October 27, 2010

The Worm Turns; the Younger Sibling Fights Back

I had always been fascinated how early the younger sibling figures out how to annoy the older sibling. From a journal entry in 1974, when Michelle was 15 months old, Emma was 3.

When Emma 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 to read. Michelle 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 started grabbing 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 Terry offered to read to Michelle, but she struggled down from her lap 2 or 3 times. I finished reading Green Eggs and Ham. Terry started to read to Emma and Erin, so I could read to Michelle. Michelle got down from my lap and tried to grab the book away from Terry. When that failed, she tried bribery--3 books, her blanket, a slip, her rabbit skin. Erin wanted the rabbit skin, but every time she took it away from Michelle she protested and only stopped when Terry took it back from Erin.

Finally Michelle used one of the cardboard blocks to climb on the ottoman; from there she lunged for the big black chair where Terry was sitting with Emma and Erin. 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's 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. For the first time since Michelle was born, I can't read to both of them at the same time. Her big sister'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?

Handling Sibling Rivalry Between 3-Year-Old and 17-Month old Sisters

After observing how 15-month-old Michelle could hold her own with 3-year-old Emma, I earnestly tried to establish rules for myself . As the oldest of six, I probably overidentified with Emma. I read this to her recently, when her son Michael was Michelle's age, and we collapsed in helpless laughter. How earnest and intellectual I was trying to be, pretending I could objectively stay above the fray. Some of my advice is excellent; too bad I wasn't able to follow it. I had obviously read too many parenting books and taken too many contradictory parenting classes.
  1. When in doubt about what to do, don't interfere.
  2. If I am concerned that one of them could really get hurt, always intervene. In practical terms, that means always being within interfering distance when they are both playing on the slide, on the climbing structure, or on the terrace.
  3. When other people are around who would tend to think very badly of Emma if she made Michelle cry, intervene.
  4. Protect Emma from Michelle. She should have time alone in her room to paint, to build with blocks, when Michelle is not constantly at her back, intent to destroy what she has just made. When Emma complains that Michelle is bothering her, respond and help her out. It is completely unreasonable to expect Emma to handle Michelle's interference by herself. I find it hard enough to distract single-minded Michelle.
  5. Encourage Emma to find solutions to the problem herself. "I'm sorry Michelle keeps knocking down your blocks. Do you have any idea how we can stop her from doing it." Poor Emma. No wonder, she told me, a few years later, "Don't give me any of that active listening crap."
  6. Try to spend one hour special time with Emma after dinner. Now that she will be away from me three hours a day in nursery school, this is particularly important.
  7. Make a firm rule about no hitting with things. The thing used as a weapon gets put in the closet until the next day. "Blocks are for building, not for hitting Michelle. You can have it back tomorrow."
  8. When I find it necessary to intervene, use actions not words. No screaming, no getting angry. Separate them physically. Then, and only then, try to help Emma. "I think you are trying to say something to Michelle. Talk it. You can talk; you don't have to hit. I know how you feel, but I can't let you hurt Michelle. It makes her feel like hitting you."
  9. When one of them is likely to continue hurting, use physical restraint. Take her to another room to calm down, telling her she can come back when she can play without hurting.
  10. Don't get angry. If I can't intervene without getting angry, don't bother. Michelle is not a helpless baby, and she is not always an innocent victim. Don't always assume I saw the curtain-raiser to this particular squabble.
Certainly there has always been more sibling rivalry between Emma and Michelle, 26 months apart, than with my two younger daughters. Emma was 5 and Michelle was 3 1/2 when Jane was born. Jane was 3 1/2 when Molly was born. It continues to this day. The weekend Michelle moved up to Boston, where Emma had lived for 6 years, they argued for an hour over whether Michelle could take chicken off a pizza slice that Emma had paid for, if she wasn't eating the whole slice. Molly, who had been 9 when Emma and Michelle had separated, was aghast. Emma and Michelle were married two weeks apart; there was some competition over which family members would come to which wedding.

Since they have become mothers, their rivalry seems to have evaporated, although each is hypersensitive to any perceived criticism of their childrearing by their sisters' husbands. When I am excessively judgmental, I get in trouble with all of them. Andy, their stepfather, a miracle of tact, consideration. and understanding, never makes my mistakes.

October 24, 2010

Parental Anxiety and Children's Wings


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

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

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

From my journals, 1974-1975
From the time Emma was 10 months old, I took her twice a day to Central Park, particularly one very large playground. Emma would casually wander off almost 100 yards away. As long as I was within eye range and met her eyes and waved when she glanced at me, she seemed perfectly confident. One nightmarish day, she managed to slip out between the playground bars and head for Central Park West. I didn't know I could run so fast.
At 15 months Emma would go down slides and climb up jungle gyms that three year olds would avoid. By 2 she was so physically competent that I felt confident about sitting on a bench and watching from a distance as she clambered over a climbing structure designed for children 6 and up. She hardly ever cried if she fell down or bumped into something. Emma was happiest learning new physical feats. She loved the water; at age one she would fearlessly walk into the ocean and laugh if she were knocked down. She was physically fearless yet not particularly reckless except about things she could not possibly know about. She was always ahead of other kids in trying something new physically like walking up the slide backward.
Emma in Niger, 2000                                                                      
 One month ago, I sat in a grass hut in a small village in Niger called Koyetegui, and watched democracy in action, Nigerien style. The five members of the Bureau de Vote sat on overturned pestles normally used for pounding millet, and offered me a seat on a woven mat. And so I sat, as the sun set and the kerosene lantern was lit, and watched as the chickens were chased out of the hut and the entire village crowded into this cramped space to watch the solemn counting and recounting of the 132 votes that had been cast in this tiny district. When the vote counting was over and the report had been filled out and duly sealed with wax, I rode back to the regional capital of Dosso with the ballot box to turn in the election results. It was only the next day that I learned from my driver that the chief of the village had presented me with a gift of an enormous river squash. I spent the entire ride back to Niamey replaying the events of the past few months in my mind, wondering how I had ever gotten to be so lucky.
From applications to graduate schools in International Relations in 2000:
In three and a half years, I visited over 75 cities in 53 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In several countries–Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Nepal, Benin, Curacao–I was the first AIRINC representative to conduct a survey. I have had the opportunity to do amazing things in my life. I have seen some of the truly wondrous places in the world, from the Sahara desert, to Machu Picchu, to the Mekong River Delta. I have jumped out of a plane in Maine and been seventy feet underwater in the Caribbean. I have witnessed one of the poorest countries on earth usher in a new era of hope and democracy.
My post to a Salon Group, 2001:
My 28-year-old daughter has just accepted a summer internship in Rwanda. Seven years ago, a million people were killed in three months in the worst genocide since the Holocaust.  At Columbia she is specializing in human rights, transitional justice, and Africa. If she wasn't going to Rwanda, she would have gone to the Congo. I am fiercely proud of her. But I worry about how to handle my fears as she goes from one world flash point to the next. I want to support her, not burden her with my anxieties.

After two years in Kosovo, Emma is working for an international peace organization in Manhattan and mothering her 2 -year -old son and 5-month-old daughter. If she hadn't fallen in love in 2002 and gotten married in 2005, she probably would still be in Iraq. However, I have not learned my lesson. A globe beachball was one of the first presents I give each grandchild. By age 2 my grandson could locate Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Japan, Ghana. Emma has recently terrified me with her plans to spend a year in Nepal when her children are 4 and 2.

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

October 22, 2010

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.

October 21, 2010

2010 Workplace Is Perfectly Designed for 1960 Workforce

Baby boomers are discovering that elder parent/work conflicts are even more challenging and last longer than children/work conflicts. They often arrive with no warning. You get a call from the hospital, and your life changes dramatically.
If you read nothing else today, please read The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict--The Poor, the Professionals, and the Missing Middle by Joan C. Williams and Heather Boushey, posted to the excellent  Center for American Progress Website.  I highly recommend Williams's Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What To Do About It.
 I don't usually quote this extensively from another site, but this is too important to attempt to paraphrase.  Download the full report.
An American Workplace Perfectly Designed for the Workforce of the 1960s
 In 1960, only 20 percent of mothers worked, and only 18.5 percent were unmarried. Because the most common family was comprised of a male breadwinner and stay-at-home mother, employers were able to shape jobs around that ideal, with the expectation that the breadwinner was available for work anytime, anywhere, for as long as his employer needed him. Even then, this model did not serve the small but significant share of families who did not fit this mold, yet the model stuck.
 This model makes absolutely no sense today. Now, 70 percent of American children live in households where all adults are employed. Nearly one in four Americans—more every year—are caring for elders. Hospitals let patients out “quicker and sicker.” Yet employers still enshrine as ideal the breadwinner who is always available because his wife takes care of the children, the sick, the elderly—as well as dinner, pets, and the dry cleaning. For most Americans, this is not real life. ...
 Work-family conflict is much higher in the United States than elsewhere in the developed world. One reason is that Americans work longer hours than workers in most other developed countries, including Japan, where there is a word, karoshi, for “death by overwork.” The typical American middle-income family put in an average of 11 more hours a week in 2006 than it did in 1979...
 So it should come as no surprise that Americans report sharply higher levels of work-family conflict than do citizens of other industrialized countries. Fully 90 percent of American mothers and 95 percent of American fathers report work-family conflict. And yet our public policymakers in Congress continue to sit on their hands when it comes to enacting laws to help Americans reconcile their family responsibilities with those at work...
The United States today has the most family-hostile public policy in the developed world due to a long-standing political impasse. The only major piece of federal legislation designed to help Americans manage work and family life, the Family and Medical Leave Act, was passed in 1993, nearly two decades ago. In the interim—when Europeans implemented a comprehensive agenda of “work-family reconciliation”—not a single major federal initiative in the United States has won congressional approval. 
Shockingly, neither Obama or Clinton made this a major focus in the campaign. Yes, Michelle Obama talks about it, but we need legislation, not talk. This is a bipartisan issue. Republicans have children and families too.

Duck and Cover, McCarthy, Assassinations, Vietnam, Jail

 I was born the day after Trinity, the first atom bomb test. From age 5, duck-and-cover, hide-under-our-desks drills in my Catholic school were as frequent as tests. I was terrified of nuclear war. We lived one mile away from an air force base. Whenever I heard planes, I ran out into the backyard and tried to  to determine if they were American or Russian, using my library book on aircraft identification. When I was 7, Stalin died. I asked my parents if this meant  we would not be killed by atom bombs.

In 1954 I had a severe case of the measles, and my Grandma  came to help nurse me. Grandma was a lifelong Democrat since she voted in the first election open to women. With loathing, she was listening to the Joseph McCarthy army hearings. My eyes hurt too much to read, so I listened obsessively. Hatred of McCarthy's voice probably 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. 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 wonderful for me. From 1956 to 1963, I read everything I could about Kennedy, politics, American history.

What JFK 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,during 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, who was the keynote speaker at my graduation from Fordham in 1967.

Planning to get Ph.D. in political science, I  attended Stanford University where resistance to the war was at its height. Almost every afternoon, David Harris, Joan Baez's future husband who was later jailed, spoke out eloquently against the war. I was studying political science as a quantifiable science. I  knew Harris and the protests were the real political science, and I dropped out, throwing away my free ride to college professorship.

September 29, 2010

Inconsistency, September 25, 1976

Reading and posting these entries from 34 years ago is a humbling experience. I feel guilty about how hard I was on Emma when she was 3, how unreasonable my expectations were. I am going to post Anne's essay on her blanket, written for graduate school in international affairs, so you will know how the story eventually turned out. My other daughters had a far better mother than Anne did; they should be grateful to her for teaching me what battles are worth fighting.

How are my new rules working? Emma dressed herself, but only because she had insisted putting on the clothes she selected for today before she went to bed. She requested oatmeal for breakfast because John had it and then age about 3 spoonfuls. Just as we were leaving, she hit me and I yelled at her. She cried and insisted on taking her bear and blanket to the playground.

Then I made the classic mistake and laid down a rule without thinking. I said, "You can't take the blanket outside. It's only for naps. You get it too dirty dragging it everywhere." I closed the apartment door, and she continued to cry. Finally, Emma said, "I need my blanket because it will make me feel better." I was touched and admitted I had made a mistake. She could have her blanket when she wanted to. She could be the blanket boss. The only reason I didn't want her to have the blanket is because I feel embarrassed she is still so attached to it. Far better if I had thought things through before I stated an ultimatum, then revoked it. Such inconsistency teaches her that crying and carrying on works.

September 25, 2010

1st Child, 2nd Child

This is from a graduate school paper on child development I wrote in 1977, when Anne was 4 and Michelle was 2.
I am still realizing to what extent the mother I am is shaped by the child I am mothering. When I had only one child, I congratulated myself for all of Anne's superior qualities and blamed myself for her troublesome ones. Since I've had 2 children, I've become remarkably more tolerant of other mothers and of myself. I've also grown to understand why my my mom, after mothering 6 kids, has always been quite skeptical of childrearing theories.
Since I belong to a unique Chelsea community where young parents support each other through babysitting cooperatives, cooperative playgroups and nursery schools, and mothers' support groups, I've had the chance to observe many children of similar ages interact with their parents. When I first moved here when Anne was 17 months, I was quick to correlate the children's characteristics with their parents' childrearing practices. Now I am humbly aware of how infinitely complex the whole question is.

The only dramatic change in our lives beween Anne's and Michelle's births was our move to Chelsea from the Upper West Side. We still lived on a high floor in an apartment with a terrace and spectacular views. Although I was still at home full-time and their dad was gone from 8 to 6, their day-to-day routine was completely different. When Anne was born, none of my NYC friends had children; consequently no one I knew was home during the day. To relieve my isolation, I frequently visited my parents and my husband's parents on Long Island. As a result, Anne had frequent contact with her grandparents and her teenage aunts and uncles, but very little contact with other babies and toddlers.
When Michelle was born, I was immersed in Anne's playgroup, with daily contact with 10 familes and their 2-year-olds. Monday to Friday Michelle was constantly exposed to the stimulation-bedlam of young kids. In fact playing with baby Michelle was playgroup's surefire activity when all else failed. On the other hand, I seldom visited Long Island; our parents and sibs came to visit us. Michelle's comings and goings are always tied to Anne's schedules.

In addition to having different daily routines, they had a different mother. After Anne's birth, I still did some free-lance editing. I kept wrestling with combining motherhood with my editing career. I almost accepted a 20-hour a week editing job when Anne was 9 months. By the time Michelle was born, I had wholeheartedly renounced publishing and was fully committed to full-time motherhood when my children were small. I had chosen working with young children and their parents as my future career. My expectations for myself and my baby had been transformed by what I experienced and by how I had grown during Anne's infancy. I was far freer to respond to my emotions and intuitions about Michelle. I had gained confidence in my own style of mothering and was no longer so swayed by "expert" opinion or my prior expectations of what kind of mother I should be. I was much more relaxed about introducing solids, long-term nursing, the family bed.

Michelle's relationship with me was hardly as symbiotic as my relationship with Anne during infancy. Anne was as much as part of Michelle's life as my husband and I were. Unless Anne was asleep, she was almost always in the same room when I nursed or played with Michelle. As soon as Michelle could reliably sit up, we bathed them together. Since Michelle was 8 months old, they've amicably shared the same room. I successfully diminished Anne's jealousy by involving her in every way possible in Michelle's care. I always read to Anne when I was nursing Michelle, since she hated playing in her bedroom by herself.

The result? Michelle's social skills seem far more sophisticated than Anne's were at 2. Sometimes she stays at Anne's cooperative nursery school when I am the helping mommy. She knows all the children's names, interacts warmly with them, participates fully in painting, block building, clay, water play, and dress up. She manages surprisingly well at meeting time and story time. She needs to establish eye contact with me fairly often, but she leaves me free to interact with the other children. At home she holds her own with her high-powered sister very well. As I observe her avoiding no-win confrontations with Anne, I try to imitate her skillful mixture of unmistakable self-assertion and judicious compromise. As Michelle chortles, "even Anne loves me."

August 22, 2010

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 7 children, 31 grandchildren, and 23 great-grandchilden when she died at age 86 in 1985.

Mary Catherine 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  grandchild, 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.

I take absolutely seriously my commitment to follow my grandmother and mother, two strong, loving, generous matriarchs. Grandma knows the family's addresses, phone numbers, birthdays. Grandma informs the family if anyone is sick or in trouble, is engaged, lost a job, is pregnant. In the event of a family death, she alwasys knows the funerael arrangements. Grandma opens her house for family parties and reunions, no matter the state of her housekeeping or budget. Grandma can always identify the people in those old pictures and knows where the family skeletons are buried.

I have 4 daughters, 8, almost 9, grandkids, 5 brothers, 5 sister-in-laws, 11 nieces and nephews,  7 of whom are married. I have 7 grandnieces and 3 grandnephews. I try to keep an extended family directory, prying the information out of everyone. We established a family email list, sharing news and pictures, so we all know what is happening in our lives, even if we don't see each other often enough. I do more of the communicate ing than anyone else, but I consider that my responsibility. Facebook is the new family reunion. We are  scattered all over the East Coast, from Maine to North Carolina, as well as Iowa, so it is a challenge to keep us close. I am eagerly awaiting another wedding.

I have seen both my mother's and father's formerly close knit family disperse once the family matriarch dies. I am the oldest member of my dad's extended family. I have one aunt and 2 uncle on my mom's side. 

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 former 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.capacity. 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 love, humor, kindness, and understanding.

March 18, 2010

Taming the Wild Things

As I  read Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are to my grandson many times this week, I realized it's important message to those who struggle with the bipolar wild things.

"And when he came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said, "BE STILL!" and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things."

If you haven't known about this book since early childhood, you were neglected, if not abused. Sendak has probably been in psychoanalysis longer than any living author. Rush to the nearest library and devour it before watching the movie, which cannot possibly convey the book's wisdom.

March 14, 2010

Diagnosing Children with Bipolar Disorder

I am concerned that gifted, creative children, who march to a different drummer in our regimented society, are being misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder and threatened with a lifetime of dangerous medications and social stigma. Having that dire diagnosis imposed on you at age 6 severely compromises your ability to lead a normal life, marry, have children, go to college, have a career. How would you have reacted at age 6 if you were told you had a broken brain that could not be fixed, only treated with lifelong drugs with dangerous and/or unknown side effects? Having been told that at 40, I know what a sentence of doom such a diagnosis too often is.

Twenty years ago, psychiatry believed that bipolar disorder strikes in the late teens, that it was impossible to diagnose children or adolescents. Now psychiatrists occasionally diagnose bipolar disorder in four year olds, after too brief examination. Is diagnosing kids as bipolar sometimes an unthinking way to squelch kids who are divergent thinkers, who think too fast, talk too fast, question authority, get bored too easily in our increasing test-oriented schools.

Are other countries undergoing the same childhood bipolar epidemic or is this an American phenomena? When and how was the supposed epidemic of childhood bipolar disorder suddenly discovered? How many of the early pioneers were funded by drug companies? Have any longitudinal studies been done, comparing the life trajectory of kids diagnosed and medicated and of kids whose parents refuse medication? Is there any evidence that kids diagnosed as bipolar grow up to be adults with bipolar disorder?

March 10, 2010

NYC, 1974-1976, Nonsexist Childrearing in Action


My oldest daughter Anne belonged to a Chelsea 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 absurd we were in so many ways. But we were so cto combatting sexist stereotypes.
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 and a psychiatric nurse.
Most of us were struggling with our decision to stay home with our children. Confirmed apartment dwellers, we saw little relationship between mothering and housework. All of us planned to remain in Manhattan. Dreading winter cooped up with newly mobile, newly negative toddlers in one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartments, several mothers were contemplating returning to work to regain their sanity. Significantly, no one returned to work full-time during the life of the playgroup.
None of us had long-time friends who were staying at home to raise young children. We needed to build a new circle of friends; our friends from work no longer sufficed. We were not traditional wives and mothers. We desperately wanted intellectual colleagues fascinated with child development, determined to raise children without our own inhibitions and neuroses. All of us considered ourselves feminists, committed to nonsexist childrearing.
Playgroup was supposed to give us time off. The first year the ratio was one mother to two children; the second year it was one to three. Many mother who weren't on duty stayed anyway, particularly those with younger children. When we weren't playing with our toddlers, we engaged in ongoing group therapy. All of us had been or were currently in therapy and could talk comfortably and knowledgeably about conflict, repression, projection, and denial. We endlessly analyzed our marriages, our families, our psychological makeups, our childrearing philosophies, and our children's personalities. Six of the 10 core members are now mental health professionals. Remarkably, none of our children are currently in jails, mental hospitals, or rehab centers.
We were an extremely self-conscious group. The simplest decision was carefully scrutinized for its optimal effect on our children's intellectual and emotional development. The latest child development books and theories were eagerly shared and discussed. Husbands' participating in child care and housework was the norm. One couple was not married, and no one made anything of it. Everyone eagerly welcomed fathers' participation.

No one wanted to push early academics on our kids. Creativity and exploration were the predominant values. No child was ever pressured to participate in any activity. If he didn't want to draw, paste, paint, sing, snack, his autonomy was respected. We had reasonable expectations about toddlers' capacity to share. A great deal of mess was tolerated, and children were not pressured to clean up. "No" was a word seldom heard--from the adults.
We were enlightened Manhattan intellectuals, very influenced by the ferment of the late 1960's. All the children addressed all the adults by their first names. Zealous attempts to enforce good manners were frowned upon. By 24 months, all children knew and used the words, penis, testicles, vulva, vagina. Toilet training was a continuous show-and-tell entertainment. The potty was in a prominent place in the room. I vividly recall two-year-old Anne saying, "I see your penis, Michael. Would you like to see my vulva?"
At any one time at least two mothers were pregnant or breastfeeding, and all the children's questions were freely answered. My second daughter Michelle started attending playgroup when she was 1 week old. Playing with baby Michelle was a surefire activity. Surrounded by 2 year olds every day, Michelle developed prodigious social skills.
Most of us belonged to a babysitting cooperative as well. We were an amazing source of support to each other. When one of us had a baby, all the others turn turns bringing the new parents an elaborate evening meal. I have never again experienced such a caring community of parents, committed to mutual aid.
Such a playgroup probably possibly could not have existed in the two other places I raised children--Bangor, Maine, and Long Island. I know it could not exist now in Manhattan. I spend three days a week in the same housing development, cavorting with my grandson in the same playroom, the same playground. Now I talk to nannies, not parents.
The Chelsea playgroup was one of the most fascinating, frustrating, turbulent, nurturing experiences of my life. After two years we were all very different people from the self-conscious, judgmental twits we were at the beginning. Comfortable in our mothering, we no longer had to criticize each other to bolster our wavering self-confidence. Watching very different children develop helped us to understand our own children's unique personalities.

March 9, 2010

March 9, 2010

I am not going what I resolved to do. Does that make me depressed? Do I have totally unrealistic ambitions for myself.

For example, is tsolving to go to the gym unrealistic when I am so achy and painy. Wuldn't doing 1/2 hour of chair exercises and exercises for older people make more sense? Isn't biking more important than the gym? Isn't gardening better for me than the gym? It is sad I haven't been outside when we have had three days of over 50 weather.

More realistic goals

Get up with Andy
Make his lunch
Open blinds
Empty dishwasher

Decide on tonight's dinner. Don't let Andy's uncertain schedule be an excuse.

Rate and comment on OS. Write posts about three times a week.

Get outside about a half hour--garden, walk, sit in backyard
30 minutes houswirj

20 minutes simple exercise

Ice cream once a day. If I eat it in the afternoon, no ice cream with Andy.

March 8, 2010

December 2, 1982--4 Children

I have had my happy ending. My four darlings have grown up into strong, loving wives and mothers with challenging careers, supportive feminist husbands,  and brilliant children. Parents in the trenches often are comforted by how many mistakes I was making. 

My kids are 9, 7, 4, 7 months. We had impulsively moved to Bangor, Maine from Manhattan in March 1981; I almost immediately got pregnant. We are snowbound November through April. My husband insisted on heating our 4-bedroom house entirely with our wood stove and six cords of wood. We had a three-sided metal gate attached to the living room wall with carabiners to keep the girls away from the stove. I had never before had to cope with stairs and kids. My ability to write in full sentences has collapsed. I am trying to decide whether we should try to move back to New York. I am very active in the Nuclear Freeze movement. Being a political activist and the mother of 4 isn't working. I remember the good times so vividly and totally forget the hard times. No wonder why younger mothers reject the saccharine advice of older mothers.

I have not edited my journal entry.

I let the kids stay home today because Michelle was hoarse and Emma was hard to rouse. Their being home busy with their projects makes it harder to keep Molly (the baby) safe. Molly has a scratch near her eye, and I don't even know how she got it--perhaps the kitten? Made apple crisp, made bread. No oven timer, so I kept losing track, worried about the stove door being so loose--will it fall off? Reading Lifton-Falk book about nuclear war, will give me nightmares. Kids bickering; baby eating pieces of paper. All my careful preparation for naught, no time to sit down and relax. Molly hardly napped. Papers all over living room floor. Snapped and yelled.

Do I want to go back? Something always make me stop at the brink. Fear of admitting we made a mistake? Or are these growing pains? Half-conscious of my tendency to romanticize my life in New York. I didn't share my political interests. We probably know more people in Bangor who share my interests than we did in New York. I glanced back over my journals. A bracing perspective. Mothering has always been hard. So much for my fantasies about how much better a mother I was in New York. I am so hard on myself. Go to the library and look up book on depression.