Unpacking Race Cars by Jenny Devenny

Over the past few months, friends have reached out to ask about good anti-racist resources for their families. There are some valuable books and movies for adults, but for children, I have yet to find a book or show listed on a school DEI or anti-racist list that I’m a fan of. (Note that I’m sure they exist; I read a lot of children’s books, but I’m not a walking library!)

Race Cars: A Children’s Book about White Privilege by Jenny Devenny is one book that is included on a lot of local lists. I appreciate the goal of this book for preschool-younger elementary school children, but it unfortunately missed the mark for me.

Unfamiliar with the story? Read the summary or watch the video below.

Familiar with the story? Scroll down to the Unpacking the Book section.

Mrs. Broomer Race Cars Read Aloud

There’s a white car and a black car who are best friends and love to race. Chase, the black car, is a better car racer than his best friend, white car Ace. So, the race organizing committee comprised of all white cars rigs the course and rules. It gets progressively tougher for Chase to win, and the last rule change ensures that Chase can’t race at all.

At the end of the book, Chase goes to support Ace in the race. Ace decides to try the route that Chase was forced to take after the race rules changed and realizes how much tougher this made the race. Then, Ace gets lost, and the race organizers are worried about him. They ask the fastest driver in town, Chase, to go find Ace. Chase agrees and ends up saving Ace! As a thank you, the race committee awards Chase first place.

Unpacking the Book

When reading a book, I look for the positives and then move to the critique. In Race Cars, I found the use of cars to frame Ms. Devenny’s point to be a poor choice. The paperback came out in 2016 – after Philando Castile was killed after a routine traffic stop with his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter in the backseat. This book had likely gone to press before this tragedy. But, studies related to the racial profiling of Black drivers existed long before 2016. Did the author, editor or publisher question whether this example would be off-putting or offensive to some readers?

I also felt uncomfortable with Chase as the name for the black car, though I appreciate that rhyming words keep a younger audience engaged. Again, I would have chosen a different name, given the biased and false presumptions that Black drivers are more reckless or Black children aren’t as well behaved as white children. If I apply the critical thinking skills from my earlier post, I would guess the book’s target purchaser is a non-Black parent or educator. But, that doesn’t mean that the car example and name were the best choices.

The ending of the book also is problematic. The white race committee only reaches out to Chase to come back to the race because Ace, the white car, is in danger. The committee lets Chase win the race since Chase saves Ace – not because Chase is the fastest race car and not because all cars deserve the same access to entering and winning the race.

When Ace realizes how the race was tougher for Chase, Ace apologizes after Chase rescues him and then a hug solves everything. Even just adding a line in which Ace admits that he should have been a better friend to Chase and not entered the race by himself would have been something. I wish the book hadn’t been wrapped up with ease on a feel-good note.

Neha Aunty’s Reading Room Episode 3: Race Cars

The book was updated to include a brief Discussion Guide (shared at 15:46 in the above video from Neha Aunty’s Reading Room), and the last few questions ask kids to think of privileges that white people get and list them. Then, the guide asks whether the reader can find band-aids and dolls in their skin color.

Picture if this book is being read to a predominantly-white group of children. BIPOC children may feel further othered or marginalized if they raise their hands. Alternatively, this may force BIPOC children to feel as though they have to educate the white children in the room. This book might cause some children to think that there is a monolithic white or Black experience. It also could send the message to White children that recognizing privilege is a checklist item without having to do or think more about the topic.

Is this a worthwhile book to teach parents and educators about white privilege? I don’t envision most young white children will make connections on their own with this book without a lot of adult guidance from adults who have already unpacked their own identities and privileges. If children are able to connect that the race course represents our lives and access to opportunities, it can’t be assumed that parents and educators will find ways to help them relate the story to their own actions and larger structures of power.

Once privilege is recognized, what happens next? That’s what’s needed for action and change. I wish the book had offered solutions or resources beyond encouraging some brief acknowledgment that racial privilege exists.

As I’m reading and watching resources included on children’s anti-racist lists, I question whether the majority of predominantly white readers/viewers will know where to find reliable resources, how these resources should be critiqued and connected to their lives and larger power structures, and whether to share them with their children. My hope is that anti-racist resources are viewed as more than a checklist item or buzzphrase.

In my next post, I’ll write more about what adult resources I recommend regarding white privilege.

What anti-racist children’s books or shows do you like? Have any thoughts about this book or other resources regarding white privilege? Comment below or on my feeds!

The White Doll and The Black Doll

R: I have a story to tell you.

Me [calling from the kitchen]: Okay, you can tell me.

R: No, I’d like you to sit down next to me while I tell you. [I move to sit down next to her.] So, back when I was in Pre-K, they used to open up the doors so the classes could play together sometimes. [I nod.] In Pre-K, I went with Friend 1 into another class to play dollies with Friend 2. There were two baby dolls in the class, and one was white and the other was black. All of us wanted to play with the white baby doll, and Friend 1 told me that I needed to play with the black doll because I’m Black.

Me: What did Friend 2 say?

R: She agreed with Friend 1.

Me: And then what happened?

R: I just went to play in another part of the room.

Me: Why?

R: Because I felt surprised that my friends would say that.

Me: What made you think of that today?

R: I hadn’t thought about it since Pre-K. But, I was thinking today about how in second grade, the teachers will open the class doors again for lunch and they haven’t done that since Pre-K.

Me: I’m sorry that happened to you. How else did that make you feel?

R: I felt confused because I didn’t know why I couldn’t play with the white doll.

Me: I would feel confused and surprised, too. Did you tell any of the teachers about it?

R: No. I just went to play with some other friends.

Me: I’m sorry. I wish that hadn’t happened to you. But, I’m glad you remembered it and told me about it now. You can always tell me anything. You realize that all toys are for everyone, not just black toys for Black children and white toys for white children. [She nods.] And, your friends are all still your friends. I just think some parents don’t understand how to have these conversations with their children.

I knew this wouldn’t just be a one-time discussion so I stopped there. I’ve read and taught about Doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clarks’ study in which Black children chose white dolls over black dolls. Those 1940s findings are still the case in more recent studies of Black and white children. The studies showed a more positive association toward white skin and a more negative association toward Black skin — for dolls and children.

With this in mind, I reached out to a few friends for further discussions about how to talk about this. One wisely suggested that we also talk about families and how there’s not just one way to be a family and look like a family – from race to height to hair color to gender identity.

Roya and I also have discussed race and racism in an age-appropriate way. When I asked her how the doll incident might relate to these conversations, she knew that her friends attempted to use her color against her. Was there the expectation that saying, “You’re Black so you need to play with the black doll,” would allow her four-year-old friends to play with the white doll because either Roya would agree or she would leave? We also talked about different approaches that Roya could take in the future in similar situations such as telling the teacher, telling me, or talking with her friends.

I keep coming back to how diversity so often ends up being “diversity for white people,” and representation is often tokenizing. If studies show that children choose white toys over brown toys, then adding a black doll to a white doll collection won’t have the desired effect.

One of Roya’s classrooms in her predominantly-white elementary school had a dollhouse with only a black doll family set to play with in the house. Any child who played with that dollhouse just played with that doll family without any issue or negative association. That led me to wonder:

How can white parents and teachers choose and model behavior that doesn’t center whiteness?

Here are a few of my thoughts, but I’d love to hear yours:

  • Drawing with your child? Consider drawing a person that doesn’t look anything like yourself.
  • Reading with your child? Consider applying critical thinking skills and unpacking your books.
  • Describing a person or situation ? Consider describing based on hair color or another identifier that isn’t race. (Think about how many sources of media and entertainment perpetuate racial bias by how individuals are described.)
  • Buying items for your child to play with? Think about the items that your child has, what you might wish to do differently, why, and how to frame it. If a big deal is made that a doll has black skin or a book is about indigenous culture, then that could be othering or seem like diversity is a boxed to be checked off. How can toys, dolls, books, entertainment, and Legos in our homes and at our schools be framed in ways so that white does not equal better?
  • Have conversations with your child with small and big age-appropriate examples about race. (Feel free to use the doll incident above, if you’d like. I also love the You Can’t Say You Can’t Play section from “Seeing, Noticing, and Talking about Differences with Young Children” by Madeleine Rogin.)

Three things before I sign off:

  1. I’m sharing all of this with R’s permission. She is at the age where I only share her stories and images with her consent. When I asked her if she knew why I wanted to write about this, she replied, “To get people to think and try to help teach people.” Exactly! I also reminded her that I’m learning, too.
  2. I don’t get to pat myself on the back for being a great mom for doing my best to navigate this situation. This is not about me. Conversations about race cannot be framed with whites at the center of the narrative. (I think about the John Metto piece in which he states that discussions about race can’t be about protecting white feelings. If you haven’t read “I Don’t Discuss Racism With White People,” I strongly encourage you to do so.)
  3. I hope this spurs conversation so please comment on my feeds or this post. xoxo

Unpacking The Bad Seed by Jory John

How have I approached unpacking some popular children’s books with my daughter? Check this post out for why this is important and some general critical thinking strategies.

Now, let’s get started with The Bad Seed by Jory John.

In this book, a darker-colored, more masculine presenting seed is criticized for being bad. Most of the good seeds in the book are lighter seeds. In the end, the bad seed starts trying to be good, but sometimes it’s still bad.

When Roya came home with this book, I explained to her why that book bothered me.

  1. First, the seed can be interpreted as a character like a person. If seeds are described as good or bad, that could send a message that a person is either categorically good or bad. (Children shouldn’t be described as bad or good, although their actions or behavior can.)
  2. Next, we talked about how what one person sees as “good,” another person might see as “bad.” I went really simplistic and used TV for my example. Roya would think watching TV all day is good, but I would think having a child watch TV all day is bad. Then we discussed why we would see the same situation differently. Ideally, analyzing good and bad relies on a willingness to learn about other individuals’ experiences, values, and lenses, and an openness to changing your mind. As Roya has started getting older, I’ve begun to connect all of this to historical and contemporary concepts of power and oppression in age-appropriate, brief ways. (This book made me immediately think of the school-to-prison pipeline and #BLM.)
  3. I expanded on my points to share that all seeds make bad decisions at times, not just some seeds. I came up with a few stories about things that the lighter seeds in the book could have done that also were bad choices. Most people make some choices that are bad, and some that are good, right?
  4. Then I talked about how some people can be scared by other individuals’ differences and view those individuals and their choices as bad.

While I was writing this post, Roya asked what I was doing.

Me: Writing about why I’m not a fan of The Bad Seed.

R: But, I love that book!

Me: I know. A lot of kids do. So, think about what the Bad Seed looks like.

R: It’s a dark seed. You’d rather the seed be a peanut or something.

Me: Yes! Now, why would I think having the seed be dark would be a problem?

R: Hmm…It’s like Carmela’s Full of Wishes. They’re books about Black kids that might make people not like Black kids.

Me: Yes, exactly! The Bad Seed might make people think that Black and brown kids are bad, when everyone makes bad decisions sometimes. And Carmela’s Full of Wishes might make people think that all Spanish-speaking families have the same life and jobs as Carmela’s family. If we read things, we might think they are true or true for everyone who looks like the characters in the books. And that could cause people to be treated differently or unfairly, which isn’t good.

I then talked about how this can lead to people making assumptions about BIPOC families and how sometimes BIPOC children, especially boys, are treated differently at schools. Want to read more about why this is important? Google the crib-to-prison or school-to-prison pipeline. Or, explore disciplinary rates by race, gender and ethnicity in your school district. (See number 11 in my post on Doing Diversity Well at Predominantly-White Schools for how to do this.)

I end this conversation with acknowledging that there are always books and shows we enjoy more than others, and that’s okay. But, it’s worth discussing what’s problematic about them, regardless of whether we like them.

What are your family’s thoughts on this book? How have you approached it? Have suggestions for future books for me to blog about? Comment below.

Unpacking Children’s Books

Last month, my feeds were filled with mentions of antiracist books, social justice movies, statements in solidarity, and diverse book and toy purchases for younger loved ones. Are any of these things inherently bad? Of course not! But, it gave me cause to pause. Tre Johnson’s Washington Post article, “When Black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs,” is a thought-provoking read. I find myself asking, “What’s next?” How do those of us who identify and pass as white listen, learn and contribute in a way that doesn’t center whiteness or frame diversity as “diversity for white people”?

In thinking about children’s books in particular, there are significant concerns about how Black writers are treated and paid by the publishing industry and the lack of diverse representation in the field as a whole. 86% of children’s books have white main characters. This is the case despite the fact that children’s books with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) main characters sell, as reported by Dashka Slater for Mother Jones.

I hope that children’s books are unpacked with children. How do parents learn what and how to unpack concepts of race, gender identity, ableism, and class? We need to do our own work first. Read anti-racist resources. Complete an implicit bias test. Research to learn more. I’m thankful for those friends and students who were willing to teach me, but I had to do my own work, too. As a cisgender-heterosexual-white female, I’ve needed to unlearn biases and messages that I’ve received throughout my life.

A book or movie is more than just that. When we read or watch things, they become part of our moral imagination. We began to envision a world like we read or see. What we read or watch can reinforce or challenge our thoughts about ourselves and the world. (For example, there was a student who wrote their capstone on how the casting of a black male as US president in the television show, 24, helped prepare viewers for a black male president before the 2008 election.)

There’s also a downside to our moral imagination at times. How do we read stories by a variety of voices about a myriad of experiences and not assume that one person’s experience is representative of all experiences? How many stories that don’t play into problematic tropes and stereotypes get published? Again, I see this as unlearning biases and discussing what and why tropes are problematic. There’s also a need to recognize that one voice or character is just that — the voice for that one real or fictional individual — and not representative of all experiences of individuals who look or identify similarly.

How can we apply critical thinking skills to how we consume information? I approach children’s texts similarly to how I approach texts that I read or teach. Both what is and what is not included in a writing are important. And, parents and caregivers can also unpack the text as it does or does not apply and relate to their own lenses, values and experiences. If you notice in the questions below, it’s imperative to ask not just who and what, but the why.

Next, I think about how I can unpack all of this in an age-appropriate way with my seven-year-old daughter. I typically let her read books on her own, do a fast skim of what she’s reading at some point, and then discuss the text with her at a separate time.

I’ll find a time when we have five-ten minutes to talk that’s not too late and ask her to share her thoughts about the book. I’ll ask a few follow-up questions to discuss the why behind the characters’ decisions or feelings. Then I’ll share my thoughts about the book. If the text warrants multiple conversations or is a longer chapter book, we’ll talk more about it at later points.

Obviously, you know your child best. But, what books and entertainment you expose your child to and how you frame them are worth considering. If you’re reading a fairy tale, can you take a few minutes after to talk about how cisgender women don’t need saving or provide a few examples of people who found their happily ever after without being in a relationship? If you’re a white family and you’re reading a book with a main character of color, how can you discuss the book without centering whiteness or viewing the character as representative of all BIPOC individuals?

How have I approached unpacking popular children’s books? Click here for my thoughts on The Bad Seed by Jory John.

How have you approached these conversations? What resources have you found to be helpful? Any questions? Please comment below xoxo

Doing Diversity Well at Predominantly-White Schools

In my previous post, I asked whether predominantly-white schools center whiteness in a way that “others” black families. I hear from fellow white parents that their children’s school does diversity well. But, how do we know? How does the school know? Is diversity code for diversity for white people?

Here are my thoughts to help spur conversation and hopefully action:

  1. Definitions: What does diversity mean at your child’s school?
    • Does diversity just refer to race or is it more comprehensive? The National Education Association includes “race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, culture, religion, mental and physical ability, class, and immigration status” under the dimensions of diversity.
    • Is there a difference between diversity, inclusion and equity (also known as DEI) in practice at your child’s school? Should there be and if so, in what ways?
  2. Strategic Plan: Is there a strategic plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at your child’s school? If not, why not? Should there be? If so, take the time to read it, noting questions or comments.
  3. Benchmarking against Other Schools: What are similar schools doing with respect to DEI? (By similar schools, if your child attends a parochial middle school in a suburb, then other parochial middle schools would be most similar to your child’s school. But, there is a lot to learn from schools that don’t fit the same criteria, too. )
  4. Facilitated Conversations for Educators: Are administrators from your child’s school in conversation with their peers at other schools about DEI? Who facilitates those discussions? (Ideally, there will be opportunities for individuals to learn and not feel judged by their mistakes. But, there also needs to be some outside facilitation to challenge the status quo and provide more objective assessment.)
  5. DEI Work: Who leads or should lead DEI efforts at your child’s school? How should DEI responsibilities be allocated? What are the responsibilities and limitations of a formal position?
    • Is it worth establishing a Task Force or committee to have more people from different roles at the school (staff, teachers, administrators and parents) involved in these efforts?
  6. Benchmarks and Accountability: What are benchmarks that are or should be established? Having a plan is good, but how do you as a parent or school administrator know if that plan is working?
    • Is there a timeline to meet specific goals?
    • How are or should benchmarks be assessed, and by whom? If the assessment is done by someone at the school, are there checks and balances to ensure that this is done well?
    • What does accountability look like?
  7. Buy-In: Is there buy-in for this from administrators, faculty, staff, the board, and the PTA? (Note that these groups are not monolithic. Every person within each of those groups has their own life experiences, knowledge base and interest in DEI. )
    • How much buy-in is needed for these efforts to be successful?
    • How will buy-in be assessed?
    • What support and resources are needed to effectuate a plan or the designated benchmarks? Recognize that support and resources involve time, money and an open mind.
  8. Parent Education: What expectations do parents have for the role that the school will/won’t play in educating their children and parent education?
    • Is it worth setting up a survey (possibly anonymous) to help check the pulse of the community?
    • What programming is of interest for parents, for children and for the whole community? Should the school encourage and provide a space for parent/family education such as a monthly book club? There could also be a secure parent education portal with vetted articles and resources divided by topics (like disability, class, race, gender identity, intersectionality, talking to kids about [X] topics, etc.). This could be a standing and living repository.
    • Are PTA meetings and newsletters accessible to all parents regardless of technological access, visual and hearing impairments, and English-language literacy?
  9. Curriculum: How does the curriculum work with DEI goals? Ideally, the DEI strategic plan and assessments will work with the larger strategic plan and assessments for the school.
    • Love Sees No Color: For some, in-class exercises and books that stress how we’re all the same on the inside are viewed as good thing. But, what is problematic about these exercises? How can DEI be taught in age-appropriate and more realistic ways? How can DEI incorporate discussions of power, agency and oppression?
    • Community service: How can community service, volunteering and service-learning be connected more effectively to DEI and curricular goals? This could be anything from presenting on othering language to discussions about power and wages
      • Can there be a fact sheet or myth busters to connect with community-service assignments? How can the community (parents, students and staff) be educated along with their children? How can service be framed in a way that doesn’t perpetuate othering and the white-savior complex?
    • How can DEI be infused in the curriculum and programming throughout the year (not just MLK Day or Black History Month, and not just related to race)? Why is this important?
  10. Grading Equity: How does your child’s school currently assess grading and feedback? How does/should that assessment factor in bias?
    • Should professional development for administrators and teachers look at bias in grading and feedback (everything from the words we use to describe work by girls over work by boys to evaluating non-native English speakers to racial bias)? In his article in Education Week, Joe Feldman provides the following example: In classrooms taught by white teachers, African-American students are typically rated as poorer “classroom citizens” than their white peers, and thereby are more likely to have a lower grade for those behaviors because of the teacher’s biased perceptions.
  11. Discipline and Opportunities: How does your child’s school approach student discipline and which children have access to certain opportunities (advanced coursework, leadership roles, etc.)?
    • You might wish to go onto Ed.gov’s Civil Rights Data Collection to search for a public school in the US. I find the site easiest to navigate by just searching by zip code and then clicking on the link for a specific school.
    • What are the demographics of the school you chose? What are the rates of AP classes by gender identity, race and ethnicity? What are the rates of school suspensions by gender identity, race and ethnicity? What does this data tell you?
    • If your child’s school is on this list, are these numbers that could/should be improved upon? If so, how and by whom?
    • If your child’s school is not on this list, has the school gathered and analyzed demographic data on disciplinary action and access to gifted classes and leadership roles? If so, what has the data shown, and what are the school’s next steps? If not, is there a plan to do this, and by whom?
    • Whether or not your child’s school is on this list, what are the school’s objectives related to this item?
    • Does your school utilize healing circles or restorative justice practices?
  12. School Demographics and Retention: What is the school’s demographic breakdown in terms of student body, teachers, staff, and administrators? Are those percentages similar or different from comparable schools? Have these percentages been stagnant?
    • Is the school retaining teachers, staff and students of color?
    • Is the school promoting and hiring teachers and staff of color for administrator roles?
    • Are administrators and staff trained to prevent or reduce bias in student admissions, hiring and promotion decisions?
    • Are there exit interviews when families and school employees leave the school?
  13. Bias Reporting: Is there a clear procedure for reporting bias concerns? Are these procedures the same or different for students and school employees, and why? Who handles bias concerns? Are school employees required to report bias concerns to someone in their chain of command? How are bias concerns addressed?

Again, my hope in writing this post was to start a dialogue. What did I miss? What are your thoughts? What are schools (without naming them) doing well?

Decentering Whiteness

As a white parent in Upper NW DC, my feed has been filled with discussions about how to be an anti-racist parent. But, how do we know what we don’t know? How can we recognize our biases? What does accountability look like to know we’re getting it right or that we need to do better?

My intent in writing this series of posts is to start a conversation, not write a definitive treatise on anti-racist parenting. As a white, heterosexual, cisgender parent and educator, I need to listen and learn, too.

Parents and educators can and should talk to young children about race, as Katrina Michie recommends. But, before talking to children, you might want to think about how that statement centers whiteness. What do I mean about that? Think about how and why whiteness is viewed as the default and the norm.

For example, a publication only mentions a person’s race if that person isn’t white. Or, a show has a token or short-contract character of color, or your workplace has very few black individuals in leadership roles. Think about which parents teach their children about colorism and racism to survive and which parents teach their children about colorism and racism to be a (seemingly) better person. Then think about the why behind these realities and how they relate to systems of power and oppression.

How are and how can you model anti-racist behavior? There are so many examples, but one from Rachel Garlinghouse is: Do you have true friendships with others who don’t share your race, religion, age, or ability?  Margaret A. Hagerman asks parents to think about who they invite over, what media and books they consume, how they handle race questions, who/what they roll their eyes at, and when they lock their doors.

I think about how whiteness is centered in what books and entertainment are labeled as “multicultural” or “diverse.” A children’s book by a black author with a black child as the main character should not be regarded as a “diverse” book. A box of crayons to represent a range of skin tones shouldn’t be labeled “multicultural.” Books or lessons that talk about how we’re all the same on the inside ignore how racial differentiation was created to serve social and economic purposes. How can parents unpack what our children read and play with in age-appropriate ways?

At predominantly-white schools, is whiteness centered in a way that “others” black families? I hear from fellow white parents that their children’s school does diversity well. But, how do we know? How does the school know? Is diversity code for diversity for white people? Check out my next post if you’d like to explore this topic more.

Join me if you’d like to share and learn about resources and approaches. Comments and criticism welcome.

Most importantly, I hope you and your loved ones are safe and well. And, a special thank you to my former students and colleagues who helped me become a better educator, person, and parent. I wouldn’t be where I am on my journey without you. xoxo

Isn’t It Tough To Be A Single Mom?

I see you with your head tilting to the side and your eyes expressing pity. I hear you with your well-intentioned “I’m so sorry” comments…your “I can’t imagine how tough this is for you” rhetoric…your “Don’t you want to get married so she can have a Dad?” questions. If I know you well enough, I’ll reply honestly and thoroughly. If I don’t, I keep it brief and extricate myself from the conversation. Not because I’m uncomfortable, but because I’m unsure if you are comfortable.

Some people value a certain type of family structure more than others. Some (or many?) people place more validity and carry positive associations with a two-parent household over a one-parent household. I find myself wondering why.

In 2015, I remember a lunch when I was out with several girlfriends and one person I didn’t know that well. We spent the first hour talking about how little their husbands did around the house and with their young children. When the person I didn’t know that well learned about my situation, she was incredulous at my relationship choices. I replied:

I just spent the last hour listening to you all vent about your husbands and giving advice for how to make things a little better. I don’t judge you for staying in your relationships. You all were partners before you were parents. So, don’t judge me for leaving someone who wasn’t in a position to parent. I wasn’t married so I didn’t feel obligated to stay with someone who couldn’t handle the responsibilities.

Five years later, I don’t regret my decision at all. I feel confident in how I parent and am thankful for my support system. I don’t see my home responsibilities as different or more difficult because I’m the only one. (As an only child, I think it’s actually easier since what I want and how I want things done are the way things are done.) Roya knows who is in charge and sees herself as having a large family of loved ones with me at the center. She knows that we are whole and complete as we are because that is how I’ve messaged my choices and our family.

I’ve found myself having to explain my thoughts a few times during this pandemic. There are lots of reasons why self-isolating with your family unit can be difficult. It shouldn’t be assumed that being a #100PercentParent makes it tougher, though. For some, it definitely is! But, for others like me, it isn’t.

So, here’s my friendly unsolicited advice… If you want to know how a single parent is doing or if and what they might need, ask them! Their answers might not be what you expect. Also think about why you view a certain family structure as better than another. Respect that your values work for you, but think about whether you are truly accepting of family units that don’t resemble your own. (You might even want to take Harvard University’s Implicit Bias test to explore your own unconscious biases even more.)

With respect to the larger societal issues, I think about what impacts families in different ways such as the gender pay gap, NCTE’s findings regarding the wage discrimination that many transgender and gender non-conforming individuals experience, and how factors such as race and ethnicity further exacerbate disparities. I also question why certain professions are valued financially more than others and who has access to healthcare, childcare, and family medical leave. And, I continue to unpack how the US criminal justice system and discriminatory policing and sentencing policies have impacted families and communities.

If you ask me what I need or ask Roya what she wants, none of our responses would have to do with changing our family unit. We are thankfully safe and well, and hope that you and your loved ones are, too. xoxo

10 Things I’ve Learned Over The Past 10 Years

10 years ago this week, I sat down at my laptop and clicked on WordPress.com. I didn’t think much about my handle and template, as I set up a blog. Within an hour, I wrote my first post about getting asked out by a younger man and pressed publish.

The act of blogging was simple. My emotions at that time in my life were anything but. At 35, I had ended my on-again, off-again relationship with Lawyer Boy a month prior. My head knew that was the right decision, but my heart had yet to get the memo. Combine that feeling with the effects from post-concussion syndrome and my disdain for Christmas since my mom died, and blogging provided an entertaining diversion.

Back in 2008, I couldn’t have imagined how much my blog would change my life. Here are 10 things I’ve learned over the past 10 years:

  1. For years, my friends had told me to write down my dating stories. In 2000, I had started a book about my earliest relationships, but didn’t continue with it. I joined Yelp in 2007 at a time when there was small, but tight-knit, Yelp community in DC. Several of the DC Yelpers had blogs, and some of my Yelp reviews referenced my dating adventures. I began to think that blogging about my relationships would be a good fit for me, too. I shared my site link with friends, but reached a broader audience when I signed up for Twitter in 2009. I think of the many people I now regard as friends who I met through Yelp, my blog, and Twitter over the past decade. I’m grateful for being a part of that time in digital culture since it led me to so many wonderful relationships.
  2. In 2008, I enjoyed being public about seemingly every aspect of my life. That worked for me in my 30s. My private life was anything but. Now, I read my old dating and sex advice posts and blush at just how much I put out there. At 45, I’m in a very different place in my life. Aside from the occasional schmoopie Tweet, I am protective of my relationship. Like so many of us in 2018, I curate what I post, which sites I post on, and why I post online.
  3. I bared my heart and soul on this site – with all of my flaws and mistakes. The guys who I hurt rarely stayed around, and I kept going back to the guys who treated me poorly. My dating life was a train wreck, which made for good reading. Schadenfreude – or others’ pleasure at my misfortune – led me to develop a thick skin. Through the blog, I grew to accept criticism and figure out what issues were mine to own and what weren’t.
  4. Digital media is inherently social. There’s the expectation of engagement and two-way conversation. When we post online or send a text or email, we typically anticipate a prompt response. I didn’t think about that 10 years ago, when I started blogging. As my site’s popularity grew, I expected – and at times, craved – likes, views and comments. Was an experience  legitimate, if I didn’t blog about it? As an early adopter to social media, I was very attached to my laptop and cell phone. I question how my relationships were impacted by how focused I was on building my site and my brand. I wouldn’t say that blogging impeded me from living my life, but there was a time when it altered how I lived my life.  Again, this was right for me then. It’s just not where I’m at now.
  5. Actions speak so much louder than words. Over the years, I’ve given a lot of good relationship advice. I just rarely took my own advice. I ran in the opposite direction of those guys who treated me well, preferring the intrigue and challenge of some smooth talkers. Since cancer, I have zero tolerance for games or drama, and I want to model healthy relationship choices for my daughter. It took me until my 40s, but I’ve finally learned.
  6. Back in 2010, I commented while on a date that the daughter I planned to adopt would be the love of my life. I had an idea as to how I would approach motherhood. I just didn’t realize that I would carry and give birth to my daughter, rather than adopting an older child. (And, yes, Roya is living proof of miracles.)
  7. After my diagnosis, I wrote a lot about preventative breast health. I don’t want to discredit the importance of early detection and monitoring. But, I’ve been reading a lot more about metastatic breast cancer (MBC) and urge you to do the same. Nearly 30% of early-stage breast cancers return as stage IV cancer — through no fault or control of the patients. There is no cure for MBC, and the median survival is three years. Despite all the advancements in breast cancer treatment and research, mortality rates have hovered around 40,000 people per year since 2000(!) with less than 7% of research dollars going to metastatic breast cancer. This needs to change!
  8. My blog’s success dramatically altered my professional path. As my site’s reach grew, I began to receive more and more relationship questions from readers. I decided to join the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists as a supporting member, attending sexual health workshops and trainings through the association. My involvement with AASECT led to several freelance writing clients, and I contemplated fully moving from my career as an immigration attorney to work as a sexuality educator. Then, I got diagnosed with breast cancer, and my life took another turn. Toward the end of treatment, American University students who had been reading my blog reached out to me to speak at the Social Learning Summit, the first student-run social media conference in the US. That panel led to me guest lecturing at AU on modern feminism and activism. After my talk, I sent out a Tweet with an idea to teach a class on Sexuality and Social Media at American. Within a month, I was on the books as an adjunct instructor in American Studies, and I became a full-time instructor in 2014.  I never imagined when I began this blog that it would lead me to my calling and connect me with so many inspiring faculty members and students.
  9. My 30s were a roller coaster. I had always envisioned my mid-40s to be a time of stability and maintenance. I was so very wrong. I never imagined that 45 would find me this exhausted and working this hard to get a seat at the table professionally. (Yes, there’s an article on The Fortysomething Hustle on my to-write list!)
  10. My blog changed as my life changed. In four years, my posts transitioned from sex advice to my experiences during chemotherapy to parenting difficulties. Through all the ups and downs, I kept writing my truth at that time. I came to this site out of heartbreak and loneliness, and now, I ironically don’t have time to write because I’m so busy. I keep this site up because it is my past, my own digital archives. I see not only how far I’ve come, but also how blogging led me to a life I never imagined. For that, I have no regrets and much gratitude.

stef woods, city girl blogs

           Photo Credit: Drea Goode Studios

To those who followed along and supported me online and offline, thank you from the bottom of my heart. xoxo

Time To Soar, Dearest A

It was October 2014. 

Roya was up two-three times a night every night. I was in my first semester as a full-time faculty member and teaching three classes. The nanny that I had hired for the year decided to leave the DC area. I managed to piece together a schedule with four babysitters – all of whom were full-time college students.

It was clear that I needed more consistent childcare. I took a chance and reached out to Nanny A, a friend of a friend, to see if she had some hours to spare. She thankfully did, and she began to watch Roya a week later. What started as occasional grading help grew into more hours and days with each passing season.

It was October 2014. 

I parted ways with Roya’s biological father without any tears or drama. I had wanted to be a 100% parent of a little girl, and thanks to God and him, I was.

A little over three years later, I’m reflective as to what an eventful month that October was. Back then, I didn’t know then what I know now…that having Nanny A join our family would be far more impactful than having The Man leave our family.

The love Nanny A has shown both Roya and me is unparalleled. The willingness to be there for us in our highest of highs and our lowest of lows has been unyielding. Nanny A is so much more than a nanny. She is my friend, she is the closest thing to a co-parent that I’ve ever had, and she is our family. She didn’t have to assume all of these roles, but she did. And, for that, I’m truly grateful.

Earlier this year, Nanny A and I talked about her professional plans. She is a successful writer and event planner, and at some point in the future, she wanted to focus on those endeavors exclusively. I knew that she needed to spread her wings, and her responsibilities with us would make that difficult to do. Her end date was on the horizon, but thankfully, she extended her time with us through the summer and fall. In October 2017 (three years to the week after she started with us), I again asked her about her plans. Nanny A would be moving on at the end of the year. It was official.

I cried on and off for 48 hours. Correction, I sobbed. (Picture that messy crying where you can’t form a coherent sentence and your eyes are puffy when you wake up the next day.)

Nanny A’s last date is getting closer, and moving the calendar to December has brought me to tears yet again. There is so much that I will miss about her, but to highlight just a few things:

  • How I can text her at any hour of the day for advice, a laugh or just to say hi
  • How Roya can literally hug her for hours
  • All the special things that she and Roya share together from their favorite restaurants to taking the bus to reading certain stories
  • How she turns into Mama Bear when anyone tries to mess with Roya
  • Our dance parties in the hall
  • How many times we have laughed until we had tears in our eyes

I haven’t wanted to finish this post for a week because that makes this truly real. After next week, Nanny A will no longer be in our home on a regular basis. Last night, as R went to hug us both she said, “Family hug.” She knows now, and I will make sure she always knows that Nanny A is a part of our family.

Stef Woods, city girl blogs

There are no words to do justice to what Nanny A has meant to us nor what she will accomplish. But, the words of the scholar Rumi come to mind:

You were born with potential. You were born with goodness and trust. You were born with ideals and dream. You were born with greatness. You were born with wings. You were not meant for crawling, so don’t. You have wings. Learn to use them and fly.

I anxiously await all the tales of how you will soar, Dearest A. And, until you return to visit, know you are loved and missed every day in big and small ways.

My Best Furry Friend

It was Fall 2008 when I first saw her. My life was so different then. This was before the blog, when I was finishing my graduate thesis and planning to return to legal services. I had been thinking about moving to a pet-friendly apartment and getting a dog, and I kept coming back to this photo on HART’s website of an eight-year-old Bichon Frise, Snowflake.

Flake, City Girl Blogs, Stef Woods

A couple of months later, I had a contract on a pet-friendly place, and reached out to HART. I was told that there was a lot of interest in Snowflake. (She was a hypoallergenic dog and a desired breed, after all.) HART suggested that I check their website again, when I was closer to my move date. I put Snowflake and the dog search out of my mind for a bit. Friends had told me that dogs choose us so I trusted when the time was right, I would find the perfect pooch for me.

Two months later, Snowflake was still listed as available for adoption so I arranged to meet her. When I first saw her, she didn’t want to leave the crate. She was 30 pounds (huge for a Bichon!) and very shy. Most of the dogs at the event were licking people and wagging their tails. Some barked from excitement, and others barked from nervousness. Snowflake didn’t do anything. HART admitted that several families had been interested in Snowflake, but were concerned that she was so atypical for her breed. A friend came to the adoption event with me and was surprised that I still was drawn to Snowflake.

“I think she’s the right dog for me,” I kept saying.

Sensing my excitement, HART’s tireless volunteers worked with me so that I could adopt Snowflake. Several volunteers even commented that maybe there was a reason that she hadn’t been adopted in nine(!) months. She was meant to be part of my family.

When I picked her up on March 28, 2009, I learned that the dog’s foster had called her, “Flake,” not Snowflake. She responded to “Flake,” so that name stuck.

From what HART’s veterinarian and my vet at Adams Mill Veterinary Hospital  had pieced together, Flake had been the breeding dog at an abusive puppy mill. When she was found on the side of a rural Virginia road, she had fleas, matted hair, signs of overbreeding, and an eye infection. My vet thought she was more like five or six years old, rather than eight, so we set her birthday as March 28, 2003.

I understood how a dog was man’s best friend in an abstract sense, but it took having my own dog to fully grasp it. In our first months together, the vet tasked me with having Flake lose 10 pounds in four months. I had her on a strict eating and walking regime, and like a four-pawed Rocky, she rose to the challenge.

Toward the end of 2009, I began attending Fashion for Paws (F4P) events to benefit the Washington Humane Society. Through F4P, I made a lot of friends and helped raise money for a wonderful cause. I also loved seeing the dog who no one wanted to adopt strutting her stuff on the runway. Several charity fashion shows and photo shoots followed. Through it all, Flake served as a witness as to how many animals just need love and a fur-ever home to thrive!

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Photo by Vithaya Phongsavan

Flake also was my relationship barometer and seemed to know before I did, when a guy wasn’t the right match. Sometimes it took me a bit longer than it should have to realize why Flake would stop sitting on a couch or sleeping in a bed with someone, but she was always the wiser one. And, I never lasted long dating someone who did not understand the role that Flake played in my life. Love me, love my dog.

Flake was a dog with a cat’s personality or the “un-dog,” as one friend described. With the exception of when she saw her doggie boyfriend, Leader, and when we would run down the hall before a walk, she never barked. She would hold so still when she was in my arms that people regularly questioned whether or not she was real.

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As 2009 turned to 2010, Flake began to sleep next to me in the bed, always on my upper right side. Based on research about how dogs can smell a chemical in tumors, it’s likely that she knew something was off with my health before I did. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, Flake sensed my stress and sadness and stayed close to me at all times.

In August 2010, shortly before I headed into my first surgery, one of my best friends suggested that I picture my dog for peace and motivation. As I was going under, my subconscious didn’t just visualize Flake. I also pictured a little girl. Fast forward to 2013 and our family grew by one.

It shouldn’t be any surprise to those who saw the two of us together that Flake handled my pregnancy and Roya’s arrival exceptionally well. From day one, Flake knew that Roya was a part of our pack, and she would protect her when she was asleep or sick. Toddler Roya called Flake her little sister and loved her so much. Flake was never the type of dog to go fetch or play with children. But, with Roya, she would gladly pick up any crumbs that were dropped on the floor. There were also those treasured moments when Roya would walk Flake or chase her down the hall.

The past six months have been rough for Flake. She lost a lot of her hearing, developed two cataracts, and started having a lot of accidents and throwing up in the home. She couldn’t get up and down like she used to, was constantly thirsty, and lost 15% of her body weight. The last two weeks were another noticeable decline, as she often alternated between sleeping on the couch or being disoriented on the floor. Flake still got enjoyment from eating and short walks, but that was it.  Given the progression of symptoms and rapid decline, the vet believed that Flake had a pituitary tumor.

Today, I made the extremely difficult decision to put Flake down. As she was being put to sleep, the vet said that I had given Flake a great life. I know it was the other way around. Flake was there for me through cancer, concussions, bad relationships, pregnancy and motherhood. Through it all, she was my best friend, my steadfast companion, and as the vet called her, “my nursemaid.”

I walked out of the office, knowing that a piece of my heart was left on that table. I will have another dog again – someday — but only one Flake.

Photo by Samantha Strauss

While I was driving home from the vet, I heard on the radio that today is “National Love Your Pet Day.” I tried. Every day.