The most important investment we can make

Holding handsThe other night little L and I were playing Uno, his new favorite game. Imagine my surprise to see him calculating his way through the game after he had lost – counting whether he could finish all his cards if he played his current hand. And then his keeping track of the cards I played and teasing me for not playing my own cards better. Clearly he and I both knew the same rules, but he was on his way to playing a much better game than his mom.

In my profession we talk a lot about not wanting to reinvent the wheel. We don’t want to repeat something that has already been done; we want to learn from past experience and make change, make our product better, improve it, make it different.

But what if reinventing the wheel was the task at hand?

What if that precisely is our task?

With each new child comes a brand new iteration of life. While children are born with a genetic code, a child is not born with knowledge of all the lives and experiences that came beforehand. Children are born to learn to trust their parents, to love, to take risks . . . to make bad decisions when they’re teenagers (God help me when my kids reach their teen years, because their mom was so well-behaved during her teen years that she has no frame of reference there!).The progress we each make toward maturity cannot happen unless we experiences the consequences of our actions.

Similarly, with a newborn child comes the birth of a new parent.  It always amazed me to see every new mom comes into my office completely terrified of their child’s cold. That is, until it was my baby with the cold. My new little DS had never had a cold before and suddenly he was suffering, and all the skills I’d developed as a pediatrician were mush in my brain.

It didn’t help to remember what colds had been like for me, and to know that kids get over colds. It really took the experience of going through those difficult nights and coming out unscathed on the other side.

This is what made me think of how much we need to recognize the needs of all in the new parent-child dyads that form. Each needs tools to help the other, and it’s this precise need to reinvent the wheel with every child which reminds me why early childhood education is such a valuable investment for us to make in our modern world.

In the case of my kids — reinvention is part and parcel of each day, such as teaching my children how to manage their emotions — thank you Inside Out for making this experience so vivid! Or even helping them figure out how to handle a troublesome interaction with a friend at school. And my goodness are they absolute and utter sponges for the learning that happens. Their lovely, most plastic and pliable brains respond to knowledge in amazing ways – with my 5 year old son learning how to read and write and my 2 year old daughter learning how to get her shenanigans past her mommy.  They process and recall things so much better than I ever did.

When my son learns about ostriches in school he can tell me precise details about how fast they run, who they’d beat in a race, and give me examples of their “creature powers.” I struggle to keep up, myself! But thankfully, I have also been fortunate in my own education so can reinforce his knowledge, help him recognize if he needs to think differently, and acknowledge my own defeat when he has surpassed his mommy’s comparatively limited powers.

Compare this with an experience that I had visiting the natural history museum — I saw a lovely family going through the museum and stopping in front of a large diorama of several deer about to be attacked by a puma.  The young daughter exclaimed to her mother, “That’s a puma, it’s going to attack its predators.” And the elated mom shared this with another relative who was with them, and they continued on their trip to the museum, thrilled at how their daughter was learning. I bit my tongue – clearly this little girl was curious and learning good concepts in school, but her mom was so excited by her daughter’s knowledge that she missed an opportunity. Once we get past our own amazement, we can question the knowledge and say, “predator – that’s an awesome word! Did you mean predator, or prey?” — or something else to help her daughter clarify what she had already learned.

A lot of the fundamental knowledge that leads me comes from my earliest years — when I got to understand simple concepts of language, interaction, society, math, a zest and love for reading — the list goes on. Making learning enjoyable for those kids so that they get thrilled the next time they see a diorama at the Natural History Museum — and making sure that their parents had an awesome education and the tools to help their kids grow even more is paramount.

So it’s clear to me that we need to ensure that every child has access to a safe, play-filled, and learning-filled early education environment. It’s a clear way to even up their playing field and give them the foundation they need. But how do we bridge the gap that adults face, and make sure that both parents and kids are prepared for one another?

  • Find books – even children’s books – about what kids are reading – and read them together with your child. I certainly don’t remember all the details about ostriches I learned as a child but it is not as much about the details as it is about the dyad and the foundation for a love of learning. Enjoy your children’s learning and grow with them.
  • Find easy ways to incorporate their learning at home – when they are learning about plants and photosynthesis, find a few seeds and grab a little dirt from the yard, and plant a little seedling in the house.
  • Involve kids in all the things that you know – for me it could be I how I bake their favorite chocolate chip cookies and what happens if I change the recipe a little or alter the baking times. But if it’s your awesome soccer technique, how you use the bow on your violin, how you tend your garden, how you beat someone at chess (or Uno!) – whatever – remember your strengths and use them to help your child to grow! You may find the wheel reimagined completely.

What tip do you want to share with me and other parents to encourage your family’s learning? Please share!

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The story they don’t want you to hear

OK guys, I have to tell you something. You’re probably not going to like it. And I’m telling you, they don’t want you to know. They don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to have a discussion about the facts.

It’s about vaccines. I have given all routine vaccines to my children and things really were going as expected up until now.  My daughter is 2 and is speaking in full sentences, very active and playful, cracking jokes and making mischief.  My 5 year old had been a superstar – speaks like a little old man he is so coherent, loved his letters and doing Montessori math, and . . .well. .  after the most recent dose they got at their last well visit, the most UNEXPECTING THING happened.


Absolutely NOTHING. Not even a stinkin’ tear afterward (though they did cry a bit before). They didn’t whine or say they couldn’t use their arm. Not even a fever. The little nutcases were up and running and active right away.  They were just as communicative as ever, though I’d have to say that the worst thing about the entire experience was actually the band-aid. It took nearly a week to come off. When it did it still peeled a bit and didn’t fall off easily the way I would have liked. Every mom knows there is nothing worse than removing an ultra-sticky band-aid to make a kid distrust his mommy.  (OK maybe combing tangly hair is a close second).

Stinkin’ band-aids.

So getting back to those vaccines, they really must be a menace. I mean geez, the number of shots that kids have had to get to prevent diseases that could harm them or children whose immune systems cannot fight these diseases. With the hundreds of thousands of species of bacteria and viruses in our world, maybe it is too much to ask for the scientific community to recommend children get vaccines for 16 of them?

But here’s the crazy thing. Since getting his 5 year old vaccines, my son has learned to read extremely well. He went from reading Bob’s books to reading simple storybooks and the “Mr. Men” and “Little Miss” books he prizes. I wonder if vaccines caused him to be such a strong reader?

But here’s a bigger question. Why the meandering rant?

There’s nothing like a new celebrity wagging his finger at the medical establishment to make a doctor-mom want to vomit. A lot. The most recent iteration: Dr. (okay, not a doctor) Robert DeNiro stating that physicians and researchers have not been paying sufficient attention to the conversation about whether vaccines are related to autism (Antique Spoiler alert: they’re not.)  Doctors deal with this issue every day – thanks to the work of charlatans like Andrew Wakefield – and millions of dollars have been spent trying to see if there is a relationship. No relationship has been found. Mr. DeNiro says that “nobody wants to talk about it.” Not true. We talk about it often with patients and we all do our reading and our homework and I have personally read that horrific Wakefield study enough times to know that it’s plainly a bad study, and warrants no documentary, no expose, and certainly no recognition at an internationally renowned film festival. Interesting that DeNiro pulled “Vaxxed” because filmmakers were backing out.

Now my disappointment. Ah the disappointment. I LOVE Robert DeNiro – at least until I saw this ridiculous interview.  I remember learning that his son had autism and seeing that he blocked the “Vaxxed” film from Tribeca and me thinking, finally a celebrity who can look at this with a clear eye and not let false views prevail. And then he comes out with his interview. Where I learn that he cares about his finances more than his personal ideals — and that his personal ideals and beliefs themselves are misguided.

We physicians do (and so very much do) want to find out the cause of autism. Having a child diagnosed with autism can be a devastating experience for families, but it does a disservice to the autistic community to argue that vaccines are the cause.  All of us want our children and our patients to be healthy physically, mentally, and emotionally. But — Evidence shows more and more that autism is present in the brain before birth.

You know the story that nobody wants to hear? That vaccines work and that all of us benefit from vaccines being around and that the use of vaccines has saved hundreds of thousands of lives and has contributed to our longevity and our health.  And children who have autism have a medical condition and they are children who have needs, wants, talents, beliefs and aspiration. They are themselves and are a part of our community.

As a medical community we need to figure out how to continue to be empathic with patients and deal with their concerns while also taking on those who support bad science and fake stories. And we need to figure out how to make the true stories prevail.

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The screen time that’s worth sharing with the next generation

Being a working mama means that the hours between getting home and bedtime are short and concentrated. Face-to-face interactions are maximized and concentrated, dinner is cooked and eaten, books read, and several laps around the kitchen are all in order to fill that narrow space. So those rare Friday nights when we all relaxed are coveted by all.  The kids’ birthdays are coming up in a week and we anticipated having several family visitors this weekend – but unfortunately the warm winter’s joy (i.e. illness) prevented our meeting. But the flipside was less preparation for all of us and a phone call to the local pizzeria for some nice pie!

After a tiny but decadent dose of pre-dinner chocolate we all dove in on the pizza, with a side of salad for good measure, sat, chatted, giggled, and ate cheese and crackers, while little L and his Naniji played several games of “pop-up” — a generic version of the game “Trouble” (Parcheesi).  Naniji got all the sixes and L none, so the victories were a bit one-sided to say the least.  Little R was true to form — refusing to sit in her booster seat and instead getting into daddy’s dinner chair with the handles. In that chair, up and down she climbed, asking “Yes?” as she stood up. . .  No, R. Then came the singing of Jingle Bells. She sang one line, I the next, and on we went as we traded the strangest facial expressions. Sigh and love and joy.

The piece de resistance prior to R’s bedtime brought into play T and my family’s movie pastime of childhood, which also happens to dovetail with our daughter’s obsession with the song “So Long, Farewell,” to which she affectionately refers as “Cuckoo.”

Yes, we watched The Sound of Music.

There are some screens that are totally worth it, that not only take you back but also bring your family together into new versions of that history and take your kids into your childhood. Then when they’re the Sound of Music they take you even further back into history and remind you that history happened not so long ago and so many things from then still resonate now.

I still remember the coo of my little brother singing “Edelweiss” with a lilt and a squeak (only to hear my daughter singing it similarly just a few months ago).  Our utter joy watching the Lonely Goatherd.  The way my family members have adopted the songs, sung them together, gone on pilgrimage to Salzburg, sat in utter silence as we watched Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews work their magic. Ah the lighting, the glorious lighting, camera angles, beauty of the faces, frames. So familiar and loved.

We started the movie experience tonight with a jump ahead to “So Long, Farewell” — I wanted R to see it before I took her up to sleep. She was bouncing the whole time. Oh the glory of seeing my daughter see the kids sing “cuckoo” in person — she watched gleefully and started to join into the music, moving her hands and waving goodbye along with them. I simply can’t believe she’s going to be 2 in just a few days.

After that, Little L, my husband, and our au pair (who had never before seen The Sound of Music) went back to start the beginning of the movie. I spent this time upstairs singing “So Long, Farewell” to Little R and reading “Brown Bear” and falling asleep myself. L came up after intermission, intent to see the rest of the movie, but immediately fell asleep.

When I was growing up I never made it past the wedding scene. I just watched till then and thought the movie ended there. Didn’t quite get the bit about them wandering through the mountains.  I’m wondering how far we’ll go with the movie with Little L and if we’ll make it through all the historical parts we can teach him.  But I can’t wait to bring other parts of my musical theatre-obsessed childhood into the picture. We’ve watched Mary Poppins but in the pre-comprehension state. Interested in reintroducing it.  And My Fair Lady. Hello Dolly. Oh my, so many fun times lay ahead of us!

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Parenting? That’s kid’s stuff!

Now manners? That’s another story.

There’s nothing like encouraging early childhood developmental milestones to remind a busy lady and hapless parent that she still has some capabilities in life. And some room for improvement.

Latest es-kid-pades in our house? Little L – who will be 5 in January – has a new love for three new activities – balance biking, building, and reading all by himself. I thought it’d never happen and suddenly he does all three things at once. Oh yeah, and he’s listening. a LOT.

Of course, it’s not all wine and roses (er . . apple juice and daffodils?).

Heard a few weeks ago during routine play: “NOOOO!!!!!! It’s not WOR-KING!!!!!! AAAAAAGGGGH!” Tears. Lots of tears. Flailing.

L was converting his “Lego Creator” plane into the helicopter. Compared to 5 months ago when he’d give up on Lego in a huff, this time he was painstakingly following the instructions to make this little tiny creation. No sooner had I taken a break to nuzzle with my 19-month-old daughter R when I heard the blood curdling scream, the horror-stricken rendering of my older child’s utter fear of failures in life. And all this for a mini Lego set. The pieces just weren’t fitting together as he expected.

Well surprise surprise, it’s one thing to be able to live vicariously through a child — many times pure bliss. But this time coming in as the big strong adult also can make you feel pretty grand. Never fear, son, Mom is here!

I know what you’re thinking. Don’t DO it, mom! First of all, you’re not letting him explore the toy, learn his mistakes, figure it out.  From his point of view it was all, “Don’t DO it, mom!! You’re messing it up! It’s all falling apart!”

Yes, I probably should have let him struggle through the thing a bit more but I think there are some times when you can intervene, especially if your kid has been trying his utmost to fix a piece for the past 15 minutes. We don’t need every minute to be innately frustrating do we? And I was pretty impressed with is zest for Legos — didn’t want to quash that.  So mommy stepped in and  used her spatial skills to fix the pieces, and he went back quietly on his way to completing the creation.  Some things just must be done.

And then there was this week with Legos.  Far from wanting to follow the instructions, L was giddy with laughter as he willfully veered away from the instructions as he built his tiny alligator. “Look, mom! He has SIX EYES! Isn’t that silly?”  Oh the joy.

Just in case you're not sure what you're looking at, this is an Alligator with many eyes and rocket launchers. And he spins.

Just in case you’re not sure what you’re looking at, this is an Alligator with many eyes and rocket launchers. And he spins.

Sigh. it’s always a fun adventure. And then there’s my little girl R who screeches “It’s MINE!!! i want it!” for nearly everything when all of a sudden the next moment she is quietly telling me she needs to go potty and is proud of herself for washing her hands and grabbing the soap “I needa da sooooap . . . ” She’s a pistol one moment and then the next she is nuzzled up to me, throwing her cheek against my chin and averting her eyes from the gaze of onlookers.  So tweet, my little bird, you are!

And then there’s the room for improvement for mom — my latest adventure in NOT doing right is when I answer the phone.  About 50% of the time when we answer the home phone it’s a solicitation from someone looking for the “head of the household” or the “person responsible for the electric bill.” Excuse me! I have a name and unfortunately no you’re not going to talk to the head of the household. But as the phone call sets my temper aflame I’m immediately aware that if I react rudely I’m not only giving myself hypertension, but I’m also (more importantly) setting a very bad example for my kids about how to talk to strangers on the phone. I need to work on the task of warding off phone solicitors without looking like the grouchy old mommy that I sometimes am.  Any advice on how to proceed?

Time for bed and to enjoy sleepy time. Every day gives opportunities for improvement. At least I can rest assured that there always will be another unsolicited call where I can learn to practice my manners.

Finding time to be me and not mom

I just got back from rehearsal with my choir — yes — choir. It’s been just under 5 years — essentially since the birth of little L, that I have not performed in choirs (or a cappella or musical theatre . .. you get the idea). But before then . . well, let’s say that doing choral music was a most essential part of my life, interrupted only by residency and then yes, bearing children. The two great commitments of my life that demanded no interruptions. Honestly, I can’t believe that so many years passed, and so quickly at that.

Lucky for me, I have the unflinching support of both my husband T and our fearless au pair M, who share none of my reservations of my leaving the kids without me on a Tuesday night.  They handle things beautifully and I came home from rehearsal today to find the house quiet and cool, and even though I tried to nuzzle up to the family to sleep I found myself sleepless — but fortuitously also with time to blog, which I always cast as a rarity in my life these days.

New moms – never fear, you will get time once again to be yourself and to explore your interests.  And it comes sooner than you think — for me it came even before Kindergarten, even though little L has commitments every day after school. (Can’t really believe that one already but there it is — art class Monday, swimming Tuesday, Soccer and Violin Wednesday . . with such a busy schedule we tried not to occupy the rest of the week!) Here are my tips for working moms if you can manage them:

  1. Remember your passions. Ever since I gave birth I’ve known little about how to use my free time effectively. Usually if I have a free 30 minutes I fall exhausted onto the couch, don’t turn on the TV because I don’t want to make time there, and then I set to rearranging something– like cleaning our cluttered office or filing papers or emptying dishes or doing laundry.  The next time you have that 30 minute break, take the time to think about what it is that you want to do with your time and prepare yourself mentally, so that the next time you have 30 minutes you can just get started with that interest. Start doing the research, contacting people you want to connect with to pursue these interests, so that you can get started with them sooner.
  2. Get help if you can. I’m not afraid to ask for help — from relatives, from my partner, and am fortunate to have someone helping in the household — which I realize is not always the case. But if you have a passion and want to make time from it, take a step back from the hustle and bustle of the everyday (which never end, spring into summer into fall into winter and back into spring again). Think about what the time commitment will be and what the gains will be, and then see if you can figure out a way to make it work.  There are times when I dread the schedule addition and hope all is well, but suddenly 1 week and then 2 and then more weeks pass that you are pursuing this commitment, and yes it can work!
  3. Make things easier for yourself. I’m an all-from-scratch kind of mama. I know, not always typical for us working moms, but I am starting to realize just how much I make things difficult for myself by demanding fresh cooked meals of myself for every day.  Not only does it make me exhausted, but if it takes a long time to get dinner on the table the kids get hungry bellies and there’s lots more to clean up afterward.  I compromise now by mixing up pre-prepared and home cooked stuff, maybe getting a prepared entree and making my own side veggies or salad from scratch, and as a family we are simplifying ingredients and meals.  Coming up with a plan and a repertoire also can help you all get on track regarding health.  We are all now on a health kick involving sticking to green veggies, brown rice or quinoa, egg white, and lean proteins, and light fruits. Sticking to this diet makes shopping much easier and makes it a lot easier to focus when preparing meals.
  4. Don’t guilt-trip yourself. In fact, enjoy and relish that time that you have alone away from work and as an adult pursuing your interest – or even your dreams. Do not be ashamed that you are taking 2 or (gasp) 3 hours to do something that you and you alone are interested in. Your kids will love you for it and you will be able to stay more sane in other aspects of your life if you can have your me-time.
  5. Be engaged with your family when you are at home. Getting time to myself during the week means that I also have to be fully engaged when I am at home with the family, being mom. This means even more hard work and focus while at home. But staying off the screens and focusing on interactions and the here and now with kids and partners and other family and friends means a lot of fulfillment. And I, a consistent multitasker — truly feel a balance and fullness of life on and off mom-duty.
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