Category Archives: Women

You’re not my dad…

I ponder never having brought someone “new” into my son’s life because I was afraid of navigating the conversation around, “You’re not my dad!” Truth be told, there are many reasons why I made a conscious decision to not date until my son left for college, but navigating a new man in our lives was just something I chose to avoid. I had enough on my plate.

As we have become a world beautifully filled with blended families and men and women stepping in to be an additional blessing to a child’s life, I have had many conversations with friends and colleagues about how to navigate this. Mostly I can speak to it from my experience of embracing another woman in my son’s life with his dad. I stand firm with one belief…you love my child, and you don’t have to because he is not “yours”. He deserves to be loved. So, as challenging as it may be, I am grateful for your loving him and I would never take love away from him.

That comes from the perspective of what a child needs, but what do partners need in navigating those relationships? How do we support a new partner in developing their relationship with our children and their own concern about hearing, “You’re not my dad!” It’s not easy. Depending on the circumstances and age of the child(ren), the process is different. Any partner we bring in to our family needs to be able to develop their own relationship with the kids. We need to be able to step aside, trust in the person we love enough to bring them into our kids’ lives and allow them space to work it out together…without our constant interference rooted in a need to prevent something “bad” from happening.

There are conversations as partners that we can have about how to support one another in the evolution of these relationships, and there are conversations to have together with our children. Include them in the gray area of what this all is. Allow them a voice in how to navigate it. As the biological parent, we have an innate sense of trust and connection with our children, but people coming into our lives, loving us and loving them don’t come with the same intuitive skill. What is normal, natural for us, is a learned partnership for them. If our partner is concerned about stepping on toes or trying to figure out what their role is and can be, talk about it with the kids.

“I love your mom and I love you. I am excited about being an important part of your lives. And I also know that I’m not your dad. So I want us to be able to talk about all of this if/when it gets uncomfortable. I want you to feel safe in respectfully letting me know if the way I am approaching a situation doesn’t feel right or sit right.”

There is a way to include our children in the evolution of the “plus” relationships of new people in our lives without giving them unbalanced power or unintentional opportunity to manipulate us.

I’m still not certain I did the right thing (a question I ask myself with regard to many, many decisions I made as a parent), but I made it. I also filled his life with incredible men who have loved him and guided him and supported him, and never once had to tread near the notion of threatening his dad’s place in his life. I am blessed with 3 brothers who have had my back my entire life, and picked up that mantle with my son. The husbands of my girlfriends have always seamlessly included us, and him when it mattered most. So whether or not my son witnessed me loved and respected as I should be in a partnership or having a male figure in our home, that absence was mitigated by the male role models he has had.

“Bonus” adult people in our children’s lives are a gift worth embracing.

 

Ninja Parenting

Ninja parenting is a phrase I coined as my approach evolved to meet the needs of my son in every phase of his life. He grew up hearing me say over and over again, “I will always have more patience than you have attitude and more tools in my toolbox than you have challenges to give me.” The poor kid never had a chance against my ninja parenting expertise.

From the day I found out I was pregnant, I knew in my soul that my responsibility was to guide him throughout his life in the ways in which he needed, not the ways I wanted him to need. So I did my best to be present and really think about what he was looking for from me in every situation, every challenge, every phase of growth. When he was an infant, he needed to know he was safe. Not in a bubble to where nothing ever went wrong, safe, but that he could trust himself and trust me. He needed to “feel” safe, not just hear me say the words. I wanted him to know the world is full of hope and promise knowing full well that the reality of mistakes and hurt and the ugliness of the world would reveal itself to him in time, but if he held the belief in his heart that better things are possible, then when he faced pain or challenges, he would be able to tap into his courage and potential to overcome them.

When he learned the art of communication and began asking “Why?” every waking hour of every day, I recognized that he was looking for affirmation to be curious about the world, to question when things don’t make sense, to never be satisfied with the status quo. So even though it was at times inconvenient to have to be thoughtful and intentional in my response, I did my best to feed the hunger he had for learning and understanding and thinking for himself.

He reflects now and says I “made him” make his own decisions from the time he was eight. Actually, what I was doing was offering him safe parameters in which to have input in his own life. Have thoughts and opinions. The easy way out for both of us would have been to give him all the answers, tell him what he was supposed to do and have him follow my direction. But that doesn’t help him when I’m not around or when he got older and was in the world on his own. Of course I wasn’t going to let him have sole power over when he went to bed or whether or not he endangered his life or someone else’s, but if he thought it was a good idea to only study for a 5th grade Science test on the 15 minute drive to school, the best way for him to figure out if that was a good study habit was to give it a try.

It looks different for every child and every parent. There is no one way to be a parent. No one right answer for everyone. The only element that needs to be consistent is being present. Being awake to your child. Tapped in. When we make a conscious effort to make ALL of our decisions (even the hard ones) from a place of Love, then we are doing the best we can in every situation. It takes longer to accomplish the goal of helping our children learn how to make decisions, learn that negative actions have consequences, learn how to cope. These are the ultimate life skills we want our children to have as they evolve into adulthood. And they are skills we can’t dictate to them, they are life skills that we teach through action, inaction and interaction.

Ninja parenting….wisdom, patience and love (and a little bit of trust that it all works out in the end).

 

 

 

Souls on a human journey

What can I control in this situation, and what can’t I control? Am I going to spin my wheels trying to change something I cannot control; the past, someone else’s behavior or  the weather? Or am I going to focus my energy on what I can do something about; my reaction, my behavior, my decision to be content?

I have had this conversation with 11 year olds in juvenile hall; bouncing off the walls and getting into fights because they are frustrated and scared being in jail. With young men and women returning home after decades in prison, urgently seeking to get back to their life, right their wrongs and put into motion every aspiration and dream they worked hard to prepare for while incarcerated. And with my 19 year old son as he navigates the transitions of his life. Oh, and I’ve had this conversation with myself, many a time.

Some of the most challenging of times come when I am working with my “other” kids; the 250+ that I have walked with through juvenile and adult court, through lengthy prison sentences and through the myriad of unforeseen challenges they encounter upon returning home, seeking a fresh start and a chance to create the life they’ve always been worthy of. I have always said in my work that I don’t “change” anything for anyone. I don’t “save” anyone. I don’t “fix” anyone. I simply walk with people in some of the most dire of circumstances, helpless to change anything about what happened in the past, but reminding them that they are inherently good, and capable and worthy of a better future while healing their past. And I will have that conversation over and over and over again.

I remember a young man, 19 years old, walked into my office one day, shoulders drooped, eyes choosing to look at the floor instead of at me. His sense of shame was visible in his body language and in his voice. After I hugged him, grateful to be seeing his face after months of being off my radar, he seemed to garner the courage to look me in the eyes and say, “I’m sorry, Mama Cheryl.”

“For what,” I asked.

“For letting you down. I been gettin’ high and I lost my housing and quit going to school.”

He expected me to echo the sentiments he had already heard throughout his life; that he messed up, failed, that I was giving up on him. Instead I let him know that our job as mentors/parents is to create parameters in which they can make decisions, and mistakes with an appropriate risk of harm, sacrifice and loss. Within those parameters, we expect mistakes. It’s all part of learning and growing. The relief on his face and the change in his body language was heartwarming. To know that someone cares enough to walk with you during difficult times, and trust you to find your way through them is critical to each of us. “What now” is more productive and healing than “How dare you”. If we all can’t fall and fail and get back up again to give life another try, we miss the purpose of living. This journey of life is all about cycles of growth.

And then sometimes I run out of wisdom, support, guidance or tools. Sometimes I am not meant to be part of another’s journey to healing. I have to let go and trust that they will find their way; hoping that they do. It is painful, but if someone I love doesn’t see their own inherent value yet or continues to self-sabotage their own life, there is nothing for me to do except send them love from a distance. Let go and pray that they continue to see people come into their life to remind them that they are loved and valued.  But I can’t put more effort into someone’s healing and success than they do. It would be egotistical for me to think that I have the power to change them. I have no power over anyone else, none of us do. I only have love and compassion.

We are all souls on a human journey. We cross paths with one another along the way, to support and be supported. To learn and to teach. To love and be loved. It’s a beautiful journey.

Women are women…no matter where we are

The first time I walked onto the women’s prison yard in Chowchilla, California – a stark contrast to the men’s prison yards where I’d visited as a prison Chaplain for more than a decade – it struck me that although the situation of incarceration is the same – the experience from a visitor’s lens was drastically different. That first day at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF)– seeing what I saw – feeling what I felt – has been influential in my drive to strengthen our community of women to support our mothers, daughters and sisters returning home.

For me, the personal preparation for entering a men’s prison or women’s prison is similar. I have “prison clothes”; black, white, gray, muted-toned extremely loose fitting clothing, comfortable shoes, no-wire bra because rumor has it that bra wires can be used to escape prison, no make-up, no jewelry, hair usually pulled back. This dress code is a combination of the prison system requirements, and because the majority of my work inside institutions has been as a Chaplain. Early on I made a personal choice to use my appearance to help set the boundaries for the spiritual relationship that I am entering into with people inside institutional settings. I have a mental/emotional process I walk myself through to set down all of the day-to-day responsibilities I hold and show up prepared to “be present” for the few hours I have with men and women inside to encapsulate everything they are feeling and experiencing, process it together, talk through some tools and opportunities for coping and healing, all while trying to just be humans together in a very inhumane setting. Then as quickly as we begin, our time together ends abruptly with no hugs allowed; just a handshake.

What I recognized that day walking into CCWF, was the palpable difference in energy from a men’s prison. When I walk onto a men’s prison yard, I recognize the emotional “suit of armor” that everyone, including me, carries. The officers are largely unpleasant and seemingly unhappy. They must wear at least 10lbs. of gear; vest, belt, pepper spray, taser, giant key rings, blunt force tools, etc. There is a sign that warns of the high voltage wires in the fencing and there are stories of birds and coyotes getting zapped by them. You know there is a “gunner” in the towers around the facility keeping an eye out and highly skilled in hitting their target at any given moment. The fear of getting caught in that moment of chaos you’re always hoping the black and white clothing will stand out to the shooter so you won’t be collateral damage if something goes down. Entering a men’s yard, every single person; guards and the people incarcerated are on high alert. Someone is doing pull-ups, 2 guys are playing handball, others are running the track over and over and over again like hamsters on a wheel. Two other guys are motivating each other to do 10 more burpees, a group of guys is hovering close together and talking. And everyone is keenly aware of what everyone else is doing. Always waiting and ready for something to go wrong. As if there is never a moment to just breathe, relax, be human. On guard 24/7, 365 days a year for decades.

Somewhere inside of me I understand all of that. I’ve learned to put on my own emotional protective gear. I’m not “a woman” when I enter a prison, I am a spiritual representative seeking to meet other spirits on a human journey in their inherent goodness…for but a moment in time. Sounds altruistic, I know, but it’s also self-protective. That day I marched onto the CCWF prison yard, protected and “armed”, I stopped in my tracks because what I was met with was not an equal amount of armor. I encountered prison officers who weren’t as anxious or angry as they were in the men’s institutions. They were people who seemed to appreciate visitors. Right away I saw a working garden off to the side with a group of women tending to it. Women were casually walking the track together, talking, occasionally laughing out loud, greeting each other with hugs. When I entered a sleeping unit, the women’s cells were decorated as best they could with family pictures and art. They “nested”. Even in prison. I wondered, briefly, “Do they know they’re in prison?” And the truth is even more eye-opening. They absolutely know they’re in prison, as much as the soldiers on the men’s yards do, but like me and my friends on the outside, they live in the world differently from the way that men do. And as a deeply oppressed population amongst deeply oppressed populations in systems of mass incarceration, they adapt to their pain and learn to disguise it behind a smile, a song, a blossoming garden.

We, as women, are communal beings. We establish the foundation of families and nurture the fibers of our communities. We internalize our pain and are more likely to harm ourselves than take our pain outward to harm others. The number of suicides in women’s prisons is painstakingly higher than in men’s prisons. Over 92% of women in prison have experienced sexual and/or physical assault in their lives. 80% of women who are incarcerated are mothers and the primary caretaker for their children and approximately 90% of women in prison who have been convicted of murdering someone close to them, were victims of abuse inflicted by their “victim”.

Women in prison create community inside because that is their/our life blood. We need to belong. We need connection and family. And when women return to their communities after incarceration, they desperately seek to re-establish their sense of family and community that they had prior to incarceration and the community that was their survival mechanism while inside. What they often come home to though, is a system of re-entry providers that mirrors the prison system: designed for and by men. Women’s reentry programming has primarily been an afterthought. Men’s re-entry programs will take funding and claim to have women’s re-entry services that are little more than taking their men’s programming guidelines, throwing in a female facilitator and claiming they support women returning home. It’s insufficient and ineffective in its approach to the unique needs of women, the sense of community we need and the sheer numbers of available opportunities for support, housing and training. Childcare? Transportation? Hygiene/medical care? Parenting/family reunification? Employment opportunities that aren’t in a warehouse or construction site? All insufficient.

We can do better. Women have had an increase of more than 700% in our prison population in California in the last 30 years. The impact on communities when women get incarcerated debilitates communities for generations. We, as women with an increasing amount of influence and power, need to step into the uncomfortable space of diversity and build bridges to re-establish and strengthen our entire community of women, where everyone belongs in the circle, and everyone knows their inherent value. Imagine the change we can create in the world, together.

 

 

 

 

Reflection is Good. . .

Reflection is a good thing. It presents the opportunity to look back at choices we’ve made in the last year, decade…or decadeS as life tumbles on. If you’ve lived a colorful life, the reflections can sometimes be blurry (years 19-23 for me) or painful or empowering. Reflection, as we get older, is remembering a life well lived, in the mud of self-discovery and the pride of embracing what the universe has brought our way. It’s reading a great book of which we are the sole author, protagonist and antagonist.

Sometimes reflections blend years together, like periods of time defined by a pattern of experiences instead of contained within the months of January through December. Those “19-23” years for me were a period of self-indulgence. I spent 31 years being defined by the title of someone’s partner or someone’s mom, a crutch I didn’t realize I had created, until becoming an empty-nester with no choice but to stand in the world alone and decide once and for all who want to be in the world.

This transition of decades, my reflections have focused on how far I have come in my life. The choices I have made to stand in the shadow of another’s Light. To diminish my power to make room for other’s. To sacrifice what I need to satisfy the needs of someone else. They have all been decisions I own and made from a place of love, my own insecurities, or my own constitution that drives me to want to make everyone happy.

What I have learned along the way is that not everyone respects others’ time or life. Not everyone is self-aware enough to recognize the impact of their actions. I’ve nearly burned out trying to be everywhere and everything for everyone. Thinking the “single mom” challenges would make me look weak if I couldn’t juggle it all, I sat at basketball games working on my laptop, as a colleague called wondering how I could leave the office when “things needed to be done”.  I have come home from exhausting my energies supporting other peoples’ challenges and needs to realize I had nothing left for my own child. We all have days when we’re not at our best and can bring unnecessary stress to the people we care about. I am most difficult to be around when ignoring my instincts screaming that life is out of balance…my signal that change needs to happen. I have weathered some of the most consistently difficult, unaware people in my personal and professional life. Along the way I have realized that none of them are responsible for my life, none of them have to own my decisions, and none of them can stop me.

The experiences of my tumultuous years have helped me let go of things I no longer need. Things that no longer feed me in a positive way. We can get stuck in places and relationships that don’t serve us, trying to prove a point, trying to be something we are not meant to be. I am improving at letting go, with love and appreciation, but just letting go. No wallowing. No hesitating. No time for that.

As I reflect another decade mastered, I stand tall. I stand comfortable alone in the world and comfortable in the powerful tribe I have built along the way. I welcome a new phase of life, excited about what lies ahead. I reflect with a heart full of love.

Reflection is good. It can help uncover our Purpose.