Parenting Through the Fog: 8 of My Personal “Truths”

IMG_0505 No one can tell you what kind of parent to be. Instead, it’s a long performance, consisting of attempts, failures, mistakes, experiments, accidents, snips, scrapes and sniffles and — when you’re lucky — unexpected harmony and delirious puffs of joy.

So it’s with that humility in mind that I offer up some insights from the scads of parenting books I’ve perused over the past few years. Through the mist of what made sense to me (an arbitrary lens if ever there was one), I have managed to discern what I could now call a sketchy and ever-subject-to-revision Parenting Approach. Taking all this uncertainty into account, below are a few guideposts from the research I’ve managed to get under my belt that I use currently to light my way.

Some of them may surprise any loyal reader who knows I’m a sucker for fuzzy crafts, because they are not very fuzzy-wuzzy. I’m a strict-ish parent, actually, on matter of behavior. And I’ll be the first to admit that any or all of the below may not work for your family. Every child and parent is different. If one lesson is clear, it’s that paying close attention to our particular child trumps a set of written instructions, any day.

IMG_0503Nonetheless, and for whatever they may be worth to you, I find the following insights both helpful and difficult, often at the same time:

1) Permissive parenting is actually harmful. Several major studies are really almost unanimous on this point: Authoritarian parenting — or overly strict parenting — is actually less damaging than parenting that is overly permissive. Authoritarian (though not abusive) parents generally communicate a lesson to kids that they are cared for and safe, while permissive parents, despite perhaps their best intentions, can leave kids wondering if they are the ones in charge and why. But of course authoritarian parenting also does damage: it undermines self-esteem, and can create life-long scars. The goal is a middle ground: authoritative parenting, which communicates love while holding its ground and conveying firm and consistent expectations for behavior.

2) Emotional intelligence — including hard-to-define and achieve qualities like character, grit, and capacity for failure — will be more important to your child’s success than IQ. Put down the flashcards! What will more likely matter to your child is whether they have the social skills to succeed and the inner resources to keep trying. And parents of young children should not wait for a child to mature to work on these essential skills, because the neural networks in the brain that form the infrastructure for emotional reasoning basically take shape by six years old. Even if you’ve missed this window, though, programs providing coaching to troubled adolescents show that new habits like resilience and resourcefulness can be taught, albeit with a lot of work to catch up to their peers.

3) Attachment is only half the job. It is indisputably critical that parents create an emotional bond with their child, called attachment. This is formed by early and attentive responsiveness to the needs of a new infant. This foundation of trust and mutual love, however, is insufficient by itself as a child grows. The purpose of attachment — to make children feel sufficiently safe in the world — can be undermined if parents do not also encourage and foster responsibility, independence and sound judgment. Being endlessly attentive and nurturing to a needy three-year-old is a recipe for both exhausted parents and bratty kids.

Balancing attachment by making space to say a respectful version of “no” to children is critical. Indeed, helping them create a robust capacity for emotional self-regulation is essential. Emotional regulation is also important to cognitive development, because the more time that kids spend in an agitated state, the less time they have for calm receptivity to input from the world.

4) Too much praise can send the wrong signal and cut off the conversation. This is a hard one, given our need to recognize our child’s achievements as part of our own: empty words like “good job” come out of my mouth far more often than I would like. Substituting acknowledgment for appraisal is a subtle but important shift that can mostly fill in when kids ask us. For example, by saying, “I see you.” instead of “good work.” Or even just engaging in a real conversation by observing the facts: “You’ve used a lot of yellow here.” Praise is a conversation-stopper, after all, leaving nothing more to say, while facts leave room for more facts, and for the child to play observer as well. If you must praise, complimenting effort rather than result is a better thing to say: “You are working so hard on that!”

You can also subtly ask your child to internalize their own framework for self-appraisal by focusing on the child’s feelings rather than the parents: “Did that make you feel proud?” Asking questions and making comparisons to their own past can be another way to engage: “Was that scary?” “Did you climb that part faster than you did yesterday?”

IMG_05075) Our own emotional responses — even negative ones — can be put to use. We  generally do not do kids a favor when we overlook confrontational or obnoxious behavior and ask ourselves, as parents, to exhibit super-human restraint. Irritating behavior can sometimes be a good way to understand when a child needs more limits. So long as we are not clinically depressed, super-tired, sick, or otherwise overly prone to irritability, our own response to our child’s behavior can be a sound guide for imposing a set of (age-appropriate and individualized) expectations for that child.

I also believe this to be the case: As parents, we will spend a significant part of our lives in conversation with our child, and it helps with the sometimes-oppressive tedium of parenting if we enjoy more of this time, rather than less.

While we don’t need to lash out, certainly, and a calm response is preferable to an angry one, noticing our child’s behavior is a clue that something needs to change. A child who is constantly stirring the pot, behaving selfishly or taunting, who often lacks emotional and bodily self-control and can never take no for an answer, is a child who will have difficulty forming friendships, and who may repeatedly “check out” of opportunities for calm attention and learning. These emotionally sensitive and volatile children may need more sensible and consistent boundaries than other kids in order to thrive. At the same time, that child may need more connection with the parent in order to tolerate the new boundaries, so both limits and time together will be critical.

Of course, a rapid uptick in outbursts in an otherwise calm child may also provide a valuable clue that something is wrong, and require investigation. One of my favorite parenting books, Simplicity Parenting, calls on parents to look for signs of soul-sickness and approach these with the gentle healing we might a cold. Again, this kind of judgment call has to come from knowing our kid and what’s normal and needed for them.

IMG_05026) Our specific language and choices as parents matter a ton to the development of our child. The brain is surprisingly elastic and supple, and is so deeply responsive to parenting cues that the brains of children actually resembles those of their parents in scans. So what kinds of intentional communication with them should we have?

Words that seem oddly “corporate” have sometimes been helpful to me, because they do the work of making a difference of opinion seem less personal: “My agenda here is to get you to put on your clothes, while your agenda is to play. What can we do?” or “I’m trying to understand your goals here.” They can also be useful for asking for more resilience and generating options: “That seemed like a good strategy. What would be another one?” “What’s your plan to fix this problem?” “I would like you to make a different choice.”

Picture-language that paints a clear image of concrete aspirations for behavior also works well for me: “I would like you to have a big, open, generous heart with your friends.”Or, after a fall: “I hope you have a scrambly time at the playground, and climb all over the jungle gym like a brave spider.” And specifically encouraging them to overcome frustration, even through time-worn clichés like, “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again,” can be helpful to establish a “mental voice” for old-fashioned stick-to-itive-ness.

Rather than barking orders, owning our own perspective is more respectful of a child’s still-developing sense of agency. While it can feel a bit bulky, saying: “I am asking you to do put that down” in lieu of “put that down!” is what I aim for. Similarly, saying “I don’t like it when you stand on your chair because I’m concerned you might fall and hurt yourself, and it’s my job to keep you safe.” clues kids on your motives and role. Even owning our more unpleasant emotions can be helpful: “I’m irritated that you are doing that right now, as I have asked you two times to make a different choice.” (Just don’t be surprised when your child also is able to identify that she is “irritated” by something you do!)

Using please and thank you when making a request is also important in my view, though some books advise against it. As I want my child to use good manners, I personally feel it’s only fair to use them myself when addressing her.

IMG_05067) Getting out of a child’s way is sometimes the best thing we can do. All of us have experienced a state that scientists now call “flow:” a state of productive engagement in which we feel relaxed and time seems to disappear. Creating an environment in the home which allows children to play in a way that facilitates this kind of moment — and being sure not to interrupt them when it is happening as cooperative or solo play — is essential to putting them in touch with their deepest capacities for self-engagement.

This is the main reason why we limit screens in our house. Although we make some exceptions for special circumstances (getting her to sit still for nail-cutting, for example, or for travel on a plane), in general there are no videos or TV at home. This has been helpful with our busy days, as it forces all of us to relax, to have play time or reading or craft time instead.

Some of the job is just creating open space for children to self-direct their activities. Being sure to leave kids alone when they are “in flow” is important. It’s also important, to belabor this point from above a bit, that when they (inevitably) ask for us to look over what they’ve created, we respond with something deeper than a slap-dash pat on the head. The conversation should lead naturally to what could be a follow-on project, and thereby provide them with the next compelling invitation to enter this particular window onto human happiness.

8) Bargaining is bad — except when it isn’t. Capitulation during a meltdown or due to the fear of a meltdown is not a good idea, as it provides the wrong incentives for emotional outbursts. In our house, we think that never bending due to the intensity of an emotional response is sound policy. And reasoning with a child in the midst of a meltdown or temper tantrum, when their responses are coming from their lizard brain, is asking the impossible, because their executive functioning has literally been cut off by the emotional surge to those flight-or-fights parts of their primitive brain.

On the other hand, allowing problem solving that engages the executive functioning of the brain — called the cerebral cortex — is good. So when a child is calmly suggesting alternatives that also meet the objectives of the parent (“Can I take two bites of carrot instead of broccoli?”), that is to be encouraged. This kind of logical negotiation is a basic skill, and may provide a way out before a melt-down gets triggered, even though at times it may drive me a bit batty.

The Impossibility of Modern Motherhood (and What To Do About It)

Washington hikers (LOC)

(Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

This post could just as easily be called: “Why Women Will Never Have it All, But Still Should Fight For More.”

Today’s Atlantic Monthly contains a blockbuster piece from Anne-Marie Slaughter on modern feminism, motherhood, and the demands of work, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Overall, Slaughter gives us a thoughtful discussion of the real agony working women experience in choosing between the demands of their careers and the joys and trials of parenting. The article also contains enough personal reflections to be refreshingly candid, which is a particularly welcome turn from someone with such a robust career in high-profile politics.

Like my own prior admissions of ambivalence about my choices with Maya, and my impulse to pointedly complain about the structurally unreasonable demands on women in a response to the absurd attacks earlier this spring by Elisabeth Badinter, Slaughter has decided to put down the “we-can-do-it-all” cheerleader pom-poms that sometimes obscures what should be the real goals of the women’s movement, and to keep it real instead.

She points out something about her talks with students that I’ve also found: women in their twenties who happen to be in my orbit generally observe the frantic pace of my efforts to juggle a baby, work and, lately, a blog, with a bemused and tragic smile, as if to say — how is this all supposed to work again? So we’re not fooling anyone, least of all the women coming up next who will grapple themselves with all these questions.

The truth is — if we’ll only admit it to each other — it doesn’t work very well. Like many women, but certainly not all, I’m far too invested in my professional identity to choose to “stay home,” as we all awkwardly say (as if moms “stay” anywhere for very long). But that doesn’t mean I’m not beset with regret most days, or that when the nanny and her son joined us at the pool the other night, and Maya obviously felt more drawn to play with them than me, I didn’t quietly, invisibly, seethe about it. After all, she spends five days every week with her, and only two with me, I thought, with more than a twinge of envy.

The challenge for mothers to our sense of priorities is profound, particularly when we acknowledge, as Slaughter tries to, that despite our efforts to achieve 50-50 parenting, the bonds that women have with their children are irreplaceably, undeniably deep. Whoever else they may have in their lives, she notes, for children a mother’s role is “indispensable,” and she makes a point of citing half a dozen powerful Washington moms (and dads) who agree with her or have left careers for at least some time to attend to the needs of their families.

I particularly enjoyed the criticism she has for female exec flavor-of-the-month Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, whose work habits have now morphed into a kind of reproachful working moms’ urban legend. She dismantles the half-truths women like Sandberg promote: that “it’s possible if you just are committed enough,” or “it’s possible if you marry the right person,” pointing to serious but no-duh propositions like the fact that the school and work day are not aligned to make working easier, and that even the ideal marital arrangements can run up against a mom’s ambivalence about leaving her child.

Notably, Slaughter fails to consider what happens to women who unluckily choose a less angelically supportive partner, women who have no partner at all (single moms are raising fully one-quarter of America’s kids, and are a much higher percentage of minority and low-income households), or parents who might imagine a life with far more balance than the work schedules she describes, which are downright punishing. Despite her critique, even she can’t quite let go of the boosterism and elitism embedded in these expectations. In fact, at one point Slaughter unwittingly, and almost comically, reveals just how much she’s lived inside the privilege bubble by ridiculously claiming, with what appears to be a straight face, that “[j]ust about every woman who could plausibly be tapped [for a high-level Washington job] is already in government.”

She also projects a bit too much from her own experiences with her child’s troubled teen years and thus understates the problem. She notes that a woman would want to be free to stay home, or to put family first, when her children “are 8 to 18,” a period of absence from the workforce which she calculates as ten years.

But the developmental stages from birth to 3 years old are at least as significant, if not more so, to a child’s growth, and any family with multiple children who are not twins would require this window of time to expand to account for siblings. And what about aging parents, or non-traditional families, or widely spread out births? Slaughter’s too-neat math fails, once again, to account for the variety and complexity of family obligations and women’s lives, and thus, the changes we need will be more far-reaching and fundamental than she suggests.

She does include a discussion of the problems that women, and career women in particular, now face with fertility at our more advanced maternal age. But even here her advice can be a bit tone-deaf, to say the least.

Given her own difficulties conceiving, Slaughter blithely recommends that women under 35 freeze their eggs. But she ignores the high costs of this advice. It seems utterly unrealistic to think that most women, or even most “career women” in their late 20s and early 30s, will have $7,000 to $15,000-odd just lying around (or double that amount if they need a second go at it). And even with all that expense and medical hassle, there is only a 40 to 50 percent chance of success, which makes it a pretty expensive gamble for most people.

As this has been an area in which people I love have experienced completely crushing kinds of disappointment, I think it’s critical that we not gloss over how hard this question of timing is for women, or, even worse, attempt to erase the problem by suggesting that an expensive scientific half-miracle is in the cards for all of us.

Last, although she casts her story as a cautionary tale for professional over-achievers, even Slaughter appears at times to need to prove to us, the reader, that despite her recent, renewed dedication to mommyhood, she’s really very smart and all. When her acquaintances cuckoo over the loss of such a brilliant mind to policymaking circles in Washington, it’s hard not to consider that for all but a handful of moms, whatever choices — and deep personal sacrifices in terms of ambition and foregone possibility — they make usually go unnoticed, remaining unremarkable except to them, or if they are one of the “lucky” ones, to their partners as well. Unless you’re Slaughter, or Mary Matalin, or that ilk, rarely in women’s lives are the costs of these sorts of decisions even added up.

Still, on the whole, the article is a timely and important account — the beginning of a picture of what really needs to change to make women’s lives more manageable, meaningful and free. While some internal agonizing about working and raising children is probably written into the script, steps to achieve wider agreement on what a “work-life balance” really means would help greatly to transform the sharp corners of our ambivalence into a cushier, more shapely set of supports.

Slaughter proposes a few, all of which I liked, including aligning school days better with work, allowing more flexible workplace arrangements, and shifting understandings in the workplace to lessen or eliminate penalties for women (and I assume, men) who would like to take a few years away from their careers to focus on family. And she closes the piece with a straight-up appeal to businesses to see new value in the many older women discarded as workers today.

I also deeply appreciated her call to all of us to stop making up fake, more “serious-sounding” excuses when we really have something to do that takes time out of work for family. If we all stopped lying and were honest about our obligations, this would give all of us, in turn, permission to have a life and work as well. And the perception of employers and co-workers that attempting this balance openly makes us “unserious” is in itself toxic to getting what we want, or even, achieving any kind of accurate picture of how hard this all really is.

To her ideas I would add more radical structural ones that still seem blindingly obvious to me, and that would lend a hand to many more women: mandatory paid parental leave of up to one year as they have in Canada and Europe; better pay for low-wage workers so that they can better balance the needs of work and family; far more accurate (read: adequate) child-care tax credits and robust funding for programs that work like Healthy Start; pay for low-income moms at a fair wage for caring for their own children (what better work program in a recession?); and paycheck fairness — the crazy idea that equal work deserves equal pay. Moreover, we must also extend every protection we have — and those we may win — on behalf of women, families and married couples to include same-sex couples and nontraditional families.

The truth is, the job of feminists in making society better for families is, at most, half-done. We don’t acknowledge often enough how partial our sense of completeness is in our own lives, and how tenuous is the wish-and-a-prayer is that it’s all constructed on. Instead, we suit up, kiss the baby goodbye, and push on with our many dutiful roles: pay the bills, send a tweet, call our own mom, plan a playdate, cook dinner, kiss our partner, work late, and somehow try to get some sleep.

A friend said to me on the playground the other day, “I never thought my life would be this hard.” I nodded. I grew up in the 1970s, a time of exploding opportunities and shape-shifting for women, and was told that anything I wanted was possible.

That turns out to be true in some ways only, and not even, perhaps, what I want anymore. In fact, it now seems like we’ve asked for so much responsibility, so much opportunity, that it’s exhausting — even superhuman — just to be us. Slaughter says that’s true of the overachievers — she misses the point that this is part of the fabric of all of our expectations, and that even “ordinary” women are now edging, however reluctantly, towards superhero status.

The next generation of women, looking up at the utter craziness that is our lives, must force governments and corporations to create the structural supports and understandings women need. What feminism will really mean is not that women can do it all — we certainly can, as we’ve all run ourselves into the ground to show everyone — but really, why should we?

Women of my generation — and older, like Slaughter’s — can help them. First, by being honest about what it’s really like to be us, as she has been and I have tried to be. And second, by raising these issues again and again, and joining the fight when the day comes — and it will come, my friends — that there is something big worth winning.

Take Half My Heart, It’s Yours

Any parent who is honest will tell you that you live with that ambivalence. You just have it! You look at the face of your beautiful, lovely child and you think two things at the exact same time: I love this kid so much that it’s changed my whole life. I love other people more because of how much I love her.… She’s completely given value to life that didn’t exist before, and I regret every decision that led to her birth.

Louis CK in Louis, Season 2, Episode 1 (via johndeguzman)

A true dilemma is a choice between two mutually compatible and equally desirable ends.

Professor Michael Brint, via my memory circa 1991

The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.

Barry Schwarz’s TED talk (author of the Paradox of Choice)

In part spurred by Elisabeth Badinter’s simplistic brutality about the choices women make, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about parental ambivalence, the place of choice in parent’s lives, and the challenge of achieving a rough balance between the demands of work and home.

Maya is 19 months and, right on track, is dealing with a bout of separation anxiety. She has begun to identify and need the people around her with more specificity and direction than before, and transitions – going to bed, leaving for work – must be handled with a tedious slowness and gentle series of stages to avoid upset. Time feels both stretched out, and highly limited, both marked with utter precision in days, weeks, months, and as though its strangely slipping by me, faster than I could possibly reach to catch it with both hands.

Maya’s insistence on attention, however long it persists, also poses the question to me daily in a newly acute way about why I choose to work, and to leave her in the care of relative strangers. I question both my absence during this highly compacted developmental time, in which each week brings new skills and discoveries, and the inescapable risks associated with having someone else care for her, however caring they may be. I miss her terribly during the day, and ponder what new phrase or hilariously goofy new dance move I may be missing, too.

Yet at the end of a long weekend, I relish the idea to going to work with an almost-giddy mix of relief and excitement. I enjoy the rigor of working, and the attempt to make things happen in the world. Even small things accomplish my own pleasant transition – wearing nicer clothes, having lunch in a restaurant. I join a world in which I can complete my thoughts, or even, sentences, and in which I am listened to, at least some of the time. What freedom and luxury it seems after three days at home, running around after a defiant toddler.

So I don’t actively regret my choice to work. But it still isn’t the life of fulfillment I envisioned, either, when I was sold the bill of goods that I could “have it all.” Exactly who peddled that promise is hard to say – some mythic emissary that conveyed the idealistic excesses of growing up in the 1970s, when women were entering the workforce in badly tailored man-suits? Perhaps it was Free to Be, You and Me, when the princess Atalanta chooses to travel the world, not needing her fair-minded suitor? Or that Enjoli commercial I can still hum the tune to – you know, the one that goes, “I can bring home the bacon…”

The notion was, you can be with a partner or not, work or not, be sexy and economically powerful, or – well, about that one it was clear that working and economic independence was the more aspirational choice, at least in my own emotional history. (I never considered not working with any seriousness, until perhaps this very moment.) And the promise was that our ability, as liberated women-worker-warriors, to make these decisions for ourselves would set us free to lead a life of economic empowerment sans regrets.

Of course, it’s indisputably true that many of the financial and economic supports for families that would make these real choices have never been put into place, particularly in the U.S., as I point out here.  But it’s also clearly the case that women my age – based on detailed research among my embarrassingly few current friends – feel let down, and that it’s not entirely, or even mostly, about the financial penalties for working families.

A world of choices also, as Barry Schwarz points out forcefully, means a world beset by known opportunity costs. Sure, we make our decisions, but we remain painfully aware of their downsides. And the particular costs shift over time, as our child’s needs for attention and our focus also shift, making them hard to measure, and even, some days, practically immeasurable.

In the comments to this article on the Rosen-Romney baloney, for just one example, or one this week from Dahlia Lithwick and Jan Rodak, moms (and a few dads) defend their choices as the right ones for them and their families. And I certainly believe them, both the working moms and stay-at-home dads alike. Which is more than many of the uncharitable other commenters could say.

I wonder if all the finger-pointing at the other people, over there, who made or are making a different choice, would lessen if we acknowledged that, in our relatively new experiment in trying to maintain a double-income middle class, most of the available choices are actually so painful and difficult that at times, even those with certainty about making the right ones are nonetheless agonized by them.

Having a child you love more than anything is hard enough, as Louis CK makes clear. Balancing all of this judgment on top of that enormous undertaking should be enough to give anyone pause.

And lest I be misunderstood, I am not asking for a world with fewer hard choices – read: opportunities – for women, or for anyone else. We are better for throwing off the constraints, which is perhaps why women don’t complain about this more. It seems ungrateful, somehow, given all the sacrifices that were made to achieve the gains in women’s ability to work, to be taken seriously, and to construct our lives.

But we also have a long way to go for true equality. And it strikes me that we can’t get there if we pretend that all of this is easy, and that the choices we’re making are among a wide range of peachy options. For me at least – and anyone who wants to join me – I’d like to drop the pretense that my mere decision to make the choices I have means I have to like them, all of the time. The truth is, I make them and regret them, sometimes even at the same moment.

So: less stridency, more poignancy; less moral high ground, more candor on the playground? It just seems to me the Mommy Wars are too important to fight them with each other.