Thursday, September 18, 2014

Booger Forest

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

EXPERTS SCHMEXPERTS (How to Liberate Yourself from the Parenting Section)

Like most parents, I adore my offspring. They make me laugh daily. Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture cues up in my head when they triumph. Watching them sleep is practically a religious experience. I’d step in front of a train for them in a heartbeat. I am silly-stupid-crazy in love with them. 

But as much as I adore them, there are times—sometimes seconds, sometimes hours—when all I want to do is hide from them. Somewhere quiet and far away where I can curl up in the fetal position, daydream about Nate Berkus remodeling my bedroom, and pretend my time and energy are my own like they used to be.

And like most parents, I also have moments that go a step further. Times when parenting gets REAL. Crazy, ugly moments when panic, frustration, and what-the-hell-am-I-doing-ness prompt me to seek out some expert—any expert—to grace me with his or her infinite parenting wisdom.

I’ve collected a long list of such special times. For instance, the torturous month our first baby wouldn’t sleep longer than 30 minutes at a time—day or night. Or the year-and-a-half that our otherwise potty-trained preschooler flatly refused to use a self-flushing toilet, no matter how badly she needed to go. Or the morning our 7-year-old spontaneously erupted into a screaming, crying fit because she was—and I quote—"the shortest person in the car!!"

You know, those little chestnuts.

Up until recently, when I’ve had a desperate parenting moment, I’d do what any proper modern mother does: Haul the kids and my yoga-pants-clad-derriere to Barnes and Noble, treat myself to a latte, and browse the parenting books. (While keeping the moppets within eyeshot, of course. Would it kill them to move the frickin’ train table to the “Mommy Needs Professional Help” section??)

If you’ve ever visited the parenting section of a bookstore, you know that it can take hours just to take in the sheer volume of expert advice oozing off of those shelves. And it’s reassuring at first. Surely all those family practice doctors, sociologists, and psychologists know something you don’t, right? With all of their experience and education and letters after their names, they must have some insight into why your kid is defying all logic and reason. Right? Right?!

Photo Credit: Stephen Cummings
Of course, as you quickly discover while perusing some of those books, the “experts” can’t possibly have all the answers. Because for every parental dilemma, from how to convince your baby that sleep is not a form of medieval torture to how to get your toddler to drop a deuce in a public toilet, you’ll find dozens of experts with dozens of conflicting opinions. And to add insult to injury, the vast majority of them spout their expertise in such a way as to make you feel like a deuce in a public toilet if you don’t follow their advice.

Just for funsies, let's take a quick look at some advice from the experts, shall we?

·  Don’t let your baby cry longer than five seconds or he’ll be incapable of ever bonding with another human being!
·   No! Let your baby cry until he pukes himself to sleep or he’ll own your nights forever and never learn to do anything on his own!

·  Feed your baby whenever she twitches or you’ll deprive her of vital nutrients and nurturing and basically be guilty of neglect!
·  No! Feed your baby every four hours on the nose, or you’ll create a nasty little gimme-monster who can’t wait for anything, EVER!

·  Never praise your child unless you want to turn him into a people-pleasing robot with no internal motivation!
·  No! Praise every single thing your child does and says or he’ll grow up with no self-esteem and motivation whatsoever!

·  Never use any form of punishment or consequence or your children will feel unloved and unvalued and manipulated by their parents!
·  No! Smack your children with a switch for every act of disobedience, no matter how tiny, or they’ll never overcome their sinful nature!

Okay, those might slightly exaggerated examples. But only slightly. One sleep training book I checked out in a desperate moment did actually advocate letting your baby puke itself from crying in order to teach it to sleep. I could sum up that 200-page book in three words: Ignore your baby. I don’t need a Ph.D to spout that advice.

So basically, the bookstore parenting section boasts dozens of highly educated and experienced experts with dozens of conflicting opinions. And unfortunately, logically, there’s no way all of these people can be right. Right? Right.

Now, the good thing about this fact is that no matter what you decide to do as a parent, you can almost always find an expert opinion to back you up. No matter how badly you screw up, someone with credentials will be there to validate your choices. That part is encouraging. Sort of.

The downside of having no parenting experts is, well, there really are no parenting experts. We’re all flying by the seat of our pants. None of us really knows what the flip we’re doing. And none of us knows for sure whether what we are doing will produce stellar, self-sufficient, emotionally-balanced adults or hoarding, self-medicating, passive-aggressive train wrecks. That’s encouraging, too. Sort of.

So after fourteen years of implementing expert advice, seeing it "work" for a short time, and then having to start all over again when a new age/stage/phase hits, I decided to take the term “expert” out of my mothering lexicon and liberate myself from the bookstore parenting section for good. That doesn’t mean I never consult my favorite child development books. Au contraire, I still have my moments of panic and need someone with more education, ambition—and clearly more time—than me to shed some light on why my school-aged children can’t seem to pick up their dirty Kleenexes on their own. But I don’t see the “parenting experts” as experts in parenting. They might be experts in child psychology, health, or education, but they are no more experts in parenting than you and I are.

In fact, after reading dozens of parenting books, I've found by far that the most helpful parenting wisdom comes from other moms like me, either in real life or on the Interwebs. (Please note that I said wisdom not advice. As soon as someone starts offering advice about parenting, my teeth start to itch. I love to brainstorm ideas for dealing with specific issues with other moms. I welcome suggestions and alternative possibilities with open arms. But the minute it becomes “Here’s what you should do,” instead of “Hey, maybe you could try this,” I get all sweaty and panicky.)

Bottom line: The totality of parenting is fraught with questions, and the truth is that there are very very few single right answers. Should you ever emotionally or physically abuse your kids? No. Should you let your kids emotionally or physically abuse you or others? No. Those are about the only black-and-white answers I can think of when it comes to parenting. Most everything else is an ocean of gray.

I have 5726 examples of how parenting different kids requires different strategies, techniques, tones of voice, rewards, consequences, lack of rewards, lack of consequences, etc. And that’s just within my own household. How can “experts” who have never met you or your children possibly know what really makes your kid tick, much less how to handle his or her individual quirks within your family's unique dynamics and circumstances?

They can’t. It’s that simple. Experts schmexperts.

No hard feelings, Barnes and Noble. We’re still coffee buddies. But now, instead of the parenting section, I spend my time over in Home and Garden, drooling over DIY patio furniture and the domestic perfection I’ll never attain. 

(And Nate Berkus, of course, because he's just so darned pretty.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Night I Didn't Have a Heart Attack But Laughed at a Woman with Dementia

I may have failed to mention—even to my own mother—that I spent the evening in the ER a couple of weeks before our move. (Sorry, Ma. We were a little busy.)

The whole story requires a little background, so bear with me while I tell you a bit about my ticker:

A couple of years ago, I was eating Thanksgiving dinner, when I suddenly felt like I was going to pass out. Intense dizziness, hot/cold flash, rapid heartbeat, etc. for about 20 seconds, and then it subsided. Thankfully, my friend Paula was there and she told me she'd had something similar happen when she was eating too quickly once. She said it was a "vasovagal response," where you swallow weird and it pushes against the vasovagal nerve that runs alongside your esophagus, which causes you to faint.

Huh. Alrighty then.

Fast forward to this year. At the beginning of May, my mother-in-law (whom I adored) passed away. Right around then, I started noticing fairly frequent pains in my chest. I was sure it was just stress and broken-heartedness, and didn't worry about it too much.

Then we went to a friend's house for dinner in June. As I was eating some AMAZING grilled zucchini, I had one of those vasovagal responses again. My heart beat SO hard during it, it felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. I didn't pass out, but as before, I came very close.

(Apparently, I shouldn't get so excited about my food. They didn't call me "Gordo" in college for nothing.)

So that evening, my heart felt sore, much like any muscle that has been overworked. That soreness, combined with the chest pains I'd been having, made me a little leary, so I went to the doctor. I explained all of my symptoms, he examined me thoroughly, and he said he didn't think anything was wrong with my heart. All signs pointed to reflux. He even said reflux can make a vasovagal response more likely. He gave me a referral to a cardiologist, just to make extra sure, but he was quite convinced it was reflux. Cut out grains, garlic, spicy foods, and tomatoes. Groovy.

I cut out those foods, and the chest pains did get better. Then I let the grains thing slide (I do so love my morning cereal) and it went off and on. Tomatoes seemed to make the biggest difference. I didn't go to the cardiologist.

Then about a month ago, I went out for a run in the evening. A minute or so into it, I had sudden, major pain smack in the center of my chest. It forced me to slow down and walk. I'm not much of a worrier, but this was pretty severe. I'm only 39, and I have no risk factors, by the way. But I have a friend who is a fit and healthy non-smoker/non-drinker who had a random heart attack at 39. So I thought about her and my recent chest pains. Then I had Havarti take me to the ER.

FYI, if you don't want to wait around in the ER, go in with heart attack symptoms. I saw the waiting room full of people and fully expected a long night, but if you go in with chest pains, BOOM. They get you in immediately.

EKG. Normal. Blood test. Normal. Whew.

Then they took me back for a chest x-ray, and things got really bizarre.

They wheeled my hospital bed over to the x-ray area and parked me outside the x-ray room door. "We have someone in there now," the orderly said. "It'll probably be five or ten minutes. Sit tight." Then he left.

So here I was, all by lonesome, staring at this closed x-ray room door, when I heard a voice on the other side. It sounded like an old woman—or rather, someone doing a totally exaggerated impression of an old woman with a grating, high-pitched voice and a strong Midwestern accent. Think George Costanza's mother on Seinfeld. Or maybe Marge Simpson. Something like that.

And she was wailing. Well, not really wailing, more like moaning, but with a slight whine to it:

"Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It's huuuuurting meeee."

Yikes. What was happening in there? 

"Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It's huuuuurting meeee."

"Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It's huuuuurting meeee."

The same phrase. In the same monotonous, plaintive voice. Over and over and over. 

"Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It's huuuuurting meeee."

Again and again. She never let up. No exaggeration.

"Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It's huuuuurting meeee."

"Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It's huuuuurting meeee."

"Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It's huuuuurting meeee."

I heard the x-ray technicians on the other side of the partition stifle some giggles.

"Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It's huuuuurting meeee."

All I could see is that door and this caricature of an old woman's voice.

"Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It's huuuuurting meeee."

Every once in a while, she'd throw in "It's terrrriblllle." But other than that, it was  "Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It's huuuuurting meeee." 


I almost recorded it on my phone, just so I could fully share this bizarre experience with someone. But then I realized what it was and felt like it would be tacky to record it. Dementia. It had to be dementia. X-rays don't hurt. 

At one point, one of the technicians noticed I was there, came over to me, and said, "We're really not hurting her, I promise. It's just an x-ray. She's fine." Then he left me alone again.  

And then what did I do? You guys. I laughed. Not at this woman's phantom pain, but at the absurdity of the whole situation. I'm not proud that I laughed. Some of it may have been nervousness. But I couldn't help it. I felt like I'd all of a sudden been sucked into a goofy movie. 

I'm like the least likely person to have a heart attack. What was I doing in the ER on a Tuesday night, sitting outside a closed door that sounded like a torture chamber on the other side of it? How did I get here? That's why I took the photo above. What else could I do in this situation but laugh and take a picture of my feet at the end of a hospital bed? I felt like a lunatic, sitting alone in this dim hallway, staring at a door, wondering if I had some undetected heart defect, and listening to "Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It's huuuuurting meeee." on repeat.

Finally, they finished with the poor old woman and opened the x-ray room doors. As they wheeled her out, I saw she'd fallen asleep. The nurse whispered to me as she walked by, "We'll all get there someday." 

Lord, I hope not. I really felt sorry for that woman and her family. We got a taste of dementia just briefly in my mother-in-law's final weeks. But honestly, if I am in that woman's slippers someday? I hope there's someone on the other side of the x-ray door who laughs. Because even in the midst of something terrible and sad like dementia, life is too strange and hilarious not to laugh. We learned that through my mother-in-law's cancer journey as well. I wonder if I'll still feel that way when I'm 90. 

The x-ray came out normal. They kept me for another couple of hours for another blood test, which also came out fine, so they sent me home. I was supposed to make an appointment to see a cardiologist to have a stress test done "just in case," but we were moving. Still need to find one here. 

So there we go. My ticker is (most probably) fine and dandy. Just don't cook me any super-yummy food, or I might pass out on you. 

(But if I do, go ahead and laugh. I've probably got it coming.)