Sunday, December 27, 2009

I Confess, Before I Resolve

Before I can make resolutions I must confess my transgressions. There are probably many, so I will limit myself to the most recent.

First, I raided my daughter’s piggy bank. It was payback, frankly, and it was for a good cause. I was on the way to the dentist and needed money for the parking meter. My wallet was empty and I knew the one place I could score some change. The little porcelain pig in my daughter’s room has been staring at me for years, fattened on quarters snatched from my wallet and husband’s desk. We never think much about it until we’re in a jam, which is where I found myself when I snuck upstairs and turned the little pig upside-down. I removed the plug and shook the pig until I had two dollars in ice cold change in my greedy little hands. Then I put the pig back, thanked it, and didn’t look back.

Second: Unlike my friend who told me that while her kids napped, she finished off her Christmas cards, I did the opposite. I napped and let my four year old do the cards. Given my first offense, it’s beginning to sound like we should just move to Hollywood so I can profit off my child in a much more efficient way, but really, in this case, all I needed was some sleep. I knew I could get Heidi to sit at the foot of my bed while I napped, but if I wanted her to observe what I like to call, “quiet time” I’d need to suggest an activity she could not refuse.

In the past I’ve allowed her to use my digital camera. I awoke to find two hundred photos of a progressively less patient golden retriever. I once loaned her my I-pod, but my playlist has never been the same. So, on this day, I handed over a fresh batch of photo cards and some snowman stamps. “Do your best,” I said, after showing her where the return address labels go. This was a task her father usually did, and although he’s good at most things, affixing stickers is not his forte. So, I explained that the bar of competence was very low, still, at 44 cents a stamp, she needed to understand how costly any mistake would be.

She did beautiful work. And, this is when I started to feel guilty. Instead of being grateful for my cat nap, I dreamed of more ways to put her to work. She could re-organize the spice rack, fold socks, or sort junk mail. She had a knack for organization, and the linen closet was a bit of a mess. “Mom,” she said, breaking me out of my reverie, “my hands are tired.” “Of course,” I said, taking the pile of cards. I told her I’d finish them some other time. And, honestly, someday soon, I hope I do.

Third, and this is the one that troubles me most, I used Santa as the heavy. More than once, her fear of being on Santa’s naughty list made my life a lot easier. Thumping her little sister’s belly like a cantaloupe—what would Santa say? Pouting when I say it’s time to turn off the TV? Might not be on the nice list anymore. Dilly-dallying when we were already late for school---major infraction, threat of no presents.

How did this happen? I really do not know. Or to put it more diplomatically, I do not remember. Who first told my four year old about Santa’s MO? When did she hear the lyrics to Santa Claus is Coming to Town? I did not introduce her to the concept of the naughty and nice list. But, I confess that once she started talking about it, I did nothing to dissuade her. And, I have reaped the benefits. As the big day approached, I didn’t even have to mention Santa’s name. She was self-regulating and citing his special policy changes for children under two. (In a surprising act of tolerance, she stated that her little sister was granted dispensation and would receive presents despite being a diaper butt.)

But, the Santa situation bothered me. I did not like the idea that she wanted to be good for the sake of receiving presents. More troublesome to me was the prospect that she listened to her parents and showed kindness to her sister to please some outside observer.

I want her to be honest, kind, generous, and cooperative because she knows within herself that those are good things to be. Was Santa obscuring this larger lesson?

I am sure there is another post to be written about the meaning of Christmas, but I will save that for a more theological guest writer. At the point I started writing this column, I was too afraid to even bother a member of the clergy. Surely these people were too busy thinking about Christmas to answer any questions about it.

So, I turned instead to another source of guidance, and luckily someone who is also a parent. The Swiss-born Philosopher, Alain de Botton. What did he think about the use of Santa to encourage good behavior? Was I teaching my daughter to be good only for the sake of receiving a material reward? Would she ever learn an internal sense of goodness?

“The question you raise utterly timely. I am facing it with both my kids, 2 boys aged 3 and 5.


My feeling is that using Santa is utterly fine and ethical.


The reason is that any parent has such a hard time disciplining children that the self-discipline that comes from Santa is actually of the mildest, gentlest sort and preferable to the more hard-headed alternatives (naughty step etc.).


Also, children are not capable of ethical choice right now, so the claims of Santa are not an alternative to ethical thinking, they are a pre-ethical way of maintaining order and a modicum of calm.


I don't think that kids do take away from the santa= present equation the idea that being good gets a material reward (as many psychologists argue). They take away the broader underlying point, which is that being good leads to good things.


The trick in the teens is then to suggest that good things encompasses far more than material advantages. But that's definitely for a later stage.


If you can believe it, I have even had to resort to the idea of a friendly sleep ghost in order to lure my four year old not to get up at 3am every morning.


With very good wishes


Alain”

(For those, like me, who do not watch Super Nanny or know their British idioms, the naughty-step is a place for “time-out”).


When I got the email from Alain I was ecstatic. Not only because I had permission to use Santa as my partner in discipline, but because I’d gotten a personal email from someone famous, whose books I’d read for decades, who I never thought in a million years I’d converse with. I jumped around the room, printed the email and slept with it on my nightstand. It was silly-happiness, the kind I do not feel often as a grown-up. And, it made me think that the idea of Santa, too, is part of the silly-happiness of childhood. Why not let my four year old enjoy that for a little while--even the thrill of earning a spot on the nice list?

I did introduce something new to our Christmas this year, though: a letter written by Santa. This year, he thanked Heidi for being so nice to her little sister. He also complimented her on her reading skills. He made a small reference to her tennis game, but no mention that she’d need to nail her backhand if she wanted to win a scholarship in fourteen years. We can save that for another letter.

The note made me feel better about how we handled the holiday. I had forgotten that I AM SANTA. (Along with my husband, of course.) So, Santa can’t really take away or obscure the lessons we hope to teach. In a small way, even if we have to write it out in black and white, we still control the message.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Last Minute Presents the Parenting Magazines Won't Tell You About

One of the best things about waiting to the last minute to finish your Christmas shopping is discovering all those things you normally wouldn’t buy even on SkyMall. I’m not just talking about the leopard print Snuggie (still available, by the way, at RiteAid). I mean gifts that “early-bird” shoppers miss out on because they’re too busy getting everybody what they really want.

So, with less than a week before Christmas, here is my insider’s scoop on no-backorder items:

Dora the Explorer: The Lou Dobbs interview: This is actually pretty hard to watch. The former CNN anchor drills the Nick Jr. star for about an hour, until Backpack finally coughs up her birth certificate. Sigh of relief, Dora was born in the USA. But, oh, no, her real is Mary Lou. “I was a huge Mary Lou Retton fan,” her mom confesses to Dobbs. “So, it didn’t rhyme with explorer—what name does? Dora doesn’t even rhyme, not really, not unless you—“ the interview cuts off there but Lou ends the report with a very sweet heart to heart with the Grumpy Old Troll.

Bob the Builder’s got a Heck of a Lot of Debt: It’s really never too early to learn about the subprime mortgage crisis and Bob does a pretty good job explaining his toxic assets. What else is a claymation star going to do in his off time but invest in Miami real estate? The gang is supportive, though. When asked: Can they get out of the mess? Can they…fix it? It’s Scoop who utters a soft but resounding, “Yes…We Can.” Interestingly, Wendy does not seem as happy. Maybe I’m wrong, but she appeared to be packing a little clay duffle bag in one of the shots.

Teach for America Barbie: Limited Recession Edition:Who knew that even Barbie had student loans? Instead of a princess palace and sports car, this Barbie comes with a one bedroom flat and bus pass. All proceeds benefit the Mattel Corporation.

Thomas Choo Choo, Lead Paint edition: These were recalled a few years ago but I was lucky enough to find a few on Ebay. I was assured that as long as you do not let your child play with the toy, it is perfectly safe. Same goes for the wooden doll set by Melissa & Doug with a “formaldehyde complaint” sticker. (I wish I was making up this last one.)

Imagination Movers, The Calendar: Ok, I admit it. I think these guys are kind of cute. They meet my criteria (1) They are over 18. (2) They are not Muppets.

Books:
The Secret Life of Cougars: Just so you know, this is not as tantalizing as you might think. It’s written by a zoologist, not Courtney Cox.

Words that Rhyme with Tasshole: things to tell your children when you swear at the car in front of you. I was skeptical of this at first, but it’s got some good advice. There is also a section for Dads who yell things at the TV during football season.

Misc.
A few folks have asked me if it’s ok to re-gift a Harry & David fruit basket and I say absolutely. After twelve months in your garage, what you have there is something completely original.

If you’re looking for something for the technically minded, nothing says I love you like a new wireless router.

But, perhaps the most amazing deal is the Amazon Kindle. They are offering a special rate of $5.99. Shipping and handling is a bit more, coming in at $250.00.

With that, all I have to say is, remember it's the thought that counts. This, of course, is problematic considering you've waited until the last minute to think of something.

Post Script: This post is part of an infrequent series called What the Parenting Magazines Won't Tell You. I hope I never offend anyone with these, but most important, I hope that even if you don't find it funny, you'll still feel a part of the conversation for the more serious posts. Different opinions--and different takes on humor--are important to me and this blog.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Stay-at-Home Dads: What They're Really Thinking....

There are a few stay-at-home dads in my area and I go out of my way—really, I take extraordinary lengths- to ignore them. It’s not easy to be this consistently rude, but with practice it’s become second-nature. For, example, we could be the only two adults near the sandbox, and I still will find a way to converse instead with a Tonka truck.

I respect these dads. It’s just that I am quite sure I will make a fool of myself if I try to talk to them. I saw a mom do this once, and I have never forgotten it. What I’m about to tell you really happened so if it is also the plot of a Desperate Housewives episode, forgive me. They say art imitates life, but I don’t know what they say when life imitates network TV.

It was at the park, around 5pm, on a summer night. There had been a meet-up of some six year old boys and their moms and they were all heading home. The mom I observed had struck up a conversation with the new stay-at-home dad who’d moved in across the street from the park. She stood talking to him as her friends left, lingering a bit too long, sweat dripping near her bangs, her face flushed. Then she ran to her minivan to get a notepad and wrote down her phone number for him. He smiled, politely, and went back to pushing his kids in the swings. I’m not sure if it was the sound of children laughing or of boys thrashing one another’s knees with stainless steel water bottles, but she finally remembered her kids were in the car. Note to self, I said as I watched her leave: remember you’re not in seventh grade.

But, you know when you tell yourself not to mess up, all you think about are ways in which you might. So, with the intent not saying something stupid, here is what I envision if I ever tried talking to a SAHD about setting up a playdate.

Me: Hey, do you want to get together sometime?
SAHD: Excuse me?
Me: I mean, can I get your phone number?

Long pause


Me: Email’s fine, too.


Long pause


Me: Oh, did you think?......No. I mean……I just wanted to see about a playdate.
SAHD: Date?
ME: What?
SAHD: What what?
ME: You said what.
SAHD: You said date.
ME: Did not.
SAHD: Did, too.
ME: What-ever.


TAKE TWO:
Me: Do you come here often?


TAKE 132:
Me: So, what do you think about the end of Oprah?

You get the idea.

I have an alternative universe scenario in which all I do is ask them about Monday Night Football, fly fishing and their favorite microbrew and it doesn’t go any better.

If a man said he felt tongue-tied around women at the office, his predicament would not be met with much patience. He’d be called foolish or more likely sexist.

So, what is different about the scenario at the park? I’d like to say nothing. But, I think if we look at reality, there are two differences. One: unlike the workplace, there is no protocol for behavior in the at-home world, no HR manager, and no superseding business objective that dictates interaction. Second: the network in the at-home world is as defined as much by friendship among the adults as it is among the children. And, I am mostly friends with women. Along the way, I become friends with their husbands, but only insomuch as it reinforces my friendship with the woman. The gist of my premise is long established and dates back to at  least When Harry Met Sally.

So, where does that leave us? I think there’s room for progress.

So, I decided to ask a few Stay-at-Home Dads what life is like for them. And, now that I've learned a bit more, I think the next time I am at the sandbox, I’ll put down the Tonka Truck.



JONATHAN 
Name:Jonathan (Pictured right with son)
What you did before you became a SAHD: teacher
Do you work part time, now, if so as what: yes, sculptor and home remodeler
Your kids’ ages: 3 years, 7 months
Your wife’s profession: college professor
Age range: 30-35

1. Tell me about the conversation(s) you had with your wife as you decided that you would stay home with your kids:
Because I try to work from home in addition to caring for our children, part of my decision to stay at home was career-based. Before becoming a SAHD, I was an art teacher. I decided that I didn’t want to “define” myself solely as a teacher and wanted to try to be a successful practicing artist. Career aside, I also thought it was more important to be part of our children’s development than that of the high schoolers that I was teaching at the time (not that their development isn’t important, but it isn’t the same as my own children’s development. Plus, my kids are a lot younger). I also felt like I gave all of my patience and energy to my students and didn’t have enough left over for my children when I got home, and that needed to change.

2. Before you stayed at home, what share of the “second-shift” did you do? How has that changed?
I’d say my wife and I have always tried to be equal in our contributions. I would (and still do) play with the kids while she cooked dinner. I used to give our son his bath and then my wife would read his books and tuck him in. Now that we have a young baby too, we split these duties and are each responsible for one child at bedtime (at least until our daughter can enjoy the same books as our son).

2. How do you find time for yourself?
I do get a shower every second or third day, and if I shave I get an extra 5 minutes. Seriously though, our kids are in child care or preschool part-time, so I have a few hours every other day to myself. I think the “break” allows me to be a better dad when we are together.

3. Do you experience any logistical problems due to society not keeping up with the changing roles of women and men—for example, are there fewer changing tables in men’s rooms, or are their legal or financial forms, etc, that make incorrect assumptions?
Well I don’t ever get asked if I need help out with the groceries, even when I’m juggling a 3 year old and a 7 month old. But my wife reports getting offered help every time she’s at the store, even with just one child, and I do see moms around me getting offered help. The changing table is an issue in men’s restrooms, so don’t give me a dirty look if you see me changing a diaper on the leather club chairs in Barnes and Nobel. I also wasn’t asked to sign up for the “mom’s helper” in my son’s preschool class – the teachers asked if my wife wanted to volunteer even though I had done drop-off and pick-up every day for 2 months and they knew I was the primary parent at home. I will say that my wife probably confronts some issues when it comes to filling out forms since she doesn’t share the same last name as our kids (another phenomenon that society is slow to adapt to).

4. Tell me about the group of people you interact with during the day: (Stay at home moms often go to playgroups, do SAHD’s do the same thing?)
I don’t really feel the urge to seek out play groups - I guess my interactions are limited to the cash register ladies at Lowes and the baggers at the grocery store. But I do feel a little left out of mom discussions at my son’s gymnastics class. For example, I was giving my daughter a bottle in the waiting room when several moms had a discussion about the swine flu while our kids bounced around and tried to do donkey kicks. Maybe they thought that my chiseled jaw made me Superman, and that because my son is almost twice the size of any other kid his age we were a league of Super Heroes…and thus we must be immune to the swine flu.

5. Do parents (moms or dads) strike up conversations with you in the park—do they invite you for playdates—or do you ever feel more isolated?
No, and no. I guess I’m okay with being a loner. But, I do get lots of grandmother-types who compliment me on my fathering (like it isn’t expected to see fathers being good dads with their kids – my wife has a similar parenting style and she doesn’t get the same comments).

6. How has your relationship with your kids changed since you became a Stay-at-Home Dad?
I don’t think it has changed in quality – I still struggle with the balance between being a playmate and a teacher, being the disciplinarian and a friend, and what I “should” be doing as a father. It’s just that there are now more hours devoted to this balance.

7. Do you and your wife touch base about how things are going? Do you see yourself moving into a different role when the kids are older and if so, how will that work?
Yes, we touch base every day. She leaves me instructions every morning. As our kids age, I don’t see my role changing too much – I just might have more time for myself (my work) when the kids are in school every day. I think I’ll always struggle with the balance described in #7, and new challenges will come with each age.

8. Politically Incorrect Question #1: What is one thing that your wife does better than you in terms of being at home with the kids:
I don’t know how she stays so calm when one of our children vomits. And, she seems to manage her frustration much better than I do.

9. Politically incorrect Question #2: What is one thing you do better than her in terms of being at home with the kids?
Well it’s a pretty long list, but most importantly, I build awesome things out of Legos.

10. Is there anything you struggle with as a SAHD—either emotionally, intellectually, or physically?
I haven’t had too many struggles thus far with our son, but I imagine I’ll have to adapt to the emotional and physical changes that our daughter will go through as she gets older.

11. Do people ever call you Mr. Mom? What would you like to tell them?
I haven’t been called Mr. Mom and I’ll have to give a politically correct response some thought.


PHIL 

Name: Phil (pictured right, with wife, kids, and new dog)

Your kids' ages: Two boys, 12 and 14 years old
What you did before you became a SAHD:I was a postdoctoral fellow in developmental biology before I became a stay at home father.
Your wife's profession: Physician specializing in Family Medicine
Your age range: 45-50 years old

Tell me about the conversation(s) you had with your wife as you decided that you would stay home with your kids:
The short answer is that we had one big conversation that is on going to this day.
When my wife and I married, we knew we wanted to have children and that we would probably have two. When our first child was born, my wife had just completed her first year of medical school. We actually timed it that way and, well, I guess we were lucky. At the time, I was a postdoctoral fellow in a developmental biology lab. Anne-Marie had about eight weeks before she had to start her second year, so she was completely in charge of raising our new son. I pitched in here and there, because it is a lot of fun, but I was working really hard in the lab expecting that the coming academic year was going to be tough.

We had found a day care provider for our eight week old and we thought, "OK. This won't be too bad." Then we found out that our cute baby boy was being propped up with a bottle and watching TV at just over eleven weeks old. I suppose in the grand scheme of things, this isn't terribly egregious, but we quickly hunted down a new sitter who took care of just several children each day. She turned out to be great and taught us a lot about how to parent our son. However, the shock we had experienced jolted us out of our reverie and the daily routine of our lives: Why were we having children ... was it simply to complete some sort of biological circle? ……We were enjoying the new member of our family, but it was abundantly clear to us, that eventually one of us was going to have to take a major stake in handling the details of raising our son.

So, Anne-Marie and I decided that her graduation from medical school and into a medical residency would be a natural point in our lives when I could potentially transition into the role of primary caregiver in the family.


So, why is it that I stay at home and not Anne-Marie? She probably has the potential to earn more than me, she is very happy with her work and I could basically care less about a career. So, how exactly do I feel fulfilled? How about a joke: I live through my children. I view what I do as more of a calling than a job.


2. Before you stayed at home, what share of the "second-shift" did you do? How has that changed?
Raising our children has always been a team effort for Anne-Marie and me. Aside from the nightly breast feeding when the children were young, we made equivalent efforts caring for the children and managing the household.

3. How do you find time for yourself?
It's a lot easier now that the boys are capable of being home alone for a few hours. When the children were younger, particularly during Anne-Marie's years as a medical resident, she would often tell me to go off and do something. That's when I typically went for a bicycle ride. One of the best things about our relationship is that Anne-Marie doesn't need much sleep.

4. Do you experience any logistical problems due to society not keeping up with the changing roles of women and men?
I have never experienced any logistical issues.

5. You home school your children-are you a part of a network of home schoolers and if so, are there other dads involved?
Early on, in 1998, it was kind of lonely being a stay at home dad. At the playgrounds there were never any dads, just moms. Some of the moms were pretty accepting, while others were simply curious. It's not that I needed to see other fathers, it's just that I had to get used to being in the minority and not feeling odd about it. I am over that. As the children got older, I started to meet more stay at home moms and on occasion a stay at home father. My boys have a number of teachers/tutors for various arts and academic subjects, even though they are home schooled. In all cases, these people are inspiring and terrific teachers. It is a great joy for me to be able to observe many of these lessons. In general I have not looked for stay at home fathers. Now I know a few stay at home mothers and my relationship with them extends to both of our families. It helps to be able to talk about parenting issues, even though a solution never really evolves to "solve" the problem. Mostly I think, discussion just helps bring perspective: "Wow, your kid did that? Oh, that's how you handled it. Well, get a load of what my kid just did, etc…"

6. How has your relationship with your kids changed since you became a Stay-at-Home Dad?
Except for the very earliest years of their lives, and really only six months, of the youngest son, the boys have never known anything other than a stay at home father. They do get very excited when their mother comes home from work or when she's been at a conference for a while!

7. Do you and your wife touch base about how things are going? Do you see yourself moving into a different role when the kids are older and if so, how will that work?
I will always manage the household. I am having a hard time imagining that anything else could matter more than what am doing now. However, the reality is that I will have time to do something else. I may volunteer my time rather than take a paying job. I already do a fair amount of volunteering. We will both take a wait and see approach as the boys near the age of 18.

8. Politically Incorrect Question #1: What is one thing that your wife does better than you in terms of being at home with the kids:
Anne-Marie is incredibly good about making sure the children are always fed with a well timed snack. I have always tended to forget that food is really important for the boys, especially since without it they get really cranky, even now. I would imagine that I would be a little more with it, but …

9. Politically incorrect Question #2: What is one thing you do better than her in terms of being at home with the kids?
I tend to pick my battles more carefully with the boys, otherwise the boys and I would be at each other all the time. I think that Anne-Marie sometimes forgets that she doesn't have to address every misbehavior. I think this is because I am constantly tested by the boys and just have more practice managing their behavior.

10. Is there anything you struggle with as a SAHD-either emotionally, intellectually, or physically?
I sometimes worry whether I am preparing the boys sufficiently for the future.

11. Do people ever call you Mr. Mom? What would you like to tell them?
I don't believe I have ever been called Mr. Mom. I understand why I might be addressed this way, perhaps as a kind of joke. In fact, I would have expected this more ten years ago than now. There are many more father's who stay at home these days. However, I do not view myself as a mother. I am a father who stays at home.

When I first asked Phil about this blog topic he shared this story:

By the way, reflecting on your article, I have this recent tiny experience.
An Edward Jones financial representative stopped by the other day attempting to interest me in investments etc. and during the course of his visit he learned that I am a stay at home dad. He wanted to know how to get my job. This is not the first time I have had an exchange like this and I am never sure what to make of it except that the questioner doesn't like their job much and imagines that mine is somehow better. I would bet that few women ever get that question. Or that they get the question phrased quite that way.



JASON
Name: Jason (pictured right, with kids camping)


What you did before you became a SAHD: I worked for the National Museum of the American Indian –Smithsonian Institution as a Research Specialist. I also worked as a research specialist for a non-Profit in NYC commuting 3-4 days a week (that was brutal…up at 5:30AM and back around 8PM).
Do you work part time, now, if so as what: I am actually working full-time now as a history teacher and technical production manager of a small, private school in central NJ.
Your kids’ ages: 5 and 8
Your wife’s profession: Director of Drama at same school
Age range: 37-38

1. Tell me about the conversation(s) you had with your wife as you decided that you would stay home with your kids:
The conversations that I had with my wife at that time were about the convenience of me staying at home. At that point in my life, I was working from out of our apartment and contracting work with the government. I did not have a health plan or benefits with this contract work and so clearly, in terms of salary and benefits, my wife was the one who had to stay fully employed. For me to find a job with similar salary, benefits and free housing (we were living at a boarding school) seemed unrealistic in the summer of 2001. So in the end, it came down to the “bottom line”. There really was no discussion about abilities, wants or desires about staying at home. She made more than I did and had a health plan.

2. Before you stayed at home, what share of the “second-shift” did you do? How has that changed? I always did all of the cooking and clean up from most if not all prepared meals. My wife was always pretty much in charge of laundry – collection, sorting, washing, sorting, folding and putting it away. It was a pretty easy 50/50 balance because all of the other cleaning we did (vacuuming, bathroom etc)- we did it together. Writing this down now… it makes me realize how f-ing easy people with no kids have it. I am just astounded to remember that all we had to do was basically pick up after ourselves and wash two sets of plates and some cooking utensils. Sheesh! How has it changed? Not much. I still do cook all of our meals and the frequency of dishwashing is about the same – you know men - they RULE that dishwasher (right?). I also do grocery shopping for the family just about all of the time. I do not do any of the clothes or related type shopping my wife does that. In addition, nine out of ten nights, I am making lunches for the kids. Every day, I wake up before my wife, urge the kids to get themselves dressed, make breakfast for our daughter and get them packed up and ready to go to school. I take our daughter to school nine out of ten days and have done so for both kids…up until our son could take himself to school – he’s 8.

3. How do you find time for yourself? There was/is no time for myself. I honestly feel that way although, I know that how I “feel” and the “reality” of that situation is not the same. If I do try to get time for myself, I have to plan it in advance with my wife and get babysitting etc. It can never be a spontaneous thing. For example, once every summer, I get together with high school friends for a hiking/camping outing for about three days. Just the guys. This past year, we went to Colorado and so the trip lasted about five days. This resulted in a total breakdown of my wife because the family became unglued when I was gone. On the phone, she just kept saying “It's too long…it's too long!” meaning that the length of my absence was too long. For me, it wasn’t long enough.

4. Do you experience any logistical problems due to society not keeping up with the changing roles of women and men—for example, are there fewer changing tables in men’s rooms, or are their legal or financial forms, etc, that make incorrect assumptions? All the time! However, most places are good about the changing tables etc. but the whole form thing is a hassle. We just had to deal with a banking issue for our daughter because they used my wife’s last name instead of mine. People call me Mr. (insert wife’s last name here) because they assume that she took my name. In addition, every single magazine for young parents and every single commercial about caring for children is women-centric. “Choosey Moms Choose Jif!” When was the last time my wife bought Peanut Butter? Every single commercial about childcare has women and no men taking care of the kids. This is not to say that my wife doesn’t do any of that. She does and she is great at caring for our sick and infirmed. But I do that too. Even if it isn’t acknowledged by society or TV.

5. Tell me about the group of people you interact with during the day: (Stay at home moms often go to playgroups, do SAHD’s do the same thing?) To be honest…I CANNOT STAND PLAYGROUPS AND PLAYDATES! When I was at home with the kids, I had to just suck it up and go to playdates and arrange them so our children would be basically normal, but to be honest, I just can’t stand the whole playdate thing. The people I interacted with during the day when I was staying at home were the kids’ teachers and my upstairs (stay at home mom) neighbor mostly. To be honest, I probably self-segregated too much and felt like a “shut-in” for most of the time. It looks like it was my fault for that though. I had a hard time striking up any kind of conversations with other young parents. I am sure there is a lot of psycho-babble to explain all of this but that is what happened. I just stayed with my kids, on my little island and made sure that I paid attention to them ALL the time. Massive pet peeve of mine…Mom, mom, mom, mom, mommy look, mommy look, mommy look at me, mommy, mom, mom – the parents that cannot break away from their inane small-talk at the park to pay attention to their kids. Drives me nuts. I can honestly say that I was never one of those parents that ignored their kids – or “didn’t hear them” when they were talking to me. Of course, I would turn to my son or daughter and tell them to wait for me to end my conversation – but at least I was acknowledging their existence.

6. Do parents (moms or dads) strike up conversations with you in the park—do they invite you for playdates—or do you ever feel more isolated? See above.

7. How has your relationship with your kids changed since you became a Stay-at-Home Dad? Basically, my relationship is still a typical father relationship. I am still the enforcer and I am still the one who is going to dole out punishment. At the same time, I am also the primary care provider so it must have them a little confused. Obviously, my kids have said things to my wife like, “You’re not the real parent, Papa is the real parent” and “Mommies are for ruining kid’s ideas”. Nice one. I can function completely with them when I am the lone parent. I feel very strongly that when you are the lone parent, the kids are the top priority. There’s no excuse to be ignoring them - sure, put on a movie or the TV while you do something but it would be wrong not to check on them or get them something. In terms of my relationships with each of my children - there is a very strong bond there. I can almost say that for my son and daughter at times, there is almost a telepathic bond. They know exactly what I am thinking just by looking at me and I know what they’re thinking by looking at them.

8. Do you and your wife touch base about how things are going? Do you see yourself moving into a different role when the kids are older and if so, how will that work? I have moved into a different role in my life at this point but the overall assumption is that I am still the “default” primary care provider. For the most part (not always) I am the one who has to take time out of work to take them to appointments. Do we touch base? Not enough – there are way too many assumptions still flying around and not enough communication. The irony is that we work in the same room basically. My role, as they get older is to not be the “default” person. Again, to be honest, I feel like I have “paid my dues” by giving up my career and now it is time for someone else to make a similar kind of effort during the “next phase” so-to-speak.

9. Politically Incorrect Question #1: What is one thing that your wife does better than you in terms of being at home with the kids: Nothing. Sorry – but that is being brutally honest. The one thing that she is better at is taking them OUT somewhere. Does that count? She is much more willing to take them to the movies or to birthday parties etc. But being at home with the kids, I honestly don’t see her doing a single thing better than me. Sorry, it sounds mean, but it is true.

10. Politically incorrect Question #2: What is one thing you do better than her in terms of being at home with the kids? I think that I pay attention to them more. I don’t even think that this question is all that politically incorrect either. I put in thousands of hours of my life into raising these kids so I think that the overall assumption would be that I have that foundation of experience that my wife just doesn’t have. It might be sad, but it is true. It is a fact; she has not had the number of hours of exposure in one-on-one situations with our kids like I have had over the past eight years. It adds up and it makes a difference.

11. Is there anything you struggle with as a SAHD—either emotionally, intellectually, or physically? All of the above? I haven’t read more than maybe three or four books since we have had kids. Obviously, there is still some resentment about giving up my career for about four years with no real acknowledgement of my overall contribution to society at large. It has made me more passive aggressive in general. The physical toll could be that I am now experiencing early signs of arthritis, and at one point in time, when I was purely staying at home all of the time, I got heavy enough and out of shape enough to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglycerides as well as a double hernia. Nice. Once I got back into a part-time work situation, I was able to lose some weight and those problems subsided but it was all thanks to being able to work again.


12. Do people ever call you Mr. Mom? What would you like to tell them? I have actually told people to their faces to “Go f- themselves” when they have said that (awkward situation in the grocery store). I know – I can be the life of the party. I am not usually that grouchy. Usually. This is just a tricky area of our culture. Women are still expected to be the primary childcare provider. Men are expected to be the breadwinners. I don’t care what people say about the statistics, I am talking about culture here. My wife says that she feels like a bad wife and mother all of the time. I really think that she believes it when she says this bulls-t. But she is judging herself based upon those old cultural assumptions. This is coming from a self-proclaimed feminist as well… I would like to point that out.

Jason noted that the fallout of his response to my survey was a very long conversation with his wife. Then Jason turned the tables and posed a question to me: Do I ever have to boost my husband's confidence about his choice to be the breadwinner?


I did not hear from dads in different relationship scenerios: unmarried, divorced or same-sex. It would be a valuable addition to the conversation.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Stay-at-Home Saboteurs

When I was in college I took a class called A History of Feminism. The professor noted that the class was A History and not The History because a quarter long class could not be definitive. A decade and a half later, the only word I care about is the word history, and why we weren’t in a class focused on the future instead of the past.

It’s too late now, and the damage has been done. Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir could not save me or my cohorts from joining the “opt-out revolution.” Yes, we became saboteurs; we became stay-at-home-moms.

I started this week with the idea of looking at the phrase, stay-at-home mom, and when it replaced homemaker or housewife. I opened Pandora’s gender specific box.

Let’s first answer the simple question. When did the phrase stay-at-home mom come into use? Since the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg is not one of the five people following me on twitter, I emailed my Aunt, a reference librarian at Carnegie Mellon.

I should mention that I had first tried to find this information myself. My experience in the library’s reference section started with a wrestling match between me, a giant dictionary and a double stroller and ended with a homeless man mumbling offensive remarks at me as I boarded the elevator. In between there were crushed goldfish crackers, one piercing cry, and a few changes to the Dewey Decimal system thanks to Ava, my 18 month old.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists several examples starting in the 1800’s with the term stay-at home referring to those who do not travel abroad. One could be a stay-at-home man (Jane Austen), or a stay-at-home insect (E. Hyams) or what seems more pejorative, a stay-at-home who avoids serving abroad in the military (Churchill).

The search in Lexis-Nexis got us closer to our answer, however, considering we are neither men nor insects. It was in 1986 that ADWEEK compared the nutritional meals prepared by “nine-to-fivers” to those of “stay-at-home moms”. (The nine-to-fivers won.) And In 1987, Newsweek ran a piece on the popularity of preschool for children of both working women and “stay-at-home moms”.

Fast forward nearly ten years to me sitting in my college class. It was the mid-nineties and women were still climbing the corporate ladder. The number of mothers in the work force with infant children peaked just a few years later in 1998. Of course no one was talking about the future of feminism, we sat there proud of the progress. I suppose it was assumed we’d move in one direction.

But, we have not. Of my friends from college, some are working full time, some are working part time and some are at home. I had not thought much of these differences—not even felt, much less heard the artillery of the mommy-wars. Instead, I’ve known a sense of camaraderie. We are all trying to raise our kids the best we can and we are all exhausted.

But, my anecdotal report from the front lines reveals only a few things, mainly, that my generation of women—at least superficially—is not spending much of their depleted free time debating one another’s career choices. And, when you tell someone at a party you, “stay-at-home” with your kids, most people know better than to make jokes about bon bons.

This renewed acceptance of the stay-at-home mom is part of what some say is undermining the progress of women. Although I do not agree with all of this argument, I am interested in it. Because there is not a day that goes by when I do not wonder: am I raising my daughters to be smart and aggressive so that one day they too can quit their careers and stay at home?

Linda Hirshman wrote about the opt-out revolution in her 2005 article in The American Prospect, originally titled, “Homeward Bound”. 2005 was a lifetime ago for many of us. Literally. We had not yet had our first child. The world, too, has changed in significant ways—Sonia Sotomayor is now on the Supreme Court, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton had historic runs for the white house, and Michelle Obama is now in it, placing the work-family relationship among her top policy interests.

Still, when I read the story, now called “America’s Stay-at-Home-Feminists”, a few days ago on the website AlterNet, I realized I had not considered my life in a bigger context. At what point are my choices driven by social trends and at what point do my choices drive the trends? And most important, how does this blurry intersection influence the future?

Hirshman says the public world may have changed but the “real glass ceiling is at home.” She did a fascinating study. She looked through the New York Times Sunday Styles wedding announcements from 1996 and tracked down three weekend’s worth of brides. What were these women doing in 2004, eight years later?

At the time of their weddings, the women were what Hirshman refers to as “elite”. They had strong educations and potentially ambitious careers—doctors, lawyers, editors, executives in marketing. She interviewed 80 percent of the 41 women listed and found 30 had had babies.

“Of the 30 with babies, five were still working full time-time. Twenty-five, or 85 percent, were not working full time. Of those not working full time, 10 were working part time but often a long way from their prior career paths. And half the married women with children were not working at all.”

She concludes that this anecdotal data, along with census results showing a decline in the previously upward trend of women with children working, represent a, “loss of hope for the future—a loss of hope that the role of women in society will continue to increase.”

She anticipates most of the arguments that you might toss to her: wait, it’s my choice to stay home, to which she says: No, feminism failed to take on gender relations strong enough and left you holding the domestic bag and decided to call it “choice”.

Wait, my husband makes more than I do, and my going back to work full time would hardly cover childcare. She says, “This totally ignores that both adults are in the enterprise together and (ignores) the demonstrable future loss of income, power, security for the woman who quits." Don’t subtract childcare from the woman’s salary alone, but think combined income, and subtract from that.

The family, she says, “with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks—is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government.”

The goal is women with power, and women with money.

To get there, she has rules for young women: “Prepare yourself to qualify for good work, treat work seriously, and don’t put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry.” I need to add that when she says “prepare yourself to qualify for good work,” she means, don’t waste your college years majoring in the liberal arts. There is actually one last rule: have only one baby.

It makes sense and it also makes my head hurt.

First, I know her goal is large-scale and the personal details I might offer in defense of the “opt-out revolution” do not stand up to her method.

Second, I don’t care. There are three issues she does not address and they are important.

The first issue: who exactly is supposed to raise the kids? It’s going to be the mom, the dad, or a childcare provider --grandparents, a nanny, a day care center. How a family makes this decision is driven by more than social agendas. It’s decided by proximity to grandparents, access to daycare, the financial situation of the breadwinners, and their emotional make-up.

And, I think it’s important to note that often, in the effort to keep the elite mom working full time, there is a nanny who may have to leave her own kids with a relative. At best, the drive for, so-called, “full-human flourishing” is for those who can afford to buy it.

The second issue: Is it the case that the home is socially invisible and without value? It was interesting to read the stories from the late 1980’s on Lexis-Nexis in which stay-at-home moms dealt with isolation by subscribing to newsletters. These came once a month, and via snail mail.

Has the internet and technology changed the fabric of the domestic sphere? Aren't  we more connected, more vocal, and less invisible?

And, third: has the career trajectory changed (even for those who have never taken time off to raise kids) to the point that many people start new careers in their 40’s and 50’s? If so, the stay-at-home mom may re-enter the workforce with fewer light years seperating her from those who never left it.

But, let’s say the stay-at-home mom does not return to work. What if she stays home until the kids are in college? What if all she does is raise her kids, run the house, volunteer at school, learn a new language, sit on the town council, help her aging parents, volunteer at a woman’s shelter, adopt a dog, raise money for a presidential candidate, mentor a teenager, and vote? Is there no value in that? Is there no power in that?

There is no money in that. And, maybe that is the sticking point.

Someday, when my daughters ask me about the “opt-out revolution", I’ll pull out a faded story written by Linda Hirshman. “Read this,” I’ll say, “and then decide if you want to major in econ or art history.” And, instead of A History of Feminism, they may take a class like the one being taught at George Washington University called, Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership. The work-family balance is not left to chance; it’s taught.

I often tell my four year old that she can be a doctor, or a dentist, or an artist or writer, or as her pediatrician suggested when she was five months old, an air traffic controller. And, she usually says, "Yes." Then she pauses and says, "I want to be a mommy."

And, then I say, "You can be both."

And, even if it means being both at different times, or more of one and less of the other at other times, I mean it. She can be both. The example I am setting by being a stay-at-home mom today may represent less of a revolution and more of an evolution.

To read Linda Hirshman's full article, or to read more about the program at George Washington University, check out the links posted on the sidebar. The GW program also has a related page on Facebook called  Hot Momma's Project.

Also, I am looking for a few stay-at-home dads for some Q & A for a future blog. If you are one, or know one, please email me: sarahvanderschaaff@msn.com

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Disney Princess Power

Although I take some shots at Disney, to my fellow parents, especially those with girls who are as into the princesses as my daughter, you have my respect; I am not judging your parenting or your view of this phenomenon. With that said...here goes...

I checked, and there’s no mention of a bikini in Hans Christian Andersen’s 1836 fairy tale, The Little Mermaid. Actually, the version the librarians were pushing at the Princeton Library had illustrations in which the mermaids bore their naked breasts—but they were gently veiled under their long flowing hair. Never mind that fish don’t suckle their young, and women don’t have fishtails—there was something natural about the whole thing. Disney’s little mermaid does not seem natural to me. The little shells covering her breasts and her perfect and quite bare torso make the Disney creation look like a tadpole mutation of a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader.


This blog is going to upset some people and as I write it, I am considering changing my name. You see, I don’t want Mickey Mouse banging on my door at two am, telling me to mind own business. Mostly, I am afraid of my daughter’s reaction when she notices a slow but deliberate embargo on all things princess. I have no choice. Our house has been infiltrated by a tribe of eight well dressed and buxom royals. And, someone has to take a stand.

The eight of whom I speak need no introduction, but for those of you with boys or who have recently moved here from mars, allow me to introduce you to the Disney Princess Franchise: Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and new this winter, the first black princess (no, not in history, just Disney’s history) Tiana. To make the princesses a perfect 10, Disney will soon be adding Rapunzel and her long, Marsha Brady hair.

I am not going to delve into the curriculum vitae of these women. You probably know that some of them hung out in fairy tales long before getting higher paying jobs with Walt. I’m not interested in the plots of the movies or their message. Actually, I am, but right now, my oldest daughter doesn’t spend much time watching the movies or reading the books. Most of her exposure is in the form of sippy cups, lunchboxes, stickers, toothbrushes, jammies, dental floss, notebooks, slippers, patio chairs, sleeping bags, backpacks, calendars, cans of chicken noodle soup and any one of the other 25,000 items marketed under the Disney Princess Franchise. And, I have one question: why are all these princesses dressed like prostitutes?

Please don’t hate me. I am not talking about our kids—my daughter included, who love to dress up in Cinderella costumes, or who put on tiaras whenever they munch on Cheez-Its. I am talking about the princesses in the movies whose likenesses are slapped across so many objects designed for kids.

Two questions drove to me write this column. When did the princesses get so sexy and who at Disney thought it was a good idea.

When did the princesses get so sexy? The only article I could find that addressed this head-on was written by a film critic for the Deseret News, Chris Hicks, in 1996. That’s fourteen years ago, folks. Most of us were wearing flannel shirts and trying to learn the Macarena. But, do you remember a little Disney movie from 1988 called, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Chris Hicks thinks this ushered the way for the sexy animated princess. If you don’t remember Jessica Rabbit, you might want to take another look, and then realize that shortly after her successful appearance came another redheaded sexpot, Ariel, and the equally alluring and poorly dressed Jasmine and Pocahontas.

So, who at Disney thought these sexy princesses were a good idea? I would love to have been a fly on the wall when some animator showed a sketch of a size-zero figure falling out of a low-cut gown and they all shouted, “Yes! Sell that to the four year olds!”, but for now, the best we can do is look to the man touted as the creator of Disney Princess Franchise. If the proverbial buck stops somewhere, it might stop at Andy Mooney.

Was this man an artist, an animator, a children’s book author, a children’s psychologist, a parent of a small child? No. He’s the head of Disney’s Consumer Products Division and he’s a rainmaker. Legend has it, this former Nike executive was going to a Disney On Ice show when he noticed all the little girls in line wearing generic princess dresses. That was way back in 2000 when the disorganized princesses pulled in just $300 million. Now, thanks to Mooney and his commoditization of the princesses, it’s closer to $4 billion. Over the years and divided among the seven dwarfs and a few rouge pirates of the Caribbean, and it’s clear the per capita GDP in the Magic Kingdom rivals that of Luxembourg.

How did this kind of growth happen? Is it a coincidence that the packaging of the princesses and their sexy transformations came at the same time?

You might have forgotten that the princesses didn’t always look the way they do. Some are so new to Disney they have no history. But those like Cinderella, who have been with the company for more than fifty years, have clearly had work done. I know because I found Cinderella’s yearbook photos from 1986. It’s not her yearbook, exactly, but it’s a book I found in an old box given to me by a neighbor—a treasure of things her kids had outgrown. And, sure enough, there was a version of Cinderella—a flat-chested, brown haired maiden toiling in her evil stepmother’s house. No particular attention is given to her bosom, even when she marries the prince. And, yet, she and her hubby reportedly lived happily ever after.

There’s another thing I noticed about the illustrations in this old book: Cinderella never looks directly at the viewer. She’s in her own world—a fairy tale world—in which she and the story exist as something separate. Today's Cinderella is a platinum blonde and she looks directly at you, inviting you to cross from reality into fantasy—or perhaps—take fantasy into reality. I support creativity and imagination—I make my livelihood on it—but this manipulation of the princess gaze –in my mind---is part of the not so harmless reach Disney is making into the minds of our children.

You might stop me and say—wait, it’s the parents who actually buy these princess items—not the children. Or, if Disney weren’t doing something right, kids wouldn’t love these princesses. To which I say, perhaps Disney is tapping into our grown-up desire to be associated with beauty and desire. My four year old might not care one way or the other about Belle’s décolleté, but someone must: the decision makers in retail, the mothers who find the attractive princesses escapist, modern or fun, and the dads who don’t even notice anything is unusual because our world is inundated with such images from catalogues to pop stars.

And, if we do balk at the imagery, we are coaxed away from our second-thoughts by the messages Disney links with the brand. Find you inner Princess. Follow your dreams. We are reminded of the virtues the princesses supposedly represent: integrity, honor, discovery, friendship, and love. I know a lot of people find the traits and characterizations of the princesses refreshing. Some of the princesses are witty, funny, iconoclastic. But, at the end of the day, these woman are still dressed and drawn in a way that, to me, powerfully upstages their personalities.

If inner beauty and strength were the essences of these princesses, wouldn’t at least one of the 10 look more like Susan Boyle? It is this alignment of conflicting agendas that strikes me as most harmful: to say one thing, but reinforce another. Taken in small doses, and without the artificial messaging, the princesses could be a harmless aspect of playtime, a bit like birthday cake with grocery-store frosting. Every once in a blue moon, it’s indulgent and celebratory. But, nobody pretends the cake is good for you.

We are being told this cake is good for us, and good for our daughters. Not just for the 4-9 year old phase of their development, but for life. Disney has introduced a line of wedding gowns designed by Kirstie Kelly, for which grown women are pitched the idea that with these dresses, they can connect to “every girl's inner princess.” And with the right jewels and enchanting accents, you can “let your fairy tale begin...” Lest you think this fantasy for adults is only for young brides, Disney will be hosting a half marathon this March. Real life inspirations like the runner Deena Kastor are not needed when you have the kind of poetry found on their webpage,

“Mirror, mirror, reveal the One.
Show me the Princess who has the strength to run.”

And, guess what?  If you finish the race, you get your very own princess medal! 

Fantasy, at least the kind they are selling, seems to thrive on making little girls yearn for womanhood and women yearn for childhood. Finding one's inner princess has nothing to do with finding inner peace, it seems.

Let's move, if we can, to a comparison. What would be the boy equivalent to the princess franchise? Cars and pirates just don't seem to have the same power, but suppose Disney tapped into the societal pressure for men to be wealthy?

This seems a perfect counterpoint to the princesses theme of beauty and sexuality. Instead of Cinderella and the gang, boys will have a line called Rich Dudes, Financial Superstars. I envision a lunchbox with Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor, Larry Ellison and one or two wealthy princes from the Middle East. The Rich Dudes line of accessories would fill every boy’s life-style needs, and make simple sippy cups, jammies and coloring books come to life with images of safety deposit boxes, mansions and public institutions with “your name here”. Positive messaging will make sure boys remember to, “find their inner mogul,” and believe in their dreams of “financial domination.”

I know, this sounds crazy. But, unlike all of the princesses, with the exception of honorary princess Pocahontas, Rich Dudes, Financial Superstars is based on real people—who actually did find their inner moguls. It's less preposterous than the princess line. Still, we would never explicitly accept these images and slogans and champion them as good for our boys. Why do we do something similar to our daughters?

If you asked me if the Disney Princesses will harm my own daughters, I would say—yes—but maybe not directly.  37% of you agreed that the princesses might be harmful compared with 59% of you who said they were "over the top, but harmless."

I do believe that as a parent I have the power to offset Disney princess power. And, that is why I don't worry that my kids will be brainwashed by the occassional Disney princess stickerbook or sippy cup. But, the invasion of the sexy princesses into so many aspects of our life does worry me. I think it will harm my kids in ways I can't identify right now. I believe these images contribute to the culture that values women based on their appearance and willingness to flaunt their sexuality; a culture that often mocks and undervalues both female and male intellect, and one that makes older women despise their ageing bodies. 

I  admit that depending on the item, the princesses show more or less skin. (Compare the ad in the NYT for The Princess and the Frog in which Tiana's bosom is falling out of her gown to the more modest image on the Disney website). But, this inconsistency only adds to my skepticism.

I find no joy in standing outside this princess party and being the party-pooper. It makes me sad to feel this way. And, I understand why it is easier to say I am over-reacting or being a prude. I guess you could say I feel like Cinderella after the clock strikes midnight and her carriage turns into a pumpkin. It’s a long walk home.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Elephant in the Room

The elephant in the room this year is a pig, and its name is influenza. Yes, you guessed it; I’m talking about swine flu. Now before we go any further, you should know that I am not a doctor, and the sight of my own blood makes me squirm. But, there’s a long history of creative hypochondria on my father’s side, and I just discovered that my maternal great-grandmother didn’t believe in the use of vaccines. So, I’m in touch with the public’s mixed feelings about today’s topic.

Take the headline in the November 10th issue of the New York Times, Fearing a Flu Vaccine, and Wanting More of It. The article, written by Doctor Perri Klass, discusses the divided public opinion regarding the H1N1 vaccine: half the public desperately wants it and can’t get it—the other half thinks it’s unsafe. There are a few like me, who fear it could be unsafe and still desperately want it, but I guess I’m in the silent minority. You see, I have the unique ability to worry no matter what happens.

As I write this, my kids have each had one dose of the vaccine. When I found out my pediatrician had the H1N1 vaccine, but might run out of it, the social desire to “not miss out” over-rode everything else. But, I don’t know if they’ll be able to get a second dose. And, I don’t want to be cavalier about what it means to get sick.

My friend’s youngest daughter did get sick, experiencing a quick-moving case of swine flu that developed into pneumonia. Because of her history of respiratory issues, the child ended up in the hospital with tubes and an IV, while her older sibling endured and fought off the virus without complication.

The story illustrates one of the things that has complicated my, and many other people’s, reactions to the swine flu. It seems the illness can be relatively mild—no more virulent than the seasonal flu—or it can be serious. And, sometimes, according to Dr. Klass’s article, it’s hard to know which sick child will get better and which will get worse.

My friend did know, however, because of something rooted in biology: maternal instinct. According to Webster.com, maternal instinct is something that is not in the dictionary. It would be nice to think they were waxing philosophical, but they meant it literally: it isn’t in the dictionary. So, I went to Wikipedia and discovered maternal instinct is the bond that forms between a mother and her child. Ah, now I know.

My friend’s maternal instinct led her to research the swine flu long before it hit her daughters’ school. She knew asthma put her child at high risk, so she’d asked questions and developed a plan weeks before her daughter wheezed and collapsed in her arms. And, I have a feeling, she’d thought about the drive to the hospital well before she drove it.

We all know what it’s like to wonder—do we page the doctor—do we go to the hospital—do we wait it out or do we make our move. My friend’s advice: Follow your instinct. She said she’d rather have had to tell people she’d overreacted than tell them they’d waited too long and missed an opportunity.

In the poll last week, 40% of you said with the talk of the seasonal and swine flu you have, “kept on trucking”, while 45% of you have, "thought about avoiding certain activities but so far, kept your schedule." Only 3 % of us (and I say “us” because we must all be related to have answered this way) say you’ve, "avoided some actives, when convenient."

I asked this question about behavior because I was interested in how we moms deal with an atmosphere of uncertainty and mixed messages in our actual day to day life. What do we do when we’re told we have a national emergency but, oh, don't panic? From your answers, it looks like you’re navigating these waters pretty well.

For a while, it felt like we were being hit with a barrage of fear mongering-- the headlines, the television news teasers. It really only came down to two things: if a vaccine is available, are you going to get it, and if your kid gets sick, how will you monitor their progress, or lack of it, fighting off the illness. Those two issues were things to prepare for and we moms have the innate tools to do it.

The maternal instinct is strong and loud---as long as the white noise of the crowd uses an indoor voice now and then.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bonus Post: A word from the doctor.......

Please note: The following post is best read after reading the one that precedes it chronologically: Psycho-Sitter.

The post on Psycho-Sitter prompted many comments and I am so grateful to you who shared your experiences. You’ve given us all more to think about and perhaps prevented us from getting into similar situations. My friend, an assistant professor of psychology, saw the post in terms of her own field of study. I used the term Psycho-Sitter mostly because I liked the alliteration, but it was, of course, not technically accurate. Here’s an armchair analysis of the sitter from the doctor, who emphasizes that this is only speculation. It’s interesting, though, especially as we all search for the best way to select the right people to care for our kids. And, of course, this kind of study of human behavior is always fun.  

Although several theories about personality exist, one of the most popular approaches is the “Big 5” (e.g., Costa & McCrae, 1992) which characterizes an individual’s personality on 5 primary factors. Of course to get a reliable assessment, an individual would need to complete a personality inventory, which could have tens to hundreds of items on which they rate their behaviors. So this “assessment” of Psycho-sitter should not be considered reliable or valid, but it is fun to speculate.


1. Openness: in short, this factor characterizes people as being open to new experiences and creative…or not. A typical item might be “I have a vivid imagination”. Psycho-sitter assessment: Low. A vivid imagination would have resulted in finding some (any) way to entertain Ava.


2. Conscientiousness: people who are high on this factor are always prepared, pay attention to details, and are self-disciplined. Psycho-sitter assessment: Low. Lawrenceville, NJ is not a big place…but if she was conscientious, she would have been sure to bring the directions just in case.


3. Extraversion: people high in extraversion are sociable, enthusiastic, and full of energy. Heidi must be high on this scale. I bet she is fun to be around. Psycho-sitter assessment: Low (but quick to judge those who are high).


4. Agreeableness: people who are high on this factor are polite, compassionate, and empathetic; people who are low tend to insult others (or their children, in Sarah and Heidi’s case), so Psycho-sitter seems to fall more on the disagreeable end of this factor.


5. Neuroticism: people who are high on this factor tend to be emotional and easily stressed. They may become frustrated easily. My friend was hesitant to rate this one—not having met the subject, but I would say the sitter frustrated easily and was easily stressed, which ranks her High in this category.







Sunday, November 15, 2009

Psycho-Sitter

Psycho-sitter arrived fifteen minutes late and said, “I…didn’t…bring the directions.” She repeated the phrase three times and then stared. After a confusing silence, I realized what she was waiting for: me to apologize to her.

Was I supposed to say, “I am sorry I didn’t remind you to bring the directions,”? I had emailed them a week before and she’d used them for our initial interview. Her being late didn’t upset me, but I was tired and eager to hand off Ava so I could nap. This was before our week with sleep consultant Meg Zweiback, and I really, really needed to sleep.

“Well, thanks for being here,” I finally said, leading her to the den. “Ava didn’t get much sleep last night, so she’s a little cranky. But, you guys can play down here for a while.” I left them with some Goldfish crackers and a sippy cup and said I needed to take the dog for a walk before I headed upstairs. Ava cried out when I said good-bye, but I did what I always do when I leave her with a sitter---got out as soon as possible and hoped she wasn’t crying when I returned.

She was crying when I got back from the dog walk, but I sneaked up the steps and hit the bed. They’ll be fine, I told myself, closing my eyes. I waited. Then I heard a scream.

I went downstairs and found them as I’d left them. Not a single toy had been displaced. They both stood by the baby gate as if in prison. Yes, even the sitter.

A crying toddler is hard on a mom, but surely harder on a new sitter. “Don’t take it personally,” I said, deciding to make the most of the day. “Let’s do some errands.” I did need to mail something at the post office. It was rather important, actually: a letter from our pediatrician getting me out of jury duty. He’d made Ava sound like a hyperactive chimp with a staple gun, but still, it was my best hope. We’d already played the lactation card with my first daughter. “There’s a park not far from the post office. You guys can play.”

Before we could leave, I had to find my keys. I held Ava on my knee while I dug through my diaper bag, which today turned out to be a bottomless pit of plastic straw wrappers. The baby sitter stood by. She didn’t offer to hold Ava, or distract her, she just stared. How do I describe her glare? Would you call me paranoid if I said her look conveyed disgust, as if I were a druggie scraping a trashcan for some leftover Chef Boyardee?

But, then came her question, which bothered me more than her glare. “Has she ever had a baby sitter?”

It would have been logical to blame the tears on separation anxiety if the sitter had been doing her best to cheer Ava up. But from what I’d observed, that was not the case. I took a breath and said the truth, “Actually, she’s had a sitter once a week for her entire life.”

In the car, I asked the sitter about her life at college and her plans to study abroad. At one point the conversation came back to my older daughter, whom the sitter had met briefly at our first visit, but who was now in school. “I’ve never met such a headstrong four year old,” she said. I thought about their first meeting. Heidi had insisted on wearing a princess dress when they went for a bike ride. Not recommended if you’re doing the Tour de France, but acceptable if you still have training wheels. Interesting, I thought to myself.

I parked next to the Post Office, a few yards from a little park with a gazebo. I reminded the sitter that Ava didn’t have much judgment around cars or pebbles —the one she’d chase, the other she’d eat—so to keep a good eye on her.

When I came back, Ava was circling the gazebo.

“She would not stay still, so I had to hold her hand the entire time,” the sitter said, sounding taxed.

I loaded Ava into the car and started to think about how I was going to handle the remaining hour of babysitting time. When we got home, I had a plan.

“Thank you so much for your help today,” I said, “let’s call it a day.”

That night, I felt like a very unhappy person had been in my home---judged my kids—and my parenting—explicitly and implicitly—and got paid for doing so. And, I’d lined up this sourpuss for the entire semester. How was I going to get rid of her?

My cousin suggested I tell her we were in witness protection and being relocated, or better yet, that the kids were a hoax, just rentals. But, I decided to take the straightforward approach and send her an honest but polite email.

I told her I assumed she was too professional to quite a job once she’d started and I hoped I hadn’t prevented her from pursuing another offer, but it was probably pretty obvious that we weren’t a good fit.
She emailed back to say my email was ambiguous. Henceforth, she has been known in my mind as psycho-sitter.

Did she need me to tell her she was a terrible baby sitter? That she’d offended me, terrified my youngest kid and misread the eldest? Did she need me to remind her that she was late for the job—because of her own actions—and had not even bothered to say a perfunctory, “Hey, sorry about being late,”?

I wanted to amend my previous ambiguity by laying it all out in black and white, but I was too afraid of psycho-sitter’s style of combat. I took the high road once more, and said despite the ambiguity, she’d probably interpreted my email correctly; thanks again, but no need to come anymore. She can think I’m a disorganized zombie with incorrigible children for the rest of her life. At least I don’t have to see her again.

When I was in my twenties and pounding the pavement in NYC, I worked for a woman who ran a temp agency. I was her temp, in fact, and she’d taken me on as her personal assistant. She was a wealthy woman with a lot of power and the ability to live eccentrically. I spend most of the time sitting next to her in town cars, jotting down notes, typing and retyping letters, never proficient but always willing. When her terrier needed a baby sitter, I got him one. When the same dog needed to fly to the Caribbean on a chartered jet instead of in a crate in cargo, I understood.

I won’t say we moms are CEO’s, because the analogy is misplaced, but we run our households and we call the shots. I now realize what earned me a spot as L’s personal assistant: I never judged her.

What bothered me about psycho-sitter was that judging seemed to be all she was prepared to do. Instead of soothing, she looked for a reason for Ava’s tears. Instead of cheering a princess on a bike, she judged the mindset. And, instead of apologizing for being late, she looked to blame.

I have wonderful baby sitters. Rachel, who comes with a flower in her hair, who once looked at me as I headed out the door and said confidently, “I think I should tell you your blouse is unbuttoned. You have a job interview, right?” And, Samantha, who enters the chaos of our house and leaves it more peaceful, never missing a beat when I ask her to drive the kids, or help in a “poopy-emergency”. These sitters are a meaningful part of our lives.

Psycho-sitter apparently expected the household to be in perfect order when she arrived. If that were the case, I’d never need a sitter.

Although I know most of us are grateful for our wonderful baby sitters, I'm sure a few of you have similar stories to share. Please post a comment and let us know what happened and how you handled it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Why Do They Call It Free Time When I Have to Hire a Baby Sitter in Order to Get It?: Workout tips the parenting magazines might not tell you

With the holidays approaching, I thought it might be nice to share some fitness and wellness tips the parenting magazines won’t be featuring this season.

For me, Yoga is the best physical and mental break from the rigors of being a mom and it's something I can do at home. Interestingly, whenever I do downward dog, my golden retriever immediately starts humping my leg. So I’ve tweaked my home practice and now stretch while I fix my children’s dinner. The twenty-five seconds I have while microwaving their hot dogs is truly the most peaceful part of my day.

For a lower body workout, there’s the laundry stairmaster. This requires a great amount of patience and is not recommend for those of you who like clean socks. It’s essential that you DO NOT do laundry for an entire week, longer if you have the stamina, and then plunge into an intensive fifteen load marathon. The frequent trips up and down the steps will have your glutes burning. Bonus points for those with a washer in the basement. And, kudos if the jeans need extra time.

If you’re not afraid of a high-impact aerobic workout, here’s a routine I do just before leaving the house. This works best if you’re already running ten or fifteen minutes late and is guaranteed to make you break a sweat. Simply get the kids dressed and ready to go and then realize you can’t find your keys. Everyone then breaks into a frenzied search, making at least three trips through the entire house until you remember you left them in the front door. You’ll want to get a heart rate of at least 111 beats per minute to achieve maximum benefit.

Although I don’t recommend fad diets, if you’re in a pinch, I suggest the, “I’d rather eat cardboard” plan. This was created by doctors and was initially used by nursing moms whose babies had allergies. The nursing mom is asked to eliminate particular triggers from her diet, especially items often referred to as food. What's wonderful about this diet is that you can buy whatever you want as long as you limit your intake to the cardboard packaging. Believe it or not, the box from Kashi’s Oatmeal Raisin Flax Cookies has more oat flavor than the cookies inside and significantly fewer calories.

If you’re thinking of wearing a sleeveless dress at New Year’s, there is still time to get toned arms like the first lady’s, especially if you enjoy frequent trips to ShopRite. All you need to do is carry a twenty-five pound toddler in one arm and a Butterball turkey in the other. Let’s face it, neither wants to ride in your grocery cart. Although it’s cold, the frozen turkey will be a very cooperative counterpart to your fidgety child.

And, of course, Tai Chi is a wonderful stress-reducer, especially when you find yourself stuck waiting in line. Many Americans are unfamiliar with this ancient Chinese practice, so don’t be discouraged if folks ask you questions or give you a little extra personal space. I found that once I explained what I was doing, the security guard at Sam’s Club was actually very helpful.

Needless to say, your husband will try to be supportive of your goals and will probably mention that sex, too, burns calories. Three hundred. Per hour. If I had that kind of free time, I’d be at the gym.