Tag Archives: parenting

Balancing Career and Family – Over Years

I hear a lot in the US about work-life balance. The concept is increasingly at the forefront of consciousness for both sexes, as both men and women think hard about the roles they want to play in the world and in their own families. Most large corporations at least pay lip service to the notion Read More…

I hear a lot in the US about work-life balance. The concept is increasingly at the forefront of consciousness for both sexes, as both men and women think hard about the roles they want to play in the world and in their own families. Most large corporations at least pay lip service to the notion that this balance is desirable for their employees, and many back up their fine words with benefits (such as Sun’s work from home program) that are very much to the point.

It’s a topic that I have opinions on only in hindsight. I never planned my career, nor my home life. It all just seemed to happen, I made choices as they came along, and I haven’t reached the end of the story yet to know how it will all work out.

I think perhaps I’ve achieved work-life balance, or at least I’m on my way to achieving it, though not in the day-to-day fashion that most people imagine. My work and life are balancing over months and years.

If I had had to choose a time to have a child, there might never have been a “right” time. It would have meant an interruption to whatever I was doing professionally at the time, because I always knew that I would want to take care of my baby myself. I don’t claim that this is the right choice for everyone (for many mothers, it’s simply not a financial option), but I knew without thinking that it was right for me. If it had not been possible, I might have chosen not to have children at all.

I have come to the conclusion (many years after the fact) that I got pregnant at age 25 as a way to end conflict between myself and my then-fiance, Enrico, about my work. He was worried about my traveling, partly out of concerns for my safety in exotic countries (I did two consulting jobs in Africa), partly because he preferred to have me near him, and did not see how all my gallivanting was going to fit into “normal” married life. He’s also 6.5 years older than I am, and he was ready to be a father when we met. But I was excited about the work I was doing, and not about to give it up on his say-so. Irresistible force meets immovable object. Much conflict ensued.

So I “accidentally” got pregnant, then gave up my job and moved to New Haven to be with Enrico. I worked temp jobs until about two weeks before giving birth, when I was simply too enormous and uncomfortable to sit in an office chair all day. After Ross was born, the boss I’d been working for at Yale would have been delighted to have me back on any terms, including keeping the baby with me all day, but we tried that and concluded it just would not work: a baby requires constant attention.

I was mostly at home with Ross until we moved to Italy, where she began full-time day care in early 1991, at about 18 months old. The job I eventually found started out as a regular office job, doing technical writing for a high-tech startup in Milan. Then the boss set up a US branch for his company and moved all the engineers to Silicon Valley. I had to work with them, so in early 1994 I began flying to California four times a year, for stretches of two to three weeks. In the summers, Enrico and Ross would join me and enjoy a month’s vacation in California while I worked.

Enrico was also spending at least a month out of each year in the US, collaborating on mathematical research with colleagues at various universities. During several such trips Ross and I joined him. I worked from wherever I could get an internet connection and put Ross in daycare, which had the added benefits of improving her English and giving her more exposure to American culture. Later, when she was in elementary school and I couldn’t just take her away for months at a time, we restricted our long family stays in the US to the summers; Ross and Enrico would vacation in California while I was working.

I quit my US-based job in 2001 (when Ross was 12) and began working entirely from our home in Milan. It turned out to be a boon that I was much more present during her adolescence than I had been when she was younger. Her teenage years weren’t entirely smooth (whose are?), but the troubles she had were mostly with school. In every other arena she was level-headed and generally trustworthy. Perhaps having her mother close, both physically and emotionally, contributed to that.

Very unusually for an Italian, Ross left home at 18 to go to boarding school in India, which meant that I could leave home as well. Which, after years of being underemployed, underpaid, overcommuted, and exploited in the lousy Italian job market, I was ready to do. So now I’m back to concentrating on my career. We’ll see how the next 20 years go.

Raising a Non-Believer

A reader has just written to me: “One was on an essay about Religion as a Cause of Strife in the World – you can bet she went to town on that!” this is a comment you wrote on Ross’ India Diary and i have always wanted to ask you why you believe that Ross Read More…

A reader has just written to me:

“One was on an essay about Religion as a Cause of Strife in the World – you can bet she went to town on that!”

this is a comment you wrote on Ross’ India Diary and i have always wanted to ask you why you believe that Ross has arrived at an independent opinion/thought/decision regarding religion when it is the exact same opinion/insight you and your husband have. maybe mistakenly, but i’ve gotten this impression that you are very prideful that her belief is identical to yours and see it as a sign of her independent, intelligent thought. how much of a stretch is that really? how different is that to the child who grows up with the gospel every week at church and every day at home? how “independent” can that child’s outlook ever be due to that home conditioning?

It’s very true and completely unsurprising that Rossella, like most kids, shares her parents’ beliefs (or lack of). The more interesting question is: did how she arrive at those beliefs?

One of Richard Dawkins’ most provocative theses is that schools and even parents should not be allowed to proselytize children into religion at young ages. He points to lifelong traumas (both physical and mental) inflicted upon people (and cultures) from infancy, in the name of religion.

One might reasonably ask (many have) how Dawkins’ desire to promote atheism is any different from a religious person’s desire to promote religion. The logic here seems to be: “Atheism is just another belief. Why is it okay for you to preach what you believe, but not for religious people to do so?”

Here’s the “fundamental” difference: most religions teach their adherents – and particularly children – to accept certain strictures, norms, behaviors, etc. because someone in “authority” said so. Believers may be allowed to question up to a point, but sooner or later every religion comes down to “faith” – a necessarily blind (because unprovable) belief that there is some “higher power” out there which has an opinion about how you should think and act.

This is emphatically NOT how we raised our daughter.

My husband is a professional mathematician. This means that he thinks long and hard to come up with new hypotheses about how things behave in his particular realm of mathematics. When he can support his ideas with mathematical proofs, and those ideas are new, and important enough to be brought to the attention of his colleagues, he submits them (in the form of articles) to professional mathematical journals. There his ideas are judged by his peers for their truth and interestingness and worthiness of publication. If he gets something wrong, either he or one of his colleagues will figure that out. He thanks the people who point out his errors, and goes back to the drawing board.

The same thing happens in every scientific field. Ideas are developed, tested, and submitted to a jury of one’s peers. Sometimes an idea is proven wrong immediately, sometimes later, as more research is carried out. A few hypotheses survive the judgement of the scientific community and the test of time to become theories: which is to say, scientifically-proven facts.

All of this is done in a spirit of cooperative enquiry and (more or less) humility. No one can claim to know more than anyone else on the basis of some externally-granted “authority” – a scientist must be able to back his or her hypotheses with solid, provable facts.

I’m not a scientist, but I use the classic scientific method in my job every day: Does this work? If not, why not? What went wrong? Test one variable at a time til you find out where the problem is, then fix it. It’s a simple logic which can be usefully applied in many areas of life.

Given our professional and personal biases (and our penchant for arguing about EVERYTHING), Enrico and I have raised our daughter to prize inquiry, and not to grant authority blindly. We would be hypocrites if we had not encouraged Ross to think for herself and ask questions – to which we always gave grown-up answers.

This isn’t a totally easy way to raise a teenager: “Why do I have to be home at midnight?” In a family like ours, “Because I’m the mom and I said so!” doesn’t cut it. In Ross’ most exhausting, argumentative moments, I have gritted my teeth and consoled myself that: “At least I know she’s not going to do something stupid just because her friends are doing it.”

And, mostly, she hasn’t. We raised her to think for herself, and she does think – and, most of the time, she comes to very sensible conclusions.

If Ross called herself an atheist simply in imitation of me and her father, I’d have no reason to boast of her independence of mind. Perhaps at 18 she hasn’t put as much thought into her beliefs as we have, but I don’t think she’s merely parroting us. She knows that she is welcome – encouraged! – to explore what others believe (Woodstock is an excellent venue for that), and decide for herself what she thinks of it all. Her father and I remain open to discussion. Ross is no fool, and very likely someday she’ll persuade me to something I hadn’t previously agreed with. It wouldn’t be the first time.

She’s Leaving Home

What with all the preparations, end of the school year, and various family medical traumas, I have barely had time to dwell on the fact that our daughter is about to leave home. It’s just as well that I haven’t had that time. Ross will be away for a full ten months (yes, I will Read More…

What with all the preparations, end of the school year, and various family medical traumas, I have barely had time to dwell on the fact that our daughter is about to leave home.

It’s just as well that I haven’t had that time.

Ross will be away for a full ten months (yes, I will visit). During winter vacation, the SAGE (exchange) program kids go on a one-month tour all over India, and, although it’s optional, Ross won’t want to pass that up. She will finish up at Woodstock next May 30th, presumably with enough course credits to graduate with a Woodstock diploma (equivalent to a US high school diploma).

She could theoretically then return to Italy for her fifth and final year of liceo, do the maturità (Italian school leaving exam), and go on to university in Italy – which has the advantage that it’s essentially free (we have paid for it already through our taxes). However, for reasons that I don’t feel like going into right now (because I’m so angry with the Italian school system), that is looking unlikely at present. So there’s a good chance that Ross will go straight on to college in the US, with only a vacation stopover back home in Lecco. Enrico and I are staring into the abyss of an empty nest.

Not that we thought she’d live with her parents til age 30, as so many Italian young people do – the girls do tend to get away earlier, and Ross just isn’t the type to stay home. There’s a big, wide world out there, and she can’t wait to go see it all.

Ross is also turning 18, just a few days after her school year at Woodstock begins. The 18th birthday is a big deal in Italy: it’s the voting age, the age of legal adulthood, and the age at which you can drive a car (drinking age? that was a while ago). Many kids, at least in Ross’ circles, celebrate 18 in a big way. Ross didn’t quite get her act together for a big party, but had a dinner out with a gang of friends. And we’re going to see a show in London, and will be having a few other treats along the way. Anything to keep me distracted from that moment when I have to wave goodbye to her at the airport.

Comments and shoulders to cry on welcome!

Raising a Confident Daughter

One of my newsletter readers asked for child-raising advice. Well, that’s putting it a bit strongly, but, apropos of my own daughter, she asked: “…what do you think contributed to her self-confidence and caring for others?” …and I felt an article coming on. Not that I have definitive answers, or simple ones. I have wondered Read More…

One of my newsletter readers asked for child-raising advice. Well, that’s putting it a bit strongly, but, apropos of my own daughter, she asked: “…what do you think contributed to her self-confidence and caring for others?” …and I felt an article coming on.

Not that I have definitive answers, or simple ones. I have wondered myself how Ross got to be who she is. Leaving aside occasional bouts of teenage angst, at 17 Ross has all of the self-confidence that I have at 44 (and then some). By the time she’s 30, she’ll be terrifying! There are doubtless many factors: the genetics of her parents and the way we are raising her, but also the culture(s) she’s growing up in.

No one really knows why kids turn out the way they do (though there are lots of theories), nor how much influence parents really have, nor how much of that influence is genetic, and how much is environmental.

We had an object lesson in nature vs. nurture during our wedding – the first time since my brother’s babyhood that many people had seen him and my dad together. (Quick history: My parents divorced when I was 9 and my brother was 1; Ian remained in Thailand with my mom, who remarried; I went to the US with my dad. I then did not see my mom for eight years, Ian did not see Dad for even longer.)

Everyone was astonished at how much Dad and Ian resembled each other. Not just in the obviously genetic stuff like height, build, face, etc., but also in things you wouldn’t think are genetic: voice and manner of speaking, yes, but even use of idiom! It seemed clear that sheer genes have a lot to do with how kids turn out, in both large and subtle behaviors, regardless of how and by whom they are raised.

A few months later, Rossella was born.

During the last months of my pregnancy, I once dreamt that I was working in a lab where I was supposed to take care of white mice. In the course of moving a dozen of these mice from one cage to another, I managed to kill them all: one fell on the floor and I stepped on it, one drowned in its water dish, etc. I woke, sweating, and thought: “I have some anxieties about becoming a mother.”

I hadn’t been around kids or babies much since the separation from my brother. I was de facto an only child (again) after that, and in boarding school you spend most of your time with your peers, seeing relatively little of people in other age groups, and you don’t have opportunities to babysit. I had never taken care of an infant, changed a diaper, or any of that, nor did I have a mother I could turn to for advice. So I thought I had reason to be anxious about my mothering skills.

I don’t recall actually talking about this to anyone, though I silently resented the idea that some sort of mystical “mothering instinct” was supposed to automatically kick in as soon as the baby was born – what if it didn’t? Would that make me a bad person? A failed mother?

Rossella was born, after 24 hours’ labor, around 5 pm on a rainy night in August. Enrico was a champion: he stood by my side throughout the labor, massaging my back and being encouraging even when I was yelling a lot, and he didn’t faint at all the blood (actually, I’m not sure he even noticed it, he was so deliriously happy to have his daughter in his arms).

But, the way most hospitals work, the father goes home after labor, and you, the brand new mother, find yourself alone with this stranger who just came out of your belly.

I had my “special” new mother hospital dinner (it was awful) while the nurses kept my baby in a bassinet in the nursery – I didn’t have a private room, so she had to be in the nursery, but I could go get her whenever I wanted.

I had slept unusually well (for me) during the last trimester of pregnancy. I have rarely slept so well since. That first night, in spite of being thoroughly wrung out by hard labor, I woke up at least once and went to the nursery to check on my daughter. And panicked: she wasn’t in her assigned bassinet. I was about to have a hysterical fit when the nurses explained that they had put her in an incubator to quieten her because she was fussy. They had also tried giving her a pacifier. She spit it out. Good girl.

I was irritated that they had even tried: I had told them I wanted to breastfeed, and, to ensure a smooth start (as recommended by the La Leche instructor), no bottles or pacifiers should be given. Ross preferred real breast right from the start, and would never take a pacifier even later on, when we half-wished she might.

As I emerged from the haze of post-natal exhaustion and began to take charge of my own child, I realized that dealing with a baby was primarily a communications problem: here was an individual who undoubtedly had needs and desires, but wasn’t very good at articulating them. But we were two intelligent, willing people: between us, we’d figure it out.

Of course I’d read books – good ol’ Dr. Spock, for starters – but I was doubtful about much of the advice I read. Try to make the baby sleep according to a schedule? Let it cry itself out if it doesn’t? That sounded like a recipe for no sleep for anybody (including our apartment neighbors). My dad had told me that, during my infancy, he was unable to bear my crying, so he was the one who would get up at 2 am to give me a bottle.

Enrico’s parents had come to stay with us two weeks before the birth, and left again two weeks afterwards. Their timing was perfect and their support wonderful – I didn’t have to cook or shop while I was coping with figuring out this new person in my life. Unlike many Italian in-laws (or so I’m told), they also maintained a strict policy of non-interference: neither ever tried to tell us how to do anything with our baby (unless we asked).

I suppose Dr. Spock would say we were overly permissive parents. We never really tried to force Ross onto a schedule. When she cried, we picked her up, and if she wanted to feed, she fed. If she didn’t, we did whatever we could to entertain her or try to get her back to sleep, til we were bleary-eyed ourselves. We wished someone woud invent a mechanism that would have the same effect as a moving car – which always put her right to sleep – so that we could sleep at the same time.

All the books say you’re not supposed to keep the baby in bed with you, in case you might roll over and smother it. This seemed over-fearful to me: I was so alert to Ross’ tiniest squeak that there was no chance I could sleep through smothering her. As often as not, we’d all fall asleep in the bed together after a night feeding. And Ross often woke up first.

Perhaps Ross’ self-confidence has less to do with anything particular we did for/to/with her than with what we didn’t do.

Mainly, we didn’t try to stop her doing anything she wanted to try. But we were always there, unobtrusively hovering, to make sure she didn’t get hurt.

Ross didn’t start walking til 15 months, so on her first birthday, which we spent at the beach with Enrico’s parents, she was still crawling. This didn’t slow her down much. She would crawl straight down the beach into the (very shallow) water, and keep going until the tiny waves lapped her face. And she would laugh, even as bystanders gasped in horror: “Signora! La bambina!” (“Lady! Your baby!”) – apparently they thought I was going to let her drown, though I was standing right over her and could scoop her up as soon as she got too deep.

Ross was never afraid of the water, even when she got completely dunked by a slightly more vigorous wave.

However, at that same beach, I saw a good illustration of what not to do. A mother accompanied her toddler into the water. The little girl strode fearlessly out, clearly enjoying the sensations, til she got to chin depth. Then a little wave broke in her face and she paused, shocked. Her face screwed up in that classic moment of childish indecision: “Is this a big deal? Should I be upset about it?”

Her mother made up her mind for her: she swooped down, scolding: “See! I told you what would happen!”

The child burst into tears and screams. She had gotten her mother’s message: she was supposed to be afraid. I wouldn’t be surprised if that girl stayed afraid of water for years afterwards.

Dental Trauma

At five months, human babies love the world and trust everybody in it. When I took her in for a routine pediatric checkup, my daughter Rossella smiled and gurgled and laughed, assuming that everyone in the world loved her, and nothing and no one would hurt her. The checkup required that a little blood be Read More…

At five months, human babies love the world and trust everybody in it. When I took her in for a routine pediatric checkup, my daughter Rossella smiled and gurgled and laughed, assuming that everyone in the world loved her, and nothing and no one would hurt her.

The checkup required that a little blood be drawn, from a finger prick. As I held Ross in my lap, she smiled cheerily at the nurse approaching with a trayful of blood-drawing equipment. “I feel so guilty,” sighed the nurse. “They’re always so trusting at this age.” Ross looked on interestedly as the nurse unwrapped a lancet, grasped her tiny forefinger, then rapidly poked it with that sharp piece of metal.

There was a moment of stunned silence. Ross’ face turned red and her eyes bulged with shock while the nurse hurriedly squeezed a drop of blood into a tube. Then Ross began to scream. These weren’t wails of pain or sorrow: she was giving voice to sheer outrage. She simply couldn’t believe that the world she had greeted with open arms had turned on her so suddenly and shockingly. Trust was shattered, and she had no intention of forgiving anybody anytime soon.

I cuddled her in my arms, telling her uselessly that the nurse hadn’t wanted to hurt her, that it was all for her own good, that everything was fine – and I reflected on the betrayed trust of children.

When I was age eight or so, I had an abcessed tooth. My mother took me to the dentist, who sat me in the big chair, examined me, and then went off in the corner to consult with my mother. Though they kept their voices low, I hear the word “extraction,” and asked worriedly, “You’re not going to do that now, are you?”

“No, of course not,” said the dentist soothingly, approaching me in the chair again. “Now just lie back and let me take a look.” The next thing I knew was searing pain as she wrenched that tooth out, followed by gouts of blood all over my favorite blouse. (I didn’t own much girly clothing, and was very fond of that frilly white blouse and the little red skirt that went with it – both ruined with bloodstains that day.)

My next memory is of being back at our house, standing in the garden, my jaw aching and my mouth full of blood-soaked wads of cotton. I was still in shock. I couldn’t believe that two grown-up women had done that to me, had deliberately lied and then hurt me when they said they weren’t going to.

My next dental experience was in Pittsburgh, where my dad (by then single-parenting me) couldn’t understand why I was so afraid that I would scream and tremble and cry as soon as the dentist got near me. I became so hysterical that he slapped me (the only time I can ever remember my dad hitting me), which naturally didn’t help. Anesthesia seemed the only solution, and that was what we did for years, every time, for every little cavity. I hated the sensation of going under (and the dentist’s repeated lie that the gas would smell sweet), hated waking up nauseous in a cold waiting room, to the sound of a local radio station. Once I awoke to an ad for “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” – not exactly soothing. But all of this was better than facing the dentist.

Although I gave up the anesthesia years ago, I still tense up in doctors’ and dentists’ offices – places of concentrated pain, as far as I’m concerned.

Tomorrow I will accompany Ross to have her first wisdom tooth out. She’s not a bit afraid. Though she had to start seeing dentists early in life, I was very, very careful to ensure that nothing was ever done to her without her knowledge and consent, and we were fortunate to find a dentist with staff whose patience and kindness were at least equal to my own. This meant a lot of visits in which nothing at all was accomplished on the dental front, but Ross grew to trust everybody so much that she eventually let them do everything they needed to, even the painful things, without fuss or fear. For a while she even aspired to be a dentist herself!

So she’s not worried about tomorrow. Nor should I be: our dentist here in Lecco is a family friend and absolutely competent. But, still, I can’t help my stomach clenching a little. Some childhood experiences you just never quite get over.