December 11, 2007

Golden Compass and Children's Reading

I have followed with great interest the ongoing discussion of the Golden Compass, the movie based on the first novel in Phillip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials. These young adult novels could fairly be termed anti-organized religion. The movie is getting lukewarm and poor reviews and low attendance. Its opponents probably should stop giving it free publicity by calling for boycotts. I urge parents to read these three excellent books and struggle with how they would answer their teen's questions about them. They are not children's books; almost all public libraries classify them as young adult novels suitable for high schoolers.

The Archbishop of Canterbury had a more enlightened approach. He has had public discussions with Pullman and urged that religious educators use the novel in classes with teenagers. At a certain point, all believers have to struggle with the history of their faith and its failure to live up to its beliefs. It seems far better to do that as a teenager with adult guidance from fellow believers.

My parents never censored my reading. They supported me in my 11-year-old effort to convince the local librarian to allow me to check out adult books. The Catholic Church's index of forbidden books was a factor in my eventual estrangement from Catholicism. I never censored my four daughters' reading. But I always paid careful attention to what they were reading. If the book was questionable, I read it too and discussed it with them. His Dark Materials was published after they were grown, but I have analyzed it with the two daughters who have read the trilogy.

I took a very different approach to TV and movies. I believe children can protect themselves from upsetting reading, skipping over the violent parts, choosing not to continue with the book. Scary, violent movies and TV shows are far more likely to cause nightmares and persistent fears. For five years we didn't have a TV; their watching was always restricted. At one point we had a lock on our TV. I have always objected to violence far more than sexuality or bad language.

As a librarian, I would be opposed to removing His Dark Materials from any high school or public library. The books are considered among the best young adult novels of the last ten years, far better written and more demanding than Harry Potter. A boycott of a novel written 12 years ago indicates that the boycotters don't read enough. The bright side of the controversy is that more people will read the books. When I recommended the books to mature teens, they claimed they were too long and too hard. Banned books always increase library circulation.

November 30, 2007

Homework: A Rant

For the first six years of grade school, my oldest daughter went to schools in Manhattan and Maine that did not give homework except for some long-term reading expectations. At the time I didn't sufficiently appreciate how lovely and stress free after-school time was.

November 27, 2007

Sharing a Room

Emily at Wheels on the Bus had an excellent post today on children's sharing rooms. Since I had a 2-bedroom apartment, a 3-bedroom apartment, and then a 3-bedroom house, my 4 daughters always shared rooms until the older ones went to college and shared rooms with absolute strangers.

Growing up, I was the only girl with 5 younger brothers; from the time I was 7, I had my own room. Before that, I shared a bedroom with my 2 younger brothers. I always wanted a sister, and I would have been happy to share a room with her. I always had roommates in college and in my first Manhattan apartments before I got married. My husband came from a family of 5 kids, and he always shared a room with his brother.

We took it for granted that our kids would share bedrooms. Originally we planned to stay in a New York City apartment, and only millionaires have a big enough apartment to give each of 4 children their own room. In no way did we ever feel we were depriving our kids because they didn't have their own rooms. In our 3-bedroom Manhattan apartment, 3 of them decided to sleep in the same bedroom, so they could use the extra bedroom as a playroom.

Getting the baby out of our bedroom was much easier because she looked forward to sharing a room with her sisters. Sharing bedrooms made bedtime easier all through early childhood.
I suspect my girls are closer because of their enforced togetherness. Sure there were conflicts, especially over cleaning rooms. I do recall my second child putting a strip of duct tape down the center of the room to establish cleaning responsibilities. Possibly they played more outside their bedrooms since they had less room.

Sharing rooms is excellent preparation for college. My kids always had roommates in college in dorm rooms much smaller than the usual bedroom. At Yale, one year, they had to share bunkbeds. In major US cities, most people share apartments for economic reasons.

I am 62. I only had my own room for 16 years--11 years of my childhood and 5 years between marriages. I have never felt deprived:)

November 19, 2007

Discipline--Grandmothers and Mothers

Reading other mothers’ blogs, I am feeling all of my 63 years and every strand of my silver hair. Although I might feel more comfortable with these eloquent younger women, I belong to their mothers’ generation and might symbolize for them their mothers’ mistakes. I was born a month before the end of World War II. I am six months too old to be a baby boomer. Most of my contemporaries didn’t stay home with their kids, didn’t have 4 children, and pitied me for my domestic imprisonment.

I was often surprised by how much stricter some of the blogging mothers seem to be. My oldest daughter, 35, speculated that her generation believed more in discipline than their parents did, because so many of their parents worked long hours and used permissiveness to assuage their guilt about their unavailability to their kids. Do you think she has a point? Or does the economic necessity of entrusting children to group or nanny care at younger ages demand better behavior than parents who stay at home would expect or tolerate?

My four daughters were not model children. I was better at stimulation and creativity than boundaries and discipline. They were excellent students when they showed up in school. In retrospect, I permitted an overly permissive ad hoc homeschooling option for the easily bored who could cough convincingly. They did not speak to their grandparents, teachers, any other adults the way they were allowed to speak to their parents. I often heard about my charming, delightful daughters.

I wonder if today’s moms would let their kids play with my kids. My kids were allowed to express their feelings endlessly. They rarely picked up their toys and their rooms were unspeakable. Chronically late, they often needed to be driven to a that was close enough to walk to. Household chores were not their strong points. No doubt I was rebelling against the strict, guilt-inducing discipline of my Catholic childhood. I transferred my first daughter to another public school because her teacher said "for shame" to her on the second day of kindergarten.

I was not permissive about violence. I always stopped my oldest daughter from hitting her younger sister. She was only 2; I didn't punish her. But I made a big deal of encouraging her to express her anger in words. "Use words not hitting to tell Michelle how you feel." Anne dictated stories and drew pictures to express how she felt about her sister. The books were simple affairs. I folded construction paper, used a hole puncher on the fold, and tied the sheets together with string. I kept them, and everyone still loves to read them. I always took away the toy used as a weapon. By the time Anne was 4 and Michelle was 2, they usually could play happily with blocks without mayhem.

Punishment would not have taught Anne a lifelong way of handling her anger; it would have just made her more rebellious. I hurt my back when she was 3 and could not play with her as usual. "Draw me a picture of the dummy mommy with the bad back," she instructed. She then took a pencil and stabbed that picture countless times. I was appalled, but it helped her. Anne had almost perfect recall of her dreams from the time she was 2. Their violence was a revelation. "Daddy went under the train last night because I didn't like his noise. Then I went to live with Ellen." "But Ellen sometimes yells at her children," I pointed out. "Then she will have to go under the train too," Anne said matter of factly. Now Ann works for a world peace organization.

My two younger daughters were relatively peaceful creatures who were born using words not weapons. Carolyn, the baby, was babbling once her head was born. Their older sisters adored them. I attributed such harmony to the sibling bonding that occurred when Rose and Carolyn were born at home. Three and one half years apart rather than 2 years apart make a tremendous difference. Rose, my third daughter, would remind me that toddler Carolyn sometimes bit her without provocation, and Rose, a wonderful big sister, never responded in kind.

Disciplining them for verbal aggression would have been a full-time job. Their father and I were not perfect role models. When I was 7 years old and made my first confession, my sins were: disobedience, talking back to my parents, and hitting my brothers. In succeeding years, despite frequent repentance, I managed to stop hitting my brothers, but made little progress on the other two sins. We tolerated our daughters talking back to us if they were not abusive. "I hate you mommy" was acceptable if they could articulate their anger more specifically. I admit “respect” was not a word they heard frequently.

My younger daughter’s daughter's college application essay gives an evaluation of my discipline style I don’t deserve: "We were never spanked or severely punished when we did something Mom disapproved of. Instead, she simply told us how she felt about it. I'm sure some parents would say that my sisters and I weren't disciplined enough. However, I've noticed that when friends of mine are grounded, they often complain about their unfair parents, but I take it very seriously when Mom tells me she's disappointed in me. “ She charitably left out all the times I let them behave in a way I found intolerable and then I screamed at them. Obviously it would have been better to respect my limits and save them from my harsh words.

We were strict about academics, safety, and seatbelts. Dropping out of honors classes or not taking advancement placement courses because they required too much work was never acceptable. Possibly we pressured them too much to succeed academically, but we expected them to honor their considerable intellectual gifts. We threw out our television set when our oldest was four and didn’t get another for five years. We were extremely strict about TV; we had a lock on it. They could not watch TV on school nights. We rejoiced that we had the only teenagers who felt they were being bad by watching TV. There were no problems with boys, booze, or drugs. We were relatively poor, so we didn't buy them lots of clothes or toys. We encouraged their interest in world affairs, occasionally took them to peace demonstrations.

I made countless mistakes, but they all are well-educated, compassionate, dedicated women, able to own and use all their particular gifts. They have met and married wonderful men. They assure me they are going to be much stricter with their kids and make them clean up their room, vacuum, mop, clean bathrooms and go to school every single day they are not running a 103 fever. We all try not to repeat our parents' mistakes, possibly then making our grandparents' mistakes. We might only learn the truth about our parenting by watching our children parent our grandchildren. My oldest daughter is a far better mother than I was with her, but my first grandson is only 15 months old. Anne and Michael are an excellent match. When people tell me he is all boy, I always demur, saying he is all his mother. Anne was much more like my mother than she was like me. Sometimes I felt squashed between two very powerful, dominant personalities.


Gardening is in my blood. My grandparents had World War II victory gardens. My parents had a big backyard, about a third of an acre. My dad was a vegetable gardener, my mom grew flowers. Neither of them were great cooks, so I don't remember specific family recipes. What I remember are delicious fresh vegetables--tomatoes, string beans, corn, zucchini, broccoli, lettuce. No tomatoes or corn have ever tasted as good. They had wonderful blueberries bushes, which supplied enough berries to freeze for winter cereal. Before my mom went back to college, she canned tomatoes.

Gardening was the perfect way for my dad to unwind from his actuarial job and his long railroad commute into Manhattan. I remember his encouraging us to start our own little gardens. I remember helping him plant strawberries. I remember picking off Japanese beetles from the rose bushes and putting them in a jar of something that killed them. The garden was the best place for long talks with dad, away from the noise of too many brothers in a too small house.

After we moved to Long Island in 1983, I slowly became a gardener. I am erratic. I like to garden in the spring and fall before the summer heat drains my energy and motivation. I plant more than I weed. I usually grow herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and eggplant. We have lots of perennials in the front yard; zinnias seem the ideal summer annual. Pruning and cutting the grass was an ideal way to deal with my anger in the years when my first marriage was dying. Visiting the garden first thing in the morning energizes me. Weeding is good for depression.

Since I became a grandmother, nurturing my grandson has replaced gardening. I look forward to introducing Michael to gardening when he is two and telling him stories about the great-grandparents he never met.

November 13, 2007

NYTimes--Bad Behavior Does Not Doom Pupils, Studies Say

The New York Times has an important article today that is must reading for all parents concerned about their young children's behavioral problems.

Bad Behavior Does Not Doom Pupils, Studies Say --by Benedict Carey
"Educators and psychologists have long feared that children entering school with behavior problems were doomed to fall behind in the upper grades. But two new studies suggest that those fears are exaggerated.

One concluded that kindergartners who are identified as troubled do as well academically as their peers in elementary school. The other found that children with attention deficit disorders suffer primarily from a delay in brain development, not from a deficit or flaw.

Experts say the findings of the two studies, being published today in separate journals, could change the way scientists, teachers and parents understand and manage children who are disruptive or emotionally withdrawn in the early years of school. The studies might even prompt a reassessment of the possible causes of disruptive behavior in some children.
“I think these may become landmark findings, forcing us to ask whether these acting-out kinds of problems are secondary to the inappropriate maturity expectations that some educators place on young children as soon as they enter classrooms,” said Sharon Landesman Ramey, director of the Georgetown University Center on Health and Education, who was not connected with either study. "

My comments: Parts of the article annoyed me. The experts seemed perfectly comfortable with kids' taking stimulants for ADHD until their development catches up with prevailing educational norms. They do concede that most kids grow out of ADHD. Why is American society so comfortable with drugging kids rather than changing schools so they can accommodate kids with different learning styles and different rates of cognitive development?

My two older children went to an excellent public school near the World Trade Center, run by a very gifted principal, Blossom Gelertner. Blossom felt that teachers and parents should not be concerned about boys who were slow to read until the boys were 8. My daughter teaches first grade in Boston; teachers now worry about kids who can't read when they enter first grade. I have always been an excellent reader, but I only learned my letters in first grade. By the end of the year, I was reading at a sixth grade level. Experienced parents have learned that readiness is all when it comes to crawling, walking, talking, toilet training, weaning, the move to a regular bed, etc. What have so many educators forgotten that lesson?

November 12, 2007

Duck and Cover, Assassinations, Civil Rights, and Vietnam

This is a picture of Robert Kennedy speaking at my graduation from Fordham University in 1967. RFK was running for president in 1968 when he was assassinated June 5, ten days before my wedding. I had a final wedding dress fitting the day of the assassination, and I was in tears the whole time.

My first specific political memory centered around the duck-and -cover, hide-under-our-desks, exercises that were a regular feature of my early school life from age 5 on. I knew enough about nuclear war to be terrified. We lived one mile away from an air force base, and I used to go out to the backyard, look up at the planes, and try to determine if they were American or Russian. I remember getting a book out of the library on aircraft identification. When I heard Joseph Stalin died, I remember asking if that meant no one would drop atom bombs on us.

In 1954 I had a severe case of the measles and Grandma Nolan came to help nurse me. She was listening to the Joseph McCarthy army hearings. Hatred of McCarthy's voice might have shaped my entire political development. In 1956, just turning eleven, I fell madly in love with Jack Kennedy as he made an unsuccessful bid for the vice presidential nomination. A good catholic school girl, I was initially attracted by his Catholicism; ten minutes later I was smitten by his intelligence, wit, and charm. I was luckier than his other women. Loving Jack Kennedy was good for me. I read about politics and history. From 1956 to 1963, I read everything I could about Kennedy, politics, American History.. When I was 15 I did volunteer work for his presidential campaign.

In high school we had political debates to imitate the famous Kennedy/Nixon debates and I represented Kennedy. What he believed in, I believed in. Gradually I moved to the left of his pragmatic liberalism. Certainly Kennedy was responsible for my decision to major in political science in college. Kennedy's assassination, occurring in the fall of my freshman year in college, devastated me. I felt like there had been a death in my immediate family. I quickly transferred my political allegiance to Bobby Kennedy.

I cannot precisely date my interest in and commitment to civil rights. When I was a freshman, I joined my college's Interracial Understanding Group. I was envious of those college students who could afford to spend the summer down south registering voters and didn't have to worry about money to pay their tuition.

Gradually during college I became a pacifist. Opposition to the Vietnam War right from the beginning was the catalyst. My husband to be, John, applied for conscientious objector status and was willing to face jail rather than be inducted. We became very active in the Catholic Peace Fellowship, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the War Resister's League, all pacifist organizations. We went on several anti-war demonstrations both in New York and Washington. I briefly attended Stanford University where resistance to the war was at its height. Almost every afternoon, David Harris, Joan Baez's future husband, spoke out eloquently against the war.

My first job after Stanford was as an assistant to Victor Riesel, a labor columnist, who had been blinded by acid thrown in his face by the mob who controlled the waterfront he was exposing. My assignments included reading the AP ticker to him every day, clipping and reading articles in about 20 newspaper and labor papers. This was in 1968, when King and Kennedy were assassinated, when anti-war protect was at its height, so thinking about politics were my job. My decision to go to law school, where I lasted two weeks, was motivated by my political convictions.
Mary Virginia Nolan was born August 11, 1921 in Brooklyn, NY. She is the second oldest of 8 children; she has five brothers and two sisters. One sister, Veronica, died at 2 years old. She grew up in Queens Village, NY. Her dad, a lawyer, died when she was 17 after being seriously ill most of her teenage years. Mary was always the super-responsible oldest daughter, trying to help her mom anyway she could. She attended Our Lady of Wisdom Academy in Ozone Park. She has kept up with her high school friends all her life. She was an excellent student and planned to attend college; she wanted to be a journalist. Her father's death changed everything, and she instead went to secretarial school and worked as a secretary. In her early 20's she attended Queens College at night, but stopped taking classes after she contacted pneumonia.

My Dad's Yearbook Profile

No problem, riddle, or formula seems to be beyond his ken. He is the outstanding scientist of St. Francis College; he is the winner of the coveted Smith Memorial Medal for excellence in Science. Yet even his own brilliance could not fathom the enigma of Joe Koch. In many ways Joe is a walking paradox. He seldom laughs outright; in fact his picture would lead one to believe that he is a sombre pessimist. Yet it is his nimble wit that makes him a distinctive personality. His humor is never loud; rather it is whimsical and epigrammatic.

To be the leading scholar of the college it is necessary to do more work than the average. A student who is desirous of attaining official recognition must sit at home and do extra assignments. That is the normal procedure. But is that the form fol owed by our human riddle? Certainly not! He is actually scrupulous about not doing more than the assignment requires. He does exactly what he is demanded to do and not one jot more. What he does, however, is of such undeniable excellence that he was one of the first men picked for the Duns Scotus Honor Society.

With regards to one trait, however, Joe appears to contain no contradictions. That is his quality of intense loyalty to his friends.

Joe's Yearbook Profile

No problem, riddle, or formula seems to be beyond his ken. He is the outstanding scientist of St. Francis College; he is the winner of the coveted Smith Memorial Medal for excellence in Science. Yet even his own brilliance could not fathom the enigma of Joe Koch. In many ways Joe is a walking paradox. He seldom laughs outright; in fact his picture would lead one to believe that he is a sombre pessimist. Yet it is his nimble wit that makes him a distinctive personality. His humor is never loud; rather it is whimsical and epigrammatic.

To be the leading scholar of the college it is necessary to do more work than the average. A student who is desirous of attaining official recognition must sit at home and do extra assignments. That is the normal procedure. But is that the form fol owed by our human riddle? Certainly not! He is actually scrupulous about not doing more than the assignment requires. He does exactly what he is demanded to do and not one jot more. What he does, however, is of such undeniable excellence that he was one of the first men picked for the Duns Scotus Honor Society.

With regards to one trait, however, Joe appears to contain no contradictions. That is his quality of intense loyalty to his friends.

Little Brother

I have always loved this picture of me and my brother Joe, 18 months younger, taken in the fall of 1948. This might have been the last time I had the advantage over Joe. I seem smugly satisfied by his captivity. In my baby book my mom claims that "Mary Jo and Joe were always ahead of mother. Often though she forgot he was so small and played rough." I am dubious; he does not look intimidated. Joe always pulled the wool over mom's eyes. She never knew that Joe's babysitting consisted of taking his brothers out on the roof and daring them to jump into the swimming pool.

All our lives, I have never been sure when Joe is pulling my leg. For 50 years he made me feel guilty for pushing him down the cellar stairs in his walker. He blames all his academic inadequacies on the resulting head injury. I believed him since Andrew (3 years younger) and I were so much better students. Before her death my mom revealed that Lorraine, our next door neighbor, was the real culprit. Significantly, I thought I might have wanted to eliminate him.
From age 7, I regularly asked forgiveness in confession for hitting my brothers. The priest should have been more skeptical about my resolution of never doing it again.

My mom and dad must have been dedicated to nurturing their children's unique gifts at whatever cost, so Santa was allowed to bring Joe a drum and me a baton. We lived in a tiny two bedroom, one bathroom, one-story house. Was Joe allowed to play the drum inside? This picture proves the falsity of Joe's accusation that I regularly beat him up. If I been a brother slayer, surely my mom and dad would not have trusted me with such an effective weapon. Richard obviously had not a fear in the world that my baton would come in contact with his head or his drum.

Joe is an amazing brother. I have always been in awe of him. Like my mom he much so much braver, bolder, eager to try new things, capable of stunningly creative mischief. I admired his becoming an altar boy when I knew Latin so much better. I admired his serving God and making a profit with wedding and funeral tips. I admired his persistence in track and cross country in high school when he never won and no one came to his meets. I admired his taking the driving test five separate times.

Joe came home from college with a trunk full of new shirts. He had been too busy gambling away his scholarship to do the laundry. Joe decided to try skiing for the first time the day before his wedding. He badly injured his knee and needed a shot of cortisone to limp his way up to the altar. The Epistle described how "my love comes leaping to me like a gazelle." I admired his courageous decision to resist induction into the army and go to jail if he didn't get conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. I was impressed by his success at keeping his plan to refuse induction in 6 weeks a secret from his bride's family at the wedding.

Joe has fathered 6 children, been a prison librarian, ran a gas station, taught in a ghetto school, built a playground, sold coffee and ice cream, ran a chain of newspapers, been CFO of the largest US used truck company, owned an oil company, sold escalator efficiency equipment, and finally found fulfillment as CFO of his older daughter's company. He has always been a rock, supporting me and my daughters in all our trials and craziness. Sometimes his support is endless, infuriating advice. But I always know he persists in being wrong because he truly loves me.

Does Fear of Automatic Flushing Toilets Qualify as a Psychiatric Diagnosis?

The New York Times today has an interesting story on young children's fear of automatic flushing toilets. I certainly understand their fears. My daughter Rose was terrified of baths until her dad taught her the word "vortex" to explain the water draining out of the tub.

Buried in the article in this absurd statement:

Jerilyn Ross, president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, said that a fear of automatic toilets did not, in itself, meet the criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis. “Anxiety in and of itself is normal and healthy,” she said, “but when anxiety is excessive, irrational, and if it interferes with one’s daily life, then it may be an anxiety disorder, which is something that may need to be treated.”

Surely, some psychiatrists must question the tendency to make more and more human eccentricities and idiosyncracies grounds for psychiatric diagnosis.

November 11, 2007

Wartime Love Letters

Mary and Joe, March 6, 1944; honeymoon

For Remembrance Day, Mad Hatter published a fascinating post about boxes of wartime letters she found when remodeling her old house. Her post has special resonance for me because I have 20 plastic boxes full of letters my parents wrote from November 1942, when my dad was drafted, until February 1946, when he came home from France and saw me for the first time. I keep postponing doing something with themt. I started a blog of the letters, Mary and Joe: World War II Love Story, but I haven't kept it up. My father particularly was a wonderful writer, who never wrote anything but these letters. Mad Hatter inspired me to go back to that project.

My daughter Rose wrote this about the wartime letters several years ago. She included excerpts from the letters that I am not including here.
In my grandmother's house, past a stone Mexican statue named Harry, up the front stairs and to the right there is a bedroom. In this bedroom there are a pea green carpet, a bed with yellow and orange flowered sheets, and a cracked blue dresser. This dresser, unlike every other bureau and closet in this house, does not contain any seventies-style ties, old scarves, or early feminist t-shirts. Instead every drawer is filled with letters.

Joe lived in Jamaica, Queens, with his parents and six younger sisters and brothers. His college yearbook said of him, "Even his own brilliance could not fathom the enigma that is Joe." Mary lived in Queens Village. She was the second child, and the oldest girl, in a family of seven. Her high school yearbook described her as, "Sincerity coupled with bubbling vivacity, scholastic excellence with literary talents, athletic prowess, sparkling wit." She would not have a college yearbook until many years later, because her father had died without much life insurance when she was seventeen years old. Her father's brother squeezed together the money for her older brother to continue school at St. John's, but Mary was just a girl.

Mary and Joe had met the summer of 1942, on a raft at Loon Lake in the Adirondacks. He was 28, she was 21. A week later, back in Queens, he took her to see Bambi. They saw each other often in the three months after Bambi became Prince of the forest, and before Joe was drafted. He kissed her for the first time on the day he left for the army.

They will get engaged the night before her 22nd birthday in August 1943 and will marry the next March. The wedding will not be fancy, since it was planned in about four days and no one had much money anyway. The reception will be in Mary's backyard. Joe will go off to war in Europe, though his bad vision will ensure that he never faces combat. They will have their first child while he is away. There will be short letters to Baby Mary Jo, my mother, enclosed with the longer ones to Mary. Then in 1946, when Mary Jo is eight months old, Joe will finally come home and the letters will end.

They will have five more children, and the children will have fourteen kids of their own. Joe will die of Alzheimer's disease in May of 1987. Mary will become a lobbyist and counselor for victims of the disease and their families. She will become even more involved with her church, and even more of a rock for her distressingly heathen children and grandchildren. Mary will die in April 2004 of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy.

My grandparents' generation has been called "The Greatest Generation." They survived the depression, they fought Hitler. Yes, they did, but many of them also contributed to horrible racial injustice, and a few of them dropped the bomb. I suppose that talking about our parents' and grandparents' moral superiority is an improvement over not trusting them because they're over forty, but it's not much of an improvement. It would be far more honest to say that they did some very good things, and some very bad things. They had fewer toys, and certainly they wrote better love letters, but they were more or less just like us.

To put it another way, generation schmeneration. I'm not going to even try to judge. Instead I will sit here and read these letters. I will learn that my mother's mother is more than the grandma who babysat for us almost every week for ten years, and who is always inappropriately freezing things. I will learn that my mother's father was far more than the sick, confused old man I remember.

What We Wanted for Christmas

How did we know what we wanted for Christmas in the days before television, glossy newspaper and magazine advertisements? The Sears Christmas Wish Book was our bible. After it came in early November, my mom used to hide it for a few weeks, so we didn't have months to want things she couldn't afford to give us. I don't recall regular visits to department stores, though we probably did visit Santa Claus occasionally.

We had more generic requests--bikes, trains, truck, dolls, chemistry sets, tinker toys--than kids do today. I recall being thrilled with a cake baking set. We didn't long for specific brands, colors, sizes. Our presents did not require batteries. We were aware that mom and dad were not rich.

But my memory could be playing tricks on me. Perhaps I spent hours gazing over the Sears catalog and coming up with a 25-item list. In my old age, I have learned to mistrust memories that compare me favorably to younger generations. When my daughter Rose was 5, she said, "anything Santa wants to bring me for Christmas is fine with me." I doubt my brothers and I would have been so unmaterialistic.

November 9, 2007

Lady in Red

1947, 1948, 1957, 1971
Both Andrea and Bub and Pie have excellent posts about color. As the above pictures show, red has always been my favorite color since I was a little girl. My first tricycle was red. My blogs have a red banner, and the sidebar text is red. I have always wanted a red living room, but only managed to have one after my first marriage ended and my three older girls had left home. My red living room makes me happy as does my yellow kitchen, my blue bathroom, and my green bedroom. I struggle with depression, and red is the only reliable anti-depressant for me. "Better red than dead" has more than a political meaning.

When I met my first and second husbands I was wearing a red dress. I wore red for my second marriage. I love wearing red hats. I love red shoes, but find them hard to find for my wide feet. My favorite shoes ever were a pair of red suede boots. It is very easy to go shopping if you are looking for red, either in a thrift shop or a department store.

At job interviews with a man, I have worn red; with a woman, anything but red. Once, when I was manic, I had a red sweat shirt made up that proclaimed, "Never love a man who doesn't love Jane Austen, Doris Lessing, and Margaret Drabble." The owner of the shop told me no shirt had evoked more comment. Her favorite was a man who reacted, "That poor woman; she lives in the wrong country." Obviously he was right since I married an Englishman.

My favorite coat is a bright red fleece jacket I inherited from my mom when she died 3 years ago. When I wear it, I sometimes feel like she is giving me a hug. When I meet someone in Manhattan, I am easy to find--straight silver hair wearing red. It's sad how few New Yorkers wear red. PerhapstNew Yorkers should commemorate 9/11 by wearing red.

Reading Bub's Post, I wondered how I reconcile my lifelong introversion with red. Red is how I cope with my shyness. If I wasn't wearing red to a party or a meeting, I might disappear. When I am manic, I cope best by going to NYC , wearing red, and talking to strangers.Now at 62, I suspect my silver hair absolutely cancels out my redness.

October 14, 2007

Along the Austic Spectrum?

This post is not facetious; I am struggling to understand. I am beginning to wonder if I might fall somewhere along the autistic spectrum as it is now conceived. I have a few close friends, but am very involved with my big family. Most of my abundant email is from my family. I am only truly myself with people I love. I am much more comfortable interacting with people on blogs than in real life. I would always chose reading a good book or watching TV and movies with my husband over attending a party.

I only had lots of friends when I lived in Manhattan; then I always bumped into them walking on the street and did not have to take the initiative. I am perfectly happy spending days alone, reading, writing, internet researching, visiting the library, gardening until my husband comes home. I don't know my neighbors except for a casual hello when we get out of our respective cars. Libraries are my version of paradise. I so appreciate that no one asks you if you need help.

My teachers only noticed me when I wrote my first composition; until then I was the quiet girl you might not realize was there. I recall one day that my kindergarten teacher called the roll and I said here, but she didn't hear me and marked me absent. I was much too shy to correct her, and had great difficulty the next day accounting for my absence because I had no note from my mom. Often my mother spoke for me when I was asked a question; I was too hesitant and took a long time to respond. My dad, who was like me, called her on that.

In the Catholic schools of my youth, with 60 students in a class, smart students who never talked in class, only answered questions but never asked them, wrote fine compositions and did well in tests, were praised. No one ever worried about them. I recall on rainy days we had to eat lunch in our classroom. We were permitted to talk, but I had taken to heart the rule about talking in class, and never said a word. How very weird I was!

My dad had a similar personality. His true nature only fully emerged in the three and one half years of love letters he wrote to my mom during the war. Reading the letters has been a revelation; I realize I never truly knew my dad. My mom was a vivacious extrovert; she never would have fallen in love with the shy, quiet man except that he wrote the best love letters I have ever read. Until my husband Peter came to America to marry me in 2001, we wrote and instant messaged to each other infinitely more than we were able to spend time together. So ours was a letter-writing romance as much as my parents had been.

All my 62 years I always recognized I was shy and introverted. I understood and felt far more comfortable with characters in books than with the people in my class or at my job. The seduction of mania is that my shyness and self-consciousness suddenly disappears. During my first manic episode, my brother Joe said: "My God, MJ, what happened. You sound just like mom." My father unhelpfully said, "Talk, talk, talk. What ever happened to Mary Jo, who was such a nice quiet girl." In real life I am a Mary, who pondered things in her heart. In my writing and when I am manic, my Joan persona emerges.

An essential part of taming my illness has been embracing and cherishing who I am. Manic Mary Joan is not my ideal self, is not the real me. Being a librarian was good for me because I had to talk to strangers, which I could do because they needed my help. A librarian is a anonymous handmaiden; people don't know her name. On the street, people would realize look familiar, but not be able to place me even if I had helped them numerous times. As a social worker, I worked well with clients one-on-one, but was terrified of conducting groups. As a La Leche league, I loved counseling mothers on the phone, but dreaded monthly meetings.

And yet I am secure that I have made a difference and am very happy I never was afflicted with another diagnosis. I am eager to read a new book: Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness by Christopher Lane.

Social Anxiety Disorder?

This post is not facetious; I am struggling to understand. I am beginning to wonder if I might fall somewhere along the autistic spectrum as it is now conceived or merely suffer from "social anxiety disorder." I have a few close friends, but am very involved with my big family. I tend to make friends with people who leave all the reaching out to me, and often I can't bring myself to do it. Most of my abundant email is from my family. I am only truly myself with people I love. I am much more comfortable interacting with people on blogs than in real life. I would always chose reading a good book or watching TV and movies with my husband over attending a party.

I only had lots of friends when I lived in Manhattan; then I always bumped into them walking on the street and did not have to take the initiative. I am perfectly happy spending days alone, reading, writing, internet researching, visiting the library, gardening until my husband comes home. I don't know my neighbors except for a casual hello when we get out of our respective cars. Libraries are my version of paradise. I so appreciate that no one asks you if you need help.

My teachers only noticed me when I wrote my first composition; until then I was the quiet girl you might not realize was there. I recall one day that my kindergarten teacher called the roll and I said here, but she didn't hear me and marked me absent. I was much too shy to correct her, and had great difficulty the next day accounting for my absence because I had no note from my mom. Often my mother spoke for me when I was asked a question; I was too hesitant and took a long time to respond. My dad, who was like me, called her on that.

In the Catholic schools of my youth, with 60 students in a class, smart students who never talked in class, only answered questions but never asked them, wrote fine compositions and did well in tests, were praised. No one ever worried about them. I recall on rainy days we had to eat lunch in our classroom. We were permitted to talk, but I had taken to heart the rule about talking in class, and never said a word. How very weird I was!

My dad had a similar personality. His true nature only fully emerged in the three and one half years of love letters he wrote to my mom during the war. Reading the letters has been a revelation; I realize I never truly knew my dad. My mom was a vivacious extrovert; she never would have fallen in love with the shy, quiet man except that he wrote the best love letters I have ever read. Until my husband Peter came to America to marry me in 2001, we wrote and instant messaged to each other infinitely more than we were able to spend time together. So ours was a letter-writing romance as much as my parents had been. Neither of us would have been able to say what we were able to write.

October 11, 2007

"Experts," Testing, and Misdiagnosis

Warning: by nature I am a skeptic and a heretic who hasn't forgotten her radical pacifist youth. Joan of Arc is my patron saint. I birthed two children at home, nursed them for years, sent them to a hippy school of 50 kids from 5 to 18. But I am not an ignorant nutcase grandma, ignorant of the "magnificent" advancements in child psychiatry. Before children, I edited psychiatry books for 7 years; our authors were world-famous psychiatrists who knew how to heal people without drugs. I have a master's degree in library science and a master's degree in social work, specializing in mental illness and families.

As the oldest of 6, the mother of 4, the oldest cousin of 45, a children's librarian, a playgroup coordinator, a breastfeeding counselor, a nursery school membership coordinator, a school volunteer, a family therapist, I have known many hundreds of young children. I have reassured countless mothers that their different child just seems a creative divergent thinker, not a psychiatric case or a potential psychopath; I have often been thanked for my sane, helpful advice.

This week buy a copy of: For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of Expect Advice to Women by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English. I am baffled that this generation of young parents, the most high educated parents in history, are sometimes willing to trust their young children to so-called experts, testing, possible medication. When I was worried about my preschool kids, I called my mother or mother-in-law who had raised 11 kids between them. I asked my grandmother with 7 kids and 31 grandkids whether I should be worried. I went to the library and read all I could about creative children. I researched my worries.I had honest discussions with other mothers and teachers who knew them. Twice I switched nursery schools. I did not take them to a psychiatrist or psychologist. I already knew that my pediatrician's childrearing advice was misguided; I learned not to ask them questions when I was probably going to disagree with his answers.

If a young child is diagnosed autistic, or bipolar, or ADHD as a preschoolers, that diagnosis will affect his entire life. Even his loving parents, aunts, uncles, siblings will regard him differently. When I was in social work school in 1993, it was psychiatric dogma that bipolar disorder could not be diagnosed until late adolescence. Now kids are being diagnosed as preschoolers and treated with antipsychotics, which are only approved for chronic schizophrenics. Psychiatrists seem reluctant to prescribe traditional mood stabilizers because, after all, they are generic now. They can't be much good, can they? Some antipsychotics cause tremendous weight gain and are implicated in childhood diabetes. Before medicating their child, perhaps parents should take the meds themselves and experience their effects. Most college students know ritalin will improve their performance on the SATs or final exams.

I am skeptical about the usefulness of testing young children. We endlessly agonized over subjecting our kids to an IQ test to get them into the only public school in Manhattan for gifted children. Anne, my oldest, was a bit too creative for her own good. When asked to complete figure drawings, she ignored the missing eyes or ears to adorn the figure with gorgeous hats featuring birds on top and with princess gowns. Some kids won't talk to their parents' friends upon command. Why would they open up to a stranger?

Little kids are not fooled by being told the nice lady is going to play games with them. They sense they are falling short, that they might not be good enough, that their parents are worried. That must affect their behavior during the test, at preschool, at home.

We had created a very hostile world for children. Far too many experts seem interested in labeling and drugging children so they fit into that world, rather than reforming society so children's amazing creativity and individuality can flourish. I am not denying that some troubled children could benefit from professional evaluation and help. Certainly parents can research and implement some of the stimulation suggested for certain learning difficulties. But how can an expert spend a few hours dealing with a possibly uncooperative child and convince you that they "know" what is wrong with them? When I was growing up, the diagnosis "brat" was used freely, but you were expected to outgrow brattyness. "Oppositional defiant disorder" can sometimes sound like the same thing.

I have gone to psychiatric lectures on childhood mental illness where home, parental work hours, school, neighborhood are never mentioned. The assumption is the child has a lifelong biological brain disorder. even though no physical test can validate that diagnosis. I suspect 100 years from now current psychiatric treatment of children will be seen as a disgraceful episode in medical history, one more flagrant example of experts giving mothers destructive advice "for their own good."

October 8, 2007

Best Toys

As my grandson, now five months, begins to play with toys, I have been thinking about toys and children. As the pictures show, blocks are my favorite. We had a huge collection; I have saved them for my grandchildren. Blocks were great for sibling sharing; they were everyone's toys. My recommendations:
indoor slide or climbing toy
outdoor climbing structure
musical instruments
cooking, baking
gardening even if only on windowsill
endless art supplies
classic music, ballet music
lots of pieces of one and only one building toy; we have legos
dressup clothes, scarves, etc.-
dolls, stuffed animals, little people for use with lego and blocks
as much time as possible outdoors--gardens, backyards, parks, playgrounds, zoos, beaches, trees puddles, flowers, weeds, grass, birds, bugs, worms, etc.
New York City

I don't recommend toys with batteries or computer chips for babies and toddlers. They need to learn the real world before the virtual world. Ideally, kids before two shouldn't watch TV or dvds or play with computers. After two, children should only watch when interacting with parents and caregivers. Try to resist the temptation to plop your baby in front of the TV. She would be better off banging pots in the kitchen. She would be better off helping you clean the bathroom or do the laundry. We didn't have a TV set from 1977 to 1983 and I never regretted it.

October 7, 2007

Feminist at Age 46

Mary Jo 1993; Anne, 2002; Michelle, 1997

I am trying to make up for lost time in this blog by including stuff I have written a long time ago. I wrote the following for a social work professor who delighted in making sexist aspersions. This was written in 1991; my daughters were 18, 16, 13, and 9. Please excuse the academic nature of this post.

I hate generalizations about women. I was made to feel unfeminine growing up because I cared passionately about books and ideas. My mother was very much a housewife, and I vowed to be nothing like her. I identified with my mathematician father and my five younger brothers. From 13 to 26 I was sure I didn't want to be a mother; I wanted intellectual challenge and stimulation, which appeared incompatible with motherhood. Beauvoir, I spent freshman year in a women's Catholic college. If I had gone to Mars, I could not have felt more alienated or misunderstood. An enthusiastic high school debater, I was appalled to be told the college did not have a debate club because "it was against the nature of women to debate intellectually with men. Panicked, I escaped to Fordham where I was usually the only woman in my political science classes. I had a few equally intellectual women friends; we condescended to and avoided "ordinary women.

Last spring my 18 year old commented to me, "Mom, how did the idea ever get started that men are superior to women. For God's sake, where is the evidence?" At 18, I believed that men were superior to women; I loved being told: "you think like a man." Once I escaped from the Catholic ghetto, I studied feminism and gradually began to appreciate women. Living In Manhattan at the height of the early feminist movement, I found women who questioned things, read seriously, struggled against traditional roles. I was not willing to get sexually involved with my future husband until he read Simone De Beauvoir's The Second Sex. Looking back, I can laugh at my earnestness; on the other hand. I do less housework than any women I know. I remained closer to my husband, my brothers, and my male friends. I always felt I had to rein in my sarcastic, argumentative, critical Koch self with women, who did not relish heated intellectual debate as much as I did. It was more important to me that my second husband was gentle, tender, loving, understanding, forgiving.

When I had my first daughter at 28, everything changed. I remember remarking to a male friend: "It/s ironic. I never believed in maternal instincts and I am overwhelmed with them." I found pregnancy, birth. breastfeeding. and raising preschoolers more satisfying and challenging than anything I had done. I climbed down from my intellectual ivory tower and spent many years teaching childbirth education, doing breastfeeding counseling, and coordinating playgroups. I devoured books on pregnancy, birth, motherhood, and child development. On the questionnaire for my 20th high school reunion, I wrote that my ultimate ambition was to write a great book integrating feminism and motherhood. Feminism now disappointed me; abortion did not seem to be the central issue of womanhood. Restructuring society so that women could be good mothers and pursue demanding careers seemed a far more important priority. Women's equality could not rest on the belief that the sexes were essentially alike. Women had unique contributions to make outside the home.

To some extent I renounced my prior intellectual interests. I remember a moment of epiphany. I was coming back from Central Park on the bus with my sleeping two year old and my two-month-old infant. I was trying to read the current New York Review of Books and juggle my two sleepers. A young Hispanic women got on the bus similarly encumbered with two children the same ages. I thought: "Stop the intellectual pretentiousness. You have much more in common with this woman than these Upper West Side intellectuals you're still trying to become." I canceled my subscription. Perhaps I also relinquished my existential anguish and intellectual ambitions until my children were older.

Rose, 2000; Carolyn, 2004
My husband and I have tried to raise our four daughters free of the stereotypes that constricted my childhood. When the girls were young, I was more involved with them than my husband was. Our dramatically different responses to parenthood convinced me that men and women were fundamentally different. However, mothering demands far more than biological instincts. Unquestionably, breastfeeding makes it so much easier to be a responsive mother to an infant. I never resented night feedings because I Invariably was awakened by the discomfort in my full breasts before the babies started crying. But I thought deeply about what I was doing. I read widely In anthropology and I broke most of the rules of conventional American childrearing. Two of the girls were born at home; I nursed two of them 6 years and one 4 years. During infancy they slept in our bed; we both carried them in frontpacks and backpacks for over two years each.

I allowed them great freedom to experiment, explore, mess up, create, play, splash water on the floor. At one point we had a slide, climbing structure, tent, and rings from the ceiling for a swing, rings, and a trapeza. I spent a small fortune on art materials and books. I sent the two older girls to a school with no artificial grade levels, no formal grades, no homework, no standardized tests. Defying convention to this extent was a direct result of the intellectuality of my teens and twenties. I had very definite Ideas on education, and I implemented them as far as I could. How my daughters are growing up Is very gratifying. Predictably, my ideas are usually dismissed because "your children are so gifted." I have refrainted from retorting, "too bad children are the only inventions you can't patent." I don't believe I did anything more than allow their true selves to flower. None of my daughters value order or domesticity; they are all serious readers; none has any problem questioning authority; all are excellent math and science students. Two are prone to existential angst like me; two are free from it like my husband.

But they are unquestionably different from my five brothers and my husband. On the other hand, they are strikingly different from each other as well. I have often spoken with women with one boy and one girl. Many, but not all, of the differences they attribute to gender only seem to be the result of different personalities, since my daughters differ In the same ways. Still, they are not reckless or attracted to danger for danger's sake the way that my brothers were. It would not occur to them to climb out on the roof and dive into a swimming pool. After their preschool years they are rarely physically aggressive with one another. Their tongues were lethal weapons. None of them has begged for a motorcycle. Unlike my husband, they have not spent much of their time firing rockets.

I agree with you that motherhood makes women feel more weighty on this planet. I fear death less because I will be leaving behind four spectacular women; I have made a difference. The most moving ceremony I ever attended was my grandmother's funeral six years ago. She died at 86, having been widowed at 40. She left 7 children, 32 grandchildren, and 25 great grandchildren (the number is now 41). Most of them came to her funeral because she had been special to each of them. My grandmother did not view her life as meaningless. Possibly fathering is less central to a man's life. But I would like to see several generations of men actively involved in fathering young children before I make any generalizations about that.

October 6, 2007

Dependence and Aging Parents

My mom and Paul, 2002. The Swedish rollator kept her out of a wheelchair
In response to my post on accepting dependence, Eve asked me: "What advice would you 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 three great-grandchildren. Anne, my oldest daughter, has told me dozens of times in the five months 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.

October 5, 2007

Pandora's Box

Originally, I wrote this for the seniors I tutor on computers and the internet. You might want to share it with your grandparents or parents.

Initially, in the late 1980s, I did not bond with our first Macintosh computer. I named it Pandora and abandoned it to the custody of my four daughters for the its first few months of life. A lefthander, I could not master the mouse. Apple had a mouse–training program requiring you to use the mouse to drive an online car. I was close to tears as I repeatedly drove the car off the road to the sound of screeching brakes. My former husband, a radiation physicist, gave me excellent advice: “Relax, Mary Jo, it is not like poking around under the hood of your car when you don’t know what you are doing. If you touch the wrong key, it won’t explode.”

Fortunately for me, public librarians are given no choice about computer literacy. You learn or you leave. I quickly overcame my initial phobia. Now I cannot imagine life without my Mac. My four daughters love to travel for both business and pleasure. Anne, the oldest, has traveled to over 65 countries. At one point Anne was in Africa and Michelle, two years younger, was in Australia. Naturally anxious, I cold not cope unless I had my daily instant message or email fix.

A year ago, Anne flew to Singapore on an 18-hour nonstop flight. I checked her progress on Flight Tracker about once an hour. When Vanessa was working for the UN in Kosovo, she had a webcam at work. Seeing her waving and blowing kisses first thing in the morning was wonderfully reassuring. When she spent the summer in Rwanda studying the aftereffects of genocide, she could instant message me when I was sitting outside at my picnic table outside, taking advantage of our wireless connection.. That seemed truly miraculous. Now the girls live in Manhattan, Boston, and Chicago. We fully share in each other’s lives because we email everyday. We have an hguys email list; hguys are the girls, their husbands, my husband, my ex-husband, and my son-in-law's sister.

We also have an extended family email list. My five brothers, their wives, my daughters, their husbands, my 11 nieces and nephews and their spouses--all belong. Sadly, my far-flung family infrequently see each other face-to-face at holidays, weddings, and funerals. But we have had many more family reunions in cyberspace.

I love how easy the internet makes sharing to share family photos. When caring for my mom in the last four years of her life, I digitalized thousands of family slides and photos. My husband Peter, a computer programmer, wrote software that enabled me to create photo websites. I can caption each picture and arrange all of them in chronological order. Last year, on each family members’s birthday, I created a special birthday website, scanning in pictures many family members had never seen.

My mom was the family matriarch; as her memory declined over the last four years of her life, the family story was endangered. Frequent viewing of her website seemed to clear the webs of dementia and helped mom remember both who everyone was and her own life history. At her wake, I was able to attach my Ibook laptop to our television set. Mourners were able to enjoy a slideshow of hundreds of pictures of Mary Koch, the vibrant, energetic teacher, trailblazer, and activist.

My husband Peter and I met on the Internet eleven years ago, September 1995. We both belonged to a Jane Austen discussion list. We love to tell people Jane Austen introduced us, even though I was on Long Island and Peter was in London. True love triumphed over 3,000 miles, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, and a five-hour time difference. We were married December 1, 2001 and are living happily ever after.

My daughters say I know more about computers and the Internet than any 62 year old they know. I am very proud of that. I am so grateful I learned to love Pandora’s Box . At the bottom of Pandora’s box is hope. The Internet seems the most hopeful development of the 21st century, blurring national boundaries, furthering understanding and communication across religious and ethnic differences.

October 4, 2007

Being Around Normal Children

I was born in 1945. In the world I grew up in, children were everywhere. Until I was 2, I lived in my grandma's house, enjoying the attentions of five uncles and an aunt. I have 5 younger brothers and 45 first cousins. I went to Catholic schools that had 60 kids in a class. My parents each had six siblings; their families all lived with a 30-minute drive. We had countless family parties--baptisms, Holy Communions, Confirmations, graduations. In addition to babysitting for my brothers, I began twice-weekly babysitting for other families when I was 12. In the summers I worked as a mother's helper and then as children's librarian.

My youngest brother was 15 when my oldest daughter was born in 1973. Raising four daughters, I encountered many hundreds of children in La Leche meetings, playgroups, babysitting coops, cooperative nursery schools, school libraries. For 20 years I have worked intermittently as a children's and young adult librarian, meeting countless more children. Since I started social work school in 1991, I have treated children, teens, and families.

I don't want to be grandiose for a social worker. But I don't necessarily need to memorize the DSM-IV to know when a kid and her family are in trouble. Even more important, I am much less likely to mistake difficult developmental periods for lifelong mental illness. Often children's problems result from family, school, social, and economic problems; they can't be medicated away. A meeting with a child's teacher or grandparents help clarify the problem. Shrinks should consider home visits.

My "Normal" Children

I have been very disturbed by the epidemic of bipolar diagnoses imposed on children. I myself have struggled with bipolar disorder for twenty years, and I know the crushing stigma such a dire diagnosis imposes. Until about ten years ago, psychiatrists believed the bipolar diagnosis was inappropriate before late adolescence.

By any parental standards, my four daughters have turned out wonderfully. Such a happy ending was not predictable during their childhood and teen years.I teased them about it recently. 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 wouldn't pick up their toys. I have stepped on 20,000 lego pieces in the dark.
  • They once decorated their bedrooms with a mixture of desitin and baby powder.
    They were chronically late. No one could get off to school in the morning without substantial maternal help, usually involving driving.
    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 your problems.
  • They told their mommy "fuck you" with not an ounce of guilt or remorse The major culprit, when asked why she was acting like a devil child at age five, explained "Mommy, I used all my goodness up in school." Now she is using her goodness working for international peace.
    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."
    They almost never lost a power battle with their doormat mommy. My oldest, the Adventurer, 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 most of the rest.
  • The Writer had meltdowns 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 three years from now. Her tantrums were reserved for the existential order of the universe.
  • They 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 missed an astonishing amount of school.
  • The Adventurer only pulled the hair and dumped sand over the heads of playmates whose mommies would reliably go round the twist (Anne has traveled to over 65 countries, and has lived in Niger, Rwanda and Kosovo.)She ended her three-year sand eating on the day our doctor looks her in the eye and assured me that her sand-eating diet must account for her excellent health. For old-times sake, she would occasionally revert to the diet when babysat by a hysteric mommy.
  • At age 2 Michelle magic marked a $2000 painting. To be fair, the culprit was only two and the 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.

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 claim that are going emphasize order more and creativity less with their own kids:)I foresee much amusement watching them try.

Towards Evening

This is one of my favorite pictures of my mom, taken in late 2002, about 18 months before she died. She is reading Towards Evening: Reflections on Aging, Illness, and the Soul's Union With God; rather incredibly, the author is Mary Hope. Here is the publisher description: "Constantly rushed by the urgent demands of home and workplace, we often long for a season of solitude--an uninterrupted time to rest, meditate, and pray. Author Mary Hope found this time in late middle age, when she began this journal as a 'memorandum in preparation for . . . the perfect union with God.' Her entries never minimize the pain, loneliness, and fear that accompany aging, yet her vision soars beyond life's trials to God's blessings in changed circumstances."

Mom coped with adversity by prayer and by reading and learning. In this picture, she is doing all three. She probably read more books than anyone I have ever known. When I was working full-time, she came over almost every afternoon to stay with my younger daughters, Rose and Carolyn. Every week she read every book I had taken out of the library, and I have always taken out more books than I can possibly read. Our love of reading was only surpassed by our love of family.

She had an open coffin. At the wake, I placed in her hands the copy of Pride and Prejudice she had given to her bored daughter one hot summer afternoon when I was 12. Neither of my parents ever censored my reading and encouraged me at 12 to struggle with the local librarian for the right to check out adult fiction.

Book Worm

This picture was taken at my grandmother's house, February 1, 1947, the day before my brother Richard was born. I was 18 months old. her kitten. 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 interest in my dad's yearbook indicated that I was fascinated in family history and dynamics from infancy.

Are book worms made or born? Mom and Dad were consummate book worms. People who say they don't have time to read baffle me. How do they stay sane? How do they escape? How do they figure out stuff? I have always coped with problems, illness, tragedy by going to the library. Reading blogs, I go to my library site to reserve books that someone has highly recommended.

My first library card seemed magical. I vividly remember my awe when I realized that card was a passport to the whole world. 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 in my family. I was enchanted when three -year-old Elizabeth crooned to her doll: "Don't cry baby; mommy will read to you." My mom introduced me to my favorite author, Jane Austen, when I was 12. Jane Austen introduced me to my second husband.. I made a Austen literary allusion on an internet support group, and Andy made a witty comeback. I was instantly smitten. Little did I know how much reading about green cards awaited me.

Posted By Mary Jo Graves to Matriarch at 10/04/2007 10:39:00 AM

October 3, 2007

Would Size Order Have Helped?

The last picture of the Koch siblings was taken at my daughter Anne's wedding two years ago. I wonder what ordering--height, weight, age, income, or maturity--would have kept Andrew and Bob in check. In every picture at least one of them is clowning around. Everyone is behaving better in 1956, 1958,1961 and 1967. In the 1961 picture of Joe's graduation, Andrew was made to kneel down so he would not be obvious he was taller. Each time a brother surpassed me in height there was much rejoicing by all of them. I've always wanted to be taller; I still hate it that my brothers tower over me. I am relieved that Anne is shorter, Michelle is my height, and Rose and Carolyn aren't that much taller.

Giving Children Wings

My mom's combination of fearlessness, faith in God, and experience with five brothers made mom a wonderful mother of 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 and Andrew look so pleased with themselves without any fear they might fall off or get in trouble. Her shy, timid, anxious daughter was a mystery to her:) I was annoyed that she didn't complain that my brothers forgot her birthday or mother's day, called once every two months.

Giving my daughters wings has been a bigger challenge for me, but I have not infected them with my anxieties. My oldest daughter was a bold adventurer from birth. From her company's web page: "Anne arrived at IPA after spending a year in Kosovo working with the UN Population Fund, having previously consulted for UNFPA in New York. She spent several months with the Centre for Conflict Management in Butare, Rwanda, where she was a researcher on the gacaca tribunals. She has also spent several years as an economic consultant in the private sector. She has traveled to over 65 countries, and has lived in Niger, Rwanda and Kosovo. " When she was 23, her boss wrote: "Anne can handle herself anywhere in the world." At the time she had to tell people: "look for the 16 year old in the hotel lobby."

On our living room wall is a huge world map, with push pins marking all the places my girls have traveled to. I recall asking another mother whether are grown children live close by. She told me no, one was 10 miles away and one was 20 miles away. At the time Anne was living in Africa and Michelle was in Australia on business for three months.

My daughters honor my anxieties. I have disciplined myself to worry when they are actually in flight, not on the ground. They send me their itineraries and call me when they land. I follow their flights on flight tracker and never sleep well when they are in the air. Two years ago Anne was on an 18-hour flight to Singapore; I couldn't sleep when she was in the air. My daughter Rose, the human rights lawyer, has promised me she will never visit her law firm's Iraq office.

October 1, 2007

Mary Jo or Mary Joan

At age 63, I still don't know my first name. I was baptized Mary Joan Koch. My family has always called me Mary Jo. My mother's name was Mary, my father's name was Joseph. Joan was my mom's younger sister. I was the first, eagerly awaited daughter. My parents had a war-time romance; they exchanged daily letters for four years. When Mom was pregnant, both she and my Dad referred to me as Mary Jo. They were positive I was a girl in the days before sonograms. This is unbelievably prescient because they then had five boys.

My youngest daughter Carolyn, at 3, flummoxed me : "Mommy, your mother's name is Mary, your father's name is Joseph. Why didn't they call you Jesus?" I had never realized Mary Jo was the feminine version of Jesus:) Mary Jo seemed to have bad karma. People only got my name straight after Mary Jo Kopechne drowned after Ted Kennedy's car fell in the water and Mary Jo Buttafuco got shot by the teenager whom husband was having an affair with.

I have always been Mary Jo to my family.Throughout grade school, high school, graduate school, I preferred to be Mary Joan Koch. Most of my friends called me Mary Joan. The Mary and Joan aspects of my personality coexist uneasily. Certainly as a teen I admired Joan of Arc far more than Mary, the mother of Jesus. Joan is the manic side of my personality. I hadn't yet realized Mary was a feminist. I have always been a rebel, a questioner of authority, a skeptic , unwilling to accept conventional wisdom. As a girl, I monthly confessed "I was disobedient." Too many of my bosses would agree that I've never outgrown that sin. At Fordham, as the first girl most Jesuits had ever taught, I was always "Miss Koch."

I have always been ambivalent about marriage and name changes. As a card carrying feminist in 1968, I felt I should keep Koch. I had become Mary Jo, leaving Mary Joan behind. But Koch is a name pronounced crotch and worse by high school boys. My best friend called me Kochie, the boys called me Crochie. So I chose my new husband John's last name because it sounded English.
In 1987, after 12 years of full-time childrearing, I returned to graduate school as Mary Jo and never again used my married name. I had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; it was a tumultuous time in my life. When asked if my going back to Koch signaled a troubled marriage, I vehemently denied it, laughing, "this has all of the satisfactions of divorce, with none of the complications." Nine years later, John and I did divorce; our once excellent marriage had died slowly and painfully, dispute our genuine efforts to revive it.

I received a Master of Library Science degree in 1991, a Master of Social Work degree in 1993. Both diplomas were awarded to Mary Jo Koch. To my therapy clients and my library patrons, I was Mary Jo Koch. My Hispanic patients were puzzled how their Jewish therapist has such an Irish face.

For 17 years years I was a children's, teen, and reference librarian in several Long Island and Queens libraries. I was a troublemaker in a profession that doesn't reward troublemakers. Mary Jo Koch was rather notorious; the possibility of burying her was irresistible. I met Peter , the love of my life, in a Jane Austen discussion list. Jane is an ambitious matchmaker; I was in New York and Peter was in London. After a five-year long-distance courtship, we were married in December 2001. Madly in love, I renounced the name I had used for 37 of my 56 years and took Peter's name.

Recently I have abandoned librarianship. I am sick of the mediocre bosses, book-length policy manuals, rigid hierarchy, and promotions based on hours served, not ability, that characterize public librarianship in my county library system.. My social work and library careers have not been spectacular. Being open about my manic depression was a mistake. Having a small private practice is the safest way to be a social worker, but my clients tend to get better too fast.

I need to be my own boss. Two years ago, I started Ageless Internet, an internet tutoring and consulting company. Abruptly, I decided that my new business cards should say Mary Joan Koch to mark a new chapter in my life. Mary Joan Koch seems to represent my career self, myself as a writer. Now that I am not working full-time, I hope to fulfill a 34-year -oid ambition to write about feminism and motherhood. As a late 1960's radical feminist, I never, in my worst nightmares, would have believed that 40 years later, our country would refuse to enact family-friendly policies and honor caregiving, whether as a parent, day care teacher, or home health aide.

I suspect reverting to Koch periodicall is a way of stayed connected to my mom and dad, whom I miss even more since becoming a grandmother. My mom, who died three years ago, was Mary Koch. Mom supported every left/liberal organization in the US. I expect to be getting solicitation letters from these organizations forever. Right after she died, I felt compelled to contribute to her favorite organizations to honor her memory, but I sadly learned that I didn't share her amazing generosity. When I sort through the envelopes, I often feel mildly shocked that I too am Mary Koch. But it would feel blasphemous to try to capture her glory.

Mistakenly, you might believe that the German Koch is the least impressive name. When Ed Koch was mayor of New York, my mom was asked so many times if she was related, she began to respond: "Yes, I am her secret wife." My brother Stephen, a chemistry professor, replies, "Einstein's mother's maiden name was Koch. We're related to that side of the family."

I will spare you the stories of my various pseudonyms and my hair colors. One social worker advisor laughed, "When the shit hits the fan, you can always change your name and your hair color.

I wrote this post a while ago. The fact that I decided to share it on Salon makes me question whether the Joan persona is gained ascendancy after three months of Mary's dominance. Joan is the writer; Mary only reads.