By Their Fruits Shall Ye Know

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There is another sex abuse scandal in the LDS church right now. (Who am I kidding? I know of several, but this one is national news/a Big Deal.) You would think, with my background, hearing about this kind of thing would sting, or hit home, or something. Sadly, it doesn’t really. I have thoughts and feelings about the principles of it, but I don’t have super intense emotional responses to this kind of thing because it’s just so damn common and so damn familiar. Thinking that – writing it – does elicit sadness in me, and I guess that is where my heart sits in it. It’s sad. It’s unfortunate. It’s broken and selfish and wrong.

And, so familiar.

My semi-public abuse confrontation was just wrapping up about a year ago, and I was in the middle of it when McKenna Denson released her audio of the confrontation with her perpetrator, former MTC president Joseph Bishop. I sat in bed with my husband one night and we listened to the entire thing. We had already walked through a good part of the process we engaged in at that point. I had (still do – maybe one day I’ll feel free to make those available, but I have concerns that make that not possible at this time) my own recordings from various meetings we had been in with different people, including my perpetrator and my mother (not the same individual, just to be entirely clear.) The thing that really struck me the most as we were in the middle of all this trauma is how familiar this all sounded. The professed regret coupled with quite half-hearted remorse and excuse making. I heard that again today when listening to the audio confession of Sterling Van Wagenen. (Seriously, at one point in this interview, Sean is talking to Van Wagenen about his motivations, with him saying how sorry he was for what he had done. This dude calmly talks about his sex addiction, business struggles and marital problems, discussing how it was all falling apart the night of the abuse and his wife wanted a divorce. He says how he was so distraught and so depressed and he knelt down and said this heartfelt prayer. And, then the story hangs there in mid-air with this pregnant pause. Because what he isn’t saying is the rest of it. “I knelt down and said a heartfelt prayer…………………………………. and then I got up and decided to abuse a child as a way to cope.” Guys, this what religious trauma looks like. This, right here, is where it’s born.) It is disconcerting, but it is not even close to surprising.

I felt very positive when I left the first meeting I had with my ecclesiastical leader. I felt (and still do) that he was genuinely alarmed and intended to do the right thing. I wasn’t completely bulldozed in the meeting with my perpetrator. There was some acknowledgement, and to this day he is very deferent to me, my husband, my sister, anyone he thinks may have the “upper hand”… However, I also experienced his absolute inability to be completely honest with himself let alone me or anyone else. He would tell different stories and different parts of the story to different people depending on what they already knew. When his wife found out and separated from him, he very bitterly exclaimed to her how I had ruined his life. (A bit ironic there, yea, but I have a pretty thick skin at this point. Being consciously healthy under pressure will do that.)

You know, you can say what you want, I guess, about what is and isn’t the case, what did or didn’t happen, or what anyone’s motivations may be, but let’s just go right back to the Mormon constructs we know so well : by their fruits shall you know them. I continue to be honest and open and as frank as I know how with anyone I communicate with about it, and I sleep very well at night knowing what my motivations were and are. It’s up to them and God, I suppose, to decide if they can say the same. I did everything I could, and I feel free from any further responsibility in that.

One of the most eye-opening experiences when confronting abuse in a religious construct is the discernible inability of the religious institutions involved to really have any concept of justice and morality in facing these issues. It is so apparent to me that both myself, McKenna and now Sean Escobar are also intimately acquainted with this. It’s not a fun club, but there is a certain comradery of knowing in it that I think is what drives us all to use our voice to educate, inform and advocate for healthier communities, families and churches, if possible. It’s a hard fight. It feels very up hill. However, something that Sean said in his podcast really struck me, enough so that I posted it on my Facebook page. “You are as sick as your secrets.” (If it’s not this episode, it’s the next.)

I honestly don’t feel that most of the people involved in these situations want to do wrong or cover up or sweep things under the rug. I may have said this on the blog before, and I know I’ve said it in conversations with probably a dozen people. Good people want to do good, but when institutional priorities (traditions, dogmatic structures, reputation) are at odds with priorities and needs of individual people, the priorities of the institution win every. single. time. It’s not even close to a competition. If we want to improve these statistics and protect children, we have to have institutional priorities that people can embrace and feel safe with. If that’s not possible, we collectively have to vote with our feet and walk away until they get enough of a message to be compelled to change. At least that’s how I see it.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Truth and openness and honesty and frank conversations slowly move the needle. I feel like what I did in my community was a pretty small thing. What Sean Escobar and McKenna Denson have done is most assuredly much bigger. (I almost feel embarrassed to speak about this like my platform is equivalent to these two rockstars of abuse advocacy.) But, I think what we would all likely agree on is the value that we find in taking pain and doing something good with it. One voice is very small, but adding each voice can eventually make enough noise to make a difference. We’ve all been given a different burden to carry. Take those bruised pieces, plant them in beautiful ground and go do good in the world with the power your knowledge gives you. By their fruits.

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I Finished Watching The Keepers

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I finished watching The Keepers this week. I started it last summer when we were still really wading through our rough patch trying to navigate all the changes in our life. I had a bit of a meltdown at my husband after episode three which subsequently triggered a much-needed hard conversation. It was good, and we got through it pretty well, I think, but I had to stop watching the show. It was just too much at that time. Six months later, I was able to finish it without getting stuck in the rough emotions it brings up. (For those that are completely in the dark, The Keepers is a documentary about the murder of a nun that ended up being wrapped up in some pretty severe abuse in the Baltimore Catholic church.)

I had a thought when I first started watching this, and it’s something that I’m not sure that a lot of people understand. I don’t even know if I can communicate in a way that will be clear enough to shift perspectives, but I’ll try. This story follows several women who tried to prosecute their abuser who happened to be a priest. One of the women, Jean, begins telling her story by outlining her family history and how she had these amazing, devout parents who were truly good and god-fearing people. She then goes on to chronicle her absolutely unbelievably horrific abuses within that Catholic faith. These were experiences where the power invested in the church had been used as the most evil and vicious weapon against this then child. I vividly remember watching this last year and having this crystal clear realization that Jean’s church was not her mother’s church and that she could never have the pure and positive experience with Catholicism that her mother experienced – it had become a poisoned well for her.

I talk to a LOT of people. People share their abuse stories with me. People share their struggles with faith with me. I think that many people do not understand what it is to navigate these experiences, and there are narratives built up around them that, while they serve to shield the teller, are really hurtful and untrue. Jean’s story is quite extreme – it goes way beyond anything I have to deal with in my daily life. Still, it illustrates so clearly that not every environment is good for every person. Jean struggles and works her entire life to connect with divinity in a way that feels safe and supportive, but it absolutely, unequivocally cannot be in the Catholic church. There are too many devils there for it to be God’s house for her – ever.

Life is NOT one-size-fits-all. More than anything else, I think most people want to share their stories with others. They want to be heard. They want to have the freedom to choose paths that are healthy and productive and whole for them. They want to do this and still have family and friends see the bigger picture with compassion and understanding and love.

I think so many people look at other people’s lives from the outside in and think, “Gosh, I feel so sad for them because they are giving up something that is so important/fulfilling/helpful to me, and I want them to have that, too.” I understand that sentiment and where it comes from. But, please understand that you are interpreting their choices through your lenses. Another approach I hear a lot is the idea that, yes, these things are hard/wrong, but XYZ Belief System is the only way and so you just have to suck it up and push through and keep dancing with the devils until God sorts it out. The simple fact is that being healthy when your background includes significant trauma is incredibly difficult in the most supportive environments, and each person’s individualized experience requires unique and creative solutions that often include thinking outside the box. Going against your entire culture to achieve that isn’t the easy way – it’s actually quite traumatizing itself, and you have to be pretty over paying a high price to maintain that status quo to be brave enough to do it anyway.

I do not inherently have an issue with religion. I don’t think Catholicism is bad any more than I think Mormonism is bad. They are very positive parts of many people’s lives. Still, that is not the case for everyone. You don’t have to wear someone else’s shoes to acknowledge that as understandable and valid. You don’t have to get comfy on their bench to concede that is seems truly healthy for them. You don’t have to give up your belief to love someone who has had to let that go. You don’t even have to be sad that they choose different priorities than you do. I believe God is big enough for all that. Are we?

My Ride-or-Die, Zombie-Apocalypse Team

backlit-dawn-dusk-862848.jpgIt’s halfway through November, and I’m seeing all my friends post on Facebook with their daily gratitudes. Frankly, I’m bad at this kind of thing. Not because I’m ungrateful but because it would require 30 days of unaccountable consistency. The fact that I have published this blog like clockwork, twice a week, with nothing behind it but a wing and a prayer is a bit of a miracle. I am a get-it-done type of person if I’ve made a promise or someone is counting on me. If it’s just me, meh, I’d probably rather be doing anything else or will suddenly be missing my motivation. I get that this is a rather stupid mental game I play, but it mostly works for me. Shrug.

Still, today was a grateful day, so I would be remiss not to throw my hat in the ring in at least a minor way. This year, to put it mildly, has been transformative for me. As it comes to an end, we’re getting back to a place of stability, though this looks so very different than it did before January 2018. I’m grateful for the quiet and peace again. But, I’m most grateful for what I’ve learned. I posted this on my Facebook page in April when we were pretty much in the thick of things with our church and our decision to take a stand against abuse.

“When you go through something difficult, you inevitably learn about yourself. But, you also learn an awful lot about other people – what their values are, what their priorities are, what their agendas are. I have experienced a juxtaposition of warriors and weakness, servanthood and self-service, integrity and ignorance. Eye opening doesn’t even begin to describe it, but if you pressed me on who I would want on my ride-or-die team for the zombie apocalypse, you better believe I know.”

Today, I got a surprise visit from two of my very most favorite people in the whole world. I’ve been good friends with my one girlfriend for at least five years. We’ve lived in the same community since she moved here, and she is one of the most fun, selfless, upbeat and accepting people I know. My other friend is a newer connection, though we’ve been acquaintances for years. These two women make up the core of my truest tribe: women who have walked through fire with me this year. They are the ones (along with my mom – a very new addition to this list. Love you, Mom!) who have seen me fall apart, cry and wonder if I had it in me to fight the battle I was taking on. They are the ones that assured that I did – that I was brave and strong and capable. They’ve embraced my mess and loved me straight through it. They’ve shared their stories and listened to mine, found resources for me, and showed up on my doorstep at a moment’s notice. I have shared with them my deepest fears about the struggles in my marriage, and they have heard the rawest truth about my current relationship with faith. I would imagine that looking in from the outside, it might seem that I have changed a lot, but these women just see me.

I’m a bit of a homebody, and the fact that my one girlfriend is pushing like gangbusters to finish her house means we haven’t done a girl’s night for a long time (it just wouldn’t be the same without her.) Adjusting to how things have changed is challenging. I feel isolated sometimes. While the truth is that everyone is probably busy living their own lives and they don’t really care, I wonder what people think of me. Sometimes it feels like I’ve lost a lot in the way of easy belonging and the ability to just blend in and be a part of the, uh, collective? (Ha.) The truth is that the superficial has merely quietly faded away, leaving me with just the relationships that mean the very most to me.

I’m convinced that I have the very best friends in the whole wide world, and I mean more than these two. The silver lining of this year for me has been connection. I have met so many amazing people and had the opportunity to offer support and be supported by a deep, meaningful tribe. The beauty of this is almost overwhelming when I stop and think about it like I did today. So, I might not be able to sustain a full 30 days, but I would be remiss not to give a shout out to one of the things in my life that I am the very most grateful for – my ride-or-die team for the zombie apocalypse. I hope you know who you are, and I love you all so incredibly much!

Why Can’t You Just Forgive??

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For the first six months of this year, I ate, slept and breathed the drama that we were engaged in with my church and in my family. I don’t recall a single conversation I had with my husband at the time that didn’t involve the situation, and I thought about it all the time. Was I being fair? Were my motives pure? Was I certain that my memory was reliable? Was it even worth the turmoil it had caused to confront this trauma from my past? (I actually haven’t thought a lot about this lately until I stumbled across this blog post yesterday.)

When you are dealing with a church community, you end up in this strange dichotomy where you are surrounded by people that truly believe in a moral system that they adhere to – they genuinely care about getting it right. However, everything is wrapped in a dogma that doesn’t always have individuals’ best interests at heart, and collective priorities are often given precedence over those of people, families and even more firm moral codes. It’s bizarre, disorienting and eye-opening all at once.

Nothing more clearly illustrates this conundrum than the narrative around forgiveness. As someone who still has a Christian worldview, I think the teachings of Jesus Christ were not only admirable but downright radical when read in their cultural context. Jesus did things like care about children, give women an unprecedented voice in community and promote the interests of the less fortunate. So, please don’t misunderstand me for a complete and utter lost soul.  However, the church (Mormon, Christian, Catholic…this seems pretty universal in extremely organized dogmatic structures.) has really missed the boat on this idea.

I would have mucho money if I was paid for every time I was (gently, usually, and often not directly) lectured about forgiveness. Can’t you just forgive? We should all forgive! What about forgiveness? I think what becomes clear when you’re on the receiving end of a situation that asks for serious forgiveness is that forgiveness as a process is my business. It’s personal. It’s a journey that belongs to me and to every other person who has experienced trauma at the hands of another person who should have known better. It is wholly inappropriate for anyone outside this situation to offer unsolicited advice or to lecture. The hard truth is that you don’t know anything about it. For most people, this is a philosophical discussion, but ignorance is a luxury that not everyone has. Regardless of what the circumstances are, it behooves every person to move on and live productive and healthy lives. Frankly, I think I do a pretty good job at that.

Still, I’ve had to come to terms with forgiveness and what it does and doesn’t mean. I’ve heard sermons my whole life about forgiving. What I’ve come to see is that this dialogue  often has much more to do with the comfort of the speaker than with my own well-being. Though the words aren’t said, what I really hear is, “Forgiveness is important! You should forgive. It’s for your own good – can’t you see?? (Besides, this is making me VERY uncomfortable!)” See, forgiveness often becomes a way for other people to feel washed clean of a situation without actually having to do anything real or productive or helpful at all. When someone tells me to forgive, I’m pretty astute about discerning if it’s about my mental/spiritual health or if it’s about them. Rarely is it about me. (As an easy rule, if you have to remind someone that something is for their own good, it’s probably not.)

When we were in the middle of our fight, we found this article on dealing with sexual abuse in the church, and it became one of our best tools for advocacy and education. We sent it to dozens of people to help illustrate where we were coming from and what we felt would be appropriate. (If you’ve read my prior blogs, you’ll remember that we eventually succeeded in having my perpetrator removed from his church position.) Clearly, there is a need for this type of education because most people don’t understand this: how I feel about what happened to me on a personal level and what I feel should be done about it are two very separate issues. My emotions (hurt, unfairness, anger/revenge…) do not play into my decision making process. There is often a clear, right thing to do, and it should be done with neither guile nor bias if integrity is at all important.

I haven’t been to church since August. I would imagine people have all kinds of opinions about what this means and what’s going on in my life. (If you ask, I’ll just tell you. The Cliff’s Notes version is that I’m doing well.) Usually, high-demand religions create a dialogue around leaving or disconnecting. You’re offended. You’ve sinned or want to commit sins. You couldn’t hack it. YOU’RE the problem, somehow. It’s my fault. I can’t forgive. This doesn’t even come close to adequately describing why I’ve made this decision.

I posted this on my Facebook feed on August 12, just a few weeks before my last sacrament meeting:

I’ve forgiven a lot of people for a lot of pretty horrible things, and I continue to do so. It’s a process. However, it’s frankly none on anyone else’s business what the status of that process is. People can make a conscious choice to disengage with toxic environments and people. The idea that stepping back equates to a lack of forgiveness is complete and utter hogwash. It’s nothing more than an attempt to deflect the consequences of others’ deplorable actions onto the innocent, while gaslighting them into feeling that it’s somehow their fault. Just my thoughts for the Sabbath.

This is usually what I hear about forgiveness. It’s usually people protecting people who have done bad things that say these things. I get that it’s wicked hard to look ugly in the face when it lives on someone you love or, even worse, yourself. But, to speak of forgiveness as some sort of spiritual Jedi wave that disappears the facts is deeply insulting to people who have walked through the shadow of this valley. If you can’t offer genuine support, please leave me alone to get on with my life in whatever way is most healthy for me. But, please stop talking about things you don’t understand. If you can’t meet hurting people with compassion and support, your religion is hollow, and you need to sit down. (Most people truly are well-intentioned, but it’s a band-aid at best. To be clear, the person that prompted this Facebook post recognized that I was reacting to their statements and went out of their way to apologize. I greatly respect that.)

My husband is a big fan of several Christian apologists, including Professor John Lennox. I’ve been deeply impressed with his approach to Christianity and have listened to several of his very thought-provoking lectures. My husband sent me this one a month or so ago, and outside of Dr. Laura who takes a somewhat more secular approach, this is the best breakdown of forgiveness that I have ever heard. On the most simple level, forgiveness is multi-faceted. There is the part that you take care of for your own personal well-being; this consists of letting go, moving your focus to other things, finding wholeness in other parts of your life. The other half of forgiveness requires recognition, remorse and restitution from the other party – the repentance must be sincere for it to be efficacious. Professor Lennox does a much better job of outlining this. (If you start at about 48 minutes, the segment is less than ten minutes long and well worth the listen.)

As for me, I’m not making decisions out of anger, malice or bitterness. I am, however, finally giving myself permission to make decisions that are the most healthy for my situation, regardless of how unconventional that looks. I’m very much at peace with where I’m at.

 

Where Do You Belong, Anyway?

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At the risk of being flippant, I feel like I should announce to everyone that I will NOT be taking a hiatus from social media this week. Not that there’s anything wrong with taking a little break, but I’m at a point in my life where it’s pretty important for me to make my own decisions. You know, like a grownup. When you end up in a position where you’re a bit on the outs, it becomes glaringly apparent how much people like to be on “the ins.” While it is disconcerting to find myself bumping around life largely on my own, it is incredibly instructive. Mormon culture (I know. Sorry, not sorry.) prides itself on being “in the world, but not of the world,” but the truth is that it’s incredibly homogeneous, at least here in the Mormon corridor. People do or don’t do the things they are expected to do to conform to their culture, often for no other reason than that it’s expected. This can be a good thing (firm values), but this can also be pretty dangerous. (Bishop interviews, anyone?) (Lest you think this is dogging on religion, I’ll expand this in a minute. If you’re going to offend, spread it around, I guess. Ha.)

It’s strange to look back on how my life has unfolded and how much my perspective has changed. There was a time that this sense of belonging, this blending in with my tribe was pretty important to me. I’m a coffee drinker; I’ve always liked it. While that can be a pretty big deal in the mainstream LDS church, it’s kind of overlooked a bit in fundamentalism. You might get a few jabs about it, but it won’t “hold you back” from callings, etc. There were many, many years where I didn’t really disclose the exact nature of my religious background to people. It’s complicated to talk about and for other people to understand. (Yo, I’m not FLDS!) When you’re raised in towns/schools/communities that pretty much shun you, it leaves a mark, and it was just easier to say I was a normal Mormon to people who didn’t need to know more. I went on a sewing retreat when I was pregnant with my now 11-year-old. These were ladies I’d been virtually hanging with for a decade. I had a great time, despite being pretty knocked over by morning sickness, but I didn’t drink a drop of coffee the entire weekend, even though several of the ladies were quite the connoisseurs, and I’m sure it was phenomenal. None of these ladies cared at all what I did or didn’t drink – they were an eclectic mix of atheists, committed Christians and even a Muslim – but, it would have messed up my image – what they knew to mean “Mormon,” and I would have had to get out of my box and explain. While I know that this was my experience, it’s hard for me to remember or recognize that girl.

I’ve spent a lot of time mulling this idea over the last week or two – how easy it is to follow the crowd. The political climate in our country is nuts right now. Being that I’m someone “with a story,” I suppose I’m expected to join the chorus chanting “Believe women!” But, somehow, that doesn’t seem to be ingenuous to me. I personally understand how difficult it is to come forward and take a stand against abuse and assault. You pay a price, no matter what. It’s hard. You have to be strong and committed and have nerves of steel. I know. However, I also have a husband, brothers, a father and male friends that I deeply love and respect. They aren’t the enemy. It’s not us against them. I would never throw my victim status in front of someone as a way to deflect from due diligence in sussing out the facts. Despite my personal emotions about these issues, I can put myself in someone else’s shoes and see that evidence and fairness is paramount in these matters because I would want that same courtesy for my own brothers/friends/sons. I would never want anyone to just believe me. Instead, I would hope that people would believe the truth as it was presented, witnessed and corroborated. As a society, we should have zero tolerance for unacceptable and deviant behavior – full stop. However, we can’t run our collective lives on emotional outbursts and tantrums without ever stepping back to examine a situation critically. The truth is the top priority precisely because these issues are so, so important. And, lest you think I’m heartless, I’m not commenting on the specifics of this case so much as on the disappointment I feel in the public politics of it.

There is a freedom in owning your right to make adult decisions all on your own. However, stepping away from the crowd also means that you’re left on your own. There’s few people around you to check with for a thumb’s up that what you have and haven’t done is acceptable. I have mixed emotions about this – I’ve spend my life tucked up under the wings of high-demand ideology. Now, if I screw up and offend, these words are all my own. I can’t point to my church or my community or my political leanings to make excuses for myself. However, I also have the opportunity to really look inside and see who I really am and what I want to stand for. It’s liberating. You should try it. In the meantime, if you want to catch me for coffee or dinner, you’ll find me on Facebook, like usual.

Our Babies Are Counting on Us

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There’s been a few things in the news lately that have caught my eye. On the national stage, I’ve been following the abuse scandal involving the Catholic church in Philadelphia. Just last week, it came out that the coverup went all the way to the top of the organization and Pope Francis likely knew and did nothing. On a more local level, Sam Young of Protect LDS Children was just called to a disciplinary council because he won’t give up his fight to change the intrusive interview policies in the LDS church. For those that don’t understand the implications of this, Bishop Young is slated for excommunication. For pleading with the church to please stop asking kids sexually explicit questions. Isn’t this common sense?

If you come from my Facebook page, you have probably noticed that my posts lean heavy toward abuse advocacy and education. I honestly sometimes feel like everything I post these days is controversial. The irony is that I spent three decades trying not to tell my story and desperately wanting to protect the people in my family that it would and did hurt when it went public in early 2018. The battle that we fought this year with our own small and pretty obscure church was not what we expected. Frankly, we were naive. We did ultimately win what we felt was a victory though we paid a pretty high price for having my perpetrator removed from his ecclesiastical position. We’re still trying to recover from seeing things behind the curtain that we can never unsee. Speaking out, especially against institutional constructs that hold power, is incredibly difficult and risky. Our identities are wrapped up in these relationships and, in many ways, it feels like a spiritual divorce.

I still struggle to know what to say about these situations. I have such big emotions about things that I have so little power to change. As moms, it’s devastating to see how at-risk our children are in spaces that should be safe – that we expect to be safe. In the culture of Mormonism, there is a cliche saying that reads, “The people make mistakes, but The Church is true!” My experiences have led me to a completely opposite conclusion, “The Church is a mess, but the people are good!” Coming to a place where you understand power structures and their priorities can be both heartbreaking and eye-opening. I know we all like to think that these things aren’t or can’t be happening in our own back yard, but, sadly, they probably are. People that use positions of power to abuse children will hide wherever there is a cubby for them. This isn’t just a Catholic problem or a Mormon problem or a Protestant problem or even a religious problem; this is a human problem.

While I have mixed feelings about the politicization of the #metoo movement (Though it’s statistically rare, I think women who falsely accuse should be subject to prosecution,) our ability to speak up is so, so important. As parents, we’re responsible to protect our children. We’re the front lines and the big guns. Handing that power and responsibility over to an institution, any institution, is a grave mistake in my opinion and experience. If you belong to a church that offers you spiritual and community support, that is wonderful. But, do not make the mistake of overlooking red flags and questionable circumstances because it happens at church with people that you identify as inherently trustworthy. And, if your church punishes or censures you for being concerned, please run, don’t walk right out the door.

Though the road to it has been deeply painful, this knowing has been a gift to my family. My creeper meter, so to speak, is highly tuned, and I have used it to protect my kids from people and situations that were unsafe. I can’t go back and change my history; my #metoo story is an integral part of who I am – it impacts my marriage, my parenting and my relationship with faith, and there are days that this is incredibly hard. Still, I have a voice and a perspective that can be used to help people, and I feel a deep responsibility to use my story for good. I’m determined that my own children will experience the world in a safer way than I did. While I’m under no illusions that my tiny effort will change the tide of this issue, maybe all of us mama bears together can do just that. Stand up; speak out; say no; make a difference. Our babies are counting on it.