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    Entries in parenting (11)


    I am not an astronaut and other failings

    A question I heard on the radio today struck me: would your six year old self like you? I hope that in my case the answer is yes, but what I really got to thinking about was if my adult self would live up to the expectations of my childhood. And that answer is, unequivocally, no.

    Many girls, whether because of social constructs or through their own choosing, dream of and plan to have children when they're still kids, themselves, but I wasn't one of those. I didn't fashion wedding gowns from my mom's cast-off dresses and I didn't imagine myself caring for babies. Once, while walking to my mom's car with her after a school function, she remarked to one of my ten year-old classmates that the baby on the girl's hip -- her own little sister -- was positioned just right, and I remember the eye roll of annoyed pity I shot in her direction. I just won the science fair, but have fun with that baby. 

    You could attribute my disdain for motherhood (because, let's be honest, that's what it was) to any number of things: the fact that the feminism of the time wasn't particularly supportive of mothers (and my exposure to it WHICH I DO NOT REGRET FOR ONE MOMENT through my own mom), my disappointment in the way women were pigeonholed into the role whether they wanted to be or not. But the biggest reason was probably the fact that I had little faith in my own ability to rise above my family of origin and the world around me to turn out happy, functional people of my own making. 

    Now, that sounds really depressing, especially coming from a then-ten year old, I know. It was depressing. I was a depressed kid, situationally, chemically, but my line of thinking also felt plainly realistic. I believed what others told me -- that everyone was just doing his or her best -- and I assumed that anger, cruelty, addiction, apathy and all the other trappings of dysfunctional families were just some people's natural states, and the matter couldn't be helped. The best I could do was take the phone off at the root, so to speak. If others just did the same, I thought, we'd certainly have less unhappiness to deal with.

    In my late teens and early twenties I adopted as reasons for childlessness the issues of overpopulation and environmental responsibility. Having kids was just irresponsible, I railed. I've heard it over and over and over since then, said by young women not (in any substantial ways) unlike I was at twenty to my face while I held a baby in my womb, in my arms, as my only child turned into two. They don't mean harm, and I don't take offense. I've thought the same thing, and don't totally disagree with them, in any case. 

    I don't mean that they're necessarily going to see the folly in their thinking; plenty of people choose not to have kids for exactly those reasons, justifiably, and stick contentedly to their choice. But I don't guess I'm the only one who looked for more socially acceptable, more enlightened, less pathetic-sounding reasons for childlessness than I'm afraid of myself and the world around me. 

    Obviously, at some point, I changed my tune, since I have two children. I never stopped questioning my own desire to have kids (and this is the reason why I try to limit our consumption and live consciously), but I did stop questioning my own ability to grow. Because I don't consider myself a naturally nurturing person, I researched. I researched my ass off, and continue to. I read a lot about child development so I know how to adjust my expectations. So I can forgive myself the time I embarrassed my dad in a restaurant and received a spanking despite my behavior being normal, expected, and incidentally out of character for a child like I was, who had been manipulated into "behaving" because I believed my parents' love to be contingent on my doing so. I contracted with my kids that I would learn everything I could so that I could be the mama they deserve.
    I also stopped telling myself I was doing the best I could. My therapist argued about this for years, literally, but I think this practice can serve as one big crutch to lean on when our pasts loom so large that we feel bent under their weight. Even though I knew that I would fuck up, I birthed these little creatures, and despite fucking up all the time, I keep trying. Yelling is not my best. Manipulation is not my best. Bribing is not my best. I will own up to feeling the tsk-tsk of my conscience when I resort to bad mothering, and ignoring it. I admit that I think, sometimes, I just want you to ___! What will it take? And it's in those moments that I am willfully not doing my best. It pains me to say so; one of the traits I adopted when my family made it obvious that my brain mattered more than my feelings was precision. Correctness. I hate being wrong, and yet. I am, many, many times a day, because I'm a parent. Because I'm human, and we're wrong. A lot. This is not something that ever was presented to me as a possibility, let alone a universal truth. 
    Even though I'm wrong like a million times an hour, I'd like to think that the six year old me, and the ten year old me would be impressed that I've taken the initiative to learn. They'd look at my empirical data, they'd look at my bookshelf and be satisfied that I may not be an astronaut but I am using my brain. In fact, I might be using my brain in a way more beneficial than they teach at space camp. They might like to hang out with me. They might think I was a loser, but guaranteed they'd think I was a nice, respectful one. 



    an open letter to jessica valenti

    This post could be subtitled: Wherein I Refer Not To Your Book (which I haven't read) But To The Interview I Heard On The Radio The Other Morning. 

    Jessica Valenti founded a website I like a lot and has recently written a book: Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness. She is mother to a toddler (I gather) and has been making the rounds as a "young feminist" who is tackling "the issues" or, diving headlong into the profitable and ridiculous "Mommy Wars" which is a phrase I already regret typing despite that last thing I said being (subjectively) true. I was disappointed at many points during her interview in ways that I frequently feel disappointed with my contemporaries in the feminist community. 

    Dear Ms. Valenti,


    I realize that mine is a difficult undertaking, given that I haven't read your book. To be honest, my reading wish list is long, and includes many things I plan to read for reasons other than providing thorough refutations of Internet Personalities' views on parenting. So, please cut me some slack in that department and I'll stick to what I heard you say in this interview on NPR to which I would link if I could find it. 

    You seem to be taking the position that I've read and heard so often in the past few years: that parenthood is too hard on women. That attachment parenting is demeaning and demanding in unreasonable ways, particularly to women. That "problems" with these newfangled methods are, then, a feminist issue. I heard you smugly chuckle at the idea that some parents choose to watch their babies for elimination cues and take them to the toilet rather than change diapers. You scoffed, audibly, at the recommendation that parents wear their children as much as possible; at co-sleeping. You implied that these choices -- made by adults, generally after doing some research -- are making women unhappy, and that if it were more widely publicized that parenthood sucked so bad, if there were more affordable avenues for leaving your kids with someone else while you get on with your life, maybe fewer people would respond so negatively to the experience of raising children. 

    I'd like to talk a little about this, personally. While obviously not the case for everyone, my children were my liberation. After years of working jobs I didn't like to make ends meet, putting off the possibility of seeking out work I found fulfilling because I couldn't afford to fail, I got pregnant. There was nothing noble or progressive about the job I had when I got pregnant, but quitting it to raise my children has easily been the most controversial parenting choice I've made. Politically active, feminist-identified friends have given me figurative head pats, pep talks about re-entering the workforce someday, and treated me like a twee relic because I choose not to work outside the home. They have congratulated me on being self-sacrificing enough to take on things like cloth diapering because, while they'd really love to, they just can't imagine having the time. Like many people, I've had lifelong struggles with my body image. It wasn't until having children -- birthing them, unapologetically feeding them in public, witnessing their guileless exploration of my flabby upper arms, acne scars, and stretched belly -- that I began to accept and eventually appreciate my body for what it was and expect that others do the same. I found myself hoping for my kids to find meaning and joy in their days and, in trying to engineer that for my children, I've learned to search for and value the same for myself, whether it's a paid, intellectual pursuit or not. Because it almost never is.

    When asked the perfunctory question (why have kids?), you said there were two answers, a real one and a jokey one: you came from a large Italian family, and (basically) because kids say the darndest things. I realize that this was oversimplified but it still gave me pause. I had kids because I wanted to create a family with my partner, because I thoroughly enjoy children and because I knew I'd be good at it. Familial expectations didn't play into my decision, and similarly, I didn't have another child just to give my son a sibling. People should be parents because and only because they want to be, and believe they would be good at it. I agree that parental unhappiness stems in part from the lack of resources, but cheap daycare is not on my list of ways to make parents generally happier (It is, however, on my list of things we should do because it makes sense.). Instead, I take issue with a society that throws weddings to which children are not invited or relegated to a "childcare room" (because 200 adults can't just redirect a kid sticking his fingers in the wedding cake? Or, god forbid, hang out with some children?). I blame a country wherein breastfeeding in public is a debatable issue, and 30-something year old friends meeting my daughter for the first time say they've never held a baby before. We are setting up parents to fail by treating children like burdens we need to escape from, rather than welcoming them into the communities they'll inherit. We keep kids' normal behaviors a secret until those often confusing traits are foisted upon underslept, stressed parents focused on maintaining their "normal lives" and wondering why nobody told them that newborns actually eat every 3 hours...for 2 and a half hours. Including our children in our lives in both meaningful and mundane ways, incorporating them into everyday life so that they become as much a fixture as our phones, exposing others to the normality of childhood so that they know what to expect of young people: that's a way to make people enjoy parenting. Realistic expectations breed success. Attachment parenting, allowing a place for children in our everyday lives, enables that.

    The question: are you mom enough? is not a question posed by well-meaning fellow mothers or even sympathetic feminists. It's yet another shitty patriarchal device used to pit us against one another, and it, along with all the other trappings of misogyny, are what's making women unhappy. Just as I don't allow the patriarchy to dictate where my value begins and ends, I don't want to teach people that their value will begin when they can make themselves useful (by my standards), or that I will put up with their difficult nature as long as it doesn't hinder my own pursuits. I had kids to teach, to love, to pay attention to and nurture in whatever way they need. I hope to have many years of watching my independent offspring fend mostly for themselves, but that just isn't the deal when they're little and I knew that when I signed up for this gig. If it were a more widely known fact about parenting, perhaps that would make for happier parents. 

    Attachment parenting isn't making women unhappy. Following others' whims rather than deciding what works for your family? Sure, that'll do it. Uncertainty makes judgment feel harsher, hurt worse. Trying to squeeze your child into a philosophy that doesn't resonate with her? Failure: that'll make everyone unhappy. But don't blame women who believe fervently in and advocate for a more responsive way of parenting. Don't chuckle about parents who make educated choices that differ from yours. Then you're just throwing fuel on Time Magazine's beach bonfire. Some people find liberation in raising babies and chickens and the freedom to go to the library at 11am any damn day of the week, and nobody gets to tell me that isn't a part of my feminism.






    to whom it may concern, re: breastfeeding my child

    Over the past couple of weeks, attachment parenting has gotten some serious attention. Some things that fall under the umbrella of attachment parenting -- probably most intensely, breastfeeding -- have been discussed over and over by lots of people I know, and I've been witness to and involved in those conversations both in real life and on the internet. I have cold unfriended some folks because educating them was not a high enough priority for me to deal with their ignorance in the meantime. That said, however, I'd be remiss to keep out of the fray because for all of the Psychology Today articles, the scientific studies on the nutritive benefits of breastfeeding past infancy, the anecdotal stories I can send you or post passively on Facebook, there is one point that nobody else can make, and I'm here to make it. I'm making it for you, girl with whom I attended high school, who said, "Just put it in a cup!" And for you, lady I used to work with, who said, "U know she's getting off on it, ew lol." For you, dude I don't even actually know, who instructed mothers to "save the boobs for the infants and men," and for you, guy from college who simply said, "perverted." Oh yeah, and you, lady who insisted that breastfed toddlers and preschoolers will grow up to be "creepy mama's boy"s. I'd like to have a word with allayou.

    You see, you weren't talking directly to me. You were talking about another woman, another child (both of whom exist in the real world, incidentally, and have actual feelings, FYI) or the hypothetical offspring of hypothetical women. But I'd like you to meet my 29 month old. There he is! His name is George. You probably already know him, because you know me. That's him, breastfeeding. YES! He still nurses, twice a day or more, and he is nearly two and a half. I know it doesn't matter to you, because I've seen you dismiss this statistic with frankly pretty ballsy ethnocentricity, but he is still well below the worldwide average age for weaning. 

    You say having breastmilk is fine, but why not use a cup? Well, riddle me this: when I'm out to eat and some guy in his best polo shirt is trying to impress his date by attempting, but failing, to use chopsticks, do I approach him and say, excuse me, but for god's sake just use a fork? Do I mention that eating his dinner noodle by noodle takes so long that it can't have very much nutritional value? Do I suggest he has an Asian fetish? Of course not, because the way someone else eats doesn't affect me at all

    Next up, perversion. Are you really calling me perverted? Have you ever breastfed someone? I'd like you to come over at bedtime, watch my child nurse after we read stories and then call our nightime routine perverted. To my face. To his face. Right in our real-life faces. If you can't do that, kindly STFU. 

    Benefits? Not too long ago, George had a bug. It was gross. Real gross. We called the doctor, who advised us to start giving him Pedialyte. "He still nurses, so we've been doing that..." "OH!" said the doctor. "Just do that, then. Great!" If you'd care to, please feel free to stop by her office or make an appointment to challenge our family doctor (a regular ol' allopathic physician, so don't go accusing her of being one of those dreaded hippie naturopaths). Her name is Kellie Jacobs and every time we see her, she congratulates me for still giving my children the many benefits of breastmilk (high five, Dr. Jacobs!). Where did you get your immunology/medical degree again?

    Now, as for raising someone who will turn into a lecherous cling-on, I suppose that remains to be seen. What do you think about George, though? Does he seem overly attached to you? When we ran into you at the grocery store, or the pizza place, or when we saw you at the park, did he strike you as a kid with no coping skills? Was he whiny and demanding, entitled (you know, more than a normal toddler)? Did he seem unhealthy? Or was he running around, singing Old McDonald to himself, addressing the waitstaff with pleases and thank yous, doling out hugs and pleasant conversation, eating "real food" and drinking water from a glass...? If you saw us, and felt worried for the way my son might turn out, you sure did hide it well! In fact, you (and you, and you) have commented many times on what a bright, happy, funny, beautiful, caring child he is. Thanks again; you were right!

    My son has been able to "ask for it" since he began signing 'milk' at five months old (and before that, he "asked for it" by rooting, of course). By many people's stated standards, he should've weaned then. Rather than punish my kid for newfound communication skills, however, I encouraged him. I breathed a sigh of relief: one fewer thing to guess about among the many unsureties of parenthood. If your "ask for it" rule really only applies to kids who can say some clear version of "I need to nurse" (including "I want boobies," which is just fine whether you like it or not, because they aren't your boobies to get offended over), well, I'll leave you with this: You probably aren't someone who finds it easy to say, "I need a hug." That's an assumption I'm making because you come off as uncomfortable with close, open, mutually beneficial relationships. Whether or not that's true is kind of irrelevant, but if you said to me, "I need a hug," you know what? I'd give you one. I wouldn't say, hey man, you seem pretty in touch with your needs, so you can probably come up with a coping mechanism on your own. I wouldn't question your motives or assume you were trying to manipulate me. I wouldn't try to determine if you were really and truly sad enough to deserve a hug. As such, I take my son's needs at face value as well. And when he's ready to give up this coping skill, this source of nutrition and comfort and immunity, his body and his heart will tell him so. If it becomes a chore I can't bear before then, I'll be the one responsible for explaining that to him. Until then, however, I'll be damned if I let some busybody prude try to make me feel bad for breastfeeding my child. 


    misty watercolor memories (of disneyland)

    Yesterday at a playdate, over a mojito ("Would you guys like to come over and play? Can I make you a mojito?" let me think... YES.) I had a conversation with a friend who is planning to take her two and a half year old son to Disneyland soon. Apparently, upon telling others of this plan, she's been met with lots of comments like, "Why? He won't remember it." 

    Now, I'll interrupt myself for just a moment to say: I love Disneyland. The Disney industrial complex? That, I could critique for hours unabated. It's an unfortunate thing, to be sure: stories that re-enforce the heteronormative, that teach girls that physical beauty is of utmost importance, in which problem solving is all but absent and "heroines" are doomed by their own trusting nature to wait in peril until a handsome guy shows up to save them from themselves, or, in some cases, someone else. Someone...ugly! The horror. I dislike just about everything those stories represent, but somehow I am able to divorce that distaste from my feelings about Disneyland. Main Street's cherry sours, the Matterhorn's abominable snowman, Space Mountain's winding line -- I love it all and, since I grew up in Southern California, have been there more times than I could count. I am stoked for her and stoked for her son.

    Okay, back to it: When my friend told me that people poo-pooed her plans for a family vacation to Disneyland, I was surprised. Who in their right mind would advise against taking kids somewhere they are guaranteed to find magical, just because they might not remember every second of the trip? Do they parent this way all the time, and if so, what kinds of things do they consider passable, just because their child won't remember? And then it dawned on me. Cry-it-out. Circumcision. Feeding schedules. Spanking. I've heard them all justified the same way. Oh, they won't remember! It's easier to do it now, when they won't remember. 

    I try not to dwell on this sort of thinking too often, but occasionally I'll look back on a day and ask myself: if this were George's (or, now, Zelda's!) last day, would I feel bad about the choices I made today? I don't think, "Eh, who cares? In 10 years he won't remember that I yelled at him!" or "I'll just let her cry; she won't remember it when she's 20!" I replay our days, hopeful that the love and respect I feel for my children was evident in my actions and my words. If I can't honestly say that it was, I apologize and promise to try again the next day. It doesn't matter if my kid is 6 months old or 65; the way I treat them doesn't hinge on what they'll be able to recall, but what will assure them of my love in the present and future, and what will, I hope, better their lives. 

    In the running for first memory: the time we forced him to go sledding

    A lifetime is made up of a million small decisions, outcomes, and lessons, right? Patterns get created; habits form; preferences take shape. While I'm the first to admit that some days are a total wash and subsequently try to forgive myself, I also realize that those days aren't necessarily immediately water under the bridge. Even minor parenting missteps can have lasting effects that our children can't always articulate. Does the fact that I raise my voice in excitement -- both angry and otherwise -- create a yeller? Well, duh: yes. But, if my son hollered in the library, do you think he could explain that he was doing so because he heard me yell last Wednesday when I was railing about the Presidential primaries? Probably not. On the flip side, however, if he can remind me of the location of every public restroom in every store or restaurant he's ever visited? Some things must be sinking in. There's no scientific journal quite like a two year old, and certainly none as cute. 

    The nothing-counts-before-five(?) rule may work for some families, but I'd rather not go through my kids' early lives with fingers crossed that this punishment/pain/other regrettable situation isn't the dreaded first memory. And what will that first memory be? The one they recount on a lazy morning in bed when asked by a boyfriend or girlfriend; the one they tell in a team building exercise at a new job; the one they talk about around the fire at sleepaway camp? I don't know. But if it can't be a story about meeting Winnie the Pooh, I'd gladly settle for a memory of loving, attentive parents in some mundane, everyday situation. Our luck, though? It'll totally be the sledding.


    other people's children

    Until pretty recently, kid-wise we've existed in a pleasant little social bubble, surrounded by friends whose children are nice to be around. Friends who know they can correct my son if they need to, whose children seem comfortable taking gentle direction from me. We have similar, though definitely not identical, parenting styles and expectations and when someone has the occasional bad day it's easy to shrug it off for exactly what it is: an off day, not a behavioral problem. After all, kids are kids just as people are people and I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to shove one of my friends every now and again, or steal an especially delicious-looking apple from someone's grasp. 

    I can see the end of those glory days, though. George is old enough to enjoy playing at the local totally awesome play place/coffee shop which we'll no doubt be frequenting this rainy season, while I am gigantic with baby and the toddler energy exceeds the confines of our house. While there the other day, a little boy of about three took it upon himself to police the train table, snatching toys from George's hands, pushing him away and -- what turned out to be my last straw -- gloating as he wrested from George's grip a plastic friend-of-Thomas, "That's right; you're not smart enough." Um, say what?

    I am all for children working out their own conflicts. In fact, in our little group there's rarely intervention unless the fight for a toy escalates to fit-throwing, or someone's being especially hoard-y. But in those cases the grabbing is never mean-spirited, it's just... wanty. They have no concept of denying others to get what they want. Empathy isn't generally counted among the virtues of the under-two set. But insults have never come into play. To chalk that up to age or verbal skill is wrong, I think; we've all heard of or have our own story of a very young child calling someone stupid or using other hurtful language. This was a first, though: I had to stand up to someone, albeit on my knees, who was saying shitty things to my kid. I moseyed over to the train table and said, "I think everyone would have a lot more fun if you shared with the littler ones." 

    It didn't work. 

    Last night, we went out for some pizza with my mom. A family with two little girls sat down about a yard away from our table. One girl looked to be about George's age, and one was three or four. The younger one immediately began screaming the kind of shrill, blood-curdling scream that would signify something being very, very wrong. But no! Life and limb intact, she happily dumped the majority of a shaker of parmesan cheese on the table while the screaming continued, unaddressed. Uncorrected. The other diners' shoulders tensed with every scream. George looked at me, alarmed. The woman next to us plugged her ears. And it went on. And on. Nobody took the kid out of her high chair, nobody advised her of an appropriate volume for the situation. Nobody talked to her. She just. Kept. Screaming. Finally, the shrieker's mother stood up to use the restroom and noticed the woman behind her, fingers in ears. "Ha!" she said, "This lady's plugging her ears!" SCREAM. George began to whimper, and I said, "You know, actually, it's really upsetting our son, too." 

    She wheeled around. "OH! Then we'll just leave!" Sassily. Like, I was supposed to feel bad? 

    Funnily, I did feel bad. I felt bad for the little girl. I felt bad over the fact that her parents were setting her up to be "that kid." The screamer. The one who ruins dinners, who perpetuates the unfortunate reputation of toddlers everywhere from dining rooms to airplanes. Did she want to have a restaurant full of eyes boring holes into the back of her head with every scream? Of course not; she didn't know any better. But, nevertheless, it seemed like my job to protect my worried, whimpering son, much like I intervened with the train table dictator. Neither situation won me friends, and both left me wondering a little if I should've just let it go. I want my son to be able to fight his own battles, but I also want him to know I'm on his side. That I'm paying attention, and I'll be his back-up when his own assertions go unheeded. There are, of course, biggies and littles. I'll continue to let him try to hold tight to the ball until someone stronger takes it away; he'll learn to adjust his expectations, to broaden his horizons... or to follow stronger kids around and seize on a weak moment to recapture his ball. But there's little to be learned from enduring a meal set to screaming. There's no need to harden yourself to insults. At least not at nearly-two.  

    I've been the mother of the shover. I've been the parent scuttling out of a quiet room with a hollering baby, grimacing and mouthing sorry! At my behest, George has given countless "gentle touches" to wronged bonk-ees, kids who found themselves at the end of his kick, and I am well aware that he is no perfect specimen of manners and propriety. I neither want nor expect him to be. But I still hold him to some standards. I want him to succeed. I want him to make friends easily and feel comfortable in all environments. That, to me, means equipping him with some tools: knowing what's appropriate, when, for example. I wish I could ensure for him that these bits of unpleasantness wouldn't arise. In fact, I wish for all of us a life wherein nobody screams during dinner or tells us we're not smart enough. Am I wrong to try to ward off the inevitable? Maybe. But if, given my example, my son turns out like me: an unapologetic shush-er of mid-movie talkers, expert in polite assertions,with the bonus of knowing his mom will stick up for him? Well, that's probably fine by me.