Saturday, October 11, 2014

Why I won’t join the PTA (but I’ll still pay my dues)



There is a must-read book on education by Amanda Ripley called The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. Parents should go out and buy this book for themselves and all their parent friends, NOW, it’s that good. The premise is based on extensive research from studies carried out by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) under the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. (Note for the American reader: the latter is a European spelling) The international analysis measured student competencies in math, science, reading, and critical thinking. Data from the most recent study in 2012 showed that over 85,000 children from 65 countries participated, all with an approximate average age of 15. The handwritten test lasted 2 hours, and featured a variety of open-ended, and multiple choice questions.

Without reading ahead, where do you think the U.S. ranked in terms of education? For math we were below average, in the 27th spot, science slightly less pitiful in the 20th spot, while mediocre in reading at 17th. We are a great nation with a substandard education problem raising poor thinkers. That is now an internationally proven fact.

Certainly, Americans do not take well to criticism and the U.S. Department of Education has responded seriously to the study, calling for more rigorous and higher standards in education. This is a long, uphill battle, where the majority of parents and educators resist change, refuse to acknowledge blatant deficiencies in our system, and negate any weakness in our young minds. The new Common Core standard was created in part to remediate these obvious issues, particularly in critical thinking, but any time a new standard is mentioned, the community goes into an uproar.

For me, what was most fascinating about the study was the parental survey that accompanied it. Answers within not only provided us with a personal component, but also a snapshot of how much parental involvement plays a role (if any) on children’s test scores. The notion of parental involvement has many facets, with cultural, linguistic, and ethnic variances. Generally speaking, the "apple-pie" American way is towards enhancing self-esteem, placing emphasis on extracurricular activities, and depending on socio-economic status putting forth much energy on the PTA and its efforts. This will include a continuous amount of fundraising activities year-round. If you were to compare this to an Asian country, such as Korea for example, you will see that parents there have little patience for matters regarding self-esteem, maintain extremely high expectations for their children, and comport themselves as rigorous academic drill coaches. They also don’t waste too much time volunteering at their children’s schools. Korea happens to be in the top 5 performers across all areas: problem solving, math, reading, and critical thinking.

I would never want to negate the benefits a good PTA can have on a school. My daughters attend a great public school with a fantastic and energetic PTA. They do amazing things there, from staying on top of classroom repairs to purchasing technological tools so dire these days. PTA parents are an admirable breed, their enthusiasm and motivation is contagious. But, there is a fundamental difference between parental involvement and PTA involvement, in the same way there is a huge difference between caring about your child’s needs and dedicating all your waking hours to working for their financial benefit. The time commitment it takes to involve yourself as a parent to all their efforts can divert you from what really matters: your child. And as committed as I am to improving the quality of schools for all, there are other ways to achieve this.

The PISA results revealed something else that was quite astonishing. Kids whose parents were very heavily involved in the PTA tended to score worse on reading. Though this needs further research, I am willing to bet that it’s the time required to make your kid a good reader. It’s painful to sit through a child reading for the first year, while they improve their diction and incorporate tone into the story. It’s as painful as watching paint dry and your skin will literally crawl, all as you attempt to appear serene, peaceful, and encouraging, so that your little budding reader could get to the next level. And reading is not something that you can step back from after a year; they should probably read out loud to you for a solid 2-3 years before you can consider them independent readers. Once they achieve that though, you should still invest a lot of time in inspiring them to read every day, encouraging diverse reading material, and if multilingualism is your goal making sure they have other language books too. It is a time consuming but well worth feat!

So, if you ask me to decide between organizing a school fundraiser or focusing on my child’s intellectual growth, I will definitely choose the latter. But because I still admire and appreciate the PTA, I will continue to renew my annual membership, buy the spirit gear, and support the bake sales by buying as many treats as we can eat. I wonder how much time and effort would be saved if every family was required to pay the PTA a certain sum of money per year to be applied towards the school? It would be the best of both worlds, to have all the resources needed plus parents with more time on their hands for their kids.

If you are interesting in reading the key findings of the PISA 2012 study, please click here: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results-overview.pdf


 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Love is Art and Art is Love

In the span of a breath, everything changed. And with no warning, my planetary alignment shifted.

I stood there listening as he stormed his complaints about the changing art world, how these modern art directors no longer wanted him in their galleries, they couldn’t understand his frank analysis of society or his painted images of Shrek amidst wasted dry lands of mixed media, they were ignorant of his fame, his worldly talent. Didn’t we all agree? I was impressed he had managed to pull himself together for the opening, but I could still smell Lord knows how many days of alcohol on his clothes, it seeped from his pores as he droned on and on. He held a stumpy cigar in one hand, lit, completely unaware that no one smoked indoors these days, and we all indulged him because he was the star of the show. The other hand rested on a rickety cane, which he used to slam to the ground when he argued a point. It seemed to give him great satisfaction when everyone around him jumped in fear. I was trying hard to feign interest in his stories when out of the corner of my eye, I saw my ex lover walk in the gallery.

My moment had arrived. All those futile attempts coveting his company, years of rejected romantic notions, of yearning for even the flimsiest illusion of a relationship (which I would have been fine with by the way) all those years and here he was, heedlessly walking back into my life. Had I not already downed two glasses of wine I never would have had the nerve to walk right up to him with a casual attempt to welcome him to our opening. He was as handsome as always and as mysterious and difficult to read as usual. By the time my heart recovered from its arrhythmic palpitations, it was too late to retreat when I realized he had not come alone, furthermore he was not affected by my presence.

The audacity of him returning to parade a new lover before me was almost too much to bear; it was way too soon, an eternity of time would be too soon after what he had put me through. But, when I caught a glimpse of her my world suddenly changed its orbit.

She was far from what you would define as a beautiful seductress or a stunning femme fatale. Surprisingly, she was rather simple; her clothes almost drab, a short brown dress and a cream knit sweater hung loosely over her shoulders, low, worn-out boots instead of the usual stilettos women wore to these types of events. She had a nervous habit of tugging at her necklace which made her seem awkwardly out of place in this obnoxious world of self-labeled creative geniuses and performance freaks. She was obviously too real for this illusion of a world, and it hit me then that he had no idea how to handle her, or any woman he’d ever been with.

As she looked up at me, her brown hair cascaded the most beautiful features I had ever seen on a face. Our magnetic pull shocked me with a power so strong it defined all celestial gravity. I think he might have started talking at that point, but I can’t tell you what he said, or whether it mattered much to us. My entire raison d'etre became her, as her entire raison d'etre became me.

The rest of the evening found us giggling over drunk, clumsy artists, their depictions of the female form, and pondering the sexual innuendos of old Dutch painters. Everything else that evening remains a haze, and his presence in my heart is now long forgotten. 

“At night I dream that you and I are two plants
that grew together, roots entwined,
and that you know the earth and the rain like my mouth,
since we are made of earth and rain.”
Pablo Neruda, Regalo De Un Poeta/ Gift Of A Poet

 


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Letting Go



“Let It Go” is sung in our house a hundred times a day. We get bonus plays in Spanish and Italian due to our multicultural family blend, but in essence it’s the same song over, and over, and OVER again. I ride the wave with it, like all things children related, it’s a phase they will outgrow soon enough. Typically the outgrowing occurs when they discover their next maddening obsession.

Yet this song in particular got me thinking about life, friendships, and letting go. Specifically, it got me thinking about girlfriends and frenemies. The word frenemy is an interesting one. I was surprised to learn that it’s been around since the 1950s, and not invented recently with the surge of bad teenage movies. It’s a word our kids learn early. I remember my daughter coming home from kindergarten asking what it meant because another young girl had used it. It’s a word I despise for everything it stands for, and it’s as utterly confusing as the coining of the term “friendly fire” during wars. What is a frenemy? Is it a friend, an enemy, is it a close enemy you choose to keep close? If so, why in the world, just why?

Finding a good girlfriend at my age is the equivalent of finding a faithful boyfriend in high school, it’s almost impossible. Perhaps we discriminate more and become harder to please, perhaps we don’t have as much time to waste as our younger selves. I often feel that good girlfriends are as endangered as the Puerto Rican Nightjar (Note: No one I know has ever seen this rare bird). Needless to say I’ve found my friend list gradually decreasing, while my standards are increasing. This might be good or bad, I don’t know yet. I know that having girlfriends is as beneficial as having a community, but the old adage “It is better to be alone than in bad company” rings true when dealing with frenemies.

Out of curiosity, how many frenemies do you have in your life? Do you even know?

Sadly, as women we are socialized to compete very early on; and it happens in the most vicious way possible: via our physical traits. I say vicious because it is impossible if not dangerous to change the way we look. Unless we commit to plastic surgery we will always have our nose, our skin, our hips. And it’s a problem when little girls are taught to use these traits as ploys of superiority so that they believe there is actual value in being born “pretty”. Not to say beauty is a curse, but in many ways the emphasis we put on it is.

Competition also arises from natural comparisons and contrived praises adults put on children. I was raised in a Latin culture where girls are praised for being flirtatious, sexy, and display exhibitionist tendencies. Those are shaky values at best, and inevitably leads us to grow up as women with unhealthy obsessions and a tenuous understanding of female bonds.

It’s taken me years of thought and analysis to put this behind me, and as a mother to two young girls it is something I am very conscious of. Both my daughters are often praised for their beauty, one more than the other, and it is a conversation we have frequently in the car, at home, on our walks to and from school. I want them to know that these comments, while they seem nice enough, are not useful and can be damaging. There are so many other adjectives to use when praising children, why do we always resort to cuteness?

There are other types of competition too, such as intellectual superiority, job hierarchy, or for those who identify themselves through their partner’s professions it turns into mundane conversations centered on what our partners do for a living. Female competitiveness is embedded so thickly that it comes out in every interaction between us, as women, as co-workers, and as mothers.

None of us are perfect, but all of us deserve quality people in our lives. Whether those numbers are few or many might be contingent on luck. Sometimes it’s easier to weed out frenemies before the relationship develops, but how many years of subtle competition do you put up with before you finally decide to move on? And when do you know it’s time to move on? It might take you a long time before realizing you are dealing with a frenemy. Doubts can begin to surface or you might not immediately trust your instincts. At some point though, you have to follow your feelings and assess the friendship. Most important in your assessments is the need to have a clear understanding that people don’t change unless they 1: become aware of their limitations, and 2: They want to change. No amount of hanging out with them will do it. And that’s okay. You don’t have to change them; you don’t have force your values on them. You can, however allow them to move on with their lives and wish them the best, hopefully in some form of enlightenment. 




Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lying (What did she tell you?)




My little one has been perfecting her lying recently.

“Did you just scribble over all these walls?” I ask.

“No.” she answers.

“It wasn’t you who did this?”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“But the marker in your hand is the same color as the scribbles.”

“Funny! But it wasn’t me.”

We assess each other for a moment.

If I wanted to, I could play the mean Mommy. I could pursue a tribunal-style interrogation, bring in witnesses and push her into a dramatic, teary confession, which would result in nothing constructive really. Or I could concoct a simple ploy. I would admire the painting; then inquire as to the wonderful artist whose work needs praising. But, I don’t. I don’t, because what’s the point? To punish and make her feel bad - or to try and instill a lesson of which I am still not sure of.  

“I understand.” I finally say “Well, I want whoever drew on the walls to know that art is fantastic but in this house I would much rather it be on paper, so please no scribbling on the walls” I quickly add: “Or on the furniture!”

And, I leave it that.

Later, it hits me that I should have addressed the lying. Not necessarily create a battle about it, but more of a ‘you can tell me anything without fear’ context. One of my goals for a healthy parent-child relationship is to share honesty. I want both my daughters to know, that as they grow up, they can tell me anything without fear. They can share their secrets, angst, worries big or small. I want them to know that if they are ever partying the night away, they can call me up anytime they want, because they need a ride home. No questions asked. No judgment added.

I also want them to know, that from my perspective, lying is not a horrible thing. I’m not talking about psychopathic tendencies here, but little white lies and even big gray ones. Lying can serve a purpose, and can be a good thing sometimes.

All humans lie, if you disagree, you are either lying to yourself or to the people around you. As a parent it’s fascinating to see how early, naturally, and instinctively it is developed. Not all children lie. My first is way too honest, which worries me more than an occasional lie because in life, we sometimes need filters, and lying can be that for us.

 “If you truly want honesty, don't ask questions you don't really want the answer to”

Sometimes, we want to know the truth, we need to know the truth, but on a day-to-day basis, how much truth do we really need in our lives? 

There are moments when truth is essential, and there are moments when lying is as much about self preservation as not choosing to divulge intimate details about your finances, relationship, and personal matters to others. I am not encouraging lying regularly per se, but there is no need to share what you are not comfortable with.

As long as you are essentially a kind, and relatively honest person, what harm does an occasional lie do? Unfiltered truths can cause more pain than most people are prepared to deal with, so an occasional omission might be a better option.

The bigger lesson and the one I hope to teach with time, is that she doesn’t need to lie out of fear, but if she’s not comfortable sharing something, that’s okay too.

Monday, September 22, 2014

New Beginnings and the Anxiety Monster

There is a children’s poetry book we read often called Jitomates Risueños (Laughing Tomatoes) that ends with the simple lines “No existen finales, solo nuevos principios.” “There are no endings, just new beginnings.” It is written in a circular form around a child’s smiling face, an apt and accurate statement on many levels.

The week before school started I was a ball of anxiety. Any comment, look or request sent me off the deep edge screaming lunacy into the oblivion. My husband made a little side comment that I seemed a bit impatient recently and I lurched into vampire form just about biting his head off. All this stress was due to one singular and silly reason: I was dreading the new routine, the having to wake up in the morning, getting everyone ready, hair braiding, lice avoiding, listening to the school friend drama, new teacher rules, making breakfasts, packing lunches, and the never-ending everything a new school year entails. The globe was spinning too fast, my big girl was going into 3rd grade and my baby was entering a preschool program for the first time; it was all  moving forward, without thought to my angst, I had no control over anything whatsoever, especially not the ball of panic threatening to burst from inside me.

There is a Spanish expression “ahogarse en un vaso de agua” literally “to drown in a glass of water” or “make mountains out of molehills.”  This is me. I don’t deal well without a plan, without a clear to do list, without knowing absolutely everything in advance. I like to think of myself as a flexible person, adaptable to anything life throws her way; this is obviously light years from the truth. I need routine and a crystal ball as much as a child needs a reliable caretaker.  A magic wand would be nice too.

By the time afternoon of the first day arrived, I was better, as soon as I picked the girls up and saw how ecstatic they were, how happy they were to tell me all about their day, I peacefully noticed that my ball of panic had dissipated. We made it to Friday, the last day of the first school week, everyone intact, with less than five meltdowns, and just 1 or 2 minor threats. Not bad, considering we had 2 different drop off and pick up times, 2 ballet classes, 1 cello practice, a ton of homework and papers to fill out, and more supplies to buy, not bad at all. The worries and anxiety were actually bigger in my head.

Anxiety is no joke. It’s like when you’re a kid and you clearly see the most terrifying monster ever, with a hunched back, a huge head, and snarling teeth right under your bed. You turn on the lights and the monster disappears, perhaps it was never there after all? You turn off the lights and now the monster is in the closet, laughing, ready to eat you alive. When you grow up, you laugh at your child self, impressed at your vivid imagination. Well, that great imagination of yours is now conjuring up all kinds of internal angst; those monsters are now endless to do lists, misunderstandings, missing important school events, and crushing little spirits. Anxiety is at its worst when it feels like an unknown and impending disaster is about to happen. That’s when the mind really starts playing tricks on you and the monster under the bed turns out to be not so bad in comparison.  

Day by day, moment by moment. My spiritually evolved friends tell me this; live in the now, and you will get through this; we will all get through this, like we always do. I am trying to live in the now, that’s my new goal but it’s a work in progress.  


Monday, September 15, 2014

Why do you keep doing this to us?



Her ears were ringing hard from the blows; we watched in horror as the neighborhood stood behind us, everyone was standing there, watching. No one helped her up as she struggled, as my sister wailed and screamed, they whispered that perhaps she deserved it. She was the other woman to start with, everyone knew that. 

She was gone for a long time afterwards. Children have a funny way of blocking out the noise, and questions are rarely answered when you’re that young. Our toys took the brunt; we chopped off our dolls’ hairs, and caved their faces in, we scribbled hard over their bodies until our fingers bled. Our escape was the great hill across the street, fenced in and overlooking the entire town. We used to build mud pies there and dream of the possibilities. We would grow up and be fabulous. This wasn’t going to be our future.

Every day, the morning sun found a different woman in his bed; as constant and ever changing as the hours he was never without a woman. Some were pleasant and prepared our breakfast before going school, but they never stuck around long enough to know that my sister drank her milk warm and I preferred it cold.

When you live on an island you notice that leaves don’t ever change colors. Whereas in some places the passage of time is marked by weather patterns, there, it was marked by holiday lights and changing school uniforms. Time passed and we kept waiting and waiting, waiting for the holidays to bring her back, waiting for an aunt to call her home, waiting by the door for her. Time passed but she never did come back. The aunt that took me in was devout; she prayed zealously for our souls, and habitually woke me up while it was dark out, so that I could attend service and pray too. It was nice to see the others there, my sisters in their long itchy skirts, colors too dark for the tropical heat.

They ended up marrying men like him. Patterns and cycles are like the weather on that island. Leaves don’t change color and storms are always expected. You can predict a relationship as accurately as you can predict the coming hurricane. 

Now their children ask the same questions I did. Why do you keep falling in love with an abuser? Why do you keep doing this to us?










Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Facts of Life


My gynecologist mentioned the word perimenopausal to me, and surprisingly, it didn't send me convulsing into hysterical fits of vanity. I chuckled, feigning to be a bit taken aback when in fact I was feeling more like: Wow, did I just win the World Cup or what!?

Germaine Greer once said "If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood - if it makes you sick, you've got a long way to go, baby."

I believe myself to be an emancipated feminist all the way. I vote, I support feminist causes, and I happen to be raising two strong women who will continue the struggle. I’m outspoken, opinionated, and not easily intimidated by men, calling out sexist behavior any chance I get. Here’s a random feminist fact: I don't like when men hold doors for me, it’s creepy, and I can hold my own door. Additionally, I’m not very domesticated; despite the fact that I am a stay at home parent, I expect my husband to share all household duties with me.

It's not that I am sickened by my own menstrual blood, if I had to, I would, I might. I just don't know why we had to go there that's all. Whether this negates my feminist values, I beg to differ.

I’m looking forward to menopause for many reasons, and no longer menstruating is definitely in the top 10. After the birth of my first child, my period didn't return for a year, Thank you lactational amenorrhea. After the birth of my second child, I got a menstruation free vacation for over two years. It was glorious bliss. I never had to worry about leaks, spills and cleanup. Dealing with periods has been much more pleasant since discovering the Diva Cup, though having a sticky, bodily liquid ooze out of me every month is not something I would describe as fun. By the way, if the previous sentence sickened you, even a tad, then you definitely have a long way to go.

Ironically, I remember being devastated when my older sister got her period before me. The fact that she was older, and therefore should get her period first, did not even enter my mind. It was a badge of honor, to be recognized with pride by the women in my family, to be the center of their conversations for the moment. They would look at you with glee in their eyes and toast their café con leche at you. Ah! I am a woman; I could be allowed a seat at their ceremonial table. I could participate in their island gossip, at long last! Thank you bloody amiga!

When I did finally get my period, it wasn’t as glamorous as I had imagined it. In fact it was very intrusive, unscheduled, and quite burdensome. I was in the middle of an exhilarating sprinkler run on a hot summer day in New York with all my friends. There we were, playing, running, and shrieking with laughter in an urban created water oasis. The rest of the afternoon found me staring longingly out the window, envious of the neighborhood kids and their period-free days.

Not to say it has been all bad. Menstruating, is as multifaceted and complex as any good “friend”; there are both good and bad qualities.

Besides the typical anxious, bitch behavior (which can happen at any time really), the monthly devouring of everything chocolate, occasional threats to cut anyone who stands in the way of  me and the aforementioned chocolate, and the intense yet brief emotional outbursts, there are many positive reasons to menstruate.

Having a regular cycle is like having an intimate conversation with your body once a month. It’s your body telling you, yep you are healthy, you are a woman, your womb works like clockwork. That is a beautiful thing.   

And if all goes accordingly, your cycle allows you to create life, to sustain it, and when it’s ready, your amazing, all powerful womb will instinctively know, and begin the surges for your birthing muscles to do what they do best.

Our cycle brings with it an awe of nature and the universe around us. Many cultures throughout the world have philosophized at length the correlations of the moon and a woman’s menstrual cycle. It’s a mystical relationship that is also earthy, connected, obviously to our own bodies, our genes, our diet, our health, our environment, and ultimately our cosmos.

Our own American culture’s association with the menstrual cycle and menopause is a fascinating subject. Aging women are not treasured here in the U.S. as in other countries. We lose our beauty with our youth; we seem to lose our seduction prowess, our magnetism. A woman who has been recognized her entire life for her beauty could have a harder time than most during this next transition of her life. We have placed so much emphasis on our youthfulness and attractiveness, that when they are transformed, how do we begin to define ourselves? And parallel to our society’s rejection of us as old, haggard women, is the long list of menopausal symptoms our bodies begin to face. Hot flashes, mood swings, lack of sexual appetite.

The women of the ¡Kung tribe of Africa (otherwise known as the “clicking” tribe) have a very straightforward idea of menopause:

“My mother lived on after that. She menstruated month after month, for a very long time. Then one month came and she didn’t menstruate, then another and another. The months just passed her by and she was finished with the moon.” (Nisa. The Life and Words of a ¡Kung Woman by Marjorie Shostak)

Women of this tribe place no importance on menstruation or menopause, and report no physical symptoms on the latter, with just minor ails on the former.

Where do these symptoms therefore arise – from our bodies, the moon, society, or from our heads?

My personal journey has been one of complete acceptance. I bow down to the sacredness of life, and the two, beautiful beings I was able to create because of a healthy menstruation. When it’s time for my cycle to cease I will bid it adieu, albeit grateful for the guiding presence, ready for the next stage of life. I embrace my aging self, able to define myself through many realms of beauty inside and out. Our connection to the moon does not end with menopause; we continue a path that is focused on the wisdom years can bring. These are my affirmations that I hope all women can share. Accept your wrinkles, your gray hair, for they are the traits of a sage. And enjoy your period free days! May the transition be smooth for all of us. 

Embracing my wrinkles.



Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Weaning



A woman’s pregnancy is estimated to last 40 weeks, and if she follows her child’s instincts, she will likely nurse past 1 year, sometimes even 2 or 3. Nursing is hard work, particularly when you don’t have the support or knowledge of experienced mothers who can help guide you in your new role. For my first experience I had to consult with over a dozen lactation consultants (Thank you La Leche League!) so that I could breastfeed successfully. By the time my second child came along I had gotten the hang of it, and she was able to latch on within seconds of being born.

When I first informed my family I planned to nurse, the response was overwhelmingly negative. My mother shared with us a horror story of a woman in the Bronx whose baby died of malnutrition because she was not producing enough milk. Other family members asked how I would know whether the baby was indeed eating enough, why I didn’t make it easier on myself and just use formula, and how weird it was that I would have a baby feed from me.

I can’t say I blame their reaction. My mother had us in Puerto Rico in the 1970s. It was a time where medical intervention was the preferred choice, any different resulted in harsh judgment stemming from socioeconomic biases. Babies were taken away by nurses who immediately gave them a bottle, and a mother’s breasts were tightly bound to make the milk dry up. After the mother recovered from all the drugs she was given, she was sent home with her baby and several batches of infant formula. That was the status quo and no one challenged it. To do otherwise would be to be considered ignorant, of an inferior status, and not open to enlightened ways. There was no rage against the machine, you either could afford to birth in a hospital or you birthed under a tin roof, you either gave your baby formula or were deemed unaware of progress in modern civilization. In a colonial society, dealing with issues of race, class, and gender, the majority of people wanted to absorb the dominant culture emanating from the U.S., without fanfare or revolution. And for imperialism to be complete, a cultural transformation of childbirth and childrearing must occur.

My family got to meet my daughter when she was around 6 months, and they were amazed at how healthy she looked, how her skin glowed, how alert she was, and in a culture that especially prized chubby children how robust her thighs were. Though I had not set out to prove a point, it was nice to have some validation that there were other ways to do things, other ways to raise babies.

Their amazement reverted back to shock and mild aversion when I followed a child led leaning and my daughter continued to nurse past 2. They soon became accustomed to it, with only a few jokes and comments being made around the holiday dinner table.  

I am now following a child led weaning with my youngest; who at 3 1/2 needed gentle limits and encouragements to give up her beloved milk. We came to a crossroads in which I noticed we were both ready to finish our breastfeeding relationship. She didn’t seem to need it as much anymore, and I was definitely ready to have my body back. While she was fine the first night of weaning, she wanted to talk about it on the second, third, fourth, and fifth day. After a week of wondering whether she could have “just a little bit”, we finally reached an evening where she did not ask whether there was any milk left. She was fine with her bedtime story, a hug, a kiss, and a cuddle to sleep.

Sometimes I feel sad that it has ended. I wonder whether it was truly a mutual agreement, though by the time I marveled, listening to her thought process about it, several days had gone by that it seemed pointless to go back.  Now I am left pondering my body, my breasts, and my role as a mother to two big girls.

That’s the thing about breasts isn’t it? Whose are they really? As women, we often use them to display our sexuality, and many of us undergo dangerous risks to slice them, inject them, lift them, and boost them up a size or two. Many women decide never to breastfeed precisely because of how it will affect their sexuality, how it will alter their breasts, and how much they’ve soaked in of society’s definition of feminine appeal. There is no denying that breastfeeding changes your sex life, their appearance, and your feelings about them related to sex. When your milk comes in, it is literally gushing forth to the point of feeling as if you are carrying hot stones within; even the gentlest touch can cause intense pain. God forbid someone tried to grab them in a moment of passion.  

Now, almost 10 years after birthing 2 daughters, my breasts are mine again. But do they become displays of my womanhood once more; do I have any reason to prove my sexual prowess with them? Do I feel a need to go out and spend a ridiculous amount of money so that I could feel sexy again? I don’t think so. Birthing and feeding two human beings is pretty powerful stuff. A woman’s body is capable of supersonic strength whether she has huge, perky breasts or not. A woman is capable of supersonic strength even if she doesn’t birth or breastfeed. We must learn to define our own sexuality, without society’s constraints or definitions, and love ourselves in the process. That’s one of the biggest gifts you can give to yourself, and to your children. Our bodies are powerful no matter what they look like.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

10 Things Our Daughters Should Know Before They Turn 10



I recently read an article on Baby Center titled 10 Things Your Daughter Should Know Before She Turns 10. As a mother to 2 daughters, who happen to be under 10, the title was appealing, and provided it made some good points, would leave me plenty of time to accomplish anything deemed worthwhile.  

When I read the article however I was disappointed to see things in there like knowing how to cook and the importance of a good appearance for young ladies. What nonsense! A girl’s changing body was also thrown in to further aggravate me. Was the point of this article to prepare leaders, or create future Stepford housewives? Is this how parents are meant to prioritize learning for our young daughters? My next thought was, I could write a better list than this; so I did, and here it is below: (*Disclaimer: This is a fluid list and subject to change at any notice)

  1. By age 10 our daughters should be able to speak up, voice their opinions, and display their thoughts with confidence.
This is the ultimate tool she needs to have in life, the workforce, and as she faces the world head on. Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, wrote a wonderfully inspiring book called “Lean In”. In it, she highlights the importance of woman needing to speak up in the workforce and in their marriages. The significance of this is vast because women, like men, have professional dreams which they have every right to aspire to and accomplish. In order to achieve our professional goals, we need committed partners who are willing to share in the household duties, and respect and listen to us in the conference rooms. There is no fairy godparent that will sweep down and help us get ahead, so we need to stop spreading false Disney propaganda to our daughters and let them know if they want something, they have to work for it. Being assertive and speaking up can have the repercussion of little girls being labeled as “bossy” or “smarty pants” which has obvious negative connotations. When little boys speak up and are assertive, they are admiringly labeled future CEOs. Along the way, girls lose their leadership potential; society conditions them to be meeker and speak out less thus losing out on many opportunities in life, from getting the right job, to demanding an equal salary and ultimately not reaching their true potential. As parents, we might not be able to change society overnight, but we can ingrain our daughters with so much confidence and power that these sexist comments won’t affect her true potential. If she can learn to be self-assured and outspoken by 10, imagine what she can accomplish by 30!

  1. By age 10 our daughters should know the wonders of a good book and read plenty of them.
Fact is, readers know a lot; not because they are naturally smart but because they read, read, and then read some more. It is hard to remain gullible, be connived, or abide authority unquestioningly when you have a wealth of information in your head. Your daughter should read a variety of books, from fact to fiction, and she should anticipate the wonderful adventures waiting for her in between those pages. My belief is we’re all a good book away from being passionate bookworms, so if your daughter is not entirely there, fret not, you just haven’t’ found the perfect book for her yet. If she only reads comic books or fairy novels, that is fine too; what you are cultivating is a reader, a seeker of knowledge, it will all come together eventually. Judy Blume famously said: “Let children read whatever they want and then talk about it with them. If parents and kids can talk together, we won't have as much censorship because we won't have as much fear.” I know this can be intimidating, particularly if your kid has advanced reading skills, and the material they have access to might be racier, darker, more than what you are comfortable with, but trust me what you are developing is a deep trust where they can tell you anything without ever feeling judged or scolded. An added benefit to that is you’ve just helped her become a thriving seeker of truth, and an intellectual.

  1. By 10, our daughters should know how to handle their money, and have some type of allowance where they can apply basic financial skills.
I don’t know about you, but I got my first financial life lesson when I moved out on my own at 18. For some reason, I could not comprehend why my $10 an hour coffee shop salary was not covering my NY midtown apartment, school books, party money, and the million miscellaneous items that kept coming up. As parents, it is our responsibility to teach this basic life necessity. Much grief could be saved if all parents had the necessary financial aptitude and taught their children accordingly. Our daughters should begin to have a clear, albeit basic idea, of how income is generated and how income is spent. Ideally, she should have a weekly or monthly allowance where she can utilize those basic financial principles autonomously. At home we have instilled a policy of saving 75%, spending 15% and donating (whether to charity or elsewhere) 10%. Ultimately, she has final say in how spends her money, but it does not take too many applied mistakes for a child to learn that it sucks having spent every last dime on a crappy toy. It’s also nice for her to learn this lesson early on, at home, rather than later on in life when she has to find ways to scramble to make the rent.  

  1. By age 10, our daughters should participate in some type of physical activity.
A girl’s self-esteem plummets tremendously in the middle school years for various reasons. Key links to self-esteem, among others, are active physical fitness and good nutrition. It is crucial to instill healthy habits early on, so girls can carry on feeling as good as they did in kindergarten when their energy and enthusiasm for life is top of the world. One important caveat is to stress the value of working out for health and feeling good, rather than being thin. The same applies for nutrition; if she eats healthy she will get sick less, have more energy and be generally happier. Don’t we all want happy kids? When we fill our bodies with toxic materials we feel toxic, and lash out emotionally. Luckily, there is a plethora of sport activities to choose from, even for the least athletic among us, such as soccer, running, dance, swimming, walking, yoga, and even zumba for kids. Participating in an organized sport has many added benefits; it makes the child feel part of something bigger, raises her morale, and has a positive effect on academic grades. Recent research has revealed that regular exercise can increase brain function; the brain is a muscle after all. Personally, I work out almost every day and my girls regularly ask me why I choose to wake up so early to run for so long; my answer to them is: “It’s my therapy, my much needed alone time, where I can process my thoughts so I am healthier, have more energy to play with you, and I feel fantastic afterwards.” Those words alone have made them eager to follow in my footsteps.

  1. By age 10, our daughters should know the importance of a good education, discipline and practicable time management.
By now, we’ve all heard of the famous marshmallow experiment. It took place in the 1960s when a group of psychologists carried out a research project at Stanford University to study the effects of delayed gratification on 4 year olds. The children a.k.a. research participants were given a choice to have 1 marshmallow now, or if they were able to wait (sometimes for up to 15 minutes!), they would get a bigger treat, such as double the amount of marshmallows or a big cookie. The child would be left alone to make their decision. What do you think your child would do? The fascinating results were revealed years later in the follow up, where it was shown that children who were able to hold out for the bigger prize tended to do much better in broader aspects of life. These measures were studied via standard tests, overall education, and general life competency. This was a mind blowing project for many reasons, mainly because delayed gratification as a skill set can be easily taught. As humans, we are instinctively self-serving, gluttonous, and slothful; the 7 deadly sins were deemed so for a reason. But, with a little motivation and some practice we can all learn to delay our indulgences. In terms of an education and a higher purpose, your daughter should be striving to learn, appreciate the process, and put forth the discipline because she understands that this hard work is well worth the effort.

  1. By age 10, your daughter should know basic street directions and her way around a building.
One of the primordial reasons we learn to read and write is to understand how to get from point A to point B. And knowing where we are at all times is vital for our survival. Kids nowadays are typically not raised how their parents were; they are not given as much freedom and independence. By age 7, I was walking to school with my younger brother and older (by 10 months) sister. We lived in the South Bronx, where school was about a 30 minute walk, sometimes we’d take the train, and sometimes we’d pass drug dealers, both requiring a different set of street smarts. My daughters live a more sheltered existence, with luxuries I could only dream about at their age, but that doesn’t mean they have to live in a bubble. We should expect our children to be conscious of their environment at all times, to read street signs, and to discern landmarks in their neighborhood so they would know how to get around alone if they ever needed to. Not to mention they should know how to cross a street on their own. With equal confidence, by age 10, she should also be able to enter a building and figure out her location by either locating a map or observing the layout. These essentials will serve her well as she grows up and one day starts traveling the world on her own.

  1. By age 10, our daughters should appreciate that everyone is different, and the greatness in everyone’s unique abilities.  
My daughter attends an inclusive public school with some pretty amazing kids. There is a whole realm of differences among the kids, gifted, English language learners, children with cerebral palsy, and others. My daughter’s best friend is a gifted artist with ADHD, she shares honor roll status with a highly motivated young girl who has Down syndrome, and last year was placed in a classroom with a sensitive boy who has profound Autism. This experience has taught her a lot about our “intellectual differences” and ways to define success. Not all schools are inclusive but the world is, and it’s always good to be a proponent for positive social change and acceptance. Empathy is developed first and foremost in the home; when we nurture our children we teach them that their feelings are not only valid but treasured, the way it should be for all people alike. The golden rule as originally stated reads: “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” We’re all born with different traits; it’s what you do with them, and how you treat others that counts.

  1. Related to #7, by age 10 our daughters should be open to other cultures, other languages, and the global world.
The U.S. started off as melting pot, not an ideally forming one, but one nonetheless. Now the world is moving towards that too. Countries formerly considered ethnically and culturally singular are now experiencing migration and diversity. One can travel to many European countries and meet a multitude of people from Africa, Asia and Latin America. At this point in her life, your daughter would have met many people from different cultures; they might even be the majority of her friends if she lives in a city. By now, she should also have an understanding of geography and global context, particularly in regards to people’s cultural, linguistic and political differences. She should not necessary spew out her parent’s political views word for word, but understand there is a wide spectrum of different ways of thinking in our world. I happen to believe that it’s a good idea for her to oppose her parent’s political views if she feels differently. We should applaud her for her courageousness in speaking out, and having an interest in other points of views. In terms of world travel, not all kids have an inclination to visit other countries, but all should be sensitive to cultural differences and open to understanding the different human makeup and realities.

  1.  By age 10, our daughters should know sexism exists and plainly call it out when they see or experience it.  
This is a reality that is never too early to bring up. Why are the girl toys in all toy stores pink? Why do the male characters use feminine derogatory terms to insult or make fun of each other? Why are boys on TV portrayed as smart, creative, and problem solvers while girls are labeled as materialistic, vain, and catty? These are the discussions we should be having with our daughters. Let them watch that TV show, then pause it and ask the pointed questions, make the observations, get them thinking. You’d be surprised by how much she’ll notice on a day-to-day basis once that seed is planted. For those toys exclusively marketed at girls i.e. American Girl Dolls, notice with them how girls are frequently pigeonholed into one category and defined in a one-dimensional way, then ask them if they view themselves like that. How many of us can only use one adjective to describe ourselves? They majority of us are complex, multifaceted individuals, difficult to describe with just one word; we are not solely “kind”, “loyal”, “fair”, or “proud”. Why can’t we be all that plus some i.e. “determined”, “inquisitive”, “creative” and “analytical”? I know many little girls that are all this and a million things more so let’s not allow society to limit their descriptors.   

  1. By age 10, our daughters should feel loved, unconditionally accepted, and showered with affection.
At 10, she is not an adult, and she is not a teen; but please, resist the urge to label her a tween. That is a marketing term first used in the 1930s and developed in the 1990s to sell items to a specific demographic age. It is nothing more than a ploy to get more shoppers to buy items that are too adult, too provocative, and too sexual for a 10 year old girl to be having. It also seems as parents we stop showering our kids with affection around the age they start attending school. It shouldn’t be like this! Our young ladies still need affection, they need hugs and love but most important they need to feel accepted no matter who they are or how they feel. They need to feel that not all their thoughts will be sugar and spice, or anything nice, and that is OKAY. We are all human and allowed to feel the full spectrum of our emotions, we are all allowed to feel any way we want, and we all deserve our parent’s unconditional love.

Honestly, I think this list could be applied to both boys and girls. What do  you think? Would you add anything else to this list for your young son or daughter?

I don't remember who said this, but there really are places in the heart you don't even know exist until you love a child.
― Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year





Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The difference between Spanish and English



My daughters have been using the verb form "to fart" incorrectly in Spanish. This, despite the fact, that I’ve corrected them approximately a hundred, zillion times.

"I made a fart" they say while giggling.

"You don't make farts," I answer ," While in English you will merely fart, in Spanish you throw the farts, like you would throw a ball or a toy across a room. In order to make sense the Spanish verb ‘to fart’ requires a prepositional complement before it; it’s a more complicated grammatical structure, but also simpler in many ways. When you think about it, girls, farting, is an act of defiance in Spanish, both literally and figuratively.”

"I threw a fart" they answer. (The literal translation of ¡Me tiré un pedo!)

"Perfect. That’s it exactly! You THREW a fart" I respond, satisfied with their finally seeming to understand the Spanish verb structure.  Turning around at the people behind us in grocery line, I beam with pride, though by the look on their faces I’d say most folks don’t appreciate how much work it is to raise polyglots. 

Maia kept making funny faces. PS We eat a lot of beans.


 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

He waited for an hour.




He waited for an hour. 

He was sure one of his sons would come; despite everything he’d always been a good father. Sure he hit them, sometimes to a pulp, but that’s how you instilled good behavior and responsibility back in the day, that’s what being a good father entailed. The last thing he wanted was a foolish son roaming the streets; nowadays, there were enough of those. The first one, he didn’t have the height for sports, but he had the brains. The last one was too skinny, too sensitive to be anything special, a poet at best. It was the middle one, the middle son who he knew would amount to something special. He was counting on it. His daughters had never crossed his mind as a possibility.  

 There was an incident once; the scenes would come to him in the least opportune times. They had had a wonderful day and it culminated to one defining moment in the car when he asked the boy to talk to his mother, ask her to come home. She kept leaving and he needed a woman to take care of him. Who would iron his shirts and make sure dinner was ready by the time he’d come home? The boy would not even consider it, so he lost it. The remains of their leftovers, from the wonderful restaurant they had gone to laid splattered throughout the inside of the car, while the boy cried, bleeding from his nose. Kids today, they were too disrespectful for their own good. 

 Weeks and months passed before he realized how confused he was about everything. He had been headed somewhere important that morning. He knew it was important because he woke up feeling very determined about it; first thing out of bed he got dressed in his best slacks and crisp tan shirt, ate his fried eggs, and headed right on out that door. All of a sudden he was on the interstate, terrified, not knowing where he was headed or where he was coming from. He had to pull over, just to control his shaking; he felt embarrassed about it, but he knew someone would come. 
 
 He waited for an hour. It felt that long to him but he had lost all concept of time in the past few months. He knew his sons though, knew them well enough and was sure one of them would come, so he waited, looking to see if the tall, lanky figure walking towards him was one of them, preferably the middle one. He recognized that walk anywhere. As the minutes passed he started to panic, at this point he would have been happy to see one of his daughters.

At home his phone was ringing. He hadn’t brought it with him, one of the many things he kept forgetting, though the thought of calling somebody hadn’t crossed his mind. Forgetfulness had turned into complete mental omissions. It started with misplacing things, not recalling his grandchildren’s names; then it evolved into forgetting the faces of colleagues he had known for years. 

Physically he still carried himself with the essence of his charisma, his stallion youth. He was always a proud rooster. At one point he was courting the finest ladies on the island, and that was a great feat for a man who wasn’t the best looking to say the least. Besides his penchant for all the fine ladies, he had another problem, and that was that he picked them way too smart. Back then smart women all became teachers since there were no other choices for them. The one advantage he had was that they were also raised in his patriarchal culture, and believed every sweet talking lie he told them. In the end, they had his children, but never stuck around long enough to deal with his unscrupulous behavior. 
 
 There’s no point in having any regrets. He did what he did because it was the time, it was how he was raised, he was proud of it, proud of his charm and ability to talk to anyone, he had delved into politics for a bit, but now, now it was hard for him to follow even the simplest of conversations. He kept forgetting things but it wasn’t a big deal, not to him, not to his sons, not to anyone that cared, not until now. 

 At home his phone was ringing, it rang and rang while he sat by the side of the highway waiting.









Monday, September 1, 2014

Summertime Madness



This summer has just flown by. Either that or the school district has shortened summer break. My conspiracy theory is that last year’s school year ended one week later and this year’s school year has been moved up a week. I’m too lazy to actually verify this with official school calendars but my gut reaction is feeling about 60% confident.

Typically my older daughter is signed up for all the enriching summer camps I can find. Kids should never have too much free time seems to be my motto. For the past 2 years she’s gone to music camp, where she practices her cello for 3 hours, learns another instrument, takes an hour of chorus, and another hour of music theory and appreciation. She comes home talking about Mozart, Beethoven, and Verdi while we all sit through dinner impressed with her 8 year old bad ass self. The year before that, she attended an art camp in a modern art museum in Miami Beach. There the kids got to draw, paint, design, and create 3D models. The model was a huge plastic flower made from recycled materials that now sits in our laundry room. That same summer she also got certified as a Junior Naturalist at Fairchild Tropical Gardens. She combated the intense tropical summer heat and endured hideously gigantic mosquitoes to learn about the Florida ecosystem, local conservation efforts, and how to identify rare tropical flowers and native plant species. My younger daughter who is 3 has not fallen too far behind. She is currently enrolled in music, ballet, and art while attending every library story time in a 15 mile radius. To say I take their time seriously is an understatement.

This year I am starting to develop a fuck it attitude. About 2 weeks into the music camp I realized how exhausted my older daughter was, how bitchy I was becoming, and how rushed my younger daughter seemed. We’d all inevitably take it out on my husband when he’d get home. “Why don’t you all ever take it easy?” he’d ask. “Go hang at the beach and call it a day.”

Call it a day? How do you call it a day when there is so much to do, so much to see, so many awesome opportunities out there? Not only were there all these great summer camps, many offered community scholarships nobody ever bothered applying for. There’s art, there’s science, there’s LIFE to STUDY! How could we possibly take it easy? I grew up with copious amounts of free time and little supervision. My parents were free range to the extreme, as long as their time was not infringed upon, we were good to go. While I don’t prefer that approach, I am wondering whether my husband has a point, and we needed to slow it down somewhat.

A couple of years ago, I read an article on Slow Parenting that I posted on Facebook. It appealed to me on many levels, mainly because it advocated for connecting kids with nature, making sure to continue the attachment bond with them as they grow, and encouraging much free non-structured play. What a concept.

I’m a city girl through and through. As Carl Honoré would say I am definitely stuck on fast forward. Recently though, I am becoming curious about country living. I want to release my city paranoia, my speed on life, this intensity that makes it difficult for me to even look in the eyes of another human being for more than 30 seconds. Family included. Since my husband is from a small Italian town, he can frequently bring it to my attention. “Can you sit down for just one minute and look at me?” he says, at least once a day. I do it, but I feel antsy the whole time.

Obviously, slowing down is a work in progress for me. I am already planning next summer’s slowing down plan, which in itself is so beyond ridiculous I won’t allow myself to formalize it on an Excel spreadsheet just yet. I’ll just continue to expand it in my mind. Right now, the girls are taking a swimming class until school starts, which does not sound slow at all considering it’s at 8 am every day, but instead of trying to do the museum every other day; we might just do the beach after. In fact today we did just that, and already I feel much lighter and happier.

Praise of Slowness is on my “to read” list. Check out Carl Honoré’s TED talk right below:


 
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