August 19, 2014

Parental Anxiety and Children's Wings


My mother's combination of fearlessness, faith in God, and experience with 5 younger brothers made her wonderful mother of 5 boys. She didn't worry; she didn't clip any wings. She didn't let little things like sons on the roof or a son out of touch hiking the Appalachian trail for months upset her.  Joe looks so pleased with himself, without any fear he might fall off the roof or get in trouble with is parents. Her shy, timid, anxious daughter was a mystery to my mom.  I am a  lifelong worrier, from early childhood  telling my parents: "I'm scared."

What my mom did effortlessly, I have had to struggle with every day of my 37 years as a mother. All my daugters are braver and more adventurous than I am. For the most part, my anxieties have not infected them. They respect my fears.  I have decided to concentrate my worries when their planes are in the air, not when they  are on the ground for days or years in Kosovo, Rwanda, Niger, Sydney, Shanghai, etc.. They always call, email, or text when the plane lands, at any hour, in any part of the world. Flight Tracker is my best friend. 

My oldest daughter Emma has inherited her grandmother's bold fearlessness.

From my journals, 1974-1975
From the time Emma was 10 months old, I took her twice a day to Central Park, particularly one very large playground. Emma would casually wander off almost 100 yards away. As long as I was within eye range and met her eyes and waved when she glanced at me, she seemed perfectly confident. One nightmarish day, she managed to slip out between the playground bars and head for Central Park West. I didn't know I could run so fast.
At 15 months Emma would go down slides and climb up jungle gyms that three year olds would avoid. By 2 she was so physically competent that I felt confident about sitting on a bench and watching from a distance as she clambered over a climbing structure designed for children 6 and up. She hardly ever cried if she fell down or bumped into something. Emma was happiest learning new physical feats. She loved the water; at age one she would fearlessly walk into the ocean and laugh if she were knocked down. She was physically fearless yet not particularly reckless except about things she could not possibly know about. She was always ahead of other kids in trying something new physically like walking up the slide backward.

Emma in Niger, 2000                                                                      
 One month ago, I sat in a grass hut in a small village in Niger called Koyetegui, and watched democracy in action, Nigerien style. The five members of the Bureau de Vote sat on overturned pestles normally used for pounding millet, and offered me a seat on a woven mat. And so I sat, as the sun set and the kerosene lantern was lit, and watched as the chickens were chased out of the hut and the entire village crowded into this cramped space to watch the solemn counting and recounting of the 132 votes that had been cast in this tiny district. When the vote counting was over and the report had been filled out and duly sealed with wax, I rode back to the regional capital of Dosso with the ballot box to turn in the election results. It was only the next day that I learned from my driver that the chief of the village had presented me with a gift of an enormous river squash. I spent the entire ride back to Niamey replaying the events of the past few months in my mind, wondering how I had ever gotten to be so lucky.

From applications to graduate schools in International Relations in 2000:
In three and a half years, I visited over 75 cities in 53 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In several countries–Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Nepal, Benin, Curacao–I was the first AIRINC representative to conduct a survey. I have had the opportunity to do amazing things in my life. I have seen some of the truly wondrous places in the world, from the Sahara desert, to Machu Picchu, to the Mekong River Delta. I have jumped out of a plane in Maine and been seventy feet underwater in the Caribbean. I have witnessed one of the poorest countries on earth usher in a new era of hope and democracy.

My post to a Salon Group, 2001:
My 28-year-old daughter has just accepted a summer internship in Rwanda. Seven years ago, a million people were killed in three months in the worst genocide since the Holocaust.  At Columbia she is specializing in human rights, transitional justice, and Africa. If she wasn't going to Rwanda, she would have gone to the Congo. I am fiercely proud of her. But I worry about how to handle my fears as she goes from one world flash point to the next. I want to support her, not burden her with my anxieties.


Emma, her husband, and their 2 kids are spending two years in Paris, so she can work for an international organization.

Can you find Emma's 7-year-old son in this tree?

Letting your fear of what could happen clip your children's wings  and undermine their confidence and autonomy endangers them most of all

August 15, 2014

Drugging Kids Instead of Changing America

I am a psychiatric social worker and children's and young adult librarian. I  have 5 younger brothers, 4 grown daughters, 4  sons-in-law, 7 grandkids, 7 and under, 11 nieces and nephews, 8 great nieces and nephews,  and 45 younger first cousins. As a breastfeeding counselor, parent educator, children's librarian, I've known hundreds and hundreds of kids. I was diagnosed at 40 with manic depression.  I accepted the now discredited biochemical theory. It took ten years to find a medication that didn't harm me. I read about it on the Internet and shopped for a psychiatrist that would partner with me to experiment.   

I am not denying a role for medication.  I am not even talking about ADHD drugs like ritalin. However, childhood bipolar disorder has only been discovered in the last 15 years, mostly in America. Many discovers have close ties to Big Pharm. Until 1995 conventional psychiatric wisdom was that bipolar disorder could only be diagnosed in the late teens.  There is no conclusive study that proves childhood bipolar disorder leads to adult bipolar disorder. Psychiatrists still debate whether it exists.

I believe you should not decide to drug your kids before you  take the meds for at least a month. Too often kids are being given anti-psychotics for behavior problems, anti-psychotics not tested with children.  I've taken them occasionally; my intellect and education have not been able to withstand their devastating cognitive effects. Giving such drugs to a young mind until all alternative have been exhausted is malpractice, if not criminal. 

 Until all the usual mood stabilizers went generic, anti-psychotics were intended to treat schizophrenics and hospitalized manics.  There is a shameful record of using them on Alzheimer's sufferers. As recently as the 2004 American Psychiatric Meeting in NY, drug reps were marketing bestsellers such as abilify and seroquel for those patients. Now they are being heavily advertised for depression and bipolar disorder as maintenance drugs.  The newer atypical anti-psychotics are heavily implicated in causing huge weight gain and sudden onset diabetes.

When my kids were young, 25-30 years ago, even in therapy-obsessed Manhattan, preschool kids weren't seeing psychiatrists, weren't taking psychiatric medications, so I am skeptical about this epidemic of very young children with serious problems requiring psychiatric drugs. If our kids were having problems in nursery school, we might decide to wait another year and find a better school.

What is going wrong with the way we are raising children? Why do we look in children's brains for the answers to be found in social reform?  Who is blowing the whistle? Who is questioning the wisdom of babies and toddlers being cared for by strangers? Who is wondering whether group care is appropriate for most children under three or four? Thirty-five years ago, children were five or six before they were expected to adapt to group standards of behavior. Who is crusading for a shorter work week and greatly increased parental leaves? Who is is dedicated to make caring for preschoolers a viable career path for college graduates, comparable to teaching in salary and benefits?

Who is demanding the economic changes required to enable parents to care for their babies and toddlers themselves? Who is comparing our rate of childhood mental illness with rates in the rest of the Western world? Who is outraged about preschoolers taking multiple psychiatric drugs that have never been tested on children? Who is fighting to outlaw drugs ads in magazines and on TV? Why are we teaching our kids that drugs are the solution to every problem? Thirty years ago we felt like bad parents if we let our kids have caffeine.

The aggressive drug treatment of mental illness in the last 30 years hasn't been a success story. When yesterday's wonder drug becomes generic, its ineffectiveness is suddenly discovered and its dangerous side effects are no longer covered up. Today's expensive wonder drug will supposedly save your life after being tested for a shockingly short time on shockingly few people who don't share your diagnoses. 

Preschoolers are so unformed, so in process. This year's four year old can seem like a different creature than last year's three year old. These diagnoses disorder
imply lifelong, incurable brain disorders for which there are no medical tests, no verifiable proof of their existence. Why do we expect little boys to adapt to schools better suited to girls? Why don't we train and recruit more male teachers in preschools, who might be better role models for little boys and help create more welcoming schools?

Why would you accept that your young child has a permanently broken brain? Why not take him out of day care or fine a different one, investigate family day care, share a nanny with a friend, change nursery schools, reduce your working hours, live more frugally, borrow money and take a leave of absence from work, ask your parents and relatives for help, search out books and activities about his particular obsessions, learn the recommended interventions yourself?

Does your child need more relaxed time with his overscheduled parents rather than tense sessions with experts comfortable with diagnosing him after a few testing sessions?Why not wait until the picture becomes clearer? Why it is so urgent to find the answer when he is 2 or 3? We are not dealing with meningitis or childhood leukemia. When I hear a 7 year old rattle off all his psychiatric labels, it breaks my heart and makes me want to man the barricades. I would love to find some comrades.

August 4, 2014

My Fearsome Foursome

Top L, Writer (Jane); R, Scientist (Michelle); Bottom L, CEO (Molly); 
R, Adventurer (Emma)
Top, Scientist, Explorer; Bottom, CEO, Writer
My four daughters have turned out wonderfully--well educated, professionally successful, happily married. They are excellent mothers. Such a happy ending was not predictable during their childhood and teen years. I wonder what diagnosis they would earn now. Certainly, I worried at least three of them were bipolar, if not spawns of Satan, when they were younger.

Here were some diagnostic indicators. Obviously not all applied to all four daughters.
  • They were chronically late. No one could get off to school in the morning without substantial maternal help, usually involving driving.
  • They never picked up their toys. I have stepped on 20,000 lego pieces in the dark. To this day I cannot walk across a dark room without my toes' going on alert.
  • Emma and a friend decorated their bedroom with a mixture of desitin and baby powder while their grandpa benignly looked on.
  • Emma painted her entire body purple when I was on the phone.
  • Bedtime was a joke. A friend said you could call our house at any time of the night; someone would be sure to be awake and delighted to talk to you about anything for as long as you needed.
  • They told their mommy " "I hate you" with not an ounce of guilt or remorse. When I asked Emma why she was acting like a devil child at age five, she explained "Mommy, I used all my goodness up in school." She now uses her goodness working for world peace.
  • Jane, the Writer absolutely refused to do the assigned kindergarten homework, writing sentences using a list of words. "Writers don't use other people's words." The teacher had no answer to that. 
  • Mysteriously shy Jane convinced the high school art teacher to allow her to miss classes and submit a portfolio. She argued that artists decide what art to make.  "Jane has such integrity," the teacher marveled.
  • They almost never lost power battles with their doormat mommy. Emma should have been born with a printout, "You will win exactly five battles with this child. Choose them carefully." I did win the important battles, but I only learned their importance by losing the rest. By the time her sisters came along I was so demoralized that I didn't fight battles that I could easily have won:)
  • At various ages the Writer melted down because the new washing machine wasn't blue; the pretty blue rental car had vanished; her aunt and uncle didn't have a second child her age; she was not attending a school that closed three years previously; there wasn't enough snow; election day would be a day before her 18th birthday four years from now. She was a lovely, sensitive child, eager to please when she wasn't battling the existential order of things. She is now a human rights lawyer and writer, heroically battling the existential order of things.
  • Michelle, the Scientist, only ran fevers, thereby missing school, on the three school days without the gifted program pullout. I conducted ad hoc home schooling for bored students who could cough convincingly.
  • Emma only pulled the hair and dumped sand over the heads of playmates whose mommies would reliably go round the twist. (She has traveled to over 75 countries, and has lived in Niger, Rwanda Kosovo, and France.) She ended her three-year sand eating on the day our doctor looked her in the eye and assured me that her sand-eating must account for her excellent health. For old-times sake, she would occasionally revert to the diet when babysat by a hysteric mommy. A good friend confessed to me that she thought Emma would be in jail by the time she was 16. She boasts she never has had to bribe anyone at airports.
  • At age 2 Michelle magic markered $2000 painting. To be fair, artist was able to fix the picture.
  • The same culprit at age two also destroyed another family's audiotapes of their kids when babies and toddlers.
  • Notice I omitted my baby Molly,  the CEO. The most mature, disguised as the youngest, was perfectly sane from birth and struggled valiantly to contain, organize, and direct her crazy family. This is a lifetime job. All my difficult communications with her sisters are best filtered through the CEO. Every teacher immediately noticed the difference. Notice her smile in the above picture. When Emma made then 25 year old Molly, her son's guardian, everyone applauded her wisdom.
  • Molly  idolized Madonna when she was 3. She memorized all Madonna's songs, danced around with her grandma's rosary beads around her neck, proclaiming she was a material girl. If only You Tube had been around then!
  • Molly was an incredibly gifted spy who could report entire conversations verbatim. She was so mature that her sisters loved to invite her for college visits. I remember being rather perturbed by how many Yale male students were good pals with Molly.
Michelle Obama would be horrified. I questioned my sanity again and again throughout their childhoods. But I am very proud that I could cherish their intelligence, creativity, and individuality and was never tempted to drug their uniqueness, no matter how it disrupted our lives. They insisted they were going to emphasize order more and creativity less with their own kids:) I foresaw much amusement watching them try. But in the last 7 years when 7 grandkids were born, I have only seen  halfhearted attempts.  I prayed that each of the older 3 would have a daughter, and my prayers were answered. I did not pray for Molly and was delighted she had a boy.

June 26, 2014

Missish Damsels in Distress and Their White Knights

I assume most of you are familiar with Pride and Prejudice. If you haven't read it or hated it, please don't tell me, or I will have no choice but to block your comments and private messages:)

As you recall, the hero, Mr. Darcy, made Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine, a highly abusive proposal of marriage. This is just a small excerpt from her devastating response.

"I might as well inquire," replied she, "why with so evident a desire
of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me
against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?
Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I was_uncivil?

You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your
declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared the concern
which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more
gentlemanlike manner.

You could not have made the offer of your hand in any possible way that
would have tempted me to accept it."

From the very beginning--from the first moment, I may almost say--of
my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest
belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of
the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of
disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a
dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the
last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry."

Not able to accept her scorn and hatred, Darcy wrote a long letter defending himself. Elizabeth initially denied the truth of anything he said in the letter. Eventually, constant reading made her realize she had been very prejudiced against Darcy, and there was another side to the story.

Image if Elizabeth, fearing that the letter proved that Darcy would stalk her, turned it over to the eventual villian, George Wickham, without even reading it. Lizzy was initially charmed by Wickham; he might have won her heart if she had 10,000 pounds a year. Wickham and Darcy had known each other as children. Wickham had spread vicious lies about Darcy's behavior toward him that Elizbeth unquestioningly believed. She only learned the truth from Darcy's letter. In addition to lying, cheating, and other dishonorable behavior, Wickham had tried to seduce and ruin Darcy's 15 year old sister. Finally he elopes with Lizzy's 16 year old sister, and Darcy, out of love for Elizabeth, essentially bribes him to marry her.

Elizabeth didn't turn to any man; she took care of herself. She did not show the letter to anyone Both Darcy and Elizabeth took each other's responses to heart. Darcy overcame his pride, Elizabeth her prejudice, and they understood each other. Women love Pride and Prejudice because Elizabeth Bennet, poor and only "tolerable" in appearance, wins her rich Prince Charming by putting him down.

Pride and Prejudice was published January 29, 1813. Elizabeth, many women's favorite heroine, spoke for herself. She did not turn to a white knight who would have made the situation infinitely worse, even if he wasn't the real villain. Knights might prefer pissing contests to Elizabeth's spirited eloquence.

June 25, 2014

1971, Age 25, Doubts about Feminism

 I was very active in the feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although I described myself as a radical feminist, I always had misgivings. I explore them in this journal entry from October 1971. Talking about a 20-hour work week seems preposterous now, but it seemed a realistic goal once upon a time in the 1970's.

Are men necessarily the enemies? Adopting that logic, couldn't women be categorized as the enemies? Must there be an enemy? Must the movement have a scapegoat? There is a danger of generalizing for all women from a few women’s (typical, atypical) experience with men. Perhaps many men are baffled rather than hostile. They have been socialized to believe the myths, so they do believe them. Why does the movement assume that their motives are vicious?

Perhaps the myths are harsher than the realities. Individual women are treated better and respected more than social mythology about women dictates. The movement shouldn't present what seems to be a fatal choice: true autonomy or loving, intimate relationships with men. If all men are despaired of, shouldn’t most women be despaired of? Have women tried hard enough to explain themselves? Or would they rather renounce men than fight through to an accommodation?

The movement stresses relationships with women because they are easier (at least for many women). There is no need to confront the enemy directly. Women often have bravely attacked men in coffee klatches, but they then have gone along with their own men, having worked out some of their hostilities with other women. I don't understand; because of my five brothers, I have never had any trouble confronting men.
At times Women's Liberation is vulgarly careerist. There is very little speculation on changing the nature of work. There is no recognition that women’s jobs, not men’s jobs, may be the desirable jobs of the future. Many dominant economic values are accepted. A job’s value is measured by its pay or its status. There is total denial that raising young children is a uniquely demanding job, calling forth an infinite range of talents and imagination.

Feminists lack a strong grasp on job alternatives. I am frustrated with so much loose talk about expressing creativity in jobs. Don't women recognize what most workers do, not only blue and white collar workers, but professional and managerial ones as well? Creativity is the value much stressed by woman’s magazines. Be a creative homemaker. The movement often seems to accept this definition of creativity. There is no recognition that post -revolution many, if not most, women might have less creative jobs than they do now. Volunteers are often allowed more autonomy and outlet for imaginative change than regular staff would be permitted,

Emphasis could have been completely different. Feminists need not have accepted the male value that your job is everything, completely determining your value and what people think of you. Alternatives include--more leisure, 20 hour week for everyone, change hierarchical nature of work, decentralize it, recognize that much work is unnecessary in a more rational society that won’t need 100 brands of detergents, toothpastes, and feminine hygiene deodorants. Many jobs now are completely unproductive. Most jobs are not inherently creative. What is a creative job anyway? The solution may be to give people more time, real time, to be creative off the job.

My close friend said almost any job is preferable to staying home with the kids. That is a preposterous statement, particularly from a so-called radical who pays lip service to human values. That is not to say that childrearing as it is now arranged is perfect. We might benefit from more stress on communal childraising, not necessarily so parents can get a “job,” but because it may be a better way to raise children from both parents’ and children’s point of view. I am the oldest of six; growing up in a large family was a positive experience. My parents seemed to have less need to control our direction in life than the parents of my friends with fewer siblings.

The nature of work must change in our society. Women should be at the forefront of the battle for change. Autonomy and self-sufficiency cannot be pictured as depending on capitalist recognition of worth. Rather the economy should be made to value and reward the kinds of work that woman do. Men have problems with women’s lib on this point. They can’t seem to believe that women would want to have equality in men’s world. How many men would trade roles if only the objective nature of what they had to do was the consideration and not society’s evaluation of it?

Perhaps the major emphasis must be on changing society’s evaluation of women. Otherwise, when women enter or take over traditionally men’s fields, they would only decline in relative prestige. It can’t be difficult or challenging job if mere women can do it. Emphasis should not be on merely putting women in out-of-home jobs. The nature of reward for jobs should change. Money must cease to be the major incentive. The gap between low salaries and high salaries needs to be dramatically smaller. If raising young children had prestige of being a pediatrician or a child psychologist, for example, and it need not be done in social isolation, might not women and men feel differently about it? I seem to be getting away from 20-hour week. If all men and women worked, the work week probably would be less than 20 hours. Low productivity and make work have kept the work week from declining for over 20 years. Even without women’s going to work en masse, it might sink to 30 hours.

June 11, 2014

Silver Princess: My Hair Wars

Wedding Day, June 1968 ( Hair Permanented)
Wedding Day, December 2001 (Hair Dyed)
2007, Real Hair
I have always had thick, absolutely straight hair that I was grimly determined to curl. The first picture of me in curlers was taken at age 4. I either set my hair every night or had permanents until I got married. I was a blonde until I was 3; then my hair turned to dark brown. My aunt found my first gray hair when I was 12 . When I was 23, a colleague asked me whether I streaked my hair because I had so many gray hairs. My mom had dyed her hair from the time she was 30; I vowed to let my hair go gray like both my grandmothers had done.

Around age 38 I sold out and periodically attempted home dye jobs. I stopped doing it myself  when a woman asked me in the supermarket whether I had purple hair. I started to have it dyed professionally when I was 42 (depressed over my dad's death). It was expensive and time-consuming; about a week after I walked out of the beauty parlor, I would have dramatic silver roots.

At age 47, I impulsively decided to go gray. If you use permanent dye, you have stark choices. You can cut your hair very short and endure looking like a skunk while it grows out. Or you can bleach your hair ash blonde and let it grow out a bit less conspicuously. I opted for the latter. Walking into my social work field placement and my classes as a blonde, I was the focus of attention that I had never been before. It took a year to grow out while my hair felt like straw, but I was pleased with the results. My hair was silverish white.

Two years later, I was meeting my mom in Manhattan for a Broadway show. As I watched her walk down the block, I thought, "I can't stand it. She looks much younger than I do." So I dyed it dark brown again in 1995. My 28-year marriage ended in 1996, and gray hair did not seem the best advertisement for a new husband.

My mother died on Good Friday, 2004, almost 83. We asked the undertaker to touch up her roots because we knew she would have hated mourners seeing her gray hair and realizing she was old:) My 5 brothers made tasteless jokes about hair growing after death and needing touchups six feet under. That was a moment of truth. I went the bleached blonde to silver route and have not changed my mind in almost 10 years. For about six months I was shocked when I caught an unexpected glimpse of myself in a mirror.

I was brave. My husband is 16 years younger than me, and I dreaded being asked whether he was my son. That hasn't happened, but he is not allowed to shave his beard off and look younger. Andy calls me his silver princess. I can spend a whole day in Manhattan and never see another woman with long, straight silver hair. Too many older gray-haired women have unbecoming permanents. In contrast, when we visit England, I see lots of women in their 50's with gray, silver, or white hair. The second most important man in my life, my grandson Michael, has always loved my hair.

I believe my gray hair struggles are all about my relationship with my mom. My mom hated it when I wore my hair gray. It is not an accident that I waited until she died to revert back to silver. Three of my daughters, 40, 38, and 35, have noticeable gray streaks. Mysteriously, the men in my family go gray 20 years later than the women. I have been asked if it's platinum blonde; I have been asked who is my hairdresser. Being silver is much more fun than being brunette, naturally or artificially.

June 4, 2014

Mom, They Hate Each Other

When Emma and Michelle were young, I often called my mom, the wise mother of 6, lamenting, "Mom, they hate each other." Emma was born April 3, 1973; Michelle, June 17, 1975. Even now,  40 years after I became a mother, I don't want to masquerade as an all-wise grandma. No mother of 4 daughters ever masters sibling rivalry.

I am so glad I kept journals when the two oldest were young. i could not possibly recapture my earnestness, my conviction I had a magic solution to sibling rivalry.

Fall 1976--When Emma  (3 1/2) came home from nursery school, she asked me to read Green Eggs and Ham. She settled on my lap in the small black chair, and I began the book.  Michelle (17 months) immediately came over protesting, tried to climb into the chair. I assumed she wanted to listen to the story, so I asked Emma to move to the couch, so we all could fit. But then Michelle grabbed the book, bringing me her books to read.

I discouraged her, feeling she had had my exclusive attention for 4 hours; now it was Emma's turn. My friend Anne offered to read to Michelle, but she struggled down from her lap 2 or 3 times. I finished reading Green Eggs and Ham. Anne started to read to Emma and  and her daughter Elizabeth, so I could read to Michelle. Michelle got down from my lap and tried to grab the book away from Anne. When that failed, she tried bribery--3 books, her blanket, a slip, her rabbit skin. Elizabeth wanted the rabbit skin, but every time she took it away from Michelle she protested and only stopped when Anne took it back from her daughter.

Finally Michelle used one of the cardboard blocks to climb on the ottoman; from there she lunged for the big black chair where Emma was sitting with Anne and Elizabeth. She didn't quite make it and had to be rescued, but she had achieved her purpose--the reading stopped. I've noticed that she often starts fussing if someone picks up Emma, reads to her, pays her exclusive attention in any way, shape, or form

I'm glad to see such self-assertion on her part, even though I feel pulled in two directions now, with both of them clamoring for exclusive attention. It frees me from being Michelle's defender. More and more I can let them learn to handle their disputes by themselves. I know Emma's worst won't really hurt Michelle, and Michelle protests more than enough to warn me if any mayhem is actually occurring. Once or twice lately I've rushed in ready to scold Emma, when Michelle's protests had absolutely nothing to do with her. Emma's being away at school mornings seems to have encouraged Michelle to increase her demands. If she could get rid of Emma in the mornings, why not all day?

I can't count the number of times I called my mom, who had raised six kids, wailing, "Mom, They Hate Each Other."

Early Diagnosis of Childhood Mental Illness

This post was a reaction to another mother blogger who worried that her three year old was autistic, when it appears he just didn't fit in with his daycare center.

Reading parent blogs, I have been taken aback by how frequently mothers worry that their preschool boy is autistic. I don't want to offend any of you great parents, trying to do what is best for your child. In all my years around young children(5 brothers, 45 younger cousins, 4 daughters) none were tested for autism as a preschooler. Has autism increased so dramatically or is there now so little tolerance for divergent thinking and unconventional minds? I am desperately uncomfortable with psychiatric diagnoses for preschoolers. And some of the softer austic symptoms bother me.

 I always wondered why I was different, but being told I was a manic depressive at age 7 when my mom worried about my worrying would have been nightmarish. My dad just told me I was smarter than other people and read much more, and I could live with that:) I wouldn't have dared to have my 4  wonderful children if I knew I was mentally ill. Thank God I was not diagnosed until the youngest was 4.

If being a scientist happily working all hours in a lab is being a loner, so what? Both chemistry professors, my brother met his wife in the lab at MIT, and they are happy loners together.  Another brother who is an elementary school teacher is very dubious about special ed for kids within normal limits. He thinks the stigma is far worse than the extra services justify.

People who weren't diagnosed, who wish they had been, haven't been exposed to the stigma and discrimination and mistreatment that accompany diagnoses. They possibly exaggerate the wonderfulness of the special services they didn't receive. We are not an enlightened society; stigma is very real. I would have never gone to social work school at age 46 if I had realized that  many mental health professionals obviously don't believe in the efficacy of their own treatments and would fear an open wounded healer..

Loners and losers outgrow it, invent software, have TV shows made about them:) Nerds and geeks are the new prince charmings; they make great husbands. Diagnoses are forever. How do kids "along the autistic spectrum" do with chemistry sets and microscopes? Are they your own computer geeks?  I recall a kid in my daughter Jane's traditional kindergarten class. The teacher insisted he be tested for developmental disability. He tested at genius level.

My kids desperately needed to be intellectually challenged, and only the two-day-a-week pullout gifted program was adequate.  I let Michelle, my scientist,stay home from school so much because she was obviously learning at a higer level than she could reach at school. Using her sister's math textbook, she brought herself up two grade levels in three days. She managed to run fevers only on nongifted days.

 I always thought I could do something for my kids, that I knew and understood them better than the "experts."I admit my dad's legacy was intellectual arrogance.  I could read the same books and journals as the experts, and I knew my weird kids better. Certainly that approach was the key to taming my own bipolar disorder 15 years ago. I researched psychiatric journals and the net to find the best possible medication and shopped for a psychiatrist who was willing to prescribe it. My psychiatrist has frequently expressed his gratitude for my educating him, since he now frequently prescribes the med I told him about.. I needed a psychiatrist who was a partner, who would discuss journal articles with me as a peer, who was as willing to learn from me as I was from him, who would admit when he didn't know and when he was wrong. Only then would I feel comfortable enough to be fully honest with him about my medication.

Using what you learn from blogs, books, and journals about autism is brilliant. I am sure they would have helped me cope with my dad, two brothers, two husbands, and two nephews:) I am very curious to read them; I love to think about how different minds work. Learning all you can is different than a formal diagnosis that might convey to a child, his teachers, his peers that there is something wrong with him. Different, original minds  can't and shouldn't be fixed.

Do read For Her Own Good: 200 Years of Experts Advice to Women, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English. Thank God I first read it when it only covered 150 years in 1979, the year after my writer was born. Thank God I never consulted experts about her. Some minds are too mysterious to be meddled with. She probably would have qualified for bipolar disorder, autism, and social anxiety disorder, with a subtle oppositional defiant disorder.

The label "autistic" might be less frightening to your generation, but in 62 years I have never personally known a child so labeled. I have known many children who could have been so labeled, but they found their ideal career niche and the spouse who can translate for them. The more I read about it, the more I suspect it explains so much about my men:)  My father was an actuary. Two brothers are accountants; one is a chemistry professor. My first husband is a radiation physicist; my second husband is a computter programmer.

June 2, 2014

Dependence and Aging Parents

"What advice would I give to those of us with older parents who are soon to enter into a dependency stage?"

I wrestle with these questions for myself. I see my cousins struggle with the same issues with my aunts and uncles. My mother was incredibly healthy and active until she fractured her pelvis on a trip to Israel. In fact, she walked around Israel for a week with a fractured pelvis. I suspect only my father could tell her what to do; I often wished my dad were still alive to cope with her destructive decisions. Mom thought that her mom had taken a defeatist attitude toward her arthritis, taken to her chair, and given up her formerly active life. She was never going to be like her mom; exercise, yoga, great diet would all prevent that. But my grandmother lived four years longer, and taking care of her was relatively easy. She remained the loving, wise grandmother who was a great listener; she lived to know 23 great grandchildren.

In her eloquent tribute to my mom, my daughter Rose points out she was always moving. My mom never seemed anxious or depressed; she coped with negative feelings by activity. As her health and life fell apart very quickly, she wasn't comfortable about expressing her fears or grief. I often wondered if she had adequately mourned her little sister who died when mom was 5, her father who died when she was 17.

If my mom had been more cautious, she might still be alive to see six grandchildren married and meet at least some of her 15 great-grandchildren. Emma, my oldest daughter, told me dozens of times in the two years of her son Nate's life how much she misses Grandma. I used to tell my mom, "Mom, so many of your grandkids are just on the cusp of marriage and parenthood. Isn't seeing Mommy Anne worth letting us take care of you?"

Our generation is being encouraged to think we can defeat aging. The US can't cope with dependency at the beginning or end of life. Letting people take care of you can be the most loving gift you can give them. I recommend the superb blog, Time Goes By--What It's Really Like to Get Older by Ronni Bennett. If your parents are aging, encourage them to read it and discuss with you the many issues she raises. All of us constantly struggle with being able to ask for and accept help. I recently sprained my knee, and I hate to ask my husband for the help he is happy to give.

Even though it was challenging, I have always been glad I was able to welcome my mom into my home and give back a small part of what she had given to her family, her friends, the world. My then new husband Paul was wonderful with her. Since he hadn't known the super Mary, he could love the reduced Mary without mourning what was no longer there. People used to assume Paul was mom's son; mom get confused explaining she wasn't English.

Please share your thoughts and experiences with this.

May 29, 2014

"When I Whisper, Everyone Listens"

Machiavelli, the Whisperer, and Her Baby Sister Jane. Wouldn't You Be Bamboozled?

For years I thanked God that Michelle, my second daughter, was so much easier than her confrontational older sister, Emma, two years older..But she had carefully observed Emma and realized charm worked much better than confrontation. When asking for something, Michelle would preface it with so many appreciative compliments that I was eager to do what she asked.

Michelle was almost grown before I realized that she had gotten her way much more than Emma had. She is the ultimate iron fist in a velvet glove. I was in awe how she handled doctors and nurses whenever my mom was hospitalized. Both my husband and I have named Michelle to be our health proxy. Once, when her dad and I were squabbling, teenage Michelle suggested, "Mom, you should wear more perfume." I have taken her advice in my second marriage.

Michelle has a BS from Yale, an MS from Harvard, and MBA from MIT. She is a  director of strategic planning at a leading biogenetics company. and the mother of a 3 year old girl and an 8-month-old son. She has been strategically planning since she was born on her due date after a labor of one hour and 45 minutes in 1975. None of my other labors were anything like that, but then her sisters' don't strategically plan as brilliantly.

My favorite Michelle story occurred when she had just turned 3. She fell in the playground and needed ten stitches in her head. The ER was a horror as I had to fight tooth and nail to stay with her. Right after the accident we went on vacation with my parents, my brother Joe, his wife, and their three kids from Kansas City. Michelle was very close to my parents and had no experience sharing them with anyone but Emma. Immediately upon arriving , my chatterbox ceased talking. After a day of absolute silence, she deigned to whisper, but only to me and my mom.

Her absolute command was terrifying. Even after she woke up from a nightmare, she remembered to whisper. When I was playing with her in the water, I could coax her to make sounds, but she refused to utter sounds that were words. I was frantic, convinced that her fall had caused brain damage or a lasting emotional trauma. Was she upset that I was 6 mothers pregnant with Jane?

When her grandma asked why she wouldn't talk, Michelle whispered. "With my cousins here, when I talk, nobody listens. But when I whisper, everyone listens." Her ingenious scheme worked wonders. Everyone spent the entire ten days trying to trick Michelle into talking. I had just gotten a tape recorder, and the impact of Michelle's silence is documented. The main topic of conversations recorded was the strange silence of a certain three year old. The minute Joe and his family drove away, Michelle started talking and has never stopped. Study those pictures. Would you suspect that sweet, smiling little girl in the green bathing suit was a junior Machiavelli?

Michelle told this story on her college applications. "It is rather funny to think that in my large family of overachievers, a three-year-old's decision not to speak in one of our fondest and most memorable stories. To this day, I cannot speak a word to my Uncle Joe without receiving the loud surprised reaction, "She talks." Harvard and Yale eagerly accepted her.

Have you ever tried not talking for an hour at an immediate family gathering of 11 people? As my first grandson turned 3, I appreciated again Michelle's incredible feat. When Michael isn't talking, he is asleep.

May 1, 2014

What Is Your Birth Order?

To Only Children: Being the oldest child dooms you to the responsibility chip, whether you have no siblings or 7. Until both your parents die, you are being parented by people who have no clue what they are doing. They get better with younger children, but they don't know how to parent a 25 year old, a 40 year old, a 55 year old anymore than they knew how to parent an infant or toddler. Their grandparenting skills are nonexistent. Children raise their parents to be grownups. Being outnumbered makes the job more challenging and stimulating, but you are always up to it.
In the first picture, I am two and one half; Joe is one. In the second, I am four, Andrew is six months. In the third picture, I am seven; Bob is newborn. In the fourth picture, I am 12; Gerard is 1. In the fifth photo, I was 13, Brian was 1 month.

Studying the pictures helps me clarify my family dynamics. Sibling closeness has mattered more to me than to my brothers. I try much harder to keep the family connected. Being both the oldest and the only girl seems central. I was my adult height when my two younger brothers were born; they were only 5 and 7 when I left home for college. My youngest brother said he was infused who was his mommy and felt abandoned. In some pictures I look like their young mother.

We did not grow up in the same family. My mother returned to school full-time when Brian was 5; when he was 7, she started teaching high school. Joe, Andrew, and I had had a stay-at-home mother until we went to college. Brian doesn't remember my mom staying at home full-time. My father retired before Brian finished college.

We have very different perceptions of our parents. Joe, Andrew, and I remember our dad as a brilliant intellectual and mathematician; Gerard and Brian remember a frail old man who disappeared into Alzheimer's Disease. The three oldest remember our childhood perceptions of my mom as "just a housewife" who never went to college. My younger brothers remember her the way her obituary describes her: "teacher, activist, trailblazer."

With the death of my mom, Joe, 18 months younger, is my only collaborator for family history. Fortunately, Joe was too busy climbing on the roof as a kid to remember very much. I could write family fiction and convince everyone it is family history.

I struggled not to favor my first daughter Anne in sibling squabbles, because she, like me, is the oldest of several siblings. Both my first husband John and I were the oldest children of oldest children of oldest children--not the best recipe for marital harmony. Certainly Anne shows the same sense of responsibility for her younger siblings that I felt. John, Anne, and I thought younger siblings owe considerable gratitude to the oldest, who has fought all the battles necessary to whip parents into shape.

In my constant discussions with friends about baby spacing when my kids were young, I noticed that adult relationships with your siblings greatly influence you. If you love your sibs, you might think a brother or sister is the best gift you will give your kids. If you don't talk to your sib, you will feel guilty about the trauma you are inflicting on the oldest. As people only have two children, there will only be younger and older kids.  Middle children seem to have special gifts society will sorely lack. When I told 6 year old Michelle, I was pregnant with Carolyn, she rejoiced, "Now I won't be the only middle child."

Faced with the challenge of caring for my mother during the last years of her life, my brothers and I had to confront and heal lifelong conflicts and misunderstandings. It is so easy to fall into childhood roles. My mom was always the family switchboard. We would call her, not each other; she would relay the news to everyone. I struggle very hard not to play the same role.

I adore my brothers and wish we saw each other much more often. We are scattered from Maine to North Carolina. My mother had five brothers as well. As a teenager, I used to reproach her, "Mom, how could you do this to me? You knew what it was like." My mom, a long-term care activist, used to begin her speeches, "I have lived with 12 men--long pause--only one of them intimately." Growing up with my brothers, I acquired a lifelong comfort around men. Daughters were a challenge; sons would have been easier. Taking care of my grandson revives many wonderful memories of my brothers as children.

What is your birth order? What impact has it had on your life?

April 27, 2014

1978--How to Handle Sibling Rivalry

Siblings fascinate me.  I am grateful for my 5 wonderful younger brothers. I believe the greatest gift I gave my 4 daughters was each other.  I have 3 granddaughters and  4, grandsons.

Here is my earnest attempt to establish rules for handling sibling rivalry in 1978, when my older daughter Emma was 3 and and my younger daughter,  Michelle, 15 months.  As the oldest of six, I probably overidentified with Emma. When her son was Michelle's age, I read my rules  to  Emma, , and we collapsed in helpless laughter. How earnest and intellectual I was trying to be, pretending I could objectively stay above the fray. Some of my advice is excellent; too bad I wasn't able to follow it. I had obviously read too many parenting books and taken too many contradictory parenting classes.
  1. When in doubt about what to do, don't interfere.
  2. If I am concerned that one of them could really get hurt, always intervene. In practical terms, that means always being within interfering distance when they are both playing on the slide, on the climbing structure, or on the terrace.
  3. When other people are around who would tend to think very badly of Emma, intervene.
  4. Protect Emma from Michelle. She should have time alone in her room to paint, to build with blocks, when Michelle is not constantly at her back, intent to destroy what she just made. When Emma complains that Michelle is bothering her, respond and help her out. It is completely unreasonable to expect Emma to handle Michelle's interference by herself. I find it hard to distract single-minded Michelle.
  5. Encourage Emma to find solutions to the problem herself. "I'm sorry Michelle keeps knocking down your blocks. Do you have any idea how we can stop her from doing it." Poor Emma. No wonder, she told me, a few years later, "Don't give me any of that active listening crap."
  6. Try to have one hour special time with Emma  after dinner. Now that she will be away from me three hours a day in nursery school, this is particularly important.
  7. Make a firm rule about no hitting with things. The thing used as a weapon gets put in the closet until the next day. "Blocks are for building, not for hitting Michelle. You can have it back tomorrow."
  8. When I find it necessary to intervene, use actions not words. No screaming, no getting angry. Separate them physically. Then, and only then, try to help Emma.. "I think you are trying to say something to Michelle. Talk it. You can talk; you don't have to hit. I know how you feel, but I can't let you hurt Michelle. It makes her feel like hitting you."
  9. When one of them is likely to continue hurting, use physical restraint. Take her to another room to calm down, telling her she can come back when she can play without hurting.
  10. Don't get angry. If I can't intervene without getting angry, don't bother. Michelle is not a helpless baby, and she is not always an innocent victim. Don't always assume I saw the curtain-raiser to any particular squabble.
In my defense, my daughters are all very close to one another and form a wonderful support system.

April 14, 2014

Confessions of Misogyny

I wrote this at the height of the 2008 primary.

You have undoubtedly gotten the wrong impression of me because all the crap dumped on Hillary elicited my Joan of Arc persona and I was in full polemic mode. My four daughters would reassure you that I am one of the worst misogynists they know. Until I became a mother at age 28, I would always join the circle of men, never the circle of women. I was positive the conversation would be more stimulating. I despise women's fashion magazines and all the talk of diets , hair, shoes, and makeup. Being forced to watch Sex and the City would be cruel and unusual punishment.

Spending a year in a Catholic girls college in Rochester was the most alienating experience of my life. I was sarcastic, and no one seemed to realize I didn't necessarily mean it. One night my friends and I stayed up all night, discussing politics, sex, religion, life, death, etc. The rumor rapidly spread that we were gossiping about everyone on the floor. Learning from the college dean that "there was something in the nature of a woman that unsuits her for intellectual debate with men" elicited my jail beak to being the only girl in the political science classes at Fordham.

Working in the female-dominated fields of public librarianship and social work was a disaster for me. I never can accept that is the way it is and you can't do anything about it. I am a trouble maker pure and simple. When I am upset, I defend myself by getting more ascerbic and intellectual. I perceive that men enjoy gutsy women who giggle and smile and tease and insult and debate with them lots more than women do. I have always gone to male shrinks.

My most successful social work job was working with a great group of seriously mentally ill guys who were absolutely trapped in the system. Some had been in jail; most had substance abuse problems. I never was so appreciated by a group of people in my whole life. They were so wonderful to hang out with. I excel at eliciting the sanity in crazy people and the craziness in apparently sane people. There are lots of the latter in social work and public librarianship.

I also did extremely well with male gay clients. One told me I must have been a gay male in a previous lifetime I understand him so well. I Another paid me the greatest compliment I got as a shrink: he said I was his only experience of unconditional love. We had a strange therapeutic relationship. Until I treated him, an Irishmen from an utterly abusive family, I never realized how Irish I was.

I have never been hassled on the street by a guy in my entire life. I do smile a lot. I am perfectly comfortable being the only women in a subway car full of men. African American men and immigrants tend to find older, curvier women attractive, which is lovely fun. In the early days of women's lib, women whined incessantly about street hassles. I wondered if I was the ugliest woman in the entire women's liberation movement. I often have long conversations with homeless men. One street person teased me that I looked very friendly ,approachable, happy to talk, sometimes generous depending upon whether I had exceeded my day's handout limit, but I subtly conveyed that I could turn him to stone if he messed with me.

Two days later, I realize that the attacks on Hillary by women both reflect their misogyny and evoke mine. This week, all three female columnists for the NY Times , Maureen Dowd, Gail Collins, and Judith Warner appear to despise women who are not as brilliant, rational, skeptical, and educated as they are. They show little respect for the women who voted for Hillary because of her supposedly manipulative exploitation of gender issues; they seem obnoxiously smug that they understand women's real reasons, not the fantasies the poor little darlings tell themselves . I am not as guilty as they are of despising "regular" women, but I love to hate all highly successful women who, instead of supporting and mentoring younger women, seem to want to push down other women so they will remain in all their glittering exceptionalism on the top.

April 8, 2014

NYC, 1974-1976, Nonsexist Childrearing in Action


Emma belonged to a Chelsea Manhattan playgroup for two years, from 1974 to 1976. She was 17 months when it began, 3 and ready for nursery school when it disbanded. Playgroup met 5 mornings a week in the basement of the Y on West 23rd Street. Parents had the option of coming 1 to 5 mornings. Scheduling was a nightmare that I had naively accepted. I kept the minutes of playgroup, and I wrote a paper about it for a social work class in group dynamics 20 years later.

I thought you might be amused by parenting, Manhattan style, 1974. How earnest and how absurd we were in so many ways. But we were absolutely committed to allowing our kids to be free to be you and me.

Ranging in age from 28 to 40, we all lived in Chelsea and Greenwich Village. With one exception, our playgroup child was our first child. At 28, I was the youngest mother, but the only one from a large family. We all were college educated, with serious careers before we had children. There was an editor of psychiatric books, a writer, a teacher, an artist, an art therapist, two social workers, one vocational counselor, two psychology graduate students, and  a psychiatric nurse.

Most of us were struggling with our decision to stay home with our children. Confirmed apartment dwellers, we saw little relationship between mothering and housework. All of us planned to remain in Manhattan. Dreading winter cooped up with newly mobile, newly negative toddlers in one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartments, several mothers were contemplating returning to work to regain their sanity. Significantly, no one returned to work full-time during the life of the playgroup.

None of us had long-time friends who were staying at home to raise young children. We needed to build a new circle of friends; our friends from work no longer sufficed. We were not traditional wives and mothers. We desperately wanted intellectual colleagues fascinated with child development, determined to raise children without our own inhibitions and neuroses. All of us considered ourselves feminists, committed to nonsexist childrearing.

Playgroup was supposed to give us time off. The first year the ratio was one mother to two children; the second year it was one to three. Many mother who weren't on duty stayed anyway, particularly those with younger children. When we weren't playing with our toddlers, we engaged in ongoing group therapy. All of us had been or were currently in therapy and could talk comfortably and knowledgeably about conflict, repression, projection, and denial. We endlessly analyzed our marriages, our families, our psychological makeups, our childrearing philosophies, and our children's personalities.

Six of the 10 core members are now mental health professionals. Remarkably, none of our children are currently in jails, mental hospitals, or rehab centers. We were an extremely self-conscious group. The simplest decision was carefully scrutinized for its optimal effect on our children's intellectual and emotional development. The latest child development books and theories were eagerly shared and discussed. Husbands' participating in child care and housework was the norm. One couple was not married, and no one made anything of it. Everyone eagerly welcomed fathers' participation.

No one wanted to push early academics on our kids. Creativity and exploration were the predominant values. No child was ever pressured to participate in any activity. If he didn't want to draw, paste, paint, sing, snack, his autonomy was respected. We had reasonable expectations about toddlers' capacity to share. A great deal of mess was tolerated, and children were not pressured to clean up. "No" was a word seldom heard--from adults

We were enlightened Manhattan intellectuals, very influenced by the ferment of the late 1960's. All the children addressed all the adults by their first names. Zealous attempts to enforce good manners were frowned upon. By 24 months, all children knew and used the words, penis, testicles, vulva, vagina. Toilet training was a continuous show-and-tell entertainment. The potty was in a prominent place in the room. I vividly recall two-year-old Emma saying, "I see your penis, Michael. Would you like to see my vulva?"

 At any one time at least two mothers were pregnant or breastfeeding, and all the children's questions were freely answered. My second daughter Michelle started attending playgroup when she was 1 week old. Playing with baby Michelle was a surefire activity. Surrounded by 2 year olds every day, Michelle developed prodigious social skills.

Most of us belonged to a babysitting cooperative as well. We were an amazing source of support to each other. When one of us had a baby, all the others took turns bringing the new parents an elaborate evening meal. I have never again experienced such a caring community of parents, committed to mutual aid.

Such a playgroup probably   could not have existed in the two other places I raised children--Bangor, Maine, and Long Island. I know it could not exist now in Manhattan. I spend three days a week in the same housing development, cavorting with my grandson in the same playroom, the same playground. Now I talk to nannies, not parents. Understandably, parents discourage their nannies from starting playgroups and inviting people they don't know well into their homes..

The Chelsea playgroup was one of the most fascinating, frustrating, turbulent, nurturing experiences of my life. After two years we were all very different people from the self-conscious, judgmental twits we were at the beginning. Comfortable in our mothering, we no longer had to criticize each other to bolster our wavering self-confidence. Watching very different children develop helped us to understand our own children's unique personalities.

In many ways our children were freer from sexist stereotyping than their children are now.

March 15, 2014

To My Oldest Daughter on Her 13th Birthday, 4/4/86

Dearest Emma,

Happy 13th birthday.  This will be such an exciting year of change and growth for you that I particularly want us to keep in close touch with one another.  Both of us are undergoing major transitions, so I  hope we can understand and empathize with each other.  I asked Grandma what she wished she had said to me on my thirteenth birthday.  She didn't have to think about her answer.  "Tell me everything.  There's nothing you could conceivably do or say that I don't handle.   You don't have to protect me from anything  you feel or do."  I liked that.  I wished she had told me that when I was 13  What was left unsaid did far more lasting damage than anything that was said.  So that's part of what I want to say to you as you blossom into womanhood.

I have lived 27 and 3/4 more years in the world than you have.  I will be delighted to share any of my experiences with you, well aware that you have to find your own path.  Sometimes I will forget and try to turn you into a newer, better me.  I want you to point out what I'm doing when I do that.  As you grow older, I identify more and more with you, so I will have to struggle not to force my old aspirations on you.  But I have tried very hard in the past to respect your individuality.  You were a distinct, dynamic individual from the moment you were born.  I remember looking into  your gorgeous, alert, intelligent eyes and wondering if you would be too much for me.  And sometimes you are.  I am trying very hard to grow up enough to be a good mother to you.  I have always loved  your spirited determination to be your own person, what Barbara Williams, your nursery school teacher, called "your considerable sense of self."  I want you to continue to feel free to tell me when I am making an obvious mistake with you or a not so obvious one.

I am glad you are so close to your father.  My own teenage years would have been far happier if I hadn't been so intimidated by my father, so afraid of arguing with him, so afraid of getting close.  You never have to choose between us; we will try to give you opportunities to be alone with each of us.  You already know what very different people we are, but we are equally proud of our beautiful, brilliant, spirited daughter.

March 3, 2014

Would You Use a Male Babysitter?

I would have hired four of my brothers as babysitters; one might have taken his charges out on the roof. I still remember how delighted we were when one of my young uncles came to babysit. My Uncle Frank, six foot five, would hang from the top of the swing set, and we were allowed to keep all the money that fell out of his pockets. My youngest brothers were 15 and 17 when my daughter Anne was born. Going on vacation with them was pure joy for my daughters.

Several of my daughters' playgroups had helping daddies as well as helping mommies. We used a babysitting cooperative of parents when we went out; daddies were more likely to be the evening babysitter. The rest of the time we used our parents or my brothers. My daughter uses several young male actors as babysitters on the days I don't care for my grandson. I keep expecting Michael to say, "Go away, Grandma. I want Trevor or or Anthony."
My daughters had one male teacher in a one-room schoolhouse private school in Maine. On Long Island they only had two male teachers in grade school; one was their favorite teacher. My brother is a grade school teacher in Maine. He says male teachers of young children feel like everyone regards them as potential child molesters.
According to the Bureau of Labor comprise:
  • 5.4 % of Child Care Workers
  • 8.5 % of Teacher Assistants
  • 2.7 % of Preschool and Kindergarten Teachers
What are we teaching our children about sex roles. Have you used male babysitters? When did your child first have a male teacher? Has your child ever asked you why there are no male teachers in his day care center or grade school? Would you encourage your son to babysit or pursue a career in early childhood education?

February 4, 2014

Emma, Mother's Day, 1986

Mother's Day 1986
Dear Mommy,

Here’s to the memories. All the laughter, tears, happiness, and sorrow that we as your children have experienced with you right beside us every step of the way, making sure we didn’t stray off the path. Thanks, Mommy, for who would we be without you.

Love, Emma

Emma gave me a small book of family photos with this inscribed on the back cover. She was just 13. I carried it around in my bag for at least 3 years, so I could read it every time I felt like murdering her. Her eloquence was only matched by her --what word can I use-- spawn-of-Satanhood?

When she was 6, her first grade teacher said, "Emma knows exactly where my limits and she will go right to the brink, but never cross over." She didn't show such diplomacy with her mother. However, when she worked around the world in her 20's, she never had to bribe anyone at airports. After her first trip to Africa, she got several letters from cabdrivers addressed to "my angel Emma."

Emma repeatedly stuck her tongue out at me minutes after birth. If you look carefully at this picture of her at 17 months (the day I got pregnant with her sister Michelle), you will see the signs of oppositional defiant disorder. She should have been born with a printout: "You will win five battles with this child. Choose them carefully." I learned what the five battles were by losing hundreds of others. At the height of our teenage struggles, Emma used to say: "I don't have sex, don't do drugs, don't drink, don't party at all hours. I am not pregnant; I do well in school; I plan a serious career in world saving. What is your problem, mom?" Of course she was right, and that's why her sisters seemed easier. I didn't fight the silly battles.

But it was all worth it. Watching her mother my grandson gives me absolute joy. Despite our arguments, we have always been extremely close. As usual, my writer Jane says it best (2001):
"Emma is capable of more generosity than anyone I know. She holds herself responsible for you, Michelle, Molly, and me. Being incredibly brave as well as generous, though, she doesn't stop there; she is now going to try to save some people in Africa (Rwanda) too, or at least to learn how. She did more than anyone to keep you going through the years when Daddy had left and Grandma was getting sicker and Peter wasn't ready yet."

Emma deserves her 1986 tribute to me  more than I do: " Thanks, Emma, for who would I be without you?"

September 8, 2013

Join Revolution for Family Friendly US

When I was a radical young feminist in the late 60s and early 70s, I was profoundly disturbed by the middle-class nature of New York feminism. Only a tiny minority of women could afford to become doctors, lawyers, college professors, corporate executives. The needs of women of color were ignored. African American women had always worked and taken care of their children. They were more dubious about abortion, since relatives cared for the children of teenage mothers.

 Unlike many women with my intellect and education, I stayed home with my four children full-time for 14 years. I also cared for my mother in my home 24/7 during the last four years of my life. I took care of my first grandchild three days a week until he was 2.  Both my husbands and I made career and financial sacrifices to make that possible. Certainly my career has not been the success I dreamed about.  But I am not sorry. I involved myself in nonsexist childrearing, childbirth education, breastfeeding counseling, parent education, toddler playgroups, babysitting cooperatives, cooperative nursery schools, school libraries, a campaign to save the local public library, the nuclear freeze movement, , the War Resisters League--the list is endless. I worked in all their school libraries.

When my youngest daughter was five, in 1987, I returned to graduate school, earning master's degrees in library science and social work. I naively assumed my qualifications would be obvious, and no one would dare to treat me like a beginner. Instead, I was given the the salary, benefits, authority, and respect of a beginner and the responsibilities of a long-term employee. Several bosses seemed threatened I wanted their jobs. I recall one infuriating incident during my first social work placement; my childless supervisor earnestly instructed me how to interview a client with her two year old present. I had  run La Leche Meetings with 20 moms and 30 babies and toddlers. Women social workers who had taken very short maternity leaves and worked full-time during their children's childhood too often acted like all my knowledge and wisdom had been attained by cheating. I got more respect from male professors.

September 4, 2013

Growing Bookworms

In my baby book my mom wrote: "A book worm--she loved all books. At 2 years her favorites were Dumbo, Children's Garden of Verses, Alice in Wonderland. Was always eager for Cinderella, Goldilocks, etc." My parents read to us every single night. I left home for college when my youngest brother was 5, and they were still reading. They tended to pick books of interest to the older children, so the younger ones were exposed to Winnie the Pooh, The Jungle Books, Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in ththe Willows, etc. at an early age. When they visited my first daughter Emma the day she was born, they brought her three picture books.

My mom and dad were consummate book worms. My mom read more books than anyone I have known. Our local library was a tiny volunteer operation in an old church. They took us to the Hempstead Library, three miles away. We were each allowed to take out as many books as we could carry; once I managed 20. My first library card seemed magical. I vividly remember my awe when I realized that card was a passport to the entire world. Wherever I have been in the world, libraries are home and church. Jorge Luis Borges wrote, "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library."

Three-year-old Molly's kitten-holding technique was not optimal in 1985. She assured me she could talk to animals, and I absolutely believed her. Reading to toddlers and preschoolers is one of life's supreme pleasures. It is the natural follow-up to breastfeeding. Preschoolers who are read to realize that reading aloud is a wonderful way to nurture someone. I recall my daughter Jane's saying to her doll, "Don't cry baby. Mommy will read to you." I always read aloud to the older girls when I was nursing the baby.

During his first two years, I took care of my grandson Michael three days a week. Since birth his mother, father, and I  read to him everyday. He enjoys the same books his mother and aunts did--Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Frog and Toad, Make Way for Ducklings, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Runaway Bunny, Where the Wild Things Are. At 22 months his attention span often outlasts my voice. Sometims he will sit on the floor by himself with a pile of books, "I read."

Michael's mother Emma loved the Curious George books. She loved them so much that both my parents and I gave her the same giant Curious George for her second Christmas. She grew up to be a curious Emma who spent her 20s and early 30s working around the world in 75 world cities, living in Kosovo, Niger, and Rwanda.

Now her son loves Curious George just as much. Watching my daughters  and sons-in-law read to my grandkids the same book I read to them is lovely beyond my powers to describe.

Do you ever go back and read your favorite children's books? At any age, it is  illuminating to try to find out what books you wanted read to you again and again. I remember Emma's calling me from college, thrilled that she had made a new friend who loved the same children's books. After my dad died, I loved to read again the books he read to me and my five brothers; the books and the memories seemed to bring him back. So many of the best children's books never go out of print, so you can buy your favorite books for the children in your lives.