Alexa, What Does It Take to Be Human?

Could a tiny smart computer fill in all my gaps in parenting? The better question is, should it?

Mattel pulled a much-anticipated and hotly-debated toy recently.
Aristotle, a device geared for children anywhere from infancy to adolescence, was set up to be the kid’s version of Alexa. It boasted features such as the ability to soothe a crying baby, teach ABCs, reinforce good manners, play interactive games, and help kids with homework. Marketed as an “all-in-one nursery necessity” on Mattel’s website, it also offered e-commerce functionality that would enable Aristotle to automatically reorder baby products based on user feedback.
This little gadget would be the next big thing, engineered to “comfort, entertain, teach, and assist during each development state – evolving with a child as their needs change.”
You see where this is heading.
How much do we let artificial intelligence narrate our children’s lives? How can we put something like this in charge of soothing our kids to sleep, teaching the alphabet, and eventually helping with homework?
Could a tiny smart computer fill in all my gaps in parenting? The better question is, should it? I know what being saddled with my phone and Wi-Fi all hours of the waking day does to my psyche. What could it possibly do to a toddler or an 11-year-old?
The director of the M.I.T. Initiative on Technology and Self, Sherry Turke, said something in her approval of Mattel’s decision to nix Aristotle that made me pause: “The ground rules of human beinghood are laid down very early” and these machines have “changed the ground rules of how people think about personhood.”
Is this true? By creating Siri and Alexa and all manner of innumerable smart devices, have we changed what it means to be human?
Do you remember the little origami fortune tellers you could make out of a paper? You’d ask it a question – say, “who will I marry?” or “will I have a pool when I grow up?” – and then you’d pick a number, count it out, and open the flap to reveal your future.
I never got the pool. But I also never forgot that it was just a game. I didn’t really think I would marry David or Nick. But maybe if I carried it around all the time and asked it every question from age eight and onward, I would forget it was not, in fact, in charge of my fate.
Turke went on to say that “we can’t put children in this position of pretend empathy and then expect that children will know what empathy is. Or give them pretend as-if relationships, and then think that we’ll have children who know what relationships are.”
Have the things that used to define us as highly evolved creatures – our rationality and morality and curiosity – changed so much? Do we still care to defend right and wrong and ask why of the universe or are we content to ask Siri? Do we, the grown-ups, still know what empathy is? When I watch the news, I wonder.
Do we know what it means to develop and nurture and uphold sustainable relationships? I hope so.
Aristotle was a free-thinking scientist and philosopher. He was a man who believed in things acting according to their function. I do not believe he would have entrusted the development of our children’s minds to a computer. I’m not even sure where he’d put artificial intelligence in the hierarchical system. Is it animal, vegetable, mineral, or none of the above?
The ground rules of “beinghood” are constantly evolving, but the core of what makes us human stands. We still care enough to write great literature, fight injustice, love and lose and love again, and cancel a toy before it begins to raise our children. We still hold a tiny bit of prescience over the rightness and wrongness of where our curiosity is leading us.
As long as we are able to look up from our toys and ask of each other and the world, “What does it all mean?”, our humanity remains intact. Technology is a marvel and a necessary in the modern world, but it cannot define us. This is a new game we are playing, and we must play it wisely.

What It's Like Parenting With Hearing Aids

The worry didn’t stem from passing my hearing loss along, it stemmed from the idea that I wouldn’t hear my kid.

“Mommy!” called my son from his car seat as we drove. He wanted something, but I couldn’t hear him.

I turned the music off, rolled up the windows, and repeated “What’s that?” for the third time.

“Unintelligible something or another,” he called again out to me.

Finally, after a bit more of this incoherent exchange that caused us both frustration, I yelled back, “Mommy can’t hear you!”

Just like that, I was brought face-to-face with one of my greatest fears and disappointment: I can’t hear my kid.

I’ve worn hearing aids since I was about eight years old. My hearing loss isn’t anything biological, rather I suffered from nerve damage with no known cause. I wear these tiny machines in my ears because, otherwise, everyone around me sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher. I’ve always been pretty good about the fact that I have to wear hearing aids because with them, I get to hear.

However, this disability concerned me when we started talking about having kids. Granted, the concern was minimal, but it was there, lurking like the annoying reality that it was. The worry didn’t stem from passing my hearing loss along, it stemmed from the idea that I wouldn’t hear my kid.

I tried to stay as positive as I could with the support from my family but, after my son was born, the fear and anxiety completely took over. I needed to hear every cry, every scream, every holler. Every. Single. Noise. I couldn’t miss anything. If my husband could hear it, I wanted to hear it too.

My husband pleaded with me to just trust him and leave my hearing aids out so that I could sleep, but I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it. It didn’t matter that my son was sleeping in a basinet right beside my bed, there was nothing anyone could say or do that would make me change my mind. I just could not trust anyone but myself, even though I couldn’t trust my ears. (Make no mistake, my husband’s hearing, to me, is impeccable. I believe he’s got super-sonic hearing, but then again, I believe most people have this amazing superpower. They just call it hearing.)

When we moved our son to his crib in his room down the hall, he transitioned like a superstar. I, however, did not. I became more intense. I continued sleeping with one hearing aid in at a time and introduced the video and sound monitor to the madness that was already brewing. It was bright and it was loud and it made sleep harder for both of us. It made a high frequency noise that I am deaf to but that my husband can hear.

Finally, after six months of being neurotic, I gave up control out of sheer exhaustion combined with the realization that I needed to trust my husband and let him hear for me. I know that my husband wants the best for our son and believes in his ability to hear the child if he cries.

Our son is now three and is becoming more and more curious about my hearing aids. We talk about them. I ask him to not touch or splash my special machinery. I explain to him that it’s actually quite painful when he shoves these electronics into my ears. We explain how Mommy can’t hear and that these are magical little devices help me hear what he hears.

Now that we’ve switched to the conversation-style-dialogue stage with our three-year-old, the stakes are higher and the challenges are greater. Not being able to hear him when he has something to say causes an uncomfortable mix of emotions. It’s frustrating and that makes me angry, which then takes the shape of sadness and finally morphs into fear.

Fear. I’m afraid to miss something important.

No matter. This is my life; this is our life. I make the best of my situation and do my best to keep the dialogue open with my son about my hearing or lack thereof. I lip read, and I’m teaching the boy to look at me when he speaks to me. The added bonus to him facing me is that I get to have a child yell in my face while spit goes flying every time he has something exciting to tell me.

Having a hearing impairment does not impair my ability to parent or to listen. It doesn’t impair my ability to be the mother I need to be for my child. Yes, there are setbacks and there are times the frustration can erupt like a volcano, but that’s all stuff we can handle.

No, I can’t hear everything my son tells me, but I will never stop trying. I’m determined to be the mom my son needs, with or without a disability.

Illness and Family Dynamics: What Happens When We Get Sick?

It’s what we do as a society when we or our children get sick that highlights a lack of flexibility in our lives.

It’s inevitable that, at some point while raising children, you will be used as a tissue substitute, thrown up on, or pooped on. But it’s what we do as a society when we or our children get sick that highlights a lack of flexibility in our lives.

Lack of sleep never stopped anyone

Everyone has a sick kid tale to tell. My mother tells me about staying up all night with my ill brother when he was a baby. She talks about standing in the shower with him as he coughed, the endless checking of his temperature and the worry for my sister sleeping in the next bedroom.
My mother didn’t sleep that night. By the time the sun had risen, her temperature was rising, too, and she felt that familiar thumping in her head that precedes influenza. That same morning, she drove to the next camp where my father was working, not so he could take over – he was busy building a road and couldn’t take time off – but because it was the agreed upon plan, and illness doesn’t stop motherhood.

What are the options?

Whilst I never drove cross-country with a fever, a sick baby, and an excitable child, I certainly know what it feels like to wake up ill and have that sinking feeling that it can’t make any difference to my day. I’ve begged my husband to stay home, citing a thumping head and a stomach-ache that turned out that night to be appendicitis.
He went to work. He had to, and I understand that. People rely on him, and his work requires a significant amount of notice to enable him to take a day off. This is not about who should or shouldn’t take a day off, or who deserves to be cared for when they’re ill, or exactly how ill you need to be to justify staying or leaving. This is an examination of what we all do, what I’ve done myself, and how I wish we could do better.
Because it feels awful to watch your loved one leave and know that you have to get through at least nine hours without throwing up on your child. It feels awful when you’re the solo parent and you can’t even count down nine hours until you see another adult and have some help.
It feels awful to leave your loved one behind, knowing they’re going to have a terrible day, but that money or your boss’s goodwill just can’t stretch for a day off. It feels awful when your kid says they’ve got a sore throat on the day you’ve got back to back meetings. Dosing them with medicine and sending them anyway becomes a viable choice.
These are all options people routinely choose. Yet, none of them are ideal.

There is no illness!

Many parents have made the choice to ignore their symptoms and just get on with it. In two parent families where one parent is at home, most of the time the other parent will still go to work. Currently, there are no legal requirements for paid sick leave in the U.S. Families are entitled to unpaid sick leave instead. This forces people to choose between leaving their child with an ill care-giver, relying on a support network (which may or may not be available), or losing a day’s wage.
We would never let our children stay with a caregiver who could barely walk, so why do we consider it acceptable to care for our children ourselves when we’re so sick? We do it for two reasons: lack of flexibility in the workplace, and cultural expectations. Our culture is entrenched in the idea that sickness is weakness. We power through. Advertising for medication isn’t about getting better; it’s about masking symptoms and getting on with your day. Stay-at-home parents put a movie on and hope for the best, because really, what other options are there?

I’m not sick, it’s just pneumonia

This ‘powering through’ isn’t limited to stay-at-home-parents. When working parents get sick, they go to work. Time off for illness is rarely available. Given the nature of sickness, it’s not as if you can book a sick day a fortnight in advance for a head-cold. Illness takes us by surprise and often leaves us with the choice of going to work or missing a day’s pay.
Unsurprisingly, research shows that people in low-paying jobs are the most likely to go to work even when they’re sick. This is likely because the consequences of missing that day of work are monetarily more severe than for workers in high-paying jobs. However, 45 percent of people in high-paying jobs still go to work when they’re ill, but they more frequently cite reasons such as letting down co-workers.
The culture of the workplace has a big impact on whether workers come in if they’re sick or not. Companies who have procedures and policies in place involving back-up staff and the flexibility to work from home are less likely to have sick staff in the workplace. Interestingly, companies who have better policies also have workers who take less time off overall.
Families who have found workplaces with flexibility surrounding illness want to keep their jobs, so they work harder even when they’re working from home with sick kids watching a movie. Flexibility is they key to providing families with viable options.

They’re not sick, it’s just…pneumonia

When kids get sick, guess what happens? They still go to school or childcare or wherever they usually go. Four out of 10 working parents say they might send their sick child to school. Six out of 10 do this because they fear they’ll lose their jobs if they take time off to care for their child. Clearly, workplaces hold some of the power here.
Families with children will get sick more frequently throughout the year. A study found that, in childless households, viruses were present four to five weeks in a year, whereas households with children had viruses present up to 45 weeks in a year – that’s 87 percent of the time. We all know that once one person in a family goes down, it’s inevitable that everyone will.
Perhaps the best thing to do is to have a solid plan.

Make a plan, and make it good

Talk to your spouse about what you’ll do when you or the kids get sick. Find out how you both feel about illness and responsibility. Figure out who will do what so you’re not left simmering with both fever and resentment as your partner drives away to work.
Also, find a really good takeaway place, stock up the freezer, or sweet talk Grandma into watching “Moana” on repeat with a sneezing toddler. Try and strengthen your immune system in preparation for flu season. Build up your support network. Even if your friends or family can’t watch your sick children, maybe they could leave a lasagne by the door?
Perhaps most importantly, talk to your workplace about flexibility. We all deserve to know that we’re worth receiving care when we’re sick, whether that’s from a partner, a parent, or an employer.
Planning for sickness will pay off. The way we do things now? It’s a bit sickening.

That Time My Preschooler Clapped Back at a Nosey Stranger

Humans are curious creatures and, by and large, I’m an open book. But sometimes the inquiries can go too far. Cue the loud-mouth toddler.

When my second baby was born, he had a pronounced flat spot on the side of his head. He was a chunker at birth, nine pounds 13 ounces at 38 weeks. The doctor shrugged when she pointed out the flat spot, “He was probably pretty squished up in there,” she said. “It’ll more than likely round out in a few weeks, just be sure not to lay him down too much.” 

We took our flat-headed sweetie home and, despite his literally never being out of our arms or the carrier except to sleep at night, his flat spot stayed flat.

Around the same time as my baby’s birth, my three-year-old developed a fascination with other people. Seeing his baby brother come into this world sparked a knowledge that all people come from somewhere and so, he began to ask questions. He asked the barista who her mother was and the grocery clerk how old he was. He inquired about why people looked like they did and whether they had children at home. Balancing a desire not to snub out his burdening curiosity with lessons on what sort of questions are okay to ask often left me feeling unsure of how to respond and at least a little bit embarrassed.

At my baby’s 12 week check up, the same one where I turned red when my thee-year-old asked the nurse if she was a teenager, the pediatrician noted that his flat spot was still very flat. Due to the severity of the spot, the doctor recommended that my little one visit the nearby cranial banding office for a consultation. The cranial banding office was happy to give my boy a super-official scan that showed what we all could see – my kid’s head was, indeed, super flat. We gasped at the price tag, put it on credit, and got my cutie fitted with the cranial band that would round his skull into perfection.

While I’ve seen other parents describe their helmet experience as if it were somehow traumatic, the only traumatizing thing about our experience (beyond the hefty price-tag) was the stink the helmet would acquire if we forgot to clean it with rubbing alcohol a couple times per day. Overall, my baby didn’t seem to mind his new accessory and it didn’t impact any of his daily activities. We could see progress after just a week or two and were confident that our boy’s head would be round as a melon in no time.

Other people, though, weren’t so sure what was on my kid’s head or why he was wearing a helmet when kids in “their day” didn’t seem to need them. Humans are curious creatures and, by and large, I’m an open book. I’m used to answering questions on the reg (I have a very inquisitive three-year-old after all) and, for the most part, when I choose to assume positive intent, there’s not too many questions that can lead to offense. Just to give you a picture of how little offense I take to questions: due to a bad case of diastasis recti after the birth of my flat-headed baby, I’ve been asked when I’m due approximately 100,000 times from when he was a week old until now, and I’ve only cried once.

I didn’t get bothered when young kids asked what was on my boy’s head, I just explained the squished-up nature of his gestational period and the way his helmet would round him out. I didn’t get upset when inquiring minds asked how we’d afforded the helmet, I simply explained payment plans and how this was just the sort of rainy day our rainy-day fund was designed to cover. I barely even gritted my teeth when the mother of a teenager in the grocery store asked if I’d tried picking him up from time to time instead of leaving him in his car seat before going the route of the helmet.

All in all, the questions were a little bit grating but, generally, not too offensive. All except for one.

There we were: a sweet, tired little family sitting in Chick-fil-a with the rest of the 4:45 dinner crowd, when a woman started moving in our direction. As she b-lined for our table, I noticed that her brow was furrowed and her eyes switched continuously back-and-forth between me and my baby’s head. As she neared, I prepared myself for a prying comment or an insensitive question, promising myself that I’d aim to inform rather than become offended.

When she got to our booth, she skipped right over small talk.

“Did you drop him?” she demanded. I was stunned. For one, I hadn’t dropped him and, for two, can you imagine how bad I would have felt if I had?

“Excuse me?” I stammered, buying myself time to figure out how to respond.

“I said, did you drop your baby on his head?”

When I didn’t answer immediately, she continued, “Parents today are so careless, dropping their baby and then putting a cast on his head and taking him to Chick-fil-a like it’s nothing.”

To say I was stunned was an understatement. I simply could not figure out how to respond to this lady, who apparently thought it was okay to accost strangers, accuse them of hurting their kids, and then make sweeping generalizations about how their whole generation was terrible.

Well?!” she demanded, clearly wanting me to own up to my terrible, baby-dropping ways.

I was still gathering myself, trying to figure out how to both tell this lady to mind her own business and set a good example for my kids, when my three-year-old decided to speak up.

“Mommy,” he said loudly, “is that what a very very very old person looks like?”

For once, I wasn’t the least bit embarrassed by my boy’s questions.

"I Might Be Pregnant Again" and All The Emotions That Come After

This would be our fourth child together, and she wants me to be happy so that she can be happy. I want to be happy about this, too. I really do.

My wife tells me that she might be pregnant again, and I get that sinking feeling in my stomach like I’m back in my college theater program moments before I go on stage, or back when I rode roller coasters and didn’t care about the sudden ups and downs. Didn’t care about that steep, first drop. Back when I enjoyed the feeling of speeding out of control.

Problem is, I can’t decide if this news is good or bad. My wife looks into my eyes and I know I’m showing my hand. The more I remain silent, the more I reveal.

This would be our fourth child together, and she wants me to be happy so that she can be happy. I want to be happy about this, too. I really do.

We (she) had been talking about having more kids recently, ever since I turned 40. I said that I was nervous about childbirth at our age and she said I was being ridiculous and that we were both perfectly healthy and capable. I was not convinced.

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Twelve years ago, when my wife told me she was pregnant with our first child, I was watching a Yankees game. It was a good game. Close. Joe Torrey was managing.

“Are you sure?” I asked, eyes on the TV.

“Positive,” she said, holding up five pregnancy tests, fanning them out in one hand like playing cards. A full house.

Afterward, we’d hugged and laughed and talked about the timeline to delivery and wondered about when we would tell our parents and friends and who we would tell first and what the baby room would look like. We guessed at the sex of the baby and thought of names, and we sat and laughed and cried tears of joy and pondered the future. Our future. Our new, larger family. But not a lot larger.

Back to the present, and my wife and I sit on our bed. I’ve turned away from her. All three of our kids (ages four, nine, and 11) are asleep in the middle.

“Wow.” This tiny declaration is all I can manage. I know it’s not the response my wife is hoping for. I do not think to reach out and hug her.

“I don’t know for sure,” she says, her voice low. “I had some spotting and I’m late. I’m going to wait a few more days before I take a test.”

“Wow,” I repeat.

Comic Jim Gaffigan does a bit about the stigma associated with having a big family. He says that after three children, people stop congratulating you and start treating you like you’re Amish.“Four kids, huh?” he chides. “Well that’s one way to live your life! (pause) Can you make us one of those wood fireplaces?”

It’s a funny routine, but laughter is not one of the emotions rising inside me right now, sitting on the edge of our bed. Stupid bed, I think to myself. You’re the one who got us into this mess.

Is it a mess, though? Why do I feel this way?  What’s wrong with having a large family? What’s wrong with having four children? Am I pressing my luck? Doubling down?

I mean, we already have three healthy children. Why would we need another? Why would we want another?

Am I being . . . greedy?

“Say something,” my wife commands.

But I cannot speak. I’m at the crest of the first, giant hill again, seated in the front car, hands choking the safety bar. If anything comes out of my mouth, it will be a scream.

Later, after I’ve brushed my teeth and washed my face, I find a small  space on the edge of the bed and watch Gaffigan’s bit again on my laptop. “You wanna know what it’s like to have a fourth (child)? Imagine you are drowning . . .  and then someone hands you a baby.”

Without warning, I laugh. Softly at first. I watch the bit again and laugh harder.

Soon, I have tears streaming down my face and my belly hurts and I can hardly breathe. I don’t want to wake anyone (especially my wife, who has found a skinny spot on the opposite side of the bed), but the harder I try to contain myself, the more everything wants to rise to the surface.

After a few moments, I look down at my family, a tangled mass of legs, arms and hair. It certainly has been a wild ride, these last 12 years. A scary, unpredictable ride, full of twists and turns, loop de loops, and corkscrews.

Wild, sure, but exhilarating.

What I do then is I wipe the happy tears from my cheeks and rub my belly where it is sore from laughing. Then I carefully reach across the mountain of breathing bodies and find my wife’s hand. I squeeze it gently and she squeezes back. A squeeze of assurance.

There is room yet in this bed. Space still on this speeding train. Whatever happens next week, I know we can handle it. We will continue the ride, wind in our faces, hurtling onward into the unknown, and loving every single second of it.

Discovering Myself Once the Kids Head to School

With the impending approach of September comes the age-old existential dilemma: Who am I?

A new season is fast approaching, and I’m not certain that I’m prepared. Truth be told, I’ve known this day was coming. I’ve contemplated it for months, years even. I’ve dreamed about it. I’ve spent countless hours trying to wrap my head around the fact that my life is about to take a drastic, inevitable turn.
The narrow road I have traveled over the past eight years is suddenly widening and twisting, dotted with signs, dangerous curves ahead. Once the carefree days of summer are over (replete with endless cries of “I’m bored,” multiple interventions, and failed attempts to keep the pantry stocked with snacks), a new chapter begins.
This will be the first year that all three of my kids will be in school full-time. Perhaps this change is heightened by the fact that my youngest two are twins, so I am losing both of my babies at once. Perhaps I’m overestimating the impact this will actually have on my life. Perhaps I’ve created the proverbial mountain out of a molehill. Or, perhaps the feeling that this is a pivotal turning point in my life as a stay at home mom is, in fact, spot on.
Regardless, with the impending approach of September comes the age-old existential dilemma: Who am I?
 
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Over the past eight years, I have enjoyed the joy (and sometimes hair-pulling craziness) of watching my children grow, being a part of each milestone, of every achievement and failure. My world has silently shrunk down to being wholly centered around my children.
As the kids have gotten older and changed, so have I. Everyone tells you how quickly time passes when you have kids, but no one warns you that time is also passing for you. I am not the same person I was eight years and three kids ago. I am no longer the career obsessed, Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. office professional that I once was. I would like to believe that that I have been upgraded to someone softer, more nurturing, more patient, more understanding, and more tolerant.
But with that is also a sense that, somewhere along the way, I’ve lost a bit of me. When someone asked me what the best event of this past year was, it was difficult to think of something that was my accomplishment, rather than my kids’. My identity has become entwined with theirs.
Prior to having kids, I never imagined that I would be a stay at home mom. I expected that I would work and mother, balancing it all in perfect harmony. But the loss of my own mother and the birth of my daughter a year later changed my perspective. I opted out of my well-paying job, a decision supported by my husband, and one I have never regretted. But now the world is opening up, my small bubble ready to burst. I must face the reality that life is changing, whether I’m ready for it or not.
It’s difficult to deny this inevitability with the endlessly repeated question from friends, family, and acquaintances: “What are you going to do with all that free time?”
What indeed.
I give the same pat answers I gave when the twins went to part-time kindergarten (and which are all, in fact, true):
“I have dreamed of grocery shopping alone.”
“I’ll enjoy having the house clean for more than five minutes.”
“I will revel in drinking a cup of coffee, blissfully uninterrupted.”
“I’ll volunteer in my kids’ classrooms.”
But now it seems as though these answers are not enough. “Are you going back to work?” quickly follows.
Don’t presume that I haven’t spent hours exploring this very question myself. I miss a lot about working – financial independence, adult interaction, positive reinforcement, accessing now dormant parts of my brain.
There is also the guilt of not working. What will people think? When other parents ask at school drop off what I’m doing for the rest of the day, and I smile and shrug my shoulders, will I be judged? Considered lazy? Will I feel as though I have to justify my existence, my purpose in life? Will I find myself slipping into a depression with all this time alone?
If I do choose to return to work, will I be satisfied in my former career? Have I changed so much that that part of me has become irrelevant? I am also hit with the reality that the school day is three hours shorter than the work day and subsequent calculations of the cost of before and after school care, summer vacation, Christmas break, spring break, sick days, and all those days off in between.
I am approaching a curve in the road, unable to see what lies ahead. So I continue to hold on tight to these last fleeting days of summer, to my life as I know it. I feel an impending sense of loss, but also a tingle of excitement as I look to the future, to exploring the person I want to become – the new version of me – and to writing a new chapter, whatever it may be.
This piece was originally published on Mamalode.
If you’re contemplating the road back to work, our podcast “Where Was I…”  provides a roughly-sketched road map for anyone wishing to return to work after taking a career break to care for their young children. 

In Defense of the Wild Child

In a world where society will try to tell her every single day of her entire life who she should aspire to be, I am relieved to see her wildness.

Dear fellow nursery school moms, people in grocery stores, the teller at the bank, the receptionist at our doctor’s office, and relatives who would love to say something but wisely refrain from doing so, I see you there. I see your raised eyebrows and poorly hidden expressions of shock at my child’s behavior. I certainly feel your judgement. I can hear the questions rolling around in your brain that you’re dying to ask, but manage not to. I can also see you biting your tongue in a desperate attempt to stop yourself from telling me exactly where I am going wrong as a parent. I see you.

Guess what? I have three other children at home who behaved exactly the way you all expect children to behave. Children who always listened and never strayed from my side while we were out in public. Children who smiled politely when spoken to and who always remembered their manners. Children who would have made you very comfortable and confident in your opinions of my ability to raise them. Then I was blessed with a fourth, a little firecracker of a child who not only marches to the beat of her own drum, but who would happily smash that drum into a million pieces to avoid falling in line with the rest of the group.

Trust me, I’m regularly just as shocked and surprised by her behavior as you are. Remember, I have three more at home, and I am baffled on a daily basis as to how my fourth could be so different. I didn’t eat differently while I was expecting her. I took my vitamins. She isn’t being raised in a different home or under different circumstances, so if she surprises you, you can imagine how often she surprises me.

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Before, I fought her personality. Oh, how I fought it. I was determined that somewhere in that little body there must be a complacent and easy-going child, just like her older siblings. Surely it was just a phase. Maybe a bad day or a challenging week. There must be some explanation. 

Then finally one day, while watching her as she refused to listen to something I asked her to do, I took a step back and a deep breath. Instead of getting angry and defensive at her refusal to blindly follow my rules, I looked in her eyes. I really looked. She wasn’t intentionally misbehaving. It wasn’t her mission in life to do the exact opposite of what I asked, although it had certainly felt that way. She was my wild child. She was simply being fiercely and unapologetically herself, her own person, and no amount of yelling and arguing and bribing on my part was going to change that. 

Do you know what? I think that’s pretty amazing.

In a world where society will try to tell her every single day of her entire life how she is supposed to dress, eat, talk, act, how much she should weigh, what she should do with her hair, what she should want, and who she should aspire to be, I am relieved to see her wildness. It’s my desperate hope that she will continue to be fierce in who is she and what she wants. I hope with all of my heart that she will balk at conventions and refuse to blindly follow societal norms. I want her to stay wild. I know that she will go on to accomplish amazing things. She will accomplish them while being confidently and unapologetically herself.

However I have many years and a long road ahead of me, mostly uphill. I will have to remind myself daily that while I’m teaching her, I don’t need to tame her. I will continue to take deep breaths and steps back. While I continue down this road, unless you are offering me a strong cup of coffee, a hug, or perhaps a glass of wine, please keep your raised eyebrows and shocked expressions to a minimum. Thank you.

Parts of this piece were originally published on the blog www.isthatchocolateorpoop.com

Taking and Giving Back: Finding Peace on Both Sides of Stay-at-Home-Momming

When I shifted gears from career to staying home with my kids, I came to realize how instrumental the role of SAHM can be.

It was unfamiliar territory to me to be standing sedentary in the schoolyard, watching my kids play with their friends before the bell rang, instead of rushing to get the kids to school and make it to work on time. I had decided to take a leave of absence from work for a year in search of that long lost friend Sanity, who used to wrap so comfortably around my brain and confidently guide me to sound and thoughtful decision making. I missed that friend. I missed who I was when he was with me.

According to Stats Canada, in 1976, nine in 10 non-working mothers in a single-earner family were stay-at-home parents. In 2014, 6.6 in 10 of non-working mothers were stay-at-home moms. For a variety of reasons, moms went back to work and shared in the financial contributions to the family, but not all fathers felt it necessary to share in the ongoing needs at home. Women maintained those duties as well, eventually becoming overworked and overstressed. Psychologist Shari Thurer wisely wrote that “[m]otherhood versus personal ambition represents the heart of the feminine dilemma.”

Many of the women I met in the schoolyard had felt that pull and decided they would rather not leave their children in the care of someone else, and, if they were going to take on the role of a SAHM, they were going to do it with the same drive that pushed them to succeed in their former workplaces.

As I encountered more of these SAHMs, it became clear that they took their jobs very seriously. Why wouldn’t they? Considering their accomplished backgrounds in careers such as publishing, marketing, banking, accounting, advertising, human resources, legal, social, and medical work (to name a few in my schoolyard), they had worked hard to get where they were and weren’t about to settle for cruising through this next phase of their lives nonchalantly.

They paid attention to their kids’ lives and volunteered in classrooms, on field trips, and on school committees; they knew what their kids were eating; they knew their children’s friends; they chauffeured their kids to games, practices, lessons, and clubs. Most of the women I met were not on maternity leave but had made a conscious decision to change careers for a period of time. (I should also note that the community in Toronto in which I live has a fairly comfortable social status, where many parents can afford to stay at home by choice and not by any financial directive).

But do you know who is sitting in the backseat of their cars, farting with their kids on their way to soccer or ballet? Other kids whose parents are at work. As I infiltrated deeper into SAHM territory, I realized how fundamentally important these moms were to the fabric of our community. Without volunteers in schools, field trips would not run and special, in-class programming would end (which wouldn’t matter because funding for many of these events would not exist). I had no idea how important these women were to the enhancement of my children’s experience at school.

If parents weren’t at home, many kids would not have the opportunity to participate in programming beyond school. How do you get your daughter to hockey practice an hour away at 5:00 if you’re working nine-to-five? What happens when playing in a league includes weekend tournaments that begin Friday morning (on a school day) and end Sunday night in a town that requires a hotel stay? If you don’t have a flexible job or don’t want to hand over your vacation days in order to get your kids to these events, these moms are your saviors.

These moms were my saviors for years and I am so grateful to them. How many times have I asked someone in a panic to pick up my kids or to drive them to a practice? In desperation, I was asking people I barely knew for help until I couldn’t do it anymore. I was the universal receiver and it didn’t feel good. My kids couldn’t keep up with the schedule because there was no schedule. All they knew was that Mommy was wound up really tight, so don’t mess with her. Don’t tell her she’s late again. Don’t mention that she’s wearing two different shoes. But DO tell her gently that she’s tucked her skirt into her pantyhose. Again.

This past year I was able to be present. I drove the van filled with gassy kids, I offered to help out in a pinch, and I brought the (homemade) muffins to the game. Not once did I consider this to be an “us versus them” (working versus non-working) mom competition, which I knew created tension and resentment in some schoolyards. I was not smug in my newfound ability to participate more fully in the daily lives of my children. In fact, I was grateful for the opportunity and was particularly sympathetic to working moms. I did my best to proactively alleviate stress where I knew they felt it – where I used to feel it. It was a much more comfortable role. Having the capacity to give back felt really good. Since joining the playground club, I wear the daytime uniform exclusive to this group consisting of yoga pants and flip flops, which makes it impossible to put on two different shoes or show off my underwear through my pantyhose.

As the year comes to an end, my husband and I decided that the net gains of me not working well outweigh the losses, so I have left my job and will continue to stay at home for the time being. Welcome back my old friend, Sanity, may you never stray far from me again.

Why Women Should Stop Saying They Are Lucky to Get a Maternity Leave

We need to stop viewing parental leave as a perk and start treating it as a basic workers’ right that millions are currently being denied.

The conversation is the same at every playground, library, or mommy-meet up. A bleary-eyed mother walks in with an irresistibly tiny newborn strapped to her chest. The questions pour in:

“Oh how sweet! How old?”

“Boy or girl?”

“Is she a good sleeper?”

“Do you stay-at-home or work?”

“How much maternity leave do you get?”

The new mom diligently answers all the questions, even the one about having a good sleeper, to which the answer is clearly, “No.” But when it turns to maternity leave, she perks up.

“Well, I’m home for 12 weeks. Which I know I’m really fortunate to get. And I’m really lucky, because the first six weeks are paid. I can actually take four months off, and I’m really grateful I have that option, but we can’t go without my salary that long. So I’m just taking three. But I’m really happy I can even do that. And that I get paid at all, because I work for a small company so they don’t have to pay me. I know how lucky I am.”

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Mothers fall all over themselves explaining the gratitude they have for getting any amount of maternity leave, paid or unpaid. We treat any mention of time with our families with extreme humility and appreciation, lest we appear callous to the millions of parents who have no access to paid leave. Mothers on maternity leave know exactly how fortunate they are.

Most parents in the workforce don’t have any paid leave to appear grateful for. An estimated one in four employed mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth. Only 12 percent of private sector employees in the U.S. receive paid leave from their employer. The federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid time off, and only for certain employees. Just over 40 percent of workers in the United States are not eligible for FMLA.

But should we really consider ourselves “lucky” for having time off to care for our family? Or should having access to paid family leave so parents can care for their most vulnerable family member without fear of losing their jobs be considered a basic workers’ right?

I’m pretty sure that I’ve never heard anyone gush about how lucky they felt that their employer adhered to federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. It’s been a long time since anyone has praised their boss for recognizing the standard 40 hour work week, honoring federal holidays, or paying overtime when required by law. We consider these to be basic parts of an employment agreement, whereas parental leave is still considered a luxury.

Anyone who has ever spent time caring for a newborn knows that it is anything but luxurious. Care for a new family member is vitally important work, and the effects of a too-short leave are measurable. One study found that mothers of three-month-old babies who worked full time had greater rates of depression, stress, and poorer health than mothers who stayed at home. The study found that down the road, working mothers ultimately had lower rates of depression, but returning to work after a short leave had a negative impact on maternal mental health.

Women who receive paid time off are also more likely to return to work, work more hours, and also earn higher wages – factors which are good for businesses looking to avoid turnover. When mothers work more hours for higher pay, it impacts a family’s financial security not only in the first few months after birth, but for years down the road.

Maternity leave can also influence how long a mother breastfeeds – one study found that women who returned to work after at least six weeks were more likely to be breastfeeding when their child was six months old. Paternity leave has numerous benefits as well, from better behavioral and mental health for children to fathers taking a more active role in family life.

It is clear that caring for a newborn or newly adopted family member is much more than a time to take a break from your job to enjoy your new family. The consequences of this important work extend much farther than one’s own nuclear family and yet American companies still treat paid leave simply as a perk, like free coffee in the break room or attending a conference in Hawaii.

There is nothing wrong with being grateful for every moment you have to care for a new family member, or being thankful to work for an employer who recognizes the need for rest, recovery, and bonding during this time. Recognizing the fact that millions of mothers and fathers are forced to return to work before they or their child are physically and emotionally ready is certainly laudable.

We need to stop viewing parental leave as a perk and start treating it as a basic workers’ right that millions are currently being denied. We can feel grateful to have access to paid leave and indignant that others do not. New families benefit when they are able to spend time together without worrying about losing their jobs or foregoing months of income.

We should all be so lucky.

8 Simple Rules for Play-Dating

There are a few guidelines that make the whole process of play-dates more enjoyable for everyone.

After years of tentatively eyeing other mothers on the playground, I finally worked up the courage to enter the realm of play-dating. I drew upon my prior romantic dating life to identify pitfalls. (Don’t call 12 times a day; don’t make summer travel plans together if you’ve only hung out once; don’t post photos of you together on Instagram and send it to your exes with #WhatYoureMissing.)

Now that I’m a bit more comfortable inviting people over for our kids to play (and for us to vent), I have a few guidelines of my own that make the whole process more enjoyable for everyone:

1 | Don’t worry about illnesses

Unless it’s a super-contagious thing (I’m looking at you, mono), bring your kid over. If I waited until my kids’ noses weren’t runny to have a playdate, we’d never leave the house.

But if her eyes are looking a smidge, dare I say, pink, or his scalp is unusually itchy, or her back is covered in the Pox, we can always reschedule for eight to 10 weeks from now.

2 | You don’t need to go crazy with the clean-up

I know you want to set a good example for your children, and if your kid spilled every single Lego onto the floor, by all means, you guys can help scoop them up. But there is no need to rinse dishes, wipe down counters, and run a vacuum. I can put everything away in less time than it takes you to stack those three blocks in the wrong bin.

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3 | You don’t have to bring food

It’s really thoughtful that you prepared a giant array of snacks and juice boxes. However, as the hostess, so did I. I always feel badly that you brought tortilla chips and my kid hates them, or no one touches the cheese crackers you so artfully arranged. Unless your kid is picky with snacks or has an allergy that I can’t shop for in advance, leave the hospitality to me.

4 | You can hang out with me…or not

There’s a dramatic shift during the mid-elementary school years when parents go from actively participating in the playdate, to a drop-and-dash. I’m cool with either, just let me know in advance so I can avoid being the mom sitting alone drinking Chardonnay while the kids play dress-up (or even worse, the mom without any Chardonnay for when you stay to hang out).

5 | You don’t need to apologize for your kids

I have small children. I know they’re prone to tantrums, can get handsy, and sometimes say the wrong thing. I’m more likely to hear “Mine!” and “Don’t wanna leave!” than “Please” and “Thank you.” You don’t need to reassure me that “they never act like this at home,” when we both know that toddlers are unpredictable time bombs that can go from complacent to psychopathic within a nanosecond. I’d hate to think that my home was the only place that brought out the cranky.

6 | You don’t have to over-discipline

Sometimes in the presence of another mom, we’re desperate to come across as a “good parent” and so jump on our kid for any infraction. “I’ve never heard him use that word before!” “I swear he used to eat celery.” “Gabby, pick up that ball of lint you knocked to the ground.”

You have nothing to prove. Unless your three-year-old stole my wallet or took my car out for a joyride, there’s no need to come down hard.

7 | Let’s set a clear start time and end time

The old adage “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?” has never rung truer than during an interminable playdate. Even non-busy kids have schedules, and it becomes complicated when I go to run a bath or start singing bedtime songs, and the aforementioned Gabby is still lingering in our backyard.

8 | Please, please, please don’t judge me

I know the carpets aren’t the cleanest, my couch smells like curdled milk, and I don’t own any video game consoles. I forgot to water down the apple juice first, I let my kids wear shoes in the house, and sometimes refer to the hours from four pm to  seven pm as “Screen Time.”

But my daughter really likes your daughter. And when I say “Let’s do this again soon!” I mean it.

As soon as your child’s coxsackie clears up.