Gender Inequality in Children’s Literature

I was recently on a plane, chatting with the man sitting next to me.  He told me he had a little girl who loved to read, and mentioned several books she had devoured lately.  He said he said was always looking for new books for her, and asked me for recommendations.  I gave him several, and then asked about his son, who he had also mentioned to me earlier.  “Oh, he’s not so into books,” was the reply.  “The occasional comic book, but there aren’t many books he actually likes, much less finishes.”  I went to recommend a few books that might help his son enjoy reading a little more, and realized I had very few ideas for him.  I mentioned the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, the Boxcar Children series, and Choose-Your-Own Adventure books.  He was surprised I had any recommendations at all, and made notes of them in his phone.

For many years, there has been an overwhelmingly positive push for books for young girls.  It’s become a tremendous, commendable mass effort on the part of writers and publishers alike, and I love that when I walk into a bookstore, I see great titles and characters like Madeline, Amelia Bedelia, Olivia, Judy Moody, Imogene, etc.  And of course there are classics like Matilda, Little House on the Prairie, The American Girl books, Harriet the Spy, and so many others.  I remember reading so many books as a little girl and learning about social interaction, history and culture, vocabulary and creative language usage (Black Beauty is written from the 1st person perspective of a horse.  Nine-year-old me was BESIDE HERSELF.).  Books contain not only stories that drive imagination and wonder, but also developmental content that’s so important.  While we’ve achieved our goal of crafting uplifting and encouraging content for our young girls, we’ve created a problem.

When you Google, “Best Children’s Books for Girls,” this is the result:

googlegirlsbooks

When you Google, “Best Children’s Books for Boys,” this is the result:

googleboysbooks

This brings to light an interesting problem: in our focus on encouraging, educating, and uplifting girls, we’ve developed some tunnel vision and have forgotten about the boys.  I’m talking about books and stories specifically tailored for boys, not gender neutral books that can be enjoyed by all kids, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid (which, I might add, is about a boy protagonist who is not only “wimpy,” but generally a screw-up).  If we’re going to give girls the Disney Princess books, why don’t the Disney Princes get books?  There’s an absolute cavern of possibilities for “Disney Prince” books, because they don’t have backstories already established.  Why can’t we have a book series called “Wood Shop Wilson,” about a kid who solves problems through building awesome stuff, or “Undercover Andy,” a boy detective who solves neighborhood mysteries a la The Hardy Boys?  I believe the root of this problem is two-fold.

First, the fact of the matter is, writing for girls is cake.  It’s easy to write meaningful stories for girls, because girls have more interests to be creative with.  You can put a girl protagonist into almost any environment, and girls will think it’s really cool so long as the storyline is interesting enough.  You can make her royalty, or an astronaut, or a mermaid, or a schoolgirl in another time period, a cowgirl, a sharp-shooting Annie Oakley, or a high-flying Amelia Earhart.   You can essentially just spin the wheel, because there’s an infinite number of plot/protagonist/environment combinations that will capture and keep the interest of little girls.  Boys, however, require a different kind of interest and encouragement.  Frankly, it’s harder to keep them entertained, so it requires a different method of storytelling.  It requires a new, and more intentional way of story-crafting that no one seems willing to bother with.  Bob the Builder only cuts it for so long.  As they grow and develop, our boys need literature that will grow with them, and provide them with the same kind of lessons that we’ve poured so much heart and effort into for our girls.

The second factor will be a largely unpopular opinion, I imagine: the lack of decent literature for boys falls at least partially to the fault of the cultural emasculation of young boys.  While we never want young boys to embrace fighting, violence, or needless destruction, I find it a grave mistake to assume we can reprogram those tendencies out of our young men.  There is a significant difference between encouraging boys to develop good habits to control those tendencies, and encouraging boys to be more like girls in demeanor.  Boys need male role models that teach them it’s OK to be a boy, and to like dirt, explosions, speed, risks, etc.  But those same role models need to be the ones to show them the consequences of liking those things, and how to enjoy them in a moderated and safe manner.  I’d like to see a boy’s book where a young man dares his younger brother to jump off the roof, and the younger brother breaks his arm.  That book can still have a happy ending, and can wrap up with a lot of hugging, apologies, and forgiveness.  But it’s a valuable lesson in considering the safety of others, and the price of some kinds of fun.  These are the kinds of lessons boys need, and they’re the kind of stories that will hook boys from beginning to end.  Give a boy a book about survival on a long-term sea voyage – teach them about the importance of preparedness, and how adventures sometimes don’t go how you planned them.  Give a boy a book about asking someone to the school dance – teach them about polite and fun social interaction.  Give a boy about a book about trying out for the football team – teach them about rejection, and how to handle it gracefully.  Give a boy a book about how sometimes it’s OK to break the rules if it’s to take care of another person – teach them good judgment and independent thought.  Give boys books that cater to them, and the way they’re wired.

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I’ve heard it said too often that if a young boy doesn’t like reading, it’s just because he’s lazy, or thinks books are boring, or doesn’t want to try.  It is my opinion that child has just not been given the right book.  As the parents, writers, and publishers of the world, why have we given up on them so quickly?  Why do we consider it their fault, when it is firmly our responsibility to guide and encourage?  Why are we not crafting literature they will love, and that will kick-start their literacy in the same way we’ve done for girls?  Why do we treat them as hopeless cases when we’ve only been giving them books that were likely written to entice and encourage girls?  Even when they get older, they’re faced with popular YA series like Hunger Games, Twilight, etc.  “Oh, but there’s politics in The Hunger Games! That’s interesting,” you say.  Sure, but the male characters in many of these books are essentially just romantic options for the female protagonists.  That sucks.  I wouldn’t want to read that either.  Emotions are being manipulated in very specific ways in many YA series, and boys a) are already uncomfortable with their emotions and don’t want to touch that with a ten-foot pole, and b) aren’t as heavily affected by the emotional drama that’s being manufactured (often poorly, in my opinion).  Don’t even get me started on The Fault in Our Stars.  If you break it down: those books are written in a style that is more interesting and effective for girls.

While there are some great books out there for boys, they are few and far between, and don’t get even half of the publicity and praise that girls’ books do.  I also believe many of them are classics, and it’s hard to get kids to read classics when they hate reading in the first place.  Not to mention, the younger boys, maybe ages 5-9, often aren’t developmentally at an appropriate level to read Narnia or Sherlock Holmes yet.  There needs to be a concentrated effort for our little guys.  They need books that work with their brains, and their interests, and their difficulties.  Writers and publishers, we have a new challenge.

 

 

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The Evitable Holiday Stressageddon

I love the holiday season. I love putting my Christmas tree up immediately after Thanksgiving is over, I love when the temperatures plummet and I can build a fire, I love the food, and I love how stupid my cats look when they chomp on the branches of my fake tree. This time of year is all about an assortment of cozy, intangible things: giving, togetherness, charity, etc. Everyone talks the talk – but Christ on a cracker, people get intensely stressed out. It amazes me how common it is to squeeze past the point of The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

There will always be those people (you know them – don’t lie) who just can’t pull their heads out of the snow and appreciate this time of year. They have to complain and be bitter. Their lives depend on it, I think, otherwise they may deflate. There are others of us who want to savor the season, and we make an effort to every year. We try to make the sugar cookies look perfect, the lights over the garage taut and straight, our kids happy and entertained, and have the perfect, stylish centerpieces for Christmas dinner. None of those are bad things to want, or to have. But when the pressure becomes all-consuming, not only does the purpose of the holidays get crushed, but so does your sanity.

Below, you will find a list of things that will lighten your load this holiday season. These are not life hacks. They are not 3-ingredient recipes that will still wow your guests, nor never-before-seen ways of curling a ribbon. They are changes that are hard, and at times unpleasant to start. But they are long-term, and if you are serious about implementing them, they will drastically lower your stress level during this most joyous time of year.

  

Be Helpful

Yes, you’re overwhelmed. Yes, the possibility of assisting others seems insurmountable right now. But it’s important to make a concerted effort to remember others.  The concept of “the village” is valuable, although it’s been largely tossed aside these days. We were meant to help each other – and not only when it’s convenient for us. If you know someone who is overwhelmed, offer a spare afternoon to help them clean before their out-of-town guests arrive. If you know someone who is strapped for cash, offer to help them with some small gifts for their kids, or even offer to give them some of your childrens’ lightly used things. Offer to bake a pie or a casserole for someone you know isn’t the best cook. Offer to take someone’s kids for a drive through the neighborhoods with the prettiest Christmas lights to give them time. Offer to pick up someone’s family members from the airport. There are endless possibilities here, but the most important element of all of them is the offer itself. Do not wait to be asked. If someone turns down your offer, that’s ok. They probably have their reasons. But offer, extend the kindness first, and be glad to do it.

The village mentality dictates that these people will do the same for you when they’re in the more comfortable position. That’s how it works. It’s not a system of “you owe me,” but rather of “I’d like to return the kindness you gave when I was in need.” This is a practice that has been lost for too long, even though it’s foundational to our communities. The old-timey idea of neighbors running over a cup of flour because you were short for a recipe, or children helping older neighbors shovel snow from the driveway is not a pipe dream, nor a marketing scheme. It used to be reality, and can become so again as long as enough people participate. 

Be Helpful to Yourself

You cannot be Santa Claus. Nor can you be Super Parents, nor The Best Husband/Wife Ever, nor The Most Thoughtful Child, nor any other interpretation of perfection. You can’t be those things because they don’t exist (except Santa, obviously). Doing it all, being it all, achieving it all, affording it all – you can’t do it. Not because you aren’t an exceptional human being, but because chasing all those things will make you a lesser human being. 

I’m about to say something unpleasant. Maybe sit down first. Ready? You have to ask for help. You have to. You. Have. To. You are imperfect, and that is ok, and that is the way it will always be, so you might as well learn to be accepting of yourself. It is wholly, and entirely acceptable to ask for help from your family and dear friends. Once you’ve come to terms with the fact that you are not flawless and omnipotent, follow these two steps: Prep, and Delegate. 

-Prep your kids by explaining to them that December is going to be a lot of fun, but it’s also very busy, and you’re going to need their help more than ever. This gives them a concrete reason to be more participatory. Prep your spouse by discussing the things you’re most anxious about, and be sure you’re on the same page about holiday plans, budgets, parenting choices, and anything else that’s important to you. Prep your friends who get upset if you don’t attend every holiday party, and explain to them that you have other time commitments.

-Delegate age-appropriate, helpful tasks to your kids. Not tasks to keep them busy – tasks that help. Invoke the words of the prep when they whine, and use consequences when necessary. Your kids are capable beings that can take care of the piddly stuff that muddles up your day and ends up in the Latent Stress Pile. Delegating to your spouse is very different than delegating to your kids. Coming up with a game plan of who is responsible for what is an equitable system. You also must trust your spouse to do the things they have agreed to be responsible for (Stop hyperventilating. Seriously, you’re going to pass out). Do not micromanage. You will perish under the weight of your own nitpicking. Delegating to your family can include things across a vast spectrum, from “Aunt Genevieve, please bring the turducken,” or “Grandpa Joe, please make sure Grandma Ethel does not get blitzed from putting Frangelico in her coffee.”

Save Time for Traditions

Traditions are not only a great way to bond and make memories with your family, but they’re a great reason to slow down and pace yourself. A few breathers during the holiday season are very helpful to put things back into scope. If you find yourself wanting to cancel or skip traditions, you’re too busy. Cut some of your expectations, or delegate to other people. Spending time with your family or friends is far more important than vacuuming Goldfish crackers from under the couch cushions or knitting brand new stockings for each family member. 

If you don’t have any, or it’s not really your thing, I would recommend asking around or researching things out there. Not all of them are kitschy like the Elf on the Shelf, or involve too much time/money like going ice skating every year. You can go as a family to decide on one new ornament for the tree, or new candles for the Menorah. You could have a traditional “Christmas-time” food or meal. For example, my Dad used to make ice cream out of snow for us when we were little, and I still make it to this day. You can take an afternoon to put up decorations together, or celebrate St. Nicholas Day on the 6th (a mostly-German tradition that involves little gifts found in your shoes, or a big boot). There are thousands of options, or you can make one up that would be fun for your family. Regardless of what it is, it’s worth carving out the time to purposefully be together.

Don’t Pretend to Be Happy

It’s so tempting.  But do not prescribe to the ill-guided belief that people should be happy 98% of the time, and that all life’s challenges should be like water off a duck’s back. That’s falsified contentment, and it’s a steaming pile of road apples. It will turn you into an unhappy, stiff-grinned exoskeleton of the person you used to be. It is not important to be happy all the time. It is important to acknowledge your feelings, whatever they may be, and react appropriately. You are allowed to be tired. You are allowed to be stressed. You are allowed to be overwhelmed. No one thinks you are weak, or lazy, or in any way lesser. I swear.

The Childless Choice

“Your biological clock is ticking…”

Yes, thanks.  I’m nearing 30, and there’s no possible way I could have ever been told that before.  The choice to have children is a discussion that I believe is far more complicated than simply, “she doesn’t want children” or “she can’t have children,” which seem to be the only two avenues society can conceive for the milestone of procreation.  I can only speak about the former, because I don’t pretend to have any expertise or view for the kind of emotional wracking that wanting children, but not being able to conceive your own, must bring.  Have you ever considered, perhaps, that it is permissible for a woman to not know if she wants children?  No one seems to be willing to consider the major factors and consequences into that choice, instead condensing the argument into a variety of blister-packed judgments.  The inevitable: “Oh, you’ll change your mind some day.”  The threat: “You’ll regret it.”  The pushiness-disguised-as-encouragement: “But you’d be such a great Mom!”

Here’s the thing: I am not the only thing standing in my way.  Men have to — not “should,” not “it would be nice if,” not “as long as they pay child support” — have to have equal stock in the parenting game.  The largest concern that many single women have these days is not whether or not they will have children, but whether or not they will be able to find a man who will support them in that endeavor.  So before you ask me again if I’m ever going to have children, or why I don’t want them, or what makes me hate them so much, or suggest that I’m just scared of the pain of childbirth — consider these factors first.

 

The Example

I need a man who is supportive and committed to me, first, in order to prove that he will be a good father.  It would not be difficult for me to find a man who has the proper equipment required to make a child.  But it requires a much more particular process to find someone who would cherish me first, and then our children.  In the dating world, I have come across absolute hordes of men who say they’re excited to have children one day, and that they like kids, and will teach them to fish, and camp, and scrutinize the game of football.  And yet, these men are unable to make plans farther than 6 hours out from the present moment.  Some of them make a habit of showing up to dinner 45 minutes late, just as I’m gathering my things to leave.  Some of them are fine with being punctual, but have such drastic emotional insecurity that they’re unable to have a conversation about anything that’s not video games, or the shelves of Star Wars memorabilia that adorn their bachelor pads.  Some of that emotional insecurity throws them into a pit of people-pleasing behavior, or into child-like tantrums, or sometimes they just shut down entirely.  Some of them are perfectly confident, and funny, and wonderful — but require any plans to be at the mercy of their work schedule, causing 4 out of 6 dates to be “rain checked.”  I just recently went on a few dates with a man who is very kind and intelligent, but extremely aloof in conversation, causing me to have to “manufacture” any fun that was had for the both of us.  He would laugh at my jokes and stories, and then the table would go silent until I either came up with another funny something to say, or a conversation topic he was comfortable with.  If we can’t even have a normal conversation in a quiet restaurant, how could we have a normal conversation with a child shouting Barney songs at the dinner table?

Quite frankly, the relationship/marriage comes first, both chronologically and in priority.  If a man is not able to communicate with me, respect me, have fun with me, and maintain a healthy emotional state for himself, what kind of message is he going to send impressionable children?  I don’t want my children growing up with constant disappointment because “Daddy can’t make it to your dance recital/baseball game…again.”  Or, “Daddy doesn’t really mean to yell and call people names — why don’t you go play in your room for a while?”  Or, “Daddy isn’t ignoring everyone else, he’s just a little shy.”  The other kicker about having children with a man who isn’t stable is that I am automatically everyone’s Mom/therapist.  I am forced to “have conversations” or “nag” or any other tactic to try and get the father of my children to set a good example.  That, on top of trying to explain my husband’s behavior to my children in a tactful way that doesn’t include the actual truth.  No thanks.  “Having children” isn’t the real question for many women who are getting older and haven’t taken the plunge yet.  It’s “mutual parenting” that becomes the larger worry.  I will not agree to have children unless I marry a man who I trust to fully respect and care for me first, who is able to care for our children when I’m not around, and will fill in the holes in their development that I can’t.  I’ve been told by many to just “give him a chance,” or assured that he’ll grow up or change, as though the Menopause Train is bearing down on me and I should really just get on with it, lest I be run over.  Really?  Is that a gamble you would make with your children?

 Kids Kind of Suck

My best friend has two kids.  They’re awesome, loving, funny little people.  But they’re gross, and needy, and socially tactless, too.  All children kind of suck in a lot of ways, and I require a partner who is going to jump into the fray, and tired-laugh with me as we clean poop off the walls.  I have not yet found a man who I believe would be willing to launder vomit-covered bedsheets so I could take a shower and get the barf out of my hair after caring for a sick child.  I have not yet found a man who I believe would walk up and down the hallway with a screaming infant for 4 hours, without being prompted or begged, so that his wife could have a break or a nap.  I also find that many men begrudge having to spend time alone with their children, and go so far as to consider it “babysitting.”

You want to have kids?  Great.  Then you are signing up for the ride of a lifetime, and your contract states that you do not get to hide in your mancave when Little Timmy has the runs.  Too bad.

 The Ultimate Label of “Mom”

Next time you see a Mom, ask her when was the last time she got to do something for herself.  Her response will probably be something like, “Oh, I got to have a cup of tea last Wednesday — it was lovely.”  It will be said playfully, but for many women, there’s a deep amount of pain attached to those jokes.  I fully realize that having children is a massive sacrifice, but many women find themselves in a situation where it becomes a sacrifice of who they are as a person, an individual.  Many women go years without a break, without a weekend, without even an afternoon to themselves to do whatever they want.  They feel they no longer have that kind of intangible “permission” to have hobbies, and to want to see new things.  Women are not good at saying, “I would like to go do this for myself.”  We need a partner who is going to recognize when we need a break, and offer it to us willingly, without making us wait until we’re at the breaking point of our sanity.  Many women carry an intense, crippling level of guilt when it comes to asking for things they know are necessary for their own health.  I don’t know why, but we do.  And without a husband who will pay a little attention to our state of mind, and remember who we were before the kids came into play, it’s a slippery slope that will lead many women directly into a bog of depression and complete depletion of self-worth.  We become consumed by the label of “Mom.”  We’re no longer “Laura, ” or “Charlotte,” or “the woman who double majored in biochem and engineering,” or “the woman who loved to go to Sunday brunch once a month,” or “the woman who really hates restaurants that allow you to throw peanut shells on the floor,” or “the woman who’s actually an incredible dancer,” or “the woman who hopped 5 countries in two weeks, ” or “the woman who fell in love with you.”  We are the mother of our children, and are seen as nothing else, and we allow it because we feel guilty.

Some of us are terrified of the idea of having children, yes — but not because we don’t think we’d be good mothers or because we’re scared the pain and nausea.  We’re scared of not having a support system, having to beg our husbands for help because we haven’t slept in two days, being looked at differently by our husbands because our bodies are no longer as attractive as they once were.  We are terrified of becoming just another frumpy Mom who gave her soul for the sake of her children, whose past accomplishments now mean nothing, and whose future accomplishments will be saving enough money to send the kids to college.  And we know that without support from our husbands, that’s exactly what we will become as we slowly forget who we once were.

 He Doesn’t Want Kids…

…but I love him.  It’s fully possible that I might find a man who is my perfect match in every way, but who does not want children.  As mentioned before, the relationship and the marriage come first.  If we’re happy and it’s a conversation that we’ve had, I see no reason to kick him to the curb.  I realize that some women want children badly, and that’s great — that can be a very specific criterion in her dating life.  But I do not believe in hoping my prince will someday change his mind, and am open to the possibility of a very happy life that does not involve children.  It’s possible, I promise.  Oh, but you’ll regret not having children! they say.  Fine, maybe we will.  But do you regret not seeing the world’s wonders, lunching under the Eiffel Tower, walking through the tulip fields of Holland, seeing the Pyramids, or SCUBA diving in the Mediterranean with your husband?  Maybe you do.  Do you regret not joining a book club, or learning a new language or how to ski, having quiet nights next to a fireplace, or going on road trips with your husband?  Maybe you do.

 

So when a woman answers your questions about children with some trepidation or uncertainty — cool your jets.  We are not dumb.  We are not ignorant.  More than likely, the woman you’re interrogating is far smarter and more mature than you realize, and she is considering whether or not her world is a good one to bring children into.  We’re ok biding our time until the right situation presents itself to make a decision.  And until that happens, we’re not going to have an answer for you.

The Emerald Isle: Part 4

Perhaps a tiny bit hungover and loath to leave my gaggle of new puppy friends, leaving Killarney was challenging.  After a few fits and starts getting out of bed and putting my feet firmly on the floor, I persevered and managed to get on the road after a most-reviving breakfast provided by the Muckross B&B.  Headed for the westernmost point of all Europe, I came across a fellow driver who taught me a valuable lesson in humility.

I stopped for gas before I reached Dingle, and was engaged in garbled conversation by the station attendant, who was, as many people seem to be, enthusiastically supportive of a young woman traveling the world, and also of my choice of road snacks.  From what I gathered, my Irish country friend enjoys Jaffa Cakes as much as I do, and has a cousin that I look similar to.  Or perhaps it was that there was “a mutton that I should look into”…I’m uncertain.

The town of Dingle not only has a name that makes me chuckle, but is as charming a tourist town as you’ll ever find.  While there’s a definite element of “shabbiness” to Dingle, it is absolutely homey and its inhabitants are impressively patient with the constant stream of tourist folly. Having no idea what I was doing (as usual), I drove in erratic zig-zags around Dingle until I saw a sign reading “Slea Head Drive.”  I reasoned that no matter which route I chose I would find something beautiful, so I followed its direction and ended up in precisely the place I was looking for, easily one of the most invigorating places on earth.

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The one thing I was not expecting about Slea Head Drive was the steep drop-offs that would plunge any overly confident driver directly into the Atlantic Ocean.  Guard rails?  Nah, no need for those here.  Apparently the Irish believe that the best way to keep drivers from careening off the road and piercing themselves on a jagged shoal is to foster pure, uninhibited terror.  Don’t want to die?  Don’t go over the edge.  Having experienced and analyzed this concept first-hand, I can attest to its effectiveness.  Really, that mindset seems far more rational than to try and protect the world’s population of imbeciles from their own ignorance, but I digress.

I eventually got the hang of driving a foot away from a cliff edge and started to feel more like a Bond Girl in a daring Maserati car chase than a freaked out tourist in a Fiat.  But then…then came the sheep.  A gentleman came along with his flock of adorable little spray-painted sheep and was herding them with his car, which I thought was both lazy and brilliant.  However, this farmer was herding his sheep in the opposite direction of traffic, which I had assumed only flowed in one direction up until this point.  I was fortunate enough to have a small gravel median to my left, but I can’t imagine what I would have done if I hadn’t.  I edged Seamus over to about 4 inches from the side of the cliff, and prayed that it would give the flock and the herdsman’s car enough clearance.  It did, and the farmer gave me a nonchalant wave of thanks, while the sheep glanced at me with something akin to suffocating British politeness and normal sheep panic.  As they slid past Seamus, I held my breath, certain that any exhalation would cause the precipice on which my car was parked to crumble and I would become a glorious sacrifice to Poseidon.  But I survived my encounter with the fleecy road plow and continued onward, finding a few places along the road later on that did have a guard rail of sorts.

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To say I enjoyed my time on Dingle Peninsula would be inaccurate.  Slea Head has a certain kind of flavor to it, one that is both Irish and distinct in its own right.  It’s as though the land is really just a sleeping dragon which holds countless ancient secrets that it is unwilling to share with the silly, mortal passers-by that traipse over its hills and roads each day.  As a visitor, I was painfully aware that I was precisely that: a visitor.  The land seems to own itself, and isn’t exactly a “destination” or a “place” so much as it is a perception-altering experience — one which I would recommend a thousand times over.

I left Dingle Peninsula and was so lost in my thoughts  and memories of it that I suddenly found myself very near Cork, and didn’t really remember much of the drive.  I arrived to my next scheduled B&B and opened my car door to be greeted by yet another new bestest friend, Lily.

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I had already been aware of Lily from the many mentions of her sweetness in the online reviews of the Bridgeview Farmhouse B&B.  As I stepped out of my car, I exclaimed, “Oh, you must be Lily!”  A surprised voice behind me said, “you know my dog?”  And that is how I met the incredible Marion of Kilbrittain.

Marion is one of the kindest and most exuberant people I have met in my time traveling the world.  She exudes a traditional Irish charm, infused with a natural curiosity and love for people.  After settling in my room, Marion, a wonderful couple from Seattle (I think), and I sat in the parlor and shared tea and stories before parting ways for dinner.  Marion recommended two excellent restaurants and I foolishly ignored her advice for the sake of not having to drive for too long again.  I drove into the tiny village of Ballinspittle and opted for a simple pub-style dinner.  If you’ve ever been to Ballinspittle, you know exactly which pub I went to…because I’m pretty sure it’s the only one.

While eating, I was approached by a man named Gerard, who seemed to have some sort of cognitive disability, and he asked if I was happy.  I informed him that yes, I was very happy.  He nodded and left.  1.5 minutes later, he came around again to ensure that I was still happy, and informed me that he too was quite happy.  I ended up speaking to Gerard at length and we had a splendid conversation about America, traveling, how Gerard was born and raised in Ballinspittle, how Willie Nelson is from Texas, and how Texas is larger than the whole of Ireland.  Gerard was excellent company, but just as I was about to pay my bill, a family member of his showed up in the bar with a baby.  The baby turned out to be his niece, and Gerard insisted that I hold her.

Anyone who knows me at all likely knows that children are not my forte.  I have been chastised in the past for referring to babies as an “it,” so I would like to point out to a certain person (you know who you are) that here I was careful to include the appropriate gendered pronoun for the child.  In general, I don’t mind or dislike children, I just don’t know what to do with them.  I am neither skilled nor comfortable in dealing with a human that can neither communicate effectively nor walk a straight line without falling on his/her ass and crying about it.  To be clear, I am not discriminatory: I do not tolerate such behavior in adults either.  But honestly, if your child hands me a toy telephone, my first instinct is not to pick it up and say, “hello?”  My first instinct is to dump a truckload of complex information about telephones on the child and run away.  “Yeah, that’s a phone.  You see, there are buttons here, and each telephone has a series of numbers, seven digits long, that directs a call to that particular unit.  But those numbers are divided by geographic region, as well as country, which in all will add another four digits to the routing sequence.  K, bye!”

 It was clear that Gerard was simply very proud of his niece and wanted to share his joy with me.  That, combined with my confusion and reluctance, led to a small standoff in the pub. Gerard held his niece out to me to receive, and like the terrible person I am, I just sort of let her float there for a second before crushing guilt and social obligation broke me and I took her from him.  So I’m in a foreign country, in a bar, holding someone’s child that I don’t know, who was given to me by her mentally handicapped uncle, and she’s staring at me, and I’m staring at her, and everyone involved is weirded out except for Gerard, who’s thrilled.  The child’s mother had left her with Gerard and was no where to be seen, and I started to worry that she might think I was trying to steal her or something.  In America, you can’t even tell someone else’s kid to stop climbing on a grocery store display without getting rounded on by the mother, and I’m unfamiliar with the proper protocol for passing a baby around a room.  I understand that it’s a somewhat common practice, but…in a bar?  With strangers?  Does everyone get a turn?  Is there a special order for passing her?  Who’s supposed to get her next?   How long do I have to hold her before someone really believes “my arms are just tired?”

To add to the situation, the child in my arms just…stared.  She didn’t do any of the things normal babies do.  No flailing arms, no grabbing for my jewelry, no looking around the room, no babbling.  She and I were supernaturally connected through intense, unwavering, awkward-as-hell eye contact, and neither of us was going to break first.  She then started to lean forward, slowly, and got closer and closer to my face, as I withdrew at an equal rate.  Creepy Baby only broke eye contact when her mother appeared at my side and said cheerfully, “Hello!  Oh, be careful, she’ll bite you.”

What?!  Does she even have teeth?  I would almost rather be bitten than gummed, but that’s beside the point.  I forced a (hopefully) believable chuckle at the apparent flesh-eating hobby of the baby that was clearly making its move.  Oh, how silly the wee ones can be!  Haha...here’s your kid.

While I’m no good with children, I can say confidently that I’m a great actress.  I gracefully rid myself of the Zombie Baby, paid my bill, and said farewell to my friend Gerard, who insisted on giving me a bear hug.  With a sparkling American smile on my face, I thanked Gerard’s sister (I assume) for letting me hold her adorable offspring, picked up my bag and ran the hell away.

Back at Bridgeview B&B, the weirdness of the evening’s events melted away.  Marion served up glasses of some kind of fabulous liquor, and I stayed up with Marion and the other guests until well past 1:00am chatting, laughing hysterically, and sharing our best travel stories.  That evening was one of the most affecting moments I’ve experienced in all my travels.  It was a few perfect hours of genuine camaraderie, respect of differences, and intelligent, fascinating conversation between strangers.  If it somehow comes to pass that anyone who was in that parlor reads this, you should know it was a pleasure to meet you.

Stay tuned for the last installment of this series, in which I tour a castle and am introduced to how whiskey is supposed to taste.