What *do* I do with myself?

I am kid-free for a wee bit & so, I poured myself a beer (just about the only cold drink to be had in my very warm house… yay, summer?) & figured I’d do some “out-loud” strategizing about this blog & my writing life.

I’ve said it before: I love writing this blog. And there are so many interesting conversations going on right now about mothers & women & working & parenting & birth. And I have so many drafts floating around in various states of disarray (not to mention the many more ideas floating around in my head).

But I also have an busy family & a demanding day job & an active pro bono case & a long to-do list (I’m still going to write that will & finalize a budget so we can “snow ball” attack those law school loans…) & some semblance of a well-rounded life (though that last one is debatable these days…).

Which is to say that I don’t have much time for writing.

Which is sad.

It’s sad because I think it’s important that moms who work outside the home have a voice & speak up. (No, I don’t pretend to speak for all “working moms” but I think I can present at least one small slice of the experience.)

Look, I love writers. I married one. I have dear friends who are parents & writers. As in professional-with-published-books writers. I know how hard they work. I know how hard they work to juggle their writing & their families. But I don’t always feel represented by writerly writers who write about “working mothers.” (Ditto actors.) I know that’s unfair. I know that’s judgmental. Sorry.

So… I still keep my blog alive (though I realize it’s often barely on life support) because I think it’s important for moms with 9-to-5’s to be a part of the conversation. I suppose that’s why I (along with many others) get so giddy when someone like Anne-Marie Slaughter writes about what it’s like to participate in a grueling but fulfilling career while raising a family. Or why my law school’s local alum group hosted a discussion of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In when it was first published.

All moms are busy. “Working moms” are a different type of busy. And that different type of busy makes it especially difficult for us to participate in discussions of motherhood & work & equality.

I do know that the fact that I don’t publish often or maintain my blog in a way to make it pretty or more public affects the number of folks I can reach. But for those of you who stick with me & still read my posts, what would you like to see me address here? More on sleep & attachment parenting? Breastfeeding & pumping? More on career & cultural issues affecting “working moms”? Book reviews? Biology? Travel with kids? Equitable parenting? Cooking & food? Miscarriage & loss? Anything else?

And now, I hear my lovely family returning, so, until next time!

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Metaphorical motherly musings on Mothers’ Day

I spent a lot of time holding & cuddling my sleeping “baby” (aka, the toddler) yesterday. She wanted “mama” all day long & slept next to me for her nap & in my arms at the beginning of the night. When she was taking her bath, I heard her calling out “mama… mama!” sweetly as I stole a few minutes of solitude in the kitchen.

As I lay staring at her in the afternoon light during her nap, I thought of a tree.

I want her to be mine. Forever mine. But I know that’s not what motherhood & childhood & life are about. She’s no more mine than my partner is mine. She is no more mine than a beloved tree.

The most I can I hope for is to be a part of her core. Like the seed that (I imagine) forms the core of the rings of a tree. She will, I hope form her self around that inner core.

The core will, naturally, become more distant to her outward appearance & the self that she presents to the world, but it will still be there.

My job, is to be loving & stable, so that her core & the inner rings that are forming right now, are as solid as possible.

And that core is not only my work, my job, but also that of the others who are central to her life right now. That is the motherly work of parenting. So, whether you are a mother, father, brother, sister, cousin, grandma, grandpa, uncle, aunt, babysitter, nanny, friend, your work is important. Happy Mothers’ Day.

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Screen-Free Week 2018

So, I’m writing this blog post on the first day of Screen-Free Week in an attempt to convince you to give up (or scale back) screen time for yourself & your family this week.

I’ve been participating in (& writing about) Screen-Free Week since at least 2012. I’ve been reading about screens & kids for even longer.

I’ve been honest when Screen Free Week hasn’t gone as planned. And I’ve been honest when my own use of tech has interfered with my parenting. Lately, I was reminded of how my kids are quietly paying attention to my use of my devices when my son asked if I read books! (I do & was able to list at least three recent books I had read… Phew!)

Lately, we’ve achieved (more or less) solid parameters for our son’s use of screens, while learning hard lessons about how our rules clash with those of his friends.

If you’re curious what a tech-lite house looks like, our current rules are:

  • No screens during the school week or when we have other things to do.
  • Our oldest can watch his own show for about 30 minutes each day Friday-Sunday.
  • He can watch more if it’s with a parent on a topic that’s more-or-less of interest to everyone (baseball instructional videos, music videos, documentaries, etc.)
  • If he wants to look something up on YouTube Kids, he does so with an adult present.
  • We indulge in family movie night & Star Wars & Marvel movies at the theaters!

We’re trying to make screen time more of a family activity than a babysitter. That has meant sitting down to watch Boss Baby episodes with him & cooking to the soundtrack of Voltron or reviews of Lego sets.

Some of his friends play video games & use tech with more freedom (& less adult supervision), which makes navigating acceptable limits more tricky. I don’t want him to be a social outcast because of our rules, but I want to give him tools for navigating the Internet, which can be unsafe territory for kids.

It’s a work in progress. And our rules will change as he grows& changes.

For Screen-Free Week this year, I’ve asked him to help police my use of screens. It’s going to be hard when life seems so tethered to devices (calendars, email, work, recipes, money management, etc.) We agreed to no iPad time for him this weekend. But I’m taking him to see Avengers: Infinity Wars on Sunday. Seems like a compromise but overall a win-win.

Signing off until I report back! (And so I can pay attention to a very important little league baseball game!)

I hope you’ll join in the fun (especially if the weather in your neck of the woods is as spring-like as mine)! Let me know in the comments if you do!

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Birth & systemic racism

The recent New York Times article, Why America’s Black Mothers & Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis, by Linda Villarosa, is required reading if you care about birth, mothers, babies, families, women, race, equality, feminism, healthcare, or any-or-all of the above.

And if you don’t quite understand what institutionalized racism is or means, this will be an eye-opening read. The implications are shocking & sure to shift the way you think about the impact of systemic racism.

I don’t even want to summarize the article here because it’s just so compelling that you really need to read it for yourself.

Please do.

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The hardest thing about being a parent

“Noooo! Start the next chapter!”

As I was doing bedtime with the kids last night, I suddenly realized what for me has been the hardest part of being a parent: It’s the feeling that you’re never doing enough.

I don’t mean that in an abstract, perfectionist-y kind of way. I mean that literally my children are always asking more of me.

T (my oldest) was dragging his feet getting ready for bed tonight & wasn’t ready (despite lots of gentle prodding) until “lights out” time. Which meant there was no time for reading. Except I know that no reading really sucks, so I told him I’d read to him for a measly 5 minutes. When that came to an end (&, really, I’m 99% sure we went past 5 minutes because, I’m a sucker & love reading to him…), he pleaded for more time. This, despite the fact that he ran out of time, I still read more than I said I would & should have had no time at all.

Now, some authoritarian-minded parents might tell me, with some kernel of truth, that I’m reaping what I’ve sown. In other words, I didn’t stick to the firm limits I had set, so of course he’s going to ask for more!

But I know that bedtime without reading just doesn’t work. And he was none the wiser to the fact that I went over the 5-minute limit I had set. I simply said, “time’s up!” & shut the book.

And had we had time to read for an hour, he would have still asked for more. That’s just how my kids work. And I suspect I am not alone.

I live in a universe that is the exact opposite of the beautiful Neil Young lines: “Will I see you give more than I can take? Will I only harvest some?”

To answer (your entirely rhetorical) questions, Mr. Young: No, I will see them take more than I can give! No, they will not only harvest some. They will gladly take it all.

Or, at least it feels like that sometimes.

And then I start to wonder: Okay, even if it is not just my kids, is it just American kids? Western kids? Kids with some amount of privilege?

Am I doing something wrong? (Well, to answer that not-entirely rhetorical question: Yes. Plenty.)

Or is there something else going on?

Babies ask for the moon & the sun. Hold me. Feed me. Love me. Rock me. Show me. Touch me. Help me. Comfort me.

In the beginning, they take all we can give & more. It’s instinctual. They beckon us with a yelp or a cry. Then with a smile or a coo.

I never questioned the necessity of those asks. I just gave.

Yet, at some point I started to construe those asks, those demands on me, as selfish.

At 21 months, I’m definitely not there with M (my youngest). At 9 years, I’m definitely there with T.

But why? What changed? And, when?

Nothing’s really changed, but everything has. He’s pulling away, developing into his own individual identity. But when he needs me…. It’s like a rubber band pulled taught & then released; man, it snaps back with a vengeance.

He needs those moments when we’re both at ease & open to each other & alone. And, thirsty & in need, he drinks them up (as do I, honestly). (To wit: laying in his bed with a book we both adore, unconsciously leaning towards me until we’re in full-on cuddle mode.)

His needs are real. And while he’s at an age where I can say “no” or “later” & expect him to understand, at least in normal circumstances (like an average bedtime), I have to still find a way to fill those needs.

And I think that’s where I struggle. Especially with a young toddler who is still at an age where limits are difficult, to say the least, it can be difficult to manage & navigate their needs while not completely neglecting my own needs as a human being.

But what I’ve come to realize is that the demand for “more” is real & does not mean that my children are particularly selfish.

I’m simply playing a constant game of catch-up, trying to figure out how to meet their needs in developmentally appropriate ways. That’s the really hard work. The true challenge & calling of being a parent.

What do we offer to our children to harvest?

More lyrics, this time from Beach House: “It won’t last forever. Or maybe it will.”

I hope it will. At least, I hope that my relationship will persist with my children to the extent that a small part of them will always need me. I realize the upheaval of adolescence is just around the corner, really, with adulthood to follow. I hope to be there every step of the way with something to offer.

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Becoming a sleep iconoclast: How I found my way without sleep training

icon • o • clast : noun : a person who attacks settled beliefs or institutions (Merriam-Webster)

This is the second post in a series about how I came to be a sleep iconoclast. Check out part one for why I quit the rat race of sleep training. This post is about how my family manages to get enough sleep without caring too much about what the clock says.

We left off with why you should consider ignoring the advice of most so-called sleep “experts,” with the exception of writers like Elizabeth Pantley & Sarah Ockwell-Smith.

At some point, though, you have to put aside the books, log off, & tune into your unique situation. So, that’s the first thing I did on my path to sleep freedom: I stopped reading about sleep. In fact, I gave away my copy of Pantley’s book. I also (mostly) stopped reading about sleep online.

Then, after learning to expertly read Baby M’s tired signs & acting on them swiftly, the second thing I did on my own was to stop tracking night wakings. This was absolutely life-changing. I didn’t look at the clock when the baby woke up. I didn’t count how many times she woke up in the night. I always tried laying her down initially, but I didn’t track whether she stayed down for five minutes or an hour.

This move was so freeing, I cannot even explain! Sure, I still intuitively knew if we have a more interrupted night than usual, but by not cataloguing the baby’s sleep, even mentally, I stopped judging & evaluating every. single. night! (I have to admit, I am not so loosey-goosey as to turn on the light & let Baby M play in the middle of the night. To the extent that I keep our world dark at night & don’t engage in active play when the baby wakes, I suppose I engage in some sleep “training.” But we never insist that either child has to be alone or asleep at any point, day or night.)

As a corollary to not tracking nighttime wakings, I also stopped timing naps & “insisting” that naps be a certain proscribed minimum length. We judge how successful a nap is by Baby M’s mood upon waking. If she’s upset or extremely groggy, we know the nap has been too short & we try to nurse or rock her to sleep again. If she’s happy but the nap seemed a bit short, we follow her lead—We know we can’t force her to sleep.

Third up, we stopped caring about how or where the baby sleeps. Again, we follow her cues. Sometimes (less so now that she’s 1 1/2 year old) we hold her for an entire nap or for a long time at night. Sometimes she has good stretches in her bed. When she was smaller she napped in a bassinet connected to our bed or in a pack ‘n play in the living room. She always ends up in bed, next to me at night. We bed-share for some naps on weekends & we also let her nap & sleep in the baby carrier, the stroller, the car seat, etc.

We keep to a general (& very brief) routine, but this baby is a part of a busy family & sometimes naps happen on the go. Sometimes an accidental cat-nap is actually just what she needs.

We also trust that when she needs us, she needs us, so we’re ok with holding & co-sleeping & bed-sharing. (Regarding bed-sharing, I found the La Leche League’s guidelines for safe bed-sharing to be very helpful.)

Fourth, I have learned to expect disruptions. Teething, developmental “leaps,” illness, travel, changes to the daily routine … the list goes on & on. Sometimes there’s no reason at all for a sleep disruption (or at least not one I can discern).

These disruptions happen to all families, whether they sleep train or not. The difference is how you react to those disruptions. But no matter whether it makes sense to you or not, your child is communicating a real need to you.

For example, lately, I notice that, on Mondays, after being together for a few days, Baby M misses me & this changes her sleep patterns. Her brother heads off to school, I go to the office, & her dad heads off to work too. She adores her babysitter, but come Monday night, she just wants to reconnect with me & nurse a lot. All night. It’s ok. It’s exhausting, but it’s a real need & I’ll survive. And I plan accordingly.

…Which leads me to my last adjustment. Planning for sleep for you! It’s obviously important to prioritize getting enough rest for the entire family, especially for yourself if you’re the primary nighttime parent.

Admittedly, this is not easy when I’m following my baby’s lead when it comes to sleep. But I need to be functional every morning at work. Our son needs to get to school. My partner has to find time to get his work done. So here’s the inconvenient secret: An early bedtime for everyone.

When I first went back to work, I went to sleep with the kids. At, like, 8:00! As Baby M started sleeping for a stretch on her own early in the night & I find I have to be vigilant & force myself to not stay up too late. I aim to be asleep (or at least in bed) no later 9:30.

This way, I am sure to get an aggregate of adequate sleep. Even for adults, our sleep patterns are more malleable than you might expect. In fact, the idea that we need a solid eight-hour block of sleep may be more of a cultural creation than a real biological need. Prior to the Industial Revolution, the normal adult sleep pattern was a night of sleep broken into two segments, between which people actually embraced being awake & engaing in activity!

I’m not going to lie: A night with a lot of wakings is tough to weather. But if I get a few solid chunks of sleep that add up to around eight hours, I’m okay. (You may be different, in which case you may need to engage your partner, if you have one, more often or find ways to gently nudge your child toward longer stretches. No judgment… you gotta be your own iconoclast!)

Unfortunately, an early bedtime also means that time alone with my partner suffers. My nighttime social life (to the extent that I had one!) is almost nonexistent. And, as my son has noted, family movie night has been ruined by the baby!

I just have to remind myself (& my family) that this phase will pass. For now, my partner & I consciously plan to spend time together after work or during naps on the weekends. And I try to meet friends during the day or visit as a family.

The hard reality of being a parent is that it’s a 24/7 job. It’s up to me how I react to that reality. I’ve chosen to enjoy it.

Seriously.

I love to smell M’s soft hair in the night. I enjoy my older child’s snuggles when he decides to climb into bed with us. (Not so much the kicks to the back…)

Of course, I don’t enjoy feeling groggy or grumpily sleep-deprived. I try to look at a crappy night of sleep as an excuse for an extra cup of delicious coffee. But Baby M is sick right now & last night I basically didn’t sleep. It sucked. No amount of coffee can make that okay.

But when my children are grown, I will look back at these years knowing that I did the best I could to savor the sweetness buried in the challenges of day-to-day (or night-to-night) life with young children.

And that is why I’m now a devoted sleep iconoclast! I hope you also find your own way!

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Becoming a Sleep Iconoclast: Why I broke up with sleep training

icon • o • clast : noun : a person who attacks settled beliefs or institutions (Merriam-Webster)

For the most part, I have avoided writing about sleep. Some years ago, not long after starting this blog, I wrote a series of posts adapting Attachment Parenting International’s principles of attachment parenting for working moms. When I got to the topic of sleep, I faltered. Ultimately, rather than tackle the topic, I abandoned the series all together.

Not only did I feel I had nothing to say worth reading about sleep, but my son’s sleep situation made me feel embarrassed. It was one area where I felt I was a complete parenting failure. (I have failed & continue to fail in many, many ways, but I felt I was a categorical failure when it came to sleep.)

My son didn’t sleep. Or couldn’t sleep. Or so I thought. He slept on someone. And when he woke up, forget about it. It was back to square one with the nursing & the bouncing & the rocking & the delicate operation that was laying him down in his crib. Forget about naps. We were lucky to get 15-25 minutes in the early days!

At the time, I just assumed that even AP families were supposed to be able to put their little ones down for a bit of independent sleep now & again. Looking back now, I see how cultural norms surrounding sleep crept into my attempt at AP nighttime parenting. I shouldn’t have assumed anything…

Beyond the sheer exhaustion that ensued for those first 2 years or so, the whole situation made me doubt everything about my parenting. Was I nursing too much? Not pumping enough? Not giving him the right solids during the day? Cosleeping too much? Too little? Studying too much? Working too much? Giving him too much stimulation during the day? Not enough?

Sleep, it turns out, is a big deal in the parenting world not only because there’s never enough of it at the right times, but also because it bleeds into all aspects of the early parenting journey.

And in American parenting culture (which is “independence”- & dominance-driven, rather than collaborative), sleep is a key barometer for your success or failure as a parent. I was clearly failing because my son did not sleep, at least not in the right ways.

And here’s a big admission: Because I misconstrued sleep as a key to parenting success, I got angry a lot at bedtime. This started in his infancy & continued through his two’s, after he transitioned to a big kid bed. I think this is perhaps why I’m most embarrassed by this episode in my mothering journey. I tried so hard to be a gentle parent, respectful of my son’s needs, but I just lost my temper so often at night. I never harmed my son physically & I was usually successful in bottling my anger, but I’m sure my tone & words were less than kind on some many nights. I often had to just walk away.

I was & am ashamed of this. If I could do one thing over with my son, it would be all about sleep.

What’s different today? I am an exhausted, bed-sharing/co-sleeping mother to a 1 1/2 year old who still nurses a lot at night & has unpredictable nighttime patterns… But, I’m mostly okay with this. That last bit is the big difference: My attitude has shifted.

And, so, with some perspective on my experience with my son & additional experience with the baby, I feel like I can & should write about sleep.

When I had my daughter, I was determined to not repeat the mistakes I made with my son & in the process I discovered something: Sleep “training” is nothing more than a cottage industry offering books & services to unwitting parents caught up in the cultural tide that is mainstream, competetive parenting in America.

So, I decided to quit that rat race…

I am now officially a sleep iconoclast. Forging my own path without shame. Throwing out (almost) all the baby sleep advice sans guilt. Giving the boot to the concept of sleep “training.” Slaying expections surrounding normal infant & child (& adult) sleep patterns. (Mostly) loving bedtime & sleep & nighttime parenting proudly.

What did I discover is wrong with most sleep training advice? Why toss it all out? It’s all about perspective—The premise is wrong & all that follows is necessarily flawed.

Almost all sleep books start from the adult perspective. This perspective defines normal sleep as sleep that primarily takes place at night for blocks of 7-9 hours. From this perspective, sleep is also something that is self-initiated & occurs in large, uninterrupted chunks of time. Our modern days & lives are built around the construct of this big nighttime, 8-hour sleep.

Not to mention that the American cultural obsession with “independence” is also an adult concept that is overrated & often unfairly imposed on infants & children.

All of this must be quite different from the infant’s perspective. An infant (fresh from the womb & new to the concept of day & night) wants to sleep when he’s tired, whenever that happens to be. He wants to be close to his favorite person in the world (that’s you). He wants milk before falling asleep (or after… or both). He definitely wants milk while falling asleep. He prefers to sleep in short snippets of time, just like he did in the warm comfort of your belly.

Now, your response might be (understandably) that you have to function in a world that is designed around ingrained, typical adult sleep patterns. So, you have to train your baby or child to adapt to the typical pattern, too. This seems logical. (And as an attorney with a day job, I get it.)

But babies are anything but logical. They’re instinctual & biologically driven. Unfortunately for us adults, this means that their sleep patterns are incredibly inconvenient & difficult to change. So difficult, in fact, that trying to convince a baby to sleep at a time or in a manner different from what her little body is telling her is usually a frustrating endeavor for both parent & child. Sometimes (usually?) it’s simply futile.

Most sleep advice tacitly recognizes that infant sleep is fundamentally different from adult sleep by admitting that babies need a lot more sleep than adults need. They need naps. They need a larger total amount of hours at night dedicated to sleep.

Beyond the newborn days, though (when we’re admonished to “nap when baby naps”), sleep training advice is mostly adult-focused, often urging parents to impose a schedule & stick to it. Sure, that’s convenient, but it’s not always what the child needs. We should recognize that we, as adults, are the ones who primarily benefit from a predictable schedule not our children.

While the adult world keeps barreling along according to inflexible & often inscrutable schedules, from an infant’s perspective, sleep might be boring, scary, hard, intrusive, uncomfortable, lonely, unnecessary, etc. Or it might be easy & best done in solitude. You just don’t know until you know. And to know, you have to watch, listen, observe.

But even if your child is a “good” sleeper, there’s bound to be something inconvenient about it, whether it’s an early bedtime (as in, right after you get home from work) or a second (or third) nap in the afternoon (you know, when you have to pick up your older child from school…). So, what to do?

What’s wrong with relying on “experts” to help you fix these & other “problems” with your child’s sleep? Not only do the so-called “experts” almost always start from the wrong perspective, as explained above, they are most certainly not expert in your child’s sleep signals & patterns & needs. For example, your pediatrician is likely not a good source of advice on infant sleep because she’s not with your baby at bedtime or nap time. A book author, even if he has “Dr.” in front of his name, has never even met your baby! And sleep needs are nothing if not unique to the individual child.

If you must consult an expert, at least make sure it’s someone who understands & respects infants as having unique needs in the sleep department. Personally, I loved Elizabeth Pantley’s book, The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Newborns: Amazing Sleep From Day One—For Baby and You. This gem is one of the only books out there that focuses on the right things: namely, normal infant sleep patterns & learning your baby’s language. (Also safe sleep, which is a must.) Pantley clearly understands & respects the needs of infants.

Also, Sarah Ockwell-Smith has a wealth of solid information regarding normal infant sleep on her website (& presumably, her book on sleep, too, though that’s not available in the good ol’ USA).

But even the best writers on infant sleep will only get you so far. Ultimately, it’s going to be up to you to find your path. I’ll share deets on what my path has looked like in part two in this two-part series.

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