Staffer’s Notebook: We’re not gonna take it. Or we will.



This post started out as an email to my boss, Glen Gower. Then it got a little too long. 

Last month news broke with allegations of improper behavior by Councillor Chiarelli. This week, Councillor Chiarelli requested a leave of absence for stress-related illness as victims shared more first-hand testimonies of sexual harassment. For women working on Councillor’s Row, questionable workplace behaviour from elected officials was old news . The real news was that someone was talking about it. 

My work relationship with my employer gives me the space and confidence to share my concerns about the general working conditions for political staffers. In the weeks since the news broke, Glen and I have had several conversations about woking conditions for Councillors’ staff and he encouraged me to share my thoughts in my Staffer’s Notebook.  

The power dynamics leading men to exert dominance over women’s minds and bodies is well expressed by Oscar Wilde’s famous quote: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” We expect elected officials to be leaders in their community and we hold them to the highest standard of behavior, yet it is democracy’s inconvenient truth that they represent the best and the worst of us.

The story of the powerful man and the intern is as old as democracy itself. I scoff at the surprise that it should happen here, in Ottawa. If the MeToo movement has taught us anything, it’s that years of sensitivity and inclusion training has done nothing to discourage those who use sex to control. We seem to take comfort in the suggestion that this behavior is the purview of jerks. Drawing a clear delineation between the good guys and the bad guys prevents us from looking at the ways our work environment enables abusive behaviour. Nowhere is this as true as in political offices. At all levels of government, the harassment and questionable hiring practices of elected officials take root in a garden carefully maintained by others.

I have worked as a political aide in federal and municipal politics. Everywhere, our employment conditions are precarious. Yet we work amidst organizations with mature and elaborate HR practices, alongside a well-represented unionized workforce. Be it in the federal or municipal government, elected officials are free to belittle, sexually objectify and threaten their staff while everyone looks the other way. And so the seeds of abuse sprout and grow unchecked, untamed and unmanaged. Our only recourse is to take it or leave it.

The image of one elected official representing one constituency has not kept pace with the complexity of representative democracy. Elected officials still hold office as a one-man show, but their operating budgets have grown to include a full-time staff providing the level of service that residents expect. Yet, everything in the staffing of political offices seeks to minimize the visibility of staffers and discount their existence. We are an extension of our employer, a line item in an operating budget, hired and fired at will. Our jobs have no requirements, our salaries are drawn from the same budget as office furniture and left to the discretion of each councillor. There is no salary scale, no promotion track, no equal pay, no performance reports, but most importantly, no complaint mechanism protecting us from the consequences of speaking out. Like office stationery we are expendable, and our value lies in augmenting a Councillor’s capacity without being noticed.

The low pay and precarious conditions of employment invite a workforce that is young, inexperienced and transient, unwilling to compromise its ability to find better paying work elsewhere in the organization. It also works to create a revolving door of young and inexperienced staff that carries with it a reputation for incompetence and ineffectiveness. Some departments will not let municipal staff interact directly with political aides in the absence of a manager. It works at cross-purpose with the City’s stated goal to be an employer of choice and with councillors’ need to receive sensible and knowledgeable advice in the conduct of their duties. Most importantly, it prevents the coalescence of stories, concerns and experiences into corporate memory and practices.

The precarity and sensitive nature of elected officials’ positions has explained their need for flexibility in staffing. For the most part, this flexibility has worked to the advantage of people like me: people with incomplete or patchy resumes, people with interrupted work experience, people whose personal lives have stunted their professional development, in other words, people who have difficulty finding work elsewhere. A CBC news item referred to our positions as “desirable” and I agree that my position as a Councillor’s Assistant has given me a unique perch into the complex levers of public administration. But being “lucky to have this job” combined with the unchecked staffing practices afforded to elected officials compromises our ability to challenge abuse,  especially in the absence of clearly defined protections against retaliation.

We assume that the desirability of our position makes up for its precarity. This might be true for the stock staffer imagined from political tv series but for those who eschew the glamour of fiction, the desirability is subservient to the precarity. We have bills to pay, families to support. We make decisions to manage the precarity of our positions rather than its desirability: we keep our heads low, we don’t make waves. We can justify the low pay and long hours by the desirability of the position. But we cannot in good conscience justify vulnerability to abuse and harassment as the price to pay for a desirable position. Yet this is the message that the City sends staffers by letting elected officials make their own rules in matters of staffing.  

Last week, Mayor Watson and Councillor Kavanagh issued a public statement stating that “All City employees, including employees of elected officials, have the right to a workplace that is free of harassment.” This is as true as it is meaningless. We may have access to counselling services and a shoulder to cry on, but we are institutionally kept at arm’s length from the City’s Human Resources. Once we avail ourselves of our 6 counselling sessions, our options to deal with harassment remain as binary as they ever were: take it or leave it. There is no HR pipeline to find us safe employment elsewhere in the City, no procedure to provide adult supervision to our employers, no protection against the gossip and rumours that may spread as a result.

The Clerk’s Office sent out an email reiterating the City’s commitment to be a workplace free of harassment and announcing a review of the recruitment and hiring process for Councillor’s Assistants. I hope that this review will be done in consultation with Councillors’ Assistants. However, I am concerned that the need for sweeping systemic changes, once identified, will meet fierce opposition from Councillors and inertia from City Staff. 

Power is a tricky thing to pass on. It’s slippery and it doesn’t have handles. 

Sight Lines


It’s Tuesday morning and we are walking to school down a neighbourhood street, the kind that invites speeding.

The street is straight and as wide as a French highway. Every street corner boasts ample sight lines, right into another beautiful, wide, straight, neighbourhood street. These neighbourhood streets are so close to two elementary schools that the children who live here do not qualify for bussing. They are expected to walk or bike. Yet the car — or if you live in an affluent suburb like Stittsville, the luxury SUV and the contractor pick-up — is King. The roads are designed for maximum visibility, which we have learned, invites maximum speed.

On our walk to school, I am holding my 5 year-old’s hand on one side of the street. My daughter is walking on the opposite side  because she’s mad at me.

Before we left, her brother threw her school bag on the ground instead of giving it to her and she said: “I’m not picking it up” and started leaving. I said “So he throws your school bag on the ground and you leave it here with your lunch and your homework. Who are you punishing exactly?” Her brother was long gone. She lashed out at me “SHUT UP. I don’t care about you, I don’t care what you think. Just stop talking.” And my heart just broke because it was the third time before 8 am I had been told by someone to shut up and the second time I had been told that no one cared. And that was after being yelled at by another angry child who had been asked not to swing a toy at the walls, accusing me of not caring about anyone. Never in my life have I met someone who worked so hard for people she doesn’t care about.

And so we walked towards the school and toward an incoming white SUV who had to swerve to avoid my daughter on one side, then swerve to avoid my son and I on the other side. In my impatience, I made a hand gesture signalling her to slow down and she did slow down just enough to roll her window down and yell at me.

“I’m doing 35!” she said as she sped off again through a stop sign. The stop signs are beautifully designed for maximum safety, with sight triangles the size of Texas. The visibility is so impeccable that you don’t even need to stop, you can see cars coming a mile away. A 5 year-old on his bike, maybe not. But he’s not the King of the road.

Who knows, maybe she was doing 35? Speed is hard to appreciate when the pick-up coming at you is so jacked that the front wheels are taller than your 5 year-old. You wouldn’t want to be stuck in traffic on the 417 with anything less than 10 inch of ground clearance. Everything looks too fast when it weights 2 tons and is coming at you, know what I mean? I don’t have a radar gun in my head, I only have a hunch that whatever the speed limit is, if you need to serve to avoid my child, it might be too high. Just a hunch. Just a mother’s heart that may be bruised but still skips a beat when you hurl a heavy-duty motor vehicle at the featherweight child she’s just been accused of not caring about.

My daughter crossed the street and came to see me. She said “Why was this lady yelling at you?” and I said it was because I had made a sign to slow down. “That lady looks like she might have a problem” my daughter answered.  And I said “Maybe. But how is that different from what you did this morning?”

“I said something you didn’t like so you yelled at me. I said something this lady didn’t like so she yelled at me.”

“I’m everyone’s anger doormat. People are angry and they don’t like it, so they look for someone to wipe their anger off on. You just used me to clean the anger you felt towards your brother. This lady used me to clean up the anger she felt at God-knows-what. We wipe our anger on people and we leave satisfied, for a moment. But the anger doesn’t disappear. Now I have to deal with it. Now I have to deal with the pain of having been yelled at, of having been told no one cares about what I say, of having been accused of not caring.”

Now I have to deal with the fear that the next time this lady drives by my family she’ll speed up instead of slowing down, just to show me who this street really belongs to. Anger doesn’t dissipate. It doesn’t evaporate. It communicates like a disease. It sullies everything it touches until all of us are trying to wipe it off something else.

Seeing is not caring. We thought that better visibility would make our roads safer,  as if seeing the other was all that carefulness needed to take root. We expanded the sight lines, widened the triangles, until we realized that carelessness expands to fit the space it is given.

We have worked diligently to eliminate friction points. To eliminate the need to proceed with caution. To eliminate the need to look the stranger in the eye, to see the other’s fear. We are trying to eliminate the need to mature, to become self-aware. To admit our mistakes. We make it possible for a grown woman driving an expensive vehicle to react with the maturity of a 10 year-old girl and drive away satisfied, having learned nothing but maybe taught two children that problems are solvable by denial and deflection.

And so carelessness expands to fit the space it is given, anger communicates like a disease, and sight lines become blind spots.

 

Blogging like it’s 2009


Last Fall, after looking unsuccessfully for work for a few months, I deemed it God’s will that writing should be my new job and committed to write a blog post every day to get back in the writing habit.

Of course, 3 days later I found work that I enjoy so much it became my hobby. In other words, I haven’t been blogging much since December. I still write plenty but that will be lost on you unless you have questions about utility easements and bus rapid transit.

All that being said, I miss writing about inconsequential things like raising well-adjusted children in an off-kilter world, loving your babies when you don’t like them, and trying to find balance when everything piles up on one side. I still have ideas and opinions and I share them freely on text and email. But I miss the interaction with friends and family near and far through my blog.

As more and more people take breaks from social media and become more circumspect about what they share publicly, and as social media grows increasingly useless as a free sharing platform, writers have switched to subscription models and email newsletters. I tried the subscription model but I’m not popular enough to make it worthwhile: I received enough money to create an obligation to write but not enough to free-up time to do so. I never tried the email newsletter but if your Inbox is anything like mine, you know that we are way past peak newsletter. I’m not sure what the solution is but I think that we will soon see a return to RSS readers and eventually ink on paper. In the mean time, if you enjoy reading what I write, I would like to know what is the best way to reach you.

I have a few “Staffer’s Notebook” posts on matters of urban planning and city-building currently stuck in the pipe but I plan too return to my completely haphazard mix of “whatever floats my boat” as soon as I clear them. I’m also working on a “Now” page, which is something more specific than the “About” page but more permanent than a social media status. Think of it as what you would tell relatives you see once a year at a family reunion.

In the meantime, here is a picture of Ève and Lucas — my twins — who were the reason I started this blog 8 years ago, while on bed rest expecting them. Don’t blink!

 

Relating to parents with fewer (than 9) children


I went fishing for blog topics on Facebook and as always, my friends were more than generous with their suggestions. Someone asked me two very good and related questions:

– How do you respectfully communicate with parents who are sometimes and/or all the times overwhelmed with a single child or two, when you have many (ie; not pulling the “you have it easy” card and edifying and respecting them as parents)?

– Likewise, how should those with a singleton respectfully communicate with you and your family?

I found these questions interesting because my problem is usually the opposite: people with smaller families are afraid to complain to me about their problems because they assume that I have it worst, or they apologize for feeling overwhelmed. In other words, they project their own feelings of inadequacy unto me. My challenge is not to communicate respectfully with them but to convince them that I understand.

How should people communicate with me? Respectfully is always appreciated. But if I’m allowed a second request, it would be to stop calling me (A) a Saint/Hero, or (B) Crazy. It makes me really uncomfortable to be called a saint because I’m not. I have character flaws the size of Texas, and I have been born into so much privilege I would be insufferable had I not allowed the size of my family to humble me a little. Being called crazy is just insulting. It’s probably better to err on the side of making me really uncomfortable by calling me a saint than insulting me by calling me insane. But I’m at a point where I avoid telling strangers how many children I have because intelligent conversation tends to die there. And that’s not cool because my family is my life’s work and I am immensely proud of it. Ask me anything and I’ll talk your ear off (just like I’m doing right now). Don’t just stand there with your mouth agape calling me a Saint or a Nut.

I think it’s important for everyone to know that I’ve been overwhelmed since 1996. I was struggling with two children, and with three children, and with four children… you get the idea. Nature abhors a vacuum and when given 24h, each one of us fills them to the brim. We used to wash clothes and dishes by hand and we thought that inventing the washing machine and the dishwasher would free us up. But instead of enjoying the extra time, we replaced homemaking chores with work chores. When a promotion gives us more disposable income we incur more expenses. We fill our houses with stuff and when we get a bigger house, we get more stuff. If we can’t get a bigger house, we rent a condo for our stuff (Dymon anyone?) Whether we fill the void with activities, worries or things, we take our 24h and 3 lbs of brain and use them to the max.

People feel like they have their hands full with one child because they do. It’s not my place to tell them how their hands should be full or to pass judgment on the wisdom or advisability of filling their 24h the way they do. When it comes to time in a day or in a year, we’re all dealt the same hand. Time is the great equalizer.

The truth is, I love people, and I love diversity. I love how in the words of Don Henry sung by Miranda Lambert:

Ever since the beginning to keep the world spinning
It takes all kinds of kinds.”

Listen, I have 9 children spread over 18 years. I’ve been pregnant 11 times in the last 22 years. I have been entirely focused on my family at the exclusion of everything else. If everyone was like me, the world would not be a better place. We would be missing a lot of art, a lot of excellence, a lot of invention, a lot of service and a lot of philanthropy.

Walk with me for a minute. I am a talented musician. Music comes easily to me. But I gave up honing my skills 22 years ago when I had my first child. I didn’t play any music for 12 years until I picked it up again 2 years ago. Now I dabble, I play a bit of this and a bit of that, all of it poorly. The basics still comes easy to me but I hit a wall as soon as hard work comes in the picture. Jason Isbell is almost 40. He spent the first 37 years of his life playing the guitar and getting his head and heart smashed in creative ways. He had nothing else to worry about than his own foibles before he got sober, married Amanda Shires, and had a daughter. How many hours of writing, noodling, and living went into writing Last of My Kind or Speed Trap Town? I drove 5h to upstate New-York last Summer to see Jason Isbell in concert. I have 9 children and I can tell you: outside of the four walls of my house, I never touched anyone’s life to the point where they would buy a ticket, book an Airbnb and drive 5h to watch me do my thing. Don’t try to tell me my writing is touching lives: I tried crowdfunding this blog two years ago and 7 readers committed to paying a total of $63 a month, two of them were related to me. Of the 500-ish people who read my blog, only 7 thought it was worth paying for. That did my head in for a while, that’s why I stopped writing for two years. I’m a fragile little thing that way. Jason Isbell is touching lives, including mine. The world needs him to spend a fair amount of time navel-gazing his way into thoughtful lyrics, practicing his guitar and touring the United States.

My point is not that you should be Jason Isbell or make a ton of money blogging if you have only one child. My point is that everyone leaves their fingerprint on the world and every fingerprint is different. I’m volunteering at my children’s school for the first time in 18 years! Who do you think raised funds for activities, helped with field trips, decorated the school and organized the movie nights my children have enjoyed since my oldest started school in 2000? People with two kids and a job, that’s who.

One of my parents’ dearest friends is helping Syrian refugees settle in Canada, accompanying them to the grocery store, acting as a cultural translator, teaching them how to access the services they need, finding volunteers to fix bicycles for their children, and businesses to donate food and clothing. How many children of her own does she have? None. Do you think people like me are doing what she’s doing? No, they’re not.

Sometimes getting up in the morning is heroic. Some of my friends do not volunteer. They do not run successful businesses. Some of them have grown up in dysfunctional families, some of them have suffered abuse, some of them have overcome physical and/or mental health challenges. And every day they get up and they do their level best to give their children a kind of love they have never received. I watch in awe as some of my friends create happy families out of thin air, having never been in one. They are studying and learning through trial and error the fundamentals of loving, of being patient, of being self-sacrificing, all things that I learned from my parents like my first language. Some people work way harder at normal life than I do. Raising one child is as hard for them as raising 9 is for me because I received so much from life.

And some people are just selfish. Some people are jerks. Some people roll their eyes and tell me “I don’t know how you can have 9, I only have two and it’s too much” *in front of their children*. Some people are just clueless. Last week I was volunteering at our school’s book sale during the parent-teacher meetings and the children had written lists of book suggestions to help their parents in their shopping. One mother picked up her grade 5 daughter’s list and seeing with horror that it had been written in script rather than cursives, called home to tear a strip off the kid for writing like a baby. Told her she was personally insulted by it. Asked her why she would embarrass her that way. Said she was going to buy her the books but since she had written like a grade 1 kid, wasn’t going to reward that. Her sister would get books but not her. Told her never to insult her like that again. Repeated everything twice to drive it in. I felt so bad I wanted to drive to her house, find her daughter and give her a hug. I’m sure this mom loves her daughter and wants what’s best for her. I’m sure this mom thinks her brand of tough love is how you raise competent, well-rounded adults. I’m sure this woman doesn’t have 9 children and probably shouldn’t have 9 children. It’s ok not to have too many children when your parenting toolbox includes shaming and belittling.

When people tell me they are overwhelmed with 1 or 2 or 3 children, I simply say “I was overwhelmed with 3 too!” Which is 100% the honest-to-goodness truth. I remind them what is difficult about their lives. Your children are all under 4. Or you have 3 active boys. Or your husband works two jobs. Or you suffer from anxiety and depression. Or you had fertility struggles. Or you live with your aging parents. Or you are a single parent. Don’t look at me and feel bad. Look at where you are. If you feel like you can stretch a little more, stretch a little more. If you can’t, don’t injure yourself. Accept the pace. Try to finish a little ahead of where you started, try to leave the world a little better than how you found it. If everyone reaches just a little farther, we’ll come out ahead in the end.

How do I respectfully communicate with people who only have one child? I just assume that their lives are as full as mine, just with different things. I don’t need to know everyone’s story to assume they have one.

 

 

Daily M.E.D.S. — Minimally Edited Daily Stuff


I retitled my daily blog to Daily MEDS because we’re military-adjacent and nothing says family like a good acronym. Also, I want readers to know that these daily posts are a discipline in leaving well-enough alone. I don’t need to learn how to write like Steinbeck, I need to learn how to ship. I mean… writing like Steinbeck would be nice too…

“You’re bound to get idears if you go thinkin’ about stuff”
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

 

Daily Blog: Change, Change, Change Part 4


You may be wondering why I titled my series “Change, change, change”. Everything comes to me with a song and this one was the melody to Aretha Franklin’s Chains of Fools. It just occurred to me that she’s singing “Chain, chain, chains” and that my series title made no sense to anyone but me.

In my previous post, I wrote that children can withstand a lot of life-altering change without trauma when the fundamentals of attachment are well in place. But, you ask, what do you do if you are not starting from a place of perfect attachment? Last weekend, I reposted two old posts about spanking and in the ensuing discussion on Facebook, many mentioned that a swat on the bottom, applied in an otherwise loving relationship, was of no consequence. Love and attachment are not the same. We can love our children fiercely while leaving attachment gaps the size of Eurasia in our relationship. Love is what motivates neglectful parents to pull all the stops when their children are the object of a removal hearing. Love is why abusers apologize and beg their victims to stay. Love is imperfect and subjective. Most of us wretched sinners would be well advised to approach questions of attachment with a droplet of humility and assume that we are currently messing-up our children in all sorts of harmful and harmless ways, just like our parents did before us.

Listen, none of us get into this parenting thing hoping to mess people up but many of us will. Forewarned is forearmed, that’s all I’m saying. When our families are facing life-altering changes, can we take concrete steps to guard our children’s little hearts and make it as easy as possible for them?

In my previous post, I mentioned Gordon Neufeld’s “Hold On to Your Kids”, which should be mandatory reading for every parent. In fact, they should make parents read it before discharging them from labour and delivery. Like a car seat check for children’s hearts. But Neufeld is talking in broad lines: don’t hit your kids, don’t shame them and remember that children need a large quantity of quality time to attach properly. For practical input, I turned to Kim John Payne and his book “Simplicity Parenting. ”

Kim John Payne is an educator who studied the cumulative effect of small stressors on cognitive disorders and mental illness in children. His studies revealed that when parents were able to reduce the bombardment of stimuli on their troubled children’s brains, cognitive disorders such as ADHD, ODD and OCD became manageable to the point of becoming a quirk rather than a dysfunction. He identified 4 paths to simplifying our children’s lives. When I started reflecting on what our family did to ease our children through moves, new siblings and general life adjustments, I realized that our approach lined-up with Kim John Payne’s paths to simplicity.

1. Predictability and routines. Children thrive on predictability, it’s one of the pillars of attachment. A child’s life is built on answering two recurring questions: Am I safe? and Can I trust? When these questions are answered positively, children are freed to be creative, innovative, attached and secure. Based on their temperaments, some children require more predictability than others. As parents, we must accept the hand we’re dealt and avoid dealing in “should’s.” When our lives are in upheaval, when our families enter periods of instability, we cannot always maintain routines but we can always be predictable. The instability and upheaval can be predictable. Even when routines are difficult to maintain, small routines around meal times, bedtime, and points of transition can be upheld and go a long way in grounding our children in what they know, even in the middle of the unknown.

2. Declutter toys and books. When I wrote about Kim John Payne in 2o12, he mentioned that the average North American child had 150 toys, in which a 3,000-piece Lego set counted as one toy. An over-abundance of toys and books and our inability to declutter reveals more about our state of mind as parents and resistance to change than our children’s. When we explore why we need to provide so much for our children, we often have to address deep-seated fears and insecurities. When our children watch us — and eventually help us — declutter toys and books with a focus on quality, they learn that our identity as a family doesn’t come from what we own but from who we are. It flexes the change muscle in small ways every day so that we are trained when big changes come our way.

3. Media. Our family went through a screen detox almost a year ago and we still limit our children’s exposure to screened entertainment. Overuse of screened entertainment and media rewires our brains, stunts our creativity and shortens our attention span. It may not be immediately obvious how over-exposure to media can affect our children’s ability to weather changes with equanimity but bear with me. When we cut our children off screens last winter, we realized how much mental energy they used thinking about their video games or TV shows, even when they were not watching them. Media of all stripes — especially media directed at children — is designed to be addictive, to grab us and make us come back for more. As parents, we appreciate the calming effect of screens but this stupefying effect comes at a cost when our children come to need screens as a coping mechanism, as a tool of emotional self-regulation. To face challenges and to adapt, our children need mental agility. Over-exposure to media ribs them of that agility.

4. Protecting their innocence and sense of wonder. Sometimes change is imposed on us by circumstances and sometimes we need to make changes that are difficult to comprehend for children. We need to use extreme caution in sharing details they are too young to understand. It doesn’t mean that we lie to our children but we need to use judgment when exposing them to the motivations and possible consequences of a change. To be able to embrace change positively, our children need to believe that the world is a beautiful place. Children are naturally able to see beauty and goodness in every circumstance and we must protect their sense of wonder as long as we can. If we do that, they will show us the beauty in the mess and help us see the world through their eyes.