Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I would never eat that, so why should my kid?

I don't eat fried, processed garbage passed off as poultry, so why would I feed it to my kid?

Until recently, I've never paid much attention to kids' menus, but we traveled this month and ate in restaurants along the way. Every place that had a kids' menu listed multiple, wholly unimaginative, deep fried choices. Nearly all featured some version of chicken fingers, which I interpreted as shorthand for processed and pulverized surplus bird parts.

Last week, I caught a news item about children's menu choices at several national chains. Friendly's, Applebee's, Chevy's, Outback and the Olive Garden were among a long list of major offenders, each offering selections with several days' allotment of fat and sodium.

Adults can do what they want, but I'm sure most parents don't realize that the children's Fettucine Alfredo Meal or Grilled Cheese and Fries Platter are so calorie laden that I think they qualify as nearly toxic.

When a third of the minors in this country tip the scales as clinically overweight or obese, corporations that push meals with thousands of calories at kiddies seem almost criminally negligent. But it's not just the restaurants. I don't think, for most families at least, that chain eateries are the main culprit. Too many people simply buy into the idea that their kids won't eat "grown up food," so they don't offer it as an alternative.

Of course, kids go through phases. I know a major foodie who says she ate nothing but Cheerios for six months as a pre-schooler. But even if a child decides to boycott almost everything, it can't hurt to keep offering various foods. Sooner or later, even the most stubborn brat will tire of plain boiled elbow pasta.

I generally subscribe to the theory that The Grape should eat whatever we adults are eating, on the basis that it's usually pretty healthy. Equally important: I don't want to spend the next two decades as a short order cook. Too many parents prepare two, three, even four meals every night, or (equally bad) allow the kiddies to dictate whether and where the family dines out.

If R. and I are eating salmon and grilled vegetables, we offer them to The Grape. Same goes if we go out for pizza and ice cream. Maybe I'm a delusional rookie. (It's certainly possible, since I've been at this mom thing less than a year.) Maybe the other shoe will drop. But so far, The Grape seems to enjoy trying new flavors and he prefers his food with a generous amount of spice and kick. When people roll their eyes and tell me I'm creating a picky little gourmet, I say, Good!

A small market on Tremont Street sells amazing grass fed (and grass finished!) beef. The other day, I overhead a woman asking for steak for two. When her kid, who looked about six, piped up that he wanted some too, she said she'd make him a hot dog and explained to the guy behind the counter that the beef was "too good to waste on him."

I think that's such a shame for two reasons. First, all kids learn by example and I imagine eating habits are no exception. Second, if you're going to give your child red meat in the first place, there's no way that even the most politically correct hot dog on the planet makes a healthier dinner than grass fed beef.

(When cattle eat grain, as most do these days, their systems digest and metabolize it poorly, which is why farmers add antibiotics to animal feed. Need proof that's a bad thing? Consider this: Meat from cattle raised on grass and hay contains healthy omega 3 acids, yes, like those in salmon; grain fed beef lacks those healthy fats. Meanwhile, antibiotic resistant infections among otherwise healthy people are on the rise, largely due to the drugs' overuse in the food chain.)

It also makes me sad when people assume their children won't eat something. A friend recently remarked that her four-year-old loves lobster, but on a recent visit, she had to persuade the child's grandmother to offer her any. The granny in that case made the same basic argument as the lady at the market: Why waste good food on a child?

Why indeed? The Grape has developed a somewhat shocking love for crustaceans. He can polish off a respectable helping of crab cakes or lobster risotto. He also loves fresh mangoes, fresh bread with olive oil and grilled asparagus. Such food preferences can certainly strain the wallet, but I'm going to argue that, for those fortunate enough to have choices, diet isn't the best place to economize.

Chances are that someday he'll eat something nasty and deep fried. Odds are fair that he'll enjoy it. And that's (at least sort of) okay. As long as he learns to enjoy many healthy foods and willingly tries new things, I can't deprive him of the occasional greasy splurge. I think my job is just to make sure those kids' menu favorites don't become the cornerstone of his repertoire.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Politics of Fatherhood

The other day, we boarded a packed flight from London to Boston, two rows away from an exhausted woman traveling with her toddler and infant, both of whom spent the next six and a half hours in fluctuating stages of meltdown.

The Grape was hitting a wall himself, and R. and I passed his squirmy, fussy self back and forth until the attendants made us strap him in for take off. The tired woman's kids continued to howl as she desperately bounced the younger one on her lap, and R. made a passing remark about feeling sorry for the immaculately attired business man in the seat next to the fidgeting three year old. He was trying very hard to keep his nose in his newspaper, sip his drink and tune out his neighbors.

An hour later, The Grape, fortified with Benadryl, was snoozing contentedly in his airline issued baby seat on its shelf overlooking the cabin. The lady with the two kids under three paced the aisle with her screaming baby, pausing every half minute to try to persuade the toddler to stay in her seat and watch something - anything - from the in flight entertainment. At one point, she gave the tot a juice box, which the child promptly dumped on her lap.

"She spilled!" complained the man in the adjacent seat. The woman balanced the baby on her hip and dabbed at her older daughter's lap ineffectually with a couple of cocktail napkins. The little girl started whining for another juice box. The man rolled his eyes and returned to his Financial Times. As soon as the mom got her infant to sleep in her arms, the toddler announced she had to use the bathroom. The baby (unsurprisingly) woke up as the three of them tried to shuffle into the cramped lavatory. R. asked, more than once, if we should offer her the remains of the Benadryl. We ultimately didn't, but I'm sure many fellow travelers would have been happier if we had.

Things continued on this torturous trajectory until the flight attendants came through the cabin with U.S. landing cards. They offered the woman one and then passed one to the businessman, who handed it back saying, "We're the same family." The flight attendant, who surely sees all sorts every day, had to turn away from him to hide her stunned expression.

As I wasn't employed by British Airways for the purpose of making his flight more pleasant, I made no effort to mask mine. I'd never seen anything quite like this guy. Even my own father, who was legendarily incompetent when it came to parenting small children (total kids, 3; total diapers changed in lifetime, 1), managed to lend my mom a hand with things like retrieving items from the overhead compartment or watching one of us while she took the other to the washroom.

Sadly, the foursome on our flight served as an egregious example of a phenomenon that remains all too common. For every super-capable dad like R., useless ding dongs like the guy on the plane exist in droves.

I can only venture guesses as to why his wife put puts up with his boorish attitude. Maybe he makes big bucks while she cares for the kids. The problem with this arrangement, as every stay at home mommy knows, is that even if the breadwinner works an ungodly number of hours, the caregiver's day is longer and her contribution is valued less. She is on 24/7 without exception. I'm sorry, but nobody should be expected to be on all the time, every day of every year.

Perhaps the 1950's dynamic works for some families, but it wouldn't fly at my house. If that's the way a father wants to roll, the least he can do is get out of the way, find his own place and mail a check every month to help feed and clothe the children he helped create.

It's not like that would be any worse for the kiddies he already ignores as if they're beneath him. The father on the plane may not realize, or he may not care, but his kids will register his checked out behavior pretty soon, and they'll remember it forever.

I would hate to be responsible for raising a son who grew up to think that women should do all the heavy lifting in a household. And I believe the best way to ensure that The Grape gets the right idea is for him to see R. being a hands-on dad. I wonder what the plane woman's kids will internalize about gender roles?

The airplane episode reminded me of Pat Mainardi's brilliant 1969 essay, "The Politics of Housework." It's well worth a read, or re-read:

I just might print it out and start carrying it around my handbag, so if I ever see another family like the plane people again, I can slip the woman a copy.

Basically, all the ploys Mainardi lists can and have been used by more than one father to get out of baby care at one time or another. And before you go and accuse me of bashing men, I'd like to emphasize that the women in such scenarios are just as culpable, for enabling the lazy behavior. Too many of us have bought into the idea that only we - the mommies - can properly feed, soothe and otherwise maintain our tiny offspring.

Maybe I'm a cynic, but did you ever stop and wonder why so many modern dads are absolute zealots about breast feeding? Sure it's healthy, but it also means they're not the ones responsible for the most tiring and time consuming aspect of newborn care. Fortunately, where nature has thrown guys a free pass, technology has provided a partial equalizer. Any healthy adult male is fully capable of administering a bottle - regardless of what's in it. The average newborn eats anywhere between seven and twelve times a day. You are not a bad mother if you demand that your partner manage a few of those feedings.

Because it's up to us women- even those who are "just moms" to insist on a bit of help. If Caregiver needs to remind Breadwinner that he's not the only one who's tired at the end of business hours, so be it. An uphill battle? Of course. But I think it's one worth fighting.

As for the family on the plane, when they disembarked in Boston, he looked smashing, albeit somewhat annoyed, in his unwrinkled linen jacket. She looked like she'd been shoved into a washing machine and set on the spin cycle for the preceding seven hours. Their kids continued to fuss and hang on their mother. They might not have been able to articulate it, but I think on some level they knew already, that their father wasn't going to be bothered to lift a finger for them. And their mother - for whatever reason - wasn't going to make him.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Yes, I bribe my kid. And it works.

I bribe my kid because I can't slow down.

The Grape, like most babies, is basically a ticking time bomb. He's happy, happy, happy until his fuse runs out and then he melts down like an old Soviet power plant. His fuse, like anyone else's, varies in length based on a combination of highly scientific variables, such as prior nap quality, recent food intake and cosmic alignment.

The Grape also came equipped with special sensors that instruct him to coo adorably inside toy stores and to scream like a murder victim when he comes within a hundred yards of a handbag or shoe sale. So regardless of the aforementioned variables, he's always more inclined to act cute if he suspects he's about to receive something cool.

Today we had a long list of errands to accomplish. For example, I somehow managed to lose the handy plastic canister that stores pre-measured amounts of formula for easy mixing on the move. So I went to a baby gear store to acquire a replacement for this four-dollar item. The Grape was fussing on the way in, because I'd already dragged him all over town for almost three hours in the oppressive heat, but he perked right up when he realized we were in a store that catered to his needs. And desires.

I turned my back for half a minute to find the stupid canister, and The Grape managed to grab a big, multi-colored stuffed squeaky thing called a Whoozit off a low slung shelf. Naturally, he shoved at least seventy per cent of his find into his mouth. It was so covered in slobber in such record time that I felt like we kind of had to buy the silly chew toy.

By the way, the sales girl looked at me like she was considering calling social services when I asked, "How much for the chew toy?" (I could tell she was resisting the urge to inform me that The Grape is not a canine.) Clearly she has no children of her own. If she did, she'd know that even if the label extols a plethora of developmental benefits, an eleven-month-old will gnaw on anything that fits in his mouth -without a second thought as to whether the chew toy serves any educational purpose or not.

Twenty-eight (?!) bucks later, my kid smiled - and chewed up his new treasure - all the way home. And I was okay with that. Alright, I felt slightly ripped off, but mostly okay, because I didn't have to a) listen to ear splitting screaming, or b) endure the glares of strangers who cannot understand why I'd let my kid howl like a banshee in a public place.

Of course, I could try to do less when we venture out of the apartment. I could spread my errands over multiple outings. I could dash home so he could nap on a precise schedule, and I could be a hostage to those nap times. Instead I try to have him nap on the go, and if that fails, I purchase his cooperation.

Earlier this week, I was so thrilled that he behaved in the pedicure place (he sat in the stroller and flirted with all the girls) that I propelled straight to the playground as soon as my toes were half dry. I'm not sure if The Grape fully processed the nature of the trade, but I figured, he was good for me, so he should get something good in return.

R. suspects I'm laying the foundation for years of bratty behavior. But maybe (hopefully?) I'm just teaching him a little ingenuity.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Don't tell me I HAVE to do anything.

Most moms fend off their fair share of unsolicited advice. Recently, though, I've found myself on the receiving end of an even more disturbing trend: the unsolicited imperative. People, mainly women and the odd man in the over 55 demographic, love telling me what I absolutely must do in order to be an adequate mommy to The Grape.

Not that I've ever asked anybody from that generation, except my own mother, for an opinion on anything baby related. She raised three kids with no addictions or convictions among us, so I'm inclined to believe she's fit to hold forth on the subject of motherhood. How do I know the busybody lady in the corner store didn't bring up a gang of complete loser delinquents?

Maybe a subset of the busybodies desperately yearn for a do-over, so it's somehow therapeutic for them to dispense their hindsight to others. Sorry, ladies. I don't care what motivates you to insert yourself into my business. Even if you have altruistic intentions, any recommendation delivered as an order is going to do nothing but irritate me.

If I'm hazy on something, I like to compare notes with my mommy friends. They tend to be helpful as they have actual, daily, real-time experience with the full gamut of child-rearing issues. Unlike older strangers, they readily acknowledge that every kid is different, and what works with one child might be a disaster for another.

Maybe some of the bossiness is well intentioned, but I've come to suspect that most of these women just have fundamental difficulty with minding their own business.

A recent sampling of uninvited wisdom:

"You have to adhere to a strict napping schedule so he doesn't do that." This from a library patron who noticed The Grape catching a cat nap in his stroller.

"He has to go to bed before eight o'clock." Um, why? So we can all be up at 5 every morning? I don't think so.

"You have to teach him to pray."

"You can't push him that high on the swings."

"You have to feed him only bland foods." Um, good luck getting anything tasteless into him. The Grape likes his meals with a little kick.

"You have to send him to school as a two-year-old." What if I don't find that necessary? So long, upper Ivies?

"You can't give him ice cream."

"You have to keep the dog away from him."

"You have to teach him sign language." A lot of people teach their infants to sign, but we already have two languages going at home, so I haven't pushed the signing. He'd probably sign things like, "I'm not tired!" or "I want another ice cream!" anyway.

"You have to reapply his sunscreen every single hour. Any less often is negligent." (!?!?) This gem came from the mouth of a complete stranger who launched into a diatribe about all the varieties of skin cancer. If I'd managed to slide a word in edgewise, I could have pointed out that he was wearing waterproof sun block as well as a hat, and he was sleeping in a UV blocking tent under a beach umbrella. And what sun he got splashing in the water probably provided a healthy dose of Vitamin D, a nutrient that up to a third of American children receive in insufficient amounts. Largely because twits like this lady prefer to keep their grandkids locked in the basement playing video games than running and playing outdoors. That's my theory anyway.

I could keep going but you get the idea. The Grape hasn't even been around for a year yet, so I don't hold out much hope of the uninvited orders ceasing anytime soon. And unless the advice qualifies as truly egregious, I'll try to stick with my default response of grinning and nodding. But every time I encounter such people, I can't help but think it would have been nice if someone had told their mothers to teach their kids some basic manners.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Should the business of geriatric reproductive endocrinology exist?

This morning I saw a news item about a 71-one-year-old woman becoming a mother for the first time. She was Indian, and the reporter explained that in rural regions of her country, a social stigma still exists against barren women. With the help of a fertility clinic, she conceived through IVF and gave birth by cesarean eighteen months ago. Her son appeared healthy, but she herself looked haggard and worn, and the reporter went on to say she was still suffering complications from the operation.

When the reporter asked her doctor whether his patient was up to the task of parenting a child, or whether, given her less than perfect health, she would be likely to live to see her son into adolescence, he shrugged and basically said, not his problem. He's in the business of creating pregnancies, not parents.

And business looks like it's booming in his clinic and in similar clinics around the world.

Reproductive endocrinology is a fascinating and rapidly advancing field of medicine, which helps thousands of women have children each year. Many caring specialists spend a great deal of time counseling patients about their options and encouraging responsible, healthy choices. I'm sure good reproductive specialists engage in candid conversations with older prospective first time moms about the physical stamina required to parent a child.

But at the end of the day, fertility medicine is a huge for-profit business. Don't think so? I challenge you to name another department of any major hospital that sends new patients home clutching a promotional DVD. And IVF cycle costs anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000, and most states do not require health insurance to cover it - which means it's more profitable than many other procedures that routinely take place in hospitals. According to literature from several major clinics, the chances of success per cycle are roughly 25 per cent. Most patients elect to try more than once. The bills add up fast.

For comparison, consider the price of a month of Clomid, a pill designed to improve and spur egg development, and the gateway drug for so many women seeking help with fertility. It runs about $60-$80 a month. Guess which route the DVD highlights.

People were quick to condemn LA's infamous "octomom," but what possessed the physician who agreed to implant all those embryos in the first place? Reputable reproductive endocrinologists were quick to point out that voluntary guidelines exist; it's generally considered medically reasonable to implant two, or at the maximum, three, embryos during an IVF procedure. Outraged members of the public demanded the doctor lose license, but what he did wasn't unlawful. Should it be? Or have these these highly educated, highly regarded doctors earned the right to police themselves?

Would it be too much to ask that the medical boards of the various states impose some mandatory limits on the number of embryos implanted per IVF attempt? How about a maximum maternal age? In my opinion, getting into the record books - or the New England Journal of Medicine - is not a legitimate reason for a doctor to perform an otherwise inadvisable procedure.

We're not talking about a risky, never-been-tried-before transplant as a last ditch effort to save someone who is days from fatal organ failure. We need to remember that pregnancy is an elective condition that, especially for the post-menopausal, involves a significant possibility of serious complications to mother and child alike.

Pregnancy puts a major strain on a healthy young body; some older women's circulatory systems simply cannot handle the shock. Risks to mother and child increase dramatically after menopause. Recently, a 60-something-year-old great grandma in California gave birth to her twelfth baby. Really? Did the doctor truly believe that feat was in anyone's best interest?

I know a lot of sixty year olds. None of them possess the physical stamina of women twenty years their junior. It's just basic biology. Unfair? Of course. But also unchangeable. As is the decision to have a child once that baby takes its first breath.

If a woman wants more than three embryos implanted, could voluntary guidelines recommend that the fertility doctors offer a psych consult to assess why the patient would want to raise four plus infants at once? Aside to potential future octomoms: ambitions of reality television stardom do not justify making eight babies with one (high risk) pregnancy.

Or is it good to push the limits of reproductive science, no matter what the cost to the resulting children? Should the post-menopausal be encouraged to procreate? I'm all for control over one's body, so my knee jerk, default response is a qualified yes.

But only if their doctors are duty-bound to explain the risks and assess their patients for health limitations that would render them unable not just to give birth but to parent. When the fertility doctor's work is done, the woman's journey is only beginning. The DVD's never mention that.