Thursday, June 24, 2010

Am I too old for this? Only sometimes.

A friend of mine remarked, after being up for three hours in the middle of the night with a child who was supposedly Ferberized over a year ago, that sometimes she thinks she's too old for this. I heard the same sentence the other day from a woman at the playground whose tot had stepped, barefoot of course, in dog poop.

I said it myself when I made two superfluous runs up the 64 steps to our apartment with the suddenly not-so-little Grape in my arms, because I forgot first the keys and then his sippy cup. "I'm too old for this" is a sentiment shared and voiced often among the parents I know.

I need look no further than my sister (ten years my junior) to see the stamina I've lost in a decade. She still goes out all night and rallies to face the next day. I used to do that. She has the boundless energy required to chase after a toddler all day, every day. The thing is, reproduction is nowhere near her radar, just like it wasn't anywhere on mine when I was her age. Like so many of my friends, I used my twenties for grad school, for travel, for choosing the wrong guys and for trying on a couple of careers. I had an incredible reservoir of energy that I could tap to get through a day at the office after a night out.

Now it's a miracle if I can keep my eyes open for an hour after The Grape sacks out for the night. Despite all those pre-natal pledges that parenthood wouldn't change their lifestyles, most of my thirty and forty-something friends haven't seen the other side of midnight (voluntarily) for ages. We arrive at restaurants before six, to eat among the blue hairs and high chairs, and though we call it "drinks and heavy hors d'oeuvres," we all know it's dinner. More than one mommy I know has admitted to sometimes hiding in the bathroom, without a need to be there, because it's the only place left in her world where she can steal a few minutes alone to regroup.

Some of this stems from physical exhaustion, but there's also a psychological side effect of later-in-life parenthood: those of us who spend thirty years plus on the planet prior to reproducing get used to having some time to ourselves. Our systems short circuit if that need isn't addressed periodically. I'm sure younger parents need time to re-charge, too, but I suspect they rebound from a lost night's sleep or a week with a fussy, sick baby faster than their older counterparts.

Fertility doctors love to show prospective patients scary charts about the decline of female fertility after age 25, 30, 35, et cetera. Reproductive endocrinology is a huge and lucrative business, but even the most amazing medical advances haven't outpaced biology. Women's bodies reach peak child bearing age sometime during the early-mid twenties. Unfortunately, this doesn't work for the majority of women with careers. Almost half the babies I know were conceived with the help of some kind of technology. The fertility medicine adventure puts its own physical and emotional strain both on women's bodies and lives. The hormones make you crazy and/or bloated. The time commitment takes over your life. The emotional roller coaster hijacks your existence. More than one woman I know who's been through IVF has grumbled that if she'd known ten years ago that this was how it was going to be, she would have planned her life differently.

Or maybe not.

Most days I'm glad I had The Grape later rather than sooner. Even though parenthood can be exhausting, I'm told it gets (physically) less challenging as the years go by. I hope that because I had an excellent education, my child will have more opportunities than he would have if I'd never left home. Because I had the opportunity to travel as a young person, I can't wait to take The Grape to both the great cities and great wildernesses of the world. As recently as a couple of years ago, if I had two spare dimes to rub together, I'd spend them on a trip. Despite my loathing of big luggage, I'm eager to start traveling again. I love that my kid will grow up having friends around the globe, and as he grows older, I hope that travel will spark his imagination and make him a better, more aware and more charitable citizen of the world. As tiring as traveling can be, it's also incredibly energizing to step out of the every day routine to see or do something foreign.

It's true that people who become parents early on will have their old age to travel and pursue other interests. I'd love to hear from people who did it this way, as my immediate circle is severely skewed towards the older-parent demographic. They've had big careers, traveled to every corner of the earth, nurtured their own talents and pursued various interests before making babies.

Most days, even when I'm gulping an ungodly volume of coffee to get through the afternoon, I like the idea (sorry for the cliche, but The Grape is stirring so I need to type faster) that I've lived a little before becoming a mom. I hope it makes me a better parent.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Memo to the insane mom on the playground: The Grape sees you when you act like a lunatic.

The Little Grape loves nothing more than the swings at the Clarendon Street Playground. I suspect they're his preferred swings because the people watching possibilities far exceed those at other local kid parks. Mostly he likes to see the bigger kids running around, doing things he can only dream of when bundled in his sleep sack. Once in a while, though, we're treated to a display of insane parental behavior worth sharing here.

A Chanel-wearing mommy, her toddler daughter and infant son and their nanny arrived at the playground just as The Grape had gotten on the swing. The mother trotted off to the other end of the park with the daughter. The nanny headed for the empty swing next to The Grape with the baby boy, who was about eight months old. "He needs padding!" Chanel mom shrieked from across the sandbox. Nanny removed baby boy from the swing, retrieved a blanket from their stroller, folded it into the swing and reinstalled the kid on his parentally mandated makeshift upholstery. The nanny started to push her charge on the swing. All should have been right in the world.

But no.

The mommy came running - literally running - from the other end of the playground and proceeded to berate the nanny for placing the baby on a pink blanket. "He has a blue one!" She lectured. The nanny looked nonplussed. "People are going to think he's a girl!" the mother hissed. The nanny and I exchanged a glance that said, unlikely. The child in question was dressed like a miniature day laborer, and he looked much more fazed by his mom's hysterics than by his rose colored cushion.

The Grape and I watched as the nanny continued to push the baby on the swings. She wore the expression of someone who had dealt with nonsensical outbursts by her employer many times before. The mother rummaged in the stroller for a more masculine blanket, failed to produce one, stomped back to the swings and announced that she was going home to get his blanket, so the nanny should keep an eye on both children during her absence.

Of the eighteen or so things wrong with what transpired that morning, a few points stick out.

First, it's utterly lame to scream at your sitter in public over anything. Ever. I don't care how bad a day you're having. Don't tear into your employees in front of me. It's doubly lame to screech at your sitter in public, and three feet away from various kids, over something inconsequential. I hope that her sitter is looking for a new job. There must be better gigs out there.

Second, I'm not sure why the mom was so concerned with protecting her son's masculine sensibilities. Maybe she hadn't read this month's Atlantic, in which Hannah Rosin writes that new economy employers hire more women than men for management roles, and that men who want to stay competitive in the job market would do well to get in touch with their feminine sides.

But all joking (and scholarly articles) aside, it troubles me that a modern mother, especially one with a daughter, chooses to reinforce the concept that pink is for girls, which means it's inferior and therefore not good enough for her son. Let's focus here: The nanny didn't put the kid in a dress, or some really girlie hat with daisies on it; she sat him on a blanket that was mostly hidden in a swing. The child will be no more macho or effeminate because of the color of things upon which he sat during infancy.

I'd wager everything pink in my own wardrobe (and that's a significant amount of stuff) that the mom wouldn't have reacted nearly as violently if the nanny had placed her daughter on a blue blanket.

But I digress. It's a shame the woman was too apoplectic about the color of a piece of fabric to stick around and see that her eight-month-old was having the time of his little life at the park.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What does "making it work" mean?

I received a lot of email after my post about playgrounds and boardrooms and the elusive interesting part time job. At first I was hopeful that women were going to write me about their fabulous, 20-hour a week gigs, that allowed them to keep at least one foot on the career ladder. That hasn't happened yet.

I got several interesting emails on how some moms make their careers work. Most rely heavily on their partners' ability to scale back their own professional pace to pick up some slack at home. One such couple has a deal that the dad will do all child care pick up and drop off for the first six months that the mom is back at work in her new (and fabulous) full time job. This works for them because the dad is well-established in his company. Of course his boss doesn't love the idea, but he's placated by the unspoken underlying assumption that once mom gets re-oriented into office life, she'll reclaim the majority of pick up and drop off detail. Still, it's by far the most functional arrangement anyone has shared that doesn't involved two shifts of paid childcare.

Here's the most unusual scenario I heard - the one that literally made my jaw drop:

One highly specialized consultant recently went back to work when her youngest kid started school. She wrote to tell me that her work day starts at 5 a.m., so she can leave by 2 p.m. to get her kids from school. By my math that means, assuming an average commute of 15-30 minutes, and given she can't go into the office wearing pajamas, starving or sporting wet hair, her alarm goes off some time between 3 and 4 in the morning. Brutal. But creative, for a skilled professional who isn't beholden to a client's or colleague's schedule.

She says it works because her husband does school drop off before starting his (much more conventional) work day. It seems from her message that the dad usually has the option to stay late at the office, take evening meetings, attend career advancing corporate events or occasional cocktail hours with the big boss. However, the mom who started her day when bars were closing in New York City has to be home by a pre-determined time, because the school bus will spew out children whether she's ready to receive them or not.

Women who want or need the option to vary their schedules tend to rely on nannies to take the after school through bedtime and beyond shift. And of course a family pays a premium to have a wonderful nanny who will put up with long, unpredictable hours. Bottom line: the majority of moms in that position need to earn enough to justify the nanny's substantial presence on the payroll.

So, getting back to the consultant... Am I the only one who feels sick at the mere thought of waking shortly after 3 a.m., five days a week, 49 weeks a year? Don't get me wrong: It's great if it's what she wants, but would it work for most people? Can you get your job done in off hours or will it follow you home?

Some people have no choice. Their jobs require certain fixed hours. But if you have a choice, are you willing to sacrifice all your adult time (i.e. the hours between the kids' bedtime and yours) in the service of your career? Presumably that means, bye bye social life? Or am I missing something?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

On giving guys fake phone numbers

I rarely answer calls from unknown numbers anymore. I have no nostalgia for the days when the phone rang and you had to run the risk of talking to someone you'd rather avoid (a telemarketer, a crazed ex, your boorish uncle once removed), in order to answer. So I'm not sure why, but this morning, as I was shoveling yoghurt into The Grape's mouth before eight o'clock, I picked up a call from an unidentified number.

"Can I speak to Karen?" the adult male voice asked. "You have a wrong number," I replied. Normally that would be the whole conversation, right? Nope. "Wait. Is this Karen?"

"No, it's not. There is no Karen here."

I was about to hang up when he said, "When you ran out this morning, you left your diaphragm on my bathroom sink."

"I most certainly did not." The Grape picked this moment to pipe up. Maybe he was, like me, marveling that this conversation had gone on this long. I repeated that he definitely had a wrong number and assumed he'd say sorry and hang up.

Not so much.

"So there's no Karen at this number?" he repeated, sounding genuinely baffled.


"Do you think she gave me a fake number?"

"Stranger things happen."

"Why do women do that?"

"I can't help you."

"Are you sure we didn't hook up last night?"


"Didn't we meet at Vox last night around 9?"

"I was in bed with my book at 9. In case you can't hear him, I have a baby."

"Oh. Are you sure this isn't your diaphragm?"

"A hundred per cent sure."

"Why did she sneak out on me before six this morning?"

"How should I know? Probably because she decided you weren't for her."

"Ouch. That was harsh."

"Dude. You asked." The Grape redoubled his protest that food service had experienced a temporary slow down.

"Are you sure you're not Karen?"

I finally hung up. He called back four times, and I let it roll to voice mail. He must have finally listened to the outgoing message and decided I was telling the truth.

I can see why she dashed before dawn without leaving her contact info. I mean, whoever he was, he sounded like he had a great propensity to be certain yet wrong.

But Karen, if you're out there, next time you bail on a one night stand, please choose a different number. Or not. I mean, your truncated date gave me today's material. Thanks for that.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Happy Moms Probably Equal Happy Children, Right???

I will never understand why women are so hard on each other. Look at the men you know. They don't do this kind of thing to their fellow guys.

The other day, some poor, overtired, over stressed woman who'd recently gone back to work full time (which meant leaving her three-month-old in the care of stranger) posted a message on a popular chat board, saying she was dying from the guilt and seeking support from other mommies who had walked in her shoes. She received a few "hang in there" type replies, but the vast majority of the responders took advantage of the opportunity to cheer her on, mainly by slamming mommies who didn't go to an office every day.

An Ivy-affiliated sociologist even wrote in, citing a nameless study meant to show Original Poster that her precious darling would benefit from her decision, because his long days at day care would serve to properly socialize him. (She correctly pointed out that a majority of women in Europe who have access to subsidized child care avail themselves of it. She conveniently failed to mention that those same women don't have to make any child care decisions for the first one to three years of the child's life, depending on the country.)

Several women also wrote that less advantaged babies with SAHM's could end up stunted, bigoted and relegated to social ineptitude, all before graduating from diapers. They said, basically, we all wrestle with guilt, and it never goes away, but if you spring for good child care, all will be well. A chorus of stay at home moms said any financial sacrifices are well worth the privilege of being home with a young child.

Both camps make valid arguments. So far, Original Poster hasn't commented. I imagine she never suspected to start such a fuss. She was just exhausted and frazzled and second guessing herself. And looking for a little support.

Which she never received. What she got instead: emotional arguments on both sides of the career gal vs. homemaker debate, peppered with a few messages in the you-will-NEVER-get-over-the-guilt-either-way vein. Several people wrote to say that going back to work was the height of selfishness. An equal number said the same about staying home, though usually in more oblique terms.

Here's the thing about the debate as old as feminism: There is no right answer.

It would seem to me that happy moms make for happy children. So if you're miserable staying home, planning meals, hanging at the playground, playing the same games more times than anyone could count, your kid is going to pick up on that. Similarly, if you're hiding in the bathroom at work, crying your eyes out because you'd rather be home, that's not healthy for anyone either. If it tears you up every morning to leave your kid, your kid probably feeds off that and stresses over the separation as well. This all seems like common sense.

I was stunned at how women were so eager to throw each other under the bus. Those who work outside the home argue passionately that they're setting a good example for their children through financial independence. They don't want their children to see them washing clothes, scrubbing bathrooms and relying on a partner to bring in the metaphorical bacon. The SAHM's argue, equally passionately, that there's no career success worth sacrificing the precious early years with their kids. They don't want their children to have fond memories of all those wonderful childhood firsts with the nanny.

At the same time, members of both groups admit to downplaying the upsides of their choices when in female company. One woman wrote that she doesn't tell her working friends about all the fun things she and her kids do during the week, because it might make them sad. A woman who goes to the office every day said she tries not to go on and on to her stay at home pals about things that happen at work, because news of her intellectually stimulating responsibilities might make those stuck at home, cooking macaroni and cheese, jealous.

Maybe these women ought to give their girlfriends a little credit. Most of us who choose one path or another know what we're giving up. It doesn't make anyone feel better to have friends play down their own choices. Those of us who have the luxury to choose in the first place should be thankful.

Most women don't waste hours wrangling over the career versus baby decision. Their choices are mandated by financial realities, rather than by ambition, intellectual hunger or emotion. So when one of the privileged minority asks for a little help with her guilt over outsourcing several hours a week of child care, maybe the right thing to say would be something along the lines of: If you're happy working, it's good for your kid. Happy parents are better parents. Some mommies blossom at home; others need to go to work to feel fulfilled, because their careers are an inalienable part of their identities. Either path can be right.

So let's stop looking down our noses at those who choose differently. I would bet that career women and stay at home moms probably raise a roughly equal number of overachievers and total delinquents. Now that I think of it, I hope someone commissions a study to prove it.

And while we're at it, let's stop putting our kids' successes and failures on one major choice made by the child's mommy. Dads, genetics, education, socio-economics, extended families, communities and dumb luck all play a role in shaping the next generation.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Little Grape with a Super-sized Suitcase

I have always excelled at traveling light. Perhaps because I had lots of practice during my formative years. As a kid, I spent a great deal of time schlepping through airports because we routinely visited family overseas. Even before air travel morphed into the enormous hassle it is today, my father had declared war on checked luggage. We went to Italy for weeks with carry on bags that barely squished into the overhead bins; my brother and I hauled our own Snoopy back packs before graduating preschool.

During my student days, I spent months backpacking without having to jettison anything to make room for souvenirs. I didn't have the best hair or cleanest clothes on Eurail, but I don't think I sustained permanent spinal injury that summer, either. Later, I could swing a three day business trip or weekend with a small bag on wheels, if I sacrificed work out wear for the privilege of a smooth jaunt through the airport.

That was all before The Grape.

Now, as the clock ticks down to our first international journey as a family, I am losing sleep over the sheer volume of luggage necessitated by a long weekend. Let alone a full-on, two-week trip. It's daunting, of course, but more than that, it's viscerally embarrassing to me to have more luggage than I can manage unassisted. Rationally or not, I view needing to ask for help with my bags as a mark of grave personal failure.

I'm learning that the size of the suitcase seems inversely proportionate to the size of its owner. I know from experience that it's possible to travel light with kids. But does that possibility extend to travel with a baby?

The Grape, like any infant, needs clothes. Lots of them, because it's a virtual certainty that he will yack all over himself if I don't pack a back up outfit. If he doesn't have a back up, back up outfit, the airline will inevitably lose our luggage. And I need a back up outfit. In case he yacks all over me instead of all over himself as soon as the wheels leave the ground.

Changing pads and gallons of hand sanitizer, to prevent us from coming in contact with insidious germs that could destroy the entire vacation. I was never germ phobic before, but the only thing worse than having a sick infant at home is having a sick infant in a hotel room.

He needs toys. A couple of sleep sacks. A jacket. Bibs. Bottles. Small spoons. Snacks. A little tent, multiple hats and a vat of lotion to fend off sunburn. Swim diapers for the pool. A life jacket for the boat. And diapers, because if I don't pack them, the nearest seven stores won't have the correct size. Ditto for formula. Should we bring his own laundry soap? Or bath stuff? Maybe he should have a book or two. The Ergo carrier. R. thinks we ought to purchase a frame back pack, in case The Grape tires of riding in the Ergo.

To say nothing of the stroller. Or maybe strollers, because he hates sitting in the airport-friendly umbrella one, so I'm seriously considering packing and checking the Bugaboo. I guess I ought to bring rain covers for both conveyances. And of course, I'm feeling guilty about leaving the car seat behind, even though taxis are exempt and rental car companies can provide them. That would need its own bag.

While I'm adding yet another bag, someone said the Bumbo seat doubles well as a travel high chair. Someone else said their baby got a rash because the hotel linens were laundered in a harsh kind of soap.

Oh, and I haven't even contemplated what R. and I need to pack for ourselves. The one thing I can predict with certainty is that, at the last minute, when we should be in the cab to Logan, we'll be removing our belongings from overstuffed suitcases to make room for more baby crap.

Another (inane) worry of mine is that, if we indulge The Grape by hauling everything he could possibly ever need on our trip, are we training him by osmosis to become a horrible traveler? I don't want to be the woman who raises a kid who believes it's okay to check luggage in order to bring six wardrobe changes for a two day junket. Or the entire contents of the bathroom cabinet. Or his own pillow for the plane. Or, God forbid, a child who requires an entourage of porters and bell hops at both ends of the journey. But I digress.

I fret that I'll never again sail through an airport. Someone, say it isn't so. What secret of luggage space allocation am I, as a baby-travel rookie, missing? Please, please tell me - time is ticking and we've booked nonrefundable airfare.