Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Good Baby And The Challenging Child

Last weekend I attended a conference. While I was allowed to bring a babysitter on-site to care for my nursing newborn, I wasn’t supposed to bring my baby into the conference itself. Or that was the rule until I cited New York’s Civil Rights Law that said I could breastfeed a baby in any public or private location. Period. I cited the law for a variety of reasons from the fact that I believe in my right to breastfeed and feed my baby without having to hide in some back room to that I want to have my cake and eat it too: attend my conference and nurse my newborn who needs to nurse roughly every 30-45 minutes (neither one of my children seem to be the kind of babies who nurse every two hours.).

But I also cited the law because I knew it could work - that I could have my baby nestled in her Ergo carrier as she nursed and napped while I learned all kinds of new things and talked to all kinds of people. I didn’t say that I carry her all over town not disturbing fellow subway passengers or New York Public Library patrons. I didn’t mention that I did the same with my son, even taking him to midnight Christmas Eve Mass where he slept the entire time and most people didn’t even realize he was there. I didn’t mention that in our society, we seem to have an idea about babies and it’s that mainly they cry a lot in movie theaters and on airplanes and in general, disturb the peace. I have taken my babies to movie theaters and on airplanes – a lot of them actually – and generally, my babies nurse and nap.

So I attended my conference with my daughter in her Ergo carrier where she nursed and napped and was her content little self. Sure enough, many people didn’t even realize she was there. And many people did. Many of these people came up and told me what a good baby I had. I know they meant it as a compliment, but it bothered me. I said thank you, because I knew they meant it as a compliment, but I said it with a sinking sick feeling in my stomach. They meant well, but they had labeled my daughter nonetheless.

When you attend a conference about anything, the people are there to discuss whatever the conference is about. It isn’t the time to launch a discussion about the labels we give children. Or maybe I should have. Maybe I should have pointed out, that my newborn daughter was just doing what babies do: nursing, napping, and dirtying her diaper. When she wakes up, she coos, smiles and laughs. When she’s had too much stimulation or noise or elderly ladies with too much perfume who stick their face next to hers, she cries and fusses. She’s a baby. She does the things that babies do and she communicates in the ways that babies communicate. It doesn’t make her good.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t think she’s extraordinary. But I’m her mother. If she fit the description of a “bad” baby – which seems to be the baby who is not quiet or asleep – I’d still think she was extraordinary. I couldn’t help but feel for the babies who have reason to cry, who suffer from colic, allergies, or eczema or are just uncomfortable babies who express their discomfort. Would that make those babies bad or difficult? It seems ludicrous to label a baby bad, but I’ve met the people who have done it – who have called their three month old naughty because he wouldn’t go to sleep in his crib by himself and wanted to be nursed to sleep. But he wasn’t naughty. He was a baby. And his parents had expectations that he didn’t meet.

Which is often the case when we label children. It isn’t about the child; it’s about the parent’s unmet expectations. Children just express themselves in the only way they know to express themselves: they cry, yell, throw things, hit, kick, get silly, make faces, smile, laugh, and often do all of it in a matter of minutes. If we don’t like the way they are expressing themselves, then it’s our job to teach them age appropriate ways to do so, meet their needs and often times, get to the source of the behavior. But labeling – even positive labels like being a “good” baby – only creates a vicious cycle where no one wins.

Not that we haven’t been guilty of it in my house. My husband one night when he wasn’t feeling well told my son, that he was making too much noise. Except my son wasn’t, I pointed out to my husband. My husband just wasn’t feeling well. I’ve caught myself too – battling my own hunger and fatigue at the end of the day, but telling my son he’s challenging and then having to apologize. Because he’s not. He’s three and doing what three year olds do. And as his tired and hungry parent, I’m the one who’s challenged. I’m the one who in that moment feels unprepared and unable to handle a variety of moods and sudden shifts in behavior.

I realized then that labels are projections, not descriptions, whether it’s calling a baby good, a preschooler challenging or a teenager difficult. It’s irresponsible. It makes parents the victims of their child’s behavior, and it doesn’t teach the child to be responsible, just to blame the difficulty of the situation on the behavior of another human being. If we as parents can remember to take a step back and say, “Okay, I’m hungry, tired, low on patience (or whatever the case may be) and you clearly need something. Maybe we can have a do over or brainstorm other ways to handle this situation” then we’re honest and can avoid falling into the trap of playground name calling behavior, which is all labeling is after all.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

And Then He Gave Me Consequences

(My little boy sharing popcorn with Daddy.)

I was recently given consequences for my actions . . . from my two year old! I have never been prouder!

My husband works from home and I am a stay at home mom. This arrangement began this June and seems to suit us just fine about 96% of the time. The truth is that my husband's work keeps him so busy in his home office that we rarely see him during the day, but the lack of commute means that we now see more of him in the morning and in the evening than we used to. However, there are times when he is on important meetings via the phone when it is imperative that things are kept quiet on that end of the house as much as possible. During one of those times, my son started throwing a tantrum IN THE ROOM ADJOINING THE OFFICE. Now, this is a situation in which I did not make my best parenting decision. Instead of moving my son into another room, holding him, and letting him cry in my arms while I sorted out what was going on (which is what I should have done), I yelled at him. That's right, my solution to the noise level not being quiet enough? Add to it! (Not such a good choice, eh?) To my chagrin, I'll admit that I didn't just yell. I lost it. We'd been having a rough day and my husband had many, many calls in the days leading up to that day and my son had many tantrums that week. None of that excuses my behavior; these are just the reasons why the situation was intense. I was one mean Mama and I was not the least bit gentle in the way I handled him. I knew by the look on my son's face that I had gone way too far and it broke my heart. Within a few seconds, I went from absolutely crazy angry, to utterly saddened and remorseful.

I held him while he sobbed and I took deep breaths with him, but he knew and I knew that it was too little, too late. He nursed a little, and that seemed to help. Then, when he finally did calm down enough to eat his popcorn snack (something we usually share), he gave me consequences. He would not let me have any popcorn. I could read his message in his eyes and body language as clearly as if he were saying it. His little fist and his stern "no" were his way of saying "Mama, you really hurt my feelings a little while ago and I just don't feel like sharing with you right now." So, I did what I felt he wanted me to do. I begged him for the popcorn and let him tell me "no" over and over again. He never got angry about it; we both knew that it had nothing to do with the actual popcorn and that he needed the release of being the one in charge and the one who would decide when we were ready to be "okay" again. My son does not have any abstract language, yet, but that doesn't stop him from feeling things like "anger," "frustration," and "hurt." It just keeps him from being able to talk about it. So, we talked about popcorn instead.

"Can Mama have popcorn, please?"


"I love you Owen very much and I'm very sorry about being so mean. May I have some popcorn?"

"No. No Mama popcorn."

I asked him if he wanted me to give him some space and he told me "Mama stay. No popcorn, Mama, [but] Mama stay." He then snuggled his back a little closer to me and allowed me to feed him some popcorn as if to say "I still love you and I'm almost ready to forgive you, but I just need a little more time and a little more effort from you." I could have cried because it was all so clearly written in his little blue eyes. As much as it saddened me to have driven my two year old to communicate these kinds of feelings with me, I was also so very, very proud of him for finding away to express them to me in a way much better than I had just expressed my feelings with him. Here was the model of perfect gentle parenting coming I from my own baby! Realistic consequences, honest feelings, continued presence even when he was clearly very angry with me . . . he was everything I want to be. After about twenty minutes, he turned to me and studied me with his intelligent, sweet little eyes. I knew he was thinking about forgiving me. I tried one last time.

"Can Mama have some popcorn?"

"Yes" he whispered, gave me a hug, and fed me a little popcorn.

I've learned an important lesson through this. My imperfection is sometimes the chance my child needs to illustrate the grace and patience he's working on. It turns out that if I treat my son like a human being who occasionally needs forgiveness, he will do the same for me. I may not always be the mom I want to be. I may not always be the mom he deserves. I may not always be the mom he wants to have, but I have to say that something must be going right if my son feels strong enough to stand up for his feelings in a gentle, but firm way, and can find a way to communicate not only hurt, but love and forgiveness using only a popcorn bowl.

Thanks for reading,

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Which Childbirth Class Is Right For Me?

There are so many childbirth classes to choose from, each with their own philosophy and things to teach you.  There are hypnosis classes, classes to help control fear, classes to include your partner, and the ever present hospital based classes.  Everyone you know has opinions on the different classes, everyone has taken different classes, and choosing which one will work for you can be daunting.  Researching them can take days or weeks, and when it is time to choose a class, timing is a huge factor.

Each class is so different, it is very important to find the class that fits how you want to prepare early so you have time to take it before birth.  Just like how they are all different types, each class has a different length, anywhere from a weekend to 12 weeks to all through pregnancy.

The one piece of advice I give though, is know that in labor, please throw out anything that isn't working.  You do not have to stick the program you learn.  If it isn't working, try something else.  Your body knows what to do, and sometimes the program you pick isn't what it wants.  It's wonderful to have a plan and work with it, but some of the methods just don't work for everyone.

1.  Hospital Birthing Class

This one most know about, especially if you are birthing in the hospital.  It is taught by either a childbirth educator that works with the hospital or a nurse at the hospital.  Most are 6 weeks long, for about 1-2 hours a week.  They aren't very information intensive, but you will learn the basics about birth.  Most of the class is about hospital procedure and protocol and all the pain relief options available.  They do not spend much time on breastfeeding, and most will not give specifics about the rates of interventions at the hospital.  They will do a tour in one of the classes, which is nice to see before you go into labor, but you can do that on your own without going to this class.  The majority do not teach ways to cope with labor, which is essential when planning a natural birth.  Learning that it is possible and ways to help it along will boost your confidence in yourself, even if you end up in the heat of labor throwing it all out the window.

2.  Birthing From Within

This class, and the book, are excellent if you have any hangups from previous births or information you have received.  The class is mostly about learning to control your fears, figure them out, and move forward with your plan.  With the book, it does talk a lot about how the pain in labor is a fine line that only some women can endure, which isn't helpful at all when planning a drug free delivery.  The class is a little bit different and varies with instructors, but a lot of it is about working with the fears you have.  Fear can inhibit labor, and learning to address your fears and work with them can make your labor and birth a better experience.  The class is normally 6 weeks long, but again, varies between instructors.  If you want a class that can help you overcome past issues surrounding birth and help prepare to make your next birth better, this class is excellent.  Even if you don't want to take this class, just getting the book if you have fears to overcome can help immensely.

3.  Hypnobirthing

If you want to go the way of hypnosis in labor, this or Hypnobabies below is for you.  Hypnobirthing prepares you for a gentle birth, with minimal pushing and lots of self-hypnosis and deep relaxation exercises.  This program is based on the belief that childbirth does not have to be painful if the mother is completely prepared and completely relaxed.  I've seen this program work, but for a lot of women, labor will not be completely painless, even with total preparation.  This class is five weeks long, with classes that are 2 1/2 hours long.  You are supposed to keep practicing the hypnosis and relaxation exercises inbetween and after the classes so that you can be fully prepared.  This is a constant technique, and it does take practice to learn.  Practicing by yourself without instruction can be difficult, but if you are able to achieve this, it is worth it.

4.  Hypnobabies

This is similar to Hypnobirthing, with six week classes, but they have CDs you can listen to at home to help you completely prepare.  They also have a self-study program where you just buy the book and CDs and do this on your own time.  The best part about Hypnobabies is that you can start this early in pregnancy and completely prepare yourself all the way through.  It isn't just a class, and they have tracks specifically for a lot of situations, like cesarean preparation, turning breech babies, mothers with previous loss, and much more.  I highly recommend this program is you are going the hypnosis route.

5.  Bradley Method

This class is made to help partners become more involved in the birth of their children.  It is a 12 week course, the longest there is, and it focuses a lot on nutrition and kegels.  The best part about this class is how in depth it gets because of the amount of time you have with your instructor, and if your partner (or yourself) needs to know more about birth, this class is excellent.  Nutrition is key to a healthy pregnancy, and this class really stresses that point.  If mother is healthy, then baby is healthy, and that is key to a healthy pregnancy and delivery.

6.  Lamaze

This class isn't what is depicted on TV or the way your parents and/or grandparents say.  It isn't about breathing exercises anymore and focuses more on education.  It is a more basic class than some, but you will have 12 hours of education.  It is an evidence based course so you will learn research and evidence about each practice used, but it doesn't teach ways to truly cope with labor like other classes based on these methods.  You will learn about practices used in birth, which can be really helpful if birthing in the hospital.

7.  ICEA

This is also a more basic class, but you will learn evidence based research on everything.  You will learn how to make decisions for yourself, which is a skill necessary for birth.  Each teacher does teach a little differently, but the content is the same.  You will learn all about pregnancy and childbirth, which is great if you aren't as knowledgeable as you would want to be.


This class is run differently depending on the teacher, but the basis is complete preparation for birth starting with a healthy pregnancy.  The instructors are trained to know a lot about birth, so even a knowledgeable person can learn things from this class.  You will learn ways to work with (and cope) with labor, the different aspects of birth, and all of it is evidence based.  The classes vary in length, but most are six weeks long.

9.  Independent Classes

There are other organizations to certify or work through, or sometimes you can find someone that teaches their own childbirth class.  Find out all you can, but they don't have a set structure for each class so no real comparison even if two teachers have the same training.  Find people that have taken these classes, and talk to the instructor about what is discussed and learned.  These classes can be better than any other depending on what you are looking for.  Sometimes these classes are offered from your doula in a weekend crash course, so you don't have to make weeks of commitments but learn with the person you are having support you in your birth.


And please remember, no matter what class you take or what method you learn, you can throw it out if it isn't working.  Do what feels comfortable to you.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Breastfeeding, Take Two Q&A and Giveaway!

I am still amazed by how wonderful Stephanie Casemore has been through this.  It shows through the kindness in her book and through the emails sent.  I have never met an author that truly cares about this topic more than her.

Here is the Q&A between Stephanie and myself and after, there is a giveaway so you can win your own copy of her new book, Breastfeeding, Take Two!

1. In the book, you discussed many times how your nursing relationship with your son in ways made you more determined to nurse your next child. How did you personally prepare for your next experience?

A good deal of my personal preparations for my second breastfeeding experience came through the research and education I gained writing my first book, Exclusively Pumping Breast Milk.  When my son was born, I had no understanding of lactation and how milk supply was initiated or controlled. Exclusively pumping for a year, and the subsequent research for my book, filled in many of the gaps in my knowledge.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I spent a lot of time reading about “normal” birth and really focused a lot of my preparation there. The birth experience has a great impact on breastfeeding initiation, and the more I read about normal birth, the more I knew that was what I needed. This, I think, also helped to overcome the loss of a “normal” birth the first time around. Books such as Ina May Gaskin’s Ina May’s Guide to Chidbirth helped to reframe my expectations and understand this continuum between birth and breastfeeding, as well as books by other authors such as Michel Odent and Jean Liedloff.

Emotionally, my preparations were a bit more challenging. Writing my first book certainly helped to work through some of the emotions from my first experience, and communicating with many women who were exclusively pumping and grieving their own breastfeeding losses helped me reframe my own experience. I also had a much stronger social support system around me and knew where to go for support. My husband was also able to take a few weeks off work which provided a great deal of support. When my son was born, my husband was in school and so I had been on my own a lot.

Once my daughter was born though, I was really quite unprepared for the resurfacing of emotions left over from the experience with my son. What I thought had been sorted out was clearly still at play.

2. What made you actually sit down and write this book?

That’s a really great question. The idea for the book started to form in 2009, shortly after my daughter weaned. I was likely a bit nostalgic for the breastfeeding relationship that had just ended and beginning to really consider what it meant to me as well as contrasting it to the breastfeeding relationship I had had with my son—or perhaps more accurately with my breast pump and his bottle. It was clear to me that the opportunity to nurse my daughter for three years had really played a pivotal role in healing the remaining hurt and sense of loss I felt over my son’s experience, as well as cementing in my mind the impact of breastfeeding on the mother-baby relationship.

Around that time I also began to recognize a recurring theme in the emails I would receive from mothers who were exclusively pumping and who were looking for information and support; so many women felt a keen sense of loss, an overwhelming sense of guilt, and a fear of what would happen the next time around. This, I realized, was the same experience I had gone through.

When I started searching for books already written on the topic, I realized there were none.

When I did an internet search though, I realized there were many women who were feeling this sense of anxiety about breastfeeding after a difficult experience and these women were posting on various discussion boards looking for information, support, and understanding. Toni Morrison, one of my favourite authors, said, “If there is a book that you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” And so, since the book I wanted to read hadn’t yet been written, the idea began to incubate and grow.

I wasn’t sure that what I had to say on the subject was something of value. But finally through communication with a couple women in the lactation community—women I greatly respected for their knowledge and dedication to breastfeeding and their support of mothers—I was encouraged to write the book and decided that I did have something to say. My daughter started kindergarten in the fall of 2010 and it was at that point I started writing in earnest.

3. As you were writing this book, did you wonder if it would be any help to another mother wanting a successful nursing relationship the next time?

Of course! I knew the ideas and information I was pulling together were meaningful to me. All of the research I undertook, and my own experience with my children, kept leading me to the importance of the biological element of breastfeeding, but also highlighting the divide within society that made breastfeeding so challenging. I felt this pull of influences in my own life and experiences, but there is never any way to know if anyone else will see things in the same way. Ultimately, I kept returning to the reminder that teachers often give students: if you are wondering about something, chances are others are too, so go ahead and ask the question or start
the discussion. I’m starting the discussion.

4. Your son was born very early, at 31 weeks, and you exclusively pumped for a year. Are there any words of wisdom you can give women that have very premature babies and have the same worries that you did about feeding?

Being the mom of a preemie is hard. Not only do you have the worry of your baby’s health and development, but often there are complications with your own health that led to the premature delivery of your baby. Logistics of hospital visits and work can be challenging. Having to pump with great frequency amid all the other busyness of the day can seem like a monumental task. And often the people around you are completely focused on your baby and forget about the trauma that you have just gone through.

My advice would be to be kind to yourself. Recognize the experience can be very stressful and that you need to care for yourself. Ask for help. Don’t try to do it all. Do kangaroo care with your baby and spend as much time as you can with your baby. Remember that you are your baby’s mother. In the NICU it can seem like you are secondary and if it’s your first baby, it can be a daunting task to jump in and become a mother when your baby is so small and everyone around you seems to know what they are doing. But you were your baby’s home for the months leading up to their birth, and you are still the best, most comfortable home they know. You also have the right to speak up, demand options, ask for clarification, request to actually see the
neonatologist, and generally be given a say in your baby’s care.

With regards to feeding specifically, ensure you get excellent information about initiating your milk supply with a pump and be as committed to pumping as possible to prevent difficulties down the road—but recognize that we all have limits. Understand why you are pumping so frequently, and realize that it isn’t going to last forever. Use a hospital grade breast pump, at least in the early weeks. Realize that staff in the NICU are not often breastfeeding specialists. Ask to see a lactation consultant early on. Be patient when you begin nursing your baby and allow your baby to set the schedule. I highly recommend the work of Dr. Suzanne Colson (biological nurturing) and Dr. Christina Smillie (baby-led latching) as methods to approach breastfeeding. While it is exhausting pumping every two hours around the clock in the early days, it will help to ensure you establish a strong milk supply, and a strong milk supply will ensure that you have options down the road.

5. In the book you talk about how throughout your life you never truly saw breastfeeding. Most children now are still at that disadvantage. Are they any ways mothers can show their children and help them understand that nursing is a completely normal activity, especially if the women themselves have had trouble nursing subsequent children?

This is such a challenging area. Formula and baby bottles are so ingrained in our society that most little girls grow up knowing and understanding the use of a bottle, yet not having a true understanding of the biological purpose of breasts! In my own experience, I do a few things. The first is that I try not to miss out on an opportunity to talk about breastfeeding and “normal” infant feeding with both of my children. I always throw away the baby bottle that comes with dolls and will often say to my daughter that the doll doesn’t need that because a baby has their mommy’s milk. My daughter likes Dora and I’m always annoyed with the story when Dora becomes a big sister because Dora immediately helps to feed her new brother and sister by bottle. I will usually question my kids as to why the mother wouldn’t nurse her new babies. Formula advertising on television is another thing I usually make a comment about—although that is usually an angry rant!

These may seem like small things, but they are meaningful. And it is important to emphasize with all children the idea of breastfeeding as “normal”, regardless of whether they were breastfed, or whether they saw their siblings breastfeeding. My daughter who was breastfed will just as readily grab for a bottle for a doll as will any of her friends who may not have been breastfed. This is a social issue, not a personal issue, and the power of the media is overwhelming to our children.

Generally, I think it is important to have open communication and not shy away from talking about breastfeeding with our children. If we want our society to see it as normal, we need to treat it as normal with our children. Also encouraging other forms of nurturing—holding, babywearing, responsiveness, co-sleeping—in our children can help them understand breastfeeding as one method of many for nurturing our babies.

If breastfeeding challenges arise again with another child, talk about it with your older child. Explain the situation. Explain that because of difficulties you have to feed formula and that it’s good that we have formula for times like these, but that many mommies breastfeed their babies. Young children understand more than we think they will.

How can we show breastfeeding to our children? I think the best way is to be a supporter of other women who are breastfeeding. Encourage and support mothers who you know and even say a word of encouragement to a woman you might see in public nursing her child. Speak to your government representatives about rights for breastfeeding mothers. Encourage and support businesses that make it easy for moms to breastfeed without relegating them to a closet in the back; and likewise, let businesses that treat breastfeeding mothers as second-class citizens know that they need to change their ways. In order to give our children the opportunity to see breastfeeding as normal, we have to support breastfeeding as normal in our society. They will never see it if it’s not there! One thing I would like to see in every school is a meaningful unit
in health class on mothering and breastfeeding, for teen girls and well as boys. Our children will never see breastfeeding until we demand change in our society.

We need to do a better job of talking about breastfeeding in our society. Too often it becomes a formula vs. breastfeeding debate, but this isn’t useful. It’s not an either/or discussion. If children grow up with the knowledge that babies nurse at their mothers’ breast and that formula should be a life-saving intervention when needed, then breastfeeding will be seen as normal.

A number of year ago when I started to look around my own world and consider how I talked about breastfeeding, I realized that I too saw it as an option and spoke about it as a choice, not as the biologically normal way to feed a baby. And while I am by no means a prude, I saw breasts not as a nurturing aspect of a woman, but as the sexualized object my society suggests they are every day in film, on television, in magazine, and in fashion. This is a belief that I have had to question and examine, and ultimately change, since having my own children. Changing your own perspective, and then simply talking with your kids when the opportunity presents itself, will help change our children’s view of breastfeeding.

6. While pregnant, even if they don't have any children, how can a woman know what kind of support she will need after birth so she can find it?

Support is important and there are different types of support everyone needs. Most importantly every woman needs support that is in line with her goals and support people who will respect her goals. There are a few types of support that I think every woman needs, regardless whether this is your first baby or not.

You need to have your doctor on board—or at least know ahead of time that they will not be the source of support you need. Every woman should evaluate her doctor in terms of breastfeeding knowledge and support. Dr. Jack Newman has a great handout on how to know if your doctor is breastfeeding friendly. It is important to realize that not all doctors are breastfeeding friendly, just like not all people are breastfeeding friendly.

You need the support of your nuclear family. Ensure your partner and older children are aware of your intentions to breastfeed, what that will mean in terms of your time and schedule, and how they can help you. Fathers play a large role in breastfeeding success and can be great supporters through difficulties.

You need the support of your extended family and friends. Have an honest discussion with your family and friends. Let them know how important it is to have their support after your baby is born, but also let them know how important breastfeeding is to you and your baby. Ask them not to intervene or offer advice that is not supportive of that goal. Making it clear ahead of time may help to ease any hurt feelings after the baby is born if you need to stand up for yourself or ask someone to stop offering advice.

You need logistical support. Gather a list of friends and family you can call on to help with life: cleaning, shopping, childcare, cooking. While maybe you won’t need this kind of help, you’ll appreciate having it prearranged if you do. It’s unfortunately that in our society we isolate new mothers and too often new moms are expected to pick up where they left off almost immediately once their babies are born. Focus on your baby for those first few weeks at home and either let the house take care of itself, or allow your family and friends to help out. Giving the services of a housekeeper or a post-partum doula as a shower gift to a new mom would be a great thing for a group of friends or family to offer.

Finally, you definitely need to prepare for specific breastfeeding support. Before the birth of your baby gather as much information about breastfeeding support in your community. Create a list of names, phone numbers, and the services offered—and then call them! I really encourage women to make contact before the birth of their children. Go to a breastfeeding support group and arrange to meet with a lactation consultant. You’ll be more confident and comfortable to call after the birth of your baby if you’ve already forged a relationship. And don’t wait to ask for help. It’s never too early, and much easier to correct problems if they are caught early.

7. How can someone distinguish between the guilt of feeling like a failure and changing their level of satisfaction with their nursing relationship so the feeling of failure disappears?

Guilt is felt because you have done something you know you shouldn’t have, or you have not done something you know you should have. When it comes to breastfeeding, many women say they feel guilty because they should have breastfed but didn’t, or they weaned early and shouldn’t have. Moving past these feelings of guilt requires you to honestly investigate what you did do in the situation.

There are very, very few women that I have met who did not do everything possible to breastfeed. Some women in fact, go above and beyond what anyone who ever expect. Consider what you did do to make breastfeeding work. Consider the information you were given and support you had access to. If you did what you could and tried to access both information and support, then there is no reason to feel guilty. You may feel regret. You may experience grief. You have not failed if you did everything you could to make it work. Only you can determine what “everything” is.

Recognizing your efforts to breastfeed, and also identifying the areas that hindered your breastfeeding relationship, will help you to move beyond feelings of guilt and failure and help you to understand the strength you exhibited in a difficult situation, recognize the areas where you were failed by society, and help you to grow from your experience.

I think a more valid conversation is one of satisfaction as opposed to failure or guilt. Regardless of how long you breastfed, you were a breastfeeding mother if you put your baby to breast after they were born. However, if, for example, you had planned to breastfeed for a year and ended up weaning after only three weeks due to pain or your baby’s poor weight gain, you’re breastfeeding experience will likely not have been a satisfying one.

Satisfaction and feelings of failure are two separate issues. I don’t know if you will ever be able to feel satisfied with an experience that was less than what you had wanted, but you can move past feelings of failure. There is no magic cut off mark that makes you a breastfeeding success or failure. There is no governing body that establishes criteria that conclusively determines your success or failure breastfeeding. Your experience is your experience. Learning from it and making peace with it will allow you to move forward and grow from it. If you don’t have another opportunity to breastfeed, then your experience will inform your choices in other areas of your life, or you will have the opportunity to support women around you who are beginning a
breastfeeding relationship. Moving forward from your experience in a positive way and making use of your experience is the best thing you can do to become satisfied with it.


Now is your chance to win a copy of Stephanie's book!  The entries are below, the contest will run from today until the 1st of November, open to those in the US and Canada, and good luck!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday School: Timing Is Everything

Welcome to the Connected Mom Sunday School. No matter what the course of your child's education, be it unschooling, homeschooling, or conventional schooling, The Connected Mom Sunday School aims to provide you with fun and easy activities for children of all ages and stages. (Have an idea for a Connected Mom Sunday School activity or theme? Either comment below or send your idea to connectedmom (dot) julian (at) gmail (dot) com.)

From understanding day and night to planning out a detailed weekly schedule, your child's understanding of time changes drastically as he grows. For this week's theme, I have found some activities that meet your child on his level and help him grow his understanding of time.


Bedtime Board

Toddlers live in the present. If you want to see this demonstrated, tell your 2-year-old that she can have ice cream later. To her, later might as well mean never. Toddlers cannot understand hours and minutes, but they do have a feel for the the rhythm of life. Simple routines can ease the stress of transitions by cluing your child in to what comes next. Family Fun shares a fun idea for helping her transition from day to night and back again. Cut a piece of cardboard, about 11 x 14 inches (wouldn't an empty cereal box work great for this?). Cut a length of ribbon, about 20 inches, and use a glue stick to attach each end of the ribbon to one of the top corners of the board. Cover one side of the board with dark-colored card stock or construction paper. Cover the other side with light-colored card stock or paper. Attach a picture of your child awake to the "day" side of the board, and a picture of her sleeping to the "night" side. Glue cutouts of a sun, clouds, a moon, and stars to the corresponding sides of the board. Hang it somewhere in your child's room where she can see it easily. When she wakes up in the morning, turn the board to its daytime side. Signal that it's time for bed by turning the board to its nighttime side.


What Comes Next?

Most preschoolers still can't estimate time very well, but they can understand what happens first, next and last. One great way to help your preschooler with sequencing is to follow a set of directions. Diane Flynn Keith of Universal Preschool recommends baking this kid-friendly carrot cake recipe. As indicated in the recipe, have your preschooler help you with peeling the carrots, measuring the dry ingredients, etc. As you work, ask him questions about why you do things in a certain order. For example, why is it important to break the eggs before adding them to the batter? What would happen if you threw in the carrots whole instead of grating them? The goal is not for your child to answer correctly, but to think about the process. Check out the Universal Preschool link above for lots more fun activities to help with sequencing and following directions.

School-Aged Child

How Long Does That Take?

School-aged kids are now capable of understanding differences in time. Help build your child's concept of time by timing various activities throughout the day. Time how long it takes you to brush your teeth, to walk around the block, or to drive to the grocery store. To hold your child's interest, use a variety of tools for measuring time. Try using a digital clock, an analog clock with a second hand, an hourglass, or a kitchen timer. You can even build your own sundial. Sky & Telescope magazine offers free printable templates (both Northern and Southern versions) and instructions. Practicing measuring time will help your child to visualize how long certain tasks might take, an important time management skill.

Older Child (10+)

A Daily Schedule

Now that your child can read a clock and has a good sense of time, he is ready to put those skills to work in managing his own time. PBS Kids gives a list of tips for kids to make a daily schedule. Have your child draw up a blank schedule with 32 squares--8 across and 4 down. Each block represents one half hour (16 waking hours total). You can also download a blank template from the PBS site. Have
him list everything that he needs to do during the day. Then, have him start filling in the squares with things that need to be done at a certain time (for example, music lessons). Then, he can fill in items that can be done at any time--and don't forget to schedule some breaks, too! This activity not only helps with time management, but it helps your child feel ownership of his time.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Our In Lieu of Preschool Project

In New York City, researching and finding the right preschool, Pre-K and public school program for your child is such a daunting task parents can pay a consultant to do the work for them. I am a research addict, but even I decided I’m not up for navigating the websites and guidebooks the task requires. I can’t say I want to pay someone else to do the work for me either.

Instead, we opted out.

Granted, like many families in our Brooklyn neighborhood, my husband and I are working with other parents to form a coop home school preschool, and until it gets going, we’re kind of taking the home school route. Except, my son is almost three and school for three year olds I think is a bit ludicrous.

When we moved to New York last winter, my husband and I joked that we were and we were not moving to New York for our children’s education. At the time, Cathie Black was bumbling her way through her position as School Chancellor and I was reading Diana Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Neither left me wanting to hand over my son’s education to the New York City public schools – even as I know that along with the nation’s worst schools, the district is also home to the nation’s best. But given the city’s resources in terms of museums, landmarks, libraries, parks, theaters, architecture, and schedule of events (with plenty of free ones) and it’s hard to imagine not having fun while learning in this city.

As Ravitch points out, the flaws in the current system are many and beyond the scope of just having a good teacher or a good school (as she also points out the way we measure that school and teacher could use some work) and there are no easy answers to reforming the schools. And while many parents are anxious to feed their young children’s minds with more curriculum and flash cards, so their children are “prepared” for kindergarten and not left behind, I am not. Because in addition to thinking “school” for three year olds is ludicrous, I also think the notion that children have to be “prepared” for kindergarten is ludicrous.

So rather than spending thousands of dollars on one of the cities private schools, how are we spending our preschool budget?

Well, the library cards are free, and while this grants us lots of books, sadly, the Brooklyn Library story hour leaves something to be desired. We did sign my son up for art class at the Children’s Museum of the Arts, and in art class, they sing songs and read stories. We already have museum memberships to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum (which also gets us into the Transit Museum and the NY Hall of Science), the Natural History museum, the Met, and MOMA. Our In Lieu of Preschool project inspired me to look further into the museum program offerings, and both the Met and MOMA have activities, movies, and story hours for small children. New York City, thankfully, has such a variety of museums that I don’t know if we’ll ever have a shortage of things to learn, see, or experience.

The rest of our preschool budget? Given the cost of the average preschool, we have plenty left over for a whole lot of finger paint, glue and Popsicle sticks.

And how do we spend our time when we’re skipping preschool?

We spent Monday in Prospect Park with a good chunk of time in the playground and sandpit. Tuesday we had play dates and play grounds with friends. Wednesday was art class, and I admit, at first, my son didn’t want to go. We were fifteen minutes late due to his protests, and then once he was there, he didn’t want to leave. The museum has open studio time in the afternoon, and good thing – he spent another four hours playing in the art studio. Thursday he was at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum when it opened, and then stayed until it closed. He made a mask (out of paper plate – just like real preschool), he pet a turtle, he played in water, and the myriad of other things at the museum. On Friday, I took him to see his first black light puppet show of The Treasured Stories of Eric Carle (this, I must say, was as much about me reliving my childhood as it was about him having a good childhood). In the afternoon, he went to the library. Saturday, we went apple picking and afterward played on a beach by the apple orchard. We’ve also had a bit painting here and there, some play dough, and water play in the bathtub or kitchen sink. Tomorrow, we were going to go to the family art program at the Met, except that while he’d love to go, I’m worn out. Instead, I think we’ll be turning some of our picked apples into pie – and when I make pie dough, he plays with flour. Flour will end up on every surface of our kitchen, but since we’re not spending thousands of dollars on preschool tuition, we can afford a house cleaner.

My husband and I do feel fortunate that we can live on one income, so while many people do rely on preschool as a form of daycare, we don’t have to. I also feel fortunate that we have help – so I can have a nap, while my son goes to the library. And I don’t know that our In Lieu of Preschool Project is a long-term solution. At some point, I might get tired of cavorting all over the city with my son and his nursing newborn sister. But I do know that this week, we all had an absolute blast.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Co-Napping: The Most Beautiful Thing You Can Do for Yourself and Your Child

We co-nap everyday. There, I said it. My son is two and I still co-nap with him. Grant you, now that he's up less at night, I don't usually sleep during his nap. Often I read a book or sometimes I turn on the tv and watch something quietly while he sleeps curled up against me. It's actually my favorite part of the day.

In the beginning, co-napping was a necessity. For the first six months, his reflux was so bad that he couldn't sleep for more than ninety minutes in a stretch night or day. The only way he could sleep during the day was if I held him against my chest in my arms or in a sling and bounced him the entire time in an exercise ball. (At one point, I timed myself bouncing him regularly for about eight hours a day.) So, when I finally found the magic combination of things to eliminate from my diet (milk, tomatoes, garlic, onions, wheat, anything spicy, and all citrus) so that he could side-lie nurse and fall asleep at six months without waking up screaming and in pain, co-napping was the only way I could survive because he was still up between eight and ten times a night. (In addition to food allergies and reflux, my son also found it impossible to sleep every time he was teething.) I still remember the first day I successfully nursed him to sleep laying side by side and then was able to fall asleep myself for a whole forty minutes. HEAVEN.

Of course, some things have changed in the year and a half since then. He used to nurse the whole nap (sometimes waking up to discover he had somehow stopped nursing and then would frantically latch himself back on) but now he just nurses for ten minutes or so and then, if he hasn't fallen asleep while nursing, he just snuggles up against me and goes to sleep. Now that we're down to one nap a day in the middle of the day, he actually sleeps an hour and a half up to sometimes two whole hours which is something that I never could have dreamed of in a nap when he was younger.

For me, it is a time to sometimes "re-set" after a difficult morning. It's a time of connection even as its also a time of relaxation. It's hard to stay stressed out no matter how many tantrums defined the morning when you look at your little one sleeping. Meanwhile, it feels good to take that time for myself to recharge as well. I now know why "siesta" is so important in some cultures. It's not about getting more sleep. It's about taking time just to be quiet and breathe.

I know what you are thinking . . . "How the heck does she get anything done?" Here's my answer, I do all showering, housecleaning, phone calling, errand running, and cooking with my son awake and in tow. (He doesn't even watch tv except for 30-45 minutes in the afternoon when I watch it with him snuggled up on either the couch or the bed.) Does that mean that it probably takes me a lot longer to do just about everything than it takes you to do it during your kid's nap? Probably, but to me, it's worth it.

You may also be thinking, "What will you do when he is older? Isn't she worried that he'll never fall asleep alone? What will she do when she has more than one?" Actually, I'm not really worried about what will happen when he's older or when we have another one. All my pre-mother worries about how I would do things produced no answers that I was able to use once I had my son, so I don't bother planning the future much anymore. The truth is that he will stop nursing some day, he will also stop napping some day, and we will (hopefully) juggle multiple children's sleeping schedules one day and I will cross those bridges when I come to them. For now, this works. It more than works; it is amazing. My son LOVES nap time. When he is tired, he practically runs to my bedroom and gets my book out for me. When he wakes up, he isn't screaming and yelling to be let out; instead, he simply smiles and gives me a kiss. Same with bedtime, he never fights me about going to bed because going to sleep is a relaxing time of connection for us.

I actually wonder what moms who use nap time as their time to scramble and get everything done will do when their children stop napping. What will their children do? My son already lives in a house where he knows the bathrooms need cleaning (and how to do it), the shelves need dusting, the laundry needs doing and the floors need sweeping. He knows there are times when he needs to be quiet because Mama is on the phone. Housecleaning time is just more time for us to be together and connect. Maybe if we have younger siblings some day that do need a nap a day with mama, he will be open to spending that hour quietly reading, coloring, or watching a movie and snuggling. After all, he's already learned that's what you do when you love someone who happens to need naps. So, if you are a co-napper and you are feeling guilty about it, don't! If you aren't a co-napper and you have the opportunity to do it either during the week or on the weekends, but were afraid of the consequences, don't be! Your children are only young once and they will only want to snuggle with you to go to sleep for a little while. (I read somewhere the week my son was born that children born now can reasonably expect to live to 100 years old, so if they only nap for three years and you nap with them . . . that's still only 3% of their lives.) Take the time for yourselves and your children. It is worth your time!

I know that co-napping isn't for everyone. So, if it doesn't fit "you," than I believe you. But for the rest of us, I say snuggle up!



Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Breastfeeding, Take Two

I successfully nursed my daughter for nine months, and then again 29 months later for a month.  And yet, I still feel like I failed her the first time.  I was able to have that re-do with her, but I will never get that first time back.

There is a lot of guilt spread around on mothers that tried their hardest and yet still couldn't reach the personal goals they had set for themselves when nursing their children.  A lot of the guilt, especially in the United States, is that they shouldn't have tried so hard since it didn't work anyway.  So women wonder what they are doing wrong when they are upset about their lost nursing relationship.

So when you get pregnant again, or if you are even just thinking about another child after a bad nursing experience the first time, do you want to nurse in spite (or because) of that, or has it completely changed your perspective on nursing and it isn't even worth trying the second time?

Stephanie Casemore has written and released a new book, Breastfeeding, Take Two.  This book is all about working through the issues of previous nursing experiences and learning how to change them the second time.  A lot of what happened in previous nursing experiences can be changed.  The issues you had, maybe not so much, but even just having the right support and information can make the world of difference when you are tired and wondering if you can go on.

Trying to make sure I got as much out of this book as I could, and so that I could give a quality review, I read the book three times, with a few days in between each reading so that the information would seem fresh and not rushed.  Every time I read this book, the introduction had me in tears.

"Where did I come from?" the baby asked its mother.  She answered, half-crying, half-laughing, and clasping the baby to her breast, "You were hidden in my heart as its desire, my darling.  You were in the dolls of my childhood games.  In all my hopes and my loves, in my life, in the life of my mother, and in her mother before her, you have lived.  In the lap of the eternal spirit you have been nursed and nurtured for ages." (page 12)

What a beautiful start to this book.  This quote resonated with me like nothing I have heard.  I do come to this in a different way, and a lot of this information I felt mirrored infertility and wanting another child.  Some of the parts were so beautiful, but none more than this quote.

The biggest feelings of guilt from a mother that felt she had failed herself and her baby when breastfeeding didn't work out how she dreamed just don't go away.  These last from one child to the next.  Every breastfeeding relationship is new and different, even if you have successfully nursed before, but one of the major pitfalls is thinking that you did something wrong.

However, having looked at the subject from every angle, I've come to one conclusion:  there is no such thing as breastfeeding failure.  In truth, the only differentiation that is valid is "did" and "did not".  The reasons for not meeting your breastfeeding goals are varied, but if you attempted to breastfeed - regardless of how long you actually breastfed - then you were a breastfeeding mom. 
The real issue is one of satisfaction.  Success and failure is far to black and white for such a complex activity.  You either did or did not breastfeed and within that black and white division there is a range of satisfaction. 
If you are ultimately unsatisfied with your experience, then it is likely that you feel as though you didn't achieve success with breastfeeding:  you failed.  But this ignores all you did do and the knowledge you gained - knowledge you will take with you to breastfeed the second time around.  Life is merely an accumulation of experiences and growing in them is all we can hope to do.  Even one day of nursing your newborn makes you a breastfeeding mom.  Although it isn't likely what you intended and as a result therefore not a satisfying experience.  (page 15-16)

This topic is said many times throughout the book.  As a mother that feels she failed at breastfeeding, I really needed to be told multiple times that I didn't fail.  Normally repetition becomes stale, but in this book, and for mothers that had issues previously, need to be told over and over that they did nothing wrong.  For most women that "failed" at breastfeeding, they tried for a very long time to keep it going.  Pumping, herbs, every tiny thing that could help their milk supply or the issues they had, most have tried them all.  How, in any sense of the word, does that make you a failure?  If you try everything and it still doesn't work, you tried harder than most.  Be proud of yourself, you really and truly did everything you could.

Another thing she really talks about through most of the book is how society has failed nursing mothers in every step and in every sense.  We are caught between what is socially accepted (formula) and what is frowned upon and looked at as abnormal (breastfeeding).  Everywhere you look, baby symbols point to staying away from the breast.  Invitations to baby showers and gift bags all have bottles and pacifiers.  Bottles and formula are handed out like candy on Halloween at the hospital and at baby showers.  When a woman has issues breastfeeding, one of the biggest pieces of advice she gets is to "just switch to formula, don't try so hard."  We are told to go against our biology and physiology and accept societies view without comment.  This is not natural nor normal.  So many women end up feeling like failures because of this struggle between their natural instincts and society's expectations.

One of the biggest issues I have had with with the slogan "Breast Is Best" is completely addressed in this book.  By saying that breastmilk is best, you are in effect saying that formula is okay in comparison.  Breastmilk is the best thing for a baby, but it is also the most natural thing for a baby.  Breast isn't best.  It is the biological normal.  Formula is and always will be an artificial substance, and by putting breastmilk in the running, formula seems like a normal alternative, as if it is a completely normal option to take.  "Breast Is Best" is an amazing slogan, but with just this slogan, we are giving no information to help new mothers breastfeed.

With breastfeeding comes so many issues, mostly from the outside.  The lack of information, lack of support, and the social pressure and influence all make breastfeeding so much harder.  Most go into their first nursing relationship thinking it will be such a natural thing and there won't be a learning curve.  This is very far from the majority of stories.  Breastfeeding takes time, patience, and a lot of information and help.

Stephanie discusses how most providers and nurses are not trained in breastfeeding.  Yes, they understand how it works, but they are not prepared for any of the issues encountered, and a lot don't even know how to help achieve a good latch.  When 99% of the women in the United States are having their babies in the hospital with illtrained or untrained providers, no wonder only 33% are still breastfed at 3 months, and 13% are exclusively breastfed at six months!

She discusses how being prepared with a provider that can help with breastfeeding after birth can be one of the biggest factors in choosing your provider for pregnancy.  That is one thing I had never thought about before.  When you interview providers, everything with how pregnancy and birth is handled and discussed, bur nursing is passed over.  The truth is that nursing is just an extension of pregnancy and birth!  Every intervention in birth has an outcome with your nursing relationship.  Drugs, medications, induction, vaginal vs cesarean, if your baby is bathed before birth or a hat put on their head, all of these have a way of interfering with your nursing relationship.

In ways, it goes more than finding a good provider.  You need to find support before you even have your baby from those around you.  Find a lactation consultant that you trust and that is truly able to help you before pregnancy.  Find other mothers that have breastfed and know what they are talking about.  Find someone you can call in the middle of the night when you are exhausted and need help.  Don't settle.  This is your relationship with your baby, no one else's.  If someone isn't helping or didn't fully help in the past, you do not have to go back to them.  Proper support is crucial to a breastfeeding relationship, so find it before you are even nursing.

One other big thing in this book is how wanting an outcome doesn't guarantee this outcome.  Now, I do have issue with this in some ways because hope can make you keep trying and finding more information.  You should always go into a situation with hope as a shield, even if that means you will get hurt from it.  When you lose your hope, you lose what you wanted to feel.  But, I do believe that having only hope can be detrimental, and you need to arm yourself with education and preparation.  You need to be completely educated and prepared, especially if you have had a bad nursing experience previously.

Part One of this book is all about causes, ways it has shaped you, society's impact, and our conscious effort.  Part Two is about how we can make our next experience better.  There is a lot of overlap between the two sections, but that is how it should be.

When you have exhausted your resources, and done all you can do, there is no reason to feel guilty.  As new mothers, we do what we believe is right at the time.  There is no guilt in that.  (page 109)

As mothers, we judge ourselves too harshly.  It is just what we do.  We try so hard to be perfect and do what is perfect for our children.  There is nothing wrong with this.  However, we need to cut ourselves some slack.  Being a mother is hard, harder than I ever thought it would be.

Every child is different, as is every situation.  Having a bad experience doesn't mean they will all be that way.  There are so many factors that influence every bit of a situation, and realizing that you have done nothing wrong is a step we all need to take.  Nursing again is something to be strived for, sought after, and I really believe that women that have had a bad experience previously can truly benefit from this book.

I was able to let go of some of my feelings of failure just from reading this book.  There are so many tips in this book, and I wish I could write them all down.  This post is already so long, but I leave with one final word.

One experience does not foreshadow the next.  Believe in yourself and your ability.  Believe that breastfeeding is the biological normal for mothers and babies.  Arm yourself with information and support prior to pregnancy.  Find women that can help you before you even have issues.  Be prepared.

The views in this review are my own, mixed with information from the book.

Next Tuesday, I will be posting a Q&A with Stephanie, and a giveaway for one lucky person to be able to win this book.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

What Steve Jobs Taught Me About Pre-School

When I taught my college English classes, I’d begin my semester with the ritual of the syllabus and handing out Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford University commencement address. Jobs’ address remains my favorite speech of all time, but I handed it out partially because Jobs was talking to students their age and in an age where much of education focuses on standardized testing or having students behave and memorize what is handed out, I wanted my students to think about finding what they loved and to think about what they loved. This wasn’t just for their sake, but for mine. Honestly, students who have found what they love and what they are interested in and then write papers about those topics write better and more interesting papers. They write the kind of papers I like to read because I learn things from them. I also handed out Jobs’s address because it’s the kind of thing I wish one of my professors had handed out to me when I was starting college. My students of course didn’t see it this way. They thought I was an idealistic sap.

This week, when Steve Jobs died, I went back and reread his Commencement address. It still moves me and makes me tear up. It makes me think about how much time I have spent listening to my fears rather than my heart and intuition and how some people spend their entire lives only listening to fears, unaware they have a heart and intuition.

Yet, something changed for me when I became a mother, maybe thanks to oxytocin and all those mothering hormones, but mostly, I realized with a clarity I couldn’t deny that I was my child’s role model, and I would demonstrate living a life I loved and was proud of for my son. And as a mother, I have relied on my instincts, even when I can’t find research to back me up (though every once in awhile the research catches up with me and I nod that satisfying I-knew-it nod).

This week I also signed my son up for playgroup. We opted out of traditional pre-schools because we live in New York and when we moved into our Brooklyn brownstone in February, we had already missed the deadline for fall pre-school programs. Throw in that out of all the pre-schools I researched, there was something I didn’t like about each of the programs. Throw in that each application required me to write various essays about my child or how my parenting lined up with their educational methodology or what have you plus the application fee and inevitable waiting list – and well, it all required far more work than either my husband or I had put in to get ourselves into college. I also think our college educations were cheaper.

Pre-schools are serious business in New York. The thinking goes that if you get your children into the right pre-school, the rest of their education and their brilliance will fall into place. Parents on the playground have worried conversations about which pre-school will prepare their child for kindergarten, reading and Harvard, as if failing to read by age 4 dooms their children to a life of minimum wage servitude. Parents can spend up to $38,000 on private Pre-K to ease their anxiety about such things. Whereas my husband and I shrug and figure, given how much we each read and write, it’s just a matter of time and our children will learn when they’re ready.

Our decision to not send our son to a traditional pre-school whether it be the YMCA or a Montessori or Waldorf type has raised the eyebrows of some family members and friends, as if we were denying our child key childhood experience, denying him the alphabet itself or guilty of negligent parenting, as if I haven’t spent years researching education or reading up on the crisis in the current education system that has trickled down into some of the country’s pre-schools. But rather than stress about son’s future SAT score and if it could be predicted by his pre-school attendance, we found like-minded parents whom we could do a pre-school home school coop kind of thing with because we do want our son to play with other kids, to make friends, and to learn the kind of social problem solving that happens in groups of people. Except our pre-school-home-school-coop-kind-of-thing won’t start until January. Playgroup, we thought, would fill in the gap, especially since in my mind pre-school should be about playing anyway. Except upon arrival, we discovered that while the playgroup advertised itself as up to age 3 ½, only kids under 14 months had come. My son looked out at the sea of babies and asked, “Mommy, where are all the kids?” My heart broke. I asked for my money back. As we left, the woman said, “You know the kids his age are in school, right?”

I spent the next day questioning myself, and our decision to forgo the traditional pre-school and education route. I google-ed things like, “what’s the point of pre-school anyway?” “home school pre-school” and what have you. I registered my son for art class at the Children’s Museum of the Arts. Then I shut my computer. I realized I parent my children the way I wished I had been parented. Maybe it was the same with education, and maybe I just had to think about how I wish I were educated and that would inform my decisions about my son’s educational future.

All things considering and even though I wasn’t the best student, I received a pretty strong education in the Portland Public School system, and as I bounced the question around with my husband and my other most trusted confidant, my sister, we realized we all at some point in our public school educations had experienced following our instincts, our guts, our curiosities, our hearts and not only getting in trouble for it, but also getting labeled.

My husband, sister and I also realized that we wished we had been taught to follow our instincts, and have our perspectives, ideas, and insights –even the childish ones – respected and taken seriously. We pondered what would it have been like to have someone as excited about our creativity and curiosity as we were, or interested in how we formed our thoughts and perspectives. We wondered what it would have been like to have been raised in an education system where the focus was on learning how we learn and how to think. In having taught college students and asked them their opinions, only to receive the deer-in-the-headlight stares, I also had reason to suspect that much of education is actually trying to educate the curiosity, the instinct, the heart and even the creativity out of students.

At my son’s art class, he played with clay, he made a mural with other kids, he listened to a story, he hid behind an easel during songs (then sang the songs the rest of the day), and at one point he stacked stools, while the other kids colored with markers. The teacher jokingly called him a troublemaker for stacking stools. Jokingly, but still. I refrained from saying that Maria Montessori would point out that he was not trouble making, he was stacking stools for whatever reason that was important to him, because I didn’t want the teacher to snap back with a suggestion to stick him in Montessori then (as if that wasn’t a long waiting list).

My son didn’t notice the label. Art class was fantastic despite the label, but I felt that I was right to question my son following the standard educational route where many educators are mainly interested in how well children behave.

Later that day, Steve Jobs died.

In rereading his 2005 Stanford Commencement address, it’s hard to pick a favorite part of that speech, but in light of spending the week obsessing about my son’s educational future, two parts stuck out:

1) “You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

2) “Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma —which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

I listened to my son in the bathtub bellow songs he learned in art class while hiding behind an easel. My son then asked to have his boat book in the bath. My husband explained it was paper and couldn't go in the bath. My son asked, “What happens to paper in the bath?” My husband and he then dumped a good portion of the recycling bin into the bath to find out what happens to paper in the bath.

I realized I didn’t have to worry about pre-school. My son is learning from living because that’s what kids do. Other people have different priorities for their children’s education whether it’s that they be high achievers in hopes it will grant them job security or that their children do well just so as parents they look good (we know these kinds of people, but they rarely admit such things) while others want their kids to just have good experiences of school and childhood.

I can understand these priorities for our children’s education, but I want my kid to take a page from Steve Jobs book and that means I too have to trust my heart and instincts and not live with the results of others’ thinking. I want my son to do great work simply because he loves what he’s doing (and not because it will earn him a good grade). I want him to know what it is that he loves. I want him to think for himself, and to trust his heart and values. And most of all, I want him to love learning and stay curious and to trust that curiosity. I don’t know exactly what his education will look like or where he’ll get it, and I don’t know the answers for reforming the education system or if there’s one system that will work for all children and learning types. But the life of Steve Jobs shows me that what I want to nurture and encourage are not my son’s abilities to behave, take tests, or learn by memorization, but his curiosity, his ability to ask questions (and tough questions), his natural love of learning – even if it takes nontraditional routes – his instincts, and his perspective that is his and his alone.