20 Favorite Quotes From Brain, Child Writers

20 Favorite Quotes From Brain, Child Writers


Never Wish Happiness for Your Children

By Adrienne Jones

“The trouble with that kind of thinking is, a child is a person, not a soufflé, and ultimately we come to the place where we can’t control everything. Or anything. Our children are themselves.”



Brave Enough

By Jennifer Palmer

She was mine, this sweet baby girl, but she belonged to others, too.



Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 10.24.21 AM
By Robin Schoenthaler

Then along came adolescence, and my side-by-side parenting began to wane. I noticed it first at the mall, trailing behind the kids like a geisha. And every day it happens more: I find myself hanging back or stepping backwards, turning to move behind them, letting them go forward, out in front. I’m becoming a parent who pivots, scrambling to get out of the way.


The Richest Person in the World

By Adrienne Jones

Well, maybe he’s the second richest person in the world and I’m the richest, because I get to be his mom.




Open and Closed

By Catherine Newman

When they’re little, and you’re scraping them off of your leg at a party so you can refill your wine glass and metabolically transform four or five pounds of cheese into the milk that’s soaking through the front of your dress, you can’t wait for the kids to become separate from you. Thanks to your mind, as open as a flower-dotted meadow, you know that you will rise to any occasion of individuality.


Because I Will Always Do It Again

By Jon Sponaas

“Though I can’t, in a general way, believe much of anything, I especially couldn’t believe that you were IN your mom’s tummy, floating around in that complicated liquid…”



The Days Are Long/The Years Are Short

By Lauren Apfel and Lisa Heffernan

With my nest soon completely empty, I face the day that has loomed before me from the moment I became a mother. I am facing three distinct losses, that of their childhood selves, of my identity as their mother and, most painfully, of the daily intimacy that was our life together.


Baby Weight

By Cheryl Strayed

There aren’t words to adequately describe the love I felt for my son. It was, by far, the most shocking thing that has ever happened to me. To love this way. To become, in an instant, a baby person.



This is Adolescence: 16

By Marcelle Soviero

Sixteen is full of paper thin promise, delicate due to the decisions I can’t make for her anymore, decisions that will determine what happens next.



How to Smoke Salmon

By Ann Hood

The sadness that comes from your first child leaving home is, of course, not the saddest thing of all. But the ache, the sense that something is missing, the way you keep looking up, expecting him to burst through the door in his size 13 shoes, it is real.


On Shame and Parenting

By Adrienne Jones

I did for them everything I believed a good mother would do for her children and clenched my teeth and prayed it was enough, or right, or that at the very least they would be OK in spite of the depth of my brokenness.



I’m Not Sorry for Yelling

By Jennifer Berney

Now that I’m a parent, I want my kids to know anger as a normal part of daily life.



Family Motto: More Love is More Love

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

While it’s really hard to explain adoption to a five-year-old—and at times, I fear what the conversations will be with a ten- or fifteen-year-old—the notion that guides me is this: more love is more love.



She loves Me She Loves Me Not

By Karen Dempsey

Liddy would cup my cheeks and pull my face to hers as if she were breathing me in. “Oh, my mommy,” she’d whisper. “I love that you be my mommy.”




Loving Kip

By Jamie Johnson

It’s because Kip isn’t a face, or a name, or a gender. Kip is a person. And it’s Kip, not the “he” or “she” that I love to death. His soul is still the same.



love-you-the-same1 I Love you The Same But Different
By Rachel Pieh Jones

I love all my children the same. But I don’t love all my children the same. I love them all the same amount. Endlessly, to the moon and back, from Djibouti to Minnesota and back, forever and no matter what. But I don’t love them all in the same way. I don’t know why this realization surprised me. I mean, of course I don’t love them all in the same way. They are unique individuals and I have a unique, individual relationship with each one.


Bury My Son Before I Die

By Joanne De Simone

It goes against everything we believe about motherhood, but I’d rather bury my child than leave him behind.



Armageddon Mama
By Tracy Mayor

Beyond that, in the spirit of planning for the worst while hoping for the best, I guess the most moral thing I can do right now as a parent is to raise my kids to be in some way part of a solution. Not just recyclers or composters or occasional car-campers, but innovators, problem-solvers, team players, good citizens of the world. Non-assholes.


MAMA: Mothers Against More Activities

By Francie Arenson Dickman

I’m not sure when doing nothing after school fell out of favor. As a kid, I was a pro at nothing. We all were.



Till Death Did They Part
By Molly Krause

When my dad came back after two decades of divorce, I wondered if my mom had somehow been waiting for him.



Tracy Mayor Brain, Child 2015 Writer Hall of Fame Winner

Tracy Mayor Brain, Child 2015 Writer Hall of Fame Winner

Tracy_Mayor_54_BWWe are so happy to announce that long time Brain, Child contributor Tracy Mayor is the winner of our 2015 Writer Hall of Fame award.  -Marcelle & Randi

By Aline Weiller

Meet Tracy Mayor—Brain, Child Magazine’s 2015 Writer Hall of Fame Winner. Tracy has contributed essays, humor, and feature articles to Brain, Child for 15 years. In fact, her piece, “When Moms Go Bawd,” which chronicled her inability to stop swearing in front of her kids (especially in Massachusetts traffic), was published in Brain, Child’s inaugural issue in 2000. In her writing, and in real life, this Boston-based mother writer tells it like it is, with humor, finesse and flair.

Tracy’s writing career began with her two boys’ childhoods, 15-plus years back, and continues today. But making room for her writing has always been challenge. At first, the all-consuming caring for young children was the culprit and now, Tracy’s writing competes with a full-time job as a writer/editor, an aging dog, and the continued parenting of a teen and young adult.

“I struggled to find time to write (and read, and exercise, and watch TV with a pint of ice cream in my lap). The bottom line is there are always going to be other demands on your time, very compelling demands; no matter how old your kids are, you still have to make time for what you want to do—and then do it.” Sage advice from an accomplished author, journalist and award-winning essayist (Tracy won an esteemed Pushcart Prize for her Brain, Child essay “Losing My Religion.”)

Talking with her recently, Tracy said, “her favorite Brain, Child piece ever” was “Armageddon Mama: Parenting Toward the Apocalypse,” which was published in March, 2013. It begins with a tale of powerless, post-storm living with a husband, dog, tween and teen then segues into the full-on anxiety-laden parenting in the ’00s, driven by wars, epidemics, recessions and terrorism.

In addition to her work for Brain, Child, Tracy has penned Mommy Prayers (Hyperion, 2010), a humorous manual for new mothers. Tracy’s work has also appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Child, Self, The New York Times’ Motherlode blog, Rumpus and Salon.

When asked to give advice to new mom writers, Tracy is frank. “Don’t wait ‘until’ something happens—until your baby sleeps through the night, until he’s potty trained or she’s walking; until they’re in pre-school or elementary school or away at camp or driving or off at college.”

Tracy also suggests mastering what she termed “the art of the micro-nap”—where she slept for 10 minutes on her babies’ bedroom floors (without a rug, pillow or blanket), only to catch a second wind, crawl out to her home office, and have “40 or 50 glorious minutes to write!”

“I literally wept when my younger son gave up his afternoon nap. I felt like a piece of my identity had died. One way or another, you can find those little moments,” said Tracy.

She continues to publish in Brain, Child Magazine, to the delight of its subscribers—and worldwide audience alike. Look for her next piece titled, “The Gap Year” out now, in our annual special issue for parents of teens.

When reflecting on her body of work and 15-year relationship with Brain, Child, Tracy fondly cites the unmatched support.

“The editors and the readers have your back. At Brian, Child it’s not about clicks or ads or tweets or any kind of metric; it’s about writing essays and humor and reported stories that connect us as parents and make us feel less alone. I don’t know if Brain, Child made me a better writer or editor so much as it made me a better parent,” said Tracy.

Tracy now holds a full-time job as the Features Editor at Computerworld.com, where she tweets tech topics @CW_Tracy and lifestyle, culture and parenting thoughts and views at @mommyprayers.

Join us in our salute Tracy at Brain, Child’s 15th Anniversary Party on May 21, 2015 in Wilton, Connecticut.

Read more of Tracy’s Work:

Single Mom Stigma: Alive and Kicking

Revising Ophelia

The Gap Year

The Gap Year

BT 15 Gap Year ArtSam Rich has all good things to say about the ten months he spent living and studying in Patagonia—even about the time he was chased by a pack of Chilean street dogs.

Sponsored by Rotary International, which places some 8,000 students in similar situations worldwide every year, Rich, now 20, took a year off after he graduated high school, deferring his acceptance at a competitive Massachusetts university.

“My junior year in high school, I began to feel like I was being forced into this system—graduate high school, go to college, get a job,” Rich recalls. “And I was thinking, ‘When am I going to get to travel and get outside of this bubble they call the United States?'”

He got his wish, living with a family and attending school in a remote region of Patagonia, which is where he met up with the dog pack during a pre-dawn run, as one and then another stray joined in, nipping at his heels as he was trying to make his way over unfamiliar streets.

Rich not only survived the encounter, he went on to write an essay about it, which he used midyear to apply from abroad to a fresh round of colleges. Whether the essay, or his gap year in general, helped get him into Tulane University, where he’s now a sophomore, Rich can’t say. But he feels certain his experience changed him in fundamental ways.

“Before my gap year, I would not have applied to a school so far away from home,” says Rich, who grew up near Boston. “It’s easier now for me to connect with people. Before, I really stuck to what I thought was ‘my group.’ Now I’ll talk to anyone.”

That kind of maturity and perspective is exactly what’s sought by an increasing number of U.S. high school graduates—supported by their sometimes more-reluctant parents—who choose to take time off before or during college. Nobody keeps definitive numbers, but colleges, universities, high school guidance counselors, and college admissions reps all report anecdotally that interest in gap years among American students is sharply on the rise.

Choices abound and are growing more plentiful every day, from private organizations that plan every moment of your child’s experience (and charge you for it accordingly), through middle-tier options that place young adults in home-stay or au pair situations abroad, to U.S.-based service organizations like AmeriCorps that pay participants a small stipend and try to find them affordable housing options during a year of service. Some young adults go completely independent and fashion a do-it-yourself gap that may include work, an internship, an apprenticeship, service, travel, or all of the above.

Whatever route a gapper chooses, there are challenges. Gap year programs can be expensive, straining the bank accounts of parents who had counted on four, not five, years of young adult dependency. Students who apply or reapply to college during their gap year find that tracking deadlines and filling out the Common App, FAFSA, and other required documents can be more difficult from an Internet café with spotty service thousands of miles from home. All gap students must reapply for financial aid, and not all colleges and universities will offer deferring students the same merit aid package from year to year. Some don’t allow gappers to defer at all; they must reapply for the following academic year.

Navigating those hurdles is simply part of what makes a gap year so valuable for students, proponents say.

“We love the notion of students taking control of their lives and navigating adult-like situations,” says Charles Nolan, vice president and dean of admission at the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., a small, elite college that competes with MIT, Harvard, and Stanford for students. “We believe that any student who takes a year off to do something different, rather than just follow the pack, comes to college with a different perspective on their education.”

Why Gap? Let Us Count The Ways

The American Gap Association (yes, there is such a thing—it’s an accreditation, standards-setting, and advocacy organization) defines a gap year this way:

“A gap year is a structured period of time when students take a break from formal education to increase self-awareness, challenge comfort zones, and experiment with possible careers. Typically these are achieved by a combination of traveling, volunteering, interning, or working. A gap year experience can last from two months up to two years and is taken between high school graduation and the junior year of their higher degree.”

Others are less exacting in their definitions. No less august an institution than Harvard College, which maintains a web page extolling the virtues of a gap year, defines it more loosely as “one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way.”

Either way, proponents from Harvard on down say students who take a year off from their studies are more mature, better focused, more curious, better community members with a more refined idea of what they’d like to study and how they plan to contribute to the world.

Olin College has an unusually proactive attitude towards gap years. The school guarantees that any student put on its wait list will eventually gain admission—though that often means waiting a year. A surprising number of students take Olin up on the offer every acceptance cycle, even though the school offers no guidance as to what students should do with their unexpected time off.

“Part of the creative process is letting them figure out what they want to do,” says Nolan, who says students in the most recent incoming class used their gap year to work in Korea, travel with an aid group, write a rough draft of a novel, work in TV production, and mentor girls in STEM education, among other pursuits.

Whatever their choice, students come to campus “a year older, a year wiser and ready to work,” Nolan says. “Age 18, 19 and 20 is a critical developmental time for young adults. That year can make a world of difference in how students approach their studies.”

There is a small but growing body of research that backs up Nolan’s perceptions, according to Ethan Knight, founder and executive director of the American Gap Association.

A gapper himself (Knight took time between his freshman and sophomore years of college to travel in India, Nepal, and Tibet) who later worked as a gap year consultant, Knight started the AGA in part to collaborate on gap year research and serve as a resource for university admissions personnel and educational counselors.

On its website, the AGA quotes studies that show:

  • * A majority of students report a gap year had an impact on their course of studies (either confirming their initial interest or setting them on a new course)
  • * Students return to school with higher levels of motivation, which translate into a measurable boost in performance during their first semesters at college, and
  • * Later on in life, students who had taken a gap year overwhelmingly report being satisfied with their jobs.

The AGA itself collaborated on a study with Bob Clagett, the former head of admissions at Middlebury College, that found that students who took a gap year performed better during their first year of college than they were expected to do without the time off. Clagett developed a methodology to track gap students’ actual GPA performance against an academic rating that looks at everything from high school grades, national test scores, and teacher recommendations to the intensity of an applicant’s essay to predict how they would perform if they’d entered college directly from high school. In almost all instances, Clagett found gappers outperformed their predicted rating. Even better, that boost lasted for all four years of college.

The AGA’s Knight firmly believes gap year students excel in college because they’ve had time to think about their priorities, a precious commodity in modern American life. “We spend a majority of our lives chasing a definition of success without taking time to figure out ‘What’s my individual definition of success?'” says Knight. “A gap year lets you explore your definition of success. If you have a particular passion for music or engineering, you want to work or get an internship or explore a possible career, this is that moment.”

Students exploring the possibility of a gap year approach it from many different vantage points. Within the industry, Knight says, counselors, gap year program directors, admissions directors, and others connected to the industry informally categorized students into five general groups:

“Meaning seekers” typically have high SAT scores, decent or midrange GPAs, and are looking for context for the learning they’ve been exposed to. Knight says a majority of gap year students fits into this first category.

“Overachievers” not surprisingly, have high SATs, high GPAs, and have been gunning for the Ivy Leagues or similarly competitive schools for much of their educational lives. Typically, these students are burned-out from their high-pressure high school experience and are looking for a break before beginning an equally rigorous secondary education.

If he were the kind of guy to categorize himself, Kenzie might say he’s a meaning seeker/pragmatist with a bit of overachieving disengagedness thrown in for good measure.

“Pragmatists” are very much aware of how much college costs and typically don’t want to commit to four years of tuition without a better sense of their higher education goals. These students often use a gap year to intern, apprentice, or work at an entry-level job as an entry point to potential career decisions that will be made in college.

“Strugglers” are students who might not have found academic success in high school, sometimes due to a learning disability or learning difference. A gap year can give such students a needed boost in perspective, self-awareness, and self-confidence as they participate in non-traditional learning activities and are able to experience success, often for the first time.

Finally, “The disengaged,” a small sliver of gappers, are typically students who feel no burning desire to continue on immediately to college. This sub-group uses a gap year to refine their focus and—their parents hope, anyway—gain some fire-in-the-belly for their next moves in life.

What Colleges Think of Gap Years

A study conducted by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, co-authors of 2009’s The Complete Guide to the Gap Year: The Best Things to Do Between High School and College, found that the top two reasons cited by high school students taking a gap year were a desire to find out more about themselves (“meaning seekers”) and burnout from the competitive pressures of high school (“overachievers”).

It’s not a coincidence that some of the most gap-friendly universities in the United States—including Princeton, Tufts, Elon, and the University of North Carolina—are among the most elite. After all, they have the highest rate of accepting overachievers who are burned out by the process of getting into college in the first place.

In a heartfelt essay on its gap year web page, Harvard College laments the cradle-to-college obsession of getting into the right college, which it says can produce “some students [who] are clearly distressed, engaging in binge drinking and other self-destructive behaviors. It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the ‘prizes,’ stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it.”

If he were the kind of guy to categorize himself, Kenzie Schoenthaler might say he’s a meaning seeker/pragmatist with a bit of overachieving disengagedness thrown in for good measure. All he knows is that, midway through his junior year at a large, well-ranked public high school in Massachusetts, he just wasn’t feeling the love as his fellow students threw themselves into the college-search process.

“Near the end of sophomore year, I was getting a tiny bit burned out, and it crossed my mind that the possibility existed that I might not have to go straight to college,” Schoenthaler recalls. “Once junior year hit, and I didn’t know which college I wanted to go to, I just found myself thinking, ‘This is the only time I’m going to be able to bike across the United States. Now when I’m eighteen or later when I’m sixty-five.'”

None of this was lost on his mom, Robin Schoenthaler, who had long been concerned about how boys in general, and her two sons in particular, were faring in a school system being pushed, on both state and national levels, to emphasize testing, more testing, and a general interest in having children color within the lines. “From about third or fourth grade on, I was very distressed at what I consider the schools’ absolutely relentless demand on boys,” she relates. “Neurological science is conclusive that many of these demands are not developmentally appropriate.”

What’s more, Schoenthaler was a gapper herself who took several years before she found her way onto a college track that eventually lead to an M.D. And then she had the honor of serving for many years on the admissions committee for the Harvard Medical School. “Harvard had a completely generous deferment policy for people who wanted to take a gap year after acceptance,” Schoenthaler says. “Their reasoning was, everybody wins. Either a student comes back a year later more mature, dedicated and ready to work. Or they don’t, and that’s great, too, be- cause medical school isn’t for everyone.”

So when she saw her son Kenzie’s growing disinterest in the college-application process, she floated the idea of a gap year, which he eagerly took up. By his estimation, he couldn’t be happier with his do-it-yourself plan. He has a part-time job at the afterschool program he’d attended as a child, which he loves; and another part-time job at a national grocery chain that’s teaching him about second shifts, corporate values, and punching the clock alongside people of all ages and ethnicities. He earned an EMT certification this past spring and is planning on earning a second Wilderness EMT certification after taking a class this spring in San Francisco—to which he plans to bike 3,000 miles across the United States.

Like many gap parents, Dr. Schoenthaler was worried about whether the school at which Kenzie was accepted, Lesley University, would let him defer, whether his merit aid would transfer from year to year, and what his reentry into academic life would be like after a year out of the trenches.

As it turns out, American colleges and universities are all over the map in terms of awareness of, and support for, gap years, according to AGA’s Knight. “Tier 1 and Tier 2 schools tend to be extremely excited about gap years; some allow you to put right on your application that you’re taking a gap year,” Knight says.

Tufts University made news last March by going one step further—the school announced a program, to debut in fall of 2015, that helps some would-be gap year students pay for airfare, lodging, and other costs, provided they are enrolled in a structured full-year program of national or international service. Princeton and the University of North Carolina offer similar programs.

But they’re among the minority—for now anyway, says Knight. “Tier 3 schools, the larger schools, the state schools…lots of times they don’t have the staffing to accommodate some- thing different, so you wind up having to reapply.”

Lesley University didn’t offer any information on gap years or deferrals on its website or in its admissions materials, which meant Schoenthaler, with a little coaching from his mom, had to take matters into his own hands. After a face-to-face meeting with the admissions office, some paperwork, and a few phone calls, Kenzie’s deferral was approved and his merit money earmarked for next year. “It was a maximum of three days of work, and I gained 365 days,” he says. “So overall on a time- benefit scale, that ratio seems pretty good to me.”

Parents Worry

Deferrals aren’t the only thing that keeps parents up at night. No. 1 among parental concerns, admissions officers and gap year experts concede, is the worry that their child will never go to or return to college.

While statistics show that’s only rarely the case—research by authors Haigler and Rae found that 90 percent of gap year students return to college within a year—that doesn’t keep parents from worrying.

“Just coming back to the United States after seeing how needy other parts of the world are and then joining the typical American college experience, it’s a lot to absorb at once.”

After hearing tales of local gap kids who wound up working in entry-level retail jobs rather than heading to college, Dr. Schoenthaler told her son emphatically that his plan was to last for one year and one year only. “I’ve made it 100% clear that he’s going to school in September. Getting that degree is the end goal.”

Kenzie says he’s received that message, loud and clear. “This is a pretty awesome life—I’m fairly independent, making money—but people warned me not to let it get too awesome or I’ll wind up just staying home and living in my mom’s basement. A gap year is great, but you can’t let it become gap years.”

“Alexandra” is a Connecticut mother who asked that her name be changed to protect her family’s privacy during a time of delicate negotiations with her daughter, a high school senior graduating this June, who is lobbying to take a year off before college. That proposal that fills Alexandra with apprehension, especially coming at the end of what has been a long college-application process. “To me, a gap year means never going back to school,” she says, conceding that her concerns might stem from her own upbringing. “I was bred on the predictable, expected steps: high school, college, then you work your butt off in a field that you care about.”

She worries that a gap year signals a lack of motivation on her daughter’s part, and wonders if she has the maturity to organize a productive year off—a particular concern since her daughter has not—yet, anyway—articulated any clear plans. “What if she never winds up going to college? What if she lives at home for the next ten years? And, most important, how can we finance a five-year plan?”

(See “Who Gets To Gap?” for details on how some parents pay for that extra year.)

Parents tend to focus their worries on the “before” and “after” parts of the experience, but every now and again, the gap year itself goes seriously wrong. Promised internships or apprentice opportunities disappear or disappoint; the gapper goes adrift and never enrolls or returns to college; or, in the case of one young woman we’ll call “Aubrey,” an immersion year abroad starts out badly and gets worse.

Aubrey enrolled in a well-known and well-vetted study-abroad program with high hopes and eyes wide open. At the time, she was fine with not getting her first or second or even third choice of country; in retrospect, she now thinks some of her difficulties might be endemic to the culture of her host country, a former communist state.

Her first host family had a mother who was cold and monosyllabic and a father who, she came to realize, was an alcoholic. The second couple she was placed with was kind, but they had no children and knew no teenagers in town, and their largely unheated home was a 90-minute bus ride away from the school Aubrey was expected to attend every day. When she made it there, the schoolteachers, rather than engaging or encouraging her, flatly ignored her. When she asked her local program director to be placed with a family in town that had teenagers—and had already agreed to host her—she was told she was “lazy and complaining” and that she couldn’t move. Finally, overcome by loneliness and disappointment, Aubrey went AWOL—with her parents’ distant blessing—striking out for the airport without permission but with the help of other exchange students in the area who knew of and understood her predicament.

Back stateside, Aubrey’s mother was equal parts proud of her daughter for surviving in a negative situation for so long, heartbroken she hadn’t had a better experience, and frustrated that her stateside liaison for the international program seemed to have little sway over the situation on the ground overseas.

“The moral of this story is negative things can happen on these trips. My daughter wasn’t physically harmed, but she is heading home five months early with a lot of mending and healing in her immediate future,” Aubrey’s mother says. If she could tell other gap parents one thing, she says, it’s to be mindful that you and your child are at the mercy of an organization that may not always function as promised. “These systems are only as productive as the people in them.”

Welcome Back

Whether their landing is bumpy like Aubrey’s or smoother, at some point gap year students need to reintegrate themselves back into academic life, which can be a challenge. Kenzie and his mom both are mindful that his reentry may be ticklish.

“You’ve matured a year, you’re a year more experienced, and you may have had some very out-of-the-box experiences,” Dr. Schoenthaler says. “Kenzie hangs out with firemen; one of his co-workers used to be a Hell’s Angel. He’s having non-college, non-middle-class experiences, so he may feel some lack of identifying with some of the other students” when he enrolls in college next fall.

Erin Jensen, a domestic and international admissions counselor at PSU in Portland, OR, has become something of a specialist in gap year transitions. PSU awards college credit to students who participate in certain programs offered by Carpe Diem, a Portland-based travel-abroad program; upon completion of their gap year program, students then transfer those PSU credits to whatever college they plan to attend.

In helping students ensure that their credits transfer properly, Jensen discovered that gappers transitioning to college faced other hurdles as well. In her experience, it’s not common for gap year students, particularly those who have been on yearlong international experiences, to develop a kind of “reverse culture shock,” she says, with their maturity level and global outlook out of sync with incoming freshmen arriving straight from high school. “Just coming back to the United States after seeing how needy other parts of the world are and then joining the typical American college experience, it’s a lot to absorb at once,” she says.

While some schools, including PSU, allow gap year students to apply for sophomore housing, most don’t do any more to help ease re-entry into an academic setting. Jensen has heard that Whitman College hosts a luncheon for gap year students at the beginning of the year to allow them to bond and share experiences. If more schools did that—or offered gappers the opportunity of rooming with other students returning from travel—that could ease the transition, Jensen suggests.

For his part, Sam Rich says he did feel ahead of his peers when he arrived on campus as a college freshman. “I definitely felt like the dad at first. Everyone seemed overly excited and a little immature, and here I was coming from living in a foreign country for a year.” By intention, he chose a roommate who had spent a few months in Bolivia, “just because he’d had experience in a different culture.” As the term progressed and the freshmen settled down, Rich says, his feeling of differentness gradually faded.

And then there’s Aubrey, home early and dealing with a double set of re-entry issues. Not only must she reintegrate into academic life come fall, she first must figure out how best to fill five unexpected months.

When we spoke by telephone, she had to hang up early because she was due at a job interview for an office assistant position and was feeling hopeful something would materialize. As for the public university she’s accepted at in the fall, likewise she feels optimistic things will work out okay.

Which leaves her only with the challenge of processing her feelings about her truncated year abroad.

When asked how she was feeling so soon after returning home, Aubrey paused for a moment and then said the message she’d sent to friends as she was leaving her host country still best summed up her emotions: “Sometimes in life we must expect the unexpected. Though my exchange did not work out as I hoped it would, I continue to have no regrets. Living [abroad] for the past five months has taught me about myself, the world, how to deal with others and how to accept the fact that sometimes situations are simply not fair.”

Hard-learned lessons, to be sure, but ones that will likely last a lifetime—which, gap year proponents would say, is really the goal in the end.

Tracy Mayor is a long-time Brain,Child contributor. Her essays and longform journalism have also appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Writer’s Digest, Boston Magazine, Child, Self, and online on Salon, The Rumpus and the New York TimesMotherlode blog. She is the author of the parenting humor book Mommy Prayers (Hyperion, 2010) and the recipient of a Pushcart Prize.

Illustration by Rick Brown

Homeschool U

Homeschool U

unnamed-5Hey Moms and Dads! Overwhelmed by the amount of glossy materials your high schoolers are receiving daily, begging them to apply to schools they can’t get into and you can’t afford? Pulling your hair out over FAFSA forms more complicated than the Mars Rover assembly instructions?

There’s an easier way: Homeschool U.

In a single weekend, using tools you have in your basement and bull-slinging skills you honed during your own days as a liberal arts undergrad, you can transform your student’s humble childhood home into an institute of higher learning, and upgrade your status from hapless, penniless parent to Assistant Dean of Student Life.

Don’t wait—get “early action” on the domestic renovation that can save you $55,000 a year, minus the upfront investment in a freestanding keg cooler.

Kitchen = “Dining Services”

Install a swipe-card reader, and you’re ready to start staging the same delicious, nutritious, culturally authentic dining experience touted by the top colleges for a fraction of the board bill. Their food is “just like home-cooked,” yours actually is home-cooked. They tout sustainability; you serve the most sustainable meal on the planet—leftovers. Their freshmen pack on 15 lbs., your kitchen comes complete with a Nutrition Coach unafraid to point out the rising muffin top or burgeoning “one pack” on the student body.

Family room = Student Union

Here beats the social heart of Homeschool U, the place where students can kick back, stream Family Guy and scarf Bacon Ranch Pringles while Skyping with their dorm-bound buddies—just like real college. For added authenticity, set up a card table stacked with pamphlets urging Homeschool U students to take back the night, confront their gender-normative prejudices or up their carbon awareness. And unlike real campus unions, you’re free to serve beer—at the for-profit price of $3 per Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Living room = “Library”

Academics don’t take a back seat at Homeschool U—they take the couch. Here, in the living room-turned-library, students are free to study the majors you and your partner pursued in decades past, using the same classic texts (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Women’s Room, and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, the latter in paperback with its cover ripped off for added authenticity). Engage the restless mind of your Homeschool U student with 24-hour access to Google, YouTube and MythBusters reruns on cable; upperclassmen wishing to pursue a more aggressive course of study should be encouraged to friend Drew Gilpin Faust on Facebook or follow Nate Silver on Twitter.

Basement = “Laundry services”

A web cam and debit-card reader are all you need to transform your washer-dryer from cost center to revenue generator. No more hauling baskets of stinky workout wear or Victoria’s Secret hand-washables to the musty depths; simply Tweet “#wshr1nowfree” to your student anytime after 4 on a Sunday afternoon to get your for-profit laundry business rolling. When students get desperate, Just Like Mom’s wash-dry-fold service correctly sorts their clean wardrobe to the proper dresser drawer, just like in the old days, for $15 a basket (cash only, in advance).

Mom = “Resident Assistant”

Before, you were the cook, the carpooler, the signer of permission slips, funder of shopping excursions, supplier of soccer snacks—in short, the mom, lowliest of the socially acceptable, bottom of the fashion food chain, recipient of eyerolls uncountable. Now you’re the Resident Assistant, the knowledgeable “big sister” on campus with the self-confidently retro wardrobe and the frank talk about HPV vaccines, incipient eating disorders, and why hooking up with that loafers-no-socks risk management major is a bad idea.

Dad = “Director, Career Services”

As the father of the household, your pleas to cover up a little more, come home a little earlier and think a little more carefully about that Francophone Studies major fell on deaf ears. As Director of Career Services, you wield a bit more power—namely, a LinkedIn profile chockablock with contacts for unpaid internships and a resume replete with past favors ready to call in for that first job post-graduation. If that doesn’t hold your scholars’ attention, they might dedicate themselves to Homeschool U’s motto—Lux, Veritas, Virtus, Verizon, or Light, Truth, Courage, and unlimited texting on the family plan—to graduation and beyond.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Birth Control’s Invisible Mommy Majority

Birth Control’s Invisible Mommy Majority

gty_birth_Control_pills_thg_120306_wmainI went to the doctor—a new doctor, actually, since we’d changed insurance and had to switch physicians. As checkups go, it was a bit uncomfortable. Unlike my old practice, where they take action only if, say, you drop a body part in the waiting room, this new gal was on her game.

First, she busted me on my three-glass-a-night Chardonnay habit. Then she followed up with a series of passive-aggressive questions about my general health. (Sample: “As your physician, I’m happy with your body mass index. How do you feel about your weight?”) Then we got to the female stuff. She flipped through the pages of the file sent over by my old doctor. Two births, two miscarriages, a few stubborn ovarian cysts, and a fifteen-year merry-go-round of vaginal infections. A thrilling read, I’m sure.

I still had just the one sexual partner? Her pen paused over the file. Uh, yeah, that would be my lawfully wedded husband of about two million years. And were we still sexually active? Yes, I said, resisting the urge to add, define “active.” And we were still using—she double-checked the file—the diaphragm? She smiled up at me so brightly I felt sure she was about to burst out laughing.

Yes. Okay. I’m forty-four years old and I still use a diaphragm. Feel free to lean over with that Sharpie and draw a big L for Loser right on my forehead.

What do you think of when you imagine diaphragm sex? Hot, spontaneous quickies in the middle of the day on top of the new HE washer? Parking the kids at Grammy’s and booking a dirty weekend away, the kind where you don’t even care what city you’re in because you’re not planning on ever leaving the hotel room?

It’s entirely possible to do those things using the diaphragm as your method of birth control. Possible, but not probable. No, the venerable diaphragm, that cheery latex dome with its alarmingly over-springy coil, its demure petal-pink clamshell housing, its absurd beige “flesh” color (I defy even the most militant feminists among us to tell me the color of the inside of their vaginas. It’s dark in there, people!) … no, the diaphragm conjures up visions of exhausted missionary-style coupling in the dark on a random Wednesday night with one ear cocked anxiously for the patter of little feet. That’s diaphragm sex. Or that’s its reputation, anyway.

*   *   *

Lying awake after just such a marital encounter (one of us had allergies acting up, the other was freaking about work and couldn’t relax), I started wondering about mothers and birth control. Was it my fault I was still using the same method I picked out when I walked into the Planned Parenthood clinic in Ithaca, New York, at the dawn of the ’80s? Or has there been a kind of eerie silence about the whole topic, a distinct lack of progress, a pall over the land even?

We’re a capitalist/consumerist society, I don’t deny it. So why isn’t Big Pharma kissing my butt? I’m a marketer’s dream: like many other mothers, I’m an educated purchaser with a steady income, the primary decision-maker for my household of four plus one domestic animal. I have sex regularly, I need reliable birth control that doesn’t trash my health—come at me, baby, show me the goods!

Companies are constantly trying to hawk mothers new personal care stuff they’ve invented or invested in: ten different kinds of diapers, a dozen varieties of toothpaste, countless new ways to tame the menstrual flow, stop various body odors, soften scales, whiten, brighten, and exfoliate. Pharmaceuticals have developed new medicines to treat depression, head off migraines, settle the stomach, soothe us to sleep and keep us there for the night, and, yes, help our men-folk get it up and keep it there.

Yet in twenty-odd years just once has somebody managed to pitch me better birth control—the beloved Sponge—only to rudely yank it off the market while I was distracted birthing my first baby. (It’s back, by the way, as of last fall, but too late to stem my crankiness.)

Is it the products—is there simply nothing new to offer, no better way to stop egg from meeting sperm? Is it me—am I somehow missing the marketing message? (Entirely possible: I’m a cynical consumer, a miserable shopper and a mule about what I do choose to buy.)

Or is it mothers—are we considered some kind of invisible, or perhaps untouchable, market? As women with children, mothers bring a unique perspective to bear on the topic of family planning. On the one hand, having seen that life comes out of us, we might feel less insistent than before that we be able to artificially start and stop the fertility process at will. On the other, knowing better than anyone how hard it is to birth, nurse, nurture, and raise a human being, we’re arguably the most motivated users of birth control.

Could it be that our saintly halo of motherhood obscures the fact that we’d like to be able do the nasty without repeating the baby part every time? This last bit would be particularly ironic, considering birth control was made legal—in this country anyway—thanks to tireless efforts of Margaret Sanger, who championed its use specifically as a way to help the mental, physical and emotional well-being of “sick, harassed, broken mothers.”

But once birth control broke out of its marriage bonds during the swinging ’60s and women’s-libbed ’70s, maybe mothers’ concerns got left on the dusty pharmaceutical shelf. Is birth control, like, say, fashion, now considered the province solely of the young, nubile, and childless? Drifting off at last to sleep, I thought it might be worthwhile to dig through the detritus of our consumer-centric culture to figure out what part, if any, moms play these days in family planning.

*   *   *

When asked about how women find out about and choose new methods of birth control, doctors, nurse practitioners, reproductive rights advocates and even pharmaceutical marketers tend piously to intone, “That’s a decision best made between a woman and her doctor.” Oh yes. The very phrase conjures up comforting visions of serious, quiet consultation between a mom and her health-care pro on just what the perfect contraception is for that precise moment in her reproductive life.

I have two problems with this scenario. First, women’s health care providers can be and often are influenced by the bombardment of literature, free samples, and logo-encrusted office tchotchkes (Post-It notes, light-up ballpoint pens and so on) promoting whichever birth control method the pharmaceuticals are currently?pushing, all of which?reduces significantly your?chances of having a frank discussion about older, lower-profile?(or maybe that should be “lower profit margin”) methods.

Second, I’m sure somewhere in this land there are new mothers who don’t arrive for that first four-or six-week post-partum office visit exhausted, lactating, overwhelmed, fighting depression, jiggling a possibly colicky infant in one arm while trying to keep a jealousy-enraged sibling from committing infanticide in the office. Those women, I’m sure, get the fully informed story on their myriad birth control options.

For the rest of us—and I speak here as someone who wept through her entire post-partum checkup, pre-occupied as I was with slow-to-heal stitches of a number so staggering it can’t be shared in polite society—that office visit might not be the most opportune moment to make decisions that are literally life-altering.

If you’re one of those moms who missed out on the full rundown, here, cribbed directly from vast, deep and authoritative resources of the Planned Parenthood web site, are your choices for birth control as of summer 2006: the Pill, the Ring (NuvaRing), the Patch (OrthoEvra), implants (Implanon), the Shot (Depo-Provera), POPs (Progestin-only birth control pills, sometimes called the mini-Pill), the hormone-releasing IUD (Mirena), the non-hormonal IUD (ParaGard), the diaphragm, the Cap (FemCap), the Shield (Lea’s Shield), the male

condom, the female condom, the Sponge, spermicides, fertility-awareness methods, male sterilization, female sterilization, emergency contraception (Plan B), continuous abstinence, continuous breast-feeding (Lactational Amenorrhea Method), outercourse, withdrawal.

That’s a lotta choices, there’s no argument there. What’s notable for mothers?

Well, first of all, hormones are still all the rage. Joining the venerable oral contraceptive (the Pill), which is by far and away the leading method of reversible birth control in the United States, are the Patch, which you change once a week, the Ring, which you change once a month, the Implant, which lasts for up to three years, and Mirena, a hormone-releasing IUD that can be kept in place for as long as five years—all new ways of delivering hormones into your system.

Are hormonal forms of birth control safe for mothers? Study after study after study says yes (as the editors of the activist women’s health tome Our Bodies, Ourselves point out, the birth control pill is the most intensely researched medication in history). But there is a “but.” New mothers who return to the Pill, or another combined-hormone method using estrogen, soon after giving birth will interrupt lactation, points out Leon Speroff, M.D. at Oregon Health & Sciences University in Portland, Oregon.

And estrogen, present in the Pill, the Patch, the Ring, the Implant, and the Depo-Provera shot crosses into a baby’s body via breast milk. Health activists like Judy Norsigian, co-author of Our Bodies, Ourselves, caution that we don’t yet know enough about what kind of changes it may or may not cause to the baby.

For those reasons—cessation in breast milk and an uncertainty over the long-term effects of estrogen on infants—breastfeeding mothers are generally counseled to choose estrogen-free birth control methods, says Susan Wysocki, president and CEO of the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health, based in Washington, D.C.

The second bit of news: The IUD is back from the dead. Increasingly, what those new moms are being advised to try, says Wysocki, is intrauterine contraception—either Mirena, which contains progestin or the hormone-free copper ParaGard.

For anyone—like me—who came of birth-control consciousness in the 1970s or 1980s, the idea of any IUD being sold in the United States is anathema. Because IUDs ran the risk of perforating the uterus or causing severe pelvic infection, they used to be offered to women who had already had one child, on the (offensive) premise that, should her fertility be permanently impaired, at least the injured mom had managed to pop one kid out.

Worse, it turned out that one brand of IUD, the Dalkon Shield, was liable to wick bacteria up into the uterus, causing thousands of women to suffer severe pelvic infections. Twenty women died, the manufacturer declared bankruptcy, and all IUDs were pulled out of the American market.

Flash forward thirty years and it’s a whole different ballgame. New, improved, and, according to both manufacturers and a wide range of health professionals, safe IUDs are back on the market and once again being aggressively marketed to moms. Consider this warm-and-fuzzy language from the makers of Mirena:

You have enough to do with a family and full life. You don’t have time to think about birth control … You don’t want to waste any of the little precious time you have for intimacy. Especially if it’s spent fumbling with condoms or dealing with diaphragms to pre- vent pregnancy. Mirena long term birth control lets you be spontaneous. For up to five years, you can enjoy birth control freedom and intimate moments whenever the mood strikes (and the kids are in bed).

Notwithstanding that nasty side-swipe at the diaphragm, the reasons for marketing IUDs to moms are backed this time around by some sounder medical reasoning. IUDs should be used by women who are at low risk for sexually transmitted infections—that is, women who have just one sexual partner, like, you know, most moms. IUDs are usually easier to insert in women who have had babies already; they’re best for women who want long-term but still reversible contraception; and, owing to the upfront costs associated with insertion, which must be done in a health professional’s office, they make most sense economically for women who’ll keep them in two-and-a-half years or more, according to Wysocki. Who fits those categories best? Mothers.

But the biggest news since I last hit a Planned Parenthood outlet: Emergency contraception is now available. When I was in my early twenties and just starting to play the please-God-don’t-let-me-be-pregnant game, there was only before and after when it came to birth control. If you messed up on the before part—either by not using any contraception or having your method fail on you—you had a baby, had an abortion, or dodged the bullet (that time, at least).

Now women have a third, in-between option: emergency contraception. If you’ve been too busy these past few years looking for binkies under the crib to follow the headlines, you could easily have missed the news that the emergency contraception pill Plan B, the progestin-only pill taken within a hundred twenty hours (five days) of unprotected intercourse, is now legally available in all fifty states. (You can also use certain combinations of regular birth control pills as emergency contraception or have an IUD inserted within five days of unprotected sex.)

In the press and in its own marketing materials, Plan B seems aimed squarely at the twenty-something market, at young Sex-in-the-City-types who had one too many Mojitos and woke up with a problem on their hands.

But I wonder why it isn’t promoted more to mothers. A woman with an infant, a toddler, and a kindergartner on her hands is just as likely to mess up her Pill prescription as a single working girl who has at least nights and weekends to take care of her bodily needs.

And consider these two facts: According to the National Center for Health Statistics’ National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), in 2002, twenty-one percent of women fifteen to forty-four years of age reported their most recent birth was “mis-timed”—meaning, the baby was wanted, just not then. Twelve percent of that total were deemed by the women to be “seriously mistimed”—that is, occurring two or more years too soon. The study doesn’t specify, but at least some of those mistimed babies are likely be moms with birth control mess-ups on their hands.

And this, which we do know about mothers specifically: Sixty percent of women having abortions are already mothers, according to Lawrence Finer, director of domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit reproductive-health research organization. Sixty percent! That figure alone certainly puts to rest the idea that emergency contraception is needed only by young and/or childfree women.

Even though its advocates argue than Plan B can go a long way toward preventing some abortions, the EC pill has had a long hard battle toward legitimacy. In some states, pharmacists who object to Plan B on moral grounds are being encouraged not to fill prescriptions. And politics inside the FDA have long delayed hearings that would pave the way for Plan B to be available over the counter (at press time, it looked like the hearings were finally going to go forward). Politics aside, for mothers, Plan B is news we can use.

*   *   *

Talk of politics and Plan B brings up an ugly realization many of us mothers might not have had the time in the past couple of years to properly contemplate: Whatever method we’re using, we had better really trust it, because our backup options are under serious attack.

Like a lot of other women, I try to stay up on the issues, but it’s hard to know where to channel your outrage and still have energy left over for the parts of your life you can control, like love and joy and the cleaning up of the kitchen at the end of the day.

So sure, I knew about South Dakota, which this spring passed a ban on nearly all abortions—including rape, including incest—in an effort to push the issue up to the Supreme Court. And I knew in a vague sort of way that pharmacists were being encouraged to refuse to fill Plan B prescriptions.

But I admit it, I was shocked when I started reading past the headlines and got caught up in a hurry on what’s been going on with women’s reproductive rights in this country. The New York Times Magazine‘s “Contra-Contraception” (May 7, 2006) by Russell Shorto details the truly shocking efforts by some religious and political groups on the far right to oppose contraception—any contraception, even within a marriage. Jack Hitt’s “Pro-Life Nation,” also in the Times Magazine (April 9, 2006), details life in El Salvador, where every single type of abortion is illegal, no exceptions, and women are thrown in jail for having back-alley abortions.

The Atlantic‘s June 2006 cover story by Jeffrey Rosen maps out what will happen in the U.S. if (and some on both sides of the issue now say “when”) Roe v. Wade is overturned. (Picture fifty states, each battling over its own definition of when life begins and what a woman’s say in that process should be.) Cynthia Gorney’s June 26, 2006 piece in The New Yorker digs into the hearts and minds of South Dakotans after the abortion ban was passed there and finds deep ambivalence.

Dana L’s wrenching personal essay in the June 4, 2006 Washington Post, “What Happens When There Is No Plan B?” chronicles how her inability to get hold of emergency contraception in time forced her into having an abortion. The excellent, ongoing coverage of the various chips and blows to birth control in Salon’s Broadsheet column online.

To be sure, not all mothers, not even all feminist mothers, support abortion. But a staggering majority of people support the right to use contraception: Ninety eight percent of all women who have had intercourse use some form of birth control at some point in their lives (according to the NSFG).

Clearly, a lot has happened while we’ve been off birthing our babies. But what will it take to turn the average already overwhelmed mom into a contraceptive activist?

Our Bodies Ourselves‘ Judy Norsigian is fairly blunt, and fairly pessimistic, in gauging the political involvement of regular Americans. “The problem here is an assumption that this is a right that won’t be taken away. Right now people don’t believe it could happen,” she says. “We’re going to see limited activist activity until access to abortion is pretty much taken away,” she predicts.

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, knows of at least one group of mothers who are taking notice. “We’ve been talking with women who were very active in the reproductive-choice movement, perhaps in college, before they had a family,” she reports. “Now they’re married, working, raising children who are in middle school or high school or grown and out of the house, and they’re saying, what happened to all that I worked for when I was so active so many years ago?”

Keenan says mothers have two good reasons to keep their head in the reproductive game. First, mothers need to be aware that the political emphasis on abstinence-only sex education and limited access to birth control for young people creates a miasma of misinformation that can put their teenagers at risk for STDs, AIDS, and unwanted pregnancy.

Second, she says, is simply this: “We need to stand up for the values of privacy and personal freedom, and there’s a responsibility that comes with those. We have an obligation to stand up for that freedom.”

For those who can’t, don’t want to or aren’t ready to trade Prego-strolling for placard-carrying, Keenan offers an easier path to activism—voting. Not just in presidential elections but in the upcoming mid-term elections, and in other state and local elections, where many reproductive battles are currently being waged and most certainly will, in a post-Roe world, be fought.

“Even women in predominantly pro-choice states like New York and California cannot assume they’ll forever be protected,” Keenan says. “You cannot assume that someone else will be protecting your reproductive choices.”

*   *   *

As the only female child of a Catholic father so opposed to birth control he wouldn’t let us fix the cat, I had to go elsewhere to find info on contraception when the time came. Where I went was Our Bodies, Ourselves, not the new colorized version, but the old newsprinty one with the young, cool-looking feminists with the long straight hair and the no bras, carrying signs telling the government to keep their laws of our bodies.

All these years later, I realize how much that book influenced both my personal decisions and my politics. The young me chose the diaphragm for some good reasons: thanks in part to Our Bodies, Ourselves‘ deep reservations about the Pill, back when estrogen doses were sky high and side effects were multiple, I wanted contraception that was as chem-free and low-impact as possible. (Special shout out here to all the moms who use natural family planning, a truly chem-free alternative that requires more math than this English major can handle).

The older me still wants those same things, which is why, in the end, I’ve stuck with my dorky diaphragm all these years. On a personal level, obviously it’s time for the devoted father of my children to step up to the plate and get the big V.

On a political level, things aren’t so clear cut. I started out wondering why mothers don’t have better birth control and wound up thankful we have any at all. I guess it’s time to re-engage, however reluctantly, in the same-old fight from three decades—keep yer laws off my bod. If you need me, you’ll find me on top of my HE washer, exercising my constitutional rights.

Author’s Note: Lying on the couch late one night, watching Sex in the City reruns on Lifetime, I nearly spit out my Chardonnay when Carrie announced to the other girls that her diaphragm was stuck. Wait, Carrie Bradshaw uses a diaphragm? Never mind that particular detail makes no sense, plot-wise, in the show. I say, welcome to the sisterhood.

Brain, Child (Fall 2006)

Prayers for a Young Mother, Proposed

Prayers for a Young Mother, Proposed


motherwitsummer07Prayer for the Care of Children

Almighty God, heavenly Father, you have blessed us with the joy and care of children: Give us calm strength and patient wisdom as we bring them up, that we may teach them to love whatever is just and true and good, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ.   —The Book of Common Prayer, 1976                                                                                                                                                                             

Prayer before the Market

O God, please let this be a good and productive shop. Please help me to keep my wits about me, even though I appear to have left my list at home. Please give me the clarity of mind to remember that, like the animals on the ark, good things come in pairs: the peanut butter and the jelly, the bagels and the cream cheese, the yogurt and the one hundred percent organic no fructose no sat-fat cereal bars, the Fresh Step and the Meow Mix. Please let this not be senior citizen day, or, if it is your will that it be so, please give me patience and good cheer as I maneuver around their carts which clog every aisle. Please help me to remember that the time will come soon enough when I too will need help reaching the extra large box of All-Bran on the top shelf. Please open my heart so I never forget that this $105 worth of groceries is a blessing directly from you, O Lord, and that I should therefore swing by the food bank and deposit some of it on their doorstep. Please give me the time to do this and not be late for pickup. Amen.

Prayer at Pickup

Please let me be on time. Please help this stupid, stupid woman in her gigantic planet-trashing SUV to turn off her phone and make the left turn already. And then please keep the light green for just one more second. Please don’t let me be late. If it’s somehow your will that I am late, please fill the small, tight heart of the program director with mercy and pity so that she doesn’t charge me the completely outrageous one dollar per minute late fee. Please let there not have been any more biting. Please don’t let those moms with the perky blond ponytails and the girly pink baseball caps judge my child. Please don’t let them give each other that look, or at least please don’t let me see them do it. Please let my baby be happy today. Please no tears, please not that thing with the screaming and the knees. Please let us have peace at pickup. Thank you.

Prayer before Sex

O God, please let this be fast. But not, you know, too fast. Please let it be just enough for both of us, if you get my meaning. Please let our blessed babies stay where they belong, especially Mr. I-just-turned-two-watch-me-climb-out-of-my-crib. Please let me forget about the groceries and that nightmare at pickup this afternoon. Please help me relax. Please send us a little lightning bolt of that old giddy feeling, that wave of engulfing joy that first brought us together, that helped us make this family. Please let us be carried away for just a few minutes. And after, please send us sweet release so we sleep in each other’s arms like the sheeted dead. It’s been, as you know Lord, a long day. Amen.

Brain, Child (Summer 2007)

Artwork by Beth Hannon Fuller 

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Losing My Religion

Losing My Religion


doubtWhen my son lost his innocence in the back seat of our beat-up Volvo station wagon, I never dreamed he’d take me down with him. I’m not talking about his virginity–he’s only eight. I’m talking about the Big Guy in the red suit.

“Come on, Mom,” he said one afternoon in the dwindling days of the year, having just observed that everything Santa had brought fit perfectly, was the right color, and had appeared item for item on his wish list, all without benefit of a single flake of snow falling to the ground. “It’s you and Dad, isn’t it? It just doesn’t make sense the other way.”

No, it doesn’t make sense, not by the time you’re in the second grade. I swallowed, met his glance in the rearview mirror, and bravely gave my little speech. Santa was something his father and I did as a present, a little magic at a dark time of the year, a lark, not a lie. After a few more questions (did we actually pay for all that stuff? we went to the store and just bought it all for him and his brother?) and a few bittersweet seconds of silence, he put his hands over his ears and wailed, “Am I going to be able to forget about this by next Christmas?”

It’s hard watching your firstborn reach the Age of Reason.

From there, of course, the clock was ticking on the whole childhood fantasy trip. “Easter Bunny?” he mouthed at me at breakfast a few mornings later when his little brother was distracted dissecting an orange. I made a slashing motion across my throat. “Tooth fairy?” he asked a couple of nights after that as I was shooing him into bed. “Sorry, dude.” Would he still get the money when his teeth fell out, he wanted to know. Yes, he’d still get the money.

“Anything else?” he said, a little sharply, pulling up the covers. I did a quick mental survey of all the unmagical truths he still has to uncover on his own: that his father sneaks cigarettes late at night on the back patio, that the Red Sox might never win the World Series, that there’s very little we can do to keep him truly safe in the world. “No,” I said. “That’s it. I swear.”

That’s not true, though. There is another Big Guy who’s taking the fall in our house these days, the one who wears white robes: God. As I watched my son parry and counter and feint and finally attack the Santa story head-on, I was trying to impose some logic on my own perception of the world, but coming up short every time.

The stories that tripped me up weren’t about elves or reindeer or nighttime circumnavigation of the globe, but news stories, mother stories, stories so unimaginable to me as a parent that they hit the brain and bounced off again, rejected, before burrowing in deep.

Stories like the Bosnian woman forced onto her hands and knees by soldiers and raped repeatedly in front of her children before being burned alive along with them. Stories like the Kurdish mothers, one gassed by Iraqi helicopters along with her family, who all die from the poison; another who watches from the window of an ancient, overcrowded prison as wild dogs tear apart the body of her six-year-old son. The starving Afghani couple, unable to get their extended family across a freezing mountain pass, who finally decide to abandon their young children in favor of their elderly parents.

And that’s not even counting the stateside stories, the planes and the towers, the children abducted or abused or drowned by their own mothers or left to die the most trivial kind of death in a hot car in a beauty-salon parking lot.

Are all these suffering people bad? The Croatians, the Kurds, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Rwandans, the New Yorkers–are they being punished? And the people who live in my town, many of them my friends, with the Land Rovers and the leg waxes, horses in the barn and granite in the kitchen and money in the bank (real money, not the stock-option kind), are they good? Or is it rather that everything that happens to us is just fucking dumb luck?

Where is God in all of this? Truly, for the first time in my life, I can’t say, not for sure.

Call it the Age of Reason, Part II. Just as my son had no choice but to admit, finally, that you can’t make brand-name toys in the vast void of the Arctic and that mammals don’t fly more than fifteen feet at a pop, I can’t stop wondering if God isn’t just a childish response to the staggering random cruelty of the world. Sing along, everyone: “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good . . . ” I am afraid I know already how this story ends, in the back seat of a car with your hands over your ears, trying to forget.

Believe me, this is not where I expected to be in the middle of my life. I’ve always thought of myself as a “rowing toward God” kind of girl, to borrow a phrase from the poet Anne Sexton, someone who would naturally grow closer to God in a more intense and personal way as an adult. And certainly motherhood upped the religious ante for me, with its miscarriages and forceps deliveries and those woozy first few hours postpartum, the holiest times of my life, when pain and joy and Percoset and pure gratitude toward the Almighty course in equal cc’s through the veins.

But now? Only the shock of suddenly coming up empty-handed, or maybe more exactly, empty-hearted. It’s lonely with no God to be grateful toward, it’s disheartening to think there might not be justice any more divine than what we get right here and now, and it hurts me to admit that I’m not the best person to be answering my own children’s existential questions, not right now at least.

To be specific: Santa Boy’s little brother, a dreamy, philosophical four-year-old, wants the lowdown on the Higher Power–how does God know we’re being good? Can he see? Does he have eyes? What color? And most urgently, if God loves him, why won’t God pick up his bicycle and drop it down in the library parking lot so he doesn’t have to pedal all that way himself?

On and on it goes, with me thinking guiltily of the parenting books that brightly encourage readers to “State your values!” to their offspring. What if your values are nothing but a big muddy mess at the moment? After a chat session with his mom, my poor kid is left thinking of God as some combination of Mother Nature, Lady Luck, and the Statue of Liberty who watches impassively as we scurry over the face of the Earth like bugs.

This is not good. I leave him for now to the safety of his Episcopal preschool, with its easy-to-take, Jesus-loves-me-that-I-know catechism.

My own catechism is a bit more of a problem. I know I need to read the believers and the doubters and the born-agains and the late converts, sift through Bonhoeffer and Freud and Lewis and Merton and Nietzsche and Pascal and work through all this. And I know I’m not the first person on the planet to have these doubts: Humans have tortured and murdered one another, and people have questioned the existence of God, since the world began.

As my friend Walter (cultural Jew, current atheist, practicing Unitarian, former philosophy professor, father of two) diplomatically puts it, my big spiritual crisis is completely trite by even undergraduate standards. What’s more, he points out, only those who once believed in a personal, intercessionary kind of God can mourn his absence. So I might think about choosing a new religion altogether on the premise that my problem isn’t with God but Christianity and its insistence on a sympathetic, human divinity.

Of course, I could give up religion altogether. History is filled with examples of intelligent, ethical people who lived lives of moral human decency without believing in a greater power. But then I’d have to give up the New Testament stories that I really do love, and I’m not ready for that, any more than my son wants to stop listening for the sound of hoofs on the roof.

The nativity is one hell of a good story, whether you’re a believer or not–the frightened, unwed, pregnant teenager, the angel at the door, the bureaucracy, the poverty, the animals, the shepherds, the star. My sons’ birthdays bookend the Yuletide, so I spent Christmas one year sitting in the pew on a pile of stitches with a tiny newborn in my arms and another, a few years later, being viciously kicked in the ribs by a fully grown nine-month fetus. It’s hard not to feel a little closer to donkey-riding, stable-birthing Mary–the woman or the myth–after you’ve had a few babies yourself.

From there, it’s not a big leap to internalize Mary’s anguish as the grieving mother of a torture victim. And, weirdly, it’s that image that finally offers me some sort of temporary peace as I agonize for the women of the world and all the pain they endure watching their children suffer and die, suffer and die, over and over.

It seems that when it happens, you can go mad, you can kill yourself, or you can try to change the world in your child’s memory. So maybe Mary, always annoyingly painted as the quiet, uncomplaining woman in blue at Jesus’s feet, maybe Mary chose the last option. Maybe Christianity started not with an unbelievable rising from the dead but with a mother’s entirely understandable search for meaning in her son’s murder. Think about it: Mary as the first Million Mom marcher, the prototypical Mother Against Drunk Driving, the godmother of victim’s rights.

So what if religion is nothing more than a way for mothers to insist some good come of their children’s suffering, a way for humanity to pay respect to the fierce human spirits that have gone before us? That’s enough. I don’t know about God, but mother power? That’s one story that still works for me.

Author’s Note: This piece is a complete departure from anything I have published before. Usually I work fast and funny (or try for it, anyway). This one took about eight months of almost continuous rewrites, and I was at least partly miserable the whole time. Curiously, now that it’s done, I feel better, as though God and I had a big fight and cleared the air. Who knows. As Anne Sexton says in the last line of her poem, “This story ends with me still rowing.”

Brain, Child (Winter 2003)

Art by Elizabeth Hannon




spring2008_mayorI took my son on a bus ride. Boston, Massachusetts, to Ithaca, New York.

In a car, the trip from Boston to Ithaca takes six and a half hours with a pee break; eight if you add a second pit stop with lunch; twelve if you give yourself the quintessential summertime gift of detouring through Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In a Greyhound bus, that same journey inexplicably routes you first through New York City, then New Jersey, then Pennsylvania, then upstate New York till you arrive, like weary Odysseus lo those many centuries before, in Ithaca. Total time, station to station: nine hours, fifty-four minutes.

“It’s an adventure,” I told Connor as we stood waiting for the driver to take our tickets at 7:30 on a July morning already warm enough to heat up and distribute exhaust fumes to every corner of the bus station. In lieu of summer camp, I was taking him to spend a week with my college roommate and her family, his first time far from home without us. “If we hate it, it’s just one day lost out of our lives, and we’ll never do it again.”

Connor banged his forehead against my shoulder in a mock is-this-really-my-life gesture. The impact was enough to send me jumping back to keep my takeout coffee from sloshing on our feet. All spring we’d been dealing with these bodily mishaps–the playful punches that wound up bruising, the hip checks that sent us sprawling across the kitchen.

He was twelve and a half, suddenly just three inches shorter than me, on the edge of something and edgy at home. He’d finished kayak camp in June, already knocked back half a dozen Star Wars novelizations, and seemed committed to spending the rest of the summer idly provoking his brother and interrupting the dog’s nap. It was time, his father and I thought, to get Connor out of his comfort zone.

If discomfort is what we sought, discomfort was what we got. It was freezing inside the bus. Not chilly cold, but meat-locker cold. In my straw bag we’d packed the typical modern array of digital amusements (one laptop, one game system, one cell phone, two iPods) plus a few analog backup devices (two novels, three magazines, a deck of cards) and a pound of M&M Plains that was already hovering on the edge of my radar. But my summer-weight cotton sweater and his requisite ‘tween hoodie were stowed in Connor’s bag underneath the bus, tantalizingly close but irretrievable.

When the bus pulled off the highway a half hour into our trip to pick up more passengers, I popped up the aisle and out into the sunshine to take care of the problem, all jaunty, can-do momitude in my city walking shorts and red leather clogs.

The driver was loading the last of the new luggage into the bay. “My son is cold,” I said to him, smiling, rubbing my hands together to show him what I meant, hoping that when he heard the word “son” he pictured a shivering infant rather than a strapping twelve-year-old. “I thought I’d just grab our sweaters real quick.”

He turned his face slightly in my direction, not meeting my eye, then turned silently back to the bay. It was completely packed. Leaning in, I couldn’t see even a corner of our duffle in the back.

I got back on the bus. Connor had retracted his arms inside his T-shirt like a turtle. “How many hours to New York?” he asked, aghast. “Four,” I told him, which wasn’t true; it was four and a half. “Take my clogs. They’re warmer.” He unstrapped his river sandals.

For what would be the only time in our lives, we were wearing the exact same shoe size. We swapped footwear, wrapped ourselves around each other like puppies and looked out the cold window at the sun-warmed world outside, the wildflowers on the side of the highway waving in the hot breeze as we blasted by.

“Why are you taking the bus?” people had asked in the week before our departure, in tones that suggested urine-soaked seatmates, dirty terminals, and probable criminal behavior against one’s person and possessions. “Gas isn’t that high.”

Gas was indeed that high, but not yet as high as two Greyhound tickets. Moreover, we had two perfectly good working vehicles in our driveway, and I’d made the run to Ithaca dozens of times before. I adore road trips. One summer, a friend and I drove nine thousand miles in a big loop around the country in a tiny car the color of a pencil with no air-conditioning, and often we logged five hundred miles in a day no problem.

But I was twenty-four then, not forty-four. Now in a typical week I drive the same roads over and over at the same time of day, and many afternoons I find myself staring through the windshield with all the mental acuity of a goldfish in its bowl. Much as I hate to admit it, a tiny part of me wasn’t sure I could trust myself to pay attention for that long anymore.

Plus, I was sick of being in charge. On the highway, you feel duty-bound as a driver to judge your fellow travelers as you maneuver in and around one another, pulling ahead to pass them or switching lanes to let them blow by you doing eighty-five. You feel obligated to at least consider calling the cops about the way that mattress is hanging off the back end of the pickup ahead of you.

And if you’re a twelve-year-old boy and your mother is at the wheel and the journey is long, it’s simply impossible not to see her as an eminently lobbyable person, someone who might at any moment agree to exit the highway and head for that Quiznos over there, or stop for the laser tag or putt-putt golf advertised on that billboard, or buy a Big Bag of Skittles at the Stop ‘n’ Go, or detour to Howe Caverns, if only she’s asked frequently enough at sufficiently random intervals.

In the bus, we are driven. The driver is in charge, and because it’s clear from the outset he’s not going to stop for Skittles, we don’t ask. We sit next to one another as equals, shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip, riding companionably with our fellow travelers, each of us on our own journey but together for now in the same bus hurtling communally down the highway.

As we got closer to New York, we did the things done by New Englanders who don’t get down there much. We hissed out the window, as dutiful Red Sox fans should, at Shea Stadium in the distance; pressed our foreheads against the glass to watch the foreign world of the Bronx whisk past; said things like, “there’s the Triborough Bridge,” but not too loudly in case we were all turned around and that was in fact the Whitestone Bridge we were looking at; passed landmarks even Northern rubes like us couldn’t miss–the Museum of Natural History, Central Park–and then suddenly we were sucked from the daylight into the dark maw of Port Authority.

Connor unfurled our yard-long ribbon of fan-folded tickets to figure out our timetable. “Great news,” he reported. It seemed we had almost two hours before our next bus–to Binghamton–pulled out. Plenty of time, he figured, to bop up to the Nintendo World megastore at Rockefeller Center.

As it turned out, we had just enough time to navigate through three levels of the building, utterly lost, before finding the departure gate to Binghamton, where the only bus of the afternoon was leaving immediately, our tickets’ printed departure time be damned.

This bus was warmer, better. The seats were higher, the windows bigger, the clientele different enough (old couples rather than young students) to make us feel we’d been somewhere, traveled somehow. We lurched out of the terminal, dropped into the shabby cavern of the Lincoln Tunnel, and then we were done–out of New York just as quickly as we’d gone in.

As the day wore on, Connor listened to his music, eyes open but unseeing, staring absently at the houndstooth check of the upholstery in front of him. I looked at my boy, his face so close to mine, with his high cheekbones and thick brown hair standing on end in places and his caramel-colored eyes, the lip that may or may not have the faintest beginning of fuzz on it, his smooth skin with the tiniest hints of pores to come. Short, thick eyelashes. Almond-shaped eyes, straight nose. He is a dead ringer for his father, only purer. More intense.

Connor turned, pulling out an ear bud. “What are you looking at?” he said.

“Nothing,” I told him.

Loving an adolescent is a lot like being an adolescent—you have to hide the intensity of your feelings, the sheer volume and volubility of your emotions, lest you scare off the people around you. “Break out those M&Ms,” I said.

For lunch, we ate orange peanut-butter-crackers, a little box each of raisins, and as much candy as we could handle at one time without feeling sick. In between, Connor described in exhaustive detail how to win when playing “Age of Empires.” (Hint: Destroy the other armies one at a time.) Then we played Crazy 8s, one of the few card games that lends itself to the tight confines of a bus seat, followed by, when we got bored with the 8s, Crazy 7s, Crazy 2s and Crazy Aces. Connor laughed out loud at how easy it was to fool me by playing the wild card from the previous game.

In Binghamton, it dawned on us that the two-something hours we’d managed to pick up along the journey were to be squandered in a bus station that overlooked another bus station in one direction and three crumbling parking lots in the others. There were no earlier buses to Ithaca, now a frustratingly close fifty minutes away.

We walked once around the outside of the building, just to be outdoors, but a hot wind was blowing dirt through the air and our luggage, which we didn’t dare to leave unattended inside, was heavy. We were the only two people out of doors who weren’t there to smoke. This, I said to myself as we retreated back inside, is what people were imagining when they had said, “You’re taking the bus?”

Connor checked my cell phone for messages (there were none), then compensated by leaving a long mournful message for his father and brother on our home answering machine that made our entire journey sound simultaneously disastrous and boring, while I talked over him in the background, saying things like “That’s not true,” and “It’s not so bad.”

On the bus to Ithaca, our last and shortest hop, I tried to think what I should say to Connor about his upcoming week away that wouldn’t sound like micromanaging–advice about how to handle his laundry, how to politely eat around food he didn’t like, how to share a single bathroom with five people, how it was possible at the same time to feel horribly homesick and be having a wonderful time.

In the end, it all seemed like too much yap, so I said none of it, settling instead on an all-purpose maxim. “Try to be more polite with them than you are with us,” I said. We both laughed.

“I’m going to miss you, pup,” I told him, fluffing his hair.

He shrugged. “I’ll IM you.”

We arrived in Ithaca on time to the minute, 5:24 p.m. Our friends took us straight from the bus station to their boat, and as the warm summer evening spread like glass over Cayuga Lake, our trip began already to feel like something we did once, as a lark, a long time ago.

Going home alone the next day was a different kind of journey. The bus headed straight north to Syracuse, mounting the long, slow hill that climbs for miles high above the lake, then back across the New York State Thruway and the Mass Pike, as direct a trip as you could want.

I sat by myself in a window seat and did something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager myself: read an entire novel, cover to cover, in one summer day. I read Plainsong by Kent Haruf, a book so pitch-perfect that every once in a while I had to put it down for a moment, out of respect for its flawlessness. During those pauses I stared out the window and let my thoughts swim around the edges of my boy, stopping here and there on practical things. Had he remembered to bring an extra pair of sneakers, as I had asked him to? Did I give him enough money for the movies, and, if I did, had he put it somewhere where he’d be able to find it again?

But my thoughts kept sliding closer to the essence of our trip. He hadn’t asked for any of this; I had been the one to set it all in motion. But he hadn’t said no, either. We might miss each other terribly, or we might both be perfectly fine. Either way, there was nothing to do now but let the hours unfold until the week was up and I was back again.

I felt hollow under the breastbone and tight at the base of my throat. Missing someone fiercely feels a little like anxiety and a little like grief, but it’s lighter, more buoyant. It’s just plain love, only stretched out long.

As the bus headed east toward Boston, the afternoon slant of the summer sun on the wide window created a hovering double reflection, with an image of the interior of the bus superimposed against the picture of the world outside. I looked out and watched the country flying past and, at the same moment, my own self hurtling forward.

Brain, Child (Spring 2008)

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Single Mom Stigma, Alive and Kicking


summer2011_mayorhpThey’re easy. They’re slutty. They got pregnant with some random guy. Or, selfishly, they ran out to the sperm bank when they turned forty. It’s their fault.

They’re always broke. They’re on welfare. They’re sponging off the taxpayers. They should work for a living, and, simultaneously, they should stay home with their kids. Whatever they do, it’s never as good as what a married mom does. Ever. It’s their fault.

They should have worked harder to keep their marriages together. They go out partying anytime the ex has the children. They’re man-haters. Or manhunters, who shouldn’t be left alone with other people’s husbands. Their kids are troubled, or troublemakers, bound for the penitentiary, suffering without a male in the house, un-cared for, un-read to, a bad influence on other children.

They’re brave but pitiable. Their families, and their lives, aren’t complete because they don’t have a mommy and a daddy living under the same roof. And that’s their fault.

Thank God it’s 2011, not the 1950s, and people no longer subscribe to those heinously out-of-date stereotypes about single mothers. Right? Right?

Maybe not. This past February, the Pew Research Center issued findings from its survey on changes in family structure, in which respondents were asked to rank a list of seven trends, such as interracial marriage and gay couples raising kids, as being good, bad, or of no consequence to society. More respondents—nearly seven out of ten—ranked “single mothers” as being bad for society—more than any of the other choices.

The mainstream media, hot to get out in front of the next toxic mothering meme (think “Helicopter Mom,” “Tiger Mom,” and “Botox Mom”), had a field day, summarizing the finding with headlines like “Single Mothers ‘Bad For Society’, Pew Research Center’s Latest Poll Finds” (Huffington Post) and “Single motherhood still rejected by most Americans, poll finds” (Washington Post). Page views soared, blog posts proliferated, and comment boxes filled with opinions both judgmental and defensive.

Completely lost in the media coverage was the fact that the Pew Research study wasn’t asking about “single mothers” in general—meaning any woman currently parenting without a partner. The survey asked—quite ambiguously—what respondents thought about “more single women having children without a male partner to help raise them.”

Did the Pew Research Center intend the word “having” to mean “I have children and am currently their sole caretaker, regardless of whether I was partnered in the past”? Or did the center mean “having” in the sense of birthing—meaning women who, through intent or accident, were solo parents from the outset? ?It takes some digging around to discern the surveyors’ true intent—an earlier iteration of the same survey was more explicit, asking how respondents felt about “more single women deciding to have children without a male partner to help raise them.” Aha—”deciding” is decidedly more specific than “having.”

It’s safe to say this distinction was likely lost on survey-takers and absolutely lost in the media coverage. Either way, the results of the survey and the way it was picked up and conflated in the press indicate that, more than a decade into a new millennium, single motherhood is still a tender topic.

That got us to wondering: How is it that, as a society, we apparently haven’t moved the needle much on perceptions of single mothers, even as survey respondents were more accepting of arguably more radical changes to the family like gay parenting? Single mothers are everywhere, and their numbers have been steadily rising for thirty years. In 1980, 19.5 percent of United States households with children were headed by single parents; in 2008, the number was up to 29.5 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and eighty-four percent of those households are headed up by women.

Do seven out of ten of us disapprove of our own sisters, friends, and neighbors, our own selves? Or is there something more subtle going on? There is an almost infinite variety in the ways that women become and conduct themselves as single mothers, but when people are filling out surveys, do they revert to some kind of worst-case view of single moms?

Consider the notorious “welfare queen” of the Reagan era—most famously put into words by now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. “She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check. That’s how dependent she is,” he said of his sister Emma Mae Martin in 1983. “What’s worse is that now her kids feel entitled to the check, too. They have no motivation for doing better or getting out of that situation.”

As the eighties rolled on, the welfare queen trope picked up other elements, like crack abuse. There’s a lot of baggage built into that caricature: racist, sexist, religious, moral, and economic. (And, for the record, the caricature proved to be largely just that—Thomas’s sister, for example, was on welfare for fewer than five years to nurse the elderly aunt who’d cared for her children while she worked.).

It’s likely you need only to hit one or two of those hot buttons to trigger a negative reaction in people who might be perfectly accepting of the single mothers they know personally while disapproving of “other mothers” that fit their preconceived stereotypes.

Of course, it’s also possible that women who actually are single mothers could agree that single motherhood is bad for society as a whole. Most didn’t choose it for themselves. They didn’t want their husbands or partners to leave, or die, or threaten them or their children. There are real hardships, economic and emotional, associated with single motherhood, especially if you didn’t plan for it from the start.

To unpack some of that baggage, we talked to single mothers in their various incarnations—women who are divorced or widowed, mothers who were abandoned by their children’s fathers, and those who are single mothers by choice. Each woman traveled a different path to single momhood—and some are single no more—yet they agreed almost universally on one point: No matter how their legion grows, people still think of single mothers as disruptive and outside the norm.

“Single mothers are still a problem to be fixed,” says Robin LeBlanc, who both studies public discourse about single moms in her role as a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and is one herself. “On the left, they’re seen as victims of failed social policy. On the right, a symptom of moral failure. It’s interesting that most of us no longer thing of gayness as a problem that needs to be fixed, but single mothers are still viewed that way.”

What rankles single mothers like Donna Raskin perhaps the most is a pervasive insistence that no mother, no matter how dedicated, stable, and accomplished, can raise a child as competently as a man and woman together, no matter what the state of their union.

“Many people assume two parents are better than one, but that isn’t true at all,” says Raskin, whose son’s father left when the boy was nine months old. “I have had people tell me that they are staying in miserable marriages with spouses who cheat, drink, or do drugs just so their children aren’t growing up in a ‘single parent home.’ As if having a single parent, even a wonderful single parent, is worse than living in a home with parents who hate each other or where one parent is a true problem.”

“To me this is lazy thinking,” says Raskin, a teacher and writer in Pennington, New Jersey. “They’re insulting me to my face, and they’re not even acknowledging how loved and happy and successful my child is.”

LeBlanc seconds that thought. “If there is a poor family struggling and the parents are married, we talk about them as a ‘working family’ and they get a mention in the State of the Union,” she says. “You don’t hear that same tone about working single mothers. There’s a presumption that there’s something wrong with that woman.”

“It’s a special kind of sexism,” LeBlanc contends. “I don’t know how many times we’ve had to hear people praise Barack Obama and [Supreme Court Justice] Sonia Sotomayor because they became who they are ‘even though’ they were raised by a single mother.”

Jamie Wallace says there’s a specific kind of opprobrium directed toward a woman who actively chooses to leave her child’s father, rather than being cast as a victim who’s been abandoned, cheated on, or otherwise had the union fall apart against her will.

Wallace initiated a separation from her husband after fourteen years of marriage, when their daughter was three, with the support of two different marriage therapists. “I finally said to myself, if two professionals and my gut are telling me this is not coming to a good conclusion, I have to accept that and get out,” she says.

Not everyone else was as accepting. “There was a feeling of, ‘what’s the matter with you that you couldn’t hold your marriage together?'” Wallace recalls. “I did have some people say, ‘Who are you to make this decision?’ or call me selfish because I initiated the separation. I was told I should have stuck it out, and put my needs last until my daughter was older.”

Suzy Vitello knows the story from the other side of the coin. Vitello, now a marketer and writer of young adult fiction in Oregon, became a single mom at twenty-six not by any action of her own but by the car accident that killed her husband four days before their second child was born, when their first was just eighteen months old. ?People didn’t judge a young widow—thankfully—but still, the reception was troubling.

“People wanted to take care of me. I was put in the category of vulnerable, somebody who might make bad decisions,” Vitello recalls. “I felt most on guard with people who were trying to swoop me up, make me live with them, tell me what I needed to do next. I felt like I didn’t need that. I had been raised very independently, and had had a traditional family orientation only for the very brief time period of my marriage.” Vitello eventually moved across country to get clear from the smothering blanket of concern.

Years later, when divorcing a second husband with whom she’d had another child, she caught the same blast of blame that Wallace had experienced. “I think that people are saddened by failure,” Vitello muses. “Because the man-woman-children relationship is culturally the architecture for stability, people project their own fears about failure onto that, depending on where they’re coming from culturally or religiously. They need to know who was the cheater, who was the drug abuser. If there was none of that, they want to know why you didn’t try hard enough. They want to know what’s wrong with you.”

Single mothers are “single” not just in the sense that they’re parenting solo, but that they’re viewed as socially and sexually unattached. And that, says Martha Albertson Fineman, can mess with society’s head, because once women in our culture become mothers, they’re not supposed to be available sexually.

Fineman, author of The Neutered Mother, The Sexual Family and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies, says that the belief underlying many divorce cases and custody battles is that a woman without a steady sexual partner is likely to sacrifice the needs of her children. “A mother’s sexuality is expected to be subsumed and stable. There is a fear that a single mother’s sexuality will jeopardize her child,” says Fineman, director of the Feminism and Legal Theory Project at the Emory University School of Law in Atlanta.

“We have changed our attitudes about sex outside of marriage, but expectations for mothers have remained unchanged. You are expected to put your children’s issues above your own, including your career and your sexual appetites.”

Because she has a steady man in her life, Wallace hasn’t had the experience of some other single mothers, who say they have been perceived as a threat by their married or partnered friends. But Wallace does clearly see the destabilizing influence her single-mother lifestyle can have on her friends’ relationships.

“There was a lot of curiosity among my friends when I was going through my split, a lot of self-questioning. It gets people thinking about their own situation, about how stable their marriage really is,” she says. “And at times I do sense a little bit of jealousy. I get to go out every other weekend or have time to myself, knowing my daughter is safe with her father. People can make time like that within their marriages, but it takes work.”

Just as single mothers can cause other women to question the state of their unions, they can cause men to wonder, at least subconsciously, if they’re still needed in the family equation.

Surprisingly, early American thinkers actually viewed single men as a threat to a stable society. Marriage and fatherhood were viewed as a way to bring out men’s more noble selves—once men started caring for wives and children, the idea went, they’d extend that largesse to society as a whole, explains Washington and Lee’s LeBlanc. In that context, women were needed to play the role of submissive wife and bearer of babies to lure men into a domestic, responsible state of existence.

That, of course, has all changed. Thanks to the career independence that came out of the feminist movement, women—specifically, women educated for a career—don’t need marriage economically in the way that they once did. “I don’t have to be married if I’m not happy being married,” says LeBlanc.

That simple change has had a profound impact on men’s roles as husbands and fathers. “If a woman can take her kid and go off on her own, men think, where does that leave me?” LeBlanc asks. “More generally, people may look at a single mother and say, ‘If she doesn’t have to play by these rules, then what are the rules? Why is she allowed to make up her own life?'”

Jane Mattes knows a thing or two about breaking the rules and leaving men out of the equation—and getting grief for it. Mattes, a psychotherapist in New York?City, founded the advocacy organization Single Mothers by Choice (SMC) in 1981 after intentionally getting pregnant without a partner and realizing that women choosing that route needed lots of support to counter societal disapproval.

Mattes says women can still be judged for stepping outside the prescribed mommy-daddy role, but nothing like they used to be. “Believe me, it was much, much, much worse thirty years ago,” Mattes says.

Especially then, but still even now, some men are insulted by the very premise of her organization. “Men feel that we’re saying they’re not important or that they’re a dispensable option, which is not the case. Our position is simply that you have a lifetime to find the right man but only a limited number of years to bear or adopt children.”

In fact, some ninety-eight percent of SMC members polled say they would have preferred to have a child in a loving relationship, Mattes says. “Very few felt this was their first choice, but a least it is a viable choice.”

Cara DeAngelis wasn’t thinking much about men when she joined SMC in 1994, a little more than a year after the untimely death of a longtime love. Nor did she encounter any blowback when she became pregnant on her own. “The day I told my mom I was first pregnant she said, ‘Oh thank God, thank God,'” DeAngelis recalls. “Nobody was going to criticize me after what I’d gone through—people just wanted me to live, no matter what it took.”

Now mother to two teenaged boys, DeAngelis says she has been able to sidestep much of the criticism and burden of being a single mother, partly because of continued support from a large family and wide circle of friends, but also, she concedes, because she is a prominent professional with a steady income. “I think people don’t criticize me because I’m a doctor. I float above the fray.”

As with almost every other aspect of American life, economics plays a big role in shaping perceptions about single mothers. Women like DeAngelis who set out to have children by themselves are overwhelmingly middle-class or above, sometimes far above, with good careers and a solid support network.

That’s not always the case for single mothers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 29.9 percent of households headed by females with no husband present were at or below the poverty level in 2009, compared with 5.8 percent for married-couple households. In turn, children raised in poverty are more likely to lack access to healthcare, suffer from poor nutrition and obesity, experience violence and unintentional injury, and experiment with drugs and alcohol in adolescence, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Those kinds of statistics, though they don’t apply to the majority of single-mom households, could well be the reason so many Pew Research survey respondents said single mothers were bad for society, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

“Something that works for someone on an individual level can be disturbing on a societal level,” says Coontz, author of several books on marriage and family, most recently A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. “The vast majority of women who end up as single moms have not had a chance to assess their situation or prepare for the challenge. They don’t have the support systems that they need.”

A lack of access to decent education for her and her children, to living-wage employment, to engaged mentors and role models, to reliable and affordable birth control, to employed and employable partners, and to safe neighborhoods … the list of ways in which a single mother in poverty is challenged is long and complicated, says Coontz.

“With the growing gap between the haves and have nots, you have whole communities of women raising kids on their own.” It’s not their singleness, but their chronic impoverishment and dearth of suitable, stable life partners that’s the problem, Coontz says. But when it comes time to check the box on the survey, “single mother” is the label that sticks.

Seen in that light, the Pew Research survey’s unfavorable view of single mothers may not be a condemnation as much as an acknowledgement that any single parent can have a tougher time, emotionally and economically, than a pair of parents.

The Pew Research survey did not ask respondents their opinions about single fathers raising children alone (and they make up just sixteen percent of the custodial-parent population)—so it’s impossible to know if respondents would have felt more strongly biased against one sex or the other as a single parent.

But the survey did find that people were less negative about unmarried couples and gay couples raising kids together than they were about single mothers—a possible indication that people believe simply that two—any two—is better than one when it comes to raising children.

With households headed by single women making up twenty-five percent of all households with children in America, what most frustrates many single moms is that they and their families are still considered to be so far outside the ideal “norm” even though that norm dominates less and less every year.

“There is a feeling of supremacy or superiority of two parent families that is pervasive in this society, regardless the numbers that clearly illustrate single-parent households are plentiful,” says Kelli Kirk, a Seattle writer and mother of two who recently remarried after four years of solo parenting.

It drives her crazy that people will think nothing of leaving a single mother out of social events or outings, assuming she may not be able to afford it or she’ll feel awkward around only couples. “Don’t make the decision for us, please and thanks,” says Kirk. “We are not ‘half’ a family—we are our own family. A mom and a kid, or two kids, or three. It’s nice to be treated as if we are the absolute equal of a family of four with two parents, because we are.”

For her part, Donna Raskin wishes simply that people would untether the words “single” and “mother.”

“The best times for me are when people take my marital status out of the equation in our relationships. When they don’t judge me or make assumptions about me or my child, when they find out who we are as people. That makes me and my son feel safe and happy.”

“What is true about being a single mother is that the ‘single’ has almost nothing to do with the ‘mother,'” she says. “I’m a good mom, and I would be a good mom whether or not I am or am not married.”

Author’s Note: As always, I am humbled and grateful when people are willing to spill their guts for a story I’m writing. A big thank you to the women quoted in this piece and also to the many mothers who shared their single-mom stereotypes on Brain, Child’s Facebook page. I really do believe that telling stories is the best way to change minds. Thanks for being part of the process.

Brain, Child (Summer 2011)

About the Author: Long-time contributor Tracy Mayor has written for Brain, Child about armageddon parenting, birth control for mamas, soccer mom stereotypes and — for the very first issue — swearing in front of the kids. Her essays and journalism have appeared on the New York Times Motherlode blog, The Rumpus, and in Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, Child and Wondertime. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two sons and crazy beagle.

Armageddon Mama: Parenting toward the Apocalypse

By Tracy Mayor

fall2010_mayorLast February, a freak storm blew through our region one unseasonably warm Thursday night, packing flooding rains and fearsome winds that caused millions of dollars’ worth of damage in about ten minutes’ time.

I was out—minus my husband and kids, a rare week night occurrence—and drove home over pitch-dark roads amid downed power lines and whole stands of trees that had been toppled so suddenly and so recently that the air was full of the smell of pine and dirt. Three times I started down familiar streets, only to have to turn back because they were impassable.

When I finally pulled into our debris-strewn driveway after midnight, I found our power out and our dog waiting anxiously by the door. My boys, a teen and a tween, had gone to bed, but my husband, Tom, was up waiting for me, nodding off at the kitchen table, incongruously surrounded by the happy glow of a dozen winking tea lights.

Those tiny, useless candles, left over from a dinner party, pretty much constituted the whole of our emergency-preparedness stash. Once upon a time (after 9/11, to be precise), we’d halfheartedly stocked up on bottled water, flashlights, batteries and duct tape, with a few cans of Dinty Moore beef stew thrown in for good measure. But over the years the cache had been multiply raided by the disaster-indifferent inhabitants of the place: The water went to a school function and the stew to a canned-food drive; the duct tape was commandeered for a Halloween costume.

Our stash of flashlights, at one time carefully kept within easy reach for just such a emergency, had been scattered to the four corners of our property after a late-night game of outdoor tag one summer night. But even if Tom had been able to locate them in the howling dark, it wouldn’t have mattered. The batteries we’d hoarded had long since been reassigned to game controller duty. I rummaged through a junk drawer and found a tiny penlight for each of us, then gave up and crawled to bed, grateful that I’d finally broken down a few months earlier and bought us all real down comforters, which kept us warm in our beds even as the temperature sank.

By morning, the house was down to fifty-three degrees. Staggering outside, dazed and coffeeless, Tom and I discovered that the enormous crash the boys had heard the night before was an oak tree that had split in half and raked the back of the house as it fell, shattering my older son’s bedroom window and peeling off a line of clapboards on its way down.

In town, power lines swung aimlessly, and whole neighborhoods were blockaded by uprooted trees. Most frightening to any New Englander: There wasn’t an open Dunkin’ Donuts to be found in twenty square miles. Shaken, I returned home and took charge of the situation, the way a person might who’d long ago attended Girl Scout sleepaway camp. I dragged our grill out from its winter hiding place, fired up the briquettes in the sharp February air, feeling a bit foolish, and brought a huge pot of water to a boil.

“Look,” I said proudly to my sons, who were just emerging from their lairs, “we can make instant coffee, Swiss Miss, and oatmeal, and still have enough left over for a little spritz bath to keep clean.”

“Oh my God, I’m not washing in a spaghetti pot.” My sixteen-year-old, Connor, pulled out his iPhone and started tapping. Within ninety seconds, he’d determined that a) our street wasn’t due to get power back for three days; b) one neighborhood of new construction, where the power lines had been buried, was already back online; and therefore, c) he needed a ride to the house of his friend who lived there. Immediately.

“Don’t you want to hang with us and play Bananagrams in front of the fireplace?” I said forlornly, trailing behind him as he tossed some clothes and his toothbrush into a duffle bag.

He gave me a pitying glance. “I’ll be in the car waiting.” And that was the last we saw of that kid for seventy-two hours.

It was just as well. As it turns out, board games in a dark, cold house with a flooding basement kind of suck. Once night fell, Tom, our twelve-year-old, Will, and I gave up trying to be troopers and just went to bed. As I lay huddled next to my husband, I said, “What if this goes on indefinitely? I don’t think our kids have the right coping skills for this kind of thing. I mean, life without the Internet and all.”

“Ditching your family in favor of heat and lights sounds like an excellent coping skill to me,” Tom observed dryly. “In a real crisis, I’d follow the self-involved teenager every time.”

The ’00s have been a tough decade for parenting, anxiety-wise. Y2K set the mood, 9/11 shook us to the core, and suddenly in between changing diapers and taking pregnancy tests, we were worrying about anthrax in the mail and terrorists on every street corner. The first decade of the new millennium brought us two wars, two recessions, a flu pandemic, an autism epidemic, a childhood obesity epidemic, a housing crisis, a health care crisis, a crisis in public education, and toys made with phthalates, BPA, and lead paint from China. Whew.

Meanwhile, the globe continued to bake and, in turn, cook up ecological disasters, as Bill McKibben documents in his wrenching new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010). Eaarth is the name McKibben uses to distinguish the planet on which we now live—”one that’s melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways no human has ever seen”—from the one we have known since the beginning of our existence.

Since record-keeping began, the temperature of the planet has risen by a degree-and-a-half Fahrenheit, enough to trigger a forty-five percent increase in thunderheads, which in turn generate lightning, which sets off wildfires everywhere from California neighborhoods to the Arctic tundra. As oceans warm, hurricanes and typhoons become stronger and more frequent. Meanwhile, glaciers melt, cutting off a reliable supply of clean water to hundreds of millions of people, as has already happened in northwest China, and once fertile areas like Russia’s vast wheat-growing region turn into deserts, taking the food supply with them (as I write, 1.8 million acres are burning out of control in Russia, which has responded by halting its wheat exports).

This past decade, as we helplessly watched the devastation from the string of Florida hurricanes, the Indonesian tsunami, and, most unforgettably, the breakdown of social order in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina and in Haiti following the February 2010 earthquake, it was almost disrespectful not to wonder, could any of that happen here? To me? To my family?

Of course, parents have worried about the state of the world since hominids first began live-birthing their young, and it can’t have been a walk in the park raising kids during World War I, or the Great Depression, or World War II, or the Cold War (heck, the whole first half of the twentieth century was no parenting picnic). But still, compared to the bubbleheaded feel-goodedness of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush eras, the ’00s have indeed been times of extraordinary worry and real economic and psychic pain among American families.

Through it all—or some experts say, because of it all—parents ramped up their involvement with their kids. A 2010 study by two economists at the University of California, San Diego analyzed a dozen surveys, taken between 1965 and 2007, of how Americans say they use their time. The UCSD report found that the amount of time spent with children had risen “dramatically” since the mid-1990s for parents at all income levels but especially among those with a college education.

Throw a stone in any family-friendly neighborhood in the country, and you’re likely to hit an SUV heading off to infant swim or to Kindermusik or gymnastics or ice skating, painting, pottery, quilting, cartooning, photography, cooking, hip-hop, ballet, West African dance, belly dancing, circus camp, herb gathering, backpacking, kayaking, rock climbing, canoeing, soccer, football, baseball, kickball, field hockey, lacrosse, basketball, trampoline, violin, piano, guitar, drums, voice, French, Chinese, Spanish, German, archeology, Legos, karate, judo or capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art.

What’s up with the frantic enrichment? Partly it’s just plain fun for the kids (if you can afford it, of course), but according to Margaret Nelson, a professor of sociology at Middlebury College in Vermont, there’s an underlying motivation as well.

Today’s parents—specifically, college-educated, professional-class parents—are deeply worried about their children’s future, says Nelson, author of Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times (2010). “With the hollowing out of the middle class in this country, it’s no longer clear what kinds of skills will lead to a good occupation and to financial success,” she explains. “A generation ago, you could say, ‘I want my child to be a doctor,’ and that would ensure financial success. Now, nobody knows.”

As a result, that class of parents strives to raise children who are both highly skilled and highly flexible. “They want them to be good athletes, to be good students, good friends, to demonstrate a wide range of skills. So if a child shows even a bit of interest in art, they sign them up for art class,” Nelson says. “The fear is that if their children settle too soon, if they settle on the wrong thing, they’ll be out of luck.”

The goal is not just entry into a top college, or success in a financially stable career, it’s to raise kids who are able to compete in the kind of world that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman laid out in his best-seller, The World Is Flat (2005), where Americans must be well-educated, hard-selling, fast-moving entrepreneurs of their own careers in a fully wired, completely interconnected, always-on global marketplace of ideas and innovation.

Only problem: What if that isn’t at all what the near future will look like? What if we’re raising our kids to succeed in a George Jetson kind of world, but they wind up living more like Fred Flintstone?

You don’t need to be a Jericho junkie or holed up in a “survival condo” in the Mojave Desert (though there are in fact families doing just that) to at least imagine something happening to disrupt our wired, wealthy way of life, either temporarily or permanently.

In Eaarth, McKibben talks about the kinds of disasters induced by climate change that some societies have already experienced and that he says the rest of us can expect in the future: wars over water or food, millions of people displaced by flood or drought or killed by fast-spreading disease. In The Ultimate Suburban Survivalist Guide (2010), financial columnist and Florida father of two Sean Brodrick takes those scenarios to a more specific level.

Brodrick, who writes for the Uncommon Wisdom newsletter and contributes to the Dow Jones MarketWatch, argues that families should be prepared to face any or all of these calamities: an oil crisis; a food crisis; mass immigration; economic depression; natural disasters like wildfires, tornados and ice storms; the collapse of the U.S. energy grid; pandemic; terrorism; and civil unrest sparked by any or all of the above.

Families, he says, need the means to bargain for or provide their own food, water, medicine, education, and entertainment (download your favorite songs and videos now, he advises, before the Internet goes dark!), as well as have access to alternate sources of power (wood, wind or solar) and transportation (scooters or bicycles). And families need to be prepped to either hunker down in situ or evacuate on very short notice ahead of a crowd. (Especially alarming, or exciting, depending upon your point of view, is Brodrick’s list of nine signs you should hit the road—at the sound of explosions in the distance, for instance, or when the government sets a curfew or fires are spreading unchecked.)

The rising generation of American kids—who statistically are fatter, more wired, and less familiar with the outdoors than any generation before them—don’t on the surface seem particularly well prepared to cope with that kind of sudden lifestyle deceleration.

Even if they’re not overweight, the average American child’s life is measured by athletic achievement and academic excellence, neither of which may count for much when the shit hits the fan (or, as Brodrick politely prefers, WTSHTF).

My kids, like many middle- and upper-class children, are in better shape than the national average. They’re fit, and thanks to day camp, overnight camp, school programs, family vacations and an unusually large amount of open space in our hometown, they’ve spent plenty of time outdoors.

But the more I thought about it, the more I worried that their suburban upbringing would only take my kids part of the way toward where they might need to go. We recycle, of course, but we don’t actually make anything from the stuff we save from the trash; a truck hauls it off somewhere, and someone else turns it back into usable material. We buy a share in a community-support farm, so my kids at least know what vegetables look like and where they come from, but our yard is so shady we don’t actually grow anything of our own, which in turn means we compost—but that, too, gets hauled away to a nearby farm. We belong to a sustainable seafood group, so my guys see their father filet a couple of whole fish most Saturday mornings, but none of us could catch one ourselves, or not reliably enough to keep us alive over a long period of time, and not if everyone else were trying to fish the same waters simultaneously.

Thanks to my time with the Girl Scouts, I know how to light a wet-wood fire, but I’m the only one in the house who does. Connor gets off the grid for ten days every summer with the Appalachian Mountain Club, where he has learned all manner of wilderness survival skills, but, ironically, not fire-building. (The super-strict Leave No Trace program that the club has adopted discourages open fires.) Our property happens to abut a hunt club, but none of us has ever hunted, ever handled a gun, or ever killed an animal. Connor has a black belt in taekwondo, and Will is nearly there, but none of us has ever had to defend ourselves, not when someone’s really trying to do us harm. When the marauding hordes come for our stash of Dinty Moore, I’m afraid we’d be helpless to do much besides hand it over.

And then there’s the issue of character. Like lots of other parents, Tom and I want our children to be well-mannered, thoughtful, tolerant, considerate, respectful, empathetic, sympathetic, charitable, and all those other soft and squishy liberal ideals. A few weeks ago, after Will had done a favor for a friend of mine, she exclaimed to me, “Your boys are so kind. I think my kids are great, but I don’t know if anybody would describe them as kind.”  At the time, I took that as a huge compliment—for Will but also for the way Tom and I are trying to bring him up.

Now? I don’t know. In a crisis, wouldn’t a kind kid get his butt kicked? Tom and I have spent the last sixteen-and-a-half years busting our humps to raise a couple of nice guys. But in this Brave New World that may be coming down the pike, what if nice guys finish last?

With the exception of home-schooled children, most American kids over the age of five spend the bulk of their time in school or on school-related activities. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, if those schools could be a first line of defense in prepping kids for a new kind of twenty-first century, one that’s hyper-local and hyper-hands-on?

That might happen in certain Montessori- or Waldorf-based schools that, during the early years of a child’s life at least, emphasize experience- and sensory-based learning through practical activities. Charter schools and private schools centered on outdoor education, environmental education, or green education are also already headed down that path.

Public schools show some bright spots of innovation here and there, to be sure. For example, the National Farm to School Network, a grant-funded collaborative program administered by eight regional centers, promotes gardening and composting on school property. So far the network supports 2,224 programs nationwide. The Leave No Child Inside movement, inspired by Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, promotes nature-based learning and outdoor classrooms in schools. And many schools, particularly middle schools, participate in adventure programs like Outward Bound and Project Adventure, designed to challenge students physically while promoting leadership and team-building skills.

But for the most part, public schools are overwhelmed just trying to deliver the old kind of twenty-first-century education, the one where students need to be knowledge workers in a wired, interconnected, global economy. In fact, thanks to chronic underfunding only made worse by the recession and an ever-increasing list of state and federal mandates, many schools are having a hard time hitting the mark for last century’s curriculum standards.

Consider the Common Core State Standards, an initiative spearheaded by the National Governors Association to establish a uniform set of expectations for students anywhere in the country. Thirty states (including my own, Massachusetts) have signed on, and yet, to educators and others who follow trends in education, the standards, which cover only English language and math, seem depressingly out of touch with either vision of twenty-first-century life—wired or wild.

My boys both have a class called Life Skills, but it’s about good nutrition and staying off drugs and avoiding STDs. That’s fine as far as it goes—God knows you don’t want to be trying to survive an apocalypse and contending with venereal disease at the same time—but I wish they had more of what we used to call, in the dark ages when I was in public school, Shop and Home Ec (the latter now more snazzily known as Family and Consumer Sciences).

Those disciplines are being dropped from curriculae across the country in favor of keyboarding, Power Point 101 and so forth. (Matthew Crawford’s 2009 book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, is a lament for the loss of what he calls the “useful arts” from our schools and our society.) At our regional high school, shop and home ec (well, their better-named equivalents) are offered only as electives, but kids vying for top-tier colleges don’t take them seriously in any case; they’re too busy trying to pack their schedules with the AP classes that we’re repeatedly told are like catnip to admissions officers.

Last year, Will’s middle school replaced a popular engineering class that had kids designing bridges and building mini racecars with a public speaking class. The move was partly due to budget cuts—the engineering teacher, who had tenure, was expensive, and the speech teacher was not—but also due to the conviction that public speaking was a more useful modern-day skill than building things with your hands. Me, I didn’t agree.

What should the role of education be in a climate-changed, crisis-prone world? I put in a phone call to McKibben, who is both a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and father to a seventeen-year-old daughter.

“When education started in this country, the goal was to round off people who were already practically skilled,” McKibben says. “Most people grew up knowing how to do things like raise their own food and an astonishing number of tasks that we no longer know how to do. You went to school to read the classics and get some polish.

“We’re now kind of in the opposite situation, where kids spend one-hundred percent of their time in a mediated environment. We learn about the world through one school or another. So we might need to be thinking more about using school to introduce us to those practical things that we don’t know how to do anymore.”

Suburban survival guy Sean Brodrick lists in his book new careers that adults should be prepared to adopt should they find themselves in a world where the economy has collapsed or fuel has disappeared, jobs like bike mechanic, tool maker, cobbler, acoustic musician, or (my favorite) beer maker.

On the phone, I point out to him that, with the exception of music, none of those is a skill commonly picked up by kids, either in school or at their myriad enrichment activities.

“I’m not saying you should run out and apprentice your kid to a tailor,” Brodrick says. “Just pick a skill that can be done in the absence of electricity, something they can do with their hands where they can pitch in.” His own son takes archery, for example; his daughter rides horses (which counts, I suppose, as an alternative source of transportation). Brodrick himself makes beer, for the fun of it now, he says, but also because, as he writes in his book, “Everybody is going to be stressed after a collapse. You might be able to make a good living thinking outside the box on how you can relieve [that] stress.”

Beyond the homemade brewskis, he makes sure that his kids are learning more than one language, that they can do basic calculations in their heads, not just on a calculator, and that they learn how to haggle, a skill he believes will become invaluable when resources run scarce.

In short, when it comes to preparing your kids for the worst, he says, “I wouldn’t tell them you’re going to die early and they’ll be left in the world on their own, but you do want to raise them to be able to survive without you.”

Other than the unimaginably sorrowful assertion that we—twentieth-century humans—have broken the planet pretty much permanently, the other big takeaway from McKibben’s Eaarth is that climate-change disasters are and will be happening everywhere, simultaneously.

Thanks to our world-is-flat connectedness, there isn’t and won’t be any place to go where you won’t be affected in some way, he contends. In 2008, when an over-enthusiastic United States suddenly decided to keep a slightly larger portion of its corn crop home, for use as biofuel, rather than exporting it, the move caused food riots in thirty-seven countries, McKibben writes. Oops.

That extreme interconnection is unique to our generation, and it’s scary. But if you can look beyond it—or, more accurately, before it—the human race has a long and storied history of disasters, calamities, and catastrophes, and through it all, at least some people have managed to beg, borrow, and barter their way toward survival. I wanted to know: What skills did these survivors have, what actions did they take, what qualities did they possess, besides luck, that saw them through?

Mucking around online, I found a study done by a team of researchers from the International Centre for Migration and Health in Geneva on mental health and coping in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was intriguing, because before the Yugoslav wars, Sarajevo and other cities in the region were modern, cosmopolitan municipalities, ones that went very quickly downhill in the war. That rapid change might be roughly analogous to what Americans might be confronted with if, say, a water war broke out between Las Vegas and Phoenix.

The report, which looked at the impact of civilian uprooting, displacement, and family disruption during war, found that “there was an overwhelming loss of perceived power and self-esteem. Over twenty-five percent of displaced people…said they no longer felt they were able to play a useful role; even in non-displaced populations approximately eleven percent of those interviewed said that they had lost a sense of worth. Widespread depression and feelings of fatigue and listlessness were common and may have prevented people from taking steps to improve their situation.”

This plays into what Brodrick asserts: In a prolonged crisis, when schools are shut and people aren’t able to go to their twenty-first-century jobs, we’ll still need something to do—not just to obtain the basic necessities of life, though we’ll need that, but also for our mental health. More important, history shows that we need to do these hands-on, take-action kinds of things not alone, or not even hunkered down with just our immediate relatives, but in larger groups.

That can be a thorny concept for Americans to embrace, what with our long-standing national tendency to exalt the virtues of the rugged individual, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at the The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

“When we think of the Wild West, we admire the rugged loner, but what really helped the West succeed was community cooperation—barn raisings and so on—and government assistance with things like irrigation, transportation and electrification,” Coontz points out.

That natural tension between loner and community is still with us, she says: “The things that allow you to succeed as an individual in a competitive society—pursuing your goal with tunnel vision, being the very best—those things are unhelpful in a real crisis like war or depression.”

In researching her forthcoming book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Coontz interviewed women who had lived through the Depression. Rather than stockpiling food and resolving to go it alone, families cooperated. “If they had an opportunity to buy flour, they bought more than they needed and gave it to other people, counting that those families would return the favor when they could. It was relationship-based survival.”

In fact, as far back as prehistoric times, says Coontz, foraging and hoarding never guaranteed that a family would have enough to eat. Instead, a hunter who’d had a successful kill would share with the group, with the understanding that his family would have a share of future kills. “From earliest times, the best chance you have of increasing your fitness as an individual is to share and cooperate with the group,” she says.

All that made me feel a bit better about long-term crises like another depression or a currency collapse. I picture my little family banding together with our neighbors, us with our stash of canned stew, them with the big generators they fired up after the storm that kept their house warm and their lamps lit as we shivered in the dark.

But what about more urgent, if shorter-term, catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina? Haven’t we all absorbed the horror stories of people looting, shooting, and leaving their fellow humans to die?

As it turns out, the people who were a danger in New Orleans were not looters: They were people who thought other people were out to loot them. So explains Rebecca Solnit, whose book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (2009), examines how people behaved in five North American disasters: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires; the 1917 Halifax cargo ship explosion; the 1985 Mexico City earthquake; September 11, 2001; and Hurricane Katrina.

In New Orleans, where Solnit spent time interviewing survivors, “elite panic” was the big danger once the floodwaters stopped rising. Wealthier (usually white) people, falsely believing that looting was rampant in the city, organized and began firing upon and sometimes killing unarmed African Americans. The second group of “elites,” Solnit contends, were those in power—the law enforcement and other government officials whose edicts imprisoned and endangered residents, in essence treating victims as if they were criminals.

Those who managed to avoid both the vigilantes and the official blockades behaved admirably, often overcoming their own suspicions and prejudices to do so. (As she puts it in her book, these volunteer rescuers were “armed, often, but also armed with compassion.”) In fact, from all the disasters she studied, Solnit concludes, “The prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathetic and brave.” I perked up a bit, reading this, because it sounded more than a bit like my list of squishy liberal values. Maybe there was some hope for my boys after all?

In her research, Solnit discovered a quality linking all these disasters: In the midst of catastrophe, survivors experienced an unexpected relief, even joy, when their worlds were turned upside down and their complex, pressured lives were reduced back to the basics. “Sometimes disaster provides a remarkable reprieve,” she writes, citing “a sense of immersion in the moment and solidarity with others caused by the rupture in everyday life, an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive.”

On the phone, she sums it up this way: “You know the way machines reset after a blackout? In a disaster, it’s as if people revert to their original settings. They’re resourceful; they’re able to improvise.”

So what message is there in all of this for people raising kids?

Beyond the obvious basics (children in earthquake- and flood-prone areas should practice the appropriate evacuation techniques; everyone should have practiced what to do in a fast-moving fire), Solnit says children and parents alike should know the people in their physical communities and be ready to work with them, whether they feel fully akin to them or not. “In a disaster, your wealth is going to be the people around you,” she points out. “Your Facebook friend list is not going to get you out of a burning building.”

This sense of physical community is where the middle and upper classes are sometimes at a deficit.  “People who are poor often live closer to the edge, so their wealth is each other, their survival is each other,” she says. “Middle-class, white people have liberated themselves from that. In the course of that, we’ve sometimes lost those networks of affinity and trust and knowledge, of knowing the way around a city.”

That message resonates with McKibben. “The real skill for survival doesn’t have to do with whether you can start a fire,” he says. “It has to do with whether you can get along with the people around you. In some ways, this has become the skill we’re least good at—building societies and building contact with each other.”

Brodrick puts this same sentiment a bit more bluntly: “If you think you can get through a disaster by defending just your own turf, here’s something to think about. These crises will come in waves, and in between, civilization is going to return. Order will be restored, and when it does, you don’t want to have been the biggest asshole on the block. People will remember that.”

Trust me on this: It messes with your head to think too much about The End of the World As We Know It. After reading and talking nothing but Armageddon for weeks on end, I found myself pricing solar panels and making mental space in our yard for a flock of chickens and perhaps a private well, while all around me in our affluent little suburb people continued gassing up their SUVs, edging their lawns, and cranking the AC as if nothing at all were wrong with the cosmos.

When I try to sort out how I feel about all this, I’m not at all sure the altruistic, joyful response to crisis that Solnit talks of would kick in for my family, at least not right away. Sure, we connected with our community during our blackout—neighbors checked on senior citizens, residents with chainsaws helped clear driveways and side roads, and the library, which had its power restored early, quickly turned into a kind of rowdy, indoor town square, with people swapping news and damage reports while re-charging their drained cell phones and tapping into the building’s free Wi-Fi via their laptops.

That said, my chief recollection of our three days without power is of deep cold and deep crankiness. And I was a little shocked to see how many people high-tailed it out of town, and how quickly—to relatives, to hotels, or, most commonly, to their ski houses in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. Gee, I wondered, do I have to add “buy a second home” to my disaster to-do list? All in all, I’m not looking forward to coping with catastrophe, even if there may be an unexpected state of grace included as a side dish.

Still, there is a kind of twisted comfort in thinking about the kind of “powered-down” society that McKibben says we’ll have to adopt if we’re going to continue to live on Eaarth, “holding on against the storm,” he writes, by living “lightly, carefully, and gracefully.” I know I’m being naïve, but it’s not completely distressing to picture my family making a quiet life amidst this kind of long-term societal collapse—bartering with our neighbors, hoeing our small plot, homeschooling and hauling firewood, no longer concerned with any modern definition of success.

Bringing a child into the world is an act of optimism, and while nobody reads you the fine print in the delivery room, the unstated implication is that as a parent you’re expected to hold up your end of the bargain—that is, to keep on being optimistic, even when the evidence is to the contrary.

I started out worrying that we’d all have to learn how to shoot a gun or build a barricade around our four-bedroom colonial, and, while it’s true we all need to have something we can do with our hands, I’m at least a little bit comforted to know that thing can be fishing, or tailoring, or repairing a bicycle.

As for the community piece, well, there’s a bit of a vindication there as well: Tom and I have long second-guessed our decision to risk financial ruin by moving to our close-knit but expensive community. Now it makes some sense to have invested in a kind of living arrangement—which, to be fair, can happen in cities and towns of all sizes and income brackets—where you’re forced to get along with your neighbors, or at minimum tolerate them politely, because those are the people you see over and over every day, every season of every year.

Beyond that, in the spirit of planning for the worst while hoping for the best, I guess the most moral thing I can do right now as a parent is to raise my kids to be in some way part of a solution. Not just recyclers or composters or occasional car-campers, but innovators, problem-solvers, team players, good citizens of the world. Non-assholes.

If that doesn’t work, and the shit really does hit the fan, I’m teaching them to brew beer.

Author’s Note:  I had planned on using this space to try to lighten things up a bit—say, make a joke about not having to pay for college now that the End of the World is nigh—but the fact is, having paid full attention for six weeks to the state our planet is in, I’m not really feeling the funny. Instead, a request: Please read Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth. (It’s short, you can make it through, even with a baby at your breast or a toddler at your knee.) Then share it with a friend.

Brain, Child (Fall 2010)

About the Author: Long-time contributor Tracy Mayor has written for Brain, Child about armageddon parenting, birth control for mamas, soccer mom stereotypes and — for the very first issue — swearing in front of the kids. Her essays and journalism have appeared on the New York Times Motherlode blog, The Rumpus, and in Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, Child and Wondertime. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two sons and crazy beagle.

Revising Ophelia


True story: Abby, age ten, is on the playground after school, reading out to some of us mothers bits of her essay on why single-sex education is good for middle school girls.

When I ask her if girls might not be better off mixing it up academically with boys, just as they’ll have to one day in the real world, I am beset. Don’t I know that girls suffer a precipitous drop in self-esteem the moment adolescence hits? Don’t I know boys harass them in the halls and intimidate them in the classroom? Don’t I know science and math teachers ignore girls and call only on boys?

I should keep my mouth shut, but I can’t resist. “Omigod, are we still picking on those poor science teachers? That is so ’90s!”

Nobody laughs. I think someone actually puts her hands on her hips. “Didn’t you read Reviving Ophelia?” she demands.

Ah, Ophelia.

It’s been ten years since child psychologist Mary Pipher published Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. In that decade, “Ophelia” has become universal shorthand not for Hamlet’s mopey girlfriend–though that’s who we see floating on the cover in a sea of water lilies–but for a soul-destroying culture that “limits girls’ development, truncates their wholeness and leaves many of them traumatized,” as Pipher wrote in her introduction.

But here’s what’s disturbing: ten years after its debut–the lifetime, as it turns out, of an adolescent girl–Ophelia still sells between 45,000 and 50,000 copies each year. That’s fifty thousand new copies to parents who presumably wouldn’t dream of relying on an old edition of What to Expect… or a Penelope Leach book from another millennium.

This is dangerous business, I think. It’s undeniable that Reviving Ophelia played the pivotal role in inspiring teachers, parents, health advocates and others to fight back against gender bias, sexual harassment, and “girl-poisoning” popular culture.

But it’s equally undeniable that we shouldn’t be reading it–or is that obsessing on it?–anymore. Read the actual book, as I did recently, and you’ll find it’s badly dated and, in places, needlessly inflammatory, and we can’t help today’s teens of either gender by relying on old information. It’s time to thank Ophelia for all her good work and come back to our own decade.


Mary Pipher says she never expected Ophelia to be a hit. It wasn’t until the paperback was issued in 1996 that sales truly took off. “It was a slow-building book. Nobody expected it to do much of anything,” Pipher recalls, speaking from her home in Nebraska, where she still maintains a clinical practice, teaches part time, and updates a web site (marypipher.net) to apprise fans on her latest writings.

Instead, the book did something big: it hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and went on to spend three years there. Almost two million copies of the paperback edition alone are in print.

Drawing on and expanding upon earlier work on girls like Carol Gilligan’s Meeting at the Crossroads and the American Association of University Women’s 1992 study How Schools Shortchange Girls, Reviving Ophelia kick-started a wave of girl-centric activism that’s still going strong.

Reviving Ophelia started a dialogue about adolescence that wasn’t there before,” says Rachel Muir, who was inspired by Ophelia to form Girlstart Inc., an Austin-based program dedicated to narrowing the digital divide between boys and girls in the classroom. “Ophelia validated an entire girls’ movement by asking us to take a look at how we shape society for girls, to look at the pressure girls are under.”

But Ophelia the book, as distinct from Ophelia the movement, hasn’t kept pace with the changes it brought about.

Reviving Ophelia was never strong on facts to begin with–the book has no footnotes and little attribution–and those facts are now twelve or more years out of date. To cite just two of many examples, Pipher claims at one point that “sexual and physical assaults on girls are at an all-time high,” but references no statistics. Surely–taking into account ages past when women and girls were considered property and incest and rape weren’t crimes–surely Pipher meant reports of sexual assault were on the rise, which can even be a good thing if that means girls and their advocates are gaining the courage to speak up and out against sexual crimes.

Elsewhere, Pipher casually lets drop that girls are “growing up in a world where one in four women will be raped in her lifetime.” Again, the number isn’t referenced, and ten years on, when asked, Pipher can’t recall where it came from (and shouldn’t, in all fairness, be expected to remember now).

But if that statistic, shocking as it is, were ever true, it’s not true now. The Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the number at one in six, and that’s for sexual assault and attempted assault combined, which means the number of actual rapes is even lower.

I’m not suggesting the girls’ movement has run its course–in the week this article was written, two football players in Massachusetts were charged with raping a fifteen-year-old classmate; voters in Ohio told pollsters they couldn’t vote for John Kerry because his wife was not sufficiently “ladylike”; and a teenaged actress rumored to have already had breast implants posed with shirt up and thong pulled down past her pubic bone for the cover of a magazine read by men in their thirties and forties.

Yes, we still have work to do. But wallowing in outdated and possibly inflammatory numbers won’t help us make our daughters any safer or secure; it only makes us, and them, feel hysterical, or paralyzed, or both. And that paralysis can stop us from acknowledging the very real progress we’ve made in the past decade and being able to meet head-on a changing crop of girl-relevant issues as they emerge today.

Progress has been significant. Girlstart and programs like it across the country mentor girls in math and science. Bullying and sexual harassment education raises awareness among teachers, administrators, and students in middle school and high school. Health services reach out to girls who otherwise have little or no access to information about their changing bodies. And publications like New Moon, an advertising-free magazine written by girls for girls, presents girls in their most formative years with an alternate view of themselves from what they see in the mainstream media.

Experts on adolescent issues that I spoke with–Andrea Prejean, the National Education Association’s specialist in mathematics/science student achievement, and Angela Diaz, MD, director of the Mt. Sinai Adolescent Health Center in New York City, to name just two–agree that, while we still have a long way to go, we’ve made dramatic headway in bettering girls’ lives the past ten years.

Many more girls are taking math, science, and computer science in middle and high school. Mortality, deaths from firearms, cigarette use, binge drinking, and illicit use of drugs are all on the decline among adolescents in the 1990s and into the early part of the new century.

On the downside, very young teens are becoming sexualized at an earlier and earlier age, says Diaz, and many teens of either gender lack adequate access to health services close to where they live and go to school. And while there’s been little decline in eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia in the past decade, there’s been an increase in childhood and adolescent obesity so sharp it’s been labeled an epidemic.

None of this news, good or bad, will get through to the fifty thousand people who buy Reviving Ophelia this year, simply because none of it’s in there. Pipher has never revised the book; she has turned her scholarly attentions elsewhere, publishing books on elders, refugees, and psychotherapy itself.


So why can’t we turn our attention elsewhere? Why can’t we stop reading Ophelia? Because the book, in its enormous popularity, trained us a bit too well to pathologize teenage girlhood, to view every adolescence as an ongoing, irrefutable crisis. Wrapped inside Ophelia‘s “empower and protect” message is a darker theme, one that appeals in a forbidden kind of way to moms who aren’t ready to let go: your girl is helpless and under attack. A healthy, normally developing teen, after all, will naturally begin to turn away from her parents–even her loving mom–in favor of her friends and her teen-girl culture. But a girl in crisis, well, she still needs you, doesn’t she!

Intentionally or not, Pipher repeatedly reinforces this message. “[Vegetarianism] is popular with girls because they so easily identify with the lack of speech and powerlessness of animals,” she writes in Ophelia. Oh, dear, it’s the teen girl as veal calf, boxed up helplessly in her pen and set upon by enemies of every stripe–boys/men, society/culture, advertising/media, divorced/working parents and those awful, unenlightened science teachers.

This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of girls in our country who aren’t yet hearing the Girl Power message–read Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family for an account of one such untouched neighborhood and the trials of the teen girls who live there. But inner-city and rural/poor moms aren’t the ones buying Ophelia, I suspect, nor the aftermarket of books by other authors that followed in Ophelia‘s wake–Ophelia Speaks, Surviving Ophelia, Ophelia’s Mom, and so on.

No, these book buyers are much more likely educated, hands-on parents out to give their girls every advantage–even if that means schooling them in potential disadvantages before they’re even out of American Girl dolls. Thus we get the specter of Abby on the playground, precociously reciting all the woe that awaits her with the same efficient good cheer that she tackles dance lessons, piano, tennis, and debate club.


As Pipher’s original call to arms has morphed into something more fetishistic, the teen-girl book market has only picked up speed, minus the activism. The second wave of books center not so much on the sexist indignities of the world as on the slings and arrows girls suffer at the hands of other girls–a phenomenon known in the industry as “girl-on-girl aggression.”

Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons (2002); Mean Girls by Hayley DiMarco (2004); Mean Chick, Cliques and Dirt Tricks by Erika V. Shearin Karnes (2004), and the queen bee of the genre, Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees & Wannabes (2002), all document the carnivorous ways those poor veal calves are able to tear one another to shreds.

In Queen Bees & Wannabes, and in the Empower seminars that she conducts at middle schools and high schools, Wiseman delineates in anthropological detail the seven kinds of teen girl and their supposed behaviors. “Queen Bees,” for example, use fear and control to rule their cliques. “Bankers” create chaos in the hierarchy by hoarding and then strategically releasing information about other girls. “Wannabes,” “Targets,” “Torn Bystanders” . . . you might be able to guess at their roles; if not, Wiseman is right there with pages of description on each, the better to help you figure out which role your daughter plays in her school.

To go with these girl types are nine varieties of boys (from “Desperate Annoying Guy” to “Good-Boy Jock”), and as for you, hapless parent that you are, Wiseman lists off a whopping twelve different kinds of parenting styles, only one of which, alarmingly, passes muster in her opinion. (Congratulations, all you “Loving Hard-Ass” parents.)

At first read, this seems like just the book a teen and her mom could use to figure out why she’s on top of the world one day and cast out the next. So mesmerizing is Queen Bees, in fact, that it takes awhile to realize how deeply cynical and sexist this book is. Wiseman’s willingness to rigidly categorize people, her unapologetic enumeration of ages-old attributes of social acceptance, and her laser-like dissection of the smallest of social interactions is all very, well, high school. It’s a book about queen bees written in the style of a queen bee–authoritative and unquestioning–maybe even by a queen bee, that winds up validating the importance of the social hierarchy it claims to debunk.

You might very well be able to steer your daughter through the treacherous waters of adolescence following Wiseman’s morally relativistic advice, but what kind of young woman she’ll be when she reaches the far shore is still very much up for grabs.


While we’ve spent the past decade chasing the bogeyman in the science classroom and unraveling the mysteries of teen tribes under Wiseman’s tutelage, another group, a mammoth, well-organized, deep-pocketed, truly scary and worthy opponent has been working with tireless efficiency to mess with the heads of teen girls and create strife in their homes.

They’re marketers, and if you think you’ve already heard the yadda yadda about the evils of Barbie and Seventeen magazine, it’s time to take another, closer look. Since 1992, marketing aimed at children, including teens, has increased by two-and-a-half times. It now amounts to some $15 billion annually, according to the New York Times.

Pipher complained about marketing’s ill effects on teen girls in Ophelia, and today says she believes it’s the single most significant element of girls’ lives that’s gotten markedly worse since she published her book. “If anything, girls are even more targeted by vicious consumerism, branding, and marketing. The message is, if you don’t own these products, you cannot love yourself,” says Pipher.

“I think it’s a terrible thing to do to young people.”

As always, there are people who want to sell anxious parents books about this burgeoning threat, and indeed, the past eighteen months has seen the advent of tomes like Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers by Alissa Quart (2003), Born To Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture by Juliet Schor (2004) (excerpted in Brain, Child’s Summer 2004 issue) and Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood by Susan Linn (2004).

We’ve all heard by now that teenaged girls are particularly vulnerable to the effects of advertising, marketing, and media messages, but in Linn’s book at last we find the answer to why that’s so. The chain of vulnerability goes something like this: Children are being exposed to material ostensibly intended for adults earlier and earlier in their lives–c.f. the Coors twins, Sex in the City reruns, and thongs for ten-year-olds. Meanwhile, physically, girls are going into puberty at a younger age, but their emotional development isn’t keeping pace. When they look to the culture around them for cues on how to act, they find MTV, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Maybelline ready and waiting.

Linn’s book doesn’t focus solely on girls, or teens, but chapters on food marketing, the alcohol and tobacco juggernauts, and sex as a commodity strike at the heart of the pressures teenaged girls feel to simultaneously conform and rebel. Linn explains just why Barbie has the influence she does over the way girls feel about their bodies; makes the connection between obesity, anorexia/bulima, and food marketing; and exposes the subtle ways the tobacco industry gets the message out to girls that smoking will keep their weight down.

Perhaps most tragically, marketers have benefited handsomely–and cynically–from the girls’ movement, co-opting its message of hope and empowerment to move products off the shelves.

“The media is worse, more sexist, more limiting in how it portrays girls than it was even ten years ago,” asserts Nancy Gruver, who founded New Moon magazine in 1992. “Before, we had benign neglect. There was not a lot of focus on girls. Now they’ve co-opted our message. Now girl power is about what kind of lip gloss you wear.”

There we have it. In ten short years, we’ve leapt from girl-as-victim to girl-as-power-shopper. Linn’s call to arms–that all marketing toward children should be banned–is of particular import to people who care about girls, because girls can’t and won’t flourish without space to make their own creative decisions apart from the impervious, insistent marketplace.

What Ophelia helped to start–a movement to empower girls–has been hijacked by marketers who are a more potent threat to girls’ developing creativity and self-esteem than some bumbling science teacher will ever be. IM to Ophelia: Get out of that weed bath, girlfriend, we’ve still got work to do.

Author’s Note: The more pop/psych/parenting books I read, the more deeply I am coming to mistrust the whole genre. At best, they rob you of perspective; at worst, they induce parental paranoia. As an antidote, try a broader take on girls in the world, like Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, or Catherine Hardwicke’s 2002 movie, Thirteen.

Brain, Child (Winter, 2005)

About the Author: Tracy Mayor is a long-time contributor to Brain, Child. She is the author of the parenting-humor book Mommy Prayers. Follow her on Twitter@mommyprayers. Stacey Evers contributed research for this article.

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