Escape From New York

Yesterday I left Staten Island for the first time in nine years. That’s right, I hadn’t stepped foot off the island, even for other boroughs, in nine long years. Actually that time went by rather quickly.

The drive was surprisingly non-horrific. With two and five year olds in tow I braced myself for the worst. A couple older kids came along for the ride and Mom did the driving, which was heaven sent- I dislike highway driving to the point of phobia.

We went over the Goethals, the turnpike, various parkways. We stopped for lunch at McDonald’s; I had a double quarter pounder sans ketchup and I threw out the bun (not before offering it to the rest of the family, they declined). It was awkward but doable eating the floppy hamburger patties with my fingers, the meat was terribly overcooked. It was edible, but barely, to the tune of $5. My little guys shared french fries and chicken nuggets, mom had a salad, older kids had an egg mcmuffin, more nuggets and fries. For drinks we had water (me), lemonade, mocha latte and diet coke.

I was surprised how many black people and hispanics are now north of NYC. Nine years ago non-asian minorities faded out a certain radius beyond the metro area with the exception of Springfield, MA. Most of the diners at that connecticut McDonald’s were black or hispanic, and it didn’t turn all/mostly white until Vermont.

After five hours we reached my hometown; I didn’t move here until age seven but it’s essentially my hometown. I wondered if I would start crying after all these years. But it was anticlimactic. There were the gorgeous mountains, lush green rolling in distant landscape. There was the guns-n-ammo shop. More lush greenery, an auto shop. Some kind of manufacturing plant (the sole one in the area, industry here has been decimated). The veterinarian where our sick pets were euthanized so long ago. Pretty colonials and victorians, many but not all in disrepair.

We arrived home to my very grouchy father. Grouchy is my dad’s version of happy, it only goes downhill from there. My little guy was all over the place while we unpacked- I tried to lock him in a playroom via baby gate but he howled pitifully so I let him escape.

My parents had dinner but I told them I would eat later. I went for a walk around local roads and hopped briefly into the woods, climbing a steep incline padded with pine needles and thin weeds. Pine trees towered overhead like solemn angels. I sat under one and patiently slapped mosquitoes as they landed on my skin. Later I ate some salmon and semi-raw hamburgers. My mother was horrified as she packed them out of sight into the fridge, asking wasn’t I worried about eating rare beef? Nope.

This morning I went to walmart. I needed shampoo and razors, my five year old requested pretzels. My mom warned me: the town looked worse than ever, but as I drove it looked the same. There was a new CVS. There was an abandoned something or other. There was the middle school where I was mercilessly tormented by my peers. I peeked down the street to my childhood best friend’s house- I considered driving past but that would feel stalkerish. I have no idea if her parents are even still living, and she has long since moved away.

Walmart… it looked exactly the same as nine years ago, except the shopping carts were in terrible shape (nothing irks me more than lousy shopping carts) and the walls were dinged up, in need of repainting. Two women said hello and politely asked how are you? This jarred me. They don’t do that in Staten Island, not that Staten Islanders aren’t friendly in their own way.

I am here for my aunt’s funeral. There is some drama with her estate that has darkened my father’s mood from bad to worse. I feel mildly vulturish hanging around waiting for the proceedings to unfold, but I never asked for this money. It’s all very sad. She should have lived a good twenty, thirty years further. God gives and god takes away.

Dog Days of Summer

quiet
Summer vacation is now tallying three weeks. The house is eerily quiet with my oldest daughter “elsewhere.” I never realized how much noise the constant pacing, chattering, and random giggles produced. She also loves to blast youtube while pacing (Pink, according to her, is musical genius). So that’s not happening. And it’s quiet.

over the river
My parents took two girls to New England where they wile away the days in the pool, eating donuts, ice cream, and visiting my sister.

angiedonut

And they got to see fireworks twice- once at a private party and another time at the local park.

diurnal living
Us here, it’s down to my oldest, the overachiever (who did overachieve, she was valedictorian at her middle school- more impressive than it sounds), Dea (the artist, see chalk drawing below)…

flower

…and the two youngest. It sounds like a lot of people but the house feels empty three men down. Every morning is the same- I change the baby, barricade the kitchen, and let him loose while he wreaks havoc. The following picture is not an unfamiliar scene.

aleric070616

Shortly after I took that picture (and retrieved him from the table) he walked into a corner cabinet… three times. He reminds me of a blind cat in that regard. He’s always walking into stuff, falling, and whacking his head. He even busted up his eye a few days ago (but it’s better now).

alericeye

The overachiever often quips he’s either stupid or fearless; perhaps that’s a Venn diagram.

beach partay
With so few children to take care of, an outing to the beach is less daunting. This is precisely what we did over the weekend. As you can see, the Staten Island beaches were mobbed.

amadeaadie1

The overachiever and Adie got to “work on their tans” while I collected seashells.

ahavaadie

visiting hours
Most evenings are punctuated with visiting my daughter in the psych ward. It’s a strange adventure each time: getting past the ill-tempered safety officers is like facing the cyclops, wandering the grounds is navigating a labyrinth, the random adult patients are passing minotaurs, and in the center of it all my daughter, a disheveled Phaedra, reigns over the adolescent unit.

The adolescent ward has a constant, mild party atmosphere. There’s a lot of video games, music, movies, jocular chit chat, and food. In fact food seems to be a perpetual pursuit amongst some of the girls: rifling through the freezer, concocting dishes in the microwave, idly stirring that evening’s dinner in its styrofoam container, clandestinely slipping packets of graham crackers hand to hand like a drug deal.

weight loss
A couple months ago I read an article about type 2 diabetics put on a very low calorie diet. According to the study, diabetes was reversed in all patients. However as is common with discussion of diabetes, it’s unclear if “reversed” means “eliminated” or “managed.” So I decided to try it myself, and got down to a little under 116 lbs. At my height this is approximately BMI 17.

Mission accomplished, I pulled out the glucose monitor, drank a glass of grape juice… drumroll please… and my blood sugar promptly shot up past 200 within an hour. So much for that theory. I hate to be pessimistic but if reducing myself to an underweight BMI has no impact on diabetic reactions, how is telling a morbidly obese person to lose 50 pounds going to help anything? But I’m not a doctor.

strange dreams
I continue to have strange dreams and nightmares most nights, which is nothing new, but the pace has picked up. Perhaps it’s spillover stress from my daughter’s situation. Last night I dreamed I returned to high school, but the facilities had been redone to look like The Hermitage. The teachers and other students kept referring to me as “princess” which I found odd but didn’t question. I saw two of the Romanov daughters running through the hallway (redolent of the scene from Russian Ark). I climbed up to the third floor of one building and the stairway began to collapse; so I instead walked down to the basement where a demon, locked in a prison cell, whispered through the walls to help him escape.

The Pelican People

After her first psychiatric stint my daughter stabilized somewhat on a cocktail of anti-psychotics. She continued to pace, talk to herself, but was far less paranoid and accusatory. She stopped picking out her gorgeous hair and it grew back in short, pretty tufts.

A few months ago I noticed a decline. As did her grouchy psychiatrist, who prescribed an array of new anti-psychotics to no avail. My daughter reverted to constant pacing, constant chattering, and picking out the new version of her hair. The grouchy shrink eventually gave up. Perhaps she should go back to the psych unit.

So off we ventured one bright saturday morning. By this point I was accustomed to the double locking doors (the second locked door doesn’t unlock, until the first door slams shut) and even remembered the names of most of the nurses and doctors. My daughter was bright eyed and chipper throughout. I’ve gradually learned she has two modes: happy crazy, and paranoid crazy. Today she was happy crazy.

“I am not a goose to swim in murky waters!” she announced gaily to the empty waiting room. “I fly with seagulls in salty skies, I sing with the pelican people!” She pronounced those last words, pelican people, with great flourish. We sat together in the waiting room, endless episodes of Sponge Bob on television, her eyes darting to and fro like a cat watching bugs. She laughed, frowned, cocked her head to the side with serious expression as though listening to god’s secrets. She nodded her head, smiled warmly, and relaxed into her plastic seat.

They brought her in. They brought me in. I went through the whole spiel yet again. She was normal and happy until age 14. She grew withdrawn. She started pacing incessantly. She stopped sleeping. She began talking to invisible people. She picked out her gorgeous hair until nearly bald. She accused us of conspiring against her, accused us of poisoning her food. Whatever hair grew back she refused to wash or comb, and she hadn’t showered in months. Her hair was tangled in thick mats. Like you see on homeless people.

She looks like a homeless person,” I said flatly. Because this was it: defeat. Game over. Your turn.

They admitted her to the psych unit which housed just one other patient, a surly african american kid who kept sticking his hands in his pants, even in front of me. She was oblivious, cheerily playing Uno and watching movies with him until his discharge. Then it was down to just her on the unit, the lone adolescent patient.

She chattered incoherently to the nurses at their station. She read aloud classified ads in case they might need a new job (waitressing! that might be fun!). She explained to me, during visiting hours, that we are the construct of a mathematician in a simulated reality. She penned rambling letters to her psychiatrist and social worker. In one she ended succinctly: Finding myself here I realize I am easily confused and have great difficulty with basic functioning. I hold no ill will against you.

She decorated it with hearts and curlicues.

The unit psychiatrist, an almost handsome man with glittering eyes, likewise surrendered. She was on an elephant’s dose of seroquel with no effect. They lacked the resources to help her, he said, and perhaps she should transfer to the long term facility.

And that’s precisely where she went, carried by two young EMTs glued to their cell phones. My daughter smiled and chattered as the ambulance tumbled. She would meet turkeys! (The wild turkeys of Staten Island originated at this psychiatric facility.) She would receive turkey hugs! Nothing like genuine turkey hugs! And we saw them- the wild turkeys- as the ambulance barreled over locked grounds. Males with feathers outstretched, brown mothers, fluffy chicks scampering.

“Turkeys!” she cried in elation, “They waited for me!”

Yet another intake interview. Yet again the same spiel. Though this time I recalled a few details. “She says she has Jesus powers,” I explained matter of factly, as though the notion weren’t ridiculous.

The psychiatrist and social worked nodded, scribbling in notebooks.

“When Jesus died on the cross, he granted a select few special powers, she is one of the select few.”

They continued to scribble.

The unit coordinator took me on a tour of the facility; in the distance I could hear my daughter chattering happily with her fellow inmates. Then they ushered me out; the facility is located near the beach and the salty breeze washed over me, bright perennials nodding in the wind. Crows soared overhead like watchmen; I was reminded of the Norse mythology I learned from Vikings (an excellent series, highly recommended) where ravens operate as the envoys of Odin.

 

The Crazy Study

We are in the unique position of being reasonably well off, but having lousy health insurance. My husband’s company does not offer family coverage, so, post obamacare, we were forced to purchase coverage on the exchange. As even the NYtimes admits, these plans are second tier compared to employer provided plans, and as far as I can surmise offer medicaid’s pool of providers at a premium price tag. So I went from getting prenatal care at a lovely office with amazingly caring doctors, to having my youngest son at a dilapidated clinic alongside pregnant teens and babydaddies. Whatever… I learned to live with it.

When it became clear- around this time last year- that my oldest daughter was in dire need of psychiatric intervention, we asked her pediatrician (an excellent doctor who on principle accepts all plans) for a list of recommended doctors. From that list, only three accepted our insurance. Of those three only one returned our numerous calls, and her earliest appointment was months away. So we saved the slot while my daughter paced incessantly, chattered to her invisible coterie, and picked out half her beautiful hair in neat, decisive plucks. My vacuum cleaner died, motor burned out from clogs of discarded strands of long, dark hair.

Then one morning it came to a head. What little functionality she retained went the way of her hair. After watching her frantically pace, chatter, pick, and shriek at us, we hauled her off to the emergency room.

That’s when I realized: the ER is the only venue for poor people to get urgent psychiatric care. We aren’t poor, but for the last two years have been rubbing shoulders with them in any healthcare setting we enter into. You either survive until the months away appointment, or you get dragged to the psych unit.

From that point on I got a firsthand view of the poor and mentally ill; the psych unit that was little better than jail, the miserable outpatient clinic where the broken and indigent shuffle in like zombies; well meaning but ill-equipped social workers foisted into the therapeutic position psychiatrists once held; grouchy psychiatrists who treat you like scolded children rather than patients. All in 30 minute sessions. My daughter improved with medication, but still remains far from her former self.

I’ve watched enough episodes of Intervention to know that even the swankiest facility cannot rectify troubled souls, and chances are my daughter would be faring as she is now even if granted Taj Mahal accommodations. But it was an awfully bitter pill to swallow, watching someone so desperate treated in such a grim environment.

During one appointment her harried psychiatrist had a lightbulb moment. There was an ongoing study of child brain development, she said, and if enrolled we would be offered a full neuropsych workup, including an MRI and EEG. I paused and stared at the doctor, not sure what to think. If this saga has taught me nothing else, it’s to have low expectations. “Are you… recruiting?” I asked, as tactfully as I could. The already bristly doctor bristled, and said no.

So I called the number on the slip of paper and before long a series of polite screeners were ringing my phone. We showed up on the allotted date to a sparkling office- ironically in the same building as my former OB- and a gracious research assistant walked us through the 12 page consent form. The study, which my daughter endearingly termed “the crazy study,” is trying to identify genetic markers for mental illness. After a battery of tests they would take “biological samples” to be stored for future research. Back in the waiting room, a flat screen flashed sideshows of the institute’s events, including pictures of Trump, Hillary, and the Olsen Twins. I was asked at least three times if I wanted coffee or tea.

They took my daughter into the back to start testing, and a psychologist ushered me in for an interview. To my amazement he was polite, attentive, and obviously very bright and well versed. He typed and took notes furiously while a social worker looked on silently. At this point I began to wonder exactly how and by whom this institute was funded; having seen up close how the less fortunate receive psychiatric care, there was no way this was a purely charitable endeavor. They even have their own MRI machine.

Once home I poked around the internet, yet it’s still unclear to me where all the money is coming from. The foundation was established as a non-profit by a Manhattan psychiatrist known for his advocacy of psychotropic treatment for children (read: medicating boys for ADHD), but supposedly no pharmaceutical funds are utilized by the institute. So either the pharmaceutical money is somehow being funneled in, and/ or it’s some kind of genetic data mining operation. However, I’m not going to ask too many questions; in the vein of beggars not being choosers, neither can crazy people.

 

 

Pretzels From God

I’ve been making homemade pretzels for the kids recently. No, not the kind you heat up from the freezer. The kind you make from strange items like flour and yeast.

pretzels

My fourteen year old said they taste like they were made by God. Well, if ever a cook has received a compliment, that is it! I used Alton Brown’s recipe but tweaked it a little. I used vegetable oil instead of butter, paid more attention to the dough texture than his ratio of ingredients (the texture is incredibly important since you have to shape and boil these) and eventually shaped them differently– the above picture shows Alton’s method. Good but not great.

My picky eaters devoured them like locusts and my oldest daughter has begged me to make them every day.

The irony is that I can’t eat them, as I have type 2 diabetes! I did try one bite to verify their verdict, and yes they are delicious. So go ahead and give these a try, you’ll never buy regular soft pretzels again!

First Comes Love

First Comes Love is a 2012 documentary from Nina Davenport detailing her desire to conceive a child sans husband, as she has failed to find Mr. Right by age 41. Having yearned her whole life for motherhood, she enlists the sperm of handsome gay friend Eric and we’re off to the races.

I watched this documentary twice. The first go-round it rubbed me the wrong way. Nina and her vast social network are cringeworthily solipsistic and emotionally stunted. I began to wonder how this small army of navel gazing intellectuals manage to pull their pants down in the morning to pee. And half of them, including Davenport, went to Harvard! I even stated aloud to my husband: “I can’t review this; it would be too cruel.”

Yet when I watched her film a second time I felt far more empathy for Ms. Davenport’s plight. Despite copious dating, no relationship grows to fruition. She even dates when she’s pregnant, to a charming film critic named John (note to Nina: if you ever read this review, get John back!). I had to wonder if these aging men and women, after so many years of ill-fated prospects, simply lack the ability to connect to one another long term. Nina even has to attend couples therapy with her best friend Amy to navigate their interactions.

Yet beneath Nina’s whiny exterior burns a bona fide desire to be a mother, and this is an urge none of us can criticize. After all, the maternal instinct is what transformed us from slimy fish to land dwelling mammals: concerned mother fish flopped in the mud for safer ground to lay eggs, and eventually that led to legs.

And oh does Davenport flop around. Between awkward conversations with the sperm donor, viscerally painful battles with her father- who perpetually hides behind a print New York Times and barks that she “Get an abortion!” after her pregnancy announcement- and her floundering sense of self, I began to feel maternal toward this poor creature and wondered if perhaps I could adopt her.

The filmmaking is choppy, neither here nor there, and the docu is fundamentally not about Davenport’s burgeoning motherhood, but rather her tumultuous relationship with her family of origin. In that respect I was disappointed to see details of pregnancy glossed over: she goes from taxi with sperm donor to suddenly third trimester pregnant, though the birth scene, which handsome Eric decides to avoid but later attends, is not to be missed.

All in all First Comes Love is a confused and confusing enterprise that nonetheless affirms the beauty of motherhood. And despite their flaws, Nina and Eric manage to produce the cutest baby in human history- but you’ll have to watch the film to see him!

Currently First Comes Love is available on Netflix streaming.

Catholic School

Some views from the caverns of Catholic school. When I walk into my younger children’s school I feel I’ve been transported back in time. Case in point:

phonebooth
Neo?

Despite growing up in a Christian environment I still find it bizarre to see Christian iconography in a school.

stjoseph
supernatural hallway monitor

infantjesus
infant jesus of prague, backup for checking hallway passes

cagethe cage where they lock up naughty children. JUST KIDDING! this blocks access to the roof.

lastsupperthe last supper in the auditorium

francisPope Francis looking humble and communist.

nrdame
the virgin at my older daughter’s school.

Dance Moms

I’m ashamed to say I’ve been watching Dance Moms on netflix. I tried watching it upon first airing, but found it painfully boring and mind-numbingly shallow. So why I can stomach it now, I’m unsure. Perhaps, armed with the power of streaming, I can skip the worst parts. As my daughter Amadea intoned: it’s so horrible it’s mesmerizing.

For those who don’t know, Dance Moms is a reality show revolving around The Abby Lee Dance Company, her lead team of dancers, and those dancers’ mothers. Here are my thoughts.

  • Abby Lee. I actually like her. She’s tough and no-nonsense. It’s not unusual for her to tell a crying child to suck it up and deal with it. We need more adults like this in the world, because children these days are coddled. I often think my worst mistake as a parent has been being too easy on my kids. Abby is also really fat, which is weird for a dance coach presiding over stick-thin little girls. But it doesn’t seem to bother her; she dresses well for her weight and has success with speed dating.
  • The moms. The “dance moms” provide the bulk of drama in the series.These women are so unbelievably brassy, catty, shallow, back stabbing and emotionally vicious that I had to wonder if it was all scripted. But I honestly don’t think it is, at least not entirely; these ladies are genuinely horrid. They wear thick layers of makeup such that they appear to be sporting masks, and while not fat, they’re all chunky and dumpy. They drink loads of alcohol. The moms remind of Kate from Kate Plus 8. In fact many of them look like her. Is this a Pennsylvania thing? Nasty personalities, and harshly dyed hair?
  • The girls. The dancers are sweet, hard working little kids. I felt bad for them being caught up in this web of vicarious living at the hands of their crazed mothers.
  • The dancing. The dancing and dance techniques are subpar. They would be laughed out of town by a real dance school such as ABT or the Kirov. Their dance style is best described as stripper routines plus gymnastics, and even the best dancers are not that good. Which leads us to:
  • Hypersexualization. The costumes they put these little kids in are insane. I think every pedophile on earth must be glued to this series. A typical costume looks like underwear with a sprinkle of sequins. What the heck? I can’t imagine putting my girls in these outfits. What is everyone thinking? And it’s not just the costumes; the dances contain more bumping, grinding, and booty shaking than an evening in Atlantic City would provide. Except these kids are nine years old.

dancemoms
you thought I was exaggerating

However, in watching this series I got the same feeling I derived from Toddlers in Tiaras. As crazed as the parents might be, they’re deeply involved with their kids’ lives and make sure the children are always busy with life outside the home. Again, if I were to fault myself as a parent it’s that I’m entirely too checked out. I feed them, I bathe them (the younger ones anyway) but beyond that they do their thing and I do my thing. Am I supposed to be ferrying them around town to a myriad of extracurricular experiences, watching their every developmental move? Maybe, but I don’t. I’m not nearly the helicopter parent these dance moms are. The closest I come is doling advice out to the the overachiever, who practically begs for it. Quite frankly I feel I deserve a medal for getting them to school on time for three years in a row. I do deserve that, don’t I?

The Dark Side of Breastfeeding

Having had kids over a span of 17 years, I’ve been privy to changing attitudes toward breastfeeding over that period. When I gave birth to my almost 18 year old way back when, the hospital was barely tolerant of breastfeeding and you had to put up a fight to make sure your baby wasn’t given bottles. Lactation support was nonexistent and you generally felt like a weirdo every time you bared your chest. 15 or so years before that it was almost impossible to breastfeed in a hospital- I had one woman describe to me how nurses threatened her with social services if she didn’t give her newborn a bottle. So I began having children right on the cusp of the Breastfeeding Enlightenment, where mothers were encouraged to breastfeed, hospitals are now plastered with pro-breastfeeding posters, and lactation consultants give out their cell number with an invitation to call anytime.

I nursed all of my children anywhere from 12 months to nearly 2 years. That’s a lot of breastfeeding. I once sat down and calculated how many calories of breastmilk I’ve produced just based on infant weight gain, and it was in the 400,000 range. While I don’t regret breastfeeding, and I’m currently exclusively nursing my 8th, I wish I’d been better informed on the difficulties of “the womanly art.”

1) It hurts at first, and for some women (like me) the pain can be excruciating the first few days or even weeks. The pain fades over the first month and usually disappears by the 4th or 5th week.

2) You may be prone to plugged ducts and mastitis. In some women any kind of upper body exertion (like carrying groceries, or slinging your baby) can trigger plugged milk ducts which can quickly turn into mastitis. And speaking of excruciating pain, mastitis is horrific.

3) Once you get mastitis, you’re at greater risk of getting it again. Some women will get it recurrently with it returning every few weeks.

4) The health and social boons attributed to breastfeeding may not in fact be a result of all that breastmilk. Correlation does not imply causation. For instance, it was widely reported at one point that breastfeeding increases child IQ. Researchers eventually realized smarter mothers were choosing to breastfeed, and thus their children were genetically prone to have higher IQs. Other benefits attributed to breastfeeding probably follow suit, like the lessened chance of obesity and higher socioeconomic status.

5) Once a baby acclimates to the breast they may well refuse a bottle, even a bottle of expressed breastmilk. This leads to a very scary situation where your physical presence is a fragile infant’s sole source of sustenance. Where you go, he must go, which makes things like going to the dentist, running out to the store, or having needed surgery increasingly complicated. Same goes for if the baby needs extended medical attention. While it’s nice to be joined at the hip to your cute newborn, it’s also frightening to contemplate what exactly would happen if he lost access to your boobs.

6) You may not be able to pump. Some women, despite having good supply, cannot pump. Even with a hospital grade rental I get almost nothing. So if you ever are faced with separation from the baby (such as a medical emergency, a career outside the home, or a shared custody situation) and people tell you “just pump,” it may not be so easy.

7) If your milk takes more than 48 hours to come in, your baby may become dehydrated and calorie deprived, which can lead to jaundice, which can lead to your being separated from him while he’s under lights.

8) You may not lose weight while breastfeeding. For every woman who claims to reach a size zero while nursing her baby, there will be another woman who gained. In theory body fat should metabolize into breastmilk, but anecdotally I have encountered countless women who describe having to eat like a horse to maintain an adequate supply, or whose body simply won’t shed weight until she weans.

9) You may not be comfortable nursing in public, and/or, your baby may refuse to nurse in public, or may otherwise be picky about nursing conditions. A couple of my babies simply wouldn’t nurse in public, too distracted by the noise and activity around them. Another wouldn’t nurse unless I was completely topless (not happening in public). This will further constrain your movements since you’ll have to time outings between when the baby is hungry.

That’s about all the negatives I can think of. In fairness I should point out the light side of breastfeeding (yes, I watched the new Star Wars trailer yesterday-can you tell?).

1) It’s free.

2) Baby poop produced by breastfed infants doesn’t smell.

3) Breastfeeding protects the mother from breast cancer to some degree, but whether this is due to suppressed menstruation, exposure of breast tissue to breastmilk, or some other factor, is unclear.

Zero to Three

The “Zero to Three” theory is the idea, quite popular in educational circles, that the first three years of life are when the human brain is the most active, malleable, impressionable, and that this “window” can serve as a springboard for intellectual prowess later in life. While the Birth to Three, or Zero to Three notion has become well known in popular culture over the past two decades (inspiring products like Baby Genius) it has been around for a while. My mother, whose degrees are in education and early childhood development, took these theories to heart and I have a clear memory of her denying me a hug in the 1970s- because I was already past my third birthday. Bonding experiences, she explained, were crucial primarily in the first three years of life, and here I was past three! I don’t think I ever asked her for a hug again.

Current policy on publically funded pre-kindergarten programs is entirely founded on this idea of early brain malleability: if you can get to a child young enough, you can “stimulate his brain” sufficiently to put him on an even playing field with the rest of humanity. Indeed, the dismal impact of headstart and pre-k on disenfranchised populations are typically blamed on the fact that they don’t start early enough, i.e. they’ve missed that magic window of birth to three when the rich kids hear Beethoven in the womb and solve Miquon puzzles with their nannies. I guarantee there will be government efforts to expand pre-k to ages three, and younger, in upcoming years.

The problem is, there is no evidence that an enriching, stimulating environment alone is what makes a child smart. Nor is there any consensus on what such an enriching environment ought to consist of. The only real evidence is that severe deprivation and neglect- say, tying an infant to a potty chair all day, or leaving him alone in a crib for the first years of life with little human interaction- does in fact cause cognitive and developmental delays. But this level of deprivation is typically found only in institutional settings in the developing world (a very sad documentary about Chinese orphanages, The Dying Rooms, illustrates this level of neglect). But there is no evidence that the opposite of a Communist orphanage produces a beaming genius. Nor is there any evidence, to quote John Bruer, that an hour of educational television is any better or worse for neurological priming than an hour of Rugrats. Or no TV at all.

Why am I blogging about Zero to Three? Because my adorable youngest daughter just turned three, and I have yet to take official action on her non-verbal state. “Non-verbal” isn’t quite accurate; she does have about 50 unique, meaningful squeaks and chirps. She has a few meaningful growls and a bunch of improvised hand gestures that somehow get her point across. I’ve wondered if this is what human proto-language sounded like? She sounds a bit like a bird, mixed with some monkey, mixed with a little sign language.

bday3
happy birthday

I’ll admit denial has played a part on our inaction. When you live with someone every day, especially a young child whom you’ve been with since birth (technically, even before birth) you kind of get used to how they are and stop seeing it as anything unusual. All of my kids were somewhat late talkers, with three of them profoundly late talkers. To us this is just normal (my teenage daughter was shocked to learn most babies are saying words by 10-12 months- my nephew even said “light!” at 8 months). The closest we’ve come to a normal talker is the overachiever, who babbled incessantly as a baby and said real words before her second birthday.

Or perhaps I’m jaded, having been through years of early intervention with my now 9 year old. While she too was non-verbal she was also mute- no squeaks, chirps, or even gestures- and she was globally delayed in other ways. I relented and called in the experts, and she had around the clock therapy from a veritable coterie of attendants for years. Even with all that intervention, she still didn’t talk until a year after we withdrew her from the program. And of course my son, who never received therapy of any kind, is today too articulate for his own good.

Come to think of it, only two of my kids attended any kind of pre-kindergarten program. My now 11 year old was in a full day pre-k; this is when the 9 year old was in all those therapy sessions, and I felt like I didn’t have enough time or attention for her. In retrospect I regret putting her in school at such a young age. 6+ plus hours is a long day for a four year old. The other one I put in pre-k was my hellion 6 year old. I needed a break from her during the day. I don’t feel too guilty about that one, though again, four is a very young age to be out of the house unnecessarily. It’s not like I was working or anything. None of my other kids, including the overachiever (who continues to leave her classmates in the dust) ever went to pre-k. So in theory they should all be at an academic deficit, but they’re not. If anything I wonder if it might have helped them to be in the relaxed environment of home, before entering school a little older than the current norm.

This is a possibility that is overlooked: systematically coaxing and prodding a small child to say or do things before he’s naturally inclined to do so might in fact be detrimental. And without solid evidence to support intervention of children deemed neurologically at-risk, is it really worth the expense and potential anxiety to “fix” the child? But social policy these days seems to be the most intervention at the earliest point possible. I guess where the government can spend more money, and take more control, it will always be eager to do so. It’s the nature of the beast. In the meantime my three year old is staying home, and yes, I’m still giving her hugs!