A Legitimate Question, I Think

I’m going to act like a a martyr in this post. I apologize in advance for that. People who act like martyrs have always rubbed me wrong. For one, I was raised in a suck-it-up kind of a family in which you might get some measure of sympathy if, say, there was a lot of blood or a broken something or other. But anything short of those two and you were more than likely on your own. And it was not until I met my husband—who comes from a quite sympathetic family—that I realized anything may have been out of the ordinary in my upbringing. At my husband’s urging (and particularly since we’ve had kids), I’ve tried to be more “compassionate” about complaints that I would have been laughed out of town for when I was little. (Let’s just say there’s a lot of “I’m so sorry your feeeeelings are huuuurt” bandied about in our home and I even manage to not say it sarcastically.)

In the last ten days or so, most of us had that big flu slash respiratory sh*t storm that seems to be going around lately. First my daughter, then my son, then me. We fell, one by one, like dominoes. When my daughter got sick, I was there 24/7. When my son got sick, I was there 24/7. And then when I got sick … well, there I was. My two beloved girlfriends helped me out with rides here and there, but for a couple of days there I had to slog through about eight hours of the most essential chores, including driving (and trust me, I had no business behind the wheel), when all I wanted to do was collapse under the blankets. And given how much school my kids had missed when they had been sick, not going to school and a half-dozen after-school classes was not an option.

And my husband did his best to be helpful but ultimately he had to go to work and even though I wanted to beg him to stay home because I really, truly, could not move, I didn’t. I felt guilty.

I even tried to hire someone but as it turns out that is not so easily done: (a) at the last minute; (b) on a short-term basis; and/or (c) on a budget.

So here comes the martyr part: I want to take a moment and ask a question. I really need to know the answer because maybe I’m missing something here: When anyone in the family’s sick, mama’s looking out for them. But who exactly is looking out for mama?


I am somewhat newly inducted into the official celebration of Christmas. I was born in the Middle East where Christmas, if it was at all celebrated, was a small affair, mostly in people’s homes here and there. Oddly I don’t have specific memories of Christmas in Europe, where I spent a few years as child, aside from some references to Papa Noel, and special cookies and chocolates.

Christmas fully entered my consciousness in the 1980s when I came to America, and how! I love everything about Christmas. I love the decorations, the reds, the greens, the luminescent whites. I love the lights adorning streets and houses. I love the store fronts and hot chocolate and the smell of spiced apple and cinnamon. I love the nativity scenes, the dolls, the elves, the Santas, the reindeer. I love the way people seem warmer and kinder.

I mostly enjoyed all this as an outsider until about ten years ago when I met my husband, who is Catholic and in whose family Christmas is a big deal with family members traveling, sometimes cross-country, to be with each other.

I took to Christmas like fish to water, with one exception: the whole gift thing. The buying just to buy; the mountains of gifts for some and very little to nothing for others; the thank you for my ceramic buxom, blonde angel in a bikini statue that plays the muzak version of All the Single Ladies when you wind it up. All my gift apprehensions came to a head last year when my then-3-year-old stood before what seemed to me to be an obscenely huge pile of goodies and lamented in his lisp: “Thanta never bringth me anyfing!”

Since I recognize that this issue is the subject of long-time debate among the good people who have been celebrating Christmas their entire lives and for generations, and that anything I, Janey-come-lately, have to say about it has probably already been said before ad nauseam, I will now stop and instead let you know how grateful I am for the beauty and magic of the celebration surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ—that feast of tastes and scents and sights, and joy, love and service.

Merry Christmas, our beloved readers. May your lives be blessed with peace, health, abundance, and the gifts of spirit.

Rainbows, Roses and Ruffians

My daughter is six and she started first grade back in August. To me, she seems so little sometimes, like she’s barely out of her toddler years. She still fits into some of her old smocks which we now pair with tights and call shirts. She is even happy to watch Sesame Street once in a while.

My girl is so excited about school that she bounds out of bed and begins to sing every single morning. I, who am notoriously not a morning person, have to keep myself from telling her to stop. She is enthusiastic about learning. I catch her muttering newly learned words under her breath. She adores her teacher and is eager to please.

And my little girl is being bullied.

I hesitated for a long time to call it that. I mean, bullying does not start in first grade, right? At that age, they are still all hearts and rainbows. Right?

No, not right.

We are living in a whole new world where it can, and does, start that early. I found–and still find–myself ill-prepared to handle it. But at least I am no longer in denial that such a thing can exist in first grade, among sweet, beautiful little girls who look like colorful butterflies flitting about the playground.

The bullying directed at my girl is oddly sophisticated. It is, I’ve observed, reserved strictly for when the child knows adults are not watching. It is a growl with an angry face, and hands waving within inches of my child’s eyes, telling her: “You have to” do whatever the bully is demanding at that moment. It is telling my daughter: “You cannot play” and “You cannot sit with us.” It is threatening to tell the teacher “something bad” if my child complains about the bully’s behavior to an adult. At one point, it was creating a “club” from which my daughter and another little girl were specifically excluded, though the teachers put a quick end to the clubs after several parents complained.

I can tell that it is tough for my girl to process what’s happening. She protests: “But she’s nice to me in the classroom. When she needs my help!” as if the two behaviors could not possibly coexist. And at other times, my daughter says: “When she’s happy, she’s nice. When she’s sad, she’s really really mean.”

I can tell that my girl is developmentally out of her depth. I know this because when I’ve dropped by to surreptitiously watch the goings-on at the playground, I see this little girl spotting me and changing her behavior dramatically for my benefit. She showers me with smiles, even waves sometimes, suddenly angelic. I have even seen her go over to my daughter, who just a moment ago was exiled, and begin a happy, animated conversation, as if they are the best of friends. Which they were at one point and still are, I suppose, when the little girl wishes it.

After a big incident last week that left my child in tears and demanding to go home, the teachers have made the issue a priority. We are supporting our daughter at home by doing role play, and reading a book and watching a DVD we got at the library. We know and love the child’s mother and get the sense that she is no less devastated than us by the bullying behavior. We are all doing what we know to do and hoping for the best.

And, we happened to spot this article in the New York Times about how and why mean-girl bullying has trickled down to grade school: http://nyti.ms/9xkVx3.

The one paragraph in this piece that made my stomach hurt was this:

“The girls who are the victims tend to be raised by parents who encourage them to be more age appropriate,” … “The mean girls are 8 but want to be 14, and their parents play along. They all want to be top dog.” And so the nastiness begins.

After reading this, I seriously considered home-schooling for about an hour. Let’s just say that for us, it’s not an option.

A Change is Gonna Come

The single most contentious thing in my relationship with my mother is that she has always predicted gloom and doom about just about everything. There is not a doomsday scenario, accident and downside that my mother has not already envisioned in some form and expressed her opinion about quite vocally and repeatedly. And I have always resented her for what I perceived to be nonstop negativity.

And so imagine my shock when I observed last week that I have turned into a walking, talking warning label on all things random—from Red 40 food dye to fluoridated water to pesticide-laden fruit to partially hydrogenated oils.

For some reason it came to a head for us last weekend. A well-meaning friend offered my 4-year-old a treat and my boy looked him in the eye and asked: “Does it have high fructose corn syrup in it? If it does, I can’t eat it because I will die.” (For the record I never said he would die.)

And later that night, my 6-year-old asked her father during bath time if the water he was bathing her in had fluoride in it and whether that fluoride was going to get absorbed into her body through her skin. “Because you know, dad,” she told him earnestly, “our skin is our body’s biggest organ.”

It is all my fault, of course, every last bit of it. I have been obsessed with healthy living and a good diet since my health crisis several years ago. But after watching my small children parroting my worries about degenerated foods, environmental toxins and contaminated water supplies, I am appalled at myself. How unfair to fill their lives with bogeymen to be feared, lurking at every meal, in every lunch box, cupboard and grocery store.

It is one thing to educate the kids and help them make better choices. It’s yet another to raise them full of angst and paranoia about unseen, unknown evils.

I’m afraid I have not used wisdom or good judgment, though in my defense I had good intentions. (And lest we forget: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.)

Clearly some kind of change is in order. There is a balance to be struck here. Somewhere, somehow, someone is doing it well. But for me, it’s all somewhat hazy.

You First, Me Second

Back when I lived in New York City and couldn’t figure out what to do with myself, I would sometimes go to the Barnes and Noble on Sixth Avenue and West 8th Street in the Village and read books I would never ever buy.

My favorite among these books was a tome which listed every single day of the year, along with characteristics of persons born on that day. Even as I snorted my contempt about the idea that someone’s date of birth could actually cast some legitimate light on their personality and habits, I would be astounded by how eerily accurate the book’s descriptions were. And each and every time I came back with the birthday of someone new, hoping to disprove the book’s accuracy, I was thwarted.

Along those same lines, I’ve been thinking about birth order lately. I have a girl who’s now six and a boy who is four. I myself was the younger of two siblings. As I watch my kids and the way they are and have been since pretty much they were born, I have to admit that there may be something to this birth order stuff.

A quick literature review tells me that birth order theories are quite controversial. But, those who subscribe to them assert that the oldest child is the most likely to be a high academic achiever and to have a slightly higher IQ, and that older children are far more likely to be demanding and perfectionists, and also depressed and anxious. It is also a known fact that the vast majority of CEOs from Fortune 500 companies happen to be first-borns.

Younger children, on the other hand, are said to be happier and more laid-back. They also can be more sensitive and have a harder time delaying gratification. It is said that they tend to be more idealistic and bigger risk-takers.

These generalities all appear to be true of the dynamics with and between my two kids, as well as my brother and me. But what does that mean for us all? How much of these outcomes is nature versus nurture?

I’m not sure. I’m still considering whether to give it some or any weight in my parenting.

My hunch, though, is that even when there are strong correlations between birth order theories and your children’s personalities and propensities, they should be given little weight in the bigger picture. Theories should remain just that—theories that may or may not apply today, this week, next month or ever. At the end of the day, each of our children is an individual, shaped, guided and taught by a million different experiences he or she has had since birth.

I guess I have a tough time believing in what my mind interprets–perhaps unfairly–as “hocus pocus,” even when I see it with my own eyes or confirm it with my own experiences. In general, the idea of pre-destiny irks me, makes me feel as if I’m somehow unable to change something fate is catapulting me towards. And I just don’t like that.


How exactly did women used to take care of three, four or more children, clean the house, wash the clothes and make several meals a day? I can tell you that I’ve been in the house with only my two children for less than a week now and by the time my husband gets home around 7 pm, I am on the verge of hysterics, the house looks like a disaster area and as far as I’m concerned, it’s each man for himself for dinner.

I had all these visions of lazy, sunny days spent building castles from recycled milk bottles and toilet paper rolls, and the three of us frolicking on green lawns in the park or trekking on adventures through the neighborhood. So far we haven’t made it past our driveway and the kids are lucky to get out of their pajamas by noon. I only signed them up for one week of camp all summer and now I fear that I may have made a strategic error.

I don’t understand. What am I doing wrong? I mean, I never expected to be Betty Crocker or Martha Stewart but surely I can do better than this. I have several post-graduate degrees, for goodness sakes. I can figure this out, right?

How’s everyone else’s summer so far? Chillin’? Or are you ready to throw in the towel?

Letter from an American Patriot

My favorite word these days seems to be “nuance” and my favorite people are those who point it out to me or help me see more of it. Because it appears to me that nuance has become an undervalued commodity in an age where we deplore British Petroleum but drive SUVs and leave lights on galore; hate the paparazzi and tabloids but inhale the latest about those crazy celebs and their nutty lives; and shake our heads at those zealous Middle Easterners and their constant blood feuds without retracing history to understand why.

We want to live in a black and white world of good versus evil, right versus wrong, and saved versus damned. But the absence of nuance has gotten us all into quite a pickle. Reality is almost never cut and dried, it doesn’t come in 30-second sound bites, and the way out of the mess we seem to be in is neither easily understood or executed.

The problem is that people are too used to it the other way. You can go from hardship to ease relatively easily, but don’t you dare talk to anyone about tightening the belt or giving up the comforts and amenities we are all used to. Because most of us feel entitled to them. And will kick and scream our way into the abyss to protect our “rights.”

The Fourth of July is almost upon us Americans and I will count myself among most of you because I am, after all, a naturalized American citizen and have now lived here for most of my life. And in celebration of the birth of our country, I would like to submit that to think of the collective rather than the individual is not un-American. And to consider the best for all rather than a few is not unpatriotic. In fact, I think selfishness is un-American. Greed is unpatriotic. And to continue to perpetuate disunity and divisiveness is a crime against national security.

How’s that for nuance?

Happy birth of our country.


I was at a literary festival this past week and had the opportunity to meet Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help, and hear her speak about her blockbuster book about three Southern women–a young, white, recent college graduate and two African-American housekeepers–set in 1960s Mississippi.

It’s difficult not to like Stockett. She is nice, cute, perky and well-polished, and had the mostly well-to-do audience in Aspen wrapped around her little finger for most of her humorous lecture, which she delivered with a two-beats-per-vowel Southern drawl.

She told stories about having lived in New York for over a decade, about how hard she worked at a New York magazine, how she lived downtown after 9/11, how she was sometimes condescended to for being a Southerner.

She did a reading from her book—the part of one of the black maids—because Octavia, her friend who travels with her during her book tour to read the part of the African-American housekeepers, is off filming the movie being made based on the book. She did a pretty good job. Her book has been a New York Times bestseller for over a year and I assume she has the spiel down pat.

Many of the writers at the festival had read her book already and most endorsed it enthusiastically. I picked it up and read a few lines, written in the voice of one of the black maids, but then closed it quickly and put it back down.

Will I be reading the book? I don’t know. I don’t think so. It makes me uncomfortable. I wasn’t born in the States and wasn’t around for any of the racial trauma of the 1960s and 1970s, but I do know my American history—both the past and the present—and I must say that the idea of a young white Southern woman giving voice to Black women in the particular way that Stockett did leaves me supremely wary. I admit that it could be my own hang-up. And as a writer, I don’t believe in censorship unless what’s at issue is something extreme, like hate speech inciting violence.

My discomfort has sat with me for days now, since I saw her. Most of the reviews I’ve read claim that she has handled the nuances of the characters well, some going so far as to say that her representation of both the white and black characters are “pitch perfect.”

I will leave you with something interesting that I myself didn’t notice but that was pointed out to me by another one of the attendees–a brilliant young writer. Toward the end of her talk, Stockett held up the picture which will be used for the cover of the British version of The Help. It’s a picture she said was found at the Library of Congress of two black women caring for a white child in an old-style stroller. The photograph was said to have been taken in Mississippi in the 1960s. Stockett told the story of how she saw the photo and then called someone in her town to find out who the people in the photo were. Why, that’s just so and so, the person told her, describing exactly who the baby was. Well, my friend wondered, what about the black women? Who were they? And why were they invisible and only relevant in reference to the white baby? It was odd and off-putting to my friend–and to me, once it was pointed out.

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about the book. Anyone care to throw in their two cents?

Back In the Game

My baby turned six yesterday. And though it was a day like any other, this particular birthday felt significant. When my daughter was born six years ago, I stopped working. I had always felt that the first five years in a child’s life are significant and wanted to be around for them, though it felt like such a luxury for us to try to live on one income alone.


And though I admitted it to no one, it was good timing in other ways. I had been working in a career I disliked for so long without really knowing how to shift direction into another industry I longed to be a part of. The baby provided a perfect excuse for me to step off that first roller coaster and reassess, though I assured myself and my husband that I would stay home for only one year only before I would start looking for another job.


A year and half later, my second baby was born and that stretched out my hiatus for another year and a half. And then we moved and then life happened in all its messy, dramatic glory. Six years later and my baby girl is preparing to enter first grade in a few months and my boy will turn five several months later. And I’m back at that same place I was six years ago, albeit with a few more gray hairs, and three or four more suitcases’ worth of life baggage.


I’m getting ready to step back into the race, though this time I have more clarity about what I want and maybe even more audacity. I’m intent on trying to connect to my purpose, to be of some sort of service to humanity, and to do what makes me happy. And though I’m doing it all for myself, a part of me knows how important it is for my children to have a mother who is fulfilled, productive and happy.


And if I fail … well, maybe it is equally important for my kids to see how important it is to reach for the stars, even if you can’t always touch them.

No Boy Is an Island

I tend to follow Benee’s and the other Cocoamamas’ pieces about raising boys closely, without really daring to interject. The fact is that my own relationship with my mother—with all its glorious and inglorious extremes—has driven me to form some very firm opinions about how to raise my own daughter, but I’ve given far less conscious thought to raising my boy. I know I want him to be respectful of women (and everyone really, but especially women) and kind and service-minded but beyond that, the canvas has largely been blank.

My boy is challenging in a different way than my girl. He’s loud and impulsive, can’t sit still and concentrate for long periods of time, tests boundaries constantly and can be found bouncing off walls quite often. I’ve generally shrugged at his behavior and observed: “It’s all that boy energy!”

An incident last week started an avalanche of questions and thoughts in my head, prompting me to rethink my strategy. We have observed for a while that while my girl (who is 5) can accept a no as a no, my boy (who is 4) thinks no is his cue to start a maddening crying and whining campaign to get whatever it is he wants. My husband and I have had a long-standing rule about whining: We don’t negotiate with whiners. And so when he begins whining, I walk away: no explanations, no sympathy, no begging and cajoling.

I thought our rule worked well until the other day when my four-year-old turned to me and said: “Mama, how come when Mina (his sister) cries, you be nice to Mina and when I cry, you get mad and be mean to me?” And two beats later, his sister chimed in: “Yeah, mama, I’ve noticed that too!”

Ladies (and gentlemen): This question stopped me cold in my tracks. My boy, my beloved boy, was hurt because he felt that he was being mistreated. That he was being treated unfairly. And, at 4, he is not necessarily connecting the dots of varied causation: that he gets no sympathy because he cries mostly when he’s whining whereas she gets sympathy because she cries mostly when she has hurt herself. All he knows is that when he cries, we get stern, and when his sister cries, she gets sympathy.

And we are not connecting those dots for him. We’re just expecting him to get it, to intuit the difference in treatment, and to be a boy and get over it. There is a lot of emotional nuance, most of which is not being explained in the way it needs to be.

I went in search of more information and found this blurb in Dan Kindlon’s Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, which really resonated with me:

There is plenty of reason to be concerned: a confused young boy grows into an angry, emotionally isolated teenager, and, predictably, into a lonely, middle-aged man at risk for depression … Boys need an emotional vocabulary that expands their ability to express themselves in ways other than anger or aggression. They need to experience empathy at home and at school and be encouraged to use it if they are to develop conscience.

All this is not to say that my boy is now going to be coddled and get his way when he whines. But I intend to be more expressive about why I’m not sympathetic to the whining, about how much he is loved, how sad I am when he is hurt, how much compassion I feel for him when he is frustrated or angry. He may still be one hyper bundle of pure boy energy, but surely he is just as deserving as his sister of the emotional exchanges that come with the childhood hurts and tantrums.

When did we sign this silent pact that our boys are to be islands, cut off from the same emotions and connections we provide so freely to our girls? I don’t know how and where it all got started but I, for one, am out.