Monday, August 30, 2010

No kid ever died from crying

Just when I thought I had nothing to write about during the doldrums of late August, a friend and mother of two emailed me a gem from Britain's Daily Mail. The gist of the piece was that a couple of researchers in Toronto and the UK determined that babies get stressed when their mothers ignore them for even two minutes.

Basically the scientists had a bunch of moms play with their six month olds (who were strapped into car seats) and then stop and stare above their heads for two minutes. They noted that the babies' cortisol (a stress hormone) levels rose when ignored. But the part that made my friend send the article was the conclusion that such "neglect" would cause lifelong damage, and you guessed it, Mommy Issues. Both researchers where male. It hurts my head that a couple of reputable universities saw fit to underwrite such absurdity.

Here's the thing: everyone knows that no parent can devote all her attention to her baby at all times. Sometimes life gets in the way. Siblings need love, too. Meals must be cooked. Homes cleaned. Bills paid. And, since the study controlled the experiment by placing the babies in car seats, roads should be watched. No matter how much Junior wails in his back seat baby bucket.

I'm going to go out on a limb and hypothesize that perhaps the wee ones in the study experienced cortisol surges because they felt stressed about imminent automobile transport. Not too many kids I know really enjoyed the car as rear-facing infants. The Grape would scream like a banshee whenever we hit the road.

But I'm digressing. What makes me crazy about this study, besides the fact that two men basically set out to condemn moms for not doing enough, is that, in my humble opinion, babies need down time too. We spent the first month of the Grape's life in Rhode Island, where we saw a fantastic, and probably locally legendary, pediatrician. One of the main points in his new-baby spiel was that the baby is NOT the CEO of the family. "He gets excellent care, but he doesn't decide everything." This struck me as so brilliant that I briefly (I was still on some heavy post op drugs) contemplated moving to the burbs so the Grape could keep seeing Dr. Dave.

He said that the baby should have 45 minutes of alone time every day. "Put him in the infant seat in the next room and let him hang out." I'm not sure we succeeded in heeding his advice on a daily basis because of the sheer number of relatives vying to hold him, but the Grape did get used to a little Grape Time.

I'm certain Dr. Dave would call this latest study something unprintable in a family blog.

I've said it before in this space, but it bears repeating: Happy, healthy parents are good for babies. Period.

And you cannot be happy or healthy in the long term without rest and downtime.

That's why I'm an unapologetic fan of sleep training. No baby ever died from crying (it's a wives' tale perpetuated by the attachment set), and the reality is, most babies will have to cry out their protests for a few nights before getting the idea that the overnight hours are for snoozing. Obviously, this goes for healthy kids only; I'm not suggesting that a child who is sick or in pain be ignored. But most parents get pretty adept at telling the difference between a protest scream and a discomfort scream. If he stirs during the night, we let him soothe himself back to sleep. It usually works, and fast, because he has no expectation that we'll fish him out of the crib to pace the apartment at 3 a.m. He's a happier child during waking hours because he doesn't chop up his nights with several wake ups and parental interventions. You'd think this would be common sense.

Once we got the Grape sleeping through, we discovered that if we let him decide where to place the night, he'd choose 7 p.m to 5 a.m. It took about a week of letting him cry in the mornings to push his bedtime later and his wake up closer to 7 a.m. Now everyone is happier AND LESS STRESSED.

Both friends and complete strangers people often remark at how happy and agreeable the Grape seems. Part of that is just luck. Of course it's nice to have a good natured kid. But to me, it's also anecdotal evidence that cry it out isn't doing any damage. It's impossible to provide a stress-free life for any child. The Grape, like most kids I know, lives in the moment. Later today, he'll flip out when I leave him at the gym nursery to go work out and shower. He'll carry on like the sky is falling. But when I collect him, all will be forgiven by the time we make it down one floor and out to the sidewalk.

Mean? Not at all. Good for everyone. I get to exercise and wash like a civilized human being, and the Grape gets a small dose of the Grape time Dr. Dave ordered, in a safe and supervised environment.

(Here's the link to the article:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Apparently Mr. and Mrs. X are real. And they live in my neighborhood.

I met a charming woman at the playground the other day. She cares for a healthy, active toddler 50 hours a week. He obviously adores her and she attends to him in a manner that might make the casual observer assume she's his mom. His parents take advantage of her in ways I thought only existed in the pages of The Nanny Diaries. I'm rarely at a loss for words, but her stories left me speechless.

I've never worked as a nanny. My experience caring for the children of others involved the odd baby sitting gig during my teen years. As I recall, my duties consisted mainly of tying up the phone line and raiding the fridge while the children slept and their parents snuck out for dinner. But even without the benefit of firsthand insight, I feel comfortable laying out a few ground rules, in the hopes that someone will read them, recognize these people and help them to extract their heads from their derrieres.

So here goes:

It is NOT okay to pay the nanny for regular hours, say 9 to 6, when you rarely walk in the door before 6:30. She is an hourly employee. Pay her for the extra 2.5 hours per week. And yes, she notices you stiffing her.

It is unacceptable to expect the nanny to pick up the tab for your precious darling in restaurants. It is doubly rude to ask her - routinely - to front money to pick up your dry cleaning, buy your groceries or pay your cleaning service.

It is beyond the pale to take the nanny along on your vacation and pay her a measly $25 extra per night on top of her regular weekly pay, when she is working a solid six hours of overtime a day, giving up her leisure weekend time to make your life better, and sleeping on a half-deflated air mattress in the living room of your rental condo.

Nor is it alright to take the nanny on vacation with you and proceed to get so intoxicated Saturday night that you are only crawling out of bed to puke on Sunday morning. This after you woke up your six-month-old for the day at 3 a.m. with your drunken antics AND invited more than a dozen people for Sunday brunch, which you left the nanny to organize. Again, for no extra pay.

And furthermore, it's just plain tacky to complain to said nanny about your "outrageous child care expenses."

Once I gathered my jaw from the floor, I asked the nanny, "Why don't you quit?" She said, unsurprisingly, that everyone asks her the same thing. She has two answers: she's off to grad school in the fall, so this is a temporary job. Plus, she loves the kid.

I guess the parents luck out in this case. The nanny's affection for their son keeps her from telling them where they can stick their air mattress.

But consider: now famous flight attendant Steven Slater loved his job. Until one day he lost it and deployed the emergency slide. Do you really want to push the person responsible for your child to the point that she pulls a Slater?

Obviously this Mr. and Mrs. X of the South End are an extreme example of boorish employer behavior.

But for about as long as I've perused the local moms' message board, I've been stunned by many of the ads people post requesting validation for doing the wrong thing by their regular sitters. They want to bring the nanny to the Caribbean, but ask if it's okay to make her pay for her own ticket. They're having another child and don't want to give the sitter a raise. They don't want to give a holiday bonus. They don't want to pay the regular rate for overnights. One gem of a prospective employer asked if she could dock the nanny's salary for naps.

A significant number of well-to-do people (I make this assumption based on the fact that parents seeking private nannies have ruled out more affordable day care options) also seem hellbent on outsourcing the care of their children to the lowest bidder. In the past months, I've seen posts insisting, for example, "I paid $12 before, so why should I pay $18 now?" In that case the family had relocated from the Midwest. Thankfully, several moms chimed in to answer her, "Um, because you live in Boston." I would add that you get what you pay for. People pay $13 or $14 an hour for fantastic mothers' helpers who assist with child care while mom gets other things done around the house. Occasional evening sitters of the student variety routinely charge around $15, plus a cab home. Really good grad student type sitters routinely charge about the same rate.

But if you want a real Mary Poppins type, genuine professional nanny to assume primary child rearing responsibility while you're gone 45-60 hours a week, you're delusional if you think the rate starts below $18-20/hour.

Sometimes the nanny wanted ads include not-so-subtle warnings that applicants could find themselves working for a real life Mr. or Mrs. X. Often these contain no overt reference to compensation.

Nobody wants to work for someone who starts an add with, "Seeking nanny for exceptionally gifted and special 4-month-old." Um, gifted at what exactly? Pooping? Formula eating?

My very favorites are the ads that seek a person to do things that no sane mom would do herself. There are people - maybe even your neighbors - who expect their nannies to stay inside the nursery at all times. Really? I go stir crazy if I'm in the apartment all day with my own kid, let alone someone else's. If you're not going to trust the sitter outside the watchful glare of the not-so-well disguised nanny cam, then do her a favor and don't hire her.

Others seem confused about the role of the nanny as compared to that of the housekeeper. Sure, making snacks and doing the odd load of infant laundry go with the territory. But let's be real: do you think of vacuuming and scrubbing bath tubs as "light housework?" No? Well, neither does your nanny.

You might wonder why I spent time today writing about an issue that doesn't affect my life or The Grape's. Ultimately, in a bad economy, many people are glad to have jobs, even if it means working for terrible bosses. The nanny in question can choose to find her backbone or not. But what really bugs me about our Mr. and Mrs. X is what they're teaching their child. First, that taking care of him all week is menial work. Second, that it's alright to take advantage of people who make your life better, day in and day out. So much for the golden rule.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Grape Hits the Beach

I am a lifelong beach lover. By which I mean, I don't go for a couple of hours; I get there early and stay late. This summer I've been doing my best to train the Grape to be the same way. So far, so good. He LOVES going in the water and he seems inclined to limit his ingestion of sand to reasonable levels.

I consider this a huge win.

Still, the business of relaxing on the sand has become an exhausting endeavor. R. and I spent five hours on Saturday working feverishly to make sure the Grape thoroughly enjoyed his beach outing. We got home so spent that we were both asleep for the night before 8:30 p.m.

When we take the Grape to the beach, we have so much luggage that R. usually has to make two trips to unload it all. The Grape requires a tent, an umbrella, a blanket, several toys, a huge beach ball, a back up outfit and a small paddling pool (in addition to the cooler, towels and other minor provisions we'd bring for any beach outing). I used to openly mock the people who dragged a garage load of gear over the dunes in little metal carts. No more. Now I don't even question those funny folks who set up camp stoves on the sand. Maybe their kids truly need spaghetti to get through a beach day, and if so, who am I to judge?

Bottom line: If we need to be pack mules to make a day at the shore possible, then so be it. Load us up.

On Saturday, I was eager to get an early start, so we arrived at the beach with an overtired baby. I set up his tent and deposited him inside, then explained in my best bright and cheerful mommy voice that he was to take a nap in his "fort."

The Grape considered for half a second, then let me know that we had a serious difference of opinion. He proceeded to howl, thrash and capsize the tent several times in the span of the next half hour. I gamely reinserted the pacifier about a hundred times and sang my full repertoire of sleepy time songs. Our beach neighbors eased their encampments away from ours until we had an empty circle of sand the size of a smallish city block around us. R. paced the perimeter of our blanket and stole apologetic glances towards the people unfortunate enough to remain in earshot of our kid.

But I wasn't giving up. I paid eighty bucks for that stupid UV protection tent (complete with air mattress!) and the Grape was going to sleep in the damned thing.

R. asked if we should give up and go home. Before I could formulate a response, the Grape finally sacked out like only babies can, mid-yell.

He snoozed for almost an hour. I made excellent use of that time. By which I mean, I spent most of it lamenting that I forgot my book. I was also secretly thinking that we should have gone to the playground instead, but you couldn't have paid me to admit it at the time.

When the Grape woke from his nap with a properly adjusted attitude, we spent some serious time splashing in the water. He smiled and laughed and generally had the time of his little life. The nasty business with the pre-nap meltdown was all but forgotten. The beach with the Grape was a blast! We should do this every weekend! R. and I congratulated ourselves on being such fun-loving parents. Our kid was the happiest person for miles around. The schlepping was oh so worth it.

He pouted a little when we dragged him back to the blanket because he was looking a bit chilled (by which I mean R. remarked that his face was turning bluish). But then he ate like a champ. He flirted with our new blanket neighbors. He babbled at the seagulls who were casing his lunch. He WILLINGLY crawled into his tent to play for a bit. We went back into the water for another dip.

Then the Grape started rubbing his eyes and yawning. I considered for a moment. We'd had a good run. I wasn't mentally ready to start another epic battle of wills over napping in the tent. We decided to wrap it up and dash home so the Grape could snooze in his crib. We loaded up the car, and sped home with the windows down so he wouldn't botch his nap by nodding off en route.

I didn't get my full day in the sun, but we had a happy baby who rallied for a long walk and a dinner out. Sure, it kicked our butts. But ultimately, it was fun. We're going to do it again next weekend. I should probably start packing the car now.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A rational fear

One of my favorite people had a baby a couple of weeks ago. Hers was one of those smooth, uncomplicated deliveries, and I'm pleased to report that mom and baby are doing just fine. Nothing noteworthy there, right? Except that, about a month before the birth, A. mentioned that she was really, really scared about the impending blessed event.

I think it took a fair amount of guts for her to say that out loud.

In this day and age of over-sharing, where some women even post the gruesome details of their labors in real time on Facebook (aside- if I haven't seen you in fifteen years, please don't send me updates on your cervix), a few topics still feel taboo. Fear of childbirth is one of them, and I'm not sure why, because either mode of infant exit still strikes me as a big deal, wherein lots of things could go wrong. True, most births turn out fine, but a substantial minority of moms experience some type of complication. It seems crazy, especially in our litigious society, not to address some of the common issues in advance, and discuss what should or will happen if they arise.

I live in a city that boasts some of the world's finest hospitals, and yet I know many women who were very unsatisfied with their birth experiences. The most common complaint I've heard is from women who have gone through hours and hours of labor before their physicians agreed to perform a cesarean. This is ridiculous and shouldn't be happening. A cesarean is major surgery that many women hope to avoid. BUT if it looks like the medically reasonable way to go, why go into the procedure already exhausted and traumatized by a labor that's going nowhere? Another common hindsight comes from women who chose natural childbirth, but who didn't have the benefit of the intensive classes that were popular a few decades ago, when natural was all the rage. They wish their doctors had impressed upon them the need to prepare, beyond reading a book and taking the odd yoga class.

Without seeking them out, I've met women who have lost so much blood they needed multiple transfusions; had vaginal deliveries that left them facing multiple surgeries to restore continence; undergone sloppy episiotomies that left them unexpectedly crippled for weeks; received wholly unrealistic timetables for recovery; had cesarean incisions re-opened and re-sewn due to infections and pain; suffered a prolapsed uterus. They had one thing in common: they were all left a bit bitter because their doctors had been almost dismissive of these outcomes. "My OB was like, you have a healthy baby, so stop whining," the friend who had SIX surgeries to restore her urinary tract told me. It was basically a continuation of the attitude that fear of birth isn't worth discussing.

As much as women of all ages seem to relish any chance to share their birthing stories, our culture expects us to embrace childbirth as a beautiful, natural thing. If you can do that, I'm really happy for you. Lots of us can't, for reasons physical, emotional or both. And I don't think it's a crazy fear: somewhere on the planet, a woman dies every 30 seconds in childbirth. Why? Because it's inherently dangerous, especially in a non-hospital setting.

Women in the first world don't die in childbirth in huge numbers anymore, although in the United States, the number is on the rise for the first time since the 1970s. (The media seems to like to blame obesity and advanced maternal age for the disturbing trend, but I suspect that it also has something to do with the fact that many women on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder just don't get proper medical care. Otherwise maternal mortality would be on the upswing in other Western countries, where moms-to-be are also older and fatter than they were thirty years ago.)

Obstetricians obviously don't want to terrify their patients. However, in my experience, and in those of many friends, the doctors tended to be too dismissive of patients' birthing-related phobias, to the point that women learn to keep these fears private. I don't think that's necessarily healthy. Many pregnant women already feel emotionally volatile and physically tired. They shouldn't be made to feel badly because they're scared of a major impending event - even if it's one they've enthusiastically signed up for. Nor should they be made to feel like a pest if they ask a lot of questions, compose written plans and medical instructions, or choose to voice an opinion on their care once in the hospital.

I think A. was smart to articulate her fears. I think many more women would do the same, if asked in a way that invited conversation. But the reality of the big city baby catching business is that it's kind of a factory. When I needed to see my OB once on a same-day basis, her assistant told me I'd be the 50th patient on the schedule that day. "15th?" I asked, to make sure. "No. 50th. Five-zero." Unless you're prepared to be demanding, and arrive at your appointments armed with an agenda, most doctors who work at that pace are not going to check in with every expectant mom on her mental state. It's too lucrative to check the mom's blood pressure and the fetal heartbeat and move along to the woman in the next room. True, some women opt for midwives for precisely this reason, but it's not an option for women like A., whose pregnancy was categorized as high risk.

So next time an imminently due close friend seems nervous, go ahead and ask if she's worried about the birth. And more importantly, if she says yes, please don't do any of the following: roll your eyes, launch into one of those dreadful "it's-a-miracle-and-a-gift-and-the-pain-is-so-worth-it" speeches, or tell her to man up. Pregnancy is exhausting enough without the pressure to pretend that all is wonderful if it's not.

As for my friend A., I'm delighted her particular fears went unrealized, because now I can tell her: Welcome to Mommy Land!!! It's an incredible ride.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Bad decision, bad business owner, just a bad day for Massachusetts mommies

I was going to write about a new topic today, but so many people emailed me articles about yesterday's unfortunate decision by the highest court in Massachusetts that I decided to go with it. The court ruled that women are entitled to no more than eight weeks of unpaid maternity leave under Massachusetts law, even if their employers offer them more time off.

Here's the link:

Basically, the head of a private, Quincy-based telecomm company called Global Naps fired a housekeeper upon her return from an eleven-week unpaid leave, which she had negotiated in advance with the company. The CEO's name is Frank Gangi. If you would like to call him and tell him what you think of him and his company after you read the details of the case, their phone number is 617-507-5100.

You might be saying, "Wait! The feds allow for twelve-week unpaid leaves under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993!" But that law, which is untouched by yesterday's ruling, only applies to companies with 50 or more full-time employees located within 75 miles of each other, among other requirements. Massachusetts has a state maternity leave act dating back to 1972, which was the law at issue in the Global Naps case. It requires employers in Massachusetts (with 6 or more full-time employees) to allow eight weeks of unpaid maternity leave.

Eight weeks is pathetic, as I've noted often in prior posts, but what really sticks in my gut about the Global Naps case is that the employer made a promise to an employee (who happened to be new mom) and got away - in court- with reneging on it.

Judge Francis X. Spina, writing for the majority, suggested the housekeeper would have a remedy in the form of a breach of contract claim. Let's be real: Housekeepers aren't anywhere near the top of the corporate earning food chain. They don't make the kind of money needed to hire counsel to successfully take on a corporate legal department. Plus, we all know that the future employment prospects of any candidate who sues her last employer aren't so stellar.

Many corporate housekeepers toil during off hours, which makes upper level employees less likely to go to bat for them. Everyone knows the mail room guy and the receptionist, but how many people in your office know the person who empties the trash cans, vacuums the conference room and scrubs the toilets late at night?

I imagine that Mr. Gangi realized this when he fired the housekeeper.

Might a much loved secretary who kept candy on her desk have been treated differently? Or a saleswoman with good numbers and high public visibility? I can only speculate, of course.

Lest you think this post is too one-sided, let me say that I do sympathize with the financial pressures of SCRUPULOUS business owners. Here are three examples:

I've argued many times that the taxpayers should shoulder some responsibility for parental leaves, as they do in most Western democracies; and I've made it clear that I believe the absolute top earners (those in the highest 1 per cent) ought to pay the lion's share of the tax tab for both parental leave and child care.

If we really want to encourage entrepreneurs, we should repeal the self-employment tax, on the grounds that it seems patently un-American to tax small-business entrepreneurs, most of whom employ less than 50 people. It's important to note that the self-employment tax doesn't touch all business owners; it only assesses those who actually get their hands dirty working for their own enterprises, at a rate of 15.3 per cent. Too costly to junk? Let's waive it for the first five years of a business' existence.

Lastly, I believe meaningful legislation to REDUCE health insurance costs would take a lot of heat off small and medium sized employers who wish they could afford to do the right thing by their employees.

But none of these changes lie just around the corner. Which makes yesterday's 4-3 decision that much more depressing. Hopefully it serves as a wake up call. Moms-to-be, spread the word. If you can negotiate more leave than the law requires, make sure you get it in writing, and be doubly sure you understand the fine print.

Because I'm sure Mr. Gangi isn't the only bad apple boss out there.

Monday, August 2, 2010

An argument for emigration?

My Scandinavian friends and relatives have a hard time understanding why so many highly educated American women opt out of the work force to stay home with young children. When they learn that maternity leave in this country keeps a new mom's job secure for a measly three months, they usually ask two questions: Why don't American women demand better? And where are the dads in all of this?

My response hasn't changed much over the years. In my opinion, American parents of both sexes have bought a bill of goods, and now we're stuck with it.

True, our Scandi counterparts pay higher taxes (Sweden being the highest with taxes accounting for 47% of GDP; here it's 27%.), but look what they get in return. Over a year of paid parental leave (it went gender blind in 1995 and now most dads take at least two months); three years of job security (i.e. optional two year unpaid leave); a guaranteed pre school spot for any child 12 months or older (and it cannot cost more than $150 a month); a network of walk in health centers; a monthly child allowance to defray the costs of clothing and feeding the bundle of joy. I could keep going but you get the idea.

And no, they're not going bankrupt doing this. Family benefits cost 3.1 per cent of GDP. The Swedish national deficit, according to The New York Times, accounts for 2.1 per cent of GDP, which means Sweden is in better fiscal shape than most of the developed world. Almost a hundred per cent of moms rejoin the workforce within three years. Divorce rates are the lowest in Europe, and sociologists attribute that in large part to shared parental leaves.

Because parental leaves are almost universally taken, businesses have adapted to long term absences, just like they've had to adapt to a mandate that parents may leave at 4:30 to collect schoolchildren. Indeed,generous parental benefits have spurred a revolution in flex time and telecommuting that's light years of anything we have here. Smart employers sweeten the deal by adding their own stipends to the government-paid leave. They use it as a recruiting tool in a job market where more and more young applicants value work-life balance over maximum paycheck. And why shouldn't they? It's not like Scandinavian graduates enter the job market saddled with student debt, nor do they need to marry a job to secure high quality health care, but those are subjects for another day.

I don't hold out a lot of hope that the parental leave situation in the good old U.S.A. will improve anytime soon. Need evidence? The only thing more depressing than Sharon Meers' self-indulgent piece in The Washington Post last Friday, suggesting public policy might change if more dads spent weekends with their offspring, was the chain of comments that ensued. Let's just say there's a really ugly side to the rugged individualism that's entrenched in the American national ethos. Boiled down version: if it's not my kid, it's not my problem. So much for the proverbial village.

Why do I find Ms. Meers' commentary self-indulgent? Because she seems incapable of looking at the issue from the perspective of a woman who HAS TO WORK. I'm all for choice for I-bankers, but let's be honest: anyone with that income has more options than the average meat processing plant employee, janitor, supermarket cashier or unionized laborer. Ms. Meers could stay home for a few years, then re-invent herself; your average American worker cannot.

But you see, that's part of the giant bill of goods we've bought. Ms. Meers, like those in the top two per cent of earners in the United States, lives far better than the typical Scandinavian citizen. What the not-my-kid, not-my-problem crowd fails to grasp is that the AVERAGE Scandinavian enjoys a far superior standard of living than does the AVERAGE American.

This is not my opinion. It's a fact.

I challenge anyone to prove otherwise.

Similarly, I think it's a fact that until we as a nation accept that we're failing our families, in the name of greed and (arguably false) self reliance, nothing will really change.