Mother Wendy’s Letter to Young People

June 23, 2017

Last week, a Massachusetts judge found Michelle Carter guilty of manslaughter after she sent a series of text messages to her boyfriend urging him to commit suicide. At the time, she was 17; her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, was 18. Both had a history of emotional problems.

The texts sent by Carter to Roy on the night he killed himself are chilling, and the story is heartbreaking on so many levels. As the mother of a teenager and two young women in their 20’s, I can’t even imagine what Roy’s parents must be going through – or Carter’s, for that matter, as they contemplate the years their daughter will serve in prison.

But Mother Wendy feels compelled to speak to the Young People (not that I have many Facebook Friends under the age of 40), and so I ask that you please indulge me as I address all the teenagers who may read this post.

Dear Young People:

Being a teen isn’t easy. Sometimes, it out-and-out sucks (my mother hates that word, by the way, and I only use it when I really want to make a point).

You have a lot on your mind, hormones coursing through your body, parents and teachers who are annoying and think the Periodic Table of the Elements is like, super important, and you don’t have a lot of power or self-determination. You’re dependent upon others for your basic necessities, which means that those others get to make a lot of decisions you maybe don’t like, and they also get to tell you what to do or, at the very least, severely limit your ability to do what you want.

Or maybe you have no one – no reliable adults, no support, nothing. Maybe the people who are supposed to be there for you aren’t, because of their job or drugs or prison or because they’re narcissists who should never had children. Maybe you have too much responsibility, and not enough resources. Maybe it feels like there’s no one there to help.

If there are supportive adults in your life, maybe they don’t remember what it’s like to be a teenager. They think that because they have jobs and mortgage payments and have to pay for health insurance and new transmissions that whatever you’re dealing with is minor by comparison, and maybe it is, to them, but it isn’t to you.

Sure, someday you’re the one who’s going to have to pay for the new washing machine or deal with a boss who’s an asshole, but for now, you have teenage-sized problems, and compared to middle-school or elementary school problems, they can feel all-consuming. Parents sometimes forget that things like chemistry tests, or not being included in a social event, or being teased for something about yourself that you can’t change, can feel like the world is ending. They may scoff when you complain about school, or friends, or your job, or maybe they one-up you with an “in my day” story in which they spent their entire youth wearing the same pair of underpants and working in a factory where people routinely got their arms cut off (probably not true, by the way).

Please try to remember, when this happens, that sometimes adults really don’t remember what it’s like to be young. Even more importantly, they probably don’t realize just how different a place the world is these days. My oldest was 10 when 9/11 happened, and she’s spent her young-adult life with an awareness of just how quickly a beautiful Tuesday morning can turn into a nightmare that changes everything, forever. She has lived with the uncertainty and fear that the terrorism and school shootings and economic collapse have fomented, and so has every other young person under the age of 30. So it’s not easy, and when adults tell you to shake it off, it’s because they forget that when they were younger, they used to ride their bikes to the store to buy a soda, walk unaccompanied to school, and didn’t have to be taught about “good touch/bad touch.”

So, even when you have supportive adults in your life and a pretty stable situation (a relative privilege these days, it seems), things can still be rough, because neurotypical teenage behavior is fraught with drama and angst and urgency. Your body and your brain aren’t done baking yet, so that you’re subject to wild mood swings and may be easily frustrated when things don’t go your way.

Guess what? That’s normal.

What you don’t know yet is that how things may feel on any given day is very much like the weather in London: Don’t like it? Wait a few minutes. It’ll change. I don’t say this to minimize the importance of the things you may be struggling with, or to be patronizing, or to suggest that the things that teenagers are focused on are frivolous. I was a teenager once, and for all my wailing about my Double A bra size and the fact that no boy would go out with me, you would have thought I was a penniless, homeless orphan with terminal cancer and a bad perm – just ask any of my high school friends. They’re all on Facebook. They remember.

What you also don’t know is that, with the exception of very extreme and dire circumstances (and, frequently, even in the case of very extreme and dire circumstances)…this too shall pass. It gets better. Hang in there.

I know, I know, I KNOW. Not the words you want to hear, not very helpful when it feels like the world is about to end. You don’t understand, Mother Wendy, you may be thinking.

Ah, but I do. I do. There’s a reason that old people like me say things like this: Because we’ve been there. We’ve felt that fear and frustration and sadness, and we’ve cried those tears. Just because we dye our (grey) hair, don’t know how to Snapchat, and are totally lame in just about every way a person can be, if there is NOTHING else that we know, we know this:

You won’t always feel this way.

I promise.

But when you ARE feeling this way, and if it isn’t going away, and you’re starting to feel like there are no answers, you must hear this: No matter how sad, depressed, desperate, or lonely, you may be, THERE IS HELP. There are people to talk to, medications that can drastically improve your mood and correct organic chemical imbalances, and facilities where care is available.

There are ways to get better, and people who want to help. No one will judge you – they’d rather help you than mourn you. If your parents won’t listen, talk to a friend. If your friends won’t listen, talk to a teacher. If a teacher won’t help, because she’s busy staring at the Periodic Table of the Elements, talk to your friends’ parents, and if none of those people will help, Uber yourself to the emergency room and say, “I NEED HELP.” Yes, that’s hard and dramatic and scary beyond belief, but it’s better than being dead.

Young People, there are answers, and whatever is going on, you can endure this. So, no matter how bad things may seem, DON’T KILL YOURSELF. DON’T. JUST DON’T. And if you’ve got a “friend” who’s suggesting that you should, you need to end that “friendship,” like, yesterday.

I’m an old lady with a bad right knee, I am wildly out of touch with pop culture, I love nothing better than doing crossword puzzles in my jammies, or pruning trees, or watching koala videos. I use words like “notwithstanding,” and things I find interesting include memorizing world capitals and the Periodic Table of the Elements. In other words, I’m completely irrelevant.

Except that I will always be here for you, Young Person, whomever you are, even if you don’t know me, even if you think I’m an idiot (mostly, you’re right). I’m at least one person who cares about you, even if I don’t know you, but I’ll bet I’m not the only one. If things are rough, I will be here in any way I can, and so will a lot of people. Even if you’re getting through life one minute at a time, there are people who care.

Stay tough, get help if you need it, and know that things will get better. It may take a while, but they Will. Get. Better.

Love, Mother Wendy

Overcoming a Helicopter Mom:  A Study in Fortitude

May 21, 2017

Hanna Elizabeth O’Connor is graduating from high school in a few weeks and will be going to college in the fall.  The college application process was brutal, but Hanna handled it with great poise and maturity, and she can hold her head up high.  Her mother, not so much.

Throughout the last year, I’ve attended meetings at Hanna’s school hosted by the college counseling staff; I’ve read a lot of books, listened to podcasts, and availed myself of all the resources out there for students and parents navigating college admissions.  Much I’ve what I’ve heard and read, I already sort of knew from doing this once before with our oldest daughter, but I did learn at least one new thing, and that’s the fact that I’m exactly the sort of parent that none of want to or should be.  Turns out I’ve broken just about all of the 10 Commandments for Parents of College-Bound High Schoolers:

  • We are supposed to let our students drive the process, figure things out for themselves. This makes the process less stressful.
  • We’re supposed to avoid any and all contact with admissions offices and admissions personnel, because this can impact their chances of admission, and hey, that’s stressful, too.
  • We’re supposed to not nag our kids to death about studying for standardized tests or whether they’ve gotten their applications in, even if it’s the spring of their junior year and they haven’t yet taken the SAT or ACT, and there are no other tests being offered until the fall, because it stresses them out.
  • We’re supposed to take our kids to visit colleges they and they alone select. We shouldn’t make suggestions, because this, too, stresses them out.
  • During those visits, we’re supposed to keep our mouths shut so as not to unduly influence them with our opinions. You know.  Because that stresses them out.
  • We’re supposed to be supportive and available to talk about the process, but only if our kids initiate the conversation. This is so they don’t get stressed out.
  • We’re supposed to encourage other well-intentioned adults not to quiz our kids about their post-high school plans, because that’s sort of stressful.
  • We aren’t supposed to talk about the process with other parents, even if the kids aren’t around, mostly, I think, because it’s impolite. But it could also stress our kids out, even if they don’t know about it.
  • We’re not supposed to tell our kids where they should or should not apply, or review any portion of their applications unless they specifically ask us to. Because of the stress, stupid.
  • It goes without saying that we have NO OPINION WHATSOEVER about where they actually end up going to school, except to the extent that financial considerations play a role in that decision. But if we have to talk about it, we should do it in a non-stress-inducing way.

In other words, we’re supposed to be preternaturally and ceaselessly calm and devoid of any emotional investment in the process that could potentially influence our kids’ decisions or opinions (or stress level) in any way.  Basically, we’re supposed to spend a year demonstrating a Zen-like discipline and detachment, and even as we recognize just how high the stakes are, we are never to communicate that fact to our children – ever.  In short, we’re supposed to so thoroughly model and embody this level of equanimity that if our children receive unfavorable results (which they won’t, so long as we do our part), they will accept them with the dispassionate composure of the Queen of England.

That’s a tall order, and if you know me even a little bit, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I failed miserably.  Just to give you an idea of the extent of my transgressions, here are all the things on the No-No List I have done in the past year – and please don’t judge me – I know just how badly I fucked up:

  •  I was regularly in touch with my child’s guidance counselor to voice my concerns and worries about my child’s list of schools and why she hadn’t received her decision from some schools that other students had already heard from, and to vent my frustration about decisions that didn’t go her way, and to express lots of other things I can’t remember but which, if my kid had heard them, would have stressed her out.
  • I encouraged her to consider schools that, in retrospect, may have been unrealistic options, not because she was incapable of being successful at those schools, but because I failed to appreciate that when colleges say they employ a “holistic” review of applicants, what they really mean is, “yeah, we really just look at the GPA and SAT.”
  • I talked to other parents – lots and lots of other parents (in fact, anyone who would listen)—about the process – a lot. I’m sure this caused her stress, even though she didn’t know about it.
  • I brought up the topic with Hanna on many, many occasions, even when I knew she didn’t want to talk about it. This stressed her out.
  • I kept insisting she process how she was feeling about not getting into this school or that, when she really just wanted not to think about it. My therapist – who LOVES processing stuff and gets paid to help people do just that, later told me that what I really should have been doing was trying to take her mind off the whole thing – et tu, Meredith?
  • I suggested she consider applying to additional schools. In January of her senior year.  I think that might have stressed her out.
  • I suggested she consider taking the ACT. Again, in January.  So, maybe some stress there, too.
  • I insisted she attend admitted students’ programs at every school she got into, even the ones in which she had no interest, and even though she was exhausted, overwhelmed, and so sick of the process she wanted to shoot me in the head (although she never actually said that). There might have been some stress involved.
  • I blatantly lobbied for one school over the other when she had narrowed her school down to two choices (although I said good things about the other school, too).

So, yeah.  I did all that stuff.  And guess what?  Hanna was stressed pretty much every minute of every day of the twelve months.  Mother of the Year, here, folks.  But you know what they say:  If you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to be a terrible warning.

My failure to maintain the impassivity and level-headedness that all good parents are supposed to demonstrate for their children is probably the result of becoming too emotionally involved in the process, and I know this had a negative impact on Hanna, because when she received rejection or wait-list decisions, she was devastated, which can only mean that I did not do a good enough job at cultivating her self-esteem or ingraining in her an unshakable belief that a college admissions decision is not a referendum on her value and promise.

I felt inestimable despair as I watched what the process did to her, and as I heard a kid who had made high honors for fifteen out of fifteen quarters of high school actually vocalize the opinion that she was a “loser” based upon which schools said no.  I felt even worse as I considered the extent to which I was responsible for her despondency and feelings of hopelessness.  How many times did I tell her, in the months that comprised Hanna’s College Admissions Adventure, that she was the consumer and that no institution of higher learning – ivy-covered or otherwise – would ever know enough about her to make a truly fair assessment of who she was or as to her potential?  Apparently, not enough.

I love this child so desperately.  She is my baby – a precious, unexpected, thoroughly sublime surprise who must have known how much we needed her.  In 1998, Michael and I made the heartbreaking decision that our family would have to be complete with two children (as opposed to the three we had always imagined) because of our uncertainty at that time as to what type of care our younger daughter, Allie, who had just been diagnosed with autism, might need in the years ahead.  That decision notwithstanding, Hanna joined our family in March 1999, and the joy she has brought to us ever since has always felt like something of a miracle to me.

That she was, from the moment she first drew breath, the easiest and most accommodating child ever to have been born was an added bonus, but with Hanna – finally – I felt like the mother I had always hoped to be.  There was none of the first-time-parent anxiety that Caitlin, to her great credit, endured with such gentle and forgiving grace, nor the despair and terror and exhaustion that being the parent of a child with special needs occasioned.  With Hanna, it was different.  I was endlessly patient, creative, and wise, and I was far more concerned with being the parent she needed as opposed to the parent I thought the rest of the world thought I should be.  With Hanna, I pretty much got most things right, which is not to say that Hanna is a “better” child than Cait or Allie, just that she had the benefit of a mother who had gained greater insight, made better decisions, and was a lot less uptight.

And so, knowing that I so thoroughly botched this college application thing – perhaps one of the most important milestones of a young person’s formative years – is mortifying, and painful, and deeply upsetting, because I should have known better – in all honesty, probably DID know better – but did all the things I wasn’t supposed to anyway.

Michael, who is a lot wiser and less prone to navel-gazing that I, has listened to me castigate myself about all of this, and has asked me what might have gone differently if I hadn’t made all of these unforced errors?  Would she have gotten into more or better schools? Would she be any happier with her decision? Probably not.  But she might have felt less stressed, less overwhelmed, less bad about herself.  And that’s what bothers me the most.

In September, Hanna will matriculate at Mount Holyoke College – the choice of her older sister, my alma mater as well—and I know she will be spectacular.  I’m hopeful that this last year of her life will grow dim in her memory and that ultimately, all she will recall will be how much she loved her college experience.  I know she will do well in the years ahead, and I’m confident in her ability to rise to the challenges she will face as she makes her mark on the world.  I am also hopeful that she will forgive me my frailties and come to understand that if I have been less that I should have been, it is because of my inability to comprehend a college admissions staff that fails to see all that she is and will be.

We call her Puddy, or Beanie; we called her Wiz-Biff when she was little, because that’s how she said her middle name back then.  But Hanna Elizabeth O’Connor is not a mere trifle.  She may have a mother who probably needs inpatient psychiatric care, but she’s a woman of fierce intelligence, conviction, and fortitude.  She has much to show us.  I can’t wait to see what she does.

Mother’s Day in America

May 10, 2017

Mother’s Day is coming. Yay.

I hate Mother’s Day. I have always hated Mother’s Day. Well, maybe not when I was a kid – then, I probably didn’t give it much thought. But now I’m all grown up, and a mother myself, and I hate Mother’s Day.

I’ve written about this before, and I’ve explained that my feelings about this “holiday” have nothing to do with my Mom, who is a terrific mother, or my kids, who are terrific kids. I hate Mother’s Day because it’s a greeting-card, floral industry hyped holiday in which advertisers try to guilt us into buying chocolate-covered strawberries, large stuffed animals, or $99 necklaces in order to give evidence of our undying love and devotion. I also hate it because mothers who have lost their children, or women who wish they had children but don’t, or women who don’t have children because they don’t want them, end up feeling like crap. I’ve said all this before.

Why I am particularly hating Mother’s Day today, in 2017 America, is because I am so fed up with the hypocrisy of a society that pays lip service to the hard work of mothering while offering zero support to those who are in the trenches wiping butts, cajoling recalcitrant toddlers to eat dinner, making sure homework gets done, and teaching their kids what “misogyny” and “xenophobia” mean.

Ask anyone in this country – let’s be specific: Ask any white man in Congress about his mother, and he’s likely to wax rhapsodic about how she is/was the most nurturing, caring, loving person ever to have graced humanity, so much so that Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood hot mic comments were really, really offensive to him –as the son of his mother, you know – to such an extent that he just couldn’t overlook those comments…until, of course, it looked like most of Trump’s supporters could, and then, well, you know the rest.

Ask that same white congressman whether mothers are important or deserve our respect, and watch as he tees up to slam that softball deep into left field with his pandering stump speech written for the exclusive purpose of getting affluent soccer moms wet.

Ask enough people this question, and you’d really have to believe that in the United States of America, in 2017, where the idea of motherhood is exalted to such a level that a woman’s choice whether or not to have a child is fast becoming one that is not even hers to make, and you’d likely believe – if you knew nothing else about this country – that when one actually becomes a mother, she will find an endless array of resources to help her in her task.

You’d be wrong.

In this country, here are just a few of the things we don’t do for mothers, starting from the moment they get pregnant:

• We don’t require employers to provide paid maternity leave.
• We don’t offer subsidies for daycare, except to the very poor, and daycare is often the most expensive item on a family’s budget, after housing.
• We do not incentivize employers to provide more flexible work options for working mothers, such as telecommuting, job sharing, or extended career breaks.
• Unlike nearly every other industrialized country in the world, we do not provide universal public preschool, despite a growing body of research demonstrating the role that access to quality preschool education plays in child development and future success at school.

While we’re at it, let’s not forget that a majority of House members (some of them women with children of their own) just told us that mothers shouldn’t be entitled to mandatory health insurance coverage for pregnancy and childbirth, childhood vaccinations, or preventive care.

So much for supporting motherhood. And don’t get me started on those wacky Republican men in the New Hampshire state legislature who introduced a bill that would make it a misdemeanor for a woman to breastfeed in public, or their colleague of dubious intellect, State Representative Josh Moore, who posted on his Facebook account that men should be permitted to grab the nipples of women who breastfeed in public. Though 49 states have enacted legislation to protect a woman’s right to breastfeed in public, “family values” conservatives continue to rail against this most motherly of acts. You know. Because when women breastfeed in public, what they’re really trying to say is, “Hey, stud. I am feeling so sexy right now. Wanna fuck?”

Mothers in the workforce don’t fare much better. One study found that working mothers typically earn less than women without children, even when other factors such as education and work commitment are taken into account. Another study determined that mothers were often more likely than non-mothers to be regarded as less competent and poorly motivated to succeed. A third concluded that women take a “motherhood penalty” when they have children to the tune of a 4% drop in salary for each child they have.

These facts demonstrate unequivocally what Americans really think of motherhood, flowery platitudes notwithstanding, because they are reflective of governmental policy that has no interest whatsoever in helping families, and mothers in particular, be successful. If Americans truly wanted universal paid maternity leave, and quality, affordable child care subsidized by the government, they would elect leaders who advocate for such legislation, but they don’t. Those policies may sound great, but no one wants to pay for them, and for all those gooey, high-minded expressions about motherhood being the most difficult and important profession in the world, we do nothing – nothing – as a nation that would prove that we mean it.

Twenty years ago, Hillary Clinton wrote the book, “It Takes a Village,” advocating that the role of raising children is one in which we should all be deeply invested. She got a lot of criticism from the “in my day, we took care of our kids by letting them stick screwdrivers in electrical outlets while we smoked and drank martinis, and they turned out just fine” crowd, most of whom thought she was suggesting that mothers should abdicate their responsibilities to the State because they didn’t feel like taking care of their kids. Which wasn’t what she was saying at all. What she meant was, “let’s help make it easier to raise kids well, because when you do that, they’re less likely to end up in a clock tower with an automatic weapon.” Or maybe just that society as a whole benefits. Anyway, what she was trying to say was, let’s help moms as much as we can. And the country said, “No way.” So we didn’t.

Things haven’t changed much in twenty years (and they weren’t great before then, either). We say being a mother is important, but we won’t open up our wallets to make sure that said mother is supported, has access to quality, affordable healthcare, or can make a living wage at an unskilled profession in order to feed her kids. There are those who would say, “if you can’t afford to take care of a child, then you shouldn’t have one,” and to those who would say such a thing, I would say, “then perhaps we shouldn’t be talking about defunding Planned Parenthood or refusing to teach contraception in high school.” But I digress.

The bottom line is, our country is hostile to mothers. We won’t say it, but our actions speak volumes. We really don’t like mothers in this country, unless they’re holding a clean, freshly-bathed baby who isn’t crying, and so to try to pretend that we value them by setting aside one day a year in their honor is a farce. If, however, you think about how we are encouraged to recognize dear old mom on her special day – with an empty gesture that tries to make up for the fact that we pretty much ignore her the rest of the year – perhaps Mother’s Day is a perfect analogy for how our country really views motherhood.

This year on Mother’s Day, I’ll be waking up and going for a hike, weather permitting, and then I’ll have dinner with my family, including my own Mom, 83 years old and still doing yoga. I’m not buying her flowers (well, maybe I will pick up some tulips, because she likes tulips), and I’m not buying her chocolates (because I already do that and she has a really big stash right now). I’m not actually giving her anything, but I am making a donation to the Global Fund for Women, because that would make her happy. If you care about mothers – your own, or someone else’s – perhaps consider a similar gesture.

And Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I love you so much.

The Ides of March

March 15, 2017

It’s that time of year again – undergraduate admissions season. This year, I’ve got a personal stake in the game: My youngest, Hanna, is a high school senior anxiously awaiting the results of a process that started over a year ago. On second thought, make that three years ago – from the moment Hanna started high school, admission to college is the goal she and her classmates have been working towards.

In the interest of full disclosure, Hanna goes to an independent school that she has attended since Kindergarten. Our oldest, Caitlin, went there from grades 7 – 12; we chose it for her because of its reputation for providing an excellent, progressive education, and her experience was so positive that we selected it for Hanna when she was 5. The school has been around for 250 years and its history is an important part of the curriculum, especially in the lower grades. It’s a wonderful institution, one with which we’ve been very happy for many years.

But in the upper grades, there’s no denying the importance of the college admissions process. Hanna’s school is assuredly more focused on this process than most public or parochial high schools, and the pressure is intense. At her incoming freshman meeting with the dean of students, mention was made of Hanna’s “college portfolio” and “curriculum vitae.” I was thirty years old before I knew what a CV was, and at the age of 52, I still don’t have a “portfolio.” I was a little put off that even though Hanna was only 14 at the time, we were already talking about the “c” word. In the hope of diffusing some of the inescapable and ever-present emphasis on college, we encouraged Hanna to focus on her schoolwork and activities she enjoyed, to make friends, and to have fun. She did all of those things.

When it was time to begin the process for real, neither Hanna, nor we approached it with the level of zeal of some of her peers and their parents. We didn’t hire coaches to work one-on-one with her to study for the SAT, we didn’t discuss her grades with her except to commend her for her hard work, the progress she showed from quarter to quarter, and the persistence she exhibited when confronted with an especially challenging junior year chemistry class. We were happy that she found a few activities that really mattered to her, ones she threw herself into with enthusiasm and passion. She wasn’t president of the class, she didn’t take a mission a trip to Honduras to build a school for underprivileged children, and she has never been the type of kid that screams “high-performing leader.” Her grades and test scores are far better than either mine or my husband’s were, and her curriculum has been unquestionably more rigorous. The “college resume” she ended up putting together is impressive, mostly (to me, anyway), because it indicates a serious and conscientious student who has continually pushed herself to excel and who has never taken her foot off the pedal, even as a second semester senior with two acceptances under her belt.

But there are eight more decisions to come, and the tension in the O’Connor Household is palpable. We don’t talk about, because she’s thinking about it pretty much 24/7, and discussing it at this point only makes it more stressful. When all of the decisions roll in, there are bound to be disappointments, and we are hopeful that they won’t be big ones. We’ve repeatedly told Hanna that she’s the consumer, and she’s the who will ultimately be making the choice of which school deserves the commitment of her time and our money.

For kids like Hanna, however – kids with parents who have made their children’s success in everything, from t-ball to tae kwan do, the central focus of the family – those disappointments, if and when they come, are bound to be the biggest of their lives so far. Nothing truly awful has yet happened to these kids, because we parents have made it our mission in life to ensure that our kids’ existence is safe, enriching, and underpinned in every respect by a deep and abiding love. Add to that the message with which they are besieged on an almost daily basis, by their teachers, their peers, and well-meaning relatives and friends of their parents, that where they go to college is the MOST IMPORTANT DECISION OF THEIR LIVES, and you’ve got a recipe for almost certain disappointment. Thus, when they don’t get into the college of their dreams, it’s heartbreaking. It shouldn’t be.

Every year around this time, I read at least one article written by a college admissions officer who attempts to convey to those who are feverishly checking their portals every fifteen minutes that neither rejections nor acceptances are a referendum on a student’s potential or ability. We are reminded of the stratospherically high number of applicants, which continues to increase every year. Statistics tell us that the chances of getting into a highly competitive school, even for students with “toll-free test scores” and 4.0 (or 4.2, or 4.4) GPAs, is unlikely. Of late, Ivy League colleges are accepting a mere 8% of applicants, most of whom, at least on paper, look like they should be shoe-ins for admission. With so many applicants and a finite number of spaces, though, 92% of those stellar applicants aren’t going to make the cut, notwithstanding that they are likely as capable of successfully completing a four-year degree as those who did get in.

The statistics are daunting even where less competitive schools are involved. These days, students with high grades, test scores, and a laundry list of diverse activities may find that the “safety schools” of the past are today’s “target,” or even “reach” schools. With so much out of our control, we try to believe that no matter where our kid ends up, it’s not a statement about them as scholars, or about us as parents. It we’re being honest, however, we all think about how good it would feel to say, “my kid’s going to Yale,” because everyone knows what that means – that we’re good parents who raised our brilliant, accomplished kids right.

The thing is, most of the people I know (including me) didn’t go to an Ivy League college, or even a school that ranks in the top 10 of a US News and World Report list. Most of my closest friends and colleagues went to “good schools,” but not ones that are hyper-selective or universally acknowledged as the standard bearers for academic excellence. What’s more, most of those same people (again, including me) also got rejected by their first-choice school. Neither Caitlin, nor some of her closest friends, ended up at the college they thought they’d die if they didn’t get into, but you know what? Somehow they managed to survive. Somehow, they ended up loving the second- or third- choice school they ultimately attended, and after a mere semester there, couldn’t imagine themselves anywhere else.

What I’ve concluded from all of this is that many parents and kids hope to be admitted to the “top colleges” because they think it’s proof that they’re smart and gifted and are going to be successful no matter what career path they choose. Most, however, are going to have to be happy with a “not an Ivy school, but probably still capable of providing a quality education,” and the thing is – they will be. Regardless of how much we might like to believe that getting into one’s first choice is the key to a happy and successful life, the reality is, whether or not you have a happy or successful life has less to do with where you go to college and a whole lot more to do with what you do once you get there.

We’re going to try to relax over the next few weeks and let what is going to happen, happen. In a few short months, Hanna will graduate, and a few months after that, we’ll pack her up and drop her off at college. No matter where that ends up being, come Thanksgiving, I have a feeling she’ll be regaling us with tales of all the wonderful experiences she’s having, and she won’t even remember which other colleges she applied to or whether she got in.

So all you high school seniors out there – and all you parents, too – take a deep breath. It’s going to be okay – I promise.

Raising Little Racists

December 14, 2016

A child, or children, in the school district in which I live recently wrote the “n” word, as well as swastikas, on the window of a publicly-owned school bus. I don’t know what age/grade range we are talking here, although I am not sure it really matters.

That children of any age, in any locale, would engage in such behavior is awful, but the fact that it happened in MY home school district is pretty horrifying. I live in a suburban, middle class school district largely populated by children with plenty of food in their high-end refrigerators and two parents in their 4-bedroom, 2-car-garage, single-family homes. Our parents spend many weekends attending day-long soccer tournaments, pay for karate and piano lessons and educational enrichment at places like Kumon and Sylvan Learning Center. Back to school night is usually a zoo, teacher conferences are usually attended by both parents, and the PTA is a robust organization that probably has enough volunteers for three school districts. We have a Whole Foods. We have wine enthusiasts. There are many yoga studios.

Ours is a well-funded school district whose children routinely earn high standardized test scores. Our high school regularly sends its sports teams to statewide championships. We employ caring, qualified, devoted educators who are committed to providing the best possible education to all of their students, regardless of their limitations. Some older residents complain that school taxes are too high and criticize the forward-thinking decision to build new schools or update old ones so that they are state-of-the-art learning facilities. High schoolers have many AP options, most go on to college, and judging by the student parking lot, drive pretty nice cars.

My point being, this is a well-funded school district that largely serves the children of educated, well-heeled, high-end-luxury-car-driving parents who expect that their children will receive an outstanding, diverse, and mutli-faceted public education, from kindergarten through graduation. They believe themselves to be unencumbered by bigotry of any kind and strive to instill in their kids the values of kindness, respect, and acceptance of all people, regardless of color, race, or creed. These same parents, if you asked them, would likely insist that they do not tolerate racism in any form or from any source, including, and most especially, their children.

But now, at least one kid has written the “n” word, as well as swastikas, on the window of a public school bus.

That this happened probably shouldn’t be a surprise, even in my school district, given the current political climate in which a newly-emboldened segment of our country has learned that they can share the fact of their deplorability with the rest of the world without fear of criticism or negative judgment. At the same time, the person who emboldened them in the first place has refrained from condemning this conduct in any meaningful or effective way. Instead, he has remained uncharacteristically silent as to whether such behavior is consistent with the agenda he hopes to pursue as president, having apparently determined that the cast of “Hamilton” and “Saturday Night Live” present a larger and more invidious threat to civility and public discourse than the increasing incidence of racial epithets and anti-Semitic slurs by school children.

The blog by Dr. Munson is thoughtful and conveys the depth of understanding and insight required to generate awareness and sensitivity, which is the only way that such ugliness is ever erradicated. As a parent who has attempted to instill values and morality in my children by means of this type of respectful dialogue (as opposed to the “because I said so, and don’t argue with me” approach), I applaud Dr. Munson’s patience and good intentions in the hope of enlightening those who might otherwise add their voices to such hateful expression.

As a parent, however, I also understand that there are some moments when the “because I said so, and don’t argue with me” approach is an appropriate response to put an end to behavior which is unacceptable, such as running out into the street or jumping up and down with an open pair of scissors in ones hand. On those occasions when our children are doing or about to do something potentially life-threatening, we don’t stop to engage in a “teachable moment” dialogue, unless by “teachable moment” you mean, “STOP THAT THIS INSTANT, NOW, AND DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN.” If you want to sit down later, when all involved have cooled down and are sufficiently removed from the emotion of the situation to discuss why it’s not okay to play with razor blades or get into that stranger’s van to help him find his puppy, that’s fine. But perhaps the overriding message to be conveyed in such instances is that some things, you just don’t do, ever. EVER.

As a parent who has also raised millenials against the backdrop of the self-esteem movement, moreover, I have shied away from shaming my children, preferring instead to point out that certain behavior is not okay without suggesting that the child in question is an inherently bad person for having engaged in it. I think this is the right course 99% of the time, but there are circumstances in which shame is appropriate, and when children should be made to confront the reality and enormity of their conduct. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does, it should be addressed swiftly, unequivocally, and absolutely. For example, if your child were to call a friend a “retard” as shorthand for suggesting that said person, though of average intelligence, is nonetheless behaving in a way that casts doubt as to his or her judgment in a particular situation, an appropriate response would be, “That is not okay, you know better, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”

And so, when I read the article in the local newspaper about some budding little anti-Semitic racist(s) living in my own backyard, I ultimately concluded that Dr. Munson’s blog was probably the right response. I believe that beginning a dialogue and creating a forum for honest and respectful discussion is a good thing. Facilitating all of us in becoming more enlightened and enriched by the sharing of our collective experiences is a good, high-minded approach. Perhaps it will even encourage us to rethink old attitudes and emerge as more loving, mindful, and inclusive individuals who, in turn, set an example of acceptance, tolerance, and caring.

But I had another response as well as regards the children who scrawled this filth on the windows of busses my tax dollars helped pay for and maintain, and to those who taught them such hatred:

Shame on you. You know better. This is not okay. Don’t ever – EVER – do this again.

In Defense of Negligent Mothers

June 1, 2016   

Over the last few days, I’ve read lots of well-written and articulate posts/blogs suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t be calling for the beheading of the Cincinnati Zoo Mom, and they’re right, for a lot of reasons.  But here are a few more:

First, assuming Cincinnati Zoo Dad was along for the trip, why is no one suggesting that HE’S a bad parent? Where was HE when all of this was going on? Why is HE given a pass? Was HE not equally responsible for keeping an eye on his child? That seems unfair.

Second, I remember a day when my oldest was 3 and we went to K-Mart to buy Easter shoes. In the three seconds it took me to check the price of a pair of white patent leather Mary Janes, my daughter disappeared. Turns out she was hiding in a clothing rack, from which she emerged unscathed [excepting whatever damage was sustained witnessing her mother in full-on thermonuclear hysteria and being party to petty theft (I ran out of the K Mart clutching said shoes without paying for them – I returned later to settle the bill)] but for the 5 minutes she was missing, I was convinced she’d been kidnapped by a predator and that I would never see her again.

That didn’t happen, and she is now a well-adjusted 25-year-old who occasionally eats bugs. Had it gone the other way, and had there been social media back then in good old 1994, I’m sure I’d have been the target of the sort of vilification now being heaped on Cincinnati Zoo Mom, notwitstanding that many have noted (and not always very nicely) the staggering degree of overprotectiveness I demonstrated when my kids were little.

Third, I don’t know the child in question, but any kid who can get himself over a protective barrier, survive a 15 foot drop, and speed through yards of jungle in a split second sounds like a kid who probably has a lot of energy and is pretty quick on his feet. I also had one of those kids – one who could scale a refrigerator at the age of 20 months (still don’t know how she did it) and was the only person in the house who knew how to successfully manipulate the child-proof locks and other safety devices designed and installed solely for HER protection. She required CONSTANT, FOCUSED supervision, and even that did not preclude injury to home furnishings and other people.

I tried my very, very best, every day, to stay on top of her and keep her (and others) safe, but my diligence did not prevent her from throwing a jar of spaghetti sauce out of the grocery store cart, or turning off all the lights in church during a Good Friday vigil, or emptying six feet of library shelf of several hundred books, or biting a friend on the cheek and drawing blood, or falling down the basement stair not once but twice…and the list goes on.

So, you can be a good parent, and you can try your hardest, but you will inevitably, and without realizing it, place your child in harmful, potentially disastrous situations. Sometimes, the child falls into a gorilla enclosure. Most of the time, they don’t.

The gorilla is gone, and that makes me very sad. But until you tell me that Cincinnati Zoo Mom was sitting in a restaurant working on her third margarita, reading People Magazine, and sniffing heroin, after having shot or otherwise disabled Cincinnati Zoo Dad, leaving her kid to run amok for hours on end with zero supervision, I think I will refrain from being a Mrs. McJudgy Pants and just be thankful that my kids managed to survive having me for a mother.

Do All Lives Really Matter?

October 9, 2016

My daughter, Allison, is autistic. I had been aware from the time she was about three weeks old that there was something radically different about her.  Until we got the diagnosis, I tried to reassure myself that she was just an extremely demanding and difficult child, but when she was about three, we learned that she had some developmental delays. Then came the official diagnosis when she was 5. We were devastated.

But then we regrouped, and we resolved that regardless of the label, we would do everything we could to maximize her potential.  She spent most of her pre-school years attending speech and occupational therapy twice a week, saw a behavioral counselor once a week, attended both a special-needs preschool and a traditional preschool, and participated in a therapeutic riding program.  When she was ready for kindergarten, the Catholic school our older daughter attended wouldn’t admit her because they didn’t want any “retards” (you read that right), and our public school was not willing to provide any specialized services for her save a half-hour each week of occupational therapy.

So we bit the bullet an enrolled her in a private school for children with learning disabilities.  We couldn’t afford it, and we took on staggering debt to keep her there for 8 years.  When she aged out of the school, we sent her to a Christian academy that had a special program for children with learning disabilities.  The teachers, staff, kids, and parents were some of the kindest, most compassionate people I have ever met, but the school was not able to provide the level of support Allison needed, so we sent her to our public middle school, and then high school, where she received outstanding, focused attention by determined and devoted personnel.

Through those years, Allison continued with therapy and attended a special after-school program for kids with disabilities at a local gymnastics center.  She was made to feel welcome at a performing arts workshop and summer camp that she attended for many years.  She kept up with her riding and participated in social, community, service, and advocacy activities with a group of other young adults with disabilities.  Allison graduated from high school, completed a year-long internship in a job skills program for young adults with disabilities, and then realized her dream of attending a vocational training school in West Virginia for people interested in working in the equine industry.  After receiving her trainer’s certification, Allison returned home to continue her internship at the barn where she rides.  It is her goal to obtain a paid position as the assistant to the therapeutic riding instructor and, perhaps someday, to become a therapeutic riding instructor herself.

Since Allison’s birth, years, a huge percentage of our family’s life has been focused on helping her set and work towards goals.  It has not been easy, or cheap.  We have attended many, many doctor’s appointments, therapist appointments, IEP meetings, and meetings with vocational resource personnel to make sure Allison is getting what she needs.  We have been through numerous medication trials and too many medical interventions to count.  We have hired tutors and coaches for Allison to work with her on a one-on-one level to supplement her educational, vocational and therapeutic services.  Over the years, I have shed many, many tears over Allison – for what I can’t fix, what I can’t make better; the comments I’ve heard made about her, the looks I’ve seen directed at her; the low expectations of those who think she’s unemployable, the refusal of her instructors at “pony college” in West Virginia to acknowledge her limitations or go the extra mile to help her keep up.

I haven’t been a perfect mother, or, in some instances, even a very good one.  What we have always striven to do, however, is to instill in Allison the conviction that she is not defined or limited by her diagnosis, that she should set goals without regard to her disabilities, and that while she may have to work harder to achieve less than her chronological peers, there is no reason that she should not live a fulfilling, meaningful, and independent life.

Although Allison has made huge strides towards her career goals, social interactions remain painfully difficult for her. She has trouble making and keeping eye contact or carrying on a conversation that strays too far from one of the few topics about which she feels confident in expressing her thoughts (Harry Potter and horses figure largely in her repertoire).  She has some unusual tics, and her verbal expression and physical carriage are indicative that she is not neuro-typical. When our family considers how much progress she has made, how many obstacles she has overcome, however, we burst with pride for her bravery and determination, and we believe that there is still much she has left to show us about what she can accomplish despite such a terrifying diagnosis. We also feel enormously grateful that the combination of a sheltering childhood and a team of teachers, therapists, doctors, and other helpers who have given their heart and soul for her have largely protected her from the kind of teasing she might have experienced had she been born 30 years earlier. In our experience, so many families have been confronted with the challenge of a child with special needs that they have raised siblings who are compassionate and inclusive; as well, the increased sensitivity and awareness of autistic spectrum disorders in the last ten years has meant that Allison has not had to face the cruelty of and ignorance of those who think it’s okay to mock a disabled person, so much so that I naively thought that such people no longer existed.

Which is why, when I saw Donald Trump mimicking his version of Serge Kovaleski, a reporter who is disabled, I was—first and foremost—just plain shocked.  Trump’s gesticulations, intended to approximate the manner in which Kovaleski’s arthrogryposis manifests itself, were absolutely astonishing to me.  If not because he was a sensitive and decent human being, then at least for the sake of his image, did Trump not appreciate the message he was sending? And when it was pointed out to him that this behavior was not acceptable, did that reporter get an apology?

No, he didn’t. And neither did the Muslim, Jewish, Mexican/Latino, Black, or LGBTQ communities, and neither did women.  The hateful words we heard issue from Donald Trump’s lips during the campaign and now see spilling out of the mouths of some of his supporters, emboldened by those words in the aftermath of the election, have apparently ceased to be shocking.  It’s a new normal, and not a good one.

I didn’t vote for Donald Trump for a lot of reasons.  For one, I questioned his lack of relevant experience.  I found his ceaseless self-aggrandizement and brand promotion tasteless.  I questioned whether he understood, or cared to understand, the complexities of the job for which he was interviewing.  I had doubts about his attention span and ability to remain committed to and interested in the role of commander in chief – it’s a thankless job subject to stringent, intensive scrutiny.  There were a lot of reasons why I pushed the button for another candidate, but the main reason – the surpassing, deal-breaker, no-way-in-hell-would-I-ever-vote-for-him reason came down to this:  He thinks my daughter is sub-human.  Someone to be mocked for things she has no control over.  A freak.

There are many out there who have excused Donald Trump’s many caustic, horrible remarks – they say that those remarks don’t represent who he really is.  They say that those who belong to the groups he offended should grow up, toughen up, lighten up, and move on.  They say that they may not like some of Trump’s comments, but that he represented the better alternative by virtue of his economic, immigration, and foreign policy positions.  They say there are able to overlook those statements and see all of the good things Donald Trump wants to do for our country.  That’s mighty big of those people, most of whom don’t belong to any of the groups about which he’s made such hurtful and searing statements.

There are many ways in which a person reveals his or her character to the world.  One of them is by the things they are willing to overlook in service of their own self-interest.  To me, a vote for Donald Trump spoke volumes about how that person felt about people with disabilities in general, and my daughter, in particular.  It was beyond incomprehensible to me that otherwise good and thoughtful people (of the 61 million who voted for him, there must be at least a few) could choose for president a man who did not feel deeply, appropriately ashamed, for stooping to such depths as to make fun of a person with disabilities.  What Donald Trump’s election communicates to me is that there are 61 million people in this country to whom my daughter’s dignity means nothing.

I’m certain that most of the people who voted for Donald Trump never stopped to think about how his words affected so many of our country’s citizens, because a lot of them probably don’t know many Muslims, or Latinos, or Jews, or LGBTQs, or disabled people, or if they do, then not very well.  I’m pretty sure that when people cast their ballots for The Donald, they didn’t stop and think about how a Trump presidency would impact the lives of people with disabilities, including Allison – I guess I shouldn’t expect them to, nor would I imagine that they ever considered how that vote might be perceived by Allison, and others in the disabled community, but I know, because she’s told me. It goes something like this: “I guess people like me don’t matter.”

There’s a long list of things Donald Trump needs to do as president – and assuring the disabled that their issues are important is probably well near the bottom of his list, but it shouldn’t be. As so many who supported him are fond of saying, “All lives matter.” To all of those people, I say, let it be so.



Mother’s Day

May 8. 2016


I’ve never been a fan of Mother’s Day.  As a child, it seemed to me like adults pretty much got to do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted.  I thought there should be a “Child’s Day,” to which I was frequently told, “Every day is Child’s Day.”  As an adult, both before and after I had children of my own, I continued to dislike Mother’s Day for the same reasons I disliked Father’s Day and Valentine’s Day – because they were “holidays” created (or at least primarily promoted) by florists, jewelers, and the greeting card industry as a marketing tool that most consumers observed mainly out of a sense of guilt and obligation.  That is to say, if you truly love your parent/significant other, you’d better show up on the appointed day with some (purchased) token of your love.  And that makes me ill.

People shouldn’t be browbeaten into demonstrating their devotion to someone, children in particular.  Children don’t ask to be born, and they shouldn’t feel obligated to thank their parents simply for doing their job.  (As an aside, if you do that job well, you probably won’t have to wait until Mother’s Day for your kid to say “thank you,” or “I love you,” or whatever else you’re hoping they’ll say).  It shouldn’t take some arbitrary day in February or May or June to express your feelings for someone, and expressing your feelings for someone shouldn’t require you to fork out 4 bucks for a card, $20 for flowers, and whatever else your budget permits.  You should be telling those same people that you love them just because you do, in fact, love them, and let’s face it – a card is a poor substitute for saying what you feel in your own words, even if you’re the world’s most inarticulate human being.

Another reason I hate these holidays is because there’s a certain sense of smugness and self-satisfaction that goes along with this Triumvirate of Hallmark Holy Days of Obligation, a feeling that those who are being celebrated are downright entitled to their special day of adulation and worship, which I find utterly confounding:  Is the fact that one has figured out how to procreate, or who happens to have found someone with whom to share dinner and a movie, really so special that we need to set aside a whole day in recognition of something that—let’s face it—is pretty unremarkable?  And hey—isn’t being in a relationship, or having a child, reward enough? It ought to be.

There’s another reason I dislike Mother’s Day, in particular, and it’s because it perpetuates the notion of the perfect, selfless, apple-pie baking, tireless, all-loving woman who gives up everything for her children, always puts her family first, and never, ever complains.  There are probably a few mothers out there who are like that, and they’re probably some of the most frustrated, miserable people alive.  As well, most mothers are loving and self-sacrificing and take really good care of their kids most of the time.  But if all you knew about motherhood was what you saw on the typical Mother’s Day greeting card commercial, you’d think that mothers never curse, sweat, or get angry; that they make their bake-sale offerings from scratch, that their minivans are spotless, and that their kids…well, that their kids are perfect, too.

I’ve been a mother long enough to know that none of that is true, but I still remember being a young mother who thought I was the only one who didn’t know what the hell I was doing, the only one who sometimes felt frustrated or bored, the only one who occasionally let loose an string of expletives in the presence of my children, wondered if the damn puppet show would ever end, and who cheated at Candyland just to get the damn game over with.

The truth is, the typical mom gets tired, and annoyed, and downright sick of her children from time to time.  The typical mother does not love sitting at soccer tournaments, rain or shine, week after week after endless week, or the hours and hours and hours they spend in the car driving their kids from point A to point B, or doing laundry, or running to WalMart at 9:00 p.m. on a Sunday night to pick up something their child absolutely has to have for school the next day and without which they will fail the entire semester.  The typical mom does not clap her hands with glee when cleaning up vomit or trying to scare up dinner after a long day at work.  The typical mom does not love dealing with an exhausted toddler who won’t get into his carseat or a self-absorbed fourteen-year-old who hates her mother simply because she breathes air.

Typical moms aren’t perfect, but Teleflora tells us otherwise, thus raising the question, do you get to be celebrated on Mother’s Day if you’re not perfect?  I think if you’re going to set aside a whole day to recognize mothers, you shouldn’t have to prove you’re perfect in order to participate.  My mother was not a “perfect mother.”  Our family had a fairly stormy history, and there were many years when I was not in touch with her because of the anger I harbored for how things had gone down when I was younger.  My mom and I have made our peace with each other, and these days, my focus is on all the great things my mom did, and the example she set for me.

My mom didn’t have spotless glassware or a kitchen floor you could eat off of, but she took my brother, sister and I camping all over Europe while our family lived in Germany – she would simply pack up the Ford Falcon station wagon and set off to a country whose language she didn’t speak, pitch the tent, and take us to see the sights and eat foods we’d never tried.  My mom didn’t bake homemade cookies (except for at Christmas time, when she made the most incredible iced ginger cookies you’ve ever tasted), but she was a fantastic Brownie leader who taught me how to sew.  My mom wasn’t much for arts and crafts, but during the year my father was serving in Viet Nam, she took us to the beaches of Panama City, Florida every Sunday, made us grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner, and never once let on—not to me, anyway—that my dad might not be coming home.

When we returned from Germany in the early 1970’s, my mom, who’d had to drop out of college because her family could not afford for her to continue, got what was essentially an entry-level position at a friend’s computer software firm; by the time she retired twenty-odd years later, she was running the company.  I didn’t realize then that she, like so many working moms of the 1970’s, was part of a movement whose message—that women can work outside the home, climb the corporate ladder, and shoot for the corner office—I took for granted by the time I started my own career.  It never occurred to me how much courage it must have taken, how much she took on, or how little time she had for herself as she worked a full-time job while still keeping up with the housework and cooking and everything else she’d been responsible for when she didn’t work outside the home.

My mom is a very smart, very curious woman who talked about interesting things at the dinner table—sometimes we’d still be sitting there an hour after we’d finished our meal.  She had enormous compassion and always—always—made people feel welcome in our home.  She was the type of grandmother who got down on the floor and played with her grandchildren, read them books, and was always interested in what was going on in their lives.  At Christmas time, she preferred to give them gifts of experiences or opportunities, such as gymnastics lessons or a subscription to “Archaeology” magazine, rather than toys they didn’t need or clothes they wouldn’t wear.  Just as she always came to my concerts, plays, and marching band competitions, she attends her grandchildren’s milestone events, even though she is deaf in one ear and sometimes has a hard time understanding what is going on.

Our family had its troubles, to be sure, and some of those troubles were hard to get past.  I’m fortunate that after a ten-year absence, when I returned to my mother’s life, she opened her arms wide and embraced me.  In the time since, she has made it her mission to remind me of her surpassing love every day, whether challenging me in “Words with Friends,” sending me a text using my childhood nickname, or insisting that I call her during a midnight drive home after a long business trip, just to make sure I didn’t fall asleep at the wheel.  I’m so deeply grateful for her love, a love which is informed by the fact that she is a mother, too, and she understands when my kids are being rotten or my days have been too long, and what’s more, she always seems to know when that is without me having to tell her.  My mom isn’t perfect, but she’s instilled in me the same values I realized I’ve tried to impart to my own children, and although I spent a good part of my mothering experience trying to do things differently than my mom did, I realize now that every remarkable thing I’ve done as a mother, every time I’ve gotten it right, it’s because I’ve followed her example without even knowing it.

If the point of Mother’s Day is for children to make sure their moms know how much they matter, heck, that’s fine.  If the point is to stop and make a person think about the positive ways in which their mother has influenced them and made them a better person, and to make a phone call or have a conversation where those feelings are expressed, that’s good, too.  But those thoughts, and words, and feelings, don’t need to be accompanied by a $99 necklace from Zales, or a bouquet of flowers that will be wilted in a week, and they shouldn’t be the product of the greeting card industry – they should come from the heart, because we mean them, and because they’re true.

And you know who taught me that?

My mom.

To Vax or Not to Vax

February 8, 2015

Following a recent outbreak of measles in Southern California (ground zero of which appears to have been Disneyland, of all places), there’s been a lot of talk about what should be done about parents who chose not to immunize their kids.  The vast majority of what I’ve read on the topic has come down hard on the “anti-vaxxers,” and there is a lot of outrage over what many consider an egregiously selfish, uninformed, and reckless point of view that elevates the individual choice of a relatively small (and in most cases, highly privileged) group over the well-being of society in general, including its weakest members.  Some pediatricians are refusing to treat children whose parents won’t allow them to be vaccinated, and some schools are insisting that non-immunized kids stay home until the worst of the epidemic is over.  A handful of lawmakers are suggesting that inoculations should be mandatory, while parents of kids who can’t be vaccinated (because of autoimmune diseases or other medical conditions) are furious that their children are at risk of contracting a serious illness because of anti-vaxxer parents whose justification for not immunizing their kids (i.e., herd immunity) is premised largely upon the outrageous hubris that presumes the rest of us will.  

I’m not going to rehash the compelling (and indisputable) arguments in favor of routine childhood vaccinations, arguments that have been made far more cogently and articulately by those with rigorous expertise in the areas of pediatrics, epidemiology, and community health, mostly because there is no reasonable, intelligent, responsible rebuttal.  The overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates conclusively, emphatically—with about as much certainty as one could hope for—that routine vaccination works.  It prevents children from contracting diseases that can become very serious indeed and, over time, has virtually eradicated illnesses that used to be considered deadly.  There is no legitimate contrary viewpoint, and every “rationale” for not vaccinating has been roundly, thoroughly debunked though, as Amy Tuteur, M.D. pointed out in her excellent piece, “What everyone gets wrong about anti-vaccine parents,” the decision not to immunize has almost nothing to do with hard science and almost everything to do with a staggering level of self-absorption and arrogance.  

And so, because far smarter people than me—you know, real scientists, whose opinions are backed up by facts, statistics, and studies published in peer-reviewed journals—have already so exhaustively demonstrated the correctness of their position, I’m not going to waste anyone’s time making the case for immunizing your children.  Like brushing your teeth and changing your underwear, you just should, period, and entertaining an anti-vaxxer for even thirty seconds is thirty seconds I could be spending eating a Girl Scout cookie and looking at pictures of koala bears.

Part of the problem is that, precisely because of routine childhood vaccination, we in America have forgotten that not so long ago, it was not uncommon for children to die from diseases like polio or whooping cough.  Most of us in America (and in other industrialized countries) cannot even begin to comprehend losing a child to an entirely preventable illness – it’s simply unthinkable.  We’ve come to take our robust good health for granted, so much so that anti-vaxxers ignore the fact that not vaccinating presents a significant health risk to their offspring.  They pooh-pooh the notion that their kids might get sick, and, in any event, generally have access to the kind of high-quality, affordable health care they assume will guarantee a complete recovery if their kids do get ill.  Because that’s what we expect in the United States of America in 2015 – that our children will be 100% normal, healthy, and perfect.  Anything less is unacceptable.    

And now I’m about to get shrill.

Because whatever anti-vaxxers might say in defense of their position (vaccines are loaded with toxic chemicals, you can’t trust Big Pharma, there’s no evidence that routine vaccination actually prevents illness), the real reason most parents choose not to vaccinate (though few may admit it) is that they’re afraid of the A-word.  You know, autism.  Which, in the United States of America in 2015, is apparently the single greatest tragedy a parent can endure.  Thus, there are some parents who are so afraid, so out of their minds petrified that their child might develop autism (despite an incidence rate of less than 1%), they are willing to ignore mountains of scientific research disproving any link between vaccination and autism and to expose their children (and others) to illnesses that are entirely preventable but in some instances can be deadly. 

Never mind that this autism terror is based upon a single “research study” conducted twenty years ago that time and further inquiry have established was utterly and thoroughly devoid of any merit.  Never mind that since the Lancet article was published, nothing, and no one, has been able to establish (by means of the scientific method or otherwise) any correlation between vaccination and autism whatsoever.  Never mind that the ancillary theories about preservatives in vaccines causing autism have been proven baseless.  Never mind that most of the people spouting anti-vaccination rhetoric have about as much pretension to scientific credibility as I do to playing running back for the Broncos.    

Never mind.

Because even if there was a connection (and there’s not, Jenny McCarthy, so maybe confine your contributions to the world to showing off your spectacular breasts), it says a lot about a person they are willing to (1) expose their child to unnecessary illness; (2) place those who can’t be vaccinated at risk for contracting a disease that, for them, could be deadly; and (3) unravel the incredible success of routine vaccination that, if practiced rigorously, would guarantee the eventual extinction of these diseases—all because they think it will further protect their child against the already unlikely possibility that they will develop autism.

Lest you think I’m suggesting that we should all hope that our child will be born with or develop a disability – I’m not.  To say that it’s hard to parent a child with autism is so ridiculously inadequate as to be laughable – and I know from whence I speak, because I’ve been doing it for almost 21 years.  I’m not going to even attempt to describe our family’s journey (and it isn’t over), or the toll it has taken on all of us, or the heart-breaking struggles my daughter encounters on pretty much a daily basis.  I won’t even say that being Allison’s mother has been one of the greatest joys of my life, although it has been, or that I love her exactly the way she is (I do).    

What I will say is that anti-vaxxers seem to believe that having a kid like my daughter is so thoroughly intolerable that they are will do anything—anything—to prevent the extremely remote chance that their child will develop autism, even if it involves the far more likely scenario that their unvaccinated kid will needlessly contract a disease that could have serious repercussions for them and for others.   The most extreme potential consequences of the anti-vaxxer philosophy seems to suggest a kind of, “soft eugenics,” I’ll call it – the idea that it would be better for your child to die than to be disabled (and I acknowledge that I’m verging on the hysterical with that statement).  It’s worth noting, moreover, that if all of us got on the anti-vaxxer boat, we’d be knee-deep in polio and mumps and diphtheria in no time, and as we buried our children, or slid them into iron lungs, everyone would be asking themselves how we ever allowed ourselves to be so willfully ignorant.

I’m aware that I am particularly sensitive on this subject because, as the parent of a child with autism, I have spent a good amount of time wondering what caused my daughter to be different.  Was it something I did while I was pregnant with her? Was it the fact that she may have suffered from undiagnosed IUGR and was (marginally) premature and low birth weight? Was it a matter of simple genetics? I’d like an answer to this question, and even though it won’t change the diagnosis or make her life any easier, still, I’d like an answer.  It would be so nice to have an explanation, to have a tangible, concrete cause – like, say, a vaccine – because it would give me someone to blame (besides myself, that is).  See, when your child is anything less than 100% normal and healthy and perfect, you want some answers.  So, I’d love it if we could prove that there was a link between vaccinations and autism, because guess what? Then we could stop children from having autism.  

Except that there is no link.  And you can decide not to vaccinate your kid, and damn the consequences (to your kid, and to everyone else), and maybe your child won’t be autistic.  Or maybe he will.  Or maybe she’ll get cancer, or maybe he’ll be dyslexic.  Or maybe—probably—she’ll be just fine.  But here’s the thing:  We don’t get to choose what our children are going to be like.  We don’t get to decide if they’re going to be good at sports or musically gifted or pretty or funny or smart.  We can strive for an optimally healthy pregnancy and the best pediatric care available, but sometimes—and I know this shocks our can-do, no-problem-too-big American attitude—sometimes, kids aren’t normal, healthy and perfect, whether you vaccinate them or not.  I would love to have had a say in whether or not my daughter was going to be autistic, but I didn’t get one, and if I had one thing to say to the anti-vaxxers (aside from, you’re wrong), it would be, if you can’t tolerate a child who is less than 100% normal, healthy, and perfect, you probably shouldn’t have one.  

Do I wish that my daughter was free of the challenges that her autism imposes, that she had the same opportunities as her sisters? Of course.  Would I wish the difficulties she faces upon anyone? Never.  But any parent who willingly adheres to an absurdly indefensible proposition (and all that goes with it) in the desperate hope that he can protect his child from autism communicates with absolute clarity precisely how much he values any life that is less than 100% normal, healthy and perfect.  And that’s a real tragedy.