Friday, April 27, 2018

Dr. Shame

When my daughter Leah was in first grade, she was prescribed a patch to correct the vision in her left eye.

The first time I put it on her, I told her two things.

First, I promised that if anyone made fun of her for wearing it, I would personally come to the playground and watch them "accidentally" trip and land on their face.  She was horrified, but I swear I meant it.

Then, I told her that I was so, so sorry.

Leah has a neurological disorder. I could write an entire book about her, and someday might, but for now suffice to say that she is the most adorable thing you'll ever meet, but that life has handed her a multitude of hurdles to clear.

Her deficiencies manifested one by one from time she was born. It took years to diagnose her, and just as long for me to obsess over where I had gone wrong. First, I decided it must have been mercury exposure from the tuna I ate when I was pregnant with her.  When that theory didn't pan out, I decided it was the medication I took for morning sickness. Or the helmet therapy we elected to correct her skull shape.  Maybe exposure to mold in our California apartment? For every moment I watched her struggle, I found new ways to incriminate myself.

Then, when she was in first grade, we added vision to her list of battles. Her pediatrician noticed her straining to read the eye chart and suggested we have her evaluated, so I scheduled an appointment with a pediatric ophthalmologist at Children's National Medical Center.  This is where she was diagnosed with amblyopia, a condition where the brain favors one eye over the other, and prescribed a patch as treatment.

I had never heard of amblyopia and had a thousand questions, none of which the doctor had much patience for. He spoke mostly over my head except for one thing he made very clear. "You shouldn't have waited until she was seven years old to bring her in," he told me. "If you hadn't, this could have all been avoided."

Then he handed us a box of patches, told us to come back in six weeks, and left the room.

I hated that doctor, whom I would thenceforth refer to as "Dr. Shame," and Leah hated those patches. They gave her headaches. They hurt to peel off. Kids stared at her when she wore them. And it was all my fault. If I had brought her in at an earlier age, like he said, like a good mother, it could have all been avoided.

It weighed on my conscious for years. With every patch, pair of glasses and ophthalmologist appointment, Dr. Shame's admonition echoed in my head.

Until, one evening, I went to dinner with my cousin.

Her challenges are far more consuming than mine. Thirteen years earlier she received a misdiagnosis during pregnancy, and as a result has a child with a serious disability. His diagnosis was followed by years of whys, what-ifs, medical record procurement and malpractice attorneys. She said she became obsessed with receiving justice for her son until one day, after another legal dead end, a nurse at the malpractice firm told her that in her opinion, what had happened "can only be classified as a fluke."

That was the turning point for her. After all the confusion of consultations, files, x-rays, lawyers, etc., she said the only thing she knew for sure was that her son was not a fluke. No child is a fluke.  He is exactly the person he is supposed to be, and even with all of his challenges she wouldn't trade him for anything. She said she hung up the phone, dropped the case, and made the decision that from that moment on she would transfer all the energy she had exerted seeking justice for her son, into loving and enjoying him exactly the way he is.

This was a turning point for me too.

I wondered, what if Leah is exactly the way she's supposed to be? What if the eye patch, the amblyopia, and the learning disabilities are all perfect components of the life she was meant to live? And subsequently, what if none of it could have been prevented or changed, no matter how much tuna I ate when I was pregnant, or what age I took her to the ophthalmologist?

When I considered it from this perspective, I could say without reservation that I wouldn't have Leah any other way. She tests my faith and patience, but is the very reason I've been able to develop both. She thwarted my plan to be a perfect mother, but instead allowed me to raise a perfect child. She's naive but innocent. She's often ostracized, but is incapable of excluding others. It takes her longer than most to understand things, but when she does the joy is tenfold.

My opportunity as her mother isn't just to tolerate her challenges, but to embrace, learn from, and celebrate them.

I am the luckiest.

I suppose I can even celebrate Dr. Shame. Depending on how I reflect on his comment, it can either be a prescription for resentment or healing, and I choose the latter. At the end of the day it's all patchwork isn't it? I'm grateful for what he helped me see more clearly.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Yawn Effect

When I was sixteen, my parents went to dinner at the Red Robin where I worked as a hostess. It was a Friday night and we were slammed, which meant that even with the preferential treatment I was not above administering, they waited in the lobby for over twenty minutes to be seated.

As they did, they said, they noticed something strange. The couple in front of them both yawned, as did members of the family next to them, and several people that walked in after.  Yawns are contagious of course, but this was more like an epidemic.

Just as they were beginning to suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, I called their table. As they stood to follow me they turned, looked past the partition adjacent to which they had been seated, and saw this

It was was an enormous print, framed and hanging just within eyesight of everyone that had been facing them as they waited.  They were so amused, that my mom tracked the picture down and bought a copy for me to hang in my room at home.

She gave it to me with a lesson. This, she told me, is to remind you that you're affected by the people around you, whether you realize it or not.

As I mentioned, I was sixteen at the time, an age when friends can make you or break you. And this wasn't just wise parenting. It was a scientific fact.

Research suggests that others' moods can spread as infectiously as their germs. Psychologists call it emotional contagion, a process by which feelings and emotions transfer from one person to the next, causing them to unconsciously copy one another.

Or, as I've heard it put another way, spend time with bank robbers and pretty soon you'll be driving the getaway car.

We've all felt it. People can inspire you or deplete you. When I spend time with someone whose spirit animal is Eeyore - pessimistic, gloomy, complaining - I notice every dark cloud on the way home.  On the contrary, what a joy are people who are joyful. I have smiled because someone else was smiling, heard laughs that have elicited my own, and caught the bug of other people's infectious enthusiasm, optimism, or capacity to dream big.

This phenomenon also applies to social networks. A 20-year Harvard study concluded that if neighbors within a mile of you see an increase in happiness, you are 25% more likely to see one too. Your tribe matters. I never thought I would get hooked on dirty sodas or wear jandals with socks, but I moved to Utah two years ago and guess what?

For better and worse, I have seen evidence of the yawn effect throughout my life. It's been said that you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with, which means that when I was a teenager, I was the average of Katie D, Amy, Tanita, Jack, Stacey, Jeffrey and Eli (I never was good at math). They were happy, confident, inclusive teenagers with an unwavering sense of right and wrong. To this day I'm grateful for their influence.

When I went away to college and my circle of friends changed, I developed a more competitive nature. After moving to California and enlisting with yet another tribe, I learned to be more laid back. Surrounded by accomplished mothers in DC, I tended more toward self-improvement.

In no other circumstance however, has the yawn effect taken on as much meaning as it has since becoming a mother. When I yawn my kids yawn, proverbially. When I'm unhappy they're unhappy. When I sing along to the radio and point out how beautiful the mountains are, they sing and appreciate mountains. When they step on a Lego and mutter an expletive? Yawn effect.

Twenty-plus years later, the yawning girl is now the screensaver on my phone. She still serves as a reminder of the effect we have on others, though when I look at her these days she doesn't elicit a feeling of caution as much as she does a sense of responsibility.

Friday, April 13, 2018

In with the Old

My husband and I both grew up just west of Phoenix, in Glendale Arizona. Our neighborhood was suburban, but if you were to drive about ten minutes north when we were kids there was nothing as far as the eye could see. Nothing but orange groves, cotton fields, and a few old farm houses scattered here and there.

Then about 30 years ago, developers bought up most of the land, built Arrowhead Towne Center - a million square foot shopping mall, and from there it was a domino effect. Arrowhead was followed by a megaplex, strip malls, restaurants, hotels, MLB spring training facility and eventually NFL stadium (go Cardinals!).

But right at the center of all this change, there was a little broken down farmhouse. And somehow, with everything changing around it, this home managed to stay put. I have tried unsuccessfully to find records of the eminent domain battle that must have taken place over that house, but I can only imagine.

Because literally, on one side of the avenue was the mall, south of it a movie theater, then on the corner of the intersection was a brand new shopping center with a Jack in the Box. And in the PARKING LOT of that Jack in the Box sat this house. With people living in it.

I used to sit in a line of cars at that drive through and scratch my head wondering how on earth the house remained. At some point in my adolescence, while waiting for my tacos, a thought occurred to me. That house taught me a lesson that I'm now trying to teach my children.

At the time it was built, it blended in with its environment. It looked like it belonged. But as everything around it changed, it began to look more and more distinct. Conspicuous. Odd even.

There have been occasions in every phase of my life that I have felt distinct, conspicuous, and even odd because I believed or acted in a way contrary to what was popular. Having survived high school, I can look back now and be grateful I held my ground, and credit parents who taught me that when deciding what to do, one thing I didn't need to take into consideration was what everyone else was doing.

I want my kids to be confident, comfortable farmhouses. The moral compass of society is changing at a rapid pace, and as the definition of right and wrong evolves I hope they will be more concerned with standing the ground of their principles than with trying to blend with their environment.

When they were babies and we lived in Santa Barbara, I was fortunate to be surrounded by mothers much wiser and more experienced than I. There was one in particular, Leslie, who has raised her children into five confident, accomplished adults. I remember when they were in high school, she would have them repeat, over and over and over, "It's okay to be different, if different is good."

The Jack in the Box farmhouse is no longer there. I wish it was, and that I could go back and knock on the door. I would ask its residents why they held out for decades. What was it about the house that was so dear to them, that they insisted on staying put? How did they withstand the pressure of developers for so long, and how did it feel to see the surrounding landscape change so drastically? I'm certain they would have something to teach me.

I would love to visit the old Jack in the Box itself while I was at it, but it's also gone. It too was demolished, and replaced with an In-N-Out, appropriately. Out with the old. In with...

I'd like to go back there anyway and buy my kids hamburgers.  Through the window we can look at the corner of the parking lot where the house used to sit, holding its ground. And hopefully, between dipping fries I can help them understand the difference between things that should evolve throughout their life, and things that never will. Truth. Principles. Right. Wrong.

Although as much as I enjoy an In-N-Out burger, nothing compares to the Jack in the Box tacos of my youth. Am I right? It's an inconvenient truth, but no one has been able to convince me otherwise.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Six Honest Men

My mother raised her children on the philosophy of Rudyard Kipling. He once wrote -

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who

At any given moment, and of any of her four children, she could tell you

✔ Where we were
✔ What we were doing
✔ Why we were doing it
✔ How we were doing it
✔ Who we were with, and
✔ When we would be home

I admit there were times, particularly in my teenage years, that I found this exhausting. There were of course no texting or Find My Friends apps then, so I was always excusing myself to find a borrowed phone to update her on my plans, and answering to her six honest serving-men before, after (and sometimes during) dates, parties and dances.

Now of course, looking back, it's among the laundry list of things that make my sisters and I say, "Oh my gosh, Mom was right about everything."

I now have a teenager that I'm raising in the age of smartphones and social media, and feel like the six honest serving-men that were sufficient for my generation need to train as six merciless tail-kicking ninjas.

Which leads to my daughter, and her cell phone.

But first a disclaimer.

**Disclaimer** I'm about to tell you how my husband and I are raising our child. I am not about to tell you how to raise your child. I understand that cell phone and social media use among youth is an emotionally-charged subject, and wouldn't dare offer advice because I don't know your family, and I don't know what works you. I'm aware there are parents who do not allow their children to have cell phones, and I think it's commendable. I'm aware of others who only allow flip phones, which I also find commendable. Parents who install monitoring apps, or prohibit access to social media? All of it, and every parent doing the best they can, commendable.

None of that, however, is what works for us.

We have a 13-year old daughter. She has her own iPhone. And Instagram and Snapchat accounts. And we do not employ monitoring apps.

And this is why.

When she (I'll call her "Jolie." Because that's her name) was in elementary school, her academic performance at one time was dismal. Her grades were below average, and she was perpetually procrastinating and neglecting assignments. As our oldest child, this was new territory for us and my first instinct was to intervene. Crack down. Take away privileges. Establish an accountability chart. Rule with an iron fist.

My husband's (whom I will call "Jack," for the same reason) response to this proposal was that it would probably work. Hovering over Jolie would without a doubt bring up her grades, guarantee completion of her assignments, and alleviate my concerns. In the short term. But would do nothing for her personal development, or long-term fostering of self discipline.

Instead, he suggested, we called to duty the six honest serving-men.

We began asking her questions -

✔ How are you doing in school?
✔ How does that make you feel?
✔ Why do you neglect assignments?
✔ What do you think would turn that around?
✔ What is the purpose of homework?
✔ What happens to people who succeed in school? And those who fail?

And on, and on.

We asked the questions, and she led the discussion. Our goal was not to impose solutions, but to create an atmosphere where she devised them herself.  She made the rules, and we provided the accountability.

Then slowly, we began to see a change in her. She started making to-do lists and prioritizing homework, all of her own accord. She's now entering high school, and is a remarkable, self-motivated student with a 4.0 and enrollment in all honors and AP classes. She's also adorable and a friend magnet, but that has nothing to do with this post. I just wanted to brag about her while I have your attention.

When Jolie became a tween and her room was a disaster, we didn't make a chore chart or stand over her while she cleaned it. Rather, we summoned the six honest serving-men.

✔ How do you feel when your room is messy?
✔ How do you feel when it's clean?
✔ What habits prevent you from keeping it clean?
✔ What strategies do you think would work best?

And on, and on.

Again slowly, but internally, a change took place and now we never have to remind her to clean her room. Of course gets messy. But when it does, she notices on her own how it makes her feel, and uses strategies she has developed to clean and maintain it.

And then, we entered the age of cell phones and social media.

This summer Jolie will turn fourteen, which means we are on a four-year countdown until she is an independent adult. Four short years until she is out of the house, on her own, and absolved from our perpetual influence whether we like it or not. And for the record I do not. Sob. But when she inevitably does leave, she will have unlimited access to a cell phone and social media.

We see this window of time as an opportunity, not to sequester her, but to train her.

So we gave her a phone. And we allowed her to join social media. And sometimes at the dinner table, or occasional nights when we're sitting at the foot of her bed, the six honest men come to visit.

✔ What accounts are you following on social media?
✔ Which ones make you feel better about your life? Which make you feel worse?
✔ What can you do about that?
✔ What have you seen that resembles pornography?
✔ How did it make you feel?
✔ What did you do about it?

And on, and on.

The objective isn't to know every move she makes on her phone. The objective is to help her develop the internal compass she needs to navigate the waters of technology.

And over time, with mistakes and lessons learned, we've witnessed the rewarding path of her navigation. When she sees something inappropriate on her phone, she shows it to us and we talk about it. When she's bothered by a social media account, she unfollows it and articulates why. Without being asked, she has put her phone away because she can recognize the symptoms of having been on it too long.

We do have passwords to all of her accounts. She charges the phone in our room at night, and we perform random checks of her messages and activities.

But aside from that, we allow her independence.

With the aide of six honest serving-men.

In hopes of raising one honest self-sufficient woman.

A Brother Like No Other

(Written by my mother Susan Foutz, who would like to clarify that she actually has two brothers like no other ) If you lived in Arizona in t...