The name Bree has Irish origins meaning “strong and honorable.” It is also of English origin and means, “force, strength.”
“Dear Bree. Hi, my name is Meg and I am in 6th grade. My family and I live in Urbana, Illinois but sometimes we move to other places around the world too. I was born with only one finger on each hand and one toe on each foot. My cousin in New York told me about you and knows someone you went to school with. She told me that you are on the TV news in California and that your hands and feet are kind of like mine. I have two brothers but they were not born like me. I am planning to be a journalist or a lawyer one day. I was wondering if you would write to me and let me know how you are and if you have any advice for me? Thanks! Meg Weinbaum”
“Dear Meg. Thank you for your letter! It was so nice to hear from you. Yes, I was born looking different like you, but it has never held me back. In fact, my life has been as normal as I imagine yours has been as well. I love my job here in San Diego, and loved also working in New York too. One thing is certain though. I wouldn’t be who or where I am without the unconditional support of my parents. They never treated me differently than anyone else and it has really never been a big deal for any of us. Good luck with school and I will look forward to hearing back from you. Best, Bree”
“Happy people who like themselves do not try to make others feel badly. Once you know that, you realize that the person being mean must be an unhappy person, and it probably has nothing to do with you. In fact, you never know what is really going on with the other person that is saying insensitive things to you. I always imagine it must be pretty bad for that person to enjoy making me feel badly.” I had just responded to a question from Savanna, wondering why certain kids had to be so mean. Ethan, Charlie and Savanna and I had just watched a television show together where a few kids were being particularly cruel to a very small boy. As we chatted together more about it, I couldn’t help but think about these quiet moments at home, where these teaching moments about the subject of difference arise naturally and continually.
“Meg, I love your blog and website. As great as it is for others, it clearly has had such an incredible impact on your own children.” I had just run into an acquaintance at the local grocery store. Of course I thanked her for the well-intentioned compliment, and I certainly have heard it before. However, if I am keeping it real as I always do here, I must confess that although I am sure my Don’t Hide It Flaunt It efforts certainly have a positive effect on all three of my children, the time I spend with them parenting on the subject of self-acceptance and most related teaching moments come from our day-to-day lives.
With this in mind, I recently came across a very old You Tube clip of Bree Walker being interviewed on a CBS news program by then anchorman, Jim Jenson. Bree was actually a fellow news anchor on the show and, like me, was born with ectrodactyly. (Bree’s hands remind me more of our son Charlie’s, because although she is lacking fingers….and toes, she has more than one finger on each hand.) During the news program, as Walker wrapped up a report about early detection of birth defects, Jenson turned to her and began to ask her extremely probing questions about her own life experience with a “handicap,” and in particular, repeatedly asked Bree whether her parents might have aborted her had they known about her condition in advance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-_UR93_9Ro. Without even flinching, Bree responded matter-of-factly, stating that both she and her parents didn’t believe [her condition] to be a big deal. “Actually my parents handle it quite well.” In her case, she was determined to break into TV journalism despite her physical difference and her parents supported her every step of the way. Bree also continued to explain that, while her parents would not have chosen abortion, having advance knowledge of her condition would have helped them prepare for the unexpected.
I hadn’t seen the interview with Jenson until about five years ago. After stumbling across it one night on the Internet, one item in particular stood out: Bree had thick skin, and I was quite certain I knew why. She was raised to regard herself as capable of anything. It was a good thing Bree had developed such a hard shell because more scrutiny about her abilities was lurking around the corner. In 1991, only three years after the Jenson interview, another program, this time on the radio, opened up a can of controversy and judgment around Bree. The driving question by host Jane Norris for over two hours on a KFI-AM radio talk was, “Should Bree Walker conceive a child?” During the show, Norris asked her KFI listeners questions like, “Is it fair to pass along a genetically disfiguring disease to your child?” At the time of the radio debate, Walker was already pregnant. Immediately, Bree and her husband at the time, Jim Lampley, responded, defending their decision and crediting Bree’s family with their good parenting. As far as Bree was concerned, success in life had nothing to do with what you looked like, even if you were different. Bree ended up not only passing on her condition to that baby, but then also to her second child. Of course, I can personally relate.
Then, years later in 2010, Bree took on Oprah Winfrey via her own blog post (“Shame on Oprah”). During an airing of an episode of Oprah’s talk show, a pregnant woman went into labor unexpectedly and was rushed out of the studio. Following the dramatic scene, as Bree described it, the first thing that came out of Oprah’s mouth was, “Does he have all his fingers and toes?” In her blog Bree responded, disappointed with Oprah’s reaction in the moment. Bree wanted to challenge the automatic assumption that it was necessary for a baby to have ten fingers and ten toes to be considered, “Okay.” Now, personally, I don’t think Oprah really meant anything by that—it’s sort of the default comment many people make (in life and in the movies) when asking if a newborn is healthy. However, Bree’s self-confidence to even take-on Oprah publicly really impressed me.
And so here is my point for this week’s post. Just like Bree’s parents, and just like the millions of parents of children with any type of difference that causes them to be judged, raising our children to believe in themselves is up to us. It can happen with or without a blog or website. After all, I may be in the public eye now via my Don’t Hide It Flaunt It efforts. However, just like Bree, my parents raised me in an era before social media and the Net, too.