This is Thirty Nine.

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I turned 39 yesterday. It’s not really a milestone birthday. Not like 18 or 21 or 30 or 40. It’s a non-event, really.

But it kind of feels like an event. Or a precipice.

39 is limbo. That last, nebulous year between my 30s and my 40s. And, like…I’m okay with it, I think? I’m not having a mid-life crisis or anything. If anything, this feels more like a mid-life senior prom. Suddenly I have a little time and energy to spend on getting pretty and smiling and celebrating everything I’ve done, while there are still a comforting number of sleeps before the next Big Thing begins.

But the next Big Thing is looming. And just like at my real senior prom…I find myself getting a little misty. And a little nervous.

This is thirty-nine.

I’m exactly where I wanted to be…but I don’t know where I’m going.

I trained for a career, but that was a goal that always shifted for me. What I really wanted, all my life, was a family, and a career that wouldn’t take me away from that family.

I thought teaching was going to be that career for me. Turns out, I’m not nearly as good at that as I thought I’d be. (Dear teachers: you are superheroes, seriously. Thank you for all that you do.) I’ve been a SAHM for a decade and I love it.

But my children are getting older now, and more independent. Someday soon, I’m going to have kids in high school, and college. I won’t be packing school lunches anymore, or driving carpools, or singing baby shark for the hundred-and-tenth time. And while that’s wonderful and natural and exciting…somehow, I never saw it coming. I have had a view of adulthood in my head since I was a little girl. I knew exactly where I wanted to be when I reached my 30s, and I spent my 30s smack dab in the middle of that vision. But I’m just now coming to realize that I never gave any thought to what was going to happen after.

I am 39 years old, and suddenly I have to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life. I’m heading into my 40s without a destination in mind and without a road map. Which is probably why…

I don’t want any more babies…but I want more babies.

My youngest is 7. I literally JUST–as in, last week–hit the magical moment where, for the first time in thirteen years, the only butt I have to wipe is my own. Every person in my house eats from the same sized cutlery. I’ve donated all the baby clothes. There is no longer a child-sized potty in my bathroom. Everyone sleeps in their own beds. I don’t have a stroller, a pack and play or a diaper genie. I’ve finally lost the last pound of baby weight, and for the first time, I’m not planning to put it back on in the form of another baby. The jeans I buy today might still fit me in five years. And yet…

I still take a pregnancy test every time my period is so much as ten seconds late. And while I always breathe a sigh of relief when it comes back negative…there’s still a little thrill of excitement while I watch it develop. There’s always a tiny, irrational, but truly sincere pang of disappointment when the stark white test is followed by the inevitable trickle of blood, so aptly named a “period.” It punctuates the decision we’ve made, and keep making, every month, stark and final:

It isn’t going to happen. Ever again.

I don’t really want to do it all again, I don’t think. I don’t want another baby. But that was the beginning of this chapter in my life, and it’s my favorite chapter. The middle and the end have been amazing, too. In fact, I’m kind of loving the end. I like it so much I wish it would last forever. I don’t want to to back…but going back would be a lot less scary than going forward. Going back would mean that, a decade from now, I get to do this part again. That’s all I want. I want to be right where I am, just a little longer. I’m not ready to turn that last page. But at least I know that…

Who I am today is who I want to be.

Yup. Actually me. Photo credit: me, an iPhone, and boredom.

I’ve done a surprising amount of growing up in the past decade, considering I was supposed to have already been “grown up” at the beginning of it. I’ve rediscovered my passions – for art, for writing, for good clean fun – and I keep finding new ways to express them. I’ve found and embraced the things I’m truly good at, and I’ve developed the confidence to share my gifts boldly, and often, and without apology. I’ve also come to understand that there are things that I outright suck at and will always suck at–and I’ve accepted that sucking at them doesn’t mean I don’t have to do them.

I’ve learned to forgive myself. I’ve learned to love myself. I’ve learned to take pride in my talents, and to embrace my imperfections without shame. I’ve learned that when one person shines, everyone sparkles. I’ve learned thankfulness for the light of others, even when that light is so dazzling my own pales by comparison. Especially then.

I know who I am, I like who I am, and I don’t worry about losing sight of that anymore. Which is why…

The friends I have now, and the friends I make from here forward, will be my friends for life.

If someone resonates with me, that’s my true self resonating with their true self. I know who I am and that makes me appreciate who YOU are that much more. I’m better at finding common ground than I used to be, and common ground is high ground: it almost always sits safely above the bullshit.

Plus, I’ve now mostly-raised three kids. That experience has given me two vitally important gifts: a high tolerance for bullshit, and the ability to understand and appreciate the people I love even when they behave like like assholes.

No, really. Assholery can be either a developmental stage or an unfortunate mood. It is not a state of being.

If I see you, I really see you. If I love you, I will always love you. I GET people now, and I feel like they get me. And that makes friendships so much easier.

I’m not going to accomplish anything spectacular before I’m 40, and that’s okay.

There is nothing I started in my 30s that will be finished by the time I’m 40. My novel will not be published before I’m 40. Hell, I probably won’t even finish my first round of revisions before I’m 40. I won’t achieve any prestigious title in my chosen field, because I haven’t even chosen a field. Whatever my great contribution to humanity is going to be (other than the three additional humans – you’re welcome, humanity!), it’s not going to happen in the next 364 days. It’s just not. And I’m really cool with that.

I’ve been busy. It’s been worthwhile. And whatever I decide to do next, I refuse to look at 40 as a deadline for it.

It’s a starting line.

I’m just getting started.

These are my power years. I’m the person I’ve always wanted to be. I’m WHERE I’ve always wanted to be. I have confidence, and an amazing family, and security, and love, and friendship. Whether I saw this moment coming or not, I’m not about to waste it.

It’s time to pick a new dream. I’m not sure yet what that’s going to be. But whatever it is, I’m going to aim high this time. And I’m going to get there. I know what I’m capable of now. I’m primed and ready.

So, yeah. Okay.

This is thirty-nine.

Let’s rock it.

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My Secret To a Clean House: pictures or it didn’t happen.

(Featured Image by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash)

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I’m going to give you advice on cleaning now.

HA! BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH! AHAHAHAHAHHA! HA! HAHAHAHAHA! BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! **gasp**…**gasp**…I…ME….the one whose dishes occasionally evolve and form civilizations…THAT me….I am going to tell OTHER PEOPLE….how to….CLEAN?!? BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

No, wait! Don’t leave. I’m serious.

But, full disclosure: the title was a little misleading.

Of course I’m not going to tell you how to clean. I suck at it. I HATE it. Loathe it. With a fiery passion. I don’t do order. I do barely-controlled chaos. I did not apply for this housekeeping job and try as I might I can’t seem to get myself fired. My house is a dump 99% of the time. I’m not ashamed to admit it.

However….

I HAVE figured out the secret to not feeling like a failure about it. And getting up the motivation to do something about it, you know, when I have to. (Because otherwise we might frighten our houseguests. Or misplace the children.) This trick is also handy for not losing the will to live when my floors wind up sticky five freaking minutes after I mopped them. (Pfff…bvvvfffpp……..MOP! ME?! HA! BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!! STOP IT. I CAN’T BREATHE! I CAN’T BREATHE!) …ahem. Allow me to rephrase. Five minutes after I dropped a damp rag on the floor and pushed it around with my foot.

The secret is…..drumroll please….I take pictures.

But wait, there’s more. Brace yourself for this one.

I POST THEM ON SOCIAL MEDIA.

No, really.

When I finally hit the breaking point of “this job is too big, the only way to clean this room is with gasoline and a match and I can’t find the freaking matches in this mess,” I stop. I breathe. I decide I’m going to do it. I promise myself.

And then I promise a couple of hundred of my closest friends.

It’s a trick I sort of stumbled into in desperation. I did it for the first time one day back in, oh, 2013? We were refinancing our house and I had a bunch of bank people coming over at 7:00pm to do the paperwork. I’d waited till the last minute to clean because, well, I’m me. I had like three hours. Four? Two? Not enough. I was overwhelmed.

Half-delirious, I took pictures of my horrifically messy house and I posted them to Facebook. I explained that I had people coming in a few hours and that I HAD to clean, or perish in a puddle of embarrassment. I hoped that posting my squalor for all to see would motivate me to fix it. Now I HAD to post “after” pictures, or I’d never be able to look any of these people in the eye again…right?

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

As the day wore on, I cleaned. One room at a time. Sometimes one corner at time. I posted a sink full of dishes, then an empty sink. A living room filled with snack wrappers and pillow forts, a living room restored to order. A playroom without a recognizable floor. A playroom you could walk through.

Yup. Those are my actual dishes. From like five years ago. I unearthed the original posts for you. Because I love you. (Also because I don’t wanna do my dishes TODAY. I mean…I’m not a machine!)

Not a single person said “omg, you’re such a slob!” or “ewwww, nobody wants to see that!” TONS of people said “omg, you’re just like me!” “Wow, you’re brave, woman! Go, go, go!” As the day went on, I got messages like “you’re a machine! Keep going!” And “Great job, mama!! You got this!!” People started posting pictures of THEIR messy houses and cleaning with me. And if I didn’t post for a while, I got , “where’d you go? Keep it up! You can do this!! Don’t leave us hanging!”

I finished cleaning in time for the bank people. It was a mess again 24 hours later because, well, we’re slobs. But for the first time, it didn’t feel thankless. Because I still had those posts, and those pictures. I had physical, tangible proof that I had accomplished something that day. I had encouraging notes from my friends, and jokes, and shared moments of fun. I hadn’t just cleaned. I’d engaged in an activity, and other people had witnessed it. I’d taken a break from being alone and overwhelmed. And I had souvenirs.

It was fun day–but I really thought that was the end of it.

It wasn’t.

The next morning, my newsfeed was filled with pictures of other people’s dirty dishes. They all tagged me.

Soon there was a little group of us on Facebook posting pictures of our messes a couple of times a week, and tagging each other, with the words “on your marks…get set….go!”

And whoever happened to be around would join in, and we’d spend an hour or two cleaning our houses. Together. Encouraging each other, and laughing together about the futility of it all. And documenting our successes.

That last part is key.

Because years later, I can still look at those pictures and remember that yes, I do things around here. What makes this whole running-a-household thing so draining is that so much of it is invisible, and infinite. Laundry, dishes, cleaning, packing school lunches…99% of it amounts to just treading water. No matter how much I do it, it still needs to be done. I run as hard as I can just to stay in the same place. There’s no trophies. There’s no progress charts. There’s no reward. No measure of success. You feel it if you fall behind, but you can never truly get ahead.

…unless you take a picture. Have some fun. Make a memory. Those, you get to keep.

And that means the world.

An Open Letter to my Autism Moms Support Group: Thank you. And goodbye.

A few days ago, I wrote Confessions of An Autism Mom: do I even belong here? I read it over. It felt good. I felt ready. I wanted to find my people. I also wanted to find my audience. Because if there were other moms like me out there, maybe, just maybe, posts like these could give them comfort, too. Maybe that was what I wanted my blog to be.

I searched for support groups on Facebook. I joined several. Special needs moms. ADD/ADHD/Anxiety/ASD moms. Autism Moms. I checked group rules about sharing blogs. I shared my post where it was allowed, and I awaited judgement. A few kindly women stopped and greeted me, and said they understood, and told me I was welcome. I relaxed a little. But I kept my coat on.

In the groups where I could not share my blog, I didn’t introduce myself. Bet when posts started popping up in my newsfeed, I read them. I started answering, when I felt like my experience was relevant. When a post was beyond me, I read it anyway. I listened, and “loved.” I offered silent support. I tried my best. But so many of those moms were suffering so much more deeply than I ever have. The little voice in my head was loud. You don’t know their pain. This place is not for you. Sit down. You’re fine.

I stayed anyway. But I kept my coat on.

Then I found you: a group specifically for high-functioning autism moms. I had no idea such a thing existed. I couldn’t find anything in the rules about blogs, so I shared my post, but I was wary. I’d been asked to remove it already in one other group, because I’d missed the rule that said blogs could only be posted on Saturdays. (I reposted on Saturday. They were nice to me. But it made me self-conscious.) So I posted, but I half-apologized for it, and I promised I would take it down if you asked me. I waited with bated breath for your reply.

No one asked me to take it down. But SO MANY of you read it. You told me it was beautiful. You told me I was beautiful. You told me I’d come to the right place. You told me I wasn’t alone.

I was greeted with hugs, with warmth, and with so much validation. With deep, raw honesty. With love. You told me you were my people. You told me this was our home. You offered to take my coat.

I gave it to you. You put it in a box. You’d keep it safe for me. It would be there for me when I went back into the cold, wide world. But here, by the fire, it was warm, and I was safe. I didn’t need my coat right now.

I had questions I’d been afraid to ask in the other groups. But here, I felt safe. I wrote one down. I handed it to you. You put it in the box. And then you passed the box around, and when it came back to me, it had been filled with provisions, and tools, and answers, and support. I thanked you. You told me there was no need. Everyone understands here. You’re home.

When I saw other people’s boxes being passed around, I added things too. I understood here. I could help here. I was home.

The next day was hard. I was tired. I came home to you. I tore off a piece of myself, and I held it out to you with shaking hands. I apologized that my post was so long. I said you didn’t have to read it. You took it from me gently, and you put in the box. And then you passed the box around, and and you gave it back to me filled to brimming with pieces of yourselves. With your strength. Your love. Your understanding. You hugged me, and you told me everything would be all right. I was home. And that box, and all its treasures, would be there any time I needed it.

That night, my son’s new sound-protective earmuffs arrived. I told him one of my autism mom friends had suggested them. I told him I had autism mom friends now. He grinned ear to ear. He hugged me. He asked me if that meant he had autism kid friends now, too. Because that would be amazing.

It never occured to me before that moment that he might be lonely, too. I told him I’d see what I could do. We had a home now, after all. I’d found my people. They were his people, too.

And that gave me an idea.

He’s thirteen, and he’s so open about his struggles. He’s articulate and self-aware. He’s wise beyond his years. I thought about all the questions I’d heard other parents asking. Parents whose kids were newly diagnosed. Parents whose kids couldn’t express what they felt. Parents with questions I couldn’t answer. Questions my baby could.

It was after midnight. I’d been up reading and re-reading the responses to my post. Cherishing my box. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. With love. With a sense of really, truly belonging. So even though it was late,I made another post. I pitched my half-baked idea.

My son and I are so thankful that you’ve welcomed us, I said. We feel like we’ve come home. We feel so much less alone. And we want to do something to thank you. We’d like to write another blog for you. My son wants to answer your questions about what it’s like to be autistic. If there’s something you’d like me to ask him, please let me know. We’ll publish it as an interview.

I folded the note and placed it in my box. I passed the box around. A few of you smiled, and thanked me, and put questions in the box. I fell asleep by the fire, warm and happy. Safe.

When I woke up, you were gone.

At first, I was confused. I got error messages when I tried to view my old posts. All my group notifications had vanished. There was nothing in my activity log. I couldn’t find the group or anyone from it. I was alone. My box was gone.

But all of Facebook was being wonky. I couldn’t post or access any of my pages. I couldn’t reply in any of my groups. I looked it up. There was a service outage. I relaxed a little.

But…I could still see my other groups.

That’s when the thought first occurred to me. Could I have been banned?

I knew. But I tried to convince myself I was wrong. There’d been no notice, no warning, no sign of trouble. You were my people. You wouldn’t have abandoned me. You told me I was home. You took my coat. You said I was safe here.

It had to be a mistake. I’d broken a rule, maybe. Tripped an automatic something. That had to be it. I’d been temporarily banned. Or maybe accidentally? A message was coming. Something. The outage must be slowing things down. Heck, maybe the whole group was down and I was just being paranoid.

I’d exchanged messages with someone from the group the day before. So I found her, and i reached out to her. I asked her if she could still access the group. I asked her if she could still see me in it. I apologized for being paranoid, and for bothering her. She understood. She was my people.

She checked for me. Group’s still up, she said. Your posts are still there, too. Don’t worry. I’m sure if they were upset with you, they’d have taken them down. You’re amazing. Everyone loves you. It’s okay.

I tried to relax. I wanted my coat. I wanted my box. But at least I knew you were still there.

My posts were still up. You still had my box.

But my coat was in that box. And pieces of me. I was raw, and vulnerable, and cold. Worries trickled down the back of my neck like rain. What had I done wrong? How could I make it right?

Blog promotion, probably. That had to be it. But that wasn’t in the rules? Maybe something else. Maybe my post had seemed condescending – how dare I offer to teach anyone anything? My kid’s not the only one who can talk about this. I mean, really. What made me think I had anything to contribute, after barely two days? I must have sounded like such a fool. You had every right to be angry.

No, wait. Maybe it was worse. Maybe offering up my son this way was child exploitation Oh, geez, it is child exploitation! I see it so clearly now. How could I be such a monster?! I deserve to be banned. I don’t even deserve to be a parent!

No, wait. Maybe it’s something else.  Maybe you thought I’d quote members in my blog? Maybe you thought I was farming information. Maybe you thought I was violating the privacy of the group by offering to answer your questions publicly. Yes, that had to be it. You thought I was playing on your vulnerability. And, I mean…I WAS hoping to gain followers off of this, wasn’t I? Did that make this whole thing self-serving? Did I just advertise under the guise of generosity?! That’s horrible! I’d have banned me too! How could I have been so stupid! My judgement is impaired. I shouldn’t be blogging at all. What made me think I could make it as a blogger anyway? What the hell do I know? You’re better off without me. I deserved to be banned.

Wait.

Wait.

Where the hell is all this coming from?

This isn’t me. I’m not a self-doubting person. I’m not a self-loathing person. I’m not a cruel or exploitive person. If I made a mistake, I did it unwittingly. It doesn’t make me unworthy. I’ve never doubted myself like this before. I’ve never craved approval this way before. What’s wrong with me?

And then it hit me.

My coat is still in the box.

You took it with you. My coat, and pieces of myself. I put them inside because I trusted you. You said you’d keep them safe. You gave me so much to put in that box with them.

But then you took it all away. You left me alone, without my coat. Without my torn-off pieces. You left without a word, in the night, while I slept. You took away everything you’d given me, and that’s your right. But you took the things I’d started with, too.

I made that coat. It took years. I needed it. It kept me safe long before you did.

It wasn’t yours to take.

The day went on. The facebook outage ended. You didn’t come back.

I told my friends–the real ones. The ones I had before I found you. They hugged me. They said there must be some mistake. They told me I should stop second- and third- and fourth-guessing myself and just politely ask. I told them I couldn’t–I was blocked. They said they’d find you and ask for me.

There was no answer. I thought, maybe, you hadn’t seen them. Maybe they had the wrong group. It didn’t matter. I was okay. I knew I must have done something wrong. You didn’t owe me an explanation. I respected your decision. I wished I knew why. But I’d be okay.

My new friend from the group messaged me again. All my posts had now been removed.

Oh.

Okay.

It wasn’t a mistake.

And…you burned my box.

It wasn’t yours. If only you’d asked me to leave,I’d have taken my coat and gone. I wouldn’t have argued. I’d even have apologized.

But that box was a treasure. It was everything I’d come with, and so much that you’d given me. It was reassurance. It was proof that I wasn’t alone. It was love. It was pieces of me, and pieces of something bigger. I was plenty strong before, but I entrusted my strength to you. You said I didn’t need it here. You said you’d give me more.

You took it all.

I didn’t deserve that.

I cried tonight. I want you too know that. I didn’t cry when my son was diagnosed. I didn’t cry when we made our first IEP. I can’t remember the last time I cried over any of this. I HAD this.

You took it away.

I still held out hope for closure, by the way. Then my friend, who’d reached out on my behalf, and waited hours for a response, messaged me at midnight.

Of course I was up. I don’t have my coat.

She told me you’d blocked her.

So that’s it, then.

I want you to know I forgive you. I’ll be okay. I’m an expert seamstress. I’m already working on a new coat. I only cried for like ten minutes. You haven’t broken me. I’m not angry anymore.

I’m also not in any support groups anymore. I’m thankful for all you gave me. I’m thankful to know that my people are out there, somewhere. I know that I can find them again, when I’m ready. But I need to be alone for a while now.

But…what if I’d been someone else? Someone weaker? Someone more vulnerable? Someone new to all this? Someone without a coat?

So this is my message to you:

Facebook doesn’t require you to give a reason, or to send a message, when you ban somebody. I’m actually a fan of that rule. I don’t think group admins should have to justify their decisions. I don’t think they should lose the power to moderate their own groups simply because they aren’t comfortable with confrontation. The internet is full of toxic people, and you don’t have to justify to anybody your decision to break away from them, or from ANYONE who makes you uncomfortable. Seriously. We’re cool.

But, guys…you’re a support group.

Please, the next time someone bares their soul, then breaks a rule, do a little more than you have to do. Take a moment to send them a message: “it’s about the rule. It’s not about your soul. Your soul is beautiful. We’re sorry we can’t let you stay.” You don’t even have to wait for a reply. Just say it. Trust me. They need to hear it.

If you’re going to show someone the door, for pity’s sake, give them back their coat.

Thank you. I mean that.

And goodbye.


Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Became a Mom (in no particular order)

(Featured Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash)

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  • Diaper cream is not toxic. It is, however, a laxative. If they eat it, they’ll need it. I know this because poison control told me so. Speaking of…
  • You should probably have poison control on speed dial. I promise you they won’t laugh. Unless you do. Then you’re both gonna crack up. Also, you’d be amazed how many of the weird things your child ingests are going to turn out NOT to be toxic. Keep a running list. You’ll look back on it later and crack up all over again. Put it in the baby book. Only….
  • Don’t make a baby book. I’m not saying don’t document. Take lots of pictures. Keep a journal, if that’s your thing. Make lots of updates on social media, and archive them. Screenshot those texts with friends where you say things like “the twins are climbing the chandelier again. Wanna come by? I’ll order pizza.” Remember the things that matter, and save those things for someday when you do have the time to scrapbook or shadowbox or whatever wonderful creative momento-making project tickles you. But if you weren’t super organized and good at time-sensitive record keeping before you had kids, don’t expect to get better at it now that you have a miniature human hanging on your ankle demanding snacks. Don’t put the extra pressure on yourself. Especially if you plan on having more than one miniature human. The first one doesn’t let go of your ankle just because you made more.
  • Before you say ANYTHING to your husband, wife, or significant other about the way they are changing a diaper, feeding a child, loading the dishwasher or doing any other task you usually do, imagine the most intimidating, picture-perfect wonder-mom you can think of, and pretend she just said that while watching YOU. If it makes you want to cry, yell, swear, or punch her in the mouth, DON’T SAY IT. Look the other way. This is how you learned, too, and you never could’ve done it with someone looking over your shoulder and making you second-guess yourself. You didn’t break your kids, and neither will they. Also, don’t forget to thank your significant other when the job is done (even if you plan to do it over again when they’re not looking). You of all people know how thankless these chores feel.
  • Have an ice cream man fund. Make it bigger than you think it needs to be.
  • If your kid wants to wear something ridiculous or mismatched to school, let them. If it’s cold, make them put a sweater on top of it. If it’s hot, make the rule that it has to be short sleeved. And if you’re really worried the other kids will make fun, just quietly put a change of clothes in their backpack, and let them know it’s there if they decide they don’t like the clothes they picked. Let them develop their personal style early. Mismatched kids become confident adults.
  • If you’re staying at a hotel, pack a roll of the good paper towels and a stack of paper bathroom cups. You’re welcome.
  • Buy the cheap, boring plates for birthday parties. Seriously. Nobody looks at the plates. If you’re gonna splurge, do it on the entertainment. And lots of balloons.
  • Don’t do any holiday activity with your kids that you aren’t prepared to do again, every year, for the rest of your life. Four words: Valentine’s Day Scavenger Hunt. What was I thinking?!
  • Don’t worry about stains. Seriously. Just don’t. Always have a change of clothes on hand, buy lots of paper towels, and let ’em get dirty.
  • Try not to default to no. Yes, we can finger-paint. Yes, we can play with the play-doh. Yes, we can go play in the backyard. Trust me, you’re not always going to want to say yes. You’re going to be tired, and you’re going to wish they’d just keep doing something that they don’t need you to help them with. Try to say yes anyway. At least one time in three.
  • When the tooth fairy comes, write down how much she left. Because the next time you WILL forget, and you’re going to panic because what if it’s DIFFERENT and then they know?! So the tooth fairy will leave extra, just in case. We call this phenomenon “guilt inflation.” Also, the tooth fairy should never leave anything you wouldn’t have ready access to if the next tooth comes out at, say, 3am, during a blizzard. And while we’re on the subject…
  • Throw away lost teeth. No, really. I’m giving you permission. Unless you plan to harvest them for stem cells or something. (is that a thing yet? If that’s a thing, do it, it sounds cool). But as far as sentimentality goes, there is absolutely no keepsake or craft project you can make with human teeth that isn’t straight-up creepy. Also, after a decade or two, they can rot.
  • Keep sharpies, ballpoint pens, and gum out of reach and don’t let them know these things exist for as long as you can possibly keep up the charade.
  • Cooking oil removes sharpie from leather and also gum from hair, and rubbing alcohol dissolves ink from clothing and upholstery. While we’re on the topic, vinegar will get dried-up slime and play doh out of carpet and clothing. Yes, you’re going to want to know this.
  • If you have a hangup about genitals, get that sh*t out of your system right now. Genitals are fascinating. There’s gonna be questions. There’s gonna be things tugged that ought not be tugged. There’s gonna be awkward injuries. There’s gonna be accidental (and on-purpose) mastrubation. Not just when they’re teenagers. When they’re, like, two. They’re gonna want to play show and tell with their friends. So….don’t freak if a playdate ends in nudity. DO plan in advance and be prepared to lay down some kid-friendly, genital-specific rules. Don’t be shy about saying things like “never stick anything inside your vagina” or “always wash your hands before and after you touch your private parts,” or “we do not touch someone else’s penis on a playdate.” Seriously. Things are gonna need to be specified that you never thought you’d need to specify. This parenting gig is not for the faint of heart. Speaking of which….
  • There’s gotta be somebody in your household who is not afraid of poop, vomit, urine, blood, spiders or bees. If there isn’t someone, train someone. If you do not train someone, someone’s gonna get trained anyway. Before this gig is over, I promise you, at least one of you is gonna have this covered.
  • Keep all the friendship lists. Every. Last. One. Just get a big ol’ file folder and keep shoving ’em in there year after year. Trust me. You’ll use them.
  • Keep band-aids, lollipops, tissues and wet wipes in your purse. Don’t let your kids know they’re in there. Also…
  • Get a bigger purse.
  • When you have a mom friend, remember how she takes her coffee. Or tea, or hot cocoa, or wine, or whatever her comfort-social-beverage-of-choice may be. When she visits, hand her a cup without being asked. It’s a small thing, but it’s a huge thing. As parents it’s so easy for us to feel invisible, like we have no identities of our own. Let your friends know you see them. Remind them that you know things about them that have nothing to do with their children. Also…
  • Make mom friends. Strike up a conversation on the playground, join a Mommy & Me class, invite a child from that preschool friendship list for a playdate and have the mom in for coffee. However you manage it, surround yourself with women who get it. This momming thing is a marathon. Friends cheering from the sidelines are great, but when you stumble, it’s the friends running beside you who are going to pick you up again. They’ll have band-aids in their purses. And they’ll remember how you take your coffee.

Got something to add to this list? Share your own mommy wisdom in the comments!

A message to my children: I love you, Stinky Face.

No new post today…I wanted to share this old one instead. I wrote this one five years ago. Still so deeply true.

Stark Raving Mom

Stark Raving Mom is now on Facebook! Follow me here.

A few days before my oldest son was born, a neighbor I’d never met before came to my door. She was a retired librarian, and she wanted to give us a gift for the baby: six beautiful, classic children’s books. The Very Hungry Caterpillar was in there, and Good Night, Moon, among others. When my son was seven months old, we moved to a new apartment, and another neighbor knocked on my door, this time with crates full of books. They’d been her granddaughter’s—now outgrown—and when she saw me in the neighborhood with my stroller, she decided she’d found a good home for them.

Because of the generosity of strangers, my kids’ library started early, and was always stocked with wonderful stories.

Also because of that, it wasn’t until my son was over a year old that I finally…

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Confessions of an Autism Mom: do I even belong here?

(Featured Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash)

Stark Raving Mom is now on facebook! Follow me here.

I have three kids, 13, 10, and 7. Both my boys (the eldest and the youngest) are on the spectrum.

They’re fine. Hell, they’re better than fine. They’re amazing. I understand their needs and their challenges. They’re getting all the support they need at school. Our extended family understands, embraces and adores them. They both have friends, and hobbies, and smiles that light up a room. They achieve successes every day that leave me dazzled and fill me with a thankfulness so deep it aches. We’ve come so, so far from the day when the word “autism” on an evaluation coalesced in my belly like a lump of ice, and a miasma of fear choked out everything I’d imagined for my babies, and my hopes and dreams were lost in a haze of uncertainty, worry and overwhelm.

It’s better now. We’re better. We’ve got this. I speak fluent IEP. I’ve seen what my boys can accomplish. I know more, and I worry less. Our lives have a rhythm, and that rhythm is lively and heart-pounding and exciting and GOOD. This is our normal and we’re good at it. They’re fine. I’m fine.

No, really. I’m fine.

…but what if I’m not?

It’s hard. Any parenting is hard. Autism is just another pebble on the mountain. But it’s a pebble a lot of people don’t have.

Some days, I’m not so fine. I’m tired. Beyond tired. Deeply, existentially weary. The worry creeps back in. Fear. Frustration. Resentment for the hand we’ve been dealt. Guilt for feeling resentment. Loneliness. Guilt for feeling alone.

I’m so far from alone. We have a village and it’s a good one. My husband and I have each other. We have an extended family that’s local, and present, and always there for us. The school district has provided us with a veritable army of teachers, aides and therapists who genuinely get my kids, and get me, and they’ve been wonderful. We have a pediatrician who understands. I have friends who get it. Some of them are special-needs moms, and they get it even more.

But I don’t know anyone who lives with exactly what I live with. I have never dared to identify with the autism community. I stand at the window of facebook support groups and online communities and peek inside, then duck down before anyone can see me or invite me in.

I’m afraid to go in. I’m not sure I’m in the right place. I worry. Because…

I’m afraid we’re keeping score.

I’m not even sure how to talk about what my kids have. I hesitate to say to people “my boys are autistic,” because I worry it’s overstating. Conjuring an incomplete picture. Inspiring pity we don’t want, or garnering sympathy we don’t deserve. My boys are high-functioning. My 7 year old is in the self-contained class at school, but I can’t really explain to you why. I don’t remember what my neurotypical daughter was like at 7. I can’t tell you how my boy is different. I can tell you that he is bright, and so incredibly cheerful, and he looks me in the eye when he talks to me, and he is compassionate and connected and so, so smart. Sure, he can’t read yet. Sure, we’ve been toilet training for five years and I still can’t buy new couches because I know they’re going to smell like urine in a month. But, like…that’s normal, right?

My 13 year old gets straight As. He’s independent and brilliant and compassionate and clever. He has friends. He’s charming. He’s FUNNY. He has a sense of humor that’s about five years too old for him and it’s fantastic. He’s my best friend. Sure, I get phone calls once or twice a month because he melted down at school and they need me to talk him down. Sure, I had to have his grandmother pick him up from the public library that one time because none of his 12 pencils was sharp enough for his liking, and the library pencil sharpener wasn’t good enough, and he texted me that he was on the verge of losing it. But, like…that’s normal, right?

I don’t know from normal. I don’t really know from autistic, either. All I know is that there are autism parents out there who have it so, so much worse than I do. I’m scared that if I go into a room with those parents, and hold my challenges up to theirs, everyone will see how small mine are. That they’ll wonder what I’m doing there. How dare I stand up in front of them, with my straight-A earning, socially-successful son, and say “yeah, I get that! I’m just like you!” I know, deep down, that I’m not. I know how lucky I am, how lucky my boys are. And there’s always a little voice in the back of my head that whispers “Sit down. Be silent. This place is not for you. You don’t know their pain. You’re fine.”

But…what if I’m not fine?

Am I in the right place?

I don’t want to join a cause.

There are so many causes here. I don’t want to talk about the “autism epidemic,” or autism awareness, or autism pride. I don’t want a pin or a flag or a bumper sticker. I really, really don’t want to get into how you feel about vaccines. Not because I don’t have opinions about those things–believe me, I have opinions. Strong ones. But if I come in here, I’m already spent. I am coming here raw and alone, with all my nerves exposed. I am coming here after an ugly cry. I am coming here naked. I don’t want to fight naked.

I just want recommendations for a portable pencil sharpener and a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones for my 13 year old. I want to talk about the latest episode of Daniel Tiger and its value as a social story. I want a hug.

Really, I’m mostly here for the hugs.

Am I in the right place?

I am tired of being alone.

Someone once said to me, “if you’ve seen one person on the spectrum, you’ve seen one person on the spectrum.” Autism is huge, and it’s complicated, and no two autistic people are alike. I have seen other autistic kids, but I’ve never met anyone like either of my boys. I’ve never met a parent quite like me. Part of me whispers that my kids aren’t even really autistic at all, and all of this is some huge misunderstanding. That little voice tries to convince me that there’s no name for what they are, and that no one else is like them. I tell it to shut up.

I want to meet someone like me. So, so badly. I want not to be alone. I want to know if somewhere out there, someone threw genetic darts at the autism spectrum and hit the same spots I did. I want to meet someone who REALLY gets it. I want an autism-mom friend.

Am I in the right place?

Because…I think I might be ready to come in.

Dear “Perfect” Moms: It’s okay. You’re our people, too.

(Featured Photo by Valeria Zoncoll on Unsplash)

Stark Raving Mom is now on Facebook! Follow me here.

How many #MomLife memes have you seen with messages like, “a clean house is a sign of a wasted life?” “Messy hair don’t care?” It’s nice, right? Makes you feel good about being imperfect, because, hey, this is how all the cool kids do momming, and we’re unapologetic about it. Right?

But what if you’re a mom with a clean house? What if you’re a mom with good hair? What if you’re really good at getting places on time? Are you undeserving of validation, support, and sympathy from your fellow moms? Should you hide the things you’re good at to keep from being perceived as snooty or holier-than-thou?

Oh, honey, no. You can sit with us. You are us. We’re all in this thing together.

Mom culture is a thing, and it is a comforting thing. It is a thing immortalized in hashtags, memes, and tongue-in-cheek coffee table books. This is the shrine of the sacred order of Imperfection In Parenting. Our rituals worship the coffee bean, and often involve the drinking of wine. Our high priestesses stand before us garbed in leggings and messy buns, and they grant us forgiveness when we confess that we farted in yoga class and we fed our kids lucky charms for dinner. We sing the hymns of #momlife and we sacrifice our wallets upon the altar of Target.

Let me sing you the song of my people.

But here’s the thing: it’s not about needing coffee, or drinking wine, or having a messy house, or always being late or letting yourself go. If you do none of those things, but you are raising miniature humans, you’re our people, too.

If your hair and makeup are always on point, you are still our people.

The messy-bun, no-makeup, yoga-pants mom is not a standard. She is a symbol. It’s not about being a mess or not caring what you look like. It’s about not always looking exactly the way you thought you would. It’s about how sometimes, we’re forced to lower our standards. Maybe for some of us, “letting yourself go” means not plucking that one stray eyebrow hair, or wearing last year’s shoes, or going to the gym three times a week instead of five. Maybe it means settling for a drugstore brand of lipstick because you blew your MAC budget sending your kid to summer camp. Messy-bun mom is there to remind us that lots of parents don’t live up to their own standards of self-care. She’s there to tell us it’s okay. You don’t owe the world an apology. You’re doing great. And you are not alone.

If you don’t do caffeine or alcohol, you are still our people.

The mom who needs coffee and the mom who needs wine are not standards. They are symbols. It’s not about legal addictive substances. It’s about not having as much energy as we wish we did, and not having as much patience as we think we should. Coffee mom and wine mom are there to remind us that sometimes, we might feel like we have to “cheat” to get by, because giving up isn’t actually an option. Maybe for you, “cheating” has nothing to do with coffee or wine. Maybe it’s using an instant mix for something your pre-kids self would have made from scratch. Maybe it’s asking for help when you really don’t want to. Maybe it’s hiring a nanny, or giving up a class that’s stressing you out. Coffee-mom and wine-mom are here to tell you that it’s okay. You don’t owe the world an apology. You’re doing great. And you are not alone.

If your house is always clean, you are still our people.

Mom-who-hates-laundry and Mom-with-dirty-dishes are not standards. They are symbols. They are there to remind us that this parenting gig is huge, and complicated, and overwhelming, and it comes with lots of jobs. No one is good at all of them. Sometimes, achieving one task means letting another slide, even if pre-kids-you never would have dreamed of letting that thing go. Maybe your house looks great to your friends, but it kills you that you haven’t mopped the floor in a week. Messy-house mom is here to tell you that it’s okay. You don’t owe the world an apology. You’re doing great. And you are not alone.

If you’re organized and always on time, you are still our people.

Mom-who’s-lucky-she-got-there-at-all isn’t a standard. She is a symbol. She is there to remind us that sometimes, in spite of all our best intentions, we don’t succeed at everything the world asks of us. We forget things. We make mistakes. We fail. Maybe your kids are never late to school, but you always forget to return library books. Maybe you always remember to return library books, but you miss deadlines at work. Maybe you’re fantastic at all of your time management, but you feel like the quality of your work is suffering. Always-late mom is there to tell you it’s okay. You don’t owe the world an apology. You’re doing great. And you are not alone.

If you make amazing, pinterest-worthy treats for your children, you are still our people.

Pinterest-fail, my-cake-looks-like-someone-sat-on-it mom is not a standard. She is a symbol. You don’t get kicked out of the #momlife club for being a good cook or a good artist or a good seamstress. If you make picture-perfect Bento boxes for your kids’ school lunches, or throw the ultimate minecraft-themed birthday party complete with handmade decorations, WE ARE PROUD OF YOU. Pinterest-fail mom isn’t there to tell you that real moms aren’t talented. She’s there to remind you that everyone’s good at something, and no one is good at everything. She tells us not to sulk when others shine. She reminds us that we all use everything we’ve got–and everything we HAVEN’T got–to make our kids happy. She’s there to tell you that if another mom can do something you can’t, it’s okay. And if you can do something other moms can’t, that’s okay too–we can laugh about ourselves, and we’re so proud of you. You don’t owe the world an apology. You’re doing great. And you are not alone.

If you never swear in front of your kids, you are still our people.

F-bomb mom is not a standard. She is a symbol. She is there to remind us that if you’re worried about being a good role model, chances are you ARE a good role model. If you weren’t perfect before you had kids (trust me, you weren’t), you’re not going to become perfect now. Your kids don’t need you to be perfect. You will not scar them for life by letting them see the real you. Because the real you is trying her hardest, and doing her best, and learning every day. And the real you loves them fiercely, and fondly, and forever. F-bomb mom is there to tell you it’s okay to be yourself, whatever that looks like–potty mouth or prim propriety–because you are deeply, fundamentally GOOD. You don’t owe the world an apology. You’re doing great. And you are not alone.

If you don’t want to get away from your kids, you are still our people.

Date-night-is-life mom and I-need-a-kid-free-vacation mom are not standards. They are symbols. They are there to remind us that everyone needs mental breaks. Not everyone’s children are exhausting, energy-leeching energizer-bunnies 24/7. (Mine are. Not judging.) Sometimes there are quiet times within the chaos. Sometimes that’s enough. I-need-a-break-from-my-kids mom is there to tell you that whatever your break is – whether it’s ten minutes in the bathroom, an hour in the library or a week in Aruba – you don’t have to feel guilty for wanting it. It’s okay. You don’t owe the world an apology. You’re doing great. And you are not alone.

If you are a dad, you are still our people.

#Momlife isn’t just for moms. It might resonate a little more with the alpha parent – that is, the one who shoulders the lion’s share of the mental burden, the one whose name the kids always seem to holler first, the one responsible for keeping track of the soccer schedules and the bedtime routines and the irrational fears and which cup is the three year old’s favorite this week and which one is gross and must never be offered. Often, that’s the mom. But it can also be the dad, or the grandparent, or the nanny, or the babysitter. Sometimes, there IS no alpha parent, and everyone shoulders the burden equally. #Momlife is there to remind all of us that this whole raising-of-tiny-humans thing is hard. It’s overwhelming. It’s terrifying. It’s wonderful. And we’re all in it together.

#Momlife is our sanctuary, and all are welcome here. Bento-box mom, you make the snacks. Always-on-time mom, you can be our event coordinator. Mom-who-needs wine, you man the bar. Coffee mom, kindly save me a seat.

Once you’ve all settled in, let us raise our voices, and sing the song of our people:

It’s okay. You’re doing great. And you are not alone.

I went viral with Momo – and omg, you guys, I get it now.

(featured Photo by 贝莉儿 NG on Unsplash)

Stark Raving Mom is now on Facebook! Follow me here.

A few days ago, I sat down and banged out what I thought was a low-key, common-sense post about a viral internet scare. I did it because rumors were flying in my kids’ school and I thought hey, I have this old blog just sitting here collecting dust. A blog post would be a handy way to get my thoughts out to other parents in my community. So I hastily wrote my post, hit “publish,” and shared the link on my Facebook profile. When I got positive feedback there, I felt a little bolder, so I posted it in three local mom’s groups for good measure.

That’s it. I created this content. No one else had access to it before I shared it. And I shared it exactly four times: once on my personal page, and once each in three local groups.

An hour after I posted, I was sending excited texts to my sister and sister-in-law to tell them my post had gotten 700 views. We smiled and celebrated and joked about “going viral.”

Two hours later, it hit 7,000 views. I started to think that maybe this thing was a little bigger than I thought it was. But still. This was hey-the-internet’s-a-big-place, no-big-deal viral, right? Not, like, VIRAL viral.

I stayed up till 1am that night watching the numbers climb. I went to sleep when it hit 15K. By the time I woke (way too few hours later), it was well past 20K. By the time I’d gotten my kids off to school, it had broken 30,000.

The next two days were absolutely surreal. Within the first 24 hours, the post had racked up over 100,000 views and upwards of 17,000 facebook shares. By the second day, my humble blog had gone from an average of 0 views per hour to 200 views per hour to over 8,000 views per hour. As of the time I’m writing this, my post has been viewed more than 385,000 times in more than 80 countries. It averaged 100,000 hits per day for three solid days. I was able to sit and hit “refresh” on my analytics page every second just to watch the numbers climb, because it was moving that freaking fast. (Yes, of course I did that. For HOURS. Because when you go viral, pretty much the whole first 24 hours is staring at a screen saying “naw…really? Naaaaaw. Wait….yes? Wait…no…wait. WHAT IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW?”)

Once I picked my jaw up off the floor and peeled myself away from watching the analytics, I tried to figure out what the heck I had here, just how significant these numbers were for a blog like mine (spoiler alert: they’re insane), and how on god’s green earth any of this had happened. In so doing, I got a crash course in The Inner Workings Of The Internets.

And holy crap, you guys. These viral scares make SO MUCH more sense to me now.

And so I give you…

THINGS I LEARNED FROM GOING VIRAL (THAT EVERY INTERNET USER NEEDS TO KNOW):

  • No one pays attention to their sources. Seriously. No one. People remember my post, but no one remembers I posted it. After my post went viral, I went back to my local mom’s groups on Facebook to say “holy crap you guys look what we did. Did we know we could do this?!” No one had any clue who I was–but they’d all seen my post. A lot commented to say that they’d seen and shared the post somewhere else on FB, and never realized it came from a local mom. Some of my friends had seen it and not realized it was me. (Guys, my byline is on the blog). Most of the comments and shares referred to it as an “article” rather than “blog post,” which is awfully journalistic sounding. Several people thought they’d seen it on a news outlet. (It has not, to my knowledge, been picked up on any.) If something looks vaguely professional, people assume it comes from a reputable source. However…
  • I went viral in spite of having no authority or credibility whatsoever.  People have been reading, sharing, and responding to my post as if it were a magazine article or newspaper column. But it isn’t one. I am a complete unknown with no journalistic credentials. I have no published works. I have no internet presence beyond this one blog, which, prior to this week, had fewer than 1000 lifetime views. No one fact-checks, reviews, or even so much as spell-checks me before I post. No one sees it at all until I hit “publish.” I can say anything I want. It doesn’t have to be true or correct or supported. In my viral post, I did not cite a single source. It might be decent writing, but it’s not journalism. I’m good at sounding like I know what I’m talking about, which is why I try not to talk about things unless I’m sure. But I could easily sound just as authoritative about something I know nothing about. I am an accomplished bullshit artist. Nobody is checking.
  • There’s a LOT of money to be made off of viral posts. No, I did not make any, and I’m kind of happy about that (I’ll explain why later). I did not make any because I had no plans to become a professional blogger right now, and I never in a million years expected to go viral. My blog is not monetized. But of course after all this happened, I was curious. So I looked into just how much money you can make with the kind of traffic I was getting. And wow. If I had planned this, set everything up beforehand, and been in it solely for the money, I could have been making upwards of $1000 per day while this thing was hot. Even if the level of traffic only lasted three days, that’s $3000 for doing absolutely nothing. Just sitting with your feet up watching analytics.
  • Posts don’t just go viral because they’re good.  Now, I’m not saying viral posts can’t be good. But plenty of good posts never go viral, and plenty of viral posts aren’t good. I can take a good post, share it in exactly the same places I did, and never get this result. In fact, I did.  A few years ago, I shared this parenting post in the exact same four places. It got tons of positive feedback and more shares than anything I’d ever written. I was really proud of myself when it racked up…wait for it…400 page views. (What, no fireworks? Harrumph.) So, what’s the difference between that post and the one that struck internet gold?
  • Fear is fuel. My post went viral because I was talking about exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. My post was targeted to people who were frightened by the Momo challenge, right when Momo was at the top of the news cycle. People shared my post because it made them feel better when they were feeling frightened, angry and victimized. But they also shared the posts that made them feel that way in the first place.  Which brings me to…
  • It would be really easy, and incredibly lucrative, to make a lie go viral. Just make your lie look vaguely like a news article and people will remember that it was one. Target the fears of a vulnerable population – like parents of young children – and drop your false stories in places you know they’ll look (like parenting groups on Facebook). I just proved that you don’t have to be visible, credible, well-funded or well-known to plant viral content. You might not hit the jackpot every time you plant a seed. But it costs nothing to plant more. Hit on a just-crazy-enough-to-seem-plausible story that scares people enough, and it’ll catch fire. Then make a bunch of posts about the same topic and load them up with ads. Then sit back and watch the world burn, baby, because you’re getting paid by the click.
  • It is easier to keep a hoax going than to stop one.  If your goal is post clicks, you don’t need people to keep believing in the hoax. All you need them to do is keep talking about it. I’ve been facebook-stalking my own blog post (Because I can, and because it’s surreal to see total strangers talking about something you wrote. So. Surreal.) I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve seen where someone posts my blog, someone else says “I didn’t read it because Momo is a hoax,” and a third person chimes in with “you idiots keep saying it’s a hoax. My kids saw the video on YouTube!” And off we go again. Now, I have not seen a Momo video on YouTube and I don’t know anyone who has. But if you tell me you have, you know what? I believe you. Because…
  • It’s all about the money. A good hoax isn’t complete without sightings and first-hand accounts. These can be deliberate lies, but they can also be true accounts from frightened people who don’t understand why they saw what they saw. If I were looking to get rich off of a viral scare about videos, I would absolutely try to put some videos out there. Unwary people are quick to assume that if part of a story is true, the whole story is true, and if part of a story is false, the whole story is false. People might hear from a reliable source that the Momo challenge is fake, and that the videos don’t exist. Then they hear from a friend they trust that a child they know saw a Momo video. The idea that the challenge might be fake AND the videos might be real doesn’t occur to them. It’s got to be all or nothing. So people get confused. They keep talking about it. People talking about it continue to search, click, and share. As long as it’s getting attention, it stays in the real news cycle, too, because everyone looks to their news outlets to make sense of the things that are scaring them. As long as it’s in the news cycle, people talk about it. And the band plays on. (This, by the way, is why I am so grateful I didn’t make a dime off of my post. Not on this topic. Not off of this phenomenon. I realize it’s different because I didn’t do it on purpose, but still. I’d feel really weird cashing in on it.)

Now, all of this might be really interesting. It might give you a better idea of not only the how, but the why behind viral internet scares. (I don’t know about you, but the “why” was the part that always had me flummoxed.) But I didn’t make this post to teach you about how bad people deliberately spread dangerous content. I made it to show you how YOU single-handedly spread dangerous content WITHOUT EVER KNOWING YOU’VE DONE IT.  So, I’ve got one more list for you:

THINGS YOU REALLY NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU “SHARE” ANOTHER POST.

  • CONTENT OUTLIVES COMMENTARY.  When you share a post on facebook or twitter or a similar outlet, you might write a snazzy little introduction for it. You might try to put it in context, or even post a caption that says “Look at this nonsense! I can’t believe people are falling for it!” People might have intelligent discussions in the comments about information you posted, or comment to correct an inaccuracy. But the commentary disappears in 1-2 shares.  Once that post moves out of your circle, nothing is visible but the original content. So it is vitally important that you never share anything you would not want people to see out of context.  Once you post, you have no control over how far it’s going to travel. All you can control is whether you post it in the first place.
  • YOU CAN NEVER TAKE IT BACK. The ability to edit and delete your posts gives you an illusion of control, but it’s just that: an illusion. I got a poignant reminder of this when I posted my original blog. I’d included an image of the “Momo” statue and, because it was the only image in the post, it became the thumbnail. I didn’t want to be posting pictures of Momo on Facebook and I spent an hour finding a better photo and adding it to the post. When I saw the thumbnail wasn’t updating on facebook, I also buried the “Momo” image in my blog by embedding it, so readers would have to click to view and no one would have to see it if they didn’t want to. Every share that happened after I did that shows the new thumbnail. Every share that happened before, and every share off of those shares, shows the old picture. Even though I took it down. Even though I buried it. Tens of thousands of copies of my blog are STILL floating around on Facebook with that creepy Momo face plastered all over them and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. I changed it ONE HOUR after the post went live. Doesn’t matter. It’s out there anyway. How does this affect you if you’re not a blogger? Consider this: I can’t tell you how many times I myself have fallen prey to one of these parent-targeting internet scares. Things like “omg, somebody’s giving out halloween candy that’s really meth!” or “watch out for this dangerous new kidnapping trend.” I’m a skeptic, and I don’t scare easily. I do always fact check these things. But up until now, if I couldn’t find immediate, reliable proof that something was a scam, I would hit “share” on it and just retract it later if I found out I was wrong. I’d add a responsible caption like “I don’t know for sure if this is true, but putting it out there just in case.” If the scare turned out to be fake, I’d edit my caption to say “never mind, hoax!” and put a snopes.com link or whatever in the comments. Or I’d just pull my post down altogether. I assumed I wasn’t doing any damage, because it never occured to me that Changing or deleting a post after people have shared it is like ripping up the tracks after the train is gone.   It changes nothing. And retractions in captions and comments don’t spread with the post.
  • CONTENT POSTED IN CLOSED GROUPS DOES NOT STAY THERE.  Every single one of the facebook groups in which I posted my link was either “closed” or “secret.”  You can’t hit the “share” button directly out of one of those groups. You have to follow the link, copy and paste the url, and share that. It’s a pain in the butt. Thousands of people did it anyway. Public content is public, period. It doesn’t matter how private a group you post it in. It can and will spread.

I share stuff on Facebook all the time. Everybody does. But because this time, I shared something that was MINE, I got to see the part that’s usually invisible: I got to watch where it went. It was mind-blowing and eye-opening and frankly terrifying. I had no idea I had that kind of power.

But here’s the thing. You have it too. You’re already doing what I did, each and every day, with other people’s content.

Let that sink in.

Your posts go viral too. All the damn time.

Make ’em good.

How to Protect Your Children from Momo – it’s simpler than you think.

(Featured photo by Patricia Prudente on Unsplash)

Stark Raving Mom is now on Facebook! Follow me here.

Today, my 10 year  old daughter, who suffers from an anxiety disorder, had a panic attack at school and had to be picked up.  I found out from her, after I got her home, that the thing that had triggered her was a classmate warning her about Momo.  The classmate  told her that Momo is  on the  internet making kids kill themselves.  And that there are bad videos on YouTube and they can make you kill yourself too.   And the classmate tried to show her a picture of Momo, but she was too afraid to look.

My daughter is no  longer afraid of Momo, and I am not afraid of Momo hurting my daughter.  I will tell you how I did that.  But first let me tell you why Momo is a danger in the first place.

In recent weeks, we have all seen articles, frantic Facebook posts, and television coverage of the resurgence of “the Momo challenge”- a dangerous internet trend that allegedly encourages  children to mischief, self-harm, and even suicide.

The internet is a dangerous place, and it is important to be aware of what is on it,  and why, and how your children interact with it.  However, the way we talk about it, and educate our children about it, and share news about it, directly influences the  effectiveness of internet dangers like Momo.

Remember that whether or not you talk to your kids about Momo, they are talking to each other.  And this is what they hear and see:

  1. They hear the legend.  They hear this first and most frequently because it’s the spookiest, and therefore juiciest, news to spread.  They hear that Momo is an evil spirit on the internet, and that if you message her she will  give you instructions, and if you do not follow the instructions, she will come to your house and kill your family.  And then Momo  instructs you to do bad things, or to self-harm.  This story is almost always punctuated with a hastily flashed image of the “Momo” profile picture on a cell phone or tablet.  It is corroborated with news stories, headlines, or rumors about real kids who  have killed themselves because of Momo.
  2. They hear that Momo has hidden dangerous videos on YouTube that  make kids kill themselves.  This often gets boiled down to the simpler and scarier “don’t watch YouTube Kids, there’s evil spirits on it that can kill you!”
  3. They see us. They see headlines and facebook posts and TV news spots.  They see parents showing their six year olds pictures of the “Momo” face, asking “have you seen this?” then freaking out when the child answers “yes.”  They see that their parents are scared, and society is scared.
  4. They hear warnings, from their parents and others.  Don’t talk to anyone on the internet, they can hurt you!  Don’t go on YouTube by yourself–or at all!  In fact, don’t use the internet! It’s  dangerous!

Put yourself in a child’s shoes.   If the list above is all you know, what conclusion will you draw?

That there are demons, and dangers, and things you can’t protect yourself from, all over the internet, and  you know it’s  real because all the grown-ups are scared too.

Now put yourself in an internet predator’s shoes.  You know exactly what children are afraid of.  You know that if they’re on the internet, it’s not because they haven’t  heard about this, it’s because they don’t think it’s  going to happen to them.  If you tell a child on the  internet, “I am Momo, I can see you, I will come to your house and kill your family unless you do exactly as I say,” and you pair  it with the now-familiar Momo profile picture, THEY WILL DO WHATEVER YOU WANT.   They’ll agree not to tell anyone they’re talking to you.  They will give up personal information.   They will  send you pictures.

They are primed.

Because we are priming them.

There is danger on the internet.  There are predators who would prey upon the innocence our children. There is reason to be wary.   But there are also dangers in shopping malls, and airports, and playgrounds and after-school clubs and public places and private parties and anywhere there are people. This danger is no different from any of those.  It’s just newer, and bigger, and we understand it less.

And that’s the key.

The internet is the world’s largest public place.  And nearly as unavoidable.  You can place limits, and take away devices, and install filter aps.   But your first and most  powerful line of defense is COMPREHENSION.

Whenever the news starts reporting a new and dangerous internet trend  or YouTube challenge or child-targeting scam, don’t  just “share.”

Study.

Investigate.  Fact-check.  Find out exactly how the scam works.  Find out exactly who is doing it, and how, and  why, and to what end.  Read articles from multiple sources.  Draw your own conclusions.

Once you understand the scam,  explain it to your children.  All of it.  In clear, simple, specific detail.

A  SCAMMER CANNOT HURT YOU IF YOU KNOW YOU’RE BEING SCAMMED.

Don’t tell your children that the  internet is a danger they cannot protect against, because  it isn’t.  Tell your children that people are a danger, and that dangerous people might try to use the internet to trick you.  But you can stop them.

You are not powerless.  There are no demons, no ghosts, and no black magic on your devices.  There is bad information and good information.  Bad people and good people.  Bad videos and good videos.

You can tell the difference.  You have the power to protect yourself.

Here is exactly what I told my daughter:

  • Momo is not a demon, a monster, or a ghost.  It is an idea that people use to trick each other–people, not  demons, not magic–and it’s been around for a really long time.  And people can’t trick you if you understand the trick.
  • The picture called “Momo” is not of a person.  I am going to show you the whole, uncropped picture.  Before I show you, I want to warn you that it is scary looking.   But it is just a statue.  It was never alive.   It is a sculpture called “mother bird” made by a Japanese artist.  The artist has nothing to do with Momo and did not make the sculpture to be used this way.  Someone just  saw it on the internet, thought it was creepy (because it is), and decided to use it for this story.  This is a picture of the whole statue.
  • There are two separate issues people are talking about.  One is the Momo challenge, where kids dare each other to message “Momo” on snapchat or another messaging ap, and Momo threatens them and tells them to do bad things.  Remember that every account is owned by a person.  A person, not a ghost or an evil spirit or a demon.  Anyone can make an account and call it Momo.  Anyone can get this picture.  But they aren’t any different from any other person on the  internet, and everything you already know about internet safety can protect you from Momo too.
  • No one, whether they call themselves Momo or Joe or Bozo the Clown, can know who you are or how old you are or where you live or where you go to school IF YOU DON’T CONNECT WITH THEM.  Momo is just a bunch of different people on the internet.  None of them are magical or mysterious or supernatural.  So don’t message  “Momo” or anyone else you don’t know, because you already know not to message with strangers.  Don’t give out personal information.  And don’t ever be afraid to tell a grown-up if something or someone scares you.  Even if they threaten you.  ESPECIALLY if they threaten you.    Remember that the threats are empty.  A person on the internet can only see what you show them.  They can only hear what you tell them.  They can only take what you give them.  That’s why they try to trick you, instead of just showing up and taking what they want.  They CAN’T just show up.  They can’t hurt you.  You have the power.
  • The other thing people are talking about is inappropriate content on YouTube.  Honey, it’s YouTube.  There are sick people out there, and they post sick things.  Sometimes they hide inappropriate things in videos for kids.  This has been happening  as long as there has been a YouTube.  YouTube Kids has filters and safeguards and works really hard to catch the bad videos, but that doesn’t mean they catch them all.  It’s safer to watch videos in other places.  But if you DO watch YouTube, YOU STILL HAVE THE POWER.
  • Remember that videos can’t make you do bad things, and they can’t do bad things to you.  You are smart.  If you see something you don’t think you’re supposed to be watching, stop watching it.  Tell a grown-up.  Report it to YouTube.  If someone on YouTube tells you to do something you know is wrong, don’t do it.  Stop watching.  Tell a grown-up.  Report it to YouTube.  If someone on YouTube says they can hurt you, don’t believe them.  Remember that a video can’t hurt you or make you hurt yourself.   A video can’t make choices for you.  If a video scares you, you can turn it off.   There is nothing magical on YouTube.  YouTube cannot see you and it cannot touch you, even if someone in a video says they can.  It’s a trick.  Don’t fall for it.  You have the power.

So, to my fellow parents…at the end of the day, it’s your choice how much you allow your children to access the internet, and how much you police their activity, what aps you allow them use, and what videos you let them watch.  That is for every parent to decide for themselves.

But someday, it will be THEIR choice.  Someday, they’ll have to navigate the world on their own.  And if all they  know is that it’s scary, the world will use their fear against them.

Dangerous is not the same as scary.

Teach your kids to be cautious, not afraid.  Informed, not ignorant.  Questioning, not accepting.  Savvy and unscammable.  Ready.

You have the power.

******EDITED TO ADD******

Oh, my word.

When I first wrote this post and shared it on a few local mom’s groups, I never, ever, anticipated that it would have this kind of reach.  I wrote it to help a few frightened parents calm frightened children, and to remind everyone to fact check, share information responsibly, and practice common-sense internet safety.  But with the information in THIS post being spread so widely, so quickly,  I feel compelled to make it more complete.

1). I never stated explicitly in this article that Momo is a hoax, even though I am confident that it is one.  It wasn’t my intention to put myself forward as an internet expert or fact-checker, because I am neither of those things.  I’m just a mom with a search engine and a healthy sense of skepticism.  However, it bears saying: this is, in fact, a hoax.  One commenter said it so much more thoroughly, clearly, and eloquently than I could that I would like to simply quote her verbatim here (for those of you who don’t scroll all the way down the comments section):

There aren’t actually a bunch of malicious accounts or videos talking to kids in this particular case. The picture and general info are being plastered all over the internet right now on trashy news outlets, parent groups and clickbait youtube videos. The stories are developing organically amongst kids in because of the media saturation, in the same way we would tell “Bloody Mary” stories back in the day to scare each other. While its possible that malicious people could take advantage, there is currently no sign that they have, either this time or when this cropped up a year ago. The real purpose is to get clicks and views, so the people spreading it have reason to feed stories of ‘real experiences’ into the mix because the longer it is at the top of the news cycle, the more money they make. -rrilltraeErin

2). I told my daughter that people on the internet can only take what you give them, which is why they have to trick you.  However, I  DO know–and several commenters have pointed out–that no, that’s not entirely true.  People on the internet can absolutely farm hidden information or pick up subtle clues beyond what you deliberately choose to share.  I felt that was  counter to the point I was trying to make for my daughter (if someone threatens you, they’re lying, and it’s okay to tell).  However, I made some key omissions in order to present that message on her level.  If you want to educate yourself and your children more thoroughly about internet safety–which I highly encourage!–I am not an expert resource.   But there are plenty of expert resources out there, and I highly recommend availing yourself of them.  This is a popular one.

And finally….

3).  A lesson in the power of the “share” button.

I  want you to  know that I am a complete unknown.    Prior to this post, this blog had been inactive for four years.  When  it WAS active, it had 1000 views, total.  Lifetime.  That’s it.  I am not a news outlet or  a paid expert or a social media influencer or even (before today) a popular blogger.

I wrote this post mostly for the parents in my school district, because I knew we were all going through the same thing.  I banged it out in about an hour and shared it to three local mom’s groups.

That’s  it.  Three.  Local.   Groups.

Within 24 hours, it had been viewed over 100,000 times, and in countries across the globe.  14K views in Mexico. 4K in Canada.  3K in Australia. 2K in South Africa. 1.5K in the United Kingdom. One guy read it in Ethiopia, guys. Ethiopia.

The momentum hasn’t stopped.  It’s still spreading at that rate. This morning, a person I’ve never met,  who lives halfway around the world  from me, wrote an article about my blog post.  This post has officially gone viral and my head is spinning.  I’m shocked and humbled and more than a little overwhelmed.

But do you know WHY this post went viral?

I mean, sure, because it’s good, I hope. But I like to think I’ve written lots of good things, and this never happened to any of them and will probably never happen again.  (I mean, maybe?  You guys like me now, right? **bats eyes**)

This happened because my blog post addressed a buzzword everyone was afraid of.  And that is exactly how internet scares and hoaxes like Momo gain traction in the first place.

THIS is why it is so, so, so, SO very important that you really think about each and every post you hit “share” on.

A couple of thousand local moms made this post go viral in less than a day, just by hitting the “share” button.  It happened by accident.  We didn’t know we were doing it. We didn’t know we COULD do it. And that’s terrifying and wonderful and powerful all at the same time.

Think about what else you’ve hit the “share” button on this week.  Realize that everything you share has the potential  to reach hundreds of thousands of people within HOURS, simply because you shared it.  Without your captions or context.  It’s just out there.  And once you let it go, you have no control over where it lands.

Please, know how much power you have.

Use it wisely.

And thank you.

Fun with Fraud

I haven’t done much writing lately…except this.  And it was fun. And it made me chuckle.  So I thought I’d share.

Here’s the context, for those of you who don’t know…

I am, among other things, a professional face painter.  And there is a scam artist (or group of scam artists, I guess) who has been targeting entertainers over the past few months.

The scammer will contact you and attempt to book you for a very lucrative, multi-hour gig.  He will ask if you accept credit cards.  Then he’ll tell you that the caterer or party planner he’s hired can’t process his credit card for whatever reason, and will ask you to accept payment on their behalf, plus a hefty tip for your trouble.  Then he will ask that you transfer the caterer’s share.

The scam here, of course, is that the credit card is bogus or stolen.  So you wire money out of your own bank account to pay the “caterer,” the credit card charge gets reversed, and you’re the one out the dough.

I’ve been told that the best thing you can do when one of these scammers contacts you is to keep him talking, and waste his time.

Mission accomplished.

So for those of you who’ve been wondering, I give you…

How to respond to a scammer