Dear Charlotte: your Dad is a master letter-writer

[Charlotte: The following is a letter written by Dad as part of my Christmas present in 2017. He has, for years, been an amazing letter writer and this one is one of his best. I have many tattered and yellowing pages that he wrote me from Africa back in the early 2000s, but until Christmas I hadn’t gotten a letter from him in years.  This one is for both of us.]

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December 2017

My dearest love(s),

You know more than I that the year since Donald Trump’s election has been a unique year for everyone, but most of all for women. I have been inspired by your criticism of our president for a variety of reasons but most definitely for his disrespect for women and disregard for women’s issues. While one day I might have appreciated Trump’s acknowledgement of “locker room talk”, what has become public about Men’s treatment toward women in the last year has taken that term to a new level, and I can no longer associate myself with that and can not promote to our son as a right of passage.

Your attention to women’s issues, while it has always been there, has inspired me to think more deeply about how everyone in our society should play a part in acknowledging problems, redressing issues, reconciling, and moving forward to create a more equal and respectful society. Your thinking has caused me to reflect on the world between women and men. I have reflected on how I relate with women, how my male peers should do so, and how we should teach our kids about women and gender issues. My reflection is because of your passion.

You know that I enjoy music for its musical and lyrical enjoyment, and this summer I came across an NPR project for and by women which, in this case, addresses women in music. This year Turning the Tables promoted a list of the 150 top albums by women musicians prioritized by the artists’ popularity, societal and/or industry relevance, and their address of women’s issues.

I collected the top 10 albums for you from a variety of locations which will be made a available to you digitally. Included in this shared file resides lyrics of each song on each album in respective order and also an NPR review of each album. I thought this list of albums might provide some meaning to you in terms of exposure to important women artists, ideas that were important to them, and perhaps some ways which you might relate.

To Charlotte in particular – You are currently almost five, and it is almost impossible, maybe reluctantly, for me to conceive how life will be like for you when you mature into a woman. While living in the present, I am just enamored with your infectious smile, intelligence, and curiosity. But someday you will be that woman, and you will be confronted with a variety of struggles that your brother and I will never experience ourselves. While your mother and I promise to always be here for you when you encounter trying times, but we may not always be able to be there, nor will not necessarily seek our help. In short, there will be times in your life when you will face many of life’s challenges independently, and thus someday you must develop that strength, constitution, and support systems on your own. Your mother and I are here to help you in this regard.

Charlotte – these 10 albums does not serve as a guide in womanhood. That is not my point. I simply think your reading this message might give you a tiny glimpse into your mother’s life at this moment; what has partially occupies her mind, how she might look at the world, and maybe even her perception of how our society perceives her (and you). If you’re wondering what the hell I’m writing about, just ask. We can fill you in,  

You two are the most important women in my life, and I want you to know that I respect you more than I may normally communicate. I don’t know how or when our society will unshackle itself of gender discrimination and despicable disrespect, but I believe that we are living in a pivottable moment which point we are beginning to witness the testimony of women that will force change to occur in the home, in the government, in public, and in the workplace that women demand in a free society. In this world, women and men will be judged by their merits. I have faith in this, and I hope change will occur very soon.

I hope you get a chance to enjoy!

Your loving husband and father

Fred Follansbee (Dad)

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Dear Charlotte: Happy Birthday! Now where did my baby go?

Happy Birthday!  You’re FIVE!

Someday I’ll give you these birthday letters all in a package, when you turn 18 or 21. When that happens, I hope you’ll read some of these letters with a skeptical incredulity. Mom!” I imagine you’ll say. “Things like that did NOT happen. People would never treat other people that way…!”

You see, at the time you are turning 5, in 2018, we are on the cusp of a major turning point for women and marginalized groups. It started a full year ago, when the country elected a piggish man in Donald Trump–a noted sexual abuser–over a woman for president. As I wrote in another letter to you, I cried that morning–and that week, that month. I cried with incredulity, and with the waning hope that you would not have to grow up in a world where accepting a man’s questionable behavior would be easier than ‘letting’ a woman try to lead the country.

Since then, January 2017, the floodgates have opened. Man after man has been accused of sexual harassment, even assault, and many of these high profile/high powered men have been shamed and banished from the public eye. #metoo has become an animal of its own, the very beast that we needed to bring the true beasts to daylight so we can start putting women out in front.
I don’t know many females on the other side of #metoo. Nearly all of the women in my life have examples and stories they can share, including myself. It’s painful to read some of them, and it often seems that each day there’ll be a new story, a new accusation, a new high powered male taking the fall.

But we are trying hard not to get tired and tune out. Now is the time we need to tune in, lean in, listen more carefully, and use our anger more productively. We are barreling ahead towards changing some crucial conventions, laws, and most importantly, beliefs. I dare not say that we are on the precipice, yet. I still think we are climbing up the hill. I don’t know how long it will take, or how slowly the changes may unfold–but I hope that by the time you read this, you are at a far enough distance to barely believe ‘this stuff’ really happened.

So what does this have to do with five-year-old-Charlotte?

You’ve spent much of the year between your 4th birthday and 5th entranced in a princess world. You love Cinderella, Elsa and Anna, the little mermaid and all the rest. You read them, you dress as them, you dance them, and you draw them. I’ve spent the entire year subconsciously feeding you a different message: that you are a strong and important person because you are smart and brave, not because of your beautiful dress or your graceful twirls.

For every princess book we bring home, I accompany it with Rosie Revere, Engineer or She Persisted. Your princesses are all subservient in a way I will not let you be: Ariel sacrifices her beautiful voice to marry a man, and Cinderella stays locked away in her attic until a prince tracks her down. Even modern-day Moana admits “I wish I could be the perfect daughter”. I refuse to let you believe that you’ll sacrifice, wait, or be made invisible because you need someone else to validate you. You, my dear Charlotte are kind, strong, brave, and IMPORTANT. It seems we’re still waiting for society and our culture to give you that message, so until then I will give it to you every day myself.

I will keep changing all the pronouns in our books to “she” or “her” when they talk about railroad conductors, dentists, artists, and scientists. I’ll call them firewomen and snow-women, because why does every compound word have to end in “man”? When you learn to read and you can clearly correct me, I’ll teach you to do the same….because you can be and do anything you want.

I look back on the picture books from my childhood and realize that all the characters are male, and ALL the pronouns are male-centered. The female-centric stories are often goofy girls like Amelia Bedelia, or fluffy stories like The Babysitters Club.  I hope you someday ask me why someone ever needed to write a book like She Persisted. ..that it will be obvious to you and everyone else that when a woman stands up for what she believes in, she is heard and validated for exercising her human rights and not just for being a female risk-taker.

For Christmas this year, Dad gave me (us!) the most thoughtful gift. I’d been chiding him for months about how he only listens to male musicians, and only follows male-lead bands. Apparently, that got him thinking (and researching). He sought out the top ten albums by women and procured them all for us, on an ipod. He then transcribed the lyrics to every single song, because these strong women are not just singing about handsome men and “yeah baby”-ing it.  They’re singing about equality, hardship, how they’ve been brushed aside, what they’re really aiming for, and how they plan to get it. I’m meant to hold onto this until you’re old enough to understand and appreciate it–which I will (the letter anyway. The music? We’ve already been rocking out to it!)

You are showing signs of developing a feisty side. You’ve been pushing your brother around (literally) and starting to push us around (figuratively). Though I sometimes need to correct these behaviors, I secretly like it that you’re finding your voice and standing your ground.  You go girl.

Strong Charlotte, you are my best girl. You are curious, beautiful, and kind–and such a multi-dimensional soul that I am incredibly proud to be your mother.  You’re five now, officially starting your ‘big kid’ years. I can’t wait to see how you develop inside and out, every.single.day.

Love and admiration,

Mom

 

 

 

Dear Charlotte: Happy birthday, your world is growing!

Dear Charlotte,

If this 4th birthday letter has any theme, it is this: the months between 3 and 4 have been a year of understanding a world much bigger than yourself.  You are curious beyond the boundaries of your 38 inches, our four walls, and the roughly five mile radius we travel to school and back each day.  You ask big questions.  You’re constantly thinking: about the books we read, the things you hear on the radio, and the things you see people doing at any moment.  

“Mommy, will Donald Trump decide to be a good person now that he is president?”

“Does God exist in real life?”

“Did God make all the people in the world?”

“I’m sad that Hillary Clinton lost.  But that’s okay.  Maybe she can try again tomorrow?”

“When I die, will this tissue still be here?  Will you still save this drawing I did after I die?”  

Your innocence is perfectly entwined with your developing conscience; your optimism and your sense of justice are still able to operate in their own vacuums.  You’re curious enough to be hungry for everything new, but you haven’t seen, heard, and watched enough to become jaded.

Please don’t, not ever.

With your never ending questions you’ve started to form your sense of self, and your understanding of how people relate to one another.  You’re trying to recognize your place in all of it, which is a gargantuan task for a four year old mind.  It’s no surprise that we put you to bed at 7:30, but you sometimes sneak out to watch us in the living room at 9:15.  You are too busy to sleep!  You have things to figure out!  

You and I had a special moment on the night of election day, 2016.  We talked all week about going to the polls to vote for Hillary.  We drove through Scarborough with our windows down, Florence and the Machine blaring, and you exclaimed “Girl time!  Mommy and Charlotte are going to vote for Hillary Quipment!”  It was exciting and novel–but not because we were going to vote for a woman.  No, the gender wasn’t even remarkable.  You were just excited to go show your vote, to take part in the grown up process.

The next morning, I cried.  I cried before you woke up, and I cried after I brought you to school.  I was so heartbroken that I couldn’t joyfully tell you we had the first woman president, that you’d have to wait longer in your life to see it.  And the weeks and months since have been difficult, as your mom: waiting, watching, and wondering what kind of world my baby girl is going to grow into.  Will it be one that respects her rights?  

But I’ve taken solace in a few places that may become iconic as we look back on 2016:

Hillary Clinton said, in her concession speech:  “And to all of the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”

Barack Obama told us in his farewell address, that his proudest accomplishment was raising two daughters that are smart and beautiful, but more importantly kind, thoughtful, and full of passion.  That is my hope–no, my goal of every single day–for you, Charlotte.  That your every move is motivated by a sense of purpose bigger than yourself, one that looks outward, and still seeks to welcome people in.  

You do, already, in your four year old way.

You were the first to welcome a shy girl to a busy and loud birthday party–to draw her into a room full of extroverts by providing her a quiet hand and a smile.

By greeting your teacher at 7am: “I noticed you got a haircut!  Wow, it looks good!”

“Baxter, I’m sorry you fell.  What can I do to help you? Do you need some ice?”

Just keep on asking, listening, and thinking.  Keep on talking.  Keep on helping, smiling, and sharing.  And most of all, keep believing.  Believe that you are kind, you are smart, and you are important.  That is what will take you far.

Happy Birthday!  With all my love and even more pride,

Mom

“Then they will call HER and tell her she won?”

Riding in the car this morning after the presidential debate, Charlotte asked me why I was listening to so much news.  I started to explain about the election in very general terms, telling her that two people were trying to earn votes to become our leader in the U.S.  I didn’t mention Trump, Clinton, any specifics, or any opinions.  This is the conversation that ensued:

Mom:  “So on a special day in a few weeks, everyone will have a chance to go vote for who they want to be our leader.  It will be a very important day, and a very important chance to vote for what we want.”

Charlotte: “Oh.  Just like how we have a chance to vote on books at school, to see which one everyone wants to read.”

M:  “Yes!  Same idea.”

C: “So then after everyone votes, they will call her and tell her she won, right?”

She wasn’t talking about Hillary; she doesn’t know Hillary’s name, let alone the fact that one male and one female are running for office!  We don’t have the TV on at home [very often], we don’t talk about politics when the kids are awake [very much], and I hadn’t mentioned Hillary or Trump’s name in this car conversation.

But Charlotte said SHE.  “They will call her and tell HER that SHE won”.

My daughter lives in a world where she expects that women will lead!  That women will win!  That it’s completely obvious and simply normal that a woman would have a very important job.  Of course, this is her three-year-old world, where she hasn’t yet experienced any gender differences.  But I took a pause in the conversation right there to marvel to myself how lucky she is–she’s growing up in a world that will empower her, and one in which she’ll someday ask me “Wait, when I was three, you voted for the FIRST woman president? Why weren’t women leading before that?”

The incredulity that I know will accompany this question–whether she asks it in two years, or twelve years–will just be proof of how far we’ve come.  The time when women didn’t lead, or couldn’t lead, will be such a distant memory that it will be hard for her to believe.  I can teach my daughter all I want that women are powerful, intelligent, and successful…and I do.  But it’s time she starts seeing women doing, being, and leading so that it continues to just be normal and expected for her as she grows up in this world.

Dear Charlotte: happy three!

Dear Charlotte/Chucky/Cha Cha:

It doesn’t seem possible that my baby is three.  My baby–my original baby–is certainly not a baby and barely even a toddler.  I wrote in your birthday letter last year that we had changed from calling you “Baby Bee” to “Little Bee”.  But now, big three year old, you are simply just “Bee” to us, or sometimes “Chucky”.  (Though you hilariously called yourself “Sucky” for a few months until you could say the ch-sound!)

If the theme of last year’s birthday letter was all the changes in our life, the theme of this year has been independence.  You are a highly verbal and talkative young lady, which has exploded since your 2nd birthday.  So, here are some words straight from your own mouth.  I hope that someday you’ll have a good laugh about the funny three year old you were; but also, that you’ll find some little glimmer or nugget of how you are then reflected so early on in how you are now.  I know that each funny phrase or earnest admonishing you give me is a peek into the future Charlotte, into the teenager and grown up that you’re going to be.  You are building your personality and your character with each passing moment, and we have the gift of watching the pieces evolve along the way.

1) While eating a kiwi the other morning, you told me:  “Mommy! This fruit is kind of like an apple.  They are both green.  And sour.  But this kiwi has a lot of seeds and the apple doesn’t really have a lot.”  

Let’s move beyond the obvious here: that my barely-three-year-old can compare and contrast.  Without prompting.  The point evenmoreso is that you’re always thinking and talking about what you’re doing in the moment.  You love to label things, talk about them, describe them, and give them voice.  “I can hear the wind soaring through the trees” or “Oh! I can see the sunset is coming out!  Look at that beautiful, beautiful sunset!” you’ll exclaim.  You see beauty and interest in the every day things like fruit, weather, and the sky.  Most of us miss it because we are too busy and moving too fast.  This is what I love and will miss most about toddlerhood: the ability and the persuasion to just.move.slowly.  You drink it all in, talk about it, observe it, and love it.  You remind me to just slow down.  How I wish I didn’t have to go work, and could just be slow with you!

2)  “Daddy, I just want to have some privacy.”

You told Dad that you were going to use the potty.  When he followed you in, you turned around and gently–but decisively–said he wasn’t welcome.  You know your own mind, dear Chucky.  I love you for being strong enough to say what you want.  But you do it in a gentle way and with quiet persistence that we follow your requests.  “I’m just not feeling like talking right now” is a frequent refrain when we ask about school.  “Smile, Mommy!  Be happy!” after I’ve just gotten upset with you.  You’re kind, but insistent.  Some may call it bossy.  I say that bossy is a good thing for a girl to be.

While the above examples make me proud, they also make me pause.  We’re finding that you need us less and less.  You clear your own plate from the table, and you’re starting to serve yourself food.  You hang up your jacket, help to feed Pippa, pick out your own clothes and can do your undies, pants, and socks…shirt will be coming soon.  And now, with the recognition that we don’t need to help you with #2 on the potty, we’ve accomplished so many of the toddlerhood milestones.  You just don’t need us in the ways that you used to.

I know that motherhood is all about this gradual release of responsibility.  But it’s hard when you step back to look, and a lot has passed you by since the last time you were aware of it.  In a strange way, time does not move linearly to a mother.  As I wrote to you last year, the greatest gift you can give is to make someone feel needed.  I know it’s developmental, and I know it’s normal.  The ways in which you will need us are going to change hundreds of times in our lives.  But something about the release of these tangible, everyday responsibilities is a hard pill to swallow.

3) You know 18 letters.  

Nobody would ever believe me, but Betsy the literacy specialist is NOT teaching her 3 year old the alphabet.  You have somehow learned 18 letters on your very own, just by picking up on environmental print, and reading as you so love to do.  Your favorite activity for us to “play” with you is reading you a book.  You’re diligent–we cannot skip a page!  You’ll often jump in and read the story along with us, or supply the missing words.  You are so in love with literature, but you’re starting to talk about how you “can’t read” or “don’t know how to read the words yet.”

Hear this*, Chucky: you will be reading in no time.  Look at all the things you CAN do!  You’re already doing the things that pre-readers do: retelling stories and predicting, you can rhyme and make up your own songs in rhythm, and sing word play games like ‘Willabee wallabee Waxter! An elephant sat on Baxter!”

(* “Hear this, Mommy!” is one of your favorite calls to attention).

4)  “Can you put some music on Daddy?”  and “That’s me in the corner!”

A new favorite activity lately is dance parties!  You love to have music on, and it has to be fast enough for you to dance crazily to!  Your current favorites are “That’s me in the corner” by R.E.M. and “Martha my dear” by the Beatles.  You hear a song once, and you can sing it.  You hear a song twice, and you can make up words that fit the same beat.   Dare I say that you may have a musical bone in your body?! A hand-me-down from your mom, perhaps.  (A dancing bone, not so much.  You don’t appear to have your father’s gift for that…yet.)

You are growing and morphing into this wonderfully kind, introspective, curious, and outgoing little girl.  Dad and I both love to take you out for “special Charlotte time” because we always have so much fun.  I am so proud to be your Mommy, and I wish I could pause time to hang onto these toddler moments forever.  They are my favorite. You are my best, best girl!

Love,

Mommy

 

 

Dear Little ‘Bee, Happy Birthday! (chugga chugga TWO TWO!)

Dear Charlotte,

I can’t believe you are TWO years old.  We’re having a train party for you this weekend, but today I’m continuing my series of birthday letters to you… Last year I wrote that we should start calling you Little ‘Bee instead of Baby ‘Bee when you turned one.  You’re growing up so fast!  You are my independent-minded, thoughtful, curious, and happy Little ‘Bee.  Here are some of my favorite memories between years one and two:

1) The day I picked you up from daycare, and you were walking about as if you owned the place at 15 months...proud of yourself, and gaining momentum with every step and cheer.  We had wanted you to walk on your own SO badly, for SO many months.  But my cautious Little ‘Bee , you just wouldn’t let go until you were a perfect walker.  Your diligent practice was so illustrative of your personality.  You’re a careful planner, you are incredibly observant, and you want things to be just right before you do them.  [I’m sorry~you get that from me!]

I dropped you off that Monday morning as a baby, but I picked you up at 4pm as a toddler.  “She just let go of the couch, and hasn’t stopped since!” Connie told me.  The other children were cheering you on, and your smile was as bright as the sun.  I finally knew what it feels like when your heart explodes with pride.

2) The day we brought Baxter home from the hospital.

Dad and I were only gone for 24 hours, but the moment we arrived back home, you hugged me as if your life depended on it.  You were 19 months old, and didn’t have the words to explain that you missed us, you were confused, and you were nervous because of all the changes.  So instead, you just grabbed my neck and hung on for dear life.  I knew that newborn Baxter needed me, but this was such a poignant reminder that my Little ‘Bee still needed me more than ever.  Being needed is one of the best gifts you can give to someone.

3) The first time I saw you hug Baxter.  And every time since.

Jealous?  No. Acting out in rebellion?  Not once.  You are so in love with your baby Baxter, and you are his fierce protector.  You greet him each morning with a smile and eagerly welcome him into your bed.  “Got Mommy’s two babies!” you tell me every time.  When he goes to sleep at 6pm, you tell him “Goodnight Bax, have sweet dreams”.  You help with his pacifier, his burp rag, and cheer for him when he rolls over.  

Your tenderness and sense of duty is astonishing to me–I mistakenly thought that you’d be jealous and impatient.  When we went to my mother’s group playdate a few weeks ago, about 15 toddlers crowded around Baxter.  You subtly pushed your way through the crowd, and stepped between Bax and the mass of toddlers.  No hands were going to touch your baby.  I hope you always continue protecting him and loving him to pieces.  

3) When I hear you say things like “Cut this orange, it’s too much big!” or “Charlotte watching football with Mommy and Daddy and Baxter.”  You were walking in complete sentences well before age two.  I can’t tell you how often my jaw drops; the length of your sentences and the sophistication of your vocabulary amazes me.  You are a little sponge, picking things up from books, music, and the world around you.  I’m not exaggerating even a little bit when I say that you knew all your colors, you are starting to count, and you sing songs like “ABCs”, “Happy Birthday”, and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” from about 22 months.  Your favorite phrases lately?

Anytime we mention nap/bed/sleep, you indignantly shout “No!  Just woke up!”

You greet your brother each morning with “Hi Bax, how you today?  You fine?”

And you can be a little bit bossy: “Just put it right here.  No, over here!”

4) The small things we do together, just Mommy and Charlotte…like “girl time” or reading books before bed.

What a treat for Mommy to do things with only you.  Our lives are so busy that I miss my one-on-one time with you.  A trip to Target or Hannaford is an adventure when it’s just the two of us, and you make everything more fun.  The rare chance to put you to bed now is such a gift, and you make it even sweeter by rubbing my hand as we read, and giving Eskimo kisses before sleep.

Nearly every night since you were born, I have sung “Goodnight Charlotte” and “You are my sunshine” to you.  The first time you joined in on “You ahh my wunshine!  My onwy wunshine!” my heart was so full that I thought it might burst.  I could have stayed there in the rocking chair with you all night, ignoring the dirty dishes that awaited me.

5) Your first time walking on Higgins Beach.  

Seeing your determined little run as you laughed at the waves and chased after seagulls was worth every penny that we spent on our new house.  The whole world was open to you!  You were free to run, spin, jump, roll, and laugh all over that beach–how different than our tiny apartment in Portland!  We went nearly every day during our first summer at Pleasant Hill Road.  And every time, Dad and I knew we’d made the right decision to move.

6) The day two older men held the doors for us at Pat’s Pizza.  And then you looked up at them, started doing your old man walk, and said “olllld man.  OOLLLLD man!”  Also, the day you pooped on the potty for the first time.  Then proceeded to ride around Hannaford in the cart, loudly singing “Poop, poop, I love poop!”

Safe to say that life with a two-year-old gets more entertaining and more fun each day, and I have a built-in playmate.  The best part of my day is hearing “MOMMY!” when I return home and feeling your tiny arms wrap me up in a hug.  I told some friends the other day that I am pretty much obsessed with my children.  And it’s true.  You and Baxter make my world go ’round.

Happy 2nd Birthday.  You are my sunshine ‘Bee, my “onwy wunshine!”

Love,

Mommy

Dear Baby ‘Bee (I wish you could see yourself)

Dear Charlotte, my dear little Charlotte,

I wish you could see yourself now and understand what a truly wonderful big sister you are.  People warned us about you being jealous, demanding attention, regressing with certain skills or having no patience.  And now, when people ask me “How is Charlotte doing with Baxter?” my immediate and earnest response is, “She has surpassed every hope and expectation I could have had!”

You are kind, you are gentle, and you are so attentive to his needs and wants.  When Baxter cries, you immediately hop to problem-solving mode.  “Milk” you tell me, or “belly hurt”.  Or you rush around the house trying to find a burp rag or a pacifier.  Before Baxter was born, I hoped I could train you to someday help me.  I never dreamed you would start from day one.

When we have evening dance parties, you ask that Baxter joins the fun.  When we sit down to eat our dinner, you want to share yours with him.  When we laugh at something, you look to make sure Baxter is laughing too.  And you give him a kiss each morning when you wake up (by touching your forehead to his and exclaiming “mah!”)

I truly did not know that a 20 month old could be so compassionate and inclusive.  You have an empathy that is so in tune with those around you, and of that I am in awe.  It’s not something Dad and I have had time to teach you…so I have to believe it is your nature.  I want to say that I am proud, but that would imply that I had a hand in it.  Your inner beauty shines so brightly that sometimes it makes me cry.

I know it won’t always be this way.  And I know that by the time you are old enough to appreciate this, you will have no memory of it.  But I will never forget your cheerful “Ba Ba, play!” or your furrowed brow trying to discern why he is crying.  I wish I could bottle it up and save it forever.

Love always,

Your proud mom