Monday, October 24, 2011

Making Your Own Rules

This week's guest post is from the fabulous JJ Ross, who has worn many hats including academic, secular humanist, and unschooler. She shares her thoughts about parenting beyond the advice of others.

This is the first in the series "Good Advice / Bad Advice," with a new post every week from now until the end of November. --LN
As a young academic enjoying early success in a very public career, I never expected to find myself expecting, never aspired to nor prepared myself to be a mom. By the time I was belatedly (at age 35) a mom, my own mother hadn't lived long enough to see it and to give me motherly advice.

What to do? My panicky default was to dredge up and derive what my mom and her generation must have expected of themselves as parents, based on my own upbringing as a good little girl from the mid-fifties to mid-seventies. So without realizing it at the time, I gave myself some very good advice -- and then very seldom followed it!

Clean your room, clean your plate, brush your hair 100 strokes, eat an apple every day. I did these things automatically and so much more, accepting without question that one must dutifully do them or die, as necessary as breathing. Later I learned cultural rules from no curlers in public to no white after Labor Day, and religiously respected them too. Yet my firstborn and her little brother did none of this, ever. (Well, except breathing.)

And early potty training, early to bed, early to rise? Ha! I was like Alice as a mom, oh-so-conscientious but my heart wasn't in what passed as middle-class parenting advice. Honestly, I never cared that much (except of course about the breathing) so why would my kids?

There were endless other givens in how I was parented and the advice I drew from those days, that laughably failed to take, in parenting my children -- from supper every night around the table as a family to limited television/screen time.

It turns out even the biggest thing I grew up doing as automatically as breathing -- School -- didn't matter that much. I went early and often, kindergarten at age four, skipped a grade, teacher's pet, loved schooling and stayed with it straight up through my doctorate and made a career of it! My kids, on the other hand, never did school, not a day of kindergarten nor school-at-home -- indeed we "unschooled" -- yet now the firstborn is chomping at the bit for her doctorate. She's in grad school at age 21 and easily might be younger than I was at 28, when she is hooded.

And School was not easy for me to let go. I was a professional public school expert. My specialty was curriculum standards and behavioral objectives, bulletin boards and charts and stars, pluses and minuses, credits and awards, diplomas and disciplines.

I was actually an elementary school principal once upon a time, on top of all sorts of school policy, library-media center and administrative roles. But that was all when I had no actual children of my own and wasn't expecting any.

Confronted with the reality of individual children we made from scratch, from stuff around the house, who we found infinitely more interesting than any system designed to control them -- well, that was the end of my very good advice to myself.

I can’t take credit for having understood this at the time, but it turns out that all those behavioral conditioning fixations as if children were pets to be trained, really don’t matter much either way. I didn't get it at the time but as Favorite Daughter says now, "ALL the advice is bad advice!" What matters is health and happiness, right now.

My health and happiness both as child and as adult, wasn’t predicated on being parented to do all those things. Bedtime, dinnertime, never mind church every Sunday -- I did them all on schedule, on demand, and I’ve been happy and healthy. My children’s health and happiness hasn’t suffered from NOT being parented to do all those things. They didn’t do any of it, and they are just as happy and healthy as I ever was, if not more so.

I am now almost as old as my mother was when she passed away, the week after I told her I was expecting her first grandchild. So I feel old enough (in the perhaps undeserved comfort of having come through largely unscathed) to give advice to new moms! All that advice I reconstructed from my own childhood parented by my mother's generation was loving advice, sure, but love focused on controls and compliance and cleanliness and order, love as boundaries and limits, literally love by the rules. Duty, guilt, reward and punishment.

Not very good advice, I think now. The advice I got from slightly older and much wiser unschooling peers beat it by a mile: love your kids without limit!

This is not trivial; this is building the relationship you will have in a few years and during a time of life when most parents lose that closeness and honesty and confidence . . . If you restrict TV now, will you try to restrict them  from the things they want when they are teens, too? It won’t work and everyone knows it, but parents don’t know what else to do. They act like they can control their teenagers, but that is so obviously not true; teens whose parents are restrictive will often put themselves in much more risky situations than otherwise. Start trusting them now if that is the relationship you hope to have when they are teens. . .

Christopher Hitchens with late-stage cancer writes about writing as someone acutely aware every article could be his last. I think I had the benefit of similar perspective as an older than average mom whose own grandmothers and mother were already gone, parenting not for decades in the future but for each day, every day.

So here is my very good advice -- to remember that what I care about without limits, every day in every way, is for my children and their father and me, to be happy and healthy today, now, not just in some gauzy possible future but here. Together.

And tomorrow or soon enough when I'm gone, that's my best shot to be what they will remember.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Give Her a Break

I came across the latest tabloid gawking at Kate Gosselin today, a story about how shocking it was that she freaked out because not enough pizza was saved for the bodyguard, etc. etc.

Certainly, this latest show of unraveling does go a bit far, and it wouldn't be inappropriate to say that maybe she should chill out a little.

But maybe we should cut her some slack.

But she’s rich. And she’s chosen to be in the limelight, you might say. This is true, but her alternative, raising eight children on one income, might have ended up to be a bit too much, and the family could have ended up as a burden on the state. Personally, I think that choosing a tasteful reality show was a shrewd move, and preferable alternative to constant, soul-crushing financial burden. Children of crushed-soul parents don’t turn out much better than children of semi-celebrities, do they?

Moving beyond this, I have two children of different ages, and sometimes I am pushed to my limits emotionally, physically, and mentally. The only thing that has been close to being as challenging as the most challenging parenting moments was trekking in the wild for three weeks, and even that had its benefits – our food was delivered to us, we had an hour at the campfire every night to sing kumbayah and treat our blisters, and we could eat as much as we wanted and not worry about the calories. I didn’t even have that with breastfeeding. But I digress.

One of the most challenging aspects of very early parenthood for me was juggling feeding schedules. My son ate every three hours in the NICU, and I was instructed to pump every two hours. This meant that I was keeping two feeding schedules – his eating schedule and my pumping schedule. When they overlapped, something had to give, and I wasn’t allowed to slack on either portion of the schedule. Add to that the arbitrary rules of the NICU (for example, we were kicked out three times a day during shift change, which meant that once every six hours for 45 minutes or so I had no access to privacy or a breast pump, although the nurses in the NICU were chiding me for not keeping to my rigid pumping schedule) and you have a recipe for crazy.

The point of this story is that I had one baby, and I felt like I had two. She and her husband had six babies whose feeding schedules they had to manage, and another two children besides. That on its own, aside from the money, the diapers, the paparazzi, the clothes (what happens when everyone needs a baby hat? Where are the freakin baby hats? And can I find six pairs of baby socks right now at this moment?)… it boggles the mind. I don’t blame her for being bossy and shrill. I actually admire her for not being even worse than she is. I still have trouble relaxing almost 4 years out from my son’s birth. And there was only one of him.

Some will say yes, but she chose to have those children, and she used unnatural means, so she was asking for this. All of these things might be more or less true, but choosing to participate in the cause doesn’t make you immune to its effects, as lovely as that would be. At the time that the die was cast, when she was pregnant with all those babies, there was nothing to be done about the stress heading down the pike to her and her husband and family.

The short of it is, in my opinion, we should not judge her and pick her apart with tweezers under the magnifying glass until we have juggled the life-and-death needs of eight tiny people all at once, in front of cameras. A camera crew following me 24 hours a day could edit together a reel of footage to make me look like a monster. Until we have dealt with the sleep deprivation training of a Navy SEAL while the public makes fun of our hairdos, maybe we should go easy on the judgment. I have no idea what it’s like to be you, Kate Gosselin, but I know better than to claim that I could do it better.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


I see her as I walk my son into the front door of the preschool. She walks ahead of me, guiding two children by the hand. Gauzy pink wings float behind one, an intricate hat and cape perch atop the other's head.  

Homemade Halloween costumes, I think to myself, my mind spiking defensively to the Target special Spiderman outfit that my son is bringing to school in a bag today. He probably won't even wear it -- he  refused this morning to put it on, and I couldn't see the sense in trying to force it. If it wasn't fun for him, then what was the point? Although it would have been nice to get a picture. I bet she will get great pictures this year of her two kids... But, I say to myself, I have a baby, what do people expect? Into the building we go.

Her hair from behind is dark and shiny; a Pantene commercial. A rich brown with warm auburn highlights. She speaks patiently to one child, sends the other one to her classroom. I wish I were more like her!

I walk my son to his classroom and explain to the teachers that he won't wear his costume. We smile. Maybe they can get him to wear it; and maybe not. If he were the only child in the costume parade to walk around the circle, sulking in his Garanimals and sneakers, it would not be a surprise to me. He does not appreciate doing things for other people's reasons. I can't fault him for that. I am exactly the same.

On the way back out to the car, I pass her coming the other way, face-to-face this time. I almost stop walking just to stare. The look in her eyes... she's haunted. Suddenly I can see it. She stayed up all night to finish that costume, and all she can see are the imperfections. She remembers her perfect mother who she wishes she could live up to, or she remembers her imperfect mother who she is striving every day to do better than. Whatever she does, it is never enough. Another day come and gone, and she is exhausted. And empty.

It was in that moment, one breezy Halloween morning, that I was converted. Then and there I let go my stranglehold on the "shoulds" of motherhood. I knew that I would pass on the complicated crafting and baking. I knew that I would serve store-bought cake and my kids might never wear a homemade costume in their lives. On picnic day I would be the one who signed up to bring plates.

And I began with a new convert's zeal. I began to reevaluate everything I did. I always made Christmas cookies. This year? No! The world has enough cookies. The world does not need my cookies. Once I broke one "should," I was shattering them right and left. And it felt good.

I know that I was projecting my own thoughts onto that mother at school on Halloween morning. I know it is equally likely that she felt buoyantly happy and was just a little tired from skipping her morning coffee because she wanted to do 5am Bikram Yoga instead. But there was a truth to that haunted look in her eyes, and I knew that if I didn't get off the crazy Should Train, it would carry me along with it.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

How to Become an Effective Reproductive Busybody (ERB)

It's a real problem.

You're at the mall, and you run into a friend of yours who you haven't seen in about a year. It could be the empire-waisted dress she's wearing, or it could be a few too many trips to Taco Town, but she looks.... is she.... did she get....

You want to ask if she's pregnant. You're dying to ask, because you didn't even know she was married, didn't know she was even dating anyone, and now... just look at that belly! You can't even keep your eyes off of it. You try holding your venti chai latte so that it blocks your view of the little bulge, but you can't help yourself, and before long the conversation is over and you have no idea what she even said, or what you said, because the whole time you were just trying not to ask her if she was pregnant.

After all, you were taught that questions like that are intrusive; that they are inappropriate, and if a woman wants to share her reproductive status with you, she will. And anyway, nobody can keep pregnancy a secret forever.

As you stare at yourself in the mirror in the food court bathroom you know that it's time to face facts. You're in the minority. Gone are the days when politeness and delicacy surrounded discussions of pregnancy. The time has come when it's not only appropriate to share your ultrasound photos with everyone; it's expected. People are curious, and they ask questions to match. You're curious, but you just can't break through that barrier of learned politeness.

Until now.

Here at The Guilted Age, we know that you struggle in silence. We know that you yearn to make the ladies in your life squirm with your uncomfortable questions. We know that you need something to discuss over Jell-O shots at Bunco night. And we're here to help.

By applying a specialized scientific method, detailed in this flowchart, you can go from being polite to a full-fledged Effective Reproductive Busybody (ERB) in the time it takes for them to drizzle icing on your Cinnabon.

We care about your happiness. We care about your comfort. We care about your Right to Know.

(Note: When viewing the flowchart, you may find it helpful to enlarge the image by clicking the "+" button on the left side of the screen.)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

You'll Be Sorry

It happens to everyone at some point in their parenting careers.

After two long nights of screaming and refusing to eat, your precious baby finally cuts her first tooth… and then immediately proceeds to cut the next three. You go without sleeping for more than an hour and a half at a time for a full week, and guess what, it’s also time to help your cousin decorate for her wedding, and the home inspector is coming on Tuesday morning, and the house is a complete wreck.

In desperation, you reach out to a friend, a family member, or a social network. I need some sleep, you type at 2 am on day seven of the Teethe-a-thon. I don’t know how much longer I can take this. Four teeth in one week! As you sit in the bluish glow of the computer screen, crying baby in your lap, you are on the verge of tears. Or maybe you have gone over that verge and you are actually crying. All you want in the world is to fall asleep without hearing the familiar whimper starting back up.

Then you look up and see that someone has already replied to your post. Your aunt, who lives in England, checking her Facebook before she heads to work.

It seems hard now, hon, but cherish these moments. It all goes by too quickly. You will miss these days when they are over.

It hits you in the gut. Now you are crying from exhaustion and frustration, and an extra dose of guilt. Somehow you are supposed to be enjoying this. The threat of that future day when you will sit, old and alone in your rocking chair, with only pictures of your children to comfort you, comes into lurid detail in your mind. If only I had taken the time to enjoy it, you will think to yourself. Maybe my babies wouldn’t be in prison halfway across the world, and I wouldn’t be old and alone, dressed like Grandma Clampett, crying myself through the evening in this squeaky rocking chair…

Threatening future sadness to mothers who are not currently enjoying taking care of an infant is a common reaction. Very common. And it seems like the greatest offenders are people who have already had children, but their memory of those days is buffered by years or decades of nights of unbroken sleep. I would challenge you to find an online exchange about the difficulties of infant care that does not include a post from someone, warning everyone to start enjoying their work because they will feel sad later when these days have passed.

In some ways, it is a natural reaction to counsel a new mother in this way. To be sure, there are elements of having an infant that are easy to miss – the warm little bundle, those squeaky baby sounds they make, the glow of meeting this little person, the wonder of the tiny fingernails and eyelashes.

The thing is, these kinds of loving reflections take up about 5% of your time as the parent of an infant. For the other 95% of your day, you will be trying to figure out how to keep her from screaming, and trying to figure out how to do something – anything – about the state of the house. You will get all your clothing from piles in the living room. For the first week you will ask, Is this dirty or is it clean? By the second week, you will stop asking, thinking instead, Does it matter? You are motivated in all of your work by the overwhelming love you feel for your baby. But love doesn't clean the house. Love doesn't fold laundry or make dinner. And love doesn't erase the effects of sleep deprivation.

If we think about the “enjoy it now because you will be sad later” warning in terms of a situation parallel to baby care, we can see how ridiculous it is. Let’s say a friend of yours has just had her elderly father move in with her. He has Alzheimer’s and other health problems that keep him housebound and in constant danger of injury. He can't move around on his own. He gets bored easily but can’t always connect with the conversation provided by your friend and her visitors. Sometimes the television shows confuse him, and sometimes Dad thinks that his daughter is a nurse he met in France in 1944, or his wife, or his mother. In many ways, this situation is comparable to taking care of a newborn.

If your friend came to you, crying, spilling her frustration about how overwhelmed she was with all of her new responsibility, would you pat her hand and say to her, I know it seems hard, but enjoy this time while you can, before it’s over.

Probably not. It would sound cold, and punishing, and morbid, and besides that, such a response would lack compassion for the daily struggle of taking care of someone so needy, and for the sudden change in lifestyle your friend would be facing. Likely you would offer whatever comfort you could, and then offer to lighten the load in some way – to bring dinner, to go with her to a movie so she could get out of the house, or just to come and sit with her for an afternoon that week, so she can have conversation with someone who doesn't think the Germans are attacking.

So why is it okay to send out dire warnings to mothers of infants that they should enjoy their 24-hour-a-day caretaking role? Does guilt about having the wrong feelings really ever lead anyone to a greater enjoyment of their challenges? Instead of telling moms that they will be sad later because they are feeling frustrated today, Aunt May in London should offer comfort, compassion, or something humorous to lighten her niece’s load. Something as simple as “I’m so sorry you are feeling frustrated right now” can go a long way. Guilt is not a motivator for positive feelings. It’s like applying dry ice to an aching heart. Shaming someone for their feelings and warning them of future sadness if they don’t change only serves to isolate the woman who already feels alone.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Guilted Age is Back! And... Giveaway!

After a hiatus, The Guilted Age is back and throwing punches at the way we talk about parenting. If you aren't a follower yet, follow this blog! :) If we get to 25 followers, all new followers who add this blog to their list between 7/16 and 7/23 will be entered in a drawing for a $20 Amazon gift certificate. Post a comment and you will be entered twice! If you win, you don't have to wait until payday to buy Glenn Beck's new book.... (kidding! KIDDING.)

Come back and visit us regularly, and add The Guilted Age to your reading list.

Up for discussion: What is the most ridiculous piece of parenting advice you have ever received?

Friday, December 31, 2010

#2 Count without counting (And don't lose count)

As if the mental and emotional gymnastics of early pregnancy aren't enough on their own, new moms might find themselves tempted to do a simple, easy Google search to find out how to adjust their diet during pregnancy. How hard can it be, right?

Resist! Resist.

Googling before you are a parent is something you might do to research a new camera, a new car, how to clean some sort of bizarre stain on an unexpected surface (red wine on wet paint?). After becoming a parent, Googling becomes a minefield.

For example, if you were doing a quick search on how to eat while you are pregnant, you might come across this article, from Women's Health Care Topics.

Aside from some helpful tips like "The key is making healthy and nourishing selections" (Gee, thanks!), the article also offers two pieces of advice: "you should add roughly 300 extra calories to your diet each day during the second and third trimesters." and "Most women focus too much on calories when eating during pregnancy. Pregnancy is not the time to count calories."


I should be sure to add 300 extra calories (not more and not less), but I should somehow do this without counting them?

Unfortunately, this kind of self-contradictory advice is everywhere when you research pregnancy topics. Pregnancy eating may be the biggest minefield that you will enter before the baby is born. You are supposed to meet (but not exceed) a very particular profile of nutrients, keep a particular calorie count, gain a very specific amount of weight over the course of nine months, and be sure not to become overweight,  because then you will put your baby at risk, but make sure you gain enough, or else you will put your baby at risk. But don't count calories, and for heaven's sake don't worry about it too much, or else (you guessed it) you will put your baby at risk.

The take-home message for this exercise is this: when it comes to pregnancy eating, carefully monitor your Google usage along with your portion size.