Monday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

In case you missed it, MomsRising Executive Director Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner was on CNN Friday morning brilliantly rebutting AOL CEO Tim Armstrong’s assertion that the multi-billion dollar company needed to cut retirement benefits over two employees’ “distressed babies” and “Obamacare”.

Armstrong has since apologized for his comments and reversed his decision to cut employees’ retirement benefits. But, of course, this story is not over as it has highlighted a larger problem in our corporate culture.

The spouse of one of the two employees whose babies were blamed for the company’s healthcare costs, spoke out in a chilling piece for Slate. She walked us through the trauma that was the birth of her now one-year-old daughter and highlighted the obvious scapegoating of the sick and those who need healthcare by a company that reported record earnings on Friday.

Let’s set aside the fact that Armstrong—who took home $12 million in pay in 2012—felt the need to announce a cut in employee benefits on the very day that he touted the best quarterly earnings in years. For me and my husband—who have been genuinely grateful for AOL’s benefits, which are actually quite generous—the hardest thing to bear has been the whiff of judgment in Armstrong’s statement, as if we selfishly gobbled up an obscenely large slice of the collective health care pie.

Exactly. If employees can’t access the health insurance that they pay for…then what’s it for? Why pay premiums? Jeez…

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?

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Midday Coffee Break

What’s up?

Katy Farber over at Non-Toxic Kids reviewed an aromatic play clay.

Also in Non-Toxic Kids: Due to recent studies, the Environmental Working Group is working to limit children’s exposure to cell phone radiation. Katy listed  the cell phone brands emitting the most radiation and other tips. Based on my time as a wireless reporter, I would add that your exposure increases when you experience spotty coverage and also analog phones like cordless phones and older cell phone models also emit more radiation than newer digital models.

Slate had a news brief about how Disney’s new studio chief, Rich Ross, is gay and not giving any interviews. The e-zine wondered if it was Disney keeping his sexual orientation under wraps or if being gay is not a big deal anymore. What do you think?

In related news: The Washington D.C. city council has introduced legislation legalizing gay marriage in the city, according to the Associated Press. Whether it will get passed is complicated as congress must approve it. At least one Republican congressman in Utah said he would fight it.

I can’t wait to see what becomes of this marriage: Verizon Wireless and Google have hooked up to introduce a smartphone like the iPhone. As I have mentioned here before, I love my iPhone, but AT&T Wireless sucks. I spotted the Verizon-Google announcement in Slate, but the original source is the Daily Beast.

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?

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Midday Coffee Break

What’s up?

Attention California moms: The Consumer Federation of California is passing around a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to encourage him to sign into law a bill, AB 1512, that would prohibit the sale of expired infant formula, baby food and over the counter drugs. I just can’t believe we have to pass a law for this.

The Washington Post covered a study on how women between the ages of 18 to 34 are postponing having babies because of the recession. Also in the Washington Post: We are so in flu season. So many people around me are sick and I have been battling a cold for over a week. According to this story in the Post, gorging on anti-oxidant rich foods like blueberries won’t make your immune system stronger. But the article really recommended hand washing.

Jenny Sanford is the latest political wife to sign up to pen a memoir, according to Slate. The book, which has no title, is slated to appear in May 2010.

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?

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Cloth Diapers a Booming Business

Here is a bright spot for some work-at-home moms. Due to the green movement and falling prices for cloth diapers, the cloth diaper business is actually doing well in this economy, according to Slate’s Big Money zine.

At a time when most of the economy is in the toilet, the cloth-diaper business is booming. Cloth diapering has long been a countercultural lifestyle choice, reserved largely for deeply committed environmentalists. It became more popular in the past couple of years as green went from crunchy to hip. Sometimes too hip: Parents in search of eco-status could shell out more than $300 for a single diaper made from designer-printed organic bamboo fabric. While luxury diapers still sell for upward of $100, most are no-frill models retailing for less than $20, converting a new generation of parents looking to cut costs and creating a growing market for entrepreneurs. Cloth-diapering site Diaper Swappers now has more than 67,000 members, and it is adding new ones at a rate twice as fast as before the recession, now around 100 per day.

To the uninitiated, the cloth-diapering world may seem oddly fanatical. For years, parents had a hard time finding cloth diapers that work well, and the Internet provided support and consumer advice to parents who sometimes felt under siege from Pampers commercials. Sites like Diaper Swappers evolved their own slang, and users zealously evangelize for brands with names like Fuzzibuns, Swaddlebees, and Urban Fluff. Cloth-diapering parents sometimes sound like junkies obsessively trolling the Internet for a hit. “I couldn’t stop researching CDs [cloth diapers],” wrote one Diaper Swapper mother. “I am addicted to them.”

There are a bewildering array of options for cloth diapers, including basic cotton ones that must be paired with a leak-resistant cover (these include “prefolds,” “fitteds,” and “contours”); covers with pouches that hold either absorbent fabric inserts (“pockets”) or flushable pads (the gDiaper); or “All in Ones,” which have the absorbent layer sewn in. Parents who use cloth diapers swear that all these options are less gross than disposable diapers since they go straight into the wash instead of festering in a garbage bag.

While it’s possible to spend outrageous amounts on cloth-diaper setups, a complete bare-bones wardrobe for your baby’s bottom runs between $80 and $150 if you’re willing to do a wash every couple of days. (Green Mountain Diapers has a handy breakdown of packages for various budgets, though they’re limited to the brands the store sells.) With disposable diapers costing about $15 per week—an expense that adds up to more than $1,500 before a baby is potty trained—it’s easy to see the financial appeal, even when you add in the cost of extra laundry.

I am still traumatized from being the only parent to change Ari’s cloth diapers in his first year of life. (Markos was just starting his career.) But I am glad the cloth diaper has become more sophisticated and a booming business for many mothers.

Do your babies wear cloth diapers?

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Thursday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

Jeremy Adam Smith aka “Daddy Dialectic” will read from his new book, The Daddy Shift at Pegasus Bookstore in downtown Berkeley on Sunday, June 14, at 5 p.m.. Hope to see you there!

Sandra Tsing-Loh wrote about the pressures on today’s mom compared to the 1950s for Slate’s new Double X online zine.

The Washington Post ran a couple stories about two jobs with low wages and high staff turnover: special education and home health care. I was surprised to read that considering all work is precious and welcome in this economy.

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?

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Playing At Home Vs. Going Out

I laughed out loud at this father’s description of the hell it is to get kids out the door for an outing.

Here is father of three Tom Hodgkinson’s account in Slate:

Before children, I just used to stroll out of the house. Now this process cannot be achieved without an hour of screaming, searching for lost socks and shoes, huffing, puffing, shouting, cursing Britax and their cruel inventions in the name of child safety. Then you have to find various toys that the children seem to find completely indispensable for the journey. Recently we made the terrible mistake of installing one of those DVD players in the back of the car, in the hope that it would keep the kids quiet on long journeys. It can help, I suppose, but the darned thing never seems to work properly, and fixing it is yet another task to add to the interminable torture of leaving the house.

Then the real hell begins. We start to drive to the theme park. The three children, tightly bound in the back of the car, start lashing out at one another. Each child has perfected his or her own uniquely irritating crying noise. Delilah’s is a sort of constant mosquito whine mixed with helpless sobbing that apparently prevents her from being able to articulate the nature of her complaint. Arthur wails as if the world is about to end, and it’s all so unfair and unjust. And Henry makes the sort of noises that the makers of The Exorcist would have been proud to feature in the movie. Both mother and father now start shouting. Mother wheels round and screams: “How many times do I have to tell you? Leave him alone!” Dad bellows: “Right, Arthur, one more time and there’s no ice cream. I mean it.” Dad anxiously glances in the rearview mirror to see what’s going on. For a while I congratulate myself for not losing my temper. Then I suddenly break. I have been known to go berserk, to swear and bang the windshield in my rage. Then, if I lose my temper, Victoria takes this as her cue to seize the moral high ground and say something like, “We’re fed up with you,” thus driving me into a deeper rage, which cannot really be expressed well since we’re all trapped in this blessed motor car.

Perhaps this is the difference between having three versus two children or even a difference in the personalities of parents, but where he loses me is at the end when he pontificates the wonderfulness of simply staying home.

Despite the hell it is to get kids out the door, I find it so convenient to kill a couple hours at a theme park or even a walk around the block in the evening, which is what we’ve been doing to kill time before bedtime. The cabin fever, for me, was so awful when I first became a parent.

I think my problem is I simply do not know how to entertain, let’s say, a toddler. Or, perhaps I am not into the activities my children are. Activities like coloring and playing transformers — which I will do — I find numbingly boring. I like board games and am looking forward to Ari and Eli getting into those. In the meantime, what am I to do? Leave the house with the kids.

What say you about Hodgkinson’s article? How do you spend your time with your children? I would especially love tips on fun things to do with two-year-olds.

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Public Vs. Private School Debate Rears Its Head on Slate

Don’t worry, this actually wasn’t a mommy war. Slate actually ran helpful tips how we can all help the public schools regardless of our personal school choices.

Here is what mother and daughter team Patty Stonesifer and Sandy Stonesifer had to say to a west Los Angeles mother who wanted to help the public schools but send her own children to expensive private schools.

Patty:

Eloise, the public education failure in this country is huge, and fixing it needs to be a national priority. Thirty percent of American eighth-graders never make it to graduation; 1.2 million students will drop out of high school this year. We rank 21st in science education and 25th in math education among the top 30 industrialized nations. As you know, our country’s future requires deep and broad reform of our public school system. I encourage you to follow, learn, and act on key education decisions that affect all students in California, and you can do that through the Education Trust’s West Coast affiliate. On a national basis, you can learn about what is going on across the country and how you can take action related to the three pillars that are part of the Strong American Schools effort (raising American education standards, putting effective teachers in every classroom, and increasing time for learning). There is some limited good news: The stimulus plan included href=”40 billion for schools, and while most of that will go to prop up state investments in education in times of decreased revenue, about $15 billion of it is discretionary for the new secretary of education, Arne Duncan, who plans to use it reward and accelerate education reform efforts….

Sandy:

…(A friend who is an education expert) made the excellent point that accepting the public education system as it is would be a far better example of “letting the government off the hook” than sending your kids to private school. While making the right personal decision about your children’s well-being is important, so is the public responsibility that you have to advocate for all kids in the same way you advocate for your own. And she underscored what research shows (and every parent knows) to be the most important determinant of success at any school: quality teachers. How we ensure the best teachers are attracted and retained in the system, however, is hotly contested. Performance pay, changes in teacher training, better data systems to track student progress, or any of the other numerous teacher incentive programs will require that we begin to make real efforts at reform and track the evidence of what works. The New Teacher Project, started by Michelle Rhee, the current chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, works to help ensure all kids have access to the highest-quality, effective teachers possible.

In President Obama’s first town hall meeting, his answer to the question “How do we know what makes an effective teacher?” was, by some reports, the most animated exchange. Our education guru says that the most well-meaning parents who flee public schools (and probably even well-meaning parents who have their kids in public schools) often end up unconsciously supporting bad policy decisions when they think they are doing what’s best for kids. One of the best examples of this can be found in your home state of California, Eloise. California pushed through a huge statewide class-size-reduction effort in the primary grades. While it cost the state billions of dollars, the effort actually ended up diminishing teacher quality without showing any clear educational benefits. Though “conventional wisdom” still says that smaller class sizes are the most important factor in a child’s educational success, the only thing the research shows to be anything close to a “silver bullet” is ensuring that children end up with a high-quality teacher for an extended time.

Finally, returning to the dilemma of the parent making the decision one child at a time:It’s important to remember that there are great private schools and great public schools. So rather than worry about one type of school over the other, you should focus on identifying your child’s and family’s needs and do your best to find a school that meets them. The Department of Education’s Guide to Choosing a School for Your Child and the Great Schools site both provide good tools and resources for deciding what factors are important to you and finding schools that meet those needs.

What other tips would you have for Eloise in west Los Angeles?

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Prudie to Long Lost Bio Mom: Suck It

Prudie of “Dear Prudence” fame recently went off on a mom who found her long-lost daughter and didn’t like her. This bio mom went on to say the daugther was rude not to thank her for a birthday gift, that she was a slob and would suck at her chosen profession, which happens to be bio-mom’s too.

Here is what Prudie said:

It’s sometimes easy when smacked in the face with issues such as abandonment, disappointment, loss, love, obligation, and guilt to focus on something more manageable. Something like, OK, so 23 years ago, I did decide I couldn’t raise you. But now I’ve gone to the trouble of getting you a really nice birthday gift, and you’re not thanking me properly, you little brat! I accept that this girl is obnoxious and immature—but maybe this isn’t just a matter of nurture, but also of nature, because you are exhibiting those same qualities yourself. You must know that in regard to you, she has some big issues of her own. Surely she can detect how much you dislike her, which might set her to thinking, Hey, “Mom,” the more time I spend with you, the happier I am that I was adopted. And how nice that five years after I was born, you decided to keep your next daughter—I guess you think she turned out better than me. Yes, she is your biological offspring, but her mother is the person who raised her—perhaps not very well—and who is there for her and for her child now. How disruptive of you to appear in this young woman’s life and be so judgmental about how she isn’t meeting your needs and expectations. For the future, a marginal relationship between the two of you is probably for the best. Or possibly you could learn to put aside your disdain and become a supportive, if peripheral, presence—someone who can give her guidance as she tries to make her way into your profession and help her so she doesn’t “suck” at it.

Seriously. Who are these people who write Prudie? Sounds like this mom has issues of her own.

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Why “Octomom” Bothers Us

I don’t need to tell you that the story of Nadya Sulemen aka “Octomom’s” 14 children has stirred all kinds of emotions here and in the world.

I recently read a column in Slate with an eery parallel: Should you help children whose mother you do not think is worthy of aid? In this case, a woman in South Carolina discovered a mom in need and, along with her church, has provided a lot of in-kind help like toys for the kids, insulation for her windows, plumbing and infestation services. The group was considering subsidizing this family’s phone service, but “Abby in South Carolina” is now wondering if they are simply subsidizing this mom’s bad decisions.

Here is what a mother and daughter team replied:

Patty:

….At first review, nothing you are doing sounds like you are enabling the mom’s problems, and you are certainly creating a safer environment for these kids. I think what you are doing is sound and compassionate. If the rest of your class doesn’t agree, why not sit down together and write out a few giving guidelines you want to follow on any further projects and, as long as you can find ways to help this family within those guidelines, continue on?

I realize you and your classmates have standards for the way you believe people should live—but I caution you about imposing those standards as a requirement for your giving. A poster next to my desk as I type this that has a quote from an Aboriginal activist group: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I have returned to that quote hundreds of times in the past decade as I examined my own giving practices.

I encourage you to keep pursuing your own service plan, but check your approach occasionally against this quote to ensure you’re on the right track.

Sandy:

It sounds like you have the very best intentions, Abby, but I disagree with my mom on this one. With your current setup (identifying, coordinating, and paying for the fixes), I think you may be enabling the mom’s problems without providing much long-term benefit. I say keep helping only if you can take the time to work with her to help identify and meet her basic needs. If you don’t feel that you have the time or the skills, acknowledge that and try to put her in touch with someone who can.

If you want to help this family and you have the time to do it right, I would start by sitting down with her and making a list of the issues that she thinks need to be addressed and help her to match those needs to service efforts in your own community.

You don’t discuss her work situation, but if she’s currently out of work and wants to change that, help her identify skills that she could strengthen through job training courses. If child care is an obstacle, help her get set up for subsidized child care so that she can take those courses. Find out whether she is eligible for the South Carolina Family Independence Program or low-income phone assistance to help her pay her phone bill on her own. The Family Service Center of South Carolina looks like a great resource. Even if they don’t have a center in your town, they may be able to point you in the right direction for statewide services.

If she’s been working with community agencies, she may already have these resources, and if she isn’t choosing to use them, you certainly can’t make her. At that point, you have to decide what you’re willing to do for the children. Maybe it’s buying their back-to-school necessities, maybe it’s bringing a box of groceries to their house once a week, but I don’t think you should commit yourself to paying for her phone service or any other long-term aid. There are government and community resources to cover exactly these needs, and while they aren’t always perfect, in the long run it will be more sustainable to have her working within the system than receiving handouts from a benefactor, no matter how well-intentioned.

Sandy provided links to resources in South Carolina. I think both women’s suggestions would help this family.

But I think the three women touched on an issue facing all poor people, including Suleman. How do you help out the children without enabling the mother’s poor decisions? Can you really help one without the other? What say you, MotherTalkers?

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Helicoptering Children to Success? Maybe.

In light of this Free Range story about the mom who was accosted by police for allowing her 10-year-old to walk by himself to soccer practice, Slate had a long series of posts about “helicopter parenting.”

The different writers seemed to agree that more parents today are hovering over their children and scheduling their free time to the point kids do not know how to function as adults in college. But throughout the high-brow discussion, the differences in attitude among low-income and middle-class parents continuously came up: Are poor families less likely than upper middle income families to be helicopter parents, therefore raise better adjusted children? Or, is the opposite true?

This research in an old New York Times Magazine article about the achievement gap between black and white and poor and middle-class students cited by Slate’s Emily Bazelon was eye-opening and really adds another element to this debate:

Another researcher, an anthropologist named Annette Lareau, has investigated the same question from a cultural perspective. Over the course of several years, Lareau and her research assistants observed a variety of families from different class backgrounds, basically moving in to each home for three weeks of intensive scrutiny. Lareau found that the middle-class families she studied all followed a similar strategy, which she labeled concerted cultivation. The parents in these families engaged their children in conversations as equals, treating them like apprentice adults and encouraging them to ask questions, challenge assumptions and negotiate rules. They planned and scheduled countless activities to enhance their children’s development — piano lessons, soccer games, trips to the museum.

The working-class and poor families Lareau studied did things differently. In fact, they raised their children the way most parents, even middle-class parents, did a generation or two ago. They allowed their children much more freedom to fill in their afternoons and weekends as they chose — playing outside with cousins, inventing games, riding bikes with friends — but much less freedom to talk back, question authority or haggle over rules and consequences. Children were instructed to defer to adults and treat them with respect. This strategy Lareau named accomplishment of natural growth.

In her book “Unequal Childhoods,“ published in 2003, Lareau described the costs and benefits of each approach and concluded that the natural-growth method had many advantages. Concerted cultivation, she wrote, “places intense labor demands on busy parents. … Middle-class children argue with their parents, complain about their parents’ incompetence and disparage parents’ decisions.“ Working-class and poor children, by contrast, “learn how to be members of informal peer groups. They learn how to manage their own time. They learn how to strategize.“ But outside the family unit, Lareau wrote, the advantages of “natural growth“ disappear. In public life, the qualities that middle-class children develop are consistently valued over the ones that poor and working-class children develop. Middle-class children become used to adults taking their concerns seriously, and so they grow up with a sense of entitlement, which gives them a confidence, in the classroom and elsewhere, that less-wealthy children lack. The cultural differences translate into a distinct advantage for middle-class children in school, on standardized achievement tests and, later in life, in the workplace.

To this, I refer to the “mommy gut.” In the case of the mom at Free Range Kids, clearly she is a “concerted cultivating” type who enrolled her child in soccer and even admitted she is a bit of a “helicopter parent.” It is understandable why she would resent a lecture from a police officer in allowing her child to walk a third of a mile from their home. I think, generally, everyone on this site would fall into this realm.

For me, personally, I think my family has struck a good balance between scheduling activities and having a lot of free time. (At 5, Ari is not at an age where he can roam the streets alone.) There are many kids at Ari’s school who have scheduled activities every day after school. We are talking Chinese class, piano lessons, karate, gymnastics, etc.. I have taken my cue from Ari who has successfully completed a once a week cooking class he was sad to see end and is now enrolled in an art class taught by the same teacher, who also happens to be his daytime teacher. He works well in quiet activities with people he knows.

On other afternoons he spends time with friends, playing video games or watching TV. The latter two are in limited amounts, which I attribute to the fact my husband and I fortunate enough to work from home. I do think having resources, like time, helps and definitely guides the choices we make as parents.

What do you think about all this talk about helicopter parenting, or excuse me, “concerted cultivation?” Surely, there is a difference between those two as well.

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