Parents of all stripes struggle to keep their kids in school, off drugs, and on track for adult life and careers. In Texas Monthly, writer John Nova Lomax narrates the struggle he and his wife went through with their son, who liked trashing cars and quitting jobs more than attending university. After the young man finds direction and identity in the Army, the lingering question becomes: at what personal cost?
We’d all entered into a toxic scenario called hostile dependency. He needed us for everything, we hated ourselves whether we indulged him or didn’t, and he despised himself for having to ask. We fought for weeks: John Henry and me, John Henry and his mom, John Henry and Kelly—all of us angry and terrified and just plain sad. No, I couldn’t co-sign a year’s lease on an apartment for him. No, I wouldn’t sign up for four years of tuition and living expenses for classes he might periodically show interest in attending. No, I couldn’t buy him another car, and he wouldn’t ride the bus or settle for a bike.
Often our arguments would end with John Henry pointing out how much better I’d had it when I was his age. And it’s true, I had. Thanks to a small inheritance, the many, many errors of my misspent youth—dropping out of two colleges, burning through cars and jobs on a pace equal to his—were softened. I had a safety net and he did not, and I felt terribly guilty about it. But nevertheless, I could not give him what I did not have. At the end of all these arguments, he’d shuffle back to his little backyard house behind ours, his shoulders slumped, his head hung low, feeling that much more hopeless about his lot in life. As for me, I’d feel like a failure because I couldn’t provide what many of his friends with wealthier parents could: that newish SUV, the four (or five, or six) years of worry-free college and study-abroad programs, followed by an internship at a cool company with prospects. In short, a plan. I could not give my son a plan, other than the military, England, or else.
During my son’s first two months on earth, I read 25 books about taking care of babies and children. I read them on my phone while breastfeeding and on the subway in stolen moments of solitude while my baby napped in his carrier, his fuzzy head an inch from the pages. Brain-damaged by love and exhaustion, I could not make sense of any other kind of book. For someone who has been partway through at least one novel since learning how to read, this was akin to a psychotic break. But when I opened any novel in those early weeks, the words swam on the page. I would stare till they came into focus, force down a few pages and then give up. Where was the baby in this story? Were the people in the story parents? They couldn’t matter to me otherwise.
The only thing worse was when the people in the story were parents, and there was a baby, but it was in some kind of danger. When my son was about 8 weeks old I picked up a novel which has both a stillbirth and the rape of a 6-year-old in its first 30 pages. Half an hour later my husband found me clutching the baby to my chest, silent tears streaming down my cheeks. I’m sure it’s a great book but I’ll never know. I threw it in the garbage can and heaped trash on top so I wouldn’t be tempted to go back in for it, as though it was some kind of enticing yet poisonous cake.
But my appetite for parenting books was infinite; they were the one thing I wanted besides sleep and icy beverages. My addiction, like most addictions, fed on itself. Because the information in each book was both redundant in some of its particulars and wildly contradictory in others, each dose of information required an antidote in the form of the next book.
All of these types of books appealed to me; if it had “baby” or “sleep” in the title, I was in.
The question ofhow to get your child to sleep provided the starkest, most dramatic dichotomy. There were two schools of thought: Either you could let your child cry himself to sleep, or you could comfort him, for hours if necessary, until he finally dozed off. Each camp promised a happy, healthy baby and family if you followed their advice, and ruin—of your health and your marriage on the one hand, and of your baby’s nascent trust in the world on the other—if you didn’t. Are you thinking, as I naively did, “Oh, I’ll just split the difference between these two obviously crazy extremes?” According to these books, avoiding a decision is the only thing worse than choosing the wrong path; intermittent reinforcement will confuse and madden your baby, likely making him even more demanding and teaching him that the world, and you, are not to be trusted.
Leslie Jamison is stepmother to Lily, age six. Lily’s mother died of cancer just before she turned three, and in this essay from the New York Times Magazine, Jamison explores fairy tale stepmothers both as the rare “port in the storm” and the much more common “stock villain” stereotyped by cruelty and abuse, as she navigates the fraught role of stand-in parent.
The evil stepmother casts a long, primal shadow, and three years ago I moved in with that shadow, to a one-bedroom rent-controlled apartment near Gramercy Park. I sought the old stories in order to find company—out of sympathy for the stepmothers they vilified—and to resist their narratives, to inoculate myself against the darkness they held.
My relationship with Lily, too, was not like the story we inherited from fairy tales — a tale of cruelty and rebellion—or even like the story of divorce-era popular media: the child spurning her stepmother, rejecting her in favor of the true mother, the mother of bloodline and womb. Our story was a thousand conversations on the 6 train or at the playground in Madison Square Park. Our story was painting Lily’s nails and trying not to smudge her tiny pinkie. Our story was telling her to take deep breaths during tantrums, because I needed to take deep breaths myself. Our story began one night when I felt her small, hot hand reach for mine during her favorite movie, when the Abominable Snowman swirled into view on an icy mountain and almost overwhelmed the humble reindeer.
For me, the stakes of thinking about what it means to be a stepmother don’t live in statistical relevance—slightly more than 10 percent of American women might relate!—but in the way stepparenting asks us to question our assumptions about the nature of love and the boundaries of family. Family is so much more than biology, and love is so much more than instinct. Love is effort and desire—not a sentimental story line about easy or immediate attachment, but the complicated bliss of joined lives: ham-and-guacamole sandwiches, growing pains at midnight, car seats covered in vomit. It’s the days of showing up. The trunks we inherit and the stories we step into, they make their way into us—by womb or shell or presence, by sheer force of will. But what hatches from the egg is hardly ever what we expect: the child that emerges, or the parent that is born. That mother is not a saint. She’s not a witch. She’s just an ordinary woman. She found a sled one day, after she was told there weren’t any left. That was how it began.
In Rivka Galchen’s wonderful New Yorker profile of Willems, we learn that Knuffle Bunny’s real-life main character Trixie (Willems’s daughter) is now 15, that Willems couldn’t write another Pigeon book (“He’s a monster!”) and that he’s particularly focused on kids learning to embrace the “f” word:
Willems’s books reveal a preoccupation with failure, even an alliance with it. In “Elephants Cannot Dance!,” they can’t; in “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!,” Pigeon, despite all his pleading and cajoling, never does. Willems told me, “At ‘Sesame Street,’ they would give us these workshops about the importance of failure, but then in our skits all the characters had to be great at what they did, everything had to work out. That drove me crazy.” One of his most memorable sketches on “Sesame Street” was about a Muppet, Rosita, who wants to play the guitar; she isn’t very good, even by the end of the episode. Many artists talk about the importance of failure, but Willems seems particularly able to hold on to the conviction of it. He is a distinctly kind, mature, and thoughtful person to spend time with, and there was only one anecdote that he told me twice. It was about a feeling he had recently while walking his dog, a kind of warm humming feeling starting in his abdomen, which, he said, he had never had before. Was it happiness? I asked. He said no. He’d felt happiness before. This was something different. He said he thought that, for the first time ever, he was feeling success.
The feeling would appear to be transient. When I asked him if it felt strange to no longer be writing Elephant and Piggie books—I was still working on a way to break the news to my daughter, who had been using the Other Titles endpaper as a field of dreams—he said, “Well, at least now I have my obituary.” Shortly afterward, he said, unprompted, “I think ‘What are you working on next?’ is the worst question. It’s such a bad question. I hate that question. Everyone asks that question. I want to say, ‘Isn’t this good enough for you?’ ”
If you read enough #longreads about parenting in The Atlantic, New York Times Magazine, and Slate, then eventually you will discover you are an awful parent. But there is nothing so satisfying for us awful parents as reading stories about parents who are more insufferable than we are. So it is with great pride I share this piece by Melanie Thernstrom, who profiles a “free-range” parent who lets his children play on the roof of their house and then rubs it in the face of his neighbors – thereby forcing the other parents to become imagination-quashing killjoys, AKA people who try to keep their kids from potentially breaking their necks. (But hey, my neighbor says the odds are low, and life-endangering activities are mother nature’s way of thinning the herd! I guess it’s fine!) Read more…
Marlo Mack’s podcast How To Be a Girl is a sensitive and honest exploration of the joys, fears, and struggles of raising of a transgender child. Earlier this year, Marlo and her seven-year-old daughter M (both pseudonyms) met transgender actress Laverne Cox (“Orange Is the New Black”). The story and photos of that meeting had a brief flare of online virality. In a recent episode of the podcast, Marlo (who also blogs at gendermom) talked about what happened after that meeting, as M began to understand that the world can be a difficult, even dangerous, place for transgender people like her. Below is a transcribed excerpt of that podcast.Read more…
Writer Katherine Reynolds Lewis, in Mother Jones, examines the latest approaches to addressing children and discipline—most notably, that timeouts, negative consequences, and other traditional punishments might not be as effective in many cases as helping kids manage their own emotions. It’s based on “Collaborative and Proactive Solutions,” a program that was developed by psychologist Ross Greene (author of The Explosive Child):
In 2004, a psychologist from Long Creek Youth Development Center, a correctional center in South Portland, Maine, attended one of Greene’s workshops in Portland and got his bosses to let him try CPS. Rodney Bouffard, then superintendent at the facility, remembers that some guards resisted at first, complaining about “that G-D-hugs-and-kisses approach.” It wasn’t hard to see why: Instead of restraining and isolating a kid who, say, flipped over a desk, staffers were now expected to talk with him about his frustrations. The staff began to ignore curses dropped in a classroom and would speak to the kid later, in private, so as not to challenge him in front of his peers.
But remarkably, the relationships changed. Kids began to see the staff as their allies, and the staff no longer felt like their adversaries. The violent outbursts waned. There were fewer disciplinary write-ups and fewer injuries to kids or staff. And once they got out, the kids were far better at not getting locked up again: Long Creek’s one-year recidivism rate plummeted from 75 percent in 1999 to 33 percent in 2012. “The senior staff that resisted us the most,” Bouffard told me, “would come back to me and say, ‘I wish we had done this sooner. I don’t have the bruises, my muscles aren’t strained from wrestling, and I really feel I accomplished something.’”
One time, when I was in my early twenties, I shared a hospital room with a mother of many. I had a skin infection that wouldn’t respond to oral medication, and the 50-something-year-old woman had severe, inexplicable hives. Our main topic of conversation revolved around neither of our ailments. It was about my not wanting to have children. She was insistent, which seemed ironic considering her hives flared up whenever her family visited her on Sundays. I eventually compromised with the woman. Okay, I said, I will put off my decision until I reach my thirties. “You are starry-eyed,” she huffed. “You young women want it all. But you can’t have it all!” Maybe, I thought, some of us don’t want it all. Read more…
In Bloomberg Businessweek, Claire Suddath reports that there are only two countries in the world that don’t have some type of legally protected, partially paid leave for working women who just had a baby: Papua New Guinea and the U.S. The result is another big gap between the haves and have-nots:
The policies vary widely across industries and pay grades. A BLS survey of “business, management, and finance” workers—basically, those in white-collar jobs—found that 26 percent of them get paid leave. At many Silicon Valley companies, which compete for talent, new parents have it made. Facebook offers a little more than four months to everyone. Google offers five for mothers and three for fathers or new adoptive parents. The company developed its policy a few years ago when it noticed that many new mothers were quitting their jobs. After it added two more months and offering full pay, the number of new mothers who left the company dropped by half.
Some older companies also have generous policies. Goldman Sachs offers four paid months, and General Electric offers two months to moms and two weeks to dads or other parents. Waitresses and sales clerks are often out of luck; only 6 percent of service workers get anything at all. That means the ability to adjust to parenthood, learn to breast-feed, and manage a newborn becomes a luxury only certain people can afford. “We have these policies set up from the Mad Men era when dads worked and moms stayed at home. But that doesn’t reflect the American workforce anymore,” says Gillibrand, who as partner at the Manhattan law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner wrote the firm’s maternity leave policy in 2002.