Friday, January 23, 2015

Fear and Excitement

What a week! I am putting the first touches on the website for my new project (that I've been hinting about here for a while, now), and it is a lot of work, but it's really fun. You can visit the site here and give  me any feedback you have on what you see/what I might change or add.  The endeavor is called The SELF (Social-Emotional Learning Foundations) Project. The goal is to bring social-emotional education to tweens and teens at schools, after-school programs, and other places where they gather.  The curriculum is divided into six areas:


  • mindfulness
  • living with joy
  • dealing with stress, anxiety, and fear
  • developing self-worth
  • compassion
  • big questions of life
I'm offering one-off events as well as entire workshops based in these areas and hoping to do a few summer camps this year.  I will also facilitate groups for parents and others raising tweens and teens to talk about mindful parenting through this tumultuous time, again either as ongoing meetings or as one-off speaking/facilitating events.  Eventually, I hope to develop the curriculum so that it can be licensed to other people who want to teach it in their own communities.  Each focus area has discussion prompts, worksheets, activities, and guided visualizations/meditations in order to offer different ways of looking at the same ideas.  It is based in research I've done over the past eight years as I raise my own girls and strive to help them develop as whole human beings, and most of the meditations and worksheets are things I created to help my girls through challenging times. If you know of schools or other organizations (YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, etc.) who might be interested, please pass on the link to the website so they can check it out.   I am happy to travel in the Pacific Northwest to speak and teach.  

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Also, in case you missed it, I had a piece published this week that I have worked on for a while and I'd love it if you headed over to read it - especially if you know tweens or teens that have questions about sex and sexuality.  You can find it here.

Friday, January 16, 2015

No Easy Answers

FhaC protein of Bordatella pertussis
In December, Eve had whooping cough.  We didn't realize it at the time, but when I finally took her to the doctor three weeks later to see why her cough hadn't resolved, we figured it out. Of course, by then, she was 90% recovered with just the lingering chest-rattling hack as evidence. Me? I was instantly chastened and laughed to the Physician's Assistant, "HA! Sign me up for Mother of the Year!"  She was quick to let me know that I shouldn't worry - there wasn't much they could have done for her anyway. And, hey, now she likely has natural immunity, so it's all good, right?

The thing is, it didn't really occur to me that whooping cough was a possibility, mostly because Eve was vaccinated on schedule.  I had peripherally heard about whooping cough outbreaks - mainly in high schools around the area - but they never really penetrated my consciousness enough to worry about it.  (That said, I will relay the memory of one time a few years ago when a local private high school was closed because of a widespread outbreak of whooping cough and my Facebook feed suddenly reflected a whole lot of vitriol directed at "those people who don't vaccinate their kids" despite any sort of hard evidence that it was an unvaccinated student who was the cause of the outbreak. That was a little shocking to see, but since I didn't have a dog in that fight, I left it alone.)

So how the heck did my kid (and all the other high school kids in the area) get whooping cough, especially those who have been vaccinated against it?

There seem to be no simple answers.  At least not any based in medicine.  I was told (on Facebook) by a friend that my daughter likely "got exposure from another who had not been vaccinated," but I don't see how that's the most likely explanation.

Certainly, it seems that the whooping cough vaccine that kids are getting is not as effective as it was meant to be. Most kids get their final booster around age 11 or 12, and the outbreaks are happening to high-school aged kids - the vast majority of whom have an unpleasant week or two and then are absolutely fine.  The CDC speculates that it is possible that the kids who have been vaccinated against whooping cough can harbor the bacteria in their system and when the vaccine efficacy wanes, as it is wont to do, it rears its ugly head and voila, kids get sick.  Of course, they also speculate that it is possible that there are some unvaccinated kids out there who get it and pass it along.  And they also speculate that the bacterium itself has mutated just enough to render the vaccine itself useless.

Like I said, no simple answers.  Folks who like to believe that there is an anti-vaccine conspiracy often say that if everyone were vaccinated, there would be no virus/bacteria left to mutate and that is why everyone ought to just go get their kids every shot offered.  Except that many of these shots are NOT SAFE for babies of a certain age, so there is no way to ensure that the virus/bacteria is gone forever.  And there are some folks whose medical status is too fragile for them to get the vaccine, which means they have to weigh the odds of potentially dying from getting the shots against the potential that they might one day come in contact with the virus/bacteria in question.  Again, no such thing as 100% vaccination and, thus, eradication.

In the days before vaccines, people did get sick and die from diseases like whooping cough, although generally that was because their health was not great for other reasons - malnutrition, immune disorders, age.  More often than not, people got viral or bacterial infections and recovered from them and built natural immunity. Nursing mothers could pass this natural immunity on to their children in many cases, and there was very little need for a vaccine, much less a boost of immunity later in life.

All this is to say that I don't think we can continue to place an inordinate amount of faith in the vaccination system. Yes, smallpox was eradicated by a vaccine. We all know the story. But one success story does not mean that this solution fits everything. And it also doesn't mean we ought to stop asking questions about vaccine efficacy for other, different, less deadly diseases (READ: HPV). And it certainly doesn't mean that we ought to feel free to vilify and radicalize people who are rightly concerned about their own children's individual health.

Eve most certainly caught whooping cough from someone at school.  Whether or not they were vaccinated against it means nothing to me. That kid came to school infectious, whether they knew it or not, coughed on Eve, or at the very least in her close vicinity, and the rest is history. Should I go on the school website and rail against the parents who send their kids to school with a fever or a nasty cough because it resulted in my kid getting really sick? I don't think so. Generally, the only people who end up needing hospitalization for whooping cough are babies, the elderly, and those whose health is already compromised, so there was almost no chance she would suffer long-lasting effects from her illness.  Going to school where there are other people - heck, going out in public, touching a door handle, using an ATM machine, breathing on an airplane - is putting you at risk for catching all sorts of things from other people who are either knowingly or unknowingly sick.  We cannot ever hope to eradicate all possibility of getting sick from other people unless we choose to live in a bubble and that is a pretty sad, pretty fear-based existence.  I'm not pissed off at the person who shared their whooping cough with Eve. I consider it part of the price of 'doing business' as they say. I'm only a little bit sad that Lola didn't manage to catch it at the same time, if only so I know they're both immune.  Shhh, don't tell her I said that.

Monday, January 12, 2015

What Does This Say About Our Culture of Busy-ness?

"Smart Clip Reminds Parents of Babies Left in Cars"

I don't even really know where to go with this. I know that the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas showcases all sorts of innovative and crazy technologies, many of which are altogether unnecessary but cool. I get that in the spirit of seeing what can be created, companies often try to design markets around things that nobody needs, but might want. 

But this? A clip that fits on to your child's seat belt to remind you that they are there when you exit your car? Yes, I have heard the (extremely rare and baffling) news reports of harried parents accidentally leaving their children in cars while they go to work all day. And I agree that if even one life can be saved by installing a "Smart Clip" on your child's carseat, it's worth it.  

But more profoundly, this speaks to me of the increasing lack of attention we pay to the things that we do every day. How far does your mind have to be down the rabbit hole of to-do's that you forget about the living, breathing human beings around you? How much could some small shift in attention and mindfulness affect our ability to remember what we're doing while we're doing it?

I'm not judging. I am as likely as anyone else to forget what I'm doing in the moment. I leave my keys behind, my grocery bags in the car about every third time I head to get food for the week, and I often get into another room and have to stop a beat to recall why the hell I'm there.  All of those things point to me not being present, and generally all it takes is a thoughtful intention to be mindful of what I'm doing to bring me back.  

I am reminded of something that I heard Dr. JoAnn Deak say once in a lecture she delivered.  If a girl isn't making eye contact with you, she isn't processing what you're saying.  I wonder how often I don't look up when my loved ones come into the room and start talking to me, my head buried in a book or staring at my computer screen.  I wonder how that makes them feel, or if they are so used to people not making eye contact with them that they don't think a thing of it.  And I wonder how many nuances of conversation I am missing by not taking a nanosecond to be intentional about my attention.  It is so easy to think that we are paying attention simply because we do something by rote (nod and murmur, "uh huh" at a break in someone's sentence, buckle our child into their carseat and drive to work), but it takes more than that to truly be part of that action, and ironically, it doesn't take much more time. It simply requires that we be mindful of what we're doing at any given time, a task that is becoming increasingly challenging for all of us as we succumb to the rhetoric about 'productivity.' Personally, I'd rather see more people doing things with intentionality and purpose and attention than people doing more things on balance.  A culture that requires a "Smart Clip" to remember its children are there isn't one that I can be terribly proud of. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Something To Do

I am sitting in my cluttered kitchen contemplating a new vision for today. I had plans to go to yoga and then lunch with a friend to catch up a little on her new career endeavors and mine, but she "called in sick." For the time being, I've put two spaghetti squash into the oven to roast so I can have a head start on making dinner tonight and I'm at the kitchen table eating leftover enchilada filling with avocado and thinking about the extra hours I've been given today.

Yesterday I called my mom. She recently quit her job for a variety of reasons (she is 70+ years old and won't call it a retirement) and is struggling with memory loss.  She has good days and bad, and she seemed cheerful yesterday when she answered the phone, although she quickly confessed that she had a headache so she was sitting on the couch with the cat, hoping it would go away.  She lamented the grey shroud of fog outside her family room windows and went so far as to blame her headache on that. I wondered if it had more to do with her blood sugar, but didn't say that aloud.

Frankly, I'm feeling a little guilty that I am so excited about gaining a few hours today to get things done. I'm feeling badly that there are so many things to do on my list that it might take me 15 minutes to decide which of them to begin with. Mom doesn't really have anything to do and it shows. Her husband gets up every day and heads to their carpet store and while I don't know how much he enjoys the work, it's something. I don't know what Mom does. I know she doesn't prepare any food for herself anymore. She doesn't remember to take her Metformin on her own. She doesn't make her way efficiently through paragraphs of legal mumbo-jumbo as she helps clients buy and sell their homes. I think, mostly, she sits with the cat.

My list runs the gamut from picking up (and then installing) two new parts for my dishwasher, settling a bill with the chiropractor and dropping off donations to the homeless shelter nearby to creating a business plan and website design for a new venture I'm creating. There is also laundry, dog-walking and cleaning out the litter box to accomplish, among other things. I'm not feeling overwhelmed or frustrated. Instead, I'm feeling purposeful and energized, knowing that these things are by turns mundane and vital and wondering how Mom can get some of that in her life.

After chatting for nearly an hour yesterday, we were winding down the conversation and Mom suddenly said, "THANK you SO much for calling!  Thank you!"  And, although she didn't sound sad or lonely, my heart broke a little bit at the thought of her sitting on the couch with the cat, alone in the fog with nothing to do today. I guess I don't blame her for not calling it 'retirement.'

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Life Lessons on Holiday

Holiday breaks are a great time for me to learn new things about parenting. As an introvert who has crafted her life to include working at home with no other companion but the dog and the occasional lunch or coffee date if I feel like it, having my kids and my husband home all day every day for two weeks feels a bit overwhelming.  Add Bubba's family to that for one of those two weeks and you can be sure to find me 'meditating' at the sink as I do dishes a few times a day. It's the one place where I know my kids won't come near me for fear of being asked to help clean up after fourteen hungry family members.

I won't bore you with the details, but here are a couple tidbits I picked up over this year's break thus far:

1. The use of superlatives is altogether unhelpful.  In particular, I am referring to the words "always," "never," "everyone," and "nobody." I am just as guilty as anyone else of using those words to make a point, but the problem with them is that they are rarely true and they serve to escalate the emotional intensity of any situation rapidly.  When my kids come to me claiming that "nobody ever includes me in ________," or some such notion, my first tendency is to dispute the claim and point out all of the other times that she has been asked to join in the fun. It may be true, but it certainly isn't helpful. Generally the best thing I can do in that situation is to acknowledge hurt feelings or frustration and ask what their preferred solution might be.  

Those words also have the added effect of convincing us that things are worse than they actually are. In my case, when my kids tell me "everyone hates me," I have little else to go on. While I think it is highly unlikely that each and every single person around them wishes them ill, I don't honestly know if it's true, or even if my kid really believes that it is. But sometimes, if I'm not fully paying attention, I take them at their word and then I get all wound up in the belief that it's true. The more I react to those kinds of statements, the more I reinforce for my kids that I believe what they're saying and that's how destructive patterns get laid down. When we all start buying into the always/never/everyone/nobody stories, it's a dangerous time.

And so, I have asked my kids not to use those words about each other or their friends or family, especially when emotions are running high. It gets me wound up, it winds them up, and we all go down the path of darkness and gloom on a false belief.  They agreed to do their best. And then they busted me when I did it the next day, whining that NOBODY EVER offers to help with the kitchen clean-up after dinner. I guess they took the new rule to heart.

2. The use of apologies, especially parental ones, is incredibly important when it comes to trust-building. I don't recall the parental apology being a thing in my childhood and I have yet to talk to anyone from my generation who does. When my dad was dying, he told me several times how sorry he was for certain things that he did or said when I was a kid and I can't even begin to say how important and meaningful that was to me.  That said, I often wonder how different all our lives might have been if we had learned to apologize to each other early and often.

I was in my thirties before I fully realized that my parents were human beings and always had been. During my childhood, they subscribed to the school of thought that said you didn't back down to your kids, didn't show a chink in your armor, didn't let 'em see you sweat. While I often questioned my parents' wisdom and choices, I never thought of them as fully fallible human beings who might be unsure of themselves as parents. It never occurred to me that they weren't 100% sure of what they were doing. It certainly occurred to me from time to time that they were evil or hated me or were hell-bent on making my life miserable, but I never considered that they could be just making mistakes along the way. Until I had kids. Then that reality hit me full force.

I started letting my girls know from the beginning that I am human, mostly for selfish reasons. I didn't  want them to expect too much from me, so I made sure they knew I was doing my best, but would be mistake-prone until I figured things out.  The best way to let them know I was fallible was by apologizing when I really messed up. When I freaked out disproportionately and screamed at them, I came back later to say I was sorry and tell them how I wished I had dealt with the situation. After falsely accusing them or punishing them without all the facts, I would later admit my mistake and ask for redemption. Now that they are teens, this policy is paying off with trust. Not only do my girls know it's okay for them to mess up and lose their cool, but they know how to apologize for it as well.  I know parents who balk at admitting their mistakes to their children and I understand how hard it is, but I have to tell you that there are not many more powerful ways to connect with your child on a truly authentic level than to let them know you're sorry for hurting them. Even if I feel like my girls have over-reacted to something emotionally, the fact is that perception is reality and if they don't trust me to empathize and acknowledge their feelings, they aren't likely to come to me with other emotionally charged topics.  Apologizing is a small price to pay for keeping the lines of communication open. And, fortunately or unfortunately, I've had enough fights with my kids to have had lots of practice saying I'm sorry.  I can tell you that it gets easier with time and rarely (I can't say "never" anymore) has there been a time where they didn't apologize right back.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Absurdity of Violence

I have so many sad thoughts running through my brain after yesterday’s attack on a military school in Peshawar, Pakistan. Most of them are surface thoughts, mourning for the loss of life and the feeling of fear that must be in the air for families, for children going to school, for teachers who put their lives in danger by just going to work. The deeper thoughts run to the absurdity of war, of “conflict,” of targeted attacks and drones and the ongoing back-and-forth in so many parts of the world.

“We want them to feel our pain,” said one Taliban commander as a justification for the attack.

Well of course you do. Regardless of your politics or religious beliefs, you are human and you feel pain. And the relentless attacks on North Waziristan have most likely caused much collateral damage.

Instead of contemplating that statement (which I only heard on one news outlet one time despite the nearly constant coverage of this incident), the Pakistani government – no doubt with a significant amount of support from our country – retaliated almost immediately, sending air strikes to Taliban strongholds.

Rather than answering for the innocent women and children they have killed and the “tens of thousands” they have displaced, the Pakistan military decided to take it up a notch.

Let me be clear. Nobody is right here. This continued escalation of violence with no nod whatsoever to the loss of life, the impotence of the entire endeavor, the impossibility of the stated goal (Pakistani Prime Minister has said that they will keep fighting until “terrorism is rooted from our land”) can only serve to further entrench both sides. There is no weapon that can secure peace. I know that there is no simple solution, but I do know that this is no solution at all. It feels to me like two teenage boys punching each other in the arm.

“Take that!”

“Oh, yeah? Well I can punch harder than that. Take that!”

“That’s nothing. Here, how does that feel?”

Eventually, one of them will get tired of the one-upmanship or too hurt to go on, but if they’re mad enough, they might come back with a different weapon later on. And what has been proven? The one with the most might is not necessarily the one who is right.  Continued escalation of violence, state-sanctioned or not, falls under the definition of insanity as far as I’m concerned. How long will we continue to take this same approach to no avail before we acknowledge that it isn’t working? And how many more people have to die during the learning curve? War is a failure of imagination, of creativity, of willingness to find other solutions. We can’t lose much more by stopping the violent attacks and trying something else than we already are by escalating things.


In the meantime, I will continue to breathe in suffering and breathe out compassion. I will feel their pain, the suffering on all sides of this issue. Someone has to.

Monday, December 08, 2014

When That Publication Wasn't What You Thought it Was

I just had to go and check whether my essay had been published yet.
I couldn't email the editor or wait for her to email me. I had to visit the site and see it.

I submitted a piece to an online parenting magazine after multiple rejections from other places at the urging of a Facebook writers group. I didn't know much about the ezine and I did a cursory check of it before submitting to make sure it wasn't populated with articles about the Kardashians and "mom-jeans." I figured since other writers I know from the group had published their work there that it was probably fine, and so I didn't dig too deeply.

Last week when the editor emailed me with a few suggested changes, I was pleased. Her ideas were great and, in one case, she said she thought I should cut something because she thought it was victim-blaming. When I pushed back a little, she explained further and I saw that she was right. After I thanked her for her perspective, she said she was just looking out for me - that their commenters are pretty smart and can be murder on a writer.  I was tremendously grateful.

Today when I went to the site to see whether the piece was up or not, something caught my eye; namely, an essay with the word "Anti-Vaxxers" in the title. My heart sank. I read the article to the end, the bile rising in my throat with every word. As if that weren't enough, I chose to read the comments. I'm not sure what I was hoping for - perhaps one or two voices that took the author to task for being nasty, for reducing the issue to black-and-white, some sort of intelligent conversation? I wanted to see that this was a community of parents who were thoughtful and compassionate, educated and nonjudgmental. Unfortunately, that isn't what I saw. I saw eighty-plus comments from women cheering each other on for their choice to vaccinate their children for everything under the sun, egging each other on as they characterized anyone who wouldn't do the same as "stupid" or "pro-death." I saw not one comment defending a decision not to vaccinate (even against the flu). I saw not one compassionate response that called for an understanding of the difficulty of the issue.  In fact, at one point, the comment thread devolved into vilifying families for choosing organic food or avoiding GMOs.

Sigh.

One woman commented multiple times and seemed particularly gleeful when she was hating on "those people." She wrote that she loved this particular site because "this place is so pro-vaccine/pro-common sense/pro-community...[it is] my vaccine safe space." Oh. Well, then.

The last thing I want is to be part of a community that is one-sided. I don't want to write for a group of readers who are so convinced that they already know everything there is to know about Subject X that they refuse to think about grey areas or nuances or what someone else's life might be like. And so now that my essay hasn't yet shown up, I have the dilemma of whether or not to ask them to pull it. It isn't a subject that's terribly controversial for this particular ezine and I'm not worried that I'll get trashed in the comments (in fact, I may not even read them, after this), but I hate the idea that this particular site is known for polarization or nastiness. I don't want my writing associated with that, especially if I'm being paid for it.

When I looked at previous articles by the author of this one, I was surprised at what I found. Honestly, many of her posts were funny and/or interesting. One or two were even helpful. I guess I was struck by the passion that this particular issue can incite in what I would consider to be an otherwise reasonable person. But if there is something that I can't stand, it's reducing a complicated issue to black-and-white and then using that as an excuse to call names and make fun of other people who disagree.  And so, here I find myself, in the crux of a dilemma. I think I'll go sleep on it.
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