The Double-Edged Sword of Dogma

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For the first five years that we lived here, we were in the middle of a small, cliquish town about 15 minutes from our current house. I vividly remember the missionaries showing up at our door one day and knocking. From across the house, I hollered at my kids, “Do not answer the door, or you’ll be grounded!!” It wasn’t until after they’d given up and left that I realized that, being the middle of the summer, all the windows on our 1919 house were open for ventilation. They probably thought I was a complete and utter nutcase. (I plead the fifth. Ha!)

We don’t get many Mormon missionaries here. I think the local wards have an APB out on our subdivision as a “no-fly zone.” However, the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked the other day. I opened the door to a father, an old man and a little boy. The father reminded me of one of our neighbors – a tall, teddy bear of a man that is incredibly kind and soft-hearted. He introduced me to his young son, flashed his pamphlet and asked me a leading question about how don’t we all want to be happy. I told him I was in the middle of something (I was), but I would take his pamphlet and look at it (I didn’t, really.) Before he left, however, I looked him right in the eye and told him very sincerely to have a good day.

What else do you say when you can’t say what you would really like to? I can’t bombard strangers at my door with invasive questions like, “Why can’t that little boy have a birthday party? Why does Jesus care?” “Why would I trade one dogmatic culture for another that is probably even worse?” “What would happen if that old man didn’t approve of something you said or did?” “What if you had questions? Would your spouse stand by you?”

See, the red pill is a fearful thing, and you can’t force feed it to anybody. You wouldn’t want to – you didn’t want to. In most instances, changing perspectives happen on accident. Still, that last question encompasses a gigantic elephant-in-the-room in Mormon culture. Who am I outside the paradigm, and will my spouse, especially, still love me there? I consider myself incredibly lucky in this area. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve wrestled and fought and wrenched our hearts to sort this out, but we’re still here – together. It is never certain, even now.

I have a dear friend who I’ve known for several years. We met well before our lives were turned upside down, but became close because we found ourselves walking side-by-side on very similar paths. As my own marriage has weathered the storm in a way where things are looking up, hers has not. I have such a range of emotions about this. I’ve watched her do the absolute best that she knows how in brutal and unforgiving circumstances. My husband has been inoculated with perspective and nuance, and it’s saved us quite literally. He had already cut the figurative apron strings in many ways before we found ourselves swept up on this ride that has become our life. Her husband is still tightly tethered by a cord that is suffocating what used to be a very loving and fulfilling marriage. She has held on much, much longer than I think I could have in the same situation, and I admire her more than I can say no matter how her story plays out. This was weighing heavily on my mind the last time I went to church. I sat in that congregation and mentally looked around the room and thought, “They own these men and, by extension, they own these marriages.” I wanted to cry.

This is the double-edged sword of dogmatic religion. I know without a doubt that the structure, expectations and rules work incredibly well for many, many people I know. I have friends and family that are baffled by the shifts in our life. I envy them in many ways. I know that things look very black and white from that perspective because I lived there for a very long time. However, the truth is that it cuts incredibly deep when you find yourself unexpectedly picked up and plopped down behind the curtain. Real people are here. Real families. Real marriages. And, they are really hurting from the complete and utter lack of context that allows for them to remain safe and flourish in their families in such an unforgiving cultural narrative of conformity. What used to feel safe and comforting and sure to me now leans sinister and controlling and threatening. If you’re not with us, you’re against us feels much less friendly when you find yourself outside the circle.

I’m genuinely not trying to rain on anyone’s parade. If you’re happy where you are, I am so, so glad. Stay there! Do what works well for you and your family. However, please realize that not everything is a good fit for every person in the same way, and have charity when you see outliers. (I really am still very much the same person I was before my life became a public spectacle.) Above all, if you do ever find yourself in the situation that my own husband has, please, for the love of all that is holy, please look at the bigger picture. Love each other. Turn toward each other. Let the peripheral people, pressures and parts of your life go for a bit until you find yourself grounded again. Do not make permanent decisions that will affect you and your children out of fear or tradition or dogma. Ultimately, you and your loved ones will pay the price, and it makes no sense to leave that in the hands of people, priorities and organizations that can wash their hands of it and walk away. Put the sword down before you find yourself using it against the people that love you the most. Give yourself and your family that gift.

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I Wouldn’t Trade This For a First Kiss

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I had a dream a few weeks ago that took my breath away and has made me thoughtful. It was one of those convoluted dreams where random things are jumping all over the place, for the most part. However, right before I woke up, I dreamed that some guy kissed me. (Don’t worry, it was a faceless, nobody man – nobody that I know or that actually exists.) I woke up with this lingering feeling of, I don’t know, being seen?

My husband and I dated for two years before we got married, and it was a passionate and intense courtship – even volatile at times. We’re still very much in love. He’s my best friend and a man of impeccable integrity. But, a romantic he is not. We’ve been married for going on 23 years. Things change over time, and it’s very natural and expected. Still, I have twinges occasionally where I long for what the past was. It’s an illogical feeling in a lot of ways because what was amazing about it came with a lot of uncertainty – things that I am so glad to see gone in our daily life. But, humans are sometimes ridiculous, aren’t we? We fail to see that the good comes with some bad, and the sometimes boring is infused with a softness, a quietness, a peace and a comfort that no amount of excitement can replace.

We went on a date this weekend. We haven’t been out for a bit. We don’t have a set schedule because, well, we’re having a rough year financially (ha!), and we tend to both hate that sort of structure anyway. He’ll just randomly text me with, “Where am I taking you tonight?” We didn’t do anything fancy, but I put on makeup and cute clothes and spent an evening away from our kids with the man I love. This morning, my husband got up and got in the bath. (He’s a bath guy; I’m all about showers, so we have both a big, soaker tub and a walk-in shower in our master bath.) Our water heater is on the fritz, and he hasn’t gotten around to replacing the element that’s out, so it runs at about half heat and is particularly bad first thing in the morning. After about 10 minutes, he called my name, and I walked in the bathroom.

As I opened the door, my husband looked very sheepish, and he was kind of laughing at himself. Raising my eyebrows, I asked him what was up. After a bit of hemming and hawing and berating himself for not fixing the water heater yet, he tentatively said that he thought he should just ask me to boil him some hot water so that he could get warm. He had no real expectations that I would get up and do this. I could have laughed as well at the thought and walked back to what I was doing. But, I didn’t. I graciously boiled him water and brought it in and dumped it in the tub. I didn’t have to. He knew it, and I knew it. With laughing eyes as he reveled in the luxury of the hot water, I commented that this little favor was better than buying him a gift, and he wholeheartedly agreed as he sunk into the water.

In the moments where I feel that twinge of longing for a relationship that is young and new and exciting and actively romantic, I could miss these moments. I could make the mistake of thinking that I have a lack because life ebbs and flows. We’re not young anymore. We have kids that are growing up and riding the edge of moving on with their lives. Our history runs incredibly deep. He has hurt me like no one else I’ve known and loved me to depths that I could never have imagined were possible when I was a young and naive 18-year-old bride. It is true that we don’t always see each other. He can walk in the room, and my brain doesn’t always register that my stomach should flutter. I know it’s the same for him. The reality is that my brain, my heart, just sees him as a part of me after almost a quarter-century of knowing him. There are times where I look deep in his eyes, and it all comes flooding back, but most moments are a quiet knowing that he’s my person, and I can’t imagine it being any other way.

Right now, he is putting on a tie and getting ready to go to church, and I am writing my blog and not getting ready at all. He knows this, and we don’t really talk about it. It’s not like it’s festering under the surface; it just is. This could be a major issue for us. But, see, I can smile and boil this man water for no other reason that I don’t want him to be cold. So, he can give me space and time and love in our unusual circumstances. Kisses that take your breath away are a moment, and they can be surrounded by a million things that aren’t healthy or beautiful or useful. I suppose this might sound sad to couples who are in younger relationships. It is not. (We still kiss.) It is quietly, peacefully and comfortingly beautiful, and I wouldn’t trade it for a hundred breathtaking first kisses. I’ve lived enough to know how very lucky I am.

 

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.

22 Years is a Lot to Lose

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I would not encourage my own kids to marry as young as we did, necessarily, but it’s been a pretty good thing. It’s also been a pretty hard thing. It depends on the day. (We were 16 and 21 when we started dating and 18 and 23 when we married. Oy.) The truth is that, no matter at what age you join your life with someone, it is both everything you imagine and nothing that you could have anticipated. Sometimes, I think that my husband and I have a unique relationship to the extent of the extreme ups and downs that we navigate. There are days that I walk around gushing unicorns and rainbows about how wonderful my marriage is, and days where my closest friends have seen me fall-apart-ugly-crying about how I don’t know if we can make it through the mess. Often, that all happens in the same week, and both extremes are the truth.

Like my #metoo post, this subject is hard to dive into because there’s so much there and it runs so deep for me. My husband is freaking amazing, such a good person and has absolutely stood by me in some of my hardest moments this year. He’s also incredibly stubborn and a black-and-white thinker, so the changes that 2018 has brought have been really, really hard for us to navigate. I think we all come into marriage with unspoken contracts about how our life together will look. Maybe there are actually some lucky couples that hit 25 or 50 years and everything in that basic structure has been just as they expected. I would imagine that it happens. That, however, has not been our experience. At all. Over the past decade and most intensely over the last few years, our entire world has been picked up, shaken vigorously and dumped out at our feet in a mixed-up mess. While we’re in the process of picking up the pieces, we’re both doing it differently and in ways that aren’t necessarily part of our original agreement. My relationship with religion right now is tumultuous at best. No matter how much you love your spouse (and do we ever!), this is a frightening and uncertain process.

I think most couples who have struggled (all of us, probably) have to weigh the risks and benefits to a relationship. This is especially true when dynamics have shifted in dramatic and integral ways. We’ve concluded that, for our marriage, what we’ve built in 22 years would be an awful lot to lose. (My husband regularly talks to one of his brothers who’s gone through a very ugly divorce. It’s like an inoculation every time. I should really send my brother-in-law a gift in thanks for how good it is for our marriage to have that perspective.) What began as two separate (if naive) entities on a warm day in the spring of 1996 has become a huge grove with intertwined roots that weave in and out of every part of our world and that of our seven children. It would be difficult and infinitely more painful and damaging for us to try to take that apart, and we don’t want to. We love each other fiercely. We’re best friends. We laugh a LOT. We’re well matched. We’ve also both changed so much, and that is hard stuff.

This is not a treatise on divorce, so please don’t internalize any unintended shame if you have made the choice to end your own marriage. I respect that decision and understand that not every relationship can be saved and not every couple can move forward in a healthy way. On our bad days, I’m not always certain that we will. Most days, I agree with my therapist that we’ll be just fine and that our foundation is incredibly strong and healthy. (He’s also good in bed, but I promised I would try to not overshare. Sorry, not sorry. Ha!)

I’m sure I will have a lot more posts about my marriage that are funny and witty and come easily for me, but the truth is that my life (and probably yours) is messier than a one-liner or quip. My relationship with my husband is really hard right now. It’s also unbelievably beautiful and worth it. While he doesn’t really do social media and may never read this blog, above all I want him to know how impressive I find him as a person. It’s been a struggle, but there is no one in this world that I would rather wrestle with (literally and figuratively!) and fight for than you. I know things have changed a lot. I know sometimes you look at our life and get discouraged that it’s not at all what you expected. Despite the laundry list of things that are different than what we signed up for, one thing remains the same – I still choose you. I trust you. I have your back. I’m not going anywhere. 22 years would just be too much to lose.

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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.