Friday, April 26, 2013

Why should I lie to my kid about Mickey Mouse?

"Will we really, for real, meet Mickey Mouse in Disney World?"  Caleb asks me incredulously, but also hopefully, between bites at the dinner table.

"No sweetie." I explain carefully, "We will meet people who are dressed up as Mickey Mouse." I figure the kid deserves the truth.  But then...

"WHAT THE HELL KIM!??!" Colin screams at me with his eyebrows from across the table.

Later I get the lecture: Can't we just allow him this little mystery?  This magic. It's part of the fun.  Let's keep alive some of the wonderment of childhood while we can.

To which I say: What? Create magic?  Isn't the whole world magic to a 4 year old?  In the last week he's asked me: "Who makes the rain?" "How does milk make bones stronger?" and "Can we fly to January?"

And, we already ask him to believe in things he can't see, like God and germs.  The whole world is shrouded in mystery, so I don't really see the point in weaving some fantastical tale about talking mice.

Listen, I spend a lot of my day trying to respond to his barrage of "whys" about the world. I
take great pains to make my answers plain, clear and truthful. It's a big charge - being the ambassador of another person's reality.  So, why would I knowingly, and with no real practical pay-off, lie to him?

Anyway, I don't know what "real Mickey Mouse" he's picturing, but I can confidently predict that when he's face-to-face with this monstrous mute mouse who is exaggeratedly trying to hug him, Caleb will run terrified behind my back.  Like all 4 year olds who have gone before him.
In what world is this NOT terrifying
I can see that this is Scrooge-y and unfun of me, but I really don't get it.  Maybe my cynicism derives from the fact that I never celebrated Christmas, so never believed in Santa, as a child.  I have no fond memories of believing in something wondrous and fantastical (but also no memories of that belief being crushed when I discovered the truth).  My parents did attempt the illusion of a tooth fairy, but I don't recall being convinced.  I do remember being amazed at my mother's stealth-like ability to take a tooth from my under my pillow and replace it with a dollar without waking me. And I did feel special and loved to be the object of  such effort.

Maybe I just find it strange that adults have collectively agreed that it's perfectly acceptable create an elaborate lie just "for fun" while the rest of the time we are admonishing our children in all seriousness to tell us the truth. If this whole ritual is confusing for me - a thinking adult - it's gotta be confusing for them.

I promise you I'm not normally this sick-in-the-muddy. I freely dispense tickles and rides and goof around with my kids probably more than is advisable if I'm to retain any authority.  But I'm honestly baffled by this.  Is it just me, people?  Is there something I'm missing?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Who needs diapers anyway? I'll tell you...

The diaperless parenting trend (also known as "elimination communication") is in the news again.  Here's a summary: Eco-conscious attachment-y parents, instead of using diapers, are attempting to read their baby's (as young as newborns') signals, and then rush them to a human waste receptacle (toilet, sure, but even a strategically placed bowl or just a slab of concrete between 2 parked cars) in time to pee or poop.

In other words: I'll see your organic cloth diaper and raise you... my diaperless baby.

Theoretically, I suppose it makes sense. Eliminating diapers makes a LOT less waste of the non-biodegradable variety - no small thing.  It eliminates things like diaper rash.  It eliminates the challenges of potty training a baby with the annoying ability to say "no."  It has the cache of ancient, indigenous wisdom, and the appeal of somehow more deeply and intimately "knowing" your baby.  And fewer diapers is easier on the wallet (though most diaperless mommies are of the urbanite hipster ilk, not the paycheck-to-paycheck single mom variety, so I'm not sure this is the primary motivator).

But, to state the obvious:  Ummm.... Wait. WHAT?

It seems that this technique will only work if you are almost constantly attached to your baby - so no work for mom - and willing to tolerate a possibly intolerable amount of human waste.  And it would help if you live on a farm and in warm weather - to keep the shit moving outdoors.  It might be nice too if your kid doesn't get too much diarhea or explosive poop.  Or have a communicable disease.  And will probably only "work" if you're among an elite minority doing this.

If all Americans start doing this, our world would look a lot more like it does ... well.... in the rest of the world, along with all the attendant problems the rest of the world is trying to escape from.

Here in Kenya a lot of mamas, oblivious of their hipster status, go 'diaperless,' and while they lack a fancy name for it, they also use some form of elimination communication.  Last week I watched my neighbor's sister bouncing her bare bottomed 7 month-old baby on her knee.  When I asked if she was worried about an accident, she described the particular twisting and fidgeting her daughter would do before she needed to go, which would tell her that some elimination was coming. I don't doubt that this communication happens.

But you can never stop or anticipate all accidents.  Without diapers, you're simply living in a world with a lot more human excrement.  Our neighbor's child has pooped on our doorstep half a dozen times.  (We're trying not to take it personally.)  And I remember interviewing a mama in the rural areas holding her baby in her lap who, mid-interview, wiped some of the babies poop off her lap with a corn husk. The very rhythm of the morning in the village includes hanging out the bed sheets to dry, which are inevitably soiled by some baby or young child. Every. morning.

Truly, this is a problem in the rural areas.  Besides finding a safe place for all that baby waste, young children are too frightened to use what adults use - a pit latrine - and it's probably dangerous anyway.  So, when a child becomes ambulatory, their mother will often train them to go in a certain less frequented area - behind a tree, for example.  But it's not perfect.

I don't want to give the impression that rural areas are filthy, because, quite frankly, I've never seen people sweep and mop and clean so fastidiously in my life.  But the lack of diapers causes a problem, and contributes to the spread of disease - to the tune of thousands of diarrhea-related deaths each day.

It's such a big issue that the NGO we work for has a multi-million dollar project to better understand how improvements in sanitation (including developing less scary toilets for toddlers) can prevent all these deaths.  There are other NGOs providing cloth diapers for poor women around the world, who desperately want to wake up in a dry bed with healthy children.

I'm not saying it's impossible for Western mothers to do carry out this method more hygienically with the benefit of modern sanitation.  My point is that in our wistfulness for doing things the "natural" way, we often forget that nature is not a national park.  And sometimes it can be a pretty unforgiving place.

But go ahead go diaperless.  Out eco your neighbor.  Just don't forget that it's a choice you're incredibly privileged to make.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How Should I Think About 3 Deaths in Boston?

I came home last week to see Colin, tucked in to bed his head in the newsp... his phone.  He looked up at me gravely and said enigmatically "Did you hear?  There are 14 dead."

Shit. Really?  14?  I thought it was only 3. I suppose this ups the ante. Ups the panic. Ups the response. Ups the tragedy.

"Colin, I thought there were only 3 dead at the Boston marathon, and a bunch more injured."

"No Kim.  The 14 dead are in Bungoma.  They died violent deaths at the hands of thieves. Apparently there is a gang in the area."

Bungoma is a town about 90 minutes from here.  IPA has an office there.  We have friends there.

I can't totally describe the shift in my emotions when I learned that the innocent dead were here in Kenya and not back in our old city of Boston.  I certainly wasn't relieved.  Probably differently horrified.  The tragedy was closer but also farther away. It happened in a town where we know people, and the deaths were no less random and terror-inducing than those in Boston.  But the Boston deaths took place in America.  And we're Americans. The fallout would affect us - if only in the Zeitgeist.

But the media affects the Zeitgiest, and the reaction of our politicians (I'm looking at you: decade-long trillion- dollar fiasco in Iraq) affects us all. So, the Boston deaths all felt bigger somehow than the many more deaths much closer to our current home. And that felt wrong.

The media's reaction to the Boston marathon attack was immediate and pervasive. Support and condolences blanketed my facebook page and details of the event and then the pursuit of the bombers clogged the newsmedia.  They crowded out other deaths from other corners of the earth.  There was no room for the mounting death toll in Syria, little for the hundreds dead in a Chinese earthquake, barely mention of the near 100 killed in Northern Nigeria, and not a whisper for the 14 killed in Bungoma.

This is not a revelation. The disproportionate coverage of American tragedy is well covered ground. It is explained: America is a superpower, the largest player on the global scene in terms of military might and largest exporter of economic ideas and pop cultural.  And Americans don't expect tragedy. Anyway, American media with American audiences should focus more on American deaths.

Fine, fine fine.  Still, all this does is reinforce our feeling of exceptionalism and that we should be somehow insulated from the rare tragedy.  All this does is make those other deaths somehow more distant, more "other," less relateable,... I'll say it.. less important.

But the 14 dead in Bungoma did not expect this tragedy.  They left shocked and grieving family members.  It was just as random.  Just as terrorizing, maybe more so.  And there were MORE souls lost.  

I don't want to minimize the terror people felt in Boston. And I know we don't collectively have a well of compassion large enough for all the tragedy around the world.  There's too much of it, so we have to selectively pay attention.

Still, I want to leave some space for mourning the people who don't have a powerful nation and a media juggernaut collectively at their funeral.  Maybe if we could all leave some space for that, we'd feel more apart of and act more a part of a global community.  Maybe, if we could truly mourn the deaths of people who live far away from us, look different than us, speak different languages than us, worship different gods, then just maybe there'd be less death to mourn.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

It's more than just a denigrated apple cobbler

I wrote this a while ago, but was apprehensive about sharing it.  But I'm now, after over a year of staying home with my children, contemplating returning to work.  I have a lot of mixed emotions about it.  I certainly don't want to do it to have marginally better dinner party fodder among other working adults.  But, why did this situation make me feel small?

We sat around the heavy wood table swirling our wine, talking and relaxing after a long week. The children were tucked away in a playroom, eating apple cobbler ala mode, and having a silent TV-staring dinner party of their own.  That is, until she emerged, offending dessert in her hand, complaining to her mom: “I’m not going to eat this.  The ice cream tastes like whipped cream and the cake tastes disgusting.”

“Fine,”  her mom replied, “Don’t eat it.”

We all chuckled a bit uncomfortably and then returned to whatever the discussion had been before the interruption. 

No one noticed me choking back tears. 

Over that damn apple cobbler - my contribution to the dinner party.  

But my emotions surprised me.  I’m not some easily offended baker, my pride wrapped up in the product of my oven.  Hardly.  And, Jesus, the little gourmand was probably right.  Ice cream here does taste like whipped cream and I suspected my deflated looking cobbler wasn’t all that good, and had even made preemptive apologies when I presented it to our hosts. I wasn’t expecting any compliments.

I think it was everything that preceded her outburst.

I should explain: I LOVE dinner parties.  I’m a run of the mill extrovert and feel energized and by interaction with others.  I was especially looking forward to this one, with friends who we find funny and interesting, who are great story tellers and good listeners. 

For some reason that night the conversations was largely about work.  Everyone around the table was either a researcher and/or the manager of a large research organization.  The group talked animatedly about that world, complained about the lack of incentives for collaboration in academia, gossiped about mutual acquaintances, shared insights about the latest research…..

I barely said anything. I barely had the opportunity. And the longer I was an observer to the conversation the harder it was to join in. 

I wasn’t intimidated.  I was engaged and interested, and I normally, typical extrovert, insert myself unabashedly. But this world was no longer my world.  Maybe it never was. I had been doing research and policy analysis for the last 8 years, and I was good at it. But I never got a PhD. I never carved out a name for myself.  These people had. Their discussions touched on issues I could not entirely relate to.

Anyway, my days are now with my kids. Kissing boo-boos, changing diapers, planning meals.  Those things did not come up.

I steadily started seeing myself in the uncomfortable and unfamiliar role of a wallflower. Like a note-taking secretary to their important meeting, and I felt small.  I felt a palpable sadness, a lead ball in my belly.

Unlike my dinner companions, my main visible accomplishment of the day had been that apple cobbler.  The cobbler that someone had declared “disgusting,” and no one bothered to disagree.  

I should add: the host later emailed me to say how much she enjoyed the dessert and our company.  No one was trying to make me feel small, and to a person they are all lovely people. But somehow it was still a hard night.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Finally, my post does more than navel gaze

I've written a number of times about how the tragedy of maternal mortality, so much a reality for women around the globe, has hit home for me since living in Kenya. I've written about the unbearable sadness that emanates out through multiple family layers, leaving an epicenter of emptiness where a mother's love should be.  About the unfairness of it all in a world which can well afford to address the problem.  About the glaring disparities mothers face in anticipating what should be one of the loveliest experience of their lives - excitement for some of us, fear for others.

Truth is I HATE writing about this. It feels like shouting into a void. It feels ineffectual. It provides me a bit of emotional release, but does nothing to address the problem.

Until now.

I've been so honored to be a part of the Global Moms Relay, an online advocacy effort created by the UN Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Huffington Post and others.  The idea is that each day for 60 days a mother, an advocate, a celebrity, (this hapless blogger) will contribute a post about motherhood, and for everyone who shares post, the Gates Foundation will contribute $5 to a related cause. They'll keep contributing up to $500,000!!

My post ran yesterday in the Huffington Post.  It's not a feel-bad story. It's the story of a mother, like so many voiceless woman, who is picking up the pieces after another woman's death in childbirth.  These stories, especially from a continent which is typically either feared or pitied, are rarely told.
This is Esther. The deck is stacked against small twins, whose mother perished bringing them into this world.  But not with their grandmother Esther giving them loving and attentive care.
I like to think of this story as kind of the other side of the "matching grant" idea.  We, in the wealthy world, contribute money to try and reduce some of these needless disparities.  But we should never forget the immeasurable strength of the people who face their own daily hardships to help their friends and family. We contribute some on our end, but it is often "matched" (and then some) by the power of family, love and duty on the ground.

If you take 3 seconds to share Esther's story, 2 things will happen: You will be acknowledging and spreading that particular often ignored story of maternal strength. And you will unlock $5 from the Gates Foundation to help  the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, which is using mobile technology (pervasive in even poor rural areas) to reach and support women who are more vulnerable to maternal mortality.  

It's a no-brainer, right?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Margaret Thatcher: Inadvertent feminist or simply successful person with breasts?

Look I was born in the 70s, so when I think if Margaret Thatcher I think of a stuffy old lady in big hats with a posh marble-y British accent.  And Meryl Streep. 

But I've learned a few things since then, and I'm not surprised at the divisive post-mortems blanketing the newsmedia.  To some she was a champion of free-markets and a lean government, a no-nonsense, stick-to-her-guns idealist who go things done, politics be damned.  To others, she was a destroyer of social safety nets and pissed all over human rights, calling none other than Nelson Mandela a "terrorist" and cozying up to right-wing dictators.  Lord knows we haven't heard the last of this polarizing analysis.

Thatcher, probably not pondering her legacy.
But one post-mortem I find a bit baffling is the one fawning all over her as a feminist because well... she achieved staggering heights in a male-dominated field while at the same time having a vagina.  Thatcher actually actively disdained the feminist movement calling it "poison" and felt the battle for women's rights was pretty much over.  Then she got down to business being a political ball buster who happened to wear a brazier, bursting open the glass ceiling for all subsequent female politicians.  

Does this make her an inadvertent feminist?

I'm not sure.  Maybe it's like sports heroes who are told that, whether they like or not, they are role models. Whether she liked it or not, she was a woman in a man's world who found a way to carve out success for herself.  In doing so she blazed a path for others, and undoubtedly inspired women on either side of the political divide.  

But the definition of feminist is not "successful trail-blazing woman," it's a champion of a social movement aimed at establishing equal social, political and economic rights for women. Here, Thatcher, rest her soul, would tell you straight out: I am not a feminist. She might even add (and this is a quote) "I hate feminism."  She did little to further any of it's goals during her time in office. 

Do we reduce feminism by claiming all successful women as somehow "feminists?"  Is a feminist defined by someone's intention or the outcome of their actions?

So, can feminists claim Margaret Thatcher? What do you think?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Boob man no more? Emmet discovers milk.

Warning to my mom: I'm going to be talking a lot about my boobs here. 

My son is a boob man. As I suppose are most suckling babies.  But this kid has it particularly bad.

My nipple is a cure for pretty much all that ails him: hurt, hunger, boredom, exhaustion, boredom. I've indulged him because I love that little boob man something fierce and frankly it works swimmingly to solve the above baby problems.  And I'm also living in a place where "nyo nyo" (nursing) is used, just as I have, like a constant pacifier. (Probably where the "African babies don't cry" rumor got started) But I may have been going overboard and created a bit of a problem that the American mother in me was not ready for. And it's not just that I'm earning a reputation as "that woman with her boob constantly hanging out."

When I greet Emmet in the morning or come into the room to join him playing with his toys, my enthusiastic "come to mama" smiles are met not with a beaming smile and outstretched arms, but with a whine and a bee-line for my busom. And since he's been sick, that bee-line has been occurring literally ever 20 minutes.  

Dear Emmet: I want to cuddle, to play, to interact with you.  Other people get this kind of attention from you.   But with me, you mainly whimper and pull my shirt down.  I want smiles of adoration instead of cries to suck on my body parts.  I'm probably not going to be the last woman to tell you this, but "I'm more than just a nice rack, kid."

(Actually, I'm not even a nice rack.  Proof: I've been asked by more than one Kenyan if he's actually "getting anything." You know.. because they're... ahem.. so small and everything.  So, I guess I should be flattered by your attention.  But, still I maintain.... there's more to me than just a substandard rack!)

Truth is, I love nursing the little man.  I could do with less of him picking my nose and slapping my face during breastfeeding, but those times are mostly sweet and tender and I love that I can calm him so effortlessly.  But every 20 minutes is just exhausting me. Those tender moments are becoming a burdensome drag.

Well, that was the case until one day this week when I put some cows milk in a sippy cup and gave it to him.  (Why did it take me so long to do this?) He freakin' loved it!  He walked around for 20 minutes holding that cup, periodically slurping the milk out and stumbling around with a milkstache like a drunk on a bender.

Then he came to me.  Did NOT lift up my shirt, but gave me a hug and sat on my lap.  WITHOUT lifting up my shirt.  Did I mention he DID NOT LIFT UP MY SHIRT!!!


A few moments later, in his milk haze stupor, he took a tumble.  Now, after a fall Emmet usually just goes straight to the boob for comfort.  So, I took him on my lap and started to unbutton my sh.... Do you know what he did?  He sat up straight and took a sip straight from that bottle he was still clinging to like a life raft.  He comforted himself instead of falling into my breasts.

You'd think I'd feel a pang of resentment for that bit of plastic. That I'd feel replaced. But I felt relieved.  He'll still nurse of course, but now there are other options as well.

Yesterday morning Colin let me sleep in for an hour.  But when I woke and was handed the baby, for the first time in his life, he did not go straight for my breast.  He circled around the room being cute.  Being one.  Turning in circles and playing with a flashlight he found on the floor.  Laughing and falling down. And I laid there in a comfortable position, gazing at him, wondering at his independence and thinking about the budding toddler he is becoming.  It seemed like a better balance for both of us.

I'm still nursing him, and I don't expect to stop anytime soon.  But I AM looking forward to a relationship with my son that is not mediated so wholly by my mammaries.  And I'm looking forward to him to growing into a little person who can find other ways of comforting himself, but still knowing that his mama (and Thing 1 and Thing 2) will be there if he needs it.
Emmet and his new BFF. Moo milk.