Monday, December 20, 2010

The Grape's Holiday Newsletter

I've always been somewhat suspicious of holiday newsletters. My knee jerk reaction to them is that they provide an excuse for people to trumpet their children's triumphs large and small. Often in a stunningly verbose manner. Which, when I think about it, isn't all that different from a blog. So, in the spirit of the season, and because I don't feel like trolling the net for gifts while the Grape naps, here's the Grape's holiday recap.

Dear Friends,

As 2010 winds down, I write to you from chilly Boston, where the Grape's sled sits waiting for the promised snow that stubbornly refuses to fall.

I'm not going to sugarcoat it: the beginning of our year basically sucked. The Grape felt lousy, and neither slept nor ate during January, February and much of March. What did the poor little guy do, you might ask? He screamed. All the time. For good reason: Although he had recuperated from his surgery, he was still in pain from the issues that had plagued him for the first months of his young life. I embraced the glamour of motherhood, meaning I put on make up, cashmere and jewelry to clean up vomit six to ten times a day.

R. and I nearly killed each other last winter, even though we were fortunate to have great help. I emerged from our season of discontent and insomnia in utter awe of single parents.

I honestly don't know how they hold it together, and I realized that next time I see an utterly exasperated parent start to unravel in public - or give up on correcting her unruly kid - I should probably cut her some slack. She may not have slept for more than one consecutive hour since becoming a parent.

Then, luckily, the Grape started to feel better and the sun came out and little Disney birds sang all around us. Things were on an upswing by April. R. started a new job, selected in large part because the company offers excellent health benefits. I realized something is really wrong with our society when I heard myself answering inquiries as to how R.'s new gig was going with the breathless exclamation, "He has Blue Cross!"

Because R. and I must be mentally limited, we decided to mix things up in May, when we accompanied the Grape on his first beach vacation to Bermuda. I say we accompanied him, because while the Grape enjoyed the sun, sea and sand, we ferried his gear, prepared his meals, slathered his sunscreen and prevented him from ingesting more than his weight in sand each day. Instead we fed him crab cakes and veggie burgers. He loved vacation. I, being a rookie, brought a book to read on the beach. I got through one chapter before the Grape tossed it into his inflatable pool.

Even though R. and I spent our one nice evening out on the town sitting inside the restaurant in shifts, the Bermuda "test flight" inspired us to take the Grape on a trip to Finland.

Because Finland can be either eighty and sunny or fifty and rainy during its short summer, we packed for every possible weather eventuality. We also decided that we needed two strollers - the small one for the airport and the serious one for long, idyllic walks on country roads - none of which lasted more than twenty minutes due to the steroid-freak type mosquitoes who were hellbent on sucking every drop of blood from the Grape's veins, even after we practically bathed the poor little bugger in Deet. Hopefully he won't grow a third arm or anything.

Because we brought as much luggage as an Emirate princess leaving a shopping holiday in Paris, we had to upgrade our rental car. This involved waiting in the alley next to the Avis office, which shared an entrance with a peep show and porn shop. Being Scandinavia, the wares were proudly displayed in the window. The Grape didn't notice, while R. and I learned that some buttoned down businessmen do pretty strange things on their lunch hours.

In a rerun of our fine dining experience in Bermuda, we sampled one of Helsinki's three Michelin starred eateries. Note: this was NOT our idea. My aunt insisted it would be fine; we could wheel the Grape inside without disturbing his stroller nap. In her defense, the Grape was snoring loudly when she said this.

It wasn't fine. The Grape comes equipped with special sensors that trigger his meltdown function when faced with any overly adult, refined environment. We left after paying thirty euros a piece for unfinished appetizers, because I couldn't stand the shame.

It kills me that we couldn't take the wine to go.

The Grape was a trouper about visiting museums and marketplaces. He schlepped through castles, splashed in the lake and sampled the local cuisine, especially the pear ice cream, like a seasoned traveler. R. and I flew home thinking we should travel more often, not realizing we'd (by dumb luck) hit the perfect pre-walking window.

Because once we returned to Boston, and I shoveled us out from under two weeks' worth of laundry, the Grape started to get really mobile. Which meant we had to get serious about baby-proofing. We spent a disgraceful sum on various gates because none of standard ones fit the non-standard stairways in our place.

In August, we celebrated the fact that we'd kept the Grape alive for a year with a family party, to which nobody brought a camera. The Mother of the Year people crossed me off their list.

As soon as we pronounced our apartment kid proof, we put it on the market. In addition to sending four car loads of crap to storage, the realtor insisted that we de-baby the place for all showings. The crib moved back into the bedroom. Nobody slept well. Everyone got bitchy. We cleared out for painters. We unscrewed and re-screwed the gates so many times that the screws got stripped. We folded baby jail away and stashed it on the roof. We removed all evidence of human habitation and turned the condo into a showplace, displaying only Nobel winning works of literature and fresh flowers. We sent Lucy the Kitten and Siren the Cat to camp at my mom's. It was a horrendous ordeal.

One that lasted five days. This wouldn't be a true holiday newsletter if I didn't brag a bit. Chandler Street, my home for almost a decade, went in five days, for significantly more than the realtor wanted for a listing price. Having already put our new home under contract, I let my head swell with the new sensation of being a real estate genius.

A genius who decided to move on a holiday weekend. R. and I spent Thanksgiving weekend packing and unpacking, sending sofas out the window and Grape proofing a new apartment - one that required entirely new baby gates because none of the five we already owned fit.

Besides the fact that we lived with the Death Stairs for a week while Fosters and Smith shipped the desired barriers, the move went freakishly smoothly. So smoothly that I felt a bit let down. Things were in fact so quiet that we did the only logical thing: we adopted Lila the Dog. Lila came from a rescue that pulls from high-kill shelters in the deep south, so she had a long journey.

I prepared for her arrival by buying dog food, a leash and a nice big bed and reading articles about introducing cats and dogs.

R. started tweeting so he could follow the dog on Twitter.

Lila is thrilled to have a home for the holidays and the Grape is in love. Like L-O-V-E love. He follows her around the apartment chanting, "Lila! Good girl!"

We all went out to buy a tree from the Berkeley Street tree lot. Some recent parolees obligingly schlepped it home for us. R. wrestled it into the stand and Lila and the Grape have been bonding by destroying ornaments while listening to Frank Sinatra sing Jingle Bells.

Aside from a minor ham calamity, and the fact that I've yet to purchase any gifts, we enter this holiday week with all right in the world.

Warm wishes for a festive holiday season and all the best for the new year,

Mari, R., the Grape, Siren, Lucy and Lila



Thursday, December 16, 2010

How much time do YOU and your family get off for the holidays?

Here's a wild and crazy idea: The elected representatives of the people should be working at least as hard as the people who voted them into office. Being a senator or congressional representative is sort of like having a well paid salaried position with a lot of professional responsibility and discretion.

Call me crazy, but in my experience, people in those kinds of roles in private companies don't tend to be the first ones out the door night after night. They don't get to fall off the grid for weeks at a time.

Besides teachers, professors and students, until yesterday I couldn't think of a single soul who gets a week or more of paid vacation in December and January just because it's Christmas. And I suspect many professors spend a chunk of their time off reading term papers, doing research and catching up on professional reading. The United States is the only western democracy that mandates no vacation time for workers, under the laughable argument that to do so would interfere with free enterprise.

Fine. But shouldn't our elected leaders then tow the line? If it's bad for business for rank and file employees to have time off, isn't it then bad for the country for Congress to take as much vacation as the average French factory worker?

I find Senator Kyl's sobbing over a "war on Christmas" both intriguing and disgusting. Intriguing because, even if we knew he and many of his colleagues were out of touch with reality, this latest piece of absurdity leads me to suspect they're operating in some parallel universe. Disgusting, because, as Brigadier General John Adams said yesterday:

"We have one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand US warriors doing their job over Christmas and the New Year, the U.S. Senate should do its job."

Never mind that we haven't seen Mr. Kyl sob about the thousands of lives (soldier and civilian) lost in armed conflict. Shouldn't the fact that we're at war (and it's not going all that swimmingly) shame Congress into acting like reasonable adult professionals?

Put aside for a moment, the fact that we're at war. What about regular, average citizens? Mr. Kyl, along with Mr. DeMint and Mr. McConnell, got all teary eyed about the prospect of working this coming weekend. You know, the one that starts on December 17th.

Anyone want to go crying to their supervisor that you must have from tomorrow through the New Year off? With pay? Because to work as we ramp up to the commemoration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth would be sacrilege?

No takers?

Interesting.

Yet doesn't the thought of two to three weeks off at year end seem deliciously, nostalgically appealing? Think about all the time you'd have to roast chestnuts by the open fire, sing carols off key, bond by the tree over cookies and cocoa, assemble toys that come in roughly 478 pieces. You would even have over a week to recuperate from the o-dark-thirty Santa Claus wake up.

Wouldn't it be nice to have more than one measly day off to do up the biggest holiday on most Americans' calendars? Hell, yeah, as Speaker-elect Boehner (who has, to his credit so far remained silent on the war on Christmas circus) would say.

So here's a handy phone directory for the U.S. Senate:
http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm

Why not call your Senator and tell him or her that you're willing to support them in skipping town this weekend, so long as they promise to introduce legislation allowing ALL Americans to do the same.

After all, as Senator DeMint brayed yesterday, working so close to the Christmas holiday would constitute "sacrilege."

Tell that to the folks working in retail. Or catering. Or emergency services. Or the war.

Or wait. Isn't the real sacrilege that we have out-of-touch twits like Mr. Kyl and Mr. DeMint running the country?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Giving and receiving, for the fortunate and the less so

I am sure that by this time next year (or if we're super lucky, two years from now), I'll be well aware of the season's must-have-or-life-won't-be-worth-living toy. This year, however, I get to luxuriate in ignorant bliss of the commercial orgy occurring around us, confident that the Grape would be thrilled to receive a large cardboard box which he could transform into a fort or freight train.

Kidding.

Not so much about his love for boxes, but about getting him one as a Christmas gift. Obviously R. and I will try to do better than corrugated packaging materials.

In case you're worried, please rest assured that The Grape is also fortunate to have plenty of first degree relatives who love buying things for small people. As far as I can tell, grandparents live for gift giving moments, and if they go a little overboard, who am I to take that away from them?

If their holidays are made brighter by the joy of giving, then that's more than fine with me.

I'm guilty, too, of course. It would seem unthinkable to show up at the family Christmas celebration without gifts for my nieces. Luckily I love our neighborhood toy store (a charming shop called Tadpole) and they probably love me too. Let's just say they don't need to ask my name when I present myself at their counter.

Although last time I was in there, I thought those of us who experience a lack of self restraint in the face of adorable children's merchandise don't have to overdo our own celebrations. Many children in our country wouldn't receive any gifts without the good work of organizations like Toys for Tots and the Salvation Army (among many others). It's not too late to donate new, unwrapped toys for their annual drives. Their websites will direct you to a drop off spot convenient to you.

These organizations are really hurting this year, and donating affords a golden opportunity to teach late-preschool to elementary-age children about charity. Kids are more likely to remember buying toys for the needy than watching mom or dad give online.

Kids slightly senior to the Grape can enjoy choosing gifts for family members. When I pressed my brother about what my two and a half year old niece might like for Christmas this year, he suggested art supplies. Or books or puzzles. L. loves stories and puzzles these days. Easy enough, I said. I can totally handle this.

It took me a second after we hung up to realize what L.'s wishes have in common: they're not merely things. The gifts he listed on her behalf provide experiences. That's what makes them so great.

Paints, puzzles and books don't, like so many flashy, noisy toys, do all the work for the child. Let's be real for a second. I don't care if it's marked "educational," any electronic device that belts out letters, numbers and colors in a nonstop barrage causes more than enough irritation to cancel out any minor learning benefit it might bestow.

Art supplies, puzzles and books allow the child to create something, or see the world of the story in her imagination. And isn't that the reason certain books are cherished long after the whizzing, bleating, chiming must-have widget of the year has been packed off to some charity yard sale?

A 2010 study at San Francisco State University found that people garner far more happiness from experiences than from material purchases. Which to me means that concert tickets, museum/zoo/aquarium memberships, sporting event tickets and perhaps even (depending on the age and interests of the child) various kinds of lessons make fabulous gift ideas.

I don't want you to roll your eyes and call me a Grinch, so I want to be clear: I'm not suggesting children shouldn't receive things to unwrap; the unwrapping of holiday surprises conjures wonderful childhood memories for many of us. I'm merely suggesting that maybe the kids could get one or two fewer packages in favor of some experiential treat that keeps giving for months after the holidays have faded into distant memory.

If you want to buy electronic educational toys, just be honest and admit they're primarily made to entertain your kid. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Though, since the Grape and most of his contemporaries seem to have come into the world with such an uncanny knack for technology that I doubt they'll find such watered down versions interesting for long. I suspect getting the Grape his own "computer" would be a colossal waste of cash. At the ripe age of sixteen months, he's smart enough to know that my iPhone is the gadget he really desires. And he's not keen to accept any phony phones. Nor will he receive his own treasure from the Apple store, in case you were wondering.

While I'm on the subjects of gadgets, let me digress for just a second and suggest that any toy whose decibel output competes with a Rolling Stones concert should not be allowed to advertise itself as a player of lullabies.

I'm laughing at myself a little as I write this, because I know that the Grape is years away from learning the joy of giving, or the merits of an experience compared to a thing. But it's not too early to start modeling what we preach, which is why my nieces will receive a zoo membership along with the their packaged presents.

And don't worry about the Grape. He'll make out just fine. His stocking is already hung with care, ready for Santa, alongside the ones marked for the Siren the Cat, Lucy the Kitten and Lila the Newly Arrived Dog, who checks diligently for tasty developments because she's seen Lucy do so.

For now, the Grape thinks they're some new decoration. Won't he be surprised when, less than two weeks from now, those over sized red socks yield something fun?

Not as surprised as the kid whose parents told him Santa wasn't coming this year, because they needed the money for heat, medical bills, rent or food.

www.toysfortots.org
www.salvationarmy.org

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Going it alone

After I posted my dating diatribe about denying the loud ticking sound, I received several emails from single women closing in on that scary birthday that starts with a four. They all basically asked the same thing: "You have a kid. Would you recommend doing it alone?"

Hardest question ever. I've quipped more than once that I wouldn't wish single parenthood on my worst enemy. I love the Grape, but he's exhausting. And I don't have to parent him alone, or anywhere remotely close to alone.

But my frank response seems - inevitably - to yield the follow up question, "What if I really, really want a baby? Shouldn't I'm go for it on my own?"

I'm going to channel my inner politico and say it depends.

Because it truly does. Everyone knows that having a baby changes life as you know it, but I doubt anyone fully internalizes the seismic force of that change until they've spent the first weeks home with the new bundle of joy.

So I'll garner my share of hate mail for writing this, but I would advise women driven to distraction by the ticking noise to take a serious look at their resources.

I don't mean just money, though having some helps. Money may not buy happiness, but it absolutely purchases choices.

It's reckless to assume everything will go swimmingly. Who could you bring in to help if you have complications, or your child has problems, or you get an infant who, for whatever reason, never ever sleeps? What if you conceive twins?

Can you miss work for child-related crises? Can you afford child care, and back up child care? Help with other household tasks?

On an outwardly more frivolous level, can you handle the hit to your social life? Because if you want to see your kid and you need to support your kid on your own, your nights out on the town will decrease (if not vanish). As, I suspect, will your romantic prospects. I'm not saying that you won't be the yummiest of mummies, it's that you'll have scheduling issues and a child much of the male dating pool will regard as baggage.

There are other ways, of course. Single girlfriends sometimes ponder freezing their eggs. Unfortunately, any reasonably good reproductive endocrinologist will admit that eggs don't freeze nearly as well as sperm. Plus you have to inject hormones for weeks before they can harvest your eggs to determine if your body gave up any worth saving.

What strikes me most about the whole quandary is that never have I heard a single woman over thirty-five ask whether she should settle. I don't mean for any old loser, but for a good and kind man who might make a great dad, but who doesn't do it for her in every other way. Lori Gottlieb, herself a single mom, had this to say about settling for Mr. Not Quite Right:

Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year. (It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook.)

Ms. Gottlieb's advice won't sit well with many women. We're conditioned to hold out for what we want, to make no compromises in the mating game. But if what you want above all is a biological child, then it seems that dismissing guys who don't check every box on your list might be a tad self defeating. She never suggests that settling is ideal, but she argues emphatically that parenting is a better experience with a solid teammate on your side. I can't argue with that.

I don't, however, subscribe to the dated notion that a child will suffer in a single parent household. Sometimes a parent dies and the survivor has to fend for everyone. I know a couple of single moms by choice who have charming, happy, well adjusted children. They themselves have no lives, and that's not an exaggerration.

Families come in countless functional forms, and plenty of single moms and dads do a fantastic job. But I do think it's easier on any parent to have consistent adult support.

Here's the link to Lori Gottlieb's piece:
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/03/marry-him/6651/

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Pariah of the New Millennium: the stay at home dad

I overheard two guys in suits talking about a stay at home dad acquaintance of theirs the other day. I didn't catch most of the conversation, but I got the gestalt.

Guy A: Did you hear? Joe's a stay at home dad now.
Guy B: No way. Lucky bastard.
Guy A: I'd kill to hang out at home and do nothing all day.
Guy B: Must be nice. My wife would divorce me if I turned into a mooch.

Before tackling the social stigma of stay at home fathering, let me just say that we have a massive social problem if the career types in our society truly feel that the contribution made by the child minders is so worthless.

If you are a parent of a young child, and you have a career that takes you away from home for long and/or unpredictable hours, or one that features regular emergencies, or one that requires a super human level of devotion in order to secure advancement, you could not have that same career without the time and dedication of some other adult.

Whether that adult is a paid employee or your life partner doesn't change this fundamental truth.

It's another fundamental truth that the grass always seems greener in the adjacent pasture. So, if you've ever said, or thought, it would be so nice to be home with Junior and do nothing all day, I have a challenge for you.

Take as many consecutive personal days as your employer permits. Send your sitter, spouse or regular child minder away. Really away. And no calling to ask for help unless the house is on fire or the child is bleeding from his eyeballs.

Run your household. Alone. This is not a weekend drill.

Face the bully at the park, the interminable line at the post office, the spluttering, wheezing clerk at the grocery store. Make sandwiches. Prep dinner, shower and pay bills if your kid will consent to nap. Wait for plumbers who arrive two hours late when your child is crazy with cabin fever and demands to go outdoors. Take forty-five minutes to get out the door. (If you live in Boston, the gem of a line in The Christmas Story, about getting ready to go outdoors being like preparation for extended deep sea exploration rings awfully true).

If you need to buy holiday gifts, navigate the packed mall with a stroller and an over bundled toddler scattering Goldfish crackers in her wake. The department stores love that. Look for bathrooms in the least convenient places you can imagine. Wait in interminable lines with a screaming, over tired kid.

Bandage scrapes. Clean up spills. Cut up fruits and vegetables to bite size bits. Change diapers. Administer baths. Brush teeth. Sing songs and do art projects. If applicable, get everyone bundled to take the dog out, at least four times a day.

Teach him to catch a ball or ride a bike. Sign her up for skating lessons and then get to the ice on time. Sing the alphabet song eighty-seven times. Enforce bedtimes.

Don't let the kiddies watch TV. Not one show. Not if the primary care giver doesn't allow it.

Report back to me if you think, at the end of the experiment, that you - the full time career person - still have the easier job. Because I'd like you to author a guest post.

You'll of course notice that the primary child minder gets perks the office goer doesn't. He or she witnesses all the milestones and spontaneous moments of pure joy that happen in the course of keeping the kid alive and entertained. He or she gets to decide the order in which tasks get tackled. He or she can decide to blow off cleaning the bathroom in favor of baking cookies.

Remember though, that the restaurant meals and adult social interaction in which many office goers routinely indulge look like perks from the stay at home person's view point. I know many moms who fantasize about spending three minutes in the bathroom without anyone hammering on the door. The greener pastures adage works both ways.

I don't know any stay at home dads personally, though I see them once in a while at music class or at the playground. Theirs seems a lonely lot. Stay at home moms, and nannies for that matter, tend to develop social support networks among their contemporaries. Sometimes it's really nice to grab a coffee or a sandwich and have an adult conversation while watching the kiddies enjoy a play date. I'm not saying that stay at home dads never get invited anywhere; just that I've never seen it happen.

I have however, overheard more than one father admit to stay at home dad status with an uncomfortable chuckle and mumbled apology. It's always a "temporary situation," often "just until" his partner gets past whatever career milestone.

And who can blame these dads for apologizing, if, like the guys on the sidewalk, their friends and colleagues see them as less worthy?

The sidewalk small talkers might not recognize their remarks as sexist, but that's exactly what they were. I suspect their fundamental issue with "Joe" was that he was doing what our society generally regards as women's work. Which rendered him more feminine and his contribution less valuable.

I don't expect such attitudes will change, at least not for another couple of generations. I'd love it though, if the sidewalk dudes could walk for just one full day in Joe's shoes. At least then they might stop thinking of the care givers in their lives as freeloading leeches.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Denying that loud ticking sound

Dating is a spectator sport for me these days, which is fortunate because I'm usually in my pajamas by the time my single friends' tables are ready.

But I get to hear news from the trenches now and then, because the vast majority of my single, thirty-something girlfriends date. Avidly. Many have profiles on Match. Many go on several dates a month. Why? Not just for fun.

If you ask, they'll tell you, with a high degree of certainty, that they'd like to get married and have children.

They'll also confide that men in our age group don't seem to grasp their urgency.

I find this hard to believe, but I've heard it from so many women that I'm going to accept it as true: A stunning number of men in my age demographic (let's call it 30 to 45 to be inclusive) refuse to accept the existence of a biological clock.

Let alone its relevance to their dating lives.

A significant portion of these same men tell their dates that of course they'd like to have kids.

"Someday."

In the distant future.

Check, please.

Here's the unpleasant reality: If you are a thirty-five-year-old woman who knows she wants children, and your date, a thirty-five year-old-guy, thinks he wants "a few years" to date and then another year to commit, and maybe a couple of years on top of that to consider a baby, then you need to thank him for a lovely cocktail and move on.

Immediately.

Like before the entrees arrive.

You must to cut your losses, and no, I don't think that's too harsh.

If he's still in the having fun and playing the field stage, he'll be having a family with someone ten or fifteen years your junior, years after the biological baby ship has sailed for you.

So many women say they feel uncomfortable pressuring men about the biological clock question. They don't want to issue ultimatums. But because they're worried about seeming pushy and needy, they don't share the big thing that keeps them up at night. That can't be healthy for any relationship.

And let's turn the tables for a minute.

Who doesn't know a couple who dated forever, because the guy took his sweet time (also known as the woman's best child bearing years) about deciding he was ready for a long term commitment? When pressed, many of these guys claim they wanted a few more years of "freedom." Freedom to do what, precisely?

Next time some guy says that, please, please ask him to elaborate. And report back.

How many of these together-forever-but-not-officially couples now struggle with infertility? Answer: Many. And it's not because his sperm can't swim or her womb constitutes an inherently hostile environment. It's because she's north of thirty-five, the age the average healthy woman's fertility falls off a cliff.

Note to the guys: Grow up, already. If the woman you love is in her thirties, it's selfish to ponder whether you're ready for years and years. Biology isn't fair. You may have a decade to mull it over, but she doesn't.

I know one gem of a man who presented his wife with an article about women over forty-five conceiving through IVF. They were both pushing forty, had been together almost a decade, and he resented her desire to have a baby.

He always had an excuse to delay: After I finish grad school, after this promotion, after we move to a bigger house. When all these things happened and he still balked, he admitted he didn't want to be a dad anytime soon. Fine. At least he was finally honest with her.

But then he directed her attention to the miracle of reproductive science.

After her failed attempts to explain that just because something was medically possible, didn't make it desirable - or even likely to work, for that matter - she divorced him. But not until after a year of soul searching, during which she finally realized that she wasn't a selfish, demanding bitch just because she wanted to have a child with her husband during the medically desirable age window.

Note the ladies: Grow up, already. If biological children are important to you, then you need to have the backbone to state that clearly, early on in the relationship. I don't mean on the first date, but certainly by the third or fourth. You're not issuing an ultimatum. You're simply advising your prospective boyfriend that your casual dating days are behind you. If he's not on the same page, you're both better off moving on.

Just my humble opinion.




Friday, November 19, 2010

What do mommies do all day? Damage control.

People frequently wonder aloud about what stay at home moms do all day. They look at us with unmasked condescension if we report "accomplishing" a trip to the supermarket or the post office. They wonder why we don't have time to turn our homes into sparkling showplaces worthy of the pages of Architectural Digest, and why our other halves don't come home to five course gastronomic triumphs every single night.

I'll tell you some things I do every day: entertainment, catering and damage control. Entertainment and catering sort of explain themselves. Everyone knows little kids need to eat and play, often outside. And most people know that getting out the door with a baby takes at least fifty per cent longer than vacating the apartment solo. That doesn't mean they understand it.

It's easy math, really: babies need an amount of gear and provisions, the amount of which is inversely proportionate by at least tenfold to their age. This means that despite careful staging, some mission critical item will often need to be retrieved from the house after we've made it to the sidewalk.

This in turn means I schlep the stroller back indoors, unstrap the Grape, haul him up three full flights of stairs, remove shoes, put the Grape someplace safe like baby jail (at which point he will wail like he's being stabbed because he thought we were going outdoors), locate the crucial item, scoop up the Grape, reapply shoes and head back downstairs. Fully half the times we emerge from the apartment, I'm a sweaty mess before we make it to the foyer. I tell myself at least I'm burning some extra calories, doing this crazy aerobic interval a few times every day.

But preparing to leave the home is mere kids' play when compared to the mother of all stay-at-home-mother time suckers. Damage control is the true wild card - the factor nobody can possibly understand until they have firsthand experience running interference between a toddler and the big, tempting world.

Today I had to take a phone call about the insurance on our new place. Sound boring? It was. So much so that the Grape decided to break up the monotony by unraveling an entire roll of toilet paper, dumping the cat's water dish all over the kitchen floor (by sitting in it) and smearing the better part of a tube of Desitin into the living room rug.

You might ask why he had access to such amusements, and I'll confess that the first two stunts are regular attention-redirection strategies the Grape employs when his antennae sense my focus veering elsewhere. Lucy the Kitten, a regular partner in the Grape's crimes, provided him with the open tube of ointment. By which I mean she nudged it off the table with her tortoiseshell toes. The Grape seized upon the treasure with such stealth and speed that by the time my brain registered what my eyes were seeing, the diabolical Desitin deed was done.

A ten minute phone call turned into an hour of clean up, and the rug will still need to be professionally salvaged. Drop off and pickup will eat another couple hours of my life.

Damage control also includes excess laundry, like the kind generated today when the Grape enjoyed his first juice box. He drank out of the straw angelically for about four seconds, then gave into the urge to give the blasted carton a hearty squeeze. Which of course resulted in a red fruit punch hose down for his face and his outfit.

I count myself lucky. The juice box incident occurred in a crowded public place. The Grape could have easily doused some humorless man in a dry clean only Italian suit. Like my kid brother did once on an airplane. At least my mom could claim the flight crew issued her kid his liquid grenade. In the Grape's case, I was the genius responsible for the soggy, sticky clothes.

I also spent about twenty minutes this morning re-shelving library books in the Grape's wake. Another five or ten gathering the remains of his breakfast from underneath the highchair. (I so cannot wait to get a dog.) This afternoon, he missed knocking over a pyramid of apples at the farmer's market by about half an inch, and it wasn't for lack of effort on his part. Evidently his wing span far exceeds the width of his stroller.

I practically had to plow through an old lady with a walker to prevent the Grape from leaning out of his stroller to cause Macintosh mayhem. Yesterday evening he had a blast removing all the tupperware from the one accessible kitchen cabinet and hurling it, piece by piece, over the gate and down the stairs.

Two days ago he attempted to flush a wash cloth. And no, he wasn't unattended near the minefield that is the bathroom. I was sorting laundry. He was so excited to be physically proximate to this fascinating domestic task that he grabbed the first thing he could and tossed it in the toilet.

Who knew he'd figured out how to flush?

At least it was just a washcloth. And a five to ten minute fix.

The Grape was so riveted by the plunging show that it hardly counted as damage control. If pressed, I would have classified the activity as entertainment.

Maybe next time we're stuck indoors on a rainy day, I'll let him flush something else. Just for fun.

Or not.






Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Princess saturation

A friend recently remarked that she'll be glad when her girls, both pre-school age, outgrow the princess phase.

Today's announcement from Buckingham Palace suggests she'd better not hold her breath.

To be fair, my friend meant the Disney brand of princesses, eight of whom (by my recent unofficial count) are featured on everything from shirts to tea sets to bed linens. The kind of princesses who wear beautiful clothes, sing waltzes with woodland animals and find happiness (forever after, we're told as the credits roll) on the arm of a wealthy, handsome prince.

Which, apart from the compulsory bird and bunny serenade sequence, sounds an awful lot like the story of Will and Kate. He's the future king; she's a beautiful girl from a middle class family. Her likeness will appear later today - if it hasn't already - on a staggering assortment of household items from tea cups to towels to commemorative Christmas ornaments. Perhaps even, if she's unlucky, on bath tissue.

Disney has nothing on Buckingham Palace in the marketing department.

Obvious factoid of the day: The overwhelming majority of the Will and Kate merchandise will be gobbled up by female consumers.

Details of the royal wedding will mesmerize girls and women of all ages around the globe. Some analysts predict that global TV ratings will eclipse the World Cup, and perhaps, proportionally speaking, the moon landing.

The planet will slam to a halt as Kate Middleton, who seems like a lovely and clever young lady, lives the fairy tale. If the couple chooses a morning ceremony, little girls in America will wake early to tune in, and perhaps there's nothing wrong with that. The future queen is a public figure; the marriage of the Prince of Wales is a world event. I wish them all the best in their marriage. And, since everyone is obsessed with the happy couple, I'm thrilled that Ms. Middleton, at age 28, is a real grown up who can speak for herself, rather than a doe-eyed child bride thrust without life experience into the public eye.

But still, there's something troubling about the saturation of little girl world with all things princess. Visit any toy shop or website catering to children and you'll see princess everything. Princesses represent a huge percentage of Halloween costume sales, birthday party themes and film and book purchases.

I enjoy the old Disney films as much as the next person. They're beautifully drawn with memorable scores and familiar tales. Taken one by one, they each possess a certain charm and appeal. But if you take the princess movie genre as a whole, you cannot escape its central theme: Beautiful, agreeable girls get to make their lives complete, and indeed worth living, by marrying rich, handsome men. Some of whom appear markedly older to boot.

Of course that happens over and over again in real life, but I'm not sure it's a goal to which little girls should aspire with such single-minded focus from a tender age. Naturally, kids grow up and interests evolve, but I wonder if the underlying message: beauty and to a lesser extent, sweetness, will help you, as a female, succeed in life. The princesses tend not to get their guys by dazzling displays of wit or guts; two of the most famous are actually comatose at the climactic moment.

Brains and drive, if mentioned at all, are secondary virtues. By my tally, none of the eight big time Disney princesses have much in terms of education. In fact, they're usually isolated from society somehow, waiting to be saved perhaps, but also staying chaste and pure until Mr. Charming trots in on his white horse.

Success, even in updated fairy tales, equals marriage to a prince and not much else, because that's where all these tales end.

I'm not an absolutist; I believe there's a place in our culture for fairy tales. Escapist fantasies have entertained the human imagination since the earliest days of story telling.

It's the sheer volume of princess propaganda I find worrisome. That, and the fact that I bet you can go to any playground anywhere in the country, and find more than one little girl who will tell you she wants to be a princess when she grows up.

Go ahead, ask around. And please, please report back if I'm wrong.

Aside from my aforementioned concerns with this national preoccupation with princesses, today's little would-be-Cinderellas face a very real logistical challenge: our playgrounds suffer from a dearth of little boys who want to grow up and become princes.

When I was five, I wanted to be an astronaut. Before that, I think it was a farmer. I think there was a dolphin trainer phase in there somewhere around the first grade.

To date, none of those careers have worked out for me.

But, both now and at the time, they seemed like more desirable ambitions than "grow up and marry a prince."

I think I'm going to head out to the toy store now, to buy my two-year-old niece a doctor's kit. Or an art set. Or an airplane.

Not that I hope she'll become a physician, a painter or a pilot, but because I think it's beneficial to remind her that behind the sea of pink sparkles that makes up the girls' toy section, countless other possibilities exist.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Tutus in a twist over nothing

By now, unless you exist in a news blackout, you've heard the brouhaha over the five-year-old in Kansas City who went to school dressed as a female cartoon character for Halloween. Countless adults jumped all over the mom. Some nut jobs actually accused her of turning her son gay (as if such a thing is possible). Cooler heads questioned why she'd risk opening her child to ridicule. Psychologists on morning shows speculated on the challenges faced by parents raising transgender children.

All over a Halloween costume that a five year old selected. I don't know the child in question, but I'd bet anything he doesn't understand why the adults have their knickers in such a tight twist over his outfit. This is a one-time event. The child in question reportedly wears boy clothes most of the time. He just likes playing dress up, and for some reason he likes this retro cartoon detective. Maybe it's the bright red wig.

At age five, he gets the difference between real and pretend.

Sadly, legions of adults evidently don't.

Somewhere in the fifty states, several little girls probably elected to dress in "male" costumes. Before you condemn the Kansas City mom, do you think you'd react the same way if a little girl went to school dressed as Superman? Or as Dracula? Or as a football player? Would the news media descend like vultures, would the blogosphere hurl homophobic epithets, if a kindergarden aged girl went out dressed as a famous quarterback?

Very young children, as anyone who's been around them knows, often have somewhat fluid notions of gender. My niece, a true girly girl who loves pink and teddy bear tea parties, periodically decides that she's going to play at being a boy. She's two and a half years old and naturally attracted to feminine things. She knows there's some difference between male and female but she hasn't totally processed it. I offer this exchange from last summer, when she noticed the Grape had different parts from her own:

"Where's his vagina?"

"He doesn't have one."

"Oh." (thoughtful pause) "Will he get a vagina when he gets bigger?"

Truly transgender people, children included, identify so strongly with the other gender that they want to be dressed and treated as that gender all the time. They feel trapped in the wrong body. It's not a game to them. Clothes help them express their identity, not escape into a pretend persona for a Halloween event.

A four year old boy I know went through a princess phase last year. This year he was all about dressing as a very masculine super hero. I suspect lots of boy tots go through girlie phases. After all, princesses are sparkly and they garner way more than their fair share of adult attention.

When my younger brother and I were in that age group, we played with dress up clothes. We consequently have many photos of him decked out in mom's cast off finery. It was a game. Nobody thought anything of it. I think we would have been confused if the adults had objected.

A little girl of similar age went through what I like to call an early feminist phase last year, when she realized that boys got to do some things girls didn't, such as play in a certain soccer club and appear on money. I'm pleased to report that a quick trip to the bank to buy some British pounds restored her faith in her sex. And this year, she wanted - more than anything - an ultra girly costume for trick or treating.

Kansas city kindergardener might be gay. He might be straight. You'd really have to know him personally to speculate fairly. For now, he's just playing the dress up game. His mother decided to let him have that. She knows if the other kids tease him, she'll need to have a teaching moment. It seems to me she's doing the best she can, and nobody should have an issue with that.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Grape has his treats and eats them, too

This weekend, all across the country, parents gorged themselves on sweets, many under the pretense of "checking" their children's trick or treat loot for sinister foreign objects.

A significant minority of these parents confiscate most of the haul outright, on the grounds that they don't allow sweets. Some of those parents toss the offensive sweets, others dump the candies on co-workers, but many, many parents squirrel away a secret stash for post-bedtime adult consumption.

I think that's lame.

Now, before you jump all over me with arguments about rotting teeth, rampant obesity and the undesirable effects of mercurial sugar highs, let me say it's very irresponsible to let the little ones ingest their monster candy take in a single sitting.

But, come on, people. Despite what the costume and night club industry would have us believe, Halloween is a quintessential kiddie holiday. The costumes may be the main event, but candy figures into it, too.

How many alpha moms who never allow a morsel of inorganic food to cross their youngsters' lips got to eat their Halloween candy as kids? How many of those moms suffered lasting physiological damage as a result? Anyone? No? That's kind of what I figured.

I'm a major food snob. I'm all about eating clean, healthy, local food. I don't buy processed food, or sauces and cereals featuring corn syrup. We don't patronize fast food outlets. We eat lots of fresh produce. We don't buy grain-fed meat or dairy products from cows subjected to rBGH. I don't keep candy around the house at all times.

Some people might find my food rules hard to live with; I don't. For the simple reason that the food rules apply to both the adults and the Grape. And because I eat candy in moderation, so can the Grape. In fact, he was really excited to discover on November 1, that the crinkly packages he'd collected so eagerly the previous evening contained chocolate.

On a nuttier level, Gardenmoms, that treasure trove of maternal angst, featured a post several months back from a woman who wanted to skip the birthday cake at her son's party. Not for a legitimate reason (i.e. the child or his siblings suffer from diabetes), but because she completely banned all sweets. Really?

Skip ahead a few years. I wonder if people who make candy the forbidden fruit do their kids any favors. It seems to me that the strategy could backfire. It's not hard to imagine a kindergarten kid who was barred from tasting his own birthday cake morphing into a ten-year-old who gorges himself on Twinkies and DingDongs in his tree house. It's kind of like the child of teetotalers who leaves home at eighteen and becomes a binge drinker. As with alcohol, I bet people who don't learn moderation with desserts tend to be the ones who end up with issues.

For many of us, certain foods conjure up wonderful childhood memories. While the trick or treat haul isn't as special as the certain cookies your grandma made at Christmas, or that incredible cake with the frosting animals you had on your sixth birthday, I bet more than one of you can still name the candy you were most happy to receive from your neighbors on Halloween night.

And let's be honest: admiring the Halloween haul strewn on the floor was only part of the fun. Consuming it made me and my younger brother pretty happy, too.

Which is why now, even with his whole foods obsessed mom, the Grape gets to have his birthday cake and eat his Halloween candy too.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The last legal option for women who really wanted to be mommies

Last summer, a woman I know well had to have a D&E at twenty-seven weeks. I say she had to, because tests showed that the fetus lacked the makings of a skull. It had brain tissue growing on the outside of what passed for its head. The fetus also had a neural tube defect and severe deformities of the face, legs and torso. Let's not dwell too long on the excruciating, unimaginable pain an infant would feel as a result of having its brain outside the skull.

My friend learned this information at twenty weeks. Her OB told her to expect a miscarriage. She was stunned. Miserable. Devastated. Disbelieving. She'd had a healthy baby a few years earlier, had no trouble conceiving and no birth defects on either side of the family. She and her husband had really wanted this child.

It took another two weeks for doctors to confirm the extent of the fatal and devastating flaws. Her body made no motions to miscarry. She was past the legal limit for abortion in her home state. She researched options in other states, but felt confident, based on medical advice, that her body would miscarry.

At twenty-four and a half weeks, the fetal heart beat ceased. Still no miscarriage.

Her OB (and another, more senior doc in the practice) told her that the fetus had no chance of viability, but that she was past the legal limit for an abortion. They explained that the fetus would likely die in utero.

And she'd have to go through labor to deliver a dead baby.

Anyone else think that's insane advice?

Because she lives in what I'll politely call a bright red state, it took her two weeks and a day to organize a termination in a state one time zone, a whole week off work and a pricey plane ticket away. After doing her own research (her OBs wouldn't help), she found a doctor in Boulder, Colorado to perform the abortion for her. He was quite literally her only remaining option in the U.S.

Every other woman in the waiting room was in the same boat. All were mourning wanted pregnancies ruined by profound defects. Some had traveled even further than she.

A late second trimester D&E is a three day procedure; on the second day one of the waiting room women confessed that she'd been up all night, panicking about what would happen if some anti-choice crazy managed to kill Dr. Hern before her procedure was complete. Her husband had insisted she take a sedative around four a.m., when she was up in the hotel room, Googling Dr. Tiller (the late term abortion provider murdered in Kansas last year). She wanted to know what happened to his second-trimester patients in progress. Answer: unclear.

My friend admitted later that the same thought had crossed her mind. And she asked me to write about it a few weeks ago. I thought it was too heavy a topic for this space. But she was persuasive.

She's a lawyer in a medium-sized Southern city and now she's a woman with a cause.

She called me again the other day, very excited that the feds had impaneled a grand jury to evaluate conspiracy charges against Operation Rescue and other anti-choice extremists. She also sent me an interview with Dr. Hern from the Guardian (link below), in which he makes a convincing argument that anti-choice organizations share responsibility when their adherents turn violent.

Another woman I know here in New England went through a similarly heartbreaking ordeal. Her baby, a desperately wanted infant conceived with the help of fertility medicine, seemed healthy and strong all through the first trimester. Then the doctors discovered a series of catastrophic genetic defects. Her fetus had a weak heartbeat. Her doctors worried that she showed no signs of miscarriage. If she elected not to terminate, the fetus would likely die inside her womb and become septic. She'd face either major emergency surgery or a labor to deliver a dead baby.

She chose to have the same procedure as my red state friend. She had a D&E at about twenty-three weeks, which is within the legal window for elective abortion here in Massachusetts.

As it should be everywhere. Because here's the thing that the anti-choice mobs can't or won't acknowledge: The overwhelming majority (over ninety per cent) of women having second or third trimester terminations are doing so because of either a catastrophic birth defect or (even more rarely) imminent danger to the mother's own life.

In case you're wondering about the other patients in late-term clinics, the majority of the remaining less than ten percent are scared teenagers. These girls either didn't understand they were pregnant, or (even more commonly) were raped and unable to secure an adult's help in getting an abortion until they were visibly pregnant. Why? Ask any domestic violence counselor. Many, many victims of child/teen rape are attacked by their fathers, step-fathers or other male relatives. I challenge you to explain to me how it's in any teenager's interest to become a mom; let alone one who was raped by her father.

Just because the second woman lives in a blue state didn't mean she was spared the fanatics outside the clinic. A second trimester D&E is a three day procedure. Every day for three days, she had to haul herself to the clinic, walk past the nut jobs and nuns with their pictures and prayer beads, through a metal detector, into a lobby where she passed two forms of ID through a window made of bullet proof glass.

Yes, in Massachusetts. The Heart of Blue State America.

The staff advised her that there was no point in explaining to the protestors that her desperately wanted baby was tragically not viable. I guess they've decided it's better not to engage with crazy people.

The demonstrators who hassle patients outside abortion clinics know that children are vulnerable to their emotional appeals. "Don't kill your baby!" and "We can help!" As one of Dr. Tiller's nurses said about their "help," it takes a lot more than a pink receiving blanket embroidered with a cross and a toll-free number for social services to help a troubled child parent an unwanted child of her own.

I challenge any person protesting outside an abortion clinic to look a woman in the eye and say to her, calmly and politely, that you feel it's in her best interest to carry a dead fetus to term. Or to parent a profoundly abnormal child. Or become a mother before becoming an adult. Tell her that you know what's better for her than she does. Tell her that you believe she's a sinner, and that your religious beliefs should dictate her actions.

Isn't that what America is all about?

You won't see this happening. It's easier for the anti-choice extremists to scream and taunt and dehumanize. And wait and hope that another gun toting crazy person will dispatch another doctor.

But I digress. I know I'm preaching to the converted, and maybe even pissing off some regular readers who tune in for the slapstick accounts of my adventures with the Grape. I promise that will be back in my next post.

But tonight, on election eve, I want to leave you with this thought:

A vote for any far right and/or tea party candidate, even if solely motivated by a desire to pay fewer taxes and be left alone by the folks in Washington, is WITHOUT EXCEPTION, a vote to put up even more hurdles for desperate, grieving, wanted to be moms like my friend.

Here's the Guardian piece on Dr. Hern:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/24/warren-hern-america-late-abortion

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Some dad and lad time

I recently left the Grape overnight for the first time. He and R. had a dad and lad weekend at home while I traveled by planes, cars and blown-out flip flops to attend the somewhat hard-to-reach beach wedding of one of my oldest and best friends. When the travel time added up to ten hours each way, and the time at destination amounted to a single day, the decision to leave the Grape behind came easily.

People expressed concern that R. and the Grape would be able to cope for such a long stretch of time, but I wasn't worried. R. is a great dad. He enjoys spending time with the little guy and he's perfectly capable of maintaining the Grape in my absence. By all accounts, the boys enjoyed their weekend together. There was even a photo on Facebook, of dad and lad enjoying beer and fries (respectively, please don't call Child Protective Services) in a local bar.

My only complaint is this: Various third parties shouldn't act like R. did me an enormous, mind blowing favor. So I left my fourteen month old for the first time overnight. Big deal. R. has spent dozens of overnights away from me and the Grape. Nobody congratulated me on keeping the baby alive all by my lonesome on those occasions.

Today in Starbucks, I overheard a guy about my age, sporting a suit and wedding ring, tell someone on the phone that he couldn't make it to an after work happy hour because, he groaned, "I have to get home early tonight to babysit my son."

In case there's still someone out there who didn't get the memo: You don't call it baby sitting if you're watching your own offspring. I almost asked the guy whether he considered his wife to be "baby sitting" on the nights he worked (or played) late. I decided not to risk irritating him, as he looked kind of cranky and was holding a hot beverage.

It's not all Starbucks Guy's fault. Far too many women have bought into the myth that men don't make the greatest child minders. I can think of at least a half dozen friends who leave written instructions when they leave their kids with Dad for even a short interlude. They aren't married to imbeciles, yet they don't trust that Dad can scramble an egg, apply pajamas to the child's person or select an appropriate bedtime story. When pushed to specify the problem with leaving Junior in his father's care, they laugh and say things like, "Oh, you know, he just can't deal."

Nonsense. Most women possess some type of maternal instinct, but that doesn't mean fathers aren't similarly wired - biologically - to keep their progeny alive. Many fathers may lack confidence in their child rearing skills, but I wonder how much of that results from nurture.

Yes, ironically enough, I'm going to lay some of the blame squarely at the feet of their own mothers.

The men in my demographic may have been raised by women who self-identified as feminists, but I doubt most of them witnessed a lot of hands on child care performed by their fathers. Dads back in the seventies and eighties often did fun stuff, like coached soccer or took the kiddies out for ice cream. Sometimes they were the disciplinarians in that old school you-wait-until-your-father-gets-home sense. But I don't recall my father, nor the fathers of my childhood friends, planning children's meals, administering baths or making sure that little Jane didn't leave for the bus stop without her hat and coat on a subzero day. The routine care and feeding of kids fell largely to the moms, as it does in most households today.

What's sort of rich is that many, many, many of these seventies feminist moms have morphed into new millennium mothers-in-law who act like they did such a fantastic job, because they raised sons who will actually watch the kids for a few hours on the weekend or (gasp) change a diaper even though the mommy is on the premises.

In fairness, every family must have some division of labor in order to function, and many moms gladly take on the role of primary child minder. But it's still disheartening how many fathers act like they deserve a medal for spending one on one time with their kids. You can overhear them comparing notes at the playground on weekends, about how long they've been banished from the home with the little darlings. If you eavesdrop on the inter-dad chatter, you'll hear the words "baby sitting" thrown around a lot.

I've developed another theory about why this attitude towards parenting persists, even among smart, seemingly solid guys. It's because many of them weren't expected to do any of the heavy lifting during their earliest days of parenthood. Maybe the new mommy claimed to have it all under control, or she wanted to prove to herself that she could deal once the dad returned to work. Or maybe the new dad felt ham handed around the newborn and gave up because of anxiety. Whatever the reason or excuse, it's a shame that so many new dads watch the first days from the sidelines, posing for photos, warming up meals, but leaving the major infant care to the womenfolk.

It still astounds me how many people express shock when they hear R. gives the Grape most of his baths. He has since the get go, when he had to, because I was recovering from a c-section and another major surgery. Now it's their thing. When the Grape and I go somewhere without R., like my mother's house, he'll look at the bathtub and say, "Daddy!" Then he'll be disappointed when Daddy doesn't materialize to play with the boats. His insistence on bathing with Daddy used to offend me a little, but I've come to think of their nightly fifteen minute ritual as a positive thing. The Grape and I spend lots of time together. It enhances his relationship with his dad to have this routine.

Maybe Starbucks Guy is in the running for father of the year, and I happened to overhear a snippet of out-of-character conversation. His particular story doesn't concern me, except that I've used him as an emblem of a certain type of parent: the kind that misses out on the day to day adventures of child rearing and wakes up one day to find the almost grown kids grumbling that they have to spend time with him.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

If I only had a door...

We're moving. The Grape needs his own room and frankly, I need a door I can close between us now and then.

Like for three and a half minutes every morning, so I might pull myself together before catering to the Grape's many demands. In our current configuration, he gets annoyed if he doesn't wake to instant service. Part of the problem is that he hears R.'s alarm and then the whole family is up, ready or not. "Mamma! Mamma!" he chants from the crib with his uncanny Neapolitan intonation. (Please don't tell him he's only twenty-five per cent Italian; he'll be so crushed.)

If he senses I am awake but (inexplicably, unacceptably) ignoring him, his chant devolves to a shriek that almost certainly violates the condo association's quiet enjoyment clause. And there's no waiting him out. While he'd play in his crib for a while if he thought he was alone, he refuses to do so when I'm clearly six feet away. Soon he starts flinging his stuffed animals at me. When his favorite lullaby playing giraffe sails at my head, I know he means business.

It will be a little slice of heaven to wake up without a toddler in the room, to wash the sleep from my eyes and maybe even have a coffee and read the headlines before he wakes. Dare to dream.

But getting from our shared room to the set up with two bedrooms (and two doors!) may send me over the edge. Here's the crux of the problem: The likely buyer for our place will be a young professional or couple. No parent with half a brain would want to buy this place, with its 64 steps and non-standard everything.

My realtor informs me that our likely buyers do not want to be reminded of what could happen if contraception fails. "Your likely buyer has a life," he explained, clearly implying that this particular ship had sailed in my case.

When I frowned at him, he said, "Honey, your fantasies involve a door and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep."

Touche.

Since I'm told that the fabulous single person who will eventually buy my apartment lacks the imaginative capacity to envision the space without baby gear, the apartment must be de-babied whenever the realtor needs to show it. Baby jail gets folded away, gates come down (their custom brackets need to be dismantled one screw at a time because like I said, nothing standard fits in this apartment), toys must be stashed in closets. That's on top of the fiendish cleaning. This morning the Grape watched with disdain as we skipped the playground in favor of applying Soft Scrub to the living room walls, which somehow had dried peanut butter on them. Little details matter, too. I'm told potential buyers will be offended if they see appliances on the counters, mail on the desk, shampoo in the tub.

None of this would be all that complicated, if it didn't mean turning the place into a baby death trap every time. Of course the only way to keep the Grape from self-destructing long enough for me to complete the clean out is to let him amuse himself with some new and exciting diversion.

Today, as I hung our realtor-mandated "show towels," the Grape unrolled an entire roll of toilet paper. As I scrubbed the kitchen sink, he dumped cat food all over the floor. By the time he removed his diaper and took off down the hall at a speed crawl, cackling with glee, I was considering dropping the asking price to stimulate a speedy sale.

I will not succumb to such folly.

At least not today. That's why I smiled brightly, re-applied the diaper to my kid and told him that Mamma really needs him to be a team player this week.

He laughed in my face and made a mad dash for the un-gated stairs. I tripped over the vacuum cleaner and smashed both knees into the hardwood as I flung myself between at him and certain doom.

It's all going to be oh-so-worth-it when I get that door.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What sisterhood?

Something about parenthood brings out an unattractive self righteousness in a significant minority of the new mommy and daddy population. I might chalk the phenomenon up to dramatic postpartum hormonal changes, if so many new fathers weren't afflicted.

Whereas many women find that other moms provide a useful support network and a welcome sense of sisterhood, many are disappointed by the judgmental nature of the other moms they encounter. Unfortunately, we've all met these women I like to call Martyr Moms: they're the ones who haven't processed the memo that there is no prize at the end of motherhood for accepting the least help or enduring the most discomfort or suffering.

And nowhere does the (monumentally stupid) Martyr Mommy syndrome rage more furiously than in the feeding debate. The sisterhood, it seems, crumbles when talk turns to boobs and bottles.

Today's first example comes from the Gardenmoms message board, a popular forum here in Boston, with an estimated subscription list of about 10,000 individuals. Let me say first: I like Gardenmoms a lot. I found my perfect, amazing regular babysitter there. I've bought Sox tickets there. I've picked up nuggets of information about schools to stick in my back pocket for later.

But sometimes you get a a post almost evangelical in tone. It's most striking when, as yesterday, someone starts a thread this way (i.e. it's not merely a preachy response to someone else's question). Yesterday's poster shared a piece from the website of a gentleman called Dr. Mercola, a self-styled health guru who has no M.D., in which he argued that soy formula is processed poison. The poster shared this notice to emphasize her view that breast feeding is pretty much the only way to raise a healthy child.

Why would someone do this? Ostensibly to educate her fellow Gardenmoms. But here's the thing: if your pediatrician or GI recommends a certain diet for your child, you shouldn't have to justify that to other mommies. Particularly ones combing the internet for pseudo-science.

On Dr. Mercola's credentials page, he makes an argument that as an osteopath, he is pretty much the same thing as a medical doctor. I'm not suggesting that osteopathy has no place in the health world. However, the training isn't nearly as rigorous as that undertaken by students, interns and residents at major medical schools. He says he can perform surgery. I think this means he can freeze off warts. Show of hands: anyone want to to let someone without an M.D. crack their kid's chest, skull, knee cap, etc.?

Furthermore, Dr. Mercola presumes all lactating mom will follow an ideal diet. That's not true in many cases, especially at the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. It seems obvious that garbage in means garbage out. If a woman subsists on fast food, processed frozen meals and transfat laden, high sodium snacks, her baby might be better off - in terms of vitamin and mineral intake - on formula.

But let's go back to the original poster. Consider: The vast majority of new moms don't set out to feed a diet of soy formula. It does contain fillers and additives. But thank God soy, like traditional milk formula, exists. Some babies have serious allergies. Some mothers cannot breast feed. Others have other pressures in their lives that make formula feeding more practical. Some unfortunate folks have a combination of issues and that make life stressful enough without having to fend off judgement from other moms.

Or how about Gisele Bunchen? She possesses a rare quintessential grace to match her beauty, and she seemed like a perfectly nice person the handful of times she appeared at the local playground. But recently she made a statement that breast-feeding ought to be mandatory for the first six months. Easy to say when you can afford 24/7 child care, house keeping, cooking, and whatever other help you might require. I think she should go back to smiling quietly and modeling clothes.

Why are her remarks so offensive? Because she's going out of her way to make women less fortunate than she feel badly about the choices they make for themselves and their families. Breast feeding is impossible for many women who need to go back to work with a newborn. Or for those with significant health issues. And more than that, it's plain impractical for some. Breast feeding means that the burden of multiple midnight wake ups falls nearly exclusively to the mommy. It's also the one thing that women who go back to work can easily remove from their plates. All those pump-from-work advocates really ought to consider: pumping takes time out of the workday which must be made up, resulting in a longer workday, which means more time away from the newborn. Is that really the lesser evil? Not in my mind.

Consider also: formula babies generally sleep for longer stretches during the early months. You should not feel guilty about giving a formula bottle at bedtime to buy a few hours of sleep. Sleep isn't an indulgence; it's a necessity.

Luckily Gisele's proposed legislation has a snowball's chance in hell of introduction, though I can think of more than a few new dads who might jump on her bandwagon. An acquaintance recently delivered a preemie by emergency c-section after a medically complicated pregnancy. Her body was exhausted and in shock, using its calories to heal, so her milk wasn't coming in. Yet her husband still pressured her to breast feed by making her feel guilty about the baby's health. On top of this, this woman's own mom is hospitalized in critical condition; she might die soon. Any lactation nurse will agree that stress does nothing good for milk production, but her twit of a spouse is still hellbent on making his wife feel like a failure. If we were more than casual acquaintances, I'd tell him where to stick his breast pump.

For many healthy women who have the ability and desire to stay home with their newborns, breast feeding is an excellent choice. Moms with nutritious diets produce nutritious milk, certain antibodies pass from mother to child, many women like the convenience of a built-in food supply, and many also enjoy the unique bonding that nursing provides. That's fantastic. But it's also their choice. If they're confident with their choice, they shouldn't need to preach their Gospel to others for self-righteous reasons. Because, really, there's something to be said for minding one's own business, especially when you're more likely to wound feelings than change someone else's choices.

Similarly, bottle feeding moms need to realize they have nothing to feel badly about. Pediatricians believe that formula is a healthy and valid alternative that will not harm your child in any way. Don't believe me? Ask next time you're at the doctor's office.

Most of my contemporaries were bottle fed. They're now healthy, intelligent, successful adults. And if they suffer from mommy issues, I'm pretty sure the cause goes beyond the chosen method of early feeding. So let's try to end the boob-driven catty chatter, support each other's choices and score one for the sisterhood.

Monday, October 4, 2010

An update on the X's (score one for the Nanny)

Today, in offices somewhere in the Boston area, Mr. and Mrs. X are bemoaning the sickening way their beloved and cherished nanny left them in a lurch. Perhaps they're calling their friends, asking if they can believe her nerve.

Congratulations, Nanny! You found your back bone, and you did it with Hollywood worthy panache.

Let me bring you up to speed: The X's long suffering nanny found a new job, gave her three weeks' notice and showed up for work as usual last week. Then Mrs. X sent her an email, saying she and Mr. X had decided not to pay her for the last week of work.

She went on about how they agonized over this decision, but felt it was the right thing. For everyone!

Why? Well, those X's reasoned that their nanny, whom they professed to "love like family," should forfeit the paid vacation she took (on the X's schedule) last spring. I guess if they'd known she was going to leave them, they would have never given her that week off.

Wow.

Maybe the X's aren't utterly shameless. They couldn't bring themselves to tell the nanny of their plans to stiff her directly. Instead they informed her that they would dock her pay in an email. In the last line, Mrs. X fired a misjudged warning shot. She argued that since the nanny had used "unearned" bonus/vacation time, she should be happy to work for free for the final week. After all, Mrs. X said, there could be "an even larger range of dollars on the table!"

I promise you, though, that whatever those X's are doing about their child care pickle, they're not forwarding the nanny's response to their friends.

The Little Grape saw a draft of the nanny's last email to Mr. and Mrs. X, and though she was gracious and forthright, she didn't pull any punches.

Because it's a gloomy day and I suspect you all could use a pick me up, here's an early draft of the nanny's email. I have removed all references to dollar figures, as well as the child's name:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. X:

Thank you for your email.

Indeed there is a great deal more money on the table. I have reviewed my records and our contract, which is silent on the subject of overtime and expenses incurred at your request.

At the minimum, you still owe me my normal hourly rate for the entire ski weekend, including overnights. Furthermore, I have done some research into local norms for hourly child care. I feel you need to pay me double the hourly rate for hours worked on Labor Day, as well as for the hours I spent on the ski trip catering for your guests. As we had agreed in advance, Sunday was to be my time off. When you were too intoxicated to receive your guests, I did so without thanks or recompense from you.

You routinely arrived home late without notice, yet you never paid me for the extra hours. I am checking my records and will provide an accounting of the amounts owing.

You required me to buy pricey restaurant meals. I am gathering those receipts and will submit them for reimbursement. You have repeatedly mentioned the pride you take in conducting yourself in a businesslike manner, yet I know of no other employer who requires employees to attend after hours meals without reimbursement.

As a professional courtesy, I gave you notice of my departure. Since, based on your messages, I cannot feel confident that I will be paid in full, I will not be able to come to work anymore.

It has been a privilege to get to know Junior, and I regret I will not be able to say good bye in person. This saddens me, but I realize that because of his age, he will forget me. Any personal farewell would serve to indulge my own emotions rather than his.

Please know that I wish Junior and you all the best.

I will provide a thorough accounting of amounts you owe me in a separate email. I anticipate you will settle our accounts promptly.

Thank you.

Sincerely,
Your Nanny

I confess to savoring a bit of schadenfreude as I thought of the X's, scrambling to secure back up child care for the next day, arguing over which of them would call in sick, and maybe, just maybe, experiencing some small epiphany about karma. Our playground sources reported yesterday that they called the nanny repeatedly after receiving her email, but they never once apologized for behaving like nincompoops.

Instead, Mr. and Mrs. X tried to justify their abusive behavior by relying on their "contract," a single page list of rules they'd agreed upon that fateful day when the nanny agreed to take the job. The contract specified a number of vacation days. The X's told the nanny when they gave her an extra week off, that the week was in lieu of a holiday bonus.

And no, for all you lawyers and bean counters reading, the contract said nothing about bonus repayment in the event of nanny's departure.

I'm delighted to report that the Nanny stood her ground. We'll see if her missing pay materializes. If not, I suppose she could always drag the X's to small claims court. I bet the judge would just love these people.

In case you missed the story of the X's the first time around, here's the link:

http://thelittlegrape.blogspot.com/2010/08/apparently-mr-and-mrs-x-are-real-and.html

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The cure for a lousy report card

Yesterday The Today Show aired an interview with President Obama, during which he admitted - you may need to sit down to handle the shock - that his daughters would not get a first rate education in the DC public school system.

The sound byte replayed all over the major media outlets for the next twenty-four hours, in my view detracting from the more important conversation: What are we going to do to fix the problem?

The school system is broken beyond repair by means of any easy (and therefore politically savory) fix. Even President Obama was on about longer school days and shorter vacations yesterday. Yet elementary schoolers in the highest performing countries actually spend several hours less in school than their American counterparts. Having our kids spend more time in ineffectual learning environments won't fix anything. If that's the best solution we can offer, we might as well give up.

The United States is the 13th richest nation in the world, according to the 2009 survey of global GDPs by the World Bank. Yet our students don't crack the top twenty in performance in basic subjects such as arithmetic and reading. While we apparently don't measure progress in the sciences, arts and history, I have no doubt that the performance of US students in those disciplines would be dismal. Why? Because if your kid can't read and count, he's pretty much screwed in terms of other higher learning.

We should be appalled.

Why are our schools such abysmal failures?

Several reasons. Well, three big ones at least: teachers, taxes and curriculum.

Teachers:
It pains me to write this, because I'm a card carrying democrat who fervently believes that certainunskilled workers desperately need the protection of unions. I'm talking about the hand-to-mouth laborers who work in slaughter houses, coal mines, factories and food processing plants. These are people who wouldn't get breaks to use the lavatories if their unions didn't negotiate such "perks."

But teachers are a different animal. They're college educated professionals, and it's time to bust up their union.

Why? Because teachers, like all other white collar professionals, should be at will employees. Famous-slash-infamous Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's offer to the DC teachers' union spoke volumes: she offered to double teacher pay if the teachers would give up tenure.

Her offer would have brought the top pay tier in inner city Washington to $140,000 a year, which isn't bad, especially when you consider the ten plus weeks of time off educators receive.

Ms. Rhee argued, sensibly in my view, that such pay would bring prestige back to teaching, allow the system to fire ineffective educators and attract an army of young, smart, high energy teaching candidates.

The union rejected her proposal. Nobody close to the situation seemed surprised.

Every day, in districts all over the country, teachers' unions spend LOTS OF MONEY fighting performance reviews. What other white collar professional could get away with that?

Teachers wring their hands and say they need protection from principals bearing grudges, or from over-bearing parents eager to exploit personality conflicts.

I agree. That's why we have all kinds of anti discrimination laws in this country. But last time I checked, unsatisfactory job performance wasn't a legally protected condition.

Meaningful performance reviews would represent a major advance in the state of affairs. This is America. We're supposed to like a bit of healthy competition. So why not offer monetary incentives to above average educators?

To make such a regime function, principals would need to spend more time talking with and observing their teachers. (Hint: the principal, as the hands on manager, should be the first person to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night.)

School systems should implement similar procedures to review the principals and make decisions about their advancement or dismissal. We need to get rid of the idea of a principal as a mere ceremonial figurehead. Anyone who's ever worked for someone else knows that mismanagement has a way of trickling down and poisoning the rank and file.

Taxes:
I'm no expert, but it seems to me that in the alleged land of opportunity, a child's chances for a decent education should not be inextricably tied to local property values. The idea that each town should have sovereignty over its education system is outmoded. Some states, like New Jersey and Maryland, have county school systems and they've been able to reduce many administrative costs. The pay off: consolidation frees up dollars for the classrooms.

Such changes won't sell well at first. They'd basically have to come about by executive order. Imagine the response (for example) from teachers and parents in Wellesley and Newton, if their students suddenly had to integrate with those from Roxbury and Mattapan.

If we're serious about fixing the problem, we shouldn't expend our energy worrying about the poorer students dragging the richer ones down. We should be asking how the richer schools can bring the poorer students up to their standards.

Teachers who work in poor areas, whether in inner cities or Appalachian backwaters, should make more than their counterparts in tony places like Greenwich, Connecticut and Beverly Hills. Why? They're doing the WAY harder job. Unfortunately, when education funding gets pegged to local revenues, the teachers with the cushiest gigs usually make the most money.

Curriculum:
Children need to learn critical thinking and problem solving. Many programs of study lack an adequate variety of subject matter. The best schools include more science, art, history, music, language and world events. Bonus systems should reward teachers who make subject matter relevant, because if kids care about the material, they're more likely to retain it.

But above all, kids need to read. A lot more. Curriculums must include engaging material. I'm not saying we should skip the classics, but rather that we should add to the load. No time? Nonsense. The average kid spends four hours a day parked in front of some sort of screen.

Yet, depending on which survey you believe, somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent of American fourth graders cannot read.

The number is closer to 70 per cent if you look at the poorest quarter of society.

Which means they will fall hopelessly behind. If your child hasn't learned to read by the time she must read to learn, her prospects in academia start to look awfully bleak.

Standards, particularly in poorer schools, are devastatingly low. We don't need a longer day; we need a higher quality day. There's no reason the typical curriculum shouldn't resemble the advanced placement curriculum. As seen over and over again in charter schools in some of the nation's toughest neighborhoods, kids rise to the occasion when their minds are engaged.

While we're reforming the curriculum, let's scrap No Child Left Behind and other misguided attempts to raise standards through testing. Forcing teachers and students to spend the bulk of the school year learning a standardized test is mind numbing and toxic for all concerned. If we teach the kids to think, read and study, they'll be able to prepare for tests in addition to, and not in place of, their regular studies.

Finally, the curriculum needs to include opportunities for exercise and head clearing. Yes, I mean recess. And lots more of it. Little kids need to burn off energy in order to sit and focus. Middle school and high school students would benefit from ten minutes of head clearing, leg stretching outdoor air between classes. Waste of time? Not at all. The countries that outperform us all feature some form of recess through the upper grades.

I don't hold out a lot of hope that we'll say farewell to the teachers' unions, abolish local control of schools or create a national curriculum that rivals the programs offered at the most elite private institutions.

For now, many families, communities and foundations hope charter schools will solve some of the worst inequities. Notable success stories exist in several cities around the country. But charter schools can accommodate only a fraction of the kids in need, and they choose the lucky minority by drawing lots.

We need much more radical change.

Alright. I'll get off my soapbox for today. But I'll leave you with this link. It's been haunting me since I first saw the story on 60 Minutes.

This is America. Children's futures should not be decided by lottery.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvmS0a84Chs