My three-year-old recently (and tearfully) informed my husband and I that we were lousy parents. This was on a cross-country trip in which we visited an aquarium, beaches, mountains, and lakes; in which we stayed in hotels, ate at restaurants, played with friends and relatives, and generally had a splendid time (and spent a lot of money). Of course, all of this activity tired out our kids–hence the negative review of our parenting skills. He was later kind enough to retract his comment.

Ah, gratitude. This is one of the crucial skills we try to impart to our children, for a life lived without gratitude is stunted, miserable, and dysfunctional. Love cannot exist without gratitude, and neither can friendship or enjoyment. We hope that the “Thank yous” we model and expect our children to produce, albeit insincerely, will one day help them develop a true sense of gratitude.

But children are not born grateful, and no one expects that they should be. A baby does not say “Thank you” when parents change his diaper, feed him, clean him, cuddle him, or play with him, and there’s something unbearably pathetic about young children who are grateful for every show of kindness. A happy child does not worry whether she will be fed and cared for, and so receives good things as no more than her due. Gratitude develops with empathy and with loss, or at least with awareness of the possibility of loss; a child who realizes that he has a nice life realizes that other children may not have loving parents, a good home, and the other blessings he possesses.

This is why it is a fool’s game to try to build a happy child by showering her with nice things and marvelous experiences. My husband and I give our children gifts and pleasures (see above regarding our recent trip), but we do not do so in the hope of keeping them happy; indeed, actively trying to ward off sadness, boredom, or other negative feelings is about as effective in developing happiness as sitting on a couch all day is in developing a strong body. A child sated with pleasures is a child who cannot easily be roused to wonder and delight, or to imagine that life for others may be different.

I have written before that children will remember and delight in unexpected things. This can be very annoying to adults who pay lots of money for a child to go to the aquarium, only to find that the slides inside the aquarium play area are what the child likes best. We could have done that for free, kid. But this reflects adult limitations quite as much as children’s; when they do not think like we expect them to, this is a failure in our empathy rather than a deficiency in their thinking. For ultimately, is the shining golden moment any less splendid because it is the memory of kicking plants or playing tag or any other “trivial” experience? Is an experience not important because of the meaning attached to that experience?

And this is where adults learn a little humility, and even something about gratitude, themselves. Even we who are evil give our children good gifts within our powers. When our children respond with happiness and gratitude, we are grateful. Every spontaneous “Thank you,” every manifestation of burgeoning gratitude inspires thankfulness in us. Little by little, we become more grateful people, and so, God willing, do our children.



Responsible Parenting

One of the most popular subjects in the “None of my business” file is “The wisdom of others’ decision to have a child.” That does not prevent nearly 100% of the population from commenting on this decision, either to the prospective parents (unwise), the commenters’ intimates, or themselves. I have, of course, been on the business end of such judgments; one person seems to regard my uterus as some kind of bomb that might go off any minute and explode another baby. Considering that my husband and I are fairly stable mentally, emotionally, and financially, and considering that our existing kids are all alive and doing okay, I’m not quite sure why this person has such trepidation; but that’s the point, isn’t it? Everyone has a different perspective on the wisdom of adding another child.

When I hear that So-and-So is expecting, I too deliver (unspoken) judgment–anything from “How marvelous!” to “Oh, geez. Really? That poor kid.” So let’s talk about the responsibility of becoming a parent. One side of the continuum is represented by, say, drunken teenagers messing about with no thought to the consequences of their actions; the other by those who meticulously choose the exactly perfect date for conceiving their child to ensure the optimum quality of life. (I.e., they decide not to have kids, because there is no perfect date–only ever-changing downsides.)

Now, age is not as often a problem as I think others believe it to be. I will certainly agree that 13-year-olds of either sex and 50-year-old women shouldn’t be reproducing–health risks, if nothing else–but I don’t believe that an 18-year-old or a 45-year-old mother is necessarily in a terrible situation. A healthy mother with stable relationships, some means of financial support, and sufficient help can be a very good parent even if she is young or old; of course youth and age have their problems (chiefly financial and health-related, respectively), but I’ve known plenty of children who did very well with young or old parents, and plenty of young and old parents who delighted in their children.

Full disclosure: My mother had me at age 43, when my father was 47. My mother has lots of age-related problems, and my father died of cancer when I was just 9, which certainly highlights some of the hazards of having children late in life. I had an increased chance of being miscarried, causing some physical harm to my mother while being gestated and born, and having chromosomal abnormalities. Nevertheless, I’m happy to be alive, I had a splendid childhood until my father’s death, and I wouldn’t counsel against older parents deciding whether to take the plunge.

Number of children is another unreliable predictor of familial happiness. I've known families to do very well at raising double-digit numbers of children, and at raising only one child. The current American preference is, I think, for two children if you’re going to have kids at all, but this preference is cultural and not necessarily the best for any given family.
Real problems include addictions that can trump the child’s best interest, a chaotic family life, and parental immaturity. The first two points should be fairly obvious; the last is nebulous and highly subjective. But as a general rule, people considering whether to reproduce should ask: What is my relationship to the prospective baby’s other parent? I realize that this may offend those who become single parents by choice, and although it is not my wish to offend, I’ll risk offense to say that it is best not to embark upon parenthood unless you think there’s some reasonable chance that the kid will be able to know and grow up with both parents; kids living in single-parent households are at a living in single-parent households are at a disadvantage. My own example shows that single parenthood may be thrust upon a person at any time–my dad’s cancer didn’t really care about my familial situation–but just as many but not all car accidents can be prevented, so many but not all unstable family situations can be prevented.

I see I’ve used the word “stable” quite a bit in this post. Anyone who’s raised children or been around children a great deal, such as a teacher, will see why; children who have been shuttled to different homes, must deal with food insecurity, are living with guardians who abuse drugs or alcohol, have been subjected to inconsistent or conditional discipline or expressions of affection, or have otherwise lacked security, care, and appropriate guidance are much less likely to do well than children who have grown up in–let’s use the word one more time–stable conditions. Mind you, this is only a generalization, and children have grown up healthy, decent, and successful in quite dreadful circumstances, just as children born without one leg have grown up healthy, decent, and successful; but you wouldn’t want to chop off a child’s leg unless there was a really excellent reason to do so, as you would be making life harder for the child.

Readers may notice that this post has been addressed primarily to people who are considering whether or not to have children. However, throughout the history of mankind, children have been conceived and born without much thought at all; and for those who find themselves with a child in less-than-ideal circumstances, I would first of all say “Congratulations, you’ve been given a beautiful gift.” (Okay, I might not say that if I think the parent might punch me, but I’d think it.) And now that you have this child, what will you do for him or her? What do you need to do to make things work, to give the child what he or she needs?

I think the bottom line is this: For those making the conscious, deliberate choice to have a child, please remember that this child is not an accessory. And for those who find themselves with a child as a result of an oopsie, remember that this child is not an accessory. This child is an end in his or herself, and deserves to be treated as such.

Remembering Big Puddles

My son, three years old, singing upstairs in his bed when he should be napping….

“Remember when we went to Chincoteague?”
“Yes, and there was a biiig puddle and I drove the tractor through it and made a big mess?”

I remember that. Would have thought that the wild ponies, the beach, the lighthouse, the restaurants and ice cream, sitting on a pony, the pool, the hotel, even the long drive would have been more memorable, but….

“Do you remember getting burned?”

“Okay, show me where you got burned.” He points first to his tummy, then to his left arm. Nope, and nope.

“Do you remember what burned you?”

“Fire?” No, it was hot tea.

I’m glad he doesn’t remember that…I’m glad I do. I can’t forget what happened when I was careless enough to leave hot liquid within reach of a one-and-a-half-year-old.

“Mommy, remember when we went to Nanny and PaPa’s house?”

“You mean, yesterday? Yes, I remember that.”

“And we played with the cars!” And hunted plastic eggs, dyed chicken eggs, found Easter baskets, stuffed ourselves with Nanny’s rich foods, threw a temper tantrum when it was time to leave.

We just got a deck. My three-year-old may remember a time before we had it, but it is likely that he will eventually forget. He’s already forgotten the time before his baby brother was born. His experiences are so intense and fresh, and they’re important in the way they’ve shaped him, but he won’t carry memories of going to the bouncy-place or being on antibiotics for an infection or walking around the neighborhood all by himself for the first time or sleeping in a crib. He doesn’t remember his first bite of solid food (sweet potato), his first word (hard to say, because he started saying so many all at once), his first step (and first fall). That’s left to his dad and me, the caretakers of his memories.

I worry about what he will remember. I hope he’ll remember the times we read stories, and not the times I pushed him away saying I was busy. I hope he’ll remember the times he helped me bake, and not the times I yelled at him for kicking my stuff off the chair. I want him to think of his early childhood with happiness; never again will I have as much control over his environment as I do now (a terrifying thought), and I want him to have a simple, happy time to fall back on when things become more complicated.

My own childhood was a very happy one, until my dad became sick with cancer and died. This was the first in a series of what today are called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and children with multiple ACEs are likelier to have poorer health and relationships as adults, and to engage in risky behavior and substance abuse. But so far, by the grace of God, I have not experienced these ill effects; my life is a happy one, and I think most of my relationships are healthy and full of love. I had some wonderful friends who helped me during the tough years, and I had that cushion of early warmth and security that helped me feel beloved and belonging, and I think those factors helped developed some resilience.

An explicit admission: I would love to engineer my children’s lives and personalities. I would love to ensure that they become marvelous, loving, happy, diligent people who have successful lives. Indeed, I’ve written before about my attempts to indoctrinate them. But I cannot lecture them into being what I want them to be, and I know that excessive control is in fact harmful to their development. Their dad and I try to provide a loving, happy, supportive childhood, with appropriate guidance and good modeling, and that’s about all we can do.

My early experiences have left me unable to maintain the illusion that I can control what happens to my kids. I don’t know what my son will remember, or how what is unremembered will affect him. I pray for his health, happiness, and moral development; I try to be a good-enough mother; and for the rest I try to enjoy what we have now and not to be apprehensive about the future. For whatever else happens, now he is cuddling me; he knows he is loved. Perhaps it’s enough.



Operation: Clothing Change

8:10: Offensive started. Enemy engaged.

8:11: Enemy taking evasive action while giggling.

8:15: Enemy recaptured, but offering resistance. Clothes successfully removed.

8:16: Enemy has escaped; is launching counteroffensive with toys from the toybox. Morale low.

8:18: Have injured myself tripping over toys attempting to recover enemy. Medical attention needed.

8:21: Successfully bandaged cut received in action. Enemy has been recaptured; onesie partially placed on subject. Diaper changed.

8:22: Onesie has been removed.

8:23: Onesie has been replaced; have been subjected to auditory combat.

8:25: After placing pants on combatant, combatant escaped and hid behind the couch.

8:30: Enemy tackled and restrained. Shirt and socks placed; mission accomplished.

8:31: Diaper blowout. New change of clothes needed. Calling for backup.


Stop With the Sexy “Normalizing Breastfeeding” Articles, Please

Jenna Jameson, a former porn star, is posing topless on HuffPost. A baby is attached to her breast, and the post is about “normalizing breastfeeding.” There is a lot to criticize with this post–the sexualized image accompanied by text that denies any sexuality, the use of a baby as a prop, the praise of breastfeeding women as “selfless mamas out there, [who] make this world go round.” I find the tattoos ugly, though others may disagree; I don’t care for the use of “mamas” to describe mothers; and I’m very uncomfortable lionizing breastfeeding in a way that seems to relegate formula-feeding parents to “second-best” status. I do not particularly feel empowered by topless porn stars breastfeeding their babies; I am sure they also eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom, but I don’t really feel that their doing so gives any added cachet to these biological functions.

But my biggest issue with this article and series of photos is that it does nothing to “normalize” breastfeeding. It is one of a series of articles in “the movement to normalize breastfeeding [which] has been happening to various extents for decades. Celebrities like Pink, Maya Rudolph, Olivia Wilde and many more have taken to social media to share their experiences with their children in an effort to remove the stigma associated with the act.”

Right. Stigma. Let’s pass over the fact that most major health organizations (the WHO, CDC, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Academy of Pediatrics, NIH, NHS, other national health bodies) tout breastfeeding as the ideal for feeding babies. Let’s also pass over the fact that breastfeeding is protected by law throughout the United States and is encouraged in most communities and among many demographics. I’m sure there are plenty of grumpy people who are grossed out and offended by the sight of a baby snacking on its mother, so we’ll say that sure, there’s stigma associated with breastfeeding.

First of all, there will always be individuals who disapprove of breastfeeding, especially in public. At least in the United States, however, it is simply incorrect to say that there are widespread social pressures against breastfeeding, which is seen as admirable, virtuous, and healthy. There are plenty of barriers to breastfeeding–biological difficulties, women returning to work and being unable to pump, the time-consuming and demanding nature of the process–but I do not see or hear about women choosing not to breastfeed because their peer groups think it’s yucky. (Again, I’m sure this DOES happen, but not on a wide scale.) You want to improve conditions for breastfeeding women, start working on the problems they actually face day-to-day, not something obsolete.

Second, exoticizing breastfeeding by creating these carefully-posed layouts (which often feature either billowing robes or unnecessary nudity) is not normalizing it. You want pictures that normalize breastfeeding, get some snaps of a woman sitting on a park bench feeding her baby while calling to her older children not to climb up the slide; of a woman eating lunch in a restaurant and latching her baby on with one hand while she forks some food for herself in the other; of a woman looking at her phone while she pumps. Show women with and without breastfeeding covers, and don’t include any rose petals, soft lenses, perfectly coiffed hair, or pastel draperies. And please, no topless photo shoots masquerading as breastfeeding pictures.

Third, Jenna Jameson urges women to “drop the cover.” Why? What’s wrong breastfeeding with a cover? Now, I get that Jameson is–ostensibly–trying to remove the discomfort people feel when seeing a woman without a cover breastfeeding her baby. The message she is sending, however, is not the intended message that you should feed your baby in the way that works best for you, but that there is a right way to feed your baby and if you don’t do it you’re signaling shame or something. And if you don’t expose your breasts in front of, say, your elderly in-laws, you’re a traitor to women because you aren’t Normalizing Breastfeeding. I’ve personally fed my baby with and without a cover in many different settings; I’ve pumped in public places (definitely with a cover) because I’ve had to; I’ve never felt any particular shame in doing so. But I’ve also never felt that I’ve been “educating” people on breastfeeding, nor wanted to make them uncomfortable in the name of getting them to reexamine their standards of modesty, or anything in-your-face like that.

I know that women in the past were shuttled off to bathrooms to breastfeed. Once upon a time, there was a stigma associated with breastfeeding in public, and I’m pleased that there isn’t anymore. (When store employees are rude to breastfeeding women, it makes the headlines.) “Normalizing” what is, well, normal (as feeding with formula is also normal) means showing parents feeding their babies as they actually do, with breasts or bottles, without glamor or sexuality but with plenty of love.

The Moral Checkup

My three-year-old just had his annual checkup. They weighed and measured him, checked his blood pressure, lungs, heart, teeth, and ears; the doctor asked me if he was active (yes) and socialized well (yes indeed). He’s doing well, and I think that his cognitive, linguistic, and fine and gross motor skills are on track, as well. But there are a couple of questions I’d like to see on developmental checklists:

“Is your child helpful?”

“Is your child kind?”

“Does your child recognize when he/she’s done something wrong? Is he/she sorry?”

“Has your child asked you difficult moral questions to answer?”

“What progress has your child made toward listening to you?”

“Has your child been introduced to the concept of death? How does he/she handle it?”

Mind you, expression of affections, empathy, and executive function are tracked when a child is suspected of having some developmental delay or condition such as autism or ADHD; but the questions we ask of “typical” children reveal a certain devaluation of moral development. The experts discuss it–do babies have any sense of fairness? (Yes) When do children usually start to be able to empathize? (At about four years of age)–but it isn’t part of the annual health examination.

But after children cease to be tumbling little blobs, so much of our interaction with them is predicated on moral and ethical development. We try to get them to pick up their messes, take responsibility for the possessions, make new friends, behave politely and appropriately to strangers, listen to our directions, ask questions when they don’t understand, be kind to others (especially to those who are vulnerable), and be sorry for when they fall short.

Each child’s development is different. Cognitive and physical capabilities have huge effects on what a child is able to do, and when. But it would be nice to have checkboxes for progress in kindness and fairness, which are hugely important qualities for children to develop into decent adults.

Separate and Equal

I have a favorite hand, eye, and leg. Not a favorite child. I prefer my right hand, eye, and leg because they work better than their sinister counterparts, but my children are ends in themselves and not to be judged in terms of utility.*

Nevertheless, I am always comparing them–how they learn, how obedient or stubborn or curious they are; how their motor, language, cognitive, and social skills are developing; how tall they’re growing, how they eat and sleep.

This is necessary for “impartial” treatment. Were I not to make such comparisons and to act in the same way for all three children, I would be favoring the one whose strengths matched up to my parenting style. One child picks up words and songs as easily as he breathes air; another needs more repetition to learn something new. One child persists in the face of challenge, whereas another becomes distracted more easily. One child chatters amiably with anyone who will listen, whereas another takes awhile to warm up to new people. Two children prefer Daddy, while one prefers me.

I am sure no one will think it a surprise that each child is a different person and not a mere copy of his sibling. Sometimes I think we worry about evaluating differences in our children, though, as if recognizing said differences is the same as preferring one child over another. Certainly this can be the case, but I don’t think that it is a necessary or even likely consequence of noting differences. Indeed, having more than one child can be a corrective for parents who imagine that children must fit a certain mold or follow a certain pattern.

I do worry about favoring one or another of my kids. Do I spend more time developing my daughter’s skills than my sons’? Am I more patient with the baby than the others? Do I let my middle child get away with more than the others? There is some reassurance in the fact that I worry about favoring different children, since it would seem that my behavior doesn’t reflect clear, consistent favoritism of one child. Instead, I try to treat them “equally”–which is to say, differently from each other.



*Actually, I do have a favorite child; it’s “whoever’s asleep at the moment.”

The House in My Head

It’s a ramshackle structure, with a smaller, older section that has been much built-upon.

Imagine a room. It’s big and messy; the walls have been colored on, there are clothes and toys and books strewn everywhere, and there’s a slight funk. It’s a comfortable room, with squashy sofas, soft pillows, bean bags, and a great big fireplace in the center. The walls are red and yellow and covered with doodles, scribbles, scientific diagrams, comic book scenes, and fine artwork. A little table holds a coffeepot, a chocolate pot, and a couple of decanters of wine. A cross and some Bible verses are scattered throughout the room. There are, however, a couple of cold, dark corners hung with anti-motivational posters—“You’re doing it wrong.” “Scream. Run away.”

This is my “motherhood” room. I spend an awful lot of time in it. Sometimes I take my husband’s hand and step out into our sexy boudoir, or our study, but it’s hard for me not to take peeks back into the motherhood room. I resist, however, because other parts of my house must be maintained. The literature and scholarship in my study needs to be updated; a great deal of it is from college, and a lesser amount from my working years. A couple of very simple chess puzzles sit on a desk. The arts room was always pretty primitive, but I visit it every now and then to be sure that I haven’t quite forgotten how to sound two notes on a piano or revel in the beauty of a Michelangelo statue. My “outdoor pursuits” room is quite dusty, alas, and even has some peeling wallpaper; I simply cannot give it the attention it needs, beyond neighborhood walks and very occasional hikes.

Even in other parts of my mental house, I see the imprints of children everywhere. My “outdoors” room has, beside my own semi-neglected hiking boots, a couple of small pairs of sturdy shoes and some rough walking sticks. There are fingerpaints and scribbles in my arts room and a little toy piano next to my own untuned upright. Most of my new scholarship concerns theories of attachment, learning, language development and moral guidance.

But this overflow goes both ways. Art, literature, activity are all to be found in my motherhood room, in the books and on the walls. Some of it is created by my children, and some is professional stuff I would never have been introduced to without being a parent. I’m rediscovering poetry, and pondering anew the universal impulses that make people across ages, time, and space revel in rhyme, rhythm, repetition, evocative imagery, and careful word selection.

My house is no magazine-worthy mansion. Perhaps someday I’ll paint and redecorate some of the more neglected sections. For now, though, it suits me fine.

What is on the Floor?

What is on the floor, my dear? What is on the floor?


Paint and glue and water too, maybe something more.

Look at this thing I made you! I made it by myself.

I dragged a box to get up high and reach the painting shelf.

I filled a cup with water from the downstairs bathroom sink,

I made a lovely picture, with blue and green and pink.

Do you like my picture, Mommy? I made it just for you.

Oh yes, my dear, I love it, the green and pink and blue;

But now the floor is messy, dear, can’t you look and see?

You spilled the paint upon the wood, and made more work for me.


What is on the floor, my dear? What is on the floor?


Peanut butter, crackers, grapes, and an apple core.

Look at this snack I made! I found the peanut butter jar,

Washed an apple in the sink, saw where the crackers are;

I added grapes and poured some milk. Now we’re full and fed,

And Brother here is happy now and wants to go to bed.

I put the food upon a plate, for Brother and for me.

See the snack I fixed us, Mommy? Mommy, do you see?

Oh yes my dear, it’s very nice, you made a lovely treat.

But now the floor is filthy, where before it was quite neat.


What is on the floor, my dear, what is on the floor?


Wood and carpet, and some dust, there is nothing more.

I knew you didn’t want to clean another mess I made,

So I’ve sat here. Just waiting. I’ve almost been afraid

To breathe because I didn’t want to spill or spit or pour.

Oh my dear, I’m sorry; it’s just a silly floor.

Don’t be scared to draw and paint, or make a tasty snack,

Don’t be scared to fill a cup or decorate a sack.

I love it when you have a plan and make it come to be,

It’s okay when you do something that makes a mess for me.


What is on the floor, my dear, what is on the floor?

Never mind. I’ll clean it u–crap! WHAT IS ON THE DOOR?








Not an Insurance Policy

“I don’t really want to have a baby, but I don’t want to be alone when I’m old.” I’ve been seeing that sentiment in advice columns and articles that pop up on my Facebook feed. The advice columnists urge the respondents not to have a baby for that reason; it’s not fair to a child to be raised in the hope of providing insurance against loneliness, and anyway, plenty of children don’t visit their ageing parents. Work on developing meaningful ties with friends and family, instead, and make sure your financial future is secure!

That’s probably good advice. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me and to my children 20 years. Maybe we’ll be estranged! Maybe I’ll be dead and not needing care! (I can’t even articulate the other possibilities, those in which something bad might happen to my children.) What I know right now is that my daughter’s just announced that she wants to give me a haircut, my older son’s jumping on the couch waving a car and yelling “Help, help! Batman’s dead!” and my baby’s staggering around with a soggy diaper looking for small objects to stuff into his mouth. Don’t want that, don’t sign up for parenthood.

My children don’t exist to give me meaning or fulfillment. Somewhere in my vague memories of 8:00–AM–philosophy class with a wild-eyed Bostonian professor, there’s a nagging whisper that Kant doesn’t approve of using people as means, when they ought to be treated as ends in themselves. The “good life” does not mean a life filled with goods, not even the great good of family. Many people without children have lives that are productive, happy, and rich, and many people with children have rotten lives. People who have kids in order to have someone more or less obligated to love them are setting themselves–and their children–up for disappointment, especially when they try to control those children as they grow up.

But it is a very old desire to have children to take care of you when you’re ageing and to carry on remembrance of you after you’re gone. It is a very old desire to want to have childish arms reach out to you and cling to you. It doesn’t need much explaining to make people understand the attraction that growing a family holds; in addition to the real, present gifts of hugs and childish antics, there’s also a misty dream of the future in which we’re all sitting around a fireplace opening gifts with happy grandchildren on our knee, or attending our adult child’s wedding or graduation. Perhaps we even think vaguely of great-grandchildren holding our photographs and hearing some scrap about us, or about a future president or famous novelist somewhere down the line. There are a million and one of these fancies, and I have already said that it is dangerous to build upon them, but it is also necessary to acknowledge that they exist and are powerful.

What, then? It is probably best to take a cue from Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity….A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after….I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?

So today I will rejoice in changing diapers, and going to the store, and fixing dinner, and counting and singing the alphabet, because right now this is my work and my reward. As to the rest and to the future…well, I just hope my kids pick me a nice nursing home.