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Our Babysitter Got Tuberculosis

Who even gets tuberculosis any more, besides characters in Emily Bronte novels?

Apparently, babysitters who spend the majority of their day breathing all over my kid. That’s who.

It was January of 2009 and Tenzin was sick with that flu everyone seemed to have. She had missed a few days of work, and had a startling cough of the lingering variety.  It was the icy morning of Obama’s inauguration and I had a 10 a.m. job. I sat at the kitchen table in my coat with my 2-year-old daughter Z, drumming my fingers and waiting for Tenzin to walk in the door. The phone rang at 9:20 a.m. Her voice was thin and she sounded like she had been crying. She had collapsed on the subway and couldn’t move her legs.

I knew she had been putting off dealing with how sick she was, hoping it would just go away because she didn’t have health insurance. But hearing her voice at that moment, I must have known something was really wrong and that it was no longer acceptable to rely on her to take care of herself. I called an ambulance and headed over to the subway station near our house in Brooklyn. I found her on a bench inside the turnstiles, sitting with a cop. I remember I deliberately tried to avoid having her breathe on me.

We spoke later that day. She had spent it in the ER waiting for doctors to tend to her. She was given a head x-ray, some blood work for who knows what, and several other tests.  They found nothing, disregarding that death rattle-cough, and gave her a piece of paper that encouraged her to rest and to follow up with a doctor in several weeks. We decided together that she should take the rest of the week off.

Back at work, Tenzin still wasn’t feeling better. She had lost weight on an already tiny frame, and seemed exhausted and worried. So on a Monday, two weeks after she collapsed, she went to the hospital as instructed to follow up on her care. We were taking a few days of vacation and I texted her to see how it was going. They had admitted her to the hospital, she said, which I thought was strange. Hospital beds are not easy to come by in a country where women are kicked to the curb days after giving birth. They certainly don’t give them to the uninsured – unless it’s serious. Or contagious.

Unless.

The following day we got another text. In her broken English she texted: “The doctor thinks is 85 person (sic) tuberculosis.”

I went immediately to Google, and found this:

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that is spread through the air when people who have the disease cough, sneeze, or spit.  People who breathe TB bacteria into their lungs can become infected; close contact for a long period of time is usually necessary for TB to be spread. Most of these cases will not develop the full-blown disease; asymptomatic, latent infection is most common. But, about one in ten of these latent infections will eventually progress to active disease, which, if left untreated, kills more than half of its victims.

The hours between when we found out Tenzin’s status and then our own were the most fraught, stressful moments I can recall since Z was born. Who could be more intimate, more of a “close contact,” than a fulltime babysitter to a baby? I couldn’t stop picturing Z on a respirator.

After a frightening flight home from our vacation, during which we were unsure whether we could be infecting others, I went straight to the hospital to see Tenzin and get some answers about what we should do. It was challenging to get information about her status as a patient, mostly because she was not a blood relative, but also because her case had become a public health situation to be managed by a New York City Department of Health caseworker.  There were privacy issues involved, I was told by several emotionless nurses, as my frustration mounted.

Eventually I located a compassionate intern who seemed to understand my daughter’s intimate relationship to Tenzin and that it was important to understand the severity of her diagnosis in a timely manner. The awkward, red-headed, young doctor took me to her room, which was under extreme isolation for airborne diseases. I put on a mask and went in.  I’ve never seen anyone look more ill.  She was shockingly thin and her skin was an unbelievable shade of yellow.  Her cheeks were bony to the point of skeletal.  With a strange, inappropriate half laugh, the doctor said, “Go ahead Tenzin, tell her what you have.” In a tiny voice, she gulped “I have active TB.”

During this confusing time of information gathering, our own physicians and pediatrician were of little help, mostly because it’s extremely unusual for anyone in our community to contract TB. The disease can usually be traced in origin to other countries, where people develop the latent disease and years later bring it into a active “cluster,” like the one in Tenzin’s community in Queens. There were only 895 reported cases of TB in New York City in 2008 and seven of those were children. While medication is an effective option for some people, many of these cases have become resistant to the drugs they use to treat the disease, complicating the danger of spreading.

By a strange stroke of luck, a dear friend of mine happened to work at the time for the Department of Health TB Division, where they had expertise dealing with this situation, but not so much with little people patients. But she and her colleagues were able to guide us, and we were tested that same afternoon after finding out Tenzin was positive.  We got the results a few days later, and all turned out to be negative for the latent disease.  However, there is a two-month incubation period for TB, so we couldn’t be sure whether we had been infected until the second test eight weeks later. And because of the weakness of a child’s immune system, Z would have to take the medication prescribed for TB preventively. That meant chasing her around with spiked apple juice for the next two months.

All the people who Tenzin had been in close contact with had to be notified, tested and in some cases medicated, including the children, parents, and babysitters in Z’s classes and  playgroups. I was forced to navigate a tricky path, intersecting the NYC Department of Health, the “worried well” parents in my Brooklyn neighborhood, the private and passive personality of the Tibetan culture, plus my own conflicted relationship with Tenzin. Calling up those preschool directors and telling parents and babysitters that they may have been infected was not an easy thing to do.  Most people were supportive and grateful for the way I handled the situation – at this point I had almost become a de facto Department of Health caseworker myself.  Several parents were angry and panicked, but ultimately, no one was infected.

Tenzin spent five weeks in the hospital in isolation, and an additional five weeks confined to her home. For the next seven months, she took drugs every day, and each week was visited by a caseworker to have her lungs examined. She was unable to work for that entire nine months, as she continued to be contagious until she completed the treatment. We talked at the time, every few weeks, mostly by text message, but it was hard to know what to say. I would tell her about what Z had been doing, how she was talking about pirate treasure, how she had a haircut, was wearing new pink Converse sneakers. I did not tell her that Z had not asked where she was, or if she was coming back to us.

In early April we got the results of our second test and found we were TB free. In May, we hired a new babysitter.  It felt terrible not to wait for Tenzin to recover, but I needed stability for my daughter and to get back to work with confidence in her care. I was discouraged by the communication breakdown that had led to such a dramatic situation.  Tenzin’s judgment in dealing with her own health – tragic because her choices were so limited – made me question her fitness as a caregiver.

Today Tenzin is healthy and working for another family. We have recently gotten back in touch and it relieved me greatly to hear she is well. Z has a little brother now, and as I watch them together, spinning in circles and vamping to “The Fresh Beat Band,” I am filled with love, pride and fear that around the corner lurks another danger I can barely fathom.

We try and protect our children from the dangerous world. We buy organic peanut butter and expensive car seats. But we are thwarted in an instant by an errant germ, borne by a hard-working woman who has come to this country and been undone been by an impenetrable health care system. As parents, our illusions of control – our attempts to master a messy and terrifying world with money and gadgets and Purell – are just that.

Mommy Wars : Humorless Parents Are The Worst Kind

I remember going on preschool tours for my daughter and watching some parents jotting down notes and asking earnest questions about educational philosophy and why they should choose XYZ Brooklyn Private Preschool over other expensive and coveted XYZ Brooklyn Private Preschool. And the conversation then devolving into this: will there be people helping to wipe their kids’ asses when they go to the bathroom? Will the school provide wipes? Will the wipes be organic?

Meanwhile, my husband and I were cracking up at the three- and four-year-olds picking their boogers and wiping them on each other, and the banter that ensued between the kids as they did so. We kept looking around at all these tightly wound parents wondering why others weren’t smiling or seeming to not find this all a bit absurd and hilarious? How could people even focus on asking their boring and tedious questions while little Ascher was pouring glue all over little Ava’s gluten-free sunbutter sandwich?

I’m not engaged in a traditional mommy war, but sometimes I do feel like I am fighting a (one-sided) war with humorless mommies (and daddies). When it comes to parenting, you just can’t have enough of a sense of humor. There are way too many moments ripe for parody. And, frankly, if you can’t laugh at the ridiculousness of life with kids and the situations you end up finding yourself in, then you’re not someone I want to chat with at the sandbox.

I mean ugh, is there anything worse than trying to converse with a totally humorless parent? One who isn’t merely competitive or boring, but someone who just doesn’t get the banality and absurdity of it all? And, yet, these people are everywhere! I know life is all about context and about trying to give people the benefit of the doubt. And maybe these glum and dour folks are going through a divorce or illness and can’t fake it that day. I realize I should be more compassionate towards them – maybe they just don’t want to share a chuckle with me, the Random Mom Smiling in the Corner. But, honestly, having kids is too hard and too intense not try to find some levity.

Last weekend, a friend of mine organized a music festival with several bands, headlined by a lovely kiddie singer-songwriter who teaches classes around our parts. Rain happened, so the music fest moved indoors. Singer-songwriter sent email to large list of parents announcing venue change, in a lyrical, poetic and sweet verse. It actually rhymed and was as charming as musician’s public persona. Seconds later, singer-songwriter sent another email to same large list of parents, this one intended instead for members of his band, lamenting the change of venue and using the f word and a few other non-kid friendly intonations.

He must have realized instantly his mistake because moments later yet another sheepish email came in apologizing profusely. And then, on cue, email from outraged parent who demands to be taken off the email list. But who happened to REPLY ALL in order to publicly shame poor lovely singer/songwriter/teacher. Does this music teacher use that mouth with his students? How dare he! Do you know who I AM!? TAKE ME OFF THIS LIST! And then, of course, the lovers and protectors of singer-songwriter step in to his defense. People make mistakes! All along, all these people, replying all. Really funny stuff, but mostly because who on earth would be so humorless as to think a grown man who plays music for a living might curse in the presence of his band? How do these people make it though their days?

Life is totally ludicrous and terrifying random. Today I saw a very old friend who told me a bit awkwardly that he had lost his wife to leukemia two years ago. And another old friend got in touch recently and caught me up ­– he has completely lost his sight due to a rare disease. What do I feel in these moments of hearing of others’ extreme pain and loss? I just feel force of life, so scary, so painful, but also so overwhelmingly wonderful, just tearing at me. And I look at my kids, and all kids, and they are so pure and so alive and so freaking funny. So that’s how I cope and make it through the day. Whenever possible, I laugh.

(Photo: Noel Hendrickson)

9/11 Make Me Feel Vulnerable As A Mom

My daughter started kindergarten this past week, but its me that’s gone back to school, and it’s 1977.

I watched Z. get ready for her first day, clutching her new purple quilted pencil case, and it shocked me how the memories flooded in. Suddenly, I’m four going on five, getting ready for my end of summer birthday. I’m wearing a paisley dress I obsessed over, the feel of the banana seat bicycle I first learned to ride beneath my bum. I remember how I looked myself dead in the eye in my parents’ full-length mirror, singing songs from day camp into a brush, mimicking how I saw older girls and women behave. I see Z. do dances in front of her shows on TV, hear her using intonations that I can tell she’s heard from other, likely older girls – the not so cute “Mommmmmm (MAH!)” and that’s “dis(GUST)ing!” I distinctly remember hearing my own voice say phrases like that – thinking I sounded so cool and mature.

I am enjoying my daughter more than I ever have. She is bursting with energy and excitement. Every day is filled with discovery and hilarious conversations. It hurts my heart to watch her growing up and away from me, but I feel so close to her right now, as I remember what it felt like to be her age. I have scattered memories of early childhood but Kindergarten is the moment true memory is sparked. I vividly recall my teacher, Mrs. Lockett. My white fluffy bathmat with pink, blue and yellow flecks that I took naps on. Having an accident at school and having a little plastic bin with extra clothes to change back into. The way strep throat felt.

Last night I was reading Where the Sidewalk Ends to Z. I was reliving my own confusion at some of the things I didn’t understand in those dark and subversive poems – trying to wrap my head around Shel Silverstein’s crazy and specific universe. And as we read and she melted into me, I kept swallowing the lump of pride and sadness and purity of experience. It’s the same way I felt as she shyly sat down at her Kindergarten table last week. It was like watching a really manipulative television commercial for Life Insurance, one with indie music and the mom watching the kid walk into her first day of school with backpack on both shoulders from behind – only it was actually happening.

I’ve also been thinking about how I felt a few weeks ago during the run up to Hurricane Irene. We live right in the evacuation zone in Brooklyn and had to make a decision the day before about whether to leave our building prior to the storm in case we lost power. We have another kid who is just a baby, and it felt a little too risky to stay in place, so we schlepped our pack-n-play and air mattresses and crap over to my brother in laws, also in Brooklyn but on higher ground. There I spent the night restlessly obsessing that a tree would crash through the window and kill us all.

I had many emotions during the 24 hours of the storm: fear, annoyance at the inconvenience, dread of the unknown. But I think the most poignant part of the experience was that I didn’t want to have to be the adult making the decisions about how to protect my completely helpless children. I didn’t want to be making copies of our important documents and sealing them in a Ziploc. I didn’t want to scour the stores for D batteries. I wanted to be the kid listening to what someone else told me to do.

Today is 9/11, so of course it is a moment to recognize ourselves as vulnerable souls trying to move forward through the scary and unforeseen things that continue to plague us. I am 39 years old and I have all the trappings of an adult, but sometimes I wish I could cuddle into my own mom and she could just tell me the right thing to do. Of course I now know, she had no idea what she was doing, either, when she read to me and tried teach me how to behave in the world.

Millions before us have had children, raised them and let them go. But if you take a second to think about how scary and random life can be, it can bring you back to feeling like a five-year-old, standing on the steps of your big new school, clutching your purple quilted pencil case.

(Photo: iStockphoto)

Happiness Means Living in the Moment…And Having An Awesome Babysitter

I’m a parent of two young kids. I love my life and am grateful for my blessings, but I wouldn’t describe myself as euphorically happy all the time. I laugh and I have genuine joy, sure, but I’m often impatient with my kids and husband, and downright grumpy and frustrated with time management and not being able to think straight. And I’m overwhelmed at times by the small and big picture components of being a mom. In other words, I feel lucky but fairly anxious the other shoe will drop any minute. So… happy? That’s an elusive and slippery conversation.

That’s why I was willing to give the book The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin, a look. You’ve probably heard the name – it was a big deal a few years ago when it came out: New York Times bestseller, author appeared on Oprah, and lots of book reviews debated the right of the author to selfishly pursue a year devoted to being happy.

The premise is that author feels she should be happier, given her good marriage, two daughters, health and a satisfying career as former high-powered attorney turned bestselling author. (A real slacker!) She wants to be more satisfied, less grouchy and more grateful, so she sets out to maximize contentment by paring down her life and spiritual clutter. She researches happiness with the zeal of gold star desiring child and tenacious goal-oriented adult. She makes endless lists, charts, official sounding resolutions, checking them off one by one.

It’s easy to mock this earnestness and gag slightly at her overachieving. I was surprised at myself for even buying the book – having worked in book publishing, I am usually suspicious of these sorts of gimmicky self-help jobbies, and I sincerely doubt I’d be friends with someone who can’t figure out what she likes to do without making an Excel spreadsheet. But it’s also easy to understand and admire her tenacity in trying to make a good life better.

Ironically, I couldn’t even read one page of this damn book on our “vacation” because I had no babysitter and turns out two kids at the beach is a crazy amount of work. When we got home and went back to work, I finally had a chance to read it on the subway and at night when I wasn’t catching up on sleep from the week away. And what hit home for me the most is how money and time are the luxuries that would most make up my pursuit of happiness. If you have unlimited reserves of both and can hire someone to watch your kids while you master an intensive five day self portrait art class or even shred paper from five years of filing, you too can be happy! With the drudgery that accompanies parenting young ones, the constant cleaning and feeding and fetching, there’s honestly not much room for personal happiness, unless someone else is doing the drudgery part.

So it really bothered me that with all the details Gretchen includes in the book, down to the type of containers she purchases to keep memories of her kids’ art projects and toys, she does not once say in a clear and straightforward way that she has childcare. She has a seven-year-old and a one-year-old the year she decides to devote herself to officially pursuing happiness. And while being a better partner and parent constitute two of the 12 chapters of the book, I have to ask: Where are her kids all day while she makes scrapbooks and photo albums online, reorganizes her office and kids’ toys, and writes a novel in 30 days?

So here’s how to make your project more accessible and less enviable, at least to other parents: mention your babysitter loudly and proudly. Admit that it’s a lifesaver that she comes every day and the many nights you and your husband go to dinner parties and lectures and work events. Don’t gloss over the fact so much that money doesn’t help someone to feel happier. Go deeper there. Money probably doesn’t completely make one happy, as you do say in your chapter devoted to money, but if you have a work deadline, you certainly can’t meet it while taking your kids to the playground. You need focus to write and complete projects. And someone to take the kids to karate and fix dinner and keep that apartment organized.

A week after finishing the book, I’m away for the weekend without the kids for the first time ever. Finally, I have a minute alone without feeling guilty, and also the time to muse on happiness with a clear mind. I’m thinking back to my vacation with the kids, where I had several hyper-aware moments of “I’m happy.” My kids were belly laughing on the beach, eating sand, having pancakes for lunch. And once they were sleeping, I felt full because I knew I had worked hard to give them a fantastic time. I was so aware of their sheer joy, just being five and one, and how each new experience they were having was simply rocking their young worlds. My husband and I cracked up when we remembered what our pre-children beach vacations had been like and wondered how we possibly filled the days. And while I was tired, damn it, I was happy.

And I can say that though I had some problems with this book and wouldn’t pursue happiness in the same kind of style Gretchen did, one of her defining mantras upon completion of her project is that “The days are long, but the years are short.” I actually find this very moving, true, comforting, and spiritually in line with my exhausted contentment at the end of a full day with my kids.

So I’ll try and use that as my mantra and as a useful way to remember The Happiness Project, rather than, “I can’t wait to see my babysitter.”

(Photo: amazon.com)

Who Needs A Backyard? A City Girl Speaks Out

We live happily in the city – Brooklyn, to be exact – but whenever we head out of town into the great expanse of lawns, big-ass grills, backyards and double garages connected to the house (!), my husband and I get disoriented by our attraction to suburban life.

We start doing calculations to justify our existence in the crowded and expensive place where we reside:

Urban lifestyle = ten options of capoeira lessons for kids + late night delivery of Vietnamese food +/- the possibility of witnessing crazy and beautiful moments constantly = having your own damn swing set and not having to negotiate the politics of one tire swing in the park with John and Jane Public and their kids Jade and Jude + good public school options for all – a certain soul = Suburbs.

It’s a special form of calculus we do.

We’ve tossed the city vs. suburbs debate around at home and on road trips to visit family and friends in their houses with more than four rooms. It’s not as bad a dilemma for us as its torturous sister discussion: private vs. public school, but you can definitely drive yourself mad trying to figure out if you’re doing the best by your kids rather than holding on to something because you’re selfish.

So why do we like it here in the city? The convenience of having small kids in a densely populated place keeps us sane, for one. We’re talking play dates with other kids in our building in the dead of winter, a 24-hour deli on the corner and a superintendant that saves us the convenience of calling for a repairperson every time something goes haywire. We have neighbors and friends just outside the door to watch the kids if we need them. There is always something cool to check out with the kids – a concert, a museum, even just a walk down the street can be entertaining.

However, as our kids get older, and certainly when summer arrives and the playgrounds are roasting and our city pools have intimidating rules, I see obvious benefits of living in the ’burbs – camping in the backyard, grilling on the patio and of being that much closer to hiking, biking and beaching. I get lifestyle envy for sure.

We often meet people who are happy they made the leap an hour or two out of town, but are almost uniformly wistful about missing the energy and the randomness of the city. Most seem to have a complex about leaving it behind. I understand how they must feel. Everything about having kids is a trade off and deciding what’s best for each family is absolutely dependent upon each one’s unique priorities.

I understand the convenience of having everything for your own family be your own. I get sparkling supermarkets with wide aisles. And I totally get wanting to be around grumpy and opinionated people breathing all over you on the street. I know you can expose your kids to many wonderful things when you live outside of a city.

But I think I’m kind of screwed because I am addicted to city life. I like feeling hyper-aware and on my toes. I love how the highest achievers co-exist here amongst the regular Joes, and the spirit that courses through the city’s veins. It’s grotesque, hilarious, inspiring and overwhelming all at once, and that vibration or energy, or whatever you want to call it, keeps me from being complacent. Not to mention the constant visual, aural and oral stimulation. (Though some of the smells I could do without.)

And I must be insane, but I want my kids to grow up with all that energy in their lives, and have the understanding that there is always something inspirational to look for every day. But also that there are problems and people who are helpless and lost, and that they exist right next to you on the train or in the next neighborhood over.

I do hope I still feel this energized about my home in five years when my kids are older and new challenges arise. We shall see. But, for now, I will enjoy simply visiting our friends and family in the ’burbs, trying to envision my very urban husband pushing a lawnmower or me driving a minivan to Costco. I’ve accepted that the grass is probably greener in the suburbs, but my heart – and family – belong to the city.

(Photo: Thinkstock Images)

Welcome To Mommy Land. Control Freaks, Stay Out!

Now that I’m deep in mommy land, I don’t often think about my pregnancies. When I see someone in their ninth month in August, still commuting to work, I’m glad I’m not them. All those weird pains and the no drinking and worrying about mercury in fish and the baby’s body parts. Now I can’t even remember the name of that major test with the needle you do at 20 weeks to check for severe chromosomal disorders. At the time it was the biggest deal in the world. Will I have it or not? Is the risk of miscarriage worth it? What will I do if they find something bad? It seemed like every week of my pregnancy was fraught with some stressful choice to make.

On the other hand, it’s such a simple and poignant time, when you can superimpose expectations on your swollen profile. You see visions of your family camping under the stars, writing a novel together, going on safari – who knows what movie or commercial these images came from, or if you even like camping! But, more immediately, you can obsess about the water birth you want, or your nursery being a temple of gender-neutral organic purity. And if all those choices seem so crucial at that moment, it’s because in the back of your mind you likely realize that control is gone, forever. Not that it was ever there to begin with. But every mom-to-be has the moment where she is crushed by things not going the way she researched and planned and along with that comes the realization that research and planning just aren’t what they used to be.

For some, it happens during the actual birth, when so many don’t end up getting the experience they desire. For others, it’s breastfeeding. Or being blue instead of euphoric after the baby arrives. Or feeling like yourself again (whatever that even means!).

And that’s why I find NPR’s Baby Project, a blog that follows nine pregnant women who will be giving birth this summer, to be so moving. The women range in age and background in a diverse-ish NPR kind of way, and its lovely to read what they think about birth plans, baby names and their new status as parents. No matter how different their circumstances are, they are united in this moment, this time ‘Before Baby.’ It’s pure. Sure, there is worry and stress and expectation when you’re pregnant, but really, there’s nothing you can actually do. The road is in front of you, and you’re not getting out of that car now.

As the Baby Project moms continue to give birth in the next few weeks, only some of them so far have gotten what they expected from their birth experiences. One mom went very early and almost died from blood loss. Another didn’t get to have the baby at home as she planned, but made it through her hospital birth without the epidural, which was important to her because she felt she was supposed to be the home birth “poster child” for the group. There will be triumphs and wonderful surprises in these stories, but for so many it will likely be different from what was planned.

Maybe it’s a pothead thing to say, but when I was pregnant I would envision strangers on the subway as babies. I’d look at people, and see only super tough looking doo-ragged ganstra rap baby, or middle manager suburban baby or skinny 20-something hipster person baby. It just kept hitting home that we were all freaking babies at one time, and that all of our parents had made it, they had gotten through it, and now we were all adults, and some of us were ready to jump on board and try our own hands at it. Circle of life, blah blah blah. But it calmed me somehow, and when it wasn’t making me crack up inside, it made me feel okay about having no control over my life anymore.

And so for these women who have invited us into the moments Before Baby, I thank them for their time and energy and wish them all the best. And I encourage them to keep writing and trying to understand what happens After Baby. Because we can certainly use all the thoughtfulness, insight and humor we can get here on the other side.

(Photo: Jupiterimages)

Feeling Confident? Don’t Get Excited, It Won’t Last

Life with kids can be like the opening credits to Sex and the City. You’re walking along, feeling sassy because you finally overcame some hurdle and made it through a difficult parenting life lesson, when all of a sudden you get splashed by sludge from a bus.

Oddly, that image of Carrie Bradshaw getting hosed always resonates whenever I’m feeling sure of my parenting skills. It’s like some higher power – the Goddess of Hubris – sees you get the hang of nursing, figure out a nap schedule or stand up to a school administrator in a way that feels authentic, then all of suddenly she strikes you down as if to say, “Suck it lady, you think you know something? You don’t know crap.”

I had this experience recently when I made it through my son’s first birthday and he was starting to sort of sleep through the night with my older daughter in the same room. I was finally feeling good, like maybe I was beginning to figure out this two-kid thing. I was no longer nervous to take both of them to the playground and didn’t feel dead tired and insane and out of control like I do 95 percent of the time (more like 80 percent – an improvement!)

Then we took a family trip and when we returned home everyone got sick and small people were feverish, lethargic and yelling in the middle of the night for a straight week. It sucked. During those middle-of-the-night fests of woe, holding one or the other while they cried, I cursed myself for feeling cocky the week before.

Ebbs and flows. Ups and downs. We know this about parenting. It was in the brochures. It will be this way for the rest of our lives. Having young kids is the easy part. And all the other things your mom or mother-in-law says when you complain about how hard it is having kids. But I’m convinced it’s the confidence that will kill you every time, especially if you say out loud that you feel like you’ve got it going on.

It’s the keinena hora syndrome. If you’re Jewish you might recognize this Yiddish phrase as something older people, or actors in Woody Allen movies might say, sometimes while spitting to both sides. The idea of keinena hora, which translates to “no evil eye,” it is to protect yourself and your loved ones from, well, evil. And to remind you not be boastful, because the evil eye loves to screw over those boastful people! My grandma Jeanie used to say it whenever she bragged about my sisters and meet: “L. got into Brown (keinena hora), A. just won a medal in gymnastics (keinena hora), M. has such beeyootiful hair (keinena hora).”

I don’t think I’m the kind of parent who brags about my kids explicitly. Too old-school. Obviously they are gorgeous and creative and gifted (keinena hora). But the mechanics of parenting, of taking two kids on the subway, of getting my daughter to say please and thank you, or having the rare weekend day where my husband and I both get to exercise, grocery shop as a family, and the kids are happy at bedtime, I certainly have allowed myself to feel triumphant about those types of days on occasion.

And you know what? I’m never victorious for long because the minute I say to my husband, while snuggling into bed after staying up too late watching television for the first time in months, “Last night was great. I bet M. will sleep through again,” or even, “Z. has been amazing about getting out of the house in the morning ….” Splash. Puddle on the tutu. Keinena hora, baby.

Kids Musicians: Rock Star Wannabes?

I was looking to hire a musician to play guitar at my son’s first birthday party. I figured it would be fun to have someone sing a Twinkle Twinkle/Wheels on the Bus/Yellow Submarine medley before we plied the kids with cake and got everyone the hell out of our house so that I could take a nap.

First I asked the teacher from the little music class baby M. goes to if she’d be interested. It’s a brand name here in Brooklyn, one of the “cool music classes” with original songs about living in the city, taking cabs, tall buildings. After many inquiries, the lead performer finally gave me a quote: 300 clams. And that just really gave me pause. Sorry, but are you Linda Evangelista, the supermodel who famously claimed not to get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day? I’m talking 12 kids under five, maracas, maybe some scarves. Forty-five minutes.

One of the great things about living in New York City is that there are artists everywhere. Creative people who are shrewd and resourceful; they’re figuring out how to play music, act, write, paint – all while surviving in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Many of these folks have realized that parents will spend a ridiculous amount of money on their kids in the name of “enrichment.” That means they can ask a lot for lessons and birthday parties and people will pay it. And then they can afford to play their own music at night, go on auditions between gigs or pay rents on their studios.

If you care about music, you’re aware of how overly cheery and precious some kids’ music can be. And how smart and hilarious and deep the great stuff can be (They Might Be Giants and Gustafer Yellowgold are two bands we love listening to and watching on DVD over and over again). It’s thrilling to see the specific genius of art and music created for a young audience, how elegantly these artists get into the brains of our babies.

Our Brooklyn neighborhood is home to hipsters who project their carefully curated culture onto their kids. These are people who insist that their infants really enjoy The Clash and that their 2-year-olds prefer artisanal popsicles to those freeze pops you can buy at the drugstore. So if your toddlers dance like mad to Yo Gabba Gabba, it reinforces the fact that you, too, are still cool (all bands are excited to be booked on that show).

I am not taking myself out of this phenomenon. I took my kids to Yo Gabba Gabba Live, where I overpaid for tickets and an official Yo Gabba Gabba light stick and watched at intermission as the sponsor of the event (Kia) did a live commercial for a captive audience (of children!). To me, it was an example of Good Indie Cool Thing Gone Bad. Which happens. There’s that line when something is lovely and entertaining and then it crosses into being cheesy and compromised. It’s certainly not the end of the world, but I’d rather not overpay for it.

The irony, of course, is that kids are the most opened-minded listeners out there, especially the younger ones. My daughter could not get enough of this damned Elmo potty video when she was aged two to three, and it mortified me to death. We often think we’re providing them with this awesome, homegrown goodness when really, you could stick them in front of a video for Who Let The Dogs Out? and they would go bananas.

Thing is, I probably would have booked the $300-per-hour musician – mostly because I know the music is solid and that the people who write and teach it actually care about their product being quality. But it took two weeks for them to get back to me, likely because they were busy booking gigs. Or hate doing birthday parties. And by then, I had hired an old friend to come and entertain baby M. and friends – a super talented singer-songwriter who is now working his way up the children’s musician world ladder. He was awesome. And cheaper, almost by half. We sang Simon & Garfunkel and Cat Stevens and some other songs I don’t remember, and clapped and then had cake. And then everyone went home, and we all took a nap.

(Photo: yogabbagabba.com)

How Facebook Fills The Mommy Void

What a weird universe is Facebook. A carefully curated place of likes and dislikes, chosen images and words, contrasted with the most stream of consciousness, walking down the street and thought I’d share it with you kind of randomness. It’s Look at my band, Look at my kid, Look at me in a bikini, Let me tell you what I think about the Middle East. It’s profound, ridiculous, sentimental, political, existential. Nothing and everything. Art and commerce. Hit and miss.

My new parent status dovetailed with my embrace of social networking, and I wonder sometimes what life with young children would be like without Facebook. In some of the darker and duller moments of parenting, connecting with people online was the most I could hope for. And, some days, it was much more satisfying than the awkward playground chatter that so often left me underwhelmed.

My kids have enriched my life in ways I can’t list, but I’ve also felt a loss since becoming a parent. I’ve felt sucked dry of the brain space I used to engage to think about art and culture; a lack of intellectual or creative spark I’ve traded in for the rewards of raising rugrats. I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but Facebook has helped to fill this space again. I’ve craved a way to read and write and discuss, and Facebook has given me an unexpected community of people who feel the same way.

I used to think it was odd or embarrassing when people constantly posted pictures or details about their kids with so little self-awareness. Or, for example, when they’d post their sonogram pictures . I would internally rant, sounding like Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes: “What ever happened to intimacy or privacy?”

Recently a relative of mine lost her newborn son and posted the details on Facebook. It seems like such an intimate thing shared in such an unprivate way. But it made so much sense for her and her husband and their community, who embraced her posts about the loss with prayers, love and beautiful support. It was really moving! And it made me realize that there is no inappropriate etiquette in this evolving social media land. Just as in real life, Facebook and Twitter can be messy, awkward and jarring, as well as helpful, connecting and surprising.

In his “Facebook Sonnet,” recently published in The New Yorker, Sherman Alexie describes Facebook as a bizarre repository of lonely people typing away toward recreating their childhoods. Here’s a sample verse:

“Welcome to the endless high school

Reunion. Welcome to past friends

And lovers, however cruel or kind.”

I think Sherman Alexie must have just joined Facebook and he’s having that initial freakout people have when faced with the oddness and inanity of seeing names from deep in our histories. Plus he’s a busy (and famous) novelist, screenwriter and poet, so he probably hates himself for wasting time hanging out there. Maybe he’ll get over it. Clearly its giving him material.

Facebook is like a giant bar, where everyone you know is hanging out. Some folks are always there. Some are noncommittal. Some you haven’t seen for 20 years and don’t necessarily need to talk to. You can initiate conversations, chime in to others or get cornered by someone who wants to talk about their juice fast or show you a million pictures of their new couch. But usually you have a good time, realize it was good to get out, and remember that the world is made up mostly of people who want to connect. And if the reality of our lives means it has to happen in front of a keyboard, I just can’t get bent out of shape about that. I’ll take what I can get.

(Photo: BananaStock)

One Mom’s Quest For Order – At The Container Store


Forget yoga, acupuncture, meditation or medication. When I’m in need of something to really take the edge off, I visitThe Container Store. It is a most wonderful and joyous place. For those of you unfamiliar, or unlucky to not have one where you live, it’s a home/office organization store devoted to selling boxes and bins of all shapes and sizes to put your crap into. You walk in, and with the help of the least attitudinal salespeople to have ever worked in Manhattan, you can organize your life down to the tiniest, junkiest, scariest drawer in your home. There is a container, or a hook, or a dry erase board, or a filing box that is sure to suit your needs and make you feel as if your life is absolutely not spinning out of control.

The ethos behind The Container Store is either genius or diabolical, depending on where you fall on spending yourself out of a problem.  These days, I’m pretty much for it.

Sometimes I go there just to breathe the lavender and cedar scented air in the extensive closet department, where I can ponder the potential of all wooden hangers in my perfectly edited, sorted-by-color-and-style dream closet (no wire hangers for Mommy!).  I wander the aisles, wide-eyed, present, and pulsing with the desire to de-clutter, snatching random crap that I know will make my life better and make me a super awesome parent and all around person to be envied: gift wrap and tape to always have on hand; shelf dividers so I can see all the snacks in the cavern that is our snack shelf; sensible, dishwasher-safe reusable baggies for school lunches my 4-year-old daughter won’t eat; atchotchke to gather the wires under my desk into a beautiful little bundle.

I even found the tiniest (and cheapest) container in the place: one-inch-square Lucite boxes in an assortment of rainbow colors, which totally delighted my daughter (39 cents!).  But I can’t be sure that my almost 1-year-old son didn’t eat the hot pink one, as I saw him gumming enthusiastically it the other day and haven’t seen it since.

When I was pregnant last summer with my second kid, I was nesting like a meshuganah.  Always a lover of containers, I became frighteningly obsessive, dragging home bins on a weekly basis (and I mean dragging – nine months pregnant and hoisting things home on the subway like a cavewoman dragging home her kill).  The desire to purge and fold and stack was physical, like I could somehow alleviate the anxiety of parenthood by sorting and saving and labeling with my label maker: things to pass on to friends, things to keep for the baby, things to go to storage. My husband joked that he was worried to go to sleep for fear of waking up in a man-shaped bin. I was certainly tempted.

I had then, and still have now, an intense need to put things into things. Bins and shelves and the promise of an orderly exterior somehow make me feel like I can do it, I can handle the intensity of raising these children. I was not always like this! I could let things go – not do dishes immediately or throw things in a heap until later. But now that I’ve talked about it with other parents, I know so many mothers and fathers who crave order in this same somewhat obsessive way. There are so many things to think about that we cannot control, that sometimes it feels safe to fixate about things we can.  Like bins.

I am aware that buying things will not lead to happiness in the long run. But sometimes it seems like if you have theright things, carefully chosen and perfectly curated – like if Martha Stewart were walking beside you in The Container Store, making recommendations on filing systems or giving you tips on the right hamper to fit into your tiny little closet – then maybe, just maybe, you’ll be okay.

We all have our stuff, both metaphorical and physical. No matter how organized that stuff is, or where we put it, it will always be ours.

(Photo: thecontainerstore.com)

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