Sunday, June 16, 2013

It's Not Rocket Science

Why single mothers don’t have to be fathers

It’s Father’s Day again. Last year on the third Sunday of June, I posted this snarky comment on Facebook: “Since I’m a single mother, does that mean my kids have to make me a cake on Father’s Day?” Lots of people—especially other single moms—thought that sentiment was soooo cute.

This year, I made my sons pancakes.

Here’s the deal. Single mothers cannot be fathers. I’m not just talking about biology. I’m a single mom, raising two teenage boys full time by myself, and in a life of bars set high, it’s bar-none the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. But I’m not both their father and their mother, and I don’t want to be.

Here are ten things single moms can do just as well as fathers:
  1. Make pancakes for your sons on Father’s Day.
  2. Work hard and make barely enough money to pay for the 6.7 gallons of milk your teenage boys drink each week.
  3.  Watch Battlestar Gallactica with your sons.
  4.  Don’t complain when the boys transform the kitchen into a model rocket factory at 1:00 in the morning.  
  5. Say, “No, I will not buy you potassium nitrate at the garden store. I do not believe you when you say that you plan to make sugar with the potassium nitrate. I believe that you plan to use the potassium as rocket fuel accelerant.”
  6. Have that extremely awkward “This is a banana, and this is a condom” talk—early and often.
  7. Make your kids work. You work all day—they can do the dishes and fold the laundry. They can even iron their own shirts.
  8. Don’t buy them every single thing they ask for, and don’t feel guilty about it.
  9. Teach your sons to respect everyone, but especially women. If they respect women, maybe the next generation of children won’t be raised by single mothers.
  10. Love your sons. No matter what.

And here’s one thing single moms can never do just as well as fathers: be your kid’s father.

So stop trying.

Very few (sane) women sign up to be single mothers voluntarily (see #6 above). I certainly was not one of them. I never expected to be celebrating Father’s Day with my sons without their father. This is why the one piece of indispensable knowledge I want to impress on my sons is that if and when they decide to become fathers, they must understand and embrace the life-altering nature of that commitment.  

Children need their fathers. Even when the fathers stop needing—or loving—their partners, fathers should never abandon their children, not for any reason.  As long as single mothers continue to denigrate their vital role as co-parents (the horrible “sperm donor” moniker comes to mind), fathers will have less incentive to take the responsibility that is theirs.

So single-mom girlfriends, you can’t be your children’s father and mother, and you should stop trying to be. But you can be—and you are—their mother. On Father’s Day, let’s celebrate the men we know who have made a difference in their children’s lives, and in our children’s lives as well. I’m thinking of the scoutmaster who patiently worked with my son who has developmental disabilities, or the father of my oldest son’s best friend who takes him along on ski and biking trips, or my partner, who has no children of his own but has graciously made space for my children in his life.

What should a single mother do on Father’s Day? Do something that makes you feel good, of course. Myself, I went for a pedicure with hot pink nail polish. Then I took my boys to see a sci fi movie we all loved. It’s good to be a mother on Father’s Day.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

My Jenny McCarthy Moment

Do little white pills cause autism spectrum disorders?
Wanting simple answers to complex problems

On a sunny Sunday morning, as I tried to ignore the sad news of the latest mass shooting in Santa Monica (near my former home), I tunneled through the perpendicular worlds of (peer-reviewed, fact-based) and (popular, fear-based). I was researching a drug called terbutaline, also known as brethine, an asthma medication that has long been used off-label to stop contractions in pre-term pregnant women.

In 1999, I was one of those women. And until a few days ago, I had never given terbutaline another thought. But while speaking with another mom of a son with developmental disabilities and mood disorders, my spine chilled and my ears started to ring when she said, “I was hospitalized for pre-term labor and given terbutaline.”

My contractions started after a long hike in my 29th week of Michael’s pregnancy. At first I thought they were just strong Braxton-Hicks, but when they wouldn’t stop, I ended up in the emergency room. I was given an injection, hospitalized for a few days, and sent home on bed rest with a bottle of little white pills.

What I remember most about the pills was the breathtakingly awful headaches and painful tremors they caused. I also remember feeling resentment toward the baby in my body, for making me endure so much pain. In the end, he was born on his due date—and he was the happiest, sweetest baby a mother could ask for.

And now, 13 years later, Michael is still happy and sweet—except when he isn’t. He can’t tie his shoes or remember to brush his teeth. He walks with an awkward gait and has serious sensory integration issues. His most recent diagnoses include PDD-NOS and juvenile bipolar disorder.

Which is where Ms. McCarthy comes in. I have a great deal of sympathy for Jenny McCarthy. Any parent whose child is diagnosed with a life-changing condition, whether it’s cancer or juvenile diabetes or autism, wants to know why. What happened to cause this? Why did this happen to my child?

After her son was diagnosed with autism in 2005, McCarthy famously latched on to a 1998 Lancet study that incorrectly linked autism to vaccinations. That controversial study, which followed 12 children diagnosed with developmental disabilities, has now been retracted; there is no sound scientific evidence linking vaccinations, even those containing thimerosol, to autism.
Even though I have sympathy for McCarthy, I routinely assign the autism/vaccination controversy to my students as a critical thinking exercise in learning how easy it is to latch on to an “easy” but often wrong answer. As that wit H.L.Mencken famously said, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” 

So as I scour Google Scholar for recent articles about terbutaline and autism, I have to ask myself: am I pulling a McCarthy? Do I want this one thing to be the answer, to the exclusion of all other possible things? Do I need an easy answer?

To be fair, the FDA has taken recent studies linking terbutaline to possible developmental delays seriously, issuing a Black Box warning for the drug in 2011: “Terbutaline should not be used to stop or prevent premature labor in pregnant women, especially in women who are not in a hospital. Terbutaline has caused serious side effects in newborns whose mothers took the medication to stop or prevent labor.”

I find myself inevitably drawn to comparisons with Thalidomide, the infamous 1960s drug prescribed off-label for morning sickness that caused thousands of teratogenic birth defects worldwide. Thalidomide was one of the first drugs to provide solid, irrefutable evidence that substances ingested by the mother can cross the placenta and cause harm to the developing fetus. 

If the link between terbutaline and autism is substantiated, then the comparison to thalidomide is an apt one.

In today’s paper, the front page story (right below the Santa Monica shooting) featured a young man headed off to UCLA at the age of 14—a bright, promising chess player with true gifts in math and science.  My son Michael attended the same exclusive magnet school until he was asked to leave because his behavioral problems were too distracting to the other students.

Would that story have been about my son, if only I had refused to take terbutaline?

Simple answers are usually wrong. In the end, the question comes down to a philosophical one: free will or determinism.  Genes, environment, nutrition, medication—all these must certainly play a role in developmental disorders. But they don’t determine the outcome of our lives. Michael still has choices, and good options, which will only improve with ongoing research and changes in society’s current understanding of mental illness and mental disorders.

Thalidomide babies were often born without limbs, or with phocomelia (“Seal limbs”). But that very visible disability didn’t stop Mat Fraser from becoming a drummer, or Tony Melendez from playing the guitar (with his feet), or Thomas Quasthoff from singing his heart out.

Michael’s disability is less visible, but no more deterministic. He too can be what he wants to be. The path just might be longer and more roundabout than I expected that summer morning, when my hike triggered early contractions that set my son’s life—and my life—on this path.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Conformist Football Dad

Why can fathers tell it like it is when mothers can’t?

I miss my anonymous blog. It used to be this fun space where I could vent about the challenges (and occasional joys) of raising four kids as a single mother, juggling(and sometimes dropping) work, school, and mommy balls. When I complained to a friend that I could no longer write whatever I wanted, he suggested I start another anonymous blog and call it (tongue in cheek) “The Conformist Football Dad.”

But I realized something yesterday, when I read Steve Wein’s funny and honest take on parenting small children. If I started a daddy blog, I would not need to keep it anonymous. Because Dads get carte blanche to say pretty much whatever is on their minds. Things like, “You are not a terrible parent if the sound of their voices sometimes makes you want to drink and never stop.” Or “You are not a terrible parent if you'd rather be at work” (There are lots of times I would rather be at work. And look where admitting that got Sheryl Sandberg!).

Instead of the blogosphere ripping Dads up for writing books like Go the Fuck to Sleep, everyone smiles and nods and says, “Isn’t that cute?” (well, a few people were offended, but they probably weren’t parents).

Confession: I wish I had written that book (and I thought of it, while inserting my own occasionally colorful commentary into Goodnight Moon during the roughly 4,745 times I read it in desperation to my own sleep-challenged progeny).

I also wish that I had written Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I’m not a big Jane Austen fan—I recommend her work to anyone who has difficulty falling asleep at night. The only one of her books that I ever managed to finish was Mansfield Park, and that’s just because it was the only English language paperback in the bookcase of the Sorrento pensione where I finished out my junior year spring term study abroad. As one of my philosophy professors once said (in jesting reference to the Mormon prophet David O. McKay), “No excess can compensate for failure to go to Rome.”

What McKay actually said was this: “No success can compensate for failure in the home.” No pressure there! And for Mormon mothers, the church’s position on gender roles is clear: “Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” 

Yup. And 40 percent of mothers (myself included) are also solely or primarily responsible for putting food on the table.  Which is why it's weird that we keep attacking each other.

I finally got around to reading some of the criticism that followed my December 14, 2012 blog post telling my family’s story about having a child with mental illness. Sarah Kendzior, for example, had a field day mining four years of pretty standard (and anonymous) mommy blog material to create a picture of me as a narcissistic monster who wanted to strangle her kids all the time (Not true. Only when I venture upstairs into the oozing mold pit that is my teenage sons’ bathroom).

But it was one of my favorite writers, End of Men author Hanna Rosin, who really put the mommy boxing gloves on. In her essay, “Don’t Compare your Son to Adam Lanza,”  she suggested, among other things, that I was the one who really had mental problems (I think Ms. Rosin is just envious of my mad writing skillz).  

For the record, I did not compare my son to Adam Lanza. I compared myself to his mother. My point was, and still is, that we as parents of children with mental illness and mental disorders need to speak up.

And it seems like it’s okay to talk about your child with mental illness, or even your own struggles—as long as you are the father and not the mother. David Sheff’s brave and eloquent book about his son’s addiction, for example, or Pete Earley’s Crazy.  But if you write Drunk Mom  watch out!

I’ve gotten more than a few queries from reporters who want to “expose the truth” about what I wrote. They couch their requests for interviews in vaguely threatening terms about “fact-checking” and “privacy.” All of them, interestingly enough, are women.

Hey, girlfriends! Privacy is just another word for stigma.

To be honest, I’m grateful for the backlash. It helped me to clarify my own position and realize the importance of advocacy. That my first attempt to tell my painful truth happened to go viral was something beyond my control. But it has provided me opportunities to meet people, to share stories, and to campaign for change.

So don’t look for the Conformist Football Dad. I’m the Anarchist Soccer Mom, and I’ll keep talking—and acting—to help my son. You can speak up too. And if the other mommies start to beat you up, come out swinging. None of us—dads or moms—are perfect parents. But we all want the same thing: happy, healthy, productive children. Let’s help each other get there.