Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit my child's teething as proof of insanity

Oh, John, light of my life, bane of my existence. My son, my sleep-thief. Tee-thing-pain: the tip of the tongue taking three steps down the palate to tap, so innocently, against the bones that cause such misery. Two. Year. Molars.

He was awake, plain awake in the morning, screaming upright in bed at four o'clock. He was stubborn at home. He was happy at school. He was flirtatious at the grocery store cash register. But in the depths of my night, he was always helplessly screaming.

Did it have a reason? It did, indeed it did. In point of fact, there might have been no screaming at all had there not been, one eon, a certain initial idiocy of evolution. Between the forestland and the sea. Oh when? About as many years ago as some fool decided our survival could stand an unimaginable torture called teething. You can always count on a mother for incoherently blaming existence.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the childless, the inexperienced, free-wheeling childless are snickering at. Look at this ream of sleepless nights.

(With thanks and apologies to Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Did Einstein have phenomenal powers of concentration? Or was he simply free of responsibilities?

I've been mulling over this question since reading Einstein: His Life and Universe. Where does personal responsibility infringe on a person's powers of concentration? What level of responsibility-feeling do we have to relinquish in order to devote ourselves to the task at hand?

The author described a scene in which Einstein sat at his desk completely engrossed in a physics problem while the children ran around playing and yelling. "Which shows," he said, "what powers of concentration Einstein had."

This statement ruffled me. The scene: a man sitting at a desk, pen in hand, oblivious to the children playing around him and likely housework or cooking of some kind being done by his wife in another room.

No, this isn't a feminist response. What I found curious was that the author wasn't quite imaginative enoughg to apply a role of responsibility to the powers of concentration. Einstein may have had great such powers -- many people do -- but the reason he was able to practice them was that he felt no responsibility for what else was going on in the room: care of the children, attention to them, the need for meals to be cooked and clothes to be washed and floors to be cleaned. Mostly the children.

There is a great difference, somewhere in there, between someone who can concentate in distracting situations, and someone who can employ such concentration when they feel at some level responsible for the care and welfare of a household, or a relationship, or a pet.

Einstein was by all reports an attentive father, and even an enthusiastic one when his children were old enough to teach and on the few occasions they were in the same place. But it was understood that his energies were saved for his research, and his thinking.

It is easy to wonder how many women today have that luxury, and men, too. After years of trial and mostly error, I have discovered that I cannot write when other people are in my home, including my spouse and child. Nobody thinks anything of interrupting me to ask what we should do for dinner, or where I've put the phone bill, or if I could please come down and show them where the strawberry patch is among the weeds.

I can concentrate through all this, although it gets harder to slip back into my writing bubble and some days I just give up. I prefer reserving my efforts for noisy coffee shops or bars, where I can concentrate just fine and nobody bugs me.

Harder than concentration is shaking the sense of responsibility. Say my husband Ian is looking after our son, while I catch up on some work in front of a notebook or computer. John cries for some reason. I ignore it, knowing Ian has his own way of parenting; I try not to interfere or impose mine on him. But John keeps crying and maybe my husband is engrossed in his email.

I don't want to parent for him, don't want to tell him what to do. He's given me a gift of time to work, and I want to take it. But I can't let go. I am pulled, always, every day, by responsibilities to my son, responsibilities to my husband, and responsibilities to my work. At this point in my son's life, on any given day, the responsibility to him is strongest. Because I spend more time with him every day than Ian does, I can tell that John wants his crayons, or for someone to let the plastic shapes out of his ball so he can put them back in, or he's lost his funky chicken somewhere.

Or maybe I'm trying to ignore the litany that comes from being a full-time mother: it's almost time for his nap, but he hasn't had lunch yet, and Ian doesn't know quite how to make the eggs so he likes them, and he should really take John outside to play because it's rained the last 4 days and he needs some sunshine, and I still need to pick up something at the farm for dinner or we'll end up eating pasta again and we're both trying to stick with eating more healthy, more vegetables.

And on and on. I bet Einstein never worried about whether someone was getting enough vegetables, or about cooking his young sons a nutritious lunch in good time for them to take a nap.

It's not as if it's easy for my husband, either. After all, he works hard and doesn't get much time to check his email, or just watch the news or dig in the garden or read a book.

The point is simply one of language. I felt ruffled because the author's admiration of Einstein implied that others (usually women) who can not work in the midst of their yelling children are somehow lesser beings.

Einstein of course had responsibilities, and took them seriously, especially in the area of providing for his family. This was not an egomaniac who expected all to be sacrified to his work. But it was his lack of responsibility in the area of home life that allowed him to practice his powers of concentration. Einstein was partly able to do what he did because he knew that someone else was taking care of the house and the children, of the little responsibilities that comprise daily life -- the daily life so demanding, so attention-consuming, so full of multi-tasking, that it keeps so many of us from concentrating on anything at all.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Wanting more from life: the starvation of the intellect

I recently spent a very satisfactory month working my way through the 500-page biography of Albert Einstein, Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson. Satisfactory on many levels, as it was solidly written, well put together, and spent a great deal of time covering aspects of science and mathematics that will never fail to capture the hungry parts of my imagination and intellect -- even if that intellect is both out of practice and full of holes to begin with.

While reading, cirled repeatedly back to the same questions that prompted Julia and I to start Pooplosphy in the first place: where are the great discoveries and discussions of the current age occurring? Where are the collections of such immense minds as Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Schroedinger, and Heidigger now? Einstein's biographer tells of the meetings these people had, the letters and ideas they exchanged, the longs walks they took together through Berlin and the Alps, hashing out the issues of cutting-edge physics and mathematics.

Walking, together, and talking, while trying to piece together a tangible understanding of the nature of the universe.

Reading of these men and women made me both sad and envious, on many levels. Part of this is due to my own lack of understanding. Although I started university by studying physics, and ended with a degree in mathematics, these subjects were always far more difficult for me than for my colleagues. The four-year university format doesn't allow much room for the slow learner, or the one who needs a more foundational understanding of the nature of mathematics and science herself before delving fully into, say, real analysis and quantum mechanics.

The intricacies of general relativity will probably always be a closed book to me, even if described ten ways from Sunday using any amount of metaphor and analogy. Although I regret the non-genius nature of my rather woolly intelligence, I have come to terms with this fact. It detracts in no way from the pleasure I find in having long discussions in which a knowledgeable friend attempts to deepen my understanding. In fact, I assume it gives both of us pleasure; after all, I enjoy helping other writers improve their work and unearth their own literary voices. Why should not a physicist friend enjoy leading me to some glimmer of insight into Einstein's theories?

But this leads me to the aspect of envy that mixes with the sadness. While in the midst of this book, I made a quick trip back to the city of my university days for a roommate's wedding. I spent three hours wandering the campus and surrounds that had been home to the happiest years of my life.

The sadness came when I realized they had been the happiest. Yes, I now have a wonderful spouse and beloved child and a house in the country, but my mind seems to have spent the last ten years asleep. If I cannot have wilderness at my feet, I thrive equally on intellectual stimulation, perhaps even more so. And stimulation is what I found in those four years.

I have a great-grandfather whose occupation was to sit in his temple or his house and study the Talmud while his wife took care of everything else. He was so brilliant that famous chess players from all over the world came to his Ukranian village to play against him because he would not travel. The greatest dream of both my grandparents on that side was to achieve a Ph.D. in engineering. On the other side, my grandmother was a rare woman who pursued a master's in history in the 1930s and my grandfather went back to study politics in his 80s.

So maybe the intellectual thirst runs thick in my blood.

The jealousy stepped in as I paused in the coffee shop near my college (the place I used to earn my paycheck in the early mornings, my hair and math texts always full of the scent of roasted coffee) to read my book and step back just for a moment to the voracious student I used to be. Sipping coffee that reeked of nostalgia, I read of Einstein walking all over Berlin with his colleagues, talking their ideas over for hours.

That, I realize, is what I am missing in my life: the ability to walk out of the house to meet a friend and discuss anything from symbolic logic to what makes Jane Austen great, not as a set of thoughts in passing, but as the passionate focus of interest for a few hours.

And then, of course, to return to problems of potty training and why I can't get my toddler to eat anything more colorful than a scrambled egg. I wouldn't wish to lose the understanding being a mother has given me, both of the supposed nature of the universe, and of the true importance of the seemingly mundane activities of everyday life. But it is always easier to bend my mind to the problems of parenthood when I have stretched it to encompass the problems of quantum mechanics.

Right now the imbalance is extreme in favor of motherhood. Where does your average housewife intellectual find such connection? Only on the Internet? Or through literary magazines such as Brain, Child? After reading Einstein's biography, it seems a poor life in which you cannot walk out your door with a good friend to discuss whatever most stimulates you both.

Shortly after finishing this book, and moving on to a much less interesting one about Blaise Pascal, I asked my husband to help me comprehend, just a little, general relativity. Einstein's great thought experiment ("what is it like to run alongside a light beam?") does not translate to a metaphor I can grasp, and my husband does, after all, have a Ph.D. in physics.

We spent a pre-toddler hour tangling ourselves in the knottiness of quantum space and the question of whole numbers and what they really represent, among other issues. This while he got ready for work and I folded laundry. Usually he's in a pre-coffee stupor and I'm frantically trying to write before our son wakes up.

I realized that this is a level on which we used to talk with each other all the time, when we met back in college. But modern life, outside of academia, makes little room to sate the frivolously intellectual appetite. Our spare hours are more often spent reading novels or hanging out on Twitter, when we're not talking about our son's development, household finances, work, or what the hell to do about the woodchuck under the front path.

I realized that the only intellectual friend I have physically living in my town -- my spouse -- is the one who, like me, has little spare time.

One could argue that physics was Einstein's job, and the job of those in the sphere he worked. But it wasn't, not at first. It was his passion -- Einstein worked in a patent office, and wrote physics articles in his limited spare time, until he became well-known enough to procure a university position. But even before he entered academia, he worked and studied and exchanged letters and discussions with some of the greatest minds of his day.

Maybe this life rarely happens outside the walls of academe. Maybe people like me should always move to university towns, progressive places, walkable communities that have ample supplies of both passionate intellectuals and attachment parenting practitioners.

Is it too much to ask in life -- a chance to study in depth, to absorb the gift of wilderness, to feed insatiable curiosity, to raise your children with love and intellectual stimulation and local organic food among like-minded people, to challenge your mind and understanding, to travel the world, to pursue your own creativity and feed others', to have a family dinner every night and still get enough sleep?

Most of us want more from life than what we've got. Right now I'd be grateful for long walks with a kind genius. Or at least a friend, smarter than I, who can explain Einstein's relativity in language I can understand.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

How to make potty training your toddler really fun

In an early diaper-free phase take your toddler to a playground far away from home. Sit on a bench, kick off your favorite ballerinas and think "How cute!" when she slips them on and stumbles off. When she stops to take them off and pour out the pee, don´t follow your reflex to hide and deny any relationship with your offspring. Just swallow your pride and disgust, put your shoes back on and squeak home.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Story River: Why We Write in the Dark

Last spring I attended an author's luncheon for my local library. I even helped organize it, which shows how much I love libraries, as fidgety as meetings and committees make me. One of the authors who spoke had won a Pulitzer and taught at a nearby college. She was eloquent and honest, and discussed why it was that, say, Philip Roth has published many books and she has only published two. She talked about teaching and children and life. "Novels grow in the dark," she said, a quote I wrote down and spend some spare moments musing over. When she said, though, that "I have not a regular relationship to the work, but a faithful relationship to the work," the distinction brought immense relief to my own writing life.

I get frustrated, often, with how long my work takes. It can take months for an essay to reach what I feel is completion, years sometimes for a story, perhaps because I am simply more practiced at nonfiction. When the final narrative finally emerges, and still feels whole and smooth even several months later, I know I'm done with it. And wish, repeatedly, that I could have just written it right the first time around. At which point the whole process starts over again with something new.

I carry drafts of essays and stories around with me all the time, as if they were children, or cats waiting to be taken to the vet. Sometimes I read over the first few pages and sigh, wondering how on earth I'm going to fix whatever is wrong with a piece that I know is essentially good. And then I put it back in my bag because I also know, instinctively, that I cannot push a piece, or force it to be done, or inflict endings and scenes it was never meant to have. It has to wait. Maybe it is gestating, or maybe the door to that particular piece is closed for the moment, and I have pay attention to see when it opens again.

I know by now that I am not really in charge of "my" work. The best work does not come from "I," but from some "other," some easy, flowing place where the story runs through like a stream or river or brook, depending on its nature. Maybe that's why it's so hard for a writer to capture it all at once. The story is moving, drifting, changing all the time, not sitting there like a written book ready to be picked up, or even a baby ready to be born.

Or maybe it is like a baby, a complete self at every moment of its life, as is any course of running water, but, also like a river or stream or creek or spring, is never the same being it was a moment before, changing at every instant. And yet, the watercourse or human being, while seeming to change, has a core of being-ness or completeness that all can sense, some unchanging purpose or existence that sits at the center of the joyful and wild ripples of change and life.

This is also true of a story. The attempts to catch it in its flow -- which for me can take years of repeated efforts -- are simply attempts to describe the story-river so completely as to come as close as possible to describing the core of it.

The goal, however, of a writer or human or artist or storyteller is not, in fact, to simply tell the central, unchanging truth, although that is what we feel we are reaching for. The core is not a story. It is simply a word, or a sense: truth, wrong, love, hurt, joy. These words describe the central essence of our works, and we wrap stories around them to help us make sense of them. To help us understand what we already instinctually know. Because every person, writer or reader, has their own river of truth, knowledge, and experience. Behind each of these are truths we all share, but the only way we can reach understanding of how close we are is to describe our rivers -- our stories -- to one another so fully that maybe another will recognize one of ours and say, "Yes, that is a lot like mine, my story."

There is a delicate balance between letting the story come through you (that which is true), and letting the "I," or the ego, manufacture it. With time and practice every writer learns to sense where he or she is writing from. And with time and practice, we learn that satisfaction in our work, "our" creations, come not from us, but from that other place that, like nature itself, gives its gifts freely -- if we're paying attention.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Theoretical Justice: Waiting in the Jury Pool

The small village courtroom, with "Village of Washingtonville, est. 1731" painted proudly behind the judge's counter, and the sound of traffic from just outside the door, is crowded with plumbers, students, an anxious defendant, and housewives like me. The counter holds a box of Kleenex and a plaque with the judge's name, and is the same counter at which other mothers and I elbowed each other last winter to sign our children up for the over-subscribed Toddling Toddlers program.

I feel sorry for the defendant already, and wonder what he's here for. A village court will hear cases only of minor driving misdemeanors and the like, but still he looks nervous. He's been sitting at his table for over an hour, shifting in a suit he's possibly unaccustomed to, and skating quick glances at the prospective jury pool as we enter from the front of the room with coffee, books, and Sudoku in hand.

The woman next to me has exhausted her entertainment, having filled out a popular culture crossword in the local paper. As time wears on she begins swearing quietly under her breath and snapping her chewing gum. I peer at what everyone else is reading, a very nosy and unshakable habit: Frank McCourt's Teacher Man, Black Justice in a White World, Anita Shreve's Lovely Bones, and my own Brother Cadfael mystery novel. I find the 12-century Benedictine monk's fictional life as good an investigation of true humanitarian justice as philosopher John Rawls's Theory of Justice, with Cadfael playing Rawls's own "impartial observer."

It's hard to tell what people are thinking in these situations, brought together for the purposes of dispensing justice. So many of them look bored, or annoyed, or resigned. A few, perhaps, grateful like me to have a few quiet minutes to read a book. It's such a rare thing, undisturbed time. And even I am distracted into annoyance by the juror form, on which it would not be acceptable to mark 'yes' to 'employed?' because 'mother' is not considered a profession -- it doesn't qualify me for Social Security, so it must not count, a perennial grievance of my own.

The choosing finally begins, the first round of possible jurors chosen from slips of paper in a plastic bucket. The judge points laughingly to the seven chairs against the wall as our "jury box, such as it is," but it's better than the proper jury stand in Boston, where I served several years ago. At least here we can see everyone. There, a huge pillar blocked the witness box and half the judge from sight.

Jet-lagged, exhausted, thinking of my son with his molars coming in and the vacation we returned from only at midnight, I half hope to go home soon, so of course my name is the third one called. Someone somewhere either likes me or hates me: the timing of this duty is unfortunate -- I could use about six more hours of sleep -- but the truth is I love jury duty. If I could choose it as a profession, I would be a juror for the rest of my life. The pull and play of evidence and justice, lawyers' desires to win and the jury's frustration with their incompetence and lack of information -- it can be addictive, not to mention the microcosm of human prejudices, frustrations, potentials, grievances, and faith in the system that erupt when you throw several strangers in a room together and tell them they can't go home until they come to mutual agreement on some aspect of a complete stranger's life.

I try not to glance at this stranger, the defendant, don't want to form pre-judgments, but I can't help it. He looks tired and harrassed, bleary-eyed and skittish, easily pegged as "alcoholic," but maybe he's had a sleepless night of panic. I want to study his face to see: Will I believe what he says? Will I trust him? But I resist.

This is a DWI case, they tell us, and the potentially lethal image of cars combined with drunkeness hangs before my eyes, with the quick indrawn breath as my mother's heart squeezes in panic. It's an instinctive reaction to imagining our children in danger.

One woman is excused to care for a very ill child, another makes it clear she views drinking and driving a sin that manifests itself mostly in the irritation caused by people speeding by her Main Street house late at night. She's taken out of the pool, too.

The judge covers challenges and moves on to "reasonable doubt" until we're sick of it. But he seems intelligent, and patient, and reminds me of a good doctor I used to have. The defense lawyer is red-faced, looking sweaty and less competent next to the Assistant District Attorney in her heels and friendly smile. He, the defense counsel, looks a lot like the prosecution in my last jury trial -- an unfortunate initial impression of used car salesman, except his eyes are wide and brown and honest and innocent, as if he should have been a toy maker.

They all think their questions to us will ensure justice, or as close to it as you can get and still be human. They nix the NYPD police sergeant and the woman who admits to having a previous DWI conviction, but keep the man who was once hit by a drunk driver, and another whose friend died while driving drunk.

"Will you let that affect your judgment?" the Assistant DA asks him. "Can you hear this case fairly?"

"Sure, yes," he says. All sorts of questions like this, with the same reassurances from us. But I wonder if these lawyers have ever been in a jury room. Once that door closes, the personal stories come out. That man's pain and conflicted feelings over his deceased friend will spill over into this present case, and we will hear repeated details about the destroyed soccer career of the one who was hit by a drunk driver.

Neither of them can help it. We all draw on our personal experiences as if they're ingredients in baking a cake, all those big events and trivialities combining to help us form judgments.

The defendant looks a bit like Jude Law from the side, but straight on more closely resembles a former neighbor of mine, a pharmaceutical salesman with three boys and, coincidentally, an alcoholic wife. Already I am battling the conflicting prejudices within me: if he's a nice guy who made a mistake, I want to let him off, rebuked but relieved; if he's a jerk, I want to judge against him because maybe he's the kind who will never stop drinking and driving without fear drilled into him.

All these impulses rise without any conscious thought, as does the instant dislike when his lawyer mentions while questioning us that his client drives a black Ford Explorer. There were several questions regarding our attitudes toward alcohol and drinking, but nobody thinks to ask whether I'll feel unkindly to someone for driving a gas-guzzling SUV. For that, I'll happily take his license and tell myself I'm saving the planet.

Defendants wonder, I've heard, why the prospective jurors don't look at them, won't meet their eyes. It's because we feel guilty. A smile, even quick and tight, might deliver too much hope. A blank stare might discourage them. If jurors feel at all -- and most of us do, those who are not simply bored or annoyed at being there -- we have already judged ourselves as guilty for presuming to pass judgment on others.

Finally, there are six of us and an alternate, gazing obediently toward the bench and not meeting the eyes of the lawyers or the defendant. A graphic designer, a saleswoman for a hotel chain, the owner of a pizza parlor, a male nurse, a nineteen-year-old student, a stay-at-home mom, and me, the mother/writer/traveler/humanist. Six of us have to agree at the end of today, or perhaps tomorrow, on what we've heard and seen and how we understand it, an effort made possible only by the flawed laws that guide us.

In this little village, one man will see his mistakes cast up against him, and we will hear his own efforts at vengeance or regret. It will never make even the most minor news headline, but for this man -- overworked father, partying ex-frat boy, emotionally scarred fireman, he could be any or none of these, I have no idea -- our decision, shaped by our opinions and prejudices, no matter how we try to ignore them, will headline the next arc of his life.

We are here. We will never be ready. Let the trial begin.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Declaring War on the Mommy Wars

A Pissed-off Mother and the Nonviolent Revolution

It was my husband’s fault, and started like this: “I’m just trying to teach him something. Come on, he’s the only kid in day care who can’t feed himself and doesn’t talk yet.”

I was supposed to be going out for a run while Ian took Saturday morning duty and fed our 20-month-old his cereal. Instead, I burst into tears as Ian blinked in confusion and our son John banged his spoon on the table.

“What’s wrong?” asked the tired, slightly overworked husband whom I knew had woken up with a headache and was doing his best not to be grumpy.

I just shook my head. There is no possible way to explain to a non-mother the load of guilt that came crashing down with his innocent words. What he heard was a simple statement of fact: John doesn’t yet use a spoon to feed himself, and his words so far are limited to warped versions of “plop,” “cheese,” and “thank you,” with slightly clearer “uh-oh,” “all done,” and “meow.”

What I heard was a repetition of the same thing I hear every time someone sends me a link to one of those damn articles about militant breastfeeders, or stay-at-home moms versus employed moms, or an attack on attachment parenting, or an attack by non-parents on mothers who dare to complain about the stresses of motherhood, or a debate about the merits of reading and Baby Einstein, and when and how to potty-train. What I heard was this: You’re a bad mother. Every choice you make is wrong. You are not doing enough. You’re doing it all in the wrong way. You should be more involved, pay more attention, spend more time, slice off the rest of your identity to devote every iota of yourself to raise the most well-adjusted and intelligent child according to the requirements and schedule we have laid out for you. Either that, or hand him over to caregivers who will do a better job.

Maybe I should blame it on the article I read the day before, in which a writer beat up on mothers who post pictures of their kids as their Facebook profile photo (yes, I’ve done it). She, as so many others have done, lumped me in with a non-existent camp of mothers who are intellectual idiots, socially inept, enamored of their children, and burying our own lives in order to spoil a bunch of cute parasites. Nevermind that I have a degree in mathematics, still do symbolic logic for fun, like to discuss Proust with those who have read him, had a career as a good copy editor, and am a working writer.

It’s not I who defines myself only by my child. It’s you. As long as my intellectual conversations are sometimes spiced with the word “poop,” I am dismissed as a brainless twit. On the other side, as long as my conversations about our children are peppered with the phrase “sometimes I just want to run away,” I’m a selfish beast who doesn’t love my son.

I am sick of it. There are CEOs and politicians getting paid millions, if not billions, to screw up their corporations, screw over the people who depend on them, and screw every last piece of life out of the planet. And all mothers can do is yell at one another for not doing the most difficult, most important, and least-paid job on the planet absolutely perfectly?

My bursting into tears wasn’t my husband’s fault. He’s doing the best he can, and, smart person, does not read all the parenting and Mommy War articles I do. Maybe it’s my fault for reading them at all, one more way I’m screwing up as a woman and a mother.

In the twenty months since my son was born, I’ve learned two things: One, that a mother’s instinct is almost always right. That doesn’t mean her decisions are right. But if she’s in touch with herself, her child, and an inner voice that has nothing to do with have read Dr. Spock and Dr. Sears twenty times, her instincts as to what is best for her child, and what her child’s needs are, are generally going to be on the mark.

The second thing is that society—the media, other mothers, often family, and a lot of people in the community—are going to do everything they can to both drown out that voice, and to convince a mother that her instincts are utterly wrong. In fact, the message is, those instincts will damage your child’s social adaptation, ruin his or her chances of getting into a good college, give him or her asthma, obesity, a complete lack of independence, fear of dogs, an addiction to television and sugar, probably a drug problem, psychological insecurity, and lack of judgment. And they’ll hate vegetables and reading unless you do it all just right.

I would like to say, politely, to all these people, shut up. On both sides. Just. Stop. Yelling. Information and education is essential. Expressing your frustration is necessary so others don’t feel ashamed for feeling the same way. But this is, without a doubt, the hardest job on earth. Any mother out there dealing with guilt or anger or bewilderment or frustration, do you really want to lay any more of that on the shoulders of other mothers?


I have opinions, even strong ones, about many things regarding motherhood. I believe breastfeeding and breast milk have incalculable health benefits that formula can never compete with. But I also know that breastfeeding can also be difficult or impossible. And, having used a hospital-grade pump for a month when my son was in the NICU, I know it feels exactly like being a milked cow and have trouble imagining making time for it during employment, especially with an unsympathetic boss. I also know babies raised on formula who are doing beautifully.

I believe a baby physically needs its mother for the first three months of life, possibly even six. But I also know that, in a society that seems headed on a crash-course of productivity, believing that everyone needs to work until they’re ground into dust, two weeks with your new baby is a blessing. Three months is a priceless gift, and six months an unheard-of treasure. A professional woman who can spend six months devoted to her baby and then go straight back into her career without being sidelined or passed over for promotion? Millions of us envy you handful.

I believe children who don’t go into nature regularly will turn out more anxious and have weaker cognitive reasoning than children who spend less time with toys that beep and more time watching trees and birds. I believe plastic is akin to a slow-acting poison, and that the powder-come-gel in disposable diapers is probably toxic. But I use Pampers; my son has plenty of plastic toys. And I know how hard it can be to get outside each day when there are a million demands on your time.

I believe people who think parenthood is a lifestyle choice akin to picking out a car or switching careers are fools. But I also pity them, because if they don’t believe that parenthood is a community effort, then they don’t believe in a functional society.

I believe that being a mother has added dimension and depth to my life I could never have imagined. But I also believe those who choose not to have children can live and love just as deeply.

So right here, right now, I am declaring war on the Mommy Wars. Or, more to the point, I am declaring a truce on the Mommy Wars within myself and my relationships. I am laying down my weapons. This is the nonviolent revolution, the new motherhood.

If you want information or advice, I will give it without judgment. If you want to talk about the difficulties of motherhood, and the guilt and the fears, I’m in. If you hate yourself for having lost your temper or having lost your identity, I want you to know you’re not alone. If you just want to talk about a good book, and not worry that mentioning poop in passing will scare someone off, I’m with you.

If you give your children love, and food, and change their diapers relatively regularly, and haven’t yet thrown them out the window, I say to you: Good job. You’re a good mother. And so am I. Whether or not my son learns to guide his spoon to his mouth anytime soon.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Letter to a New Mother: Welcome to a Life of Guilt

A friend of mine is expecting a baby very soon, and in writing a letter addressing some of her anxieties about the adventure ahead, I found this treatise on guilt spilling out. Inappropriate for her, right now, but a little discussion of the guilt felt by Mothers with Brains is sadly needed. Because no one speaks of it, we feel guilty even for our guilt.

Dear Mother,

Welcome to the most fulfilling and challenging job on the planet. You will have moments of tremendous joy, of insights and awakenings, and a gentle shaking out of the bag that used to contain what you thought of as 'priorities.' You will feel weariness and pleasure, frustration and ecstasy.

You will also, from now on, feel guilty every day for the rest of your life.

If you choose, as I did, to stay home with your child, you will feel guilty for not earning money. You will feel guilty for spending money. When your money-earning partner sighs in worry over stresses at work or the economy, or asks ever-so-lightly about what the $70 at the grocery store went to, and if there's any way to shave down the household budget, you will be flooded with defensive responses, any of which will lead to an argument that -- underslept and over-stretched and unsupported by society as you are -- neither of you needs.

The defensiveness will come from your knowledge that, although you spend a grueling 16 or so hours a day giving the best of yourself to your child and your home (not to mention the frequent night interruptions), and you are certain in your soul that this job you've chosen is the most important on the planet, you do not in fact earn a cent for it, neither in real income nor in a retirement plan.

In a simpler world, or a mythical past, this 'woman's work,' the nurturing that is so crucial to a child's survival and the harmony of a household and the fabric of a community, may not have been paid for, but its value was nevertheless acknowledged in some way. Unfortunately, no matter how much someone appreciates your cooking or your plentiful and nutritious breast milk, it doesn't mean much if you never actually get to choose, or reject, the job of caregiver and homemaker.

The feminist revolution gave us that false choice. I call it false because it, also, is no longer a true choice. The acceptance of women into the workaday world created, suddenly, an economy in which, for most families, both parents must work simply to get by. This condition is now an accepted fact of modern American life, the conundrum of middle class existence -- working full-time to pay for quality child care.

But the choice is false for more philosophical reasons than basic modern economics. Most of us women, we modern mothers, want both. We want fulfillment intellectually, socially, emotionally, and physically. We have ambition. We want to be presidents and enterpreneurs and artists. And we want, also, to be the mothers our children need us to be: we want the early attachment, the nurturing and the thrill of watching our own small person grow and learn and discover.

If you are at home with your child, you will feel guilty for putting nothing in the family coffers, and you will feel guilty for the boredom that creeps over you after stacking blocks for half an hour or reading the same book repeatedly.

But if you go back to work, no matter how much you love your job, you will feel guilty for failing your child. For a newborn, the attachment created in the first six months provides a sense of self and security the child can never recreate. You will feel guilty for not being there.

You will feel torn apart when you have to leave your sick baby, or when separation anxiety kicks in and every drop-off at the day care is a re-enactment of being tragically parted for life. You will feel resentful that the work day, and success in your career, is constructed in such a way that it makes fulfillment as a mother nearly impossible. You will feel cheated by the empty phrase "work-life balance."

There is no out for a new mother, no matter what you choose. You will feel guilty when showering while your baby is crying. You will feel guilty for not singing to and rocking your baby all night long when you desperately need sleep. And if, for the tiniest of seconds, for the most momentary moment, if you look at your colicky newborn, who's been crying for two hours straight, with weary loathing, you will feel like the most evil and ungrateful individual on the planet. And you will know you can never mention this to anyone, because society will judge you as harshly and as blindly as you judge yourself. No matter how loving you are throughout the day, no matter how giving and how full of enjoyment with every interaction, that one moment will feel like poison.

This is when you will realize that the guilt must go.

Our society does not give Mothers with Brains choices. I was once at a corporate gathering of women who had come in hundreds to hear Naomi Wolf (author of The Beauty Myth) speak. She was enthusiastic and eloquent about her new project of empowering women in the corporate world and leadership roles.

At question time, one woman stood up to ask, "How do you balance your work and your life," a question always at the forefront of every hardworking mother's mind.

Wolf shook her head. She was sorry to say, she informed us, that in the current economic and corporate structure of America, "there is no such thing as work-life balance. My answer is that I work for myself. It's the only way you can really do it."

We can only overcome the guilt by looking at the struggles of our lives upside-down. We are brought up to expect certain things from adult life. Certain success, a certain style of work. For women to ever be truly, completely fulfilled, those expectations have to be flipped on their head.

In the first place, the job of motherhood needs less sappy recognition than in the style of Chicken Soup for the Soul, and a whole lot more economic backing. As long as motherhood and homemaking is completely unpaid in a world that values everything only in money, then in the workplace women will always be held back. Why? Because at the back of every corporate monkey in charge will be the thought -- perhaps suppressed and unconscious but still there -- that "she could always just stay home and raise babies."

Whatever the misogyny and prejudice of that thought, the real crime is in the word "just," which makes my job, and perhaps yours, into nothing more than a frivolous hobby.

Second, I'm afraid we have to turn out backs on the entire structure of our workday and economy. Its current collapse has shown that unbridled greed and growth simply do nothing for people, individuals, societies, the world at large. But more than that, it is hard-edged. It is built around hours and minutes and dollars and cents, none of which, in fact, have anything to do with the stuff of life: food, love, rivalry, joy, ambition, community, breath, family, and a search for meaning.

The system pushes Mothers with Brains into a frenzy of overachievement first by undervaluing our work, which actually keeps the planet alive, and second by overvaluing work that pretends to keep the planet alive, but which in fact kills it physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Work-life balance will only happen from the ground up, when we investigate what's under our various guilts and question our and others' values.

It won't make you feel less guilty for turning off the baby monitor so you can shower in peace, or for wanting to run away and crawl under a rock when you're suffering crushing sleep deprivation. But it might mean we have more time to talk about those issues, and others that truly matter to us. To bring them out in the light rather than condemning ourselves for every choice, however unavoidable, and every failing, however illusory.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Common Sense Study: Virtual Reality, Television, and Budding Brains

My mother was telling me the other day that someone's done a study on virtual reality, and discovered that, when people are reading and engrossed in a book, what happens in their head is essentially the same as virtual reality.

To which I can only roll my eyes and wonder if my tax dollars went to pay for said study. In other words, duh.

This reminds me of a study I read a year ago on Broadsheet, one that found out that the sight of their baby's smile triggers peaceful, loving hormones in mothers. Gasp! I mean, really. You couldn't just say, figure that out from looking at people?

And yet, it seems like we so often need studies like these, because people's grasp of common sense is so slippery. We need studies like these -- seemingly expensive and unecessary -- to reaffirm the obvious for the mass population that logic brushes only tangentially.

For example, the news this last week or two that bank executives in the US are using government bailout money to give themselves huge bonuses. Everyone's shocked. And all I can say is that you didn't need a PhD in anything so complex as underwater basket weaving to have seen that coming. The assumption that the executives would have been chastened and suddenly behave in a fiscally responsible manner defies even the most basic logic.

If any of the blind people in government or think tanks had asked me for advice, this is what I would have mapped out for them:

A. Greedy people are greedy.
B. Greedy people are generally greedy rather than smart (they use their brains to acquire more of what they're greedy for), and they're certainly never altruistic.
C. Greedy people made decisions that made them lots of money and flattened the economy.
D. The government then gave the greedy people more money, trusting said greedy people to use it wisely.

What do you think happens next?

This is all aside from the common sense realization that an economy based on people buying stuff they don't need with money they don't have is by definition unhealthy, no matter how fast it grows.

Personally, I'd go for a common sense study that researches something more useful than what happens in our brains while we're reading, or even what happens if you hand a bunch of bank executives billions of dollars with no strings attached.

I'd like to lobby hard for a study that goes into depth to examine what happens to the brain development of children exposed to any significant telelvision time before the age of three. I read a survey result recently that found that 45% of American children under age three have a television in their bedrooms. Situations like this, and DVD players in cars are, I'm willing to bet, far more damaging to brain development than, say, being exposed to moderate amounts of wine in utero.

When I saw that little statistic in my Mothering magazine, I flipped immediately to the section on the visual cortex in my favorite parenting book, What's Going on in There? by Lise Eliot, a neurobiologist. The visual cortex is essential to brain development, and does a lot of its growing in those first three years. Television is not evil per se, but watching it has an unknown and likely huge impact on the tiny brains of infants.

I've met many parents who have proclaimed to me how quiet their kids are in front of Spongebob, or how they love to watch Baby Einstein. They never make the connection that the mental fixation, and glazed expression directed toward flickering pixels and images that will never in fact interact with them, has to be hugely damaging to babies' tiny, developing brains.

That's a study I'd get behind. After all, even though my son has never met television or fruit juice, he will be spending the rest of his life interacting with children, and then grown-ups, who did. Seemingly simple parenting decisions like this can have unforseen and enormous consequences. Without a study -- confirming what, to me, seems to be common sense -- it seems that we can't change people's behavior.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Federalist Paper 2: Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence

"Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government; and it is equally undeniable that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers."

It is important to remember that in these Federalist Papers the writers are setting forth arguments for their form of government -- one weighted towards federal (that is, national) power rather than distributed more heavily among individual states -- during the formation of the United States. So John Jay isn't debating the purpose of government here, but what system best achieves certain assumed goals.

In this paper he is laying the ground for his case that the physical security of Americans can best be achieved by a cohesive Union, a United States rather than several separate confederacies and commonwealths, as many favored at the time.

He's probably right, to a point. I'm no security expert. But I find the language of this letter intriguing, because it drums on the heart of a belief that underlies much of modern America's isolationism, pride, independence, and yes, racism, arrogance, and xenophobia.

"It has often given me pleasure to observe that independent America was not composed of detached and distant territories, but that one connected, fertile, wide-spreading country was the portion of our western sons of liberty. ... A succession of navigable waters forms a kind of chain round its borders, as if to bind it together ... With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people -- a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs. ... This country and this people seem to have been made for each other." (Emphasis mine.)

Sidestepping the issues of slavery and what amounted to a policy of genocide toward Native Americans (since it's impossible to reach back through time, grasp 18th-century America by the throat and say, "You should know better"), the concept that the Christian God has somehow blessed both this country and this people is a refrain that recurs again and again throughout American history. Its tiresome voice harped again in the last three elections, coming largely from those of the Christian Right who believe that America is meant to be a beacon of godly light to the rest of the heathen world (talking to you, Europe!), a "shining city on the hill."

I would contend that it is this belief that has prompted American leaders to perform, and its citizens to condone, some of the most egregious and appalling acts in our recent history. When horrified and exasperated American voices asked again and again how the US government could sanction torture -- torture -- of any human being, there was one simple answer hidden among the manufactured legal gibberish: a quiet voice whispering that America is blessed, America is special, America must survive as a beacon, either of democracy or Christian values, for the rest of the world. America, in other words, must protect its physical security at the cost of all else: its liberty, its justice, its humanity.

John Jay and his contemporaries are not to blame for the evils of Dick Cheney and the rest of the Bush administration. But if modern Americans are to argue the case of justice and true liberty, we must learn to understand, and more importantly, to speak, the language of those who believe the US's actions are always justified, simply by our existence. We must go back to where it all started.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Solutions for a Green World

Green America has been working pretty tirelessly to promote some of the values Julia and I adhere to and extol on this blog: local and/or organic food, and sustainable living. The organization was promoting these things even before the US had a sympathetic government (that is, one without their anti-reason heads in the sand).

Now that the Obama administration is finally turning the US ship slowly back toward progressive policies (before, we hope, that ship turns into the Titanic), Green America's most recent newsletter looks at the simple, sensible changes and "7 Fixes from the Green Economy" that all societies need to focus on in order to move "from greed to green," as the writer says.

Simple doesn't mean easy. I've just finished reading The Long Emergency, by James Kunstler, all about the end of cheap fossil fuel energy, climate change, economic meltdowns, and people's woeful inability to cope rationally with crises; and let me tell you the future looks scary here. And challenging. Our only hopes, it seems, lie in rebuilding both the physical and social structures of our communities immediately, and in, frankly, maintaining hope and optimism. If we couldn't hope that the future can become better, we wouldn't become mothers.

Being a mother, I can't throw up my hands in despair. I'm pushing for significant energy changes in our home, have been supporting local farmers for years (still waiting for a source of dairy, goat or cow, I don't care ...), and am turning my time and talents more and more to build strength into the institutions that make my community breathe. For an introvert, that isn't an easy choice, or always a pleasant one. But for a mother whose child will face energy shortages and climate change, it's the only option.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Handmaid's Son

I never thought I'd be in the position of taking my son's books away. It's so 1984 or Darkness at Noon. Remove the books, remove their curiosity and intellectual stimulation, remove their questioning. But I had to (as all good dictators say); he's like a bottomless pit for kiddie literature and I've got other things to do (as all good authoritarians say -- shut up! I'm talking about making dinner).

Where's this coming from? Is it budding genius or just obsessive-compulsive-reading disorder? Okay, so my family's packed with voracious readers, and I know my in-laws read constantly. Me, I'll read absolutely everything. I discovered Proust and Harry Potter and read them together, finishing In Search of Lost Time and the first four Harry Potter books the same summer. I couldn't put either of them down, except to pick up the other. (Wanna know which one I've read again since?)

It seems to be something I've passed on to my 17-month-old. I know I'm bad, I know I'm an addict, but come on. This kid's insatiable. Morning to night, he brings me books to read. He lifts them up in the air and says, "lidilidalidlalidladi" or something like that, and then does a whole little body wiggle and satisfied giggle when I open the cover. And then he wants it all over again at the end. Today I kept a rough tally:

The Very Hungry Caterpillar (his favorite): 4 times, plus 3 aborted (sometimes he just likes to stop at the plums and start over), plus one reading from Daddy
The Very Busy Spider: 3 times
Goodnight Moon: 6 times plus twice from Daddy
Goodnight, Gorilla: 4 times plus once from Daddy
Moo, Baa, La La La!: 5 times plus twice from Daddy
The Runaway Bunny: 0. It's new and he doesn't like it yet. He will.
Various soft books about animals: 6 times (mostly the sheep and the cow)
Langendsheidt's German-English dictionary: half a page once
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: 1 1/2 pages

Really. I get tired of reading to him. He entertains himself just fine with blocks and balls and one drum that holds lots of things (who knew drums spent half their lives as container ships!), but the second I sit down to, say, work, or type an email or heaven forbid read a book myself, here we go with the "ladiladlidliadl"s. So I admit it. Today I became a paranoid dictator whose actions suppress imagination.

I was reminded sharply of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, where women aren't allowed to read. All the shops are labeled with pictures so that 'normal' women who learned to read in the pre-authoritarian society have no words to fix on, and the new generations will never learn.

I have become one of those ruthless authoritarians. There is a pile of cheery little board books sitting on the kitchen counter, where my son can neither see them nor reach them, waiting to be burned so we can create a more placid populace.

Or I might just start over with them tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Knowledge is Power: How Monsanto is trying to keep us in ignorance about genetically "enchanced" dairy cows

Do consumers have a right to know what goes into their food? Do people have a right to know what they’re eating? Most importantly, do parents have a right to determine exactly what they’re feeding their kids?

The answer would seem to be an obvious yes. As Americans with busy lives, we’re used to scanning nutrition and ingredients labels to make educated decisions about what we do or don’t want to eat. But someone is waging a battle against this information, directed by massive corporations with cash and political clout, and it’s aimed directly at the local grocery store.

In a thinly veiled grass-roots campaign, Monsanto, the producer of genetically modified foods including Bovine growth hormone (known as rGHB or rbST), has led several states to pass or seriously deliberate laws that would make it illegal for farmers of hormone-free milk to label it as such. Using incomprehensible political power and access, the company has brainwashed legislators into believing it is bad for consumers to know what goes into their food. Why? Because a simple label stating that a jug of milk is “produced from cows free of growth hormones” might cause us to choose that milk over a label-free container. Monsanto spokesman Michael Doane says the hormone-free label “implies to consumers, who may or may not be informed on these issues, that there’s a health-and-safety difference between these two milks, that there’s ‘good’ milk and ‘bad’ milk, and we know that’s not the case.”

Do they? Do they know it absolutely? Enough to risk our children’s health? Considering that Monsanto has pressed genetically modified foods from corn to tomatoes on the American consumer and then insisted that we had no right to know what was modified and what wasn’t, I have a hard time trusting their claims of the milk’s safety.

There are two issues here. The first is Monsanto’s assertion that non-hormone-free milk is in no way worse for human consumption than the regular stuff. If the genetically modified hormone is perfectly safe, why is it banned by Canada, Australia, Japan, and every European country? I have little faith in the Food and Drug Administration’s impartiality in declaring the product healthy when so many other countries have banned it. And since growth hormones were only approved for U.S. dairy cows in 1994, I, as a consumer, have absolutely no faith that enough time has passed to see the long-term effects of these hormones on adults, much less on children.

The second issue is a far more basic right. No matter what the hormone-free label implies, consumers and parents still have a right to know what’s in their food. Does a “suitable for vegetarians” label imply that a vegetarian diet is better for you than a meat-eating one? Hardly.

I refuse to buy milk without a hormone-free label. That’s my right, as a consumer and as a mother. The further Monsanto pushes this issue in any state, the closer they drive me to buying milk from a farmer down the road, someone I can look in the face and trust. Because it seems I can’t trust my legislators to make the right decisions for my children’s health.

Pennsylvania was one of the first states to adopt a law against hormone-free labeling. A consumer outcry forced the state to reverse the ban. As mothers, our most basic duty to our children is to ensure the food they eat is safe as well as nutritious. If your legislators quietly try to strip you of the right to know your milk, fight back.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Selling Ourselves Short

Last week I had what has become an increasingly common conversation for me: child care. The expense of it, the lack of it, the quality of it. The talk followed a predictable pattern with a predictable conclusion. I'm going nuts, as is the mother I was talking with, but neither of us can quite afford full-time day care.

This isn't quite true. My husband and I could afford it if (iff, that is -- "if and only if")I went back to a full-time job. So. I can go back to the task of copy editing increasingly dissatisfying children's textbooks, a job I used to enjoy, but only because it was freelance and part-time and I could write on the side. This would mean doing what millions of other women do every day, getting up early, getting showered and dressed, getting my son up, dressed, fed, with diaper bag packed, ready to leave by 7:30 so we can all race to the day care center and then to our respective jobs.

Maybe it's selfish of me, but I don't think I can face that life. It seems overwhelmingly pointless, harried, and stressful, for my son as well as me. Given the two options, I think I'd rather let him sleep as long as he wants, and spend the day reading him Goodnight Moon a zillion times, making sure we all have nutritious meals, and, during his naptime, trying to squeeze in my dream of making my living as a writer.

That's given only those two options. But truly, like most Mothers with Brains I know, I want both. I want to have quality time with my child, and I want to have time to pursue my own intellectual development and freelance career.

What struck me after this recent conversation was a) the guilt that Mothers with Brains feel over wanting to spend money on child care in order to pursue things that might not necessarily bear financial fruit (although keeping ourselves from going berserk could be argued as a financial benefit), and b) the realization that, in complaining about full-time day care costing $15,000 a year, I and other mothers are selling short our own talents, activities, and value.

Honestly, is that all I'm worth? I read to my son constantly. I take him for walks and make sure he has a strong relationship with nature, ensure he learns to love fresh air and sunshine. I play with him. Not "development activities." Just play, stacking blocks, chasing a ball, whatever he feels like doing. I cook three meals a day that are generally organic, nutritious, often from locally grown produce (sometimes even grown by me), and hopefully super tasty. I keep the house tidy and clean, but not sterile. If my son is sick I nurture him and make chicken soup. I still breastfeed, a health benefit for him that's been calculated to have a value of about $30,000 a year. I take the cats to the vet and the cars to the mechanic. I volunteer time and writing skills to two organizations. I am on call to edit and shape the freelance efforts of various friends working on their writing. I keep the flow of community and family relationships going through letters, emails, and phone calls (I loathe talking on the phone, so really should get extra points for that). I play music for my son, sing to him, and help him play music, too. I try to speak to him in Russian sometimes.

All this is only worth $15,000 a year? You've got to be kidding me. The Salary Survey calculates that a typical stay-at-home mother doing about 10 tasks every week is, in real salary terms, worth $138,095. I'm not saying day care should cost over a hundred grand a year, but it does seem to say something about how little "women's work" is still valued, at least in American society.

And it tells me something about how little I value my own work, both the parenting and the constantly-shoved-aside creative writing, that $15,000 just seems like an insane amount of money. What are we worth? As mothers, as thinkers, as human beings playing roles in an intricate web of communities and social constructs? The answer is -- we're worth more than we think, but nobody's going to hand us free time and intellectual stimulation on a silver platter. We have to learn to ask for it. And to do that, we have to learn to value ourselves.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Why are kids always sick? Stress research in primates might point to an answer.

Most parents will know what I'm talking about when I say, in response when people ask how my son is, "He's between colds." That's the answer I give if he's not actually sick, either with a cold or some random virus that doctors just shrug at and say he seems to be fighting it off okay.

Kids are always sick. This seems to be a fact of life, at least life in the Western world, which is where most of my experience is limited to. Whenever I take John to a toddler group, or invite people with kids over for dinner, it's almost guaranteed that he will come down with something about 24 to 48 hours later.

It seems like a remarkably stupid decision of evolution (like teething, also designed poorly, as it drives everyone to distraction and keeps me, at least, from wholeheartedly fulfilling my son's needs) that I generally come down with exactly what he has at just the time he most needs me to be fully functional.

(Pause while I read John the soft piggy book five times in a row, and then wipe the accumulated snot off his face.)

The question is, why? I was talking about this with my sister a few weeks ago. We all take our children's constant minor and exasperating illnesses as a matter of course, but it suddenly struck me as very odd. So I've been asking everyone I know -- do humans actually get sick a great deal more than other animals? And if we do, it really leaves you wondering not only why, but how on earth we've survived this long.

Nobody seems to have an answer, although I've come across one possible explanation. (The surprising part about this unscientific survey is that the question doesn't seem to have occurred to many people, which tells you something about how mentally exhausted most otherwise intelligent parents are.)

In a 2007 article on Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist, discusses his decades-long research on the social behavior of primates, and the greater incidence of stress-related diseases among primates and humans. His words put it best: "Primates are super smart and organized just enough to devote their free time to being miserable to each other and stressing each other out," he said. "But if you get chronically, psychosocially stressed, you're going to compromise your health. So, essentially, we've evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick."

Higher stress levels are certainly a factor in reduced immune system function, which could explain why I've spent the last two days blowing my own nose as well as wiping my son's, although I don't think it gets into the issue of why human children get sick so frequently in the first place. Sapolsky's research, at least in this article, focuses more on stress-related illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.

So I'm still asking the question: why the heck is my kid's best health simply "he's between colds"?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Stolen future: does religious freedom harm children's rights?

Some time ago a friend lent me a book called Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels (written by Hella Winston), and reading it led me to question some firmly held beliefs about freedom of religion.

Having been raised in a democracy and school-nursed on the American concept that the Bill of Rights and Constitution are sacrosanct and untouchable, I never really delved into the concept of religious freedom. Unchosen forced me to go there.

Freedom of religion as applies simply to independent adults is easy enough to grasp. We should all be free to practice whatever religion suits our fancy, as long as it doesn't actively hurt anyone else. That means that my mother can waft her way into shamanism, my neighbor can practice his run-of-the-mill Presbyterianism, my friends can howl at the moon every month, and I can remain an atheist. Despite the rise of megachurches and hard-core right-wing evangelists in the US, we've all rubbed along together fairly well.

But what's pulled me up is the question of children. American custom, at least, has always held to the belief that parents should be allowed to bring up their children in the religion--or lack thereof--of the parents' choice, as long as it doesn't involve harming said children. The cults in which prepubescent girls are forced to marry older male leaders being a case of unacceptable.

When it comes to mental hurt or injury, outside of brainwashing, things get a little murkier. That's the road this reading has sent me down.

Unchosen is the first in-depth book I've ever read of a notoriously closed religion, Hasidic Judaism. (Despite the fact that my father's parents were raised in Ukrainian Jewish ghettoes, I know next to zilch about Orthodox practices and beliefs. He, after all, was raised atheist, which tells you something about how much his parents loved their upbringing.) It chronicles the lives of several young adults in the Hasidic community of Brooklyn, a burb of New York City. Raised in strict traditional fashion, a young man studies religious texts and becomes a tutor of the same, and a young woman shaves off all her hair when entering marriage.

A few years down the road, at the time the author met these people, they have individually been nudging the edges of the outside world for some time, having realized, in their mid-twenties, that there's a whole lot more out there than they can find on their neighborhood streets. More people, more ways of thinking, more ways of living.

The problem is, none of these people are equipped with the social, economic, or educational tools needed to survive in that outside world. The women the author meets have only a 4th-grade education. The men have what run-of-the-mill secular Westerners might deem a warped view of sex and sexuality. Many of the men and women barely speak English. Not a one of them is trained in any useful trade or skill beyond reading Hebrew, caring for children, or basic carpentry, this in the center of one of the world's great metropolises of opportunity.

After finishing the book, I was left with the feeling that, by giving adults the freedom to raise their children in their own religion, and by allowing them to keep their children from contact with the outside world, we have, by societal assent, stolen these people's freedom to choose almost anything once they become adults.

Western societies have for some time agreed that every child must have a minimal education. In America the idea is that the education gives them a chance to craft a future on par with their peers. When did we allow freedom of religious upbringing to trump children's chances to craft their own futures? What kind of future can a child have when their parents and immediate surrounding culture prevent them from learning the language of the country they're living in, much less its customs, mores, and skills required to make a living?

This look at Hasidic Judaism led me to think about other even more pleasant-looking cultures, such as the Amish or Hutterite communities. How many adults are simmering away under religious restriction, chafing at the traditions they were raised in but lacking the skills and knowledge to make other choices?

There's a flip side to this, too. As an atheist, I have no particular interest in taking my child to church down the road. As a secular humanist, though, I am conscious of wanting him to make his own choices, and certainly of the need to be educated in the religious cultures and beliefs of the society we live in, as well as others. At some point he'll probably attend Sunday School and we'll delve into knotty Bible questions ("Yes, some people do believe that God created the whole world in 7 days." Pause. "No, mummy doesn't believe in that." Pause. "Well, I don't think that really makes mummy wicked. That's probably not what they meant." Fear crawls over child's face. "No, mummy doesn't believe she's going to hell, either." Oh, shit. "Honey, don't cry, mummy's not going anywhere where she'll get burnt. Neither are you." Hugs, sobs, days of disbelief and worry on child's part follow. "I think we'll try a different church this time. Isn't there a book of Bible stories that doesn't scare the crap off kids?"). How many other atheists out there, though, will give their children that freedom?

Children might be dependent on their parents, but one day they will become adults. Are the rights of parents eternally shortchanging the rights of future generations? Where do we draw the line between religion freedom and individual freedom?