As fans gird themselves for the cataclysmic marital revelations expected to emerge at any moment from the impending divorce of actors Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise, I can only think about the spiritual insanity awaiting little Suri.
Suri, 6, is just one year younger than I was when my parents divorced and decided to leave the choice of my religion to me. We were in process of moving out of New York City to New Jersey. In my case, a religious riff was also in the mix. I became the spiritual football as my parents beat each other up both physically and emotionally.
My maiden name is Goldenthal. My father, God rest him, was Jewish, my mother a Roman Catholic. I celebrated Passover and Easter, Christmas and Hanukkah. My mother gave me a little gold cross and my father bellowed, “If Jesus died today, would you all wear little gold electric chairs around your necks?”
It was the 1970s, a crazy time in the church when nuns were suddenly spotted on beaches in bathing suits or singing with a guitar. My mother, partially excommunicated when she married a Jewish man was being reinstated as the divorce took place. The loophole was that the marriage was then considered never to have taken place in the eyes of the church. I was told by my local priest that I was “illegitimate in the eyes of the church.”
I didn’t understand the term "illegitimate," or much else happening at the time, so I decided to look it up in the dictionary: “not authorized by the law; not in accordance with accepted standards or rules: ‘an illegitimate exercise of power by the military;' (of a child) born of parents not lawfully married to each other."
I wasn’t a military exercise and I’d seen the wedding pictures, so I mentally morphed the definition, applying it to my immortal future as “spiritually illegitimate.” Within a week of that event, at age 7, I was told to choose between the two religions as divorce talk in our home got louder.
It was Mission Impossible – asking a child so young to make that choice.
In the Catholic religion I was rapidly approaching the rite of passage known as First Holy Communion. To this day I can’t sort out if my parents actually meant well for what ensued, or if they had made the conscious choice to use me against each other. Now, at age 47, I don’t know, don’t care.
In my case humor has always been my best defense, so we come to the story of what happened the day my father spiritually weaponized me by taking me to visit the Hillel Yeshiva School and St. Mary’s Catholic School, both in New Jersey.
“I told your mother you get to make your own choice about which religion you want to be,” he explained as we drove his old metallic brown Plymouth, first to the Jewish school to see the rabbi. On the way he told me about Solomon and the good parent who chose the child's welfare over her own. He was clearly on the role of "good parent" here and it was pretty clear I was expected to be Jewish at the end of the afternoon. No pressure. (Before we left the house mom reminded me of how many presents I got last Christmas. Again, no pressure. Hanukkah meant eight pairs of socks and Christmas was Barbies.)
I was 7 years old and a New Yorker with a massive vocabulary and attitude, yet I was terrified. When the rabbi asked if I had any questions about his religion, I squared my chubby little shoulders, shook my curly brown hair out of my chubby face and asked, “How do I get into Heaven?”
The kindly gentleman gave a little shrug and broke the unfortunate news, “Well, you don’t.”
I don’t? I don’t. Was I wearing a sign that said I was spiritually illegitimate? Had word made it in from the Arch Diocese of Trenton that fast?
“Only a child born of a Jewish mother can go to what you think of as Heaven,” explained the rabbi.
I remember holding back tears that might have come from humiliation, disappointment or rage. I shot back furiously, “Well Jesus was born to a Jewish mother! And they (Catholics) let you be bad your whole life and if you say sorry at the end you’re in! Everybody is in. Not that I’m gonna be bad. Just saying.”
Then (with my face burning red with shame) I was led to a small room and given a test of my academic prowess, which I failed in the true spirit of Santa Claus in the film "Miracle on 34th Street." I made sure to spell even my own name wrong.
In the totally silent Plymouth on the way to St. Mary’s my father asked, “Why? Why on God’s earth would you purposely fail such a basic test? You made me look like an idiot!” At the next light he back-hand slapped me across the face. It couldn’t be seen on top of the red already there.
At St. Mary’s I passed the tests. I began classes there that fall – a Goldenthal in a sea of O’Kids. I spent more time arguing religion than learning academics. Every time I came home crying, or was sent home for arguing with a nun over whether or not we should associate with “Jews,” my father reminded me, “That’s what happens when you make the wrong choices in life.”
He was right, but the choice was never mine to make. It wasn’t kind and it wasn’t right. They did make me into a weapon – one set on spiritual self-destruct. I could never fully believe in any religion, having been backstage at two productions my entire life.
I look at the Holmes-Cruise divorce and all I see is a brewing religious war and one tiny casualty.
We just couldn’t let this bikini onesie news item go by without commenting: Parents of Southaven, Miss., were outraged this week, according to news reports, to find a baby onesie printed with a woman’s curvy midsection covered by a skimpy red polka doted bikini for sale at their Gordman’s department store.
Inappropriate, many parents said. Disgusting, others agreed. Why would you want someone to look at your 18-month-old daughter and think sex object?
Of course others wondered, “What’s the big deal? It’s a cheeky onesie.” (There will be no universal opinion about these matters in parent land, I can assure you that.)
The clothing item in question is part of the Wild Child brand of the Bon Bébé clothing line, which also includes onesies with sayings like “What happens at Grandma’s stays at Grandma’s” and “No dating allowed.”
This, you know if you have children or have ever looked for a baby present, is part of the wide and perilous genre of the “funny onesie,” a mind-boggling array of (often expensive) cotton bodysuits labeled with clever sayings, jokes, references and other innuendos.
(And a tip for the baby gift buyers here: You can go really, really wrong with these sorts of onesies. One person’s funny is another’s inappropriate. And a lot of people don’t have a great sense of humor when it comes to slapping labels on their kids. So that “Daddy and I like boobies” shirt? Give it a pass.)
Now, there are some important issues surrounding the bikini onesie controversy of this week. Sexualization of children’s clothing is a problem, as witnessed by the regular incidents of “OMG, did I just see that?” in parent shopping land.
Think of the French company Jour Apres Lunes’s “loungerie” line for girls 3 months and up, complete with photo spread of little girls in heavy makeup. Or the padded bras for 7-year-old. Or the – I promise I am not making this up - crotchless panties for the elementary school set. (At least one store were these were sold, called Kids N Teen, removed the undergarments after parents complained. Um, yeah.)
The fact that these items even exist – and, according to retailers, often sell well – is a sign of how unmoored we’ve become about kids and sexuality, and what “sexy” means to children. (In large part, it means more purchasing. "Sexy," advertisers have learned, sells well – even to tots too young to understand its adult meaning.)
But also at issue with the bikini onesie is something a bit more mundane, but also important.
What a lot of parents find distasteful about the bikini onesie – and a number of the other “funny” ones out there – is that you’re basically using your kid as the butt of a joke. They don’t know what they’re wearing, or why people are laughing at them. They’re a prop. And to a lot of parents, that just doesn’t seem so kind.
Especially when it involves a bikini.
Part 2 of Gretchen Belsie’s account of her trip with husband Laurent and their first adopted Chinese daughter – 10-year-old Grace – as they head to meet and bring home 7-year-old Madeleine Bao Yi.
The day of sightseeing in the relentless heat was grueling, so dinner (we caved for Pizza Hut) was, in part, a celebration of survival.
Enjoying “home” cooking while abroad, even if from a franchise, can have moderate restorative powers. I’m not sure the pepperoni pan pizza was “all that,” but almost an entire pitcher of 7-Up brought me back from the edge.
Reviewing the menu, we realized this was not a normal Pizza Hut. Side tab indexes led us to a wide variety of not-even-close-to-pizza selections: boneless Bavarian-style pork knuckle, escargots, and New Orleans chicken and gristle. According to the picture, I think “gristle” translates unhappily as “bacon.”
Grace tucked into her pepperoni pizza with zest. Now she is face down in bed, snoring. And yes, Laurent is sitting upright at the pillow, also snoring.
Today’s plan was to visit the Great Wall in the morning and hit the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square after lunch. Fifteen minutes into the journey, our microbus encountered a traffic jam on one of the city’s famous Ring Roads where cars came to a standstill. The exit ramp was choked, so people got out of their vehicles to look around for other options.
Between our driver and guide, Tim, the two came up with an alternate route to the Wall that led us past the Olympic Village and then on a merry chase through hot and dusty little towns consisting of clusters of businesses with corrugated tin roofs and nothing else – places that looked remarkably interchangeable with many Mexican towns I’ve visited. One notable difference is that the streets are not filled with roaming, strangely shaped dogs in China.
This is the beginning of the high season for tourists at major cultural attractions such as the Great Wall. When you juxtapose a breathtaking, man-made wonder of the world with a horde international tourists, you are bound to get some distortions around the edges: shameless souvenir vendors and hawkers of frighteningly over-priced bottled water.
Laurent and Grace wended their way up to the first tower. I went part way but soon realized that the heat and throngs were working against me. I stayed at a lower point and watched the people, focusing mainly on fashion. What do people wear when touring the crowning architectural jewel of imperial China?
One accessory (besides the facemask) in vogue is an arm sleeve worn from just above the elbow to the wrist, like a Cinderella-style long glove with no hand. I guess it functions as a sunburn shield. But I saw examples in fancy sheer material spangled with sequins. Is this necessary?
I saw Beijing’s modern take on Betty Boop – a waif with the classic bangs and bob haircut. She wore cotton candy pink jeans, stacked fuchsia heels, and a white eyelet blouse – and she was as fresh as a daisy. There’s something mysterious to me about Asian women. They don’t sweat – ever. Today, I looked and felt as though I had single-handedly baled a whole field of hay by hand. Many people were staring at me. “I come from German peasant stock,” I wanted to shout.
On the men’s fashion front, the best I could spot was a T-shirt, worn by a cheerful middle-aged Chinese man, emblazoned with: “Run faster or get eaten.” The new Chinese economy in a nutshell.
There weren’t a lot of Americans roaming around, but I did overhear one exuberant blonde with a Southern accent who was toting a camera with a bazooka-sized lens booming, “The faces. I just love their faces.”
Finally, we shifted plans and headed to the Summer Palace of the Emperor, which included the Heavenly Garden. I can’t tell you much about it as I was engaged in surviving the heat for most of the long march. It was a very difficult time for me, but having proved I can function in 95-degree heat with moderate humidity, I can probably survive anything.
After a five-year wait, Monitor business editor Laurent Belsie and his wife Gretchen are in China to adopt their second daughter, Madeleine, 7. Their precocious ”steadfast lieutenant” Grace, 10 – adopted there in 2003 – has returned with them. Gretchen is e-mailing what she calls “Wagnerian” accounts of their odyssey to family and friends, who – in turn – suggested the Monitor publish them. Gretchen agreed to let Modern Parenthood excerpt them.
After nearly five years, we finally made it here.
Grace is sound asleep now, and Laurent, who was supposed to be “resting and reading,” has passed out on the puffy duvet.
We just returned from a restaurant a 10-minute walk from our hotel. It’s one thing to order in English at a Chinese restaurant at home, or to strut out some of our knowledge from the language classes we’ve taken so faithfully. Waitresses in the United States have a wider bandwidth of patience. Not so much here. The giant menus with color photos of squid, waxed and glazed pigeon, and other mainstream dishes helped us make our choice. It was amusing to watch Laurent try to order three bottles of water for us, working it out with the waiter.
The odyssey began in Waltham, Mass., over a day ago. I was up at 3:15 a.m., fussing with last-minute things like cleaning birdcages and stuffing odd items into the suitcases. Grace, my usual steadfast lieutenant, could not bring herself to get up until quarter to 4. Laurent squeaked out two good hours of repose and yielded to poking at 4:15. We were ready on the front porch at 5 a.m. when the shuttle arrived and whisked us to Logan Airport.
We arrived at the departure gate for the flight to Newark, but we were delayed for two hours. We sat and watched small dramas unfold around us. Grace lost another tooth while eating a breakfast sweet roll. Would her tooth make it to China and back safely in a small Ziploc bag? Would someone named Kunis Lange make it to the flight bound for Houston? And what about the passenger who had left the flyer about sleep apnea at the check-in desk?
Due to the short layover in Newark, we high-stepped it to our gate and boarded the full United flight bound for Beijing. If there was another blonde on the plane, I didn’t notice.
We settled into our row near the back of the plane, conveniently located near the thimble-sized restroom. Our best-laid plans of Slamwich marathons, my reading out loud to Grace, or finally breaking in my Christmas Kindle went by the boards. The lure of the personal entertainment screen was too strong. Grace and I synchronized watching “The Sound of Music” while Laurent hunkered down and knocked back three films, interspersed with some crumpled snoring in the window seat. I guess he deserved it after only two hours of sleep and several previous nights of pre-trip editing.
Our flight path took us over the polar region and views from the window were amazing. Amid dark blue waters, bright white glaciers. The dry brown expanse of the Gobi Desert. And, as we got closer to Beijing, a series of brown mountains, then green ones with agricultural terracing.
The distance from Newark to Beijing was just over 7,000 miles and about 12-1/2 hours of flying. Grace was a real trooper; she couldn’t seem to sleep, but managed to be content for almost the whole way. I wonder what the return trip will be like with Madeleine?
We arrived in Beijing around 1 p.m. to a relatively deserted airport. Going through immigration took five-minutes – certainly not commensurate with the trouble we went through to get Laurent the necessary visa in the first place. We had to provide guarantees that he would not do any journalism work for this publication while in China, or any proselytizing because it is connected to a religious organization.
It was very hot – and sticky.
The van that took us into the city had an air-cooling system that most closely replicated someone lazily blowing into a plastic drinking straw. The drive was an hour of traffic jams and harrowing near-misses between larger vehicles and Vespas, which weave between lanes with true teenage abandon. No one wears a helmet.
Laurent asked our guide about driving conditions in a city of 28 million, with 5.5 million vehicles on the highways. The man thought a moment, and then smiled and said, “Our drivers are very chaos.”
The afternoon scene outside the Radisson was one of energy, clogged vehicular movement, and brisk sidewalk commerce. Young women carrying silk parasols protected themselves from the sun’s rays filtered through a veil of pollution. And our walk to restaurant took us past street vendors selling all manner of goods. A Lexus backed up to the sidewalk with a spotlighted trunk offered T-shirts. After dinner, we stopped at a huge Carrefour, a French supermarket with the look and feel of a 1960s-era A & P grafted on a Woolworths. The sales section outside the grocery section offered kiosks with Victorinox, Mrs. Field’s Cookies, and something called “Paris Baguette” in bold neon.
Tomorrow we visit the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City. Most adoption agencies schedule weekend visits to Beijing for Americans to get a peek of the must-see scenes before the even more thrilling scenes of squalling babies.
When you talk to adoptive parents, you often hear about that moment when you “know.” Some call it divine, some call it psychological – but it’s that moment of certainty when you lock on and the child is yours, no question.
For me, that moment came quickly. In the half-light of a Pennsylvania motel room where we took our daughter the night after she was born and her birth mother handed her to me. Out of the flannel bundle in my arms, her eyes twinkled and demanded my gaze – we stared at each other, and … I knew. Mine; beyond DNA, beyond any relinquishments or court proceedings, my child.
This moment happens every day with adoptions all over the world. And, I’m here to tell you it’s the antidote to the adoption angst that media and popular psychology seem to focus on, such as infertility grief, bureaucratic tangles, and the uncertainties of timing. Most adoption goes right, just like most births go right.
And that’s what stands out to me in every adoption – the beauty of a family morphing into new and enduring shapes that bring love and, yes, the challenges that burnish that love. When Monitor business editor Laurent Belsie made the rounds of the newsroom in May with a photo of a little dark-haired girl his family was setting off to adopt in China – I knew we were all going to be fortunate witnesses.
Laurent’s newsroom rounds more typically involve his 10-year-old daughter Grace, a prodigy of poise and vocabulary (not to mention an adorable smile) who carries a basket of homemade cookies or leftover Halloween candy from desk to desk, melting hearts and deadlines. Everyone here in the newsroom has watched Grace grow since Laurent and his wife Gretchen brought her home from China in 2003.
So when many in the newsroom started receiving Gretchen’s rich and funny e-mail reports as they made their way to and across China last month, to meet and adopt their second child, Madeleine, there were suggestions that the missives be turned into a Modern Parenthood serial.
Tomorrow we join the Belsie family – all three – in Gretchen’s first blog as they fly north over the pole to the other side of the world where they would become four. The series will run for two weeks – and, I promise, it’ll be a short daily uplift for you. It’s in keeping with the Monitor’s strong coverage of adoption: See our popular long-running series on Hannah Rocklein, adopted in 1999 from Russia; and Robert Klose’s essays about his adopted Russian sons on our Home Forum page; as well as our recurring coverage of families who have taken in AIDS orphans in South Africa.
Now for some context: The Belsie’s started their second adoption five years ago – the lengthy process a factor of a changed international adoption scene.
As the Monitor reported two years ago, international adoptions worldwide were down dramatically from a peak in 2004 of 22,884. The reasons were largely positive: Tougher global regulations that increased transparency. But the effects were complicated – protecting orphans sometimes meant fewer of them found homes.
That trend continues: In 2010 only 11,058 children were adopted internationally by Americans, according to a Monitor survey (see accompanying chart). China remains the largest contributor to American adoptions abroad, sending 2,587 children to US homes last year. But the wait is longer than ever, as the Belsie’s five years attest.
“Five years is beginning to be typical [for adoption in China],” observes Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a national research, policy and education nonprofit. “[T]he day of the instant girl is pretty much disappearing from China.” And, he adds, adoptees are increasingly older and increasingly more apt to have special needs.
Mr. Pertman says the downward trend in international adoption is largely due to transparency – that “people are watching, paying attention, and as consequence things are changing.”
But, he says, that even as global adoption standards aim to “get things right…. We should not be sacrificing kids on the altar of purity – getting things perfect. While we’re trying to get things right, are we going to have kids wither away in orphanages? That’s not the right answer.”
Some countries have actually increased the numbers of children adopted internationally, says Pertman. It’s a function of “strife and availability,” he notes. “You don’t have international adoption if everything is going very well.”
And so, out of the negative realities on the ground in many places, come the beautiful stories of the Graces and Madeleines of the world – enjoy Gretchen’s blog.
“Paw is dead.” Despite the fact that I learned of the passing of Andy Griffith on my impersonal, smartphone’s news alert, my internal self heard a seven-year-old Ron Howard tearfully delivering the news to my city girl heart.
To me – a kid growing up in a broken home in the mid-1960s, raised by a single mother in New York City – watching "The Andy Griffith Show" in black and white re-runs was my version of The Fresh Air Fund.
Opie (Ron Howard) was my pal and Sheriff Andy and Aunt Bea were my role models in a world that came without aprons, apple pie, or emotional stability. That was Mayberry and a tune I still whistle as my own blue heaven in every place I have been – from reporting in Tel Aviv during a SCUD missile attack to living on a sailboat.
It hurts me to hear him eulogized as “folksy” because folks just don’t really see that as a good thing these days but more as something to be dismissed as cute.
Frankly, I think I am the happiest I have ever been in life since moving to Norfolk, Va. seven years ago because there is that twang and homespun feel that reminds me of the childhood I pretended to have in Mayberry. Mr. Griffith’s home in North Carolina is just close enough to send that vibe by osmosis. Urban legend even has it that Griffith himself chose the name of the fictional Mayberry community after the community of Mayberry, Va.
It probably explains my unending patience with every version of Don Knotts (Barney Fife, the goofy deputy) I have ever met.
I will never forget the episode wherein Opie and a new “city kid” played a prank on the loveable Goober Pyle character by putting a walkie-talkie under a dog’s collar and making the poor guy believe he had himself a “talkin’ dawg.”
This was a lesson nobody in my house was around to teach me, the little prankster, always acting out and being smart-alecky to cover for being caught in the adult cross-fire. I remember the sad, stern countenance of Griffith when he made the discovery and how low Opie felt when he realized he and “city boy” had been cruel to a trusting, kind-hearted, innocent.
I was “city girl” acting just like “city boy,” and I knew I needed to mend my ways and my fences. That wasn’t something the writers accomplished with a simple storyline. It was what happened when Andy Griffith sorrowfully shook his head and then gave that look of disappointment.
The best thing was watching Griffith get angry or annoyed with some hopelessly clueless person he was stuck trying to help. When my dad got angry, things got broken – people included. When Sherriff Andy got angry, he’d say something like, “You blew it. You stood right there and blew it.” No exclamation point. Just a simple, plain, honest statement of fact, head shake and a look that told us he’d rather be out giggin’ a frog than dealing with whatever the crisis of the day was.
As a teen his gruff, witty, Matlock wisdom made me like lawyers. Today, my own lawyer is pretty much a carbon copy of Matlock right down to the Carolinian accent. I can see him delivering the Matlock line, “What's the matter with you? Did someone cut the wire between your brain and your mouth?”
The Andy Griffith Show was also one of the last times American television allowed fathers to know and do best. Not long after that fathers began to slide into comic relief and perpetual beer swilling, cheating, idiocy. Homer Simpson and Married with Children became the new, lower standards for fatherhood and the lessons kids watching learned began to change society and family structure here in America.
Still, Andy Griffith was the bedrock and no matter how much polluted TV water flows over his legacy there are still those whose lives he touched, like Ron Howard, who are there to filter out the impurities and pass those lessons on in their work.
I know we always complain that kids “are being raised by the idiot box” (TV), but if you were like me, raised on the likes of Andy Griffith, then the parenting wasn’t all that bad.
There’s a new study out this week in which researchers claim physically punishing kids – hitting, shoving, grabbing or pushing them – leads to an increased likelihood of mental illness later in life.
In this new research, published in the journal Pediatrics, a group of Canadian academics analyzed data collected from nearly 35,000 adult Americans who reported whether they were physically disciplined as children. Among those adults who reported harsh physical discipline – but not abuse – conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders and alcohol dependency were between 2 and 5 percent more common than among those who did not experience harsh corporal punishment; more complex psychiatric illnesses were 4 to 7 percent more common.
The researchers said that pediatrician groups should adopt a position that “physical punishment (ie, spanking, smacking, slapping) should not be used with children of any age.”
But that conclusion is already under fire.
First of all, some other experts have pointed out, those adults who remember “harsh physical punishment” made up only 6 percent of the study – in part because the authors defined this as physical discipline that rose beyond simple spanking. Moreover, the researchers based their conclusions on what adults remembered happening as children, which can be a bit tricky. (Someone who is depressed, for instance, perhaps remembers harsher physical punishment.)
Also of interest in the study – but almost entirely buried – is that researchers found that the small number of adults who remember harsh physical punishment actually had greater income and education levels than average. (You could see how the study might have come up with a different headline.)
And overall, the study didn’t delve into a phenomenon that authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explore in their influential book “NurtureShock:” That it’s not necessarily the fact of the spanking that matters, but how the spanking is done.
Bronson and Merryman looked at cross-ethnic and international research into spanking and found that when a culture views spanking as normal, then spanking does not cause later harm.
It was in those situations where spanking is atypical that it causes longer-term damage like that described in the recent study.
Scholars hypothesized that this could be that the parents who didn’t usually spank their kids ended up using corporal punishment when they lost their tempers. Parents who lived in a spanking culture used physical punishment as a consistent method of discipline.
Another way to put it is that perhaps it is the violent anger of parents that traumatizes children; not the actual spanking.
Now, I write this as someone in the non-spanking camp. There are tons of child development experts who also believe that hitting children is unhelpful at best, harmful at worst. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, “strongly opposes striking a child.”
But according to some polls, as many as two-thirds of Americans approve of spanking children.
So the “should you or shouldn’t you” debate, I imagine, will continue. New studies and all.
Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” has become the most popular piece the magazine has ever published.
And no wonder.
Slaughter, a Princeton professor, former dean of the school’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, former director of policy planning for the US State Department, (and many other things, all of which is part of the point of her article), has tapped into one of life’s most controversial and tormenting questions for young women of The Atlantic’s reading demographic.
How the heck do you “have it all?”
Or, how do you “balance” a fully satisfying work life, with professional advancement and workplace accolades, with an equally full family life, with time for children and spouse and maybe even sometimes yourself?
The answer, Slaughter suggests, is, well, you can’t. At least not with the way the US workplace is structured.
And not only that, she says, but the idea that anyone possibly can have “it all” has been harmful for a generation of younger women who are increasingly seeing through the myth of feminist completion and have decided to give up either on families or on the high powered professional careers that they might otherwise enjoy.
I read Slaughter’s article with interest.
I am her target audience: relatively privileged, Ivy League educated, 30-something, trying regularly to figure out how to make “it all” work. I skate between diapers and deadlines; I regularly feel guilty either about not writing enough or not putting my baby to bed, despite the cries of “mama” coming from her room. I worry about taking time after dinner to work rather than spending those precious toddler-free moments with my husband, who has a heavy work-family load of his own.
You might say, actually, that I have no real problems.
And to that I would agree.
Because here’s the thing: I realize that compared to about 99.99 percent of the women in the world, and even in the US, I have no problems. I am safe. I am not hungry. I have a beautiful child and a wonderful partner and even a couple of really cute pets that I have the financial ability to feed. (This sounds minor, but think about it – what a global luxury.) I have work I enjoy and that I even find meaningful. (Again – when did people get so privileged that we expected work to provide meaning, not just food? It’s awesome that I can even worry about it.) I expect my daughter to have choices – maybe not “all,” but choices – and this, in the grand history of the world, is pretty incredible.
I realize this, and it makes me feel blessed. Happy. Fortunate.
Having “it all,” or whatever that means, sort of doesn’t matter.
I don’t write this to sound preachy, or to take away from Slaughter’s important and insightful points. The US work culture is problematic when it comes to families; her suggestions for modifying policies and attitudes would be a welcome relief for scores of women.
But I wonder whether a good bit of my generation’s apparent “opting out” comes not from frustration and disillusionment, but from a global recognition of our incredible good fortune. Or from a different sense of happiness, which Slaughter writes about at the end of her piece, and perhaps even an intellectual skepticism of the economic reasons behind our society’s melding of “work” and “life” for its most educated citizens.
(Even, I might venture, a more worldly understanding that this blend is not universal. I remember during my first months as a reporter in South Africa offending not a few high-powered executives for calling them after 6 p.m. The workday, they pointedly told me, was over.)
Slaughter admits that she decided not to return to the fast-paced professional life of the high ranks of the State Department because she believed her teenage children needed her at home. And, she writes, she realized she wanted to be at home; that this choice would make her happiest. ("At home," here is back to a full-time tenured professor position at Princeton.)
And perhaps this is the lesson that my generation has already absorbed. That you might be blessed enough to love work, but work will never love you. It doesn’t even depend on you – no matter how much you might think otherwise. And sometimes, it feels like the right thing to do – the happiest thing to do – to put priority on those for whom you do, truly, matter.
This sounds, as I write it, incredibly conservative. But I don’t think it needs to be seen as such. There are scores of reasons why women and mothers should be in leadership positions, in boardrooms and hospitals and Congress.
But perhaps the question of “having it all” should be placed on society, not individual women. How can we, as a culture, have "it all" – educated women who have what seem to me to be quite reasonable, healthy priorities but who also have the ability to contribute to public life, broadly defined?
That’s a conversation that Slaughter has stared, and that we should continue.
There are a number of news topics that I read differently now that I am a parent. War stories that involve children are unbearable. Tidbits about work-life balance get extra attention, as opposed to (I’ll admit it) the occasional eye rolls of pre-baby life. And natural disasters of the sort that we’re seeing in Colorado, where fires have displaced tens of thousands of people, are of extra concern – and a bit guilt inducing.
Because I’m an American mom, that’s why. And when I start thinking about what I would do if disaster struck, well, I’m afraid FEMA would give me an F.
The other day, inspired by the wildfires of Colorado (and imagining parents trying to frantically pack up clothes and children and loveys and diapers, not to mention cell phones and vital documents and flashlights that actually have working batteries) I Googled “emergency preparation for families.”
There is no shortage of information on this subject, I tell you.
And none of it made me feel any better.
See, according to everyone from Red Cross to the Centers for Disease Control to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, my family should have an emergency action plan. What if we’re not all in the same place when disaster strikes? What if communication systems are down? How will we find each other?
You need to work this stuff out ahead of time.
I mentioned this to Husband and he looked at me strangely.
We live in Massachusetts, he said.
Yes, but we have a river behind our house that everyone in town says floods once ever few years. And there was that tornado that hit the central part of the state. And there was the Hurricane Irene last fall. And snow – goodness knows there will be snow.
Besides, when you go to the FEMA website, there are all sorts of options for disasters, not just wildfires. Not in the least. No, you should be prepared for hurricanes, thunderstorms (we totally have those, I pointed out), earthquakes, tsunamis, and space weather.
And everyone should be worried about space weather, right?
He looked at me strangely again.
The next step, apparently, is to have a kit. Officials recommend having enough supplies – and that includes food and water – for 72 hours. The items, from canned food to diapers, should be kept in airtight plastic bags and then all stored in an easy-to-grab container like a camping backpack or unused trashcan.
Families should maintain these kits, making sure food doesn’t go bad and updating them to reflect a family’s changing needs. (Bigger diapers, say.) Batteries should be in working order, and you should have items to help you survive if there are no public systems, such as electricity, working.
(Did I mention that the last time we needed to find a AA battery for – I don’t know, I think it was the grill – we ended up dismembering one of the baby’s favorite toys to get one?)
There are many other tips for preparing your family for an emergency, but I feel that I have some work to do before I get to the “be a preparedness leader” level.
No, for now, I am going to focus on plans and kits – dubious glances of other family members aside. And really, the websites are worth a read.
Meanwhile, thoughts and prayers to the parents of Colorado.
My mother sprayed spurts of water in the air, and my two older brothers and I ran through it. We squealed and giggled.
This, for us at around ages 4, 6, and 9, was summer. Sometimes, Mom provided the entertainment. Other times, we had to devise our own fun. Other than two weeks on a lake with our parents, we spent the bulk of the summer at home playing with friends. None of us went to camp until age 11 or 12.
Those were the summers of my childhood, from the late 1960s into the late 1970s. Now, I’m a 40-something mother of a 4-year-old. We live in a suburban Boston neighborhood. When summer comes, the lawns look much the same as they do during the school year – often devoid of children.
Unlike my parents, I have countless camps, lessons, and programs at my disposal for my son. This morning, I took my son for a free trial class at a nearby Little Gym franchise. I was finally using a coupon he received at a friend’s birthday party. During my one hour there, pressure was on to sign up for the summer. The idea was tempting – only for a fleeting moment. What I do now will influence his memories of summer. What do I want him to remember?
Before the trial class ended, a Little Gym staff member came up to me and the other parents sitting in plastic chairs sipping tea and coffee as we watched our children through glass windows. Led by three instructors, the children jumped, rolled, climbed, and played hide and seek. They smiled and laughed. The staffer begin her summer class pitch.
Taking classes in the summer creates continuity. “It’s good socialization,” she said. Plus, they can go for a week or more in a camp program. She included a selling point also on the company’s web site: “It’s the perfect break for kids and parents during the long summer months.”
Hmm, signing up for a class is a break? Since when? To me, chauffeuring my son to one class or another is the very kind of hurry-up culture I want to avoid. I am a fan of the philosophy of Dr. David Elkind, author of "The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon." We don’t need to plan every minute of our children’s day, whether it’s January or June.
If I signed Simon up for the 10-week summer class, we would have to go there every week all summer. Summer has just started, and I’m already worrying that I have left little wiggle room for spontaneity. The next three weeks, Simon has morning swim lessons at our community pool. One of those days, we can linger and play for hours. The other two, we have to move quickly to get him clothed and to day-care, which he attends three days a week all year. Socialization with other children? No worries there.
Not to mention, we are going to two daytime children’s musicals with friends on Fridays – one of our two free days a week. During the time we have together this summer, I want to resist the temptation to create a crammed schedule. I fear I may have already failed.
Simon had a blast this morning in the Little Gym class. Summer just seems the wrong time for it, and I’m not sure about the fall, either. As soon as we got home from the class, Simon reminded me of how wonderful a moment can be when we let our children take us by the hand instead of the other way around.
“Can we take out the sprinkler?” he asked. I nodded.
We put on bathing suits and sun screen, then put a sprinkler in the front lawn. The water sprayed high, waving back and forth. Simon ran around it as if he were playing dodge ball.
“Run through it with me, Mom,” he said, pleading. He took my hand, and we ran through, blinking our eyes against the spray. He giggled and asked to do it again and again. At one point, I picked up the sprinkler and pretended to spray him with it. He squealed and asked for a repeat.
“I have a better idea,” I said. I attached the spray nozzle to the hose and played the game my mother used to play with my brothers and me.
What do I want my son to remember most this summer? The fun we created on our own.
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. Linda Wertheimer blogs at Jewish Muse.