• Tomorrow, May 1, is D-Day for high school seniors.  All those who have been put through brutal application and acceptance processes, these kids who have a new appreciation for the concept of a “wait list,” will have to make up their minds.  By tomorrow, they’ve got to fill out paperwork and mail deposits into the colleges of their choice.  This is it.

    I’m hearing from family and friends how hard it is to balance feelings of pride and delight against the sadness of upcoming loss as their kids make these sometimes tough decisions. I spoke on the phone last night with my sister-in-law who lives in Virginia. Her daughter — my niece — has decided to start school next September in California.  A beloved friend in San Diego is coming to terms with her son’s decision to head to Boston. The silver lining is that we’ll have more opportunities to visit, but that doesn’t ease her heartache at having her son leave home in such a definitive way. And I am struggling with the implications of one of my kids’ decision to attend boarding school in New Hampshire in the fall.  Distance.  Life as we know it is about the change dramatically.

    My sister-in-law, my friend, I — we are all members of the tail end of the Baby Boom.  We have all made choices to curtail professional ambitions so that we’ve been able to have more time with our growing children. Sociologists and gender analysts in a few decades will surely have a field day when they pick apart our lives.  I shudder to think what they will conclude.  Here on the ground, in the moment, what I see is a desire for deep connection with family.  A friend has told me since her kids were born that her greatest accomplishment will be if her kids want to come home for Thanksgiving when they are grown.  I think she speaks for an entire generation.

    I don’t know if our desire for proximity and reciprocity among our growing children is good or bad.  Don’t know if it’s mostly about us or our kids.  Do we want something for them that we didn’t have? Is this deep-seated desire yet another manifestation of the narcissism of our generation?

    NBC has tapped into these complicated feelings with its new drama Parenthood. The show airs Tuesdays at 10 PM Eastern Time.  It chronicles the ins and outs of the Braverman clan — two aging Early Boomer parents, their four mid-life Late Boomer kids, and their six growing grandchildren.  Each episode is studded with scenes in which adult children gather to celebrate even the smallest extended family happenings. The camera lovingly films the extended clan gathered at a local park to cheer on one of the kid’s baseball games.  It shows the entire family in a public pool as the youngest member successfully swims for the first time.   The Bravermans all grapple with demons.  None is perfect.  But none suffers alone. They share their imperfections, seeking each others’ advice in person and on the phone.  They take comfort in their ability to drop by each others’ homes and offices. Their lives are tightly braided together, and the show’s writers demonstrate again and again that this mostly brings the characters deep satisfaction.

    I have come to think of Parenthood as family porn.  We Late Boomers who feed our children slow food at family suppers want more time with the people we have raised to adulthood.  And just as they are heading off to have their own adventures like so many tufts on a dandelion, we crave stories about families who choose to live in proximity.  The cameras filming Parenthood linger over the faces of siblings who choose to babysit each others’ children and attend their birthday parties.  We grew up watching Dynasty and Dallas, night time soap operas about the evil machinations of family members hell-bent on destroying each others’ lives.  Now we are hungry for shows that allow us to fantasize about the essential goodness of kin and connection. If we can’t have our own family suppers, at least we can watch the Bravermans enjoying theirs.

    Tags: , , , ,

  • While Lily was hanging out Sunday at Smith College, getting a sense of what it means to attend an all-women’s institution in the 21st century, I was reading Hilary Mantel’s autobiography, Giving Up the Ghost (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003). Mantel recently won the Mann Booker Prize for her brilliant, challenging novel about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall. The book so intrigued me that I pulled everything of Mantel’s from my branch library’s shelves. The autobiography was among the haul and proved to be a fortuitous read on this particular trip.

    Mantel was studying law in her late teens and early twenties, first at the London School of Economics, then, following her geologist husband, at Sheffield University. She described her disappointment with Sheffield: “one of my tutors was a bored local solicitor who made it plain that he didn’t think women had any place in his classroom.” (153) Mantel’s comment on her tutor’s approach to women’s education is worth sharing:

    Some people have forgotten, or never known, why we needed the feminist movement so badly. This was why: so that some talentless prat in a nylon shirt couldn’t patronize you, while around you the spotty boys smirked and giggled, trying to worm into his favor. The birth control revolution of the late sixties had passed our elders by — educators and employers both.  It was assumed that marriage was the beginning of a woman’s affective life, and the end of her mental life.  It was assumed that she neither could nor would exercise choice over whether to breed; poor silly creature, no sooner would her degree certificate be in her hand before she’d cast all that book learning to the winds, and start swelling and simpering and knitting bootees. When you went for a job interview, you would be asked, if you were not wearing a wedding ring, whether you were engaged; if you were engaged or married, you would be asked when you intended to ‘start your family.’ Whether you were celibate, or gay, or just a sensible preplanner, you had to smile and jump through the flaming hoops held up for you by some grizzled ringmaster, shifty and semi-embarrassed as he asked a girl half his age to tell him about her sex life and account for her next ovulation. (153-154)

    I wish Mantel had kept her verb tense in the present: why we need the feminist movement so badly. The fight’s not over. Here’s a not-so-subtle statistic I learned during the information session at Smith: at women’s colleges, women hold 100% of all leadership positions. At peer institutions, men hold 90% of all leadership positions. Lily will decide what she’ll decide when it comes to college. Meanwhile, if I had it to do all over again, I’d be inclined to explore women’s colleges with an open mind.

    Mantel titled her memoir “Giving Up the Ghost” as a way to refer to the process she went through as she coped with surgical menopause and subsequent infertility. She was diagnosed with endometriosis in her late 20s. Her illness would end her law career, opening the way for her fiction writing but closing her path to parenthood.  ‘Twould have been excellent if she’d added in one sentence about the importance of not giving up the ghost when it comes to feminism.

    Tags: , , ,

  • Every Sunday, I can’t wait to read The Boston Globe Magazine‘s column “Dinner with Cupid.” Globe staff set up blind dates from a pool of folks who apply to eat supper with a stranger.  The participants get asked a set of questions: if you were stranded on a desert island, what would you want? what was your best date ever? why are you a catch? when are you happiest?  The answers to these questions are up top.  The blow-by-blow of the actual date follows underneath and ends with a post-mortem.  The daters grade their experience.

    The grades aren’t usually very high — usually in the B range.  Participants don’t usually want to go out again — or, if they do, just as friends. It’s obvious up top why staffers make the matches.  You know — the guy markets wine, the woman is a chef…the man’s a grad student, the gal’s a teacher.  Even with the similar interests, the participants almost always say the chemistry just isn’t there.  One date, and it’s over.

    My refrain most weeks is that these people need to go on a few more dates before they give their final answer.  I met my husband on a blind date — the only one either of us had ever been on.  He knew right away.  For me, it took a while.  (Maybe it’s still taking a while….) I’ve thought as I’ve read these weekly date reports that the reason things never work out is that this generation expects things to move fast or not at all. I changed my mind, though, this past Sunday.  The participants finally clicked. The guy (internet ad exec) and gal (asst food and beverage mgr) both gave the date an A+. But why?  Was it just instant “chemistry” — or something more?

    Just read the participants’ answers to those up-top questions, and it’s clear why things worked.  If stranded on a desert island, the gal would want: “Peach Snapple, sunglasses, and a bathing suit.”  The guy is happiest when “Riding his bike up a hill or surfing.”  If all it takes to make ya happy is a Peach Snapple and pair of sunglasses…it’s a hell of a lot easier to find a mate.  The guy reported seeing the gal and concluding that she was “stunning and confident.”  I looked at her photo — in the magazine, online — and though she’s nice enough looking, I wouldn’t call her a stunner.  But if you’re the kind of person who can be made happy by a bike ride uphill…why not?

    So, it’s not just sticking with it, not just giving it time. The key to happiness is low expectations, so say the wise.  The key to happiness is wanting what you have. The key to happiness is Peach Snapple.

    Tags: , ,

  • I was predisposed to like Judith Warner’s new book, We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010). I read it and had a visceral, negative reaction. I couldn’t put my finger on what bugged me. Two weeks passed, and I still couldn’t sort out my thoughts. I sat down with the book again yesterday, and now I can explain.

    Like the more than 60 families Warner interviewed in We’ve Got Issues, my family has children who have needed medication.  I, like so many of these parents, have struggled to come to terms with the implications of medicating kids for diagnoses that 30 years ago would have gone unseen, let alone untreated. In fact, they did go unseen and undiagnosed in my extended family, and the attendant wreckage and dysfunction have been profound. My mantra concerning medicating children for mental illness has evolved to this: it is far scarier to contemplate what things will be like if the meds don’t work than if they do. Hence my predisposition to read Warner’s book with a favorable eye.

    We’ve Got Issues is a combination conversion narrative, memoir, and reportorial expose.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about Warner situating herself at the center of the book, but I thought I understood the strategy.  She was outing herself as a card-carrying member of the opposition, one of the judgmental parents certain that kids these days are helpless pawns. Warner started her project, originally called UNTITLED on Affluent Parents and Neurotic Kids, ready to lambaste “the whole archipelago of therapy and tutoring and labeling and medication” (7). She was prepared to delve into the “social construction of disease,” assuming that overly anxious, ambitious parents were incapable of accepting their children’s imperfections and therefore labelling less-than-perfect behaviors as pathologies.  She was set to dine out on stories about the way Big Pharma fed these anxieties, making gazillions shoveling anti-depressants and untested anti-psychotics into the mouths of babes.  Warner stepped out of her comfort zone to attend a meeting billed as “Should I Worry?” The stories she heard at this meeting in a church basement made it difficult and eventually impossible for her to continue with her stated project. Here were parents describing interactions with out-of-control children who were destined for disaster. Diagnosis, treatment, and medication were saving lives.

    Warner’s conversion moment came when she encountered a sentence the left-leaning French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had penned: “Mental illness is the revolt that the free organism in its total entity invents in order to live in an unbearable situation.” She confessed that she’d been inhaling these kinds of ideas for decades:  “‘Theory’ was like a religion to me” (25). It was time, she decided, to grow up. How could she swallow theory whole when the concrete experience of suffering precluded the validity of the musings of Lacanians and deconstructionists and Marxists? The theorists were engaging in “foolish, inhuman, cruel” thinking, leading her to “deconsruct kids’ diagnoses by analyzing them symbolically” (27). She stopped bashing psychiatrists and started listening to families in the trenches, and she hoped that others sympathetic to left-leaning cultural criticism would join her in her new religious affiliation.  She also hoped that families living through what she was describing would find solace, validation, even community in her book.

    Other reviewers have taken Warner to task for her approach. Did she, in fact, have this come-to-Jesus moment, or was the conversion merely a brilliant marketing strategy?  If Warner cared so much about evidence, why did she focus narrowly on family stories instead of digesting scientific research?  You can click here, here, here, and here for generally favorable summaries and reviews.

    So, why my hesitation in giving Warner kudos? What’s holding me back, given the fierce struggles my husband and I have fought to help our families? As she set out her research methods, Warner explained that she had interviewed “psychiatrists, psychologists, parents of kids with autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, anxiety disorders, OCD, bipolar disorder, dyspraxia, dyslexia, and sensory integration issues — in short, the range of disorders that I had once dismissed as ‘fashionable maladies.’ (And that I will, from here on, refer to as ‘mental disorders,’ ‘mental health disorders,’ ‘mental health issues,’ or ‘mental illnesses'” (27-28). She makes this elision again on pages 35-37.  Since when has “dyslexia” — an umbrella term covering difficulties with decoding, fluency, and spelling written language — been considered a mental illness? And though ADD and AD/HD were, in the dark ages, referred to as “minimal brain damage,” scientists these days think of this condition as a brain difference and a learning disorder.  Dyspraxia — a neuromuscular problem — a mental illness? Come on!

    It’s true that cutting edge researchers are exploring whether many of these conditions are “spectrum disorders.” That is to say, scientists wonder whether there is a genetic relationship between, for instance, ADHD, OCD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.  Families with members who have any of these syndromes are more likely to have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who inherit variations of these syndromes. Scientists want to know if similar neurotransmitters or genetic mutations are involved. By conflating these conditions, Warner does a terrible disservice to the field of neurology and to the people — children, in particular — who are living (and living well) with “issues.”

    When I returned to Warner’s book, I was struck by her description of the process by which she initially got her book contract for UNTITLED.  Her editor and publisher were so taken by her as a personality and writer that they green-lighted her idea. I am curious to know if they took a similar approach to the manuscript.  Who reviewed it?  Did no one along the way object to Warner’s approach to “mental illness?” It’s hard for me to believe that anyone working in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, neurobiology, or education wouldn’t have challenged this manuscript.

    Last: by putting herself at the center of her book, Warner blurred the lines between insider and outsider.  She wanted to maintain distance and objectivity so that she could report stories that might be unfamiliar to many readers.  But she committed the cardinal sin of the outsider who wants to pass, by way of empathy, as an insider.  She made a careless, even harmful mistake that no insider, no one who actually lives with “these kids” and “these issues” would ever make. And while there is much to praise in Warner’s new book, I can’t forgive her. I hope, when the book goes to paperback, she will revisit the construction of her definition and make a few critically important changes.

    Tags: , , , , , ,