Greatness in Grimmness: Fairy Tales and Today’s Child

Greatness in Grimmness: Fairy Tales and Today’s Child



Photo by Carmen Dunham Photography

As a lover of books, I thrilled when my first child finally stopped squirming during storytime. Reaching for the beautiful green and gold volume of Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales she’d been given at birth, I began to read: “‘I will tell you what, husband,’ [said] the wife; ‘we will take the children . . . into the forest . . . then we will go to our work and leave them alone; they will never find the way home again, and we shall be quit of them.” Gah! I skimmed ahead: “Then Gretel gave her a push, . . . and she shut the iron door . . . . Oh how frightfully she howled! But Gretel ran away, and left the wicked witch to burn miserably.” I snapped the book shut and shoved it under our chair, having no interest in adding the encouragement of separation anxiety or the normalization of violence to our bedtime routine.

My reaction is quite common. In a 2009 poll of parents conducted by, three-quarters “try to avoid stories which might give their children nightmares and half of all parents wouldn’t consider reading a single fairy tale to their child until they reach the age of five.”

Unfortunately, experts say that succumbing to this protective impulse does our kids a disservice. From a young age, children intuit life’s constant threat of death, illness, abandonment, maltreatment, and betrayal. When presented in a certain way, traditional fairy tales actually help kids process their fears of physical and emotional tragedy, as well as provide a slew of other developmental benefits.

A brief history of fairy tales

The stories we think of as fairy tales began as folk tales with paranormal elements crafted for an adult audience in the tradition of oral storytelling. Well-known collections produced by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm—as well as the works of Hans Christian Andersen and George MacDonald—are based upon these “fast-paced adventure stories filled with bawdy episodes, violent scenes, and [bathroom] humor,” writes Maria Tatar in Off with Their Heads! The goal was to entertain, and there was no need to sugarcoat. In the original “Sleeping Beauty,” for example, the king doesn’t awaken the slumbering princess with a kiss; he rapes her. And an early version of “Rumpelstiltskin” reportedly ends with the little man lodging himself in the miller’s daughter’s genitalia.

In producing their first edition, the Grimms made drastic changes, mixing versions of the tales, filling in plot holes, resolving paradoxes, and eliminating off-color humor. They also added a Christian sensibility, including moral instruction and happy endings. The resulting tales were still awfully intense. The wicked stepmothers in “Snow White” and “Hansel and Gretel” were biological mothers, Rapunzel got pregnant, and Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to fit into the glass slipper.

In subsequent editions, the Grimms further “censored…to make the tales more accessible to [middle-class reading audiences] and more considerate of children as readers and listeners of stories,” explains Jack Zipes by way of introducing The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. They left in the violence, however, and actually added quite a bit of bloodshed to cautionary tales.

Over the last 200 years, countless versions have further modified the original tales. We are left with stories that feature adult themes like love without the sex, subversive plots with abrupt happy endings, and gruesome violence described in a nonplussed tone.

Why can’t our kids get enough of this strange genre?

In almost all versions, the “descriptions are bare; the dialogues, curt; and the action, swift. The storytellers get to the point quickly,” writes Zipes. In Enchanted Hunters, Tatar explains that children are drawn in by “wow” moments “that offer up the exquisite, the terrifying, and everything in between.” Though many tales moralize, quite a few feature excitingly illicit behavior like lying and stealing. Moreover, she tells us, the blood and gore that result when fairy tale characters are disobedient, “meant to repel children,” can actually prove “a source of unending fascination.”

Kids are also attracted to the simplicity of fairy tales. The characters’ problems are ordinary, and the “figures are clearly drawn”; they are “either good or bad, nothing in between,” explains Bruno Bettelheim in his famous Freudian treatise on the subject, The Uses of Enchantment. “All characters are typical rather than unique,” he tells us, and as a result they are known only by their roles like “girl,” “stepmother,” or “giant” (when they do have names they tend to be either descriptive, like Cinderella, because she was covered in the grime of cinders, or common, like Gretel was in the Grimms’ Germany).

As a result, the characters are readily relatable. Kids see themselves in exploited Cinderella, who’s forced to do chores, impish Pinocchio, who fails to be good despite multiple attempts, innocent Snow White, who suffers at the whim of a grown-up dealing with her own issues, and impetuous Jack, who is denied the wonderful things that big people have. They see others as well. Archetypes such as kings, queens, and giants stand in for power-wielding adults; wolves, witches, and tricksters represent predators and evil impulses; charming princes, helpful animals, and wise old people personify the forces of good; and fairies, godmothers, and other meddling magical creatures symbolize the vagaries of life outside one’s control.

The transparency and familiarity of fairy tale characters and their woes—in addition to quick plot development, shock value, and repetition—greatly appeal to children.

The benefits of reading fairy tales

Whether we should read the dark tales that so enthrall them is another matter. As it turns out, there are many reasons to do so:

Enable kids to work through fears and conflict

In both literal and symbolic fashion, fairy tales address what Bettelheim calls “the psychological problems of growing up”: issues such as sibling rivalry, transformation, being tested, forbidden fruits, feeling oppressed, powerlessness, and learning to identify those who wish one ill, as well as fears of abandonment, being unloved, and death.

According to Bettelheim, by “project[ing] themselves onto fictional characters, [children] work through real world fears and internal conflict on an imaginary stage.” Under this school of thought, children need “dreadful creatures of the imagination to conserve idealized images of their parents,” Tatar writes. In Bettelheim’s most famous example, the “typical fairy-tale splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and an evil stepmother” allows kids to feel angry about the small injustices they suffer at the hands of their mothers without threatening that bond. Similarly, he says, “since a giant is an imaginary figure, the child can fantasize . . . to overpower . . . him, and still retain real grownup people as protectors.”

When we attempt to hide life’s ugliness, children are left feeling that they alone have destructive impulses. But “these older tales legitimise the murderous and violent instincts that all children experience, freeing them from…guilt,” British author Tim Lott writes. And when we read them the stories, we tacitly credit the difficulties they face and sanction their stormy internal worlds.

Foster imagination

The fantastical elements of fairy tales—such as supernatural creatures and magical powers—provide children with a framework for their own imaginings. Make-believe play in turn enriches children cognitively, socially, and emotionally.

Teach history and promote cultural literacy

Fairy tales offer a springboard for historical discussion (“What is churning, and why is she doing that to the butter?”). Also, since they are part of a shared culture, familiarity with fairy tales means understanding references to things like “the Goldilocks principle” down the line.

Encourage literacy through storytelling

Reading tales aloud leads to compounding literacy growth, since kids who hear stories develop a “sense of story”—a basic understanding of style, setting, narrative voice, character, plot, sequencing, and theme—that makes them more likely to tell stories themselves, and in so doing learn to comprehend, and then relate, more complicated stories. Beginning with “once upon a time” starts our kids on the path to reading and writing “happily ever after.”

Impart morals

Modern parenting guru Harvey Karp describes “side-door lessons” as a way to “sneak into our children’s minds and plant seeds of kindness and good character without our little ones feeling lectured to.” By relating fantastical struggles with right and wrong, but not explicitly stating morals, fairy tales provide one such “gentle, indirect, undemanding, and therefore psychologically more effective way” to convey “the advantages of moral behavior,” writes Bettelheim. “[A] compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself [is] presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination,” adds Vigen Guroian, author of Tending the Heart of Virtue.

Build problem-solving skills and resilience

Although the specific solutions of fairy tales, like chopping down a beanstalk, rarely apply to our kids’ problems, they model how the downtrodden and overwhelmed can get out of a pickle with ingenuity and fortitude. In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough reports social science data linking character skills like “effort, diligence, and perseverance” with success. The best way to foster these skills is to teach children that we all face obstacles, and that both intelligence and creativity can be enhanced through hard work. As Bettelheim writes, “Amoral fairy tale[ characters such] . . . as ‘Puss in Boots,’ who arranges for the hero’s success through trickery . . . giv[e children] the hope that even the meekest can succeed in life.” This hope is what promotes the effort and tenacity required to successfully venture out into the world.

How to make the most of fairy tales

These general benefits leave quite a few loose ends. At what age should we start? With which version? Do we allow kids to stew over the story independently or add our own thoughts?

According to Bettelheim, “[E]nchantment can be experienced, only from the story in its original form. . . . The simplified and bowlderized fairy tale loses all value.” Yet, as Tatar notes, there is “cultural dissonance generated by telling nineteenth-century stories”—written for children growing up with high mortality rates, and thus already surrounded by death—to today’s kids. She also highlights the sexism inherent in the originals: “Curiosity and disobedience, along with a variety of other vices, are seen as the besetting sins of both children and women.” Then again, Disneyfication usually only exacerbates the problem. For example, in “American rewritings of ‘Snow White,’” Tatar points out, two types of femininity are contrasted: a power-obsessed, “forbiddingly cold woman [and] . . . a girl who makes her dreams come true through her flirtatious good looks and her effortless ability to keep a house clean.”

Fortunately, “each [generation] creates its own folklore through rereadings as well as retellings,” notes Tatar. “The places where we wince, cower, laugh, comment, whisper, [or] shriek . . . determine the way the child perceives the story.” We should therefore read the original tales conscientiously, and in tandem with explicit discussion about social mores and violence. Zipes agrees that sanitizing the tales is misguided, even hypocritical. By instead acknowledging the physical and social brutality of the stories, we can teach our children to think critically about their world.

As for age, luckily there are hundreds of well-known tales with varying degrees of complexity and explicitness. In “Choosing Fairy Tales for Different Ages,” Joan Almon provides a handy guide:

  • Young threes: Simple nature stories such as “Sweet Porridge”
  • Older threes: Sequential, repetitive tales such as “The Turnip”
  • Fours and young fives: Stories that are “slightly more complex” but cheerful overall, such as “Three Little Pigs,” “Billy Goats Gruff,” and “The Shoemaker and the Elves”
  • Fives and sixes: More challenging tales that still “do not weigh too heavily on the soul of the individual” such as “Frog Prince,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” and “Hansel and Gretel”
  • Older sixes: “Tales in which characters have a personal experience of suffering or sorrow,” such as “Cinderella” and “Rapunzel”

Be brave of heart

In The Genius of Natural Childhood, Sally Goddard Blythe writes, “If as parents or society we seek to protect children from all unpleasant events, we do not equip them to deal with the real world.” Having internalized this message, I eschewed helicopter parenting in favor of inculcating independence when exploring the city streets. And yet, I overprotected my kids in the safety of their own bedroom.

Seeking untold emotional and developmental riches, I recently tackled my own fears and stepped into the mean world of fairy tales. After just a few readings, my kindergartener sees herself in “Little Red Riding Hood,” my 3-year-old relates to Jack, and I . . . well, with a new baby in the house, I deeply identify with all the sleepy characters.


Originally published in the Golden Gate Mothers Group Magazine – June 2015

The hidden virtue of “Frozen” is hidden vice

The hidden virtue of “Frozen” is hidden vice

Originally published by The Washington Post at


Love it or hate it, one must acknowledge that Frozen is different. Much ink has been spilled over why it struck such a chord with children and parents alike. The girls who save themselves? The best wisecracking, adult-centric character since Robin Williams’ Genie? The relatability of being suddenly shunned or feeling overwhelmed by new responsibility? Here’s a new one: it helps kids rebuff sexual predators.

Say what?! Let me explain.

Hans is the bad guy. Unlike most villains in kids’ films and stories, however, we never see him coming.

He’s charming, but in an unassuming, awkward sort of way. He’s polite, kind even. He saves our heroine from falling. (“Glad I caught you.”) When she does land on her bum, he insists on lending a hand despite her refusal. (Hans: “Are you hurt?” Anna: “No. I’m okay.” Hans: “Are you sure?” Anna: “Yeah, I just wasn’t looking where I was going. But I’m okay.” He gets down from his horse and hops into the boat to help her up anyway.) He assumes she’ll think herself too good for him as a princess. (Hans: “I’d like to formally apologize for hitting the Princess of Arendelle with my horse . . . .” Anna: “No. No, no. It’s fine. I’m not that princess. I mean, if you’d hit my sister Elsa, it would be like ‘yeesh!’”) He gets Anna, liking the same things and relating to her problems in a way no one else does. (“That’s what I was going to say!”) He even divulges the details of his own vulnerability. (“Twelve older brothers. Three of them pretended I was invisible, literally, for two years.”) Without prompting, he promises, “I would never shut you out.” It’s the two of them against the world!

All the while he plots to seize control of her kingdom, killing her and her sister if need be.

In Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane), Gavin de Becker describes these types of behavior as tools used by child molesters attempting to obtain the misplaced trust of parents and children. “Your defense against such people is to recognize the [pre-incident indicators] . . . in the very behaviors intended to put you at ease . . . : forced teaming, charm and niceness, too many details, typecasting, loan-sharking, the unsolicited promise, discounting the word ‘no.’”

“The human being is the only prey in nature that cooperates in its own victimization. Imagine an Impala in Africa looking at a lion and thinking, ‘But this is a nice lion.’ Though people do this all the time, you and your children don’t have to.” Instead, de Becker recommends, “Think of charm as a verb, not a trait. . . . [Tell your]self, ‘This person is trying to charm me’ as opposed to, ‘This person is charming.’ Armed with this shift in perspective, you’ll be able to see around charm.” In order to keep our children safe, “We must learn and then teach [them] that niceness does not equal goodness. Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction.”

When I was nine or ten, my nanny’s husband subbed for her whenever she got sick. He was an affable guy, a happy-go-lucky jokester and proud father of three teenage girls. Luckily for me, I’d been taught—as young Quakers are—that “there is that of God in every man.” In other words, no one can be all bad. There are no good guys and bad guys, just people who sometimes do good things and sometimes do bad things.

So when my nanny’s husband put porn on the television, explained “screwing,” and asked me if I wanted to try it, I didn’t think he must be doing a nice thing because he was a nice guy. When he asked if I would move the bubbles in my bath so that he could see me better, I knew he was a person who was both nice and doing a bad thing. I looked him square in the eye and said, “Please leave me alone.” I understood that just as meanness does not equal badness, “niceness does not equal goodness.”

The “wolf in sheep’s clothing” archetype is featured in many fairy tales and their Disney derivations. Take the character of Uncle Scar in The Lion King who manipulates Simba with vile intentions wrapped in a sugar coating of compassion. Even more to the point, some versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” blatantly allegorize a sexual predator stalking a virgin. “Seen the wolf” was once the idiomatic equivalent of “gave it up” or “had her cherry popped”; the sweet talking wolf often asks the little girl to “come get into bed with me”; and in the popular Grimm incarnation he thinks to himself, “that tender young thing would be a delicious morsel.”

Yet in these other cautionary tales, only the fictional character has the wool pulled over his or her eyes. Readers and listeners see the villain for what he really is: a big bad wolf. In Frozen, however, the young viewer is blindsided by Hans’s about-face, experiencing firsthand some of the betrayal and deceit.

For this reason, Prince Hans’s nefariously concealed ill intentions implicitly teach children that “niceness does not equal goodness.” When coupled with explicit parental reinforcement (“He seemed nice and she thought he was her friend, but he planned to hurt her the whole time!”), Frozen does more than give our kids a few hours of entertainment and a framework for winter wonderland imaginings. It offers up a valuable lesson about human nature and prepares them to save themselves, just like Anna and Elsa, and me.

Dollars and Doers: Power in Public Education

Dollars and Doers: Power in Public Education

Originally published in the GGMG Magazine – April 2015

Public education funding and governance in California have long been nonsensical to experts and virtually incomprehensible to the rest of us. In a flurry of recent legislative and administrative action, policymakers set out to reform what the Stanford Center for Education Policy and Analysis described as the “remarkably crazy quilt of interacting authorities . . . not aligned for purpose of accountability or action.” Though the import of new laws regarding public school funding and control is difficult to comprehend standing alone, a little historical perspective makes the basics surprisingly clear and fascinating. With an understanding of these essentials of public school governance, parents, educators, local business owners, philanthropists, and taxpayers can effectively engage with the system.

California’s pendulum swing

The story of California public schools’ funding is best envisioned as a swinging pendulum. Prior to the 1970s, the school board in a given town set the rate at which property taxes were levied, and that revenue directly funded local schools. As a result, education policy developed in a decentralized manner as each school board made its own policy decisions.

In the 1971 Serrano v. Priest decision, the California Supreme Court ruled this funding system unconstitutional after finding that it “invidiously discriminates against the poor because it makes the quality of a child’s education a function of the wealth of his parents and neighbors.” The Court imposed revenue limits in an attempt to redistribute wealth across the state, yet school boards still collected funds locally and spent anything under the limit without interference. Later that decade, however, California voters passed Proposition 13, which prohibited school boards from levying taxes and capped property taxes at one percent of assessed value. As a result, each year between when a home is purchased and when it is sold, property taxes go down in real value (since the market value of the home outpaces the assessed value). This dramatically-lowered ceiling on both tax rate and taxable value dried up the historic well of education funding.

As the state struggled to find money to fill the gap, the quality of schools declined. In response, Propositions 98 and 111 required that a larger portion of the general budget be allocated to education. After Prop 98, approximately 60 percent of K-12 education funding came from the state, 30 percent from local sources largely funneled through the state, and 10 percent from federal programs. As a result of Serrano and Props 13, 98, and 111, the locus of education funding moved from local school boards to the state level.

Control followed. The California State Legislature, sometimes acting upon gubernatorial proposal, has always passed laws relating to schooling, codified as the Education Code. For decades following Serrano and the propositions, however, state legislators and overlapping administrative agencies also set policy by tying funds to particular programs. School districts got much of their budget via little bundles of money, each set aside for a specific function. This type of categorical funding, which operated very similarly to the strings-attached federal grant money received by districts, kept most policy-making in Sacramento.

Over the last few years, many changes have been made.

The California Department of Education (CDE) and its head, the constitutionally-established and elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI), now oversee the state’s public school system in a more streamlined manner as the parallel Secretary of Education and Office of Education have been eliminated. Many of the CDE’s policy recommendations and proposed regulations must be approved by a separate constitutionally-established body, the 11-member, largely Governor-appointed State Board of Education (SBE). The SBE commands quite a bit of authority in this role. The SPI serves as the SBE’s Secretary and Executive Officer, but he does not get a vote. While the relationship is rather confusing, the SBE, SPI, and CDE largely work in concert. For example, the SBE is the authority responsible for approving standards (like the Common Core) and adopting curriculum frameworks, instructional materials, and assessments recommended by the SPI after research and development by the CDE.

In 2013, legislation referred to as the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) also altered the way these agencies interact with local players. Rather than distributing funds earmarked for a proliferation of small policy goals, legislators now give school districts the bulk of their funds based on average daily attendance. From this base grant of per-pupil funding, additional funds are distributed in order to support a small handful of issues that are a priority for the legislature, such as small class size at the K-3 level and providing support for targeted disadvantaged students (like English learners, those eligible to receive a free or reduced-price meal, and foster youth).

Rather than completing separate paperwork for many little grants, school districts engage in one big, self-directed exercise under LCFF. They must hold public meetings in order to adopt a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), setting goals in eight areas and a related budget. County Offices of Education (COEs) play a more robust role as they can make recommendations regarding school districts’ LCAPs and have ultimate approval authority. School districts must then annually report to the COEs the actions and expenditures made to achieve the goals, progress toward the goals, and an updated set of goals.

This process shifts significant budgetary decision-making authority back to the local level. As SFUSD School Board of Education Vice President Matt Haney explains, “Education is less of a state-determined enterprise now. We have a lot more discretion and flexibility in how we use our LCFF dollars.” Yet Sacramento legislators still control changes to the Education Code, and the CDE and SBE continue to enforce mandates and issue regulations. Requirements as seemingly trivial as the number of minutes spent in PE class remain state-mandated.

It is unclear how involved the state will be, especially with respect to politically hot issues such as suspension and expulsion policy. Erin Gabel, former advisor to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, explains, “The ink is barely dry. The Legislature just handed over the keys to the car. They have yet to see how they feel about what they’ve authorized. Local school districts have yet to obtain any student data to prove that they can manage the responsibility. They may have the keys to the car, but it’s still unclear how much driving they’ll actually get to do.”

In other words, the extent to which control will follow the funding pendulum remains to be seen.

San Francisco Unified School District

The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is the seventh largest district in California, and it educates approximately 56,000 students each year. Employees in the Central Office work to support SFUSD’s 103 schools. They report via various intermediary directors, assistants, and officers to the SFUSD Superintendent who in turn answers to the SFUSD Board of Education. The San Francisco COE is completely coterminous with and not independent from SFUSD. (Since SFUSD cannot support and monitor itself, the district submits its LCAP directly to the CDE.)

After completing the LCAP process, SFUSD takes the funds received from Sacramento via the LCFF and uses its own funding formula to distribute the money between schools. Since 2002, SFUSD has used the Weighted Student Formula (WSF) that, like the LCFF, largely employs a per-pupil base rate (that changes by grade level) with funds added if the student falls into one of the “targeted disadvantaged students” categories. Additional funding is then provided to schools with populations of these students exceeding 55 percent in the form of concentration grants. Thus, schools with a higher proportion of disadvantaged students receive more per-capita funding. Whether this process will change in the wake of LCFF is unclear.

Who determines how schools spend their allotted portions? Every two years, each school holds an election for its School Site Council (SSC). SSCs vary in the number of participants, but different groups must be represented according to fixed proportions: half are parents (or students, in the case of secondary schools) and community members and half are school staff members; the Principal is always a member of the SSC. Tiffany Kendall Obayashi, Assistant Principal of Rooftop School, assures that “even though our SSCs consist of elected members, SSC meetings are always open to the school community.”

SSCs—monitored by the SFUSD Central Office—develop an academic plan (quite similar in structure to the LCAP) and budget in order to determine how best to meet SFUSD’s goals. “Each year the SSC holds two formal Community Meetings to gather input from families regarding their children’s education,” says Obayashi, “and it is vital that community members have their voices heard during this annual planning process.” The Principal is charged with implementing the resulting plan.

Over the past decade, allocations via the WSF have left many schools with insufficient funding. In some schools, parent organizations—known as Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) when affiliated with that national organization and as Parent Teacher Organizations (PTOs) when not—raise funds to decrease the impact of the shortfall. Jeremy Adam Smith of the San Francisco Public Press reports that in 2002, elementary school PTAs/PTOs “brought in a total of just $592,000. But through 2011, their combined budgets had ballooned to $5.32 million, an increase of about 800 percent.”

That doesn’t mean all students benefit from the extra money. Smith explains that the “Grattan PTA has budgeted . . . almost $1,000 per pupil. At Junipero Serra, where most students come from poor and immigrant families, the PTA raises approximately $25 per pupil.” Inequality in fundraising likely translates to a parental power imbalance as well. Because fundraising doesn’t just add to the pot of money available to the SSC in educating students but rather is spent at the direction of the PTA/PTO, it stands to reason that these groups wield more power to shape the school when they raise more funds.

Opportunities for influence

The resulting picture is three tiers of control at the state, local, and school level with largely parallel structure. Teachers (individually and via the unions), the federal government, non-profits, philanthropic organizations, businesses, and other special interests interact with each layer of governance. Parents can, too.

The answer to the question “Who holds the power to help?” differs based on the desired impact level. Haney explains: “If your problem is about policy or about how resources are distributed in a broad way, take your concerns to the School Board. If it’s about how a district policy is being implemented, go to your SSC and Principal. Fundraising for supplementation is a matter for the PTA. Take music, for example. If you think the district doesn’t prioritize music education as a general matter, talk to the Board. If you’ve got a complaint about the way the specific music class runs, go to your Principal. To fundraise for a part-time music teacher, try the PTA. There’s a range of opportunity for parents to make an impact based on the way in which they want the issue addressed. Depending on your problem, you may want to bring it to the attention of multiple levels at the same time.” And don’t forget the chance to make a statewide impact. Don’t like the Common Core? Head to Sacramento to the next SBE public meeting. Want vaccination to be mandatory for public school attendance? Lobby the legislature.

With a basic understanding of the various state, local, and school-level actors and their roles, all San Francisco stakeholders can take advantage of the increased transparency and broader participation wrought by recent reforms to become involved with the public schools in a meaningful way.

Sibling Revelry

Sibling Revelry

Originally published in the GGMG Magazine – March 2015 issue

Since kids and families constantly grow and change, effective parenting is often the ultimate moving target, and planning extracurricular activities is no exception. I remember well the frustration that came when I finally sorted out an ideal schedule of outings for my first baby, only to have her suddenly become a veritable plague upon our mommy-and-me yoga class and react to her beloved “musical storyteller” with abject disgust. I adjusted for the changing winds but was quickly thrown off again by the arrival of our second child. Oh, brother (literally). With two kids, the activities sweet spot is even more elusive as not only do each child’s needs and abilities transform over time, but the dynamic between them continuously shifts as well. What works well for a baby and a toddler becomes impossible when dealing with two toddlers. Then the first develops impulse control, and a new world of possibility opens.

Further complicating matters, the kiddos aren’t the only ones with changing requirements and capacity. As a new mom, I succumbed to marketing that induced ambition and threatened guilt: “When you’re a parent, you want to give your young child the very best. You want to expose them to every possible opportunity to learn and grow. At Music Together, this starts with creating a bond through music.” Yet as the months passed, I realized that my primary goal in planning our days wasn’t building neural pathways or encouraging prosocial behavior through dopamine release. Sure, I wanted a smart and well-adjusted kid, but of more immediate concern was filling up the seemingly endless hours of the day, preferably with some adult interaction. Once I began juggling a baby and a non-napping toddler, I maximized for time to read a book or clip my fingernails in peace. After both kids regularly slept through the night, I had the energy and desire to explore the world alongside them, but finances were tight and a 20 percent sibling discount felt downright laughable. Then I got pregnant for a third time and the ability to keep an eye on two kids while sitting in one spot became paramount.

As we passed through each of these phases, I had to reconceptualize the extracurricular activity bullseye. Rather than shooting for one perfectly orchestrated lineup of events, I learned to aim for a persistently reevaluated and rearranged schedule (or lack thereof) that minimizes stress and maximizes enjoyment for everyone involved.

An infant and a toddler

After the birth of a new baby, many parents need more flexibility. Frequent feedings, unpredictable naps, and random fussiness can make arriving at a certain place at a specific time challenging. Yet in some ways newborns are the most portable kids, and pre-walkers can be comparatively easy to manage.

If you can keep the trains running on time with ease:

  • Carry on with your toddler’s pre-existing schedule, and bring the baby along. Most businesses won’t charge for or exclude a second child for quite a while, and the continuity will help your toddler through this big transition.
  • In order to obtain both enrichment for your older child and a little me-time, plan a drop-off class during the infant’s nap. If sleep isn’t predictable enough or the baby won’t snooze on the go, try scheduling the drop-off class at a venue that engages the little one too. For infants, this can mean an old aquarium in the corner (forget the fish—a bubble filter alone can buy enough time to catch up on email). For older babies, try a spot that features both drop-off classes and a playroom such as Recess Urban Recreation, Peek-a-Boo Factory, or the Randall Museum.
  • Alternatively, plan a drop-off class for your toddler anywhere and plan to spend the hour lavishing attention on your new arrival without the older child’s resentful eye.

If getting out the door on command brings a family member to tears:

  • Consider swapping enrollment for a more flexible enrichment plan: attending drop-in classes, such as those offered by SF Rec and Park, JCCSF’s KinderGym, and JAMaROO Kids; museum programming, such as Toddler Circle Time at the Bay Area Discovery Museum; and story times.
  • Take advantage of a pre-walker’s transportability by loading him into a front pack or stroller and allowing your toddler to lead you around a large, open venue such as the Exploratorium, the California Academy of Sciences, or the SF Zoo.
  • For older babies, look for playgrounds where the little one can sit while the toddler roams. Smaller, bounded parks with high visibility and baby swings are ideal. If you’ve got a baby who crawls and puts everything she touches in her mouth, sand-free venues can eliminate stress. Try Sue Bierman Park Playground or Betty Ong Rec Center Playground.
  • Although it can be difficult to find, a gym child care center with a creative caregiver can allow you to reclaim much-needed endorphins while leaving both kids in an environment that’s as stimulating as a tot music class. The JCCSF, the Bay Club, and certain 24 Hour Fitness and YMCA locations in the city feature kids’ programs.
  • Drop-in playgroups and play dates present a mixed bag. Some parents swear by the companionship at this stage. Others prefer to steer clear since doing so preserves more attention for the toddler which in turn decreases sibling rivalry.

Two or more toddlers

When one parent attempts to mind two kids who are both up and running yet neither is capable of stopping on command, taking them to a large, open, and crowded museum is like entering the 10th circle of hell. Instead, try one of these strategies with twins or two toddlers of different ages:

  • The enclosed play room or play space—with almost all areas visible from one vantage point—can be a godsend. Private, carefully curated spaces such as Recess, Peekadoodle Kidsclub, and Peek-a-Boo Factory, are ideal and sometimes come with enrichment experiences, but they’re awfully pricey. Some similar, though not as swanky, indoor playgrounds are open to the public. First Christian Church on Duboce Park and the Eureka Valley Rec Center play area are two free options.
  • If you can afford it, in terms of both money and energy, look for concurrent classes—drop-off for the older child and mommy-and-me for the younger one—at large operations such as American Gymnastics Club, AcroSports, the YMCA, and La Petite Baleen.
  • Mixed-age classes also work well. Businesses such as MyGym, Music Together, and Breakfast with Enzo that offer broad age-range classes manage diverse abilities and interests exceptionally, but they charge for each child. For a more affordable route, enroll one child or the other in a class that allows siblings to tag along free of charge. For example, the SF Rec and Park computer system won’t accept payment for a child who is technically too old, but “Simply Fun” instructors generally allow decently behaved big sibs to join.
  • Those with organizational energy can arrange co-op classes by pairing affordable spaces with energetic parents. Mission Soccer at Parque Ninos Unidos is a great example of a parent-run class that welcomes siblings.
  • Bounded playgrounds with high visibility are still necessary but not necessarily sufficient; try to find ones that fit that bill but also feature a small structure as well as a large one such as Mission Playground, Franklin Square Park, and Duboce Park Playground. Avoid large, crowded playgrounds, and ones with a layout that makes it difficult to keep an eye on two kids at once such as Koret Children’s Quarter, Helen Diller Playground, and Kid Power Park.
  • Free open gyms such as the one at Eureka Valley Rec Center are surprisingly toddler-friendly. Grab a basketball from the bin and let the kiddos run themselves in circles rather than run you ragged.
  • Story times that take place in a separate room with one exit work well. Good examples are the Main Library, the Mission Bay Branch Library, and the Noe Valley/Sally Brunn Branch Library. Others, such as the ones at Harvey Milk Memorial Branch Library and Folio Books, often don’t fly at this stage, because there’s nothing separating the storytelling activity from shelves of books ripe for throwing on the floor or computers just waiting to be banged.
  • Some museums offer the opportunity to effectively corral two kids by segmenting spaces and limiting exit points. Try the Randall Museum, the Bay Area Discovery Museum, and the tiny Railway Museum. Call Pump It Up to see whether the door between Arenas A and B will be closed; if it is, you can keep an eye on two kids from one spot.
  • Playgroups in private homes or in bounded public spaces also work well for two toddlers. Check out GGMG Neighborhood Meetups as well as get-togethers organized via and Facebook.

A toddler and a child

As soon as one child transforms into a fairly reliable listener, much more of the world becomes your oyster:

  • Before her fourth birthday, my daughter learned to respond to my call of “Code Stu!” by dropping everything and chasing after me so that I could tail Stuart. If something similar will work for your older child, most museums, story times, and playgrounds become doable again.
  • Classes that take place at a museum at no additional cost allow for enrichment of two kids without per capita enrollment fees. For example, $119 a year affords you and up to four kids entrée into the fabulous Children’s Creativity Museum and its twice-weekly Early Birdles music and movement class.
  • As Alyson Schafer suggests in Honey, I Wrecked the Kids, parents with the means to do so can sign siblings up for drop-off classes at different venues in order to help them develop distinct identities and interests that reduce sibling rivalry.
  • Letting the kids loose in unbounded outdoor areas such as Ocean Beach, Kite Hill Open Space, Crissy Field, or Golden Gate Park, became much less stressful for me at this stage. Playgrounds with adjoining open fields that are separated from the road by a fence such as Douglass Playground, Glen Park Playground, and Midtown Terrace Playground, provide a half-measure in that you can allow the older kid a long leash while cabining the younger one.

Two children

Once my oldest could reliably stay close to her younger brother, very few venues remained closed to us. However, when he too developed the ability to resist an attractive nuisance, a few more options and considerations came into play:

  • Help maturing kids whittle down their activities to focus on the ones that best suit their individual needs. For example, in Redefining Girly, Melissa Atkins Wardy argues that art classes and sports help young girls resist gender stereotypes and the sexualizing of girlhood by “showing [them] that our bodies are instruments, not ornaments.”
  • Museums that protect tantalizing climbing and tactile opportunities from kids with a mere “do not touch” sign or a rope no longer terrified me and tortured the children.
  • Similarly, playgrounds that lack fencing or visibility finally worked for us.
  • Two words: Movie. Theater.

Of course, the most important consideration in mixing and matching experiences like these is the comfort of the individuals involved. As you draw back the bowstring, accept and work with the limitations facing you. While you shouldn’t let sudden movements throw you, try to stay nimble and be willing to modify your stance. At the end of the day, successfully planning extracurricular activities with multiple kids is all about recognizing and honoring the whole family’s perpetually evolving ages and stages.

Vaccination: Act Now, Here’s How

Vaccination: Act Now, Here’s How


With the release of Disney’s winter blockbuster “The Return of Eliminated Disease” vaccination has become a hot button issue. So hot, in fact, that many of us are beginning to feel information (and misinformation) overload. It’s tempting to tune it all out, especially when there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about the situation. Kick the feeling of helplessness by taking these four steps.

1. Learn about immunization law.

Laws governing immunization are set at the state level. As “Vaccines and the Law” (created by the non-profit Voices for Vaccines) helpfully summarizes, constitutional options for increasing immunization rates run the coerciveness gamut: from educating to incentivizing to imposing costs to limiting access to criminalizing–and even to physically forcing.

“Imposing costs” is a largely untried approach. It would involve using civil lawsuits, public nuisance laws, new no-fault legislation, or increased insurance premiums to dissuade parents from declining vaccines by shifting the cost of that choice onto their own balance sheets.

“Limiting access,” on the other hand, is already ubiquitously employed. All 50 states require immunization for public schooling (often including daycare and college), and many apply the requirement to private schools as well. The rule can, however, contain gaping exceptions. Although they don’t have to provide a non-medical exemption, 48 states offer a “religious exemption or a philosophical (also known as ‘personal belief’) exemption, or both.”

The California statute contains a non-medical exemption based on personal belief (“PBE”) which only requires checking a box on a form and, as of last January, obtaining the signature of a healthcare practitioner. No doctor’s authorization is required; the signature simply attests that the parent has been provided information regarding the benefits and risks of immunization. New York, by way of contrast, limits its non-medical exemption to “genuine and sincere” religious beliefs and requires a “showing of sincerity” in the form of a written statement fully articulating the belief asserted (and sometimes supporting documentation as well).

Though they currently stop with schools, states may require immunization for access to parks, public transit, and other places where contagion is likely to spread. They can also legislate that employees “in professions where non-immunization is an issue, such as teachers and restaurant workers” must be vaccinated.

Moving right along the coercion spectrum, “[c]riminal law can be used to punish non-vaccinating individuals in the context of a death from preventable disease.” And in the case of an outbreak, states may quarantine unvaccinated individuals and even immunize them by force (and over parental opposition).

2. Figure out where you stand.

Until recently, I thought I wanted to throw the book at anti-vaxxers, to deploy every possible weapon in the legal arsenal in order to protect my baby girl who is too young to receive the MMR vaccine. Then someone asked me to sign a petition seeking to eliminate California’s non-medical exemption. I couldn’t do it.

My Quaker grandfather and uncle both conscientiously objected to serving in the military (during the WWII and Vietnam drafts, respectively). Conscientious objectors were sent to work camps, physically experimented upon, and imprisoned. But they didn’t have to bear arms. As a member of a minority religion with beliefs that many would consider destructive for the community, I don’t want to deny others the same quintessentially American right to conscience.

Moreover, because schooling is compulsory and immunization is required for attendance of all public and private schools (as well as some home schools) in California, a devout Christian Scientist could face criminal sanctions for refusal to vaccinate. This exact squeeze play landed more than one parent in jail in the 1920’s. My problem with this sort of prosecution﹘as with post-hoc criminal actions﹘is that the punishment seems like a tall price for one individual to pay in order to deter others.

That doesn’t mean I support the PBE. I would require a show of sincerity making it extremely difficult to obtain an exemption. I would expand access restrictions to cover anywhere germs quickly circulate. I would readily quarantine the unvaccinated whenever scientifically necessary (this could mean anything from reassigning unvaccinated students to schools with no medically fragile children or entirely separating them from society). In other words, as with pacifists and war, allowing an exception for the very most committed opponents doesn’t have to mean making its exercise pleasant.

If access restrictions and quarantine proved insufficient to protect innocent lives, I would ultimately forcibly vaccinate minors.

(I’m less gung-ho about cost-shifting remedies since they theoretically allow wealthier families to purchase a right to endanger others and price poorer ones out of the market for sincere belief.)

My advice lies not in the substance of these conclusions but in the process. By all means disagree with me, but think about each legal option and decide where you stand.

3. Contribute to the cause.

You can write letters, make phone calls, and stage demonstrations to try to persuade your state senators, delegates, assembly members, and/or representatives.

Or, if you’re like me and can barely keep the many balls you’re already juggling in the air, use a financial donation, small or large, to lobby by proxy. Organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the California Medical Association use donations in part to persuade lawmakers to tighten immunization requirements (you can earmark an AAP donation for the advocacy fund). Other groups–like Voices for Vaccines, the California Immunization Coalition, and Every Child by Two–do no direct lobbying (in order to preserve their non-profit status), but they provide the public and health professionals with science-based information with which they can in turn lobby, making donation a sort of meta-proxy.

Parents have asked how they can subsidize vaccines for low income families. Thanks to longstanding federal programs and the Affordable Care Act (which gets insurance companies lending a hand) there is now basically no financial barrier to immunization. Education, paperwork, and legwork are the primary hurdles to vaccination for underinsured children. Make a donation to a group that performs outreach and walks parents through the process, like the California Immunization Coalition.

Finally, don’t forget that petition and any other to which you can comfortably put your name.

4. Keep talking.

Though the topic already feels stale, the dialogue is brand new. For years almost all publicity on the subject came from “the vaccine concerned” as those of us who support immunization sat silently by hoping for the best. It is only this year that the quiet majority has spoken up. Yes, the conversation is often as polarizing and frustrating as talking about abortion, but respectful back-and-forth can only help. Even the vitriol and name-calling serve to communicate the gravity of the situation.

As futile as the discussion can feel, social media does change people’s minds on this topic–especially when the risk-benefit analysis shifts thanks to new circumstances (like a sickly Mickey). Furthermore, you’re not just speaking to parents who are committed to a position. Those who are undecided, future parents, teens in control of their own health care, and grandparents (who can exert pressure on their grown children) all scroll through Twitter feeds.

Off-line conversations can make an even more immediate and material impact. After giving birth to my youngest, I took a deep breath and told one of my best friends that I had to cancel my older kids’ standing play date with her undervaccinated boys. They got shots a few weeks later.

Learn, think, contribute, talk. You don’t have to wait for our most fragile loved ones to start dying. You can do one or all of these things today.

Embracing Anger

Embracing Anger

Originally published in the GGMG Magazine – December/January 2014 issue

Shifting my screaming newborn from my shoulder down to my arms (in an attempt to calm the colicky little bunny as well as buy myself a few additional inches between her mouth and my eardrum), I surveyed the disaster unfolding in the single space that serves as playroom, living room, dining room, and kitchen in our small San Francisco apartment. An unfolded jumble of clean laundry sat on the couch, and dirty clothes littered the ground. Crusty dishes covered the counters. The hardwood floor beneath the kids’ chairs appeared carpeted thanks to food droppings, and the broom I’d gotten out five hours ago but not yet used leaned mockingly against the wall.

Despite my best shush and sway, her howling continued. Don’t shake the baby, I reminded myself.

My almost three-year-old son, one hand planted inside the back of his underwear, upended yet another bin of toys.

And still she wailed. Don’t shake the baby.

My five-year-old demanded immediate attention in the grating cadence she’d picked up after just two weeks of kindergarten, a sing-song of irreverence that somehow manages to combine the shrill whine of a baby with the sassiness of a teenager. The latest crisis? The two pant legs of her jeggings touched her shins at slightly different points.

The cries intensified. Don’t shake the baby.

Perhaps worst of all, a mirror reflected back a face marred by cumulative sleep loss (since my return from the hospital, my son had decided to “check on me” at least once a night, invariably in the middle of the newborn’s “long” stretch) and a huge shiner (sustained when he accidentally tossed his skull into my eye during one such check-in).

Red in the face and shaking, my newborn continued to shout. Don’t. Shake.The. Baby.

When my darling son picked up his toy hammer, walked over to his big sister, made eye contact with me, and slammed it down onto her head, I lost it. I finally obtained relief from the newborn’s screaming by drowning it out with screeching of my own. Railing hypocritically about using one’s words and problem-solving to resolve conflict, I sputtered and spat until all four of us shed tears.

It was not my best moment. But was it bad parenting?

Anti-anger parenting: from yelling diets to unfailing calm

These days the mommy blogosphere is awash with posts urging parents to stop raising their voices. Articles like “10 Things I Learned When I Stopped Yelling at My Kids” and “When Yelling Is Worse Than Spanking,” as well as books with even more emphatic titles like Yell Less, Love More and Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, exhort us to rein in our expressions of anger. These writers treat yelling as a weakness or failing, an injustice even, about which one ought to feel ashamed. Hands Free Mama writes, “I hated myself in those moments. What had become of me that I needed to scream at two precious little people who I loved more than life?” Rachel Zimmerman succinctly adds, “I do it, and then I feel dirty.”

Some parenting books go further than warning against shouting, telling us to maintain an even keel at all times, to be an unwaveringly tranquil ship on the turbulent seas of toddlerhood. Parenting with Love & Logic, for example, instructs: “Adults must set firm, loving limits using enforceable statements without showing anger . . . .” After all, these authors reason, adult emotion is what the little hellions seek; if you make it clear that you’ll deny them that satisfaction – affecting a sort of preternatural calm and responding to screaming children with a level tone – you stop tantrums midstream and prevent future ones. Like Princess Elsa in Frozen, many of us internalize these admonitions, struggling to “conceal, don’t feel, put on a show.”

It’s all too easy to lose sight of the fact that the anti-yelling, positive-emoting-only parenting push is a relatively new and limited movement. Historically, yelling was the least of children’s (let alone parents’) worries; after all, the era of government-sponsored child protective services didn’t even begin until 1962. Fifty years later, the scope of the anti-yelling ethos is much more circumscribed than one might think, as socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and geography influence where the line is drawn between discipline and maltreatment. Though the anti-yelling perspective currently reigns in upper-middle class San Francisco circles, plenty of American parents still see nothing wrong with shouting at their kids. To the contrary, the predominant belief in many communities is that verbal haranguing works best for producing independent, successful adults.

What is yelling anyway?

Yelling is defined as “say[ing something] very loudly especially because you are angry, surprised, or are trying to get someone’s attention.” It is not synonymous with verbal abuse, which generally involves name-calling and other substantively destructive language. Of course, communicating perfectly reasonable messaging at a higher than standard volume can rise to the level of verbal abuse if it’s imbued with enough venom. Frequency alone, however, does not convert yelling into child maltreatment under standards propagated by psychiatrists and government agencies.

Lisa Pion-Berlin, president and chief executive officer of Parents Anonymous, Inc., clarified for Better Homes and Gardens readers: “No, yelling all the time is not great . . . . But the context of what you’re saying is most important. If you’re saying to your kid, ‘You’re worthless,’ that’s different than yelling at your kid to get his clothes on.” In The Happiest Toddler on the Block, Harvey Karp agrees: “It’s your responsibility to do your utmost never to lash out with . . . hurtful words.” Parents must adopt a zero tolerance policy for emotionally destructive statements and vitriol. A mother flipping her lid – saying things that would otherwise pass muster but with elevated vehemence and volume – is another matter. What’s more, done in a certain manner, yelling doesn’t just meet the bare minimum of non-abusive; it can actually be good for your kids.

Constructive anger

Some of parenting’s most educated and trusted voices agree that parental displays of rage can be quite constructive. In Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, preeminent psychologist John Gottman explains that by permitting your kids to perceive your anger, “you are demonstrating two things: (1) Strong feelings can be expressed and managed, and (2) Your child’s behavior really matters to you.” By moderating your tone, you can actually do children a disservice both by allowing them to assume that your emotional detachment comes from a lack of investment and by making your child’s strong emotions appear abnormal in contrast with your own easily mastered ones. Letting your kids see you struggle to control yourself, on the other hand, clearly demarcates unacceptable behavior, shows that you care, and teaches them to honor their own feelings (which is the first step in empathizing).

Karp acknowledges the benefit of this type of modeling and advocates more explicitly employing parental anger as a teaching moment: “Apologize as soon as you cool down. Then, later in the day, take a moment to calmly talk about how you wish you and she had behaved, and remind her that . . . your love is way stronger than anger.” Simply put, losing your cool doesn’t just present a chance to model emotion-management, it also allows you to demonstrate contrition, healthy communication, genuine apology, and self-improvement.

As Harvard professor Steven Schlozman summarized for Zimmerman, “We can’t and shouldn’t be Stepford parents. . . . Among the risks of feeling compelled as parents to be under such questionably possible emotional control is the fact that your children will never get to see how you respond to . . . [this] part of being human. . . .”

Tricks to limit yelling

In order for shouting to serve as an effective teaching moment, however, it must be fairly infrequent. Here are a few tips I rely on to help prevent yelling from becoming the status quo in my household:

  • Focus on self-care: paying down your sleep debt is proven to enhance impulse control, and snacking can keep you from getting hangry (a portmanteau of “hungry” and “angry”).
  • Try to maintain age-appropriate expectations.
  • Relax the schedule: I often lash out at the kids because I’m racing the clock.
  • Separate: I leave the room or send my kids to theirs, explaining, “I need a little space right now because if we stay together I will probably end up yelling.”
  • Take a deep breath.
  • Adopt code words: when I say “Run, Monkey Sauce, Run,” my little ones know I’m on the brink of blowing a gasket.
  • Vent: find a judgment-free friend to whom you can text such truths as “if motherhood were a job I’d hand in my resignation today.”
  • Whisper: sometimes you’ve got to fake it ’til you make it, and being barely audible forces everyone to pipe down and focus for a few moments.
  • Repeat “no one can be perfect”: this mantra both helps me see my child’s offense as forgivable and keeps me from exploding simply due to the pressure not to explode.
  • Find a way to blow off steam: techniques that help kids channel their frustration – like screaming into a pillow, biting a stuffed animal, and ripping paper – work for moms, too.
  • Don’t hold a grudge: to keep their misbehavior from having a cumulative effect, I ask my kids to lay their upturned hands on top of mine; we then take turns putting offenses into our layered palms (e.g., “when Stuart banged holes into the new windowsill with the ice cream scoop” and “when Mommy grabbed the ice cream scoop away from Stuart”) and together shout “put it behind us!” as we fling the imaginary contents over our shoulders.
  • Give everyone an out: I often avoid a power struggle by asking the offending child if they’d like a “do over” and then letting the initial transgression slide.
  • Be silly: do something bonkers to shock and awe the kiddos and take the edge off your own ire (I like to announce, “it’s donkey time” and bray my best “hee-haw” while kicking a leg out behind me).
  • Get out of the house: physical exertion, containment of the kids (in a stroller, car seat, or shopping cart), change of venue, fresh air, and the presence of other adults all work wonders.

Refusing guilt

At the end of the day, high-quality parenting allows freedom of choice within the confines of firm boundaries, makes sure children feel valued, and models healthy physical, emotional, and social behavior. If you limit the occurrence of yelling and engage your kids in a postmortem when it happens, you can serve each of these purposes and let go of the guilt we’re told to feel when our negative emotions inevitably find expression. You are only human, and your humanity can be used to bring you and your child closer rather than threaten your bond. Do your best to accept this truth: you can act in anger and still be mom of the year.

Case in point: after I lost it that day shortly after my third child’s birth, I asked the two big kids to sit down on the floor with me. I told them I got angry because my son broke one of our family’s rules by hurting his big sister on purpose. I explained that instead of saying, “I feel mad,” I yelled because I also felt tired, overwhelmed, and frustrated about all the things I wanted to do but couldn’t get done, like helping the kids with their problems right away and keeping the house tidy. I concluded, “Mommy’s a little fussy, and it’s harder to remember to use my inside voice and take deep breaths when I’m fussy.” Both kids nodded knowingly. My five-year-old excitedly piped up, “Mommy, that totally happens to me! But it’s okay, Mommy. No one can be perfect. We just have to try our best and then make amends when we mess up. You said sorry. Why don’t we put it behind us?” At the end of that day I didn’t hate myself, and I didn’t feel dirty. I stood tall, proud of my parenting – anger and all.

Moments on the Lips: Eating as a Food Producer

Moments on the Lips: Eating as a Food Producer

Originally published in the GGMG Magazine – November 2014 issue

Prior to getting pregnant and giving birth, most women see food as fuel, a chance to taste pleasure, and an organizing force for social interaction. For many, however, these simple motivating factors belie a more fraught reality as we struggle with just how much weight to give the pleasure of consumption (“a moment on the lips”) versus the desire to maintain a certain physique (“a lifetime on the hips”), fight the influence of others’ eating habits, or even turn food into an instrument of control. Guilt and worry can become pervasive. Yet there also exist many folks who eat effortlessly, ingesting whatever strikes their fancy in quantities designed to stave off physiological hunger, regardless of what’s dangled in front of their noses.

The experience of breastfeeding moms is similarly diverse. For some, eating as a food producer requires very little thought – just consume a balanced diet and an extra few hundred calories a day, easy breezy. For others, issues surrounding baby’s weight, baby’s comfort, milk production, and mom’s new size and shape make “eating for two” far more complicated.

Trial and Error

My first daughter constantly screamed and writhed, bucked off the breast when liquid gurgled up her throat, and failed to gain weight. Increasingly desperate to help her, I first eliminated gas-producing foods (like broccoli and onions), then those thought to increase acid reflux (like tomatoes and oranges), and finally all common allergens (including dairy, eggs, nuts, gluten, and soy). I drove myself insane attempting to control the situation by blaming my diet. It didn’t work. My son, on the other hand, loved my milk – but he bellowed furiously when it didn’t let down immediately. Convinced that he was chronically hungry, I mainlined galactagogues (foods such as garlic and oatmeal which are said to increase lactation) as well as fenugreek supplements and mother’s milk tea. Again, it didn’t work. This third time around, breastfeeding is going so well that I have the luxury of worrying only about my own weight. Since I don’t naturally shed pounds while nursing, due to some combination of hormones, appetite, and sweet tooth, I’m trying to cut out refined sugar and make other healthy choices. It’s not working.

When one friend of mine stopped eating dairy, however, her colicky newborn morphed into a dream baby in a matter of days. Another buddy cried tears of joy when her milk supply shot through the roof after starting fenugreek. Meanwhile, a different pal overproduced milk so severely that she repeatedly developed mastitis; when she strictly limited her water intake, her supply decreased, but so did her ability to stand upright. Another mommy friend complained that she simply couldn’t keep weight on. As I fought to resist a third spoonful of Ben and Jerry’s, a part of me wanted to kick her in her rapidly disappearing gut. But I wholeheartedly sympathized with her after she ate a burger, shake, fries, and chicken sandwich on our lunch date, looked like she might vomit, and explained that her intake needs had started to put a strain on her family’s budget.

You Are Not Alone

Like nursing in general, eating as a food producer will either be simple physically and emotionally, or it will not. You may be able to make an impact by changing your diet, or you may not. You will be torn apart with guilt and/or powerlessness, or you will not. In any event, know that you aren’t alone. If postpartum eating causes you stress, consult the experts – but don’t stop there. Seek out other moms. Particularly when there are no diets or supplements that will fix things, a healthy helping of commiseration and validation can provide much-needed nourishment.