Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Program

This March I wrote about all the things to celebrate about turning forty.

There's one thing that's not so great. Somewhere during the twilight of my thirties, in the final approach to that much maligned milestone birthday, my metabolism hit a wall.

Looking back, it was a perfect storm, but still, it snuck up on me.

First, because of a chronic health issue, whatever water weight I carry causes the scale to swing pretty wildly from week to week. I've joked with other mommy friends that I don't care so much about looking great naked, but it would be nice to look good while fully dressed. Which means it would be preferable to yoyo in a lower weight range.

Second, the Grape is a waif. He's no longer tiny to the extent that causes the pediatrician alarm, but his weight has never made it out of the tenth percentile for his age group. I spend significant time and resources trying to sneak calories into him, mostly by cooking heavier, "comfort food" dishes that rarely featured on my pre-kid menu.

Third, I love  loved to run. I blew out my knee while pushing the jogging stroller and pulling Lila the Dog along an unpaved path. After surgery and many months of PT, I still can't even jog. I've spent much of the past two years in a sulk about how lame all the accessible (i.e. easy to do at/near home or gym) modes of exercise are, compared to running. I got stuck in an exercise rut. I would spend forty minutes, three or four times a week, on the despised Elliptical trainer without breaking a sweat.

As I faced forty, there was no denying my clothes didn't fit as nicely as they had three years ago. The Grape issued a major wake up call when he declared my tummy "so nice and soft" in front of several friends. I started weighing myself at the gym, almost every day for a month, and unsurprisingly, my weight fluctuated as it has for a few years now.

But I realized the high point of my weight yoyo was an astonishing fifteen pounds heavier than the yoyo high point before I had the Grape.

I decided that couldn't possibly be healthy, and I believe that parents of young children have an obligation to try to be healthy in order to be able to stick around for their kids for as long as possible.

I had to do something, and fast, because summer clothes forgive far less than sweaters and coats.

I amped up my work outs. I took two strength training classes a week and intensified my cardio regime. I made a rule against skipping exercise: I'd only exercise on the days I eat. I'd let myself count a long, brisk walk as the day's workout, but only once or twice a week. Puttering outdoors with the Grape, while good for the mind, would not count as exercise. Yoga would, but only if the class veered more athletic than meditative. So great. More sweat, less tummy. Right?


I had to reckon with the sticky, icky part: Food. At forty, I had to face up to the fact that food and I have had a great run. Fantastic, even. I was a very lucky young person, with good metabolism. I never struggled with, or even thought much about, weight. For thirty-six or thirty-seven years, I could drink. I could eat dessert.

Clearly something had to change in order for those fifteen pounds to go. I decided to use an app to track calories for a month. It was a drag at first, but if you're one of the (probably millions of) moms who'd like to nix the mama tummy, I highly recommend the exercise. It was really eye opening.

If you ask R. what my new diet program entails, he'd say, "She doesn't eat and then she screams a lot because her stomach is eating itself." He swears he doesn't care about my figure one way or another, and I (mostly) believe him.

But it's not about him. It's about me. Which is fortunate, because I think any woman who feels the need to diet, or undergo surgery, to please anyone but herself needs therapy. Lots of therapy.

I joke that we have his and hers diets in our house.

Her diet involves cutting most alcohol, sweets, dairy and bread, while eating only fish, eggs, beans, vegetables and fresh fruit, with the occasional pasta dish thrown in so the whole family can eat the same thing together. I drink wine, but only while out with friends or entertaining. No more glass while cooking, glass with dinner, glass to unwind.

His involves switching to light beer.

If this unfair, sexually discriminatory system results in him losing more weight than I without even trying, I will probably require a prescription antidepressant.


I'm one month into this thing I call "the program."

The tally: Three epic diet dinner failures, one of which was so not my fault. Seriously. I visited a book club that selected one of my novels. They mixed Cosmos and baked delectable pastries in my honor. Diet or no diet, I am not going to behave like a weird, picky artist of the variety who only drinks bottled water and eats celery and cucumbers. That leaves twenty-seven good days. Nine pounds down, six to go.

Here's what surprised me most: it really, truly hasn't been that bad. I thought dieting for the first time ever would be awful, but late spring turns out to be a great time to diet because the produce is starting to get better, it's nice weather to grill, and lighter dishes appeal in hot weather. I probably wouldn't have started "the program" during the holidays, or during a major vacation, because I would have been setting myself up to fail.

I still might be setting myself up for disappointment. We travel a bit in the summer, and diets seem harder away from home. Something tells me the last couple of pounds might prove more stubborn than than the first few.

Here's the good news for all my fellow mamas who find themselves frowning at their bellies come swimsuit season. If I can do it (I kind of don't go in for self-denial)—and if mom to four, lifelong exercise hater and social media maven Nina Badzin can do it—you can too.

But only if you want to, for yourself.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Last Monday in May

I hope you all had a restful and happy long weekend. Holidays are particularly precious here in the States, as we have so few official ones compared to many of our friends abroad. This Memorial Day weekend was a pretty much a big wet bust here in New England, in terms of kicking off the beach season, but Monday itself was glorious and sunny. We took full advantage by getting outdoors and barbecuing with friends.

It's easy to get so heady over an actual paid day off (assuming you don't work in retail, hospitality or emergency services) that we forget the reason behind the Memorial Day holiday.

Which is unsurprising. These days, I feel like people either know lots of service members or they don't know any. We're in the latter camp, which is why this post didn't run Monday. As a non-military mom, I felt uneasy wading into this territory.

But everyone should be concerned with the lot of our soldiers. Not just military families, who already have so much on their plates.

I confess I hadn't given much thought to Memorial Day beyond whether we'd get to hit the beach or not, until a woman I know from my gym mentioned that her twenty-something-year-old son is serving in Afghanistan. He's an officer stationed somewhere near Kandahar, and last week he had the grim task of writing four families to tell them their sons/husbands/dads, young men in his command, would be coming home in coffins.

I started to wrack my brain, trying to come up with some remotely close friend or family member currently engaged in active military service. My tally: one. One of my best college friends is married to a Major in the Army Reserves. He recently returned from a one year deployment to Djibouti (deployment motto: Not Much Fun, But Way Better Than Kandahar).

Whenever we mark the last Monday in May, or the troops suffer a particularly large number of casualties within a short time frame, pundits and politicians wax on about shared sacrifice in resolute tones—for the length of a 24-hour news cycle.

From where I'm sitting, I don't see much in the way of shared sacrifice.

I see a small number of military families shouldering an obscene burden. I wonder how many are crumbling under the strain of their disproportionate slice of national duty. The uncertainty, not just about whether their family members will return alive, but with what injuries, and with what chances of being sent back to the war zone over and over again, must exact a staggering emotional toll.

I'm not arguing for a draft. As a mother to a young son, I would never propose such a thing lightly.

But maybe the last Monday in May should cause us to consider some questions about our national priorities:

How many deployments can or should we reasonably expect of any given soldier at a time when military suicides are at an all time high? Or how long should those combat scarred soldiers be forced to wait for meaningful mental health services upon returning home? If we're going to live in a state of perpetual war, a state the Commander-in-Chief recently acknowledged was untenable, do we need to re-visit the draft? Or lower standards for admission to the all volunteer fighting force? Should we impose some type of wartime tax surcharge on top incomes to help pay veterans' medical costs? Is it time to follow the model of many western nations and institute some kind of mandatory national service for citizens in their late teens?

And this one: What percentage of the adult citizenry even knows we are at war? (I have no idea, but I bet it's not a super-majority.)

At the same time, certain war hawks screech for military action in Syria, a country torn to shreds by a bloody civil war with no end in sight. My heart aches for the mothers losing their children in the ever-more-brutal slaughter, and I understand some of the arguments against letting the country dissolve into a group of warring fiefdoms. Bashar al-Assad is a brute of the worst kind and I hope he rots in a special part of hell, but I'm firmly against sending someone else's sons and daughters to remove him, to create another power vacuum in the Middle East, to embark on another ill-advised and costly fool's errand to invade a foreign country that hasn't attacked us (see, e.g., Iraq, Invasion of).

I find nothing in national discourse so repugnant, so viscerally disgusting, as actively draft-dodging politicians who want to send someone else's children to fight someone else's war.

Sadly chicken hawks abound in Washington. They're usually the same guys who want to cut funding for the VA, where our vets must already wait two plus months for an initial appointment with a mental health professional, or slash jobs programs for returning vets, who remain unemployed in disproportionately high numbers relative to the rest of the population.

Shouldn't Memorial Day, a day designated to honor our war dead, cause us to consider how we as a country treat their surviving brothers and sisters in arms? It seems to me that there's no better way to salute the memory of the fallen than to improve the lot of their fellow soldiers.

A discussion on real options for shared sacrifice would mean more than so many flag photos waving on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

If You Read But Your Child Doesn't Realize It, Does It Count?

Stacks of books teeter precariously all over our apartment. Built in shelves spill over. Stacks of paperbacks peek from closets and clutter counter tops. Unstable particleboard shelves, circa my college days, remain in service holding my fast growing collection of novels. 

Don't even talk to me about consigning the books themselves to some sad garage sale. I don't toss books. 

They're kind of like animals that land in my care: anything that makes it inside gets a home for life. 

Suffice to say that if we ever bid goodbye to urban living, any house we buy or build out in the boonies will have to feature a library.

While most visitors to our apartment could probably rattle off a list of more urgent home improvements— replace tired living room drapes, hang more art, re-upholster chair favored by Lucy the Kitten as nail sharpening post, replace rickety, near collapse patio furniture—my top priority, the only one about which I nag R., is more bookshelves. 

Favorite realtor, please look away now: I don't even mind if book shelves swallow a few precious square feet.

I understand I'm writing about a retro problem, but stay with me, because I have child welfare at heart.

The ladies of my book club have universally switched to ereaders. I quietly covet a Kindle. It's so light, so travel-friendly, and I believe the commercials that say it's fine for reading in full sun. I could solve my storage problems (or at least head off future ones) with a quick click. I'll be doing a bit of travel this summer, and I was actually going to cave and order a Kindle yesterday.

Until my friend A., an avid reader who tears through several books a month, mentioned that her daughter, a first grader, asked her the other day why she never reads. 

It seems the Kindle, or Nook, or iPad, to a child, counts like any other screen time.

Many of you will remember a widely reported twenty-year  study that concluded that the mere presence of books in the home is as important as parental education level in determining children's educational level. Everyone knows reading to your kids is good for their brains. And since children learn by example, it follows that seeing adults reading is beneficial. 

But the study about the mere presence of books was a ground breaking testament to the power of suggestion. If a child sees things, in this case books, treasured and valued, the reasoning goes that s/he will grow up to share those priorities. Which in turn will hopefully set off a desirable chain reaction: I.e. value books, love reading, love learning.

So here's the gazillion dollar question:

Do ebooks count? 

I have no degree in child development, but I'd have to argue maybe not. Or at least maybe not for young children. 

Put differently, does reading The Cat in the Hat, Curious George or Madeline to your preschooler on an ereader count as much as reading a tattered, much loved paper copy?

And does it matter if your child sees you leafing through the pages of the latest by your favorite author, or swiping a screen?

I don't know the answer and I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Voices of the Year

I probably definitely should have mentioned this two weeks ago, but I have two posts nominated for BlogHer13's Voices of the Year Award.

If you aren't a BlogHer account holding member, you can tune out now.

If you are, and you're interested in voting, here are my two posts, both of which appeared originally in this space:

A Mamma Looks at Forty: Why turning the too-often-dreaded forty is a great thing, from both family and career perspectives. Hint: People start to believe you mean what you say.

The other post addresses why women who have taken years off to focus on raising kids should stop complaining about the difficulty of re-entering the workforce and instead: Run. For. Office.

BlogHer members: I'd be thrilled if you'd read my nominated posts and consider voting for them.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The truth about cats, dogs and kids

I am an animal lover. Regular readers know that we share our apartment with two cats, Lucy and Siren, and with Lila the Dog. Because we have an urban pooch, we meet a lot of other dog people, which is usually great.

But at least once a month, some person with a new puppy will declare, in all seriousness, that it's just like having a kid. 

I always laugh and say, "Except it's not. You can leave your dog at home unattended."

Not so with a human child. Have to pop to the store in a freezing rain downpour? You've got to bundle up baby and take him with you, or find some medium to full sized human being to watch him. Baby sitter bails and you need to get to work? You'd better have a back up on speed dial.

I'm stunned that more than half the people who make the "dogs are as much work as babies" remarks really dig in, press their case. They say things like,"The puppy can't hold it through the night," or "He cries a lot," or my special favorite, "The sleep deprivation is just as brutal."

"No. It's not," I shrug. "And if you can't get your dog to sleep through the night within a week, you are doing something wrong." (Likely thing they're doing wrong: the puppy was too darn young to leave its mama.)

None of this should surprise me. We anthropomorphize pets. I'm guilty, too. I don't patronize non-food local businesses that don't welcome Lila the Dog. And just last week, I read about a dog wedding. But they aren't nearly as much work as kids. Ever. For one thing, dogs and cats sleep a lot, and they're happy to lounge and watch what the people are doing, quietly. I've had many productive work from home days with Lila crashed out in my office. Working while the Grape is home and awake? Total nonstarter.

Pets don't outgrow their clothes every six months. Nor do they require formal education beyond sit and heel. I don't stress about the quality of the cats' school choices or whether the dog has enough age appropriate play mates. None of the fur kids have ever embarrassed me in a restaurant or thrown an hour long tantrum over not wanting to be somewhere (soccer, last week).

The dogs-are-just-like-children exchange usually results in the dog parent taking his/her tennis ball and going to play with someone else. But one woman this morning wouldn't let it go. "If you aren't going to love your dog like a child, why do you have her?"

(Face palm.)

I should back up and say the conversation had turned to the subject of chemo. Or rather, old dogs and chemo. I said that I wouldn't put an elderly Lila through that. The lady looked at me as if I'd proposed skinning the dog to make a coat in manner of Cruella de Vil.

With animals, I believe you always need to ask, "Whom am I doing this for?" A dog doesn't understand why you're injecting it all the time, or why it's in pain. In cases where there's no hope for recovery, or we're talking about an expensive and difficult treatment that will buy a very small amount of time (and with a fifteen-year-old dog, it's going to be a short amount of time), I don't see the point. Not for the Fur Kids, as R. and I often call them. Frankly, if I were quite old, and the Grape was all grown up, I might not put myself through certain medical treatments, if my doctors agreed the prognosis was bleak.

For a human child, the calculus is totally different. I'd go to the ends of the earth to find the best treatments for my kid if he were gravely ill.

I understand about loving an animal.

To this day, my longest elective relationship (25 years) was with a horse, a horse I loved so much that when her sporting days were over, I retired her to a friend's farm an hour outside the city, at great cost in terms of both money and time. I trekked out there several times a week to hug and kiss her (the horse, not the friend). The Grape's very first non-physician-related outing was to visit the horse:
Jenda, age 32, Julian, age 3 weeks, and Me, age old enough to be called an "advanced age" mom on my hospital chart.
But when one weekend, Jenda, age almost 33, developed a painful infection, and the options were euthanasia or an operation with very little chance of success, I had no qualms about choosing the former and holding her head as she slept away from an overdose of barbiturates. Then, I hid under the covers (as much as a mom to a newish baby can) for almost a week and cried, but I never for a moment doubted I had done the right thing.

Lila the Dog is a rescue mutt. I would never buy a dog. When up to four million healthy dogs and puppies are destroyed every year in this country, I think paying for a designer pup veers towards gross.

We call Lila an Arkansas special. She's eighty pounds of Lab, Chow, maybe German Shepherd, and God knows what else. She makes all of us smile every day. Her upkeep involves a significant amount of effort (she gets walked five times at least per 24 hours, she takes pills for her thyroid twice a day, she sheds like it's her job). But none of this holds a candle to the work of caring for the Grape, and I always kind of wondered at all the people who marveled that I had the stamina to adopt a dog when the Grape was one.

"Less work than a second infant, and plenty of people get those," I used to say.

But I digress. I feel like I'd be remiss if I didn't take this opportunity while talking about pets to make a plug for rescue dogs.

Rescue dogs are the best; they seem to understand that you saved them. Lila has the patience of a saint, and puts up with the Grape and his friends hanging all over her. We should have named her Nana, after the dog in Peter Pan, because I have no doubt she would lay down her life for my kid. She and Lucy the Cat (the artist formerly known as Lucy the Kitten) are inseparable, even though Lucy never lived with a canine before:

Important aside to those who worry about mixing rescue dogs and kids: I have two points. 1. A puppy is a puppy is a puppy. If it's born at a shelter/with its mama at a shelter, it's not going to have the abuse and neglect issues some older rescue dogs can exhibit. 2. Don't fall in love with a photo. Instead, work with the rescue personnel to choose a dog for your family based on temperament. Most shelter dogs aren't abuse cases, and don't have those hard to fix fear issues. (The folks at Wynne Friends of Animals found us the perfect match.)

Lila sleeps in the bedroom, on an orthopedic bed, and the cats sleep at my feet. The Grape, to his chagrin, has no master bedroom privileges. Lila eats treats home baked by a friend's mom. When we travel, I have a house sitter move in so Lila, Lucy and Siren don't need to deal with the stress of boarding.  They are, by any measure, indulged animals.

I love the fur kids and they receive excellent care at all times. But to say they're as much work as a human child, even the world's healthiest, easiest human child, is idiocy.