And Here We Go….

In the checkout line, I idly overheard an elderly couple telling the clerk in an indignant manner that “The schools aren’t opening.” This is sort of true, but I wondered why the couple was bringing this up with the clerk, since they looked too old to have school-aged kids.

My question was answered when the clerk finished scanning my items and gestured to a small pile of Hershey’s bars with a “support teachers” message printed on the wrapper of each. “Would you like to support our teachers…” she started to say before I answered, with gritted teeth, “Today is the wrong day to ask that.”

The clerk hastily replied, “Of course! Of course! No pressure!” and began bagging my items. I felt sorry for her having to ask people to buy the stupid candy bars all day, especially on that day. See, after weeks of stating that parents could choose whether their children would experience 100% distance learning or attend in-person school 2 days per week during the fall 2020-2021 school term, after a “town hall” and a packet explaining how the “hybrid” option would work, the school board suddenly announced last night that they would be removing the in-person attendance option and making everyone learn 100% virtually.

We received no warning before last night. Neither did the teachers. And after being yanked around in this manner, not to mention the absolute dog’s breakfast that was the distance learning last spring, my husband and I realized that we could not trust the school system to provide our rising second grader and kindergartner with anything like an adequate education this year. We’re supposed to be assured that teachers will be able to correct all the deficiencies of last spring’s “distance learning” disaster, when given evidence that the school system isn’t even keeping principals in the loop? Riiiiight.

“I guess we’re homeschooling,” said my husband, and I grimly sat down to plan my list of subjects and order a few resources that I’d had saved, just in case. I really hadn’t wanted to homeschool with a Christmas baby coming, but we’d always known that we might have to do it if the schools proved they couldn’t be relied upon.

My daughter really enjoyed public school. It was good for her, and I believe my son would have thrived in it, too. I don’t know what learning is going to look like after the schools reopen, or how much teachers will be scrambling to play catch-up; in the best case scenario, this will be just a one-year hiccup, and next year will be “normal.” But there’s the potential for a whole cadre of kids to fall behind and make it very difficult for teachers to give them the education that they need.

I homeschooled my daughter last spring to supplement the ridiculous “distance learning” program, which seemed mostly to focus on naming feelings and using belly breaths when stressed. I’m a novice and will surely make mistakes, but I know many veteran homeschooling parents whose brains I can pick. My children will be okay.

But I’m not buying a Hershey bar on teachers’ behalf. Not today.

“We’re Pregnant”

I’ll admit I don’t like this phrase. Unless multiple women are saying it who are all gestating babies, it isn’t accurate; biologically, XX women get pregnant, XY men don’t.* “We’re expecting” is better, although I associate this wording with saccharine couples who post drippingly gushy things on Instagram.

However, my prejudice against “We’re pregnant,” “We’re expecting,” etc has become a great deal weaker than my prejudice against those who go on and on about how it is THE GESTATIONAL PARENT (we can’t say “mother” anymore) who is pregnant, who emphasize that she, and she alone is undertaking the risks and pains of pregnancy and delivery. “Does the man have to undergo nausea, cramps, possible hypertension and diabetes, swollen ankles, and heartburn? Does the man risk dying in labor? Nooooooo.” (I don’t think I’ve heard nonpregnant lesbians berated in the same way.) Yes. Okay. True. Nevertheless the man is expected to support his pregnant partner; he is expected to pick up the work if she’s unable to do it, take her to the hospital, be with her when he can, and help ease her discomforts if he can. When the child is born, he’s supposed to be an involved father and help with the baby. If the couple separates and he is not awarded custody, he is expected to pay child support. In other words, he’s supposed to act like a father, as regards responsibilities.

But it is entirely unreasonable to give a man a set of responsibilities with regard to his child without also recognizing his rights to the child. A woman on some defunct Reddit thread complained that her husband seemed to take no interest in their baby and didn’t help out, and then stated that she wouldn’t permit her husband to take the baby out for a few hours when he asked to do so. Every attempt he made to spend time with his child was stymied by his wife, who was then confused by his seeming detachment from the baby and his unwillingness to change diapers.

I should add, by the way, that although a biological, gestational mother has a prolonged, physical connection that facilitates bonding with the baby, this does not mean that fathers or adoptive parents cannot bond; indeed, in the absence of neglect or abuse, a baby and its caregivers will almost always form a deep, lasting bond, whether or not there is any biological or gestational connection between them. And unfortunately, there are plenty of birth mothers who never bond with their children, whether because of mental or mood disorders or drug use or other circumstances. The point is not that fathers are second-class parents, but that they are often treated as such; not that fathers have to be coerced into acting like caring, involved parents, but that they can be prevented from so acting by people who deny the stake that a father has in his child.

The double standard is strong here. Men’s rights advocates have long pointed out that when it comes to pregnancy, it’s “her body, her choice”; whereas a woman should be permitted to jettison her unwanted child, a man has little recourse if he wants his child to live, and a man will still have to pay child support if he fathers an unwanted baby. “Oh, he didn’t want to be a father? Should have kept his pecker in his pants,” say the same pro-choice people who would be absolutely horrified to hear “Oh, she didn’t want to be a mother? Should have kept her legs shut.” It is worth repeating that there is a clear double standard here; at this point, people go back to whining about how the mother is the one who has to go through all of the unpleasantness of pregnancy, blah blah blah.

Fatherhood is important. Study after study after study shows that fathers are more than sperm donors with wallets. Children without present, involved fathers are at a disadvantage. No amount of hurt feelings should make us pretend otherwise. As a society, we scold fathers who fail to live up to their responsibilities, but in the same breath minimize their rights and access to their children and wonder why we end up with so many deadbeat dads. Although there are nasty, lousy men who are incapable of being good fathers–as there are nasty, lousy women who are incapable of being good mothers–most men, flawed as all human beings are, want to do right by their children, if given a chance.

I am pregnant. In this and in past pregnancies, when I considered doing something that might be a risk to the baby–consuming a small amount of alcohol, getting on a ladder, eating a rare steak–I have checked with my husband. He is far from controlling, and generally leaves such matters to my judgment. Where he has expressed his wishes, however, I’ve done my best to follow them. This isn’t just because he is my husband and therefore the head of the marriage (which he is); it is also because my baby is his. It is because he cares deeply about the development and wellbeing of our children. If he were to say “We’re pregnant,” I’d probably cringe inwardly, but I’d know exactly what he meant; it’s a biologically inaccurate, overprecious phrase, but it expresses a truth that should be obvious but somehow is overlooked today.

*I would classify transmen as women, and transwomen as men. There are, however, a small number of intersex people who would still be described as “women” but do not have XX genotypes, such as XY people with androgen insensitivity that causes them to develop female habitus, or females with Turner syndrome who are missing all or part of an X chromosome. All of the former and most of the latter are infertile.

Enjoying the Trivial

It recently struck me that random strangers have not effusively gushed over my kids’ looks in quite some time. Certainly, they’ll compliment me on my third child’s lovely hair and eyes, but my first two have stopped looking like a matched set of porcelain dolls, so beautiful that store associates used to find coworkers and pull them over to look at the lovely children. My kids are now just ordinarily cute-looking children. Since none of them appears to dwell unduly upon looks, I can conclude that the brief early period when they were continually complimented on their appearance hasn’t really affected them, which is good. I don’t miss those days either, but I am very glad that I enjoyed receiving compliments when they were given.

This has led me to remind myself of the importance of enjoying those aspects of your kids’ lives that are fleeting and ultimately trivial, but can give pleasure to your time with them. Do you have a contented child who never fusses? Enjoy it. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your kid will stay so forever, or congratulate yourself on the marvelous parenting skills that have landed you with an easygoing child, but don’t feel guilty about being pleased that your kid is so easy to manage. Do you have a good sleeper? Wonderful. That may change–or your next child may not be such a good sleeper–but be happy in your well-rested state. If your child is good at saying the alphabet at an early age, or draws excellent pictures, or is a natural gymnast, receive compliments on his or her abilities without worrying about whether they’re going to spoil the kid. They aren’t.

Now, there are parents who exaggerate their child’s achievements and seem to think that their reading-at-four child is some kind of extraordinary genius (maybe, but not necessarily); there are also parents whose actual love for their children is tied to the children’s achievements or personality, which is terrible. Most of us, though, err the opposite way and have too many reservations about reveling in the aspects of our child that please us.

I have written before that in one way, it is entirely fitting that parents should highly prize their children’s strengths, certainly more so than the rest of the world does. It is necessary, of course, to understand that indeed the rest of the world isn’t going to find it so extraordinary that Little Ermengarde can draw such a neat circle at the age of three, and to get a sense of “typical” child development (which is highly varied) that can protect parents from imagining that every new leap their child makes isn’t evidence of unprecedented talent or intellect. And if your child is beautiful–unusually beautiful–there is no guarantee that she will remain so.

But parenthood comprises many moments that cannot be enjoyed. If you have a colicky baby, you will not be enjoying every moment with her; you will be enduring many moments, hoping to survive with your sanity intact. If you have a stubborn toddler, you will not appreciate his obstinacy when it’s time to get his shoes on, and you will feel strongly tempted to kick anyone foolish enough to tell you to enjoy every minute.

These negative moments are worth it. Having a child is ultimately a joyful thing and a blessing. It is not, however, “all joy and no fun” as the books have it; parents will have many times when their child will entertain them or make them glow with happiness. Reading a good book to a child is fun (in my opinion). Christmas with children beats the heck out of Christmas without children. It was fun watching my kids’ jaws drop when their father made chocolates appear out of thin air. (He is not an especially talented prestidigitator, but young children are an undemanding audience.) Just as kids go through new stages of difficulty, so too do they also go through new stages when they find novel ways to delight their parents. It matters not if such enjoyment be tied to something that ultimately is insignificant in The Grand Scheme of Things, as long as parents recognize it as such; it is good for everyone, parents and children, to find happiness in their kids as they are in that moment. Oh, yes, we are always raising our babies with an eye to their longterm development into a decent, functioning adult, but not everything needs to be judged according to how the child will be at age 30. And there is nothing wrong with smiling internally when strangers compliment your child’s unusual good looks, or sleeping ability, or neck strength–nothing at all.

Teach Facts

It may come as a surprise to readers of this blog that one of my favorite professors in college was a gay man who specialized in queer and postcolonial literary theory. I liked him because he genuinely loved books and introduced me to some good ones; he was a smart man; he had a dry, wicked sense of humor; and he didn’t suffer fools gladly, which was especially juicy when one of my fellow English majors would make up some nonsense about a book and then expect to be taken seriously. I enjoy remembering the time he gave one class a quiz about the book we’d just read. The questions covered the content of the book (“What happened in Chapter X”) and asked us to identify the speakers of some quotes.

Now, my classmates protested mightily after they got their grades back. This was SUPPOSED to be an upper-level seminar-style class. WHY were we getting questions that require mere memorization? There was absolutely no CRITICAL THOUGHT involved. This was demeaning. We are SUPPOSED to be analyzing the themes and characters of the book, not answering who-said-what-type questions. Dr. H. sat in his chair with his hands folded, as he usually did, and his rather prissy, cold smile on his face, as he listened without interruption to the litany of lamentations; then he asked, “And how are you supposed to analyze a book when you don’t know what’s in it?”

I often think of this question when I hear about the importance of teaching critical thinking to our kids. For the record, I agree that it’s crucial to teach our children to think critically. The internet contains a great deal of information and also lies, bias, lack of context, misrepresented statements or facts, and sundry other ways to deceive and muddle. We need to be able to think critically to make important decisions about our own lives and about our social affairs. We should be able to think like scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, historians, and literature students; we should be able to identify fallacies, distinguish assumption from reasoning and use assumptions and reasoning properly, pick out fact from inference, pay attention to rhetorical devices, and look for what is and is not present in any given text.

But such sophisticated reasoning cannot occur without material with which to reason–in other words, we cannot analyze our book (or blog post, newspaper article, scientific study, financial statements, college prospectus) without knowing what it says. And this requires the ability and willingness to memorize facts. It means that before you discuss the depravity or heroism of Christopher Columbus, you know that in 1492 Genoese Columbus sailed the ocean blue in the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, funded by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in the hopes of discovering a new sea route to Asia, and wound up instead in the West Indies. In my opinion, it means that you stuff young children full of facts, answering their “critical thinking” questions as best you can but making sure that they know what the biggest continent is, how to use the Pythagorean Theorem, and what are the parts of the human body. It means you make them read good books and then prove to you that they know what happened and who’s in the book before asking them to explain the theme and symbolization. “Rote memorization” is today a dirty phrase, said with contempt and dismissal, as if making children memorize will quell their spirits and turn them into drones, but using critical faculties without factual substance seems to me like trying to drive without oil in your car–you won’t get far, and you’ll destroy the engine.

The trouble is nowadays that facts themselves are more disputed than they used to be. This is not so in literature; to my knowledge, no one has tried a Winston-Smith rewrite of literary works and tried to pass off the revision as the original. (Literary interpretations, on the other hand, are full of bias and insanity, but they are generally ephemeral in influence and can be ignored in favor of the original text.)

Mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and physics are pretty safe, too; competing “facts” (ie interpretations) sneak into some science such as biology, climatology, and ecology, but at least the underpinnings are fairly indisputable and don’t lend themselves well to fractured narratives. History, economics, political theory, and sociology, on the other hand, are stuffed with competing narratives and contradictory statements that claim not only different interpretations of facts, but different facts. No one disputes that Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States from 1801 to 1809, but beyond that you will receive wildly varying accounts of his role in forming the United States, his political philosophy, his religion, and his status as a heroic or villainous figure. How much did Jefferson really contribute to the Declaration of Independence? Just how committed to civil liberties was he? Never mind the Sally Hemmings questions, which in the eyes of some will make him an irredeemable monster.

What happens when we cannot agree on facts or practice reflexive skepticism when someone asserts a true-or-false statement? Eventually, this leads to nihilism, and the rejection of “facts” and “truth” altogether. The end of this road is intellectual suicide, and the replacement of substantive arguments with empty rhetoric; the person with the best-sounding story “wins.” I think we saw the peak of this in the 1990s and early 2000s, when poststructuralism was still popular and it was unfashionable to assert that any given morality was better than another; today people are emphatic that their own standards of right and wrong are correct, but the notion of “fact” is still highly suspect. “Sex and gender are not binary–they occur across a spectrum” depends on fuzzy definitions of sex and gender, to my mind, but those who insist that this is true insist also that it is I who am wrong in my definitions.

It should go without saying that reacting without knowing the truth or falsity of an asserted fact injures society, perhaps to death. But this is where we are–whipped up into rage over this and that, lionizing some and vilifying others and making no room in our thoughts for the possibility that we may be utterly wrong. Justice cannot exist in such a society, nor rule of law nor free exchange of ideas. Surely this is the opposite of critical thinking, and it arises because we don’t know what’s in the book.

Distance Learning: The Worst of Both Worlds (But Not Bad For Us)

In every letter she writes (and she writes a lot, these days, because of social distancing), my daughter writes something like “I miss school” or “I don’t like homeschooling.” She misses pizza on Friday, the monkey bars, seeing friends, the teacher, the classroom, and art class. But the thing she dislikes most about “homeschooling” isn’t really homeschooling at all–it’s the twice-weekly hour-long videochats with her teacher and classmates. They do scavenger hunts for something with a particular phoneme, tell jokes, listen to educational songs about problem-solving, draw cartoon characters, and talk about how we manage our feelings with “belly breathing” (which annoys her). I make her join the calls anyway, but agree they’re a waste of time.

It’s a sad contrast to her pre-COVID schooling, in which the teacher had appropriately high standards for the kids and graded them as rigorously as first graders ought to be graded. I could see her learning new skills and developing as a student. Now, the amount of schoolwork that’s put on Google Classrooms is laughable; were we doing nothing but what the school requires, we’d get everything done in an hour a week, and the math assignments especially are pathetically basic–more appropriate for beginning first grade, or even the end of kindergarten, than for the end of first grade.

This is not the teacher’s fault. Our school system rather abruptly shut down in the middle of March, and I found myself scrambling to pull together some sort of curriculum for my daughter. This wasn’t too difficult for a first-grader, though, because I knew where she was at and making sure she got reading, writing, and math practice doesn’t take any particular skill. We did Spanish on Duolingo, used our globe to do some basic geography, and I got to teach the kids about the human body. For a few weeks, I read fairy tales to the children, because they hadn’t gotten those before. I’d have the kids make ice cream or work in the garden. My daughter did math video games, Sudoku, and logic puzzles. I was thoroughly aware that I lacked training in standards of learning, how properly to get a baseline evaluation, designing lessons with enough repetition and interest that the student would retain information, scaffolding lessons upon each other, and other teacherly skills, but I think we did okay.

When our school finally implemented distance learning, we dropped Spanish and found, as I said, that the “official” schoolwork wasn’t exactly demanding, so most of our homeschooling continued as started, albeit with twice-weekly calls. (We skip the “Morning Announcement” videos.) I’ve neglected history except where opportunities arise to teach it, and spelling tests because my daughter is a good speller for first grade and gets better the more she reads; also, we start off each day with a scrambled-word game that helps my kids spell.

From what I can tell, distance learning has been a dud for most kids across the country, owing in part no doubt to the haste with which it was implemented. Many parents complain that the school is demanding excessive work, which with multiple children can add up to more hours than are available; many more complain that the schoolwork is too little (I do not, because it allows me more freedom to teach as I see fit). There are also inherent problems with distance learning that aren’t likely to be solved by next fall: Being glued to a screen isn’t ideal for young children, and there are disparities in access to technology and parental availability. For middle-schoolers, distance learning is probably great–they’re old enough to work independently and read and type competently, and middle school social life sucks; for everybody else, in-person learning is best.

I’m also annoyed with my school district for focusing on managing feelings instead of educating our children. It is the parents’ job to teach our kids how to deal with stress and change, and the school does a lousy job of it. I’m even annoyed by the “bedtime story” videos they send out every evening; I can read to my own kids, thankyouverymuch.

Perhaps it is wrong of me to be annoyed. Our family hasn’t substantially suffered from the COVID-19 situation (yet). My daughter misses school, but none of our kids has missed meals or been subjected to a poor living environment; my husband still works from home, and I still watch the children at home. We are privileged. Other families are in turmoil, and the school is trying to fill in gaps. But this really underscores the problem when schools become all-encompassing social support networks; they simply aren’t a good replacement for stable families.

Cooking With What’s at Hand

I miss a cooking advice column on Slate called The Pickle, by one Daniel Isengart. He was so delightfully pretentious. To the question, “What’s the laziest acceptable thing you can bring to a potluck?” Isengart answered, “Considering your apparent attitude, why not send your regrets and skip the potluck altogether? It doesn’t get any easier than that, and you might do the host and the other guests a favor. After all, who wants to be around a Lazy Susan who just waits for the good stuff to come her way without contributing something that shows that she has made an effort like everybody else?” He then offers a few suggestions on the off-chance that the advice seeker isn’t a layabout moocher, which are the following:

-An “elegant assortment of something that can be assembled on a platter…curate the offering, as it were.”

-Oven-roasted Yukon potatoes seasoned with “ground–never grated–pecorino Romano.”

-Pizza dough obtained from your local pizza parlor, topped with “a drizzle of olive oil and your choice of anchovies or capers, coarse black pepper, and whole fresh sage leaves; crumbled pecorino; or halved grapes—or, even better if you can find them, minuscule Champagne grapes and a generous amount of anise seeds.”

(The commenters suggested chips-and-dip, a premade cheese, fruit, or veggie platter, drinks, or disposable plates, napkins, or cutlery–you know, actually useful suggestions.)

For this fellow, the only good recipe is one that involves visits to one’s farmer’s market, cheesemonger, butcher, and fishmonger. He insists that anyone who claims not to like vegetables is prissy, advises a novice brunch-maker to go for something complicated, and in general exhibits remarkable snobbishness totally untainted by self-awareness. In one of his columns, he finds it bewildering that his friends seem afraid to invite him over for dinner; the commentariat had a good laugh at that one.

I was reminded of Chef Daniel when reading The Long Winter, in which Ma Ingalls must feed the family on bread made only from wheat ground in a hand-turned coffee grinder. Throughout the Little House series, Mrs. Ingalls is presented as a good cook, resourceful and able to use what comes to hand to make a tasty meal; her family and various guests praise her skill in cooking. Even this coarse bread has a “fresh, nutty taste.” At times, she has access to a variety of vegetables, fresh game or poultry, and ingredients for sweets such as cakes; other times, she has beans or flour or potatoes. Her capabilities go beyond cooking, for she is able to make a cozy home out of a dugout, a claim shanty, a borrowed house, and various houses built by Pa; but as someone who likes herself to cook, I admire most her capacity to take what she has and turn it into something delicious. (At one point she uses the prematurely-frosted pumpkins to make what Pa thinks is an apple pie.) She either knows exactly what to do with something foraged, harvested, bought, or shot, or is able to make up a new recipe.

It is easy to see that I admire the cooking abilities of Mrs. Ingalls more than I do those of Daniel Isengart, although I have no doubt that he is able to create absolutely delicious meals. What would he do if placed in front of a cupboard that had some canned beans, canned tomatoes, powdered garlic, and generic boxed pasta? Would he be able to make something nice, or would he curl up into a ball and sob? You may, of course, point out that Mrs. Ingalls could not have been presented with such an assortment of highly processed food, but I believe that her ingenuity would allow her to do better than our sensitive chef.

Now, there is no question that good ingredients make good meals; freshly squeezed lemon juice is superior to concentrate, fresh garlic is (mostly) better and tastier than garlic powder, and handmade tagliatelle will beat Great Value spaghetti any day. Chocolate mousse tastes better with Ghirardelli than with Nestle. (Yes, there are more delicious chocolates available, but Ghirardelli is really very good if you don’t want to spend a lot.) I understand, too, the particular pleasure of carefully selecting just the right mozzarella ball, examining the basil and tomatoes you’ve just picked, splashing a bit of expensive olive oil over all and finishing off with a nice sprinkle of coarse salt. Yesterday, I grilled lamb I’d bought from a local farmer, asparagus (grocery store), and homemade pita bread on wood charcoal, and it was very nice.

But there is a difference between enjoying expensive, fresh, or hard-to-find ingredients and turning up one’s nose at anything else. Perhaps I’m more of a gourmand than a gourmet, and certainly I’m no foodie, but I can happily make and eat risotto with gourmet mushrooms and a balsamic reduction atop homegrown microgreens, or a tuna noodle casserole made solely with things that come out of boxes and cans. So can my kids. This is useful, because we can go to just about any kind of restaurant or visit anybody for dinner and be assured that they will not throw a fit and refuse to eat what’s available.

Food is meant to nourish and to enjoy. I submit that both goals are easier if you have a broad view of “good,” and a certain amount of versatility in your cooking.

Adventures in Uromancy

How I love the words charlatans use to turn their ignorance and foolishness into wisdom; astrology, the study of the stars; tarot, divining the future by means of bits of cardboard (which, as Terry Pratchett points out, isn’t a particularly intelligent substance); ouija, summoning up spirits through board games; and all the euphonious names for using parts of the body for prophecy. Chiromancy! Hepatomancy! Even scatomancy/copromancy! (This is reading the future by looking at someone’s poop. See Part 3 of Gulliver’s Travels for how to sniff out conspiracies from someone’s stool.)

I wondered whether there was a comparable word for using urine to tell the future, and it turns out there is; it’s called uromancy (or urimancy). Unlike some of the other methods on this list, however, it can actually foretell at least a bit of a probable future, and every woman who’s ever peed on a stick and looked anxiously for the second line or smiley face or cross will know exactly what I mean.

I am speaking, of course, of pregnancy tests, and their slightly-more-obscure counterparts, ovulation prediction kits (OPKs). Pregnancy tests detect the presence of a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (hcg) that multiplies rapidly in a woman’s body when a fertilized egg has implanted in her uterus, and OPKs detect high levels of a similar hormone called luteinizing hormone (LH) which helps stimulate ovulation, the release of an egg. If you want to have a baby, having sex during your LH surge maximizes your chance of conceiving; if you don’t want to have a baby but don’t want to use contraception, your LH levels are one piece of information you can use to avoid conception (though women are in fact fertile for some days before their LH surge).

These are all well-known facts. I thought I’d chime in with a few more interesting, possibly less-well-known facts.

Go For the Cheap Pregnancy Tests

Pregnancy tests are reliable whether you use the expensive, digital kind or the 50-sticks-for $8.00-kind available online. They all use the same mechanism–the presence of hcg in urine–and most use the same sensitivity (25 mIU/mL, though a few detect lower levels). The cheapies are not difficult to interpret; the box warns about evaporation lines, but I have never seen an evaporation line that could be confused with a positive result. If you have the self-control to wait until after you’ve missed your period, I congratulate you; the rest of us may use multiple tests until we get a positive result or our period, and there’s simply no advantage that I can see to the expensive tests. I used both kinds during my first pregnancy, and the cheap ones were more sensitive and just as accurate as the digital kind.

And Possibly the Cheap OPKs

You will probably use a great many more OPK tests than pregnancy tests, so using the more expensive kind will add up quickly. However, if you’re just beginning to observe your monthly cycle, you may wish to buy a box of cheap tests and a box of the more expensive digital kind; this is because LH surges vary from woman to woman, and the cheap strips can be a bit difficult to interpret at first. (A second line is not a positive unless it is at least as dark as the control line.) It can help to “check” your results with something that gives you an unambiguous digital happy face when your LH levels are high.

You Can (Sort of) Use OPKs as Pregnancy Tests

LH is similar enough to hcg that the presence of hcg will “register” as LH and darken the test strip. (Oddly enough, you cannot use pregnancy tests to check your LH level; I am not sure why.) But it is a tricky business, using LH strips as pregnancy tests; this is because there is always some level of LH in your body, so there will always be a second line on the test. However, IF you know what a “normal” strip will look like at any given point on your cycle (and don’t forget to control for time of day, because LH levels are often a bit higher in the afternoon), and IF you don’t have an actual pregnancy test, then you can sort of use LH strips to make an educated guess as to whether you’re pregnant; is the strip darker than it normally would be at this point in your cycle? Perhaps there’s some circulating hcg. But then you really should go out and buy an actual pregnancy test.

You Can (Sort of) Track Early Pregnancy Progress With Hcg Strips

As the box insert and every reliable pregnancy web site will tell you, home pregnancy tests are qualitative, not quantitative. This means that they can tell if there’s at least a certain amount of hcg (25 mIU/mL), but they cannot tell you exactly how much is circulating; for that, you need to get a blood test from a doctor. However, you can get a rough idea as to whether your body is making more hcg as your pregnancy progresses; more hcg will result in a darker test line. This is true only if you test your urine at about the same concentration–if you drink a gallon of water and pee 10 minutes later, you’ll get a lighter line than if you test after several hours of not visiting the bathroom, which is why you’re generally advised to test your first morning urine. But if progressive tests show that the line is staying the same or getting lighter, this is probably not good news for the pregnancy; lines that get darker each day are a more positive sign. After a certain point, if you still want to see the progression of hcg concentration, you can dilute your urine to a certain amount and watch the lines get darker again.

It will easily be seen that my interest in this subject is not abstract. I haven’t been updating my blog often, and this is because I’ve spent the last few weeks feeling rather lousy, for reasons that are no doubt obvious; to spell it out, my forays into uromancy tell me that if all goes well I will be encountering a sudden increase in expenses and decrease in sleep sometime in mid- to late-December, and my family and I will be meeting a small, mysterious stranger. I don’t think any haruspex examining goat entrails or psychic reading tarot cards could give me a more accurate prediction, or one that makes me happier.

Wisdom and the ABCs

“Oh, that’s easy,” said my daughter all too often when I set a challenge for one of her younger brothers.

“Yes, my dear, easy for you, because you’re older. You used to find this challenging, too,” I would reply, often through gritted teeth.

My frustration, of course, was an example of the exact problem that I was pointing out to my daughter. It’s easy for adults not to be condescending to a small child struggling with a 25-piece puzzle or how to pronounce C-A-T, because we’re old enough to understand childhood development and to recognize that a trivial task to us is a significant accomplishment for a little kid. Such understanding has to be learned.

I had yet to realize this as a childless young adult, experiencing some dismay (and even fear) as I watched other adults, many of whom I knew to be intelligent, use baby-talk to their babies, point out a shape and say its name over and over, and clap and cheer when the child stacked blocks or used a spoon. I had babysat plenty of times, but wondered what would happen to my brain when I had children; would I forget all of the nice long words I’d learned and suffer a significant dip in IQ?

This apprehension showed my shortsightedness in several ways. Most parents do not talk only to children. I am unusually lucky in that my husband works from home and is therefore often available for lunch and a few minutes here and there, but even military spouses, widows, and single parents generally talk or write to other adults from time to time. And it is not easy to erase years of memory and perspective, either; becoming a parent does not destroy one’s identity, but builds upon it.

It is also very interesting work to observe and to help along a child’s development. Adults do not transform in the radical way that a “typical” child does; the year from birth to 1, 1 to 2, and 2 to 3 contain absolutely astounding changes in the child’s appearance, gross and fine motor skills, cognition, and language. Even a layman learns an immense amount about the intricacies of learning to walk, talk, and interact with others. Children are not products to be created through best practices, but they are heavily influenced by the people taking care of them, and there is immense satisfaction to be had in guiding a child from coos to babbles to “Mama” to “Wanna dwink” to full sentences. A parent helping a child figure out what 2+2 is remembers when the child couldn’t count up to 4 and rejoices at each new skill, while figuring out what the child should learn next.

Appreciation for others’ advances is not limited to parents. Teachers and anyone else who works with children have developed this, unless they’re lousy at what they do. The more enlightened among us can recognize real differences among fellow adults’ abilities and completely fail to feel superior or condescending. True humility is considerably harder to attain than a college degree, after all. Parenthood, however, offers an excellent opportunity to develop this quality; our kids are cute and belong to us, and in most cases we’ve seen them when they’re at the lowest baseline possible. An 8-month-old baby looks like an Olympic medalist and Nobel-worthy genius when compared to the helpless blob that is a newborn.

My daughter has recently stopped saying “That’s so easy” when one of her little brothers is having trouble with something. She no longer blurts out answers when I ask them a question. She is, in short, learning a new skill, a most important and complex skill requiring patience, empathy, and wisdom. I hope she builds on this newfound maturity and wisdom, for looking to others with kindness and understanding is at least as valuable as improving one’s own abilities.

Truth in Fiction

For several months, my bedtime reading to my 6-year-old has been the “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder; we are currently in February of The Long Winter, and Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland are about to risk death and venture onto the open prairie in search of wheat to sustain the cold, hungry settlers. The malnourished Ingalls family is in the grip of a dull torpor as they twist hay for fuel, use a coffee grinder to grind wheat, and allow themselves the luxury of a small “button lamp” made from calico, a button, and axle grease.

The Little House series is fiction. One friend of mine dismissed it as being ghostwritten by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, Rose Lane, who was a prominent libertarian and consequently used the series to promote rugged individualism and self-reliance. Lane was certainly deeply involved in inspiring and editing the series. As Laura’s memoir Pioneer Girl shows, the famous series leaves out some unsavory episodes witnessed by Laura’s family, the existence (and death) of Laura’s little brother Frederick, and stories that show Pa in a less-than-heroic light–such as when he skipped town to avoid paying debts, or applied for government assistance. Ma was somewhat less prim than the books make her out to be, though the fictional Ma and Pa are fairly close to their real-life counterparts. The children are more quarrelsome and snappish than they are presented as being in the books. The Long Winter is mostly true to life, but neglects to mention that a young family was staying with the Ingalls family over the winter; exaggerates the distance Garland and Wilder traveled to find the wheat; makes Wilder younger than he truly was; and contains a fictional Indian warning of the severe winter to come.

I’ve become absorbed in trying to find out just how much of these stories is true because they succeed so fully as convincing fiction. They feel true; the matter-of-fact descriptions of daily and seasonal tasks, the simply but beautifully described woods, prairie, and houses lived in by the Ingalls, and above all the warm interactions between various family members make the reader believe that these are real people whom we’re getting to know most intimately.

There’s also a great deal in the books that I want to believe is real. The children’s simple happiness in a stick of Christmas candy or sliding down a haystack or wading in the creek made my daughter, surrounded by books, toys, and unimaginable luxuries, declare “They had a lot of fun, didn’t they?” She added, “Of course, they didn’t know about the things we have.” Ma is unfailingly gentle yet strong, backs up her husband without question, and finds delight in helping him; he for his part works unceasingly to provide for his family and dotes on his wife and daughters. No one whines or complains, and this is necessary for their very survival, which is threatened by flood, wild animals, hostile Indians, malaria, scarlet fever, and blizzards. The family accepts that life is difficult, but finds enjoyment in each other and in their Bible and Pa’s fiddle-playing at night.

Sometimes while reading I’ll pause and point out to my daughter how people get on with their jobs and don’t complain about them (except, occasionally, when one of the children voices a small complaint and feels immediately ashamed of herself), or how kind the characters are to each other. I’ll note that their focus on the blessings they have makes them much happier than those who have more but are always hankering after what they don’t possess; I’ll praise Ma’s supportiveness or Pa’s diligence. (We did, however, have to hold some uncomfortable discussions regarding the position of Indians in Little House on the Prairie.)

The Little House books are not history, or even memoir, but they contain a great deal that I think is true and useful. I worry that my children’s lives are too soft, that we don’t expect enough of them or that we give them too many indulgences; but looking at the lives of a simple-living pioneer family who experienced much hardship, I have come to see that it is not hardship per se that gives the Ingalls family their joys and virtues. The Ingalls’ family’s satisfaction in work, in God, and in each other is something that is within the grasp even of middle-class Americans who live in considerably greater luxury and safety than did the wealthiest and greatest of times past. As we dip into a world far-removed from our own, perhaps we can duck out of it and into our present lives with a better sense of how to value our time and the people we love.



Preventing Anxiety Disorders

A few posts ago, I dissected a sanctimonious “gentle” parent’s article on how we should continue to treat our children as if they were babies. One major concern I expressed toward the end of the post was that the author’s insistence on soothing every minor hurt and fulfilling every want for her children was harming them by preventing them from developing resilience. I then noted that rising rates of anxiety and mental health issues may be related to this sort of coddling.

A few days ago, I came across an article from The Atlantic that further explores the contributions our anxious, overcareful parenting can make to the development of an anxiety disorder in our kids. It’s too long and contains some of the author’s own neuroses (though I appreciated the mention of the Loma Prieta earthquake, which I experienced at age 7), but it makes some good points about how accommodating our children too much can actually cripple them. I was especially struck by the following:

“Even so, there is a problem with much of the anxiety about children’s anxiety, and it brings us closer to the heart of the matter. Anxiety disorders are well worth preventing, but anxiety itself is not something to be warded off. It is a universal and necessary response to stress and uncertainty….Yet we are doing the opposite: Far too often, we insulate our children from distress and discomfort entirely. And children who don’t learn to cope with distress face a rough path to adulthood.”

I liken this notion to exercise, which is the deliberate stressing of and, in some cases, injury to our body. Minor muscle tears from weight lifting create stronger muscles; the strain put on our cardiovascular and respiratory systems when we run makes our hearts and lungs healthier. Sheltering our children from every unhappiness in order to preserve their mental health makes about as much sense as never getting out of bed to ensure that your blood pressure never rises.

It also contributes to a warped view of the world that resembles the Tooth Fairy domain in Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather–a brightly-crayoned castle in which death does not exist. (When someone is killed, his body simply disappears.) Pratchett himself believed that children are better off for being educated in ways that acknowledge pain, death, and danger. From the same book:

“‘You can’t give her that!’ she screamed. ‘It’s not safe!’
“‘IT’S A SWORD,’ said the Hogfather. ‘THEY’RE NOT MEANT TO BE SAFE.’
“‘She’s a child!’ shouted Crumley.
“‘What if she cuts herself?’

Or, as G.K. Chesterton puts it, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

This is important, because the dragons are out there. Even the most highly privileged people suffer pain, bereavement, meanness, and death; many suffer considerably more, including poverty, neglect, and abuse. Our most intimate relationships may offer much joy and togetherness, or they may not; some fail to have these relationships, and endure loneliness throughout their lives.

What happens when parents lie to their children by omission and teach them that the world is like that shown on Barney and Friends, or that suffering is something that happens to other people? What happens when the child’s pet dies?

Actually, I know the answer to that one; my mother never told me that my cat had died, and learning from a neighbor about her death two weeks after it happened was considerably more traumatizing than the mere fact of her passing. My kids, in contrast, were kept well-informed about our cat’s decline and death, and their very natural, very intense grief has subsided. They will, of course, experience far worse losses that will require a longer period of mourning, but at least they now know that they can feel happy again after a death that affects them.

Back to The Atlantic: The article emphasizes that parents are not to blame for the origination of anxiety disorders, but that poor handling of children’s anxiety can actually prevent the child from improving and learning how to handle his or her anxious feelings.

“We now know that about 95 percent of parents of anxious children engage in accommodation. We also know that higher degrees of accommodation are associated with more severe anxiety symptoms, more severe impairment, and worse treatment outcomes. These findings have potential implications even for children who are not (yet) clinically anxious: The everyday efforts we make to prevent kids’ distress—minimizing things that worry them or scare them, assisting with difficult tasks nrather than letting them struggle—may not help them manage it in the long term.”

Precisely. When children are small, it is relatively easy to control their environment; if you have means and determination enough, you can create quite a nice little idyll for your children. To some extent, of course, we all do this; we want our kids to have happy childhoods. But as children grow, so does their world, and there will come a point when our kids must face situations fraught with unpleasantness, stress, and sadness.

Another point that I found interesting, and obvious in retrospect, is that when “we shelter kids from difficulty or challenge…we are not merely shielding them from distress; we are warding off the distress that their distress causes us.” As a parent, few experiences are worse than watching one of my children suffering, and I would like to alleviate that suffering not only for the child’s sake, but also for my own. (Anyone who’s ever dealt with a colicky baby can sympathize.) But sometimes our love for our children requires that we not prevent that distress and instead allow our children to learn how to handle it. Our kids need practice dealing with hurt while they are in our protective care, or when they are out on their own in the world they won’t be able to handle the problems that come with life.

I must make the usual caveat: I am no kind of mental health professional or child development expert, and to the best of my knowledge none of my children has an anxiety disorder or other mental health issue. Parents who suspect that their child may have such an issue should consult the proper experts and take their advice, not mine. But for our family, a few guiding principles have helped us help our kids deal with potentially upsetting experiences, which have included injuries, mean children, my miscarriage, and the death of a pet:

  1. Listen to the child’s concern. It may be understandable, it may be irrational, it may have every or no basis in reality, but make sure the child knows that you will listen without mocking or judgment.
  2. Don’t freak out yourself. This doesn’t mean that you must be a robot–I cried when Mischief died, too!–but you must remember that you are the adult, and if you can keep from conveying your anxiety to your child you will both be better off. Making the child believe that you are God and in control of the world would be a terrible idea, but you should impart to your child a sense that no matter what life throws at you you can get through it and you can help them through it.
  3. When children ask questions, tell the truth as best you can, in an age-appropriate way. Follow their lead when considering how much detail to give them. Children are very good at handling Heavy Topics, although you should make sure they don’t misunderstand anything you tell them. Lying will only store up trouble for them and for you; don’t do it.
  4. Let your children know that negative emotions such as fear, anger, worry, and sadness are natural and universal. Don’t let your children’s negative emotions upset you too much, lest they feel they must keep up a front of cheerful positivity to avoid distressing you; children should not be managing your own emotions.
  5. At the same time, keep your behavioral expectations for your children high. It is perfectly acceptable to feel angry, but not to hit or break things out of anger. Sadness is fine, but self-harm because of sadness is not. Managing emotions and expressing them appropriately is a major skill that we should be helping our children learn before they grow up; if we drop the ball in this respect, they’ll have a difficult time of it in adulthood.
  6. Finally: Listen to your instincts if you think something’s wrong. Behavioral problems, regression, new social anxiety or phobias, avoidance of previously enjoyed activities, chronic nightmares, and changes in appetite all bear further investigation with your pediatrician or other child health professional.

My kids may yet develop mental health problems. There is certainly a strong tendency toward depression, anxiety, obssessive-compulsive disorder, and substance abuse in my family of origin. I keep my eyes out for worrisome signs accordingly; but I don’t rush to wipe away every tear, cater to every whim, or fix every problem for my children. I love them too much to do that to them.