the family you plan for, the family you get

According to the World Health Organization, the concept of “family planning” allows people to attain their desired number of children and determine the spacing between them.

According to the old Yiddish proverb, men plan and God laughs.

I had a plan for my family. I wanted three children. If you had asked me before, I would have said this: two boys, relatively close in age, and then maybe a girl, though I wasn’t bothered about the sex. I would wait a little longer to have the third child—settle the first one into school, break the back of the second’s toddlerhood—so I could appreciate fully that last ride round the carousel of new motherhood. So I could swill it in my mouth like the fine wine it is.

I had my two boys, just over two years a part. And then three and half years later, I had twins.

I’m not sure I think the configuration of a family is something we should aim to control absolutely, though modern medicine offers increasing opportunity to do just that. There is much beauty to be found in the unknown, in the mysteries the reproductive process is so good at serving up to us. But still we are human. And still we make plans, we make choices, whether Mother Nature is smirking behind our backs or not. We harbor ideas and desires about how many children will be sitting at the dinner table, about what they might be like, and we have regrets, too, regrets that creep in like frost, even though it’s not always socially acceptable to say so.

I planned for three children and I ended up with four, and it has changed my life more than I ever imagined.

You can read the rest of the essay here, at Brain, Child Magazine.




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home alone

As the holidays roll around and television morphs into an unrelenting showcase for Christmas cheer, my oldest son and I found ourselves watching Home Alone—one of the quintessential films from my own childhood. Who among us of a certain age doesn’t remember Macaulay Culkin’s adorably goofy face sandwiched between two hands as he bellowed that trademark “Ahhhhhhhh,” the sting from his father’s aftershave a little too much for his tender skin to take?

Back in the old days, Home Alone had enormous cache because its premise was at once terrifying and thrilling. The idea of being left alone by your parents—without your siblings to boot—promised the joy of pizza toppings entirely of your own choosing as much as the reality of having to fend for yourself. In Kevin McCallister’s case, it also meant the need to protect your home against the onslaught of two bumbling burglars after a perfectly delicious microwaveable Kraft Macaroni and Cheese dinner.

In 1990, the premise was a stretch, to say the least. But there were mitigating factors. The bustling extended family and the relatably distracted parents allowed us folk of that previous generation to suspend disbelief far enough to deem forgetting your youngest child an omission ever so slightly within the realm of possibility.

Fast forward to 2014, the infamous age of hovercraft parenting, and the movie comes across as a sub-genre of fantasy. And not simply because of the whole leaving your kid behind in the face of an international vacation bit. Rather because in the course of twenty odd years—a mere blip in the time-space continuum—there has been a sea-change that makes certain features of the film’s parent-child relationship virtually unrecognizable. A guilty mother desperate to get back to an eight year old who has been mooching about by himself for three days? That we get. The set of circumstances leading to said situation? Not so much.

You can read the rest of the piece here, at Brain, Child Magazine.



phoebe does her best macaulay culkin impression



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the news my kids won’t be breaking to your kids this christmas

December can be a worrisome month for some parents. For those of us who don’t celebrate Christmas, that is. For those of us who are immune to magical thinking. As the rest of the world strings lights and bakes cookies and sprinkles the lawn with reindeer dust in an effort to gussy up the house for the arrival of that rotund white-bearded fellow, I will be sitting my children down and, with as stern a face as I can muster, delivering “the talk.” The one where I tell them to keep their mouths shut about Santa Claus.

I learned the importance of “the talk” the hard way. When he was 4, my son had a rather unfortunate exchange with the daughter of our family friends. It went something like this:

Girl, excited: Santa Claus is getting me an X for Christmas!

Son, deadpan: Santa Claus is just pretend.

Girl, shocked: No. He isn’t.

Son, holding his ground: Yes, he is.

Girl, becoming plaintive: But he brings me my presents!

Son, ever the realist: That’s actually your mom and dad…

We heard the sobbing from the next room, hers not his, and came running. The conversation was relayed back to us, in glossy pre-school detail. The girl’s parents were not pleased, though they were able to talk her round quickly enough with hard-line reassurances that Santa Claus is, indeed, real. All the while my own son looked on in quiet confusion.

This was not the first time he had found himself at odds with a playmate over a point of information. He was a pensive little boy, who took factual disputes—and their accurate resolutions—seriously. But it was the first time his mother wasn’t chiming in with the “truth.”

You can read the rest of the piece here, in the Washington Post.



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i’m a mommy blogger and proud of it

Call a woman a “mommy blogger” and you might as well be slinging mud. The expression, as it is most commonly used, is patronizing at best, derogatory at worst. What’s more is that it manages to offend on dual levels: a seeming contempt for both motherhood and the way mothers write about themselves. And yet, suffice it to say: I am a mommy blogger and proud of it.

Before I became a mommy blogger, I wrote a monograph titled The Advent of Pluralism: Diversity and Conflict in the Age of Sophocles. The book was about the meta-ethical theory of pluralism as it manifested itself in pre-Platonic Greek thought. Now I have a website, where I write about parenting and children—the tragedy of sibling rivalry as much as the comedy of a six year old’s staged wedding. Is this a change in subject matter tantamount to a fall from grace? I imagine many among the literati would consider it so.

The idea that motherhood is a topic worthy of serious reflection is only in its infancy. “Women have mothered since life began,” writes Katherine J. Barrett, the editor of Understorey Magazine, an online publication dedicated to “unspoken” stories about mothering. But “the history of books about motherhood spans roughly 40 years.” Whatever the root cause of this fundamental imbalance—and I suspect it’s closely linked to the general undervaluing of what was once referred to as “women’s work”—times they are a changin’. Today the web is crawling with women trying to make sense of their topsy-turvy lives as parents by encapsulating that process of analysis in some kind of narrative form.

You can read the rest of the article here, at

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fear of flying

For much of my adult life I’ve been afraid of flying. It’s takeoff that bothers me most. The thundering down the runway, the dramatic dip back. The idea of a four hundred ton machine catapulted off the ground and embraced on its way up by a flimsy scattering of clouds, as if by a long-lost friend.

It’s only since having a child I’ve become convinced there is something primal about my fear. Have you ever seen a baby exhibit the Moro reflex? Watching my newborn throw his arms out in instinctive supplication as the doctor tested him for it, as she let my son fall from her hands in a parody of cruelty, I thought to myself: maybe I’ve never outgrown this. Drop a tiny baby, just a little bit, and their defences ignite. They startle, sometimes wildly, hardwired to react to the sudden lack of substance beneath them. Babies don’t like to feel unsupported. Who does, really?

* * *

I used to fly a lot as a kid. I even used to fly alone, though more often than not it was with my older sister. We were known, in aviation lingo, as “unaccompanied minors,” a category of passenger largely comprised of the driftwood of broken homes. From New York to Charlotte, from Mom to Dad, and back again. Summers and some holidays, we would sit in that bulkhead row, specially reserved for our kind, with nobody but the stewardesses to care what we ate or when we last went to the toilet. We were the first ones onto the plane and the last ones off, our safety contingent, it seemed, on being boarded for the longest time possible. And then a parent would collect us at either end, waving from the mouth of the jet bridge as we raced down it toward reunion. Getting on an airplane was as much about saying goodbye as it was about saying hello.

You can read the rest of the essay here, at Brain, Child Magazine.



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sibling rivalry, a lament

I didn’t think it would be like this, that my children would fight so much. I wanted a big family to stand over, the captain of a team, not a referee endlessly blowing my whistle on the fifty-yard line of their rivalry.

I didn’t think it would be like this, when my belly started to swell only a year and half after our first son was born. I chose for them to be close in age, I believed less time between them, less air, would create intimacy, like a vacuum. What more beautiful gift to give a two year old than a baby brother?

I didn’t think it would be like this, that they would be so different. “Chalk and cheese,” as we say in Britain, “apples and oranges.” Both fruit, but the juice doesn’t run the same. Intense, focused, solitary meets quirky, frenetic, outgoing; introvert rubs against extrovert. A strange irony that the qualities I relish in one are the very thing that drives the other to distraction.

I didn’t think it would be like this, their dynamic so repetitive, so predictable it defies logic. The same scenario played over and over again, the dance they do. The younger one goads, the older one lashes out. He’s annoying me. He’s hurting me. It’s a tired record, but it keeps on spinning no matter where I put the needle.

I didn’t think it would be like this, that our third child would be two children, that the way they vied for space in the womb would become a template for all that came next. A tug of war so intense it kindles in me anger, the hotness of which I have never felt before in my life. Bicker, squabble, tussle, tangle, twins who inspire a veritable thesaurus of fighting words. This is mine. No, it’s mine. Value defined solely by another’s interest.

You can read the rest of the piece here, at Brain, Child Magazine.



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i let my kids play with toy guns

As you probably know, I have been doing ‘debates’ or pairings of essays on a single topic for a while now: it is one of my favorite sub-genres of parenting writing. To this end I was recently made Debate Editor at Brain, Child Magazine, which is very exciting! (You can learn a little more about my new role here.)

This month I lock horns with Zsofia McMullin about whether or not we should let our children play with toy guns.

Lauren writes: My first son’s gun infatuation peaked between the ages of six and seven, years when top birthday presents included the Elite Firestrike Blaster and the Dart Tag Sharp Shot. But, as with most phases of childhood and just as my mother predicted, he outgrew it. The box in his room that holds his Nerf collection is, quite literally, gathering dust. His younger brothers and sister dip in and out of it, but none of them is particularly interested. They are more likely to use the bullets to build castles or as fodder for their teddy bear picnics.

Zsofia writes: People argue that it wouldn’t be bad for my son to learn gun safety. He should learn so that he can be comfortable around guns, learn to use them safely, decide for himself how he feels about them when he is older. And to that I say: it’s okay not to be comfortable with certain things. There are many, many things in life he will probably not learn—flying an airplane, butchering a cow, cliff diving— and that’s fine. He will have a full, satisfying life without those things. I want him to feel very uncomfortable around guns so that when and if he ever sees a real one, he will run as fast and as far as he can. That is pretty much the only thing I tell him about guns.

Read the rest of the debate here, at Brain, Child Magazine.



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three lessons ancient greek tragedy can teach us about modern parenting

O tempora! O mores! The strange moment of parenting we live in.

We agonize over the right way to do it. We bemoan that it’s no fun at all. And then we cry into the day’s fourth cup of coffee about how quickly it’s passing us by, in-between baking a life-sized My Little Pony birthday cake and shuttling the toddler to Kumon. Ours might be a 21st century predicament, but it occurs to me that maybe, just maybe, it is the ancients who can best put it in perspective.

You want to see some real parenting problems that make dealing with a kid who eats only white food feel like a warm summer’s breeze? Ask the dramatists of classical Greece, those masters of the double bind, those poets of the no-win situation. Nothing will make you think you have it easy, that you are in fact a good parent, like the woeful choruses of a Greek tragedy.

“We are all Greeks,” Shelley famously proclaimed, by which he meant that our contemporary experience as human beings is rooted in the 5th century BCE. Or something grandiose and cryptic like that. At any rate, I’m pretty sure he meant that we modern moms and dads can learn a thing or two from our Athenian brethren.

Sing to me, Muse, of parenting lessons more useful than BabyCenter emails.

1. Mothers, don’t sleep with your sons (Sophocles)

I admit this admonition is more confusing than it might otherwise be, if the whole attachment parenting concept hadn’t caught on like wildfire. Of course none of us is sleeping with our sons, that’s a disgusting abomination of nature. Thanks to Dr Sears, however, many of us are now sleeping with our sons. Open your bed to your children, he says. Skin to skin is soothing. Wear them, if you have to. You know what I say? Tell that to Jocasta. Okay, I’m just kidding again with the incest. But maybe Freud was onto something. You know: the Oedipus complex. The threat to the marital bed. The little boy, with flailing limbs, wedged between husband and wife like an iceberg lettuce salad. Sure, Oedipus was a stranger to Jocasta and he was a grown man and they’d been separated at birth. Blah blah blah. For you, modern mother of a young child whom you want out of your bed but can’t quite displace: there is no such excuse.

Modern take-away message: hold your kids close, but not too close.

2. Fathers, don’t sacrifice your daughters for the job (Aeschylus)

Think about it this way: does the fact that Agamemnon had an important “project” to launch (Trojan War), which was ordained by his “bosses” (the Gods) and undertaken for a big “client” (his scorned brother), make the fact that he slit his daughter’s throat okay? Dads, I need you to dig deep here for the answer. As much as you’d prefer to keep the work stuff at work and the home stuff at home, there are situations where the twain shall meet. Like they did at Aulis. And Clytemnestra will be the first to tell you: some excuses simply don’t fly. We mothers understand you take your role as provider seriously, that there’s your ego to consider, your honor, the “office” politics you feel require you to do something you don’t really want to do. But sometimes, for the sake of the family, you just have to suck it up and say “no.” Trust me, your homecoming will be a much happier affair as a result.

Modern take-away message: they call it work/life balance for a reason.

3. Wives, however angry you are at your husbands, don’t kill the kids (Euripides)

He doesn’t do the dishes as often as he should. He feeds the children Twizzlers for dinner. Maybe he’s even made doe eyes at your daughter’s best friend’s mother. And yet, when it comes to our husbands’ many misjudgements and domestic misdemeanors, let’s keep the punishment in proportion with the crime. Right, Medea? Jason was ungrateful, no doubt about it. He wasn’t “pulling his weight” with the family care. And after all you did for him, the sacrifices you made, to leave you in the lurch like that was beyond the pale. I get it. There are times we are so enraged with our husbands and their double standards we can hardly see straight. Should the children really be the ones to suffer, though? Ladies, we need to at least try disconnecting SportsCenter first.

Modern take-away message: couples therapy is a viable alternative.



don’t do it, medea!


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independence referendum is a win for scotland’s children

The last couple of days have been an extraordinary time for Scotland. On 18 September, with a record-breaking turnout of 85%, the people here voted to reject independence and keep Scotland a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Throughout the referendum – and irrespective of the result – I have been struck by what a positive experience this has been for my kids. I am proud to have had a piece about it published on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog:

GLASGOW — The people of Scotland will make a momentous decision on Thursday about the fate of a 307-year-old union. They will vote “yes” or they will vote “no” on the question of whether Scotland should become a country independent from Britain. There has been much rhetoric on both sides of the divide about the potential ill effects of separation (or not) on Scottish children. Everyone agrees that nothing less than the well-being of future generations is at stake. And yet it is worth noting, amid the crossfire, that one effect of the referendum on our children is overwhelmingly positive: They are experiencing participatory democracy at its height.

Some of Scotland’s children will be getting an early taste of that democracy themselves. For the first time in a major ballot, the British franchise has been extended downward to include 16- and 17-year-olds. That’s 124,000 teenagers who will now be able to vote on this particular question. Far from stereotypical adolescent apathy, 72 percent of eligible voters younger than 18 say that they are “rather” or “very likely” to cast a ballot. Which is perhaps not surprising as the referendum has included a push for young voters, with both official campaigns making a concerted effort to reach out to university students.

But the referendum is also touching younger students…

You can read the rest of the article here.




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my problem with princesses

I don’t like princesses. I don’t want my daughter called “princess.” I would rather she not play with “princess” things, both those that are bona fide accoutrements of the throne (e.g. a tiara) and those that are merely decorated or marketed as such (e.g. a Cinderella toothbrush). If I had my way, she would never, not once, take to the streets as a three foot tall version of Snow White, bedecked in a satin, gold-sequin-trimmed costume with glitter detail.

Before you cast aspersion on my dismissal of an entire category of plaything, mode of dress and term of endearment, know this: I haven’t just banned princesses from the house willy-nilly. When fate handed me a daughter amidst three sons, I did my homework. I read my Peggy Orenstein (among others) to find out why—not just that—princesses suck. The problem with princesses, as I see it, is threefold: their aesthetics, their functionality and their relationship with meritocracy. Taken together, these reasons have convinced me that a princess is neither a healthy nor a desirable role model for my daughter.

You can read the rest of this essay here, at Brain, Child Magazine.


waiting for her prince? not my daughter


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