam, which took about half a day, included only a fraction of multiple choice questions and almost always had us show our work. English, history and even economics came easily for me, so I somehow got the idea that I should focus on the humanities. Recently, that all changed. It started with feminism.

This is my first summer working in child care. Obviously, I spent a good chunk of every day outside and, obviously, I was bound to encounter bugs and other “creepy crawlies.” As a feminist who wants children to see women participating in all aspects of life, even the exploration of slug slime, I felt bound and determined from day one to show no fear.

I am lucky–I have no hangup about bugs. Never have. I grew up in the woods in Northern Minnesota, so it was mandatory that all children learn what’s actually dangerous and what’s not. If you’re going to be encountering garter snakes on a daily basis every summer, it’s good to know that they’ll never bite you. I am terrified of wood and deer ticks, but they do actually bite and carry disease. I’m not afraid of snakes, spiders, worms, slugs or even leeches. I put leeches on hooks during fishing trips. Puh-leeze!

My new scientific interest started with bugs, but expanded during my time with the preschoolers at the child care center. I try to take their “Why?”s seriously and answer the question if it is a genuine question (not just reflexive). When they ask about how the world works, I like to give the scientific answer. I have a good memory. It’s really fun to see their faces. They love physics. I am good at explaining stuff. And, one more time, I want them to know that women are good at science. From bugs to dinosaurs to the solar system, I have been re-learning, learning and passing knowledge along every chance I get.

Along the way, I discovered that I love science. I have read, for fun, books on genetics, chemistry, medicine and evolution. Among my favorites are The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for telling a darn good story and clearly explaining both the history of growing (culturing) cells in lab as well as the history of ethics in medicine, and The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I’m currently enjoying The Poisoner’s Handbook, which explains the history of the chemistry of poisons and how the fields of toxicology and forensic medicine came to be. I also love murder mysteries, so the Flavia de Luce series wins tons of points for teaching me more about chemistry, yes, specifically of poisons, and for starring an eleven-year-old girl with some serious scientific talent and know-how in both the lab and in the crazy situations she gets herself into and out of with remarkable problem solving skills.

Thank you, dear children, for rekindling my interest in how things work, even down to the cells in my body. And now, They Might Be Giants, singing Science is Real.”

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Babysitting as Birth Control? Not for me!

Yesterday, a mom was telling me about what she did to prepare for having kids. She had a specific timeline because, unlike me, she wanted to and did finish her graduate degree in English. But she had the best phrase to describe the months counting down until she and her husband could start trying without jeopardizing their chances of finishing their respective programs–“My uterus was growling!” Well, my uterus is growling, people! And it will not be ignored!

It’s almost fall, so it’s time to prepare for a change in schedule for everyone in the child care world–parents and providers. That means that I have met some incredible new families in the past month as I’ve looked for “full-time” work for the coming year. (I use quotes because I ended up with at two regular jobs that add up to almost full-time.) I spent this morning working for a family from Finland with the chubbiest, cutest infant. Everywhere we go, people stop and smile at this baby boy. I spent yesterday afternoon with two other boys, aged 17 months and 4 years, and I want two just like them for my own. The little one walks up to me and holds out his pudgy arms until I pick him up–just for a cuddle! And he is one great cuddler. The big brother made “plasma cannons” out of cardboard brick blocks so we could make lightning on a sunny day! I’m about to start working with an infant whose eyes are so blue and whose smile is so big I just can’t help trying to make him smile all the time. And speaking of infectious smiles, I’m really going to miss H, a toddler with the most infectious laugh I have ever heard from anyone. Everything seems funny to him, too, so it’s pretty awesome to spend time with that kid. I’ve known the family for months, but it feels like forever, and they are moving away! And finally, just before he turns two, the toddler I’ve spent two days a week with since February has started saying “bye-bye Ammareee”! It just brings tears to my eyes. Oh, and on Saturday night, I briefly fell asleep while comforting an toddler who woke up looking for his pacifier. Then his soft little knee connected with my face, and I woke up… But his little hand held onto mine until he was fast asleep and willing to let me leave the room.

The Plasma Cannon, after C and R kicked it down.

My husband’s friend had a baby this year, and she describes him as “The kind of baby who makes you want to have more babies.” Well, lately, all the kids I meet are the kind of kids who make me want to have kids. On a particularly great interview (their babysitter decided not to leave, so I didn’t get the job), I acted out We’re Going on a Bear Hunt with three incredibly imaginative girls. I want some of that in my house! I want noise and toys and even tears, so long as they belong to my family. I love other people’s kids but, gosh, I want some of my own. I want it so much it hurts. I’ve heard people refer to babysitting as the best form of birth control. Maybe it was, before I had this much experience with tantrums, messes and fussy moods. No matter what they throw at me now (literally, sometimes) it just does not scare me anymore. And it just cannot outweigh the sweetness of tiny hands, little cuddles and small voices.

Can you hear it? The growling? It’s getting louder!

Ugly Parents

In case you missed this, my job is to take care of other people’s children; I hope to become an infant/toddler teacher, and I’m a nanny for now. I love my job, take it very seriously, and the parents I work for appreciate this, as they should. I would throw myself in front of a bus to protect a child in my care, and I’m not usually even related to them. All of which is to say, I care about children. I know a lot about children in general–their development, their physical and emotional well-being. I have formal training from school and work and informal training from parents like my sister and the families I work for. The specific children in my care totally capture my heart. As you might imagine, my services are in pretty high demand.

Shutting down the judgmental part of my brain, the part that silently yells at parents in shopping malls, has become a very important skill. I work in families’ homes, and I see how hard parents try. Your choices are none of my business, and I don’t know your family as well as you do. Plus, I don’t want you telling me how to raise my kid, when I have one, so I don’t tell you how to raise yours.

But I will not be keeping my mouth shut about this: if you want a babysitter who will police gender boundaries for you, find someone else. With me, your children will play pretty much however they want to play. I will not discourage your daughter from her love of backhoes and construction sites. I will not discourage your son from his love of pink tutus and princesses. If I hear “that’s for girls” or “that’s for boys” I will have a conversation with your child about why that statement is just not true. If they heard it from you, I will still tell them that it’s nonsense.

In order to describe how I came to this conclusion and how I try to identify families I might not want to work with, I’m going to tell you two stories.

Background story #1–I spent this summer working part-time at a child care center that implements the following dress-up play policy: any kid can wear anything as long as it’s safe and sanitary. Boys dress as princesses. Boys wear “fancy shoes” that are often covered in glitter. They particularly love the fancy shoes, mesmerized by the way the glitter sparkles as they walk. They love it at 1, 2, 3, 4 and even 5 years of age. But the five-year-olds at the center have recently started saying “pink is gross” and taunting anyone wearing the color. They don’t know why it’s gross. We don’t know exactly where they picked it up, or who started it.

So this morning, an article called “The Pink Scare” in Bitch Magazine hit me hard. In this piece, the unflappable Avital Norman Nathman, aka The Mamafesto, blogger extraordinaire, discusses media coverage of “princess boys.” It seems that some people are afraid of what might happen if boys interact with too much pink. Yes, the color, in general. Dresses, crowns and anything princess–also scary.

My face turned lobster red as I pictured a grumpy adult taking away “my” babies’ fancy shoes because “pink is for girls” or telling a boy that he can’t be a princess. The “pink is gross” battle the teachers are fighting at the preschool comes from fear based in the very adult concept that deviating from traditional gender roles is dangerous. I do find Avi’s piece uplifting simply because it shows that there are moms like her standing up for a child’s right toplay. But I am very, very angry after reading her summary of all the ways adults insert their fears into children’s lives.

Background story #2–A few months back, I found myself in a backyard “light saber” battle with a five-year-old and suddenly realized I had no idea how his parents would feel about this. (They were fine with it. We had a blast.) He was really interested in using the light sabers he had cleverly improvised from foam swimming pool noodles as props for the story he was narrating, and violence was not the point. So I made a judgment call. I still think it was the right call. I would have asked him to change the game, however, if his parents had had rules against this sort of pretend violence.

Since then, I ask during the following question during an interview: “Is there anything you do not allow your children to do during play?” In the past, I always had in mind pretend guns and swords made from sticks. So I still ask first about violence in play. But I just recently started asking this as a follow up: “If you came home to see your son playing ballerina with my pink scarf, for example, would that upset you?” As you might have guessed, I am interviewing parents with that question.

Didn’t I say I wouldn’t judge? Didn’t I say that I respect parents’ wishes? It turns out, there’s an exception: ugly parents. If you tell your kid he can’t have anything pink because a color is only for one gender, not both, or that a game is only for one gender, not both, then you are teaching sexism and homophobia. I will not participate. I will not encourage your child to fear the blurring of gender binaries just because you are afraid. I will not help you make your beautiful child as ugly as you are. I will not take part in the insidious flood of messages that follow kids until they learn that “feminine” = “weak” = “gay” or “bossy” = “bitch” = “lesbian” or any other nonsense a culture of fear can come up with.

This idea of Ugly Parents came from a blog post about one woman’s unique reaction to bullying. Photographer and small business owner Jen McKen is now refusing to photograph “ugly people.” Why? Some of the clients who had booked her turned out to be students participating in a Facebook page dedicated to bullying their classmates. In her words, “If you are ugly on the inside, I’m sorry but I won’t take your photos to make you look pretty on the outside!” I love it. She is simply taking a stand against something she personally finds reprehensible. Less apathy, more action. Me, too, Jen McKen. Me, too. I will not babysit for ugly parents.

Avi (we’re twitter “friends,” so we’re on a first-name basis, right?) closes “The Pink Scare” with this beautiful statement: “As I watch Elijah play with his fleet of cars, his nails painted a glittery purple, I’m confident that he will be able to see through the shades of pink, blue, and gray surrounding him in order to figure out who he is. And if he can have fun doing it, then all the better.” Because it is how we learn who we are as children and because it is FUN, I want to say “yes” to play. If I say no, I want to give a child a reason. I am being paid to spend time with a child, so I like to take time to explain every little thing, if that’s what they want. “That’s not safe,” “We don’t have time for such a big project today,” and “That doesn’t belong to us” are answers I like. They teach common sense, time management and respect for other people’s belongings (and that includes the family couch). These answers start conversations. They don’t end play, they redirect.

Parents hire me and pay me, but I work for kids. I want to be another adult who cares, listens and encourages them to explore and enjoy childhood, with all its joys, disappointments, limits and limitlessness. I love that little kids are never afraid to look me right in the eye and ask questions. Generally, those questions add up to “Who are you?” I answer them honestly, because everyone deserves honesty (not necessarily every piece of information I could possibly share, but that’s another conversation). Then, I ask them right back. When I ask “Can you tell me about this drawing?” I am asking “Who are you? What’s important to you?” Every parent, including my own mom, loves a quote that goes something like this, about early childhood: “Anyone can act like a tiger, but we only have a few years to be a tiger.” Why is that only cute if it applies to a furry animal? I will not help anyone who wants to limit a child’s imagination. I will not repeat “You cannot be ____ today.” Why do we have to tell any four-year-old that boys can’t be princesses? Why does it matter if the real-life title is gender-specific? And, more importantly, WHAT ARE YOU TEACHING YOUR CHILD when you say such things?

Be a tiger. Be a princess. Be a king. Be a dancing giraffe. I’ll pretend right along with you. Let’s play.