Monday, January 24, 2011

The Children of ECT

On Thursday, January 27, the FDA will open hearings on the reclassification of electroconvulsive (ECT) machines from Class III to Class II medical devices. Coincidentally, that is also the day my entire family leaves for Disney World, the first time in over four years all seven of us will get on a plane. Our oldest son Jonah, now 12, suffers from autism and rapid-cycling bipolar disorder. Until March of 2010, he was plagued by frequent, unpredictable and violent rages that countless medication trials and an almost year-long hospitalization failed to stabilize. Not only couldn’t we take him on a plane, but it was becoming increasingly clear that it wasn’t safe to keep him at home: his almost daily attacks left me, his teachers and his aides bruised, scratched and bitten.

Why is this such an ironic coincidence? Because it was ECT that finally stopped Jonah’s aggression, that finally brought peace to our home, that allowed us to plan the paradigmatic American vacation so many families take for granted. And at the exact moment we push through the gates of the Magic Kingdom, rabid anti-ECT activists will pour into the ballroom at the Washington DC Hilton to convince the FDA to further restrict access to, or even completely ban, ECT.

Estimates suggest about 100,000 people receive ECT every year, typically adults suffering from treatment-refractory mood disorders. But there is a growing group of patients whose quality of life depends exclusively on their access to ECT – developmentally delayed kids and teens who, like Jonah, suffer from aggressive, self-injurious and/or catatonic behaviors. I met several of these families over the past year – including a 14-year-old autistic boy who was so self-injurious he detached his own retinas, as well as a 16-year-old – born with half a cerebellum due to an in-utero stroke – who vacillated between periods of uncontrollable rage and catatonic stupor, during which he would remain frozen, unable to eat, toilet or communicate, for up to eight days. ECT resolved the extreme behaviors of both these boys, as well as those in other cases reported in the psychiatric literature by doctors at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and the University of Michigan, among other places. And it did so without any of the cognitive impairments or personality changes trumpeted by the anti-ECT movement – data collected by Jonah’s school, for instance, shows that his acquisition rates for new material are as high as they’ve ever been, with no retention problems that might signify memory loss.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would try to keep ECT out of the hands of a group that so desperately needs it, but that’s exactly what will be happening at the FDA hearings, which will help determine whether ECT machines will be reclassified as Class II medical devices. Currently, the machines are in Class III, the riskiest group, which requires manufacturers to file a pre-market approval application (PMA), including large-scale clinical trials. Because ECT predates the FDA's regulation of medical devices, however, the ECT manufacturers were grandfathered in without the studies. But now the FDA is at a crossroads: they must either reclassify the devices or force the manufacturers to submit a PMA – and the owners of these small companies, who aren’t scientists, have already stated that they can’t afford to do these clinical trials (let me add there are dozens of studies in the literature over the past sixty years or so that document the safety and efficacy of ECT, just not ones done by the makers of ECT machines).

I know that when people think of ECT, they don’t think of kids like mine who, without ECT, would be condemned to restraints, locked wards, blindness, even death. They think of Jack Nicholson thrashing on a table – even though by 1963, when Ken Kesey published One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, ECT was already being performed with muscle relaxants under general anesthesia. I’m sure it comes as a tremendous surprise to many that ECT is used with this population. But that’s why I’m telling Jonah’s story now, so you do think about him and his terribly afflicted peers, and so the FDA doesn’t forget them under the onslaught of accusations from anti-ECT groups that ECT is torture, a human rights violation. So perhaps the public may begin to develop the constellation of associations we, the parents of these children, have with ECT: lifesaver. Game-changer. And even, as melodramatic as it sounds, miracle.

(The FDA is receiving electronic comments on ECT in its public docket through January 25.)

Friday, May 7, 2010


In 2002, Andy and I retired my mother in - if I do say so myself - a rather spectacular way. We bought her a brand-new, three bedroom condo in the "it" retirement community in South Florida. Then, Andy, Jonah, Erika, Matty, Keri and I all snuck down to Tamarac, and we threw her a big suprise party in it. She thought she was going to a little cocktail party thrown by a friend of a friend, and she walked in, and there we all were - her kids, her cousins, her friends. In an instant she learned both that she had a new house, and that she could quit the crappy secretarial work she had been doing since my parents separated when I was seven. It was amazing watching her at the party, speechless, trying to stay upright while her world lurched beneath her. Her life would never be the same after that, and I remember being just a little bit jealous, because I thought then that I would never experience that kind of life-changing moment.

Until Friday, April 16, when we went out to dinner with Keri and Matty and our friends Lauren and Brian to celebrate Lauren's birthday (I thought), which was that very day. Only I walked into a surprise party celebrating my 40th birthday (which isn't until May 24). Now, a surprise party on a big birthday like 40 wouldn't in itself be a life changing moment, but it was the faces I saw as I looked around that truly stunned me. First I saw Jessica, one of my best friends from junior high, who lives in Seattle, and with whom I hadn't spoken for more than a year. Next to her was Anne, another of my best friends from junior high, who lives in Chicago. And as I was hugging Anne, I heard a laugh I recognized instantly - Katrina, a dear friend I met in childbirth class when I was pregnant with Jonah and who now lives in San Francisco.

Everywhere I turned I saw incredibly special people I rarely get to see: Jamie, from DC, who was inadvertently left off the guest list until Andy called her in a panic the night before the party, but who came anyway; Hylton, one of my two favorite poker buddies, from Connecticut; Joey, the other one, from Maryland; my cousins Darlene and Wayne, who not only came from North Jersey but did so even though they were mired in preparations for their daughter's bat mitzvah the following weekend; and two of our favorite couples, Dan and Lynne, also from North Jersey, and Drew and Meera, from NYC. And that's not even counting all the wonderful local friends who were there. To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement of the highest order.

It's not that I didn't know I had good friends before that night. But I guess I hadn't realized, literally, how far they would go for me. Life is busy; my old friends and I don't gab on the phone like we used to. When we do talk, a couple of times a year, we have so much to catch up on, so many cute stories about our kids to share, we gloss over our frustrations, our disappointments, and our failures (or, at least, I do. It wouldn't surprise me if my amazing friends don't experience any of these). We just don't rely on each other the way we used to. And so, we don't have many opportunities to show the people we love how much they mean to us.

In February, I was invited to a surprise party for my college roommate, Alycia, who lives outside of DC. Andy and I had plans for that night, but no state dinners were involved, so I assume we could have gotten out of them. I didn't go because it seemed too far to go for one night, and because I reasoned it would be more fun to go on a day when I could have Alycia all to myself, rather than share her with 50 other guests, most of whom I didn't know.

Now, I'm sorry. From now on, I will make that drive, or take that flight. Because seeing as clearly as I saw that night, knowing with absolute certainty that, no matter what happens, I will never be alone in the universe - well, if it didn't change my world the way my mother's was in 2002, it certainly did change my worldview. And I can't wait to have the chance to do that for someone else.

Thanks everybody!

Monday, May 3, 2010

This Is Not My Beautiful Child

Okay, you can laugh now.

Remember when I wrote this about how wonderful Molly was? How sweet? Easygoing? That Molly is gone, I'm afraid, replaced with a strong-willed, stubborn, devil-child.

Maybe I'm exaggerating. Slightly. But at just one month shy of her second birthday, Molly has entered the Terrible Twos with a vengeance. Only problem? Molly doesn't realize she's just 2. She thinks she's 8.

Thanks to my sworn enemy good friend Sally, whose own not-quite-2-year-old daughter Maeve is already in underwear, Molly has discovered the joy of the potty. The joy of sitting on the potty. The joy of throwing toilet paper in the potty. The joy of washing one's hands after going to the potty. And, of course, the joy of screaming "PEE ON POTTY!" at the top of one's lungs. She has, on rare occasion, peed on the potty. And I hate to discourage her when she asks to go. But I wasn't planning on potty training her for another year or so. The truth is, she still probably won't be trained for another year or so, but I'll be trained to take her to the bathroom every time she asks for the next 12 months.

Actually, I'm surprised she even asks to go to the bathroom; everything else she insists on doing herself. Getting dressed or undressed. Taking off her diaper. Buckling her carseat. Climbing the stairs, combing her hair, brushing her teeth, putting on her shoes... You get the idea.

In an ideal world, we would have plenty of time and patience and I could watch without cringing while she tried to unscrew the toothpaste cap by turning it first one way, then the other, loosening, then tightening the cap. But I have neither. And invariably, every time we're getting in the car we're rushing to get somewhere, so there isn't time for Molly to climb into the car herself... hoist herself into her seat... put her arms through the straps... etcetera... etcetera. If we do have time, and she screams that she wants to do it after I've already put one arm through the straps, then she'll remove her arm from the straps, then do it again herself. "Good job," I say to her through gritted teeth. Hurry the f**k up, I think to myself.

I love that Molly is independent and wants to learn to fend for herself. That will certainly come in handy later in life. But right now? It's really annoying. Can't she be sweet and pliable for just a little while longer? At least until she actually turns 2?

 "Nope," says Molly.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why We Do This, part 147

Andy and I are very particular about the sports we want our kids to play. We love tennis, running and swimming because they're aerobic (unlike golf) and because there are plenty of opportunities to compete at any age (unlike, say, lacrosse or field hockey). Soccer requirs too many people, plus a soccer pitch, which makes it impractical . . .

. . . unless you live here. Our critical mass of eight kids makes soccer . . . practical. Additionally, we have a real, regulation soccer pitch not a hundred yards from our front door, courtesy of our neighbors, who probably spent more than most people spend on their houses to take their relatively flat field, flatten it some more, and install official goals and boundary marks. And they're happy to let us use it, since their kids, one of whom is already in college, rarely play.

Now that the evenings have grown brighter and warmer, we're trying to get the kids up to the field to regularly practice their mad skillz. Or rather, we're trying to get Matty to take them up there. After all, he is European, which makes him perhaps not as naturally gifted as a Brazilian, but way more suited for the job than the rest of us Russian/Polish Jews in the house. At least he knows what a "corner arc" and a "dangerous play" are.

And so far, we're satisfied with Matty's coaching. He organizes a few casual drills for the older kids, and when the younger kids start rolling around in the grass or picking flowers, he grabs their attention by kicking a soccer ball as high in the air as he can, and letting them chase after it. I'm not sure what the technical purpose of this last part is, but it certainly makes Aaron, Gretchen and Ronan shriek in excitement, as the ball plummets out of the sky towards their heads. Maybe this is what's meant by a "dangerous play"?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Disneyworld Redux

For Hanukah this year, I convinced our mother to take Declan and Ronan to Disneyworld instead of buying them even more crap to clutter the house. So it was that in the middle of January the boys and I boarded a plane for "sunny" Florida. (Note use of air quotes to denote sarcasm. It was not sunny. It was cold. 50 degrees cold. Not lounging by the pool weather, which is really all the kids wanted to do.) Mom wanted the Disney part of the trip to be a surprise, but they were still plenty excited to go to visit Grandma.

In fact, after a week in Florida that included two expensive days in Disney, I can't really say for certain which part they liked more--the Disney part or the South Florida part.

At Disney, the kids were impressed by the majesty of the Magic Kingdom...

...then stood in line for an hour to meet some friends.

But their favorite part, by far? The hotel.

Did the kids have a blast at Disney? Of course. But they also had a blast on the beach... in the cold rain...

At the museum...

And petting an armadillo...

...after riding an airboat in the Everglades.

It's funny, because all the kids in the house talk about Disneyworld like it's some kind of mecca. But once there, the trip becomes like any other outing that requires planning and scheduling and demanding that the kids stop playing with all the toy guns on sale in Adventureland if they want to ride Pirates of the Caribbean five times. As much as Disneyworld is all about the kids, they still need the structure to get through the day.

I did, of course, let the kids sketch out our itinerary and choose which rides to go on, but if I really let them do whatever they wanted we'd never eat something that wasn't at least 50 percent sugar, go on any rides that had lines longer than three people (read: all of them), stray more than two feet from any of the 47 pin vendors strategically placed around the park, or go to the bathroom. In short, being in Disneyworld is pretty much like being any where else: They're whining, I'm nagging, and we're all getting annoyed with each other. We can do that in South Florida for a lot cheaper. We do that all the time at home for free.

So I don't see any further Disney trips in the near future.

(Molly says, "We'll see about that.")

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Please, Can I Take Him Home?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Ever since Ronan first rolled over, showing off his amazing core strength, everyone in this house pegged him as the one true athlete likely to come out of it. I have no idea where he gets it, but Ronan is seriously built. He's got a six pack, sculpted shoulders, the whole nine yards. Pretty sweet for a 4-year-old.

Declan, on the other hand, was never much of an athlete. So when he started devoting his life to dress-up, we weren't too surprised. When he (and I) suffered through one season of soccer and he vowed, at the ripe old age of 4, never to play it again, it wasn't much of a shock. And so we guided Declan toward the activities a child of his nature might enjoy: Art. Drama. Guitar.

But apparently Declan and Ronan never got the memos on what their respective roles ought to be. While in Ireland earlier this month, Declan got bit hard by the soccer bug. And the running bug. And jumping bug. Before Ireland it was the swinging bug, and he would hang from the rings on the playground, flipping himself over and over and over until he was dizzy from the effort. Now Declan never walks when he can run and begs his father to take him outside after dinner each night to kick the soccer ball around.

He has become, dare I say, athletic. Or at least, athletically inclined.

Ronan, on the other hand, has become... not-so-athletic. He joins his brother and father on the soccer field, but instead of chasing the ball down the field, he practices his superhero poses. Ronan is now the child constantly in dress-up, pretending to be Superman. Why run after a soccer ball when you can fly?

I'm constantly reminded of how wrong our early expectations of our kids turn out to be. Anyone who met Erika at the age of 3 would have seen a girl constantly in frills, destined for ballet classes and braids. But 9-year-old Erika has no patience for such things; she wears yoga pants and t-shirts daily and must be reminded to brush her hair each morning. Hilary has long seemed most at peace with her nose in a book; exerting any further effort seemed to exhaust her. But now she's fallen in love with soccer as well.

I'm confident that Ronan will outgrow his obsession with dress-up, just as his brother did last year and his cousin did years ago, and look to more age-appropriate, costume-less pursuits. He may not be the athlete we all predicted him to be, but then again, perhaps he will. He is playing Tball this season, with enthusiasm if not expertise. After all, in baseball you get to dress up.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Ronan's Ink

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Apple (and the Crinkled Nose) Doesn't Fall Far From the Tree

When the kids were babies, it was fun to pick out our characteristics in their faces. Declan has Matty's eyes and my habit of crinkling my nose when I smile. Ronan has Matty's mouth and chin, though I have no idea where he got that alabaster skin. Molly has Amy's hair, oddly enough, with my eyes and the same shape face as Matty. In short, our kids got all of our best features, making them far more beautiful than we will ever be.

But now I'm starting to see myself and Matty in the kids, and not always in such a flattering light. Ronan has developed a tic, a rapid blinking of the eyes that comes and goes. This is all Matty, whose own tic manifests itself as a guttural grunt from the back of his throat, which also comes and goes.

Declan just got his first cavity, a chiseled hole in between his teeth that I cannot believe I didn't notice before the dentist did. Here we're both to blame, both victims of bad genes coupled with bad oral habits. Declan now brushes, flosses, and rinses his teeth with a vengeance, as I hope his habits can outwit his genes.

What amazes me so much is that this is clearly a case of nature over nurture. It's not like Erika's penchant for jokes or Jonah's habit of saying, "Okay, bye," both of which are learned behaviors from years of witnessing their parents do the same. I think it's cute when Declan announces, "Look, I'm like Daddy," when he uses a piece of paper to floss his teeth (don't ask).

But what about when the behaviors aren't so cute? Who else can I blame when Molly goes through her rebel stage as I did; frankly, I fear for the 2026 equivalent of shaving one's head and piercing one's tongue. Or what about the usually laid back Matty's occasional temper, signs of which I'm already seeing in Declan as he dramatically kicks the floor when he's angry?

And I know this will only get worse. And I worry, as all parents do, about the high school versions of my kids, the ones who are taunted and teased for any reason, but possibly all the more so for their facial tics and bad teeth?

There's nothing like a child to remind you of all of your myriad flaws. I've learned to deal with my own, I'm just not sure I'm ready to deal with my kids'.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Although Aaron has started wearing underwear to school, he is still more likely to poop in said underwear than in his potty. I've tried every threat and every bribe I can think of - I even promised him that he could stay for lunch at school every day (something he asks for constantly) once he pooped in the potty three days in a row.

It's not like he doesn't understand the concept. At almost three-and-a-half, he knows that big boys poop in the potty. And it's not like he doesn't want to stay for lunch, or earn a lollipop, or get a Lamborghini on his sixteenth birthday, or any of the other insane rewards I've offered in my desperation to end my decade of diapers. It's just that his plan is to poop on the potty "tomorrow."

"I will," he vows sweetly, his big brown eyes open wide. "Tomowo." (Both twins are still struggling a bit with their Rs.)

And even as my eyes roll back in exasperation, even as I dismiss him: "Aaron, you say that EVERY DAY," I realize that tomorrow is also my excuse for everything.

I'll write tomorrow.
I'll run tomorrow.
I'll stop eating myself sick on matzo toffee/peanut butter ice cream/leftover birthday cake tomorrow.

All this time, I've considered myself in the throes of a mid-life crisis, when in actuality I'm stuck in a pre-life crisis, dealing with my problems the way my three-year-old does. Anything effortful, anything that requires discipline, and work, and sacrifice, I'll do tomorrow.

And I know that has to change, otherwise I'll have a lot of regrets when I finally run out of tomorrows.

So, I'm going to try, really try, to start doing more today, instead of letting myself off the hook by shifting everything to tomorrow.

Starting, naturally, tomorrow.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Why We Do This

I love driving Declan, Ronan, Aaron and Gretchen to school. They always have such entertaining conversations.

Take yesterday, for example. The four kids started talking about how they would all be neighbors when they're grown. "I'll go to your house, then to Ronan's house," Gretchen said.

"Then mine?" Aaron said.

"Then yours," Gretchen said. "Then Declan will come to mine."

Somehow, this evolved into a discussion on defense: "I'm going to have two guns, one for me and one for Gretchen," Declan announced. This isn't Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, I thought, imagining this little band of armed relatives: This is Waco!

"What about me?" Aaron asked.

"If the monster comes to your house, we'll come and shoot him," Declan said, confidently. "And if the monster comes to Ronan's house, then we'll go there."

Of course, then the conversation shifted to something even more unsavory, namely, how they would cut up the monster into little pieces and then eat him. Then they would drink his blood. And then they would eat his poop ("Ewwwwwww!" Keri and I shrieked, in unison). So I'll just focus instead on how happy it made me to imagine all the kids grown, and so close it won't matter whether or not they're really neighbors, because they'll still talk to each other all the time, and spend their holidays and vacations together. And none of them will ever feel alone in the world, because they never will be.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

God in your Sippy Cup

We were sitting around the breakfast table yesterday, when the conversation, as it often does, drifted towards the metaphysical: is God everywhere?

All the kids knew, from their years at Jewish pre-school, followed by (for Erika and Hilary so far) Sunday School, that God is, in fact, everywhere.

Is God in the kitchen? Yes, He must be in the kitchen.
Is God at the table? Yes, He must be at the table.
Honestly, I was only half-following this conversation, so I don't know which of the kids then shrieked: "God's in your sippy cup!"

And it occurred to me, not for the first time, that Jewish pre-school is kind of like a cult. The kids come in Godless heathens, and graduate true believers.

I'll never forget one day, when Erika was about three, and she and Hilary, who was one, were playing with a toy kitchen. Erika laid out quite a spread for her sister, but just as Hilary reached to pick up a plastic treat, Erika cried out, "Wait! We have to say the blessing first!"

Of course, we as parents have chosen to enroll our children in this preschool specifically for the brainwashing, I mean religious education, they are receiving there. And it is important to me that my kids understand their culture, and the history and traditions which have shaped their parents, and their grandparents, and their ancestors before that.

But then the kids come home singing about how tight they want to hug their Torahs, and I have to admit, it seems a bit extreme to me.

The God part, that's hard. I'm not really sure what I believe about God at this point in my life, but the kids are always trying to pin me down: Does God make babies? Does God make cities? Does God love mean guys?

And my personal favorite: Do you love God?

The kids are pretty easy to distract now, but I assume that won't always be the case. Still, I suppose that the older and more persistent they get, the better they'll be able to appreciate that God is complicated, and personal, and that each of the 12 people in our family will probably have a different relationship, or lack thereof, with that most abstract of abstractions. And no matter what conclusion each of them arrives at, it's all okay.

Except for dancing around with the Torahs. At some point, I'm really going to have to put a stop to that.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Goodbye, Aunt Rose

I want to live, and die, like Aunt Rose.

Great Aunt Rose died last week at the age of 91, after having been married for 71 years. She was put under general anesthesia for gall bladder surgery and sadly, never woke up.

Or maybe not so sadly.

It's never happy news when someone you love dies, but considering that we all must, this seems to me like a good way to go. She didn't suffer. She didn't have dementia or linger through a debilitating illness. She lived on her own until the very end, depending on no one but herself. She went to sleep and never woke up, and I can only hope my own end is as peaceful and painless.

Aunt Rose lost her sweetheart 16 months ago, and she seemed a bit lost and lonely ever since. She spoke often of Uncle Bob, always on the verge of tears, always with a longing I wished I could satisfy. She woke up to his voice in the middle of the night and often saw him walking through the retirement home they had shared for 30 years. But this didn't make her happy, it made her sad. And I think more than anything she wanted to be with him.

And now she is. And that's nothing to be sad about.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Bad Dreams

Molly has been having bad dreams.

I don't know this for certain, of course, since so far the extent of her vocabulary is, "meh," which can mean all sorts of things (cat! dog! Declan! fire hydrant!), but not, as far as I can tell, "Mommy, I just had a really bad dream."

But there are signs. The most obvious? The scream in the middle of the night. Yes, I have been blessed with a super baby, and can count on one hand the number of times she has woken up in the middle of the night since passing the three month mark. Seriously. And 95 percent of those times, she woke up because she had pooped, which, I can only imagine, makes her not so comfortable. As soon as she's changed, she's reaching for her crib and snuggles herself right back to sleep.

That's right, she snuggles herself. Which brings me to the second sign that she must be having bad dreams: she wants to snuggle. With her parents.

This may not sound so odd to you, but consider Molly's bedtime/naptime routine: Change diaper (hers). Kiss on cheek. Place in crib. Leave the room.

This isn't my choice, mind you. We tried for months to sit with her on a glider and read stories, or rock her gently until she was close to sleep. But it was always a struggle. She wanted to hold the book herself. The amount of time she would allow us to hold her grew shorter and shorter. Eventually, she began to cry out if we walked to the glider rather than the crib.

"For Pete's sake," I imagined her thinking. "Can I please just go to sleep?"

So we let her. We lay her down in her crib, where she wriggled herself into the mattress (I guess she was allowed to snuggle herself), stuck her thumb in her mouth, and closed her eyes. That was it. She didn't even open them when we opened the door to leave.

So when Molly woke up crying, and actually wanted to be held, we knew something was up. We rocked her for a few minutes until she calmed down, then lay her gently back in her crib. She was asleep again instantly, the dream quickly forgotten.

Of course it makes me sad to think of my poor Molly suffering through nightmares. But I can't help but savor these brief moments, when my fiercely independent daughter is cuddled up against me, happy to be safe in my arms. And it warms me to know that even though she now shuns my assistance in any endeavor (with a resounding, "meh!"), it's still me she calls out to in the middle of the night, my heart she snuggles up against as she falls blissfully back to sleep.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

We're Still Here! And Still Cute!

I wish I had a good reason for our appalling lack of posting--We were busy prepping Molly for her upcoming appearance on Toddlers and Tiaras! Ronan poured maple syrup inside my hard drive! Declan finally eloped with one of his many girlfriends!--but alas, I've no such excuse.

The start of the new year is always hectic, even though you always expect otherwise. I was literally counting down the days until school started, thinking that once the kids were back to their regular schedule, so too would I be back to a regular schedule of writing and working. As it turns out, back to school time is as hectic for the 'rents as it is for the kids.

Of course, that's always the case; as much as I often long for things to get "back to normal," the truth is that there isn't really any normal. Not for us, with our combined eight kids under the age of 11. And not for you, I'm sure, no matter what your household looks like. Besides, what fun is normal, anyway?

So, in response to our fan (Hi Gail!) and family, we are in fact, all just fine, and will soon be back to posting regularly and entertainingly about our brood. Until then, here's a photo of my breathtakingly adorable children on Rosh Hashanah.

Still here. Still cute.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Huzzah for Declan's 5th Birthday!

Declan is growing up. I hate to say he's maturing, since his behavior is by all standards often very immature ("poopy" is still one of his favorite words), but I suppose he is maturing through the typical stages of a boy.

He now insists upon using the men's room by himself when we're out, rather than go into the women's room with me. He's not nearly as clingy or affectionate as he used to be; he's sometimes aloof and distant and will grace me with just a perfunctory peck on the cheek at bedtime (clearly he's already learning how to drive women crazy). He's got an attitude and isn't afraid to use it. He's become brazen and sometimes disrespectful. He randomly started calling me "Sweet Betty" on our vacation (the fact that I couldn't stop laughing only made it worse).

Of course, this new "mature" Declan isn't all bad. He's become interested in longer chapter books and has patiently listened his way through Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson. After three years of asking for guitar lessons, he'll finally start this year and couldn't be more excited. While on vacation in Colonial Williamsburg, he was held rapt by the historical reenactments and presentations while Ronan played in the dirt.

After we returned from vacation, Declan was playing with his cousins and raced by me, galloping on a "horse" and waving a sword in the air.

"Are you a brave knight?" I asked.

"No, I'm George Washington fighting the Indians!" he replied, recalling his history from our visit to Mount Vernon.

So while I may bemoan the cuddly little mama's boy I'm quickly losing, I do look forward to seeing the (mature) boy Declan will become.

As soon as he stops yelling, "Poopy!" all the time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

All American Vacation

We took our first family vacation this summer.

It's not our first trip away, of course; we often travel to Ireland to visit Matty's family and Florida to visit mine, but until now our travels have always centered on family. This time we were on our own.

(Except for a few days in the middle when we visited my cousins in Asheville, NC.)

We went on a good ol' fashioned Road Trip, making our way from Philadelphia through Colonial Williamsburg, the aformentioned Asheville, and Washington D.C., with stops for real North Carolina BBQ, a great bowl of matzo ball soup, and some caverns along the way.

We came home with an $80 souvenir from Tennessee, a very dirty car, and a lot of wonderful memories.

Our trip did not start well. I forgot my shoes and we had to go back home to get them. Molly had a huge poop while we were crawling through traffic; by the time we stopped to change her it had leaked all over her carseat (and her). Ronan had to poop so suddenly and urgently that we had to pull over and have him poop in a plastic bag. This was all before we even hit Baltimore.

But things picked up. The kids fell asleep. And we arrived in Colonial Williamsburg tired but happy. We spent two days there, during which the kids dressed in period garb, trained to be a soldier, learned to work a farm like their forefathers, and marched in a fife and drum parade. They learned how to write with a quill and how to split a log. They watched Benedict Arnold ride into town and learned of his treason. They had fun.

From there we headed to Chapel Hill, about halfway between Williamsburg and Asheville. We ate some fabulous BBQ and pie and drove through the town, stopping to wander the stands of a local farmers' market. We were in Asheville after lunch, where we spent three days with two of my cousins and their children. They mined for gems, played on the playground, and went to a children's museum. They had fun.

We stopped in Natural Bridge, Virginia on the way to D.C. to break up the trip, and toured the deepest caverns on the East coast. The kids held up well in the car all day, "reading" comic books, listening to books on tape, watching movies, and coloring. But we were all happy to finally arrive in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside D.C. and where we stayed for two nights.

In D.C., despite the heat, the kids enjoyed the Air and Space Museum and American History Museum, though they were unimpressed by seeing the real live actual ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in the movie or the actual kitchen in which Julia Child cooked and whose refrigerator featured a magnet from our friend's former restaurant in Somerville, Massachusetts. But they had fun.

On the final day of our trip we went to Mount Vernon to explore George Washington's estate and history. It was probably the highlight of everyone's vacation, and not just because the boys got replica guns and we got to eat a very good meal in the colonial tavern. The boys got to dress up, Molly got to crawl around the grounds released from the confines of her stroller, and Matty and I got a chance to walk through history, something we both, though avid fans, don't get to do very much.

After a short three hour jaunt back to Philadelphia, we were all happy to be home, and back to playing with cousins and sisters and brothers-in-law. And Matty, who was opposed to the trip from the start, is already planning our next road trip to Florida. Or maybe Canada. Who knows? Maybe we'll even go somewhere we don't have any family...

Monday, August 24, 2009

Behold, the Amazing Walking Baby!

At 14 months, 2 weeks, 4 days, I present to you, the amazing, the wondrous, the perambulating...


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Silver Linings, Part 2

Last night, Jonah, Erika, Hilary and I went to the end-of-summer "prom" at Camp Joy, the camp for developmentally disabled children and adults that Jonah went to for the three weeks he didn't have summer school. We got there a little late, and the party was already underway, but our arrival caused the kind of stir I would previously have attributed to celebrities on the Brangelina level. For once, it wasn't about Erika's beautiful red hair, or Hilary's radiant smile - it was all about Jonah. The campers and the counselors wanted to spin with him to the Macarena, or his new, second-favorite song, the YMCA. They wanted to hug him, tickle him, and bring him cake. I almost cried, I was so touched by the affection everyone clearly had for him.

Many well-meaning friends, acquaintances, and even strangers have complimented me over the years about how well Andy and I have dealt with Jonah's autism, and I've always chafed under their praise. We adapted, as all parents do - despite the many protestations I've heard: "I could never handle it." But the real admiration should be showered on those who choose to work with these difficult children. I can't tell you how many amazing people I've met since Jonah was diagnosed - those with incredible patience, perseverance, and love, love, love for kids who - believe me - aren't always easy to love. I could name them, but I'd be afraid of leaving someone out.

I took this picture of Jonah and Sam, a Camp Joy counselor, last night. Sam is off to his freshman year of college this year, to study special education and psychology, but another counselor told me that Sam started volunteering at the camp when he was about ten years old. Ten years old! If I had never had a child with a disability, I would never have met Sam and all the others like him, people whose passion never fails to sustain and inspire me. It's not a hermit crab, but this silver lining is infinitely more precious.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Pickle Diet

A few days ago, Hilary informed me, "I'm going on a pickle diet."

"What does that mean?" I asked. "You mean, you're going to eat only pickles?"

"No," she said. "I'm going to stop eating pickles until I'm as skinny as Erika."

Wow. So many thoughts were swirling through my head - Is Erika really that much thinner than Hilary? This is all Hannah Montana's fault - I blurted out the first coherent sentence I could put together: "Honey, pickles don't make you fat."

In retrospect, that was probably beside the point.

This isn't the first time I've had a conversation like this with one of my daughters: when Erika was about six, she rejected her wardrobe of classic, little-girl dresses with empire waists because they made her, in her words, "look fat." It doesn't matter how careful I am not to lament in front of my kids about the ten pounds I just can't seem to lose - it's not big news that our culture is weight-obsessed. When Hilary was four, she had pneumonia and didn't eat for a week. When she finally returned to pre-school, the teachers couldn't stop gushing about how fabulous she looked.

But as much as I want my kids to have healthy body-images, I also don't want them to think that weight is unimportant. I never want them to have to deal with the social and physical consequences of being fat. They're not even close, not now, but frankly, virtually everyone in both Andy's and my families has struggled with weight issues at some point. It's unlikely that any of the kids (except possibly Aaron) will ever be able to eat whatever s/he wants, whenever s/he wants, without care.

Let me just say, it's an incredible fine line between raising healthy eaters and repressed, mother-hating anorexics. The best thing I feel I can do for my kids is teach them moderation, and praise them for making healthy choices. Sometimes, when they come to me for a snack, I'll ask them if they're really hungry. Needless to say, like every mother (especially of daughters), I carefully weigh each word that comes out of my mouth on this topic.

Or maybe I should just encourage them to eat more pickles.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Silver Linings

Two weeks ago, we were driving in the car, when somehow we started talking about how tough life is for people with different disabilities. Then Erika pointed out that, although she would never want to be blind, it would be nice to be able to have a seeing-eye dog that you could take everywhere with you.

"That," Andy instructed from behind the wheel, "is what we call a 'silver lining.'" We then spent the rest of the trip explaining to Erika and Hilary about the bright spots that often accompany the most dismal situations.

That conversation seems so ironic to me, given that less than one week later, Erika knocked out her two front, permanent teeth when our boat, moving at a decent clip, hit a big swell none of us expected to encounter in the relatively placid waters of the bay.

I will never forget that moment when I picked myself and Aaron off the floor of the boat, and I yelled at Andy to stop, because I thought he was driving recklessly for the thrill of it (he wasn't), and I looked up and saw Erika in the bow of the boat, her face covered with blood. And then she was screaming, her mouth wide open, and I saw the huge gap where her teeth had been. We thought she lost three teeth, but it turns out one baby tooth was pushed back up into her gum by the force of the impact.

My friend Jodi and her three kids were on the boat with us, and the two of us hovered over Erika as Andy maneuvered back to the dock, trying to calm her down as she wailed that these teeth weren't supposed to come out, that she didn't care how much money she got from the tooth fairy. And Jodi and I both were on the verge of tears ourselves, because Erika was right, those teeth weren't supposed to come out, and they would never grow back, and how had it happened in an instant that my perfect daughter had, due to a completely preventable accident, been disfigured for life? I know that, on the scale of possible disfigurements, the loss of two front teeth barely registers - not compared to scars, burns, amputations, etc. I know that, if this is the worst thing that ever happens to Erika, she'll have lived a blessed life. But I couldn't stop thinking of her going through the painful self-consciousness of adolescence wearing a retainer with fake teeth on the front of it.

It turns out we may be able to avoid that retainer. Andy and Jodi's daughter, Jamie, found Erika's teeth, and, on the advice of my dentist, I pushed those teeth back into their gaping sockets (not easy to do when your hand is shaking like crazy and your well-meaning friend is standing right behind you yelling, "Don't touch the root! Don't touch the root!"). Erika saw three different dentists in the next four days, with many more visits to come. She may or may not need root canals in both teeth, and she'll need to have the baby tooth extracted. The most important question - whether or not the re-implanted teeth will last - is unknown. I get the feeling that it's unlikely they'll last forever, but the hope is that they last until Erika is old enough for permanent implants, 18 at the earliest. And sometimes they do last.

By the way, as if Erika wasn't miserable enough, she immediately had to stop sucking her finger - a habit she's been trying to kick for years - or risk pushing those very vulnerable teeth out of position. And she did it, with hardly any complaint. As I told her many times during the past week, I don't think I could have handled these events with nearly as much poise and patience and good cheer as she has.

And the silver lining? Andy felt so guilty he promised Erika the hermit crabs she's been wanting for the past three years. And, of course, as I heard her recount the story to a friend on the phone: "It hurt, but I'm getting a lot of attention."

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Family Ties

As I posted earlier, Amy and I spent brief periods at several camps before ending up at Blue Rill for the better part of our childhoods. What I remember most about camp wasn't the state-of-the-art facilities (not) or swimming pool, or the carefully orchestrated activities or the field trips to the roller skating rink or Color War or anything else that one might think is the marker of a great camp.

What I remember most is Herb.

Herb was the photography counselor, and though I don't quite remember how or when he became such a friend to us, what I remember is this: One summer, when my mother's back went out and she was confined to bed for a few days, Herb went out during camp to buy us milk.

That's what I want for my kids at camp.

I saw it at the camp I worked at this summer, Friends' Central, where Declan spent his second summer and Ronan his first. There were counselors who had grown up at Friends', and campers who were doing the same. All the staff knew and loved them. Camp was a family, open and inviting to everyone.

To me, that's much more important than the specialty activities or field trips or anything else. Because, let's face it, if there's one thing I learned as a camp counselor this year, kids find more happiness in each other than they do in anything else.

So that's why my kids will keep going back to the same camp year after year, to strengthen and build upon the relationships they've already begun. To extend their family far beyond the walls of their home. To have fun and be loved and love in return.

All from a camp.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Old Lady

I feel old.

Not because of my three kids or the gray hairs that have sprouted all over my head or the fact that I'm closer to 40 than I am to 30.

It's because of camp.

I remember camp (that's me at one camp, above); we attended a series of day camps before settling in at Blue Rill, where we spent the better part of our childhoods. I was a young teen there, an assistant counselor who spent her days gossiping with friends and ogling the boys.

There were two types of head counselors at camp: the young, pretty ones who were on their college breaks, and the older ones who were, well, old. They seemed a world away from us then, so unlike the hip 19- and 20-year-olds I yearned to be. They wore bras (the college girls certainly didn't--it was the 70s, after all) and sensible shorts. They were over 30.

Now, I'm the old counselor.

I worked at a day camp this summer, heading a bunk of 24 6-year-olds, 21 of whom were boys. Suffice it to say that my summer was challenging. But the worst part wasn't the boy who pooped in the pool, or the one who gashed his head open and required seven stitches, or the one who simply didn't listen.

The worst part, by far, was how old I felt.

My co-head counselor was 26. My assistants were 14 and 15. The head counselors in the other 6-year-old bunk were both more than 10 years younger than I.

The young counselors and assistants ruled the camp. They were all great friends and chatted excitedly in between activities. They hung out together after camp and texted each other during the day. They were deeply tanned and wore dozens of string bracelets up their arms. I'm nothing like them.

I was once, a long time ago, but now I'd rather spend my nights at home with my kids than at the Phillies game or the camp barbecue with the other counselors. The fact is, I am old. Older than I was, anyway. And when I snuggle with Molly as she falls asleep or watch Declan jump into the pool for the first time by himself or lay with Ronan as he drifts off to sleep, there isn't any place else (or any other age) I'd rather be.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

What Not To Wear, Junior Edition

I've posted before about how proud I am that Erika is following in my footsteps, and developing a love of so many of my own favorite activities, including writing, reading, tennis and running. What I should also mention is that she has adopted my style of dress - if track pants, t-shirts and hoodies can properly be called a "style."

At first, I was thrilled to see Erika reject so many of the girly items she cherished as a toddler, when she literally wore dress-up clothes whenever she was in the house - out of the house, she would wear a dress, tights, and patent-leather Mary Janes. I could never understand where she had picked up such stereotypical inclinations in the first place - certainly I, a devout feminist, had never taught her that girls like pink, and skirts, and hair ribbons. But she had absorbed those cultural cliches anyway.

And part of me is still thrilled. I love that she has never asked me for Ugg boots, or Juicy jeans, or any of the trendy items that Main Line girls notoriously bug their parents for. But sometimes, when I watch Erika go off to school in her track pants, t-shirt and hoodie, I wonder if I've done her a disservice by being such a slob. I wonder if other girls will tease or ostracize her - if not now, maybe later, in middle or high school. Surely, there's a happy medium I could have modeled for her, somewhere between track pants and Juicy jeans.

But I've decided not to worry too much about it. Soon enough, I know my influence will begin to wane, and Erika will look to her friends for guidance in all things, including fashion. My strategy at this point is to take advantage of her Mommy-worship while it lasts, and nudge her so far down the right track that her friends will have a tough time derailing her.

Besides, if my biggest flaw as a mom is raising candidates for What Not To Wear, Junior Edition, then I think I'll be quite satisfied with my performance.

Friday, July 24, 2009

My Pet Shrimp

I've had virtually every kind of pet imaginable, from a pedigree Guinea pig, to Siberian Dwarf hamsters, to run-of-the-mill gerbils, to dogs, cats, fish - you name it. I even had birds for one brief moment, when our nanny, Marina, surprised Erika one Hannukah a couple of years back with a pair of parakeets - which, we decided, would be happiest living in Marina's apartment.

But I can't remember ever being as enamored of any of those pets as I am with my three pet shrimp.

The shrimp - named, by Erika, Sunny, Bailey and Teeney, live in an eco-sphere I bought last week at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History when Erika, Hilary and I spent a few days in Washington last week. The eco-sphere is a completely sealed glass pod containing the shrimp, algae, gravel, bacteria, and a decorative branch, and it is entirely self-sustaining: the shrimp release carbon dioxide when they breathe, and the algae use the CO2 and light to make oxygen.

Here's the link, if you want to check it out.

I've been a huge animal lover my whole life - I still like animals, maybe not as much as I did when I was fourteen and spent my Saturdays cleaning dog and cat crap at the animal shelter FOR FREE, but enough to agree to add a new puppy and a new kitten to our household, both of whom will be arriving this fall (more on that craziness in another post). But I cannot get over the concept of the absolutely, totally maintenance-free pet. It's the plant I can't kill, the animal I can't neglect. It's all pleasure, no work - which, after a lifetime of hearing about how there's no such thing as a free lunch, and how I can't have my cake and eat it too, feels like as big an epiphany as Newton must have felt when the apple conked him on the head.

So, I highly recommend the shrimp to those parents whose children are constantly pestering them for pets the parents have no intention of ever procuring. They may not be as cuddly as, say, a dog, but they have many other advantages. Besides, they might have babies! Although the shrimp are specifically chosen for their slow and irregular reproduction (to avoid over-populating the pod), we can always hope. What's a good name for a baby shrimp?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Happy Birthday, Aaron and Gretchen!

If it seems as if every other post of late has commemorated another birthday, it's not your imagination. Andy and I and all five of our kids celebrate birthdays between January and June (as do Ronan and Molly). By the time the twins' birthday rolls around on June 30, everyone is suffering so much birthday fatigue Aaron and Gretchen are lucky to get a dingdong with two candles in it.

I kid, I kid (in the immortal words of Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog). What I meant to say is that not one child in our household gets even a molecule more of anything than the others, because everyone knows that would mean - in the irrefutable logic of kids since the beginning of time - we loved that child more.

This year, after two years of parties attended by family and my friends, the twins finally got a party catered to their little friends. And by friends, I mean the small individuals from their school with whom they'd been engaging in parallel play for the past year, and the 3-year-old goddess Margalit, with whom Aaron and Gretchen are both so infatuated they can barely speak in her presence.

I'm happy to report that a good time was had by all. While the kids bounced around to music provided by the twins' music teacher, the moms of the boys freaked out that their sons weren't potty trained to the moms of the girls, who all were. (Parenting boy-girl twins never ceases to fascinate me.) We then adjourned to the patio for hotdogs, hamburgers, and a cake that was, naturally, half orange and brown and half pink and purple.

As for me, I celebrated the end of an era: the baby era. I've always considered three the age of personhood, when you can start counting on kids to listen better, to talk better, to start thinking things through. Shortly (I mean it, Aaron), I'll be saying goodbye to diapers forever, just as I've said goodbye to nursing, bottles, baby food, and cribs. And I don't feel even the hint of nostalgia. Maybe when Aaron and Gretchen are learning to drive, I'll long for these days of complete physical and emotional dependence.

But I doubt it.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Home Alone

I am all alone in the house right now. That might not sound so interesting, but consider this: It's the first time in 3 1/2 years that it's happened.

I guess that's par for the course when you decide to cohabitate with another family, especially one with five kids. And I can't really say that I've been longing for this day; the truth is, having a bustling house full of family, friends, and yes, chaos, has become such a part of my life that's it's only notable when it isn't there.

Like now.

Off now to enjoy it...

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Happy Anniversary Amy and Andy!

"You know what the worst thing about being a single parent to two teenagers?" a friend told me recently.

"There's no one to roll my eyes at during dinner."

So to Amy and Andy, on the 12th anniversary of your marriage, the best I can wish for you is that you'll always have each other to roll your eyes at.

Happy Anniversary!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

One Crazy Weekend: Part 3 of 3

Hilary's graduation wasn't the only excitement of last weekend. As Keri wrote in her last post, it was a busy one for Erika as well.

On Friday night, Erika made her musical debut in Seussical, a production staged by the drama school where she has been taking classes for the last three years. Only students in third grade and older could audition for the main parts, but the director of the program always likes to give the younger children a chance to participate, so she encouraged them to audition to play "mini-Whos." I was surprised when Erika decided to audition, for two reasons: 1.) we happen to be a musically challenged family, although she obviously hasn't figured that out yet, and 2.) the part involved about eight minutes of stage time, for which she would have to go through four months of rehearsals. In fact, last year, she declined to audition to be a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz, because if she couldn't be Dorothy, she didn't want to be in the play at all.

But it seems as if Erika's grown up since then. In fact, learning that you can't always be Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz of life is a lesson many adults I know haven't figured out yet. Erika was happy in her role of mini-Who, and never complained about all the rehearsals, and all the waiting around she was required to do at said rehearsals. And she did great - especially in the final musical number, "Green Eggs and Ham," in which she made the best angry face of any Who on stage. Now she can't wait until the end of August, when auditions begin for the next production, Charlotte's Web. I'm just hoping for her sake that this one isn't also a musical.

I was proud of Erika's performances as a mini-Who, but not nearly as proud as I was later that weekend, when we ran together in her very first 5K race. We, along with Keri and Molly, ran as the "Cheetah Girls" team, and my friend Lauren and her daughter Abby (who was Erika's first real friend) ran with us. Three miles is very, very far for an eight year old (I didn't run one mile without stopping until I was in high school), so we took a few short walking breaks along the way, but the girls did amazing. It's so important to me that the kids grow up fit and strong, and I try to set a positive example for them (which is the only reason I play tennis three times a week, I swear), so I was proud, and Erika was proud, and I was proud that she was proud, as well as proud of her physical accomplishment - so let's just say that everyone was happy.

When it was over, as Keri already posted, Hilary, Declan, and Lauren's younger daughter Maddy ran in the track trot. Driving home afterwards, with everyone hot and sweaty and tired, I felt like a good mom. Heck, I felt like a great mom. I had spent the morning bonding with my kids, as well as exercising their bodies, bolstering their self-esteem, and laying a foundation for healthy, lifelong habits. How many days do you have a chance to do all that and still be home by lunch?