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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Confessions of a Slacker Mom

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A while ago, before I had my baby, I read books and articles, many to, I admit, validate my own preconceived, previously-held notions about how to raise our child. I take none of these as handbooks or guidebooks, whose rules and proclamations are to be followed strictly and without question. These are places for my ideas to take better shape, evolve, and develop into something more useful and complex. This is what good books do, and what good readers do with bad boks.

What’s been really interesting about reading through all these books on the same topic is that it’s starting to feel like a structured college course. None of these books stands completely alone, and none so far is utterly unique in its ideas. I’ve seen the same ideas (and sometimes even phrases) repeated in books in somewhat different contexts. Some of them contradict each other (For example, the Tiger Mom makes strong use of shame and guilt to motivate her daughters, while Madeline Levine strongly admonishes against the practice. For the record, the tiger cubs are well-adjusted, independent kids, despite the Tiger Mom’s failings or wrongdoings according to other experts and mothers.) and others fall into lockstep at some points.

The best example of this last point is where Teresa Strasser discusses the way her step-mother parented her and what the consequences of that parenting style were. It aligns almost exactly with what Marano says will happen when a parental figure shows little faith in their child by shaming, chastising, and over (negative) parenting:  “I can’t stop trying to rub her cold, dead nose in her wrongness about me. It’s not a great raison d’etre, having to excel in the world because my evil step-monster said I couldn’t. It’s exhausting and often results in failures feeling bigger than they are, and achievements causing a brief high that fades, leaving nothing but a gaping hunger for shinier gold stars” (182).

This doesn’t fit exactly, but you get the point. And, to make my point clearer, it contradicts Chua: she shamed her kids into succeeding because she felt the needed the success or would be worthless and the kids (so far) are successful, this step mom just shamed her kid, and the kid is doing just fine. Marano would likely say all of these children are unlikely to succeed. They’re all fine.

Confessions of a Slacker Mom stood out to me in the online catalog of the local library precisely because even the title validates my current approach to parenting and childcare: Back. Off. She is no deadbeat mother by a long shot, rather, she is fully invested in her children and their happiness and successful outcome, whatever that may be, and to her, that is giving the children the space they need to grow up. She guides them, she doesn’t control them.

Most importantly, she does not sacrifice her life on the altar of motherhood. She takes time for herself, including her career, personal life, and marriage. She demonstrates to her children that adulthood is something to be desired, not dreaded or feared because it is the death of autonomy and fun. She makes clear she has worries, that maybe she could be doing more or less or different, but she moves forward with flexibility and an eye to what is best for her children, herself, and her family as a whole. I think Marano would love her.

As with my last “review”, here are a few of my favorite quotes:

“In fact, I’m more and more convinced that our kids may be quite a bit better off when they don’t have all the so-called advantages.” (14)

“But I think Aristotle’s point is still valid. That knowing how to read is of limited value until you understand the context of what you’re reading.” (74)

“…so often, in the case of bad conduct, there is a natural consequence we can let children suffer for themselves, so they can take away a memorable and meaningful reason to be good.” (104)

“Speaking of feeble and ineffective, I had to laugh when a friend of mine told me about a parenting class she took and the New Age-y advice they were dispensing, including that a parent should never use the word ‘no.’ They did furnish some watered-down euphemism for ‘no’ such as ‘That’s not okay! That’s not okay!'” (110)

In summary, I recommend this book both to people seeking their own validation and to those who think Ferro may be a terrible mother. It’s a great memoir of parenting, and she’s only just begun (her kids were quite young at the time of publication). I hope she writes a follow-up in a few years.


Worth Reading or Visiting

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Can I Put That On My Resume? An interesting article on I Need A Library Job about stay-at-home mothers returning to work after a long hiatus to raise children.

Leave of Absence Series on  Several librarians wrote in to describe how they stayed relevant while taking time out of the workforce (many to raise children) and what they did to get jobs when they decided to go back.

Information Literacy: Standards, skills, and virtues. An article on the need for new information literacy standards from the ACRL.

2012 Supreme Court Term Opinions. The Supreme Court publishes their term opinions regularly and they are easily accessible on the Supreme Court’s web site.

Everybody Gets a Pass.  A brief essay from the author of “Our Babies, Ourselves” on the entitlement of today’s students. Good teachers write down the grade you earn; they don’t assign the one you beg for.

A sample APA paper with a sense of humor from Radford University in Virgina.

Grammar vs Effective Communication

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I recently received an email from a person who wanted to know only about my rate structure (contact me for information) so he would know how much to charge a relative who insisted on paying him for editing her dissertation.  After a couple emails back and forth with him, I found out that he does not want to go into editing as a part-time or side job because he thinks his skills are a bit too “old-fashioned” to be able to offer the sort of help students and their advisers are seeking today. This is mainly because he sees the same thing I have noticed in the years since I started writing (and subsequently editing) college papers: English scholars, professors, advisers, and students are shifting away from a focus on the rules of grammar and spelling and moving toward an emphasis on effective communication (sometimes at the expense of those rules).

While I do generally agree with him that adhering to the accepted rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation will tend to result in clear communication and reduced ambiguity, those older rules no longer seem to be the necessary means to the desired end. Many readers, be they professors, advisers, committees, or the general public, want first and foremost to understand what a writer is trying to communicate, and grammar’s role today, as I have noticed it, is not to hold up ideas by being correct, but to be correct enough not to hold them back.

This seems like a weaker position for an institution that has until very recently been seen as key to effective communication, but I do not believe that it is. Grammar is just as important today as it was a century ago; it has just been moved to the second step of writing. Previously, a student would write with grammar first in mind, whereas today students are frequently instructed to get ideas out first and worry about grammar second. However, without a minimum of correct grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation, communication is impeded, sometimes lost, and other times very much in place, but now how the writer wants (poor grammar very effectively communicates something else entirely, and it is negative). Grammar still matters, and while it is no longer the first tool of effective communication, it is still necessary to communicate both the ideas of the writer and the reader’s ideas about the writer. (Of course, there is the important discussion on language and privilege*, but this is not the place for that because something so significant should be more than a tangent.)

While I do check clients’ work for grammar and will correct for most mistakes, I tend only to comment on the most egregious errors, those that impede communication, distract from the overall point of the work, or those that make the writer look terribly uneducated or sloppy. In general, I want my clients’ ideas to be clear and well-developed so the reader is not left wondering what is trying to be said or whether the writer (a) very recently learned written English (which is different from spoken English) or (b) has not yet completed third grade.

Always, my goal is my client’s goal: To get published, get someone to read the book, get an A, pass the class, get the job, finally finish the degree, or whatever else has motivated them to seek me out. A writer’s book, essay, thesis, dissertation, or other means of communicating their ideas in writing, is about them their goals, not me and mine.

To that end, while I check for and correct grammar to the standards of APA, Strunk & White, or whatever else has been requested, I keep in mind that the days of grammar as the number one priority are essentially gone. A book or paper that is heavily stilted** by strict adherence to rules is difficult to read and begs to be put down. Basically, too much grammar is today as bad as too little.

*”For one thing, the idea that there is only one right way of doing English – and everyone else is doing it wrong – is inherently flawed. And by “flawed” I mean illogicalelitist and even oppressive. Judgements about what counts as “right”, “good” and “correct” in writing and grammar always – ALWAYS – align with characteristics of the dialects spoken by privileged, mostly wealthy, mostly white people.”

**”A stilted style is difficult to read and detracts from the contents. To avoid a stilted style, write in a way that comes easily, using words and phrases that come naturally to you. Do not try to impress readers with your vocabulary, but be certain that the words you use convey your exact meaning. Your readers will be interested in what you have to say and not in how eloquently you say it. Avoid long, complicated terms if shorter and more familiar ones are available. But be careful not to use jargon because it may be misinterpreted.”

American Parent

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I read this book a few months ago in an effort to validate my own previously-held ideas about babies, pregnancy, and parenting. For the most part, it achieves this goal, with the side effect of also giving a picture of another sort of person, or probably just side of my own character, that I don’t want to be.

Sam’s book is well-researched, even if it does sometimes go on long, generally needless detours into descriptions of research rather than his experiences with it. For example, there is an extensive review of the history of Lamaze, including the man, the method, and its historical context (the Cold War, which I did not realize). These things are fascinating and appeal to me, a person who proudly holds a master’s degree in research, but they aren’t quite what I was looking for in a pregnancy and parenting memoir.

However, this book did do what I have admitted I was looking for it to do: provide background information in the form of another parent’s experience and research (to validate their efforts or criticisms of their own and others’ efforts). Most of that research, as you will see in the quotes section below, does validate many of my ideas and experience with child-raising.

Most of the time I found Sam to be an engaging and helpful partner and father. But then there were times, more frequently than I think would make it possible for us to be friends, that he showed that he’s over-sensitive to the point of naivete, self-absorption, and a sort of weakness I couldn’t deal with. He wants to be involved in the pregnancy and raising the baby, even the parts that are impossible for him to be intimately engaged in, such as the actual birthing of and breastfeeding the child. These are areas where it is only physically possible for him to be supportive and kind, which he absolutely is, rather than intimately involved, which is impossible, and in which his admittedly failed attempts to do so only frustrated or infuritated his wife, or worse, made life much, much more difficult for her.

To his credit, Sam almost always admits when he takes things too far with his attempts to essentially be a mother. These admissions gave him credibility and make the faults a little easier to stomach. Throughout his whole experience, as he narrates it, he is a wonderful, doting husband and father who simply wants nothing more than to be involved in a significant life experience. And, the more he figures out that the role of the father is just as important as that of the mother and stops being sad he can’t lactate or contract, the more his experience becomes valuable to the reader.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book, or passages that I found most useful or informative:

“If I am a helium balloon, then Jennifer is both the helium that sets me afloat and the string that keeps me tethered to the earth.” (5)

“Since I had been raised by my father, the idea that taking care of small children was somehow unmanly seemed bizarre to me.” (20)

“The dead are their own people as much as the living, and parents are more than the idealized figures their children create.” (50)

“Melzack determined that, on average, natural childbirth…pain feels almost as bad as having a finger cut off.” (81)

“If Dick-Read and many of the other natural birth pioneers often got their science wrong, just as often they got the larger human story exactly right.” (101)

“…human births are difficult because nature doesn’t care about us. Natural selection is a blind process guided by gene replication rather than concern for our suffering. This is what the romantics and religious natural birth pioneers failed to understand.” (115)

“According to the World Health Organization, half of the C-sections currently performed in the United States are unnecessary.” (131)

“As a Jew, I felt I had to circumcise my son. I  have plenty of quarrels with Judaism but it is one thing to quarrel and another to reject, and choosing not to circumcise Isaac would have felt like a rejection of my people and my family.” (147)

“An estimated 15 to 20 percent of all babies have colic.” (168)

“I looked down at my beautiful son and told him to shut the fuck up.” (169)

“I’d read and heard so much about the importance of breastfeeding that I forgot the lesson I’d learned again and gain during my prebirth research: It’s dangerous to believe in an idea too strongly, even when it’s a good idea.” (182)

“We’ve somehow arrived at the point where overburdened parents are hiring strangers to watch their children and then hiring additional strangers to monitor the first strangers.” (228)

“The classes and products might be entertaining for babies, but as the Education Sector report makes clear, that doesn’t mean that babies gain any developmental benefits from them.” (231)

“There has never been good evidence that extra stimulation – beyond the sights and sounds that all babies hear in the course of daily life -enhances infant development.” (235)

“…there is no evidence that being extremely attentive to the needs of a baby or holding a baby a lot provides any psychological benefits.” (250)

” … while some long-term studies have found that babies deemed securely attached end up being more well adjusted and forming better relationships than insecurely attached babies, many other long-term studies have failed to show any correlation between attachment status in infancy and adult personalities or behaviors.” (258)

“‘In fact, one of the contributions of behavioral  genetics is that in the normal range of how you treat your kids, parenting doesn’t have much effect on the kid’s personality or intelligence or proclivities.” (283)

“Frankly, we have no idea what makes people be the way they are when they’re twenty-five.” (282)

The Aquarium

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The Aquarium

The Aquarium


I’ve been trying to figure out what to say about Aleksandar Hemon’s essay “The Aquarium,” which was published in The New Yorker in June 2011, and which I found through NPR’s list “Moments of Truth: Six Memoirs with Heart,” for almost a week now. Since I’ve read it, I’ve been able to think of little else; it has occupied my thoughts almost entirely for several days.

“The Aquarium” is one of several essays that appear in “The Book of My Lives,” and this one describes Hemon’s experience with his infant daughter’s cancer diagnosis, treatment, and death.

I’ve been reading Heather Spohr’s blog The Spohrs are Multiplying for several years now, and while all of her posts on any topic are funny, warm, well-written, and worth reading, it is the posts on grieving for her daughter that always catch me the most. Her reflections on her daughter Madeline’s illness and death are gripping, honest, and vulnerable. Hemon’s writing falls into a similar category, and knowing of both of these writers draws them together easily, despite their arguably different mediums.

Most personal blog and memoir reading is done, I think, out of voyeurism, the desire to see and know another’s life without invitation.  What Spohr and Hemon do that takes their readers beyond being mere creeps who peek in from a distance and never say hello is that you can’t simply peek in through the window.  Their vivid, vulnerable language brings the reader into the moments, the situations, the raw feelings and confusion that constitute the grief of losing someone so young and loved. The reader can’t just graze gently across and past their words; being pulled into the living room and onto the couch with them as they struggle with decisions about care and then with how to move forward and keep living is unavoidable. If you’re going to read this, you are going to be a part of it.

While publishing their thoughts and experiences is a form of invitation, weaker writing on similar topics doesn’t engage the reader and lets strangers stare and criticize, then move on without being moved. Essays this clear and vulnerable are not immune to critics: There certainly will always be the judgment from the know-it-alls who are naive enough to believe that what is published in an essay is the entirety of information with nothing left out for brevity, clarity, or privacy. Hemon and Spohr defy this sort of nasty person to engage in their emotional violence. It feels wrong to judge them because it is.

Hemon in particular offers an articulate and brilliant analysis of what he went through as Isabel begins, goes through, and ends her disease.  He analyzes his feelings, what his three-year-old is going through at the time, and the awkward way others offer meaningless platitudes. He confronts the reality of disease, grief, and the forced change and new normal that come with loss. He stares them down and tells them what’s what without blinking or taking any prisoners.

What both Spohr and Hemon do best in taking their grief public is to serve others who have gone through any version of what they have. They take the intimate and personal and make it public in a guarded way that doesn’t hide the truth, but also does not overexpose their own raw nerves. Both make the reader a little uncomfortable, but just to the level necessary to make the reader pursue the story and want to understand, rather than cruelly judge, them. And for those who have had to create and adapt to a new normal that’s one young person short  of the reality they’d grown to love, both make that unique reader feel less alone, freakish, and selfish. It is somehow a little normalizing to see some of the most intimate parts of the worst things so clearly articulated, to see my own thoughts and feelings spelled out in a way that I could never begin to do myself, and, in some cases, to finally begin to understand myself.

That may be the best thing they both have to offer their readers: Their willingness to be public, honest, and vulnerable with the personal, intimate, and frightening helps the reader get a better grasp of their own self. I know myself better for having known this of them.

In short, I can’t wait to get my hands on the whole book and anything else he’s written.