My MPCA2014 conference paper on the opt-out revolution myth

Last weekend I presented at the Midwest Popular Culture Association annual meeting. My paper is entitled "The Opt-Out Movement and the Myth of Choice: How Creating a Movement From Anecdotes Used Upper-Class Mothers to Disenfranchise Mothers in the 99%" and you can read it and comment here if you'd like. I'm trying to figure out which direction to expand it in. If you're interested in the topic, be sure to check the references section and read the pieces I used.


Having a second child, or not

Luanda writes:

"I'm having the hardest time deciding if I want a second child. I'm an only child (a happy one), but always wanted to have a big family. It's been taking us (specially me) a while to decide because I had a scary pregnancy the first time with Alice involving pre-eclampsia and two months of bed rest. Not fun. 

I'm coming close to deadline and after seeing different doctors and finally deciding to go through another possible high risk pregnancy, I find myself with another issue.

I'm feeling lazy. Alice is already 3.5 and life is pretty peaceful. The thought of starting all over again haunts me.  As much as I always wanted a second, I'm also concerned of how that would impact Alice. I would be so sad if she didn't accept the fact that she is not the center of our world anymore. We have such a close relationship, I'm afraid that a second child at this stage would create a distance between us. She's already at an age where she is used to being an only child and she would be 4+ if we decide to try for another one soon. On the other hand I see the age difference as an advantage for all of us. I could never imagine myself having two kids close in age. I would go nuts.

We're definitely not financially prepared and probably never will be, but I see the addition of another child as a desire and not a calculation. And what if having a sibling be the greatest gift to her? And I know this crazy period of baby's life goes by fast and eventually I would get my life back again. I just don't know if I want to go through it. But I'm afraid of regretting if I choose not to. I'm so on the fence. Every time I see a pregnant women or siblings getting along well my heart melts. But I love having only one child. Alice is my little sidekick.

I wished I didn't have so many concerns. I hate to over think this. I just want to come up with a decision and free myself from this subject. "

Thoughts? I know what decision I made, but the calculation isn't the same for everyone. How did you make the decision?

Parenting Truths 31: It's a wonderful life

You knew I couldn't end on a painful note, and I'm not: With all its trials and exhaustion, parenting is still a transformative gig, your best chance to love someone without an agenda and to be loved for exactly who you are.

The minutes can be excruciatingly long, especially at 3 am. But when you look up and see your child's sweet cheek--baby-soft or teen-roughened--and you love your child the person, that's when it all comes together. You have done this, and you are doing this, and it is complicated and nuanced and chaotic and delicious. 

Keep going.

Parenting Truths 30: You can (and should) be true to yourself

I think a lot of us come into parenting thinking we have to be perfect. Or at least different from who we are. We're supposed to be super-patient, strongly-bonded, overflowing with milk and kisses, morally unassailable, fascinated by truly dreadful children's music, uninterested in anything that isn't purely enriching, without tattoos or scars or baggage, and simply delighted to do anything that causes joy in little hearts, no matter how boring, odious, anxiety-inducing, or sanitized it is.

Well, hell. That's just not true. 

If kids needed a beatific, generic parent we'd hold auditions for a Ma Ingalls doppleganger and then send all of our children off to her to raise. Your kids need you. Not just in your role as parent, but for yourself. Little (and big) weirdnesses and all. I could launch into some big stories about how weird my parents are and how funny that is and how endearing. Or I could tell you about how my older son was telling me genetics have nothing to do with personality and I looked at him and said, "YOU'RE EXACTLY LIKE ME" and he laughed because he knows it's true, even down to our stress behaviors. But you have those same stories about your parents and your kids are going to have those same stories about you.

You are great. And part of what makes you a good parent is that you're still yourself. You stand for something. You're interested in things. You're working through it. And all those thoughts and all that process helps you be a person your kids can depend on, to love them and to help guide them through the process of growing up and being a human. Not a cardboard perfect parent (who won't have any sympathy when they screw up). Your learning to be human helps them learn to be human.

Parenting Truths 29: You are going to have to make some hard choices

Kids force you into making decisions you never thought you'd have to make, and give you a different set of priorities. The ideas you have about yourself and about what your life is going to look like change after you have kids, and as your kids get older. In things as simple as getting rid of your expensive super-awesome coffee table, to things as complicated as deciding to end relationships that don't nourish you or allow you to be the best parent you can be. From making decisions about the kind of music you listen to while your kids are around, to deciding to push harder into your career or pull back from your career.

It's a double-consciousness. The joy and connection of parenting, but being forced into decisions you didn't know you'd have to make. Even when you're absolutely sure of and satisfied with the decisions, you still wouldn't have been forced to make them in such a deliberate manner if not for your child.

Even if it's for the best, it's still the end of your own innocence.

Parenting Truths 28: Parenting can cause trauma

Parenting involves a lot of low-level but constant trauma. Everything from the chronic sleep deprivation to the physical stress to the worry to the isolation. Unless you have a ton of support around you constantly, it's impossible to escape feeling isolated and stressed (either a little stressed or a lot stressed), pretty much constantly for the first few years of your kid's life. Add another few years for each kid. And some parents continue to feel a lot of stress for years and years, depending on their family set-up, finances, school situation, childcare situation, etc.

I believe that a lot of parents are carrying around some trauma from our children's younger years, and may still be immersed in that trauma.

No wonder we're tired, and carrying around some extra weight, not sleeping well, and feeling like there are days we just can't get it together. I don't know how we heal ourselves, but I believe that rest and physical movement and good food and tons of water are key. Along with as much laughter and loving contact as we can find. And a healthy does of cutting ourselves an enormous break. 

This is hard. We're not broken, but we're scarred. We can do it.

Parenting Truths 27: Your method of valuation changes

Before you have kids, figuring out the value of something is very straightforward. It's worth time, or money, or enjoyment, or some combination of the three. You can simplify a lot of things by figuring out if doing something/having something/making something/being something has value to you. If it does, do/have/make/be it. If not, don't.

But once you become a parent, the whole concept of value changes. You find yourself doing all kinds of things that wouldn't have been worth anything to you but are worth something for your child. Driving long distances, paying for private schools, spending time on projects you can't stand, endless rounds of "The Wheels On The Bus," chaperoning One Direction concerts. Listening to long, elaborate, narratively dubious dreams. Picking the spoon up off the floor again. Showing up at the rink for practice at 7 am on a Saturday. It's a seemingly endless list of things you would never in a million years have done, but now you do with joy. (A cranky joy, sure, but joy.)

Investors can calculate the Net Present Value of any potential business venture to decide if they should do it or not. The Net Present Value of activities for parents is simple: Does it have value to or for your child? If so, then the NPV is higher than the opportunity cost and you do it. Gladly. 



(If you find the topic of value as interesting as I do, join me on my new Twitter feed that only talks about value, in all sorts of contexts:

Parenting Truths 26: No one gets a vote unless they're there at 3 am

I've been saying this one for years, but no one else gets a vote on what you do with your kid unless they're going to be there to enforce it and deal with the consequences.

All those people who tell you how to get your kid to sleep? If they're not going to be there with you at 3 am, they don't have a say. All those people who tell you where you should send your kid to school? If they're not there to deal with the feelings and homework at 4 pm, they don't have a say. All those people who want you to do this, that, or the other thing? If they're not standing next to your child when it all has to happen, just say #nope.

You know what's best for your kid. You. Not some stranger in the supermarket, or some book author, or your MIL, or me. You. And if you don't know what works now, you'll think analytically about what you already know about your kid, and you'll come up with some things to try until one of them works.

You are doing it.

Parenting Truths 25: Emotions matter

Sometimes it feels like parenting is all logistical. Washing things, bending over to pick things up, folding things, putting things back where they belong, stuffing things in a bag and carrying them with you, making your kids put things down, kindly requesting that your kids give things to you, buying more of the right kind of things to prevent you from needing to buy more things. It's exhausting.

In the middle of all that doing, don't forget about being and feeling. Emotions matter. Your emotions matter. It's ok to feel irked or gleeful or sad or smug or whatever you're feeling. Even if feeling what you're feeling doesn't change the course of your day. Even if you still have to deal with all those things and all those jobs. You still get to feel what you feel, and you can tell the people who love you, and they will support you in whatever you're feeling.

The more you accept your own feelings, the easier it will be to accept your kids' feelings. And kids have some deep, serious, big feelings. The only way they'll learn to manage those feelings so they can get through life as smoothly as possible is if you help them by accepting their feelings and helping them put them in context. It's ok to be super-angry about putting on your shoes, but you still have to put on your shoes. Both those things can exist at the same time. You can be happy to be with your friend but scared that your friend is going to want to touch your favorite toy. Learning to navigate through big feelings is important, and it only happens when feelings are accepted.

The more you stay in touch with your feelings and your kids' feelings, the better you'll all get at supporting each other. One of you can have a bad day and get comfort from the others, who can be having an even better day because they were able to support someone they love. It all gets better and better, even when you're not feeling so great.

Parenting Truths 24: It all goes by so fast

Pardon the sentimentality of this post. My baby is starting seventh grade tomorrow, and he still looks exactly the same as he did the day he came out of me. Still those adorable huge cheeks. Still those deep watchful eyes. Still the most perfect face I've ever seen.

I know the minutes were long when he was a baby, especially the minutes after 1 am when we were both awake instead of asleep and I was pretending not to resent all that time I was missing. I don't really remember much of the bad times. (I don't remember many of the good times from his first few years, to be quite honest. Sleep deprivation is real.) All the old ladies told me, "The minutes are long but the years are short," and they weren't kidding.

Twelve years, just like that. He's a fully-formed human, with opinions and ideas and goals and dreams that have nothing to do with me. I bet the next twelve go by just as quickly.

Take pictures. Tell stories of what your kids do. Because you may not remember, and the next thing you know they'll be hugging you at eye level and tying neckties and cracking really sophisticated jokes.

Parenting Truths 23: You're going to make different decisions from your friends

You don't have to jump off a bridge just because your friends do. And you don't have to not jump just because your friends are glued to the railing. You know what's best for your kids and your family, and that's what you should do.

There are stages in parenting in which making different decisions from your friends can make it hard to be around each other. In the beginning, everything seems high-stakes. So if you're struggling with a decision or with having to carry through the decision you made, it might be difficult for you to be around someone who's made a different decision because it's too raw. (This is why sometimes it's hard for moms who breastfeed and moms who formula feed to hang out when their kids are teeny--the decision [such as it is] can feel too raw for either and both of you.) But once the decision loses some of the emotional power, you can be around each other, living out your different choices, with no problems. (This is why moms of 8-year-olds rarely know and certainly don't care how the other moms fed their kids when they were infants.)

It can also be hard to be around your friends and their kids if they make decisions about teaching boundaries and limits that are very different from your own and you feel like their children aren't behaving in a way that you can be relaxed about. As you tell your kids, different families have different rules. If you need to take a break from spending time with a family that stresses you out, just take a break. Try to spend time with your friend away from the children so you aren't bothered by the parenting differences.

All these decisions we make--pacifier or no, where our kids sleep, bedtimes, babysitters, schooling, technology use, discipline, expectations, friends, family time--are all so important to us at the time. But that doesn't mean that there are absolutes in all categories, or that the same things have the same results with all kids (even with kids in the same families). So it's good to observe what your friends are doing, but then assess what results you'll have with your own kids, and make your decision based on that instead of what "everyone else" does.

Parenting Truths 22: Your kids can do it

My 9-year-old just told me he wished he had a cupcake. So we looked up a mug cake recipe on the internet, he wrote it down, and now he's making it all by himself.

A few weeks ago, my 12-year-old was complaining about something and it turned into a rant breakdown of the difference between personal and systematic racism.

Your kids are going to get there.

Every day, you're putting in all this really hard work. From the physical labor to the emotional work, from showing them how to tie their shoes to potty training them to helping them practice reading to talking about current events and helping them interpret the big themes. It feels endless, like you're throwing it all into a bottomless pit. But you aren't. It's all going into them, and even when you don't see it having any effect, it is. They'll flip it back to you when you least expect it. And you'll be amazed at how thoughtful and competent and fully-formed your rainbow-pooping kids are.

You matter. The things you do and say matter every day, all the time. And your kids are soaking those up, and when they're ready, they'll shoot it all back at you, with mastery and swagger, and you'll see what excellent people they are.

Parenting Truths 21: Worry is normal

Worry is one of the jobs of parenting. Stuff that you never thought about for yourself--how often you poop, whether you should eat honey or not, how many inches you've grown in the last six months, whether your teacher likes you or not--becomes of paramount importance when it's about your kid.

That's all normal. I think it's biologically wired--if early people didn't worry and keep their infants close, those infants would be stolen by dingoes. We're still human, so it's still hardcoded in us to keep kids close and to worry about them. Thinking through the possibilities and how we'd deal with them helps us with mental flexibility and keeps us prepared for the inevitable crisis situations.

If your worry becomes so big that it takes over other parts of your life, and prevents you from having other emotions about your child and the other things you do, that's a sign that your hormones are out of whack and you need help. Tell your partner or a friend and they'll help you tell your doctor, and your doctor will get it straightened out. Overwhelming worry is treatable.

But normal worry, worry that's just one occasional emotion mixed in with all the other emotions, is part of being a parent. As your kids get older and more competent your worries will grow with them. But you'll be able to meet each stage, prepared. 

Parenting Truths 20: You're supposed to think your kid poops rainbows

I hear people apologizing for saying nice things about their kids all the time, and I don't get it. Why would you feel bad about thinking your kid is great? You're your kid's parent--it's your job to think your kid poops rainbows. 

If you don't, who will? Of course you don't always think they're amazing, or even like them in the moment, but for the most part you probably think they're amazing. And everyone deserves to be loved completely, even with their faults. If you don't think your kid is fanfreakingtastic, they'll have a much harder time later on accepting completely love from someone else as an adult. By being the president of your kid's fan club now, you set them up for happy relationships later.

Obviously you're still enforcing boundaries and teaching them how to interact responsibly with others and the world. But all with love, and not holding back the sense of wonder that this amazing person is your kid! So enjoy every interesting, weird, funny, excellent, magical thing about your kid, and feel good about enjoying it.

Parenting Truths 19: You can (and should) say "yes"

Boundaries are amazingly important. But so is having fun and being joyful with your kids. Say "yes" as often as you can.

Say "yes" to being silly, to ice cream for dinner, to dance-offs, to leaving the kids with a babysitter so you can go out with your friends. Say "yes" to going on day trips together, to finding fairy doors, to making play dough, to playing soccer in the yard in the summer and the basement in the winter. Say "yes" to putting your toes in the sand, to running through the sprinkler, to catching lightning bugs. 

Say "yes" to things that feed your spirit and nourish you, alone and with your kids.

You spend so much time making sure they have everything they need. Spend some time making sure you all do the things you want, too.

"Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;

Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!"


Parenting Truths 18: You can (and should) say "no"

When they're really little, we're so afraid of harming their gentle spirits that it can be tempting not to say "no." Ever. Instead we redirect, or give two choices, or do something else that guides them into doing what we want them to do without having to say "no."

But being a parent is about teaching your child how to be a person in the world, and in order to have harmonious personal relationships and contribute to society, a person has to understand limits and boundaries and appropriate behavior. And the only way to learn boundaries and appropriate behavior is for loving adults to make and enforce age-appropriate boundaries from the time you're tiny.

So it's ok to say "no" when it's not good for your child to do something. Or even when you simply don't want your child to do something. It's ok to wean, to limit cookies or screen time or jumping on the couch, to force them to write thank-you notes, to give up their seats for older people, to let you eat your meal in peace. You don't have to justify saying "no," either, although you'll do more teaching if you tell them why so they can start sorting out what is and isn't acceptable. Kids need boundaries. They'll push against them, for sure--that's what growing and developing is for. But if you don't enforce any boundaries they won't have any to push against, and they won't develop the way you want them to.

So say "no" with love, and stay firm, and your kids will grow up with healthy senses of themselves in the world.

Parenting Truths 17: You can ask for help

Parents aren't meant to do this alone. Children are a common good, for one thing, so it benefits everyone to help parents raise children. And this whole nuclear-family-one-or-two-adults-alone-in-a-house-with-children-24-7 thing is extremely new historically and totally maladaptive, IMO.

So ask for help when you need it. Ask for help before you need it. 

You may be emotionally hurt by parenting, or lonely, or just done. That's all normal. A chat with a friend or relative who loves you and will let you vent without telling you to be grateful can be just the thing to give you the strength to get through bedtime. Reach out when you need validation, commiseration, or just someone to tell you they like you.

If you have a partner, make sure your partner gets as much of a chance to do childcare as you do, so they can develop their parenting skills and form a bond with your child that doesn't go through you. And then if you're feeling fried, you can ask your partner to wrangle the kids while you recharge. (If you're being proactive, you'll work it out so each of you gets alone time regularly, so neither of you gets to the fried point.)

And whether you have a partner or not, you should start building a support network of friends and neighbors you can ask for help sometimes. If they like you, they are probably willing to take your kids for a few hours while you go to an appointment or recharge. But they probably don't think to offer, so you don't know until you ask.

Parenting is long, hard, tiring, occasionally demoralizing work. You don't have to white-knuckle through it alone. Reach out, whether you need emotional support or the physical presence of someone else, and your friends will be there for you. You don't have to do it alone.

Parenting Truths 16: It hurts you more when they leave than it hurts them

Expanding on what I said yesterday about knowing that it's good when they don't need you anymore, another truth is that it hurts you more when they leave than it hurts them.

When your children leave you it's to go to a fun babysitter, or preschool, or summer camp, or college. Someplace fun and new with things to do and learn and new friends to make and wings to stretch out and theories to test. In the meantime, you're stuck at home alone or on a plane somewhere or at your desk at work. And it's not that thrilling and you wonder how your child is doing and you miss their sweet little head.

Yes, there are times when you're dying to get away from them for a bit, when you're jumping out of your own skin from being touched or want to rip your ears out rather than hear "Whyyyyyyy???" one more time. And there are times when your kids really, really, REALLY want to be with you. But for the most part, your kids are more excited about leaving you than you are about their leaving. And when they're gone you feel more of a hole than they do.

That's good. It means you've given them enough to have confidence in themselves and to feel secure without you. So while it can sting a little that they don't feel as homesick for you as you do for them, it's all part of creating wonderful people who can go into the world with confidence.

Parenting Truths 15: The better a parent you are the less they need you

This one hits me hard every few months: The better a job I do at teaching my kids to love and trust themselves and find home within, the less they'll need me eventually. The measure of my success will be that they don't need me to lead them or buffer things for them anymore. Whether they go away geographically or not, they'll take the reins of their own lives.

Kids need to grow out of needing their parents. As much as we want to keep doing things for them, keep helping them with their emotions, keep owning the sweet smells of their heads and their gorgeous peals of laughter, it's not healthy to hold on so tightly. We scaffold and support and nurture and teach, until our children can do everything they need to do to be functioning members of society. Without us.

So the better we are at parenting, the more able they'll be to fly away from us.

The good news is that the better a parent any of us is the more they'll want to be around us later. Eventually. Once they've done doing everything they want to do. And when they have kids of their own. Wanting to be near us is better than needing to be near us, because it implies choice, and deep love, and interdependence instead of dependence.

Keep going. Keep doing it right. 

Parenting Truths 14: You owe your kids the truth

If you were watching all the feeds and then the media blackout from Ferguson, MO, last night like I was, you were thinking about how you'd explain what happened to your kids. And maybe you thought you wouldn't have to say anything to your kids about it. If they're preschoolers or toddlers, you don't, but if they're elementary school and above, it's one of those things they'll hear about whether or not you tell them. You owe your kids the truth, and your owe your kids guidance dealing with the hard things. So talk to them about it.

I wrote this post last year when I was thinking about what my white kids needed to know about the Zimmerman verdict, and I think everything in it is applicable to what happened in Ferguson over the past 6 days. It's really REALLY important for kids to know what their world is about. Even when that's unpleasant. If you tell them, you can help them think about it. If you let them hear about it somewhere else, they have no help from you to process it.

So please, talk to your kids about racism, privilege, institutionalized bias of all types, and the fact that we can all stop it, but only by exposing it whenever we encounter it.