Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Class Trip

My nine-year-old daughter stands very solemnly outside her elementary school, next to a jumble of backpacks and duffel bags that sit on the curb waiting to be stowed under the big white tour bus. Her school trip will take her to a farm over 200 miles away, where she will camp outside for three nights and work on the farm for four days. This is the furthest she has traveled without her family and the longest she's been away from us. I never traveled so far or so long until I was eighteen and had graduated from high school.

My daughter is stoically hiding her fear, but I know from the stiffness of her body and the way she is not smiling, that she is nervous. She says goodbye, very formally, and I kiss her on the forehead. I tell her not to move; I need to run back to the car and get something. I rush back to pull a plastic bag out of the trunk. In case she feels sick. I've given her Dramamine already. And Sea Bands. And told her teacher and all the chaperones that she gets car sick, but the drive will be at least four hours. What if she gets sick?

My car isn't parked far away, but by the time I get back, the pile of luggage is gone and everyone is ready to board the bus. I stuff the plastic bag into the front pocket of her backpack and watch her step quickly onto the bus. She doesn't look back. "That's a good sign," says a dad standing next to me. I smile and agree, but really, I'm not so sure.

I can't see her face through the tinted windows, just the faint outline of her curls. I join some of the other parents popping onto the bus for last goodbyes. Standing on my tiptoes on the steps of the bus, I can just see her, still looking serious. She gives me a small wave and I snap a blurry picture.

One of the chaperones digs through a backpack searching for a box of plastic bags to have ready at hand for the kids prone to motion sickness, all of whom are seated near my daughter at the front of the bus. Of course other people would have thought to take care of this. I wish I hadn't run off for the plastic bag. I wish I'd stuck a note into her bag to say I love her. I hope she won't need the note, and that the love will shine out through the sheer care we took in packing her bags together.

I don't like traveling myself. I'm scared of airplanes and not crazy about highways. I get nervous about food. I get anxious about getting lost. I worry about getting sick or hurt. Over the years, I've come to see how much this dislike of traveling is rooted in a lack of trust. To feel comfortable traveling, I have to trust the pilot to fly the plane safely and the mechanics to keep it in order. I have to trust my fellow passengers and other drivers on the road. I have to trust someone else's directions. I have to trust the cooks who prepare my food. I have to trust that if I am sick or hurt, someone will get me to a doctor and that new doctor will care for me just as well as my own. Each trip I take becomes a conscious exercise in trust.

Now my daughter is traveling. And I have to trust her teacher and the parent chaperones on the trip. I thought I did, but that little plastic bag reminds me otherwise. I'm completely relinquishing her to their care now, and have to trust them for everything: trust them to hand her a plastic bag if she gets sick;  trust them to make sure she drinks enough water, washes her hands, eats her food; trust them watch over her at night and to keep her safe and well during the day. And I have to trust her classmates to be kind and work together, to watch out for each other, to let an adult know if there's a problem. But more than that, she has to trust them too. And I can see from the stiffness in her body, from her small solemn face, that she doesn't quite know that everything is going to be ok with them, far from home, without Mama and Daddy.

I know she's going to learn so much on this trip. She's going to milk a cow, shear a sheep, plow a field, muck out stalls, chop wood, sleep outside in an orchard and use a peat toilet. All things I've never done. She's going to eat food from the farm and see the ways in which life there is interconnected: how the plants feed the animals and the animals fertilize the plants, how everyone on the farm works together to feed and care for each other.

And hopefully, she's going to learn even more -- something I relearn each time I take a deep breath and leave on some new adventure myself or turn her over to one: that we can't get through this life alone, that we all depend on each other and that most people can be trusted to help us. It can seem like a such scary world, fraught with danger from everything from other people, to natural disaster, to sheer bad circumstance. And it can seem that only what's familiar is safe and can protect us. So much so that it can be easy to forget how much we depend on others within the safe confines of home.

So, I hope she'll see that even far from home, even without Mama and Daddy, she is surrounded by people who will help her if she needs it: a bus driver who gets her safely there and back; a parent who makes sure she has Dramamine, a plastic bag and a seat at the front of the bus; a farm cook who makes healthy meals; a chaperone who sees she's snuggled safe in her sleeping bag at night; a classmate who helps her with the chores; a teacher who makes sure everyone is there and working safely. And I hope it will all make the world a little less scary. For both of us.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Advice I Wish I'd Gotten as a Young Woman at Princeton

When I entered Princeton University in 1987, I was absolutely clear on the fact that, among other goals, I wanted to (someday) marry a man who was my intellectual equal and have biological children with him. Not only would I have been the perfect audience for Susan Patton's recent advice to young Princeton women, I lived that advice.

I thought about potential partners with the same seriousness with which I'd approach any other goal, bringing all of my Princeton drive, analytical ability and meticulous planning skills into play. I was so convinced that the cornerstone of my future and happiness would be inextricably linked to the man I married, that I spent more time comparing the relative merits of the men I dated than I did working on my senior thesis.

And I did indeed marry a Princeton classmate. In the Princeton Chapel. I got a good job that I enjoyed doing. And after a few years, we decided to have children. I saw myself building that happy future, brick by brick.

Of course, I planned my pregnancy carefullyI had a checkup with my doctor to make sure I was in good health. I started taking folic acid supplements to ensure that my baby wouldn't be born with spina bifida and got pregnant before 35 to lower my chances of Down Syndrome. I stopped drinking caffeine and alcohol and taking medications. I made sure I was getting moderate exercise and eating healthy, organic meals. I even stayed away from the microwave in the break room at work. And my pregnancy progressed smoothly, as expected.

We chose a jungle theme to decorate our son's room. The crib sheets and the walls were adorned with wild animals, and the rocking chair I bought for nursing him sat beneath a seven foot tall palm tree made of PVC pipe covered in green, blue and purple fabric. I imagined the safaris we'd pretend to take together with our stuffed monkeys and the picnics we'd have on rainy days under our colorful tree.

Then my actual son showed up. The one who was real, and alive, and his own person, rather than the product of my well-laid plans. He was born full term and healthy, but he cried almost constantly, in ear splitting wails. He hated the feel of the crib sheets on his skin and wouldn't sleep there, so the crib housed the stuffed animals waiting for their safari. But as my son grew, he didn't show the least bit of interest in them, and they remained caged there, watching. We never had a picnic under that tree either. Years ago, after he and his little sister had (yet again) knocked it over, taken it apart and rolled the PVC pipe around the room, I posted it on Craigslist, and off it went, to grace some other nursery and linger in some other mother's daydreams.

Instead, my son loved trains, puzzles, computers and numbers. Rather than tucking him in at night with a furry tiger, he snuggled up next to a jigsaw puzzle of a train, carefully laid out and put together on his bed. We built more railroads together than Amtrak, and I learned more train lore than I ever thought possible. Well before he could speak (and words came to him long after his peers), he would type words (including "train," of course) on our computer. When speech did come, he used it to count the train cars he lined up across the living room floor, over and over again.

He was diagnosed with autism when he was three. Instead of taking imaginary safaris with a future member of Princeton's Class of 2023, I found myself taking my toddler to get brain scans and learning how to help with his speech therapy. I decided to quit my job and put any career I had on a semi-permanent hold. Our family finances faltered as we lost my income, while incurring new expenses for therapy and medical care for our son. And all of these struggles stressed our marriage.

This wasn't the happily ever after I'd envisioned. Getting a good job, finding a wonderful spouse and having kids together: suddenly those weren't the foundation of my happiness, they were so many cards I'd carefully stacked up to resemble a house. And I was watching them come tumbling down.

But when they did, I found that in trading jungle animals for trains -- in trading that ideal, imaginary career, and life, and family for this real one -- I didn't get something less, I got something different, and (unimaginably) something better. Life handed me a gift, I just had to be open to seeing it.

And this is where I think Susan Patton goes wrong, and where her critics go wrong as well. Happiness isn't inextricably linked to the partner we choose, nor is it linked to our career or our Princeton education.

I spent my life, at Princeton (and beyond), sharply focused on my goals -- on getting what I wanted. I believed happiness and fulfillment was the end product of a carefully calculated series of moves, of items checked off a list and each card neatly in its place, with the King of Hearts as the cornerstone. With that belief came its shadow: that failing to reach my goals meant unhappiness. And that fear drove me. In my misguided worry that it was somehow possible to miss out on happiness, I spent years assessing how each step I took might affect a future I could neither predict nor control. And I missed much of what the present had to offer.

It wasn't until I had my son that I really understood that happiness doesn't arrive in the form of items neatly checked off a bucket list. It isn't the product of success or proper planning. It doesn't lie outside of me, waiting to magically arise when all the circumstances align according to my plans. And unhappiness doesn't come from the failure to achieve my goals. If this were true, by every measure, I ought to be thoroughly miserable. I don't have any career to speak of. I don't have the family I planned on or the life I wanted. But here I am. Happy. In spite of how tenuous and beyond my control life, health and marriage can be, I'm happy.

This is what my son taught me, what I wish someone had told me at Princeton, and what I wish I'd had the confidence to believe back then: Everything will be ok. Even if you don't get what you want, it will be ok. Better than ok. I love my son and my life so much, I have to fight down a boiling shame to even admit to ever not having wanted exactly this. This moment, with all its turmoil and struggles and imperfection. Just this.

Life is messy and unexpected and out of our control, and the mistakes, the losses, the grief of life will come to all of us eventually. There's no avoiding that. We try our best to do everything right and still we tie our lives to the wrong person, we commit too young or hold off on commitment too long, we want to share our lives with someone but never find anyone, we break up, we lose the person we love, we leave. We're unable to have children, we have unwanted pregnancies, we have miscarriages, we have abortions, we lose our child, we have children with birth defects, cancer, neurological disorders, mental illness or just children who aren't what we expected. We never get that dream job, we lose our job, we get the job we think we'll love and hate it, we have to give up our careers... And yes, we mourn all these things that didn't turn out as planned or never came to be.

Then we grow. We learn. The mistakes, the losses, the missed opportunities, the grief -- they can break our hearts open and show us worlds we never imagined. They can transform us and teach us to face life with greater grace and strength. Then, rather than yearning for what we don't have, we love, appreciate, and see the value and beauty in what we do have. And happiness is right there with us. And everything is ok.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Assume a Spherical Cow?

Right now someone (perhaps even you) is staring up at that cute little round cow my daughter drew and thinking: "Was this title created by a random word generator?" No, but good guess.

It's actually based on a physics joke my husband once told me. It's the kind of joke that few people outside of physicists (and their groupies) appreciate. When I tell it to people in real life, they tend to stare at me blankly. (Unless they're nerds, in which case, they've already heard it, and we chuckle together. If you know the joke already, congratulations, you've passed the nerd test and can skip to the last paragraph.) If you haven't heard it, I'll just picture you staring blankly at the screen. The joke goes something like this:

A dairy farmer is having trouble with her cows, who suddenly won't produce milk. She tries special feed, has them tested for diseases and calls in a variety of veterinary specialists, but no one can figure out what's wrong. Finally, in desperation, she calls on the most brilliant people she can think of: a team of physicists from the local university. The physicists scour the farm taking measurements and samples, which they take back to their lab to analyze. Weeks go by, and the farmer is in despair. At last, she receives a phone call from the lead physicist who tells her they thinks they know what's wrong with the cows and what to do about it. "What a relief," says the farmer, "Let's hear it." "Well," says the physicist, "first, we assume a spherical cow..."

Assume a spherical cow!

That's the punch line.

You're supposed to laugh now.


Get it?

Ok, fine. The physicist created an idealized, overly simplified version of reality in order to solve a complex problem, but in doing so, made it impossible to solve the problem.

Oh, come on.

You're staring blankly, aren't you? (Unless you're a science nerd. Or nerd groupie. In which case, you're chuckling.)

As for the rest of you, trust me. Nerds love this stuff. If you ever have to do standup at a convention for theoretical physicists, you'll thank me for this one.

But now you may be wondering, "What does this have to do with parenting?" Well, everything. Isn't assuming a perfect world, with perfect conditions, and perfectly uniform children, who will all respond in perfectly predictable ways to any given parenting technique, what people -- from your mother-in-law to your pediatrician to your some random stranger at the park to a host of so-called "experts" -- so often do when they give you advice? But the world isn't perfect. And neither children nor cows fit neatly into a theoretical framework. Instead, we parents -- we humans -- have to struggle with the messy, imperfect reality. But fortunately, that makes for better stories to share too. And that is what I hope this little corner of the Internet will be all about.