Thursday, November 7, 2013

Have I Retired?

Have I retired?

That was the question a reader (ok, a relative) asked me recently. Lunch Box Mom has not retired but I’ve been on a hiatus, putting my time into writing a play. I also write a blog for Mindprint Learning called The Educated Mom, and between the two, I don’t have much left to write LBM.

It’s not about having time. No parent has enough time. It’s about the capacity to think of something appropriate to write. This blog has usually been a place for me to write about what’s on my mind. When I began, I wrote about the agonizing period of sleep-deprivation we were going through with our youngest child. That showed me the power of a blog: strangers gave me useful advice. The blog ran in the NY Times, making something that was personal suddenly very public.

But anything on the Internet is public. Any blog, but especially a “mom blog” constantly confuses that particular relationship. We write about familiar topics or things that relate to the most intimate connections we have: our children, our function as parents, our day-to-day routines. But we send those thoughts out for all to read.

For a time, I became interested in how the non-personal became personal: contaminated children’s Tylenol, gender-stereotypes in toys, cadmium in toys, junk food for kids, the HPV vaccine.

At other times, I needed to express the absurdity of it all, and wrote  Tips the Parenting Magazines Won’t Tell You, still some of my favorites.

I’ve taken two “long breaks” from the blog, but otherwise, I was pretty consistent about posting each week. The experience of writing nearly every day in preparation for the posts made me a better writer, I believe, as doing anything over and over may improve one’s skills.

So, I changed. But now, so have my kids. They are older. It doesn’t feel right to write about them as I did before. Perhaps a college admissions officer will one day read that Ava was a terrible sleeper when she was 2.5 years old, but henceforth her digital trail will be monitored, not created, by me.

And the other things on my mind: yoga, meditation, writing a play, working for a start-up, are things that don’t fit so neatly into the blog. And yet, I’m not ready to give it up. The thing I miss most on these breaks is hearing from other people. Readers. Friends. Relatives.

Over the years, a few readers, mostly moms, have asked if I ever publish guest posts. I always said no. If the blog was going to bore, offend, or delight people, I wanted the blame. But now, while I finish my play (which I cant’ talk about) and do yoga (hard to type in downward dog) and maintain my children’s privacy (it’s the least I can do), I am changing my views.

I’ve already learned how to use Blogger, and you’ve already subscribed to this blog. Why not make it interesting? I hope to return to writing posts, at the very least offer some Tips The Parenting Magazines Won’t Tell You, but in the meantime, a few friends in my writing group (which I’ve attended once) have some essays on parenthood.

When I’m not meditating, I may just get around to posting them. Drop me a line, if you have one, too. 


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Mad Men and Crayons

A child coloring quietly, possessed by a creative focus. Just a box of crayons, a piece of paper and a limitless stream of ideas.

You know this didn’t happen in my house recently. We’re still in the bumpy transition into summer made glorious agony by cold rainy weather.

The quiet scene happened in a commercial for Crayola crayons from the 1960’s that I saw a few days ago while visiting the Crayola “Experience” in Easton, Pennsylvania.

The “Experience”, once called “Factory”, was a good rainy day outing for my two girls. They designed their own labels and affixed them to fresh crayons, they watched a magic marker become filled with ink, and we sat through a twenty minute performance starring two animated crayons and an actual human who explained how non-toxic crayons are made of paraffin wax and pigment. It was before this show started that we sat captive watching old commercials.

The commercials from the 60’s seemed to be of a series, each with the same tone and intensity. The camera moves in from behind or close to the shoulder of a child, as if we’ve been invited into the inner monologue of the young person who is living out a fantasy through his or her work. We hear the voices of the children, or in other cases the voice of a male actor--slightly smug, cool, and not very salesman-like.

At the end, there’s a memorable line, setting the crayon apart from other toys or fads.

Fifty years ago the Mad Men were playing on parents' desires to give children something valuable and a box of crayons was presented as the alternative to gimmicky, battery-powered distractions. If the influx of those toys was swelling then, now it feels the wave has exploded into an overwhelming ocean of electronics. And in some ways, we are on the other side of the threat implied in the ads. Watching the old commercials, I realized not many ads or products today so overtly suggest that our children's own creativity is enough. I am more aware of the push to augment their talent, or take it to levels that would not be found within them alone.

I don’t know if it was nostalgia, brilliant advertising, or honest sentiment, but I spent a lot in the gift shop on crayons.

This commercial on YouTube was not the best of the ones I saw in Easton, but it’s a good example of the tone.

Thanks for reading. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Just Shred It

I recently bought a shredder, and the rest is history. Or should I say my history is shredded.

The papers that are now gone, testaments to an age before digital, were filed neatly in storage folders that I hauled around without thought. Eventually, after more than a decade of accumulation, the important documents had reached an age of no importance.

It was time to let go.

Did I need a rental agreement from 1998? My name wasn't even on the lease. 

Probably safe to shred.

Perhaps the lease didn’t need to be so thoroughly pulverized, but I’d reduced the process of cleaning to two choices: keep or shred.

Those duplicate checks the bank sent by mistake? Shred.

My husband’s taxes from a year before I met him? Shred.

Taxes for both of us for several years after we met? Shred.

Pay stubs, bank accounts statements, receipts, old insurance cards, documents about our first house.

Shred. Shred. Shred. Shred. Shred.

I’ve had my identity stolen, and the initial impetus for shredding these papers was to lessen the likelihood of it happening again. But the process of revisiting the papers was emotional.

I felt that the person who kept such meticulous files had changed, at least in a literal sense. I no longer have the time or inclination to save a receipt from Kinko’s, file it, and lug it to three states and five dwellings.

That temperament and those papers were from a bygone era; one that needed paper and possession.

That thought struck me most when I found a small folder designed to hold business cards. These cards were once valuable--the information was not easily found online, you would not be scanning the card into a computer, or receiving contact information from an email, and the best way to reach someone was still through calling them on an actual telephone on a number not everybody had.

I am not sure when the year 2000 started to feel like ancient history. But the more papers I had to look at, the more the time appeared remote and unconnected.

This week on The Educated Mom we look at our first question for our Summer Series: When can a child walk to a friend's house alone?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Cowboy at the Pump

It was a disgustingly humid and sticky day last week when I pulled into a gas station near empty. There were at least six other cars at pumps and I figured I’d be in for a wait.

Seconds later a man rolled up to the pump across from me in a big truck. He was a landscaper by the looks of the logo stenciled to the side. Without waiting, he hopped out of his truck, put a credit card into the pump and began doing what I have not seen in ten years: pumping his own gas.

“What’s going on?” I thought.

I can’t tell you how quickly my mind raced: Was he not from these parts? No, his plates were from New Jersey. Did he know the owner? Had something terrible happened and there was a suspension of state laws? 

He wiped some sweat off his face, pulled up his blue jeans and strolled into the quickmart.

Meanwhile the college girl in front of his car, impatient and probably motivated by what she’d just witnessed, got out of her car and attempted to finish her transaction without the attendant.

We are always on the brink of chaos, aren’t we?

The man in the truck came back, now with a large can of iced-tea. He popped the top and tossed it down, drinking it as if it were a cold beer. The vision gave me a flashback. Was I back in Texas?

No. I was still in New Jersey. It was humid after all. And the man was not wearing ropers.

My cowboy finished filling up before the attendant handed me back my credit card. He was long gone when I said, somewhere between a question and a tattletale: "That guy in the truck filled up his own tank, you know?”

The attendant looked at me with a smile. It seemed he didn’t speak much English. He'd had one less customer to tend to on that miserable day, I am not sure he was so saddened by my report.

If you look up the law, though, it was this attendant and not my cowboy, who’d have gotten stuck with a fine for daring to fill up his own pickup. According to the Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act:

 34:3A-6. Dispensing of fuel; regulations 

It shall be unlawful for any attendant to: a. Dispense fuel into the tank of a motor vehicle while the vehicle's engine is in operation; b. Dispense fuel into any portable container not in compliance with regulations adopted pursuant to section 8 of this act; c. Dispense fuel while smoking; or d. Permit any person who is not an attendant to dispense fuel into the tank of a motor vehicle or any container.

As for the fine: A violator of any provision of this act shall be liable for a penalty of not less than $50.00 and not more than $250.00 for a first offense and not more than $500.00 for each subsequent offense.

I don’t know if the attendant or the retailer would have had to pay the fine. But I have little doubt that someday you'll see my cowboy at a pump again.

This week on the Educated Mom, we look at the Cognitive Style of dogs.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Missing Sock: Would You Pay More?

Recently, a friend and I had a conversation about socks. Not where most of mine were, although I’d love to know, but how much people were willing to pay for them. It started when I mentioned my concern over where my children’s clothes were manufactured.

I may have had good intentions, my friend acknowledged, but most people don’t follow through on them.

The socks she mentioned were part of a 2006 study, “Consumers with a Conscience: will they pay more?” Quentin Fottrell summed up the study well in a Wall Street Journal MarketWatch article last month (Would you pay more for fair-trade socks? Why shoppers don’t care about Bangladesh).

Given the choice between socks, one pair identified as being made in Good Working Conditions-no child labor or sweat shop conditions—and those with no description of working conditions at all, only fifty percent of consumers would buy the GWC socks even when the prices were identical. When the price of these socks went up, even fewer.

Fottrell’s article describes one reason why this might be the case, quoting a co-author of the original sock study, professor Ian Robinson. “Most people are conditional co-operators,” he says. “If other people pay more for ethical products, they will. If other people don’t, they won’t.”

We’ve certainly seen a swell of popularity for Toms shoes, it seems possible that “peer pressure” can be effective in creating a brand that is desirable and ethical. But as a parent dealing with laundry, as well as a conscience, there are a few things I’d add to the sock dilemma.

First, buying more expensive and ethically made clothing means buying less. If close to 80% of clothes bought this year eventually ends up in a landfill, according to a story on NPR this morning, it seems many of us are buying more than we need.

Second, the quality of what we do buy, not only the conditions in which it’s made, needs to be high.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Am I the only mother who has found that the clothes I bought for my oldest child—ones that have weathered years of washing and are now hand-me-downs for my youngest—are better made than the ones I might buy new right now from the same stores? I’m not talking about traditional “fast-clothing stores”, either.

My husband’s shirts—again, the same brand he’s used for nearly two decades, now develop rips on the elbows after a year. Our dry-cleaner said the fabric is cheaper these days. Her advice: my husband should stop using his elbows so much.

When it comes to children’s clothing, would I be part of the 1/3 of consumers who would follow through on good intentions and pay more for clothing made in good working conditions? I’d like to try. I don’t think I’d be perfect.

A cursory search on the Internet to find information about retailers did not yield the most easy-to-follow guidance: A t-shirt here, a pair of shoes there—clearing house of ratings with pop-up adds for stores I already use.

Recently, I ordered two shirts for my oldest from a company that uses organic cotton. Of the factories, I know nothing, however.

The purple shirt arrived in a week. The label said, “Made in China.” According to a chart in the New York Times, garment workers in China may make $500 a month compared with $37 in Bangladesh.

The green shirt arrived a few weeks later. Except for the color, it was identical to the purple one. Then I looked at the label. “Made in the USA.”

As confusing as a missing sock.

This week on The Educated Mom, we follow up our post on Summer Reading with a look at Math.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

(Continue to) Listen To Your Mother

Readers may remember Ann Imig, National Director of Listen to Your Mother, live performances of poems, stories, and monologues celebrating motherhood.

It’s been two years since my post on Ann, and the reach of LTYM has spread to several more cities across the country. I caught up with Ann recently to find out what’s new.

How has Listen To Your Mother grown since last we checked in? LTYM has (more than) doubled in size each year. From my first Madison show in 2010, to five shows in 2011, to ten in 2012, to TWENTY FOUR in 2013.

Where will you be this year? This season I saw the 2nd annual show in DC, the 2nd annual show in Chicago, the 3rd annual show in Austin, and I'll host my 4th annual show in Madison this Mother's Day Sunday.

What is your goal for the years ahead? My goal is to facilitate getting LTYM to as many cities as want to host it, while maintaining the mission, the vision, and what's left of my sanity.

Can you give us a sneak preview into one story or monologue from this year that you think is pretty great? One piece of the dozens of brilliant stories I've already heard this season that took my breath away and left me weeping in my seat in Chicago, is a love letter of sorts from Liz Joynt Sandberg to the mothers in her church-- a spoken word ode to the every day details of mothering, and her fervent wish that they could even for a moment see themselves the way she sees them. I'm tearing up even at the memory.

And for those who want another way to listen to a mother, my eight-year-old can't put down this interesting book on the presidents' moms: First Mothers by Beverly Gherman with creative illustrations by Julie Downing.

Happy Mother's Day. May you get to sleep late.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Mrs. Your-Name-Here

It’s wedding season, and although I don’t expect to get any invitations this year, my heart goes out to any couple busily planning the big day. In particular, it must be hard these days to figure out how best to word the invitation-both the description of the event and even the envelope, in a way that suits both tradition and contemporary outlooks or realities.

In the few cases that we’ve received invitations over the past few years, I’m not a stickler. Spell our name wrong, don’t spend money or hours laboring over calligraphy, call me by my husband’s first name: it’s not my day, it’s the couples’, and I’m usually just impressed to get actual snail mail and to see pretty stationery.

However, in other matters, ones that don’t involve love or rehearsal dinners, I do pay attention to how letters are addressed to my husband and to me, and when, for the sake of etiquette, I am referred to as a Mrs. Thomas L. Vander Schaaff.

I image there was a day, perhaps in Holland many moons ago, when there are were a lot of Mrs. Vander Schaaff’s, and it was useful to specify that it was the Mrs. Thomas L. Vander Schaaff to whom the letter was intended.

These days, being that we’re not in Holland, the only time I’ve had a near run in with a linguistic doppelgänger was at a local bakery around Thanksgiving.

“What do you mean another Sarah Vander Schaaff reserved an apple pie? Surely that is my apple pie on the counter.”

Perhaps then, and only then, I might have asked if it was a Mrs. Thomas L. Vander Schaaff’s apple pie and not some other Mrs. Vander Schaaff, but I didn’t.

No, for the sake of clarity and dignity, it seems fitting to simply say Mrs. Sarah Vander Schaaff and not invoke my husband’s first name, especially when he’s not even listed on the envelope or, presumably, intended to read its contents.

I decided to check with the arbiters of modern etiquette. First, I turned to the Emily Post Institute online, which says that, “Above all, manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.”

On their page, Guide to Addressing Correspondence, they have several options for addressing a woman. If you want to get a headache, try reading all the variations. Suffice it to say, they state that if you are addressing a married couple formally, and the woman has taken her husband’s name, and she uses the prefix Mrs., the correct way to address the envelope is: “Mr. and Mrs. John Kelly”.

There are many exceptions, and all hell breaks loose when a woman elects the prefix Ms. or, as they say, “outranks” her spouse.

I then turned to Martha Stewart. In a page dedicated to addressing wedding invitations, the site offers a tip for informal address: “To some couples, omitting wives' first names feels too old-fashioned; including the first names of both husband and wife after their titles is appropriate.”

Congratulations, women, having your first name appear on the envelope after your title is, in fact, appropriate in 2013. While Martha’s team intended this for weddings, perhaps we can spread the news.

A few years ago, when we were searching for schools for my then six-year-old, I looked into an all girls school nearby. I didn’t need to be convinced of the benefits of same-sex education, but they certainly did a good job of giving me the facts, including information about what a strong indicator it was for future positions of leadership.

Given our daughter was six, I did all the work for the application. I wrote the essays, I filled in the PDF forms, I wrote the check for the application fee. My husband was supportive, but I was the one who stood in line at the post office to mail in that packet.

The formal correspondence we received from this school for girls, this institution that celebrated their potential, came back addressed to: Mr. and Mrs. Thomas L. Vander Schaaff.

I don’t think it was a betrayal of their core philosophy. I think they just forgot that actual etiquette is a “sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.”

In most cases, identifying someone by her first name, even if she's elected for whatever reason to take her spouse’s last, is an acknowledgement of her personhood—if not feelings.

This week on The Educated Mom, I take a look at one school tradition that reminded me why it's good to get out of the classroom.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Hot Water

“Don’t get electrocuted,” I said to my husband as he headed into the basement.

Our water heater was gushing water, and although I had no idea what he’d need to do, the send-off at least made me feel better.

He didn’t get electrocuted, but he did shut off the water. A few minutes later he was out the door with the kids, and I was left, as any spouse who stays home would be, to figure out the rest.

First, I called the plumber. It’s always a great day at my plumber’s office, according to the recording you hear while on hold. My day was not going so well, but I was glad they were happy. They’d send a plumber in an hour.

Then I called my basement guy.

“Brian?” I said. “How are you?” he asked politely.

It was 7:45 in the morning.

“Oh, you know anytime I call you this early, I’m…kind of…”

He knew the rest. I’d had brief episodes of water in the basement before, at our previous house and once at our current house when a different plumbing appliance overflowed on the first floor and caused mayhem beneath. If he could spare someone from a crew, he said, they’d come to the house that afternoon.

I went downstairs and stomped around the soggy carpet. Fortunately, or not, most of the junk in the basement was not in the path of the stream of spilled water. Still, I had my trash bag and tossed what I could.

There was not much to do at that point but wait, so I did what anyone would do, I went on Facebook. Friends diagnosed my hot water heater issue in less than a minute. The thing was dead. This is how they end their long careers—by spilling 75 gallons of water all over the house they once provided for.

When the plumber arrived he confirmed the diagnosis.

While I read descriptions of new hot water heaters, the basement man called back with a time. He’d send someone at 1pm. Great. I was in business, but what about the dentist? My oldest daughter and I had 1pm appointments. This mother-daughter-teeth-cleaning-date was going to have to wait.

“I am very sorry,” I told the receptionist when I called, “but I need to take care of the basement.”

A bit later, I was about to eat something—sans water—when the phone rang.

“Mrs. Vander Schaaff?” said the voice of my youngest daughter’s assistant preschool teacher. It was either pink eye or vomit—I knew from her voice—something for which my daughter had been quarantined and would now be sent home. It was not pink eye today.

Well, it’s lucky the water heater broke today, I told myself, I would have been in the dentist’s chair around now and unable to pick her up right away. 

The day was looking up.

So, I grabbed a banana and headed out the door.

I’d get the sick kid first, then the one who thought she was heading to the dentist, and make it back home just in time to meet the basement guy with the shop vac.

Somewhere around this time I cancelled a playdate for the afternoon. Friends are understanding when both your hot water heater and your four-year-old are unable to keep things down.

After that, things moved quickly. The new water heater was almost installed. The basement guy wasted no time. The fans were blasting. There was hope for hot water and a dry carpet.

Then I remembered the chicken. Hot water or no hot water, that chicken needed to be cooked or it would spoil. I threw it in a marinade and tossed it in the fridge.

A few hours later, my husband returned home. We had hot water. We had a (nearly) dry basement. The chicken just needed to be put on the grill. I hadn’t showered or sat down for more than ten minutes, aside from in the car, but things were almost back on track.

Dark storm clouds rolled in as I kissed the kids good night. Downstairs, the boom of thunder and lightening made me nearly jump as I handed my husband the tray of chicken.

“Don’t get electrocuted,” I said, as he headed out the door to grill in a thunderstorm.

At least the day had symmetry.

This week on The Educated Mom we look at vision, or my own lack of it, when it came to my daughter's eyesight.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Most of the people who read this blog are probably parents or grandparents and it’s hard not to be thinking of eight year old Martin Richard right now, the young boy who died in the bombings yesterday, just a short time after seeing his father cross the finish line at the Boston Marathon.

Patriots’ Day, my husband, a New Englander, reminisced last night, is special for kids. It’s a school holiday, celebrating the battles of Lexington and Concord, and it’s also usually a home game for the Red Sox.

How much more wonderful to have your father running in the one of the most prestigious marathons in the country and to be positioned near the finish line.
One of the things that saddens me about the death of Martin Richard is that he had ever right to be joyful. Every reason to stand proudly and eagerly and expectantly near the finish line and cheer for his father. No reason to live in fear that at 2:50 that afternoon a bomb would detonate and take his life and hurt his beloved mother and sister.

My father has written about unexpected tragedies and often follows a theme that everything is normal until it isn’t. All the details of a life that seem prosaic, in retrospect, are bittersweet when placed in the context of the end we wish didn’t come.

You may have seen a photo on Facebook of Martin holding a poster board. Handwritten in marker it reads, “No More Hurting People. Peace.”


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Kids' Meals

Wherever you go there you are. But when you’re on a literal and not spiritual journey, it might be more accurate to say, wherever you go….there’s an Olive Garden. Or an Applebees. Or a Subway.

That fact was confirmed on my recent two-day road trip, but the truth is these chains are not popping up because of infrequent travelers like me. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Americans spend almost half their food dollars on restaurant meals.

So it makes sense that the Center for Science in the Public Interest would take a look at kids’ meals at these restaurants as they did in the study released last month, Kids’ Meals: Obesity on the Menu.

I’d seen the story in The New York Times about this study shortly before we headed home on our 850-mile drive. But I didn’t spend time reading the story until I set about to do four loads of laundry upon our return. Frankly, my mother’s intuition tells me that, when on the road, the kids should eat whatever is thoroughly cooked and least likely to make them sick in the short term. When in Rome, or let’s say a pizza joint, order the pizza.

But the center’s study speaks to a larger point, much bigger than a traveler's needs. A few things stand out.

First, when the center compared the success of kids’ meals at major restaurant chains in meeting standards in calorie limits, sodium, sugar and other goals for healthful eating, established by the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) Kids LiveWell program, 91% failed.

Second, the one chain whose options are head and shoulders above the rest in meeting the goals: Subway. Kudos, by which I mean apple slices, to Subway.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has some pretty straight-forward suggestions for the chains that aren’t doing as well. They could, they suggest, try to meet the standards for kids’ meals that they, the restaurants, actually created. And they could do common sense things such as remove soft drinks from the children’s menu, offer more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains and only present these healthy choices to kids in their marketing.

When you sit down at a booth and hand a kid a menu, there is something special about the occasion. Eating out is fun. But consider this description the Center gives for one kids’ meal option: “The children's meal with the most sodium is the Mini Corn Dogs, French Fries, and Milk at Buffalo Wild Wings. That meal contains 3,200 mg of sodium, twice the recommended intake of sodium for a child for an entire day.”

Can you imagine pouring a teaspoon of salt all over your four-year-old’s lunch?

Perhaps corn dogs and french fries are not the epitome of a healthy meal, no matter the sodium. But that goes back to a more fundamental issue, one that demands a stronger look at how we value children: what goes on the kids' menu in the first place.

This week's post on The Educated Mom looks at a trend in TV shows for preschoolers.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Please Don't Drink the Air Freshener

Just when you’re not sure what to write about your four-year-old tries to drink air freshener. Isn’t it always the case? She’s fine, but I may begin a re-child-proofing of our house to keep up with her curiosity.

It all began innocently enough when she told me she wanted another sip of apple juice. I was putting the lunch dishes in the dishwasher and her glass was still on the table. A few seconds later she skipped towards me and said the water with the sticks tasted bad.

Hum, I thought, taking a look at her juice glass. What does she mean by sticks?  She made a face and I was certain she’d tasted something that didn’t seem right.

“Can you show me?” I asked.

After a few seconds she led me into the entryway. We have a large round table decorated with a lamp and about fifty feet of garland my seven-year-old has made out of construction paper. In the center is a glass and wood reed diffuser that sends a subtle, welcoming scent into the air. She and her sister had given it to me, with a little help from their father, a week before on my birthday.

“You drank the air freshener?” I yelled.

“I’m so sorry,” she whimpered.

I led her back into the kitchen and pulled out a chopstick.

“Pretend this is one of the wooden sticks,” I said, holding the chopstick. “Did you put your lips on it and then go ‘yuck’ of did you use it like a straw and try to suck?”

She was not game. And I had a feeling she’d be suggestible to whatever answer sounded like it would make me less upset.

I called our pediatrician. He was calm and helpful.

“Lemongrass,” he said, when I told him the scent. “Well, that’s edible.” Still, he said, call poison control.

Very Old Information
I happened to have the number for poison control quite handy. It’s time likes this, and perhaps only times like this, when I’m glad our kitchen hasn’t been updated since 1980. The previous owner had affixed a small primer from poison control to the inside of a top cabinet and I dialed the number. It forwarded me to the current number and a friendly man answered. I explained my daughter tried to drink from an air freshener diffuser, I didn't think she'd gotten much, but my doctor suggested I call.

“Yes, I did have the original box,” I said. Of course it said to keep out of reach of children and do not ingest. “Williams-Sonoma. Lemongrass,” I offered.

Not long after, he told me he had pulled up the product on his computer. There was probably not much to worry about given her exposure. There was alcohol in it. And oil. And I am sure a lot of other things he didn’t tell me. He thought she’d be fine.

“Maybe have her drink some juice,” he added, “to get the taste out.”

Her breath still smelled like oily lemongrass, something that is a lot less pleasant coming from your child than it is wafting through a room. I gave her some juice. Then I walked her over to the diffuser and explained that she was never to drink anything that I hadn’t given her, especially if it wasn't more akin to water or juice or milk.

I put the diffuser on top of a bookcase, very much out of reach.

You may remember about a year ago when a lot of attention was given to new colorful gel pods of laundry detergent. Shortly after they were introduced, kids began eating the pods in alarming numbers: jumping from 200 reported cases to 1,210 in about two months. The concentrated detergent was dangerous, some kids were hospitalized, some put on ventilators. Senator Chuck Schumer urged the consumer product safety commission to require child safety locks on the packaging.

Senator Schumer was made fun of for talking about the pods and saying laundry detergent was made to look delicious. And I remember thinking that I was glad he was pushing for better packaging and labeling, but that I could not figure out how a kid would think the pod looked like candy, or something interesting to eat.

That was then.

This week on The Educated Mom, we talk about the educational value of a road trip. I'm heading on one soon, and will be back with a new post in April.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tips the Parenting Magazines Won't Tell You: Google Searches

Inspired by a recent article in the NY TIMES, we offer you another edition of Tips the Parenting Magazines Won’t Tell You. We’ve gathered the best in parent Google searches to reveal new insight into the mysterious world of self-diagnosis.

We start with rashes, a wonderful place to start.

“Bouncy Houses and Hand Foot and Mouth Disease” 
Yes, it’s possible! But please do not confuse this with Hoof and Mouth Disease (if you are a farm animal you may be reading the wrong blog). Many parents forget to worry about this problem because they’re distracted by the deafening noise of the air pumps in the facility.

“Is Déjà vu real?”
This query was most common for parents who watch “The Fresh Beat Band” with their five-year-olds. “Wait, this is a new episode, why do I feel like I’ve seen this before?” is the most common follow-up.

“What are the nutritional benefits of pizza and hot dogs?” Lots to read up on with this one but beware; the “Count the Pickle as a Vegetable” parent-group is very aggressive.

“Toys R Us and severe case of Hebejebes” 
Hebejebes may sound like a sugarcoated snack, but parents describe the sensation as “feeling like I must find an exit” or “deep regret that I walked through the princess aisle with my daughter fully alert.” In most cases, the heartbeat usually returns to a normal pace when waiting in line, which should take you about twenty to thirty minutes depending on who is returning a Polly Pocket dream vacation spa without a receipt.

“Can laundry detergent give me supernatural powers?” 
Many an ego has been inflated after removing an “impossible” stain such as grass, mud or blood, but before you try to lift up a car, take a deep breath and spill some red wine on your favorite white linen dress. You will be appropriately humbled.

“Sleep Training and baldness” 
This is not so much a mystery when you think about it.  I maintain there should be more chapters on this in books. Here is my own advice: When you curl up against the wall and wait for your child to stop crying (aka screaming) you should sit on your hands, and not hold them against your hair and pull. 

And finally, what search history would be complete without two perennial favorites?

“Can imaginary friends spread conjunctivitis?”
Given the contagious nature of pink eye is there any wonder parents might worry when a child tells them her imaginary friend was sent home sick from school? Hearing about head lice is equally disturbing. If you can get an email address for the invented friend’s mother, it is certainly OK to drop her a line.

Remember, a Google search for your pediatrician’s home phone number does not usually end well, so stick to the office hours, and never try any of this at home.

Tips the Parenting Magazines Won’t Tell You is an occasional satirical series. Click here for past posts. 

This week on The Educated Mom we look at Pluralistic Ignorance and why it might be a useful phrase for parents.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Spring Cleaning Circa....

Spring is in the air, if not the temperature, and I have been thinking about cleaning, which is different, of course, than actually doing it.

Some readers may know that I am quite immersed in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, reading them with my soon-to-be eight year old, books I did not experience when I was a child. So while my daughter identifies with the young people in the stories, I am usually thinking about Ma, or in the second book of the series, Farmer Boy, Almanzo’s Mother.

Here’s a little bit about spring-cleaning in their farmhouse in New York State.

Let’s see….they pulled all the carpets out the house and hung them on clothes lines; removed every item from the house and scrubbed and scoured and then polished it; then they removed the feather beds, the blankets and quilts and cleaned them. Then they had to fetch water so they could clean the cellar, clean out the vegetable bins and milk pans and finally pour buckets of lime on the walls and floor to “whitewash” them. Then they got some straw and tossed it on the floors back upstairs to go under the carpets which would be brought back in and tacked down.

Do this on top of the chores with the farm animals and make a supper which may consist of: baked beans, salt pork, boiled potatoes, ham gravy, mashed turnips, stewed pumpkin, plum preserves, strawberry jam, and two or three different types of pie.

Could I do all of this?

I have modern technology to help but probably not the know-how, and I do not think I’d like to lay straw beneath the carpets, given my allergies. On the other hand, it would be nice to have everyone pitch in to help clean every single object in the house.

Realistically, I think I’ll try to clean out my clothes closet. If I find anything that hasn’t been worn since 1870, out it goes.

This week on The Educated Mom, we look at cell phones and the lost art of being able to disconnect.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Celebrating Women

By the end of Presidents’ Day weekend, or should I say weekend with no end, given the overlapping schedules my two kids had that amounted to more time off from school than we got for Thanksgiving, I had two thoughts.

First, thank you Honda for mixing up the traditional television commercial for a Presidents’ Day car sale. We may lament the commercialization of any holiday but this ad at least, anticipated our cynicism and surprised us.

And, thank you C-Span for announcing an entire year of programs honoring the president’s wives, running Mondays at 9pm.

It was this television homage to first ladies that made me realize that we can celebrate a holiday by whatever means we want in an effort to make it more inclusive.

I do not wish to diminish the significance of Abraham Lincoln or George Washington or any other president or person after whom a holiday is named. But at some point a mom is going to wonder: when do we celebrate a woman around here?

There is August 26, of course, which thanks to Bella Abzug, is Women’s Equality Day. But the organization Equal Visibility Everywhere (EVE) points out that there is not a single national holiday named after a woman here in the United States. When it comes to the visibility of women’s contributions their data sheet points out:

 --Number of statues of women in National Statuary Hall: 9 out of 100 (9%).

 --Number of stamps honoring women issued by the U.S. Postal Service from 2000 to 2009: 43 out of 206 (21%).

--Number of women depicted on U.S. paper currency: zero.

As for celebrations and parades, EVE produced an Amelia Earhart balloon in 2010 that was, they said, “ the first parade balloon ever to depict an actual historical woman.”

So, when we look at the names of streets, schools, parks, and national holidays, we may find that if they are named after a person, it is most likely that they honor a man.

I’m not asking for another day off of school. But I’d like to spend a few more days answering the question “who was (insert woman’s name here)”.

PS- A friend recently sent me a link to a PBS program broadcasting tonight (2/26) called MAKERS: Women Who Make America, which airs on PBS at 8pm.

This week on The Educated Mom, I ask a Math teacher to explain my daughter's homework to me....

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Nights (And Days) of the Round Table

It was only after three out of four chairs had cracks down their centers that I suggested to my husband that we get a new kitchen table.

The table we had was from his grandmother, given to us when she moved west several years ago. We had driven it down from Connecticut in a U-Haul, carried it through a parking lot and up a flight of steps into our apartment.

Now it sat, a little worse for wear, in our kitchen, surrounded by a rotating mix of chairs, most, as I mentioned, dangerously close to bottoming out.

We decided to move the table to our basement where it would support art projects and not need seats. I don’t know if I’ve grown weaker over the years or if carrying it down steps is just harder than shoving it up some, but I stopped midway through the process and found a screwdriver for my husband.

 “Please,” I begged, “disassemble it.”

So, the old, but not antique, table went down in bits and the kitchen sat empty ready for something new. A few days later, men with dollies and actual furniture pads brought a pretty brown and white table and four chairs into the kitchen.

 All of these chairs work, I thought to myself. No longer would we need to test our parental selflessness—which of us should sit in the most broken of the chairs? The kids weigh less, after all, they probably won’t crash through them, but we, on the other hand…. 

No. Those thoughts were gone. And something else was different. The table was round, or with the wings, oval, but still a much different in shape and size than the rectangular one it replaced.

It was cozy, I discovered, sitting a few inches from my four year old. I could hear her crunch her Honey Nut Cheerio’s. When I cut veggies at the counter, my seven-year- old seemed closer to me while she did her homework. The girls talked more during dinner, better able to inspect and then argue over who had the larger slice of pizza.

The round table was, literally, bringing us closer together.

I’ve read more than once that round tables that are a size too small make for better dinner parties and a dinner party is not what I’d call meals with my kids. But the gist of the idea has held true for us: the physical proximity sparks a kind of connection. Things feel, even at 6am, a bit more festive.

The puppy tries to chew the legs of the chairs, and my four year old recently spilled apple juice down the crevices of the table’s wooden planks, christening it with sticky sweetness. I've given up on enforcing my rule for “no coloring” at the table but coloring on the table is still a no-no.

If I’d had known that having a round table would be such a boon, I’d have broken those chairs a long time ago.

This week on The Educated Mom, we look back on some summers that helped us grow up. Add your story, too.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Parent Cliques: Not So Sweet

Maybe it’s because Valentine’s Day is approaching that the talk now turns to relationships. It was last week that I read a post from Great Schools on Parent Cliques. It moved many readers and they followed it up with a recent post offering advice on how to deal with the problem.

As parents, we've probably all felt the cool shoulder in a school environment from time to time. A common comparison is that the situation reminds people of “high school” or “junior high” all over again. In some ways, maybe it does. And the initial Great Schools article portrayed two very real consequences of these adult cliques.

First, they can deter individuals from contributing time and energy to the school. Second, feelings of rejection, or acts of exclusion, hurt not only a parent, but also his or her kids and intensifies what is already a tough phase for young people.

I wanted to know what it was like for my husband’s grandmother, a 92-year-old-woman who raised three kids and who, even now, seems to be the epitome of graciousness and enthusiasm. I imagined her being a part of a PTA and including every new parent or lost-looking soul into a discussion, remembering someone's name the next time they met.

It was 1960 the last time she went to a PTA meeting. She’d had her third child several years after the other two, and she said she was a 46-year-old mother sitting in a room of mostly 25-year-olds.

“I never made any friends there,” she said recently.

I asked her daughter, who’d inherited what I think of as an ability to make friends quickly. No parent cliques to contend with either, she said. She was working 80-hour weeks. There were few events parents were expected to attend or plan, and when she did go to her son’s private school in Connecticut, the other parents were in a rush to make the commute home.

Then I asked another woman whom I respect. She is now a grandmother, but spent her younger days as the daughter of an Army General moving from place to place. Did her mother give her any tips for making friends when she was a young mom? Not really, she said. As a freelance writer, she developed her own style:

“Cliques are just too hard for me. I prefer to develop my own friends in organic fashion and I tend to be a gatherer rather than one who shuts things off. When I worked at the ballpark, I had a tight group of friends, but was constantly inviting others to join us for dinner in the press box dining room. I think it bothered some of my closer friends, but I remember what it felt like to be on the outside and I never want to give off that vibe.”

I approached this topic thinking it was not only universal but something parents have been concerned about for generations. I am not so sure. Maybe it’s the nature of the independent women I asked. Maybe the current environment of academic competition, or perfectionism, has spurred stronger and consequently less inclusive alliances among parents that act, or are perceived, as ways to control success.

Even if that were the case, given the opportunities of our current world, the person you may least expect to go on to great things may be sitting in your kid’s classroom. It seems to behoove everyone, and every motive, to be nice to that child's parents.

This week on the Educated Mom I take a look at MOOC's, Massively Open On-line Courses, and how they may or may not fit into the concept of a $300,000 college education.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Wonderful Wizard....

A few months ago we got a movie from Netflix, an animated one my husband picked out for the kids as a sort of treat for the weekend. I pulled out the disc and read the synopsis.

"Oh," I thought, "this will induce nightmares for at least a few years."

I popped the disc back in the sleeve and thought about how to assert my veto-power as if it were somehow not unilateral. A few minutes later I got an email from CommonSense Media.

“Watch Out!” the headline read, “Family Movies That Could Traumatize Your Kids.”

The movie my husband picked was number four on the list. I forwarded the email to him and sealed the red envelope.

But cold weather makes hypocrites of us all, and it was not long ago that I showed my kids The Wizard of Oz. It was not on the list from CommonSense Media, but would it scare them? It still scares me.

I must have been eight years old the night I hauled our black and white television into the hallway upstairs so I could watch The Wizard of Oz and be a bit closer to my parents who were listening to their new Simon and Garfunkel album (Concert in Central Park) downstairs.

“I will watch the scary parts with you,” I told my girls. “And remember, the witch is just an actor. She’s just pretending.” I had almost convinced myself, too.

I had forgotten the beginning was in “sepia black and white” and the other parts in Technicolor. Who knew? This was good stuff. On our fancy TV, Oz looked so real and so fake in a certain beautiful kind of way that I wanted to reach out and touch it.

Even before the flying monkeys, my seven–year-old announced she would not watch the rest. She’d save her scary-movie-watching for Harry Potter.

But my four year old was hooked. She was fascinated with the Wicked Witch of the West. And she now listens to the music around the house. She skips to the tune of “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead.” She colors to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and she tries to remember the lyrics to the variations of “If I Only had a Brain.”

The one mistake I made was letting her watch the Veggie Tales version of The Wonderful Wizard of Ha’s before the real thing. “Where is the field of asparagus?” she still asks.

And there’s another thing that I sometimes regret. We can now stream the movie anytime. It is increasingly difficult to offer surprise, excitement and joy, when the things we love are constantly on demand. Getting to see the movie once a year, even if it was on a grainy television the size of a lunch box, was part of what made it special. And it was also one of the reasons I thought of it as special.

The New York Times recently had a story about the Netflix original series "House of Cards". Thirteen episodes have been released all at once for "binge-viewing." It's taking a lot of will power for me to watch them one night at a time.

This week at The Educated Mom, I ask a teacher, parent and clinical child psychologist to explain how the IQ Test relates to education.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Post Script to Good-Bye

The email from my vet said Gilbert’s ashes were ready. I was grateful but I didn’t know how I’d handle this next part.

This is a job I’d really like to give to my husband, I thought.

It was raining, the kind of cold, grey January day that is good for hot chocolate and movies, but not regular fast-paced life. I had just gotten my oldest daughter and was driving the back-roads way to get my younger one. A Subaru wagon was behind me most of the way. It looked familiar, but it was hard to see the driver because of the rain.

Finally, I pulled into the right lane at the traffic light in town and came to a stop. The wagon pulled up in the lane next to me. I glanced over at the driver thinking it might be…yes…it was.

I rolled down my window. The driver did the same.

“Do you have?” I asked.

She nodded. “Yes.”

I looked ahead. Beyond the intersection there were some empty parking spots along the side of the road near the pizza shop.

“I’ll pull over, “ I said rolling my window back up.

A few seconds later, I popped my trunk and walked to the wagon.

“If it wasn’t so preposterous to be getting my dog’s ashes along the side of the road “ I said, looking into my vet’s car, “I’d be more sad.”

She laughed and handed me a pretty bag with a box wrapped in green tissue paper from the front seat.

“It’s heavy,” I said, taking the bag.

 “I knew it was Gilbert,” she said, smiling.

 I thanked her and put the bag into my car.

Sometimes you anticipate emotion. Other times you’re surprised by it. When I sat in the driver’s seat, ready to merge back in traffic, my daughter in the back seat, my dead dog’s ashes in the trunk, I felt overwhelmed by a light feeling of happiness.

“He’s home,” I thought, deciding that was why I was happy. Even if it’s not, I’ll take it.

Thank you to all the kind friends and readers who wrote last week. Hearing your stories and memories both of your pets and of Gilbert was very moving.

This week's post on The Educated Mom is an interview with a mother who has concluded that when it comes to school next fall, her daughter is most likely, "Not Getting In"....

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Good-Bye to Sweet Gilbert

I came home this morning and sat down to write, unmet, for the first time in eleven years by the expecting and knowing eyes of Gilbert our Golden Retriever. 

He was my 28th birthday present, riding home with me from Newburyport, Massachusetts, on March 9, 2002. The blue ribbon around his neck said “Rainy Day Farms” and he was a twelve-pound ball of soft fur clinging to me in the backseat, unsure of the ride and where he was heading.

So quiet for a puppy, until we took him to the vet a day or two later and she realized he had Lyme disease. After a round of antibiotics his true personality emerged and he was chewing our furniture like a puppy should.

 “Will you show him or castrate him?” the vet, Dr. Olga, asked us at our next visit. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms but we chose the latter. He forgave me. If dog shows weren’t in the cards, he still had the look of an LL Bean model. The dog kind, that is.

At every visit, Dr. Olga would examine his paws. In her Russian accent she’d declare his future. “He will be 80 pounds.” His paws kept getting bigger and eventually she said, “He will be 90 pounds.” At his biggest, he was 112 pounds, but I admit that was when Heidi was eating in a high chair and I didn’t mind his helping me “clean up” the floor.

He was the second largest dog in West Concord Puppy Kindergarten although, as with other schools, most awards were given for merit or obedience. In those he excelled in kindness, patience, love and loyalty. Although he’d never go on a walk without tugging on the leash. At first it was because he wanted to run; later it was to grab some discarded food or clumps of fresh cut grass.

We swam with him in pools and rivers when he was young and we were childless. Is there anything more wonderful than a retriever in the water or bouncing through the snow? He rolled in cold snow as if it were sunshine, so good on his furry coat and snout.

He moved with us and saw us through both kids. A gentle giant with them, curious the first day we brought Heidi home, so much so, that wouldn’t venture far on a walk the day she came home in her green car seat. I had walked him everyday during pregnancy and always thought he encouraged me to stay active and healthy. “Thank you, Gilbert,” I’d say later, “I think walking you- and your tugging on the leash--induced my labor just in time.”

It was probably not true, but given the shift in our family’s focus, it was another selfless act on his part. Long trips to the park and long walks in the snow turned into shorter ones, and he took to a supporting role when our lives focused on our kids. Maybe once he pulled the stuffing out of their stuffed animals, but never again. How did he know what was theirs? How did he love them?

He’d steal socks out of the laundry or the suitcase of an unsuspecting guest. He loved women, especially those with blonde hair. He once developed a crush on a woman who owned a video store, aware of her presence a block away.

A few days after his eleventh birthday he sat immobile. Our current vet, also a friend, and another one of Gilbert’s crushes, stopped by the house. In large breeds, she said, this sudden lethargy can often mean….. We knew, but we didn’t want to think much about it.

He perked up the next day. But the following week was off and on. He lost his appetite. His breakfast would sit in the bowl all day. He didn’t want to go for walks. He was slowing down. He was shutting down.

I sat with him for an hour or so yesterday waiting for our vet to come. I’d intended to take him to her office, but he would not stand up. Not even for a hot dog. The real kind. Beef.

I brought him some water. He nibbled on a tiny taste of hot dog I fed him by hand. I held his head in my lap. I told he what he good boy he was. How much we loved him.

The vet and a technician arrived and he stood up—only the second time all day, and greeted her with love. He was happy to see her and tucked his long tail, as if slightly sad that he couldn’t show off more for her.

He lay down. She looked at his gums. She felt his breathing. It was clear this was the end.

So, I held him and told him what a good boy he was. The sedative took effect. His head was warm on my lap and I knew he was feeling a calm sense of peace. He’d just had a hot dog and was surrounded by pretty women.

 Then the next injection came and I held and talked to him some more. Such a loving creature to hold and comfort. Then, the warmth was still there, but I knew he no longer was.

Good-bye to sweet Gilbert. He was a noble dog.

 The painting of Gilbert was done by Gregory Basmajian, a dear friend's brother who died, too young, late last year.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Where's An Ethicist When You Need One?

We have all seen our children, perhaps after consuming Doritos or Cheetos, lick their fingers. But ballet barres are notoriously flavorless, so it surprised me when just last week a pint-sized ballerina removed her hands from the practice barre in the lobby of my daughter’s ballet studio and licked her hands as if Frito-Lay had seasoned it.

One. Two. Three. Maybe five licks of her palms and fingers.

I stood frozen, wondering what to do. It’s the peak of cold and flu season; I knew the kids were about to enter the class and hold hands; the mother was seated not far away but was engaged with her younger child and in conversation; and I had a fresh packet of wet wipes sitting in my purse read to share.

Yet, I did nothing. I waved to my daughter as she headed into class and wondered what I’d become: brave in the face of germs or meek at the thought of speaking up.

The dilemma, as my relative in Canada wisely defined it was this: what are the boundaries as parents regarding others’ children?

I have a friend who shares my uneasiness around things we think harbor germs. I imagine if she didn’t have a medical understanding of the body’s need for oxygen, she’d hold her breath on the two-hour flight to Disney World to avoid recycled air.

“Could I have offered that child a wipe?” I asked on Facebook. “Spray that kid with Lysol,” she suggested.

Another friend, perhaps more judicious or fearful of litigation being in the world of academia, suggested I offer every child a wipe and try to excuse my officiousness by saying we’d just gotten over a bug.

Good advice and some I could have thought of if I hadn’t been so caught up in indecision. The boundary in this parenting issue is hard to identify because somewhere it gets blurred: our lives intersect.

Since the ethicist Randy Cohen recently left his job at The New York Times, I’m going to have to reason this out myself. Here goes:

If I saw a child with a stick at the playground, ready to poke out another child’s eye, I’d say something and say it fast. Do matters concerning “safety” give one not only permission but also an obligation to speak up?

How about the age and corresponding judgment of the child?  If a kid is say, old enough to figure out how to remove his diaper, but too young to know better than to toss it down a slide at the playground, we might give the parent a heads-up and risk no offense. I imagine many a sippy cup would be raised in appreciation.

Then there’s proximity: the distance a parent is from his or her child and the authority given us in their absence matters. A teacher or the parent holding a play date is expected to step up and keep kids from tossing icy snowballs at each other or hurling insults, which can be just as sharp.

I’d say to my ethicist alter ego that what I faced was smack in the middle of these parameters: licking one’s hands can spread germs (a risk to public health and safety) but I didn’t know if the child was sick. Four-year-olds are young, but not so young that they don’t understand some basic elements of hygiene. And while the parent was not next to her child, she was close enough to have used her parental sixth sense or third eye to have a general awareness of what was happening.

What I feared more than germs was sending an unintended message of judgment.

Am I rationalizing?


Maybe next time I should ask Miss Manners……

My post this week in The Educated Mom looks at poetry and England's initiative to get kids to "learn a poem by heart." I like the sound of that....

The Educated Mom is at and on Facebook under MindprintPLUS.