Thursday, March 31, 2011

Weepy expectant moms, Psycho Chick and the Missing Berlin Tarts

I recently ran into an old acquaintance at a party. She is expecting her first child this summer. Her husband was busy drinking for three and whining - to anyone he could corner - about his wife's suddenly volatile temperament. "She's four months along and she's making me crazy. She cries all the time. She's always tired. It's so lame. I don't know if I can deal."

Puh-lease. If I hadn't been someone else's guest, I might have piped up and told the oaf that if he can't deal with what sound like normal pregnancy hormones, good luck with the whole parenting thing.

As far as I'm concerned, he should be on his knees thanking whatever higher power he deems holy that his wife hasn't suffered any complications. Of either the frequently discussed physical type or the less talked about but equally real emotional variety.

A few years ago Jenny McCarthy penned a popular memoir about pregnancy; I believe it was called Belly Laughs. Pregnancy transformed her into a person she refers to as Psycho Chick. Psycho Chick did things like assault her husband with the television remote when he complained of her choice of programming. She also peed in his car when he refused to stop at a restaurant so she could use the facilities.

All pretty normal stuff, in my experience at least. Some small percentage of women get really lucky. They go through nine months of pregnancy mentally unfazed. Sure, they experience the effects of tiredness and physical strain, but their personalities don't shift.

A significant number of women fall into the large group that encompasses both Jenny McCarthy and my old acquaintance. They spend several months on an emotional roller coaster. The pregnancy hormones heighten their reactions to everyday setbacks. Women who wouldn't think twice about minor culinary setbacks sob inconsolably if they burn their morning toast. Independent women find themselves feeling needy for the first time in their lives and crying over trivial or remote things.

Plenty of pregnancy books address these normal emotional changes. Most of their authors also assure readers that most women start to feel really happy around the fourth month.
Most contemporary pregnancy tomes also include discussions of post-partum depression and the less serious baby blues phenomenon.

Yet none of the mainstream pregnancy guides I encountered considered the possibility of PRE-partum depression or anxiety disorders. Which absolutely exist and which confound thousands of women with very much wanted pregnancies. I don't understand why nobody discusses this problem - not the books, not most obstetricians.

I know that pre-partum depression and anxiety are not rare. I've met MANY women who admitted to feeling deeply sad, panicky or resentful for pretty much their entire pregnancies.

Since I don't know thousands of people, and since some people are inherently very private about such matters, my small sampling leads me to believe that pre-partum emotional disorders serious enough to warrant professional attention might be almost as common as swollen ankles.

In most of their cases, their doctors shrugged off their emotional concerns with flip remarks like, "Be thankful you're not puking 24/7," as if that will make the patient say, "you know I am happy after all." Or advice like "Maybe you should talk to someone," as if talk therapy can cure a massive chemical swing in one's physiology.

Because that's what causes Psycho Chick behavior. It has nothing to do with whether the child is wanted or not. Pregnancy just doesn't agree with some women, and I think it's reprehensible that people feel it's alright to make them feel worse by telling them to buck up, or like the guy at the party, to stop bawling about everything.

And yes, I write from experience. I could have given Jenny McCarthy a run for her money by the five month mark and by the last trimester I was a full blown psychopath. I felt so anxious and unhinged all the time that I didn't sleep more than two consecutive hours EVER during the last six months of pregnancy.

Sleep deprivation of that caliber can make a person insane. Nothing helped. Not yoga, acupuncture, intense exercise, intense rest, prescription sleeping pills or soothing teas. I spent endless hours awake with my mind winding its way through dark and twisted places I probably could never have imagined before. And I'm a pretty creative person.

I became obsessed with getting the Grape out so that I could finally get some sleep. How insane is that? I contemplated performing my own c-section and once googled the instructions. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I knew this was crazy behavior. When I reported it to my OB, she assured me that I should let her perform the operation as she'd do a better job.

I also became paranoid about strange things. I hid all the family recipes, many of which came from my late grandmother and cannot be replicated. I cannot articulate why I did this, but I hid them so well I fear the Berlin tarts that melt in your mouth are lost forever.

Certain I'd never regain my faculties, I donated every single article of clothing that qualified as business wear to the Salvation Army. I ordered Christmas cards in July because I was convinced I wouldn't have time to do so in the fall. I never once considered whether I'd have time to sign and address the cards.

Now that I've had time to sleep on my ordeal, I believe my OB never took my emotional complaints totally seriously because I looked relatively good to a casual observer. Yes, an obstetrician who sees 50 patients a day after pulling an all-nighter at the hospital absolutely qualifies as a casual observer.

I had no appetite whatsoever. By forcing myself to eat (mainly to avoid fainting) I gained what she called the bare minimum of weight. I didn't hurl, nor did I swell or become puffy or sweaty. I dressed up for doctor's appointments (to get some wear out of my maternity wardrobe which I knew I'd never use again). I also had some serious physical complications that probably made my emotional ones seem trivial to my physicians.

So it's over now. My brain has returned to its baseline. Life goes on. Other than aging me a bit, the emotionally exhausting ordeal of pregnancy didn't cause me any permanent harm. So you might wonder why I choose to revisit an hour so far from my finest. Three reasons:

If one woman reads this, sees herself, shows it to her doctor and finally gets the attention she needs, I'll feel I've provided a valuable service.

Ditto if one woman reads this and realizes it's not crazy to feel depressed or anxious about a wanted child. Those feelings will pass when the hormones readjust to their prior levels, which can take time.

My final reason for sharing is entirely self-serving. If anyone has any idea where an insanely hormonal pregnant woman would lock away a stack of family recipes, please shoot me an email. I'll send you a batch of those tarts if you're right.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Grape dines out

Last night R. and I did something we haven't done in months.

We took the Grape out to eat.

In a real restaurant.

Not at some designed-for-kids burger joint or pizza parlor.

We ventured to a local spot R. and I frequent a deux on those evenings when we leave the Grape snug in his bed with Lila the Dog installed on the sofa, in case some emergency should befall our child or home while R. and I are holding fresh drinks.


We pay a lovely college student to sit on the couch next to Lila the Dog, in case some emergency should befall the household during our two hour absence.

Today I've been debriefing last night's restaurant experience. R. and I did some things right. We picked a place where the staff knows us as regulars and therefore might feel more tolerant of any minor disturbances caused by our adorable toddler.

We made the Grape walk there on his own two feet. No stroller for this three block jaunt. I hypothesize that kids do best in high chairs when they're physically exercised but not to the point of exhaustion.

We ordered wine and salads before we sat down. This is key because the clock starts running once the Grape plops into the high chair. We have fifty minutes - max - to scarf two courses, pay the bill and get the hell out.

We arrived at the restaurant at ten minutes before six p.m. Why? Because we enjoy the place too much to risk any wrath for showing up during prime time toting a small child. We want them to know we understand this fact: People eating after the Blue Hair and High Chair Hour do not find our kid cute. Even if the stars align in our favor and he behaves immaculately.

Note: I don't live in a cave. I understand that sometimes families with small children must eat out after seven o'clock. Which is precisely why God created the aforementioned pizza parlors and burger joints.

Lest you think I'm sounding too smug, I'll admit we did a few things wrong.

I have this crazy idea in my head that the Grape should eat vegetables. So I brought along a jar of peas for him to consume before his pasta and sauce arrived. Problems arose when the Grape insisted on feeding himself. Which meant he didn't want anyone holding the jar. After watching him land two spoonfuls in his mouth and another two in his lap, R. and I relaxed a bit. I believe we may have even exchanged a line or two of conversation.

The jar of peas flew off the table like a roman candle and and crashed to the floor. The pea gruel splattered all over someone's handbag, one that any half awake urban woman could identify as very expensive.

I dived for the bag and attacked it with three cloth napkins and a tirade of apology. I believe my catlike reflexes helped avert permanent damage. We started a laundry pile on the floor under my chair - one that would weigh five pounds by the time the Grape finished his red sauce. I felt a little badly about the lady's Prada, but seriously.

We sat down first. We were not aspiring to eat outside of our league. By which I mean we were not a fine dining establishment.

She placed her $3000 bag less than a foot from an occupied high chair.

Surely reasonable minds could see contributory negligence in this situation.

Happily, peas meeting Prada constituted the most significant of a trio of casualties which also included a full glass of red wine on my sweater and the better part of a vat of tomato sauce on the Grape's person. The kid likes things with some kick. I know he dumped his own penne on his lap in order to score a helping of my fra diavolo sauce. One soapy bath and almost twenty-four hours later, he still smells vaguely of garlic.

By this point, R. had been forced to raid adjacent tables for back up linens more than once. Neither of us had made much headway with our entrees. The Grape was getting antsy. By which I mean he was standing in the high chair yelling and carrying on much like a drunken spring breaker dancing on the bar at Senor Frog's.

We decided what he really needed to get through the home stretch of the meal was sugar. We ordered the tartuffo. His eyes boggled at the beach ball sized portion of ice cream, dusted with cocoa and hazelnut and topped off by roughly a full can of whipped cream.

Our ploy totally worked. The Grape shoveled the dessert into his mouth, wielding his spoon with accuracy neither R. nor I had witnessed previously. Only about twenty per cent of the magnificent tartuffo ended up on his clothes. None landed on anyone's accessories. At one point he paused and applauded. When he finished, he actually licked the plate.

Then made like he was about to smash it in an amateurish homage to Zorba.

That was our cue. We piled our laundry into as neat a heap as possible, tipped generously and beat a hasty retreat home, where we all stripped and sent our clothes (which looked like props for a detergent commercial) straight into the washing machine.

All in all, a successful outing. So here's my fair warning to the neighbors: next week we're going to attempt the French place across the street. Bon appetit, everyone!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Alpha moms and the alphabet

Last week a woman I know remarked that she fears her not-even-two-year-old daughter might be colorblind. While I blinked at her vacuously, trying to process whether I heard her correctly, she inquired if the Grape knew his colors. No, I conceded readily. He doesn't.

It honestly hadn't occurred to me to attempt to drill such information into his head. I figure kids learn that stuff organically, by which I mean, they'll figure out the colors when the colors mean something to them.

For my two and a half year old niece, her a-ha moment came when invited to choose nail polish colors. She proudly displayed her blue toes to everyone one week, her pink fingernails the next. I remember she really enjoyed green week.

When I explained my position to the mother of the child suspected of colorblindness, she nodded coolly and herded her kid away from the Grape. I could hear her insisting, "Your socks are yellow! Not brown!" as they made their retreat.

If you look at the world through a toddler's eyes, there's so much cool stuff to see that it's no wonder they don't spend their precious waking hours contemplating the tint of their socks. The knowledge that this square is red or that triangle is blue doesn't captivate the Grape when he's busy taking in live dogs and ducks, blaring fire engines and honking taxis. He hears that the dog is black or the fire truck is red in passing, like we observe all kinds of facts.

But I have no idea whether he gets the concept of color or not, and I frankly refuse to devote any bandwidth to worrying about it.

For this reason, and because I have a low tolerance for annoying mechanical noises, the Grape has no "educational" toys. I don't care what the Baby Einstein people claim; it can't be all that beneficial to have a dozen gadgets broadcasting the alphabet, numbers one through ten and various primary colors all the time.

Some such toys even sense when they're being ignored. "Purple! Purple! Purple!" they insist, though Junior has taken refuge at the far side of the room. Sorry, but I find that feature a little creepy.

There's also no trophy at the end of motherhood for teaching Junior to read before he ever darkens the doorway of a school.

Don't get me wrong. I'm thrilled that the Grape loves books. So thrilled that I happily read his favorites over and over (and over) again. But I don't want to turn him off reading by pushing him to struggle with something his mind just isn't ready to tackle.

For that matter, I've lost no sleep over his complete inability to recite the ABC's.

Most of us learned the alphabet as a song, the one they still sing at the local library's sing-alongs. The Grape hears the song, but I haven't rushed out to buy him those multi-colored alphabet magnets, or to inform him that A is for apple before serving one up as a snack. I don't see the need to push rote memorization at such a tender age.

Because I'm certain of one thing: Learning can be rendered dull if adults don't tread carefully. Something as crucial as reading needs to be made interesting to young minds. Not tedious. Good books are ones where stuff happens.

They don't have to be nail biters by adult standards; indeed much of preschool literature focuses on various animals preparing to go to bed. (Who knew they made pajamas for bears, elephants and bunnies?) But I think a story - a reason to turn the page and see what happens next - is incredibly important if you're concerned with fostering a love of reading, rather than the mere ability to do so.

One of my clearest early memories is of my first grade teacher (she was incidentally a lovely woman) presenting those old See Jane readers to our class. I knew from experience that many books contained better yarns than those about Jane running after Dick for no apparent reason.

That was the moment I realized school had the potential to be really boring. I remember feeling betrayed; not that I, a barely literate six-year-old, knew the word for such an emotion.
I sometimes wonder if those babies whose parents sit them down with flashcards before they're able to walk away feel something close to boredom, or even intellectual fatigue. I'm also curious as to what would possess a mother to make her tots recite the color, shape and number of each and every object encountered during the day's errands and activities.

I've met many such moms in passing and they all share a possessed though mildly medicated air. Not that I wouldn't need a prescription tranquilizer if I had to face 365 days a year of making every activity into a formal learning exercise. Will these parents really feel they have failed if their children cannot read, count, tell time and see the difference between fuschia and puce by age three?

All joking aside, I understand that some kids do read early on their own. That's fine, but it doesn't mean all parents should get their knickers in a twist over Junior's preschool reading skills. No credible study exists showing any link between pre-school aged reading and longterm academic success.

Besides, I have a hunch that a good percentage, though certainly not all, of the alleged legions of three-year-old readers have simply memorized a whole bunch of books.

Anecdotally, I know two adults who really read at age three, although this was rare in the seventies. One remains an avid reader who devours several books a month in an eye-popping seven (or is it eight) languages to this day, despite having children and a job; the other reads one or two books a year. At the most. Guess which one did it on her own, and which was pushed?

The Grape will probably recite his books to me as soon as he develops the ability to speak in sentences. But I don't care if learns to read (as in new material without help) before starting elementary school. If he figures it out, great. If he's too busying playing and imagining and being a kid, that's great too.

I figure if reading is brand new to him in kindergarten, he won't get so bored with the lackluster antics of old Dick and Jane.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Runny noses and class warfare

The Grape has yet another nasty cold, bringing his total illness tally during this interminable winter to about a dozen. And he doesn't even go to daycare.

There's nothing like having a cranky kid whose nose runs like the bathtub faucet, who wants to sleep for ten minute spells - in his stroller only - and who stages multi-day hunger strikes to remind me that despite my feelings to the contrary, I indeed get a lot accomplished on a typical day hanging out with the Grape.

All bets are off when he's under the weather. Today, the third day of his food boycott, I actually bundled him up and marched off to the mall food court. Usually a cheese quesadilla kids' meal from the local burrito stand would make his day. Today he got excited while I made the purchase, but by the time I triumphantly laid out his junk food feast on his tray, he was pushing it away and screaming, "No! No way!" Strangers looked at me with disgust. Look at that awful woman. Her poor kid probably just wants a nice piece of fruit. Something wholesome. Not that garbage.

I draw the line at explaining myself to random mall patrons. They probably wouldn't believe that the Grape had, just an hour earlier, reacted in an equally negative manner to six varieties of fresh produce, both Greek and domestic yogurt, whole wheat toast, pancakes with maple syrup, raisins and fresh mozzarella cheese.

Aside: Nobody told me that having a baby meant wasting so much food. I routinely pack the Grape's rejected meals in Tupperware to offer again later. But there's only so many times you can salvage the ruins of lunch from his tray. I hate throwing away food. Yet I now do so almost daily. There. I feel better for confessing that.

Anyhow, I am confident that the Grape's food court protest wasn't meant to communicate a frustrated desire for superior nutrition; he was telling me that he doesn't feel well and he is therefore pissed off.

But this will pass, hopefully within the week. And he won't starve so long as he continues to chug chocolate milk like it's the sole reason he was put on this earth.

I'm one of the fortunate moms who can thank my lucky stars for a healthy child.

With all the belt tightening and budget cutting being debated in Washington and every state in the union, it's getting more and more dangerous to get sick.

I honestly don't understand how people with seriously ill children manage, especially in rough economic times when health programs and other benefits for the children of the poorest of the poor are being eviscerated all over the country.

Today Lisa Belkin's Motherlode column (link on the side of this page) profiled the mother of a teenaged boy somewhere in South Carolina. He suffers from severe metal illness and no longer receives services from the state because of budget cuts. The mom in question had to quit her full time job as a public school teacher to supervise her son 24/7 because he's periodically violent and he has the decision making capacity of a much younger child. Not a safe situation on the best of days.

After a year the mom suffered a nervous breakdown. She committed herself to an inpatient mental health facility.

Because she knew that doing so would force the state to take her subsequently unsupervised son into a residential treatment program. It was the only way she could get him the help he needed.

The resulting cost to South Carolina's taxpayers will far exceed the amount the state would have spent on outpatient preventative care. Yet we can expect more unfortunate stories like this, since mental health programs in several states have been trimmed back to Reagan era levels.

Ten minutes down the road from us, hundreds (if not thousands) of parents strain their finances to the breaking point every year because their children have fallen ill. The Grape had a brief stay at Children's Hospital as an infant. Some of his ward neighbors weren't as lucky.

Many of the cancer kids, and those with severe birth defects, had traveled across oceans to see the specialists here in Boston. Many had been stuck in hospital beds for months. A few of their parents were wealthy beyond imagination; most were scrapping and stressing over paying the hospital bills, the accommodation bills for themselves and all the bills back home that don't stop just because life does.

Thanks to last year's (deeply flawed but better than nothing) health care reform legislation, insurers can no longer deny coverage to such seriously ill children. But the law includes no mandates for cost controls, which leaves millions of families one major medical event away from bankruptcy.

Which brings me back to the Grape. He had surgery as a four month old. Insurance paid most of the bill, all but a thousand dollars. Had they not, we would have been on the hook for somewhere north of ten thousand dollars. Which to most people is a lot of cash for an unforeseen emergency.

Medicaid might have picked up the surgical tab for a child in the Grape's shoes, but I wonder whether a Medicaid baby would have received the same attention during the long and frustrating diagnostic process.

Many of the best docs on the planet missed the Grape's problem. More than once. R. and I kept pushing back, telling them they had to be missing something, until months after the Grape started yowling in pain around the clock, a radiology resident witnessed a series of the Grape's pain episodes and took it upon himself to take a second look, further up the digestive tract that the GI's had told him to focus.

Ditto for my niece, whose orthopedist prescribed casts on both legs to correct an alignment problem during her first six months. My brother's family has good insurance. Parents of a baby with turned in ankles but without comprehensive medical coverage would be faced with an unpleasant choice: hope her legs resolve on their own or pay tens of thousands of dollars to fix a non-life-threatening but certainly life-downgrading condition.

This is a rich country, despite what so many Chicken Littles in Washington claim. The cost of borrowing has never been cheaper. If necessary, we should add to the deficit to pay for health care for children. But the thing is, I don't believe it's necessary.

A friend of mine shared this chart last week. It shows the costs of various spending cuts and increases currently on the table in Congress. Like any chart, it's imperfect. But even if you discount the estimates by a large percentage, its overall conclusions won't change:

Gandhi said that one can judge a civilization by how it treats its animals. I've always agreed with this sentiment, but lately I can't help but wonder: Perhaps we should judge our society by how we treat our children.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

We live in the city for the culture. Or is it for the cabs?

Because the winter wears on relentlessly and the Grape has made clear his disdain for sledding and other snow games, R. and I have embarked on a series of recent excursions to sample some of the family friendly entertainment and enrichment opportunities Boston has to offer.

Two weeks ago we decided to take the Grape to the Museum of Fine Arts. As a small baby, he'd enjoyed looking at the pretty colors from his stroller.

Things have changed. R. and I understand the Grape now has the attention span of a senile hamster.

So we knew we couldn't get too ambitious. We decided to take in the first floor of the new Art of the Americas wing. R. and I had enjoyed our visit to the two other floors on a recent kid-free outing.

A forty minute tour through eight rooms with the Grape in tow sounded manageable. In retrospect, I cannot imagine how we ever reached that conclusion.

I mean, I find portraiture of dead white men less than fascinating. Why on earth would I expect an eighteen-month-old to be captivated by the wigs and blank stares?

The Grape sat gamely in his stroller for seven minutes as we entered the museum, showed our tickets and pushed down the interminable corridor to the new wing. We entered the first gallery. He started to fuss. Tourists dazzled by the array of Paul Revere silver shot us the death stare.

I scooped him out of his conveyance and tried to carry him on my hip.

But the Grape likes to self-locomote these days. I took his little hand and marched him deeper into the exhibit, where the curators had assembled:


Furniture that looks rather like the stuff he climbs all over at other people's houses.

R. and I rushed to redirect his attention elsewhere before we became the proud owners of a silk sofa for the very short.

"Look, a horse!" I exclaimed and pointed at an oil painting perched high on the far wall.

The Grape agreed. "Horse!" he sang happily, as he squirmed from my grasp and made a beeline through my legs towards a floor to ceiling portrait of George Washington standing up against the rear flank of his faithful mount.

The Grape darted between other museum goers, with single minded focus on touching the horsey.

R. and I plowed down a tour group from Japan and I believe (though I cannot swear) that I tackled my son to the ground before his paws made contact with the work of Gilbert Stuart.

We hurried out of the museum, faces red with shame, thanking our lucky stars that we weren't going to have to work the rest of our lives to pay for repairs to a life size painting of a horse's ass.

The next weekend we scaled down. We embarked on an adventure to the aquarium. The Grape loved watching the penguins. Everything would have been perfect had we not attempted to see any other exhibits. The giant ocean tank overloaded his little circuits. In a burst of genius, R. and I ran him to the top of the tower, where visitors can peer down at the water's surface. A giant sea turtle swam right under our noses.

"Water," the Grape observed with disdain. Obviously his parents were dummies if they hauled him away from the penguins to look at a phenomenon seen every night in his bath tub.

R. and I decided to hang in there a few minutes longer. We reasoned our visit to the aquarium should last longer than the cab ride to get there.

The turtle swam by again. This time the Grape was fascinated.

By some other kid's discarded half eaten graham cracker on the filthy concrete floor.

By the time we wrangled the snack of disease from his grasp, he was too upset to re-focus on his beloved penguins. "Let's go outside and see the sea lions," R. suggested. "All kids love sea lions."

I agreed. Great idea.

Except when we got the howling Grape bundled and strapped back in his stroller, we learned that the sea lions had gone on sabbatical.

Seriously? They do that? What are they, tenured?

All was not lost, however. The Grape thoroughly enjoyed our taxi ride home. The cab featured one of those annoying touch screens that advertise local attractions at the approximate volume of the public address system at Madison Square Garden. It was like having his own iPad complete with the germs of hundreds of thousands of strangers. He was in heaven.

The cabbie suggested we take the Grape to the zoo next weekend to see the gorillas. "I bet he'd like that."

Maybe we'll venture there next weekend.

Or maybe next time we feel the urge to expose our child to the great offerings of our city, we'll just hop in a taxi, hand the driver twenty dollars and drive around for a while.