Book Review: Are Our Kids Maturing Faster?

Book Review: Are Our Kids Maturing Faster?

The New PubertyBy Hilary Levey Friedman

Louise Greenspan and Julianna Deardorff’s The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls 

Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley’s It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health 

Joyce T. McFadden’s Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women 

Jonathan Zimmerman’s Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education

Few things in life fill people—adults and children alike—with as much trepidation as puberty. And while the contours of puberty are unchanged, the age at which it occurs and the implications of that have in fact shifted. So how can we prepare our children, and ourselves, to handle these bodily and life changes with grace?

Four books help show us the way, all with a different focus but in the service of helping adolescents develop a healthy relationship with their own bodies and with others. Jonathan Zimmerman’s academic study of the history of sex education gives us a sweeping big picture view of how we got here, Louise Greenspan and Julianna Deardorff’s The New Puberty not only breaks down what happens biologically but what may or may not have influenced young girls’ biology in more recent times, Joyce McFadden’s Your Daughter’s Bedroom describes the potential long-term implications of not properly addressing puberty with your daughter, and Robie Harris and Michael Emberly’s It’s Perfectly Normal provide a guide you can have your children read so you can have an open discussion together.

It’s Perfectly Normal first appeared in 1994. Since then it has appeared in 35 different languages and in 2014 its 20th anniversary edition appeared with updates on gender identity, sexting, and social media use. Both Your Daughter’s Bedroom and The New Puberty identify It’s Perfectly Normal as one of the best books to use when teaching your children about puberty (boys and girls alike). When you look at the 100-page book it is easy to see why; it tackles sometimes uncomfortable topics with directness and humor thanks to the beautiful watercolor illustrations, especially the Bird and the Bee who appear on every page. While the authors say the book is appropriate for ages 10 and up, it could also be used for children as young as 8, especially because the best time to talk about changes is before they start occurring.

According to Greenspan and Deardorff, pubertal changes are in fact happening earlier than ever before. But not across the board—and it is one of the major strengths of this book that the authors give lots of detail and measured caveats without resorting to attention-grabbing headlines. The New Puberty explains that puberty is a process much more like a long hallway than a single doorway. What hasn’t changed is that puberty in girls typically starts with breast development, then armpit and pubic hair, often acne, followed by a growth spurt, and at last menstruation. The authors explain that, “Girls today tend to experience breast budding at a much earlier age than girls in the 1970s, but they don’t necessarily get their first period that much sooner than their 1970 counterparts.”

Why does this matter? Greenspan and Deardorff explain, “For girls, puberty is unique. It not only foments a complex array of emotional issues but also heralds the development of visual cues of sexuality (e.g. breasts, wider hips) to a degree that boys just don’t experience.” For these reasons the book focuses on females, though advice offered in The New Puberty about how to build emotional closeness and develop healthy habits can be applied equally as well to boys.

Because of changes in the timing of puberty—to which Greenspan and Deardorff carefully show cannot be attributed to any one change but rather a combination of hormone mimickers in the environment, stress, fat, race and ethnicity, and still other factors (one of the best chapters in the book is Chapter 3, “Nature versus Nurture: An In-Depth Look at Puberty Prompters”)—they argue sex education should start earlier than ever. They offer reassurance in The New Puberty that, “Although you may feel like it’s all happening too fast, maturation is actually a slow process, so there’s time to develop this conversation in a way that feels natural to both of you.” But when breast buds begin developing at age 8 for many girls today, should sex ed really wait until middle or even high school?

Jonathan Zimmerman in his new book, Too Hot to Handle, shows how sex ed has been handled differently across the world and in different time periods. When sex education began the United States was one of the leaders, mainly because of its early investment in public education and secondary schools. Though today it lags behind many countries, especially ones like Sweden, which became the first nation in the world to make sex education required in all public schools in 1956.

Venereal disease has been a driving force behind increased sex ed (note it often goes by different names to make it more palatable, such as population education, social hygiene, human relations, or marriage and family education), like during World War II in the 1940s and in the 1990s following the HIV epidemic. But what has always stifled good sexual education remains true across borders and time: parental resistance, religious objections, and poor teacher preparation. Four topics in particular are seen as taboo: abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and masturbation.

Masturbation is one of the more surprising focuses of Joyce McFadden’s Your Daughter’s Bedroom. McFadden, a psychoanalyst, decided to conduct an online survey in 2005 called the Women’s Realities Study. One of the most interesting results of that survey is that the topics women most want to talk about, but don’t always, include masturbation, menstruation, and women’s relationships with their mothers. In fact, McFadden argues, the beginning of menstruation is often the start of distance between mothers and daughters. She wants to enable mothers to feel more comfortable with their own sexuality so that they can pass on that confidence to their daughters. In her own words, “Your Daughter’s Bedroom, is the first book to address the psychological and emotional elements of the sexuality of both mothers and daughters. It offers mothers outward and inward prescriptions for change, because it’s intended to encourage mothers to be introspective and reflect on our own sexuality while learning how to give our daughters the ability to live more comfortably with theirs.”

In talking about It’s Perfectly Normal, McFadden points out that lots of mother’s today give their daughters books about menstruation. However, they just give the books and don’t often have conversations about the contents and answer questions that inevitably arise. So not only does sexual education need to improve in schools, so too does it at home. In order to raise girls, and boys, who are comfortable with their bodies they must receive proper education, support, and guidance from all of the adults in their lives. By being open, honest, and loving about puberty we can raise children who know more about themselves and how to be healthy as they grow and develop over the life course, influencing future generations along the way.

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.


Buy The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls

To Do

To Do

Dec 15 Motherwit ARTBy Mariah Mottley


8:11 AM Call the pediatrician to tell her about the worm your husband found in the baby’s diaper. Be sure and spell it out so you don’t have to actually say it. She will ask if it was alive, and how big it was.

“uh, the W-O-R-M was about as big, as I don’t know, a piece of linguine? Are you going to want it? Because we saved it. I have it right here. I’m happy to drop it off. I was going to be in town anyway and-”  Stop talking because you sound insane.  Baby worming appointment set for 10:15.

8:44 AM Confirm the address of the lady you found on craigslist to make a fleece coat for your goat, make a copy of the “Well Tempered Hoof” the academic paper you are going to mail to your old farrier along with $15 gift card at Dunkin’ Donuts along with the news that we won’t be needing his services anymore. Check to make sure that preschool daughter Billie is wearing an appropriate outfit and tell her it is time to get ready to go. Change the baby’s diaper, trying not to look at his anus, in case there is a large worm glaring back at you. Double bag wormy diaper in a second ziplock bag and add to the pile of outgoing mail and reusable grocery bags you will be taking to the car with you. Make sure everyone has coats, socks, and shoes on, with a hat and gloves for preschooler.

9:12 AM Drop Billie off at preschool but pretend to be on time and that circle time has not started. Drop eldest daughter, Bela, who slept in, off at elementary school. List ‘bad temper’ as reason for her late arrival.

Arm yourself for viewing of the W-O-R-M at doctor’s office with latte ala Dunkin Donuts. It won’t help.

10:34 AM Your baby, who is arguably no longer a baby but a little person who walks and talks and apparently, eats dirt, is diagnosed with roundworms. How disgusting. Try not to sound neurotic and self-involved. Fail. Ask panicked questions about life cycle and obsessively nibble your nails until the kindly nurse practitioner mentions twice that she has emailed the prescription to the pharmacy and stands up.

“He is a gem,” she says, about the wonderful baby, who, not a baby at all, is pushing around an oxygen tank and clonking it into things. He does not seem concerned at all about the army of worms he may have wriggling inside his bottom. You can barely finish your coffee for thinking about it, however. As the nurse is leaving, grab her sleeve.

“If we give him the pills, won’t more come out?”

“We do want them out,” she says, and gives a little wave.

11:22 AM Call your husband from car. Inform him that your baby has been diagnosed with roundworms, and that you are obese. You shouldn’t have, but you got on the scale at the office. There was a BMI chart in the bathroom. It seemed like a victimless crime at the time, but now it turns out that your husband is the victim. The baby has roundworms from eating dirt, or eating vegetables that were grown in the dirt, and his wife is obese.

11:29 AM Call the goat coat lady. Find her house, pick up the goat coat. It is lovely.

12:04 PM Pick Billie up at preschool, and by all means DO NOT squish her Christmas sculpture, or her Christmas tree with the glitter glue on it. Say no when she tells you to buy her gum at the pharmacy.

12:24 PM Try and act normal in front of the ridiculously hot pharmacist. Maybe he doesn’t know that the prescription is for worms. He totally knows. Ask if you should give the medication with food. Laugh inappropriately loudly and suggest you could always hide the tablet in peanut butter ‘like we do with the dogs’.  Stare at the counter in horror. Back home, cross your fingers and change the baby’s diaper. Beg him to wait to poop until his father gets home.

2:45 Pick Bela up from elementary school. Do not shout at her first grade teacher that the baby has roundworms and that you are obese. Put everyone into the car and drive home, where you will serve Goldfish crackers and sliced apples with cheese before you try the coat on the goat. It will be too big.

Originally from Manhattan, Mariah Plumlee lives in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. She is author of The Great Burn, a memoir about modern marriage, rural living, and kid-having. She can be found @MissesPlum and at her blog,




world-explorersBy Alicia Rebecca Myers

I could tell you how a stranded Robert Bartlett walked 700 across an iced-over Chukchi Sea, how Robert Burke traversed the latitude of Australia but died from exhaustion after turning back from a mountain called Hopeless. I could hold court on malaria and capsize. I could list disappearances.

I mitigated anxiety by reading about explorers on Wikipedia. Their failed attempts at discovery, their terrific demises. This wasn’t an exercise in schandenfreude. I took no pleasure in frostbite, in swells. I called up extreme scenarios the way a surgeon might review dark particulars before entering the operating room. I received the past as a safeguard, as if empathy could preclude the unknown. I lingered longest on those who logged the most distance.

There were very few female deaths to parse because there are very few female explorers. I reinterpreted phrases. Phrases like “New Land of the Codfish,” which suddenly described my pregnant body.


In my mid-twenties, I backpacked for three weeks, solo, through Eastern Europe. I had been managing a student travel agency on the Upper West Side while enrolled in an MFA program. New York City felt invasive, and I suddenly wanted not to talk. The halfway point of my trip was Budapest. After spending a bleak afternoon in the bowels of the Terror Museum, where I learned about Hungarian victims of the communist regime and contemplated gulag torture, I signed up for a pub crawl, desperate to be around people again. I worked hard to get my forints worth of Soproni and do justice to this particular pub crawl’s injunction to “make a transcendental bond through drinking.” I made that bond with Kyler, a curly-haired Canadian who dressed like a lumberjack. Kyler was handsome and non-threatening (important after a day touring the Terror Museum), and he had interesting things to say about politics and art and pilsners. I invited him back to my boatel. “THAT’S A HOTEL ON WATER,” I kept shouting, because I thought it lent me an air of sophistication.

Kyler and I stayed up all night, mutually transfixed in the kind of heady rapture that only comes from getting to share your best self with a stranger you’ll never see again. His attentiveness was like his burly frame: it filled the room. I felt like I was back in 1987, sitting across from the roll of unopened paper towels I’d positioned on the dresser so that the Brawny man’s gaze never left mine – except that Kyler had his own questions: Who’s your favorite poet? What have you learned so far by traveling alone? Would you rather be trapped for a day on a deserted mountain or a crowded subway car?  I answered honestly: Bishop, it’s lonelier being alone, crowded subway car. Then Kyler  asked the question that up until then no man had ever asked me directly: Do you want kids?

The topic of kids had come up before in my handful of serious relationships, but somehow never seriously. I’d discussed children plenty of times with my classmates, drunk in a bar, in the context of how our parents had messed us up and in doing so, had given us something to write about. But up until that morning in Budapest, baroque light filtering through my dank boatel porthole, I’d never had a man look me in the eye and ask if I wanted kids. I was experienced enough to know that Kyler wasn’t asking if I wanted kids with him. Still, I surprised myself with my answer, words I’d never spoken aloud. I felt like I was admitting I didn’t believe in God.

“No,” I said, reaching for my crumpled dress.

Later, we staggered above deck and drank coffee in view of Margaret Island, an island named after a childless 13th century female saint.


I met my husband Dan a few days before my thirtieth birthday. I didn’t believe in a biological clock since I had never heard mine ticking. My last relationship, with an opera singer, had lasted only a month. Alex had liked that I was a writer, a woman unconventional and messy, a woman whose kitchen table was an industrial spool she’d dug out of a neighbor’s trash. He had liked that when one of us couldn’t find something I’d ask, “Well, did you check the spool?” and we’d shine a flashlight down into its hollow wooden center. I broke up with him because I lost interest.

Dan and I emailed and talked by phone for weeks before we met in person. I was his boss. I had been hired as head of Human Resources for a small academic summer camp start-up in Brooklyn, and Dan, a poet living in Iowa, had been instated as director of our newest program. Actually, I’d picked Dan out of a catalogue long before the company had hired me. My roommate and Dan had taught at a camp together. One time, I’d found a brochure for that camp lying open on our couch and pointed to a picture of a lanky Jewish guy in a longshoreman’s cap. Dan was frowning, towering over an amusement park sign in the shape of a gopher that read, Must be no taller than me to ride this ride. I told my roommate: “I’m in love with this guy.”

I started spending less time directing Human Resources and more time wooing Dan. I secured him a slapdash staff and a total of six campers, but mostly devoted my energy to drafting witty, frank emails. The first time Dan and I spoke by phone, I had the distinct sensation of opening up, like I’d been preserved in a jar all these years, boiled and sealed. The unlidded feeling wasn’t sexual. More of a prescient joy. It was late April. Boats whizzed by on the Hudson fifteen stories below. I knew, in a way I’d never known before, that we would mean something permanent to each other.

Dan arrived a month later in New York for director training. He called me the minute he landed and showed up outside my Lorimer apartment at 2:00 am. I met him, barefoot, under a street light. It was both familiar and exhilarating. We slept together immediately. We were inseparable.

A tornado tore through Brooklyn that August, the strongest ever on record to hit the city. I watched from the grated window of my first-floor apartment as pitas from the bread factory across the street floated by like life preservers. Dan would be returning to Iowa to teach in just a few days. There was no longer a distinction between my heart and the weather. My sadness was tied to the solipsistic notion that I had begat high winds and destruction. I waded to my office in DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) to discover everything intact but my desk: the ceiling above had caved in, lath and plaster piled high around my drenched computer and waterlogged files. I felt like nothing could survive in the wake of Dan’s leaving, least of all me.

Dan got on a plane. I got fired, downsized by a storm. I would fall into a fitful sleep by counting down the distance between us. Mile 997, mile 998, mile 999. I started assisting Sharon Olds, spent hours formatting her manuscript One Secret Thing, poems about the drawn-out death of her mother. In ghosting over her lines with my fingers I was internalizing some greater message of loss. I began to connect the ache of missing Dan to the forfeiture of a future family. Dan and I mailed a stuffed penguin back and forth along with missives full of love and longing. I grew practiced at typing the word “mother.” Something inside of me was shifting, had shifted.

Five years later, we were married. Two years after that, I was pregnant with Miles.


Towards the end of my first trimester, I heard a story on NPR about Louis Armstrong, how as a street performer he would tuck pennies into his mouth to prevent other musicians from stealing from him. My earliest sign of pregnancy had always been a metallic taste in the back of my throat. I wanted to stash our son inside me forever, keep him out of circulation. I imagined safeguarding him, my own private treasure, settling for a life of ghostly kicks to avoid a grisly, protracted birth scene. Or even worse, loss.


I began swimming three times a week at the start of my second trimester because of something I’d read about the movements in freestyle creating a streamlined birth canal, a luge tube the baby could simply slide down. I conceived of myself as a smooth centaur. No one knew I was carrying a child when I was in the pool. My hindquarters were hidden. Whenever I eased into the water, acclimating to the chill, I thought of Peter Artedi, the naturalist credited with fathering Fish Science. I had learned of him accidentally, a detour in my cataloging the bad luck of explorers. He drowned in an Amsterdam canal after a night of drinking. He had spent his whole life studying aquatic depths, the minutiae of structure, but no amount of studying could have prepared him for what it felt like to go under that way.


We moved across town on my thirty-seventh birthday, also the beginning of my third trimester. Our 600 square foot one-bedroom wouldn’t have accommodated our expanding family. The Georgia heat was indefensible, and I was far too big to be of any real help. I offered to scrub the baseboards of the old house, but mostly I just sat and ran a cloth over the same spot, my hair in a do-rag, pretending to be a Victorian washerwoman. I cursed at Dan in a trussed up cockney accent and called him my costermonger, I word I’d only just learned from a BBC drama. It means someone who sells fruits and vegetables in the market, but I was using it to refer to a husband who was making me pack and unpack all of our worldly belongings when I was being sucker-punched from the inside.

And then: just as we’d finished unwrapping the bubble tape from all our breakables, just as we’d mopped the floor with organic baby-friendly cleaner, Dan got the call that he was one of three final candidates being considered for a tenure-track teaching job in upstate New York. The college was requesting he fly up for an interview that week. I was suddenly faced with the prospect of moving again, this time 2000 miles, at 37 weeks pregnant. I looked to our two cats. We would have to do the trip by car, for their sake and for mine. I was too pregnant to fly. The cats sniffed at the familiar couch like it was a stranger.

While Dan was away interviewing, I spent every afternoon underwater. I was in the locker room, massaging mango-scented stretch mark cream into my expanding belly, when he called to let me know he was offered the job. I watched as my naked reflection in the mirror answered the phone, watched as my mouth gaped at the shock of the news. I was starring in an avant-garde theater production with no costuming budget.

That night, we discussed the pros and cons, as adults do, doodling half-lists on a napkin. Cons: leaving our support system of friends, my parents nearby in North Carolina, and a trusted team of midwives. Pros: greater financial security, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I agreed to move to a strange town in the country, sight unseen, under one condition: a visit to Hershey Park. We joked that this concession sounded more like a concession stand, as in candy, as in sweet.


It was late July in the South when we embarked on the long journey north. At a rest stop along I-95, I attempted some light yoga on the grass and decided it would be easier to give up and live there, next to a picnic table, walking distance from not one but two vending machines. On my back with my arms outstretched at odd angles, I looked like a broken sundial, measuring distance, not time.


At Hershey Park, I slogged from one chocolate room to another. Crowds parted. I cradled a mountain of Krackel bars in my arms, then abruptly decided to buy none.


Our half-domesticated feral cat, Girlfriend, got out of her carrier back at the Residence Inn. She bolted into a bathroom cabinet and hid behind sink pipes. Dan wrapped his left hand in a towel and attempted to dislodge her, yanking blindly, his face angled towards me in dread. The cat hissed and thrashed against metal. When Dan produced her, he was bleeding profusely, claw marks up to his sleeve. In my mind he was Hugh Glass, the 19th century American fur trapper who was mauled by a bear, left for dead, but then regained consciousness. For six weeks, Glass crawled 200 miles solo across Missouri until he reached the Cheyenne River and built a makeshift raft to safety. Dan assured me he could still drive.


A waitress at Denny’s mistakenly wrote paincakes on our check. I repeated, “I will consume rather than be consumed by contractions. I will consume rather than be consumed by fear.”


A week later, we met our New York midwife for the first time. After she listened to me recount our recent upheaval, how our furniture still hadn’t arrived and I was sleeping on an air mattress that stayed deflated on my side, she handed me two pamphlets. One on placenta encapsulation. The other on postpartum depression.


As my due date loomed, I devoted my final weeks to reading about Ina May Gaskin and homebirthing. I practiced mindfulness by chewing raisins, one at a time, very, very slowly, trying to visualize harvest conditions. I tackled pain tolerance by submerging my fingers in bowls of ice. I took a Lamaze class with Dan to perfect rhythmic breathing and a hypnobirthing session to learn traditional Chinese acupuncture techniques: mainly how to massage my butt joint. I became an acolyte of the theory that language instills in us our real fear of childbirth, that by merely reframing pain as pressure we can transcend the horror of contractions until they become expansions.

Like an explorer, I filled my hospital bag with essentials: an eye mask, a tennis ball for butt joint massage, a green cotton halter I’d ordered from a company called Pretty Pushers. Their tagline is “a stylish alternative to unisex gowns.” They promise that “you won’t have to show your backside.” I made a pushing playlist and instructed Dan that it was his duty to see that Miles was born to Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” I wrote NO EPIDURAL NO PITOCIN in all caps on my birth plan. In those final weeks, I informed anyone who didn’t ask that I was going to labor on the shores of Lake Cayuga, about five miles from our house, regardless of the time of day, until I could no longer talk through contractions. But first I would cook up a protein-heavy meal. Maybe make organic oatmeal in the crock pot. Once I was full, and comfortably dilated, we would drive the speed limit to the birthing center, where I would ease into a whirlpool and deliver our son in water, under soft lighting, my wrists smelling faintly of lavender oil.

Because pregnancy requires the ultimate relinquishing of control, because I had suffered three early miscarriages, it made sense, this need to wrangle my labor into the Platonic ideal of labor.


Miles was nine days late. I spent the morning of my labor watching a Woody Allen movie at the closest theater, a thirty minute drive. The August heat was so oppressive that once inside I removed my shirt. The only other patron was a woman who must have been in her nineties. I had the distinct thought that she would probably die before the baby came.

On my way home I stopped at the grocery store. There was nothing I needed. I paced the baby aisle, stumbling like a rabid dog, cradling my belly like a basket. On the way out, I copped two cookies from the “Free For Kids ONLY” bin. I stuffed them in my mouth, laughed as a chunk fell to the floor. Miles triggered the automatic door well before I passed through it.

That night, I accompanied Dan to a campus cook-out on the boathouse lawn. He was due to start teaching in four days. There was a lavish, homey food spread: hotdogs and hamburgers, coleslaw and baked beans, all kept warm in chafing trays. The coleslaw was clumpy and tasted of blue cheese. I swallowed five hot dogs, hardly chewing them. I was a championship eater and my only competition was myself. I rested my sticky hands on my stomach. A faculty member introduced herself. “Any hour now!” she said, poking my shoulder. I returned for a sixth hot dog. I filled a cup with ice and kept my pinky submerged in it while making small talk, only I thought of it as big talk, I was so huge.


I went into labor suddenly, at 2am, with contractions lasting sixty seconds and spaced five minutes apart. There was no time to soak oats or wade out. When we arrived at the birthing center (forty minutes away), a cheerful attendant informed us that due to a “baby storm,” there was only one room available: the one without the whirlpool tub. I managed to dress myself in my stylish and modest green gown, only to rip it off moments later and sit in the shower, defeated and splayed, while Dan hosed down my exposed backside.

It turned out I didn’t want to be touched. At all. I needed the opposite of touching. I refused everything I’d prepped so hard for. My midwife and the team of nurses referred to me as The Silent Laborer. Through a fog of hurt this sounded like a cancelled Jennifer Love Hewitt drama.

For over ten hours, I labored naturally to full dilation in a state of pre-language. I was a mime in an ashram, freed from the burden of words, pain still undeniably pain. My water had to be broken with a crochet hook. Our 9 pound 4 ounce son wouldn’t descend. Ten centimeters dilated and still not progressing, I begged for an epidural. Begged. My midwife calmly referred back to the all-caps portion of my birth plan. I denied having ever written it.

I labored for a total of twenty-two hours. For weeks after, my husband would bear the remnants of thick blisters on his hands from where he had held up my legs for traction. After four hours of pushing, I didn’t care what music welcomed Miles into the world. The last hour of fire and crowning was beyond comprehension. According to Dan, Miles made his midnight appearance to Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love For You,” a song celebrating infidelity from the point of view of a mistress.


As painful as labor was in the moment, its end would usher in an analgesic forgetting. In the immediate aftermath of birth, as soon as my squalling son had been placed on my chest and had listed successfully onto my right nipple, I felt capable of anything: eating the entire three-tiered pastrami sandwich I demanded my father-in-law bring to me in the delivery room, for example, or walking unassisted into the recovery suite.

At 4:00 am, guided by endorphins, I rose out of my adjustable bed to unpack and correct some bad birthing center feng shui by moving a lamp and draping a receiving blanket over a tray table. I must do it all, I thought to myself, and I wasn’t even sure what it was.

I had the bravado of an explorer, one with the unfounded confidence and determination to press on – westward! – regardless of poor conditions. I was thinking specifically of Henry Hudson, who, after spending the winter of 1611 cooped up with a starving crew stuck in ice, still insisted on setting sail for the Northwest Passage as soon as the ice cleared. Like Hudson, I also wanted to keep going. I was at the helm of my own Discovery, deluded in spirit, unable to acknowledge a torn perineum and a low iron count.

But Henry Hudson’s men mutinied against him. They put Hudson, a few loyal crew members, and his son in an open boat, then set a course for England. A journal indicates that Hudson oared feverishly to keep up with the ship, whose sails were unfurled to garner maximum speed. He couldn’t. This was me: repentant of my boundless stamina, claustrophobic in the wake of the world, alone in strange waters with my son. I kept sounding out his name to the clock on the wall. It felt apt. Miles. How far I was from the person I had been.  


It was as if I had trained months for a marathon, all that pre-dawn incline running with silly miniature water bottles velcroed to my middle, only to be handed a server apron at the finish line and told I was expected to show up for my restaurant double shift. I’d treated labor like a one-off, like a task accomplished. We had the glut of paraphernalia, the Ergo and the bouncy swing and the snot sucker and the diaper cream, all crammed into a nursery with its magical attention to detail. The mason jar with the electric candle on the windowsill. The stenciled grinning menagerie. I remembered only a few days before, raking my hands against the walls of this room like it was Narnia, a remarkable land I had stumbled into by accident. A land I could leave.


There was mesh underwear and clots the size of a teether. Curled up in our bathtub, I placed a desperate call to my septuagenarian mother, crying, asking her to administer an enema. My nipples were raw and chaffed. I hadn’t slept in 96 hours. I hadn’t realized the kind of tired I would be, nauseous tired, how tomorrow would be replaced by a never-ending today punctuated by mere pockets of sleep. Without that recalibration, the gift of closure disappears. Years of yoga hadn’t prepared me to live in the moment this way. I Googled “longest a person can survive without sleep,” only to discover I would be dead in seven days, like the Chinese man who couldn’t stop watching a soccer tournament.


If depression is a rendering of the self invisible, then what I experienced was acute visibility. Seeing that my son’s eyes were my eyes, that his lips were my lips, allowed me to feel unprecedented self-compassion. I connected immediately with Miles. I reconnected with myself more slowly.


I had never dressed a baby, or nibbled on tiny toes, or put a newborn down for a nap, or lowered an infant into a car seat. I had changed exactly one diaper – I’m not even sure if it counts if your college friend did most of the changing while you offered at the last minute to “stick the sticky tabs,” like you were a gymnast attempting a tough landing. Caring for our son is exhausting, but rewarding, physical, like planting by the moon, using your hands, sweating, nothing like the cerebral life I’ve cultivated, nothing like it at all.


My love for Miles is an unfamiliar love, a contradictory love. It simultaneously multiplies and tethers me. I anticipate his waking a split-second before he wakes. I startle and touch Dan’s face in bed next to me, expecting anything warm to be him, a vulnerable bundle of need. When I nurse, I am being drawn down into the earth, stabilized, but also released of some weight that has held me back my whole life. Sometimes at night I play a sinister game of questioning. Would you die for your son by train? By axe? By wheel? By sandstorm? By stonefish? The answer is yes. Always, unflinchingly, yes.


Miles and Dan and I live in unmapped wilderness, in a geothermal house, with a view of a lake, in a small rural upstate town. If, as Khalil Gibran writes, pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding, then joy is a walling-off. A family of ten deer comes to feed in our yard every dusk. I count them out loud to our son. One deer for each centimeter I was dilated, a distant memory of pain, of distance itself.


Author’s Note: I wrote this essay when Miles was still a newborn. He’s now a rambunctious 15-month-old with a mullet and a penchant for dragging large objects across the room. My writing process has changed so much since becoming a mom. I finish more because I’ve had to jettison perfectionism. I hope this serves as encouragement for other women who are considering a family but are afraid that children will compromise their creativity.   

Alicia Rebecca Myers is a poet and essayist who holds an MFA from NYU, where she was a Goldwater Writing Fellow. Her work has appeared most recently in or is forthcoming from Best New Poets 2015, The Rumpus, The American Literary Review, Gulf Coast, jubilat, The Carolina Quarterly, The Fairy Tale Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology: Georgia. She has also had a poem featured in an NPR Radiolab podcast in conjunction with the NYC based performance series Emotive Fruition. In February of 2014, she was awarded a residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center in Nebraska City. Her chapbook, My Seaborgium, will be released by Brain Mill Press in 2016. She teaches at Wells College. You can find her online at



Found in Translation

Found in Translation


By Annika Paradise

Slowly, small clusters of adults anxiously enter the room: one or two Caucasians with one Chinese translator. They hold teddy bears, dolls, backpacks full of presents, cameras, sugared rice crackers and the required gift, wrapped in red paper, for the government official. The room is decorated in red, black and white…symbolically. Some translate from Chinese to Swedish, Chinese to Spanish, or Chinese to English making stilted small talk to bridge the tenuous silence. Beyond language there is a palpable bond between the adults. This is it. This is the moment we have been waiting for three to five years. There are four doors separating the waiting room from the children and their nannies behind. Each door is closed with a red, blue and black curtain, so that as we walk by, we can catch glimpses of the children. Is that her? No, that one is definitely her! My husband Will soon stands by one curtain and is making silly faces to the children behind. An official quickly comes to tell him that he must sit with the others waiting. Within the hour, each person will leave this room forever changed.

I grew up in Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley. Palo Alto was still a funky college town. Moms in my world stayed home with their kids, made their own granola and Ken Kesey was our famous neighbor. There was the bookmobile, picnics under oak trees, trips to Tahoe and fights with my sister, but always there was an impending call from Dr. Goodkind, my mother’s oncologist. Unlike other kids in my world, I don’t remember a childhood that was separate from sickness. My mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was three, went through chemo, remission, chemo, surgery, more surgery and eventually died from a brain tumor when I was eight. We did hospice in 1978 (before the hospice movement made it common) and she never slept away from our home with the final tumor. My well-meaning brownie troop leaders and my mom’s friends looked at me with pity, referred to our family as a “tragedy” and didn’t let my friends come to her funeral because their children weren’t ready for something so sad.  When you grow up with that mantle, the upside is you’re ready for anything, especially when it comes thirty years later in the form of a beautiful Chinese 3-year-old.


As the first children emerge in the arms of their caregivers, an official takes the paperwork and says the child’s name in a loud declaration to the room as if announcing the next debutante into high society. Many of us have only seen photos that were taken six or more months before. Some wonder if they will recognize their child from the photos. As the proclamations begin, there are the sounds of great screams as the children clutch onto all they have known, a sudden cacophony of life’s abrupt shift. It’s like we are all in the delivery room together witnessing one another’s very private birth. Some are physically pulled from their Chinese nannies as they reach and scramble toward their old life, not making eye contact with this new big white lady. They whimper, eyes wide. The babies are soon silenced with a toy, a sugar cookie or by exhaustion. The older ones – some as old as five or six -who more fully understand, train their eyes on the door from which they came. They come around more slowly but are also soon entranced with their gifts and sweets. We wait and wait for our daughter’s name to be announced but there is a discrepancy with the spelling of her name on one of the forms. It needs to be corrected before we can meet, as if spelling can derail the seismic changes that are happening in our lives.

How much does a child understand in these moments? There is the one level of understanding but there is another magical level that can soften the blow. I knew my mother was dying on one level but on another I thought that the scientists at Stanford were monitoring how a girl responds to so much sadness. I steeled myself thinking that I was being watched. In my magical world there was no way my mother could actually die. So I was surprised when she actually did die one Saturday during cartoons. I ran to her bed, saw my beautiful mother turned greenish with white lips. I cried, then remembered the scientists and felt surprised that they would really take it this far. I wouldn’t give them what they wanted. I hid to cry, then made up some massive fantasy of my mother being kept in Eastern Europe while I was still being studied. If I could create such fantasies, what was my new daughter thinking and feeling? What was her fantasy world creating to soften her reality?

Mao Xin Feng, at almost 3, is the last child to emerge from the curtained waiting room. Each hair is meticulously arranged. Her lips parted, eyes wide as she looks out into the room of screaming children and parents. The crying room is slowly reaching its crescendo. Her expression is “speechless” and would literally remain speechless for most of the next 72 hours. She is accompanied by her nanny and a proud representative from the orphanage. I don’t remember walking toward her but I do remember reaching out for her. As she is lifted into my arms, she does not cling to her escorts but her body stiffly remains in the gesture of hugging her nanny, unsure of her next gesture.

Her body was stiff in my arms, her rapidly beating heart, her breath on my neck, and I feel surprised that she weighs obviously less than my son who is exactly one year younger than she. Slowly, as our translator made small talk between the 5 adults, Xin Feng’s body starts to relax in quick jolts; her heart slows. After ten minutes of hugging and slow rocking, her small hands begin to hold on to me. Her nannies are beaming and telling her that she is so lucky to have her own mommy and daddy; that she needs to listen to us and be good; and come back to visit one day. How many times have these women delivered away these children they have raised? Are they conflicted inside? Unlike the diligent nurses who inspect the car seat before we left the hospital with our biological newborns, we brought Lucy Xinfeng Paradise home from the Guangdong Welfare Office in a hailed cab, without a working seat belt, and held her on our laps through the Guangzhou traffic.

The entirety of our two weeks in China is taken up with the required half days of government office visits and the other half is free time. When we walk around the area by our hotel, our son Kai and Lucy in a double-wide stroller, they start to bond. Kai’s white-blonde curls contrast with Lucy’s black bob. Chinese people want to pose with the stroller and take photos, saying “very good!” and giving me two thumbs up. Do they like the blonde boy, the siblings, or the fact that we are obviously adopting? I’ll never know. Kai and Lucy clink sippy cups as if to say “cheers”, share cookies and play peek-a-boo. Lucy has never owned more than one lovie and one change of clothes. She is enamored with this sippy cup, sleeps with the sippy cup, wants Kai’s sippy cup and seems to understand, if not verbally, the concept of “mine!”

Two doors down from the hotel is “Lucy’s Restaurant” with both American and Chinese food. On the menu is a special section for Chinese kids’ menu – most tables have one or more Chinese children with nervously doting Western parents. The waiter tells me that Chinese girls like “egg flower soup” and he’s right. On our second night together, Lucy wants a toy from Kai as we wait for our food. Kai is reluctant and Lucy gives him a strong right hook to the eye. Will grabs Kai and says loudly to Lucy, “Hey, you can’t hit my kid!” All 20 pounds of her looks blankly back to him. After a few minutes, I remind Will, “Lucy’s your kid now too.”

I used to lie with my newborns on my chest; let them sleep so I could stare and bond; hearts finding their synch. Instinctively, I did this with Lucy too. Her feet would do a kind of running motion which pushed her into a nuzzle on my neck. She was so intuitive about finding a way to bond. Her first words were “mommy,” “water,” “potty,” “ladybug,” and “where’s mommy?”

In the days and weeks after my own mother died, I would sleepwalk down into the study and fall asleep on the floor, lying as if her hospital bed were still there. My father would wake me, pick me up and hold me before taking me back up to my own room. My subconscious mind has been, for years, also asking, “where’s Mommy?” Now the adult in me has the privilege of weaving the answer.

Somewhere over the Pacific, we cuddle, trying to get comfortable laying across our seats. We point back and forth smiling and saying together, “Xin Feng”, then, “Mommy”. I used the colloquial with her nickname, “Ai Feng” to which she decidedly says, “may-o, Ai Feng!” She instead points to herself and says, “LUCY!” and from that day onward, I call her Lucy.

When Lucy is home for just a few days, jetlag still intense, language still being learned, we start to realize that the honeymoon is over. Lucy sits and sits with her cheeks stuffed with food at the counter. She is obviously full so we try to take her plate away and urge her to come play. She screams with terror. We read that this is common with children who always had limited food. So up she stays with squirrel cheeks bunkered against my encouraging smiles. Finally I realize that if I gave her crackers in a baggie, if she can hold some food, then she will leave her plate to do something else. Her one hand white-knuckles the zip-lock while she draws with the other.

Her tantrums are extreme. If I could give them a voice, they would say, where am I? Where are all my old friends? I want white rice and sugar cookies. I want you to understand my Cantonese dialect…now! What the fuck is going on here!? Has her magical thinking hit a roadblock? The tantrums are thrashing, banging objects and screaming. I physically restrain her a few times so that she won’t hurt herself or others. I am yelled at. I am yelled at again. And then yelled at some more. As much as I am her anchor, I am also being held responsible for the extreme change in her life. How do you tell a child that this new life will be better for them in the long run, that she will come to love us, that we can provide a nice life for her, and that our food and dogs won’t be so scary once some time passes. And that I already love her.

The screaming and anger are relentless; I want to help her, but I also want to scream back at her. Hands shaking, rage rising I need to walk out the door. I am ashamed at my lack of patience and the fire that is stirred within me. I am the nice one; I’ve never had anger issues. Where has this rage been buried? I had no idea the extent of my limitations until those moments. I close the door and leave my daughter alone to scream it out. After her intense loss and pain in her short life, what kind of person am I, to walk away from her? I am walking away both to protect myself and because I’m surprised to meet a girl in me who wants to yell too.

Summer has come to Boulder, Colorado when we return home from China in June 2010. My two biological children are in the garden, barefoot finding the irises, peonies and helping weed the vegetable garden. Lucy screams from the doorway. She will not step down onto the dirt without being carried or wearing shoes. She cries when the tall grass touches her arms, cries when any dirt gets onto her clothes. As we look through the photos from the orphanage, we realize that her world had been paved.   The playground was cement, the courtyard tiled and as we know she had never left the orphanage, we conclude that she has probably never touched grass in her life. Not only is she tormented by lack of control in her life, in culture shock and learning a new language, she is also meeting the natural world for the first time.

In the months of yelling, screaming and PTSD in the house, Lorna and Kai spend more time with a babysitter than ever before or since. I feel guilty for how little emotional reserves are left for them and how insignificant their needs are on my day-to-day triage. It’s only when five year-old Lorna cries that she misses her mommy that I doubt this crazy path we have chosen. But when I overhear Lorna telling a friend that she is now part-Chinese, I wonder what her trip to China and the integration of her sister into her life has imprinted onto her own identity. I hope that maybe all this chaos has shown her that messy is OK and families are more about love and commitment than biology.

Back before we left for China, I read volumes about the possible issues with toddler adoption and my anxiety went through the roof. As Melanie, our 22 year-old baby sitter, said to me in the spring of 2010, “don’t we all have attachment issues, Annika?” She was so right: if you put either Will or myself into the literature’s matrix of whose history would cause attachment issues, we’d both be off the charts. Perhaps saying yes to Lucy was saying yes to all of us who have had rough start. And really, I’ve learned of myself that I had something to prove: that none of us is broken by our early circumstances. Even me.

In June of 2011, back from China a year, we visit my mother in law in the Boston area when we decide to do the typical tourist Duck Boat tour. In these tours, WWII amphibious vehicles give a historical tour of both downtown Boston and Boston Harbor. The historical facts bore the kids, but the crazy vehicle is exciting for all, especially after 45 minutes when we finally drive right into the Charles River and start the boat part of the tour. The driver then stands up and turns to face the hundred or so passengers. He asks if there are any volunteers who want to drive the boat. Lucy’s hand shoots up and, before being chosen, starts marching up the aisle. This is the Lucy who has shown up in our family ever since: jump in with two feet, even before knowing all the details, especially if it means steering your own ship.

Days pass without obvious change but only as the years pass do I look back and see that we are all new people. Lucy tantrums over the first day that is cold enough to warrant long underwear; instead of being irritated over the tantrum and being late for school, I smile that this is a really normal thing to scream about. I hate long underwear too. Instantly, I’m aware it’s been a really long time since she screamed about something. I wonder if the summer of screaming ever really happened or was it just some kind of weird dream.

Today, in March 2015, Will and I come to Lucy’s 1st grade parent – teacher conference. The teacher has mostly glowing reports. Lucy is a favorite playmate of her peers: enthusiastic, attentive and confident. Lucy is one of her brightest students and she lays out all the ways that she will give her extra challenges so that our gifted and talented girl will not be bored. I want to cry thinking how far Lucy has come, but try to remain composed. I want to tell her that she learned English equal to her peers after being with us for just three months – of course she is smart. Her teacher does mention, as “an opportunity for growth”, that Lucy lashed out to another student who touched her things. I remember the right hook she gave to her younger brother, how she clutched the zip-lock of crackers in her early days, her obsession with her first sippy cup. In this moment, I see that the scars, although faint, are still fading.

Author’s Note: This essay is the honest answer to the oft-repeated question, “what was it like to adopt a three year-old?” Usually I just give a one word answer, like “great”, but this is what I would really say if I were being honest. Lucy is my hero.

Annika Powell Paradise lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband, three children, 5 chickens, 2 ducks and a pug. When she is not mothering, she writes poetry, essays and is currently working on a YA historical fiction novel.