A certain age
This morning, with both kids safely ushered to their respective destinations — Ben to be raised by strangers, Charlie to work the coal seam — I sat down at long last to square off against last week's New York Magazine article, "Parents of a Certain Age." I made a fresh cup of coffee, situated myself comfortably at my desk, and pleasurably readied my dudgeon for liftoff.
But I just couldn't get it up.
Lisa Miller, herself a first-time mother at 40, has written what I think is a really thoughtful, balanced article about becoming a parent later — no, really: laaaaater — in life. She looked at what it means socially to decide on motherhood past age 45. Part of it sounded eerily familiar:
A new child may be a blessed event, but when a 50-year-old decides to strap on the Baby Björn, that choice is seen as selfish.
You've heard this, right? Every person who's pursued unorthodox reproduction has. ART of any stripe? You're selfish for not adopting a child who needs a home. IVF with your own gametes? You're selfish for wanting a designercybertechnominigeneticlone. Donor gametes? You're selfish for exploiting the donor and for depriving your children of various inalienable ineffables. Surrogacy? Oh, lady.
It strikes me as misguided to the point of hilarity to condemn any particular decision about having children as selfish — not because I think of choosing to become a parent as inherently selfless, but because I think it's not. Nobody has children to...what? enrich the existence of all mankind? ("Hayden Messiah, you drop that dead squirrel now. You can resurrect things after your violin lesson.") We do it for love, for comfort, for experience, for belonging, for innumerable reasons that have nothing to do with what's best for anyone else, but with what would make us happy.
When we have kids intentionally, we do it because we get something out of it, because we want to, because we selfishly want, and the manner of conception doesn't change that fact. So, sure, I'll buy the argument that older parents are selfish. But no more selfish than the pregnant 17-year-old who wants someone to love her, or the 40-year-old single woman who goes it alone because she's scared she'll miss her chance. And no more selfish, in fact, than the financially responsible, perfectly fertile 30-year-old, in a stable job and married for five years, who worries that if she doesn't have kids, she'll feel incomplete. (We don't question her much, do we?) You can argue with these hypothetical people's decisions on other grounds if you want, but, sorry, selfishness doesn't fly. In that way, we all suck alike.
And whatever else you think about parenthood late in life — Miller's article covers the gamut, from perceptions about physical limitations to concerns about dying while the kids are still young — you'd have to work hard to find anyone who goes about parenthood more intentionally than women after age 45. Miller writes:
It is nearly impossible to have a baby at 50 by accident. "Oops" does not happen; that momentary abandonment of good sense or caution will almost never result in a pregnancy. No matter how a child is procured, whether through technology or adoption, her 50-year-old parents have likely gone through some kind of hell — paperwork, blood tests, questionnaires, waiting, visa applications, mood swings, marital discord, and recalibration of expectations — to have her. These are the most wanted of children.
While I might disagree with Miller's characterization as "the most wanted," I can't dispute the general gist. Now, I don't think wanting children a lot necessarily makes anyone a better parent. (I wish it did. I wish it made me a better parent than I am some days.) But it does signal a sincere commitment, and implies unusually thorough consideration. That kind of tenacity should incline us, I think, to respect the decision and give the parents the benefit of the doubt — to trust them to know their own capacity and to make good decisions, just as we do for people in the "right" age bracket who have kids for the "right" reasons under the "right" circumstances.
Which is where I was surprised to find myself after reading Miller's piece. It's not that I have any particular bias against older parents; in fact, I mostly — selfishly! — don't care. But I expected it to be full of the standard mass-media-meets-fertility crap, crawling with people I couldn't easily identify with. And sure, okay, there was a little of that. (If the first few lines don't creep you out — well, recalibrate your creepometer.) And the question of privilege is enormous and problematic, which Miller fairly acknowledges but doesn't explore in depth. Still, I thought after reading the article I would be incensed, and instead I was sympathetic.
I mean, aren't we all similarly damned, when we have children at the wrong time or in a complicated way or beyond the bounds of natural fertility, in some way other than how it was meant to be? (I was going to clap scare quotes around those terms, but once I started doing it I couldn't see where to stop.)
I linked to this on Facebook and Twitter, and I loved it enough to continue to thrust it forcefully at you here. It's Paul Ford's beautiful essay on undergoing IVF: "Over a beer an expectant father—another expectant father—gives me the news, tells me that his wife will soon have her second or third. Am I happy for him? What else can I be? Once again I put out my hand, close my eyes, and wish them joy."
You don't take a photo; you make it
It's school picture day today! And I remembered! Not because of any responsible parental behavior on my part! But because the universe reminded me! By sending Charlie home from school yesterday with a gigantic shiner!
He was pretty upset, I have to say: "I don't want my picture to look bad!" I told him my philosophy about photos, which is that they should capture us as we really are, to give us a way to remember our lives the way we actually lived them — that it was nice to try to look our best, but it was more important to be real.
Which sounded pretty good until I logged on last night to the picture company's web site to order.
Did you know? This is done online now, just like all the best parts of life: keeping in touch with friends, shopping for expensive unnecessaries, cheating at Scrabble, and organ transplants. You go to the company's site and you get to choose your package, including background, titles, even retouching if you want it.
Used to be that this was the best we could hope for:
Which is nice enough, I suppose. But now you can jazz it up with your kid's name, or the year, or, hey, why not the message of your choice?
Or you could get an "Art" background. And I use the scare quotes advisedly.
I was sort of looking for something a little more like real art...
...so I dropped that idea and moved on to "School Themes." Chalkboards and bookshelves figured prominently, as did OH MY GOD CHILDREN GET OUT OF THE WAAAAAY THE DRIVER IS HAVING A STROKE!
A little unsettling, if you ask me. Yes, a little unsettling.
Next I checked out "Nature Themes." Yawn.
I would have preferred something that suggested the thrilling rush of an active afternoon spent outdoors...
Or maybe something featuring a nice cuddly animal.
But no dice. By now I must say I was feeling a bit discouraged. Luckily the "Spiritual Themes" were there to buoy me in my time of crisis.
Alas, our family's faith was sadly unrepresented.
None of the options thrilled me, but I was determined to find one that worked. Or three! Remember those composites that had a person in the foreground, and then a semi-transparent floating head in the background? These? Or the ones where a perfectly nice couple has been unceremoniously stuffed into a brandy snifter?
I found that the genre has been...updated.
I finally just decided to go with the classic. No words, no effects, just the same blue background from every school picture I ever took in my life:
(1985, my friends. 1985.)
In fact, despite Charlie's black eye, I didn't even ask for the retouching. In fact, I was half-tempted to ask them to make it look worse. Maybe add in a split lip. Paste in an exposed fang. Use the Crazy Eyes filter. And add big type reading, "BADASS."
Instead I settled this morning for a damp cloth, a quick comb, and a kiss as he left the house. This is our life as we live it, right? And maybe the photographer will notice and fix Charlie's shirt, which is, goddamn it, on backwards.
UPDATE: Haaaa, I thought it would be obvious, but I see it is all too believable: none of the photos above are actually from this morning's session. I used Photoshop plus a quick mug shot after breakfast to serve as a representation — I regret to assure you, an accurate one — of the choices the portrait company offered.
Sorry for the confusion. Carry on. And go like this. No, again. No, you — you'll probably need a mirror. There's a little...something on your...no, you can't reach it with your tongue. Just make sure you get it off before your turn at the camera.
The rule of three
Oh, age three! You lovable rapscallion! You adorable imp. You sly little devil, you. You Hello, Kitty!-style Beelzebub. You sparkle-eyed Fisher Price My First Enema Bag™! You fresh-faced son of a two-bit whore. You—
Wait, I should clarify here. I'm not saying any of you parents of three-year-olds are two-bit whores. (That's just me, and I'm told [buffing nails] I underprice.) And our children are lovely people, delightful people, when three doesn't have them in a half-nelson, choking the charming little bejesus right out of 'em. What I mean is, at our house three has come to roost, and we're ankle-deep in its guano.
It's an exercise in deep discombobulation to be Ben's parent these days. Much of the time he's so lovable that I honestly feel it in my body — a curl of the toes, a wiggle of the fingers as I lunge in to poke him, to make sure he's real. To pick just one example, there's his current obsession with family. I don't mean us, his family, but the abstract idea of it. Everything's part of a family: people, animals, inanimate objects. If he decides to pretend to be a farmer, then he is the Dad farmer and one of us adults gets to be the baby farmer. (Make up your own joke.) Any variation in size results in the assignment of a family role, unto the generations; we have not just Mama, Dad, and Baby Elmo, but enough dupes in graduated sizes to go back to Piltdown. He makes these — I don't know, adorable? unnerving? undoraving! — tableaux of families:
A family of Batmans. …-Men. …-Mobiles. (No one's told the putative father Mama got it on with a Chevy.)
Potatoes…I…guess. Yes, I know one's an onion. I'm assuming they adopted.
Rabbits. From left: Mother, baby, father, brother. ("The brother is big! He wears underpants!") How do I know the white hand puppet is the mother? Simple:
[Running feet, eager voice.] "The mama bunny has a pouch! Yook! She can carry her baby!"
Whoops. Sorry. Next time I'll warn you: bunny junk. NSFW.
So a lot of the time he's doing endearing stuff like that. But he's never just okay, never neutral or pretty good. The rest of the time he's nigh on intolerable. He likes things the way he likes them, our Ben, with a fervor that borders on compulsion.
You know. "Borders on."
When things don't go the way he wants them to, he loses his potato-loving mind. If he has the idea that he's going to set the table, for example, and instead we have Charlie do it because Ben couldn't be persuaded to drop the goddamn tuber, first he does this flamenco of outrage, beating his heels so fast that it makes his screams of protest judder. "I wanted to do it! I wanted to do it!" But, Ben, we remind him reasonably, we asked you to do it twice, and you didn't come when we said to, so you missed your chance to help. And then he wigs out a little more, unable to believe how much natural consequences suck, and then tries to gather the cutlery, return it all to the drawer, and, I don't know, spool back time so that events unfurl correctly. Rewind and redo. It's like Run Lola Run in little orange Crocs. With dinner knives. On angel dust.
These meltdowns are just that. You can watch his circuits just fry as he tries to make sense of what has happened, why he doesn't like it, and how he could possibly change it. We try to forestall them by involving him as much as we can in decisions and choices and plans, but, Jesus, sooner or later you just want the table set, and the cost is a one-kid supernova.
And I realize by now I've characterized my kid as a catastrophic explosion, a drug-addled knife-thrower, and a furious little Time Lord who stole the keys to the TARDIS. (Also, in case you'd forgotten how appalling I can be, an enema bag figured, way back there in paragraph one.) But there are also the rabbits, the Batman…s…es, the things that are sort of potatoes. And because three is so mercurial, you have no idea from moment to moment which one you're going to get.
I was talking on Twitter the other day with Alexa about this series of books — I've mentioned them here before — put out by the Gesell Institute. Although I actually like the books quite a bit, finding their information on developmental phases to be reassuringly bang-on, they're amusing, too. I'm not going to steal a march on Alexa, who may write about this herself, by quoting extensively; I'll just say that the authors' suggestion to encourage a three-year-old to give up his blankie by cutting it in half strikes me as rather, you know, old school. Good work developing that independence, kid! I'll just reward you with a few snips here…a trimmed thread there…There! I have OBLITERATED ALL YOU HOLD DEAR.
Anyway, the three-year-old volume is called Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy. And although the title makes me snort, I have to say it's fitting. Because these days with Ben we just never know which of those we'll get. Friend or enemy. Batman or Satan. Lovable bunny or unauthorized upskirt. (Look, I lost control of these metaphors about 600 words ago.)
I remember with Charlie three was much harder than two ever dared to be. It's shaping up the same with Ben. Charlie is living proof, though, that somehow we made it through. And so we will with our current friend and enemy, Ben. Enema-frienema-Benemy. May Batman protect us all.
Sunday papers (don't ask no questions)
Charlie loves the Mini Page. Did you have that when you were a kid, the little half-page in the Sunday paper with news stories simplified for kids, a couple of puzzles, and line drawings of this little Raggedy Ann-like girl in, like, a Tutankhamen headdress or a football helmet or a rubber mask of Richard Nixon, depending on what was happening in the world? My local paper didn't carry it, but my grandparents' did, and Grandma would clip it and send it to me. I loved the Mini Page. (I did not love the thank-you notes my mother made me write and send. But I now love that she did.)
I was excited to see that our paper here carries it, along with the dumbest crossword in the world — "1. Da Vinci's Mona ____. 2. Da Vinci's ____ Lisa." — and I've been passing it along to Charlie each week, feeling pleasantly wholesome and nostalgic, along with the color comics. (He sometimes gets the weekday strips, too, but honestly that depends on how hateful Dear Abby is being that day in the inches right next to Garfield.)
Last weekend, though, I happened to glance at the Mini Page before I gave it to Charlie. It was about September 11, and although it was tastefully done...
We know these hijackers were angry at the United States and our way of life. But even adults don’t really understand why they did this horrible act.
...I decided not to pass it along. So far as I knew, he was unaware that something very bad had once happened, and I saw no reason to tell him. I briefly wondered if that qualified as shameful not-"Never Forget"-ting, but decided it must not. I remember it fine, God knows, and although I know his innocence won't last forever, why would I hasten its end?
So I memory holed the Mini Page. Comforted by the note that said, "Next week, The Mini Page is about school lunches," presumably with Raggedy Ann wearing a hair net and dishing out deep-fried Fanta, I thought that would be the end of it.
This week I handed over the Mini Page with confidence. ...Along with the color comics. ...Which were all about September 11.
I didn't notice, of course, until Charlie complained, "These aren't even funny." And while I privately feel they never are, he usually finds even the Family Circus hilarious. (I disagree. Screw you, Not Me.) But yesterday was different. They weren't supposed to be funny. (Though if you can look at some of them without laughing incredulously, you're a better person than I am, because a few are just downright weird.)
Paul brokered that conversation, explaining it all simply, just as the Mini Page had, and discreetly skirting some of the horror of it, eliding the fact that so many people died. (Overhearing this, I supplemented Charlie's burgeoning understanding by hollering down the stairwell, "And a lot of people died, so we're sad." I think I heard Paul whisper, "Just ignore your mother," before resuming his more nuanced approach. Good one, Julie. A+ smiley-face in super-mindful parenting.)
I draw a lot of lessons from this little incident. First, trust the Mini Page, and let mass media guide your child whenver you feel uncertain. Second, leave all difficult conversations to your better-spoken spouse. Third, Dagwood Bumstead has feelings, too, for other things than sandwiches, and despite the fact that we've always known Beetle Bailey as a dependable, tough-as-nails grunt who could carry our country through its darkest days with resoluteness and aplomb, well, even heroes weep. And Mark Trail can speak without opening his mouth, and thank God Cathy is dead so I don't have to see her cry, too.
Charlie has a new hobby. "What's your new hobby?" I asked him, ready to help or rustle up supplies. I'm always eager to support his interests, as long as they don't involve explosives, and sometimes even then:
He was kind enough to make me an apprentice, with my own ID card and everything.
I think I am quite photogenic.
My soul-sucking tally still stands at zero (unless you count Paul's, which was really just beginner's luck). I'm hoping Charlie will soon have time to train me properly, but first he's working with a new kid at school. "I really think," he said optimistically, "this guy is good soul-sucker material."
And that is how you make new friends when you are my son Charlie.
Yesterday we went for a hike in the woods. Long story short, Ben and his friend A. ran out in front of the group. A.'s mother and I were walking fast to catch up with them, lest they fall into quicksand or slip on some mossy rocks or accidentally be exposed to a drum circle or something. I was looking at Ben and not at the ground, and I tripped on a root. I wrenched my ankle badly. It didn't hurt much at the time, but later, halfway through the grocery store, it hurt so much that I practically had to call a tow truck to get that godforsaken firetruck grocery cart back to the front of the store. (The whole time Ben was squawking indignantly from the cab of the truck, "But we need to stop for gas!" Which is absurd. This is Vermont. The grocery cart was a hybrid.)
So my ankle is wrapped and elevated, and I stump around the house on crutches. Charlie made me a cast patched together from neon-pink index cards: "It utilizes CrossWeave Technology," he assured me, securing it with tape and staples. (The ™ was unsaid but understood.) And Ben? Ben gave my ankle a kiss and two careful hugs, then vaulted over me on the sofa whooping, "Leeeeeap!" And when I then yelped in pain, he went to get a monkey Band-Aid, introduced himself as the doctor, and read me five of his books.
Which was all well and good but I can't wait until three-year-olds can legally prescribe morphine.
How was your weekend? Good, I hope, despite that little suckup, Jeffy.
My other car is a reproductive endocrinologist's boat
Handy List of Useful Indicators of Female Fertility (If You Are Among an Infinitesimal Segment of the New York Times Fashion and Style Section's Readership, and Also Quite Sadly Deluded)
- Number of hours since your last salon blowout
- Distracting snaggly-looking lower left incisor, presence or absence of; see also: teenage orthodontics, presence or absence of; see also: parental love and concern, presence or absence of
- Current condition of your pedicure, on a scale of Sweet Pink Newborn Toesies to Scrofulous Pterodactyl Claw
- How politely that bartender pretended he needed to card you when you ordered that $19 Geritoltini
- AKC-registered breed most readily called to mind when you get into Downward Facing Dog
- Brand of eye cream you favor for night: the one made entirely from the vanishingly rare North American right whale, or the one with scraps from other junk whales mixed in
- What size sheath dress you can cram yourself into once you've doubled up on the Spanx
- Whether you just pluck those few weird chin hairs whenever they start to feel a little pokey, or whether you have that wiry-ass Jeff Goldblum Fly shit lasered off
Well, I'd Buy 'Em
(Hat tip: Today's xkcd.)
Let me ride on the wall of death one more time
We are all fine after Irene, and thank you for asking. The storm tore up the southern part of our state so badly it makes me cry to see the pictures, and nearby towns were inundated, made inaccessible by rising waters and washed-out roads, but my town suffered only flooded streets and basements.
I expected worse, and I say that not in an eye-rolling-major-metro-jerkwaddy way, but dodged-a-bullet-grateful style. I grew up in south Louisiana, where we took these things seriously enough to tape our windows and fill our bathtubs, and damned if it didn't stick, because there I was bottling up water and charging the emergency lights as if driven by instinct alone. But it has to be nurture, not nature, nothing genetic about it, because on Saturday evening, after we'd stowed the lawn furniture and picked up the toys from the yard, Charlie stayed outside...to water the plants.
The next day was glorious. If you ignored everything around you and just looked up to the sky, it was like nothing even happened. So that is what we did, on the Ferris wheel at the fair.
The pills continue to work, making everything absolutely perfect, or close enough, anyway, that I just now sacrificed Curious George to ward off the evil eye. (Actually, I plunged him into the washing machine to rid him of the funk of urine, but don't tell the vengeful gods that.) We don't know yet what will change for Charlie in the classroom, but a lot has changed at home. We now have to tell him only six times to go get his socks, instead of nineteen with a Taser, or at the very least a Sherpa. Entire meals pass by without our having to remind him that if he keeps hopping up and whirling around like that with utensils in his hand, someone is bound to geMotherFUCK there is a FORK in my EYE holy God JESUS the SRIRACHA the COCK SAUCE it BURRRRRNS. And although his impulse control is still sometimes wanting, he is less inclined to explode and more inclined to use words, spoken at more or less normal volume.
Or even in print. The other day I did something he didn't like — normal bullshit parental request, normal bullshit offspring objection — and he stomped off to his room, then returned five minutes later, stopped precisely three steps in front of me, and thrust a slip of paper at me, saying, "I am really mad at you. For more information, visit my web site or request it by e-mail. Here."
And he spun on his heel and marched out, no doubt on his way to lambaste me on Twitter for my crap-ass customer service.
Still thinking about the article I wrote about last time, and your comments on same. I think y'all know me by now, and how staunchly pro-choice I am. That's how I feel about policy, a position many of you share, but it's also my personal inclination; I think "I don't want to have a baby" is a plenty good reason not to, pretty much no matter what. Thanks to a transformative experience of my own, I can't support the notion that women come to such a decision lightly, and I feel compassion for anyone who faces it. I object to Jenny's contention that ART babies are somehow more of a product than, you know, real babies, but I can't think she was wrong in having her "half abortion."
A lot of you expressed disbelief that someone who'd wanted a baby badly enough to pursue ART could then intentionally rid herself of one. I keep coming back, though, to the idea that it's not just the baby some of us want. ("Just," "simply," "merely," "only" — none of those words quite work here; "just" will "simply" have to do.) If it were, would we go through all we do, to try to have exactly that baby in that particular way?
We each have this vision of what we want our life to be, right? And then we encounter infertility, and that idea gets jacked all to hell. Some of us then find we can be flexible in the particulars: Okay, well, shit, but there are always plans C, D, and E. Some of us find we can't: Adoption isn't for us, or Not with another man's sperm. But at least at first, to some degree, most of us try to hold to that original picture, as much as our circumstances allow.
That's what I think Jenny and the other women in the article are doing, "merely" clinging to their longed-for vision, however foolish it might seem to others. I may think they do so with more tenacity than wisdom; I may think the picture they cherish is distorted; I may find their determination a little sad and spooky. But I feel a great deal of sympathy for them, having done the same myself. To a lesser degree, perhaps — but then again, looking at my archives here, huh, maybe not.
Jenny is an asshole, and so, of course, am I
Ha, poor "Jenny" from Sunday's New York Times Magazine article on selective reduction in twin pregnancies after ART. I imagine her reading the opening paragraphs of the piece:
As Jenny lay on the obstetrician's examination table, she was grateful that the ultrasound tech had turned off the overhead screen. She didn't want to see the two shadows floating inside her. Since making her decision, she had tried hard not to think about them, though she could often think of little else. She was 45 and pregnant after six years of fertility bills, ovulation injections, donor eggs and disappointment — and yet here she was, 14 weeks into her pregnancy, choosing to extinguish one of two healthy fetuses, almost as if having half an abortion. As the doctor inserted the needle into Jenny's abdomen, aiming at one of the fetuses, Jenny tried not to flinch, caught between intense relief and intense guilt.
As she reads, she feels her stomach sink, her breathing grow shallow, her heart thumping hard in her chest. She continues:
"Things would have been different if we were 15 years younger or if we hadn’t had children already or if we were more financially secure," she said later. "If I had conceived these twins naturally, I wouldn't have reduced this pregnancy, because you feel like if there's a natural order, then you don't want to disturb it. But we created this child in such an artificial manner — in a test tube, choosing an egg donor, having the embryo placed in me — and somehow, making a decision about how many to carry seemed to be just another choice. The pregnancy was all so consumerish to begin with, and this became yet another thing we could control."
At this, she slowly lowers the paper and folds it, slowly, deliberately. Dazed, she wanders into the bathroom, where, under the harsh light of new awareness, she looks at her pallid face in the mirror and whispers, "Holy shit. I'm such an asshole."
I've now read the article three or four times, just to be sure I get the point of it, and I'm still not completely certain I do. I've read numerous reactions to it, though I haven't read the comments on the piece itself — do I look like an asshole? No, I mean that particular kind of asshole — and although I understand some of the outrage I've seen, I don't share the perspective that might reasonably give rise to it. A parent of twins, for example, or an ART patient who would welcome them, or someone willing to risk conceiving multiples to maximize her chance of success, necessarily has a different viewpoint than mine. (For the record, mine was No oh please God no, so much so that during the donor cycle that resulted in Ben, we transferred a single embryo.)
The reactions I've read are largely visceral; many people report that they couldn't finish reading the article, so distasteful was the proposition of terminating half of a twin pregnancy for what the author calls "social indications" — concerns about money, say, or "becoming a second-rate parent." (Jenny feared "twins would soak up everything she had to give, leaving nothing for her older children." Twins: the quicker picker-upper!) Some felt that by having taken on on the risk of multiples to begin with, Jenny and others like her should live with the consequences — a familiar hard-liner argument in the case of high-order multiples, but a startling one coming, in this case, from what I think of as "our side."
To me, though, that wasn't the most compelling point, how lamentable and/or monstrous and/or A-OK and/or Jenny-is-an-asshole we find such an action to be. In fact, those reactions were a good example of what struck me hardest about the article: how mutable, how situational, how conditional our feelings are about abortion.
How many times have you heard someone describe him or herself as opposed to abortion exceptincasesofrapeorincest? Compare the sympathy you might have felt for the young woman working her way through college who gets pregnant unexpectedly while on contraception to the indignation that arises when you hear of someone fresh from her fifth abortion. Or, to bring this back to ART and the story at hand, think about how differently we view a selective reduction from quadruplets to twins from a reduction from twins to a singleton — 50% in either case. What's interesting to me is not specifically what any of these women have done; it's that our reaction to their actions changes radically based on how "necessary" we believe them to have been.
It struck me pretty forcibly how reluctant the article's subjects were to call what they did abortion. When Jenny chooses to terminate one of her fetuses, it's characterized as "almost as if having half an abortion." Shelby, who conceived triplets after an IUI, couldn't find a local doctor who'd reduce her pregnancy past twins, and said, "I just wanted [the pregnancy] out, but because we tried for so long, abortion wasn't an option." (She later flew to New York for the reduction to a singleton.) Almost as if? Half an abortion? Abortion wasn't an option? Another illustration, I think, of the motive — intentionally becoming less pregnant rather than not at all pregnant — being more central to the way we think about these things than the nature of the act itself.
I was remembering a conversation I had with my doctor when we first started trying to conceive a second child. Charlie's birth was still a fresh horror, and I'd been told by my maternal/fetal medicine doctor that the very best way to avoid it was not to have another child, you big dope, but because I am equal parts brave, stubborn, and stupid, we decided to pursue merely the second-best way to avoid it. "I don't want twins," I told my doctor.
And he said a few unflattering things about my egg quality, like, Doctor, I am sitting right here, and how I'd be lucky to get two eggs out of a single cycle, much less two embryos, but that my chances would be diminished by transferring only one. And I hedged a bit, saying that I might be willing to transfer two, depending on quality, meaning maybe two if they were crappy.
"But then you might get pregnant with twins," he pointed out. "What would you do?"
"I'd reduce," I said.
"It's not an easy choice," he said.
"I'd do it, though," I told him simply, sounding either totally badass or totally unhinged, one. (Only later did I remember he had twins himself. My money's on unhinged, and dangerously cold. And a Jenny-grade asshole besides.)
And I would have, for medical reasons. And there are people who would look at that statement and say, Okay, well, but that's different. You'd have had a good reason. A twin pregnancy could have killed you. And that's exactly the point: how we feel about the act stems directly from how we feel about the reasons. Except for the staunchest absolutists, it seems we judge reproductive choices based on the motives behind them.
Mother's little helper
This morning at breakfast I referred to our kids as epsilons. Charlie, who can effectively tune out everything we say short of Charlie, the house is on fire and if you die Ben gets all your stuff, is by contrast exquisitely sensitive to anything he thinks he's not supposed to hear. So the code word piqued his interest. "What's an epsilon?" he asked.
So I started to explain about noted 20th century mathematician Paul Erdös, whose substantial legacy includes more than a thousand published papers, the so-called Erdös problems, and the amusing notion that mathematicians might be assigned an Erdös number, denoting their collaborative proximity to the blah blah blah blah Charlie, the smoke is overcoming me! Saaave the iPod Touuuuch. He tuned out, of course, long before I got to the relevant part, where I explained that Erdös, in his own distinctive vocabulary, referred to children as episilons, ε being used in mathematics to represent small quantities.
...Little math humor there.
He did pick up on the fact that epsilon is a letter in Greek, and interrupted my learned discourse — I read a book, she said icily — by saying, "Oh! I know Greek! It's the language where the letters go —" and then did an angular hand jive to illustrate.
"I think...yes," I said weakly.
"I can read Greek," he insisted, and I thought, Well, Jesus, I mean, why not?
And then he proved it by pointing to the plastic container on the counter, triumphantly crowing, "PLAIN GRΣΣ|< Y⃟GVRT."
You know what's helping? Ritalin. We don't have the right dosage yet, but we see some abatement. It's better. Not great yet, but better.
Paul and I came to this from opposite sides. From the start, my inclination was to try medication. If ADHD is a biochemical problem, I reasoned, why not try a biochemical solution? He was more cautious, as he tends to be, and expressed the concern that along with any good it did, a drug might mute the parts of Charlie's personality that we find so engaging.
But this is a fact: With all the static — the hyperactivity, the noise, the lack of focus, the poor impulse control — the condition created, it was getting hard to see those good parts sometimes. It shames me to know that, and I feel it as a weakness, that I don't have some magical X-ray parenting specs that make it possible for me to see effortlessly through several layers of bullshit down to the essential kid every time. I wish I could do better: hang on to my patience, keep my sense of humor, tap into kindness and tolerance more, and less into exasperation.
But wishing wasn't working, and although normally I would embrace the chance to make yet one more thing all about me, this isn't. It's about Charlie and his experience of the world. Nothing makes this clearer than something my friend E. told me, about someone she knows who was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. Her friend, E. told me, remembers her childhood primarily as a series of angry faces.
I don't want that for my kid. Even if Paul and I somehow managed to develop the most exquisite patience, tolerance, and humor — I could read a book, she said icily — there is still the rest of the world.
The drugs aren't the whole of it, not by a long shot, and maybe not even the most effective part. There's still a great deal to do, a lot of teaching, learning, accommodating, adapting. It's just that until we find a way to turn down the static a little, I don't think Charlie can receive much of it. And if medication helps us make him more ready to take it in — well, then, bring on the pills.
It seems the fish were biting, along with everything else
Hey, you know how I always talk about Tyler Place as if everyone there walked around in an unshakeable haze of smiles, relaxation, and goodwill? Well, this summer Ben proved me wrong:
I wasn't there when this photo was taken. I was probably doing something like cooking a meal or scrubbing a toilet or — ha ha ha haaaaaaaaa just kidding; more like kayaking with my spouse or lingering over coffee with new friends or reading a book on a chaise longue in the cool of the morning shade. Whatever I was doing, I certainly wasn't impaling worms, keeping a boat full of preschoolers from hooking each other, or, worst of all, touching fish. But Ben, I am told, had a fantastic time, and indeed he said so later. I can only suppose that in the moment, when the photographer said something friendly like, "Look upon what you have slain and rejoice!" — well, he got a little freaked out. And shrank from his trophy. And clutched at the nearest grown-up.
I'll confess it, because although I feel about Tyler Place like I do about TiVo and the Wacoal 85185, I am committed to a foundation of truth in my blogging: Ben had a tough time of it. Every dropoff with his group was as teary and fraught as if we were leaving him not at a bright, spacious facility packed with amusements, but at, I don't know, a venomous snake proving ground, or, in the evenings, maybe an exclusive poison tasting. ("Complex, mineral, with aromatic overtones of death, remorse, and parental abandonment.") He liked the activities a great deal and talked about them enthusiastically once he was back with us. But as soon as he figured out we were setting out again for the playhouse, the whimpering began: "I want to stay with my fami'y!" As if he thought we were doing something fun instead of cleaning bathrooms. And riding bikes. And taking sailing lessons. And laughing ourselves stupid on the low ropes course.
If we hadn't known from experience and observation that he was in a safe, welcoming place with staff who genuinely cared about kids, we might have been concerned. If the counselors hadn't greeted him each time by name, bringing him skillfully into activities, remembering what he particularly liked to do, we might have had reservations. Because according to Ben, the counselors weren't nice. "They are not nice," he told us solemnly on his second day after pickup.
"Oh?" I asked mildly, examining the backs of my thighs for hammock prints.
"No, they are bad people." Eyes wide with the import of what he was telling me.
"Hm," I murmured, looking forward to that evening's gin and tonics, plural, in the lounge, while aforementioned bad people cared for my second son. "What do they do that's bad?"
Ben paused to think, groping for any credible example of depravity. He finally seized on one, the worst thing he could think of: "They bite."
Nice try, kid, but I'm not buying it. To pry me out of my Adirondack chair overlooking Lake Champlain, you're gonna have to show me some marks.
Out of something like 66 families, that week there were eight sets of twins. Eight. My math isn't great, but I calculate that to be an incidence of roughly 382%, or about 950 twins per 1000. And although I won't speculate on any aspect of that fact, because for some reason everybody hates it when I jump to conclusions about the reproductive capabilities of strangers, as if such a thing were private or something, I will say we were among our people. And that is not an assumption.
When we arrived, Charlie and I went to the inn to check in. As we stood in line, someone behind me said my name. She had recognized Charlie, she said, from reading my blog, and quickly recited her history, which ended, happily, in one of those sets of twins.
It was the first time I've ever been recognized, so I got a little kick out of that, but more importantly, I felt known. I like meeting new people, but I sometimes find it hard to navigate those first few exchanges, when I haven't yet determined just how much myself I can be. Meeting C. instantly relieved that anxiety. It was a real gift, her reaching out to me like that, and I'm so grateful. Even if I'm still jealous that her kids smiled in every photo. (Maybe they had more fun than Ben did. Or maybe the ravenous counselors found them slightly less toothsome.)
Charlie had a blast, of course, and if I could figure out how to rotate my movie of him going down the zip line without asking you to pick up your monitor and cant it 90 degrees counterclockwise, I'd show you. But like with Ben, the photographic evidence of his pleasure is — oh, let us call it limited. The best picture of the week was this one, from pirate night:
...when his homicidal look of deadly murderous lethal killishness was at least thematically appropriate. I know he loved the trampoline, the bounce house, the karate class, the campfire, the pools both outdoor and in-. I just can't prove it. There is no way to show you the gladness I felt with his flashes of giddy joy.
I say this every year, but because there is no horse so dead that I scruple to flog it further — oh, Ben didn't like the pony rides, either, because "they wanted to bite me," which leads me to wonder if there was anything on the property that didn't want a chunk of tasty, tasty boychild. Jeez, kid, bicycles are herbivores — I really treasure the chance to enjoy my kids without the concomitant crap, to feel a whole uninterrupted week's worth of everything I love about being a parent.
It's been painful to come back, as always, and not just because there's no easing in, no halfway house where someone offers you only two entrees at dinner instead of three, and entertains your kids for merely half the day instead of three-quarters. The questions we have about Charlie still loom, and a large part of the rest of the summer will be devoted to devising some sort of plan, both for home and school. Ben, almost three now, has begun experiencing these sudden hopping fits of rage on the flimsiest provocation; that they are developmentally appropriate makes them no less tiresome. And I will just get on with it. Back to life as we know it, rather than life as we wish it could be.
It's been a long time since I posted here. It's so nice to be back on my blog. I have a lot to say but little time to say it, as Charlie is mostly home. But I miss this space, and I'm energized by Melissa's great post about blogging. See you here soon, I hope. Thank you for staying around.
Letters in the mail
A large envelope arrived in the mail, the first of two reports from Charlie's evaluation. Quickly: ADHD.
This particular report runs to almost 20 pages and breaks my fucking heart, not for the conclusion itself but for the details it contains. "Cannot work in a group." "Increasingly socially unengaged." "Did not attend or participate." "I hate all the work that I have to do; it's a bit too hard and I just don't want to do it." "Engages in a great deal of task refusal and expresses a disdain for school that is extraordinary for kindergarten students." "Verbally and physically aggressive." One classroom interaction in particular, as observed minutely by the evaluator, makes me cringe to consider. I'll just say this: I'm very sorry, S., for what Charlie did, and I hope you grow a new leg.
I joke because, oh, God, I don't know what else to do.
The report notes that Charlie is "currently functioning within the 'superior' range of cognitive abilities," but you wouldn't know it from his classroom performance, and that is precisely the problem: "Charlie's functional demonstration of his cognitive abilities in the form of academic performance is significantly lower than would be expected given his cognitive abilities...Classroom observations and teacher reports indicate that Charlie's poor academic performance is predominantly related to his behavior."
The report goes on to deliver a gentle pat of consolation, in case we were feeling guilty: "Charlie's premature birth cannot be overlooked as having a potential influence on his current presentation." The evaluator goes on to cite numerous possible consequences of prematurity; I will summarize this part of the report thus: Don't have your babies early. It can really fuck things up. (Now imagine me delivering this next part really fast, in a low voice, like the voice-over in a prescription drug commercial: Of course, not every child born early experiences these repercussions, and many full-term children experience nausea, anemia, disorientation, hallucinations, unexplained calf pain, irritability, scrofula, quinsy, worm fit, yellow jack, scrimshaw, aaaaand death.)
It's tempting to conclude that what we're dealing with now is the result of Charlie's early birth, thereby absolving ourselves of any part in it. It's also tempting to deliver a few punishing thumps to the chest and wail with the guilt and remorse of it: What have we dooooone to make him this way? I could go to either extreme, I guess, but I don't think there'd be any point. Where it comes from is not an urgent question. I am much more occupied just now with what to do about it.
What to do about it.
We have an upcoming meeting with the school at which I expect -- because they have warned us -- that they'll contend that Charlie is not eligible for special education. The question is one of adverse effect: Does his current condition have an adverse effect on his educational performance? And although the evaluator's report seems to say so in so many words -- "academic performance is significantly lower than would be expected given his cognitive abilities" -- the definition per state regulations is quite specific. He would have to be performing at the 15th percentile or lower in one of seven basic skill areas to qualify. And even given how little he attends or participates in class, that's just not the case. Regardless of how poorly he's performing in relation to his own cognitive ability or his potential, he's not doing badly enough in relation to grade norms.
And I've gone through the looking glass seven or eight times so far on this. Good? I...guess? That he's not doing that badly? Badly enough...to get the full range of assistance from professionals who specialize in this stuff? Which is...bad? Or...good?
I don't even know. I don't know what's next. I don't know what the school will propose, and I don't know what to counter with. I don't know what he's entitled to. I don't know what would help. I don't know what we should be fighting for, and that scares me most of all.