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."


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.


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.

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: