Thursday, May 31, 2012

Words I never thought I would say

Words I never thought I would say: I'm banishing a book from our house.

And no, it's not a novel "by" Snooki (give me some credit, that never made it into the house), or the wildly popular 50 Shades of Insufferable Vapid Girl Lets Hot Rich Guy Beat Her for Sexual Jollies.

Nope, the book I've banned features a disarming cover, aimed at preschoolers.

The Grape loves books and we spend lots of time reading. One of our favorites in his regular rotation is Ian Falconer's lovely Olivia, an award-winning tale of the ordinary day adventures of a toddler piglet.

Let me be clear: I love Olivia. The original one.

The Grape is far from the precocious porcine's only fan. Olivia proved so popular with the pre-school set that advertisers saw a merchandising opportunity. An Olivia cartoon show was born, predictably followed by a series of toys, books and other junk featuring Olivia's likeness.  All standard stuff.

The other day we were browsing in a bookstore when the Grape's eyes honed in on a display of Olivia books. These weren't by Falconer, who evidently sold the rights to his characters to Nickelodeon, but they featured Olivia and her familiar family, and the Grape wanted the one about Olivia going to a friend's house to dinner.

(I'll try to remember to insert the exact title later. It's in the Grape's room, the Grape is finally, after a lengthy stand-off, napping, and you could not pay me to go in there right now.)

I flipped through the first pages: Olivia and her friends comparing lunches at school. We bought the book. Here's the plot: Over lunch, Olivia's friend Francine invites Olivia to her house for dinner. Olivia is excited to attend a dinner party. Francine's parents are foodies. They serve Brussels sprouts. The book goes on for several pages about how much Olivia dislikes Brussels sprouts (which, by the way, she KNEW she despised BEFORE ever trying them), and how awful it was for Francine's parents to serve them. Francine even apologizes to Olivia, because her mom cooked vegetables.

Who writes this stuff?

Obviously writers underwritten by soft drink and sugared cereal manufacturers.

You know, the ones who add corn syrup to everything, and who package their wares in colorful, eye-catching cardboard boxes that make even the most jaded tot's eyes boggle.

Before you accuse me of going all Sancti-Mommy on you, let me say that I understand that the Grape would rather eat chocolate than spinach (for example). He eats plenty of desserts; he's not on some austere deprivation diet.

But there's a reason two-year-olds aren't allowed to plan their own menus.

I happen to love vegetables, and the Grape seems to enjoy them well enough. In a country where over a third of the citizenry qualifies as clinically obese, shouldn't we try to encourage produce consumption by kids?

When we got to the Brussels sprouts brouhaha, I could see the tiny wheels turning in his mind: Why are they gross? I should make a mental note to hate them.

I'm a writer, and I despise censorship. I make a point to buy banned and challenged books, and I don't think there's any subject that should be completely taboo.

But does my quiet removal of this title from our rotation really constitute a suppression of art?

Ian Falconer neither wrote nor illustrated the book. A team of Nickelodeon employees (or freelancers on contract with the channel) churn these volumes out, to complement their TV shows. Arguably the book in question is, in and of itself, an advertisement for the cable channel (which we don't watch).

So the book will disappear from the Grape's collection. I believe in free speech, but that doesn't mean I  need to pay someone to preach lousy, finicky eating habits to my kid.

Friday, May 25, 2012

We've got a runner

The Grape is an intrepid kid, and he seems to have inherited his Mamma's wanderlust.

If he were older, say, recently graduated from college, I'd admire his adventurous streak. Applaud his curiosity. Envy his adventures.

But he is two, which means he's not authorized for solo expeditions.

We're embarking on a moderately ambitious trip this summer, and I'm seriously considering putting the little darling on a leash. My mother applauds this idea, and reminds me frequently that she harnessed my brother and me when facing advanced level obstacle courses such as the International Arrivals Terminal at JFK, or the local supermarket.

We're no worse for wear.

Mumsy went as far as to buy us a "child safety tether," basically a short leash that clips onto a cute plush backpack that the Grape can wiggle out of in less time than Harry Houdini would have needed to escape an unsecured paper box.

A slightly superior version of the device was featured on a recent episode of the brilliant sitcom Modern Family. Cam and Mitchell put their daughter on a leash during a family outing to Disneyland and garnered countless nasty looks from judgmental strangers.

I don't care if other moms shoot me the stink-eye, but I see tethering the child as an admission of weakness on my part. I only have one kid. I should be able to keep him with the program, right?  I also don't believe in hovering. It's extremely important to me that the Grape can entertain himself, sort himself out of small playground scrapes and feel confident and independent.

All of which makes me hard pressed to think of anything more overbearing and helicopter-like than hitching my kid to my person.

R. and I should have seen this coming. The Grape was a really late walker, but once he started, he hasn't stopped.  He was, however, an early talker. Sadly, that feat seems to have translated into early ignorer of parental directives. If I tell him to stop, even in my sternest Mommy voice, the compliance rate averages around a pathetic ten percent.

In short, we've got a runner.

Yesterday, we went on a school trip to the local zoo. After seeing the animals, we had a picnic and the teachers organized a little scavenger hunt for the kids.

Did the Grape join his classmates in their happy search for silly plastic prizes in the designated grassy era?

No. He bolted, at full gallop, for the aviary.  Not that the zoo's collection of unusual birds was compelling to him. He just wanted to see what lay beyond his horizon more than he wanted to take home a toy frog. (Actually, he asked me over his rapidly retreating shoulder, to get him one.)

As I sprinted after him for the hundredth time in two hours, my recently operated knee throbbing, I made a mental note to look for a better leash.

Maybe one of those retractable ones could be good.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The frozen egg gamble

One of my girlfriends, on the almost eve of her fortieth birthday, asked me, "If you didn't have the Grape when you did, would you have frozen your eggs?"

I told her probably not. Mainly because the technology, often viewed and sometimes marketed as insurance, is actually a very expensive gamble.

Though many fertility clinics offer egg freezing (for a price tag in the $10,000 to $15,000 range per cycle, plus annual storage fees in the hundreds), and the technology has come a long way in recent years, eggs just don't seem to freeze as well as embryos.

Indeed, they're maddeningly fragile, compared to other kinds of cells.

According to today's NYT, about 2,000 live births to date have resulted from frozen eggs.

This is not a large number, when you consider the world population hovers north of six billion human beings. In fact, those odds are abysmal, though not stark enough to dissuade plenty of well-heeled retirees from footing the bills for their daughters, in the hopes of one day welcoming biological grandchildren.

Egg preservation: The new it gift for the 35th birthday? Perhaps. Though I wouldn't advise anyone to subject herself to injectable hormone therapy just to please her parents. If you're going to do this, do it for yourself, and be an informed consumer.

The HUGE question I would advise any girlfriend considering the procedure to research: how many of those 2,000 live births resulted from use of frozen donor eggs?

Because most egg donors are college girls. Not women pushing forty. Before I drop the kind of cash required for egg freezing, I'd want to know the real odds of eventual live birth from my own frozen, more mature, eggs. And I'd want to know how those odds would change as time passes.

I'd want to know how many hormone treatment cycles I should reasonably expect to endure to produce enough eggs to make the exercise worthwhile.

As anyone who's gone through IVF knows, every egg doesn't make it as an embryo, and only the best and strongest embryos ever see the inside of a uterus. It's like a pipeline that narrows at each phase: you might get 16 good eggs (for example), which might get you six embryos that might, if you're lucky, get you one child. A good reproductive endocrinologist won't sugar coat the numbers. If your doc strikes you as more cheerleader than scientist/clinician, please run the other way. S/he isn't the only game in town, and you want to feel good about your doctor. Assuming you eventually un-freeze your eggs and try to fertilize and implant them, you'll be back for one or more cycles of IVF.

Regular readers know I'm all about women having choices.

But I'm also suspicious of a new, booming business springing up to prey on women's fears concerning their biological clocks with largely unsubstantiated promises of "better technology."

If I decided to try to hedge my bets by freezing eggs, I might procure some donor sperm and make some of those eggs into embryos as a further hedge. Why not? Same hormone treatment. Not much additional cost. Embryos freeze better than unfertilized eggs.

So my advice to my girlfriend is ultimately the same as my earlier advice, when asked if I had ever, before R. and the Grape, considered single motherhood by choice:

Don't do what I think I would have done. Do what's right for you, but please do so with eyes wide open. Before you make a gamble, understand your odds.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Free the Grape and Fear Not

Many of my friends and I are celebrating or staring down a big milestone birthday. The one at which longevity statistics say, at least if you live in the US, that your time is more than half up.

Many of these same friends have very young children. Other friends plan to start families, on a fairly imminent basis.

My point: When our current batch of rug rats graduate from high school, many of us will be eligible for membership in the AARP.  (The majority won't be retiring, since the formerly magical age of 65 will come on the heels of the college tuition bills.)

The Grape's contemporaries are the most monitored, programmed, watched over generation in history. We've morphed, perversely, into a society that prizes independence and initiative, but only in adults.

Meanwhile the average age of new motherhood creeps ever older.

The logical conclusion: mom and dad won't be hovering at Junior's side forever, supervising every interaction and reviewing every decision.

He's going to need to learn to sort himself out.

Vis a vis the rest of the population.

The Grape is a sociable, chatty kid (most of the time). We live in the city, and because we have Lila the Dog, we're acquainted with many of our neighbors.

The other day, the Grape ran up to say hi to an old man we know from the dog park. As I was silently and smugly congratulating myself for his social poise, a complete stranger (a woman in her forties) snapped at me, saying, "Aren't you worried he's going to get kidnapped?"

I wish I had the presence of mind to say I am far more concerned about raising a fearful kid. Or that it's astonishing that a passerby sees an elderly neighbor talking to a toddler and immediately thinks "predator."

Instead I pointed out that I could see the Grape, since I was less than forty feet from his little person during the entire interaction. She heaved an indignant sigh and muttered something about "stranger danger," before stomping off.

We inhabit a densely populated neighborhood. I don't want the Grape debilitated by fear whenever he sees an unknown face.

Nor do I want him attempting to befriend every severely under-medicated schizophrenic patient he encounters.

What I want is for him to hone good instincts.

There's a landscaped circle in the park up the block. The rhododendrons are high; you can't see clear across. Almost every afternoon, the Grape rides his scooter around and around that circle, which means he's out of my field of vision for up to seven seconds at a time. He glows with pride as he exercises this tiny measure of independence. He revels in the surprised looks of pedestrians as he blows past without a parent sprinting inches from his flank.

A little pride is a beautiful thing in a small child.

I can't tell you how many times strangers have asked, "Aren't you afraid to let him out of your sight?"

Um, no. Because by the time they've spit out the question, I can see him again.

Honestly, on the scooter, the Grape poses a far greater threat to passersby than the passersby pose to him. He's speedy, but not especially adept at braking.

I'm not saying we don't encounter the occasional weirdo. Even then, the proper response shouldn't be blind panic.

A friend of mine devised a subtle hand signal for her kid to point out a creepy adult. When the kid gave the signal, my friend would eyeball the situation and confirm or deny creepiness.

Obviously this is neither a perfect nor foolproof character assessment system. But what fascinated me about it was that her four-year-old was usually spot on about when someone was off.

Kids are naturally attuned to weirdness, and they're wired to gravitate to the familiar. If some loner is skulking without a purpose, or staring for too long, or crowding someone's space, little kids pick up on it, even before they're able to articulate why.

Lenore Skenazy has made a career of urging free range childhood, and I like a lot of what she's selling, probably because it stirs nostalgia for long, unstructured summer days spent in the company of other kids.

By the time my childhood friends and I were mid- to late-elementary schoolers, we'd travel by bike to meet our friends, hit the beach or someone's finished basement, and not check in with mom for hours.

This was considered normal, not some crazy Euro-affected parenting by my immigrant parents. I  think, looking back, there was a general acceptance of the idea that kids should be free to be kids, and that we found safety in numbers. If we had a scuffle or disagreement among friends, the first default action was never to summon an adult mediator.

Kids had scheduled activities, like piano or soccer or whatever, but scheduled, supervised recreation didn't eat up every minute of leisure time. I can't remember ever doing homework or eating dinner in the car - something many of my friends with older kids confess to doing multiple times a week. This strikes me as both unpleasant and profoundly unhealthy.

We'd occasionally hop off the school bus at a friend's stop, and ask for forgiveness instead of permission. Back in the dark ages, the repercussions of such actions were limited to parent-child. If mom was peeved that I didn't get myself straight home, she'd deal with me.

These days I wouldn't be surprised if a mom in her shoes made a huge stink with the school. I could see a bus driver who let a child disembark at the wrong stop facing disciplinary action and ended up on the nightly news.

I don't buy that the world is more dangerous now than it was a generation ago, or that there's been a sudden population explosion among child predators. The 24/7 media cycle and more zealous prosecution of sex crimes have made us hyper aware of remote dangers that have always existed.