Mondays With My Girls

Lessons in Being Real

Magazine Issue
July/August 2019
A group of teen girls

Let me begin by making a somewhat unusual admission: I’m a therapist who doesn’t have a natural love of kids. Until a few years ago, I’d always felt uneasy around them, as if they were space aliens with whom I had little in common. Of course, I’d been through my own childhood struggles, and, sure, I thought young kids were cute and comical. But for me, being around them was an exhausting exercise in forced attention, hyper-responsibility, and warding off supergerms. Needless to say, when I was assigned to a therapeutic afterschool program as my graduate internship, I wasn’t exactly thrilled.

Working with young people seemed like a burden of greater liability and energy than I wanted to offer in my future practice as a marriage and family therapist. But bolstered by the temporary nature of what I thought would be a semester-long experience, I braced myself to lean into my discomfort and make an earnest effort to learn what I could about the inner worlds of kids these days.

I never imagined I’d stay there for six years, helping these kids not only navigate the choppy waters of adolescence, but life in a long-term shelter where single-parent families struggled to stay afloat in spite of socioeconomic hardship, violence, and addiction. And I never could’ve predicted the lessons I’d learn from a group of preteen girls about the true meaning of resilience and the power of relationships to flourish in even the darkest times.

Year One

I wanted to approach my assignment at the playgroup, which met every Monday, with a sense of openness and hope, but I felt nervous when I first visited the shelter, a subsidized housing facility of apartment units where families could stay for years, sometimes permanently. The kids in the group ranged in age between four and 17, and all of them were dealing with significant losses. I tried to quiet the questions swirling in my head. What would they be like? What would they think of me, a young Canadian from a middle-class family who loved home décor and took personality tests for fun? Would I be able to gain their trust? Or, sensing my inexperience, would they push me aside? Belying my uncertainty, I surveyed my new surroundings with well-practiced aloofness.

Next to a large common area with threadbare couches and armchairs were tables for eating and crafting. A few pieces of donated exercise equipment sat beneath high barred windows. On one side, a small galley kitchen was marked off-limits to the kids—which, I soon discovered, made it the most appealing part of the room to them. The walls were covered in collages of artwork from past programs, pictures of shelter events, and generic messages from celebrity donors who I’m sure hadn’t visited the site since it had opened. Despite its quirks, the space seemed well-loved by the kids, who took complete ownership of every inch they could.

Early on, it became clear which children would challenge me the most. The younger ones were small and easily redirected: I learned they’d do almost anything for the chance at an extra Ritz Cracker. The teenagers just wanted you to make them laugh or leave them alone. But the preteens, ages 9 through 12—they were loud. They traveled in hordes. They demanded attention and their own space. They wanted quiet and excitement. They were constantly talking and protecting secrets. And they were everywhere: in the hallways, running down the stairs, climbing on the furniture.

The boys, all small for their ages, tended to act out their trauma, externalizing years of emotional pain through physical “games” that seemed to have the sole purpose of putting their bodies at risk of injury. But the girls, with their string bracelets and flippant attitudes, seemed the most dangerous to me, like delicate pieces of china daring you to mishandle them, so they could shatter into pieces and cut you in the process. Whether or not the people around them realized it, I came to recognize that each exchange served to seek answers to the questions: Do you get me? Are you safe? Can I trust you?

At first I steered clear of them, studying the group dynamics as the more seasoned facilitators allowed themselves to be crawled on by the little ones and criticized by the older ones, all the while pulling fingers out of noses and snack cupboards where they didn’t belong. Every week was exhausting. There were so many unmet needs contained in one space. Where were his shoes? Did she say she trades her lunch for homework help? How many of the kids witnessed the shooting around the corner last night? Despite being one of seven facilitators for a group of about 22 children, the magnitude of their emotional and physical needs overwhelmed me.

By the third week, I noticed that I wasn’t the only person who felt that way. V was a newly minted 11-year-old, with long brown hair and a soft but serious face full of freckles. Her clothes were dark and oversized, and she always wore a pair of skater shoes that she cherished. She’d been registered for the group by her social worker, who was concerned about her difficulties engaging with other children.

Essentially mute at school and in the halls of the shelter, V spoke only one-on-one to adults she trusted and the few close friends she’d grown up with. Her biggest advocate was her older brother, who also attended the group. But at 15, he wasn’t always attentive to her needs.

As very green interns, none of us facilitators had much experience with social anxiety disorders or selective mutism, so we tried to focus on teaching the girls how to connect with each other and creating a space where a girl like V could feel safe and included enough to open up. She wasn’t entirely disengaged from group activities, but she’d sit quietly on the social edges, not really interacting or responding to questions.

Yet V was one of the girls I felt closest to. She was so contained that I relaxed around her, and over time I came to talk to her the way I’d hold inner dialogues with myself. “Should we use the markers or the pencil crayons?” I’d ask aloud. She’d respond with a blank stare or a noncommittal shrug. “Hmm. I think the markers will smudge on the paper. Okay, pencil crayons it is, if that’s alright with you.” Another stare. “Done and done. Thanks for listening.” We went on this way for weeks: I talked, she listened. Eventually, she started pulling up next to me during activities and in our welcome circle, and despite her not speaking or showing much interest in anything, it seemed we’d developed a real bond.

One particularly draining afternoon, I turned to one of my cofacilitators during snack time. We often chatted freely about personal matters when the kids’ behavior got challenging; it helped us take a step back and ease our exasperation. That day, I launched into a story about an unfortunate hair experience that began with an attempt at an updo I’d seen on a viral YouTube video and ended with a big knot and two hours of fishing bobby pins out of my nest of messy curls. Then, to punctuate my harrowing tale, I lamented that I’d still rather have a head of knots than be in group that day.

As soon as those words left my mouth, I heard a cup slam on the table and a chair screech across the floor as it was quickly pushed back. Spinning around, I realized that V had snuck up behind us to eat her snack and, despite the din of the room, had overheard my story. For what may have been the first time ever, she made direct eye contact with me. Sizing me up, she scoffed, “It’s really not that hard.” Then she turned on her heels and left the room.

I was devastated at my carelessness. My shame monster (as we called it for the kids) grew deafening: I’d failed this vulnerable child just to elicit a bit of sympathy from a fellow adult. If V returned, I was sure she’d ice me out. I spent the next few days planning and worrying about how I might address and apologize for my comment, hoping there was some way we could work on repairing the relational harm I’d caused.

The following week, I was relieved to see V at group—and astonished that her long ponytail was styled into a pristine fishtail-braid bun, the exact style I’d flubbed so dramatically. She smiled as she sat next to me, wordlessly showing off her hair. I was genuinely impressed. Her brother filled in the details later. Apparently, my snarky comment about the group hadn’t wounded her. Instead, she’d left in such a hurry to go home and create the style I’d been talking about. After watching video after video, she’d gathered her supplies and spent hours in front of the bathroom mirror, coiffing and setting the bun, only to take it down and redo it that morning.

The younger girls approached her cautiously to take in this feat, as the older ones praised her skill and precision. The boys her age were curious about the “crazy bun thing,” and the girls, who’d never paid her any attention, now asked questions about how she did it and what hairspray she used. V beamed as she showed them pictures of the steps on her smartphone. Later, they invited her into their circle to share other style tips.

In the following months, she became increasingly comfortable with this new group of friends. Her usual baggy hoodies turned to collared shirts, grays to bright blues and the occasional orange or purple. And although she still didn’t say much, and kept her signature sneakers, she became increasingly open, holding court with the girls and sharing jokes with the boys.

Watching V blossom inspired me to connect more with the other preteen girls in the group. But rather than put on the sterile, professional face I’d thought I needed around these kids, I learned to share the silly, warm, creative side of myself. After all, that’s the part of me that had wanted to be a therapist in the first place, the part that could laugh about hair disasters with my cofacilitator, the part V had ultimately felt drawn to. Soon, the kids had renamed me, merging my personal nickname with our professional signifier. “Ms. Dee,” they said, was my friendship name.

On the last day of the group, V invited me to sit in the circle with them. We folded origami out of construction paper and took turns sharing our wishes for the summer. I wished to be able to rest and travel home to visit my family. One girl wished for an electric scooter to see her dad in Chester County. Another hoped she’d get to move into her own room instead of sharing space with her older siblings. Afterward, V hung back a bit to ask if she could help with cleanup. We conversed like we did in the beginning of our relationship, with me narrating tasks to myself and V quietly following along. When we were finished, despite her continued aversion to physical contact, she gave me a deep hug before running out the door. I held back a tear, not wanting to make a big deal of a moment she obviously wanted to keep casual.

After that first year, I still couldn’t say that I loved children, or wanted to make them my clinical focus, but I knew I wanted to come back to the group. As I locked up the activity room for the summer, I thought of that set of china I’d been so scared to shatter in the beginning. Sure, these young girls were delicate, but they were tough, too. Despite all the unspeakable ways life had mishandled them, they showed me the many forms inner strength can take. While I’d be mindful of what I said around them in the future, I recognized how much of my desire to handle them with care had come from a need to protect my own tender spots. Walking off the property, I considered how little credit we give children in this dangerous world. In many ways, they’re the hardiest among us.

Year Two

I returned in September feeling confident, prepared, and empowered. With more clinical experience under our belts, my cofacilitators and I now planned to put to work many of the academic concepts we’d been learning about childhood development and play therapy. We had designated roles, a new budget for materials, and colorful flyers to let parents know that we were available to support their kids. Our group, and my patience for young humans, was growing. We were reaching families who hadn’t participated in any services at the shelter, and by mid-fall we’d even gained the participation of the Allens.

The Allens had a reputation for being . . . difficult. Having endured years of housing insecurity and violent partnerships, Ms. Allen was fiercely protective of her family and unaccustomed to having much support. It showed in her three children. They banded together against the other kids in group, wolfed down snacks and hoarded craft materials before others could get to them, and disrupted almost every activity.

At 10, J was the oldest and the leader of the three. She was deeply mistrustful and would bar her siblings from participating in anything she didn’t understand or feel in control of. If the kids in the group protested or slighted her in any way, she’d lash out physically, no matter what age or how big they were. Indeed, she was a skillful fighter, likely from years of witnessing violence at home. Situations in which her aggression boiled over were nearly impossible to deescalate, especially with her siblings rallying by her side. We decided that the only way to create safety in the group was to initiate a three-strikes policy—three strikes and you’re escorted home for the day.

One day, after a particularly gruesome brawl over a purple marker and the way someone had looked at her drawing of a school bus, J had reached her third strike of the day. As I walked her through the courtyard to her home, she was just starting to calm down when a little boy made the mistake of smirking at her. In an instant, J took off down the pathway after him, fists balled, ready to fight. Now all three of us were running through the residence halls: J to defend her ego, the little boy to defend his face, and me to try to intercept what was surely going to be the smackdown of the century. But as I turned a corner, ready to put my body in between a barrage of fists, I spied J standing flat against the wall, heaving in frustration as much as exhaustion.

Following her gaze, I saw that the boy had saved himself by sidling up to Ms. M, a longtime resident, who’d come to the shelter after the costs of a major surgery had left her and her son homeless. Something about her presence commanded the respect of children and adults alike. Hearing the motor of her wheelchair echoing down the hallway, you couldn’t help but pull yourself together and stand at attention. Even the program manager of the shelter often deferred to her. As Ms. M passed us in the hall, she looked J in the face and said firmly, “You’re going to get yourself into a fight one day that you can’t get out of. He probably deserved it today, but nobody roots for the bully.”

When the hallway was clear, J fell apart, screaming, punching, and kicking the air, and I did the only thing I could think to do: I sat down on the floor near her and let it happen. “Let it out. But breathe. Let it out. Breathe,” I encouraged. She cried harder, swung faster, jumped up and down, threw her little body into the walls, flailed, shouted. This torrent lasted more than 10 minutes; we made eye contact the entire time. I kept repeating, “It’s okay. Breathe. Deeper. Breathe.” Her little shoulders heaved as she bawled. Then she dropped to her knees and, with a final scream, crawled forward and wrapped her arms around my neck, sobbing into the collar of my shirt.

I allowed myself to cradle her as she crumpled into me. If anyone were to have happened upon this scene, they wouldn’t have recognized J—a child who seemed tough enough to eat nails in her cereal—curled up in my lap, eyes full of tears, bruised knuckles visible as she sucked her thumb. I continued to whisper our new mantra, “It’s okay.”

As she finally relaxed, the story of her day came tumbling out. At school, her teacher had ignored her when she’d asked for help with an assignment. So she’d asked again and again, and was eventually sent to the principal’s office for being disruptive. “I always get in trouble,” she whimpered. “Nobody helps me because nobody likes me. They like it when I’m in trouble.” My stomach sank from the weight of my guilt: we all felt relieved when the Allens were absent from group or had been escorted home. And she knew it.

“Is there a way I can help you?” I asked quietly.

J looked surprised. She sat up, faced me, and scrutinizing my face to make sure I was being sincere. “I can’t read good,” she admitted after some time.

My breath caught in my throat. Her words explained so much. On her worst days, we’d done activities involving writing prompts. She’d get disruptive, asking people what they were doing, picking on them, taking lots of breaks that distracted everybody. What had seemed like resistance now sounded like confusion and overwhelm. She acknowledged that it was hard to try to read in front of others. She was ashamed she wasn’t farther along. She was sure everyone made jokes about it, and likely, they did.

We agreed that each week she could sit near me and we’d go through the activities together. She trusted me now to help keep her calm, and asked if I could tell her it’s okay when she got upset. Her grandmother used to rub her back and whisper the same soothing phrase after a nightmare. When she’d died, J had been forced to move back in with her mom and her mom’s angry boyfriend.

As we arrived at her door, she wiped her tears, gave me a final nod of agreement, and entered the house, instantly snapping at her brother, who was already home from group and jumping on the couch. I felt like we’d had a breakthrough and everything would change from here—I felt it in my heart. But as we all know, change isn’t linear. Before the week’s end, J and her siblings were suspended from school after a big fight. They came home, sought out the kids from school, and continued the brawl on site. Several parents got involved, and ultimately, the Allens were kicked out of the shelter before the next group session rolled around.

Although I never saw J again, she taught me a valuable lesson about unconditional positive regard. It’s an easy quality to exhibit when it’s just you and a client, largely isolated from the world. But at the shelter, we met the children in their living space; we were embedded in their system. Even on a good day, it was hard to consider J a sympathetic character, but she clearly carried generations of pain inside her, and she was being punished for that pain everywhere she went. It had been difficult to see the good in a child who never showed innocence and vulnerability. But where in her life did she even have the opportunity to do so?

After the Allens’ departure, one-on-one attention for the children who were acting out became our first intervention, rather than our last resort. Whenever a disruption occurred, we’d put ourselves squarely in the center to listen, mediate, and redirect, searching for unmet needs and developmental issues.

Year Three

After I graduated, I thought about transitioning away from the group to dedicate more time to starting a private practice. But session after session, I couldn’t bring myself to announce my departure. Maybe it was the bonds I’d formed with the kids. Maybe it was that I felt I still had more to offer them. Or maybe it was all they had to offer me, including their loud renditions of too-catchy pop songs. Whatever the case, I realized I was stuck with them. Instead of fighting it, I accepted a job as onsite supervisor of the group and coordinator of an initiative to develop similar groups in shelters across the city.

We added screenings and assessments to track the progress of the group and better understand the needs of each kid. But beyond what the charts told us, we began to notice something interesting: our girls were growing up. Suddenly, our middle schoolers were heading off to high school. They no longer wanted to be with everyone else and huddled close together during our welcome circle. They’d sit at their own table and roll their eyes at the younger kids during snack time. If one of them arrived before the others, she’d loiter anxiously at the door until her peers would show up. Was this . . . puberty?

Certainly, it was alarming to the other kids, who were now deemed too young for their conversation and company. But to honor their newfound maturity (and staunch unwillingness to be separated for even a moment), we initiated a subgroup for the 11- to 13-year-olds, so they could do their own activities together. We put up a divider in the room, giving them their own world, where we allowed them to create their own rules.

To our utter surprise, their first decision was to ban phones from their area. Rather than risk anyone sending mean texts behind someone else’s back, they wanted to be sure that what happened in their special group was private, and borrowing our lingo, they told us this would help them “build community.” Technology, which had always been a tool for connection to me, represented division and exclusion to them. Their virtual lives were full of screenshotted secrets and leaked private photos. This in-person forum (they once called it a group chat IRL) was theirs alone. Plus, they were excited about the novelty of being inaccessible for an hour.

One girl, C, struggled to adhere to this rule and found herself out of sync with the others because of it. C had been in and out of the group over the previous two years, but was excited about our new “teen group.” Tall and curvaceous, she was the most mature-looking of the girls and harbored dreams of being a competitive dancer. But it wasn’t just her body that had changed over the summer. Once perky and upbeat, C now seemed dark and sullen. She resisted parting with her phone and would often try to sneak off texts or show off whatever video had recently caught her attention. This caused her peers to grow frustrated with her, triggering a downward spiral that often ended with C expressing some kind of suicidal ideation. Although she assured us these statements were jokes, there was an intensity behind her words that couldn’t be brushed off.

It was scary for everyone. Our many interventions included a ChildLine report, as well as several calls to her mom and her case manager. Although she wouldn’t admit to the seriousness of her ideations or talk honestly about the events that had led to them, these downward spirals continued. By late winter, there were cuts on her forearms and thighs, which she’d explain were the result of slipping on ice or scratches from a sequined dance costume. Bruises and missing patches of hair appeared over time. Yet she remained unreachable, refusing to show up to appointments with her social worker or school counselor.

Our only recourse was to inform her that she needed to meet with her case manager if she wanted to continue attending the group. She resisted, missing her appointments but then showing up at group and begging to be let in with the cheerful smile she’d once been known for. I’d sit in the hallway and speak with her for a while, but I had to remain firm, despite her desperate attempts to negotiate. This was not a comfortable position for me. Even with as much supervision as I’d received, no part of me wanted to risk seeming overly stern or mean to someone I knew needed more support. I was terrified, but we needed to do something to maintain safety in the group and encourage her to engage with the people who could help her.

A month went by and nobody saw C. Her mom hadn’t been seen around the shelter either. I got chills every time I walked past their door. I’d never felt so sick to my stomach about a client, and the same sense of doom seemed to linger over her group of friends. Then, one cool spring afternoon, C’s case manager asked to speak with me. My heart sank. I was sure this was going to be the worst kind of news.

It turned out that C had been hospitalized, twice. After that, she’d started seeing her case manager, who’d connected her to a psychologist, whom C had told about a sexual assault by a family member and a guardian figure, who were both promptly removed from her life. I felt so much pain for all she was carrying. But the case manager wanted to talk about something else: C’s return. Her treatment team not only cleared her to come home, but strongly supported her desire to rejoin to group.

It was a joyful reunion. The group gathered around her and hugged her deeply, crying, laughing, and cheering. I wasn’t sure how much any of them knew about where she’d been. But C was back, and despite a new intensity in her eyes, she was brighter. She had new medication for an unspecified mood disorder, which she explained clearly and plainly to her peers, and she had tools to help her manage when the “bad feelings” tried to creep in, which she demonstrated to all of us. (I still use one of the body scans she showed us to this day!) The next week, she arrived on time and immediately turned in her phone. “I can be here now,” she said as she locked her screen and sat down to talk about cheerleading tryouts with her friends.

Years Four and Five

Many kids came and left over the next two years. Some families moved out of the shelter. Some kids were too old and too cool for a therapeutic group, preferring to play video games or hang out at the local shopping center. Some parents had conflicts with others and pulled their kids out of any opportunity they may have had to intermingle.

As cohorts changed, there was also a changing of the guard. K was previously a meek and conscientious child, who, through some luck and cunning, had climbed to the top of the group’s social pyramid. She was known by everyone to be welcoming, stylish, helpful, and kind. Kids looked up to her and loved to be around her. Adults saw her as an example of what a bright and respectful child should be. But in her new spotlight, K started showing another side: she could be cruel when she wanted to, launching cutting insults with head-spinning alacrity, and then quickly retracting them behind an innocent smile. I could tell the girls who’d fallen out of her favor by how deflated they seemed in her presence, pierced by her icy glares and whispered mockery. She evoked as much fear as awe. She was popular and powerful—and she knew it.

The life cycle of K’s “frienemies” was hard for me to keep up with. Adults and children in the group were all desperate to be liked by her. Where her opinion went, the crowd followed. One week, she rolled her eyes at a new facilitator, who couldn’t regain the respect of K’s followers for nearly two months afterward. Frightened of her power, everyone would jump to appease her. Her warmth could melt hearts, but her shade could be ruinous. The group became a buzzing hive of insecure workers orbiting cautiously around an 11-year-old queen bee.

I couldn’t play along. I’d felt bullied by Ks in my own adolescence, and I wasn’t going to let it happen again. In fact, fifth and sixth grade had been some of the worst years. By then, I’d already switched schools a number of times to accommodate my academic needs, and ultimately was advanced a grade and placed in a gifted program.

But being correctly placed academically sealed my fate socially: being new, younger than everyone, nerdy, athletic (which wasn’t cool for girls unless you were Sporty Spice), and the only black girl in my grade didn’t exactly make it easy for me to find a social group. I survived by isolating myself, avoiding the cruelest of the girls, and waiting it out until high school, when I entered a whole new social orbit.

I’d mostly forgotten those years until witnessing K’s “glow up,” reminding me just how mean preteen girls can be. She was nice to me, but I had no interest in spending much time with her. She was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and I felt protective of the other children. I worried about the way she mirrored so many of their attachment injuries. Just like with their parents, they’d fall over themselves to get even the smallest acknowledgment from her, only to be pushed away whenever they displeased her. And the parents in the shelter would dote on her at Family Nights, lauding her good looks and academic success, often to the chagrin of their own children.

K’s mom also attended Family Nights, but over the four years I’d known her, she seemed increasingly tired and disengaged. When we’d first met, K had been the older of two siblings; now she had three more to help look after. Eventually, she started bringing the three toddlers to Family Nights on her own. She’d rush around anticipating their needs, changing diapers, and soothing their tantrums until her mom would arrive to pick them up later.

Mom had gone back to school for her children’s sake, and it was no small feat that she was raising them on her own. But while tender to the little ones, she had little patience for K. One night I watched K do everything she could to please her mom, only to be dismissed with clear annoyance. K maintained her posture for the group, but in the moments when she wasn’t performing, she never seemed so small.

Clearly, she was a young girl stressed to her core: parentified and anxious. The only time her mom spoke directly to her that evening was to loudly correct her grammar. Embarrassed, K smiled softly and rephrased what she’d been trying to say, becoming meticulous and deliberate with words. The following week, it was K herself who shamed a kid for misspeaking when he accidentally called someone by the wrong name. The week after that, she sneered when a child stuttered during our welcome circle, and then mocked someone else’s misspelled artwork. She had a whole new way to terrorize others, and she was getting good at it.

In the winter, K came to group looking exhausted. She’d stayed up all night with a sick younger sister, and that day her criticism drove a six-year-old boy to tears. I gave her a strike. She shrugged. But later, when I asked her to move away from the girl who was egging her on, she looked surprised. Instantly, she cranked up the sweetness to get back into my good graces. Her little hands involved themselves in small acts of helpfulness around the room, handing out worksheets, tucking in chairs, picking up pencils.

Still, I was angry at her for what she’d said to that little boy, and I knew a part of this reaction was coming from my long-held resentment of popular, mean girls like her. I reminded myself that I was much closer to 30 than 13, and could understand how parentification, neglect, and exhaustion informed the ways she interacted with others. K wasn’t a queen bee; she was a kid. I was the one who had to grow up in that moment. So I asked my younger self for permission to be the adult I’d desperately wanted to intervene when I hadn’t known how to make the bullying stop in my own life. I didn’t have the tools then to set boundaries and follow through, but I did now.

“Thank you, K,” I said as she closed a container of art supplies. “Now come have a seat.” I gestured at the empty chair across from me at the table of first and second graders. Acting as though she didn’t hear me, K sat at her table of friends. “K,” I called gently, but with a firmness she hadn’t heard from me before.

Distractedly, she replied, “Yes, Mom.” Oooops. Her friends all nudged one another in elated surprise—a slip of the tongue from K! My lesser parts wanted to seize this opportunity on behalf of everyone she’d humiliated for similar trivial faux pas, but I let that go.

When she sat across the table from me, I thanked her for being a good citizen of the group and hoped aloud that she’d be more thoughtful about the things she said, because the other kids looked up to her. She seemed relieved that I wasn’t going to punish her further and settled into her new temporary spot at the younger kids’ table. A bubbly six-year-old was excited to have her there. K greeted her graciously, and they worked on their artwork together, giggling and whispering, until it was time to pack up for snack.

As K gathered her coat and bag at the end of the group, she called to me loudly across the room, “Bye, Mom.” Several kids laughed. I smiled. Over the next few weeks, however, they too started to affectionately call me Mom, even in front of their actual moms, who, rather than feeling slighted, seemed thankful that their kids felt seen, heard, safe, and welcome at our program. At the end of the year, one mother introduced me to a new resident as her kids’ “Monday Mom.”

I was deeply touched. Six years ago, I’d allowed myself to transition from Shadeen to Ms. Francis. Soon after, I’d become Ms. Dee—and now, Monday Mom. Any of these monikers would’ve sent uncomfortable shivers down my spine at earlier stages. But I could embrace them now.

I’d changed: it showed in my willingness to play, the ease with which I walked through the door each week, and the chuckle that escaped my lips as K and her entourage, swishing and sashaying, practiced their “superstar struts” in the courtyard. The quietest of the group called us over to watch, and we applauded and cheered when they took their final bow. Those were my girls.





Shadeen Francis

Shadeen Francis, LMFT, is a therapist, professor, and author specializing in sex therapy and social justice. She trains organizations and is a guest expert for various media outlets, including CBC, NBC, and Fox.