Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Lavender (But Were Afraid to Ask)

It was just a week ago that I published my Lazy Mama's Honey-Lavender Ice-Cream recipe. I have some leftover lav-buds and I might make scones out of them (that's a lie, I did it already). I'm still kind of obsessed with the plant. Why?

It's so pretty, sophisticated, retro, tasty, mysterious... It's Jean Shrimpton.

If Jean Shrimpton were French.

So here goes:

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Lavender (But Were Afraid to Ask)
  1. The name 'lavender' is not directly derived from the Latin 'lavare', to wash, though it was influenced by association. No, it is from 'lividis', meaning bluish (or livid!). It was, however, used to clean and freshen the laundry.
  2. There was an identical word in Middle English, 'lavendre', that meant 'laundress'. It also meant prostitute/whore/camp follower and became a surname in the 13th Century.
  3. Not only does lavender smell good, it has antibacterial properties. Cf. laundry, camp-following.
  4. It also kills human skin cells in a petri dish.
  5. Lavender is part of the mint family. So are basil, rosemary, sage, oregano and teak (yeah, the tree).
  6. It's considered not only cheesy, but also lucky to plant lavender and roses together.
  7. Lavender originated in the Mediterranean and was (probably) spread through Europe by the Romans. They used it in their baths. A pound of it cost 100 denari, which is roughly equivalent to a month's worth of a day labourer's wages. Those shi-shi Roman spas.
  8. Lavender repels bugs – so it was actually an affective anti-plague herb, since it kept the fleas at bay. This use continues to the modern day: it can easily be made into an effective bed-bug repellant spray for Montréal's very own version of the plague.
  9. Cleopatra is said to have seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony with lavender (kind of like I did with my husband). The asp that killed her may have been hiding in her lavender bush (... *crickets*).
  10. Lavender has about a billion medicinal uses. Mostly it calms things down – it can cure insomnia, anxiety, headaches, eczema, alopecia (through rubbing diluted lavender oil on the affected skin), and acne. It can also clean things, as we see in its use as an anti-fungal and anti-bug and anti-bacterial agent.
  11. Lavender reduces physical pain! Patients undergoing major surgery were given lavender-infused oxygen and reported less pain than patients with just the regular O. I say we bottle it and sell it.
  12. Lavender reduces emotional pain! Capsules of non-essential lavender oil are sold in Germany, after a study found that they were as effective at chillin' ya out as lorazepam (Ativan).
  13. Pure lavender oil is a little dangerous! It takes between 100-300 pounds of lavender to make one pound of lavender essential oil, depending on what it's diluted with. That's about 2600 cups of lavender buds (1 lb. = 13 cups of buds). Highly concentrated. And so...
  14. Lavender oil makes you grow breasts! A recent study found that pre-pubescent boys who used lavender and tea-tree oil products (though it wasn't measured in what concentrations) developed breasts, a condition called gynecomastia. Components of lavender oil have been found to mimic female hormones – and suppress androgens. It's theorized the use of lavender oil products may also be related to the early incidence of breast growth in girls.
  15. The Greeks called it nardus after the Assyrian city of Naarda, modern day Dohuk, Iraq.

Someone else's picture of lavender scones.
You know it's coming.

I am very much indebted to the Herb Gardener for her great research. Also, Wikipedia and the Online Etymology Dictionary.

One Year With a Baby: It's not so bad. Really.

A year ago I was the proud (and uptight) mama of a one year-old.

Uptight?

I remember feeling like things were desperately close to chaos – which things I can't remember: was it the laundry? The thank-you notes? The diapers? – and expending a lot of energy just trying to stay afloat (and keep the sheets clean).

I still do this, but although there's evermore to wipe up, I'm less concerned these days.
Surrender to the process, they say.

I try.

And of course, it being a year later, the ship having been afloat for 365+ days, was Sweet Baby James' birthday last week! I made him a birthday blog post and a nutritious molasses-blood orange-mascarpone cake (recipe coming) and the three of us sat down at the dining room table and celebrated. We live-broadcasted the whole thing and it was fun to be on TV for a while. It was a great way to have a big party – 25 people joined us – without (much) mess.



Sweet Baby James shoveled some cake into his mouth, did a little dance to Gnarls Barkley and deftly manipulated a musical birthday card. The stuff of genius. You can join the fun (click here).

It's been quite the year.

On average, babies consume 25 oz. of breastmilk per day in their first year. Given that ours was the size of a one year-old at 3 months, I feel OK about doubling that. That's an estimated 18,250 oz. of breastmilk. Which is 1,140.7 pounds. Which is about the size of the endangered [Canadian] Wood Bison.

Whatta cutie!

I wish I could say that having a baby is the hardest thing I've ever done, but it's not. Birth was definitely the most painful (and the most love-filled). Cumulative sleep debt is annoying crazy-making. But raising Sweet Baby James has not, thus far, been nearly as tough as I expected. Why?

I have help. Awesome help. From my husband. The kind of help that shouldn't even be called help, because it's almost like I'm the one assisting him (OK, that's stretching it). As I mentioned in my lavender ice-cream post, he cooks all the meals, even breakfast. He does laundry. He agrees to shell out for things like childcare, diaper service, and 'nipple pads'. He takes the baby for his night-time walk so I can write über awesome blog entries. He cleans, like gets-down-on-his-hands-and-knees cleans. He also tells me I am beautiful.

Don't send a woman in to do a man's job...

I have been able to breastfeed. I had some soreness and blood blisters at the beginning, but once I let Sweet Baby James take charge of the scenario, it's worked out great. It's so easy. It's food on the go, and the best thing to calm an irate baby. It's helped me get back into shape and maintain happy moods. I was supported in breastfeeding by my healthcare providers, my friends and family, and most importantly, my husband. We'll see how long it lasts... I'm going for extended breastfeeding, bitches.

Breakfast time (18 weeks).
 http://thetuesdayphoto.wordpress.com/2011/06/29/18-weeks/


I haven't had to work a job other than motherhood. This, of course, is an opportunity open to a privileged sub-section of American society. But within that privilege it was a choice: we prioritized me being home with the baby for the first few years – over stuff, property, and a double income. There's no right or wrong way to do it, but I'm happy I decided to have kids at a young(ish) age, not yet feeling committed to a career I'd have to rush back to. Also, because I still feel funny wearing a suit.

No, this is not me. But I so wish it was.


The other three reasons are specific to me: I've been through worse (my life rocks! It used to suck!); I have a pretty easy baby (equal parts luck, genetics, and AP); and I really did expect the worst, spending most of my pregnancy ruminating about how I would cope once I'd given birth to a baby with ADHD.



I'm not saying I don't have my bad days (I have my bad days!). Just that they're less common than they were before I had Sweet Baby James, and now I have good reason for being upset sometimes, like when he poops in our bath. My point is, having a baby isn't the death sentence it's made out to be.

The actual task of making a healthy, happy child is not in and of itself impossible. If you've got good support, if you can breastfeed, if you don't have to run out the door after three hours of sleep every morning, and you have a 'normal' baby, it's totally doable. You can even move to a new country, start a new grad school program, tour Canada, and read an entire library of ethnopediatrics books (though I wouldn't recommend it).

It's our treatment of mothers that is the problem. I really think it's our belief that pregnancy and motherhood should be invisible, should accomodate a consumerist, individualist and career-driven lifestyle; and our refusal to support women with things like lactation consultants, childcare, maternity leave, and self-cleaning ovens. So much of our parenting advice focuses on the baby: what kind of baby you have, what kind of sleeping schedule he/she has, how to best entertain or educate this little blob – but what really makes a difference is how the mother is doing. It's social and economic support.

The sleepless night isn't so bad if you can nap the next day (napping with a baby is the best – you wake up at the same time! Always!). Birth and breastfeeding aren't so hard on your body if you're not expected to make all the meals and clean the house for visitors. The isolation of staying at home with a baby isn't so scary if you know you've got a friend coming by to relieve you for an hour. And dammit, resentment doesn't build when we're truly being appreciated for the work we do.

What really drove this point home to me was traveling. I wasn't a mother at the time when I went to 37 cities over the course of 18 months so I wasn't wearing my mama-goggles, but from what I did notice, motherhood was a lot more fun outside of Canada and the US. In Bringing Up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman writes about how the French moms she knows are a) relaxed, b) sexy, and c) confident about their parenting. The obvious causes I would attribute this to are a) national healthcare, b) French fashion, and c) good state-provided daycare.

But even in some of the so-called developing nations where national healthcare, daycare, and Yves St. Laurent capris are not the norm; and where we persist in seeing motherhood as 'so much more difficult' (kind of condescending when you think about it), it seems more enjoyable to be a mother. I saw struggles with health, prejudice and poverty while I was traveling; but I also saw a lot of poor young mothers having a good time. Laughing. Chatting with their friends. Flirting.

Not seeming very worried about being the perfect mom.

I took a bike trip through central Sri Lanka in 2007. I met a very young mother-to-be (she couldn't have been more than 16) in a Buddhist temple in Matale. She was there with some female family members, getting blessings for her birth. She was heavily pregnant, and her smile had the openness of someone with mild mental retardation. Her family members spoke to us a lot, but I'm not sure if she could speak.

Naked bulb hanging off a cornice at the temple in Matale

Veronika and I, in bike-riding/temple-going white.
If I look ten years younger here, that's because it was five years ago. 

So there was a heavily pregnant, single, possibly exploited teen mom (I was going to say she was literally barefoot and pregnant but everybody leaves their shoes at the door of a Buddhist temple). Surrounded by an air of celebration. I don't know what her situation was, or what concerns she or her family member held to be most important. But they were all so excited for the baby to come, and kept inviting my friend and I to touch her belly. She was dressed in bright clothing. They weren't hiding her, or the pregnancy. It was, I hate to say it, really touching.

How likely are you to see a poor, teenage, (possibly) mentally retarded, (possibly) exploited/raped single, pregnant girl in an American church – smiling? Moreover, how likely would it be that she had gone there for the priest's blessing (for her birth!) and with her family?

I get that there are stressors in other parts of the world that I can't even dream of, and thus can't see. All I'm saying is: our way, the way in which a woman's life goes into a downward spiral when she elects to create another's, is not the only one. And since we're hogging all the world's money and resources, the least we could do would be to treat our mamas a little better.

The Lazy Mama's Lavender Ice-Cream

My Home-Made Honey-Lavender Ice-Cream.
If I can do it, you can too.

A few years ago my friend Nicole told me about an experience she'd had eating lavender whipped cream. "James and I took it to this dinner party, and it was delicious. But when we were biking home, it was like we were sooo stoned. But we weren't! It felt so weird. Then we came home and fell asleep, like totally passed out. We weren't even drunk."

I nodded, smiled, and filed this under two mental categories. The first was Soporific. The second, Ways in Which Nicole is Better Than Me.




You see, I am not a domestic goddess. I want to sew, but I don't have the patience. I like to eat food but if left to my own devices, I eat yogourt and cereal. I like laundry but my mending pile is so well-established, the clothes have actually come back in style.

But some mamas – those better-than-me mamas – they enjoy making stuff at home. They bake cookies with their kids. They source locally-grown, organic food and prepare it in delicious ways.  They don't consume processed crap and everyone in their family has a healthy relationship to bread. They are beautiful, healthy, strong, beautiful... Did I mention, beautiful? They glow, they cloth-diaper, they accomplish the impossible; their kids eschew candy.

What do I 'source'? I source no-name-brand marshmallow-chocolate cookies at 4am. I wear cosmetics with lead in them and I don't even care (very much). My baby knows where those processed cookies live and feels perfectly entitled to his fair share. I took anti-depressants and anti-histamines while I was pregnant. I'll never be one of those mamas. But I have, in my own way, recently come around to the creation of food.

Making food is awesome. It's like making art – except that, when done right, it doesn't stick around cluttering up your basement. Since I'm married to a fantastic cook, my domain is desserts. Which is kind of a good thing because if you're just getting into making food, it's encouraging when it's delicious. Enter, lavender. Lavender is the most awesome, bestest thing to ever come out of hipster domesticity, knitted bondage gear notwithstanding. It grows in abundance around our neighbourhood (Bernal Heights/Glen Park/Out Mission/Excelsior – yes, in SF you can live in four neighbourhoods), it's purple and in case you didn't know, it's the bush-form of French white linen drying in the sun.



This is the man who makes all my meals.
He's the man-form of French white linen drying in the sun.

Today we're making honey-lavender ice-cream. From scratch. I'm basing it off a Martha Stewart recipe so if you're the kind of person who's interested in doing things the right way, who does things like sifting flour and purchasing special cake tins, click here to follow the original domestic goddess recipe. For the rest of you lazy mamas, read on...


You will need:
  • 2 cups whole milk (2% tastes good too)
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup clean lavender buds (about 25 stems)
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 5 eggs
  • **You can add some natural dye for extra goddess points, if you're feeling fancy. Look below for some suggestions.
Ingredients (cut out the sugar, the honey makes this dessert sweet enough)


Step 1: Making the milk taste like lavender.
  • Throw the lavender buds into the milk, put it in a pot on the stove and bring to a boil (leave a few stems out to use as a garnish).
  • Once it's reached a boil, remove the pot from heat and let steep for five minutes.
  • Strain out buds – don't throw them out, you can keep them for future deliciousness. You could even make lavender whipped cream with them.

Step 2: Whipping Eggs.
  • While the milk is steeping, blend the egg yolks on medium for 3-5 minutes. You can use a blender or elbow grease. It should be kind of thick. If you forget to keep the egg whites out, don't worry. This will just make the whole thing a bit more frothy. I know, because I did it.

Step 3: Add eggs to milk
  • Slowly add eggs to lavender milk, stirring to mix it in.
  • Stirring continuously, bring lavender milk/egg mixture to a low boil. It should thicken and become like a runny custard. 
  • Remove from heat.

Step 4: Add cream and chill
  • Pour the cream into a chilled bowl (preferably sitting in another bowl of ice-water).
  • When the lavender milk/egg mixture has cooled, mix it in with the cream.
  • Let it chill, then transfer to a freezer-appropriate container in the freezer. I used a yogourt container.

Step 5: Breaking up the ice-crystals
  • If you don't have an ice-cream maker and you're using the empty yougourt container method, it's a good idea to take a wooden spoon and stir the ice-cream every few hours so that it remains creamy (I had every intention of doing this, but I just fell asleep).
Serve with the lavender garnish. Done!



I'll leave you with a few other tips. In no particular order:
  • Colouring: I used the juice from some preserved pinot-noir beets to dye the ice-cream pictured above. You could also use a bit of red cabbage juice, regular beet juice, blackberry jam...

Lavender-esque colour.

  • Health Caveat: Like everything fun, lavender is not recommended for pregnant women and nursing mothers. No hard evidence as to the potential negative side effects, but you might not want to gorge on the ice-cream if you're preggers/nursing. To that effect, it would make a great weaning ritual gift...
  • Herbology: There are two popular strains of lavender. The left is English lavender, which is best for eating. The right is Spanish (commonly known as French) lavender, which is prettier. Your choice.
English lavender, left. French/Spanish lavender, right.

  • Harvesting: The rule if you're stealing lavender from your neighbours is not to take more than 3 off any one bush, and to take only stems that wouldn't be noticed. Stay away from plants on the roadside or beside driveways. Even a few feet from the street greatly reduces the toxins you'll be ingesting. When you get home, wash all the stems in water and then remove the buds by sliding your fingers down the stalk.
Wash the lavender, remove the buds.

Enjoy!

Sunday Brunch: Interview with Diana, creator of Onya Baby

You all should know by now that there's nothing I like more than a sexy babycarrier. Oh, unless it's a sexy babycarrier that also transforms into something else. Yup. And here it is: The Onya Baby Carrier, designed by Diana R Coote, transforms from a cute and practical babycarrier into... a highchair! (well, let's be accurate: it hooks onto a chair to create a harness. The chair is not particularly higher. The point is: it keeps baby safe and brunch-participatory). Yes, lots of wrap and sling babycarriers can also serve this function (see below, Sweet Baby James sitting on top of a booster seat and tied to the back of a chair at a restaurant in Vancouver) but something makes me nervous about those ad-hoc sling uses. What if the booster seat slips? What if Mister Bister throws his weight to the left without warning? I like how comfy and safe the Onya baby looks. Like, it has straps and stuff.
Sweet Baby James, moderately safely restrained.
Diana, mama, designer, business owner
I've never actually seen one of these Onyas in real life but I heard about them in a babywearing discussion on mothering.com, a natural parenting forum I was recommended by someone I met on transit who pointedly told me I should enter their contest so I could win a real babycarrier (I was mildly offended: Like, WTF is wrong with my green ring sling which is actually just a fraying piece of old cotton? If I want to carry my mid-sized-dog-sized baby on one shoulder that's my business!). The forum was discussing ways to get papas to wear their babies, a topic for which I have very little patience. I'm going to start printing  'Don't be a douche, wear your baby' T-shirts anyway now. Really. Anyway, someone recommended the Onya as a gender-neutral carrier that might appeal to those of the masculine persuasion. Its design is simple and functional, though the mamas in their promotional material look pretty darn gorgeous. Kind of like the founder herself. She's a SAHM whose product facilitates not only Attachment Parenting, but Mamactivism (the radical philosophy that mothers are people with the right to get out of the house), and is 'going pro' with her design, selling it in boutiques across America. But what's it like to break into this female-dominated business as a full-time mama? Is it easy and welcoming, with everyone nursing their babies and swapping diaper stories in the boardroom, or is it red in tooth and claw? And what kind of person willingly goes into business with not only their husband... but also their in-laws?

I contacted Diana Coote to ask her these questions and more. In this week's Sunday Brunch she discusses the joys and challenges of running a family business, how she came up with the convertible carrier-chair idea, what baby wearing means to her, and her dreams for the future.

Enjoy!


Svea Boyda-Vikander
__________________________________________


SB-V: What got you started in making baby-carriers?


DRC: I’ve been into babywearing since 2006, when my first child was born…I actually joined TheBabyWearer while I was pregnant! One of the very few baby items my husband and I purchased prior to her birth was a simple pouch sling, which I fortunately knew how to measure for correct size. That worked well for us for a while. But my babies have a way of chunking up fast, so I had an onbu made for me by a dear friend…that’s what got me into the two-shouldered carriers. I’ve always been really crafty, sewing, painting, knitting, kind of compulsively, so when I started finding my onbu pulling on my shoulders, I decided to add a waist belt. That’s what started this train rolling…


SB-V: The Onya's dual function strikes me as particularly relevant to babywearing, since women who wear their babies usually find it easier to get around and seem to be 'on the go' a lot more. How did this design come to you?


DRC: When my daughter, who is now 5 ½, was around 7 or 8 months old, I went out for lunch with a group of friends. It was fun…who doesn’t love meeting up with their girlfriends? But – hoo-boy – did we leave a mess behind! There was only one high chair at the restaurant and there were six of us…all with babies. So, you can imagine the food and utensil grabbing going on as we tried to eat our lunches. The first thing I came up with was actually a chair cover that worked as a secure seat for your baby. But alas, as I started looking into it, I saw that there were already several options of this exact thing already on the market. So I decided that I’d combine the seat with a carrier. I don’t like lugging a ton of stuff around and already wore my baby, so…voila! I suppose it was a gradual development of an idea. It’s just easier to carry less stuff around and yes, I agree with you, I think that babywearers seem to get out more.


SB-V: Onya Baby is a family company. What does that look like?


DRC: Onya Baby, at its core, is me, Diana Rickard Coote, my sister-in-law, Aleshia Rickard, and my brother, Billy Rickard. We also have my husband, Jon Coote, as our IT guy, and Aleshia’s sister, Silvia, as our graphic designer. Our mom, Billy’s and mine, is our accountant. We all have loads to do and it’s been a wonderful opportunity for us to all become closer.


SB-V: What are the challenges of working with family, and what are the rewards?


DRC: Working with family is both a challenge and a reward. Because we live so far apart (Billy and Aleshia live outside Santa Cruz, CA, Jon and I live in Ottawa ON, and Silvia lives in San Francisco) the company has been such a great opportunity to get together more, both online and in person. It’s given Billy and Aleshia more opportunities to see the children (Jon’s and mine) on a regular basis, something that wouldn’t have happened, in all likelihood, were we not on regular Skype calls. Another reward has been our strengthened relationships. I have to say that this last point would probably qualify as both a challenge and reward. It’s not always easy to handle disagreements within families, and I think that people often tend to fall into old patterns. This isn’t always a productive thing to do. But when you’re starting and running a business, you can’t do that or the business suffers. We’ve all worked much too hard to allow that to happen, so it’s forced us all to “grow up,” in a sense, to handle disagreement, conflict and other friction in a much more productive and objective way. We have to often compromise, or step back and trust another, and it’s been to the real benefit of our relationships and our company.


SB-V: It seems that there are a few big name carriers that have 'cornered' the market if you will (Ergo, Bjorn, etc.). What's it been like to break into the market with a new design?


DRC: It’s a challenge, for sure. We’re so tiny and new and very few people have heard about us yet. We just figure that we’ll keep plugging away and hopefully the carrier will speak for itself and people will love it because it’s a high-quality, comfortable, useful thing to have in their parenting tool kit. We hope word will spread and we’ll gain traction in the competitive marketplace.


SB-V: Given that this industry caters mostly to natural and attachment parenting mothers, do you find it to be more woman-friendly or child-friendly than others?


DRC: I think it probably is, though I can’t really speak from a place of a ton of experience on this. Prior to having children and starting Onya Baby, I worked in the field of Social Work. That’s a field highly dominated by women, so it’s not a big change for me in that sense. I think you’re right, though, the babywearing industry is largely comprised of women-owned, mother-owned businesses, and you can really see that at industry events. The Baby Carrier Industry Alliance annual meeting, for instance, which takes place at the same time as the ABC Kids Expo, has children present. The women who bring them are business owners and their babies are too young for them to not have them along, so there they are. They nurse and babywear during the meeting and everyone’s totally cool with it. Not sure you’d see that at, say, the auto maker’s yearly meeting.


SB-V: That sounds great. What has babywearing meant to you as a mother? How did you come to it?


DRC: Babywearing has simply made my life as a mother easier. It’s allowed me to care for my babies, my children, and still get things done. I truly don’t know how I’d parent without it.

SB-V: Me neither. I keep asking older women I meet how they did it without baby carriers. I've gotten all kinds of responses, from "My arms were very strong" to "He just had to lie in his playpen while I did the housework." How has having this family business impacted your children?

DRC: I think it’s shown them that it’s possible to work really hard, to be creative, to be persistent, and create and build something where there once was nothing. It’s been hard, too, at times. I struggle with the guilt of sometimes feeling like I’m not giving them enough attention because I have work to do. There are days when they watch more TV than I’m comfortable with, I’m admitting it. I try to keep those days few and far between, but they do happen. But then I step back and see how well they play together…most of the time! I see how co-operative they are with each other, with me and Jon, with others, and I think it’s all good. I had both of them home with me full-time until they were each over two, so I really do think I’m giving them what they need when they’re really tiny. They have a strong foundation.


SB-V: If you could, by force of imagination, will one fantasy product into existence, what would that be?

DRC: It would be genius for someone to come up with something that could clean our house, cook our food, do our laundry and possibly walk the dog. But I don’t want a nanny. I’ll take care of that!


SB-V: Nice one. I like a woman who dreams big! Is there anything else you would like to add?

DRC: Just that it’s been an amazing journey so far and I’m so unbelievably grateful that we’re where we are. It’s been a labor of love of mine for four years and to see it actually come to fruition is amazing. I couldn’t have done it without the whole Onya Baby team. We really do need each other. If we could grow this into a self-sustaining family business I would be over the moon. We shall see, eh?

Mommy what is queer?

I have always encouraged my children from a very young age to ask as many questions as they like, about any topic that they are curious about. I believe these types of questions are important in fostering a child’s intellectual growth and allow them to gain awareness about how things work and their own surroundings. Over the years I have learned to be prepared for all and anything little inquiring minds may come up with in the form of questions – and I always do my best to answer as honestly and thoroughly as I know how.

Young children most always look to their parents for advice and knowledge when there is something they don’t understand. These questions can take many forms, some of my favorites include: why is the sky blue? If I take a screwdriver and unscrew my belly button will my butt fall off? Are boogers made out of brains?

The above questions are relatively easy to answer or find the answers to. This in my experience, is generally the scope and complexity of the questions presented by younger children. As they grow older, I am finding that the inquiries are becoming more complex. Whereas previously, my husband and I, or a trusted adult family member, served as valuable sources for reliable information, this is eminently changing. As they start to reach the age in which they are old enough to begin seeking out answers to life’s many mysteries from other information sources, answers may become conflated with inaccuracies and are in fact misinformation.

High school is the perfect breeding ground for many of these complex questions, the answers for which are being given by misinformed, (however well intentioned they may be) friends. Some of these friends may have parents that share the same parenting styles and beliefs that you do – others- not so much. Some of these friends may come from families that have strict religious beliefs on specific topics that govern their views on social issues that include topics such as race, politics and sexual orientation- others are simply misinformed, or just downright ignorant. The scary part about adults that hold specific views that are harsh or ignorant of the basic concept of human rights, is that these views transfer to their children, who then provide information to their friends. Children do not possess an innate concept of hate, racism or marginalization: this is something that is taught. By parents and other influential players throughout a child’s development.

Driving in the car yesterday, J turned to me and asked me point blank “Mommy, what does queer mean? Is it the same thing as gay? Some people at school say gay means happy but I hear other people saying that it means something different…”

Of all the years that I have been encouraging and answering questions from my children, I never considered that this might be a question. I took it for granted, and I was unprepared. I have made it a point to engage J in important dialog about various things such as the topic of sex, menstruation, racism, etc. but I had missed this topic entirely. How could this be?

I have many friends from the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) community and always took for granted that even though I don't define my friends in terms of their race, religion, cultural background, gender or sexual orientation, that, high school tends to become an exercise in “people labeling.”

Sexual orientation of people was never something that occurred to me in terms of “normal” or “abnormal” the way I always understood it was love knows no gender. Faced with J’s question I was forced to consider what I knew of growing up, and realized: I never had any discussions about what it meant to be gay or queer, it just wasn’t discussed. Not like the birds and the bees, or menstruation. I found myself in an odd predicament. Although I have friends that self identify as LGBT, non of them are currently in a long term relationship, if in relationships at all, and non have children. As such, it was never a topic that came up – until now.

As a parent, I am aware of the impact certain moments and the way things are explained can have on my children. I am most certainly not perfect in any right, which is part of being human. It was really important for me to try to explain this to J in terms that she understood, without giving information that might be inaccurate. So where could I go? Well, I did some internet trolling, and came up with a couple of sites that might be of use to parents who might be looking for similar information.

The first one is from Berkeley’s Gender Equity Resource Center. The resource center offers a thesaurus of terms and their definitions. These terms range from “queer” and “Dominant culture” to “gender conformity” and “heterosexual” with everything in between. Some of the terms listed on that link are beyond the scope of the topic of discussion, but it offers a good base to start from.

Another useful link is PFLAG a non-profit org, best described by its mission statement:

“PFLAG promotes the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, their families and friends through: support, to cope with an adverse society; education, to enlighten an ill-informed public; and advocacy, to end discrimination and to secure equal civil rights. Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays provides opportunity for dialogue about sexual orientation and gender identity, and acts to create a society that is healthy and respectful of human diversity.” On this site there are many links to information and educational initiatives.


Parents will never have the answers to everything, but we do the best we can. The important thing I have found in my experience is to be open and willing to listen and answer questions to the best of my ability. Sometimes this means doing some extra digging around to find ways to explain things in age appropriate terms.

When it came down to my explanation I stuck with a combination of what I know, and offered up further information from the links above. This was best broken down into three important concepts:

1) Gay can mean more than one thing. It can mean happy. It can also be used in a situation where two people of the same sex either two boys or two girls are in a loving relationship. The same exact way that a boy and a girl can be in a loving relationship. It is also used by some people in a hurtful or mean way - this is wrong and those people need to be educated.

2) Queer is a more complicated term to explain. It is a term that is used to describe many people (an umbrella term). People who feel that people aren't born either a "boy" or a "girl" but that people can be either or. This could include people who are gay or people who are not gay. There is a whole area of study focused on this topic called queer theory.

3) There is nothing wrong with being queer or gay. People are people. Whether someone is queer or gay does not mean anything different. Its the same way that your name is J does not mean you are different, you are still a human being. Someone that does not know you cannot tell by looking at you, that your name is J any more than someone can tell by looking at a gay person that they are gay.

Unfortunately, in this day and age, people still need to be taught tolerance. I am a firm believer that our children are the key to a future of peace, tolerance and equity and that education offers a firm foundation for the way in which our children will act and respond to particular situations as adults.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can ever pass on to our children is that human rights are universal, and a natural right to all human beings regardless of race, religion, culture, economic status, or sexual orientation.