Monday, February 07, 2005

Doing The Best She Can


I’m not a mother, but if I were, I’d be bobbing and weaving to avoid getting caught in the the crossfire of current opinion about how to raise kids. I woke up this morning to two bits of mothering news: first, the National Zoo just introduced four new cheetah cubs to the public and second, the American Academy of Pediatrics is telling new moms to breastfeed ONLY for the first six months. In her first week of press appearances, Tumai, the cheetah mother, already faces criticism for her parenting techniques and the AAP says breast milk can decrease a myriad of maladies from obesity to sudden infant death syndrome.

The breastfeeding issue struck a nerve. Neither my brother nor myself were breastfed and we are as healthy as horses. When my brother’s wife recently gave birth, the baby just didn’t want to cooperate with the whole nursing process and he wasn’t gaining weight. When his mom switched to formula, life got better for everybody and now, at two months’ old, he’s as big as a Patriots linebacker and his mom is smiling and rested. Tell me how that’s not good for the whole family.

But let’s say she WAS nursing her baby. Her hard-won maternity leave ends after 12 weeks. How many members of the AAP have used a breast pump at the office? Or had to watch out for embarrassing spots on their blouse in the middle of a client meeting? And since the AAP says there should be NO other liquids (juice, water) for baby, mom better keep the supply line stocked for the caregiver who feeds the baby while she works. In my parenting world, my sister-in-law is holding down two demanding full-time jobs and she deserves a pass on nursing if she needs it.

It’s not easy being a cheetah mom either. Today Show host Lester Holt, in an interview with Craig Saffoe, head cheetah keeper at the National Zoo, asked Saffoe if it was true that cheetahs are not good mothers (Katie Couric added that they “eat their young”). Saffoe admitted that early parenting can be rough, especially if the mom is surrounded by too much noise or disruption. Any mom who has suffered sleep deprivation understands Tumai’s pain. Luckily, Saffoe and his team are wise enough to “basically let her dictate what goes on in any aspect of raising the kids.” After all, Saffoe said, “any mother with new babies can appreciate that sometimes they get on your nerves.”

Holt and Couric were probably not aware of the fact that most female cheetahs with children are single moms. While the men travel in groups, females are nomadic, chasing packs of gazelles to make sure the kids get a balanced meal. To avoid leaving their cubs behind, cheetah moms must also relocate their kids almost daily. And if pickings are slim enough, she may be forced to be gone for up to 48 hours, leaving her babies vulnerable to attack. Even cheetahs have a helluva time finding adequate day care.

But Tumai should take heart. I found some advice for single moms from Dr. James Dobson on his “Focus on the Family” website. Dobson claims that God has a special tenderness for fatherless children and their mothers. “Until a good man comes along,” Dobson explains, “you as a single mother must make an all-out effort to find a father-substitute for your boys.” While they are in captivity, Tamai’s male cubs can probably count on Saffoe to help out, but eventually the new cubs will be shipped off to other zoos so they can father more carnivoires, no doubt traveling in packs while the cheetah moms take on the parenting duties alone. Some things never change.

With all the good parenting advice out there, the AAP might consider lobbying for policies that would support a woman who wants to follow their guidelines to ensure that their baby stays healthy. Paid maternity leave, affordable medical insurance, and flexible work schedules would make a great starting point for the AAP to begin. Recommendations are fine, but it’s going to take more “big picture” thinking to make them a reality for all new moms. Until that happens, give mom a break, will ya’?

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Rainy Days and Sun Days

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God, I’m glad to live in a city where it’s cloudy 60 percent of the time.

While the gloom might drive other Seattleites to drink, or at least to a more potent anti-depressant, I find relief. I can’t face the pressure of sunny days…how they look you straight in the eye, urging you to “get out and enjoy the day” and warning of a frown at dusk if you don’t. Cloudy days, though, erase all expectations. Under a protective cover of grey, I can stay in my jammies, slide back under the sheets, huddle under a quilt, devour a new book, slip in a DVD, or heat up a big pot of homemade soup.

Don’t misunderstand me. I enjoy a gorgeous landscape as much as anyone. When I see the sun bouncing off neighborhood buildings and the nearby water, my eyes dance as if I’m examining an Edward Hopper painting – a study in light, color, shadow, and time. I just don’t want to go out into it. And I can do without the angst of feeling like I must.

This attitude is borne out of experience. I grew up in a sun-drenched valley located in high desert. Except for snow-piled winter days, there was always something waiting to be done outside: weeding, mowing, raking, digging up rocks, running a garage sale. Only lazy and selfish people stayed in the cool shady house reading a book. And for fun, my friends always wanted to go to “the lake” and “lay out.” This meant a 45-minute drive (each way) on sticky vinyl car seats (aaaagh!) followed by endless 30-minute cycles of adjusting our prone positions to get an even tan (a color my skin chemistry could just not manifest). Even with good conversation, “laying out” involved tedium, fire-red body parts, and exposing myself to the public. When I found a fashion magazine headline that urged, “Dare to Be the One Without the Tan,” I took the challenge and never looked back.

With skin as white as a fish’s belly and thighs that never enjoyed being seen in a swimsuit, I don’t seek out summer activities anymore. I never know what to wear and I always guess wrong. Even when I try to romanticize the experience by packing a picnic lunch, gathering up a blanket and book, and heading off to an idyllic spot, I get too cold in the shade, too hot in the sun, and I invariably wear the wrong shoes that either make my feet too hot or too sore. This seems to be a huge contrast from the typical Seattle woman who, upon seeing a gorgeous day, digs out her 15-year-old pair of frayed khaki shorts and immediately heads out for a hike. I already know how it’s going to end: there will be sweat, dirt, and no matter how high the SPF number, body charring.

A cloudy day in the city fills me with the same sense of freedom as their hikes. Gray skies offer endless possibilities including total sloth. I can tackle a huge list of errands, confident that I won’t get overheated and sticky. Or, I can pretend to be French, thin, and haunted, dress all in black, wander to a small café and gaze out rain-soaked windows while pulling my cashmere scarf tighter around my shoulders. Throw in a single rose and a slim volume of Balzac and I’m living in one of those classic black-and-white photographs from my annual Paris wall calendar!

But, hey, let the sun worshippers have their 57 days of sunshine (130 if you count partly cloudy days, but I tend to see the glass half full and count them as cloudy). I can’t fault them. None of us ever really takes a beautiful day for granted because in this city, sunshine paints a startling masterpiece that both tourists and natives admire. As long as it doesn’t become the dominant weather pattern (and frankly, global warming could ruin my preferred way of life), I can tolerate it. I just don’t want it to become oppressive.

I knew I wasn’t a total freak when I met a delightful woman at a concert a few months ago. Aside from being a huge jazz fan, she is a retired academic and librarian who moved to Seattle from California specifically for the weather. When I asked how the relocation is working out, she said, “It’s good, but you know, it’s not dark enough here.” Amen, sister.