5 Questions with Andrew Solomon

Several weeks ago I posted a review of the book Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon.  I cannot say enough good things about his work – it is simply superb.  To read my review of his book about children and parents, click here.

Today I feel privileged to have Mr. Solomon here to answer some questions!  Welcome, Mr. Solomon!

Andrew Solomon is a writer and lecturer on psychology, politics, and the arts; winner of the National Book Award; and an activist in LGBT rights, mental health, and the arts.

Andrew Solomon is a writer and lecturer on psychology, politics, and the arts; winner of the National Book Award; and an activist in LGBT rights, mental health, and the arts.

Dr. S.: I read your book through the lens of a psychologist who works with families in situations similar to the families in your book. I have also recommended your book to families with children who have fallen “far from the tree.”  I can see that there are many people to whom this book would be of interest. Did you have a particular audience in mind when you were writing? Who did you envision reading this book?

A.S.: I knew, of course, that the first audience for the book would be families dealing with the differences about which I wrote, and I’ve had many letters now from families of people with autism, schizophrenia, Down syndrome, dwarfism, criminality, and transgenderism.  But my theory is that the book is for a wider audience than that.  Much as we test flame-retardant pajamas in an inferno to make sure our child’s sleeve won’t catch fire when he reaches across the stove, so we can understand the profound ways that all parenting is about accommodating difference by looking at these more extreme cases.  So my audience really is anyone who has been a parent or a child.

Dr. S.: I found all of the chapters to be riveting and gut-wrenching for one reason or another. Was there one topic that was most emotional for you to write about?

A. S.: Each is gut-wrenching in its own way.  But some of the chapters ultimately describe great redemptions: how people find meaning in Deaf culture, how the lives of dwarfs may be particularly rich, how people who are transgender have an apotheosis when they transition.  There’s less to be said in favor of having a child conceived in rape, and the chapter on those children was a very tough one, although many of the mothers I interviewed had ended up very much attached to the children they had.  The chapter on crime was painful because crime also confers few advantages.  And I found schizophrenia terrifying, because it sets in so late, leaving everyone with an unending sense of loss.

Dr. S.:  At the end of your book, you wrote about the birth of your son and how your book research affected how you reacted to a medical scare immediately following delivery. Now that he is 3, in what other ways has your research affected your parenting and your reactions to his development?

A.S.: I have perfectionist tendencies, but the book made it clear to me that no one is perfect and that aspiring to a narrow vision of how your child should be is a recipe for disaster.  I think I’m a more open, more generous parent as a result of all I saw.  I have many hopes for my children, but I think I’ll be able to love them whether they share those hopes or not.  The book very much helped me to see my children as separate beings, with their own wishes and ambitions and character.

Dr. S.:  What are you working on now? Any new books in the works?

A.S.: While I was working on Far From the Tree, I was also doing a PhD in psychology at Cambridge.  My research involved doing longitudinal interviews with a group of 24 women, talking to each of them before the birth of a first child, immediately after that birth, and every six months going forward.  The process has been rich, and I hope now to do a book for a broader audience on the way women emerge into motherhood, how that identity is shaped over a period of years.

Dr. S.:  I often write about stress management. We all know that yoga and meditation are great – but I am more interested in unique, creative methods of managing stress. For example, some people like to make chocolate, others like to work on cars. What are your go-to methods of managing the stress in your busy life?

A.S.: Sleep, good nutrition, and exercise: those are the three.  Sleep is just about my favorite thing to do; eating well can be a pleasure, though I miss gratifying my taste for sugar; exercise is anathema.  But I know that’s the triumvirate that gets me through.  I take meds, too–they have helped me to be more balanced and less frantic.  And I’ve learned to tolerate the feeling of being stressed out, always knowing that it’s temporary, and that whatever I am stressed about today, I’ll be stressed out about something else tomorrow!

Thanks for your time, Mr. Solomon.  I can’t wait to see your next book on motherhood!

To learn more about Andrew Solomon, check out his site.  To order his book, Far From the Tree, click here.

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The Boston Marathon Attacks and Coping with Traumatic Events

As I was brushing my teeth this morning I was thinking about whether and what to post about the attacks in Boston yesterday.  Like everyone else, I am dismayed and grieved at the trauma endured by the athletes and their supporters.  I can’t help but reflect on the multitude of traumas our people have endured over the last few years.

Is this normal?  Have these sorts of incidents increased?  What can be made of all this violence, injury and death?  I don’t know the answers to these questions.  But, I do know that it is normal to feel lots of emotions following tragedies like the one yesterday.

The American Psychological Association offered some tips on how to recognize and cope with traumatic stress.  Check out their tips here.

In looking over APA’s info, I was struck by a couple of points:

  • People respond to tragedies differently.  Some folks might feel nothing, others may cry, still others might have trouble tearing themselves away from news coverage.  I notice many folks turning to social media as a way to cope with their own grief and fear.  Still others may simply want to retreat and withdraw.  No response is right or wrong.  Just different.
  • Re-establishing routines is important.  I’m big into routines, so this tip really rang true for me.  Routines can be comforting to all of us – especially kids – so getting back to a normal schedule can go a long way in helping cope with traumatic events.  Maybe this means going back to your regular dinnertime, enjoying your favorite TV shows, or getting back to your typical workout schedule.  Even if it feels awkward at first, getting back into the swing of your normal routine can help minimize stress, fear, and uncertainty.
  • Avoid major life decisions.  This tip is new to me, but I think it is pretty interesting.  Traumatic events can produce big emotions.  Sometimes those emotions are grief and fear, but they can also be passion, anger, or excitement.  These emotions can be so intense that we may feel driven to make decisions about our relationships, work, and family lives.  APA suggests we avoid these decisions in times of high stress.

For more information about coping with traumatic events, check out the American Psychological Association.

 

Depression and Exhaustion

Most of us have had the experience of being worried and not being able to sleep.  3am can be a great hour to worry about money, career, and relationship issues, as well as less weighty topics like what color to paint the powder room.  But did you know that a symptom of depression and anxiety can also be sleepiness, and trouble waking?

While most of us require 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night, those of us struggling with depression or anxiety may crave more.  One of the reasons for this is that emotions take a lot of energy to create and sustain.  Think back to the last time you were nervous or worried.  Did you feel tired after it was over?  What about the last time you were really excited or sad about an event?  Did you need a few hours of extra zzz’s when the event was over?  Now imagine experiencing chronic anxiety or depression, and you can imagine the drain on your energy these states may cause.

So the next time you or a loved one feels more tired than usual, you may want to take stock of your mood, as well as other aspects of your health.  Depression and anxiety can be effectively treated with psychotherapy and sometimes medication.  And a good mood – and good sleep – are all important aspects of overall health.

To read more reasons and side effects of too much sleep, read this WebMD article.

A Picture Perfect Marriage

We can’t all have a wedding like this, but luckily it’s not the flowers or custom made dress that makes a happy marriage
Photo: Summit

Ahhh…wedding season.  It is upon us – and I love it.  I love the flowers, the white dress, the dancing, the cake, the cake, the cake.  But as my colleague Dr. Angela Lodono-McConnell over at Your Mind. Your Body. writes, there is more to a happy marriage than a clever proposal and Pinterest-worthy reception.

After attending many weddings as a guest and a worker (I used to be a waitress at a wedding venue) I can tell you the one ingredient that makes the most picture perfect wedding: a loving, happy couple.  It’s not the food, the open bar, the flowers, or the handmade place cards that ensure your guests have a super time.  It’s the amount of love and fun coming from the couple.

The cool news is, these are also important ingredients in a successful marriage.  A sense of fun, optimistic happiness, and an outpouring of affection (physical, verbal, etc) are key elements to staying married, not just an evening of fun with family and friends.

Taming Tween Tantrums

I was recently asked to be a part of this article on dealing with tantrums in tweenagers over at mom.me.  This was a new site to me, and it seems pretty cool – with lots of good info.  I got to participate in the discussion with one of my favorite psychologists, Dr. David Palmiter whose blog and book (Working Parents, Thriving Families) are some of my favorites. (In fact, if you check out the reviews of the book here, you will see mine in the list!)

Anyway, when Alison Bell contacted me about doing a story on tween tantrums – rather than the typical toddler tantrums – I thought she was brilliant!  So many parents struggle with this issue, and most of us think we are alone.  Clearly, we are not.  Many kids ages 7-12 have tantrums, and the article offers super solutions for parents.  My faves? “Catch Them Early” and “One-on-One Time.”

Thanks for including me, mom.me!

Jesus, Diapers and Chardonnay

Welcome to Moms’ Month on Dr. Stephanie! This month I will be featuring guest posts from some awesome moms around the country.  They will be sharing tips, tricks, and funny stories about motherhood.  This will be a fun celebration – thanks for joining us!  Today’s author is Chara Ramer.  Welcome, Chara!

Photo: Lancia Smith

Hi! I’m Chara and I am the mama of two fabulous boys, ages 3 and almost 6.  I work as a bookkeeper, but my passion is being with my kids as well as writing.  I hope to write in such a way that opens dialogue where it is most needed but seldom happens.  I hope to create a safe space for Moms to support each other in this journey.
To that end, I am getting my blog up and running: jesusdiapersandchardonnay.com.

So I gotta be honest…sometimes I really don’t like my kids.  Take this moment to judge me all you want, but please keep reading.  I love my kids. They are brilliant, adorable, fabulous, inspiring…and often exhausting.  Don’t get me wrong, I really do usually like them, and I always love them.   But being a mom is hard, and being nice to my kiddos day in day out is even harder.
I think the problem is that our society doesn’t give us space, or license to talk in such terms.  We are all walking around pretending that we feel that raising children is this continuously fabulous and joyous experience that we are privileged to be a part of.  And that is very true, some of the time.  But the rest of the time, Mothering is hard work.  Mothering requires great effort, endless sacrifice, and constant innovation.  We are always on call, we never really have a day off, and our job description changes by the hour.
As moms we spend a lot of time feeling guilty, and this guilt keeps us from expressing what is really going on inside.  But as with any difficult situation (and ladies, let’s face it, raising children is difficult), we can find comfort in knowing we are not alone.  We can find refreshment in ideas from other like minded equally honest “colleagues.”  We can find rest for our weary spirits sometimes if we just pause long enough to admit that this is really a struggle, and its okay not to love it every minute of every day.
So if you are reading this, and you do not struggle, then I applaud you, and even envy you.  If you are struggling, but feel too scared to tell anyone, then think about taking a risk.  Chances are, moms around you are feeling the same way.
Just go for total disclosure, and trust that other Mamas will feel relieved and empowered by your honesty.  I mean don’t we all wonder who we can talk to when all you want to say is “I can’t stand being around my kid right now, I feel like I am a crappy mom, and all I really want to do is take a nap for 3 days.”  If only each of us had another mom to call when we feel such things…
For instance, lately my 3 year old has been making me totally nuts.  Literally “Bouncing off the walls” is an understatement of his behavior the past few weeks.  Last week at my older son’s kindergarten graduation party, I had to run out to the car to grab something.  I found a couple of my “Mommy friends” and said to them:  “Could you keep an eye on him real quick?  Because if I have to take him all the way out to the car and back, I might just give him away to someone.”  They laughed, a bit awkwardly in that way we moms do when we don’t know how to respond to another mom.  Then I smiled a big smile saying:  “Of course I wouldn’t give him away, that would be crazy…I would sell him for money.”  Their awkward smiles just got bigger.  But beneath the somewhat strained smiles, was an element of relief that they weren’t the only ones having a tough time with their kids.  As I walked out of the room I said with a big smile, “Clearly I’m just kidding…well, mostly kidding.”
Of course I would never actually put my 3 year old up for sale (does EBay even have a category for that?).  But sometimes, just in joking about it (when the kids are clearly out of earshot and can’t be emotionally damaged by what I’m saying!), I find I can breathe a little easier.
Bottom line; let’s be a little more honest about the tough stuff.  Let’s support each other a bit more by admitting that we all have our moments of extreme joy, and also extreme anguish when it comes to this journey called motherhood.  And if all else fails, pour yourself a glass of wine or sparkling water with lime, sit down for a minute no matter how crazy the kids are, and remind yourself that you are fabulous, and your kids are so fortunate to have you as their Mama.

Motherhood: Ignoring the Judgements of Others (and Not Passing Any On)

Welcome to Moms’ Month on Dr. Stephanie! This month I will be featuring guest posts from some awesome moms around the country.  They will be sharing tips, tricks, and funny stories about motherhood.  This will be a fun celebration – thanks for joining us!  Today’s author is Karyn Dundorf.  Welcome, Karyn!

Hi! I’m Karyn, stay at home mom of (almost) 3.  (I once had a career as an engineer, and hope to have a career in the future, but for now find joy – most of the time – being home with the kiddos).

I am writing this commentary on motherhood from the perspective of a mother with young children.  Right now I have a 4 year old, an almost 2 year old, and an almost here baby (Editor’s note: Karyn had a healthy baby girl a couple of weeks ago – congrats Karyn and family!).  I’m sure one day I will look back and shake my head at some of the theories and assumptions about parenting I made at this time in my life, but this is where I am now and my “advice” goes out to all others with small ones.

First of all, be gentle with yourself.  It’s so easy as a woman, but especially as a mother, to put all sorts of expectations on yourself.  You talk to one mother and you worry that your child is not signed up for gymnastics or Chinese, the next interaction you feel guilty for whatever food you have just fed your child, and the third playdate reminds you that your house is a hazard and somehow you still haven’t lost the baby weight.  Each mother is different and each child is different (mine for sure are different!).  I found myself constantly beating myself up over what I was doing wrong.  Here’s the deal: we’ll all make mistakes.  We will ALL do stuff wrong.  But as long as you LOVE your children and you let them know they are loved, then you have done your best.

Secondly, be flexible and learn to laugh.  All the things I planned for, proved not to be an issue.  All the things I didn’t plan for, did happen.  You can read all the books, do all the research, but nothing will prepare you for your actual child.  Heck, even my first child did not prepare me for my second child and I expect the third will throw me all sorts of new curve balls.  I love sleep, yet I didn’t get 3 hours of sleep in a row for somewhere around a year with my firstborn.  My first born responds to logic, my second thinks logic is, well, silly and something to be ignored.  My first had sensory issues and feeding was an issue.  The second has no sensory issues and yesterday I found him playing with feces.  There are times that the challenges make you want to cry.  Sometimes crying is good, but it worries toddlers when Mommy cries, so it’s often best to just laugh.

Thirdly: There is a lot of judgement out there.  The term “mommy wars” gets used a lot.  The judgement gets old. It helps no one.  Do your best to ignore judgement and not to pass any on.  We’re all doing our best!

Lastly, motherhood is hard work.  It’s wonderful work, but it’s hard.  If you’re an introvert, you’re around a non-stop chatterbox and never get a moment to think.  If you’re an extrovert, you have that same chatterbox, but you never get a real conversation in.  It can take years (literally) to have a full night sleep.  It’s not about you.  It’s never about you.  A lot of  your identity will be wrecked during your child’s infancy.  Your body is wrecked, you are sleep deprived, and complete sentences are hard to form.   (I’m hoping that after the initial year you can get some of it back… or at least I hope to one day have at least one uninterrupted and coherent thought).  There are days that you want to pull every. single. hair out of your head.  And then, your child smiles at you, or tells you they love you, or just giggles at a cat walking past the window and everything is better and every single sacrifice worth it.

Motherhood: Learning Forgiveness in the Wake of an Accident

Welcome to Moms’ Month on Dr. Stephanie! This month I will be featuring guest posts from some awesome moms around the country.  They will be sharing tips, tricks, and funny stories about motherhood.  This will be a fun celebration – thanks for joining us!  Today’s author is Adrienne Gumersell.  Welcome, Adrienne!

My name is Adrienne Gumersell and I am a 33 year old mom of 3, trying to juggle the demands of my kids, while starting a new catering business, and a new blog.

People always ask me- which is harder, having a daughter or having a son?  I used to tell them- it’s just different.  Girls are head games, and boys are head injuries.  It’s just a matter of what you can tolerate better.  I thought I was pretty clever.
I stopped using this expression after my son fell out of a second story window and almost died.  After being flown by medivac to the hospital, he had to have emergency brain surgery, and was in an induced coma for over a week.  After a month in the hospital, we came home.  Today (after months of therapy and more than a year later) he is a fully functioning, healthy little boy.  There is no other way to describe him than- MIRACLE.
I felt guilty, thinking I brought this on myself by using the comparison between boys and girls.  I had only been considering bumps and bruises!  Never did I think that something like this could happen.  Who does?
I felt guilty, thinking I should have done something different.  But the bottom line is, it was an accident.
My kids were playing in our spare room, the window was closed and locked.
What stopped my guilt in it’s tracks was hearing my 5 year old daughter say it was “all my fault, Mommy! I’m the one who opened the window!”
It broke my heart. Because of course it was not her fault.
It was an accident.
And I decided to give myself the same grace.
My children have taught me many things, not the least of which is forgiveness– of others and of self.

The statistics on window related injuries are startling.  The American Academy of Pediatrics did a study from 1990-2008 and found that an average of over 5100 children a year are injured in such accidents.

Let’s all be more aware of window safety.  One life lost to this completely preventable problem is too many.  In fact, as part of the conclusion of the AAP’s study, they stated:

These injuries are an important pediatric public health problem, and increased prevention efforts are needed, including development and evaluation of innovative prevention programs.

Here is a comprehensive Window Safety Checklist, published by the National Safety Council.

Motherhood and Intended Purposes

Welcome to Moms’ Month on Dr. Stephanie! This month I will be featuring guest posts from some awesome moms around the country.  They will be sharing tips, tricks, and funny stories about motherhood.  This will be a fun celebration – thanks for joining us!  Today’s author is Pam Mellskog.  Welcome, Pam!

Pam Mellskog is a mom of three boys ages 6, 4, and 2.  She is also a reporter for the Longmont Times-Call newspaper in Colorado.  In addition, Pam writes the blog Mommy Musings. Editor’s note: Her blog is a great read and has some darling pictures of her kids! Check it out!
After I interviewed a local couple for an upcoming article to run on the Longmont Times-Call’s wedding anniversary and engagement page this Saturday, the man invited me into his workshop to look at a black box originally made to be a baby coffin.
This 79-year-old man collected all sorts of antiques – glass milk jars from defunct local dairies, oxen harness fittings, cracked wooden toys, rusty tools and so much more.
Probably a thousand or even 2,000 items filled his workshop and three white-washed semi-trailers parked in a row beside it.
Some objects, such as the crank-driven device with miniature push-broom brushes that fit over a large barrel, were so old and so obsolete that neither of us really knew the object’s intended purpose.
As it turned out, the father who built the baby coffin understood better than us how much times can change.
The man I interviewed on Monday night with his wife of 57 years said that he bought the baby coffin at an estate sale from an elderly man living in rural Nebraska with his elderly wife.
After the birth of one of their children, the then-young Nebraska couple followed the doctor’s orders to prepare for their baby’s impending death.
So, while the bereaved mother tended to the sick child as best as she could, the bereaved father built the coffin – a small, black box with brass studs on the seams long since tarnished to a color as dark as the old paint.
When we lifted the lid, we could see that this father also painted the interior a deep red. Under the lid, he used more black paint to stencil a stylized stork carrying off a sack.
But instead of placing his child in that box shortly after the paint dried, the man built a tray with compartments to fit snugly in it. And for the next many decades, he used the box for tools before emptying it and selling it to the man I interviewed with his wife early this week.
The baby lived.
In the last 24 hours since I touched the baby-coffin-turned-tool-box, I’ve thought more about my third child – a son with special needs related to Down Syndrome.
Once upon a time, society would have doomed Ray, now 2, and put him in some sort of dark box.
Doctors fewer than 50 years ago told parents to institutionalize these babies shortly after their birth and to never think about them again.
But like that old baby coffin, such a child comes with a very different intended purpose –  a life that includes tremendous potential for productivity and belonging and value.
Today, after another long week with my husband being gone on a business trip in the Middle East, I feel so far from being the parenting magazine mom – that woman who plans craft activities a week in advance, wears colorful,  fresh-pressed clothes and never seems to frown or yell or complain.
Trying to work even just 10 hours as a reporter on deadline while taking care of my three boys – ages 2, 4 and 6 – seems foolhardy!
Yet, my job gave back to my family and me this week.
Now, thanks to that interviewee showing me around his place, I have another vivid image of what my intended purpose is and what it is not.