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

 Richardroof

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. 
vanessakremlin

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.