January 12, 2016

Join the Revolution for a Family-Friendly US

Are children, elders, families in general, the poor better off than they were in 1968, at the start of the Second Wave of Feminism?  Are you outraged  with a society where 2 month olds are cared for by strangers for 10 hours a day  because there is no genuine paternity and maternity leave? Are you outraged that  childhood bipolar disorder has only been discovered in the United States? Are you outraged that 2 year olds and 3 years olds are pushed into early academics, that 5 year olds are perceived as backward if they can't read before leaving kindergarten? Are you outraged that teaching for the standardized tests is replacing art, music, recess and gym? Are you  outraged that our four year olds are taking  dangerous anti-psychotics not proven safe for chronic schizophrenics? Are you outraged  that poor immigration women are exploited as nannies and home health aides? A nonviolent revolution as sweeping as the civil rights movement is required to make the US a child-friendly, family-friendly, elder-friendly, human -friendly society. Join me.

When I was an active young feminist in the late 60s and early 70s, the upper middle class nature of New  York feminism was profoundly disturbing. 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 the babies were more welcomed and taken care of by family members.

Unlike many women with my intellect and education, I stayed home with my four children full-time for 15 years and part-time until the youngest was in high school. I also care for my mother in my home 24/7  during the last four years of my life.  Both my husbands made career and financial sacrifices to make that possible.

January 4, 2016

Women's Issues Are Family Issues

The recurring reference to women's issues in the media needs to be clarified. Most of these are better described as family and caregiver issues. However, vitally important women's issues exist. These include the availability of abortions and the morning after pill, the scandalous C-section rate, and the obscene harassment of nursing mothers. Too many companies expect breastfeeding mothers to pump in filthy toilets for 20 minutes and refuse to provide a comfortable room for them to pump and adequate short-time storage for breastmilk.This is a health issue as well since the American Academy of Pediatris recommends breastfeeding for at least a year. Working mothers of infants are heroic, incredibly dedicated to making sure their babies only get breastmilk and not formula. Encouraging, supporting, and facilitating breastfeeding is an integral part of wellness and prevention.

The best way to reduce the C-section rate is to to use nurse- midwives for normal births, but obstetricians fiercely resist giving nurse-midwives hospital privileges. At this point in New York City, the first question after how big is the baby is did you have a C-Section? It appalls me that the most educated professional women in history are allowing that to happen to them. When I was pregnant with my first child 35 years ago, baby books advised not considering a doctor with a C-section rate higher than 5 percent. Obviously the human race would have died out long ago if a 30 to 40 percent C-secton ate was the norm. I crusaded for natural childbirth and had my two youngest daughters at home with a nurse midwife.

December 2, 2015

Don't Cry Kitty: Mommy Will Read to You

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." Under my favorite books, she listed Daddy's and Uncle George's yearbook, Mother Goose, all magazines, ABC book. Later I wrote in Nancy Drew. My obsession with my dad's yearbook indicated that I was fascinated by family history and dynamics from infancy.

My parents read to us every single night. They tended to pick books of interest to the older children, so the younger ones were exposed to Winnie the Pooh, Children's Garden of Verse, Treasure Island, The Jungle Books, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, The Wind in the Willows, at an early age. On their first visit to Anne, my oldest, in the hospital the day she was born, my mom and dad bought three picture books.

My mom and dad were consummate book worms. 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. As a librarian, I am upset by parents who restrict their kids to two or three books, especially when they ask me to back them up their restrictions. I smile apologetically at the parents and tell the kid that the library limit is 25:) . My first library card seemed magical. I vividly remember my awe when I realized I now had a passport to the universe.Wherever I have been in the world, libraries are my home, my church. Jorge Luis Borges wrote, "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library."

I have always been grateful that we did not have a television set until I was 14. John and I experimented with throwing out our television when Anne was 4 and maintained our resolve for for five years. Rose, who never watched TV until she was 5, is the most voracious reader and writer.

My sister-in-law once paid me the supreme compliment: "Your idea of domesticity is putting your books in alphabetical order." Reading always took precedence over housework. I have always found time to read at least 4 or 5 books a week. Admittedly my speed is much better than my retention. I can enjoy the same mysteries twice.

My family believes this picture of 3-year-old Carolyn, taken in 1985, is our cutest. Carolyn's kitten-holding technique was not optimal. She assured me she could talk to animals, and I absolutely believed her. What living creature could resist her? Her sisters were in their Madonna phase. Carolyn loved to dance around with her grandma's rosary beads around her neck, telling everyone she was a material girl.

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 Rose'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.

Preschoolers can enjoy chapter books. Michelle insisted on our reading The Wind in the Willows to her three separate times when she was 4. Beverly Cleary's Ramona books are perfect for 4's and 5's because she is 4 in the first one. Ramona was Carolyn's ego ideal. Don't stop reading to your children when they learn to read. Continue to read chapter books, books beyond their ability to read themselves. We never lose our love for being read to. Check out the thousands of books on tape and CD at your local library. If your library doesn't have the title you want, they can usually get it from another library.

I babysat for the same family from age 11 to 18; the kids were 2 and 6 when I started. By the time I graduated from college, Marion, the oldest, could babysit her brother by herself. I always read to them. About 10 years ago, I discovered a novel written by Marion. I was thrilled, look her up, and we write to each other sporadically. I loved to imagine that all those hundreds of books I had read to Marion and her brother helped influence her to become a writer.

My oldest daughter Anne loved the Curious George books. She loved them so much that both my parents and John and I gave her the same giant Curious George for her second Christmas. She grew up to be a curious Anne. She spent her 20s and early 30s working around the world in 75 world cities, living in Kosovo, Niger, and Rwanda.I recall George wound up with his head in the toilet.

When Anne was a teenager, we often seemed to communicate best by leaving books for each other on the radiator next to the toilet. No matter how conflicted our relationship became, we both enjoyed the same books. As a teen librarian, I discovered that throwing books on the floor by the teen's feet was the most promising way to recommend them.

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 Anne'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 was delighted to discover that rereading the books he read to us brought him back.
I lust for a software program that enables you to feed in all your children's favorite books and then spits out an analysis of their character and advice on what battles are worth fighting. When asked to recommend books for children in the library, I usually talk to the kid for few minutes, figure out what daughter, brother, niece, nephew, cousin, friend she reminds me of, and recommend that child's favorite book. This absolutely intuitive technique works well.

As a child I adored all the Oz books. I spent a great deal of time pretending I was Glinda the Good. I frequently wear a pin with red shoes, celebrating Dorothy's magic red slippers. Nancy Drew, girl detective, was my other favorite. Starting when we were 7, my best friend and I used to walk 2 miles to discover the Nancy Drew books selling for ten cents at the Salvation Army.
My only essential plastic is my library card.

December 1, 2015

Growing Up with Five Brothers

My dad was an actuary; my mom was a housewife who became a history teacher and activist after I left home. I have 5 brothers, 18 months, 3 years, 7 years, 11 years, and 13 years younger. All married relatively young; one brother divorced and remarried. They have 6, 0, 2, 1, and 2 children respectively. Two are grandpas, one with 8 grandkids, the other with 2. There is a lawyer, a chemistry professor, a teacher, a nurse, and an accountant. They live in Maine, upstate NY, North Carolina, Westchester NY, and Long Island NY.

When I took care  of my toddler grandson Michael three days a week, I  recaptured many memories of my brothers as small boys. Growing up, I was extremely close to my brothers; we spent most of our free time together. We loved the beach, ice skating, roller skating, tree climbing, summer vacations, backyard baseball, touch football, and badminton. We played endless ping pong and knock hockey games, card games, Monopoly, and Scrabble. We had the biggest backyard on the block, and our house was always the neighborhood hangout. We had a basketball hoop attached to the garage that was in use day and night. There were no girls on the block, so I always played with the guys. I was passionately interested in baseball, and my brothers used to challenge their friends to ask me a baseball question I couldn't answer. since I had memorized the baseball rule book.

Looking back, the siblings might have relied on each other too much. Joe, Andrew, and I were not very social; each of us had one best friend and two good ones. We never hung out with a group of peers. We always had each other to play with, argue with, compete with. We always defended our siblings against our parents and against neighborhood bullies. Except for Bob (the 4th child), we never dated in high school.

Rationality, intellect, and academic achievement were the family values, and we all honored them. Competitiveness was subtly encouraged even though my mother would occasionally inveigh against it half-heartedly. Sarcasm and teasing were prevalent; the victim was expected to take the joke. Excessive emotion was scorned; I cried alone in my room. I still find it absolutely humiliating to cry in public and feel critical of women who do. Except for my parents' deaths, I have virtually no members of my brother's crying past 3 or 4. The possibility of my dad's crying was unimaginable. My mother, who had 5 brothers too, always choked back her tears.

We ere encouraged to rejoice in how different we were from most people in our working-class suburban town. We were the intellectuals. When working summers as mail carriers, Joe and Andrew reported that no other families seem to subscribe to the same magazines me read. My dad strongly encouraged us to think for ourselves and not care what other people (except each other) thought. He pointed that the most people were too preoccupied with their own problems to think much about you. My brothers might not be much use for discussing emotional issues, but for intellectually stimulating, challenging conversations, they are terrific.

My brothers can see each other for the first time in 6 months and spend the evening discussing politics, not their personal lives. My brothers insist that they don't have to talk to their siblings frequently to stay close. Each is certain he would come through in a crisis, and their track record is good.
We all seem very interested in what the others are doing, but as long as my mom was alive, my brothers would ask my mom instead of calling their brothers. Now I have moved in that family switchboard role.

We still influence each other tremendously. We very much want our siblings' approval. Andrew, the chemistry professor, has been very opinionated about the college and career choices of his nieces and nephews. I have been amused and touched by how each of my brothers checked out my daughters' prospective husbands. We freely borrow each other's expertise. I was worried that the family would scatter after my mom died, but we all have attended the second generation's numerous weddings and sibling milestone birthday parties.

There is now a younger generation; three of us are thriving as grandparents. My parents would have 3 great grandchildren, with 3 more on the way. Everyone adores the babies and showers them with attention and love.

We have always had a strong family identity--intelligent, independent, well-educated, critical, autonomous. Marrying a gorgeous bimbo was not an option for my brothers. When we get together, we all have a good time. We have the same sense of humor, vote for the same candidates, enjoy the same movies. We all take pride in the academic and career success of the second generation. I am aware to what extent this pride in intellectual achievement is a defense against social insecurity and sets us apart from other people. Thankfully, our children have not inherited that limitation.

Having 5 younger brothers has probably shaped me more than any other single influence. I like and sometimes actually understand men and invariably defend them to women. I loathe men-bashing. Until I became a mother, I was far more comfortable in a group of men than a group of women. I enjoyed being the only girl in my political science classes at Fordham, while I was miserable in a girls' Catholic college in freshman year.

I did not consciously want sons. I always told people my 4 girls were my reward for 5 brothers. I always wanted a sister and am sometimes envious of my daughters' closeness. But I love taking care of a grandson and talking to little boys in the playground.

October 14, 2015

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 unedited 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.

August 11, 2015

She Looks at Tempests and Was Never Shaken

My daughter, the writer, paid tribute to my mom the week she died in April 2004. I cannot possibly paint such a vivid portrait of Grandma Mary, so I won't even try.

I knew her as my Grandma, and I knew her best when I was a kid or a teenager, and that seems to be the only way I can write about her. So, here is the best composite sketch I can come up with:
She enters the room, and calls out “greetings, greetings.” (Or, if it’s our house in Baldwin, she shakes her head, says “chaos, chaos,” and promptly misplaces her purse.)

She is always, always moving—that’s the first thing you have to know about her. This occasionally verges on the absurd--she used to do laps around McDonald’s by the side of the highway on long trips, and I remember Aunt Sue once whispering to me “right, no more coffee for you,” as Grandma completed her fourth circuit of the kitchen and stairs on a rainy day in New Woodstock. And when she breaks more bones in the course of a year than the typical casualty rate of a family ski trip, or you’re trying to pack up your college doom room, it’s downright unnerving.

But for the most part it’s a very good thing. I don’t know how many countries she went to, or how many lobbying trips to Washington D.C., but I remember our trip to France together, her descriptions of how Ted Kennedy’s new wife seemed to be doing him good, and which Congressmen were decent guys in spite of being Republicans. And I’ve more than lost count of the times she took my sisters and me to the pool, or the beach, or to visit one of our relatives. But I’ll never forget that the way back from Uncle Brian's house requires pulling into the Croton Library parking lot and doing a U turn. (At this point, of course, it’s partly because Uncle Brian refuses to tell us the alternate route.)

She also took us into New York City a lot, but the trip to Manhattan I remember the best was the least successful. I was in eighth or ninth grade, and Carolyn was in fourth or fifth. Grandma took the two of us and my sister’s best friend into New York for Carolyn’s birthday. We were going to Central Park and a museum, I think—I’m not sure because we never got there. Grandma’s route to New York was even more circuitous than the way home from Croton. The Long Island Railroad was too expensive, and parking in Manhattan was right out, so she would drive to a municipal parking lot in Queens where you could park all day for $2, and then walk ten minutes or so to the subway—I don’t remember which station, somewhere near the end of the E line.

This time, though, our meter was broken. I suggested we move to another space, but she was not willing to waste those quarters, so she wrote a note and taped it to the parking meter. Unfortunately, in the confusion, she left her car keys sitting on the driver’s seat—she realized this somewhere under the streets of Manhattan.

We turned around, and no one had broken the window or stolen the car. But here, I thought, was an object lesson for Grandma—moderation in all things, including frugality. She’d have to pay for a locksmith, which cost much more than the extra quarters or, God forbid, a train ticket.

She did no such thing. Instead she asked a rough looking young man on a nearby sidewalk to help her break into her car. He was happy to assist. When he could not get the door open, he called over a friend. Who said, after a few more unsuccessful attempts to pick the lock, that what they really needed was a crowbar, but since he didn’t have his around and Grandma was not crazy about that, they’d better ask another friend. Who said, and I quote, “what we really need is a Puerto Rican.”

I don’t know whether they found a Puerto Rican, and I don’t remember how long we stood there, Grandma smiling encouragingly and offering occasional advice, or how many neighborhood kids were debating the best way to break into a Toyota Camry by the end—it’s probably somewhat exaggerated in my memory. I can tell you that in the end, the simple yet elegant coat-hanger-through-the-window-to-pull-up-the-button-technique did the trick. The lock suffered some damage from the good Samaritans’ enthusiastic efforts, but you could get the door open more often than not. And from then on, we parked in the driveway of a high school friend of Grandma’s—10 minutes further away from a subway station even further down the E line, but $2.00 cheaper than the municipal lot and much less risk of a break in.

(As I was writing all of that, I realized---it’s not quite accurate to say she was always moving. I just remembered the nights in Henry Street when she would tuck us in, and tell us to lie still and imagine we were floating on a cloud. There were also her “yoga,” excuse me, ‘yoger” exercises. But if I ever want to finish this, I should move on, so….)

She was incredibly smart and incredibly interested in the world around her—whether it was the history of the China lobby or when any of her nieces, nephews and grandchildren would finally, in her words “find yourself a mate.”

She also had the strongest faith of anyone I’ve ever known. Maybe it was that combination, that fierce intellect and that certain belief and trust in God, that made her so strong. Much more often than not her beliefs coincided with the Catholic Church, but when they differed she was not shy about saying so. On most of the many nights I slept over at the house on Henry Street, I wore a polyester blend, 1970s issue T-shirt that said in glittery bubble letters “When God Created Man, She Was Only Joking.” And I remember her telling me about sneaking in inclusive language to her frequent readings at St. Martha’s, much to the new parish priest’s chagrin.

And on the much more frequent occasions when her children and grandchildren did something she disapproved of—she let us know in no uncertain terms, but there was never a single moment’s doubt that she loved and accepted us anyway.

I’ll always think of her when I read these lines from Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet::
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken.

I know, it’s a love poem—and a truly bizarre choice for a description of one’s grandmother. But with apologies for the embarrassment this may cause certain unnamed relatives of mine--I defy you to find a better or funnier illustration of Shakespeare’s words than these pictures of Grandma Mary, Grandpa Joe, and their wayward offspring in 1974.

July 17, 2015

My Fearsome Foursome

My four daughters have turned out wonderfully--well educated, professionally successful, happily married,excellent mothers. Such a happy ending was not predictable during their childhood and teen years. I wonder what diagnosis they would earn now. When they were younger,  I worried that two might be bipolar like me. Spawn of Satan seemed a better diagnosis. But if Satan spawned them, I would have had to be there.
Emma, the rebel; Jane, the Writer; Michelle, the Scientist, an extremely well-behaved cousin: Molly, the Adult CEO

Here were some diagnostic indicators. 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 cars. 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. To reach the places she did, she had to have help, but the accomplice never confessed. I am proud I have never succumbed to the temptation to post that photo on Facebook. 
  • Bedtime was a joke. A friend said you could call our house at any time of the night; someone was 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 comback. Astonishingly, shy Jane convinced the high school art teacher to allow her to skip 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 85 countries, and has lived in Niger, Rwanda Kosovo, and France.) She ended her three-year sand eating on the day our pediatrician looked her in the eye and assured me that her sand-eating must account for her excellent health. He would recommend it to all his other patients. For old-times sake, she would occasionally revert to the diet when babysat by a hysteric mommy. The mother of Emma's best friend confessed that she thought Emma would be in jail by the time she was 16.
  • At age 2 Michelle magic markered a $2000 painting. Thank God the artist was able to fix the picture.
  • At age 2 the same culprit at age two  destroyed another family's audiotapes of their kids when babies and toddlers. Their parents had misplaced the tapes.
  • 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. When Emma made then 24 year old Molly, her son's guardian, everyone applauded her wisdom. She has my power of attorney and is the executor of my will. She is the only family member authorized to communicate with my therapist and my lawyer.
  • 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!
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 had anticipated and have enjoyed much amusement watching them try. In  the last 10 years when 9 grandkids were born, I haven't seen any but halfhearted attempts. I confess that I prayed that Emma, Jane, and Michelle would have a daughter. Emma and Michelle have one each;  Jane has two. I didn't wish such a fate on Molly, but she had a daughter as well. The three oldest are unquestionably more fearsome than their moms. The jury is still out on the almost 2 year old, but she has a fearsome older sister. The 10 month old is fierce.

June 17, 2015

"When I Whisper, Everyone Listens"

Machiavelli, the Whisperer

For years I thanked God that Michelle, my second daughter, was so much easier than her sister, two years older. . But she had carefully observed Anne 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 Anne 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.  Once, when her dad and I were squabbling, teenage Michelle suggested, "Mom, you should wear more perfume." 

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 Anne. 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 pregnant with Rose?

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. 

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." All colleges eagerly accepted her.

Have you ever tried not talking for an hour at an immediate family gathering of 11 people? 

June 10, 2015

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.   Her shy, timid, anxious daughter was a mystery to my her.  I am a  lifelong worrier. From early childhood, I frequently told my parents, "I'm scared."

What my mom did effortlessly, I have had to struggle with every day of my 43  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, Istanbul, Sierra Leone, 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 was close enough to meet 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. Her 5 year old daughter, now fully fluent in French, has inherited her fearlessness. When Emma was pregnant, she fretted that she would not be able to handle an anxious daughter.

In many ways, I, an anxious mother, did better with my bold daughters than my bold mother did with her anxious daughter. I never forget her telling me, "You would be much happier if you were more like me."

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

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,  42 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?

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.  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.

My five brothers are 18 months, 3 years, 7 years, 11 years, and 13 years younger.

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. I must have seemed a maternal figure to them. 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 my youngest brother  Brian was 5; she started teaching high school when he was 7. The 3 oldest Koch sibs  had a stay-at-homehome 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. The 4 oldest remember our dad as a brilliant intellectual and mathematician; The 2 youngest remember a grail 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."

April 14, 2014

Confessions of Misogyny

 My four daughters would assure you that I am one of the worst misogynists they know. Having 5 younger brother was the most formative experience of my life. 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 an alienating experience. My dad, my brothers, and I  were sarcastic and no one seemed to realize I didn't  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 break to being the only girl in the political science classes at Fordham. I talked them into admitting me as a sophmore the year they first admitted women as freshman. I was the first woman the Jesuits had taught.

I dropped out of Columbia Law School before I suffered permanent brain damage. Working in the female-dominated fields of public librarianship and social work was not a wise decision. I never can accept "that is the way it is" and "you can't do anything about it." I was perceived as a trouble maker. Being open about my manic depression doomed me.  When I am upset, I defend myself by getting more ascerbic and intellectual.  As my brothers 18 years younger observed, "you need crying lessons." But crying was tolerated in my home. I perceive that men enjoy gutsy women who giggle, smile, tease, humorously insult, and debate them  lots more than women do. I never flirt. I am alwalys teh big sister.  Until last year, 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  wonderful to hang out with. I excel at eliciting the sanity in crazy people and the craziness in apparently sane people. Undoubtedly I would have been better off working in a jail.

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. 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 have a promiscuous smile. 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 was warm, friendly, approachable, happy to talk, sometimes generous depending upon whether I had exceeded my day's handout limit. " But I know you would turn me to stone if I messed with you." I've never had to attempt it.

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 the day you were born 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.

The worst thing that happened to me as a teenager is that I felt compelled to choose between my feminine and my intellectual sides.  You live in a very different world, but you still will receive a lot of contradictory messages about what is really important.  Don't choose.  You can be both.  Look at Aunt Jackie and Aunt Lynn, for example.  A boy who holds your intelligence against you isn't capable of befriending or loving the real you.  Don't waste time on such boys or men.

At this stage of your life close female friendships are far more important than boyfriends.  At no stage of your life will close women friends cease to be vitally important.  The longer I live, the more convinced I am that men and women are very different.  Our world desperately needs women's unique qualities.  Women need not become like men to succeed in life.  Women need to support and understand one another.  I would never go so far as one psychologist did when she wrote a book entitled, "Men Are Just Desserts."  But don't ever neglect your girlfriends for some boy.  I hope you continue to have friends like Michael who happen to be boys.  I think that is particularly important because you don't have brothers or male cousins you see regularly.  Peer pressure still discourages men and women from being "just friends," but I hope you can withstand that premature emphasis on pairing off.  Daddy was my friend before he was my lover and my husband.

For most of this century mothers and daughters have been at odds with each other.  That has been a tragic loss for women in general. Ideally your mother should be your most ardent supporter and confidant.  No one, except your future husband, will probably ever love you more.  In fact mothers have an even better track record than husbands.  I hope we can continue to be friends.  I know we will fight, but fighting doesn't diminish our closeness. Look at me and Daddy.  When you were born, Uncle Stephen said, "Good, Mary Jo has a daughter she can fight with.  That should make her very happy."  He remembered my epic battles with my mother.

I hope we can continue to share books with each other.  That might be one of the best ways for you to teach me lessons that you think I need to learn.  Find me the right book to read.  I often learn more from books than from my own mistakes.  And you can always write notes to me if you find something too difficult to say.  I can express myself in writing far better than I can face-to-face. I don't know if you're the same way, but you could try.  I promise to save all your letters to hand down to your daughters.  Wouldn't you have loved to see a letter from me to my mother at age 13?  I would love to see it too.  Recently I have remembered more of my teenage years.  I'm glad.  Getting to know  teenage Mary Jo again will help me to be kinder to  teenage Emma.

More than anything else, I wish I had kept a journal when I was a teenager. It would have helped me so much to mother my teenagers.  It would be a priceless legacy to had down from one generation to another.  So much rich human experience is lost when women don't write down the details of their lives.  I've only recently rediscovered journal keeping, and it has helped me clarify my own life more than anything.  Writing letters is equally important. I am delighted that you, Erin, and Liz are letter writers.  Keep them.  You'll really enjoy them in the future. I've thrown out too much of my past. (She has kept all the letters, even the intricately folded notes she and her best friend used to pass each other during boring high school classes

I should have started this a month ago. I cou ld fill up the entire book with my hopes for you and my pride in you. I hope someday you have a daughter.  Only then will you understand how much I love you, how proud of you I am.  I have learned so much about music and makeup this year:)  What remedial lessons await me next year?  With five brothers I often tried to raise myself as a boy, so I am delighted to get a second chance to experience the adolescent years with you.

You seem so much older than you did a year ago.  I know you will change even more this year.  Being a woman is wonderful, Emma.  All human experience is open to you.  Men are denied many of the most wonderful experiences.  I have never regretted being a woman.  Don't ever be afraid of your body.  It's God's most glorious creation.  Own it and glory in it.  Don't ever be afraid to ask me any questions . I might know all the answers, but I almost certainly will have heard of the book where answers can be found.  I believe knowledge never hurt anyone. I would far rather you know too much, stuff you never need to know, then know too little.  I have always tried to be open with you, so never stop bringing your questions to me.  My mother and I were never comfortable talking about sex. I had to find out the most basic information on my own.  That shouldn't happen with us.  Believe me, you are much better learning what you need to know from me, than from rumors and dirty jokes.

I have far less firsthand experience with drugs and alcohol, but I will help you find out anything you need to know.  I'm sure you will never do anything to damage your perfect body and  your perfect mind.  But no matter what, I'll always be there for you.  Not telling me something I should know is the only thing you could do that I would find hard to understand and forgive.

Emma, Emma,  only five years from now you will be finishing high school.  The last thirteen years seem but a blink of my eyes.  I have made many mistakes, expected too much, haven't been patient enough,  haven't listened enough, haven't spent enough time alone with you.  How rarely have Daddy and I spent an evening alone with you like we are doing tonight.  Too often  you have gotten lost in the shuffle of our chaotic family life.  As you undergo so many changes in your life, we need to find more ways to spend time together so we don't become strangers to one another. Maybe I should write letters to you more often--not just once a year on your birthday, but whenever I have something important to share with you.  Keep this book for my letters to you.  Whenever I have something more to say, I will leave this book under your pillow.  We can have a secret correspondence.  I enjoy writing to you.  Wouldn't it be helpful to have several books filled with words of wisdom or words of frivolity from me?  At the very least we could have a good laugh over them when my granddaughter is 13 years old.  Wouldn't you have loved to read letters form Grandma Nolan to Grandma Mary when she was 13?  Writing is one of the greatest gifts you can give your daughter--the gift of yourself.

Daddy is dying to see what I am writing,  yet part of me wants to keep it private, our special time with each other. I want to post Keep Out Signs.  This Means You, Chris and Rosalind.  A mother and her oldest daughter should be able to talk with each other without everyone else's eavesdropping.

I remember 13 years ago so vividly.  Someday I'll share with you a paper I wrote about childbirth with a detailed description of your birth.  I hope I can spend every birthday with you, that you won't move so far away that I can't make it to your birthday party every year of my life.

Emma, you have been such a joy to me--so beautiful, so brilliant, so talented, so observant, so spirited. I love to love the same books you love. I love to enjoy sharing Liz's letters together.  I am glad you are sharing school life with us.  I enjoyed being made over, but you have been making me over for 13 years since that glorious moment in the middle of the night when I first held in my arms the most beautiful baby I had ever seen and she stuck her tongue out at me.  I don't have words to tell you how joyous I am  to have a 13 year old daughter Emma, who will make me over all my life.

PS  I wish I had some words of wisdom about sisters,  but you are teaching me about sisters. If a fairy godmother suddenly offered to grant my fondest wish, I'd wish for some sisters.  Don't take your fights too seriously.  When people constantly share such small quarters, they inevitably rub against each other, irritate each other, infuriate each other.  I could happily endure any number of fights if you would be close friends when you are grown up.  Despite all the ways they drive you crazy, I envy you your sisters.

Mother's Day, May 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

January 20, 2014

How Revolutions Become Trademarks

Dear Mary Joan,

Hi sister feminist - from Redstockings - the actual organization. We like some of the political views you posted on your blog titled Redstocking (http://redstockinggrandma1945.blogspot.com/). Unfortunately though, we have to ask you to find another name besides "Redstockings." Perhaps RadFem Grandma?

We ask this because Redstockings is real live operating organization - a 501(c)(3), with archives, publications, fundraising, public classes and more. For more information, you can find us at www.redstockings.org. You can also find us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Redstockings

In order to be able to keep others from randomly using the name, and thus causing confusion for people, we have to ask others not to use it.  We have to be diligent to ensure that the Redstocking's trademark is used correctly. We find your blog a good read and think you're making a contribution with it. However, if we allow uses like this one, we run the very real risk that our trademark will be weakened. As a fan of the name, I'm sure that is not something you intended or would want to see happen.

 Please do seek another name for your interesting blog. We hope to stay in touch.

Thank you,  
Redstockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement

August 22, 2013

Grandma, Kinkeeping, and the Birthday Book

One of my most cherished possessions is my grandmother's small 1980 datebook. It lists the birthdays of all her children, their spouses, her grandchildren, their spouses, and her great-grandchildren. All of us could absolutely count on a card from Grandma on our birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations. She always enclosed a dollar for her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She was on a strict budget and we cherished her generosity. If you hadn't received a card from Grandma Nolan, you must have gotten confused about your birthday She had 8 children, 31 grandchildren, and 23 great-grandchilden when she died at age 86 in 1985.

Mary Catherine  King was born in 1898 and left school after eighth grade. One of her first jobs was to mount women's combs on cards. She married my grandfather, James Nolan, a widowed lawyer with a toddler son, at age 22. She had seven children, four sons and three daughters; she raised her stepson as her own. Tragically one daughter died before she was two. Her husband died when she was 40; her children ranged from 17 to 2. He had been sick for 7 years; his chronic illness made it impossible for him to secure life insurance. After his death, she discovered his filing cabinet was full of unpaid bills from poor clients. Grandma had lost her parents the year before. Abruptly, they were very poor She collected rent from three small apartments in Brooklyn, but the apartments were the source of endless headaches. She worked in a laundromat. The older children helped support the family. My mom had to attend secretarial school rather than college.

Grandma was a very loving, giving, ingenious, frugal single mother. All her children turned out well--two lawyers, two teachers, a nurse, a social worker, a computer programmer. She was unavailingly there to help out when babies were born, when someone was sick, when someone was in crisis. A very religious woman, she was empowered by her deep faith. A lifelong Democrat, she voted in the first election open to women. She was always fascinated by world affairs and extremely knowledgeable about them. I could talk to her about anything.

In Becoming Grandmothers, Sheila Kitzinger describes the grandmother's role as the "kin-keeper." I have been understudying that role since my family lived with my grandma during the first two years of my life. I am the oldest girl cousin, just like my mom and grandmother were the oldest girls in their families. Grandmothers do emotional work. They sustain and nourish the family's kinship, keeping everyone connected with one another. This is a greater challenge now when families are far-flung and both parents are working grueling schedules. There is very little time left over for extended families. Weddings and funerals are often the only family reunions. Fortunately, we have had seven big family weddings since my mom's death10 years ago. One of my brothers has 6 grandkids, another 2.

I take absolutely seriously my commitment to follow my grandmother and mother, two strong, loving, generous matriarchs. I kno the extended family's addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, birthdays, anniversaries. I try to inform  the family if anyone is sick or in trouble, is engaged, lost a job,  got a new job, is pregnant. In the event of a family death, I always find out the funerael arrangements.I can always identify the people in those old pictures ande can quickly produce old pictures upon request.

I have 5 brothers, 5 sister-in-laws, 11 nieces and nephews, 8 of whom are married. I have 7 grandnieces and 4 grandnephews. Twice a year I revise the extended family directory, prying the information out of everyone. Two family email lists. one for my immediate family, one for my extended family, enable us to share news and pictures. We  know what is happening in our lives, even if we don't see each other often enough. I do more of the communicating than anyone else, but I consider that my responsibility. My 5 brothers, 3 sisters-in-law , 4 daughters, 4 sons-in-law, most nieces and nephews are on facebook.

I have seen both my mother's and father's formerly close knit family disperse once the family matriarch dids. My extended family is scattered all over the East Coast, from Maine to North Carolina, so it is a challenge to keep us close. One daughter, usually a New Yorker, is living in Paris for two years. Two live in Boston, one in DC.  Fortunately, we have had six family weddings since my mom's death 4 years ago, so they have been family reunions as well. By next February, there will have been 6 babies in two years. Weddings and funerals are often the only family reunions. Fortunately, we have had seven big family weddings since my mom's death10 years ago. One of my brothers has 6 grandkids, another 2.

I have a small bedroom filled with  16 boxes of my parents' wartime letters.  50 boxes of family slides,  about 30 photo albums.  I have letters I, my brothers, and my daughters wrote to my mom.   I have the papers my mom wrote when she returned to college at age  42, I have three file draws full of my daughters' best drawings, school papers, letters and cards.

Arranging an extended family reunion has become an impossible challenge. My mother's 80th birthday party in 1981, my oldest brother's  60th birthday in 2007, my 65th birthday in 2010,  my 70th birthday in 2015, 7 big family weddings, one funeral have been the biggest gatherings.

When I was taking care of mother 24/7 during the last three years of her life, I scanned thousands of old family photos and slides. My husband, a computer programmer, wrote software for many family picture sites. His software enabled me to caption the photos and arrange them in chronological order. Pictures that family members had never seen were freed from boxes and closets and available to everyone, anytime. At my mother's wake, we were able to show a slideshow of her life, with pictures from 1921 to 2004.

As I learn to grandmother, my Grandma Nolan is my inspiration and role model. Looking through her date book always brings back new memories of  unfailing love,  absolute commitment,  kindness, and understanding.

September 18, 2012

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.

September 13, 2012

Confused Feminist Has a Baby, 1973

Dropping out of Columbia Law School in 1971 was a turning point in my life. After a year of soul-searching journal writing, I realized that I had been denying my emotional, nurturant, sensitive  nature, never considering careers like psychology or social work. Closer to my dad and having 5 younger brothers, I had raised myself as a Koch male, In the jargon of early consciousness-raising groups, I was male identified. I got very involved in the feminist movement in New York City and recognized the sexism of "thinking like a man."

I had always assumed that professional success was far more important to me than traditional motherhood. I had seen how my mother postponed her dreams until the youngest of her six children entered school. Instead of being a lawyer, as she had originally planned, she settled for high school teaching.

A few months later a good friend got pregnant, and I became intensely involved in her pregnancy. For the first time in my life,  I wanted to have a baby. I questioned my motives, wondering if I was merely postponing the inevitable return to grad school. I assured myself I would go back to work when the baby was a few months old. I got pregnant the first month we tried, and I loved being pregnant.  I was able to achieve my goal of natural childbirth. I felt terrific immediately after birth. Breastfeeding was easy.

Nothing prepared me for drowning in an overwhelming surge of love, tenderness, protectiveness the minute I looked into my new daughter's bright eager eyes. I had never believed in the myths of fulfilling motherhood, and yet mothering young children was the most fascinating, creative job of my life.

Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine I would love being  full-time mother from 1973 to 1988 and  my grandson's nanny from 20007 to 2009.

But if anything, I am more of a feminist than I was in 1971.

Confused Feminist in Love

I read the Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan when I was a freshman in college.  Friedan did not raise my consciousness, but gave me more confidence in my ideas. I attended Fordham University, planning to become a college professor of political science. Fordham had just begun to admit women, and I was often the only girl in my political science class. Being the only girl and the best student in a class was heaven. I met John, my future first husband, in my junior year. It is a family joke that I was first attracted to him when I heard his SAT scores. John found my intellectuality and my femininity equally attractive, and for the first time reconciling the two seemed possible. Just to be sure, I insisted he read Simone DeBeauvoir's The Second Sex before I was willing to make love. What a self-righteous little prig I was ! But John contributed as much as I did to four daughters' academic and professional achievement.

John, a year behind me in college, planned to be a physics professor. (I was desperate to hide from my family that John was 9 months younger.) When I applied to grad schools, I looked for places equally strong in both physics and political science, figuring a year's separation would make us surer about marriage. If I had known myself better, I would have applied to grad schools in New York City. I went to Stanford University in California, 3000 miles away from my love. I hated grad school, was miserable without John, and left after two months. My parents were puzzled that I had given up an all-expenses paid PhD; I foolishly avoided my family for two months. I would not admit to myself that missing John, not hating graduate school, was my major motive. As a result of that delusion, I didn't return to graduate school until 16 years later.

I returned to New York,  got married, and slowly worked my way up in New York City book publishing. I was never wildly enthusiastic about editing social science and psychiatry books. It resembled grad school, abstract, intellectual, remote from people.  Why I went to law school was murky. The preceding spring at my brother  Richard's wedding, my brother Stephen said, "Mom thinks you should go to law school and make something of yourself." In a retirement interview, my mom told the editor of the high school paper that she would have gone to law school if she had had the opportunities open to women now. Whose ambitions were I trying to fulfill?

Confused Feminist As a Girl

Growing up with five younger brothers guaranteed I would be a feminist. My mother had five brothers as well.  For a good 16 years I was taller and stronger and smarter and better read. Looking at old pictures that show me towering over my brothers, I mourn lost opportunities for cutting them down to size:) I recall asking the nun preparing us for Holy Communion why the boys went up to the altar first. "Because they are closer to God since they can be priests," was her reply. At that moment I became a feminist. I confess I was less interested in solidarity with women than in besting men. I felt outraged when my brother could be an altar boy and I couldn't, even though my Latin was infinitely better.

Sixty years later, I still adore intellectual competition and debate with men.

My immediate neighborhood had no girls to play with, only boys, so I coped by becoming a tomboy, passionately interested in baseball. My brothers used to challenge their friends to ask me a baseball question I couldn't answer. My family always encouraged academic achievement. I was a shy intellectual in high school; my friends hung out at the high school newspaper and the debate club. None of us dated. I concluded that smart girls didn't attract men unless they deliberately played dumb, something I refused to do. Besides my ideal male was Jack Kennedy. Crushing on JFK was good for me. I immersed myself in politics and American history.

Although my mom started college when I did, she was in what my brother Stephen calls her creative phase when I was growing up. A full-time mother, she sewed most of my clothes, canned tomatoes, made hats, made sock monkeys when she wasn't taking care of six kids and incredibly active in her local church. My father was the brain; we minimized my mom's great intelligence. I didn't want to be my mom. Imagine my confusion when she graduated from college the same day I did, with a straight A average. She had become a feminist and 60s radical, fully committed to the civil rights movement and protest against the Vietnam War..

May 28, 2012

Corduroy Over 35 Years

Vanessa was 15 months old; maybe that is why she is distracted by the camera, unlike her more attentive son. She would have listened more attentively to Andy than to someone reading with her eyes closed.