I am on the last few chapters of Maria Semple's brilliant book Where'd You Go. Bernadette? (I know, I'm late to the Bernadette party.) If you haven't yet read it, I recommend the audio version read by actress Kathleen Wilhoite, who is woman of a thousand voices. Forget LOL-ing. I have been HOL-ing (howling out loud - just coined that) and inventing reasons to take trips in my car so I can get back to the story. ("Oh, we're out of pickling cucumbers? Yikes, I'll just dash out to the store across state lines...")
Below is a piece of wise advise from mom Bernadette to Bee, her 13-year-old daughter and to Bee's friend. Note: It's not one of the many moments of hilarity, but I felt it was astute and deserves passing on.
“That's right,' she told the girls. 'You are bored. And I'm going to let you in on a little secret about life. You think it's boring now? Well, it only gets more boring. The sooner you learn it's on you to make life interesting, the better off you'll be.”
Not bad, right? I'm just waiting for the next time my girl complains, "Mom, I'm booooooored!" to whip out this little gem. Some books become good friends, and I'll be sad to say goodbye to this new friend.
My friend Alanna shared this ad for LEGO from 1981. It made my heart hurt a little. It's so simple. The girl looks so normal. She isn't wearing shiny lip gloss or blue eye shadow. She isn't smiling seductively in a way that is well beyond her years. The background is BROWN for God's sake! Not a hint of bubblegum pink. Sigh.
Last week, my daughter Risa saw an ad for an upcoming American Girl doll tea-party and begged me to go. She didn't ask me to take her (she understood that was not within the realm of possibility); she wanted to go with a friend's parent. "It would only cost $35!" She showed me the ad, and I bit my tongue to keep from spewing yet another unwanted rant about the evils of American Girl. In the end, I told her she could go with the friend if she paid for it, and I would be happy to come up with jobs around the house that would allow her to raise the money...we'll see what happens.
Risa--like a bazillion other girls out there in America--gushes over these dolls. She has two, both given as gifts, and she talks to them as if they are pals; puts them to sleep each night, and dresses them with the utmost care. This would all be sweet to me if I didn't despise the perverse empire that is American Girl.
Yes, yes, I know the books that the dolls are based on are lovely, giving girls a glimpse into history and offering good, solid values. But that same company is then selling the historical-character dolls for over $100, along with a doll shirt for $32, and doll bed and bedding for $125. As some of you know all too well, girls can visit the store, and pay a gazillion dollars for their American Girl doll to order a meal (!) at the cafe or get her doll-hair done by a stylist. GROSS.
I have refused to go inside one of the stores or buy a single item online. The only props I can give to this company is that they have come up with an altogether genius marketing plan (getting parents to pay REAL MONEY for doll food and convincing them to line up during holidays for blocks and blocks in the freezing cold to plunk down their credit cards for "sparkly hair pics" and doll tote bags). Muuuuahahahaha.
As for me, I will continue to be the "mean mom" on this one who just "doesn't get it." I don't care that they are making nice books... it's like saying that a company is selling kids crack cocaine, which is bad, but that the same company is also selling fresh fruit. Not good enough.
And so I pine for the simplicity of this LEGO advertising...what it is is beautiful.
I Love Mondays Tip of the Week
Last week children all over Massachusetts had to take the MCAS test, standardized testing in math and English that apparently reflects how state educators are doing when it comes to getting our kids' brains to absorb letters and numbers. In spite of how many times my daughter was told that her score would make no difference to her life, she was scared. Rumors were floating all around that kids who did badly would get held back or worse (imprisoned? kidnapped?), probably spread by older children to their younger sibs as a special brand of torture. I assured Risa that there would be no trick questions, and she only had to do her best. We weren't looking for her to ace this thing.
I also gave Risa "the special locket" to wear, the one she dons whenever she's feeling worried. It's a cheapo, metal locket (you can find one on Amazon for around $30) with pics of me and her dad pasted inside (as seen below).
It is the same super-power locket that I give Risa to wear when she's doing something brave, and I can't be there to support her because of a work event. I try my hardest to make it to all the performances and recitals, but sometimes I can't be there. Often my husband can step up as the family rep - but not always. Allowing her to wear the locket is a way for her to feel I (along with her Dad) am there in spirit. It's not the same as me being there in the flesh, and I don't pretend it is. It stinks for both of us when I am not in the audience clapping my hands off and shooting proud-mama beams. But it does remind her she is loved by two people who are always rooting for her.
I make sure the locket stays special by keeping it in my jewelry box and making a big deal of presenting it to Risa the night before the big event. She has told me that when she's nervous before going "on," she holds the locket in her hands, cracks it open, takes a peek at, and feels comforted right away. And, of course, that brings me comfort, and ails at least a little of that brutal working-mama guilt.
“Here’s a skeleton key to what has to change,” Gloria Steinem told Boston Globe’s Feature Writer Beth Teitell for today’s article “Gloria Steinem’s message about gender, then and now.” “Women still require an adjective and males don’t. There is a ‘novelist’ and a ‘woman novelist,’ [as there is a] ‘doctor’ and a ‘black doctor.’ ” Basically, we will know we’ve made major strides when we get rid of the automatic tendency to add the word “woman” before stating a professional position.
I have been thinking about this topic all month, as I just went live with an issue about Jewish women filmmakers for 614: the HBI ezine (an online magazine I edit about hot topics for Jewish women). I interviewed a half-dozen smart and gutsy “women filmmakers” about the process of shepherding their film from an idea to a screening. On the one hand, they should just be called filmmakers; on the other hand, the fact that they are women is a badge of honor in my book, given that only an estimated 10 percent of filmmakers today are female. It means something significant that these ladies got the job done.
As a female filmmaker myself, I know how hard it is to get a movie out in the world; it’s a money-sucking and altogether time-consuming endeavor. It wears you down and drives you to tears on a regular basis. (We do it, of course, because it’s also an exhilarating wild journey of telling your story and vision in your own voice.) It is unquestionably harder if you’re a parent because filmmaking is also a job that pulls you constantly out of your house– for filming, meetings, festivals, and screenings (if you’re lucky). Making movies is best suited for a single 20-something dude with a trust-fund. It is an extreme sport for women who are balancing filmmaking with their kids’ after-school homework and activities, being truly present with a spouse/partner, and trying to establish any kind of work-life balance. “Work” is often our stable jobs that bring in a regular paycheck, while making films falls somewhere under the enormous category of “life.”
I add the word “woman” before filmmaker as a celebratory marker for beating the odds and opening the door a little wider for the next female filmmaker.
I also know first-hand what it’s like to hear from film distributors “I really like the idea, but the bottom line is that women just don’t watch films.” Don’t bother trying to explain that women do indeed watch films they can relate to; they just don’t open their wallets for tickets to shoot-’em-up actions films made for 14-year-old boys. It will fall on deaf ears. Thank God for distributors who do understand the simple notion that women pay to watch stories that resonate with them.
I long for the day when we don’t feel the need to add “woman” before the word “filmmaker” (or any position). That will come as more and more of us pick up a videocamera to tell our own stories. There are signs this is happening, such as the fact that at Sundance this year there was, for the first time ever, an equal number of male and female-directed films vying for top prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition But until this is commonplace, I add the word “woman” as a celebratory marker for beating the odds and opening the door a little wider for the next female filmmaker.
I loved the advice that Tina Fey gave to a female film student this week on Bravo TV’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio”: Don’t ever make a point about being a woman filmmaker – just do your job well. That’s how we make change. Her additional bit of advice was “Don’t eat diet foods like Lean Cuisine in front of men,” because it makes women appear weak and also feel weak. Which is just more evidence that we should soak in the mighty wisdom of Ms. Fey.
I planned to have a code with my daughter when she hit her teen years. If she is someday at a party and feeling unsafe, she can phone me and say something like, "I have a stomach ache. Could you come get me?" I (or my husband) will ask no questions, get in the car immediately and pick her up.
I know plenty of parents who have this kind of code with their teen kids, and I love the idea because it lets kids get out of potentially dangerous situations while allowing them to save face in front of their friends. Let's say "Jamie" is supposed to drive your kid home but is hammered after doing shots of tequila (or snorting nutmeg, which apparently is a real thing). Instead of your child trying to whisper over the phone that he/she is in trouble (and risk getting yelled at by Jamie or others), your child can say, "I have a stomach ache" (or "I lost my key" or "I forgot to tell you that your boss called"); no one will know she is using a code to create a safe escape route.
As it turned out, Risa, age 8, needed the code recently (which, unfortunately, we hadn't yet created). She was at a friend's house, and the friend's parents were screaming at one another. Risa felt unsafe because of all of the loud commotion, and worried for her friend who she couldn't help out. Worse, her friend made her promise (with several pinky-swears) not to tell me about the fighting because then I might not let Risa go over there again. Terrified of breaking a promise (we know the power of a pinky-swear), she tried to hold in the story for as long as she could. Thankfully, Risa broke just as I was putting her to bed and told me about the whole "very scary" experience.
This led to a long discussion about families and relationship styles, and how hard it is to watch our friends suffering when there is nothing we can do about it. We talked about when it's inappropriate to keep a secret, and when it's too much to ask. (If your body is getting stomach aches and head aches because you're upset from an experience--true in this case--tell the secret because we can help or at least lighten the emotional load.)
I then told Risa about the code, and that she could call home whenever she felt in over her head and say, "Mom, I have a stomach ache" and I'd come get her, no questions asked. (I explained that the code is only for when there is a real worry; it's not to be used for situations where she doesn't like the type of dinner being served or is kind of bored with the games being played.) We're prepared now, and Risa feels relieved at having the code in place. I hope you will consider setting up your own code with your children before they need it.
Last weekend we had to put down one of our cats. With apologies to our other kitties (who thankfully can’t read), Inka was our favorite, and it was an emotional blow. It was most painful for our daughter Risa, who considered Inka a sibling. In some ways, Inka was more dog than cat: she came when called, allowed Risa to dress her through the years in party hats, streamers and tutus (keeping claws retracted); and tolerated years of Risa’s friends getting way too close to her face. However, she was pure feline in how she’d jump onto puzzles we were in the middle of piecing together; walk through a board game you’d just set up perfectly; and step onto keyboards, sending out emails that were only half-way done. What made it comical was the innocent expression she wore on her face ("Oh, hello, what is everyone doing here?"). She was a girl who made her presence known.
We were lucky that we had a chance to say goodbye after Inka was diagnosed with Cancer last month. She was on steroids for several weeks post-diagnosis, and my husband Ezra and I decided this was the last measure we’d take (no chemo, no surgery; she was 13 and lived a life of adoration); we’d shower her with attention until we saw suffering on her part and then “pull the plug.” Even with our total agreement, it was gut-wrenching watching for heavy breathing and signs of discomfort. We hated playing God, and there was relief when Inka’s breathing was so ragged one morning that we just knew.
As Ezra got ready to take her to the vet for the final time, I told Risa that it was time to say goodbye. We circled Inka, telling her “I love you,” doling out last pets and kisses before she left. Even in that moment, with tears pouring down our faces, I was able to recognize the gift of having a chance to say goodbye. When my father died in a car accident many years ago, it was sudden and traumatic, and I went through the whole experience in shock. Inka’s ending had grace and dignity; it was even calm. She actually walked right into her cage for that last trip; I believe she knew it was time.
This experience has been an opportunity to share with our daughter complicated issues around love and loss. We talked about our responsibility as pet owners to set aside our desire to keep our animals alive when we see they are suffering. I was able to teach Risa that it is okay, even normal, to have mixed feelings while grieving – heartache for losing her friend; happiness at going on an adventure with her grandma that same weekend; doubt about the existence of heaven; relief in sharing the news with close friends. Risa learned she could experience conflicting feelings without dishonoring Inka’s memory in any way.
Here’s something we did wrong: We did not explain to Risa how exactly the vet would put down Inka that morning. We forgot that an eight year old has no idea. One night last week, Risa told me with tears streaming down her face that she had a terrible nightmare about the vet shooting Inka with a giant gun. I felt awful, and told her right then that Inka was given medicine that made her sleepy before she died. I added that Inka experienced no pain, had no fear, and was being pet by the vet at the time she died. I may be off on one or two details but saw immediately how relieved Risa was. It was an important reminder that when we don’t give our kids the information, they fill in the blanks for themselves and imagine the situation 100 times worse.
We are all still dealing with Inka’s death, and it’s hardest when she isn’t sitting with us on a kitchen stool at breakfast, or we see a dark-colored pillow and believe for one moment that it is her. I think of Inka each time I open the door to the hallway and expect her to come tearing around the corner to sneak out. She didn’t want to go outside, I learned over the years; she just loved the thrill of a well-executed escape. She kept that same innocent expression as I carried her back to the house. We will continue to miss her, and I hope that wherever our old cat is, there are endless thousand-piece puzzles to be jumped upon and ruined.
My daughter Risa just completed the 10-day treatment of antibiotics required for Strep throat. When I was a kid, the Strep test meant a doctor would shove a Q-tip down your throat, swish it around while you tried not to barf up your toast from breakfast, and then send you home, saying "We should have the results back from the lab in a few days." And then you'd wait and wait, either at home zoning out on TV reruns of "The Love Boat," or heading back to school and thereby infecting the rest of your class.
So I was shocked when the nurse practitioner did the Q-tip test on Risa, and said “I’ll be back in five minutes.” Sure enough, she returned with the (bummer) results five minutes later, called in the prescription to the drugstore, and told us Risa could return to school just 24 hours after that first dose. Amazing!
What also helped immensely was having lozenges on hand when Risa's sore throat kicked in earlier that week. No one wants to make the haul to CVS at midnight, which is when the sore throat always seems to erupt. Then you have to play "Odds or Evens" with your partner to see who's putting on pants and making the hellish trip. If you're a single parent, you have to get your moaning, crying kids dressed and make the shlep with them. So I was grateful, while researching for I Love Mondays, to learn what to stockpile in my medicine cabinets ahead of time to avoid this scene.
Here's what you need: grape-flavored chewable fever reducers, a child’s pain-reducing medicine, allergy medicine, thermometer, and Pedialite. Stock up on extra tissues and cough drops (for kids old enough to suck on them). I also recommend purchasing—when you do not need it—a metal-wire comb for lice (get the one where the comb teeth are corkscrew, trust me). Keep ginger ale, popsicles, soup, and crackers in the house for recovering post-flu bellies.
Note: If you want to stockpile in full, avoiding almost all trips to the drugstore this year, check out Parenting.com's more extensive list.
“The snow was endless, a heavy blanket on the outdoors; it had a way about it. A beauty. But I knew that, like many things, beauty could be deceiving.”
― Cambria Hebert, Whiteout
This quote feels exactly right today as Boston gets hit with yet another winter storm. My parents, whom I adore, are on a train right now to visit us for the weekend. They were supposed to come last month but had to reschedule because of the brutal storm "Nemo." So this morning, filled with determination, they hopped the earliest train out; they will arrive in one hour. The house is kind of a mess, I have a long list of to-do's, which would be partly manageable, except for the fact that I have to go shovel our driveway (a steep, winding hill - not long but fierce.)
So, yes, while Snow, in fact, can be beautiful, I find it is only so the first time she enters the season in her dazzling white loveliness. But then, like other spoiled beauties, she demands endless attention, expects everyone to clean up after her, and doesn't care about all the plans she ruins. And while I put up with her because I have no choice, I'm tired of how exhausting and demanding she is. When Snow leaves, I always pray she takes a nice long vacation before showing her face again. And, really, if she didn't come back, that would be okay too. I'm not taken in by her cold beauty like I once was as a kid. She doesn't fool me anymore.
While I was interviewing single women in their thirties for my documentary Seeking Happily Ever After, the word “control” came up constantly. It popped up when women spoke of their schedules, career paths, and even love lives (admittedly to a fault sometimes). Hey, Janet Jackson’s song “Control” was practically an anthem for many of us. The one part of their lives these women could not control was their ticking biological clock—and they were not happy about it.
No matter how far we’ve come in reproductive technology, there’s still no getting around the fact that women’s fertility plummets after 35. It’s unfair, it even sucks, but it’s true. Some of the women I interviewed felt deep worry and even fear about the window shutting on them; many did not want to talk about it, much less acknowledge it. Too many put their hopes in egg freezing if they didn’t marry before age 35. What they didn’t know is that the procedure of freezing one’s eggs is meant for women in their 20s, when fertility is at its peak. Chances for a successful procedure after age 36 are slim.
While screening the film and giving talks around the country, my producer Kerry David and I were asked repeatedly: “So what am I supposed to do? I’m not ready for a baby now!” Or, “I always dreamed I’d get married first before having a baby. But what if I don’t find the right partner? Should I get pregnant on my own?” I hated these questions because I don’t have a comforting answer.
So I was interested to read Anna Jesus’s opinion letter “Pregnant in Medical School” in The New York Times on March 2, in which she talks about getting pregnant while being in medical school in her 20s. She hadn’t planned to have a baby until her career was established but was told by fertility experts that she had a condition that would make pregnancy particularly challenging if she waited, and increase the chances of chromosomal abnormalities in her future baby. So she and her husband went ahead and had a (healthy) baby. Jesus is candid about how balancing school with parenting has left her “close to smashing my head through a window”; but she also says the last several months have been some of the most fulfilling in her life. She is juggling dirty diapers, many thousands of dollars in school loans, and brutal nights of studying—but for her, it was the right decision.
No matter how far we’ve come in reproductive technology, there’s still no getting around the fact that women’s fertility plummets after 35. It’s unfair, it even sucks, but it’s true.
In an article of response, Jessica Grosse suggested in Slate’s XX Factor blog yesterday, that if having children is “very, very important” to women—adding, that it’s certainly not that important for a lot of women—maybe it’s best just to find a way to do it. She adds: “It might not be Baby Bjorn ad perfect, but it may relieve some infertility and career woes that a lot of women experience down the road.”
I agree with Grosse. I also think that, in general, women who are approaching their mid-thirties and truly do not feel ready emotionally should not push through it. Parenting is hard enough when you really want to do it. Yes, this can lead to regrets for those who can’t get pregnant later; but it can lead to regrets for women who have the baby and desperately wish they didn't. ACK, I wish I had the right formula to help make the call. What I do know is that women have to at least think through this issue before age 35 and ask themselves the tough questions. Because the deepest remorse, I truly believe, comes from a decision being yanked away because it was too scary to think about. It's far easier to find peace with our choices when we know that we explored the options with intention, and did the best that we could at that time.
I am a journalist, filmmaker, author, wife, and mom to an 8-year-old daughter. My most recent project is I Love Mondays: And other confessions from devoted working moms. Other projects explore raising only children, happily ever after, raising strong girls, and hot topics for Jewish women.
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