Breeding Empathy, and Activism


Women, and kids, at the march in Montpelier, VT

In 1989 when I was twelve years old, my mother took my brother, my sister, and me to the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, DC. People stomped around peacefully but angrily on our hometown Mall, its symbol of political liberty suddenly visceral.

There were a handful of counter protests, of course. One woman with a three-foot tall picture of an aborted fetus shook it violently at us.

“Is this what you want?” she screamed into my eight-year old sister’s face.

We walked on, toward the National Gallery, and I pretended for a moment that we were just tourists, caught up in one of the largest women’s rights marches in history. We discovered the compelling, knife-edge corner of the East Building, like millions of people before us. I left my own slick mark on the building that day, but even more powerful was the one my mother left on me.

That women’s march, with its chaos and beauty, revealed for me the breadth of choices I would eventually make about my own life, and those I would defend for others. I realized then that I had both the responsibility to plot my own course and the legal privilege to do so with precision. Even as a child, I could feel that there was dignity and pride in holding those rights—would that each of us could hold them for ourselves, always.

With that in mind, I gazed out at my personal timeline and set a placeholder sometime around my thirties—I saw my own children popping out of the margins then, as though filling the blank space in a puppet theater.

Recently, I took those three children to the Women’s March—a sister march to the one on Washington, located in Montpelier, Vermont. I didn’t think about why I was taking them with me—but I knew I must.

My daughter, though intrigued, was skeptical.

“Is it going to be dangerous?” she asked, worried about the horrible things she had heard at school about our new administration. She also worried about gathering in a city en masse—something I wish we all didn’t feel, but we do.

To me, attending the march with my children was important despite any fears—not only because I have a daughter, but especially because I have two white, middle-class sons. I wanted to begin teaching them, even now, at 9 and 4 years old, that this matters to them: not only are their lives and those of many they love directly affected by any potential laws that restrict access to basic human rights, but they will be responsible for any solutions to come. I want this feeling of responsibility to become part of who they are, the way it became part of me.

“No,” I answered my daughter firmly, “It’s not dangerous. There will be a lot of things you don’t understand, but it’s okay to ask questions.”

We parked the car and walked for miles with other kind, smiling, like-minded people, swarming the streets like magnetic particles in a doodle board.

My four-year old was skipping along next to me, holding my hand, wearing knee-high, American flag-patterned ski socks. Suddenly, his hand slipped from mine and he tripped, flying Superman style into a three-inch mud puddle. Someone handed me a tissue for his hands. I picked him up and slung him onto my back. My daughter looked at me, horrified by the mud streaked all over my side, and I shrugged. Activism is not tidy.

We stood on the sidewalk when the march began, as if we were watching a parade. There were drums, hippies, and purple-stained dreadlocks. Most of all, there were many other children—a colorful stream against the bleak backdrop of the winter day.

I was standing there, thrilled that I had brought my own children, when my daughter turned to me.

“Mom, what’s a ‘pussy’?” she asked. I turned to face her, open-mouthed.

Had I opened Pandora’s Box? I wondered. Maybe so, but hiding a word, a concept, or an idea does not mean your kids won’t learn of it on their own.

I explained many things to my children that day, and they puffed up, fueled by the privilege of information. When a group of older women walked by, chanting, “Get your tiny hands…outta my under-pants!” My children began to giggle, but then they quieted down. They were beginning to understand.

The value in generating any kind of moderate shock is that it creates a conversation—an organic education—without the need for mindless lecture.

“Mom, when can we join the march?” my older son finally asked. That’s when I took his hand and together my children and I joined the tide, heading toward the state Capitol. We sloshed through the wet snow, making our way, singing with the crowd until our knees began to buckle and it was time to go home.

I do not ask my children to share my exact beliefs and values, although I certainly would like that. Instead, what I am trying to do is to give my children the tools to be able to feel empathy. That, combined with the ability to articulate what they believe and why, will give them both a heart and a voice. Only then will they have the power to take action—and that, I can only hope, will be for the benefit of others.

Hi, From Our Bloody Shit Storm!


Here’s what our life actually looks like most of the time. Nuts.

I just found an old email that I wrote in response to one with the subject line: “Hi From the Amalfi Coast!” that my retired, world-traveling parents had sent me from…the actual Amalfi Coast.

This reminds me of what it’s like to be raising kids while the rest of the world is out there living it up. Thought I’d share.

Subject Line: Hi, From Our Bloody Shit Storm!

Hi Guys,

I’ll take it from the top here.

Yesterday afternoon, while catching up on laundry and email, and listening to two life-sized, Pirate’s Booty-filled versions of the Lego Ninjagos act out a battle with the nefarious serpentine death squad in my back yard (don’t ask), I noticed that Dog was standing unusually close to me. This means that he could not remove his nose from between my butt cheeks, despite my increasingly hostile pleas, not to mention the fact that I was sitting down.

When he finally plopped onto a pile of freshly-laundered but not-yet-folded white bedsheets and started sucking on his chest, I realized something was wrong. He looked like a laboring, pregnant cow, lay down in a manger.

After panicking because I thought his heart and lungs had exploded, I speed-dialed the vet. Remember Dog’s old stick-in-the-chest wound, which he got while sprinting into a rabbit hole sometime around 2007? For the past ten years, that crackerjack pocket of gnar has been gaining speed, building into a sinister pouch of super-infected nastiness, which exploded last night and leaked bloody pus globules all over the house. If we’d caught it on camera, we’d be YouTube billionaires by now, sipping on masticated yucca wine inside a grass hut on the Amazon.

Speaking of gross, as we were getting ready for school on Thursday, Son disappeared upstairs to take care of business and jam an entire roll of toilet paper into the U-bend. Twenty minutes later, Daughter started screeching, saying it was “raining” on her in the kitchen. What she meant was that something wet was squirting out of two light sockets and spewing through the kitchen cabinets. I darted upstairs, hollering wildly to my kids—something about staying calm and always asking for help in the midst of a crisis.

In case you hadn’t guessed, the toilet had overflowed. I mopped it up with a bunch of bed pillows, plunged away, and returned to my post in the kitchen. I cried for a minute, wondering—of all things—whether I should text my house-cleaning friend and ask her not to show up as she was scheduled to do in ten minutes because that mess was just embarrassing. I also wondered how I was going to make my kids’ lunches on a countertop full of sewage.

But first, I walked through the rain of poop water and grabbed my coffee. Then I stood in the kitchen, raw waste juicing from my hair, and Daughter brought me all the money from her piggy bank, which she said I could use to fix the ceiling if the whole bathroom fell through.

This was somehow comforting.

The waterfall finally slowed to a dribble (“MOM! IT’S YELLOW!!”), and we were all right. I can’t help thinking this is somehow all Baby’s fault, because like Dog, he is totally obsessed with whatever he finds sailing through the toilet.

In other news, Son figured out how babies are made all by himself (I’m hoping he doesn’t share this information with the Student Council, to which he was recently elected), Baby figured out how to eat Play-Doh and mix it into a soup inside the dirty laundry basket, and Daughter lost two teeth, one of which Son knocked out with his elbow.

We are leaving the kids with a very capable but unfortunate 15 year old tonight and heading to dinner at the house of some friends who have NO kids—just two yappy squirrel-like dogs that we can flick out of the way with our big toes.

Gotta run—the washing machine is leaking all over the floor.


This Afternoon, We Let Go This Gorgeous, Naughty Beast.


He was true to his breed and protective but aloof. He kept his nose three inches from my business from the start—my companion through many iterations of me: newlywed, grad student, new mother, expat, soccer mom, and beyond. His loyalty lay with us and maybe one or two others. If he didn’t exactly steal your heart, he probably stole something off your plate. He liked dairy, dirty diapers, and—well, all garbage actually. He recycled horse poop: eat, excrete, eat, etcetera. He swallowed corncobs, peach pits, and a whole avocado from the kitchen counter. He wolfed down a double loaf of my mom’s banana bread (and she doesn’t even like baking anymore). He licked our newborns’ earwax and the extra milk from their cheeks. He stole 5,437 soft pretzels from the hands of Bavarian babies before the Germans finally kicked us out.

He stymied veterinarians the world over with his random, often self-inflicted, and always complex ailments. He ate a plastic milk bottle and chased it down with 3 pounds of wild grass, which had to be surgically removed and promptly thrown out so he wouldn’t eat it again. He contracted a bacterial infection that made every inch of his fur feel like bubble wrap to the touch. He was incontinent from the age of 18 months old: I did more weekly laundry for him than I did for our three kids combined. He got tetanus (dogs don’t, really). He impaled himself on a fallen log and then finished a five-mile run with a six-inch hole in his chest. He was attacked by a cat, lost on a trail run, locked in a boathouse, and rescued from drowning in the middle of a choppy lake. He once ransacked a hotel room. He boarded more international flights than most people do in a lifetime.

Also, he liked beer gardens and basking in the sun.

He protected us from dangers known and imagined. He swamped a kayak while trying to save me from a sea monster in Lake Winnipesaukee. He pinned a stonemason against our house. He tore the shirt off a DHL guy. He took off after a balloon deliveryman on our daughter’s fourth birthday. He was maced by the mailman. Just once, I bailed him out of dog jail.

Despite all this, he somehow outlived every single one of his puppyhood friends.

When we brought him home 13 years ago (almost to the day), I sobbed, feeling the heft of responsibility. I’d have wept even more had I known what mischief was afoot, and what great big love I would someday have to let go. Over the last few months, even though he couldn’t hear me, I’ve told him over and over again—you will always be my favorite—and hand over my heart, it’s the truth.

Tenzin, you big old boof, we loved you like crazy.

A Case for Hands-off Parenting, and Play


It is early one weekday morning and I am catching up on emails. I hear some kind of unrest percolating in the living room, some sibling kerfluffle that often comprises our family palette. My daughter stomps by my desk, snorting and mad. She cranks down the tie on her bathrobe and pumps her fists, shaking them at her younger brother, who stands giggling in the hallway.

“You know what?” she shouts at him, “I’m taking you off the timeline of major events in my life. Because you are minor!”

My son’s laughter shifts into a cackle, a verbal defense. He tweedles off down the hall, giving himself time and space to work out what his sister has said.

I laugh. Perhaps I’m supposed to stop this talk, to tell her to be nice. But my daughter has found her voice, and it’s bold, funny, and smart. Her brother took a piece of her Lego set, and she is angry.

Lego play seeds the stalk of my children’s imaginary life, which means it ends up influencing a large part of their actual lives. My children take new Lego sets and follow the building instructions, helping each other when one mind sees what another does not. The instruction booklets are then either lost or thrown out. Before long, the sets begin to break down: someone trips and falls, integral piece in hand, a jet booster or an axle, which falls to the ground, flies left, and lodges itself inside, say, the kitchen heating vent.

For years, I tried to reduce the ambient chaos in my house by figuring out where each wayward piece was supposed to go. My anxiety level would surge—any return to the picture-perfect original set seemed hopeless—until finally, exasperated, I started putting all the pieces together in one place. From there, I discovered, the building possibilities were infinite.

As parents, how much do we actually need to swoop in and tidy up, shape behavior, bring everything back to a perfect center? A lot of the time, I’ve learned, we don’t.

Each week, from a hodgepodge of Lego bits, my children set up new scenes, the intricacies to which only they are privy. My daughter dresses a table, filling dishes with treasured pirate gems, petit radishes, and a milk jug, her imagination splashed on the living room carpet like a page from a beloved children’s story.


This type of play is like meditation, and my kids are well practiced. Their scenes are impermanent by nature, like a Tibetan sand mandala designed over many hours and then dismantled unceremoniously by a sibling who covets, or the dog who tramples through unaware, or me, whose hands sweep everything into a storage basket at once, reducing it to litter.

Most of the learning my children do outside our house is active and engaged—in school, at sports practice, during music lessons. At home, my kids learn passively through play, where it’s safe and inherently messy. They can check out of life, into their imaginations, and back again, often grasping important emotional skills in the process. They absorb more when this happens organically, without my intervention.

My children will realize suddenly, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, that they still haven’t eaten lunch. After school on weekdays, they find that I have moved their play sets, interrupting their mental flow to make room for dinner on the kitchen table. They have to stop playing to practice piano and get their homework done. They share, pooling favorite pieces to create combined sets. They learn, therefore, how to be angry and disappointed, to forgive and surrender, to take care of themselves in small ways.

They also unearth little joys, like when one of them discovered she could make a swaddled Lego baby by simply attaching a yellow head to a tiny building column. Instead of freaking out about those tiny, errant pieces everywhere, I am actually tickled when my three-year old son lays out baby Jedi, baby Spiderman, and a baby ninja girl side by side on the corner of my desk.

“Look, Mama! They’re sleeping!”

Indeed, they are.

Some parents I know keep Lego pieces organized, colors and sizes separated in a special container made just for that purpose, getting everything back on point at the end of each day. Others still are excellent at consistently engaging with their kids in the moment, teaching them how to harness or express anger and other emotions that bubble up and over during playtime. Me? I don’t always have the time, energy, or patience for that. What’s more is that when I bring my own psyche into the mix, I can be more disruptive than helpful. As long as everyone is being respectful (or nearly so) in both the imaginary realm and the one we share together, we’re all better off when I just let the pieces roll.

Struggling, for the Win

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“I feel awful!” my nine-year old daughter wailed, throwing herself on the kitchen floor like a dishrag.

“Please don’t make me go to school!”

Her ailments grew more elaborate each morning that week.

“I’m like a woodland spring in a drought!”

“I’m a fairy stuck in a flower that won’t bloom!”

Then, I found a notice from her teacher floating on the kitchen table among the crumpled backpack trash that appears at the end of each school day.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Oh. That,” she scowled, her arms crossed as if she had just closed for business, but I knew that we finally had a start.

In fourth grade, for the first time, the Student Council representative from each class is chosen by popular vote rather than at random. Candidates are required to write and deliver a speech to their class. My daughter was terrified. She had been debating running for class representative for days, her anxiety bubbling over right before school when she knew she would be faced with her murmuring peers: Who is running? Who will you vote for?

I wanted to encourage her to run, but we’d been here before. She wants to be the best soccer player on the team, but she hides in her closet with a book when it’s time to go to practice. It’s the same with piano and dance. She’s not certain that she will accomplish what her creative mind sets forth when she first fantasizes some level of achievement, so she ends up assuming the worst: that her fantastic fears of failure will come true instead.

One small part of me wanted to take the notice about the class election and bury it in the recycling bin along with all the shiny holiday catalogs and their promises of joy and splendor. But when my daughter brought it up again the next day, I knew we were already halfway around the track. I had to help her quiet her anxiety, temper her fears, and live through her own process. Rather than spit, moan, and make faces at the difficulty ahead like she was doing, I needed an actual strategy. But how do you encourage a child who isn’t certain that she has what it takes to fulfill her goals?

“What if I don’t win?” she wondered aloud, “what if I come in dead last?”

That’s when I nabbed an idea from some random quote in my Facebook feed.

“Well,” I began, “you might not win—that’s true. But you definitely won’t win if you don’t try.”

Turns out, it was just the thing. She grew quiet, chewing on her lip.

That evening, we made a list of her leadership qualities and I let her type them out in sentences on my computer. Seeing the very best of herself on display gave her confidence to add her own flair.

“I’m creative and good with colors!” she wrote.

Then, I listened to her read her speech aloud in what we call her quiet voice. I want to call it her nothing voice, but I don’t say that, because it is something. It’s the voice she uses to get a running start. I have to let her talk to me in that voice even if it makes me feel uncomfortable—it’s the voice in which she appears small, anxious, and unsure. If not at home with me, then where else does she get to use it?

It was raining on the day the speeches were to be given, so I drove my kids to school. As I dropped them off, I turned to my daughter. I told her that she is the bravest girl I know, and that I really love that about her. She had tucked her speech into her backpack that morning, and I trusted that she’d know which voice to use when she read it aloud.

The next day, the election winner would be announced at school after lunch. I took my dog for a morning walk in the woods where my daughter’s class happened to be on a field trip. I walked along the trail for a few minutes before seeing some of her classmates.

“Hello Mrs. Shanley!” They called to me. “What’s your dogs name again?” someone asked.

Children seem so cheerful most of the time.

I stood surrounded by her classmates when my daughter ran up and wrapped her arms around me. She kissed me before leaning over to nuzzle the dog. I realized then that one of her strengths, the kind that’s both hard to put on paper and to say out loud, is this: she can stop and feel the weight of every emotion, yet still move through her day with a full, clear heart.

As I walked out of the woods, I saw her teacher, who caught my eye and waved me over.

“I have to tell you…she was elected,” she said quietly, smiling. My eyes welled up and I reached for her arm.

After school that day, I met my daughter outside on the steps.

“Congratulations!” I said. I wanted to ask her how she’d found out—was she excited? Surprised? But the relief on her face told me all I needed to know.

“Thanks,” she said happily.

We didn’t tease out her emotions or inspect them as we do so often together when something is not right; the process was over, the outcome joyful. I hugged her, I held her for a moment, and I told her I was proud of her. Then we piled into the car with her little brothers, the dog, and a pile of overdue library books, and went out for ice cream.