Can Fathers Walk Away From Their Children?

A friend of mine has been embroiled in a custody battle with the mother of his child almost from the time of the child’s birth.  The mother has made false accusations of physical and sexual abuse.  She has had him arrested.  She has interrupted their visits with all sorts of nonsensical claims.  He has had to hire lawyers in multiple countries.

The battle has cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars and left him in near financial ruin.  His family has advised him to give up.  He refuses to give up.  Stubbornly, he soldiers on.

The situation brings me to tears because this man is one of the most loving fathers I know.  His relationship with his child is beautiful.

If things continue on this way, there is no good ending here.

As a single divorced mother whose ex-husband walked away from his children for years because he claimed I was “too difficult” to deal with, I am a bit torn.  On the one hand, I understand why my friend’s family is telling him to cut his losses and move on.  On the other hand, as a mother, and having witnessed the beauty of his relationship with his child, I am loath to see that come to an end.  It feels wrong to me for a father to have to lose everything just to fight for the right to see his child.  But it feels equally wrong to me for a father to abandon his relationship with his child, no matter the price.

I’ve talked to a number of men who have said they were tempted to walk away from their children because of the difficulties they were having dealing with the mother of those children.  In most cases, I felt – and they agreed – that walking away from one’s children because you don’t get along with their mother is unjustified.

My friend’s custody battle is an extreme case, and is beyond mere not getting along.  But there are other extreme examples.  But even in extreme cases, is a father ever justified in walking away?

When a mother is vindictive and uses her children as pawns in her battle against her ex – when she makes false accusations that a court (or courts) must investigate, often requiring the involvement of social workers, psychologists and other professionals; when she constantly frustrates his efforts to have a relationship with his children; when she interrupts his visits, makes last-minute excuses for not going through with a visit that he has already planned for (including taking time off work), invents emergencies that don’t really exist – is there ever a point when a father has a rational basis for saying, “Enough is enough!” and walking away from the situation until the children are old enough for him to seek a relationship with them, independent of the mother?

And what are the pitfalls of that approach?  Is there ever a point when it’s too late to try to be a dad?

I continue to pray that things work out for my friend and that he is somehow able to work out a deal with his ex before all their lives are further destroyed.  I am also happy that my ex and I have managed to put our own court battles behind us, and are now attempting to co-parent.  But I would love to hear your thoughts as to whether a father ever, even under the most difficult legal and financial circumstances, is justified in giving up on maintaining a relationship with his child?

A Lesson in Responsibility

My daughter has been fiercely independent, literally from birth.  We first clashed when she was a day old.  She refused to nurse.  She was physically capable of nursing, she just wasn’t interested in working that hard for food. 

The lactation consultant told me to express a drop or two of milk on my nipple.  “The baby will smell the milk and be interested in taking the nipple,” she said. 

I tried it.  My day-old daughter opened her eyes (I swear she gave me the side eye), stuck out her tongue, licked the milk off, and closed her eyes again.  The attitude was palpable.  I didn’t know until that moment that it was possible to want to call a day-old infant a name that begins with the letter “b.”

I should have known right there that I was in for a rocky ride with this one.

My longstanding battle with my daughter over her desire for independence recently came to a head over the New York City public high school application process this year.  She had very firm ideas about what type of school she did and didn’t want to go to.  She wanted to make the final decision.

I was impressed by the level of her research about not only the specialized high schools, but other NYC public school options.  I decided to let her run with it.

My daughter looked up the open house schedules and signed up for the ones that interested her.  She found out about the admissions process for the specialized high schools and the other schools.  Over dinner one night, she gave me a very astute and perceptive breakdown of the differences among the schools that interested her.  She was very clear about her values and needs.

For my part, I wasn’t completely hands-off.  I asked around about the leading prep courses for the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), the test that determines whether or not a student gains admission to one of eight high schools designated as “specialized high schools” by the New York City Department of Education (a ninth specialized school, LaGuardia, bases admission in part on student auditions, as well as grades and test scores).  I signed her up for the prep course that was said to be the best.  I attended some of the open houses with her (but not all).  I solicited feedback from alumni of the schools that were top on her list.  But mostly, this was her show.

Things seemed to be going well.  She ranked her school choices.  She took the SHSAT.  She signed up to interview with her top alternate school choices.

And then the wheels fell off.

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter asked me if I’d received an email with her interview date for one of her top ranked schools.  I checked my inbox and my spam folder.  I did not.

I called the school.  They had no record of her having completed an application.  She swore she did.  I asked her if she printed out either the application she completed, or the confirmation.  She did not.  It was our word against theirs.

She was devastated.  And I felt like the world’s worst mother.

I instantly thought of all the “should’ves”:  I should have done the online application, or stood over her shoulder while she did it.  I should have reminded her to print the confirmation.  I should have been more engaged in the process.

When I was in 8th grade, I knew, like my daughter, what high school I wanted to go to.  I got my mother to sign me up for the admissions test, I took it, and I got in.  I mostly did it without her help. 

But that was Detroit, not New York City, with its complicated system that makes applying to college look easy.  I never should have let her take this on, I told myself.  

For my daughter’s part, it was a lesson in learning what she could not handle.  Because ultimately, all she could do is beg me to “fix it, Mom!  Make them let me interview!”

I couldn’t promise her an interview.  I could only promise to try.  I spoke to a friendly person in the school’s admissions office, who gave me an email address to send a note to, explaining our situation.  I sent a follow-up email with the additional information they requested.  And I crossed my fingers, because there wasn’t much else I could do.  Not like I’m close friends with Mayor Bloomberg or Chancellor Joel Klein.

And then, miraculously, at the end of last week, I received an email with my daughter’s interview date. 

I don’t know if I actually “fixed” anything.  Maybe it was prayers answered.  Maybe it was leprechauns.  I have no idea.  I suspect they double-checked and found her application after all.  I’m just glad it worked out.

My daughter and I both learned valuable lessons in responsibility over this situation.  She did a great job, no question.  Her lesson was learning how much is too much for her to handle on her own. 

My lesson was that, even if I give her the freedom to make decisions, I still have to supervise and monitor the process closely so it doesn’t go off track.

Parenting Black Boys and the Persistent Achievement Gap

A recent New York Times article cited a recent report that showed African American boys lagging behind their white and Hispanic counterparts, even when socioeconomic status is taken into account. 

The most telling quotes from the article came from Dr. Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, who spoke of early childhood parenting practices as key to understanding why these gaps persist. Dr. Ferguson said we “have to have conversations that people are unwilling to have” about black parenting, including “the activities that parents conduct with their 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds. How much we talk to them, the ways we talk to them, the ways we enforce discipline, the ways we encourage them to think and develop a sense of autonomy.”

Dr. Ferguson’s remarks about the way we discipline our children and encourage them to develop a sense of autonomy really resonated with me. 

For a lot of black parents, whether they live in the projects or are graduates of Ivy League schools, parenting means enforcing strict rules about propriety and good behavior and respect. No yelling, no backtalk, no questioning my judgment or my rules.  It’s my way or the highway.  Any hint of defiance –starting with baby’s first “No!”—is punished.

So we grow up to be adults who are really good at being obedient and following the rules, and less skilled at challenging authority.  Unfortunately, the ability to challenge and question authority and redefine the rules is one of the hallmarks of leadership.  I think there’s a direct correlation between the way we are raised and the difficulties we face later trying to break into senior leadership positions, in corporations, academia or elsewhere.

Although I often complain about my oppositional, defiant daughter, she broke me of a lot of the ingrained patterns I had unconsciously adopted from my own upbringing.  I tried to be the type of authoritarian, unyielding mother my own mother was, with nearly disastrous results.  My daughter simply wasn’t having it.  She refused to back down, refused to accept “Because I said so!” as a reasonable explanation for anything.  Escalating the punishment did nothing except make me feel like an abusive bully.  So I had to learn another way.

That “other way” involves talking to my children instead of at them, allowing them to ask “Why?” and expect an answer, and occasionally even giving in when they effectively argue in favor of something I’d originally rejected. 

My kids are not afraid to speak out and speak up.  They, especially my daughter, will risk a charge of insubordination if it means standing up for something they believe in or speaking out against a perceived injustice.  They are also independent thinkers.  I think this has helped them be more effective students and learners.

As a parent, having oppositional, defiant children can be extremely annoying.  But then I remember being a first year law student.  We black students would sit in class furiously scribbling notes and living in fear of the Socratic method.  Most of us didn’t want to be called on, even though we’d read and understood the cases.  We were afraid of saying something “wrong” and proving to the white kids that we were stupid.  That we really didn’t belong. 

We were blown away by how the white students readily engaged our professors in debate.  They “talked back,” sometimes in tones we found disrespectful. They argued positions that seemed flatly wrong.  “Why is this guy wasting our time?” was a common thought of mine during my first year classes.  “Can we get on with it?”

Except the professors loved this debate.  When they called on us, of course, we did just fine.  We never embarrassed ourselves.  And our professors inevitably said, “Ms./Mr. ______, you really should participate more in class.”  Some of us were emboldened and began to raise our hands in class.  We figured out that law school wasn’t about passive rote learning, but learning how to see, think about and understand both sides of an argument.  Others stayed quiet, and I often wonder how much they really got out of the law school experience.

There was one black man in our section who never stayed quiet.  From the first day of class, he would engage in animated debate with our professors, shaking his long, skinny fingers with each point.  We would roll our eyes and wish he’d shut up.  The professors loved him.  That man, Artur Davis, went on to become a U.S. Congressman in Alabama, a seat he held until he gave it up to unsuccessfully run for Governor of Alabama.  The seat Davis vacated is now held by Terri Sewell, another friend of mine from Harvard Law School who was equally unafraid to speak up and speak out.

We have to rethink how we discipline our children.  We need to teach them both how to play by the rules and to challenge authority – and it starts with allowing them, under appropriate circumstances, to challenge our authority as parents.  We need to allow our children to point out when we’re wrong, and we need to learn how to admit being wrong when we are.  It’s easier to raise obedient children, but our job as parents isn’t to raise obedient children.  It’s to raise the generations that will be in charge of things after we are gone.  If we want our children to have a place at the leadership table, we have to create a safe space at home where they can develop the skills they will need as they grow and develop.

No Country For Old Moms

When I was 13, my mom was old.  In fact, she was roughly the same age I am now, but to me, she was old.  She listened to none of the music I liked.  The only movies she liked were old movies, movies with people like John Wayne and Bette Davis.  She wore mom clothes — double-knit dresses during the week, housedresses on weekends — that were inherently unsexy.  When she dressed up, pressed her hair and put on makeup, she looked good, but old lady good. 

My mom didn’t read books very often, and certainly wasn’t interested in the romances or Harold Robbins’ novels I favored.  Her primary interests were cooking, sewing and gardening — old lady stuff.  And her ideas about sex (oral sex is gross) and romance (no such thing) struck me as positively ancient.  I felt like she would have put all of us girls in chastity belts until we were 30, if she could have found three of them.  I was convinced my mother couldn’t relate at all to anything I was going through when I was a teenager.  My friends all had old mothers, and we all felt the same way.

I am not like my mother.

My 13-year-old daughter and I not only listen to the same music, we have lively arguments about the merits, or lack thereof, of Nicki Minaj and Drake.  I don’t censor her music anymore, although I will comment on the most foul, misogynistic or just plain ridiculous lyrics. 

I read prolifically, and my bookshelves are fast becoming a library for her.  This year, she found three of the books on her required reading list on my bookshelves.  We get manicures, pedicures, and our eyebrows threaded together.  We did yoga classes together this summer.  If I didn’t think Child Protective Services would come take her away, I’d sign her up to take pole dancing classes with me.

I don’t enjoy cooking, and I don’t garden or sew.  My ex-husband fancies himself the chef (although he only does barbecue, collard greens and fried chicken), so she’ll have to learn that skill from him.  She doesn’t expect me to be a bread- and cookie-baking mom.  She seems to get more of a kick telling people the name of the cosmetics company I work for.

My mother had no clothes I would have wanted to be seen in.  My daughter stays in my closet, trying on my tops, shoes and boots.  She likes the fact that her mom wears, and looks good in, J Brand and 7 for All Mankind jeans. 

And she gets — or tries to — a bit too involved in the details of my post-divorce dating and sex life.

I’ve noticed the same thing with the moms of her friends.  They are women who work out and display still-tight figures in body-hugging tops and premium jeans, who color their hair, get their nails done and wear makeup.  It used to be, when I was a kid, that the working moms were the only moms who still seemed to care about their appearance.  Now, it’s the stay-at-home, bread- and cookie-baking moms who are all yoga-toned and super-fit, and the working moms struggle to stay on par with them. 

And our girls seem to revel in the youthfulness of their moms.  “My mom doesn’t look her age” is a bragging right.

I didn’t set out to be the young mom.  While I was going through my divorce, I most certainly wasn’t.  I was a mom stuck in cat hair-covered fleece.  But now, having found the freedom to be youthful and playful, I more readily display that side of myself.  And my daughter clearly enjoys relating to me as a woman and not just as her mom.

So it truly is no country for old moms.  At least not in New York City.

Is “Terrorist” the New “DooDooHead?”

I got a call today from the assistant principal at my son’s school.  In a very serious-sounding and sincere message, she informed me that a child in my son’s school called my son a “terrorist” during a dispute in the cafeteria.  I was assured that the other child was receiving appropriate consequences, and that my son’s teacher has been alerted to “keep an eye” on my son.

I appreciated the phone call.  I always appreciate hearing about what is going on with my children at school.

But part of me wonders if we’ve taken student discipline too far.

I’m always on edge whenever I receive a phone call from my son’s school.  Last year, he was suspended for bringing a small pocket knife to school.  At first, he said he brought the knife to school for his “Metals Club.”  Later, he admitted he just thought it was cool and wanted to show it to his friends.  He never threatened anyone with it, and he got very upset when the kids he showed it to began acting afraid of it.

Despite his age and lack of intent to do harm, the NYC Department of Education’s zero tolerance policy meant an automatic suspension from school.  He’s an excellent student, and probably the least violent kid you would ever meet.  But thanks to zero tolerance, he received the same punishment as a child who brought a knife to school with the intent to harm another student.

The NYC DOE’s disciplinary code contains a variety of suggested and mandatory disciplinary actions for a range of student offenses, including “using profane, obscene, vulgar, lewd or abusive language or gestures.” 

It is certainly useful to have citywide standards, rather than leaving everything solely to an individual school’s principal to decide. 

But as I remember it, using “profane, obscene, vulgar, lewd or abusive language or gestures” is a rite of passage of fourth grade. 

I’m not excusing the kid who called my son a terrorist.  For the record, we are African-American, but we are not Muslim.  I do not know the race or ethnicity of the other child, but there is nothing about this incident that makes me believe the other child used the word “terrorist” as a racial or ethnic slur.  I am certain the kid has no idea what that word really means, except that’s he’s heard it enough to know it’s bad, and used it to indicate that my son is a bad person. 

Is that profane, obscene, vulgar, lewd or abusive?  I don’t know. 

When my son got home, I asked him what happened in school today.  He talked about his social studies project, but didn’t mention the terrorist incident until I asked him what else happened.

“___________ called me a terrorist,” he said.

“And how did you feel about that?”

“It upset me a lot.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m no terrorist!”

“And what is a terrorist?”

“They’re bad people who blow things up.”

A bad person who blows things up.  Not a nice word to call someone, sure.  Grounds for any disciplinary action beyond, “Don’t do that again”?  I’m not sure.

I used the moment as an opportunity to talk to my son about name-calling in general, even in jest, and to make sure he doesn’t retaliate – whether it’s against this kid, or some other kid – by calling someone a terrorist.  I hope the other kid gets a similar lecture from his parents.

And then I hope both my son and theirs return to the business of being profane, obscene, vulgar and lewd, as is the wont of 4th grade boys.

What do you think?  Am I under-reacting to this?  Should I take this more seriously?  Is the school overreacting?  How would you feel if someone called your child a terrorist?  Would you want the school to let you know?

WebMD Can Kill You

As anyone with an Internet connection who’s ever wondered about that weird bump on their back, that unfamiliar sensation in their chest or that rumbling in their tummy knows, the one thing you don’t want to do before going to see your doctor is look up your symptoms on WebMD. 

WebMD and similar medical information sites are the opposite of the doctor’s creed: “first do no harm.”  When you type symptoms into these sites, they invariably find the most lethal, life-shortening diseases imaginable.

Thanks to WebMD and its progeny, a few years ago, I thought the benign mass my doctor found during a routine examination would turn out to be an extremely rare and incurable form of bone cancer.  Earlier this year, WebMD had me convinced I was suffering from esophageal cancer.  In the back of my mind, I had already started thinking about contingency plans for the kids’ parenting, whether or not my life insurance was paid up, etc. 

It turned out I had a small stomach ulcer that was completely cured with a few weeks of medication and sensible eating.  That episode also cured me of self-diagnosis via WebMD.

Apparently, I should have passed the lesson down to my daughter.

On the first day of school last week, my 13 year-old daughter rushed me at the door as soon as I got home.  “Mommy, I got a fever at school!”

I felt her forehead.  She felt mildly warm, but nothing alarming. “Umm-hmm. Did you take anything?”

“No.”

“Take some Advil.” 

She scowled at me, clearly annoyed that I wasn’t fawning over her.

There was no school for the rest of the week because of Rosh Hashanah.  I knew whatever was causing this mild temperature spike would be over in time for school on Monday.  She, of course, was not so convinced.

The next day, she again announced that she had a fever.  Not enough of a fever to cause her to cancel plans with her best friend, nor enough to choose to stay home instead of seeing Wicked with me.  It was just enough of a fever for her to demand peppermint tea from Starbucks before the show and to try to get me to run down and buy her concessions during the show’s intermission. 

I agreed to the peppermint tea, but refused the snacks.  WebMD didn’t say Twizzlers can help reduce a fever or soothe a sore throat. 

“You don’t care that I’m sick!” was the not-unexpected response.

The next day, she announced, “Mom, I have strep throat.”

“Really? And this is based on….”

“I looked up my symptoms, and I have all the symptoms of strep.”

I felt her forehead.  Not even slightly warm this time.  “You don’t have strep.”

“Why not?”

“For one, you don’t have a fever anymore.  This isn’t strep.”

“Mom, I’m really sick!  You have to take me the doctor!”

I wanted to laugh, but didn’t.  WebMD strikes again, I thought.

Being the unsung dramatic actress that she is, my daughter did not let the strep thing go until I finally agreed to take her to her pediatrician.

The nurse checked her temperature (normal), ears (uncongested) and throat (slightly reddish but otherwise unremarkable), and then asked, “So what’s been going on with you?” 

My daughter began reciting the list of symptoms of strep throat from WebMD.

 “Okay, honey, but is that what’s going on with you?”

“Yes!”

The nurse took a throat culture.  We waited the required five minutes for the results.

“Good news!  It’s not strep.  There’s a nasty throat virus going around, but it typically clears up in about 3-5 days, which is about where you are now.  So you should be able to go to school on Monday.”

I shook my head.  It cost me $55 for the doctor’s office to confirm the “nothing’s wrong with you” diagnosis that I had made in my living room.  My daughter felt vindicated by the mention of “throat virus.”  I thought of my mother, who would have blown sulfur powder down her throat and made her drink two tablespoons of cod liver oil.

I gave my daughter the “don’t self-diagnose using WebMD” speech afterwards, but I don’t hold out much hope.  After all, she’s a kid with an Internet connection and access to a site that helps reinforce her belief that she’s much smarter than Mom.  I just hope she doesn’t self-diagnose herself into hospice care before she makes it out of 8th grade.

A Weighty Issue

I took my kids to the pediatrician for their back-to-school checkups recently.  Health-wise, both kids checked out just fine.

But as is the case every year, my kids’ doctor pulled me to the side to mention my daughter’s weight.

“She’s gained 12 pounds,” her pediatrician mentioned in a whisper.  She showed me the height/weight charts for her age, showing her weight hovering slightly above the top line for her age group.  Oh, she said in passing, she also grew an inch.

I did my best not to Kanye shrug.  “Did she mention to you that she’s doing yoga?”  I asked.

“Yes,” the doctor said, then gave me the name of a nutritionist.  She also ordered some blood work to check my daughter’s blood sugar/insulin and cholesterol levels, among other things.

Everything came back normal, as it always does.

My daughter is a muscular girl.  She always has been.  She is as strong as an ox.  I outweigh her by a good thirty pounds, and she picks me up like it’s nothing.

She doesn’t play any sports now, but was heavily into gymnastics for about four years.  She has tried every sport from soccer to softball.  She swims, ice skates and bikes.  Last year, at 12, she did adult aerial acrobatics classes.  This year, she is taking adult yoga classes with me.

And did I mention she’s a size 6?  Hardly a size worn by the clinically obese.

Yet, ever since she was a baby, doctors have plotted her weight on a graph and told me, in hushed tones, that her weight was in the upper percentiles for children her age. 

Her plots on the height/weight graphs have remained remarkably consistent since birth.  She’s of average height and above-average weight, according to the “official” weight charts. 

For some reason I can’t fathom, her doctors have equated “above average” with “abnormal” and “weight problem.”  This infuriates me.  Humans come in a range of shapes and sizes, heights and weights.  The fact that my daughter’s weight has plotted consistently on the height/weight graphs since birth strongly indicates that this is just how she’s built, period. 

I always feel like there’s some implicit indictment of my parenting involved in these discussions.  Every year, the doctor grills me about what the kids eat.  “Do they drink soda and processed juice?  Do they drink milk?  Do they eat vegetables?  Do they eat fried foods or fast food?  Do they eat sweets and candy?”

My answers always seem to surprise her.  The kids get soda only when we go out to eat at restaurants.  The only juice I buy is orange juice, which they drink mixed with seltzer.  My daughter drinks fat-free milk, and my son prefers rice milk.  They love vegetables, especially spinach.  Fried foods are rare, and they mostly can’t stand fast food.  You’d have to force-feed them McDonald’s, which they’d promptly regurgitate.

The doctor always looks at me like she doesn’t quite trust these answers, even when the kids give consistent responses.  For many years, I was also overweight.  In these questions, I saw the assumption that here we were, this fat black family, greasing it up on Popeye’s and ribs and fries with nary a veggie in sight. 

Except the kids weren’t, and still aren’t, fat.   The reality that we have a healthy diet, that we generally don’t eat “soul food,” and that my kids are quite physically active, doesn’t jibe with the chronic-obesity-in-the-black-community stereotype.

This year, it annoyed me a bit that my daughter’s doctor hasn’t seemed to notice my own fairly dramatic weight loss.  Hey, I wanted to shout, I’ve dropped close to 70 pounds in the last two years.  Can you stop looking at us as a bunch of fat black folks now?

Apparently not.

Before we left the doctor’s office, I told my daughter, as I do every year, not to worry about the doctor’s comments about her weight and to just keep doing what she’s been doing.  

I said to her, “I know how and what you eat.  You have a very healthy diet.  You eat very little junk food, and only as an occasional treat.  You work out.  Whatever your weight, you haven’t gone up in size at all in the last two years.  Don’t worry about what they’re saying.”

I am trying to raise a teen black girl with a healthy body image.  If my daughter were in fact in danger of having a real weight problem, I would be on the case.  I struggled with my own weight for most of my life, and I feel like I have finally figured out how to maintain control.  If I were concerned about her weight, I would be working with her to count her calories, to honestly assess her food intake, and to balance it against her activity level.  She would be drinking more water and getting more daily exercise.

She’s already doing all of that.  My own weight loss efforts have provided her with good examples of how to lose weight and keep it off the right way.  Her body type is what it is.   The last thing she needs is to become insecure and anorexic because she’s not tall and thin.  She will never be tall and thin.  And that’s OK.

As long as she remains within her own range of normal, I’m not worried about her weight.  In my opinion, as long as that remains the case, her doctors shouldn’t be worried, either.