Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Santa Talk (Jewish Edition)

It's that jolly time of year! Maybe because Chanukah is already long over, this Christmas season has arrived in seemingly brighter shades of red and green than usual.

Or maybe it's just that my two-year-old is experiencing her first conscious Christmas. And she's blown away. For a week or two, we couldn't walk through the lobby of our building without Louisa stopping to admire the electric menorah. Then, one day, the TREE arrived. No matter that the tree itself is made of green plastic confetti (such a bummer--what's the point without the lovely smell?); it is towering, it is covered in shiny colored balls and lights, it has wrapped presents and a little baby Jesus snuggled underneath its embracing fronds. All in all, completely amazing to two-and-a-half-year-old eyes. It's difficult to pull her away.

When we finally step foot out of our building, within three blocks we encounter one of several Christmas tree vendors, camped out on the sidewalk 'til the big day, with their dozens of trees, bright lights, and blow-up Santas.

Let me back up. This child already has an abiding love for symbols of the dominant faith. She loves church bells. She knows which churches in our neighborhood have the ringing capability, and squeals on the occasions that the bells happen to sound when we are in hearing distance. "I hear the church bells!" she yells, which garners delighted smiles from passers-by, who probably imagine her as a future choirgirl.

Anyway, about the blow-up Santas. There's a giant one above the tree stand on the west side Broadway, and I've found myself distracting Louisa so she doesn't notice it. She'd have to look up to see it, so it's not that hard. All I have to do is strike up a conversation about what she did in school that day, or what we'll have for dinner, or whether we'll hear the church bells on the way home.

I just don't want to have the Santa talk with her just yet. You know, the Jewish version. The one where you tell your kids that different people believe different things and we have lots of nice beliefs but we don't believe in Santa. (And shhh, don't say anything to your friends about what I just told you about Santa. Bella made this mistake once and it still haunts her.)

Here's where I admit that I've been avoiding putting on one of the four episodes in the current TWC on-demand Dora rotation: "A Present For Santa".  Yes, that's right. I'm the Christmas censor. I figure Louisa can learn about Christmas on a need-to-know basis. This year: beautiful trees, lights, and empty fake presents that I constantly have to tell her to put back and stop shaking. Next year: red-cloaked bearded man brings presents to our neighbors, but not you.

(But, don't worry, we have Chanukah!!)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

On the Loss of Things, and True Need

We've had a bad run of luck with things, lately.

Already, on this blog, I recounted the destruction last year of a laptop. (Dropped to the ground by adorable Loulou. So cute!) Then, last month, Ruby left her backpack on a city bus. Thankfully, we got that back, it's belongings all in place (including her brand new Kindle, which she had received for her birthday). Those 100th Street bus depot guys rock.

Earlier this fall, Josh bought a new bike for commuting to work, a fixie with orange wheels that he quite fancied, and within weeks it was snatched, from outside the Y where he was picking up Bella. Gone.

Then, on the first day of our recent family trip to Costa Rica, two of our backpacks were stolen. One of the backpacks held pull-ups, a portable potty, and a few changes of toddler clothes (the backpack itself was the one Ruby left on the crosstown bus--fated to leave us?), and the other held quite a few of the family's electronic gadgets, including the replacement laptop for the one that broke last year.

This last loss felt painful. I had been planning to do some writing while we were away--I had a freelance gig due on our return--and my means for doing so were gone. Our books and the e-readers they were stored on--gone. Our kids' entertainment for the return trip--also gone. Our camera to document the trip--ditto. Things that we had cared for, and cared about, and 'needed' were taken blithely, and there was nary a thing we could do about it. Enough things that we do not have the budget to replace them all, and will probably only replace a few.

In the day or two after, I felt waves of anger (It was just so unfair!) and sadness (But I'll never see these things again?) and guilt (We shouldn't have brought all that stuff with us. We should have been more careful.).  But more often I felt resignation and peace. I found myself saying, out loud: "Our kids are fine. We are fine. That's what matters."

Maybe we have to experience this kind of loss to appreciate what we have. I say that having spent some time in the past two days reading about the details of Dasani's life in poverty. The New York Times' profile of a homeless 11-year-old girl and her family living with so little, is wrenching in its details of what it means to be in need.

As I mentioned in a previous post, before Thanksgiving, we attended the kick-off for the West Side Campaign Against Hunger's Thousand Turkey Challenge, an annual fundraising (and turkey-raising) event to provide holiday food for the tables of poor New Yorkers. Bella and Ruby attended a discussion group for kids, in which they learned about the hunger and poverty cycles. There were a lot of kids in the room, which was refreshing to see. These kids need to know what it's like for the kids who weren't there on the fundraising night--the ones who come with their families during open hours for the food pantry, and "shop" for the food that sustains them. Food that is necessary, in a way that an e-reader or a camera will never be.

The turkey challenge was a fantastic success, which is good news for WSCAH and the families they serve. But the fact that the need is greater than ever, and that New York City's poor keeps growing, as the cost of living in this city rises and rises, is downright depressing.

Dasani imagines a video game called "Live or Die" in which winning means getting a house, and losing means returning to the shelter, "'which is death'". There are levels of need; Dasani's most basic needs--those of shelter and food--are barely being met.

If you want to talk about unfair, talk to her.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Thanksgivukkah Meshugana

Something about preparing to go away next week, as we've never done before (we usually stay local for the turkey holiday--so local that we walk to Thanksgiving dinner), has made my life cray-cray. Maybe it's the Thanksgivukkah (a word that I can neither spell, nor pronouce) thing that has sent me just this side of over-the-edge this week.

I'm not the only one. I've heard reports that one family member, a preschool teacher at a Jewish school, has been slightly manic trying to cover what should have been two separate months of curriculum over Hannukah and Thanksgiving: two staples of the Jewish preschool calendar. No doubt. Louisa came home today with a the classic hardware-nuts Hannukiah AND a "hand turkey". All in one day. It's enough to make your head spin.

I'm sure the unlikely confluence of these two first-semester holidays is what made our family decide to finally take the plunge and get on a plane to celebrate the most American of holidays in a foreign country (Costa Rica). I've celebrated Thanksgiving in England (something full-circle about that), but never in the tropics. I'm looking forward to eating local sweet potatoes (or some similar tuber) in a land at least closer to whence they actually hail (Did you know that there were no sweet potatoes--or any kind of potatoes, for that matter--in the Plymouth colony?--a little tidbit I picked up this week while researching a freelance story. Because domesticated potatoes come from South America, and they hadn't made it that far north yet, apparently...). Rum drinks and Thanksgiving sound appropriate, too. After all...rum, the triangle trade...it all brings back colonial history.

Bella is studying colonial history in school. There's a lot of talk, these days, even in elementary school, about the difference between history and myths. My girls are all over the "truth" about the first Thanksgiving. They ate oysters and clams! And venison! There was not a pumpkin pie to be found. Ultimately, the Thanksgiving story is about the triumph of needy humans over the scourge of starvation. The new Americans figured out, one way or another, how to eat and survive in their new, wild home.

Thanksgiving, like Hannukah, is so much about food. We eat the same things, year after year, such that we forget the origins of the ritual. I'm sure I thought, as a child, that kosher marshmallows were consumed by Native Americans and Pilgrims at their unified feast in 1621. In our family, we usually host a big Hannukah party. It has become our tradition to serve latkes and lox and (non-Beluga) caviar. Yum. Ask my girls and I would venture to guess they believe caviar is a Hannukah food.

Somehow, in the midst of this busy week of packing and finishing time-sensitive projects and cursing myself for not ordering sun-protective gear on the internet, since it is nowhere to be found in stores, we found time, as a family, to go visit a wonderful local organization with a mission to make sure every family in NYC can have a festive holiday meal. The West Side Campaign Against Hunger feeds thousands of families throughout the year. On Thanksgiving, the needy can receive a turkey, and all the accoutrements. For several years an interfaith coalition of synagogues and churches and schools have come together to raise money to support this mission. This year, both our synagogue and our school are members of the coalition.

On Tuesday evening, we attended the kick-off event for the Thousand Turkey Challenge. Bella and Ruby learned about the hunger cycle, and about food insecurity right here in NYC. I hope that they will appreciate our own feast even more, knowing that many families are guaranteed no such thing. Tzedakah and celebration go hand in hand, and what better way to celebrate Hannukah on Thanksgiving, than to donate some gelt to a worthy organization dedicated to feeding the hungry. Please consider donating a turkey, by clicking here.

Happy Thanksgivukkah!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Experience, But Not Expertise

As we both struggled to get our little ones bundled and out the door at the end of preschool this morning, I commiserated with another mother. All the other kids has already gone, but our two were sitting in their cubbies, ignoring our pleas.

"Louisa's been expressing her non-compliance lately," I said. Which is true. For example, earlier this morning, she insisted that she wanted to ride her bee to school. Here's a visual:
Needless to say, it's not our chosen mode of transportation, except between her bedroom and the living room. I had to literally pry her off the thing, screaming, so that I could then wrestle her into her puffy jacket, to get her out the door. Life is so unfair.

So, anyway, the mom of Louisa's co-conspirator in non-compliance says to me: "but at least you know what to do. I mean, you are experienced."

Ah, yes. That. The assumption that because she's not my first (or second) toddler, that I somehow know how to mind-meld my two-and-a-half-year-old into doing what I say. Ha.

So here's a story to prove that experience does not always equal expertise.

Louisa wore undies to school today for the first time. Hurrah! She's been using the potty since the summer at home, to varying degrees of success. But until now, I didn't have the confidence to send her to school in a pull-up. I was worried she'd pee all over the place. In fact, just last week she peed in the stroller while I was collecting the big girls from school.

This is only interesting because I did a better job toilet training my two older kids. They were both trained within a few days. We took away the diapers, they graduated to big girl underpants (except at night), praised them for their successes, and we never looked back. Done. I knew how to toilet train so well that I'd practically given seminars on the subject, to eager, newer parents who wanted to know how it's done.

And then, along comes child number three, and I do everything wrong. I started too early, because she had a bad rash and, let's face it, I was just so sick of diapers. Then, since she didn't really seem ready, I kept the potty around as an option, instead of an obligation. I put her in pull-ups whenever there was a chance of a possible accident, rather than just letting her get the hang of holding it in, and discovering the consequences. I even (shame) yelled at her, once, for peeing on the rug. And once for peeing on my bed. Major no-no. The potty training stressed me out this time, which for sure was the root of my trouble.

How could I have made all these mistakes, knowing what I know? No answer there, except that each kid is different, I suppose, and so is the parent, by the time the next developmental milestone arises. I keep thinking about that next approaching milestone for Louisa, which, unlike potty training, was actually very stressful the first time(s) we went through it with our older kids: the move from the crib to the bed. Once they can get out of bed, all bets are off. Parents lose.

So I've been wondering, is there any way we can maybe we can just skip straight from sleeping in the crib to sleep-away camp? Advice accepted. After all, you're all experts.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Bat Mitzvah Debate Follow-Up

Drumroll . . . we made the decision regarding when we should celebrate Bella's bat mitzvah.

It was fascinating discussing this question with so many deeply engaged, thinking people: rabbis, educators, and parents. Some rabbis prefer bat mitzvah at 13 because it keeps girls in Hebrew school another year. Several people I consider "professional" Conservative Jews told me they had never really pondered the question. One clergy member told me that in her congregation, bat mitzvahs are usually at 13, although 12-year-old girls are counted in the minyan. "We are consistently inconsistent!" she said.

The contemporary feminist arguments for bat mitzvah at 13 are strong. As my rabbi, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, added to a Facebook discussion:
"one has to ask why rabbinic tradition assigned girls maturity to 12. I think it is not a modern assessment of intellectual or emotional maturity - though these may be real - but a less nuanced report about menarche. In other words: It was time to get busy! I would prefer that such considerations vanish from contemporary ritual decisions."
On the other hand, Professor of Rabbinics Rabbi Gail Labovitz said this, also on Facebook:
"I lean towards 12, though I get that it does not seem egalitarian, and I am very much, generally, committed to egalitarianism. The age [of bar/ bat mitzvah] does indeed have a link to the onset of puberty, but this is true for both boys and girls - indeed, well into the rabbinic period one can find contesting voices in rabbinic lit. as to whether bar and bat mitzvah should be decided by a universal age limit, or by demonstrating actual physical signs of puberty. At the same time, the rabbis did imagine that a girl "became" bat mitzvah at 12 just like a boy becomes "bar mitzvah" at 13 . . . . So in our day, if we are expanding the realm of mitzvot that we think women should be responsible for . . . . then those responsibilities kick in at 12 - and girls who don't fulfill them until a year later might be thought of as sinning..."

Compellingly, several people told me that bat mitzvah at 12 is a feminist ritual, because it celebrates girls' coming of age in a different way to how boys' maturity is celebrated; it breaks the pattern of using the masculine as the standard.

Then there are the practical issues. One rabbi/parent told me that her daughter was unhappy with her Hebrew school class, so holding her bat mitzvah at 12 was a way to "graduate" and move on to Prozdor (Hebrew school for high schoolers, in NYC). She was not the only rabbi who told me that they based their decision of when to hold their own daughters' bat mitzvah ceremonies primarily on the particular circumstances and needs of that child.

Bella goes to a Conservative day school where the practice is for girls to celebrate an in-school bat mitzvah at 12. Bella is eager to get the party started, so to speak, and wants to do what her friends will do. The bat mitzvah is a celebration of a change in status for the child, and as such, it makes sense to have the in-school bat mitzvah at the same time as the synagogue celebration.

In addition, I'm all for celebrating milestones at once. In general, I try to make the kids' birthday celebrations as close to their birthdays as possible--no month-long birthdays for me, if you know what I'm sayin'.

Taking all of the above into consideration, and needing to make a practical decision, we decided to hold Bella's bat mitzvah soon after her 12th birthday. In March 2015, we will be the proud parents of a bat mitzvah girl. Mazel Tov!

And now I officially feel old.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Find Your Folks

When Ruby was a toddler I took her to an indoor gym class, to keep her moving in the cold winter. While she was climbing all over the equipment, another girl her age could neither climb up the very small ladder, nor slide down on her own. Her mother never let go of her hand, "helping" her all the time. The mother asked me why Ruby was so capable. My answer was, simple. Practice; allowing her to try.

This mother needed permission to let go. Seeing Ruby on the slide gave her more confidence to let her child try.

There is a notion I remember hearing when my kids were still too young for it to apply, that parents should look to local custom to help determine when to grant freedoms to their kids. That is, if the neighborhood kids are riding their bikes on their own at nine, then you know it's fine to let your kids do the same. Or, if most kids walk to middle school on their own, let you can feel comfortable letting your kids do it, too. The local custom part is important, as it acknowledges that what is normal in suburban New Jersey may be very different from the streets of Manhattan.

There's a community spirit to this reasoning, that puts the onus on making these leaps of faith--after all, letting our kids out of our sight can be seen as such a leap--on the shoulders of many families. The community spirit encourages families to trust each other, and to watch out for each other.

Parents using each other as guide-posts is a great way to work together to raise our children. But it can be hard to do this when there is little trust among parents, or when parents fear that only they can ensure the safety of their kids.

Once, years ago, my family was walking on the sidewalk with another family in a moderately busy area (not in NYC). The other family's child, age 4, rushed ahead with my kids, ages 4 and 6, who were playing, running, etc. My girls were used to walking behind us, in front of us, around us. Josh and I were watching them, but we did not insist that they hold our hands, except for crossing streets. The other family had different rules. The parents became furious with their child for running ahead and "not staying with them" -- i.e. doing exactly what we allowed ours to do all the time. I said "It's okay, we're watching them." But the parents shrugged us off, and punished their child anyway. They clearly didn't trust us, or our norms.

Without doubt, there are children who require special limits because of their own limitations. Know thy child, above all else. But this child seemed normal to me, capable and responsive. The parents' fear, and their need for obedience, were very different from our parental ethos.

Now that Bella and Ruby are walking to school on their own, I feel the tug of the variety of opinion on children's freedom. Some parents of similar-aged children bristle ("not my kid"). A few give their children more freedom than we do. There's no consensus.

So what gives? Aren't we parents supposed to be looking towards each other for guidance?

 I wonder if this is a New York City dilemma. After all, NYC is not a neighborhood in the traditional sense, in that it's so big and diverse. So, like in all other social spheres in this city, we need to go searching for our "neighbors"--the folks whose ways speak to us--and elect them as our community. I reckon this applies elsewhere, too.

When I need to, I find my free-range parenting friends to buck me up and give me support. One friend in particular, who has a slightly older child, tells me how it's done. She told me what to say to Bella before she took the subway by herself the first time, and how to prepare her for the what-ifs. She also told me that Bella could do it, just like her daughter had. And sure enough, Bella can. We all need friends like this! Parenting need not involve reinventing the wheel in each family. Wherever you are, find your folks.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Poem for Halloween Skeptics

It's that time of year, betwixt Succot and Thankgiving
Unavoidable, I fear, if you're among the living,
When storefronts and stoops full of cobwebs and spiders
Remind some of us Jews that we're really outsiders.

We're a club who were raised without this tradition--
Don't feel bad--we survived with this cultural omission.
As children we sat by the door giving sweets,
Instead of joining the goblins roaming the streets.

Our parents and rabbis said that this holiday
Was a pagan celebration that we must cast away.
Once an occasion to persecute our kind,
It's a day of dark memory; pogroms spring to mind.

Say what? your friends say, with their Halloween cheer
You missed out on the very best day of the year!
There's nothing so fun as dressing up spooky,
And eating miniature chocolates 'til you're feeling kooky.

No one cares what this holiday once used to be,
In our country right now, it's all kids and candy.
And, no, Purim don't fly as a just substitution.
Since Christmas is out, there's only one solution.

I submit; let the kids go cavort with their neighbors,
I may not enjoy it, but they love the favor.
I teach them to be kind, grateful and sociable,
And remind them: sharing their loot is non-negotiable.

But I must draw the line at my kid's innocent question:
"Won't you dress up as a witch? It's just a suggestion."
Not a chance, my dear. This is your thing, not mine.
Now don't get me started, I might change my mind.

To all of my fellow Halloween skeptics
Concerned that our kids are lacking in ethics
At least we get points for flexibility and fun
Good luck tomorrow! You may need a ton.


Monday, October 28, 2013

On Foodie Kids & Pumpkin-Eating

It's so yesterday to talk about cooking on a parenting blog...but here's the thing: it's also so tomorrow.  Every single morning, no matter how much I fed them the day before, those pesky kids wake up hungry. 

We are blessed with foodie children. That is to say, they get excited about things like crispy kale and mustard cod and curried chickpeas.  I say "blessed" because I don't in any way take credit for this miracle, nor will I try to explain for you how to get your kids to eat a wider variety of flavors or colors. Mine have got a bit of jealous streak to them, so if anything maybe their culinary adventurousness stems from wanting to eat what the grown-ups are eating. (This gets murky when it comes to beverages, of course; a discussion for another day.)

Like all of us, they have their aversions: Ruby wouldn't touch a mushroom if Daniel Radcliffe were offering it from his palm, and Bella has similar feelings about tomatoes. Louisa will beg like a pro for anything on my plate, and then will decline, quite politely ("no tank you") if what's on my plate happens to be lettuce or fish. 

Undoubtedly, if the kids helped to cook it, they tend to enjoy eating it. Ruby is a pro at making meatballs and pancakes. Recently she made her birthday cupcakes with very minimal assistance. Bella likes to make her own eggs. They are both all over the smoothie maker (hand blender).

A few weeks ago, we went pumpkin and apple picking, which led to a fantastic spate of family cooking projects. There's nothing like eating foods made from fruits you picked yourself. (Even better, I would imagine, if you grew them yourself. One day: growing fruit and veg is on my bucket list. Check back with me in thirty or so years...) Josh and Ruby made apple galettes, and 
caramelized apple slices. I made apple muffins, and then pumpkin muffins.

In honor of the national week of the pumpkin, I really wanted to post my recipe for child-approved high-fiber pumpkin muffins (these kinds of blog posts are supposed to have recipes!). Those muffins were fought over like...like...hotcakes. But, sadly, I can't, because I didn't write it down. My recipes are often devised by opening no less than three web pages, and then creating, in the bowl, a mashup based on what I have at hand. I have no fear of oat bran, nor sugar. (Okay, maybe that's why they were so good).

We still have another pumpkin. What pumpkin experiment will be next? No time for frivolous baking; there is still dinner to cook for today. Maybe a spicy pumpkin coconut curry would be just the thing. Or, on second thought, a nap.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Bat Mitzvah at 12 or 13? A Jewish Feminist Question

This January, my oldest daughter will turn 11. Do you know what this means? It does not mean, perhaps to her dismay, that she soon will be whisked away to wizarding school. It means that we are woefully late picking a date for Bella's bat mitzvah.

But picking that date is proving to be a struggle. Should it be when she's 12 or 13?

In 1988, I had my bat mitzvah at age 13, on a Friday evening in my family's non-egalitarian Conservative synagogue. I was allowed to lead the Kabbalat Shabbat service, but not Ma'ariv. I read from Shir HaShirim, a beautiful idea that my father had to allow me to learn trop and chant from the Tanach, since I was not allowed to read the Torah or Haftorah. My bat mitzvah was beautiful, but it was not equal in scale or importance to my brothers' coming-of-age celebrations; on their bar mitzvahs, they each led the tefilot, and read the complete Torah portion and Haftorah before the entire congregation on Shabbat morning.

As I wrote recently in a piece for the New Israel Fund, I grew up with mixed messages; I was encouraged to count and succeed equally to boys in every way, except in the Jewish ritual realm.

As with so much related to boy-rearing compared to girl-rearing, bar mitzvahs are comparatively simple. Sometime after the boy's 13th Hebrew birthday he has an aliyah to the Torah (says the blessings before the torah reading), maybe says a few words about the Torah portion and/or his tzedakah project, and bam, done. In fact, even if he never has an official bar mitzvah ceremony, as soon as he reaches his 13th birthday, he is automatically "bar mitzvah'ed". Being bar mitzvah means that the boy has reached the age of majority, and is therefore obligated to follow the commandments incumbent upon Jewish men.

Perhaps because it's a quite recent addition to Jewish ritual, the bat mitzvah ceremony is less straightforward. For generations, women were all but barred from participating in public religious life. There were no bat mitzvahs, and girls' coming-of-age was not celebrated publicly. The modern bat mitzvah, in which girls are called to the Torah and lead the services just like boys do, is a new(ish) event born of a feminist drive to include women in Jewish communal ritual. It would seem natural to hold it at 13, the traditional age of majority.

image copyright Bitsela, used courtesy of free-bitsela.com

But some say a bat mitzvah should be at age 12 because the Talmud (Jewish law texts written between the 2nd and 5th centuries) says that is when girls are considered mature--and therefore obligated to fast on Yom Kippur. Presumably, the earlier age of maturity--and obligation to mitzvot--for girls is related to when most began menstruating (and might also be marriageable). But the obligations incumbent on women in the Talmud are very different from those incumbent on men. Women are not, for instance, bound to any time-sensitive mitzvot, such as prayer, which is also why historically (and still today in the Orthodox world) women could not count in a minyan or lead a prayer service.

I am far from a Talmud scholar, but it seems to me that the Talmudic source has little to do with the modern concept of bat mitzvah, in which girls are welcomed into the full range of mitzvot traditionally incumbent on men, including daily prayer. And yet, there's a phenomenon that has taken hold in Conservative Jewish communities of late, at least in my area, to celebrate b'not mitzvah at age 12. Many of these impressive girls take on the full commitment of Jewish ritual life-- including donning tallit and tefillin daily--starting a year earlier than boys do.

 I do not dispute that girls often mature faster than their male counterparts--they may indeed be "ready" for the milestone, have the knowledge, poise, etc.--but to me that is beside the point. Is this practice egalitarian? Why, after working so hard to gain ritual and spiritual equality, would we (egalitarian/ feminist Jews) want to separate the genders by age in the onset of their commitment to the mitzvot? And why should girls be obligated to cut their childhoods short by a year?

I am genuinely interested in your responses, and welcome your comments, as well as suggestions for further reading.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Milo's Story

Last week, the following remarkable Facebook status flashed across my feed:
“I just learned that 64 percent of babies with spina bifida are selectively aborted after being diagnosed. That number is heartbreaking and we need to change that. Yes Milo has spina bifida, yes Milo (and all of us) have some really really hard days. But Milo is happy, Milo is thriving and best of all Milo is doing almost everything the doctors told us he wouldn't. Yes he has to work a lot harder, but he does it all with a smile and his strength and courage is an inspiration. October is spina bifida awareness month- if you have any questions about spina bifida or Milo's story, please just ask we are always happy to share and brag about our rock star.” --Tova Berger Nicholson

Tova and I grew up in the same Jewish community on Long Island. We have not kept in close contact, so I hadn't known that her son had spina bifida. I was struck by the honesty, sincerity, and joy in her post. Since I know very little spina bifida, I took Tova up on her offer to share Milo's story. I wanted to hear about the challenges and realities of raising her son, and I wanted to help her get the word out about the condition. But mostly, I wanted to hear more of her exuberance about parenting Milo. Below are Tova's answers to my questions.

How and when did you find out that Milo has spina bifida?

When I was 16 weeks pregnant I went in for the routine quad screening blood tests. A few days later I got a call from my doctor telling me the results were concerning: a 1 in 4 chance of a neural tube defect. We got the call on a Friday afternoon and there was literally nothing we could do--it was awful. We had to wait until Monday morning to go in for a level 2 (very detailed) ultrasound. We found out that morning, via ultrasound, that my blood results were not a false positive. Our little baby did in fact have a neural tube defect, spina bifida. It was a day we will never forget.

What was your reaction? Your husband’s? Your family’s?

The flood of emotions is hard to describe. In the moment we found out I was completely heartbroken and guilty. I can remember, very vividly, the doctor who gave us the results telling me over and over again that this wasn’t my fault. But as a mother, its hard to hear your baby is ‘broken’; how could I not be to blame? Alex, my husband, is always extremely optimistic, and in that moment his world shattered. Why us? Why our baby? We knew so many other people pregnant at the same time- why was this happening to our baby? The emotions changed over the course of the pregnancy (and they are still changing). I became really angry at points. I learned from some other families who we met through spina bifida connections, that you have to go through a grieving process to arrive at acceptance of the situation. It’s a weird thought to have to grieve, but it's true. You have to grieve over the idea of a ‘perfectly healthy’ baby and come to terms with spina bifida. Alex and I went through it together--when I had a down day, he picked me up, and vice versa. We never allowed both of us to be down at the same time. We spent the first week after the diagnosis in our apartment, watching movies and crying a lot. After that week we picked ourselves up and decided we needed to do whatever we could for our little baby, and that really helped get us through. We still have our down days, but they are so rare that when we have them, we allow ourselves to have a good cry and then move on.
I think our families all put on a brave face at the time. No one wants to hear something is wrong with a family member, especially an unborn baby. But they all stood strong and gave us the support we needed. They cried with us when we needed them to, but more importantly they picked us up when we needed it most. They reminded us over and over again that this little baby was ours and we would ALL get through this together. They are still a very integral part of our support system and a major reason why Milo is doing so amazingly.

What is spina bifida? What are Milo’s symptoms?

Spina bifida is a neural tube defect. Normally, the neural tube forms early in the pregnancy and closes by the 28th day after conception, when most people don’t even know they are pregnant yet. In babies with spina bifida, a portion of the neural tube fails to develop or close properly, causing defects in the spinal cord.

There are various forms of spina bifida ranging in severity. Myelomeningocele is the most severe form, but also the most common. In this form, the baby's spinal canal remains open causing nerves to be exposed. When a baby is diagnosed with myelomeningocele, surgery is performed usually within 24 hours after birth to close the back. Hydrocephalus (an excess of cerebrospinal fluid on the brain) is unfortunately something that goes hand in hand with spina bifida; I think about 80% of children born with spina bifida will also need a shunt to control the hydrocephalus. A shunt is placed in the brain to help drain the excess fluid, usually into the stomach.
Milo was born with myelomeningocele and does require a shunt. He was born, via c-section, three weeks early because the hydrocephalus was increasing faster than the doctors liked. Milo had his back closure surgery 24 hours after birth as well as his vp shunt placed. It was really, really hard--Milo was born in the morning, and I didn’t even get to see him until that night. As soon as he was delivered they had to take him to the NICU to protect his open back and monitor him.  Alex and my parents were able to meet him, but I had to wait since I was recovering from surgery. It was the longest 12 hours. We couldn’t hold him until he was three days old. 

But, from the beginning Milo shocked everyone. He was released after only one week; two major surgeries and he bounced right back. When Milo was eight weeks old his shunt malfunctioned and we ended up back in the hospital to get it replaced, so another surgery. But again, he literally came out of surgery as Milo 2.0.  

The opening on the spine causes nerve damage; which nerves are damaged depends on where the opening is on the spine. The lower on the spine, the better for walking, but more issues arise with bowel and bladder. Milo does have a few issues in that area, but we will keep that private for his sake. Milo's ankles are pretty weak, so he uses little ankle orthotics to help him walk, although he can walk without them as well, which is amazing. The hardest thing about spina bifida is not only is it a wait-and-see game, but each case is literally so unique. We know several other people with the same level opening as Milo, and they each function so differently.

Think back to the time when you first found out that Milo had spina bifida. How does life as Milo’s mother compare to what you imagined it would be?

When you first find out your child has some sort of disorder, your mind runs crazy. When you have doctors telling you the absolute worst outcomes, it's really hard to think about life being normal. We were told our son would be a vegetable, have a low IQ, not be able to walk, wouldn’t be able to go to the bathroom, and would be in and out of hospitals and doctors' offices. We were ready to accept whatever we were handed, but, my god, life is completely different to what the doctors told us. Milo is incredibly smart--no one can get over his vocabulary and social skills--he may be behind in some physical aspects, but he more than makes up for that in cognitive development. 

Don’t get me wrong, it's not a walk in the park: no parent of a child with spina bifida will say it's easy. We have a different normal and while the first year of Milo’s life was hard and took a lot physically and mentally, it was our learning curve and we now are in our groove and we make it all work. I wish, when I was pregnant, we could have had a glimpse into our life now--we would have been able to enjoy the pregnancy so much more!

What is the most surprising thing about parenting Milo?

Milo has taught us so much. I never realized how much it's possible to learn from someone at such a young age. He has taught us to stop and slow down and really appreciate every little thing. When Milo wiggles a toe, that’s a huge deal--we celebrate that and I remember the first time I saw him do it--it's something so many people take for granted. But he has taught us to never take for granted even the smallest thing. Alex and I had a pretty strong relationship before we got pregnant with Milo, but through pregnancy and these last 2+ years he has made us such a strong force; very little can get in our way.

What is the hardest thing?

It has gotten easier, but it's hard to see what other children Milo’s age, and younger, are able to do, and without any thought. In the playground they are running, jumping, going up and down the steps alone. When we go to the playground, Milo can do it all, he just needs his mama or daddy right there to help him. It doesn’t bother him, which makes it a bit easier for us, but it does still break my heart a bit. Milo knows a different normal than we do and it's hard to remember that. We do try to make sure he doesn’t feel different--we want to make sure he knows he is like everyone else. Instead of needing glasses to see or hearing aids to help hear, Milo needs braces to help walk, and that’s ok. And we want to make sure he always knows that.

What is the best thing?

The best thing is seeing how happy Milo is. Milo has worked so hard to get to where he is today--he started walking at 25 months and he hasn’t looked back. He is so proud of himself with every thing he has achieved with his own hard work. There is nothing more heart-warming than seeing your child achieve something they have been working so long and hard on, but then seeing how proud he is of himself is just the best. Milo has the most amazing attitude and literally just goes with the flow and it really has helped him overcome so much. His happiness is everything to us and when we do have that rare down day, seeing him happy really helps put things into perspective.

What else would you like people to know about your child, your family, or this condition?

Milo is a normal 28 month old. He is doing everything a two-year-old is supposed to do: he goes to a two’s program, he loves to color, play with trucks, and yes, he has his tantrums. Milo has spina bifida; he always will. But it's just a part of who he is, it is not WHO he is. We are always happy to talk about it, but we don’t make it the first thing people know, as we don’t want him treated differently from anyone else. People have said, how great he looks and you would never know anything was wrong. And I know they mean well, and who knows, I might have said something similar to other families as well, before we were in our situation. But the truth is, there is nothing wrong with Milo. People hear a diagnosis and they shudder and apologize. There is nothing to apologize for. If you have met and know Milo, you know that he is more than OK. I keep going back to it, but his happiness is everything. Yes, we will have bumps down the road, but his attitude will help overcome those bumps.
Milo is a normal 28 month old. He is doing everything a two-year-old is supposed to do: he goes to a two’s program, he loves to color, play with trucks, and yes, he has his tantrums. Milo has spina bifida; he always will. But it's just a part of who he is, it is not WHO he is.
One other thing: if you are ever in the unfortunate situation of receiving a diagnosis for your child, no matter what it is, do your research. Doctors are the experts on some things, but not everything. Find families who are dealing with it every day and talk to them; they will know best and tell it like it is. If we had listened to what the doctors told us, who knows where we would be today, and the thought honestly makes me sick. There are always families out there that would love to share their stories and help others.

What resources (websites, organizations) have helped you the most?

While I was pregnant I found a spina bifida kids group on babycenter. Those families saved us during our pregnancy. Hearing their stories and seeing their children really helped keep our spirits up. In the last year I joined a few groups on Facebook, and it's really amazing what a tight-knit community it is. It's really refreshing to be part of community where everyone "gets it". It's a place where people come to share and brag when their child gets up on all fours, or sits unassisted, or takes their first step, and everyone is excited, as we all know that feeling.

What do you do professionally?

I am a stay-at-home mom. It’s so cliche, but so true: being a stay at home mom is the hardest job I have ever had, but by far the most rewarding.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

My Best Birth

Earlier this week we celebrated Ruby's 9th birthday. I find, with all my children, that I start calling them by their coming ages a month or two before their birthdays ("almost-9"), so that when they actually reach the milestone day, it hardly feels like a change. Ruby has always had a certain maturity about her, maybe it's her second-child status, that makes her new age(s) seem inevitable, earned, and not too big of a deal.

I'm still in the first year of blogging, and I've committed to telling each of my children's birth stories on or near their birthdays. The second post that I wrote, last January, was about the importance of birth stories, and the unfortunate tendency of society to devalue those stories. I believe that hearing honest stories about birth is the best way to prepare a woman for a positive birth experience. I also think that these stories can serve as reflections on what we humans are doing here in this world: we are physical beings who live to love.

When I found out I was pregnant, I needed a local healthcare team, and I decided to see a midwife, because I wanted someone who shared my personal view of birth as a normal event. I was also excited to give birth at an in-hospital birthing center. My dream for Ruby's birth was to have minimal interventions, no separation from the baby, and be home as soon as possible after to be with Bella, who was only a year old when I became pregnant.

At my first prenatal visit with midwife Sylvie Blaustein, I was relieved when she asked me to tell her the story of my first birth and about my hopes for this birth. I was amazed by how much time she spent with me; throughout the pregnancy, the visits were emotional check-ins, not simply medical ones. I loved going to see the midwife, even though I had to shlep uptown with baby Bella on the subway.

As with my pregnancy with Bella, I went a week past my due date. I was anxious to get the show on the road and have the baby. For the first time in my life, I had acupuncture, and lying on the table in that tranquil East Village basement, tiny needles sticking from my ankles and wrists, I felt the first real contractions. The familiar pain, like menstrual cramps, made me smile. It was like my baby was waking up and getting ready to say hello. The next day, I had a pedicure in the afternoon, and that's when I was able to start timing them: ten minutes apart, then seven. Later that evening, when I started to have to "om" through the contractions, we called our doula and good friend, Allison, who came over to support us. We also called Josh's sister, Nina, who lived downstairs, and who agreed to come and stay with Bella when it was time for us to leave.

There was some concern that I might have a very quick labor, because of how the end of my first birth had gone. Since I was group-B strep positive, I had to make it to the hospital in time to get antibiotics before giving birth. So around midnight, with contractions 3-4 minutes apart, we went to the birthing center. I remember sitting between Allison and Josh in the back of a yellow taxi, "om"'ing like I was in yoga class. No taxi driver ever likes to hear that, let me assure you. He got us there fast.

We were quickly brought to a birthing room. The midwife on call that night was Barbara Sellars, at that time a 25-year-veteran midwife, with a wise and quiet presence. She checked my dilation, and announced that yes, I would have the baby tonight (phew!). A nurse put in an IV (actually, it took two nurses to get this done--I have small veins--I remember this as the hardest part of the whole labor--being stuck repeatedly, and having to hold still), and I sat on a birthing ball while the antibiotics poured through me.

After that, the labor was, as it often is, a blur. I walked, I danced, I rocked in the rocking chair. Allison and Josh rubbed my back and encouraged me. As I was well supported, Barbara got a few hours of sleep. At some point she came back, and asked if she could check me, and offered to break my water to speed things along. I agreed. The contractions picked up pace and intensity almost from that very moment. I got into the bathtub, which I had been looking forward to, as one of the privileges of being in the birthing center. But once in the water, my discomfort seemed to increase. I vomited (sorry, birth ain't pretty), and I felt like I had nothing to lean on. I had to get out.

(This goes to show that you really don't know what you will like and need as comfort measures in labor, until you are in it--which is why it's helpful to have lots of options available).

I went back to the rocking chair, and "om"ed through several very long contractions. Between contractions, I opened my eyes, and discovered that a cadre of beautiful people had gathered at my feet, watching and waiting, quietly: Josh, Allison, Barbara, a nurse, and a nursing student (whom I had given my permission to be present). No one was rushing me. No one was telling me what to do.

After one particularly intense contraction, I said, "I want an epidural." I saw concerned eyes. Then I said: "just kidding," and went right back into the hard work of the next contraction. (You see, it's a truism that all women will ask for an epidural during labor at some point. I knew this, and I didn't want to disappoint.) I made everyone laugh. In the middle of my labor!

Not long after, Barbara said, quite to my astonishment, "Where do you want to have this baby?"

I was surprised because I didn't know that it was time, and I didn't see how she knew. (Throughout the entire labor, she only checked my dilation twice: the first time when I arrived at the hospital, the second when she broke my water.)

Barbara really exemplified the caregiving philosophy that puts faith in birthing mothers' innate knowledge of what they need to do to give birth. She was so quiet, so patient, and allowed me to lead the way. She knew it was time because of the intensity and length of my contractions, indicating I was going through transition. (Note: she was watching me labor, not watching a print out or a machine.)

I moved to the large queen-sized bed, but once again, like in the tub, I felt uncomfortable. It was my prerogative to move, so move I did. I sat on a birthing chair (like a toilet seat without a toilet), with Josh sitting on the bed behind me, and supporting my back. My attendants, who were all sitting or kneeling in front of me on the floor, told me to push when and if I felt like it. So that is what I did.

Very naturally, and by naturally I mean without any coaching or assistance, and with the normal amount (i.e. quite a lot) of effort, Ruby came into the world. When she was almost out, Barbara directed my hands to her body, and told me to lift her up. I like to say that I delivered Ruby. I picked her up onto my chest, and I cried. Together, we moved to the bed and Josh and I discovered that she was a girl, and stared at her in amazement. It's always amazing to see the face of your child for the first time.

Right there in the room with us, the nurse weighed Ruby and cleaned her up a bit. Soon after, everyone left us alone. We rested, Ruby nursed, and Josh and I each took showers, and about six hours after the birth, we all went home. Ruby was born at 11:11 am, and we were all home for dinner.

Ruby is my middle child, and she came so soon after Bella that she sometimes thinks she gets short-shrift (certainly, she wears her share of hand-me-downs). But she knows, because I've always told her, that her birth was the best one.

Friday, October 11, 2013

How Does She Do It? Embracing Chaos

To paraphrase radio host and viral blogger Matt Walsh, being a mother is hard work. So it is for moms who are the primary full-time carers of their kids, as well as for those who are juggling paid work, full-time or part-time, in or out of the home, with the demands of raising happy and healthy kids. 

So how does the modern mom do it? The answer is obviously: a hundred million different ways. To get a taste of some of those ways, and to give my own voice a break, I asked a few friends a simple question: how do you manage to work and also care for your kids, both in a technical sense (how the time is divided up), and an emotional one?

My first taker is the talented and eloquent Clare Jacob, lawyer-turned-novelist and mom to three. In the piece below, she explains how her career evolved, and the challenges of working around her children's schedules. Thank you, Clare.

Embracing Chaos

When I started having children I was a lawyer.  There were not many women where I worked, and no new mother had taken more than three months off.  There was a kind of bravado about how quickly the women came back to the job, how little the arrival of a baby had changed them and how seamlessly they picked up their careers again.  Even before my son was born I guessed I wouldn’t be like this. Six months, I said I needed, not because it corresponded with a planned and managed retreat from motherhood but because that was the longest time I thought could get away with.  

When my son arrived and demanded constant feeding at my breast I was all too ready to give in.  His affection and will prevailed over my ill-defended proposal.  How I remember the bitter-sweetness of those first nine months, the sense of being, at last, really needed, but also of being adrift from the world that had filled my days. It was like being cast up on a desert island with no company but a very friendly animal. I was half infantilized myself; in the evenings my husband cut my meat so I could eat one-handed over the baby’s head. 

But by the time I did go back to work my son had become all too human, full of sounds and games, and leaving him felt like an act of violence to us both.   I was back in court but now I couldn’t prepare my cases at home in the evening or early mornings; I’d be sucked back into the feeding and cuddling. The next day I staggered through work only half present, worrying because my child refused the bottle and seemed so miserable at my departure.

By this time I’d acquired a nanny and it seemed natural to have more children now I was accustomed to chaos, to dashing in and out of work and motherhood,  to finding all barriers broken down.  So I had another child almost straight after going back to work, and then, very soon, another. ‘You are like a machine!” a friend said, but I felt more like an overflowing pot of porridge. And a new fear ate away at me: that I wasn’t doing anything well. There was too much crying. The first nanny said she was jealous because my son loved me more than her.  She couldn’t cope with three kids on a bus. Nor could her successor. It all seemed strained and wrong.

At the same time something else was growing inside me: a realization that there was something more that I wanted to create, something I could do without leaving the house, without the tears and panic when I was stuck at court and no one was at the nursery at pickup time. I wanted to write.   

It took some years before I made the transition from lawyer to writer, and my children, now old enough to have opinions, were initially skeptical.  These days they ask me how many words I write in a day and then use their arithmetic to tell me that I should on their reckoning have finished three books in the time it’s taken  to do one.  They fail to factor in two key things: 1) how much I chuck away and 2) how long the school vacations are which stop me writing altogether.  My problem now is not that I arrive at court with sick on my collar but that I’m abandoning a half-done scene to bicycle to school or I’m putting aside a book just as I reach its crisis because it’s holiday time again.  

This is the rub. You break your link to the work and then can’t find it again. You go back, you spot weaknesses but lack the momentum to make the right change and so your confidence ebbs. You lose your will and your focus. But not always.  Sometimes my children's words, stories and characters feed the imagination. After all, what a waste it would be to confound ourselves with love and chaos and not to make it our own.  

Clare Jacob, criminal lawyer turned writer, reveals the pleasures and disasters of law and family in her novel  Ophelia in Pieces.

[How do YOU do it? Be in touch, I'd love to hear your story of balancing family, work, and life.]

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Gender Equality in Judaism, at Home and in Israel

It continues to amaze me, when I think about it, that we are living in a moment in history when social change in Judaism, and in the world, is actively happening every day. Women are still gaining ground as equal members of society; feminism has not finished its business.

When I heard Anat Hoffman speak last spring, the part of her message that most resonated with me was this: many חִלּוֹנִי Israelis don't know that Judaism can be anything but ultra-Orthodoxy. As such, they are automatically excluded, and exclude themselves, from religious life. Imagine a world where Israelis of all stripes felt free to lay claim to their own religious heritage, the way we can and do here in the US. I've heard Israelis say "We [Israelis] don't go to shul". Well, no wonder. I might not go to shul either, if I felt that my beliefs were dismissed as deviant by the sole official religious governing body of the nation.

As part of the New Israel Fund's Taking Our Place campaign in honor of the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall, they asked for submissions of personal stories that explain "how YOUR connection to your Jewish heritage has been strengthened by the Jewish community's move to more gender equality." 

Given that gender equality in Judaism (and in life) is something that I care deeply about (plus, let's face it, I can't resist a good writing assignment), I jotted down the story below, which can also be found on the NIF website, here.

I grew up with mixed messages. My parents encouraged me to succeed academically, and I always felt my prospects were limitless; when I grew up, I could be anything my brothers could be. With one exception. In our Conservative non-egalitarian synagogue, my brothers, once of age, could read Torah and lead tefilot and count in the minyan, and I could not. It was a jarring inconsistency in what was otherwise a thoroughly modern household.
As a young adult, I had to find a way to reconcile my Jewish identity and my progressive feminist identity. Forsaking either one was never an option. For a time, I infrequently visited a synagogue. When my first child was born, it felt natural and necessary to join a spiritual community. It was finally my chance to choose the community that I wanted to be a part of; how lucky for me to live in New York City, where we joined a thriving intellectual, egalitarian, and socially progressive synagogue. Every time I listened to our talented woman cantor beautifully lead the tefilot, my Jewish identity and feminist identities were affirmed.
I have three young daughters, and already their education has been different from mine. They expect equal opportunities for men and women, in both the religious and secular spheres. I look forward to celebrating my oldest’s bat mitzvah and watching her proudly read the Torah and don a talit. And I dream of a day when she will be able to practice Judaism as she sees fit, no matter where she is in the world; even at the Kotel.

I encourage you to share your story with the NIF as well. If you do, please send it to me, too, so I can share it here.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Secret of Siblings

Sometimes on the weekends it feels like my family is walking on a cracking ice field, one step away from being swallowed whole by the glacier. By that I mean to say that my older girls have been fighting a lot. Their voices are louder than ever, their bodies are bigger every day, they share a room and a dresser and a closet and a bathroom, not to mention a stubbornness and sense of injustice that one hopes they'll put to good use one day to argue on behalf of the truly downtrodden. As they are still grade schoolers, they mostly argue on their own behalf, and the arguments can feel like major storm systems. The lightning and thunder comes in the form of meanness that they don't show to other people. They are equally responsible for lashing out, and equally cruel.

This is the secret of siblings.

People ask me if they get along, and of course, they do. They enjoy many of the same activities, support each other in new situations, and know exactly how to entertain each other. There are times when they are lost in each other's company for hours. But they also know each other's Achilles' heel. They can hurt each other better than anyone.

I know that they are not unique, because I have not forgotten the way I fought with my brothers when I was a kid. When I was eight and my parents told us that we were going to have a new sibling, I famously said, "If it's another boy, I'm leaving." If I could have made my brothers disappear, I might very well have made that choice.

I'm close with my brothers now, and when I look back, the bad times are certainly out-weighted by the many good memories of growing up in a loving family. The point is that I believe this sibling stuff is normal. But that doesn't make it any easier.

I didn't set out to write about this today. I was going to write about how Ruby and I went to a fabulous art exhibition yesterday: Marc Chagall at the Jewish Museum. There was a family program with a child-oriented guide and interactive art projects that Ruby so enjoyed: she made a puppet and painted a picture inspired by Chagall. She also got to try on a larger-than-life super-cool backpack puppet, courtesy of the Puppeteers' Cooperative.

It was the perfect activity for both her and for me, as I love to visit galleries, but rarely do, and she loves to make art at any opportunity. Best of all, we got to talk about Chagall, and laugh at the self-portrait of him as a goat, and enjoy lunch in the cafe, all without any arguing or fighting or distractions from her siblings.

Oh, no. Did I just say that? Yes, I did. The outing was great because Ruby and I did it alone. It worked out that way because Bella had a birthday party, and Louisa was home napping. We could have had a great time all together, for sure. But it would have been different, and it would inevitably have been less calm.

Bella and I had alone time yesterday, too, when I took her to swim practice on the subway at 6am, followed by breakfast. I don't even mind getting up 5:40 because I enjoy the time with Bella. That is a Sunday ritual that no doubt will stay with both of us forever.

It's really difficult to find time to spend alone with my children, as any parents who are outnumbered by their kids know. I'll take the opportunities when they come.