In the front hall of a grade school one morning, I heard one mother say to another, "She's the person you should talk to." She was pointing at me. The woman she spoke to was upset. As the school psychologist, I am often sought out in such situations. After 20 years in this school, I'm asked for advice on everything from how to cure nose picking to easing the hurt of family breakups.
In this case I found that the mother was upset over one of the most common parental struggles: "the morning wars," those upsetting conflicts over getting children off to school on time.
The first mother was right. I was the person to talk to. Not just because I was the school psychologist but also because I was a veteran of the morning wars. In fact, that very morning I had just come from the front – with my own children.
These battles arise for all kinds of reason. Often it is finding, as you run out of the house, that a permission slip is missing or a special supply is required for that day. I'm sure I'm not the only mother who has learned, at the last second, that an empty milk carton was needed for that day's art activity. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has scrambled around pouring a half gallon of milk into every little jar I could find.
Prepare the night before
Over the years I've heard many stories from parents, most about clothing, breakfast and papers. From these parents I have also learned a few solutions. The overriding one is to do everything you possibly can the night before. A common clothing issue is having only the scratchy T-shirt clean enough to wear, then having to dig in the dirty clothes basket for the least dirty soft T-shirt. Or it may be the wrong socks.
I'm certain there were knights who spent less time looking for the Holy Grail than I have spent looking for socks that didn't have that uncomfortable seam in just the wrong place. Wearing them inside out helped a little. Then my daughter turned 6, which seemed to cure a lot of things.
Years ago I heard a well-known psychologist speak about his own children's resistance to getting dressed and how he once took them to school in their pajamas (no wonder we psychologists have the reputation we do). Nowadays such a strategy might get you reported to the authorities, even if it made you a hero to other parents.
Choose your battles
At a recent parenting workshop, a mother offered, almost apologetically, that she warms her daughter's clothes in the dryer. It makes them feel cozy and makes the child hurry to get them on before they cool off. The mother of a middle school student subscribing to the "choose your battles" approach occasionally allowed him to sleep in his clothes. She noted that he looked no different from his rumpled peers, and he passed the sniff test. Following the "do everything you can the night before" policy, a father shared his tip with glee: "My daughters have to set their clothes out the night before, or else I pick what they wear that day. And they know I don't have very good taste."
Battles over what to wear can sometimes be addressed by a simple housekeeping task. The mother of a first-grader rearranged the closet and drawers. Having a party section and a school section allowed the child to choose without being lured by one of those pretty little organza numbers.
The mother who was in the hall that morning did come talk to me. There had been a battle, with mom and daughter parting in tears. "I know it's silly, but I want to go into class and see that she's OK and tell her that I love her and that we'll work this out." I understood how she felt, but I couldn't offer her that option. Instead I went into the class and found her child playing happily with a classmate. The mother was relieved, and said she would try later to collaborate with her daughter on ways to make mornings go more smoothly.
Kids often have good ideas about the morning routine, though one mom reported that her child's suggestion was to put the toothpaste on the brush the night before (points for good intentions).
Getting homework papers into the backpack the night before can prevent battles. Special places for such things as schedules and permission slips also help. Some families have a resource folder with information they will keep and a separate one for forms that need to go back to school.Getting kids to eat something nutritious is the battleground in many homes.One friend found a partial solution in the container section of the supermarket. She bought little plastic containers and measured out servings of cereal in some and ingredients for smoothies in others. It helped to have the children participate in choosing and preparing their breakfasts ahead of time.
Consistency is helpful
On some mornings, no matter what strategies you have in place, separation may be difficult. Transitions can be a big issue for little kids. From the comfort of their bed, from the dream world surrounded by their stuffed animals, from the familiar warmth of their home, from the arms of their loving family into what can be a challenging and stressful place – yikes! For these children, a consistent routine is often helpful. Set out clothing, have little containers of breakfast ready, have a special spot for backpacks and permission slips.
But on some days, no matter how well you are prepared, there will be morning wars. On those days the best strategy is to simply hold on to your sense of proportion. Life is short; childhood is shorter. Keep in mind that one morning, years from now, in a very quiet house, you'll wish you had a permission slip to sign at the last minute or a milk carton to empty into a dozen small jars.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Susan DeMersseman blogs at Raising kids, gardens and awareness.
Apparently, I have 47 slaves.
This has come as quite a surprise to me. Like most comfortable and educated Americans, before a few months ago I barely realized that slavery – even as the somewhat more broadly defined “modern day slavery” – still existed. And if I did have a fuzzy idea about the forced labor and human trafficking that exists around the globe, I certainly didn’t think I had any hand in it. I mean, I buy organic. I walk to the grocery story. I even had one of those "(Product) Red" campaign Gap T-shirts, before I shrunk it. I’m a “good” consumer.
But working on this week’s Monitor magazine cover story about sex trafficking, I came across a website supported by the US State Department that lets people find out their “slavery footprint.” Basically, you enter a bunch of information about your lifestyle – the rooms in your house, the sort of food you eat, and so on - and the super easy website shoots back the number of slaves you use, along with other information.
The results are sobering. But so is this: Of my 47 slaves, who is responsible for almost 20? My toddler.
I should have known I was in trouble when the website started asking me about bath toys. But I saw I was really in for it when I read questions about the number of dresses my 18-month-old baby owns, how many stuffed animals, strollers and soft toys, how many pairs of baby jeans and baby dolls. Every time I clicked – increasingly embarrassed – my slavery count ticked upwards.
This was not exactly the image of sweet, innocent childhood that the various retailers of said products would like me to envision.
See, it turns out that many of the toys and baby products that fill American family homes are really bad for other families and kids – kids who live across the world in developing countries. While the nonprofit group Slavery Footprint, which launched the website last year with help from the US government, acknowledges that it doesn’t know whether your particular Winnie-the-Pooh romper was made by someone in slavery-like conditions at a Chinese sweatshop, or by a indentured child servant in India, it says has a pretty good idea of the averages. And those averages, such as the 1.9 “slaves” connected with Baby M’s diapers, are disturbing.
Now, it’s easy to get hyperbolic about the idea of modern day slavery, and there’s a lot of hype about many of the terms surrounding global forced labor issues. (Our cover story zooms in on the way this sensationalism has impacted the fight against sex trafficking.) There are some experts who will quibble over what is “slavery” and what is a really horrible working situation.
But as a parent, it shouldn’t be much comfort to think that Baby’s favorite stuffed animal was made by a toiling 10-year-old girl far away in a dangerous and abusive sweatshop, even if that girl is not officially a “slave.”
Although the Slavery Footprint website does not target specific brands, news stories over the past couple of years have reported about the child labor behind some of American kids’ most popular brands, such as Mattel, Fisher-Price, and Disney. (The brands involved usually say they were unaware of the conditions at their subcontracting factories and always vow to eliminate child labor from their business.)
Critics say that as long as children’s toy and clothing and diaper manufacturing takes place in countries with labor abuse records, our cuddly and cute products will inevitably be tainted. Baby will have a slave footprint.
So what to do?
The answer I've heard regularly is that parents can seek out ethical companies, those that sell sustainably sourced wooden blocks, for instance, or fair trade certified stuffed animals. These products are inevitably more expensive, but retailers count on buyers' desire to lower that slavery footprint as much as possible.
This is a fine approach. But I’d venture that another, perhaps healthier, reaction to the slavery footprint is to simply have less stuff.
The world’s system of forced labor, slavery, debt bondage, trafficking – all of these human rights abuses that involve the desperate living and work conditions of others – goes hand in hand with Americans’ desire to consume. A pattern of consumption, I might add, that studies have shown does us very little good.
We wrote a piece not long ago about a new book, “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century,” by researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, and Connecticut College, which looks not only at how Americans today have more things than ever before, but at how the sheer number of objects clutter our homes and stresses out our families.
Add this to the realization that little kids are just as happy – happier, often – with kitchen utensils or ice cubes or the objects they find in the yard or park than they are with the plastic (or even sustainable-helping-the-rainforest-wooden) toys showered upon them, and it seems like there’s a pretty easy way to lower your household’s slavery footprint.
Is this the right way to do it? I mean, will impoverished children across the world be better off if the demand for their products decreases? I’m sure that, like almost every question in this topic area, is the subject of much debate.
But in the meantime, it’s worth considering whether you should give your kids less.
As counter-cultural as that may be in today's US, it might well be better for the world.
Parents are often told – by magazines, television news shows and Oprah – that they are doing things wrong.
Don’t give kids regular milk; give them organic or they’ll turn into mutant cow people. Don’t use plastic cups; they contain BPA, which gives children gills. Don’t keep your toaster so close to the bathtub.
But even if your kids are grown, gill-less and on their own in college, there’s still something you might be doing wrong. It involves preparing them to (hopefully) enter the workforce.
The thinking used to be relatively simple: Go to college, get a degree, and then you’ll find a job in your field. But between the bad economy and the diversification of job types available, today’s college students need more guidance to hone their skills and prepare to find work.
Elliot Lasson, executive director of Joblink of Maryland Inc., a nonprofit employment organization, recently wrote an interesting blog post on this subject. He highlighted several areas in which parents can provide advice.
One is balancing idealism with realism.
“When we talk about college students especially, they are going into the world to make the world a better place, to change the way things are, to rock the boat and change the status quo,” Mr. Lasson said in an interview. “And that’s great and parents need to support that idealism, but it has to be a balance. At the end of the day, if a kid wants to be able to move out and live independently, they’re going to have to pay the bills.”
To that end, parents and students need to remember that there’s a difference between a degree and skills. Companies are now less focused on what kind of degree you have and more interested in what abilities you can bring to the table – right now.
“Someone with a degree in English can’t hang up a shingle and say, ‘Hey, I’m a graduate of English from Northwestern University. Come talk to me,’ ” Lasson said. “What is it you can do? There are jobs involving writing skills – technical writing, writing for the Web – that did not exist even 10 years ago. The end-all now is how you leverage that degree in English or philosophy or whatever from Northwestern or Brandeis into something that you can actually use to be competitive in the job market.”
This requires considerable forethought. There may be critical job skills a student can hone well before graduation, but parents and students can’t wait until senior year to start identifying them.
“People still tend to think the person goes to college, they wander around and see what interests them, they get a major, they switch it a few times, and probably three months before graduating they think they’ll figure out exactly what to do,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “That won’t cut it anymore.”
Research is key to helping students figure out which of the 18 billion possible career paths might make the most sense. Carnevale noted that the glossy college catalogs students receive don’t come with charts that say what kind of money a person in a certain major might make and what jobs are available.
She was concerned about her daughter’s weight. Still, she didn’t want to hurt Ramsey’s self-esteem or say anything that could spark issues of negative body image.
So Ms. Smith decided to frame the conversation around being healthy — and not about weight.
“I talked about being healthy and about making changes we could do as a family,” Smith said. “I told her I want her to live a long, happy, healthy life.” Since that conversation about two years ago, Smith and her daughter, now 13, have adopted a healthy lifestyle overhaul.
They started with drinking water instead of soda and eating more fruits and vegetables. They now often break out into 15-minute-long dance sessions at home, and they are planning to soon run together in a 5K. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta wants to help more of these talks – and transformations – take place.
Today, the hospital launches a new Strong4Life website providing parents with tools and tips for having “The Talk.” The website’s offerings include a database of doctors specially trained to counsel families struggling with weight issues, healthy recipes and an online health assessment. It’s part of Children’s far-reaching efforts to fight obesity. The hospital has a Health4Life Clinic for overweight children. It also runs a special summer camp for overweight children and trains pediatricians on how to discuss the often-sensitive subject of weight.
“We really want parents to start with themselves and for them to have a healthy conversation with themselves about family ... and the kind of role models they want to be ... and then talk to their kids,” said Stephanie Walsh, the medical director of child wellness at Children’s.
This latest push to fight obesity comes about a year after Children’s controversial ad campaign featuring black-and-white photos of obese children on billboards with messages such as: “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid” and “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not.” Walsh said the campaign was designed to help people realize – albeit in dramatic fashion – that childhood obesity is a crisis.
The statistics are staggering. Nearly one in three children ages 10 to 17 in Georgia is considered to be overweight or obese, according to the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health. Georgia ranks second in the country for childhood obesity (just behind Mississippi) according to “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2010,” a report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Now, Children’s wants to help parents make concrete lifestyle changes. Dr. Walsh suggests parents tackle health and obesity one small step at a time – such as begin taking a family walk after dinner, drinking more water, limiting screen time to one hour a day.
Talking to kids about weight can be difficult for parents. In fact, nearly one in four parents is uncomfortable talking about weight with his or her kids, according to a 2011 survey sponsored by WebMd and Sanford Health. For parents of teens, no other topic makes them cringe more. Not drugs (6 percent uncomfortable), not sex (12 percent uncomfortable).
Castulo Morales Alanis of Alpharetta, Ga. said he had no choice but to talk to his 8-year-old son, Jonathan, about obesity because his son’s feet hurt because his weight. Mr. Alanis and wife, Miguelina Arriaga, told their son they needed to make some healthy changes. About two months ago, with the help of Tthe Health4Life Clinic, Alanis and his son made some immediate changes, including switching from cooking in corn oil to olive oil, and they now eat vegetables steamed – not sauteed in oil. And while Jonathan used to go to the park to play only because his parents insisted he get some physical exercise, he now looks forward to playing outdoors with his friends. Alanis said talking to his son wasn’t easy, but he tried to keep the conversation positive and said his son has come around.
Meanwhile, Kathleen Boehmig found herself needing to have “The Talk” with her teenage son Allen, even though he is not overweight. Ms. Boehmig was concerned Allen, who is in the band and likes to play video games, was not getting enough exercise.
“We tell him that .... 'We want you to live a long, healthy life,' but it’s hard to impress that upon a teenager because it seems so far into the distance,” she said.
But something clicked when a veterinarian pointed out that the family’s golden retriever, Cody, needed more exercise.
“Allen has a big heart and loves the dog more than anything,” Boehmig said, “and he now walks the dog every day.”
To start “The Talk” with yourself: Honestly evaluate your family’s habits and the kind of role model you want to be.
Think healthy behaviors, not weight. This should not be a discussion about anyone’s weight – it’s a discussion about making good choices.
Keep goals reasonable. If your family drinks sugary beverages every day, it would be unrealistic to set a goal to not drink them at all. Make small changes for positive progress.
Nobody’s perfect. If you have a bad day, the next day is a new day to start again.
Ah, sleep training. Forget mommy wars and the pros and cons of extended breastfeeding. Forget, even, the presidential campaign and those questions about the role of government or the health care law. If you want to get new parents riled up and arguing – if, that is, they’re not too tired – drop the “cry it out: pro or con?” bomb and see what happens.
There’s a study published online in the journal “Pediatrics” today that shines some new light on this emotional debate. (And let me tell you, debates get all sorts of emotional at 3 a.m. when you’re wondering how the toddler can be fast asleep in your arms and then snap suddenly awake as soon as you rest her in her crib.)
But before getting into these new findings, some context:
For those of you who do not have babies, or who have simply blocked out those first two years of bedtime battles and 2 a.m. sniffles, you might not recognize the desperate dominance of the “how the heck do I get this kid to sleep” question. But not only does this quandary have a direct impact on parents’ health, work, relationship, and quality of life (just try functioning with a daily fear of three-hour bedtime routines and multiple wake-ups during a too-short night’s sleep), it seems that everyone out there has an opinion about how to get baby sweetly into dreamland.
Grandma says to let the baby cry until he falls asleep – no point in teaching him that you’ll come back if he just cries longer. Your best friend counters that this “cry-it-out” technique is barbaric, and you should instead take baby into bed with you – after all, this is how its been done for centuries. Neighbors, child development experts and pediatricians suggest everything in between, from the graduated sleep training method (coming back to comfort a crying baby, but letting her cry at gradually longer intervals before intervening) to the “camping out” technique, where you sit in a chair while the baby goes to sleep, gradually moving it further and further away until you are out of the room and the little tot falls peacefully to sleep all by herself.
And then there’s that oh-so-helpful friend who says she doesn’t know what the fuss is about; her child figured out how to go to sleep easily and has been snoozing through the night ever since he was five months old. (To this friend – please, stop sharing. Really.)
Meanwhile, everybody points to research showing that their way is the best, and that other techniques lead to deep emotional, psychological, and potentially even physical problems in children. (Or parents.)
Oh, and if you do this wrong your kid will hate you.
But today, a group of Australian researchers are helping us tired parents out. They published their findings from a longitudinal study of 326 children who were reported by their parents to have sleep problems at 7 months.
The good news: gentle sleep training, at least, does not have a negative impact on children. And, in the short term, sleep training can work to ease difficult bedtimes and night times.
In this study, half of the children were assigned a group where their parents were taught about soothing bedtime routines and two moderate “sleep training” techniques: controlled comforting, where you let babies cry for short amounts of time and respond at increasingly longer intervals, and that “camping out” method. Parents in this group could pick which sleep technique they wanted to use.
The other children were in a control group that did not use sleep training.
Now, 30 percent of the families dropped out of the study by the end of the five year research period. (I’m interested to know more about those folks.) But researchers found that among the children who remained, by the time they were six years old there was no significant difference between the control group and the sleep trained group in terms of emotional health or behavior, and no differences in the mothers’ levels of depression or anxiety. There was no difference in parent-child bonds.
Keep in mind: this study did not evaluate what have been called the “harsher” sleep training methods – in particular, the cry-it-out “extinction” method, in which the parent simply leaves a child to cry until he or she is asleep. Some sleep experts have called this method kinder than the graduated approach; others have warned that it causes stress and emotional trauma in kids, essentially teaching them that mom and dad won’t come to help.
That debate can continue.
Meanwhile, another tidbit from the research: sleep training, the scholars found, does work in the short term to help babies fall asleep more quickly and sleep longer at night. But in the long term? There’s no difference in the level of sleep problems among children who have had sleep training and those who haven’t.
A potential lesson in this for the sleepy parents: It will all be OK. Really.
Just try to keep that in mind at 3 a.m.
I share my family name, as well as a penchant for snooping, with “Judy Bolton, Girl Detective.” Fictional Judy was the star of her own mid-20th century mystery book series. Judy lived smack dab in the middle of Pennsylvania where, surprisingly enough, there was no shortage of mysteries to solve. In all 38 of her books, her snooping was always for the good and welfare of her family and friends. When I became a mother, I snooped for the good and welfare of my children.
Now that they are older, I don’t snoop in my kids’ lives very much. And I have never snooped because I have an unsavory curiosity about other people’s lives. (Though I will sometimes eavesdrop at the table next to me in a restaurant to figure out if a couple is on a blind date). I snoop for interesting stories. I snoop for inspiration to write those stories. I snoop to unknot the mystery of other lives as well as my own. Snooping comes with the territory of being a writer.
While I had no qualms about rummaging around in my children’s lives, it occasionally got me into trouble. When my daughter was 12, she said that I worried over nothing and that I didn’t trust her. She also said that I was nosy.
It’s true. I do worry over nothing until I have something about which to worry. She’s right that I didn’t trust her when she was the tender age of 12. But I didn’t trust because she was too young to understand how quickly the world can turn scary and dangerous.
I prefer to think of myself as curious. And once upon a time, my curiosity mostly focused on my children’s computer activities or the dialed and received log on their cell phones. When my children were old enough to have screen names, I ran a benevolent dictatorship. This meant that I was not always right, but I was never wrong. Each month they were required to show me any on-line friends’ lists.
The first rule was that my kids had to know everyone personally – in the flesh – anyone with whom they had an online relationship. All the better if I knew them, too, but I hadn’t met all of the sleep-away camp buddies. So, for 12 and up, I trusted, but only just a little. Under 12, I had to know everyone on a list. No exceptions. This rule, in place like cement, was instituted to prevent my kids from coming into contact with someone they had never met. This rule, to use a word that we used early and often since the dawn of preschool, was non-negotiable.
I also reserved the right to walk in at any time that my children were on the computer and ask with whom were they chatting online or what was new on Facebook. Speaking of Facebook, they had to friend me or do without it. If the spirit moved me, I would also ask what they had just typed. Did I mention that I ran a benevolent dictatorship?
All bets were off for a virtual chat room. This was expressly forbidden and would result in the revocation of computer privileges until the age of 25.
Before they were freshmen in high school and old enough to have laptops, my kids had individual accounts on our family computer so they could access the Internet for homework and pre-approved game sites. Each of their accounts had a filter so that a typo would not send them to God knows where in cyberspace. I always knew the passwords to their accounts or to anything else in their lives. If they somehow managed to get on to a commerce site and try to buy something, the dictatorship was no longer benevolent. Luckily, this never happened.
My children never seriously abused their Internet privileges because they knew I meant business. As generous as I am with them, and believe me, I am still generous to the point that it sometimes annoys my husband, they knew that I would not tolerate any infractions with regard to the Internet. Just ask my son about the time he hacked into my account and wrote an e-mail to his teacher to excuse him from an assignment. His third-grade grammar gave him away and the teacher immediately notified me that he was e-mailing her under my name. What followed were not good days for my boy.
But I never fully warmed up to being a dictator – benevolent or otherwise. I took unique pride in saying that my children were spoiled, but not rotten. Yet, when it came to snooping for their wellbeing, I held my ground.
I think my parents, particularly my father, named me with the hope that I would develop a curiosity that was both intellectual and empathic. Building on my father’s dreams for me, I taught my children to be as curious and responsible as my fictional doppelganger.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Judy Bolton-Fasman blogs at The Judy Chronicles.
As the claws of reality TV rake the ever younger, ever more innocent, the saga of chubby 6-year-old Alana Thompson – a.k.a. Honey Boo Boo Child the eponymous heroine of TLC's "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" – is easy to take a guilty peek at now and then.
This week's Boo Boo eruption on entertainment websites involves just how much she earns. If the little girl's most famous line - "A dollar makes me holler" - is true, there's probably a lotta hollah going on, suggest the reports. The Hollywood Reporter says that Boo Boo's family gets between $2,000 and $4,000 an episode; TMZ quotes Boo Boo's mom June Shannon saying they get "way more." After all, her show did beat the Republican National Convention last week in cable ratings, with close to 3 million viewers the night of Aug. 29.
The best explanation of why this kid is so compelling is Modern Parenthood's Lisa Suhay's recent blog. Suhay parses the stew of issues from class consciousness to body image in explaining her own guilty pleasure in watching.
Mom is still tired. But this time, so is Dad.
Last week, during the Republican National Convention, we wrote about how Ann Romney’s speech focused on the trials of Mom – how she always has to work a little bit harder than Dad, how she worries more about elderly parents and school assignments, how she is really just wiped.
“We salute you and sing your praises,” the wife of presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said to the mothers of America. (Yup, motherhood and apple pie. Love the conventions.)
Well, last night first lady Michelle Obama took center stage, and it turns out that moms on the left side of the aisle are pretty darn tired, too. Back in Chicago, Ms. Obama recalled, she and Barack had date nights that would include either dinner or a movie – “because as an exhausted mom, I couldn’t stay awake for both.”
For most of the speech, however, Obama took a rather different mommy approach than did Ms. Romney. She certainly included some passionate comments about her daughters – she talked of her worries about uprooting them for life in the White House, for instance, and said, emotionally, that “my most important title is still ‘mom in chief.’ My daughters are still the heart of my heart and the center of my world.”
But there was a lot less “I love women!” coming from Obama.
Instead, there were more personal anecdotes of the women and men in her and President Obama’s families working to make ends meet – President Obama’s single mother trying to raise a son, his grandmother hitting the glass ceiling, the first lady’s father putting on his uniform every day despite aching from multiple sclerosis and coming back in the evening to give Michelle and her brother a hug. And in Michelle Obama's speech, the dads worried about kids, too. Not just financially.
After all, according to her words last night, it was Barack who, “when our girls were first born, would anxiously check their cribs every few minutes to ensure they were still breathing, proudly showing them off to everyone we knew.”
And it’s the president who sits at the dinner table answering Malia’s and Sasha’s questions about issues in the news, “and strategizing about middle school friendships.”
Now, we'll leave the political analysis to others. But it’s hard not to see something substantial in the way Obama and Romney spoke about that oh-so-common candidate spouse subject of family. Something that perhaps goes even deeper than the more overtly political lines in Obama's speech, such as the praise for her husband’s signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act “to help women get equal pay for equal work,” or how “he believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care.”
It would be too simplistic to label this as a “mommy wars” issue, although Obama’s reference to specific policies certainly contrasted to Romney’s assertion that she didn’t want to talk about politics, but about love. Look at what each speech included, and did not include, and one can perhaps glimpse contrasting ways of looking at the world – or at least the relationship between moms and dads, dads and kids, young women and current events, work and home.
While both sides talked much about parenting, one might argue – no value judgement here, folks – that the GOP tended to equate that with “mothering,” and “women’s issues” with “mom’s issues.” The Dems seemed to give more weight to both parents, and present all of those questions of financial aid and work and child care as family issues.
All the political pundits say that women are a key constituency in this presidential election. Both sides are courting those voters; the GOP lined up the best and most powerful of their female figures to give keynote speeches; the Democrats reiterated their claim that the Republicans are waging a “War on Women.”
But rhetoric is different than policy. After Romenys’ speech, we wrote about a few policy topics – child care, maternity leave, and pay equality – that might be important to the sought-after mom voter. Here, after Obama's, are a couple more:
Family/paternity leave. Last week we mentioned maternity leave, and how the US is one of the only countries in the world where the government does not provide or mandate some sort of paid leave for mom after she has a baby. But what about dad? The US Family and Medical Leave Act allows “eligible” employees – male or female – to take 12 weeks unpaid leave after the birth of a child. But only about half of the US labor force is covered by this legislation, according to the US Department of Labor. Should there be a government effort to allow fathers secure time off work for family time, or is this a mom issue? Or a private concern all together?
Family planning. Ah, the contraception debate. This one has turned out to be big this campaign. A component of the new health care law requires all employers except religious ones to provide its employees birth-control services; an amendment sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt, R of Missouri, would allow any US employer to deny contraceptive health coverage to employees based on religious or moral objections. Mitt Romney has said he supports the amendment. This topic has gotten all sorts of emotional, with some Roman Catholic schools and hospitals saying the health care law infringes on religious freedom, and with conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh calling Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke a “slut” for testifying in support of the policy.
So, should women have the right to access contraception as if it were any other type of health care service? Or is it simply not the government’s role to ensure that its citizens have access to this sort of family planning?
More policy questions as the campaign continues.
I've been catching the reports that the drought in the western United States is the worst to hit the region since the Dust Bowl years; how farmers are struggling; how livestock is suffering. The situation is similar where I've been traveling: in the Indian state of Gujarat, where some places are drier than they've been in decades.
The monsoon season, which usually soaks Gujarat with rain from mid-June through August, is a key element of the rhythm of life here: it waters farms, grasslands, and forests, fills cisterns and lakes, and cultural traditions and social rituals are timed to sync with it. But this year, it's simply failed to materialize in some regions, causing inconvenience for some, panic for others - especially those who rely on agriculture.
Among those hardest hit are families from the Maldhari tribes, some 5 million people including the Rabaris and Bharwads, who herd cattle, camels, sheep, and goats. Though many Maldharis migrate for half the year or more, moving from place to place in search of fodder for their animals, most return to their home villages for a few months (from about July to November) during and after the annual monsoon, as the grasses grow lush from the rain.
Traveling in August through the Saurashtra region, which has received less than 20 percent of its average annual rainfall, I could easily see the impact of the drought. Along the asphalt roads that traverse a flat patchwork of fields and open spaces, dotted occasionally with trees, thousands of cows and water buffaloes were marching, steered by men in turbans who wore thick silver bracelets, gold earrings, and carried large bamboo sticks. And they were heading away from their villages. There was simply no fodder for their animals near their homes.
I was with Lalji Desai, a member of the Rabari tribe who works with the non-profit Maldhari Rural Action Group (MARAG) and is secretary general of the World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous Peoples, an international organization that promotes pastoralists' rights and supports their cultures. He wanted to see the drought situation for himself, and how these organizations might help. Not long before sunset one day, when we saw a small Maldhari camp in a patch of land off the side of the road, we stopped to talk.
At a glance, it was hard to believe this was a camp. There were no tents or shelters of any kind, just a few of the typical woven cots known as charpais, out in the open, covered with quilted cotton blankets. Beside them were a clutter of brass and steel pots, jugs and bowls, and a stack of rice sacks filled with other belongings. Eight cute calves hovered around the charpais, looking like they were trying to figure out if they could rest on them.
Only five women were in the camp, plus a child of about two years old. The men who'd accompanied them were still out with their herd of cows.
About 50 miles from their village, they were heading away from it as slowly as possible. They'd tarried here for about a week, hoping that the rains would start so they could turn around and go home. But the grass here was running out, and they thought they'd probably have to move again in the next few days.
Friendly and eager to chat, the women insisted we sit and have tea, and we gladly obliged.
The women all wore lehenga cholis – long skirts with halter tops and headscarves. Three looked to be in their 20s, one in her late 30s, and another in her 50s. All had gold nose rings and earrings, silver rings on their toes, and flip-flops on their feet. A couple of them wore the Hindu bindi on their foreheads, and the forearms and hands of the eldest two were covered with geometric tattoos.
A pot was balanced atop three stones, with twigs ignited beneath it to cook the tea.
They were no strangers to the road, usually migrating for more than half the year, they told us, settling into an easy banter in Gujarati with Lalji, who translated.
"Every day a new village; every day a new fire hearth; every day a new well," said Puriben Rozia, who was dressed in vivid orange and spoke in animated tones. Though they are nomadic, she said, they always look forward to going home.
Jivanben, from the same family as Puriben, laughed and said, "For most of the year I live with my husband's family, but I always return to my parents' village during monsoon – and look where I am instead, sleeping in a field!"
She was in charge of the tea, which was classic Indian chai, made with milk from their own cows and dosed with plenty of sugar. It was served in typical Maldhari fashion – in saucers, which are easier to pack and travel with than cups.
Meanwhile, the patriarch of the family, Amrabhai Rozia, who was father-in-law of three of the women, arrived, just in time for chai. Puriben, along with her sisters-in-law Lavuben and Rajuben, held their headscarves out and at an angle, like gauzy walls between them and Amrabhai. In this region, social custom demands that women Maldharis hide their faces from their husband's fathers, uncles, and older brothers, as a show of respect. But they kept on talking while Amrabhai sat silently sipping his chai.
Lavuben, who looked to be in her late 20s, said that this was the first time in her life that there had been a "special migration" due to drought during monsoon season. On their usual migration, the whole family travels together, but this time she'd only brought her two-year-old and left her three other children – ages 4, 6, and 7 – back in the village; one was with her mother, one with her mother-in-law, and one with her brother-in-law.
"We took the cattle, they kept the kids," she said.
Life on the road is tough, and they'd already traveled for eight months solid "which is why they don't go to school," Lavuben added. It was better for them to have some time to rest and stay in one place.
Puriben agreed. She had left two children behind.
Lalji, sympathetic, said it must be difficult to be without them.
It was, Lavuben nodded, but she knew it was better for them to be home.
"And maybe we'll get to go back soon," she said. "We call every day on our mobile phones to check in. And the first thing we ask is, 'Is there rain?'"
As our rescue dog Albie becomes more and more a part of our life, the parallels to raising children become increasingly inescapable. Though I thought those years of nurturing and caring for two wholly dependent little creatures were over once the junior high school years ebbed and the driving lessons started, Albie has brought them back.
Like the boys when they were little, he stares out the window whenever we leave with a look on his face that would melt the heart of even the most hardened adult. He doesn’t know if or when we’re coming back, whether it will be an hour, a week or longer. And like the boys when they were young, he hangs on our attention and our praise. The feelings of devotion we have for him feel as intense as they did for the toddlers who used to wander into our bedroom at night in their cow-jumping-over-the-moon pajamas.
These feelings come in handy when it comes to managing some of the – how to say this delicately – more unpleasant tasks of living with a dog.
Before the boys were born, the thought of changing diapers was a bit repellant, but when it’s your child with whom you are madly in love, those feelings dissipate. Changing the diapers of someone else’s kid might make you squeamish, but since your own kid can’t yet make meaningless crayon doodles that strike you as brilliant art, what they do create is, well, theirs. You may not admire it, but you can tolerate it.
Without putting too fine a point on it, the same goes for picking up after your dog. When a friend of ours said she’d love to have a dog but can’t get past the idea of cleaning up after it, I assured her that when you fall in love with a dog, the once unpalatable becomes possible. I never thought I could live with the hair Albie sheds wherever he lies down, either. But, as house-cleaner-in-chief in our home, I just haul the vacuum out more often than I used to. You adjust.
On the other hand, it’s important to remember that dogs are not children and raising and caring for a dog isn’t nearly as complicated, or as worrisome, as rearing a child. For one thing, though fetch has replaced catch, I will never have to explain the rules of baseball to Albie which, as any parent of a five-year-old can attest, is like trying to explain the mysteries of the universe. Which brings us to another complex subject I’ll never have to discuss with Albie, but which, in fits and starts, I had to explain to my boys. I’m also reasonably sure Albie will never smoke pot, have a car accident, or ask us for money. He’ll never force us to answer the question, where does the girlfriend sleep when she comes to visit for the weekend? And he’ll never go to college in New Orleans, where our older son is in school, and tell us not to worry as a major hurricane bears down on the city.
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