Open Letter to This Week’s New Parents

You're gonna need more than this!

You’re gonna need more than this!

Welcome new parents! Now that my oldest child has turned twelve, I feel like a veteran… or rather a “seasoned professional” who has some advice on launching your new career in raising children. Think of me as that older (but not “old”) woman with the corner office down the hall. You know, the one with the personal shopper at Nordstrom who leaves a bit early every Friday for a fabulous weekend in San Francisco or New York or Montreal with her hot husband. But subtract the wardrobe and the travel… and add a couple of kids. Oh, and the office is no longer on the corner, but if you push aside the pile of back-to-school forms, bills and unfiled this-and-that, there is a nice view out the window.

At any rate, to those of you reporting for your first day as parents, what I am about to tell you may go against the grain of other things you’ll hear. You can take it or leave it, but I share it in the hopes that someone somewhere is spared at least one slap-to-the-forehead mistake that they might make in their new job.

Let’s start with compensation…

The pay isn’t great, but the rewards are________. Insert whatever dreamy adjective you’d like, but the fact is that people will say this to you, and it will not make you feel better… at all… and it just might make you more miserable.

The world is filled with well-meaning men and, especially, women who are a good 10 years past the active child-rearing phase whose memory has spared them the agony of recollection of the “fourth trimester.” (This is actually a good thing, because you’ll need grandparents to be willing to watch your little one(s) when you celebrate your 40th in the Virgin Islands.)

Sometimes the rewards of parenting aren’t good. Sometimes they are non-existent. It’s okay to believe this. It doesn’t matter that someday you will know what they mean. If today sucks, then it sucks. Just like any other days that suck, you live with it and move on. You do not need to carry the extra burden of thinking there’s something wrong with you for not experiencing constant joy. So unload that baggage. You have permission to not treasure every moment.

The time off policy…

You will sleep again, but not soon enough for your liking. When I was pregnant, I was told that “babies don’t sleep.” Now, unless you have some insight into infanthood, there is no way that this phrase makes sense. Of course babies sleep, right? How often do you see sleeping babies snuggled in their portable car seats (aka buckets) atop shopping carts in Target and at the grocery store? Plenty. So that warning that “babies don’t sleep,” can’t possibly be true.

The problem with “babies don’t sleep,” is that the words don’t adequately serve the situation, kind of like reading an instruction manual for IKEA furniture. What people should say is that “babies don’t sleep when you need to eat, use the bathroom or do anything that sustains you as a human being” or “babies only sleep when immersed in the white noise of a busy restaurant” or “babies don’t sleep for longer than 20 minutes at a time and only at intervals of once every two hours.”

A few of you will have babies who don’t appear to sleep at all. You will lay them in their car seats (because there is a high correlation between babies who don’t sleep and those who will tolerate a bassinet for only three seconds), and as you listen to the tension-inducing sounds of their snorting and whimpering, you will enter some kind of semi-conscious state where you will have visions (can’t call them dreams if you aren’t sleeping) of eating banana splits from from a trough or Joey from “Friends” refusing to give you back your baby, only to be snapped into reality (and you’ll question how real it really is) by full-blown wailing. You’ll doubt if anyone was, in fact, sleeping during that strange period of time which might only amount to seven minutes on the clock.

How long does it take to get over this kind of psychological torture? It depends. But eventually kids sleep, or they get to an age when you can better manipulate the situation. Though this may not result in your sleeping. The worries are parenthood are excellent contributors to insomnia.

Indulge in binge viewing. Yeah, maybe you should be sleeping. Yeah, maybe you should be making your own baby food with one of the three food mills you received at your shower. But in the future, you won’t have the energy to watch six straight hours of anything, let alone the hottest new series you haven’t yet seen because reruns of “Will & Grace” are on during the baby’s feeding time and/or you are now saving for college and purging your lifestyle of anything “frivilously expensive,” like HBO (a drop in the bucket, BTW). My husband and I look back on those Saturday nights we spent rolling through six whole seasons of “Sex & The City,” with fondness. It was kind of like date night but without the expense of a babysitter or the necessity of trying to squeeze back into my pre-pregnancy clothes.

Colleagues you can count on…

Resale is your friend. Trust me, when you get more than a decade into parenting and it is time to clean out that toy room or basement (or both) once again, you are going to feel fairly sick to your stomach at all the money that could have gone into your children’s educational fund but instead was invested in parade of primary-colored plastic objects that is about to march out your door to the Goodwill. If you are like me, you will experience the horror of having to toss any number of those broken toys into the garbage, thus contributing to the Plastic Ocean. Save yourself, the planet and your bank account — buy as much as you can second-hand.

Some of you will be a bit troubled by the idea of your baby engaging with something that is less than pristine. You will learn quickly that these kids do all sorts of things to spread germs, dirt and unidentifiable smudges. It becomes hard to tell what is “foreign.” Thanks to people like myself, there are loads of child paraphernalia in excellent condition from smoke-free homes. You’ll have no problem finding things that are more than adequate. Tell the grandparents, aunts and uncles — especially those who have a knack for buying the last thing you would want your child to have — to pad the education account. That’s one thing that never seems plentiful enough.

Your instincts won’t always serve you well. Trust them anyway. It was confusing when people told me to trust my instincts as I approached my final weeks of pregnancy. How in the world could I possibly have “instincts” for something with which I had no experience? What do “instincts” feel like anyway? What do “instincts” tell you?

Instincts under the influence of new parenthood will tell you all sorts of things, including plenty that are completely over-the-top and incredulous. One minute you’re convinced that the sorting and sniffling of your newborn indicates a breathing problem. The next you are certain that the absence of those sounds means the absence of breath. You just know your baby isn’t eating the right amount, until he/she drinks enough to begin choking. Then you fear precocious gluttony. You start the car after someone left the stereo cranked really high, and your baby will now suffer from hearing loss from the 0.7 second blast of sound.

But the thing is, your instincts are one of the best tools you’ve got. All the other resources you can tap into — books, grandparents, physicians, nurses, lactation consultants, parenting gurus, friends on social media, random commenters on mommy/daddy blogs, moms who cross four aisles in CVS to hear your newborn’s tender cry — they aren’t water-tight either. There will be that one time when you’re swimming upstream against everyone else, that one time when someone dares to utter the word “paranoia” to describe your “concern”… and it turns out that you will be right.

So, next time you reach for your phone to call your pediatrician’s office for the fifth time that day, remember that if it’s instinct that’s driving you, even if you are overreacting, you are doing your job.

Performance standards…

Especially for moms… it’s okay to not be good at “motherly” things. Enter motherhood and you will find there are many things the world automatically expects you to be into. Granted, you’ll spend more time than you ever imagined discussing things like nipple confusion. You may never have expected to pay such close attention how often another human being has a “BM,” and then share that information with others.

But not everything “motherly” will appeal to you, and this makes you no less capable in your role. For example, walking around Michael’s, your feelings of inadequacy increasing with every aisle of scrapbooking doo-dads and cake decorating what-nots you pass, because you feel compelled to do something “crafty” for Halloween may amount to nothing but a waste of time. Birthing a human being does not make one skilled with glitter, glue or even iron-on things.

By the way, it also doesn’t mean that you have an internal tracking system for every object in the house (though this perception only gets worse as your children and husband get older). Becoming a mother doesn’t mean that you will magically learn how to cook. And deciding that you’ll learn to cook during your maternity leave isn’t a good idea either, unless you want your lactation consultant to scold you for eating nothing but handfuls of dried fruit (too much acidity).

The culture…

“They have their whole lives to show the world how smart they are but only one time to be a kid.” I borrowed this from another parent of a 12-year-old I spoke with a few years ago. It has become my guide on so many decisions. Especially in this modern world of curated Facebook feeds and junior superstar everything, it’s tempting to want to respond to any glimmer of special skill or talent your child has. You may be sitting here thinking I won’t fall victim to this kind of thing. And maybe you won’t. But we live in a world of measurement and comparisons, and the compulsion to give your child opportunities is strong. You can read dozens of New York Times articles quoting psychologists who warn against the dangers of over-scheduling and lack of free play, but many of you will still waver over that sign-up sheet for just one more activity because you want them to be socialized, ready for the fourth-grade soccer team, have a shot at the youth symphony or any number of other things.

It’s definitely good to celebrate your child’s successes and support their growth. Just make sure that your child wants to and can own them.

Good luck out there, new parents! This baby thing might be overwhelming, but the on-the-job training is amazing, and you will always be challenged with something new.

Eco-guilt protects my wallet

This piece originally destined for this blog takes a fortunate detour through Mutterhood.com, a fabulous magazine featuring thoughtful non-fiction and photography on all manner of topics. In this issue, Industry, I talk about a modern weapon for my kids’ assault on my wallet in “Beware the Plastic Ocean” on page 55. Check it out here…

I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing All Over Again

Courtesy of keen.com

Courtesy of keen.com

Remember that Coca-Cola ad from the early 70s featuring the song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”? This latest one from the Super Bowl captures that same spirit, and I find myself both skeptical and touched by it.

When I saw the ad during the Super Bowl, I didn’t register what was really happening. The song starts off in English, and I was at a party where people were talking, so I didn’t actually hear that there were parts sung in foreign languages. And why would I take special note of the various cultures represented visually? We are, thankfully, well past the point when seeing people with different skin color, hair and clothes draws attention.

So when I viewed the commercial yesterday as a result of all of the buzz, my initial reaction was to dismiss it as a ploy. But then I remembered the old commercial from my childhood — the one with “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” — and I thought about what might have been behind this idea.

We live in a time that seems less conformist but also more polarized than that of my childhood and the preceding decades. Although we hope that it’s because people are more open-minded about differences now, I think that what is considered acceptable behavior has shifted. Previously, a racist comment uttered at the office or in line at the grocery store might have been met with tentative uncommitted nods or obligatory silence by people who disagreed. Now, those making the comments are outing themselves as ignorant — even if their intended audience only thinks so because of how inappropriate such remarks are. Prejudice will always exist, unfortunately, though not necessarily along lines of race or nationality. There seems to be plenty of prejudice today about political parties and religion, among other things.

What struck me about the Coca-Cola commercial is how they motivated themselves to do something so bold. Obviously, they know that their money will come from a more diverse population from here on out. Those who complained on social media that “America The Beautiful” is our national anthem and that Coca-Cola blasphemed by having it sung in different languages are in the minority. (Let’s not be prejudiced against their intelligence, though. Chances are that their initial outrage got the best of them, and they really do know what our national anthem is.)

Still, it was a risky move — people who support the old status quo are very loud. Perhaps Coke’s execs were inspired by the Cheerios ad from earlier this year that featured a bi-racial family. Maybe they just wanted to be talked about… after all, they paid good money for that spot.

I’d like to think that there was a creative type sitting in his or her office several months back who had this idea… to extend the brand’s history of unity vs. division and bring it into the present in a way that is obvious and unafraid. It’s not enough to teach the world to sing anymore. We need and want unity on a different level. It would be wonderful if someday acceptance could go beyond race, nationality and culture to include those who feel more intensely, struggle in ways that can’t be defined by our narrow definition of disability and just happen to think differently.

We’re not there yet. In our schools, conformity is a sought-after quality in many ways, from test scores to fashions. The Disney Channel may feature ethnically diverse casts, but they are funneling kids in one direction (no pun intended) when it comes to things like behavior, respect (for self and others) and personal choices. Any parent raising a child who “marches to their own beat” knows what it feels like to walk the tightrope of supporting their need to be who they are and the desire to protect them from others’ opinions.

The irony is that while we want our pop culture to celebrate differences, we aren’t entirely ready to bring them into our day-to-day world… even we GenXers whose legacy of skepticism is strong.

The lyrics from Rush’s “Subdivisions” — conform or be cast out — remain relevant, but maybe less so than they used to be, which would be a very good thing. I hope a company like Coca-Cola knows that to the rest of us, acceptance is about more than selling soft drinks.

A wedding gift

I am beginning this post with a glass of wine to my left, from a bottle my very good friend featured at her wine-country dream wedding last September. She was not a young bride, but her evening was filled with the joy we associate with youth, yet that is often better savored by people with more experience.

Late this afternoon, the snow started to fall. It was that sparkly type that comes when the temps are so low you wonder how people made it through winter before insulation and North Face. As the sky dimmed to evening, it took on that sepia cast that makes the gray less steely, though not quite golden. I thought about another friend who is getting married in midlife, this coming Friday.

A couple of months ago, she and I were at a girls’ weekend with about 16 other people, and we had a small celebration for her — the forty-something version of a bachelorette party. We started off with the topic of what’s sexy at 40, and there were plenty of hilarious responses. But there was a marked difference how she — not yet knowing we were honoring her upcoming marriage — described it. In her, I saw something that I’ve associated with youthfulness as my own marriage has matured. But I realized that night that it isn’t. When relationships take root, really begin to blossom, it doesn’t matter how old or experienced you are. That energy of beginnings might be even more beautiful with age.

I don’t know if long-term relationships ever see that point again — that giddiness and excitement. It’s not necessary because of the richness that they do bring. But it is wonderful to know that starting a life together holds the same spirit no matter what age it comes to you.

To my friend, best wishes on your big day and the decades that await! For you, one of the most beautiful wedding songs I know.

Thinking of Sandy Hook

I almost didn’t write this post. The act of clicking the Publish button makes me uncertain. I have no claim to the tragedy that happened a year ago in Sandy Hook, beyond being a parent… a citizen of this country… another human being. What happened in that school has so many layers, and it seems artificial to write about it given the depths of its consequences for the families who lost children and loved ones that day.

There is no doubt to me that millions of people will remember this day, and it will bring despair to hearts and tears to eyes, even among people with no personal connection to those involved. But like so many other horrible events, we’ll catalogue it among the other great massacres of our generation, like 9-11 and the tsunami in Asia, and in the company of similar events, like Columbine and Virginia Tech.

“Where were you when…?” is a question people ask once a major tragedy like this is a safe enough distance away to begin thinking of it as a marker. Maybe people are already beginning to ask this about Sandy Hook. My question this year is where are we now.

I imagine most of us are bewildered, still, that something so horrible could have happened.  Some of us have those scars that form when you see what kind of pain people can inflict on each other and how inhumane our political system can be when it comes to protecting the interests of people vs. sources of funding. Many of us are disappointed that we couldn’t move the needle on an issue that — if you look at statistics — actually unites vs. divides us in one of the most polarized states our nation has ever been in.

By the time one makes it into their forties, there is that understanding that life offers no guarantees. Safety is a relative and unreliable concept, something that slips into our minds when, perhaps, we are boarding a plane. Should we really feel that way when we drop our children off at school? We do now, even if it’s fleeting and blocked from our conscious mind by some sort of mental self-preservation. If we really thought about how vulnerable we all are, we’d probably go crazy.

Certainly, there are tragedies where far more people suffer, places in the world where children die in great numbers. And something like this can’t be judged by numbers. Loss of even a single child’s life is very sad. What makes this one stand out, for me at least, is how those children were supposed to be in one of the safest environments available to them. They were learning to read or add or maybe just enjoying story time. It’s such an innocent world inside a first-grade classroom… rather, it should be.

A year later, I  sit on the couch helping my son study his spelling words. Looking out the window, I become aware that I’m the parent who gets to do this. Those parents do not. I’m checking the closet taking inventory of what Christmas presents have been delivered. For those folks, there will always be an empty space where gifts would have been.

There is no yardstick for that kind of pain. It’s unknown to the rest of us. One year later, it still seems unbelievable. I can’t image how it feels for the families and friends of Sandy Hook.

What we all want

Pope Francis with disfigured manThis picture of the Pope blessing a man with severe disfigurement stopped me today. The rush of my own life, the noises from outside, the shadow of the dancing leaves on my coffee cup –all these things that delight and vex me — came to a halt when I absorbed image.

Some people are born into this world with extraordinarily challenging circumstances. Their lives, from start to finish, are marked by difficulty that most of us will never experience. Think about it — this man gets up every morning and faces the day with his situation. He never gets a break. This is what he lives from start to finish.

Seeing this man with Pope Francis reminds me what it means to be a human being. We cannot be defined by appearance, good health, wealth, power or any of the other things that distract us as we take whatever path we choose through life. I’ve not met a single person yet who hasn’t slipped to allow vanity to color their actions or opinions. (For a good portion of us, those self- or societally inflicted trappings are our greatest burden.)

When I saw this photo, it reminded me that inside of every living body is a soul who wants what I think we all do — to know that we matter. Like food and shelter, it’s a common denominator need. We do things every day to prove that we matter to ourselves. In the middle of drafting this post, I went upstairs and put on eyeliner to attend my children’s school conference, because I wanted to look a certain way. To be honest, the fact that I write in this blog is a way to make myself matter. I think that’s the case of anyone compelled to do anything. We want to be a part of our world. We want to have an impact.

Our world makes it hard sometimes to not question people’s motivations. The desire to matter can become unhealthy when it drives people to do things that harm (or not do things that will bring about good). But regardless of how you feel about organized religion, when this man stepped up to Pope Francis, from one human being to another, he was told that he matters.

Calling All Brady Bunch Fans — Did Oliver Jump the Shark?

Remember this guy?

Remember this guy?

Tonight my children were introduced to Oliver of “The Brady Bunch”. (But not in real life… on TV.) My husband and I disagree about Oliver. I love him… thought he was adorable and that it was exciting that the Brady’s got to have a younger cousin living with them. My husband feels that it was “jumping the shark.” GenXers… what do you think?