Bikinis and Bodily Autonomy

 

A few months ago, my daughter said she wanted to get her ears pierced. She mentioned it very casually, in the same way you might say ‘my favorite color is blue.’ This is, I assume, a normal and age appropriate request for a 6-year-old.

I responded with a series of stuttering sounds after a few seconds of stunned silence. And then I said ‘no.’ And she said ‘why?’ And I said ‘you’re not old enough’ and changed the subject. This is, I assume, a normal and age appropriate reply for a 36-year-old.

On the first beach day of the summer, she eyed her peers closely and upon inspection of the general trends announced to me that she wants a bikini. She didn’t even bother to ask. She seemed to feel it was a foregone conclusion.

And I said no. And she said why. And I said we can talk about it later. And she said, well YOU wear one. And I pretended to be enthralled by a seagull flying overhead. She knows I hate seagulls.

On the second beach day of the summer, I wore a one-piece instead of a bikini. And when she again declared her desire for a new suit, I said no.

And she said why. And I said because it’s not practical what with the sand and sunscreen and such. And she said well YOU wear one. And I said…DO I THOUGH?! and I did a Vanna White gesture over my bathing suit. And then pretended to be enthralled by a seagull flying overhead.


Like everyone, even those who won’t admit it, I am bumbling blindly through parenting. I am doing my best, with a lot of help from Dave and from my sisterhood and from my critical thinking skills, but I always feel like I’m one freak-out away from my kids needing intensive therapy for the rest of their lives. I live for and live in the gray area. The moderation zone.

In all that gray moderating, though, I’ve taken a hard line on bodily autonomy.

My children do not have to hug anyone if they don’t want to. Not me, not my mother, certainly not a stranger or distant relative. They don’t have to give a kiss to appease the egos of adults.

I don’t choose my children’s clothes. Beyond what is weather appropriate, it’s up to them.  They choose things that don’t match and aren’t cute and that I don’t actually like. It’s not about me.

My children don’t have to eat ‘two more bites’ if they say they are full. They can have a snack right after lunch if they say they are hungry. They determine what their body needs.

I don’t teach my children that they have to mind the words of adults. They have to respect adults, and kids and the elderly and dogs. But being an adult in and of itself is not something to be deferred to. Obedience with out discernment teaches them to distrust their instincts.

I want my girls to feel empowered and entrusted and unencumbered. I want to be the first in line to tell them that I trust them to make their own choices about their body and the way they present themselves to the world.

Except…the earrings. And the bikini. In other words, my stance on their bodily autonomy is grayer than I had thought. Less clear than I had hoped. As I said, bumbling blindly.

As I said, bumbling blindly.


To a 6-year-old girl, a bikini is just a fun, new kind of bathing suit. With different straps and belly button freedom and a grown up feeling.

To a 6-year-old girl, earrings are an adventure, a rite of passage. They are sparkly and decorative and feminine.

To her 36-year-old mother, the earrings and the bikini are examples of the way our culture sexualizes girls and asks them to grow up fast while somehow remaining young forever and positions them under the male gaze before they could ever understand the consequences of what that means.

And the problem is that neither one of us is wrong. Some things are fun and pretty and whimsical and exciting. And the same things can be complex and damaging and nefarious.

I lay in bed at night with ghost of her as an infant sleeping on my chest, weighing the virtues of fully relinquishing my perspective on her choices and surrendering to trust while simultaneously contemplating the dark external forces that influence her preferences and mold her impressions in a world that isn’t set up to let women live in peace and safety.

On a related note, I don’t sleep much.


On Amazon they sell sheets of stick-on earrings like we used to wear in the 80’s. They’re sparkly and come in heart shapes and star shapes. You can choose the one that matches your mood or your outfit and enjoy them until they inevitably get caught up in your hair and fall out, which usually happens right around the same time you forgot you were wearing them.

As it turns out, a tankini gives some of the same satisfaction of a bikini. The two pieces, the fun straps, the more grown up feeling. But it’s child like and covers places you don’t want a sunburn, so there’s that.


She lays in bed at night thinking about the games she played that day, laying in a nest she made of stuffed animals, wondering if she can convince me to buy Lucky Charms, with her knobby knees and bruised shins curling up under her.

She sleeps just fine.

To A Mother Who Trusted Me

This is a thank you note, of sorts. It’s a note I could only have written with the beautiful gift of hindsight and the wonderful humility of parenthood. A note to a woman who trusted me with her children.

When we lived in Oslo I was without a job, without children, and with so much time. With the get-up and go of an unemployed overachiever and some very random ‘babysitting’ experience, I took a chance and answered an ad for a family looking for an English-speaking au pair.

I met S for the interview and was immediately impressed: she was smart, chic, friendly and clearly had her shit together. Or as together as a successful career-driven woman with two children ages 1.5 and 2.5 can be. She was just enough older than me to seem much smarter and fancier and more interesting, but she was close enough to my age that I could picture us having a glass of wine together.

The test meeting with her beautiful children went really well, which I was thrilled about because this was essentially a performance review conducted by two toddlers who could not understand a word I was saying. I distinctly remember fretting over my hair before I arrived at their home, which I now realize is only a concern of a woman who doesn’t understand toddlers (yet). I was hired, much to my relief, and I now realize, much to S’s as well.

At the time I obviously knew that finding a carer for your children was not a task taken lightly. I knew any parent would be choosy and have standards for any person they would leave with their most prized possessions. But I also thought I’d be the kind of person any parent would be happy to have found for the job. I am well-educated, experienced with kids, outgoing, not a criminal, young enough to seem energetic but old enough to seem sensible. I like early bedtimes and having basic cooking skills. I am the opposite of a risk taker. Who wouldn’t choose me?!

Now, of course, I realize it was not that easy. Everything in the above paragraph is true. And the reason S hired me can probably be found in some combination of those described traits and plus the strength of her gut feeling combined with the pressure she was under to hire help quickly. At the end of the day, she still had to take a leap. A huge, terrifying, leap of faith to meet a total stranger and turn her, virtually overnight, into someone who comes into your home and cares for your precious babies. She’s a hero.

I genuinely enjoyed working with the children. They were happy and had active imaginations and good appetites and they seemed to like my singing. I learned some Swedish words for snack foods and some French words for cuddling and sleeping. I learned about toddlers, about their incredible openness and their insane volatility. I learned about their picky eating and their fear of showers. I knew so much about S’s children, E and N, and I grew to love them. I knew which items N couldn’t sleep without, I knew which rhyme could distract E enough for me to wash her hair. I knew which toy train would cause them to fight, I knew which hat E thought was too tight.

S never seemed terribly stressed to me. She seemed busy, but together. She seemed to really enjoy her career, the travel she did for her job, the parties she attended with coworkers. But she was also incredibly devoted to her children. They lit up around her. She lit even more brightly around them.

At the time being part of their world for 8 months seemed like such a nice snapshot into the life of a loving family (and it was), but now I can also see it was one of the most intimate things a woman could have ever shared with me. And I’m so grateful for that.

I tended to her children when they were feverish and she was stuck in the airport returning from work.  I know now, from personal experience, how hard that moment must have been for her.

I took them to nursery school and coaxed them from tears when they didn’t want to stay.

I took them to the park on the first warm day of spring. I did things that she surely did with them 1 million times over, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some part of her wishing she could have done them every single time herself.

Even on her best day at the office or on a lovely evening out, I know now from my own experience, part of her heart was always back at the house with N and E. Part of her heart was always outside her body, and she that part of her heart to me and trusted me to care for it.

When I think of that now I am truly struck. What a privilege.

The time I spent with them taught me so much. About siblings in an age that I can’t myself remember. About the way kids can be flexible when moving between countries and languages. About the choices families make every day to balance financial responsibility and emotional stability and personal fulfillment.

We face those choices now with our own family. And it’s hard.

I want to be with my children and share in their day, but I also want to grow my business and experience external gratification. I want to manage my household and fulfill their desires and make the world keep spinning, and sometimes I need some help to do that.

Finding that help is difficult, because I’m asking a young woman, often much younger than myself, to take on the weight of my most precious cargo for a few hours at a time.

I’m asking a woman, who doesn’t have children and certainly should not be expected to understand what it is like if you do, to see my children the way I do, as awe-inspiring maniacs who deserve love and safety every minute of every day.

I’m trusting someone who isn’t me, and anyone who isn’t me is somewhat suspect. FACT.

I’m saying yes to the idea of having it all by not being it all.

I’m saying yes to the village, to the benefit of new faces and different hands, to the joy of someone who sings songs I don’t know and fixes boo-boos in another way and who has a laugh different than mine.

I’m opening, just a crack, the steel bars I keep around my children, around my heart, and letting a teenager come in for a while. It’s terrifying. And liberating.

Thank you, S, for trusting me then and teaching me now.

 

When My Running App Died

A few years ago I ran my last race. I mean it might not be my last race EVER, and I didn’t know it was my last race at the time. But in early 2013, after having run a grueling but gratifying half-marathon in January, I ran a 10K at 11 weeks pregnant. The miles weren’t the issue, but I was right in that super fun part of pregnancy where you feel permanently hung over and all the smells and all the sounds are overwhelming and you are so tired you want to quit but you can’t quit because you are always kind of choking down a minor dry heave gag reflex. But I had signed up for the race before I was pregnant and felt committed or something so I went anyway. Dave, who hates running for various reasons but mostly I think because I’m far superior at it, ran too in solidarity. And when I crossed the finish line and after I puked in a public restroom, my appetite for racing was gone for a while.

So while I of course said ‘I’ll sign up for a race once the baby is born!’ I forgot about that soon after because I got one of those no-sleep-no-way babies. And I’d run as an outlet and as a metaphor, but I wasn’t keen to worry about my pace or a race.

Eventually, of course, the baby began to “sleep” (quotes used because it’s all still relative but whatever) and I began to enjoy my favorite hobby more again. I picked back up on my running app and tracked my miles and shaved time off my pace. And this carried on for quite some time. I tracked it joyfully and pridefully and off I went.

At some point early in the fall of 2016, however, I was on about mile 4 of a run when my app announced my distance and pace in my earphone. And I, in a reply to an APP that lives INSIDE MY PHONE, said out loud ‘mind your own fucking business!’

I knew instantly, of course, this was not something a person feeling balanced would do. Not only can the app not hear me because it is not sentient, but it’s also only doing what I directed it to do, and furthermore I don’t need to be so rude.

Later when I thought more about it, I realized that the habit that corresponds with my running is called listening-to-political-podcasts, and in fall of 2016 that habit started bringing on a certain amount of stress emphasized by the creeping rise of a certain “short-fingered vulgarian.” I thought about cutting back on the podcasts, and for a brief but profanity-free week I listened only to poppy peppy playlists instead. But I craved the information high of well-researched political conversation (because I’m very fun), so I decided to continue listening to them. The solution, I decided, was to silence the app. It continued to track my runs but I stopped it from telling me about the progress of each mile LIKE I DON’T ALREADY KNOW. But anyway.

One of the nearly instant results of this change was that my pace slowed. That app was, indeed, helping me run faster. Another nearly instantaneous shift was that I enjoyed the runs more. That app was, it turns out, stressing me out unnecessarily.

I continued using the app religiously but didn’t think about it as much since I had let go of the app as feedback. And in truth the entire reason I ever opened that app at all was to a) torment my sister who feels very strongly that she must WIN everything but who almost never ran more miles than me in a month and b) to compete with one pal with whom I was usually neck and neck with for mileage. Neither of these feel like the healthiest of reasons when I consider that my purpose in running is peace, release, and self-care.

Early last month, the running app died unexpectedly. I tried and tried to open it and fix it and uninstall it and reinstall it. But it would open only for a brief second, then crash. My phone is probably too old to support this app. Or the app was tired of me treating it unkindly. Either way, it was done.

At first, I’ll admit, I felt a mild sense of panic. How will I continue to drive my sister mad by beating her at the only thing I am better at than her besides Jeopardy at which I am also dominant? How will I maintain the years of records of all the miles I’ve run? How will I match miles with my friends?

This is the kind of panic a person who has become too addicted to the phone has. A person too tethered to the cloud.

I remembered that I felt the same way after I realized in 2014 it had been a year since my last race. And the way I justified to people ‘oh yes, I’m looking at a race to sign up for, it’s on my list’ when they asked. But eventually, I accepted that racing didn’t have to do with running for me right now. Racing didn’t prove that I run.

Similarly, tracking my runs in this app was fun and interesting and motivating at times, but that’s all. This app doesn’t prove that I run. My feet on the pavement prove that I run. My heart beating in my chest. My worn out shoes, my beautiful early morning silence. Those things are real. The app is just an idea.

As a result of the death of the app, I rest on days when I feel like I need a rest because the pressure of counting is gone.

Four-mile runs turn into six mile runs when I feel great that day, but not because I feel a need to reach a round number for the month.

I alter my route to follow the sun or to stop at a favorite resting point.

I run just as much, I think, but who knows.

 

A Birthday Party

I wrote this in November. If you know me, you know I have a tendency to over-think things. If you are new to this blog, you’re about to find that out. I wasn’t ready to post it until now. But here it is.

My baby is turning 6-years-old, hardly a baby, not a toddler, definitely a girl. And I feel a lot of feelings about this, spanning from joy to panic. Every mother feels them (at least that’s what I tell myself) as every year passes. As she slips further from the time when my life is the life most intertwined with hers. She grows more independent, but I feel a bit left behind. She sees herself differently, she sees me differently, and I can’t move on from the moment I first held her.


My daughter, being 6, felt ready to have a birthday party. She is in the peak of what it is to enjoy a birthday. The joy of being special for a day and eating cake and having seconds on cake. She’s proud to get older, to know more, to reach higher shelves, to have a longer leash. She wants to share this joy with her friends at a party. What could be more natural.


I want my child to be happy. I love my child. But I am not her, we differ in so many ways. A mother’s wants and desires and emotions and reactions don’t morph into those of her child after it’s born. We subjugate our needs, our needs are subjugated against our will, but after it all we’re still in there. The woman we were for all those moments before we became a mother exists in all the moments after.


She has always, since she could speak, expressed the desire for a birthday party. She’s a very articulate, compulsively social, incredibly vibrant child. And she loves cake more than you love your own life. But I resisted the word party (because I’m very FUN!). On previous birthdays I made the cake, invited over a friend, sang to her in my rather unspectacular voice. And because she’s also a gracious child, she accepted this as enough on all her other birthdays.


Maybe I fight the urge to do everything my children want more than I should. Maybe I resent the implication, insinuation or outright declaration that what I want doesn’t matter anymore. Doesn’t matter as much. Doesn’t matter to anyone but me. Maybe my own anxiety about parties and houseguests and large groups of children was the excuse I gave. The aversion to ‘the birthday party’ was the name I gave to my silent protest against the cultural idea that losing myself was part of motherhood. But also I’m not super into large groups of children.


She never explicitly asked for a birthday party this year. Maybe by the wise age of 6 she’d accepted non-biological aunties and her own sister as the only party guests she could expect. But I planned one anyway, inspired by the joy she showed at the parties of others, warmed by the truth that she loves the party even when it isn’t for her, guilted by the thought that I was the only thing standing between her and that kind of memory for herself. Plus I, too, enjoy cake. And seconds on cake.


Sometimes a party is just a party. Sometimes even a silent protest can be quieted for a day. Sometimes you have to admit that while you might be right on the point of the war, this battle isn’t where it will be won. I am still me, I am not them, they are not me. But god damn these kids love balloons. And cake. Did I mention cake?


I rejected any inkling I might have to fall trap to the Pinterest party-planning-abyss where I’ve seen so many before me perish. I joked that the theme of the party was ‘1980’s Birthday.’ In the 80’s every birthday party had one theme, which was ‘Birthday.’ There were balloons, maybe streamers, cake, conical hats, possibly a pinata depending on bravery level of the parents involved. Now it’s like ‘Snow Castle in Space’ or ‘Undersea Cowboy Adventure’ and people lose hours of their lives and large portions of their salary to these events. I may have blossomed into a person who can host a child’s birthday party, but that kind of planning is a bridge too far.


Her friends came. And shared their love for my girl. And she shared her bliss with them. And after one round of pin the tail on the whatever and a candle in a cupcake they just ran around. Screaming, laughing, being children who don’t yet have to worry about how many of their own neuroses they are passing on to someone else. Being children who think growing older is the best thing that can happen. Being children who never worry if houseguests notice the dust on the stairs or the slightly overcooked treats.


I’m still me. But they are making me better. Happy birthday my sweet pea.

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Into The Woods

Hillary Clinton appeared at a retirement party of sorts on the Capitol today.

Headlines, not just on Breitbart, quipped about her emergence from the New York woods to be at this event. It’s not like the President-elect is assembling a cabinet of billionaires and children in Aleppo are starving as they are bombed and Nazis dressed as J.Crew catalogs are telling us it’s ok to be a white supremacist. None of that, nothing to worry about. So yes, let’s definitely make time in our morning show news coverage for ‘where has she been?’ and ‘where are her hiking boots?’

In the weeks since the election, weeks that have felt like an unending hellish eternity, the jokes about Hillary taking hikes have been abundant. Bros on podcasts made jokes about her having a breakdown. Pundits gave each other knowing looks while pondering with false concern on network news. SNL writers certainly felt very pleased with themselves when devising an entire sketch about her outdoor exploits. There were memes. 

It’s almost like if you spend your entire career devoted to civil service and then that career comes to a screeching halt at a dead end of misogyny and misinformation, you can’t have a little privacy. You can’t seek solace in nature. You can’t find comfort, at least not without others making a joke at your expense.

It’s almost like if your entire adult life is spent battling against stereotypes and fighting against haters and countering conspiracy theories and being compared to your husband you don’t deserve some privacy when you are dealt the most crushing blow to your career imaginable. It’s almost like all that work and all your pain is just a laugh for everyone you thought you would be fit to serve.

It’s almost like when you run for President as the first major party female candidate and you’re about to break a barrier that your grandmother couldn’t have dreamed of being broken and millions of women who worked hard all their lives are rooting for you and you suddenly fall short, you still owe everyone something. You still have to make appearances, which they would certainly say you shouldn’t be making because DISTRACTION, but also, you can’t disappear to the woods. You still have to put on makeup, because how are they supposed to look at you when telling you what to do? You still have to make them feel better about themselves.

If you live and breathe America for 30 years, professionally, personally and psychologically devoting yourself to the idea and reality of the political process, and then wake up one day to find that people are not paying attention, why shouldn’t you take to the forest? If nearly 3 million more voters chose you over the racist, misogynist, thin-skinned, unexperienced bully you ran against after a lifetime of preparation but you lost anyway? Why wouldn’t you want to hear only the sounds of birds talking to each other and wind speaking to trees. If you had to smile through a serial adulterer and admitted sexual predator telling the world it was your fault your husband cheated on you and the American people, the white American WOMEN, chose him instead?

Go into the f&*ing woods.

 

The fact that Hillary Clinton’s whereabouts are even a topic of conversation among anyone but her family disturbs me but doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t surprise the millions of women who voted for her, who hold up so much of the weight of their family, their community, their work, but who are still made to wonder if they are enough. It’s likely, I’ll admit, that it also doesn’t surprise millions of women who didn’t vote for her. Who looked past her and chose someone else, but who also lay awake at night wondering if they can ‘do it all’ while their husband sleeps soundly never having entertained any such concern.

I’ll meet you in the goddamn woods.

 

I cried when I wrote this.

Because this entire idea has run through my head for weeks, through the joke and the quips, reminding me that what we do is never enough. We can’t do enough to win, no matter how much we do. If we don’t win, we can lose in the right way.

For men who don’t see women as their equal, for women who do not believe women deserve what men have, for a society that laughs in the face of gender equality. Make a meme, some sketch comedy, do what you want. But I cried.

Just another feminist killjoy. We’re holding our next meeting. In the woods.

 

It Is Not Easier

There were times when I was awake at 3am standing in the bedroom with no pants, no will to live, making a shusssshing sound and gently bobbing back and forth to keep my baby from screaming which in turn kept me from screaming. I bounced and shhhhhhushed and bounced and shussssshed and thought ‘this will get easier.’

I told myself that because I was very tired from giving birth and keeping a baby alive and keeping a marriage alive and keeping my friends from leaving me and walking my dogs and remembering to eat. But if someone had really sat me down (hopefully got me some pants first) and looked me in the eye and said ‘do you think that’s true?’ I would have probably laid my head in their lap and said ‘no’ while weeping myself to sleep.

And I would have been right. It is not easier.

Babies certainly have a lot of needs and require a lot of physical energy from parents. These baby-needs could perhaps even be described as feelings. But my 6-year old has emotions. Emotions so big and so loud and so real and so raw that no amount of shush-bouncing could ever help. Believe me, I’ve tried.

I try very hard not to be uncomfortable with her emotions. They are a normal part of human existence, they are a sign of her emotional and psychological development. But sometimes they are painful for her. Confusing to her little heart. And nothing is more natural in me than the urge to build a wall around her heart. But that’s not wise.

I have a hard time stopping myself from always saying ‘you don’t have to be sad’ or ‘don’t get upset.’ Because you do have to be sad. And it’s ok to get upset.

I have a hard time because I see these emotions as a part of her growth that scares me. The part where I can’t always intervene, where I have to sit in my discomfort of her discomfort in order to model that nothing comes from pushing feelings away, nothing good anyway.

I watch as the veil of a blissful and optimistic childhood slowly, gradually lifts. People aren’t always kind. Things don’t always go the way we want. Bad things happen. Life isn’t fair. These ideas come in bits and pieces. And I hold it as my duty to remind her that those downsides must exist so that we can appreciate, understand and feel joy, love, peace, and security…but still, it hurts.

I realize now that the burden of diapers and sleeplessness come with the freedom of child-like ignorance. The jobs I have to do physically to raise my child have changed in an inverse proportion to the way I have to support her emotionally.

The upside of her emotions and her awakening are many. I am a trusted confidant to a budding girl, a future woman, who has enough love in her heart to withstand all the truth she will eventually see. I get to sit with her, for as long as she needs me or lets me, and hold her hand when she discovers the depths of each emotion, the joy of each elation. I take inspiration from her development, from the connections she makes while navigating sometimes uncomfortable or uncertain emotional waves. I’ll be a better mother, woman, human for sharing this with her. And yet.

I feel a certain nostalgia for pantsless bleary eye pre dawn shushing. dsc_0346

From the Drafts: My Third Place

I wrote this post in January 2016. I held on to it because it wasn’t done and it wasn’t clear and it seem like navel gazing but this is a blog, isn’t it, so let’s gaze.

On my first night on a recent trip to Seattle, I settled my jet lagged kittens into bed, washed my travel weary face, and braved the rain and a chatty Uber driver to meet an old friend and her new friends in a fancy-adults restaurant in Capitol Hill. Anyone who knows me well knows how very, very hard it was for me to muster the energy for such an outing. I had lipstick on for god’s sake. But she’s a special, wonderful, dear friend and her husband is a delight. Plus there was guacamole.

My friend Caitlin introduced me to all her lovely friends. And then they asked the conversationally appropriate ‘So how do you know Lane?’

Caitlin gave this really nice (and true) answer about us meeting in a group for women living abroad and having gone to a baby shower together in London and having dinner in a Thai restaurant in Oslo and us drinking micro brews in Michigan. But this was a convoluted answer to a simple question and I saw their quizzical faces and took it upon myself to preempt the follow-up questions.

We met online. I announced.  On the internet. A message board. You know…the world wide web. That’s what she’s trying to say. 

Interesting! said a young and bright eyed English woman, in the way where you’re not sure if they mean ‘interesting’ or ‘ew.’

Ohhhhh! exclaimed the gorgeous Brazilian woman across the table,  I’ve never met anyone on the internet! Maybe I should try it! 

Was she saying that to be polite? Was she secretly thinking ‘what kind of weirdos meet online and then have slumber parties in each other’s homes’? Maybe. But I answered her exclamation at it’s face value.

Yes, I told her as serious as I’ve ever been in my life. You should definitely try it.


 

There’s this idea in sociology of the ‘third place.’ It’s a term coined by Ray Oldenburg but the concept is old and familiar. The ‘first place’ is your home, the ‘second place’ is your workplace. But the third place is somewhere with more open, natural, creative communication and connection.

Even if you haven’t heard this phrase before, you probably already decided what your third place is before you finished reading the last sentence. Maybe it’s a coffee shop. Or your yoga studio. Your church, your university. In the past it could have been a bowling alley or barber shop or beauty parlor but get serious you are not in a bowling league and you wear earbuds in the salon because DUH, podcasts. But it’s just somewhere accessible, comfortable, accommodating.

People will argue that in recent decades these third places have declined. Because of technology and commute times and general lack of goodwill for our neighbors. And they are right, the numbers don’t lie, but it’s not all robot friends and zombie faces in front of a screen. I still see, know and use third places and I’d bet you do too.

I hang out in the kid’s play area at the library and see familiar faces holding their growing children. I made friends in a beloved Pilates studio last summer. I go work at a coffee shop sometimes where I chat to the other regulars also known as retired elderly men who also appreciate a good muffin.

But, alas, I move around a lot. And a certain number of months out of the year I can’t understand the literal words coming out of my neighbors mouths. Being nomadic and living in cultural isolation can be lonely. And even introverts can be social butterflies.

When I’m away, I may not have a set seat in my local coffee shop, no one is inviting me on play dates. But I need a spot to be. I need people. I have a third place that I love so well.

The internet is my third place.


 

I do, actually, have wonderful ‘real life’ friendships as well. You know, ‘real’ as in we met in 8th grade or we were in the same dorm or we sat together at Grad School orientation because everyone else seemed like a bunch of weirdos. But there’s something about the way you can communicate with someone online that makes that connection easier at times.

You get to cut through the small talk and avoid awkward silences. You can tell your story yourself instead of having to try to push your identity through the preconceptions of people who know you mom, worked with your sister or knew you in high school. Your physical characteristics, your fashion, your accent can all be parts of telling who you are, but they can also be barriers that distract from what you want people to know about you. You can be seen by someone without them having to see you at all.

When you’re online can cover topics that some people might be uncomfortable discussing in person with someone they haven’t known very long. You forget that you can be self-conscious about your laugh or your tendency towards moodiness. The physical distance between people and the buffer of the laptop screen can, perhaps at times, defying logic, make connecting with people much easier.

The places I’ve most comfortably inhabited on the internet of full of people, mostly women, who understand me in ways that my ‘real life’ friends might not.

The expat board where I met Caitlin has yielded numerous meaningful, long lasting friendships. These people understand the confusion of international marriages, the stress of long distance moves, how much you can miss root beer, the isolation of linguistic barriers while also appreciating the draw of the unknown, the special badge of honor you can convey on yourself for your expatriate status, the fear of settling down into a ‘normal life.’

The writing group that I joined at the invitation of one of my favorite bloggers is a comfortable place to be intellectual and weird and creative with a bunch of strong, female geniuses that I admire. Where you can share things you have thought and words you’ve written with expectation of thoughtful, measured and caring responses. Where you can be as nerdy as you actually are and feel totally normal about it.

Friends I’ve made from the comments of this very blog, who have helped me through the struggles of motherhood and have commiserated over the confusion of expatriation and repatriation. People who felt connected to me by my words and nothing else and who I now count among close friends.

Imagine a coffee shop, park bench, deli counter where you could so easily find these people.


 

I’m actually a great defender of the third place, of talking to strangers or neighbors just to make a small connection to someone in the tiny bubble of the world I inhabit. Curating relationships might be one of my personal talents, and I’m not discriminate about the origins of those relationships.

The way I need the friends that have known me all my life depends on

the way I need the friends I met online and have never seen in person

which connects me to those I’ve met online and then later hugged in my real physical arms

who in turn help me appreciate the people I’ve yet to meet.