Jennifer Gilbert was just 22 years old when she was followed off the subway in New York City and viciously attacked. She was stabbed 37 times with a screwdriver by a stranger. That was 21 years ago, but she can still tell you exactly what she was wearing on the horrible day. “Black flats, a tan linen wraparound skirt from Ann Taylor, and a black T-shirt.”
For decades, Gilbert tried to piece herself back together, suffering in silence (she never told anyone about the attack). But it was her two-year-old son’s own health struggle that opened the floodgates on her trauma.
We spoke with the mother of three about that day in May 21 years ago and her new memoir about finding her way back to life, I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag.
Q: You’ve probably been asked this 100 times, but what made you decide to write the book now — over 20 years after the attack?
Jennifer Gilbert: I never wanted “victim” and my name to appear in the same sentence or to capitalize on the attack to draw attention to me or my business. So I never said a word to anyone, and kept building my business, Save the Date®. But when my son Grey developed alopecia (total hair loss) at two years old, I started writing my thoughts down. I was feeling so angry, vulnerable and out of control. The last time I felt like this was 20 years prior when my attack happened. I started journaling to sort my feelings out because from experience I know people don’t know how to deal with someone else’s sorrow, they tend to “at least” it away.
Once I started writing and remembering and understanding what my lessons had been and how my life had been built on those years of heart ache and overcoming them, I realized that I’d been treating his trauma the same way my parents had treated mine — with denial and silence that led me to years of shame and feeling unworthy. That was the light bulb; if I don’t do this, I’ve learned nothing.
That was the turning point for me in writing the book. Rather than ignore the elephant in the room, I decided it was time to open up the shutters and let the light in. I thought OK, I’m ready to share now, in fact, have to share what I have learned … in hopes it inspires people to share their feelings and to help others with their grieving.
Q: How difficult was it for you to go back to that horrible time and relive it all for this book?
JG: The hardest job I’ve ever had in my life was writing this memoir. I wrote draft after draft as one big long run-on sentence, a stream of consciousness, just to get those feelings and memories out of my head. There was so much I forgot. I had to interview my own family to jog my memory and to remember times that I simply blocked out. But, like removing your finger to block the hole in the dam, they [memories] would explode and all rush out.
There are parts in my book that are so “in that moment” for me, that I can’t reread them, even now. I start to cry. This book is really not meant to be about my story, it was just the starting point, but reliving my time-line and exposing myself was probably the final piece in healing me.
Q: What message do you hope parents come away with after reading your story?
JG: Our children’s only point of reality is ours, and if we make it OK for them, well, then it’s OK. Something has happened to everyone in our own unique way, whether it’s illness, divorce, losing a loved one, unemployment, or just feeling unworthy in our own bodies — we all carry something around. Our painful memories are the “stories” we have told ourselves for years, and we repeat every day from habit, but if we step out of that same groove and choose a different path, we can change everything.
We have a choice in life. We can choose to do it better, or differently than it was done to us. That while we cannot control WHAT happens to us or to our kids in life, we can control and decide who we want to be afterwards. This is very simple to say but the hardest paradigm to shift. That letting go, of the anger, the sadness, the resentments or expectations and just deciding to be different is really very simple when I understood that I was standing in my own way … and that was slowing shaping the way I was reacting to my kids.
Q: Do you think the attack — and, moreover, the 21 years of silence afterwards — shaped who you are as a woman, as a mother?
JG: The label of “victim” — someone to whom bad things happen — penetrates every facet of who you are. To this day the very thought of being pitied makes my stomach turn in revulsion. More than anything, my desire to rise above the label of “victim” is what propelled me forward past those scary dark days. So instead of looking at that gloomy horizon, I decided to stop looking back.
As shattered as I was on the inside, I polished up my outside and decided to start Save the Date®. My mission became to surround myself with other peoples joy and happiness. I started to shed some pain, and feel less broken inside. I began to start to hope again. And each new lesson of forgiveness or acceptance forged me forward to the life I wanted.
It took decades for me to realize the power comes from the surrender. It wasn’t until I LET GO of the illusion of control that I found my real power to heal and move on. I am better woman, mother, and person because I understand this now.
Q: You write about your fertility issues and also about suffering a devastating loss when you were six months pregnant. Was there a lesson in that harrowing experience?
JG: I still mourn the loss of that baby. If there is a lesson in it, it’s that at the end of the day you have no control over what happens. I spent YEARS trying to control every event after my attack, every detail for a party, every morsel of food I ate, so I could force everything to be OK in the hopes that nothing bad would ever happen to me again. But of course, that’s not the way life goes.
Everything in my life has taught me this; instead of worrying about my life and what it has in store for me, or worrying about my children’s future, all I can really do is throw my hands in the air and enjoy the ride.
We have this one life, we better make it count.
We’re giving away a copy of Jennifer Gilbert’s book! A little something for your “goodie bag.” Just leave a comment below on the interview, the power of hope or anything that’s on your mind, and you’ll be in the running to win.
In part one of The Confab, we talked with child psychologist Dr. Beth Grosshans about the imbalance of family power and the unruly kids and unhappy families that result from it. Grosshans (with my mother-in-law, Jan!) wrote the book Beyond Time-Out: From Chaos to Calm, which offers parents an action plan to take back the power and get their house back in order.
Today, in part two, Grosshans gets into that action plan for parents, called The Ladder to Effectiveness. It’s basically the five steps “in the discipline sequence.” And each step on the ladder represents the level of parental response to a child’s lack of cooperation, Grosshans says.
Although it may sound easy — oh, just five steps? – it’s not. Like most things around raising children, it’s nuanced and totally dependent on who you are and the choices you make as parents. There’s never a blanket solution. As Grosshans rightly says, “There are no short answers or quick fixes when it comes to parent-child relationships. This is complex and ever challenging business.”
Q: How important is tone when climbing “The Ladder”?
Beth Grosshans: Maintaining a tone free from irritability and anger is critical when implementing the Ladder. Children become more agitated and out of control if you treat them harshly and disrespectfully. If you are tentative and have little confidence in your authority, your child will know it in a minute and will quickly take the power you cede.
You want to create an environment where cooperation is most likely to thrive. Your children will want to please you the most when they respect and admire you. If you are competent and strong and also loving and respectful, then your child’s motivation to cooperate and work with you will be at it’s highest.
Many parents, because they do not move quickly enough into action, become fed up with repeating themselves over and over and not getting cooperation. This leads to parent’s using time-out as a threat. Through clenched teeth they say: “If you don’t stop it and start listening right now, you are going to get a time-out.” Or they may wait until they blow up, and then yell, “That’s it! You have pushed me too far. Now, you have to have a time-out!” This is not the emotional stance you want when redirecting and correcting your young children.
Q: In the book you often talk about being “matter-of-fact” even in the face of a child trying to push your buttons and their limits. How do we keep our tone in check when frustration levels start to rise yet let them know that we (the parent) mean business?
BG: Communicating in a serious, respectful, matter-of-fact tone is best. You want to convey clearly and in a good–natured way that you are your child’s biggest supporter, but that you are also comfortably in charge: you are the leader and he is the one who needs to follow without exception.
The Ladder will help you exercise parental control and remain calm, so that you do not need to resort to a bullying style. The steps of the Ladder always keep you in the lead, effectively responding to your child’s challenges. They leave little room for your child to doubt whether you are up to the job of parenting him. You want your child to learn to be confident of your authority, not feel threatened, shamed, or harshly criticized by it.
Q: What are some of the easiest ways to tripped up (“parent traps”) when attempting to climb The Ladder?
BG: Parents usually have more than just one or two behaviors in their repertoire that fuel opposition and defiance with their kids, and they tend to make these missteps at different times as they scramble to be effective and have an impact on their children. The message here is not that missteps cause outright damage, but that when they are relied on too heavily as a means to gain their children’s cooperation, they wind up fueling the very behavior parents are trying to stop. Here is a list of the top ten parental missteps that encourage acting out rather than extinguish it:
- Over explaining, reasoning, and negotiating.
- Apologizing too often.
- Seeking a child’s permission and approval.
- Not owning parental decisions and directions.
- Being overly focused on parent’s needs and feelings.
- Manipulating with too many bribes and threats.
- Repeating the same direction over and over.
- Blaming the child and looking to him for answers.
- A dismissive and disrespectful manner.
- Being too heavy-handed and using corporal punishment.
Following the structure and the script of the Ladder corrects all of these missteps. The Ladder is a very effective tool when the structure and script are adhered to, it is only when parents use it half way, or half-heartedly that children can find holes to slip through.
Q: What’s the most common misstep of all of these?
BG: I would say it’s over-talking. While most parenting advice is centered around trying to offer parents new ways to “say” things, I am convinced the core lessons of self control, respect and cooperation are learned through action based lessons, not through talking based ones. Never repeat yourself or provide explanations once you have started on the Ladder. With every repetition or delay, you underscore your impotence. Instead, your child should be offered one “I mean business reminder,” and that is all. This is a key sequence in the Ladder: say it once, give a reminder, and then act. One, two, ACT.
Giveaway time! Leave a comment below about the challenge of raising strong, well-adjusted kids and you could win a copy of Beyond Time-Out.
You’ve seen them. In restaurants, public parks, waiting rooms, malls, parking lots, you’ve definitely seen them. Hell, maybe they’re even yours, sitting – or rather jumping, climbing, screaming — right next to you, causing you headache, frustration and shame. Talking about them misbehavin’ babies.
Maybe you’ve watched hours of Supernanny on TV or scoured the internet for the latest parenting trend to help restore sanity in your home. (Attachment, Free-range, Helicopter, Tiger … Lordy! Sounds like an updated version of the Five Animals of Kung-fu. Wait, parenting as self-defense. Am I onto something here??)
Put all of that stuff away. There’s something, a book, that’s offering sound advice on how to get your family power dynamic in check and take you from “chaos to calm.” Enter Beyond Time-Out. Written by clinical child psychologist Beth A. Grosshans and (my mother-in-law!) Janet Burton, the book delves into what’s behind the current epidemic of unruly, unhappy kids and gives parents an effective action plan for getting the runaway train back on track.
We’re pleased to have Beth joining us in The Confab — in the first of a two-parter — about going beyond time-out.
Q: What pushed you to write this book?
Beth Grosshan: The families in need. Parents are so invested in being good parents. But the truth is, it’s not translating into to the outcomes parents are looking for. Family life is filled with headaches and difficulties; kids seem to have more and more tantrums, protests and unhappiness.
There are a lot of things that are weighing families down: they’re not finding the cooperation, the self-control and the sense of getting along that everyone is looking for. I discovered that the answer lies in power dynamics. It’s really the heart of the matter. I wrote this book because I wanted to educate parents about this whole issue of power dynamics, and help them to see that when kids have more power than parents — both behaviorally and emotionally — it doesn’t go well. The kids’ behavior deteriorates terribly and there is going to be a lot of disruption and disturbance in the parent-child relationship.
When parents have the power and are in the lead, this is the foundation for the kind of harmony that they’re looking for. Their kids can acquire self-control, respect and cooperation.
Q: How does a parent go about establishing a balance of power in the family?
BG: Parents need to understand what we mean when we talk about power. It has to do with who sets the agenda. It must be the parents. But the reality is, it’s often the children’s agenda.
Children are hardwired to test for power. They want to know what is it that gets them their way. I refer to it as a power drive, and every child is born with one. Like many things in the behavioral and the emotional realm, it occurs on a continuum. Some kids have a very strong power drive. These are the “you give them an inch and they’re going to take a yard” kind of kids. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the softer temperament kids.
From the time babies are five or six months old, developmentally they begin to have deliberate behavior. For example, rather than crying just because they have a need, babies cry because they want to achieve an affect. There are two verbalizations that children learn quickly in order to get parents to accommodate them: one is making distress noises like a weeping “eh eh eh” type of cry and the other is a protest verbalization where they sound more angry and frustrated. Those two noises are pre-verbal, and are very powerful in getting parents to respond and do something for the infant. That’s when power dynamics start to get established.
Q: How can a parent make that call — that this cry is a need versus a want?
BG: If parents start to have that active framework in their minds, it will make a really big difference in terms of how their responding to their kids. Sometimes kids can fuss and it doesn’t need immediate response. Parents tend to over-respond to children’s verbalizations of stress. They over-respond in terms of the frequency in which they are responding, and also the extent of response that they give. It gives kids the message that whenever they make a peep, their parents are going to jump.
Q: That’s an important point to make because there is so much anxiety around not wanting your child to be upset and many parents do fall into that trap of over-response. We need remind ourselves that crying is just babies doing what babies do, right?
BG: Exactly. Those are just the sounds the babies make. Granted that parents are very attuned to those sounds, and it’s very much in us to want to turn them off. Parents must have this framework of power dynamics to help the temper frequency and the intensity with which they are responding to those noises, and to understand that they’re very natural.
If kids fuss a little bit, this is hardly a problem for them. As you said, they’re doing what kids do. Parents need to be reassured that sometimes a low key response is not only fine, but it’s also the best response.
Q: What do you say to the parent who feels like the low key response is akin to not being a present parent?
BG: It’s a different framework. I know that my contribution to parenting advice goes against the grain. The current parenting culture is saturated with the notion of overdoing and over-attending. We have basically told parents that they need to be exquisitely sensitive to the needs of their infants and toddlers.
I think it all needs to be turned down significantly. We have a culture that is increasing anxiety in parents, and I’m saying we need to change the way we’re looking at it. This over-parenting style is fraught with difficulty. It is not going to lead parents down the path that they ultimately want. At some point, parents get sick of it because it’s not a path that is sustainable. Parenting becomes such a burden: the kids are not happy, the family unit is struggling, the kids become bratty, and the parents become bitter. They feel frustrated and are desperately looking for the answer to, “What do we do now?”
Imbalanced family power is not just an issue of a family living with headache; this is about a very compromised pathway for development in children. They struggle enormously with their personal selves and in their relational lives as a result of having had too much power. It’s a trajectory of all types of problems.
Q: When parents realize there’s an imbalance in the house, are there steps they can take to change the family dynamic?
BG: Absolutely. The thing that has been so gratifying and fun about working with this perspective with families through the years is watching how they transform. If parents learn how to utilize their natural power in service of their children’s well-being, things change and they change fast. This not a long drawn-out process, within a week you will see improvements. In two weeks you will see a lot of improvements and within a month things will be transformed.
I’m ever interested in what mothers and fathers of the world have to say about how they do what they do. We already know the why part of the equation: it’s all about them babies. We all want raise balanced, kind, engaging human beings who others simply enjoy being around.
So when I read about a new book by author and freelance journalist (now associate professor of journalism at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University) Mei-Ling Hopgood called How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting, you know I was alll over it.
Born in Taiwan and raised in metro Detroit with the parents who adopted her and her two Korean brothers, Mei-Ling knows diversity. She has lived in St. Louis, DC, Hawaii and most recently (before a big move two weeks ago) Buenos Aires for seven years. Both of Mei-Ling’s daughters, Sofia and Violet, were born in Argentina.
In the middle of her international moving madness, she was gracious enough to chat with me about, well, how Eskimos keep those wee ones warm … and a few other burning questions.
Q: What made you write this book?
Mei-Ling Hopgood: I became a mom living abroad, which opens your eyes to different ways of thinking and parenting. Argentines had a pretty laid-back view of bedtimes, never used baby food out of a jar and treated pregnant women like queens. Argentine men had a much more comfortable and close proximate relationship with babies. It all made me reflect on my own background and the places I’d traveled to.
Q: What was the big lesson for you after researching and writing the book? Was there a particular country that proved the most surprising eye-opener for you?
MLH: The biggest overarching lesson was that while there are universals in good parenting — providing enough food, sleep, love etc. — there are many ways in the world to be a good parent. We need not deem anyone “superior” rather we can learn from each other on the dos and don’ts of parenting.
There were tons of big and small surprises for me, but one of the most important was that children could be effective teachers of children, and that they could be trusted with some pretty big responsibilities. (Little ones in cultures such as the Mayans in Mexico expect their kids to participate in the care of siblings, cousins, etc., from very young, and are also expected to work.)
Q: Has this book changed how you parent?
MLH: Yes, in many ways. For example, I potty trained my first daughter pretty early compared to most parents I know and plan to do the same with the next child. Also, I am more open to letting the kids break routines for family social occassions and have no qualms about them falling asleep in social settings (though with two, I greatly value routines).
Plus, I try not to intervene as much in kid skirmishes, or at least not as quickly, and see how they will play out.
Q: After talking to parents and experts from around the globe, is it fair to say that American parents may be a tad too fearful and anxious (maybe even neurotic!) regarding parenthood and issues around parenting? A case of being almost cautious to a fault?
MLH: I think that is true. I think we often treat our children as if they’ll break if one bad thing happens or we make one bad choice. But kids and parents are amazingly resilient and have thrived in situations that some of us would find impossible.
Q: I chuckled reading the “How Buenos Aires Children Go To Bed Late” chapter. I’m Canadian, raised by West Indian parents, and I remember all too well being put on the “coats bed” to sleep during weekend grown-folk parties. We slept soundly despite the thumping calypso and loud laughter just outside the room. Do you think that some American parents could benefit from loosening up the rules sometimes? What can our kids learn from seeing some flexibility?
MLH: It depends on the family. But I think for me the flexibilty was a good thing, both for the kids and my own mental state. They got to know other families and kids, and learned how to behave in an adult social setting, which I think is important. That said, again, with my baby now, I’m pretty selective about breaking routines these days, but I do think it’s important that she learn to be flexible.
Q: Your chapter on Tibet was wonderful. I, too, suffered a miscarriage. I know the depths of devastation and the incredible need to regroup and feel like “you” again. Would you explain a little about the Tibetans’ emphasis on the mom-to-be’s mental and spiritual wellness — especially the importance of stillness?
MLH: The Tibetan view (particularly Buddhist) is that stillness, or peace, is important for a mother and baby’s wellbeing. We spend a lot of time talking about the physical prep for pregnancy in the U.S., when it’s also valuable to think about one’s mental and spiritual health as well. It just makes logical sense: our bodies and minds do better when we are less stressed, more relaxed.
Q: Journalist Pamela Druckerman’s new book Bringing Up Bébé has been getting a bit of press lately [We talked about it on MMM last week]. It proposes that French children are essentially better behaved largely because their parents are more relaxed and “less neurotic” about child-rearing. What are you thoughts on that? And did you come across similar findings within the different cultures/countries you researched?
MLH: I get what she is saying, and I think I saw that in a lot of other cultures — such as Argentina. Moms and dads are more relaxed about the regular challenges involved with parenting. For example, we all would gripe about our babies and their erratic sleep habits. But the moms there wer emore matter-of-fact about it. In fact, my pediatrician (with both of my daughters) listened to me complain about sleep issues, and then said, “Ya va a pasar.” It’ll be over soon. In the U.S., we kill ourselves to try to “fix” those things.
That said, I really have issues with the trend in parenting discourse to claim French or Chinese parenting “superior.” I know that’s mostly the media, rather than the authors. But I believe that is a pat, oversimplified way of looking at parenting globally. We sincerely have a lot to learn from each other.
Q: In the book you talked about how globalization and the “commercialization of parenthood and childhood” are changing the way we parent. We seem to be — for good or bad — collapsing all of colorful differences into one “monotone” way to parent. Do you think there’s anything parents can do to preserve our delightful differences?
MLH: I hope people all over the world really think about whether the sweeping subscriptions we read in parenting literature is good for everyone. I think we need also to move away from saying there’s one perfect way of doing anything. That may sell, but it’s destructive.
Q: What do you hope other parents who read your book will take away from it?
MLH: I hope that they will take tips that might make them meet the challenges of parenting, and I hope they will take heart in knowing that there are many ways in the world to raise a happy and healthy child.
Do you have a watch on? Might want to check it, because IT’S GIVEAWAY TIME, Y’ALL! You know the accent is always on “fab” in The Confab.
Thanks to Mei-Ling — lovely as she is wise — and the kind people over at Algonquin Books, we are giving away FIVE copies of How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm. All you have to do is leave a comment below or mosey over to the MMM Facebook page (by the way, have you “Liked” us on FB yet? Ahem.) and tell us one parenting tip you’ve picked up from another culture or country. As, Mei-Ling rightly said, we have so much to learn for each other. So … do tell!