count me in with the prudes

Did you see the article in the New York Times last week asking when and whether nude children are appropriate, and when and where? There are, obviously, many variables that factor in to this question: how old is the kid, is she in public or at home, and are other people around. To me, it’s OK for your kid to be naked if your family is home, without guests (cousins don’t count), and said child is… young. (I was going to say 3 and under, though if I examine my conscience, I have let Fergus run in the backyard this summer as God made him, and he will be 5 this week.) If you’re at a public park, if you are hosting a birthday party, or if your kid can read and write, then I would say no, it is not appropriate.

But this article, and the people interviewed for it, take a more permissive stance, shall we say. Rachel Dominguez, of Burlingame, CA, was shocked when she picked up her six-year-old son, Hayden, from a playdate. During his time at this friend’s house, he had stripped naked and urinated in the yard. His playdate, the host, was a little girl. Ms. Dominguez was “shocked” not that her son had taken leave of his wits and whizzed at a stranger’s house, but that the little girl’s mother said, um, Hayden is not welcome here anymore.

The article recounts several such anecdotes, including another little boy stripper who coaxed two female playmates to cover his butt with their pink nail polish, to the little girls’ mother’s dismay. But the author’s finger is pointed not at the kooky parents who have not taught their kids proper boundaries, but at the disapproving reactions of the parents who have.

Consider this quote from Dr. Lawrence Balter, the editor of “Parenthood in America”:

“If someone has what appears to be an overly strong reaction to seeing young children running around naked, it tells us about their own hang-ups, their own inner conflicts,” Dr. Balter said.

In other words, if you have a problem with it, you’re the one with the problem.

Such journalism is the reason comments sections were invented. I eagerly clicked to the comments page (now closed, after the first 539) to read the outraged reactions. Instead, I found that about 75% of those who bothered to post a comment were writing in to agree that America has really ridiculous hangups about nudity, and what is the big deal.

I am not used to being on the conservative side of any issue. My God, I live on the Upper West Side. But I have to say, I side with the prudes on this one. Don’t get me wrong: my boys have whizzed in our bushes many a time. But they are OUR bushes. And we weren’t hosting a neighborhood barbecue at the time.

So I am curious: where do you fall on this? Do you let your kids run around naked at the park? At home? Does it matter if you have guests? Does it matter if it’s a boy or a girl? And do you see an upper limit to its acceptability?

Your Own Private Freakout

This week, I want to hear your reactions to something posited by a good friend of mine. While she has no children of her own, my friend Julie developed my show Mother Load with me, and directed another wonderful one-mother show called BabyLove. Julie has put in her time studying our kind, like Jane Goodall among the chimps, and so I have come to consider her an expert of sorts.

Julie was telling me recently that a cousin of hers, as the birth of her first child neared, was completely and utterly freaking out about how she might have to have a C-section. “Why?” I said. “I don’t know,” Julie said, “something about how the baby might get too much of the anesthesia in its system?”

“I guess I read that somewhere too,” I said, “but I can’t say it was something I spent much time worrying about.”
“No,” said Julie, “but you had your thing too. And so that’s what I told Simone. Every pregnant woman has her thing.”
Come again?

“Your thing was what if you couldn’t breastfeed,” Julie reminded me. “And Simone’s thing is what if she has to have a C-section. Pregnancy and childbirth are such overwhelming events, so fundamentally unknowable, that a mother can’t process it all, so I think each woman picks one thing to freak out about while she’s pregnant, and funnels all her anxieties into that one thing.”

This, I have to say, blew my mind.

I certainly had freaked out about being able to breastfeed before Cooper was born, and I guess I must have bent Julie’s ear about it a few times. I did wonder, then, how it was that other mothers-to-be didn’t seem as singularly concerned. It never occurred to me that it was the anxiety of Impending Motherhood itself that was made manifest, in me, in this particular way, and when other mothers had other anxieties that I didn’t particularly share, it was because I had already chosen my Personal Freakout Issue.

In the end, I breastfed three children without a hitch (and believe me, I know how fortunate I am to say that). And Simone didn’t have to have her C-section. So Simone will probably not worry about that if she has a second pregnancy—which doesn’t mean she won’t find a new pitcher to pour her anxieties into.

I thought Julie’s theory was supremely interesting, at the very least, and so I’m wondering: was there one thing, large or small, that YOU freaked out about during your first pregnancy? What was it? And do you think my friend’s theory holds water?

Jill Lepore is very bored with all of us

In her critique of two recent parenting memoirs, and parent magazines in general, in the most recent issue of The New Yorker, I can just imagine author Jill Lepore rolling her eyes when she says,

If you’ve ever read a parenting blog, and I don’t say you ought to, you have a good idea what lies at the heart of these books: ersatz confession….Lots of people find this kind of thing winsome, I guess…. But as long as we’re trafficking in unsought revelation, reading these books made me think of nothing so much as traipsing to the playground with a twelve-month-old who merrily toddles off to the sandbox while I, despite hiding behind a newspaper and attempting to appear exactly as approachable as Napoleon Bonaparte, find myself cornered by a stranger: “You have a baby? I have a baby! Doesn’t parenthood beat all?”

Now, I certainly am predisposed to dislike Jill Lepore, dismissive as she is of the parenting blog oeuvre, but seriously: what is she talking about? Is there any mother reading this who is just SO sick of all the friendly parents striking up conversations with her wherever she goes? Because I’m not sure that has ever happened to me. I find the playground horribly boring precisely because it is so anonymous, because while Maddie can have a stare-down with any child of her approximate age and then fall into an amicable sharing of the steering wheel atop the toddler climbing structure, I have never spoken more than a few words to another adult there. I might murmur, “Sorry about that,” as I redirect Maddie from flinging sand at some other kid, but I never get a response, let alone make a friend.

It is precisely that isolation that I think has made parenting blogs so successful. We want to read one another’s experiences, and find common ground, and feel relieved that we’re not the only ones committing each and every parenting transgression highlighted by the magazines in our mailbox each month.

And this is where Ms. Lepore’s critique gets even stranger: she gets into the creation of Parents magazine, and how such titles prey on the increasingly uncertain mothers that they target, and that part of her essay is actually very interesting, and I guess I will even say you should check it out, although it has nothing to do with the ostensible point of her essay: parenting memoirs and why she is so disgusted with them.

I am particularly sensitive on this point because I have, for the last few months, been working on a book of parenting essays for Harper Collins that, God willing, will be on bookshelves by Mother’s Day 2010. This requires an almost ludicrous timetable, but I didn’t know that when they asked me, so I said yes. This is why my blogging has fallen off considerably. I will be back once the book is completed in the fall. Until then, I’m going to be posting here at least once a week, and I hope you will keep reading.

Anyway, I’ve been working my ass off on this book, only to have Ms. Lepore say that she is SOOO bored with books like mine, and who wants to read them anymore? She blows off Ayelet Waldman and Michael Lewis’ latest efforts thusly:

I used to like that conversation. Lately, though, it’s been getting old: all the mothers want forgiveness; all the fathers want applause.

But I don’t think she’s right about that. I think all of us who write about parenting, whether in essays, blogs, Facebook updates, Tweets, or emails to our old friends, are after something much simpler: it is about reaching out from the alienation and guilt that parenting brings us all, and taking the risk of saying, I feel this way. Do you, too? I still want to read those stories. And I hope, by May 2010, there will be a few others like me left as well, no matter what Ms. Lepore thinks.

It’s Pop!

Today, via the Motherlode blog on the New York Times website (love the name), news that there is a two and a half year old child in Sweden named Pop, whose gender the 24-year-old parents of Pop are keeping a secret. From everyone. Except the handful of people who have changed Pop’s diaper. Sometimes Pop wears pants, and sometimes a dress, and Pop’s parents plan to keep this up for as long as possible, in order that Pop might “avoid being forced into a specific gender mould.”

Holy cow.

But Yes the Hippopotamus

Maddie is obsessed with all books Sandra Boynton, as both boys were at her age, and perhaps that is because I have stuffed Boynton’s books down all of their throats, but that is only because I find them the most beautifully drawn, funnily written, and sneakily thought-provoking books out there, and I am including adult books in that equation. Perhaps my favorite Boynton is But Not the Hippopotamus, the story of a hippo who is not in step with her companions:

A cat and two rats
Are trying on hats.
But not the hippopotamus.

A moose and a goose
Together have juice.
But not the hippopotamus.

The hippopotamus watches all these gay activities, and clearly wants to be included, but is not sure how to make her move. Her front paws hover near her face in a way I find nearly heartbreaking. And then, the conclusion–

But then the pack
Comes scurrying back
Saying, hey! Come join the lot of us!
And she just doesn’t know:
Should she stay? Should she go?

The hippo is clearly torn, but then takes after them, suddenly weightless, absolutely free, calling,

But yes the hippopotamus!
(But not the armadillo.)

Despite this eleventh-hour introduction of the newly tragic armadillo, I always find it thrilling when the hippopotamus casts off her indecision and runs off to play. I want that happy ending for the hippo, because I identify with her so well. I hang back, I am shy; I, too, will hide behind a tree if I fear I cannot do something perfectly.

Growing up, I hated sports, and I don’t remember if my parents ever asked me if I wanted to play “Missy League,” though I know I most certainly did not. I told my mother I had a stomachache every Friday in an attempt to miss gym class, taught by the dreaded Mrs. Loftus. I hated the ignominy of sides-choosing, in which I was inevitably second-last, ahead only of the boy who still wet his pants. I hated the queasy feeling I got when Mrs. Loftus got out the red kickball and announced we were, once again, playing dodge ball, hated standing at the free point line to miss another basket with everyone watching, hated the pressure of performing something that I would clearly never be good at.

Now that I’m an adult, it is perhaps my biggest regret that I am not athletic, that no one ever coaxed me to join in, that I have no idea how to even exist in that world. There is a conversant way that men (and athletic women) have when they pick up a ball, they have this common knowledge and understanding, and I always feel a little bad, watching them, that I am still not sure on which hand one wears a baseball glove. Every Saturday morning, David and I take the kids to the local ball field for a parent and child pickup game. He and the boys dash to the far one side of the fence, and Maggie and I sit on the near side, in the grass, and I hope she will not notice too soon that baseball is evidently a game where daddies and boys play, and mommies and girls sit and watch. (As soon as Maggie is old enough, and probably well before, I know David will demand that she get in there, give it a try, and I am certainly all for that.)

This is no hyper-organized Little League, but a very gentle and modern sort of baseball game, where the kids are on one eternal batting team, and a couple of dads do the pitching and fielding, and they time their plays carefully so that no one is ever tagged out, and everyone at bat gets to swing until they hit. I imagine, watching them, that things might have turned out differently for me if there was a game like this for me when I was my sons’ age. Even so, after a few half-assed swings his third or so time around, Fergus walked around the fence to sit on my lap in the grass, rolling his eyes back until the whites showed, so that he would not cry. “I not very good at baseball,” he whispered.

“But you are, honey! You hit so many times!” I cooed, smoothing his hair. As someone whom sports always made cry, I let him stay there in my lap, even though his father was disappointed. While he lay there, though, I prayed, God, let my son not be like me. Let him go back out there, and have fun, and not give a rat’s ass whether he’s any good or not. Let him say: But Yes the Fergus.