A Simple Guide to Breastfeeding

Note: The title of this piece might be surprising – given my usual topics. Fortunately, I have been rescued from my writer’s drought by my daughter. Today Leah returns to work after her 12-week maternity leave. As she was concluding her leave, and exploring her options for continuing to provide breast milk to her baby, she was motivated to write this piece. I am grateful that she chose my blog to share it. Readers, if you have new mothers in your life, I hope you will share it with them. I think it will resonate. Meanwhile, please join me in wishing Leah good luck as she moves into this next stage of motherhood.

So you’re thinking of breastfeeding? Great!
Here are some things to consider before you begin:

First, you might as well go ahead and start crying now. Why wait until later when you can get a head start on this essential part of your journey.

Next, just to check: do you like your nipples the way they are? I hope not! You can expect all sorts of weird nipple shit. They’ll stretch, dry out, turn redder or maybe whiter. They’ll bleed. Did you know you can get scabs on your nipples? Pretty cool, huh!

Definitely count on nipple pain: some pain is normal. But too much pain means something is wrong. What is too much pain? Probably somewhere between searing and all-consuming. Anything less than that and you can skip this section.

But, on the off-chance you don’t like your particular amount of pain, don’t worry, there are many products available to help! As long as you don’t mind doing hours of research on which exact product is right for you, and you have an enormous disposable income, you can make use of any number of creams, gels, ointments, balms, pads, cups, and shields to alleviate your pain.

Pro tip: Do your research while the little one is chomping on your nips! It’s a great distraction.

All those products you panic-ordered from Amazon not working? Don’t worry. Just go see a lactation consultant! It probably won’t be covered by your insurance, or if it is, you’ll probably have to submit the claim yourself, but you can easily do that in your spare time. The lactation consultant will provide lots of helpful suggestions of more products to buy, different positions to nurse in, and maybe even diagnose a lip or tongue tie—just pop over to the doc to get your kid a little snip – yes, they actually snip part of the lip and/or tongue! And then you can restart learning how to nurse all over again.

Aha! Now you’re breastfeeding!

It’s the most natural thing, isn’t it? You’re doing so great. Isn’t having a baby everything you ever dreamed?

Oh, don’t go yet! There are a few other things we should cover:

How’s your supply? Not enough? That’s fine, you’re just inadequate! Your baby isn’t gaining enough weight and you’re a terrible mom. Remember I told you to start crying? See, now you’ve already gotten that out of the way and you can move onto the solution: Just find some formula. You can work on upping your supply in the meanwhile! Wait, there’s a dire, nationwide shortage of formula, so you can’t find any? You went to twelve stores and they were entirely out of stock? You tried asking five of your local online moms’ groups? Well, there are no other options but whatever you do, don’t make your own formula.

If you do decide to try upping your supply, have I got the solution for you: Try power pumping! It’s relentless pumping for an hour. It’s only partially soul crushing.

Pro tip: If your soul has already been crushed, you don’t need to worry about this!

Or you could just pump every two hours day and night for a while. That doesn’t sound good either? Did I mention the option of buying formula and feeling inadequate?

Maybe you have an oversupply. That’s awesome! Enjoy those rock-hard breasts! If you somehow don’t like feeling so engorged that you can’t lift your arms, try pumping to relieve the pressure. But not too much! That will only make you even more engorged! It’s a real goldilocks situation here.

Phew! I’m sure you have your supply figured out now. Congratulations!

But in the future, you might find small white droplets on your nips that won’t wipe away. Isn’t that neat? You either have milk blebs or thrush. No biggie. These conditions are virtually identical: in one case do nothing, in the other make doctors’ appointments for you and the kiddo and pick up medication, and make sure you both take all the medication or you’ll just pass it back and forth in an endless, terrible loop. Good thing you enjoy ruminating and scrolling through online forums to figure out which you have.

Pro tip: Try ruminating and scrolling during night feeds, the stress it creates will wake you right up!

Now, on the off chance you ever need to return to work or for some other totally unfathomable reason aren’t breastfeeding with complete satisfaction, you might consider a breast pump. Good news: there are so many to choose from!

Have you figured out which pump you want yet? No? Well it’s really great that you’re a control freak who loves doing extensive research yourself, totally by yourself, no assistance whatsoever. Did you think there would be some expert to help you? Some medical professional whose job it is to help with this medical device? Silly you!

You will find all your answers on Instagram. Yes, Instagram. Just scroll through years of posts and reviews from many different accounts and poll all of your friends with young kids. That’s a great start!

Of course, you’ll also want to figure out whether your insurance will cover a breast pump at all – if you even have insurance – and if so which one. They’re only a few hundred dollars out-of- pocket anyway. And you love calling your insurance company, so that’s a treat! You’ll also want to determine your pumping needs. Do you want to be able to move when you pump? What luxury! Consider one with a rechargeable battery. There are also wearable and portable options. Yes, those are different.

Oh! Don’t forget to measure your nipples! You need the right size. No, they don’t do that for you at the hospital.

Do you want the silicone flanges or are you cool with hard plastic?

Do you want in-bra collection cups or the regular kind? Need longer or shorter tubing? Oh, and make sure you have a pumping bra unless you prefer not to have access to your hands.

And don’t forget to replace your pump parts regularly. Good thing you have that disposable income; none of this is covered!

Are you comfortable with the fridge hack? Pitcher method?

Make sure you work on building up your freezer stash if you ever plan on being away from your child for any length of time. Just add in a few extra pumping sessions in your down time. It’s no trouble.

And I hope your child takes a bottle. Do they take a bottle? Try these 20 different types of bottles, maybe they’ll like one.

Now that you’ve got all that figured out you’re so close to breastfeeding worry-free!

Just keep an eye out for clogged ducts. They can come on fast and develop into mastitis, which is no bueno, my friend. That requires a doctor’s visit and antibiotics. But I know you love parenting and running errands when you feel like absolute human garbage.

If you do think you have a clogged duct, there are many easy at-home remedies! Try taking sunflower lecithin. It should make your milk slippery-er. We all want slippery milk. You could also try massaging the clogged area while taking a hot shower. It will likely be very painful!

That didn’t work? Okay, load up your haakaa breast pump – you have one of those don’t you? – with warm water and Epsom salt. That might do the trick.

Do you have an electric toothbrush? Turn it on and place the back of it on the area with the clog. It just might vibrate the clog right out of you – a handy second use for your toothbrush!

Repeat all of these steps until the clog is gone and make sure to be increasingly frantic as you go. That always helps.

By now I’m sure your milk is flowing in exactly the right amounts, with exactly the right amount of pain! However, you might still find your baby refuses to drink your milk. This could be due to high lipase: it makes your milk taste and smell bad! Isn’t that so funny – your milk tasting bad! I’m laughing so hard I’m crying.

But there’s a simple remedy for high lipase. For all of the milk you pump, just scald it before putting it in the fridge. So easy! You were wondering what to do with all your down time anyway. But be careful not to boil it! Never boil it. You want bubbles to form but not the boiling kind of bubbles.

I’m sure there are other things we could cover, but I’m guessing by now it’s time for another feed.

Oh, you were reading this while you nursed or pumped? Who’s the pro now!
Just keep in mind that whatever choices you make, however your journey goes, others will judge you for it! Welcome to motherhood.

Surveillance Anyone?

As happens with some frequency, I was listening to a podcast and it got me thinking. It was Stay Tuned with Preet. Preet Bharara interviewed Nita Farahany, someone I had never heard of before but learned that she explores the intersection of law, neuroscience, and technology. She is a law professor at Duke University and has a PhD in philosophy. She has quite an impressive resumé (I looked it up).

They discussed the implications of emerging technologies in brain monitoring, as part of the larger issue of society’s increasing capacity for surveillance. During my first listening (yes, I listened more than once and you’ll understand why in a moment), I was outraged. Why? Because she said the following, “We have cameras in our kids’ bedrooms. Our oldest, who is now seven, she wouldn’t cry, she would look at the camera and wave….”  On first hearing that, I thought she was saying that they had still had a camera in their seven-year old’s bedroom. Most parents these days have baby monitors that include video, but I assumed once the child was able to climb out of bed and come to the parent’s bedroom, the monitoring device would be removed.

Would you find that outrageous, having a camera in a seven-year old’s room? I think children deserve to have some privacy. I don’t think they should be monitored 24/7 unless there are unusual circumstances. I believe we removed the baby monitor, it was limited to audio, from our child’s bedroom once they were out of the crib. Why wouldn’t the same notion apply to monitors that include video?

It is possible that I misunderstood what she said. She was making the point that children growing up today are accustomed to being watched. In the comment above she explained that by the time her daughter was one, she would wave at the camera to get her parents to come get her, she didn’t cry. For her it was normal to be watched in that way and that could have implications about how they felt about it as they got older.

Thinking that she was still surveilling her daughter with a camera, though, my immediate reaction was, “And you are an ethicist?!?” I then thought that I didn’t really want to hear the rest of what she had to say, and I turned it off.

Upon further reflection, I wondered if I heard right, perhaps I misunderstood. And then, as I thought more deeply about it, I wondered if, given the emphasis on security these days, if cameras in children’s bedrooms and throughout the house are common and are simply a given. If that is the case, what does that mean for privacy? Who is watching?

Recently when our daughter was pregnant and putting together her baby registry, she explained something to me that her brother, who’s child is now four, explained to her. When you buy a video monitor you can choose one that is wifi enabled or not. Our son and daughter-in-law selected one that was not, in other words it worked over a certain distance in a house but didn’t utilize the internet. Our daughter and son-in-law made the same choice, believing that it reduced the risk of being hacked or monitored by uninvited individuals. Our children face parenting decisions that we didn’t dream of. I don’t envy them.

Realizing that I may have misunderstood Dr. Farahany, I decided to listen to the entire podcast, and to replay the part that got me so angry. I was calmer and realized I may have leapt to a conclusion. I also realized that perhaps it wasn’t so crazy, though I stand by my belief that children deserve privacy, too.

I’m glad I listened. First, it was not clear that cameras were still in use in her older child’s room. I would love to ask her to clarify and hear her thoughts on the idea. Second, they discussed a lot of important subjects that we need to consider as science and technology evolve.

One area they discussed was use of brain monitoring on long-haul truckers, and this technology may not be limited to that job. We might agree that monitoring truck drivers’ level of alertness, which can be achieved using several different types of surveillance technologies, is a good thing since drowsy driving is the most frequent cause of accidents on our roadways. The issue gets stickier when you think about what other data might be collected along the way, who might have access to the data and how else it might be used. If we can be sure of the narrow use of the information, to inform the driver (and the employer?) that they are sleepy, then the intrusion on privacy is warranted. One can imagine a whole host of possible misuses of the information, though, especially if the monitoring isn’t limited to tracking wakefulness. And even in that limited application, what does it mean for employer/employee relations? Does the trucker get disciplined? Hopefully, these issues have been worked out before the technology was implemented. Sometimes that planning doesn’t happen, and the horse is out of the barn before the implications have been considered.

Privacy is a sensitive subject, especially when balanced against safety. In many areas of our lives, including in our own homes, we make calculations about what is more important to us. We are often willing to sacrifice privacy for security, but we need to be mindful of unintended consequences. And, like many things, we won’t all agree on the proper balance. It is an important conversation to have, especially as parents of young children.

The Hardest Job

I visited with my mom the other day. She is 88 years old. I asked her what she remembered about becoming a first-time mother.

I had just come back from helping my daughter, who recently gave birth to a baby girl, her first child. Caring for my newborn granddaughter, changing her diaper, soothing her when she fussed, brought back powerful memories of my own introduction to motherhood. I was curious how my mom remembered her early days after her firstborn, my older brother Steven, arrived.

Mom gave birth to Steven in an Air Force hospital in Wichita Falls, Texas in 1955. When I asked her how she felt at the time, she responded, with some hesitancy, “I was frightened.”

I was surprised by Mom’s response, and, at the same time, I wasn’t. If asked how I felt upon being released from the hospital in 1987 with my newborn daughter I would have said, ‘Terrified.’

We don’t usually admit to those feelings. We are supposed to be overjoyed. For me, at least in the beginning, the fear outweighed the joy. It felt like such a huge responsibility; one I had no previous training to take on. I felt woefully inadequate.

Mom went on to tell me a story, one I had heard before, but was eager to hear again. Before they sent her home, the nurse showed her how to diaper the baby and gave her other instructions. While explaining, the nurse took Steven by his feet and flipped him over on the bed! He appeared unfazed by the motion, he landed safely. “He isn’t as fragile as you think,” the nurse told my stunned mother.

It is hard to imagine a nurse doing that when I had my daughter in 1987. Though Mom took some comfort from the nurse’s demonstration, she couldn’t help but wonder about her ability to meet the needs of the tiny, living, needy creature entrusted to her care.

In the 1950s women were not encouraged to breast feed. My brothers and I were bottle-fed formula from the get-go. During that recent conversation Mom told me the idea of nursing made her uncomfortable, she didn’t consider the possibility. Since bottle-feeding was the norm in that era, I don’t think she felt any guilt. When I became a mom, it was expected that you breastfed. It was assumed that unless you were physically unable to, you did it. I could be remembering wrong – it is possible it wasn’t quite that black and white, but that was my perception. I received some guidance from the nurse while I was in the hospital to get me started, and fortunately, I was able to successfully do it without much physical complication. That doesn’t mean there weren’t other complications. I remember being exhausted, on the edge of depletion. It seemed as soon as I finished a feeding it was time to do it again.

Tired anyone? Me holding Leah – at least one of us was sleeping

My husband and I decided, after two weeks, to introduce a bottle of formula so that he could take a middle of the night feeding. Despite hearing something about ‘nipple confusion,’ we decided to risk it for my sanity. Though I believed we did the right thing for us, I didn’t widely share our approach given the prevailing attitudes of the day.

I don’t recall getting much guidance or support navigating these issues. In a way, I envied the fact that my mom didn’t have to deal with the question of whether to breastfeed or not. She had confidence that a formula-fed baby would be just fine. By the 1980s the decision became fraught – there are extremists (as there are about everything in our society these days) who insist that a woman must do it given the evidence that breast milk helps the baby’s immune system. It is only in the last year or two that there is recognition that we should not be so dogmatic. So many things come into play. Nursing can be unbelievably time consuming. In the first days and weeks after birth it can be every two hours, leaving little time for sleep or physical recovery. Some women experience pain or have supply issues (some women who produce milk worry ceaselessly about whether it is sufficient). Others are fortunate to find it relatively easy and experience the emotional reward of bonding with their baby – but most women I know, though they ultimately may have felt fulfilled by doing it, had a bumpy road getting there. The process can be hard without adding the collective judgment of society.

Writing this in the wake of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe and deprive women of their right to choose, I see a consistent theme. Women shoulder huge responsibilities in bringing forth new life, but we are not supported in that work (yes, I called it work, labor is called that for a reason).

The myriad ways in which our culture fails us is breathtaking. From inadequate access to health care (from prenatal to aftercare for mother and baby), to the history of failing to research women’s health issues, to the lack of understanding of the demands of those first few months, and finally, on a fundamental level, not valuing us, women often feel alone and overwhelmed. Though I am well past new motherhood, all of those feelings come rushing back as I watch my daughter go through it, especially in the context of the court’s repudiation of women. I feel the anxiety and weight of the responsibility in the pit of my stomach.

Being a mother is the hardest job I ever had (and still have). I believe, from what I know of my grandmothers and mother, they would agree. Our society needs to reprioritize its values. Mothering, and all forms of caretaking, must move up many rungs. It deserves better pay (sort of a joke since mothers aren’t paid, but we should assign it value). Childcare should be far more financially rewarding. But, perhaps even more than that, the work of mothering deserves more respect. Mother’s Day is a trifling excuse for the recognition that is due to those who take on the role.

It goes without saying that the government has no place in deciding whether a woman becomes one. I am well aware that some are not up to the task; all the more reason to support reproductive choice and change the way we view and assist mothers. It does take a village to raise a healthy child. When will we accept that and make policy decisions accordingly? I hope for my granddaughters’ sakes we begin the change now.

Halloween Past and Present

Halloween has come and gone. Since we were out of town, I didn’t have to buy candy, so I dodged a bullet. Leftover candy is irresistible. Even if I bought things I didn’t like… wait, who am I kidding? There isn’t much candy I don’t like. I did miss getting to see the little ones dressed up as mice or rabbits or bumble bees or whatever adorable costume they and their parents devised. But, it isn’t the same without little ones of my own.

So many memories of Halloweens past….

When our children were growing up, we decorated (to be more precise, Gary decorated). Gary usually picked a theme and he would create elaborate scenes. One year he got dry ice and set up a witch’s cauldron. He made a giant spider using black Hefty bags and wire hangers, painted tennis balls red for the eyes, and set it up on the lawn. The next year he made a giant spider web. That spider and web were re-used year after year until they fell apart. His decorations were clearly homemade, and there was a charm in that. Without our kids to amuse with his creations, Gary doesn’t bother anymore. I don’t blame him. I loved that he did it for all those years. The only decorating we still do is carving pumpkins – and this year we didn’t even do that.

In the past, we stocked up on candy for the many, many, many trick-or-treaters who rang our doorbell in our suburban subdivision that was perfect for scoring a huge haul. Every year I would buy at least 10 bags of candy and then Gary would pick up more on his way home from work – God forbid we should run out!

Gary, Leah, Dan and I each carved a pumpkin; we lit them with votive candles and put them on the front porch. Gary would roast the seeds and enjoy them during the week that followed. Leah and Dan had homemade costumes, too – again courtesy of Gary who could do wonders with a box. I think Dan’s favorite was his ATM machine with the bag for the candy attached inside from the slot where you could make a deposit. That box still sits in his bedroom closet. Leah’s favorite was dressing as a chewable grape Tylenol. Gary turned to his trusty cardboard boxes to make the pill and I supplied a Halloween-themed turtleneck. That one is likely in landfill somewhere.

 

Unfortunately, due to recurrent ear infections both kids were quite familiar with those little purple (but tasty) pills. Lucky for them, though, they were never sidelined for Halloween – I believe each was able to trick-or-treat every year until they decided they were too old for it. That was not the case for me.

 

Halloween was a totally different experience for me growing up in Canarsie in the late 1960s. My children waited until it was getting dark to go out. We had to be finished by the time it was dark. We rushed home from school, changed into costumes and out we went. It was not safe to be out after dark – not just on Halloween, but any day of the year.

I don’t recall ever carving a pumpkin. We may have had some decorations – perhaps paper cut-outs of witches or ghosts that hung on the front door.

My Canarsie neighborhood was good for trick-or-treating. The blocks were short, the houses were close together. Each time you climbed the front stairs, there were two doorbells to ring. None of that mattered, though, if I was sick. Somehow October was a cursed month for me, and it remained so well into adulthood. Invariably I had an ear infection and fever. Okay, not every year, I did get to go trick or treating sometimes, but it happened often enough that it became a thing.

On those occasions when I wasn’t able to go, I would dress up in my costume (most often as a princess), sit on the steps of our foyer and wait for the doorbell to ring. Since my grandfather worked in a bakery, he brought home giant cookies for us to give, but those were for friends and children we knew. Everyone else got a small candy bar.  One time an older boy who I didn’t know saw the array of cookies and he stepped into the hallway and grabbed a couple as I yelled, “Those aren’t for you!” He made off with them, there was nothing I could do. I was so upset I went in and told my mom I didn’t want to hand out the candy any more. I don’t know why that rattled me so much – some combination of feeling powerless and disappointment in humanity. That was just who I was, even as a seven-year old.

On the years when I had to sit out trick-or-treating, my brother Mark would carry a second bag for me. I’m sure that roused suspicions and may have earned him some unwelcome comments, but he did it anyway. I had a paradoxical relationship with Mark. On the one hand, I spent almost my entire childhood dreading his teasing, his caustic jabbing at me. “Your shoes look like canoes!” (a comment about my big feet) “You were adopted!” A barrage of remarks that would get under my skin immediately.

Mom or Dad would have to separate us multiple times a day.

“Don’t even look at him!”

“Go to your room and close the door!”

Mom still wonders how we all survived it.

On the other hand, though, he went trick or treating for me. Mark was often my protector. It was fine for him to harass me, but not for other kids in the neighborhood. If I tripped and fell over a cracked sidewalk, he would stamp on the offending slab as if to punish it for hurting me. And, for all the teasing, we would do stuff together. Our older brother Steven couldn’t stand our squabbling and preferred solitary activities or being outside with friends. That left Mark and I to watch wrestling or baseball or F Troop on TV, that is when we weren’t banished to our separate rooms.

Another Halloween has come and gone. On to the next holiday, stirring up more memories.

Playgrounds and Parenting

Yesterday was the first time I went to a playground in many years. My children are well into adulthood. Now that we have a grandchild, I had reason to pay a visit. I saw so much, and probably through different eyes than the last time I spent any time there.

We were lucky enough to have our granddaughter, who I’ll call Lucy, was with us for a sleepover. [Her parents do not want her portrayed on social media and I respect their judgment, so I am not using her real name.] She is just over 15-months old, walking steadily, beginning to climb and enjoying the wonders of the outdoors. She liked picking up leaves and presenting them to us proudly. She also loves dogs – or “Doggies!” as she blurted out with glee every time she saw one. What better place to take her than Central Park, which as luck (or planning) would have it is down the block from our apartment.

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Plenty of leaves and acorns to pick up!

We took a few essentials, a hat, a sippy cup with water, put her in her stroller and off we went. The sun was struggling to break through the layer of clouds. The air was cool. Perfect weather for a visit to the playground. Lucy was alert to the sights and sounds – pointing and commenting with almost-words.

At the entrance to Central Park at 100th Street there is an extensive playground. I had walked past it many times before without paying much attention, and now I was about to get a whole new perspective.

It was ten o’clock on Sunday morning. I hadn’t given a thought to the fact that I was missing CBS Sunday Morning, until now as I write this, though I watch that show religiously. Grandchildren have a way of reprioritizing things.

The playground was busy, but not crowded. There were children of different shapes and sizes. We took Lucy out of the stroller and she started walking toward the sprinklers. I hadn’t realized there were sprinklers, so we weren’t prepared for her to get wet. Fortunately, she didn’t charge in – she was content to watch the water shooting up into the air. One boy, I’ll guess he was about 5, was wearing only his underwear, stood directly over the jet of water and seemed to enjoy pretending he was peeing. I wasn’t sure what I would have done if he was my child. That was the first of many similar questions I’d be asking myself over the course of the next hour.

What the child was doing was harmless and he was having fun. On the other hand, I would also want my son/grandson to learn “appropriate” public behavior. The mom appeared to be nearby. I didn’t hear or see her address him, but later when I looked over, they were gone. She may well have spoken to him privately or quietly or both. I wasn’t sitting in judgment; I wasn’t sure what “the right thing to do” was.

After watching the sprinklers for a while, we walked over to the area where there was a cement and brick climbing structure and slides once you got to the top. These were big slides! I imagined that from the top it would look like a mountain for a small child. Lucy was content to play with the sand at the bottom and explore the stones that made up the ladder. Several little boys were climbing. One was being watched by his older sister. She moved confidently up and down the structure, stopping to offer her little brother help. “You can do it, Milo,” she urged him. He followed her a couple of steps up, using his hands and feet. Then he seemed to get stuck in place. He started to whimper. His sister tried again to encourage him. “Follow me.” He couldn’t or wouldn’t. After a few more moments, she called “Dad! Milo needs help.” The Dad responded pretty quickly, climbing up, putting a hand on his son and encouraging him to continue going. Milo wasn’t having it. The Dad picked him up and carried him down. I didn’t hear what the Dad said to him.

Maybe I’m making too much of it, but parenting involves so many decisions, moment by moment. Was the big sister old enough to be watching him? Should the Dad have been closer by? Do you push your child to overcome their fear? If so, how hard? Again, I wasn’t judging the dad. I was reminded how hard it is to be a parent. And, for someone like me, where questions run amok, it could be torturous. I’m so glad I got through that stage! I will leave it to my children to judge whether I got it more right than wrong. With adult children, there are still parenting choices to make, but not every day! And they aren’t so vulnerable, they are more fully formed and can better withstand our mistakes.

Later when we were walking home, Gary observed that he wouldn’t have been sitting on the bench chatting with other parents if his son was Milo (who was quite a bit bigger than Lucy, and may have been two or three, but he was still in diapers). I said I wasn’t so sure what I would have done.

Being a grandparent is simpler. Our job was to keep Lucy safe. It was one morning of many for her. If we were more protective than her parents, she would recover. Better that way than the alternative.

 

How young is too young?

How young is too young?  Or put another way, what is the appropriate age for children to…..fill in the blank. As parents we were always debating these questions. To walk to a friend’s house by themselves; to ride their bike in the neighborhood alone; to cross the street; to see PG-13 movies; to wear make-up or get their ears pierced. So many decisions. There are no hard and fast rules, nor should there be.

My parents were permissive in this regard. I’ve touched on this before on my blog. I saw violent movies when I was quite young. I was allowed to read anything I wanted – I don’t recall ever being told to make a different choice when I went to the library with them or if I picked up a book that my older brother was reading. The only time my reading was limited was when I went to check out The Grapes of Wrath when I was in elementary school and the librarian told me it wasn’t appropriate. I vaguely remember arguing with her briefly before giving up.

Some of those parenting decisions are influenced by where you live and what the norms are in the area. Certainly, growing up in New York City is different than growing up in suburban Albany where my children were raised. Of course, technology has changed things, too. Our kids were in middle school before some of the social media issues started to emerge.

Generally, Gary and I were on the same page with these decisions. We agreed that our children would not have a television or computer in their bedroom (this was before laptops, i-pads or smart phones; they were in high school before that became an issue). We wouldn’t buy Eminem’s CD for Dan (he was ten when the Slim Shady LP came out), no matter how much he begged. We knew he heard the music at friends’ houses, but we wanted to be clear that we weren’t sanctioning it. It wasn’t the language we were concerned about, it was the misogyny and casual treatment of sex and violence.

We may have made some errors in judgment, but at least we made them together! One example of what may have been poor decision-making involved Daniel. Daniel was born with a certain skepticism. He never bought into fairies or magical thinking. He was on to the fact that we left money under his pillow when he lost a tooth; he never went for the idea of a tooth fairy. Though it wasn’t part of our tradition, he never believed in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny either. Out of respect for friends, family and neighbors, we never taught our children that there wasn’t a Santa, we simply told them that we didn’t celebrate those holidays. Unfortunately, Dan came to his own conclusion before some of our friends’ children and he shared his ideas (not to be cruel, he thought they already knew). That led to some awkwardness.

Knowing that his skepticism led him to have a mature sense of humor at a young age, we let him watch a George Carlin HBO Special when he was ten or eleven. I knew the humor would appeal to him and it did. But, I think it was too much too soon. In retrospect, we should have encouraged more innocent comedy. I don’t think it helped Dan’s anxiety level to hear Carlin’s cynicism and biting observations so young, even if we all laughed and appreciated his skewering of the establishment.

Though we were almost always in agreement in our parenting decisions, there was one specific time that Gary and I were not on the same page. We had agreed that we would not pierce Leah’s ears as a baby. We wanted it to be her decision. By the time Leah was eight, she was asking to get earrings. Dan was born skeptical; Leah was born headstrong. She was quite persistent. I explained that she needed to be more mature so that she would follow the instructions for the care of her ear lobes and to be sure that it wasn’t a passing fancy. That explanation bought me some time, but by the time she was ten, she was convinced that she was ready. I thought she probably was; Gary didn’t.

One evening we were at the mall. Leah was nearing 12 at this point and I had been putting her off in terms of the earrings. Dan and Gary went to look for something while Leah and I went in another direction. We agreed to meet up at a certain time. As Leah and I were walking, we passed a kiosk that offered ear piercing. Leah stopped and asked me again. I took a deep breath and made an executive decision that she was mature enough. The woman did it quickly, with a minimum of fuss. Leah handled the pain without much reaction. She was proud of herself and excited.

We met back up with the boys. When Leah showed Gary the small gold posts in her ear lobes, he was furious. I hadn’t expected such an extreme reaction. When Gary is angry, he retreats; his silence is more penetrating than harsh words. At first, he was mad at Leah too, but he let go of that in a reasonable amount of time. Most of his fury was reserved for me. He may not be over it yet (20 years later).

Looking back at it, if that was the worst of our differences in parenting styles, that’s pretty damn good. That isn’t to say we didn’t have other arguments, but at least not about those issues.

It will be interesting to watch the next generation navigate their parenting path.

The Fifth Commandment

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. It was a wonderful day for me – I felt loved. Need I say more? Probably not, because that sums it up pretty well. But, I do want to say more (otherwise I wouldn’t have much of a blog post, would I?).

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Part of my mother’s day. I am so lucky!

I came across an essay by Anne Lamott, a writer I like very much, in which she argues for cancelling Mother’s Day. (If you want to read her post, here is a link: here, though if you aren’t on Facebook it might not work.) She made a lot of valid points. It is a day that can be fraught for many reasons: it can be a reminder of the painful loss of a mother or child, it romanticizes motherhood when for most the relationship is not as simple as a Hallmark card, it can be alienating for those struggling with infertility….the list can go on. But all celebrations have a flip side. Birthdays can be reminders of what we haven’t yet accomplished. The holiday season can feel intensely lonely. I think we need to be sensitive to that and reach out to those who may be in pain. We should also emphasize the love, not the consumerism. But we shouldn’t cancel the celebration. Mothers deserve to be celebrated, even the flawed among us (which would be all of us). Most of us are doing our best, which sometimes isn’t enough. And there are some who aren’t doing that, but then I hope we could celebrate those who helped us overcome, who played a nurturing role. A mother, whether they are biological, adopted, or chosen, is worthy of recognition.

After all, it is in the ten commandments. Even if one doesn’t believe in God, or has their doubts, the ten commandments offer some good moral guidance, and the fifth commandment says to honor your father and your mother. I have wondered what that means.

I remember when I was a child being in the room when my dad had an argument with one of my mom’s uncles. Uncle Morris was saying that children owe their parents respect and love. My father, in his forceful way, disagreed. He said children didn’t ask to be born. Parents were obligated, since they brought the child into the world, to care for them, but a child didn’t have to return the favor. Uncle Morris was taken aback. I think I understood, even though I was a child, that somehow this related to my dad’s feelings about his own parents. I’ve written about this before, but I believe my father didn’t feel loved or supported by his parents (at least not in the way he needed to be). To his credit, he, in turn, did his best to make us, his children, feel loved and supported.

What do we owe our parents, if anything? My mother has often told me that she doesn’t want to be a burden. I appreciate her saying that. I make a choice to drive to New Jersey to take her to the doctor in New York City. I choose to call her almost every day. Is that burdensome? Maybe. When I am crawling through midtown traffic to get to the Lincoln Tunnel to take her home from the appointment, it can be onerous. But, it still feels right. I want to do those things. Sometimes I wonder if I can or should do more. We are all pulled in different directions. Balancing it, our relationships, our work, our hobbies, our own health, is a never-ending struggle. I am constantly in conversation with myself about whether I am striking the right balance. It is not a very satisfying conversation because most often I feel like I am coming up short somewhere.

Do you have that conversation with yourself? Any comments on that fifth commandment? – it is a tricky one. Maybe they all are.

A Memorable Father’s Day

Note: This post was written by Gary, my husband.

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Three generations of fathers

As we drove up to Temple Emanuel in Kingston, NY, I wondered how the day might go.  Linda and I were about to bring my mother and my father to see their brand new great granddaughter Evelyn (Evey, for short).  Our wonderful son Daniel and his wonderful wife Beth became parents on May 31stand we had already been down to the city to see the baby (and them) twice.  The first time, it was just Linda and I, and the following weekend we brought Linda’s mom, Feige, to see Evey.  Those visits had gone quite well.

This visit presented some significant challenges, challenges we spent considerable time fretting over.  The biggest issue was my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease.  She has been living with it, meaning we as a family have also been living with it–my father most of all–for more than a decade.  The disease has done what it does.  It has gotten inexorably worse as her memory, and so much of what made her a brave, kind, thoughtful, bright person, have been stolen from her.  The ability to manage money, to cook and clean and participate in meaningful discussion gradually disintegrated.

And it left someone behind who is at once my mother and, at the same time, certainly not her.  Anyone who has a relative with this cruel disease understands what I just wrote better than my poor ability to communicate it.  In her case, my mother will become incredibly fixated on things that worry her.  This is perhaps a consequence of her underlying psychological makeup and, of course, her experiences during the Holocaust, in addition to the disease.

But she will ask, “where are we going?” “where are we?” “who are you?” “where is my mother?” and similar questions relentlessly.  You cannot answer the question enough times; it just keeps getting repeated.  She cannot retain what is said to her.  I find it fascinating that she has no trouble remembering what she is worried about. Something works deep inside there, but not the ability to remember what was just said to her.  Never.

Taking care of her and my father has been a team effort among my siblings, but like all teams, this one is not made up of equal players.  I have done my part in terms of managing the medical side of their care.  But that is, frankly the easiest part.  My sisters and brother have done much more than I have in terms of managing their lives overall.  My two sisters in particular, Ro and Dor, have been beyond wonderful and selfless in all they have done.

Before we left Albany to pick my parents up, Linda and I made signs to put on the back of the seat, in front of my mom, reminding her where we were going, who we were going to see, who was in the car.  While it didn’t work perfectly, it actually worked quite well on the way down to the city. Given her other deficits, it is interesting that she can still read English and Hebrew.

Linda picked up sandwiches which we brought in the car and gave them to eat on the way down to the city.  They were both dressed up for Saturday morning services, something they attend weekly.  In Florida, they attend synagogue three days each week since the daily minyan is no longer available.  While in Saugerties, the pickings are slimmer and they just go Saturday mornings, but they both still enjoy services.  In Florida, my dad serves as gabbai (the person who calls people up to the Torah) and often davens (sings/chants) the prayer service, something he is quite good at. Up here in New York, they are just congregants and that seems to be plenty good by them too.

As we drove down, there was pleasant conversation with my father and my mom seemed reasonably satisfied, responding well to cues to read the information on the seat in front of her as needed.  We were particularly concerned about the effects of being away from her familiar environment but she really did quite well on that ride.  The weather was glorious and there was no traffic to speak of.

Eventually we made it to New York City and to Dan and Beth’s apartment in Harlem.  Their building is lovely and their one bedroom apartment is as spacious as a NYC one bedroom apartment gets.  They have room for Evey’s crib and a chair to hold and feed her in the bedroom.  And their cat, Hamilton–a three legged cat–seems to have behaved reasonably well with the presence of a new lifeforce in his space.

In the apartment, Great Grandpa was in his glory. He was holding Evey and speaking to her and explaining that she knows that he is her friend and she seemed quite pleased as well.  This was the reason for all of the effort.  For David, getting to see a generation three removed from his own, his own progeny, getting to hold and speak to and be with that great granddaughter, was nothing less than a miracle, the fulfillment of some sort of cosmic justice.

The fact is, he never should have been alive to witness this amazing moment.  He was supposed to have been killed long ago in northeastern Poland.  The nazis had more than enough resources devoted to making sure he died.  There were ss everywhere, there was a ghetto and plenty of anti-Semitic Poles ready to turn Jews in to the Germans.  The statistics are startling.  80% of Jews in Poland before World War II did not survive to the end of the war.  98% of Jewish children were killed.  The nazis did not want anyone young enough to reproduce to survive and special attention was paid to youth.

David, my dad, lost his mother, his sister and his brother.  His father died shortly after the war, while in a displaced persons camp, just before they were scheduled to leave to America.  All of the cousins and friends and neighbors he knew were in the same boat.  Of the approximately 4,500 Jews in and around Ewier (his hometown in Poland) in 1939, between 50 and 100 lived to see 1945. David had done amazing things and overcome incredible odds to reach America and build a new life.

Although, she is no longer aware of much of her own history, Paula, my mom, went through similar difficulties.  I am less certain of the numbers in Sarnik, but there have been mass graves uncovered there and the numbers are similarly grim.  Her mother, Lea Silberfarb, was beyond bright and brave and I am so proud that my daughter wears that name so well.  Lea rescued her three children against all odds, unable to even get word to her husband who was killed by the Germans.

So now, 73 years after the end of World War II, having overcome all of that and having built a new life in a new land, learning a new language, having experienced all of the illnesses he has accumulated, here was my dad, 95 years old, holding the next generation.  Those who came with an army to kill him are gone.  He remains.  And his legacy lives on in a new baby’s bright eyes.

He was glorying in her, loving her and loving the experience. We have had our challenging moments and Linda has been kind enough to provide this forum for me to discuss them before.

This was a very different moment.  This was the reason to endure all of those other moments. He understood that.  Linda understood that.  Dan and Beth understood that.  And all wanted him to have that moment.  It was a form of pure joy that is hard to put into words.

After that visit, Dan showed Bobe and Grandpa the view from the patio of his building and we said our farewells.  We stopped at our apartment and they got to see it and to use the facilities before we headed back upstate.  We were to meet my brother Steve along with his family for dinner, his wife Shari and their amazing children, Laura and Jordan.  The prior evening, we had seen them at Shari’s retirement party and I was so impressed with her, Steve and their children as they each spoke so eloquently about Shari’s remarkable career managing a large part of OPWDD, the state office tasked with caring for people with developmental disabilities.

We did not have as easy a time driving up.  My mom was tired and did not respond as well to the sign on the seat.  She was not as easily comforted and the relentless questions were rapid fire.  Linda worked hard to keep her engaged, comforted and oriented, but it wasn’t easy.

We arrived at the Harriman exit and made it to the restaurant where we were meeting my brother’s family.  They came out to the car as we pulled up and grabbed my parents, giving Linda and I a breather.

We had a nice meal, I had a cold beer, Linda enjoyed two glasses of sangria.  After dinner, we drove the remainder of the way to Saugerties where we dropped off the parents to the care of their aide.  With all of the things that could have gone wrong, there were no unfortunate events.

We had a successful visit and my dad has subsequently spoken joyfully of that day.

It is not every day that you can give your parent that kind of gift.  Of course, Dan and Beth were quite essential to that.  They are incredible people, kind and loyal and already clearly outstanding parents.

It was a wonderful Father’s Day gift and a rewarding day.  The following day, actual Father’s Day, Linda and I didn’t go anywhere.  I did some yard work, also known as my therapy, we grilled and relaxed.

It was a very good Father’s Day weekend.

Motherhood

Note: I was rummaging through a drawer and came upon a yellow pad that I jotted thoughts on many years ago. I found the following, written in March of 1988.

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I woke up to hear a very pleasant conversation. I look over at Gary to find that he is soundly sleeping.  At the same time my eye catches the clock. It is 6:04 a.m. Of course, our alarm clock is set to run about 17 minutes fast for some reason that makes perfect sense to my sleeping husband.

So, you ask, is the pleasant conversation the remnant of a dream, or is there someone else present? In the next room, Leah Rachel, all 9 months and 25 days of joyful life, is engaged in quite a discussion. I wonder: what does it all mean? Is she really saying something to her companions in her crib, her pink and white cuddly, soft dog or powder blue bear? Is she simply announcing her pleasure at waking up to find another day which promises new and interesting surprises? Or is the pleasure of experimenting with her voice, making new sounds or repeating pleasing ones? I wish I woke up that way. I wonder how soon this phase will end. When will waking up become the painful process for Leah that it is for most of the people I know?

I lay back and listen, trying to imagine Leah’s pleasure. I had not known, before her birth, how fresh things would look, sound and feel. That is not to say that there aren’t many mornings when I have been awoken at 6:00 am mighty pissed off at losing valued sleep once again, and not at all impressed with the vocalizations of my little baby girl. But, it has been quite an experience trying to see the world through her big brown eyes. On so many levels, it has made me see things I otherwise had ignored or thought of from a different perspective.

I listen for a while, knowing inevitably that the cooing and gurgling will turn into frustration. I imagine Leah saying, “Oh, I’ve been cute long enough! Where is breakfast?” I get up and go to the bathroom. Leah comes to the instantaneous realization that someone is available so she starts to fuss.

Anyway, once my necessities have been taken care of, I go into Leah’s room to find her little face peeking through the bars of the crib. Her joy at seeing me, and realizing that freedom is near, is a wonderful greeting. I love her little face, the way she nuzzles her head into the crook of my neck, while patting me on the back when I lift her from her bed. This is a terrific hug. It is amazing to me that most every time she greets me, she shows so much affection. After a nap, when I pick her up from the babysitter, after she has been playing with her toys for a while, oblivious to me…Did she learn to do that? Is it a natural thing for a person to do? It is incredible to me that, at such a young age, Leah is already so able to express her appreciation, her love. Is it love, though? What is it?

I guess over the years, as children grow up, they must take these little things for granted. I suppose it wouldn’t be natural to be grateful each time you saw your parents, siblings or spouse. Plus, I guess as you get older, there are more reasons NOT to appreciate them! I will try to savor these moments in anticipation of lean years ahead.

My treasure. Really the point of all this exposition is two-fold. One is to share what is in my heart for my daughter and other loved ones. It is to try to paint a picture of a moment in time that, for me, defines love. And, it is to ask a question: Is this what other mothers, wives and daughters feel? Because if they do, it is at once very exciting because what I feel is wonderful and life affirming. It is also frightening because of the intensity of the emotions.

It is apropos that I came upon this the day after the baby shower. I had wanted to say something at the shower, but in the hub-bub and distraction, I didn’t get to. I wanted to wish Dan and Beth the joy, love and pride that I have been privileged to know as a parent. I hope they are as lucky as I have been.

Marital Moments (no, not that kind!)

It was 1990. We had just celebrated Daniel’s first birthday, and Leah was fast approaching three years old. I was working full time for the Legislative Commission on Expenditure Review (LCER). Gary was finishing the first year of his Endocrine Fellowship. The kids were in daycare at Kidskeller. Those are the facts.

Gary and I were managing, barely. Financially the ends were just meeting, some months they weren’t. Emotionally we were hanging on by the skin of our teeth. Here was a typical day in the Spring of 1990:

We got up at 6:30 a.m., if we weren’t already awoken by one or both of the kids. If we were lucky we had gotten 6 hours of sleep, on a good night. We got ourselves and the kids ready for the day, packed up the bags for daycare, ate breakfast and got in the car (we could only afford one). We drove to Kidskeller, an easy ten-minute ride from the house. Each of us took one child and got them settled, then met back at the car. Gary drove me downtown (another ten minutes) and dropped me off in front of the Daily Grind where I would get coffee. He went on to work, parking the car at the VA Medical Center. I walked the rest of the four blocks to my office. At least two or three times a week I took a bus during my lunch break to look in on Leah and Dan at Kidskeller. Even if it was only 10 minutes each, it made me feel better to see them. Then I took the bus back and continued my workday. At 5:00 p.m. I went back through the revolving door of my office building, leaving every thought about work behind and caught the bus again. This time I went to get the car at the VA parking lot. I’d go pick up the kids and bring them home. I made us dinner and we ate. Usually around 7:00 pm I’d get a call from Gary that he was ready to leave work. I loaded Leah and Dan in the car and drove to either the VA or Albany Med to pick him up. We got home and began the bedtime routine. Then we did it all over again the next day.

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Gary in his office at the VA (sometime around 1990-91)

Given the demands of our lives, there wasn’t much margin for things going wrong. If the car broke down or someone got sick, we had to scramble.

This isn’t to suggest that there wasn’t joy. Watching Leah and Daniel emerge, their unique personalities flower, was a source of pleasure and pride. But, there wasn’t much time devoted to Gary and my relationship. There wasn’t much left at the end of the day, so perhaps the events surrounding this particular experience are understandable in that context (I can write that with 25 years of perspective between then and now).

On rare occasions my work required overnight travel. Fortunately, I would know long enough in advance so that Gary was able to coordinate his schedule, and/or we called upon family members to help fill in. This particular time I had a trip planned to Mineola (Long Island). Dan was still recovering from his second bout of Coxsackie virus, a particularly unpleasant illness that involved blisters on his lips and in his mouth. Gary was able to adjust his work responsibilities so that he was home that day. The plan called for me to arrive back in Albany by 5:00 p.m. so he could then go to the hospital.

My colleague, Debra, and I left the night before so that we could get to the office in Mineola bright and early, leaving us a full morning to conduct interviews and review files as the project required. We were scheduled to make a stop early in the afternoon at a Westchester office to conduct another interview and then go back to Albany.

We arrived at the Mineola office as scheduled at 8:00 a.m. We parked in the garage under the building, as we had been directed. We took the elevator up and began our work day. So far, so good. We were there about 90 minutes when an alarm sounded. An announcement came over the loudspeaker advising us that this wasn’t a drill, we needed to evacuate the building immediately. We left without our coats.

As we got to the street, we were directed away from the building. We were told there was a bomb threat. We heard a multitude of sirens and saw police cars blocking the entrances and exits to the building and its garage. We saw German Shepherds being brought into the building. We were told this was going to take a while. I looked at my watch, it was nearing 11:00 a.m. I felt panic rising. I thought I better call Gary (this was before cell phones – they may have existed, but I certainly didn’t have one).

Debra and I went in search of a pay phone. We crossed the street and found a department store which had a bank of phones. I scrounged change from my purse and placed the call. I told Gary about the bomb threat.

“I wanted to let you know what was going on. We’ve been evacuated from the building and I don’t know how long it is going to take,” I explained.

“You need to leave and come back home,” Gary replied.

“I can’t. The car is parked under the building.”

“I don’t care. Get in the car and leave.”

“I don’t have my keys either – they’re in my coat pocket which I had to leave in the building.”

“Go back to building…”

“What are you saying, Gary? You want me to go through the police barrier? Are you fucking serious?!”

Debra was standing next to me, listening to this conversation, making no move to leave and give me some privacy. I think she was enjoying the show.  I was angry and embarrassed. I put my hand over the receiver and asked her to go check to see if the building was still sealed off. Reluctantly she left.

Gary continued, “Well, if you aren’t going to get back in time, you better arrange a baby-sitter!”

“I’m on Long Island, for Christ’s sake! I don’t have phone numbers or enough change! You need to do it!”

“I’m not finding a sitter! I can’t not go in to the hospital, Linda, you know that! I need to round on my patients! You need to figure this out!”

“I might still get back in time. I’ll call when I know.” And I hung up.

As I took a few deep breaths, I rifled through my bag and found the number for the person Debra and I were supposed to interview in the afternoon. I called, apologized and told him I would have to reschedule. One less thing to worry about.

I left the department store and went to find Debra. I was none too happy with her either, but I had no choice. We needed to finish our assignment.

It was just after noon when we got the all clear to return to the building. We went back into the office and finished up our paperwork as quickly as possible. We got our things together and got on the road before 1:00 p.m. Assuming we didn’t hit crazy traffic, never a good assumption, I would get back in time.

The entire ride back, I stewed. I couldn’t believe Gary wanted me to go back in the building. I felt humiliated. This was not something I could ever tell my dad – he probably wouldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. This from the guy who had come over to my apartment with a baseball bat when he couldn’t reach me on the phone? That same guy wanted me to ignore a bomb threat serious enough to evacuate a building and call in search dogs?

We made it back to Albany with no further delays. I dropped Debra off at her apartment and drove home. I took a deep breath as I came up the stairs to our house. I opened the door and found Dan in his highchair while Gary offered him applesauce. Leah was also sitting at the table, starting to eat her dinner. I greeted the kids. Gary and I didn’t say much to each other, just exchanged essential information like when Dan had last had Tylenol. I took over giving Dan and Leah dinner. Gary left for the hospital.

Over the next days and weeks, we returned to our routines, going through the motions. I couldn’t just sweep it under the rug, though. Eventually, one day, after we dropped the kids off at daycare, we were in the car as Gary drove me to work, I brought it up. “I don’t understand how you could ask that of me,” I began. I expected an apology. I didn’t get one. Instead Gary described how demanding his work was, how stressed he was, how hard it was to meet the standards of his mentor, Dr. Goodman. I got out of the car feeling even worse.

I made a mistake in bringing it up when we had less than ten minutes to discuss it, since we both had to be at work. I arrived at my office upset, frustrated, angry and sad. Not a great recipe for productivity either.

I can’t tie a bow around this story. We didn’t come to a sweet resolution. We just kept going. Circumstances got better as time passed. Leah and Daniel got older and more self-sufficient. I went to a four day work schedule. Gary finished training and went into private practice. His hours were still long and the work demanding, but the financial strain slowly but surely relaxed. We found bits of time here and there to devote to each other. Damage had been done to our relationship. It took a long time to rebuild, and there were other low points (though not as dramatic), but we survived….together.