Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Stop Telling Parents to "Enjoy Every Moment"

Some days, this goes on for hours and hours.


Sam is 16 months old now. That's the same age Stella was that day I told Dave he had to take me to the ER because I was afraid of what I would do to myself if he left me alone.

I was drowning in post-partum depression and anxiety. Part of it was chemical or genetic or what have you. Depression and anxiety run in my family, and were definitely no strangers to me at that point in my life. Part of it was due to how freaking hard our New York City existence had become, living in a crappy apartment underneath the worst neighbor in history (who made ungodly amounts of noise in the middle of the night), schlepping my daughter a full mile to go to the nearest playground, feeling the crushing weight of loneliness because I knew exactly nobody in our mainly Russian immigrant neighborhood.

But, if I'm going to be honest with you, part of it was parenting a child at this really difficult age.

Sam, who's been basically the polar opposite of Stella since conception, is now very, very similar to Stella when she was this age. He is constantly running away from me. Today, for example, I took him to a local indoor play space at a mall. It was walled in, except for one little entrance, and perfectly age appropriate and fun. But Sam? That little bugger was obsessed with escaping through that entrance and running shoeless into the manicure/pedicure place across the way. (I guess it's possible he was really trying to get a nice pedicure.)

I laughed with my fellow parents, but I was pretty annoyed. There were other parents chilling out for one blessed second while their kids played, but I had to keep chasing my little stinker of a son. This happens everywhere we go. And if we don't follow close behind, he either bolts totally (and terrifyingly) out of sight or breaks something. He knocked over three of my mom's framed pictures a few days ago when I looked away for a second to answer a question. It. Is. Constant. And, while it's age appropriate, it's also extreme. I work at Sam's school and so I observe Sam's classmates and I can assure you that there are some 16 month old kids in the world who are capable of staying in one room and not hurting themselves for 10 minutes at a time.

And Stella was exactly the same way. We'd go to a local sing along and, instead of dancing and singing with the other kids, Stella would bolt for the door. She actually escaped out onto the Brooklyn street a few horrifying times. And now, with Sam, just like with Stella, I find myself reluctant to go anywhere. It sucks to stay home all the time, but at least we have two baby-proofed rooms where I don't have to worry about the state of Sam's safety for a little while.

16 months is a long time to go without decent sleep. Sam is a better sleeper than Stella, thank God. He goes down for reliable naps that are of a respectable length. Stella almost never napped, and was cranky because of it. He goes down pretty well at night, too, but he doesn't yet sleep through the night. And I'm 39 years old. And a fierce lover of sleep.

And Sam, like Stella, is tempestuous. Granted, the boy has basically had an ear infection since birth (he's getting tubes soon). And he spends grand chunks of every day being quite sweet and charming. But when he's in a rough mood, it is miserable. He just cries and cries and cries. He doesn't want to be held, he doesn't want me to put him down, he doesn't want to nurse, he doesn't want to eat, he doesn't know what he wants. The sound of his screaming grates on my brain. And, unlike Stella, his physical development is right on track and he is freakishly strong. He grabbed a chunk of my hair while angry the other day and wouldn't let it go for a very long time. I was in tears by the time we pried him away. Let me tell you, it HURT. Really.

Sam is also vehemently against diaper changes. The kid protests violently every time I try to change his diaper, flipping and kicking and screaming and trying to get his hands in the mess as much as possible. Stella was exactly the same way, but she didn't have the strength of 10 men. Tonight, poor Sam had to just sit in his filth for half an hour until his dad got home because I could not muster up the WWF strength to defeat him.

But it's different this time. I know this time is finite. I know this phase will end and Sam will, eventually, just like his sister, chill out a bit.

But mostly, I'm much better at validating my own negative feelings this time. On the tough days, I remind myself that this is really hard and that it would drive anyone a little crazy. I take breaks as often as I can, usually running away to catch my breath the moment Dave walks in the door. I remind myself that everyone we love - no matter who they are - gets on our nerves. It's OK to include our own kids on that list. And becoming a mother didn't mean that all my negative feelings were magically erased.

This is why I bristle when I hear people telling new moms to "enjoy every moment - even the tough ones." I know they mean well. When I look back at pictures of Stella at this age, my heart aches. She was so freaking adorable, and I spent so much of that time shrouded in misery. I wish I could go back for just a minute and snuggle the heck out of that sweet girl. But I don't resent myself for how I felt. I was sick. I was hurting. I needed (and finally got) help. I didn't savor every moment then, but now I'm able to enjoy most of them. And I'll settle for that.

But back then, when people would say those words, it crushed my soul. It made me feel so guilty and weak. Why couldn't I just enjoy this? All the moms around me seemed to. And when I snapped one day, yelling through my tears at the mom closest to me that I needed a damn break, she just blinked, stepped back from me as if I were a monster, and whispered, "Well, um, OK."

I wanted her to grab me and hug me and say, "I know, honey! This is so hard! You DO need a break, for God's sake!" Instead, she made me feel weird, made me feel shitty, made me want to end my life so my daughter wouldn't be raised like someone like me.

It's not her fault that I ended up in the ER on suicide watch, don't get me wrong. But the fact that she and most everyone around me just assumed that I should relish every moment of being a mom when, at that very moment, being a mom was killing me - well, it just really exacerbated an already bad situation.

So, my personal stance is don't give advice to new parents. They have enough of it, and they'll ask if there's something they want to know. But if you do want to give advice, please don't ever tell them to "enjoy every moment." You can remind them that it's finite, you can tell them "this, too, shall pass," you can offer to take over so they can shower or pee or drink a bottle of wine or go for a walk. You can get them professional help if they need it. But don't make them feel like they can't ever feel unhappy. Because your well-meaning words might just be the thing that will send someone over the edge.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Empathy

I'm not going to pretend that I know what it's like to be a person of color in America. I grew up white. I was poor and I was female, but I always had the privilege of being white on my side.

I didn't realize that I had privilege, simply due to the color of my skin, until I moved to Newark, NJ. Suddenly, I was the minority among my neighbors, and yet, still, I carried privilege. When my friend Kristi's car was broken into while visiting me there, the cops told us, very knowingly, that the people around there were "animals." They asked me what the hell I was doing living there. I wonder if they would have said that to me had I been a person of color.

Then I worked as a teacher at a school in the South Bronx. While most of the teachers there were incredible, hard-working folks, there was one embittered woman who continually threw around the term, "THESE kids" and "THESE parents." As in, "THESE kids can't do that kind of reading, because THESE parents have never picked up a book in their lives." And "Don't expect THESE parents to come to a conference; they're too busy doing drugs." When it was time for those parent-teacher conferences, she said, "Bring your grad school homework; none of THESE parents ever comes." I sent all my students' parents a note a week before offering extended hours, and asked them to give me their preferred times. I gave each of them one scheduled time, as opposed to the general conference window, and promised refreshments. Many of the parents had had negative experiences at conferences, and I wanted them to see that my conference would be different. And guess what? All of my parents showed up. My coworker didn't have the same luck.

Then there was the time I called the cops while living in a lower-income neighborhood in Brooklyn for a domestic disturbance I heard upstairs. They came to my apartment and asked me what I heard. I said I heard screaming in Spanish. The police officer actually said, "Well if it ain't English, it don't count." These big, beefy, all-white police officers combed through my stuff (without a warrant), asked what a girl like me was doing living here, then walked out, chuckling.

Oh, and what about that sweet elderly woman who lived above me in my little apartment in the West Village? I helped her carry in her groceries every time I saw her. Until, that is, that one day she cornered me and asked if I'd noticed the new "coloreds" that moved in, and expressed concern that they might steal from her.

I don't know what it's like to be eyed suspiciously as I walk down the road, to constantly have to answer for my actions. I don't know what it's like to be stopped by the police for a routine "stop and frisk" or while driving my car, when I was doing absolutely nothing wrong. I don't know what it's like to worry that I'll be killed if, after being pestered by police my whole life, I find that I have an attitude with them just one time. I don't know what it's like to not be able to hail a cab because of my skin color, or to be denied housing or a job for the same reason. I don't know what it's like to have people follow me around a story when I'm shopping.

I do know what it's like to be harassed on the street for being fat and female. I know what it's like to have people assume that, because I'm a woman, I'm weaker and less intelligent than they are. I know what it's like to be sexually abused. I know what it's like to have people assume I'm the same religion they are, and then ask ignorant and sometimes offensive questions when they find out I'm Jewish. I know what it's like to feel intimidated by those who've never experienced poverty. And I draw on these experiences to have empathy for others.

I know being a police officer is tough, and I can't imagine what being a police officer is like in an impoverished and dangerous area. And we as a country haven't helped matters much by making military-style weapons widely available to the population. I can't imagine trying to keep citizens safe when people can now go grocery shopping with a semi-automatic weapon slung over their shoulder.

But cops, like the rest of us, need empathy. They need to stop being like that embittered teacher I worked with, stop looking at the people around them as "THOSE people." They need to be a part of their communities when times are good, to befriend the people there, to try, on some level, to understand where they're coming from. They need to see them as the humans they are.

Unfortunately for me, I've had too many bosses who swoop in, nit-pick everything I do, give a ton of negative feedback and make unreasonable requests. And I can tell you when I work for those bosses, I give as little as possible, take shortcuts, and have a bad attitude. It's human nature. But when I have a good boss - like the one I have now - one who compliments what I do right and offers support and as interested in my life - I find ways to go above and beyond.

Maybe police officers can try the same approach. Work with the citizens to make a place better. Treat them with respect. Think back to the times you've been treated as "less than" and use that to try to get it. And maybe the killing of unarmed black men can finally stop.