Monthly Archives: January 2013

Lyra’s Latest: Finding a Pediatrician or The Continuum of Jewish Women

Newborn Lyra
Newborn Lyra

The day after Lyra was born, I called my obstetrician, who had willingly provided prenatal care and medical back up for my home birth. And I explained that while otherwise healthy, Lyra appeared to have Down syndrome. Within minutes, I received a call from the pediatric practice she uses for her own children telling us to come in immediately. Lyra was seen before she was even 24 hours old. The doctor who examined our newborn daughter gave us the necessary referral to the Genetics Center at Akron Children’s Hospital where we went the following day to confirm that Lyra has Down syndrome.

True Confession: My children do not go to a pediatrician

Okay, so maybe it’s not such a biggie, as in confessional biggie, that my children go to the same family practice as I do. But let me add that I have never scheduled “well baby visits” for my children. My kids are, for the most part, fabulously healthy. I take them to the doctor, or in our case the nurse practitioner, when they are sick or need a physical for sports. How my children are growing compared to other American children was never something I was interested in enough to spend time in an office and pay good money to find out.

Frankly, the point of these so-called well baby visits is primarily to keep the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) vaccination schedule, which I do not follow. Vaccinations have been a controversial issue since before Claude was born nearly 20 years ago. Like many things (such as hospital vs. home birth, educational approaches, how the food we eat is grown or raised), I have questioned the status quo on vaccination, but I also avoid zealotry. Proponents and opponents of vaccination are both ardent in their opinions. I am not opposed to vaccines, yet neither do I follow the recommendations of the AAP. I wait until my children are a year old to begin vaccinating them (except for Hib); I don’t give them all the vaccinations that are recommended (most children are not at risk of contracting hepatitis, for example), and I do not have them administered all at once. I am not advocating my approach for other families, but rather this is the compromise I have come to for my family after much research and many conversations with a wide array of health care providers.

Max and I soon understood, however, that with Lyra we would have to adjust our approach. This included finding a pediatrician with whom we felt we could develop a relationship as we encounter health care concerns with our daughter that we’ve never had with our other children. The pediatric practice my obstetrician sent us to seemed appropriate for a number of reasons. First, since they are affiliated with Akron Children’s Hospital, it presumably would be easier to coordinate Lyra’s care and records with other ACH docs, such as her ophthalmologist. Second, one of the pediatricians in the practice has a nephew with Ds, something I had learned through the Upside of Downs support group. Finally, it seemed appropriate precisely because it is the practice to which my OB takes her own children, as she is the physician whom I have trusted through two “advanced maternal age” home births.

But then, after our first visit, I had to call this pediatric practice without the assistance of my OB. On three separate occasions when I called, the phone rang once and then I was put on hold without any human interaction. For up to 15 minutes, I listened to techno hold-music that was regularly interrupted by the recording of a woman’s voice that went something like this:

Letters to keep heat on in the home are only signed during the months the state accepts the letters and will only be signed if there is a medically compromised child in the home.

After hearing this condescending message up to 30 times per call to the office, I felt like it was my heat that was going to be turned off and that I really ought to argue with someone about it.

The last time I called that pediatric office was to ask for a prescription to have Lyra’s hearing tested. When a live human being finally answered, she told me I would need to leave a message on the nurses’ line and someone would call me back within 24 hours. I left the message but never, ever received a return call. No matter how qualified their physicians might be, a practice with a phone system that bars access is not a workable option.

The Continuum of Jewish Women

One of the beauties of middle age is some narrative arcs reveal themselves. And so it is that at nearly every significant, if not extremely stressful, juncture in my adult life, Jewish women have helped me out. I can’t say why that is, though I no longer believe it to be coincidental because it now seems predictable. Here are three examples from a much longer list:

1)    University. When I wrote my undergraduate thesis in religious studies at Ohio State University, my departmental advisor was a committed devotee of the then-rampant theory of Deconstruction. He felt I worked like an old-fashioned historian, one who looks for facts and truths. While I understood irreducible truths are hard, if not impossible, to find in human interactions and events, I was never able to discern how he wanted me to approach my project. I met with him regularly and left every time feeling frustrated and rather dumb. In the end I went with what I knew how to do (hypothesis, research, results), and my advisor was unwilling to approve my thesis. On my thesis committee was a history of art professor with whom I had taken four classes and who later became the dean of the graduate school at OSU. While strongly disagreeing with my advisor, she told him she would work with me to craft my thesis to his satisfaction. And she did, even though her own scholarly research and writing, along with teaching, made her one of the busiest professionals I have ever known. Ten weeks later, my thesis was unanimously approved, even though the substance of the work remained the same.

2)    Children. After several frustrating years of trying to understand why my oldest son, Claude, wasn’t learning in school, a triumvirate of Jewish women helped turn things around. An Orthodox psychologist first diagnosed his dyslexia and then she helped me to navigate his remediation. For several months, Claude worked every Sunday morning with an Orthodox occupational therapist at her home in an Orthodox neighborhood in Cleveland (during his appointments I went to the neighborhood bakery and bought seeded corn bread). For several years, I took Claude twice a week to the home of a tutor I found through the American Dyslexic Association, who, yes, is also Jewish. After Claude finished tutoring, Jules too was diagnosed with dyslexia and back we went. With little break in between, I’ve been going to this woman’s house for a decade. Without these three women, I don’t know how I would have facilitated my boys’ mastery of reading (mastery may sound like hyperbole, but Claude scored 34 in reading on his ACT, which is nearly perfect).

3)    Divorce. There is an aphorism in the legal profession that clients choose attorneys who have similar personalities to their own. Jerks pick jerks, efficient types pick efficient types, et cetera. I like this adage because my divorce attorney is a class act who worked with me for just shy of four long years (including post-decree enforcement). Highly regarded by her colleagues and the courts, she and her associates are hard negotiators who worked to end things quickly without sacrificing either what my boys and I needed or an ounce of their own professionalism. That the process took so long is due largely to the fact that the defendant went through a series of four attorneys and with each succession, we had to start all over again. Divorce sucks. A protracted divorce with someone driven by animosity is a nightmarish ordeal. I can’t imagine how I would have gotten through it with any other attorney.

Back to finding a pediatrician

Through the Upside of Downs organization I have met a number of families from Medina whose pediatrician has an eight-year-old daughter with Ds. People in Akron don’t often go to Medina, 15 miles west, for things like doctors, even though they commonly drive 40+ miles to physicians in Cleveland. I decided to meet Dr. M and after the first call, I knew we had found our practice. The person who promptly answered the phone also scheduled our appointment, asking me, “Dr. M loves patients with Down syndrome and she schedules longer visits with them, is that okay?” When Lyra and I went to that first appointment, Dr. M spent over an hour and a half with us. At the next appointment, only a couple of weeks later so we could monitor Lyra’s weight, Max came too. Again, Dr. M spent another hour and a half with us and she told Max, as she had previously with me, “I’m a New York Jew and I’m just gonna tell you what I think.” Well, of course she is.

And what does Dr. M think?

She thinks we can have a respectful dialogue about vaccines and she backs up her recommendations with data. Just as importantly, she doesn’t try to make me feel like a bad mother for not following the standard of care on this issue.

She thinks that the more intelligent the parents, the more likely a child with Ds will have a higher IQ, but the kids with Ds who have higher IQs also have greater rates of ADD. “I know what you’re gonna ask,” Dr. M said when I was going to ask what was the highest IQ we could expect, “but first you tell me the highest level of education you and her father have.” It was only after I answered that she told me the correlation between parental intelligence and that of children with Ds.

She believes in pushing early reading because it comes easily to many kids with Ds and not only does it give them another way to communicate, it makes them feel good about themselves. Note: Many kids with Ds read by age three. They are visual learners with strong short-term memories.

She believes in physical and speech therapies and wrote prescriptions for me on our second visit. Crawling strengthens the brains of all kids, making it particularly important for kids with Ds to learn. But kids with Ds often don’t crawl without intervention (they scoot or roll to get where they want to go). Speech therapy involves anything related to the mouth and we have not had much success in getting Lyra to take a bottle.

Basically, Dr. M believes in getting in there with all available resources and pushing these kids to be the best they can be. In so many ways, it is little different than what I learned to do with Claude and Jules to overcome their dyslexia. It doesn’t mean abandoning all else and focusing our entire lives on Lyra, but rather incorporating into our daily lives what will help her develop and succeed to her highest potential. For years, driving to school with Claude and Jules has been the time to practice sight words. Whenever I sit with Lyra in my lap, I move her around in ways that help strengthen her back and core muscles. Not the entire time, but a little here and a little there.

At our last visit, Dr. M went over the results of the echocardiogram Lyra had in late November. “So they think there’s a shadow here,” said Dr. M as she drew on the exam table paper a box divided into four sections and then told me to imagine it was a heart. Pointing to where the shadow was on Lyra’s echocardiogram, she said, “This is the patent foramen ovale and it is found in all fetuses because they are not using their lungs and, therefore, the heart circumvents the lungs in utero. After the baby is born, this hole closes up in the first weeks of life. Typically. But in 20% of adult autopsies on the general population, this hole is still there. So, we’ll check again in a few months. Other than finding nothing, this is the best result you could get on her echo.”

Yes, that’s how she talks and it comes out rapid-fire fast. I love it. Hit me with more than I already know and if I don’t understand, I’ll ask. If Lyra really does have a patent foramen ovale hole, it will likely close on its own. If it doesn’t, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll need it surgically closed. But if she should, it is not open-heart surgery, which is hard on a patient. Instead, foramen ovale holes are surgically closed by going through a vein in the artery.

“So let me get this straight,” said Dr. M at the end of our last visit, “her heart is good, her hearing is perfect, her growth is average. Other than the cataracts in her eyes, it looks like this kiddo has no other major health concerns, right?”

“Yep, none that I am aware of,” I said.

“You are really, really lucky, you know that?”

Lyra today. Her feet love each other and she is most happy without socks
Lyra today. Her feet love each other and she’s most happy when rubbing them together sock-free.

Yes, yes I do. We are very grateful that our daughter does not have any of the many serious medical conditions that often accompany those diagnosed with Down syndrome. Max and I frequently say so to each other. But we still have a child with a genetic disorder and we are lucky because of the enormous support we have in our community as we meet the needs of our youngest child. Not only the professionals, like Dr. M., not only the other families we’ve met through the Upside of Downs, but people who are part of our wider community and have been since before Lyra’s birth. Friends from the Waldorf school, friends from our professional lives, friends who are just friends—so many of whom have step forward with a kind word, a meal, prayers, offers to transport other children, teach us all sign language. Our day care provider, who performs reiki and went to speech therapy with us, so loves Lyra that I don’t ever worry about leaving her.

I have at various times in my life felt isolated, even when among others. This is not one of those times. If, as I wrote in my last post, Lyra galvanizes us as a family, she also resonates outside our family, revealing to us just how we are connected to and held by our larger community. For this, we are indeed really, really lucky.

Lyra’s Latest: Wee Teeny Peanut

Weighing the difference: the cat is bigger than the 5-month-old baby.
Weighing the difference: the cat is bigger than the 5-month-old baby.

In the roughly three months in which I’ve been writing this blog, the WordPress.com stats reveal far and away that the most popular posts are those about Lyra. While Whoopsie Piggle will never be exclusively about our daughter, I have decided to include periodic updates on her, titled, “Lyra’s Latest,” and, like today’s post, will have a secondary title regarding the specific update. I came to this decision while writing about the past few months of Lyra’s life, which made for an unreasonably long post—even for me. This week I plan to post a handful of “Lyra’s Latest,” cut and refashioned from that intial tome of a post.

* * *

Here is a near verbatim conversation I have several times a week:

Friendly Stranger: Oh, what a sweet baby, that’s a new one! How old is she?

Me: Five months.

Friendly Stranger: Really? Oh, my, is she small. Was she a preemie?

Me: No.

Friendly Stranger: How much did she weigh at birth?

Me: Seven pounds, ten ounces. She has Down syndrome and they tend to be smaller.

Friendly Stranger: Really? Oh, bless her heart, she’s so beautiful.

I think so too, but Lyra is not beautiful in the conventional sense. For one thing, she’s still pretty bald, as were all my babies for the first six to twelve months of life. And some of these well-meaning strangers tell me Lyra doesn’t look like she has Down syndrome, which in my opinion isn’t true. Her eyes have small openings and turn slightly upward in the outer corners as do those of most people with an extra 21st chromosome.

A dear friend, whom I’ve known since I was fifteen, has a niece with Down syndrome. She called me a few days after I had written about Lyra’s diagnosis on Facebook. But first, she called her sister to ask advice on what to say or, perhaps more importantly, what not to say. I have had the occasional person apologize when I told them Lyra has Ds. Just last week someone asked me if I was devastated when I learned. No, I wasn’t but neither am I offended by these questions and comments. I put them into the same category I put the things people say to someone who is undergoing a difficult time in life, be it the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, or a divorce—it’s better to say the wrong thing than to say nothing at all.

On the other hand, many people tell me how all those they’ve known with Ds are incredibly loving. While I cannot speak to another person’s experience, I hesitate to categorize any group of people so broadly. It reminds me of the “noble savage” theory taught in anthropology classes. It is easy to dismiss the humanity of a group of people, such as indigenous populations, if they are described as entirely savage (generally prior to being conquered) or more advanced spiritually (generally post-conquest). Kids with Ds have behavior issues just as kids without Ds do. A mother told me that her daughter with Ds would use her hypotonia to make her body entirely limp when she didn’t want to do something. Ever hear of “dead weight?” It’s used to describe how heavy someone is to carry when they are unconscious and what a child with Ds is like when they make themselves go limp. Imagine that as a tactic in the arsenal of a toddler’s tantrum. In public. For now, Lyra is too young to have tantrums and so small it wouldn’t matter if she did.

When someone apologizes because I’ve told them my daughter has Ds, I take it as an acknowledgement of the work I have ahead of me that I had not anticipated when I was pregnant. Like my mother-in-law once said to me, “No matter how sweet they say people who have Ds are, it is not something you asked for.” No, it wasn’t. But there are many things that a child can be born with that are not so easily diagnosed as Ds. Most autistic children do not begin presenting their symptoms until they are toddlers. And children with mental illness often appear perfectly healthy until adolescence or even later. The emotional journeys of parents who have children with autism or mental illness is as challenging, if not harder in many instances, than having a child with Down syndrome. The test for Ds is not subjective, it is clear and many families, like us, know their child’s diagnosis almost immediately after birth, if not before. Because I have two sons with learning disabilities, I have a sense of the anguish of parents who know something is not quite right with their child, but for years cannot figure out what the diagnosis is and, therefore, how to provide the appropriate support.

Little Lyra and big Boggart, January 27, 2012
Little Lyra and big Boggart, January 27, 2012

As for her size, at her five-month check up with her pediatrician, Lyra was one ounce shy of weighing eleven pounds. That puts her in the fourth percentile on the growth chart for typical children. But there is another growth chart, one for children with Ds. On that chart, Lyra is in the 40th percentile for weight, 50th for height and 60th for head circumference. In other words, pretty average. My boys, on the other hand, were all big babies; Hugo weighed ten pounds at birth and Jules was just two ounces smaller. None seemed to lose any birth weight and people often assumed my newborns were at least three months old. Before Lyra, I’d never used newborn-sized clothing for any of my babies. At five months plus, Lyra still wears some newborn items and nothing bigger than size 0-3 months. It’s like having a baby doll. In fact, more than once have I been asked, “Is that a real baby or a doll?” Seriously.

Most of the time, I don’t notice Lyra’s size. She’s just our baby. It is when I see other babies that I realize how diminutive she is. At the home daycare where Leif and Lyra go each week, there is a family with whom we share some uncanny similarities. The mom has the same first name as me, though she spells hers “Hollie.” Last year, she and her husband were, like us, expecting their fifth child in August. Baby Jack is two weeks older than Lyra but when I see them together, they look months apart. For one thing, Jack is a third as big as Lyra, weighing more than 15 pounds. He has huge eyes and is developing beautifully. Next to him, Lyra looks like the newborn people mistake her for.

And really isn’t that how it is with much of life? By comparison with others, we gain perspective on our own lives. What we do with that perspective is up to us—whether we open ourselves to envy or just observe an apparent difference, understanding that other differences, as well as similarities, exist. Throughout my childhood and into my 20s, I envied the lives of other people—from friends and family to complete strangers. I used to wish I’d been given up for adoption at birth or given to my grandparents to raise, so that I could have had a different life. But as time has passed and I’ve watched our lives unfold, I see everything before led to where I am now, with the family that is far more than I had ever imagined. Sometimes that means far more chaos and complexity than I’d imagined, but for the most part it means more love and contentment. And our wee teeny peanut, like some mighty-mini superheroine, galvanizes the seven of us as a family.

Definition of GALVANIZE

transitive verb

1

a : to subject to the action of an electric current especially for the purpose of stimulating physiologically <galvanize a muscle>

b : to stimulate or excite as if by an electric shock <an issue that would galvanize public opinion>

2

: to coat (iron or steel) with zinc; especially : to immerse in molten zinc to produce a coating of zinc-iron alloy

Motherwriter

Writing is not my hobby. When I am not writing, my brain writhes.

In the fall of 2008, I enrolled in a course at the University of Akron titled “Southern Women Writers.” After first reading Florence King’s Southern Ladies and Gentlemen, a humorously accurate guide to the characters, both real and literary, of the American South, we studied a different writer each week. The first was Civil War diarist, Mary Chestnut, and from there we journeyed through the decades and read some authors I’d long admired, such as Flannery O’Connor and others I was shocked to have not previously read, such as Katherine Anne Porter, who in my opinion deserves greater attention in the canon of American literature. Well before the course ended, I had become resolutely jealous of the language resources any Southerner, from the Atlantic Coast to Texas, can rely upon without sounding hokey. A Yankee cannot plausibly employ colorful phrases like He doesn’t know me from Adam’s off ox. But a southerner can.

Beyond language, there was a more personally significant take away from the class. Several weeks and authors into the semester, I noticed a commonality among all the women we had read: None were mothers. In fact, by semester’s end only a handful of the writers assigned were also mothers and those women lived and wrote exclusively after 1950. I asked the professor why this was, as if I didn’t already know, and he explained the difficulty women have had in either choosing to have a career or choosing to have children.

In 1929, Virginia Woolf published A Room of Her Own, an extended essay about women both as writers as well as characters in fiction. In it, Woolf writes: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” I find her essay, which also expounds the importance of formal education for women, to be as relevant today as it was 84 years ago. After years of sharing my writing space with others—be it as a shared office, a dressing room, and finally a baby’s nursery—I finally have a room of my own in which I write. I hope to one day save enough money to have the wall behind my desk built out with floor to ceiling bookshelves. But for now, I focus on my computer monitor and try my best to just keep writing, ignoring the towers of boxes stacked where the bookshelves will one day be. My mantra, given to me by my MFA thesis advisor, is Ass+Chair. Though crude, it is an effective reminder that being a writer means you have to write.

Enter five children

Previewing this post with my assistantWell, so they came one at a time, but their effect was immediate. When I write, I need a quiet house and prefer no interruptions. The best way to achieve this condition is to get everyone out of the house. Alone in a room of my own is what I need. Babies rarely sleep when you need to write or when the writing juices are flowing. Luckily, I have a partner who sends our two pre-schoolers to daycare three days a week. However, Lyra only stays for three to four hours because she refuses to take a bottle and by noon she comes home and nurses mightily. Some afternoons, she falls asleep and lets me write a little bit longer but, like I said, these gifts of time are rare and certainly not predictible.

During Winter Break, not only were the big boys home, our daycare provider reminded us how much we need her by taking off for a week and a day. Writing was catch as catch can. A regular stream of offspring sluiced up to my desk and asked me questions that could either wait or be sorted out without my input. Towards the end of break, when one of the Great Interrupters wanted to know if he could scramble eggs for everyone, I yelled at him, “Is the house on fire? Are you bleeding? Is someone else in the house knocked unconscious? Then don’t come in this room!” It might seem ironic because I was writing about random acts of kindness that day, but I do not confuse kindness with martyrdom. When I finally posted that last week of Winter Break, I felt tremendous relief to have finished but I was also late in picking up Lyra. In my rush, I hit the post button before filling in the title block. It was sent to everyone and posted on Facebook sans title.

Re-entry to normalcy, or at least scheduled time for the kids to be away and me to plunk my rear end in my desk chair, has been like working with an untamed animal. Just when I think I can grab it, it bolts away. On Tuesday, instead of writing, I drove Claude back to school. On Wednesday, nothing went as expected and Lyra was only at daycare for an hour. I treat writing like a job and let things like laundry and dishes go during my scheduled writing time. But the first week after break I also used some of that time and applied for other jobs, the kind with paychecks.

Money and a Room

I have the room and, limited though it is, structured time to write. But the money is another problem to solve. Flannery O’Connor was supported by her family. Katherine Anne Porter often depended upon the largesse of friends to house and feed her. Virgina Woolf herself came from a wealthy family and her husband, Leonard, supported her writing career.

I tell my children that how rich or poor you feel is all a matter of choice. I also tell them that if there is something they want to do, we just need to think of a creative solution, don’t let the funding be an obstacle. Hard work helps too and all three of the big boys work for the money they need to fulfill their own desires. Claude and Hugo are employed in the typical sense—Claude works as a monitor in an art studio at his university while Hugo washes dogs at a dog salon. Because he is only 12 and cannot yet be hired, Jules has a trickier time making money. Last fall, I suggested he put together a business proposal and present it to Max and me. Jules now cares for the household pets, providing what goes into, and cleaning up what comes out of, the two dogs and four cats. He is also responsible for one dinner a week, generally on Fridays. Rapidly becoming an excellent cook, Jules is working his way through The Best Recipe cookbook. This past Friday, he made hoisin chicken kebobs with broccoli and shitake mushrooms. There were no leftovers. On Sundays, Jules presents us with his invoice for the week past.

But it’s not as easy as I tell the boys. I graduated with my MFA in the middle of the worst economy of my lifetime. While I was in graduate school, I made ends meet by substitute teaching and taking out significant student loans, loans I have not even begun to pay back. The year after I graduated, I continued to substitute teach at the Waldorf school and also worked in the school’s office up until Lyra was born. We all thought that long before Lyra was born, I would find fulltime employment—I’m well educated, experienced and have applied to more jobs than I care to innumerate. Listening to stories on NPR of how despondent job seekers have become in this economy hits home. Time and again I have applied for positions for which I am ideally qualified and yet I do not even make the first cut. I have applied repeatedly for work I have done in the past, jobs that at the time I thought of as just stepping stones in a longer career. Friends who are employed tell me their employers receive so many responses when hiring that one résumé blurs into another and another and another.

My big boys and I are lucky because Max will not let us starve. But neither can he, nor should he, fund my children’s every needs. That is up to me alone and, frankly, it is important that my children see me—a woman—capably managing adult life, including supporting their ambitions when it makes sense. To purchase the computer Claude was required to have at school this past fall, I obtained a credit card with zero percent interest for 15 months even though I hate credit card debt. I lacked that kind of support in my own upbringing and while I still managed to put myself through college, I floundered on my own. I see Claude, a freshman in college, as not only a better student than I was, he is asking better questions of himself. He regularly talks with Max and me about what he wants to do in life and how he should get there.

Back to Art

Throughout history (and presumably before) the majority of artistic work by women has been consumable items—food that is eaten, rugs that are walked on, clothes that are worn, blankets that are slept under, and so on. On the other hand, the artistic work of men resides in museums and libraries. Think things have gotten any better? Each year, who gets published and who wins the important writing awards reminds us that this gender imbalance in the writing professions is hardly a thing of the past. For an article on recent statistics, click here: The Count.

Many men manage to have both families and jobs with paychecks and successful artistic careers. And, perhaps most consistently, those men who manage it all have something few women do: A Wife. The inaugural edition of Ms. magazine included the essay, “I Want a Wife,” by Judy Brady:

(http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/everythingsanargument4e/content/cat_020/Brady_I_Want_a_Wife.pdf).

Many considered this essay, in which the lives of wives are shown to be little different than indentured servitude, to be a manifesto for Second-wave feminism. As women entered the workforce in the 1970s and beyond, this depiction of wife=servant (or slave) was considered a thing of the past, but this essay reads like the script for the marriage I left in 2007. I think that, not unlike racism, which has become perniciously subtler in the post-civil rights era, so too have women of my generation struggled with implied expectations. The published male authors I know who are also dads may have wives who work, but overwhelmingly their wives are the ones getting the kids to to everything from playdates to the dentist. In all professional families, women are still putting in 40 hours a week to family care while men put in 21. Last October, Barnard College president, Debora Spar, wrote in Newsweek:  “See who in any houshold schedules the kids’ dental appointments. My own husband, lovely though he is, seems not to be aware that our children even have teeth.”

I was six years old when the first issue of Ms. was published and by all means should feel I am the direct beneficiary of Second-wave feminism. But I didn’t make the leap so well. I long assumed it was because I was not encouraged to think about a career in which I could support myself and perhaps my children. My parents never discussed educational or career plans with me. I now see how the choices I made as I launched into early adulthood fit into a larger context, which has been described in the past decade by a few writers including Judith Warner in her book Perfect Madness. Women of my generation, Gen X, were caught at the pivotal point of social change in women’s roles. As such, we were told we could be more than is humanly possible, i.e., we could have it all: better careers than our fathers while also being better mothers than our own by raising children attachment-style. And all the while we would stay thin and young looking and able to converse on any au courant topic. We would be Super-Professionals and Super-Moms looking Super-Sexy and, to round it out, live in Super-Stylish Homes. And it wasn’t just that we could have it all, to have less was a certain sign of failure as a modern woman.

Who Defines Success?

So here I am today with five kids who are turning out just fine and a résumé that barely grazes upon my actual skills because it’s so hither and thither. For a time, a friend and I had a job search support group of two. She also began looking for work when the economy went south and we would share information on job listings we thought might be good for each other. Eventually my friend was hired as an administrative assistant at a local university, but she continues to let me know of any appropriate positions she hears about. She’s been working now for over a year and listening to her I am reminded that jobs come with politics and personalities as well as paychecks.

A few months back she asked me what my ideal job would be. Easy. To get paid to write. “Yeah, well, all right, dearie. But seriously, what kind of job do you want?” Because we were on the phone she could not see me blush at her chiding me for wanting to make money as a writer. I had been honest when she had asked of my “ideal” rather than “likely” employment.

I know mothers who manage to publish and work jobs that provide paychecks. However, either their children are older or they have significant help from their families—as in retired parents who, when needed, act as de facto nannies. I also have a friend whose book should be published and, in my opinion, optioned for film. But she has two children under the age of five and works two jobs to help support her family. That doesn’t leave much time or energy for the business end of publishing and I cannot help but wonder if her situation would be different were she a man.

True Confession: I live a comfortable life. But as a woman, I feel required to justify my need to write and my desire to publish.

I must write. I must raise my children. And I must earn money. The first two dovetail for as much as they interfere with my time at my desk, my children provide for me both a life and material that are endlessly rich. Virigina Woolf didn’t have to earn her money nor raise children, yet her assessment of what women need to write resonates into this century because our society does not yet value equally women’s writing with that of men. Successfully writing is an even trickier task as a mother, and though certainly not impossible, the emotional, if not financial, support of family is essential, at least for me.

Postscript of Sorts

This particular post has taken me more than a week to write due to the aforementioned actors and activities. Along the way something changed: two days ago I was officially hired for a job I can do at home that is related to writing—proofreading. While it will not provide the security and benefits of a full-time position, it does give me the flexibility to continue writing and take Lyra to her appointments.

Next act: balancing while juggling!

Beginning Today

A laminated sign that hangs on our cereal cupboard knob.
A laminated sign that hangs on our cereal cupboard knob.

Each morning the Plain Dealer is delivered to our doorstep. On school days, Hugo gets up at 5:30 am, starts the coffee, feeds the dogs and retrieves the paper. Because of his intense performance and rehearsal schedule, mornings are when Hugo does most of his homework. But first, Hugo reads the comics. Jules usually calls second and because Max is hurrying off to work, I let him read them before I do. Some days I don’t get to them until the end of the day and when that happens, I verify whether my horoscope panned out accordingly or not.

But now, on the dark mornings of winter break, the boys have been sleeping in and I read the comics while they still dream in their chilly bedroom over the garage.

On Monday, the comics dwelt overwhelmingly with New Year’s Eve and specifically with resolutions for the New Year. I had moved on to the other sections of the paper when the boys joined me one by one at the table with their coffee and cereal. “Have any of you thought of anything you want to do differently in the New Year?” I asked them. Nobody responded coherently and taking advantage of the relative silence, I went on. “We’ve had a wonderful year if you think about it: Claude has just finished his first semester of college, Hugo is doing well in Madrigals, band and school, Jules has just grown up in so many ways. We had Lyra this year, Max is in a good place at work, I’m writing regularly.” It would be fair to say that Leif has been tyrannical as a two-year-old, but kindly nobody did.

I also mentioned the dark events in the past month—the shootings in Newtown and upstate New York as well as the horrific rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in India. Violence and suffering are at the elbow of merrier holiday cheer this year. None of the victims could have predicted these events and taken preventative measures. Which means there is nothing to rule out similar events happening in our own lives. Thinking of the loved ones of victims of events known and unknown subdues my joy at what a good year 2012 has been for my family.

Less notably so too has the cold and flu season subdued our holidays. Often, I don’t catch the colds that the boys bring home and share with one another like a pocketful of tricks. I eat well, take my vitamins and wash my hands frequently. When I do fall to their viruses, I’m often last. I fell to the latest sinus virus two days after Christmas and, as Hugo says, it’s a hell of a cold. After talking with the boys about their resolutions, I took more medicine and by nine in the morning was back in bed. Lying there, I caught up on email with my phone.

When I go to bed, particularly in the daytime, I imagine a sonar implant going off in each of the children’s brains because within five minutes they start appearing in the bedroom I share with Max. The first to arrive on Monday morning was Hugo, still in his robe. “Go and get Claude and Jules, Max too, and tell them to come up to the bed,” I told him. Each Sunday, NPR sends me an email of the previous week’s most emailed stories, it’s a great feature and I highly recommend signing up for it. Once everyone had flopped onto our queen-sized bed, I read to them one of the top stories.  It was about a study of 9- to 11-year-old children who intentionally performed daily acts of kindness. These kids were found to be happier and more accepting of their peers than the control group. Furthermore, the piece mentions similar findings in studies on adults. (Random Acts Of Kindness Can Make Kids More Popular : Shots – Health News : NPR)

“You know,” said Max, “I heard on the news yesterday about someone giving a Starbucks barista $20 to pay for the people behind him in line. One of those people also gave money and for most of the day everyone’s drinks were paid for by someone else.” I had heard that report too but then Max went on to tell me something none of us knew, which is that he regularly buys coffee for the person behind him at Starbucks. Max has a long commute to work and many mornings he stops halfway for a cup of coffee. “It makes a lot of people uncomfortable and I have to tell them ‘No strings, just let me get your coffee for you,’ but last week there was a man who came up and said to me, ‘You probably don’t remember me, but once when I was having a bad day, you bought my coffee for me and it made a real difference.’”

So instead of generic New Year’s resolutions, I asked everyone to think about doing random acts of kindness for a day or two and then talking about them at dinner. On New Year’s Day, Hugo shoveled the back parking area without being asked. Jules made bacon and pancakes for everyone for breakfast. Claude shoveled the sidewalk by the street, which is difficult because the pavement is uneven and the snow, much of which was plowed off of the street, is crustier. Max fixed a small wooden bowl my grandfather had made and my grandma had given me, which had cracked and sat in stacked layers on my dresser for nearly two years. But I who had initiated this kind act challenge, found it difficult to find an act of kindness to perform. I think the word “intentional” has me hung up. It seems like cheating if in an impromptu situation I am nice as opposed to planning a kind act. By day’s end, I felt as if I’d been generally nice but had failed to produce a planned act of kindness.

Human history is woefully stuffed with tales of aggression. Last month’s headlines were horrific, but little different than any month previous when considering all countries and not just our own. And the past is unchangeable. I like the political mantra Think Globally, Act Locally. I recycle, buy locally when possible, consider how the food I put in my mouth was raised and prepared. I always vote, I volunteer for campaigns and I give money to local candidates. I wonder if, along with environmental and political issues, random acts of kindness fulfill the grassroots goal of local action affecting global outcomes? I think most often I am a local optimist and a global cynic. Is Think Globally, Act Locally just a placebo to feel better about an individual lack of empowerment to change the world’s problems? Occasionally one person, like Dr. Paul Farmer who is the subject of Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains, is able to change a segment of the world for the better, but few of us have the ability or desire to be a Paul Farmer. The best we can do is facilitate the Paul Farmers we know while ethically comporting our own lives. (Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World: Tracy Kidder: 9780812973013: Amazon.com: Books.)

Back to the Role of Parent

I stated in my first post that I do not want this to be a just another mommy blog, that discussed in these posts will, yes, be my family, but also questions on life and politics. But so often, if not always, all points swing back to family.

Family Is Practice

My children have been raised as Shambhala Buddhists and so far continue to view their spiritual development within that paradigm. They all know how to meditate, which is in some ways the equivalent of prayer in other faiths, and ideally done daily. While I don’t monitor them, I’m fairly confident that nobody in this house can claim daily meditation practice. What I do hear is from all of us is a desire to meditate more. It’s hard. Finding  15 quiet minutes in a house where seven people live, two of whom are babies, is nearly impossible when the sun is up. Yet those same meditation interrupters are the best teachers. Being a good parent means regularly putting the needs of your children ahead of your own desires. You desire sleep, but you stay up with a sick child. You desire listening to the radio in the car, but you listen to a Kindermusik CD for the umpteenth time. You want to react to your teen’s anger with equal anger but you don’t, or if you do, you later apologize with sincerity like you’ve not shown in an apology to anyone else. And for these and so many more examples, a fellow Shambhala Buddist once printed up T-shirts with the phrase “Family Is Practice.” One needn’t be Buddhist to understand this.

I would like to say that I am actively raising empathetic children who are growing into compassionate adults who will approach life with mindfulness. As their mother, I question my objectivity to analyze my sons’ qualities. What I do see is three teens (okay, Jules is still 12 ½) who enjoy their younger siblings. They are patient with Leif when he throws tantrums, they play with him in ways that border the worlds of adults and children and which Leif loves, and they pay attention to when he needs something, including a diaper change. All of them hold Lyra like she’s the best bundle of goodness they’ve ever come upon, which she is, but they’ve figured this out on their own. And that means they are considering someone other than themselves. Who knows if they’ll take that out into the world of their adult lives? I don’t, but I hope they do.

No Easy Pieces

I told Max before my last post that again I hadn’t written anything light and funny. “You’re Scandanavian, you can’t help that you keep going back to you inner Kierkegaard.” I don’t know if it’s my heritage or my personality, but I do brood. I’ve been working on this post for several days, contemplating the richness of my personal life and the contentment I see, at this moment, in all my children and my partner. All of this contextualized in the dark events reported last month.

True Confession: I love Facebook. I have issues from time to time with the policies of the company, but as a tool for communication, I embrace the technology. Before Facebook, family and friends rarely saw photos of my kids, as I’m just not efficiently organized enough for printing and mailing hard copies. With Facebook, I have stayed in communication with people who have moved away or I don’t see regularly. I have rediscovered old friends and become better acquainted with people I barely knew from my childhood. I don’t friend everyone and rarely unfriend someone.

When I checked Facebook this morning I found the following post written by someone with whom I went to junior high school:

I have come to the conclusion the only reason there are so many stupid people is that it’s against the law to shoot them!

Besides being profoundly tone deaf to the news, I imagine the person who posted this does not actually wish to shoot, and by implication kill, anyone. I imagine that this person had a frustrating day. Perhaps the traffic was bad getting home from work. Perhaps the cashier at the grocery store was rude. And, yes, perhaps someone did something stupid. I’ve been frustrated on days when things don’t happen as I want them to. Sometimes I can look past it, but other times it can put me in a foul mood. I may yell at the kids to clean the kitchen when asking them would have gotten the same, if not better, results. I withdraw in my own home, wishing to be left alone, which I will categorically tell anyone who tries to talk to me.

I don’t assume this person meant shoot people with limited IQs, such as my daughter. I don’t assume this person meant shoot people who aren’t college educated, such as my parents. I don’t assume this person meant shoot people with high IQs who have learning disabilities, such as two of my sons. I assume this person’s definition of “stupid” in this context was “anyone who prevents me from having what I want when I want it.” We’ve all been there. I imagine the people being called stupid were also not the family or friends of the person who posted. Random acts of kindness are easier given to those we know and love. It is harder for those we don’t know and harder still for those whom we don’t like for whatever reason. If there is transformative power in being kind, I suspect it is even greater when being kind to a stranger or an enemy.

This person’s post provides the perfect illustration of a commonly quoted Buddhist slogan:

Desire is the foundation of aggression.

It also causes me to think of my own language. At times, I speak with words that would convey a violence I don’t intend. For example, I recently said I wanted to pinch Leif’s head off when he was in the throes of a full-blown tantrum. And

My Random Act

I haven’t committed one that is intentional. Perhaps I will stop before speaking and think of what my words mean before I say them. Today is a new day full of promise and opportunity for me to do so. I hope anyone who reads this will consider doing the same. According to the aforementioned study, it may make you happier. I can’t tell you it will change the world, but the effects can ripple beyond you and your day, just as they did for the person whom Max bought a cup of coffee. Maybe acting locally while thinking globally is a placebo. But for most of us, it’s what we have to work with. Just try it.