You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2011.

The hardest part was not being able to hug my dad while he was radioactive.

My dad was treated for early-stage prostate cancer by having irradiated seeds implanted in his prostate. The seeds were “live” for about three months, during which he was instructed to stay about six feet away from small children or women of childbearing age, especially who might be pregnant. Since I’ve been trying to get pregnant for a year and a half and my daughter is three, it was hard for us to keep our distance. We talked from across the room and blew kisses.

The other challenge was more of a test of fortitude. Before the seeds were implanted, my dad had five weeks of radiation treatments at Inova Alexandria Hospital. Somewhere during that five weeks, blizzards began descending on the DC area. My parents live 10 miles from the hospital. We live five miles away. My parents’ neighborhood must be accessed by traversing a few slippery hills and tends to remain unplowed for at least a week after major snowstorms. Add to that my dad is not the most confident of drivers, having grown up riding New York subways and learned to drive in his 20s. My mom prefers to cocoon in the snow.

So after one storm hit they called to see if I wanted to pick my dad up to take him to his 6am treatment the next day. I drive a Honda Civic. I secretly arranged for a friend of my parents who drives an SUV to give him a ride. My parents do not like asking people for help. As we waited for the next blizzard to arrive, we came up with Plan B.

My brother-in-law is a wiz at finding bargains online. He located a four-wheel-drive vehicle we could rent for a week at a reasonable rate. My dad moved in for two weeks and we drove together every morning through the snow to his radiation appointments. One morning as we drove there it was clear, and by the time he was done and we drove home, another blizzard had arrived. Thank goodness everyone else stayed home because we were driving 10 miles an hour the entire way home and not stopping very long at any intersections.

I am extraordinarily grateful that my dad is healthy now. We can hug anytime we want and he can read stories to Zoe while she sits in his lap.

That’s why I’m participating in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life to raise money for cancer research and treatment. My dad, my sister, and my husband plan to join me in this effort. To contribute to our team, visit Join me in honoring my dad or paying tribute to someone you love who has lived with cancer or who has died because of it. Thank you.


My Christmas gift to my sister was lunch and an afternoon of spa relaxation. Today we experienced some weird touching and some good touching.

Unfortunately the weird touching was at lunch, where the waiter (and seemingly sole employee) of the restaurant where we enjoyed baba ghannouj, baked zucchini, and kofte, got a little too close for comfort as he seated and served us. We also noticed him napping on the bar as we finished our lunch. We were the only remaining customers. Perhaps he was hungover. Or had just started drinking for the day. Or both. But the food was good.

Fortunately at Comfort and Joy Wellness Spa, everything felt good and perfectly appropriate. We found the spa in a mostly abandoned shopping center in Fairfax, near other shopping areas we used to frequent as teenagers, since our junior high school is across the street. I guess rent is cheap. Once you get inside, however, it is serene and relaxing and you no longer feel so suburban.

We passed through the dazzling array of products and were seated in the waiting room where we each had a cup of tea. Then we were escorted to our massage rooms. MJ was my massage therapist and, while I haven’t chronicled them all, I would say this was probably the best massage of my life. MJ was intense. Instead of just pacifying the knots in my shoulders, she seemed to dissolve them. She also stretched my arms and legs in bizarre but not painful ways as she massaged, which made me feel like it was part yoga and all wonderful. She put a hot towel on my back at one point and some sort of hot pads on my back and stomach at other points to keep me warm and relaxed while she worked on other body parts. There were other small surprises, all deftly maneuvered with no pauses. The hour went by too fast, but I savored every minute of it.

Afterward I was led to my facial room by Thao, the aesthetician. As has always been my experience with facials, it just seems kind of weird, but simultaneously pleasant. She applied and removed various creams and liquids and pastes to my face. They smelled good. In the end, my skin felt soft and my face relaxed, to match the rest of me.

You wouldn’t know it from the outside, but Comfort and Joy Wellness Spa is an oasis of bliss in the middle of Fairfax and well worth the trip if you want to feel relaxed and rejuvenated.

I would rather be a Chimpanzee Mom raising smart, kind, affectionate, and socially adept children than a Tiger Mother as Amy Chua describes herself in her much-discussed new memoir.

I believe my children can be high achievers in school without my screaming and threatening. My parents never screamed or threatened and I was always on the honor roll. I believe there are other ways of motivating, encouraging, and rewarding children without berating them.

One value overlooked in the excerpt (I admit I have not read the whole book) is kindness, which I believe to be important. How can I expect my children to possess empathy and demonstrate kindness to others if I am not empathetic and kind to them? That doesn’t mean I don’t have rules or don’t enforce them. It doesn’t mean I never get angry. But principally I want to treat my children with kindness and respect because that’s how I want to be treated and I want them to learn that from me.

To make your way in the world today requires more than just intelligence and hard work. You need to be able to make friends and forge meaningful relationships. I suppose Chua prohibits playdates, sleepovers, and participation in school plays and other noncompetitive extracurriculars because they take time away that could be spend studying and drilling and practicing. But I’d like my children to enjoy getting to know people, learn how to navigate social situations, and figure out how to make good decisions about who to spend time with and how to spend their time without my complete control. If I don’t allow this to happen now, how will they know how to behave and interact when they’re on their own at college or later?

Chua’s assertion that most rankled me was her perception that Western parents believe their children are fragile instead of strong and treat them as such. I believe my daughter is strong, but also human. She is not invulnerable to pain or hurt. I believe I have a lot to teach her, and sometimes it’s hard to get kids to do what you want them to do even when you know it’s right, and they get upset. I know my daughter is strong and resilient enough to learn from mistakes and correction and go forward. But I don’t need to test her strength by insulting her, calling her names, or inflicting punishments that far outweigh her transgressions.

Finally, I don’t want my house to be a warzone or my family combatants. If I make myself miserable by railing wildly on my daughter until she perfects something she’s struggling with, I’ll make her miserable too. We’ll both be miserable. I’m sure my husband will be made miserable in the process. That doesn’t mean I won’t push and encourage her to do her best. It doesn’t mean I won’t expect excellence when I know it’s within her reach. But creating a culture of crazy isn’t going to help us achieve anything, except new heights of craziness. Maybe that worked for Chua, but it’s not the way I want to raise my family.

We told Zoe she was getting an extra-long Christmas vacation because she’d been doing such a good job at school. What else are you supposed to say to your three-year-old when she’s been suspended from school for a month because of having too many potty accidents?

This explanation was my mom’s idea. She was thinking more clearly than I was during the panicky and maddening hours after I was called into the principal’s office and told my daughter “had had enough chances” to master her tiny bladder and that removing her from school for several weeks was the only solution.

This happened on a Monday morning after I had dropped Zoe off in her classroom. The previous Friday the principal had escorted us out of the building, while promising she would continue to work with us to help Zoe reduce accidents in the classroom. That week I had agreed (against my better judgment but hoping to placate the principal) to come into the classroom whenever Zoe had an accident. The principal said my doing that would demonstrate my and my husband’s commitment to working with the school on this issue. I complied with her request and of course Zoe was completely confused and the classroom totally disrupted both times when I arrived. Of course Zoe wanted to go home, so I took her home rather than cause a scene that would further interfere with her classmates’ activities and the teacher’s ability to teach. I worried that Zoe would think she was either being punished or rewarded because of the accidents.

Throughout this saga we’ve done our best to shield Zoe from the school system’s opinion that something is wrong with her because she has accidents. I’m sure she’s overheard me talking about it on occasion, but she seems to be ok. She’s perceptive, though, and knows there’s been anxiety around the subject. At a friend’s house over Christmas she had an accident. While we were in the bathroom afterward so she could change clothes, she said “You’re not mad at me, are you? You know I’m trying as hard as I can, right?” My heart was breaking. Of course I know she’s trying as hard as she can. Perhaps I didn’t at first, but now I do.

What’s ironic is that my husband and I were so determined to get her into one of our county’s popular public Montessori schools and we spent much of the spring and summer strategizing and worrying about whether or not she’d get in. While we loved the small cooperative preschool she attended before, we were looking for more consistency. At two she attended preschool two mornings per week, a home-based day care two days per week, and was with her grandparents or at home the rest of the time. We thought she could benefit from more stability and that she would thrive in the Montessori setting, which encourages independent thinking and responsibility. We knew it was hard to get a spot in one of these programs, especially since two-thirds of the slots are reserved for children from low-income families, which we are not. At the same time, we couldn’t afford a private Montessori program, which can easily run upward of $10,000 per year.

During the summer we heard that a spot had opened up at one of the schools, and we were thrilled. In August, in preparation for starting school and going on vacation, we took Zoe out of day care. We had started potty training her in June, later than we had originally planned because she had eyelid surgery just after her third birthday in April and we were advised to wait eight to 12 weeks before attempting potty training because the surgery was already stressful enough.

By July she was doing great, using the toilet independently and having infrequent accidents. Although we had heard that stress can cause regression in potty training, it’s hard to remember that something as seemingly simple as changing a child’s routine can cause stress. Taking her out of day care, going on vacation, and then a death in the family (accompanied by our attending the funeral and her staying with another family member) resulted in a lot of accidents. Then in September, she started school.

During the first week of school, which was 8:30am to 3pm in a classroom with three-, four-, and five-year-olds and no rest time, Zoe had a lot of accidents. It was a big change. Academically and socially she was having a blast, but her body had a hard time keeping up. Every day when I picked her up, the teacher announced, across the room in front of Zoe and everyone else, how many accidents Zoe had. She suggested that something was wrong and instructed us to take Zoe to the pediatrician immediately. We did.

The pediatrician said Zoe was normal. She said even after potty training, kids have accidents, especially in new and stressful situations. We talked about how increased patience and decreased anxiety on our part might help her relax and improve. I struggled to get my anxiety under control in the face of the teacher’s exclamations about Zoe’s accidents. I asked the teacher to please tell me something good or interesting Zoe had done that day when I first walked in instead of focusing exclusively on bladder control.

Two weeks into school, we got a call that a spot had opened up at another school. My husband and I struggled with the decision to cause yet more disruption and possibly more potty setbacks. But we went to visit the school to make an informed decision. The new school was beautiful, with a classroom twice the size and filled with light. The new teacher seemed very easygoing. The program was housed in a sought-after elementary school with a special focus that we would be guaranteed placement in if Zoe went to preschool there. We decided to make the switch. We told the teacher about the accidents and she assured us that she’d help Zoe and it would be fine.

Even with the switch, Zoe’s number of accidents dramatically decreased. Rather than daily, she didn’t make it to the potty on time one to three times per week. During this time we were still working diligently at home to encourage her to stay dry. We employed every possible reward system. We sang and read books in the bathroom. We read to Zoe many books about kids using the potty and watched many videos. We bought a watch that you program to alarm at various intervals to remind kids to go. Zoe could go five or six days at a time without an accident. We saw improvement and were proud.

Then, suddenly, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, we got a letter from the principal saying that the school system’s policy stated that children who had more than three accidents in a week or one accident three weeks in a row were not potty trained and could be removed for a week or more until they were potty trained. What?

This was the first we’d heard of this policy, which we were later told was an “internal guideline,” but which was not available to the public or given to parents when children apply or enroll in the program. We scheduled a conference call with the principal and teacher to understand what was going on. The principal mentioned repeatedly during the conversation that she could remove Zoe from the program because of the number of accidents Zoe had had.

We talked to an assistant superintendent, who assured us that no one wanted to remove Zoe from school. We talked to someone in the early childhood office, which oversees the county’s preschool programs, who reiterated the policy the principal had outlined. We didn’t see how this was possible, but it was still happening to us.

In the meantime, we loved our daughter even more fiercely. She is a creative, charming, bright, and affectionate little girl. Just because her bladder control hasn’t yet been perfected does not mean that she deserved to be kicked out of a school where she was otherwise thriving, making great friends and learning a lot about herself and the world every day.

We took Zoe to the urology clinic at Children’s National Medical Center to ensure that there was no actual medical problem contributing to the accidents. The urologist said she is shocked by the number of parents who bring in their children every September for similar reasons. Their kids’ schools say they have to stop having accidents and, surprise, they can’t make their kids do it! The urologist said approximately 20% of five-year-olds have frequent accidents, years after they’ve been potty trained. The pediatrician and urologist agreed it was developmentally inappropriate to remove a child from school because of accidents.

We felt like the facts were on our side, but it didn’t matter.

Zoe stayed home for a month. We had a lovely time. We took trips, made cookies, spent a lot of time at the library, and played  with Zoe’s large collection of tiny people and food items. Thankfully my parents live nearby and are happy to spend time with Zoe because I had to meet some deadlines for my business, which effectively shut down for the month. I wondered what would have happened if one of the kids in Zoe’s class whose parents work low-wage jobs had been made to stay home. Would one of those parents have had to quit his or her job?

As Christmas vacation came to an end, we started to get nervous. What would happen when Zoe returned to school? We had received acknowledgements of our letter to the school system from the superintendent and school board, but no further action. My husband’s calls to the superintendent went unreturned.

In January Zoe went back to school. Days one and two were accident-free. Day three she had an accident at naptime, which is completely out of her control. I’m sure most of the kids in the class still wear pull-ups to bed. Day four she had four accidents. I have no idea why, except maybe the stress of worrying about having accidents. She hadn’t had four accidents in a day in months. I asked her whether the teacher had said anything to her and she said the teacher’s aide had dealt with her all day, and had gotten upset at her every time it happened. I’m sure the more she worried about it the more she wasn’t able to handle it. She was so worried I would get mad. I asked her if she wanted to stay home the next day and she was jubilant.

That night and the next day I worked feverishly to find preschools with mid-year openings. As it happened, the lovely co-op preschool where she used to go had a spot in the three-year-old class. We took it. We told Zoe we wanted to find a preschool where they didn’t get mad at her for having accidents because we knew she was doing the best she could. She accepted that. We visited the school so she could see her new classroom and meet the teacher (whose daughter was in her two-year-old class, so Zoe was already comfortable with her). She immediately started playing and said “I’m fine here, Mommy, you can go out now.”

Everyone at the co-op has been delighted to welcome us back. The community is supportive and nurturing and understanding of early childhood biological development. Every preschool director, teacher, and parent I’ve talked to about this has been shocked by what happened and how we were treated. So were we.

Zoe has a vast library for a three-year-old, or really for any child if you want to count volumes. Mostly thanks to Fuzzy (her grandmother) and the Treasure Trove (the consignment shop where Fuzzy volunteers). And we go to the library at least once a week and bring home a giant bag stuffed full of books, cds, and dvds. So we read a lot, but there are definitely a few books and authors who stand out.

Mo Willems, author of (among others) Time to Pee, Time to Say Please, and the great Knuffle Bunny trilogy: Knuffle Bunny, Knuffle Bunny Too, and Knuffle Bunny Free. Willems is funny and clever and charming and all of us enjoy his books.

Vera B. Williams, author of many books about a girl named Rosa, her family, and their big chair, as described in A Chair for My Mother. We have read all of these books many times. They are long-ish compared to many of Zoe’s books but her attention never wavers. The illustrations are beautiful watercolor paintings. I often cry when reading these books.

Kevin Henkes, author of many books about a mouse named Lily, her brother Julian, and various other mouse and animal characters who share struggles, fears, and passions with some children I know.

Zoe and I highly recommend these writers and illustrators. Hope you’ll enjoy them too.

At several points during the day yesterday I had shuddering flashbacks to new year’s eves of my adolescence, remembering curfew negotiations, awkward parties, and excruciating maneuvers to try to kiss someone at midnight in meaningful yet non-threatening ways. With every surfacing memory I felt a wave of gratitude that I’m no longer 16 and I’m married to a wonderful man who I don’t need an excuse to kiss.

Since then, new year’s eve celebrations have ebbed and flowed in their potential and potency. For a few years when I was single I celebrated with cooking and slumber parties with a group of good friends. Then I had a couple years of festive evenings with my husband. Then our daughter was born and our friends had kids and that was more or less the end of that. 🙂 Yes, I realize there are babysitters, but we’re not big drinking and partying people, and all the new year’s eve activities seem centered on that and expensive, so we’ve just stayed in and watched movies and played games and consumed junk food while Zoe slept upstairs.

Then last night we went to see the Garden of Lights display at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland. The display of lights is dazzling and we went last year at Christmastime. We had planned to go earlier this season but didn’t, which was fortuitous. We decided yesterday that taking Zoe to see the lights would be a nice new year’s eve treat after a day of just sitting around the house (not to say that playing at home isn’t also a treat for Zoe, because she is as happy doing that as anything). Maybe it was also a treat for us after a day of sitting around the house.

We got there around 7pm and discovered that many other families had had the same great idea, but the park is spacious enough to accommodate many bundled-up children and blanketed strollers. We walked down the paths and oohed and aahed at the lights that created thunderstorms, flocks of flying geese, the frog whose throat lit up, splashing dolphins, and hundreds of intricately shaped flowers. We discovered the greenhouse and the model trains inside barreling down tracks through old-fashioned Montgomery County scenes. And when we went inside the visitors center to warm up, we found a party goingon. There was face painting, craft making, and puzzles for kids; hot cocoa and cider for everyone; and a man who looked like a linebacker playing the harp and guzzling diet soda from a two-liter bottle between songs. We all had a lovely time. Zoe had a chocolate chip ice cream cone painted on her cheek and she decorated a paper crown to signify her status of queen of the realm in 2011. And she got to stay up until 10pm when we got home. What a day for a three-year-old! And her parents. Happy New Year!

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