Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Girlfriend of Your Father, Whatever the Case May Be

(This originally appeared in August of 2012. This version has been edited and revived at the request of some new friends who wanted to hear more about my adventures in step-parenting).

I began dating my husband Tim when his children were four and five. The kids were understandably shell-shocked by their parent’s divorce, and it was a rough time for them. While Tim and I were dating, I maneuvered through the process like a teenage boy with greasy popcorn hands, trying to get to second base in a crowded movie theater. Let’s just say it was a pretty awkward time.

I handled the situation by setting expectations early: I was not applying to be a substitute mother. My goal was to make it clear to the kids that they had, and would always have, a mother and a father who loved them, and I was simply an extra adult that would be there to support and protect them if they needed it.

My early relationship with my stepdaughter Stephanie was challenging to say the least. When I came onto the scene, Stephanie was in preschool, and she wasn't up for a new woman in her life. For starters, she was confused about her parent’s situation, and, like all other normal kids, wanted her parents to get back together. I was confused as well. When I was around Stephanie, she would usually greet me with a dark-eyed scowl.  Other times, she would invite me to play Barbies, or help serve her ice cream. Because it was all over the place, I was always slightly on edge around Stephanie. I worried that we would never connect. I wondered if she would smother me in my sleep. I began having nightmares that she was chasing me with a butcher knife with ice cream dripping off of it.

When Stephanie was in first grade, she became a Girl Scout Daisy. One weekend when the kids were at Tim's, the Girl Scout troop meeting was a nature hike at a local park. Tim, always encouraging my relationship with both of his children, suggested that I take Stephanie. At the time, I would have rather eaten live earthworms. I had never attended a Girl Scout meeting in my life, and wasn't sure I wanted to start by going with a kid who barely tolerated my presence, but I decided to accept the challenge.

Sensing that losing my Girl Scout meeting virginity would leave me in no shape to drive, Tim decided to drop us off at the park. As he drove off, I considered running full-force in the direction of the car, throwing my shoes at the back windshield in a wild effort to get his attention.  Instead, I held back my natural inclination to panic, and followed a much more confident Stephanie to the space where the mothers and daughters were gathering.

I quickly assessed the scene. The warm and friendly troop leader was absent, leaving another, somewhat sullen parent volunteer in charge. The other parent that I knew from work was also not there. This left me with a group of women that I didn’t know at all, so I stood on the outskirts of the group, picking at my nail polish as Stephanie and the other Daisies frolicked around.

The mother who volunteered to lead the meeting gathered the group together. I could tell right away she meant business. She stood with confidence and held three fingers up in the air. Immediately, the wild first grade mayhem stopped. The girls all stood at attention, holding three fingers in the air, facing their temporary leader. I’d been there less than half an hour and they were already busting out secret hand symbols!

“Now girls,” the mother said to the group of hypnotized Daisies, “This is a very, very dangerous trail. There are steep areas where you can fall and get hurt.”

The girls, transfixed at the thought of plunging to their deaths in Daisy vests, hung on to her every word. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and groan, knowing that this park’s tallest peak was a smidgen over three feet tall. I decided to stay positive, imagining in my play-pretend mind that after the hike, the sullen substitute troop leader would award me with a hiking pin to attach to my imaginary adult-sized Daisy vest.

 “Because we want you to be safe, I need you to listen to the rules,” the mother said, “Please get in line in groups of two. We’re going to use the Buddy System. Each girl needs to stand by their mommy..”

She paused, looked at Stephanie, looked at me, then frowned, unsure of what to say. She looked in the air, mentally scanning the Girl Scout Leader guidebook for how to appropriately address non-mommy types.

 “Or…..,” she said, carefully, waving her hand in a grand, dismissive gesture, “The girlfriend of your father, whatever the case may be.”

And with that, her pale skin turned crimson as she began nervously shuffling girls and mommies into a two-by-two line.

Knowing I didn't have the luxury of a getaway car, I stood there, fighting back the desire to laugh hysterically and sob with embarrassment all at the same time. Several of the more compassionate mothers smiled at me and shrugged. Some just grabbed their girls and got in line.

What’s funny is that Stephanie handled it like a pro. I honestly think she felt sorry for me. Kids are awesome at times like that. She grabbed my hand and led me to the line like nothing had ever happened. We started our hike, did some obligatory leaf rubbings, and returned with zero broken bones and one mildly bruised ego (mine). I had a couple of conversations with the compassionate mothers. All in all, we had a nice time.

Today Stephanie is 18, our relationship is one of of the most treasured things in my life. She’s a beautiful person, her face a lovely combination of both of her good-looking parents. She’s ridiculously intelligent and humble about it. She likes boy bands, road trips, and dancing in the rain.  Because of her appreciation for the beauty in the world, she’s an excellent photographer. She does goofy, hilarious dances when we’re in the grocery store. She helps people in need, just like her father. She can do a perfect Russian accent that makes us grip our sides with laughter. She stays up way too late, baking the best cupcakes I've ever eaten, singing beautifully to terrible pop radio songs. She’s still figuring out what she wants to be when she grows up, which is fine, because she has time to work it out. When I see her smile, I still see the same cute girl who stood by me as my maid of honor when I married her father.

One of these days when I get my adult-sized Daisy vest, I’ll have lots of pins. I’ll get a Naive Cookie Mom pin. I’ll have one for Patience, and it will be a rendering of the hours I spent bribing a homesick child at the Girl Scout sleepover with dark chocolate, convincing her that sleeping on an air mattress was actually worth it. But the pin I’ll put in the most prominent position will be for sticking with it despite my insecurities of dating a man with children. That one will be the “Whatever the Case May Be” pin, and I’ll wear it with pride.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Decade of The Woman

It's finally here. The 2014 Texas Democratic State Convention! 

A little over a year ago, if you had told me that I was going to be a delegate at a political convention I wouldn't have believed it for a minute. I married a political junkie. My husband is a man who chooses political shows over sports and -- I am dead serious -- enjoys watching city council meetings. For years, I struggled to keep up with him when he would start talking about policy and issues. Sure, I had big opinions. I've always had big opinions. Sure, I voted for the big elections, but when it came time for a local election, Tim would print out a list of recommendations and drive me to the polls. Tim was my political coach, and that seemed good enough for me.

A year ago, Tim said, "Something big's happening at the Capitol. We need to get down there."

I wasn't sure. Did I want to get involved? What would people think?

As the mother of a then 10-year old girl, I worried about how to talk to her about women's reproductive rights. I wondered what my coworkers might think if they found out that I was (gasp!) a Democrat. I was afraid. 

From the moment Tim and Emily Rose and I walked into the Capitol, everything changed. Tim was right; something big was happening indeed. I quickly figured out that apathy wasn't an option, and that if I didn't join the fight, radical choices would be made and I would wake up and have to explain those choices to my children. Though I walk past the Capitol almost every day, I didn't truly recognize the power of what happens in that gorgeous building. I hadn't considered that just a few miles from our house, our elected officials were taking part in something that would impact so many people without a voice, and that could impact access to cancer screenings, birth control, and reproductive healthcare. I got angry.

Of course, our story isn't unique. Our story is like so many other stories of women and men who flocked to the Capitol last summer. At times, I was overcome with emotion, because the sea of orange symbolized so much outrage and passion. I met so many women who, like me, decided enough was enough and it was time to do something. I met so many men like my husband who understand the importance of a woman's right to make decisions about her body.

Up until last summer, my knowledge of politics was little more than a School House Rock episode, but before I knew it, we were talking about "points of order" and "parliamentary inquiries" like it was common language. I work in downtown Austin, so every day, I did a little Clark Kent move, donning my work persona in the office, then quick-changing into my dirty orange t-shirt so I could run down to the Capitol for the latest news. 

I was able to spend some time in the chambers watching Senator Davis' historic and remarkable filibuster. I didn't stay long, because I was afraid that I might start yelling and get arrested. I left the Capitol around 7pm, and headed home to log on and watch from my computer. Like so many, I was blown away by what I observed, thousands upon thousands of people watching online, supporting Senator Davis and her colleagues on Facebook and Twitter. Friends from New York and Los Angeles texted me, "What is going on down there? Wendy Davis is a hero!" I have never witnessed anything so powerful.

Though the outcome was not what we wanted, something significant happened during those powerful days. The thousands of women and men yelling at the top of their lungs represents something even more remarkable -- something changed in all of us. So many of us got involved. I believe wholeheartedly that the change that took place in so many of us is big enough for us to make an even bigger difference for the lives of Texans. We just have to stick with it.

Since last summer, we jumped in head first to get involved. I have learned how to talk to my daughter about important issues, and she has grown tremendously through the process. She is teaching us as well. We challenge each other, and we push back when we don't agree. Our dialogue at home has elevated to issues that matter. We are lucky to live in Austin where so many heroic Texas Democrats are fighting for our daughter's future. 

The first time Emily Rose met Senator Davis was at an Equal Pay rally in Austin. We yanked her out of school for a real life civics lesson, and in the car on the way to the rally, Emily Rose said, "I want to write down some comments in case I'm interviewed." We talked with her about equal pay, and in response to some of the Republican women's comments about how women are not good negotiators and that they are "too busy," Emily Rose came up with a response that we loved: "Women are too busy to negotiate." After the rally, a friend of ours was asked to be interviewed, and she offered up Emily Rose. The interview didn't air (it was Fox, after all), but the reporter was lovely and it was a terrific experience to see our daughter talking about equal pay with such confidence.

From that point, Emily Rose has had many opportunities to talk about the views she is forming. As her parents, Tim and I remind her that she is free to form her own ideas about things (not that we worry that she won't!). We laugh and say that when she's a teenager, her rebellious phase will be joining the Young Republicans. But I don't see any signs of her switching ideas because she has been so blessed to meet so many Texas Democrats who are influencing her and inspiring her to stay involved. Whether current elected officials, Battleground Texas volunteers, or hopeful candidates, Emily Rose is at the point where she knows more Texas Democrats than we do. It's been fun to watch her learn and grow, all because of that big thing that happened at the Capitol one year ago this week.

A few weeks ago, Senator Davis came to Austin to speak to a huge group of Travis County volunteers working a phone bank at the Travis County Coordinated Campaign office. I was out of town on a work trip when Tim began sending me texts of Emily Rose and her girlfriends posing with Senator Davis. Later, Battleground Volunteer Madi Duffield helped teach Emily Rose how to make phone bank calls. At one point, Emily Rose and Madi talked about how it's the Year of the Woman, and from there, some of the volunteers said,  

"This is the decade of the woman."

Emily Rose has embraced this slogan. I love it so much, I'm making #decadeofthewoman a hash tag for the convention this year, and I hope it catches on! I love the fact that Emily Rose has the confidence to know that we need more women in leadership, and that we are not backing down. I also love that so many of the people I'm meeting are young, and they are getting involved, and changing the landscape of politics.

To me, this justifies every spare minute we can find to volunteer. It justifies every extra dollar we can spare to donate to campaigns to elect our Democratic sisters and brothers into office. It justifies the day I spent a lunch hour running from my office down to Greg Abbot's office to protest for equal pay. It justifies the hours my husband has spent walking the block, or the time we took to get deputized to register voters, or the time we've spent registering voters together. It justifies our family taking vacation time off not to sit on a beach and read a paperback, but to drive to Dallas for a convention and learn what it means to be a delegate for the first time. This is all worth it. I know that for any of you who are doing the same, it's worth it for you as well. We are in this together, and it's exciting!

The icing on the cake for us was Wednesday, when Senator Davis and Cecile Richards hosted a Google Hangout to mark the anniversary of the filibuster. I had taken the day off to get ready for the Convention and Filibuster Anniversary event, and I asked Emily Rose to come sit with me and watch. We submitted a question for the session, and perked up when we heard the host, Yvonne Gutierrez, asking ours. As we sat with our mouths open, Cecile Richards looked into the camera and spoke directly to Emily Rose, and when she finished, Senator Davis did the same. It was a powerful moment that I'll never forget. I was also blubbering and trying to take a video of my laptop while it was happening, so thanks to modern technology we have the full video for safekeeping thanks to Google. Whew! 

In their answers, Senator Davis and Cecile Richards offered advice that is applicable to young girls everywhere. Get involved. 11 is a great age to get involved. Make calls. Tell your friends.   

I'm excited that we're entering the Decade of the Woman, and I can't wait to embark on the adventure that awaits in just a few hours. Here's to a memorable and successful Texas Democratic State Convention! We hope to see you there.