This Is Two: Kristen Levithan

This Is Two: Kristen Levithan

Kris Woll interviews Kristen Levithan, a contributing writer in This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood:

Kristen LevithanWhat was your inspiration for writing this piece?  Have you written other things about this age/stage? 

My daughter is my third child, and I fear I haven’t been as diligent noting her milestones as I was with my oldest. In writing this essay, I hoped to create for her and myself a portrait in words of who she was at this age. Doing so inspired me to write about her more often; hopefully when she grows up she’ll have dozens of pages to read alongside the hundreds of photos I’ve taken.

What is it about age 2 you liked the most? The least?

With all three of my kids, I’ve loved the exuberance of 2—the running everywhere with purpose (even if that purpose is as simple as picking up a block (“A Bwock!”) from another room), the awestruck gaping at such things as bubbles, airplanes, and squirrels in trees—not to mention the explosion of language. My least favorite part of 2 is the sometimes endless, not necessarily rational, battles that accompany that language.

What do you wish you knew before you had a 2-year-old, or what advice do you wish you could tell your former self about mothering at that particular stage?

I spent a fair amount of time mourning the loss of the baby stage when my kids turned from tiny, helpless, infants to wandering, chattering toddlers. If I had to do it all over again, I would tell myself to enjoy each stage as much as the one that came before it, each age brings its own kind of wonder. (Then again, I doubt I would have believed it. It’s been my experience that the only way to “know” a stage of parenting is to go through it yourself.)

What other age/stage in this collection (which explores 1-10) is one you would like to explore more—or do you often find yourself turning to—in your writing? 

My kids are now 6, 4, and 3 so I suppose it’s not surprising that I’m most intrigued by what others have to say about their experiences parenting kids the ages of my own. I find this increasingly tricky as my kids get older and I become more reticent writing about experiences that they themselves will remember. I’m interested to see how other parent-writers navigate that challenge.

How do writing and mothering fit together for you?  How has that fit changed over time?

I came to writing through motherhood. I started blogging when my second son was a baby and started writing professionally a year later. The two have been interwoven for me ever since.

What is your advice to other mother writers?

Write down as much as you can: the details, the emotions, the hilarious quotes. You might not have time to process it now, but every snippet, no matter how brief or how tangential, counts. It’s the raw material of the story of your motherhood.

What do you hope readers will take with them from your piece?  From this collection? 

In this day of Instagram and 140 character communications, I hope that readers will see real value in the act of slowing down to record the details of a moment in a child’s life. I hope that the collection inspires other parents to tell the story of who their own children were at each age. I’m a writer so I’m probably biased, but I’ve never been persuaded that a picture is worth a thousand words. I think a thousand words can be worth quite a lot indeed.


Read Kristen’s “This is Two” essay in This is Childhood, a book about the first years of childhood, and motherhood. 

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Book Review: All Joy and No Fun

Book Review: All Joy and No Fun

By Kristen Levithan

Book Review All Joy ArtNearly four years ago, journalist Jennifer Senior wrote a piece for New York Magazine that examined “why parents are no happier than nonparents, and in certain cases are considerably less happy.” The article, called “All Joy and No Fun” and provocatively subtitled “Why parents hate parenting,” went viral, inviting comments from parents and the childless alike. In her new book,  All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Senior picks up where her New York Magazine article left off and embarks on a quest to look at and knit together the findings of countless studies “in order to articulate—and in some cases quantify—what today’s parents find so challenging about their lives.” Unlike many parenting books whose focus is on children (or, at least, on how parents affect their children), Senior states from the outset that hers is “a book about parents” and an attempt—wholly successful—to show how children both strain and deepen our lives.

Senior’s book benefits from exceptionally clear, evocative writing throughout. (At one point, she deems parents “avid volunteers for a project in which we were all once dutiful conscripts.”) But its greatest strength and, I would argue, its most significant contribution to contemporary parenting literature is her decision to use the stories and experiences of middle class families to explicate relevant neuro- and social scientific research. (She focuses on the middle class, she explains, because the concerns of the elite are not “relatable” and those of “poor parents as parents are impossible to view on their own.”) Offering her readers a chance to identify with, say, a mom trying to edit photos for an afternoon deadline while the cries of her supposedly napping son blare through a baby monitor and her five-year-old daughter interrupts her repeatedly for help rewinding a movie, makes the countless studies she cites both more digestible and immediately more resonant.

Senior also makes the wise choice to deliver her findings systematically in stage-by-stage fashion. To explain the “bunker years” in which adults trade the autonomy of their child-free lives for the gear-laden, demanding days of parenting young children, Senior shares relevant findings through the stories of families she met through Early Childhood Family Education classes in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Senior elucidates studies on sleep deprivation, flow, and multitasking to show how they help explain why life with little kids often feels like “a long-running experiment in contained bedlam.” In an excellent chapter on marriage and the stresses parenting places upon it, Senior introduces us to Angie and Clint, a shift-working couple of two young sons, to reveal academic research on time-use, social isolation, child compliance, sex, and a fascinating concept called “unentitlement,” in which parents—especially mothers—prioritize family and household chores above their own needs. In the third chapter, Senior introduces the “simple gifts” parenting can bring and the science behind them as she follows Sharon, a 67-year-old raising her 3-year-old grandson alone. Sharon is also the lens through which Senior discusses research on the ways in which parenting children—who, Senior eloquently reminds us, “still have their hands on the world”—allow adults to reconnect to the pleasures of tangible, tactile pursuits; to ponder philosophical questions; and to embrace the chance to practice being our best selves.

Senior departs both the bunker years and Minnesota in her chapters on the later years of parenting. She devotes a jam-packed section to the “obdurate challenges of the middle parenting years” and, especially, the effects the overscheduling of kids has on their parents. For this stage, she heads off to suburban Houston, home of demographically diverse parents trying to help their kids balance schoolwork and demanding extracurricular activities (like the pervasive Tuesday night football practices) in an uncertain culture devoid of the folkways that helped parents navigate for generations before ours. In this chapter, Senior also looks at the shifting pressures on women over the last half-century from “keeping an immaculate house to being an irreproachable mom.” Senior’s chapter on adolescence is not for the faint of heart, chronicling as it does the experiences of several Brooklyn families who deal with everything from sons egging neighborhood houses and surfing Internet porn to daughters shoplifting and self-mutilating. Particularly fascinating in this section is Senior’s suggestion that, though “adolescence, more than any other phase of child-rearing, is when the paradoxes of modern childhood assert themselves most vividly,” its fraught reputation may be because we adults are at a loss when the children who’ve relied on us for so much somewhat suddenly, but quite naturally, begin to pull away, leaving our relationships with them and our partners, not to mention ourselves, up in the air.

If the rest of the book is superb, the final chapter of All Joy and No Fun is transcendent. Senior goes beyond the usual nonfiction tactic of revisiting her earlier arguments to discuss how, despite its trials, parenting gives us access to unparalleled joy, imbues our lives with meaning, and offers us the chance to redeem our past mistakes and leave a positive legacy. Explaining why it’s so much harder to quantify “how it feels to be a parent” rather than “how it feels to do the quotidian and often arduous task of parenting,” Senior leaves parents lucky enough to read her outstanding book with the distinct impression that, both in spite of and because of the sleepless nights, mind-numbing responsibilities, and heart-rending challenges, this parenting business is the most meaningful kind there is.

Kristen Levithan writes about motherhood, women’s history, and mother-writers for print and online publications. Currently at work on a non-fiction book about writers who were also mothers, Kristen lives in New England with her husband and three children and offers cultural commentary and musings on modern motherhood at her blog, Motherese.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

Should You Let Your Child Quit?

Should You Let Your Child Quit?


By Delia Lloyd

Debate_A_v2 for webLike many parents these days, I’m guilty of raising two classically over-scheduled children. We race from piano lessons to craft club and from soccer matches to chess tournaments. And there’ve been more Sundays than I’d care to admit when I’ve been relieved to discover that the swimming pool has flooded so we can’t make it to swim class.

But I always insisted—to myself, if not to others—that my kids’ busy lives were a reflection of them, not me. They were curious. They were energetic. And if they had lots of interests, my job as a parent—within reason and budget allowing—was to enable them to experiment with those interests and see which, if any, developed into a true passion.

Until the day my 11-year-old son, Isaac, came home and told me that he didn’t want to play the violin anymore. And suddenly, I had to dust off my parenting playbook and revisit my assumptions about how much of what my children do is about what they want vs. what I think is good for them.

I concluded—along with my husband—that there were certain things I just wasn’t going to allow them to quit.

I’m not necessarily proud of this decision. I’ll never forget the time when the two of us were on vacation in our early 30s (pre-kids), lounging by the swimming pool, when we overheard a father get into the water with his daughter to work on her front crawl.

“That was two good strokes and one bad stroke,” he shouted. “Do it again!” My husband and I looked at each other and shook our heads. “What a nightmare!” we whispered to one another. “We’d never do that to our kids,” seemed to be our tacit bargain. What a difference eleven years makes.

As soon as my son announced that he was “tired” of violin and wanted to stop playing, I realized that there was no way I was going to let him quit.

Part of it was how I felt every time I heard an adult friend lament about the day she gave up playing the piano … the violin … the flute … the clarinet. “If only my parents hadn’t let me quit!” was the common complaint. Isn’t hating your musical instrument part of growing up?

I was also worried that as my son grew older and showed more of an interest in— and aptitude for—soccer, his well-rounded, inquisitive nature might be sacrificed in the name of sports. Precisely because sports are cool and violin—well not so much. I feared that he might emerge from adolescence a one-dimensional adult.

It was also around this time I read Michelle Obama’s list of parenting rules for her daughters. These include having them play two sports each, one they picked and one she chose for them, precisely because she wanted them to learn how to work harder at things they found difficult.

I imagine that some people who read the First Lady’s list might have questioned that rule. But I found myself agreeing with Mrs. Obama. There’s a real value in old-fashioned perseverance. And with all the talk of “life skills” these days, I don’t think it’s a bad idea for children to start learning the value of commitment early on, even when they find something onerous.

I’m not saying that I make my kids follow through on every single thing they’ve started. French lessons for my daughter came and went. My son was excited by drama for awhile. And then he wasn’t. But he’s been playing violin for six years now and he’s actually pretty good. To give up now would be to turn his back on a huge investment of time, money, and effort over the years, all for something I’m fairly certain he’ll regret, if not now, then later on.

I guess I’ve come around to the view that there’s a certain “eat your spinach” quality to parenting. (For the record, I also make my kids eat their vegetables.) As parents, we aren’t always right, but we are there to help our children see the value in things that they might not be old enough—or mature enough—to appreciate in the moment.

I hope I’m never as overbearing as that man in the swimming pool all those years ago. But I also hope that one day my kids will thank me for not letting them give up too easily.

Delia Lloyd is an American journalist/blogger based in London. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post’s She The People blog, and blogs about adulthood at Realdelia.



By Kristen Levithan

Debate_B_v2 for webThis fall I did something I never thought I’d do before becoming a parent: I let my child quit.

I’d signed my son up for preschool soccer after he had enjoyed his inaugural season last spring. Danny had liked being on the team, sporting his canary yellow jersey, and giving piggy back rides to his teammates, even though he generally showed more interest in trying to climb up the net than in putting the ball into it. When the time came for fall registration, I asked him if he wanted to play again and he enthusiastically said yes.

From the first practice, though, I could tell that things weren’t going to go well. Danny was uncharacteristically aggressive with the other kids, dribbling the ball into them and tussling with them when the coach turned away. When the games started, he began each one excitedly, cheering for his teammates and hustling to keep up with the action. But then something would set him off—an accidental trip, a misunderstood direction from his coach, or a goal for the other team—and he would collapse into tears, march to the sideline, and sit out for the rest of the game, inconsolable.

The same scenario played out the next week. And the week after that.

At first, I refused to entertain the idea of allowing him to quit. Like many of us, I was raised to finish what I started. I didn’t quit soccer, even though it held no appeal to me. I finished games of Monopoly, no matter how interminable. I blanched at the idea of sending the wrong message to my son, of turning him forever into a shiftless fly-by-night.

But then I realized that my reluctance to let Danny quit had a lot more to do with me than it did with him. I was embarrassed by the thought of explaining my decision to the coach and then pacing the sidelines for the rest of the season—my other son was on the same team—wondering what the other moms were thinking of me. I was so busy doing what I thought a good parent should do and worrying about other people’s opinions that I forgot to think about what was best for my son.

When I finally stopped to talk to him, I began to understand why soccer was rubbing up against every vulnerable place inside of him. We danced around issues of perfectionism, frustration, and anger and, though I still don’t know exactly why Danny went from a kid who liked soccer to one who hated it, I knew that quitting was what we were going to do.

Ultimately, I believe that letting Danny quit taught him to listen to his gut and to speak up for himself. It signaled to him that, even at five-and-a-half, what he thinks and how he feels matter more to us than blind adherence to a theoretical principle. And I hold these lessons in as high regard as I do the ones on perseverance and commitment that I worried he was missing.

Allowing Danny to bow out of soccer mid-season also underscored my belief that childhood should be about exploration and experimentation, about letting kids test their wings while we’re still around to catch them if they fall. Giving our kids the option to quit celebrates the idea that they should have the chance to try out new things without the expectation that every new thing will fit.

In the end, letting our kids abandon activities that don’t work gives them the chance to try other things that might. For Danny, that thing turned out to be swimming. He’d loved his swimming lessons over the summer and asked to try them again this winter. With the soccer debacle fresh in my mind, I was reluctant to enroll him in another organized activity: would this just be another $50 down the drain?

But on the first day of lessons, I knew that swimming was a better match for my boy, for now. He waved to me as I headed for the door to the waiting area and then paddled over to join his classmates, a purple pool noodle tucked under his arms. At the teacher’s request, Danny dipped his head under the water and came up for air, a wide smile on his face and droplets of water clinging to his eyelashes. His laughter let me know that he—and we—were in the right place.

Kristen Levithan is a freelance writer and mother of three. She can be found online at

Brain, Child (Spring 2013)

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Losing My Religion, Looking For Our Faith

Losing My Religion, Looking For Our Faith

By Kristen Levithan

levithanWhen my husband and I first started dating in college, the subject of religion came up all the time. We stayed up late, chatting in his dorm room over Wawa subs and barbecue potato chips about how he—a Conservative Jew, the son of a rabbi—and I—a lapsed Catholic—could ever get married. How could we pull off a wedding? And what would we do about the kids?—children then as theoretical to us as our upcoming art history exam was real. How would they answer the question, “What are you?”

For a while, I thought the only choice was a binary one: as a couple, we would have to pick a side. So for the next few years I learned more about Judaism. I memorized the rituals of Shabbat, the motzi over the challah, and the choral songs his family would sing during the Seder, fists pounding on the dining room table in time to the music. I agreed to keep a kosher kitchen. But the more I considered conversion, the more I realized it wasn’t the right answer for me or for us. I didn’t really feel like a Catholic anymore, but I didn’t feel Jewish either.

In time our reservations about an interfaith marriage gave way to the force of our years together and our youthful optimism that we could make it work. After considering ways to make our wedding ceremony reflect both of our traditions, we decided to dedicate our celebration to one religion we had in common: our love of words. We stood before our family and friends and shared original vows and selections from poetry and literature. There was no priest, rabbi, or cantor, but there were Jane Austen, Matthew Arnold, and Sappho and promises to love and nurture each other come what may.

As well as our wedding went, the idea of starting a family dredged up those dorm room conversations. When I became pregnant and my belly started to swell with the promise of our oldest son, we sketched out an approach: our child would be neither Jewish nor Christian from birth. There would be no bris and no baptism. But we would make it our duty to expose our kids to the rituals of both of our traditions. We would celebrate holidays with our families and teach our kids the stories that are central to each. And, above all, we would do our best to create a home for them in which the religious values that we cherished—love, community, wonder—would be honored. And then, eventually, if and when they wanted to, they could choose a path for themselves.

For the first few years of our kids’ lives, our plan hummed right along. Living in a rural Ohio town hundreds of miles away from our families, we often traveled to be with them on holidays and those occasions reinforced the values we’d hoped they would. Our boys, especially our oldest son, seemed to know that they were different somehow from the other kids at their Nazarene preschool, but I’m not sure that their religious differences ever felt all that much more weighty than the other differences that feel important to a preschooler, like favorite baseball team or favorite Avenger.

Earlier this year we moved to a New England community that is much more religiously diverse than the Ohio one we left. Instead of a Nazarene preschool, our youngest two go to a Jewish one and our oldest to a public school where his own religious hodgepodge—an atheist dad, an agnostic mom, a kosher home—seems the norm rather than the exception. In many ways, we are perfectly placed to raise our kids to come to their own answers to the question, “What are you?”

Last month, though, something happened that shook my certainty that we have got this interfaith thing all figured out. Someone dear to us—really more family than friend—died. He was the first person that my kids knew well who had passed away and it’s clear that his death shook them. Since then our four year old has been asking many of the Big Questions: “Am I going to die?” “How old will I be when you die?” “After I die, will I get better again?” Our oldest has responded with occasional tears mixed with long, lingering hugs, as though he doesn’t have the words to express how he’s feeling, but wants physical reassurance that’s he still here—that it will all be okay.

And therein lies my worry about raising our children outside of either of our religious traditions: without faith, how will they know that it will, indeed, all be okay?

I don’t think of myself as a religious person anymore; I’m not even sure I still believe in God. But I do have a sense of inner security honed, I think, through an early commitment to religious practice. I grew up with a traditional religious education: I went to Catholic school for nine years and went to church every Sunday until college, loving the rituals and the singing, the candles and the community. I was never sold on the dogma—on transubstantiation, the ascension, the Holy Trinity—but I believed in a benevolent God and I prayed to Him every night before bed. I asked Him to protect me, to look after my family. And—it seemed—he did.

Now I’m raising my kids in a world filled with entropy—where good men die too young, where people hurt children and kids say mean things on the playground—and I’m doing it without offering them the same blanket of safety that my faith gave me. I’m giving my children a pick-and-choose experience of religion, but by letting them pick what they like and ignoring the rest, will they ever experience the greatest gift that religion gave me: the faith that, to paraphrase Julian of Norwich, all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well? Without religious practice, how can I make my children feel safe?

I’m not sure that I know the answer, but I suspect the best I can do is to borrow a page from our wedding planning playbook: start with love and go from there.

Kristen Levithan writes about motherhood, women’s history, and mother-writers for print and online publications. Currently at work on a non-fiction book about writers who were also mothers, Kristen lives in New England with her husband and three children and offers cultural commentary and musings on modern motherhood at her blog, Motherese.

Read Kristen’s essay in This is Childhood, a book and journal on the first ten years of motherhood.

Book Review: Get Smart?

Book Review: Get Smart?

By Kristen Levithan

0-6Enjoy Brain, Mother’s monthly book review. Comment and/or sign up for our weekly blog update and you could win a free copy of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.

In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley shines a spotlight on three countries that successfully teach higher-order critical thinking skills to almost all of their children. Using American exchange students as her field agents, she explores how these countries have done it and questions why we haven’t managed to do the same. Ripley, a journalist known for hard-hitting education writing (like her 2008 Time profile of former DC Education Chancellor Michelle Rhee and this month’s Atlantic cover story, “The Case Against High-School Sports“), is a compelling storyteller who deftly plaits humorous anecdotes and hard data to whip you in the face with her findings. She introduces us to Kim, a sharp, sensitive Oklahoman, who travels to Finland to expand her horizons beyond that of her sports-loving, underperforming public high school; Eric, an affable Minnesotan, who spends a post-graduate year in South Korea; and Tom, a bibliophile from Pennsylvania, who sets off for Poland with visions of Chopin dancing in his head.

From Ripley’s account, it’s hard not to be impressed by the education system in Finland, one that she describes as a model of “balance and humanity” in which the “best and brightest of each generation” make their ways into highly selective teaching colleges and are then rigorously trained and mentored by outstanding master teachers. It’s also difficult not to scratch one’s head at the oddly bifurcated Korean model, in which students spend their days dozing through classes at conventional high schools and their nights cramming at private, for-profit hagwons, ostensibly learning what they were supposed to have learned during the school day. Poland, meanwhile, has enjoyed an upward trajectory of achievement, thanks to 15 year old reforms based on accountability, autonomy at the school level, and early remediation for both students and teachers.

Whatever their methods—and, again, it’s pretty clear that Finland is the country Ripley wants us to be when we grow up—all of these “education superpowers” share a few things in common: highly qualified teachers; parents who act as authoritative “coaches” rather than enabling “cheerleaders”; and, perhaps most of all, a universal agreement that one must succeed in school in order to succeed in the world. By holding these countries up as exemplars, Ripley exposes an American home-school “moon bounce” culture focused more on sports and self-esteem than self-control, endurance, and resilience. According to Ripley, if the U.S. seeks to prepare our students for the global economy, our kids need to take school more seriously and so do we: “To give our kids the kind of education they deserved, we had to first agree that rigor mattered most of all; that school existed to help kids learn to think, to work hard, and yes, to fail. That was the core consensus that made everything else possible.”

So can the U.S. ever attain Helsinkian heights? Well, the new Common Core State Standards that so many of us have seen rolled out in our kids’ schools this fall are aligned with international benchmarks that give precedence to the higher-order thinking skills that the “smart” countries excel at. And perhaps recent economic turbulence will inspire us, just as it did Finland, South Korea, and Poland, to improve education in order to make our people into our most important resource.

Look out Finland; here we come?

Kristen Levithan writes about motherhood, women’s history, and mother-writers for print and online publications. Currently at work on a non-fiction book about writers who were also mothers, Kristen lives in New England with her husband and three children and offers cultural commentary and musings on modern motherhood at her blog, Motherese.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.