Wednesday, December 31, 2014


There was a restaurant on York Street in New Haven called Blessings when I was growing up. My
family used to go there a few times a year and indulge in rounds of dumplings, not only for celebrations but when we wanted to get out of a rut too.

Dumplings are fun food, and symbolize a new beginning, which was perfect for a restaurant a few blocks from the huge Yale maternity hospital. They symbolize family and happiness and the new year, specifically. They're all I feel like eating tonight, so before I finished this blog I went out on a hunt because they're way too difficult for me to make.

Dumplings, card games and prosecco are the outlines for my New Year's Eve, with however many of my kids are around.

We probably won't talk resolutions, because who does that during a card game? But it's on everyone's mind, at least a bit. One of my daughters went shopping with me today to get healthier food because she eats too much sugar and that's asking for trouble, especially in our family. But on the morning news the anchors read off a few tweeted to them, and a lot were about staying positive and letting go of frustration over things you can't control. These are popular resolutions this year.

Basically, Let It Go.

I liked that Katie Holmes repeated her Zen moving-on mantra as "let go or get dragged" when she finally did a People interview this year. That's a neat image and it resonates with most of us.

I also read the articles in Real Simple about being accepting what we look like, what we have, what we want, and what makes us happy and then chasing down those good things instead of being controlled by the "shoulds" of what our meals or homes or kids or bodies or bank accounts would look like if we only ________________.

Yeah. Fill in that blank. It's only self-recrimination and feels lousy.

But there was still a part of me that wants to learn from the past. I worked on a family study back in the day where we recorded family meals and coded them for things like structure, communication, discipline, emotional warmth and problem solving. We then interviewed the families for a couple of hours (at another time) and asked them about those same areas, and after both the interview and the dinner, rated the family's level of functioning according to the McMaster Model.

Do this a few hundred times and you get distinct ideas about what a well-functioning family looks and
sounds like, along with a highly persistent inner compass that beeps when your own family drifts off course.

Which has been helpful, and annoying.

I have inner dialogues with myself that say "go on, set the table, eek out a few sentences about their day, you might learn something." Or "who cares if they sleep in their clothes? If you really do, then have a talk but don't nag. Sarcasm is toxic, just be direct."

But the point that's stayed with me the longest from that study is that lots of families muddle through problems, and there's a better way. Staying calm, refraining from blame, defining the problem ("we spend too much money"), discussing options ("wanna try an app to help us budget?"), celebrating successes ("we saved 19 bucks this month") and learning from mistakes ("I thought the mortgage would get there on time if I mailed it Monday") are all hallmarks of healthy families, or couples, or even corporations.

And man, did I get wrapped up in wanting to solve problems "right." "What did we do last time?" is where I usually started when my husband and I tackled a bad penny that's rolled our way again.

This made me feel smart, and I long to feel smart, so when Mark wanted to go with his gut on something, I'd say let's wait until we can go out for a drink and talk it through. I wanted to understand the problem, and make sure we handled it the best way possible.

Oh my ever loving Lord did I talk. Poor Mark, who I've begun to refer to as Saint.

Then I had my really bad head injury, and I couldn't talk. Couldn't understand what Mark was saying. Couldn't make sense of problems, or options, or solutions. I did everything by my gut, and couldn't remember later what I'd done that had or hadn't worked.

And our family functioning didn't change one bit. Not in any way that counted. I could say we internalized the process, but that wouldn't be true.

No, the truth was I'd married a hard-working man and raised some good-hearted kids who all did what
How I Grew Today website
needed to be done without much discussion about anything. Mark didn't sit them down and say "Listen, guys. How are we going to get through the crisis?" He just expected me to get the help I needed from whoever was around, and it happened. Probably would have happened all along, if I hadn't been so rigid about the problem-solving rigamarole.

This is how he phrased it last week, when he was working like a fiend and I was overwhelmed on Christmas Eve morning:

Daughter: "Dad, why are you looking at my butt?"

Dad: "I'm looking for where I'm going to insert my foot if I get home and you haven't helped your mother get all the prep done for tomorrow."

She got the point, in 30 words or less.

So I need to let go of this ideal of how problems should be solved, and here's why: as my language skills improve, is this really what I want to be talking about all the time? What I tried with this kid and whether it worked or not? What I decided against trying but am now having second thoughts about? I have to give my brain (and Mark's ears) a rest and move on after I make a decision. Forget about it. Not evaluate its efficacy at all. Not even care.

Because this article in Psychology Today is about letting go of past hurts and old injustices that keep us stuck in our tracks, but there's a broader point where "appreciation and analysis of the past become gum on your psychological shoe."

In other words, life's too short. Looking back keeps you from being rooted in the present and loving that you're here and so are your beautiful blessings.

Keeps you from tasting the dumplings, and giggling when you feel the bubbles from your prosecco bump the roof of your mouth.

Keeps you from being satisfied with who you are and what you do.

Keeps you from being truly happy, and blocks out joy, both of which I happen to love even more than the feeling of being smart.

So wish me luck in letting go of how I think I know a family should behave, and with just appreciating how mine does. Sometimes it's magic. Looking too closely ruins that effect.

And I wish you the same with whatever's weighing you down. Have a Lighter New Year.

Love, Lisa

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Ode to my Walmart Assistant Manager at Christmas

My husband Mark gets yelled at for a living these days, otherwise known as being a Walmart assistant manager. He has the police on his cellphone speed dial so when a tirade crosses the line to verbal abuse or goes on so long it's disruptive to the store he can ask the customer to leave and remind them that once they're asked to leave and refuse they're trespassing, which is illegal. Then hit the button.

He's hit the button nearly every one of the 23 days he's worked a 10 or 12 hour shift in the last month, including Thanksgiving Day when he had several customers arrested for fighting and being unruly while his family at home had dessert and coffee and watched movies.

Needless to say, we try to keep our home a yelling-free zone but there was a bit of a tiff between he and I the other night and his eyes went wide with "No, not here too." It was a stupid argument over the coffee machine and he was too tired to cope and I was too frazzled from solo holiday preparations to calm so we went to separate corners for some restless sleep and regrouped the next night to debrief. And the gist of his stress is the getting yelled at. Like a cop or a child protection worker or a therapist or a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, he's asked to keep a cool head while being screamed at by intimidating adults
and it's exhausting.

"Want a Stress and Anger Free Christmas?"
If an item isn't in stock, many customers think Mark is to blame.It doesn't matter whether the item is large (say a 50 inch television) or small (yesterday it was a Frozen video).  Not being able to find what they're looking for is a frustration that throws some people over the edge and into a mindset where calling the nice guy running the store wearing a Jerry Garcia Christmas tie and a tired smile a "f***ing scumbag maggot" for not having a particular doll on hand makes sense.

Christmas madness, is what it is. Nothing that can be wrapped and set under a tree matters this much, people. I got a small dose yesterday when I went to the post office and almost got hit by three different cars, and then met two of my daughters at the mall to hand over some cash I owed one so she could shop. We all had near-misses in the mall lot, with other cars beeping and swerving and speeding to get to a particular parking spot, so they could get to a particular store, so they could get a particular item that would show someone they were loved.

I'm thinking there's a short-cut that would have saved quite a few car accidents yesterday. One involving directly telling that person you adore them and will cherish them every day of the year.

So here's my love letter to my hassled husband:

Mark A. Hayden
Assistant Store Manager
Walmart #5294
1365 Boston Post Rd.
Milford, CT 06460

Dear Mark,

I fell in love with you from the day I first spied you hustling up and down the frozen food aisle at the Waldbaum's where we worked. You had that cute flush to your cheeks from going in and out of the walk-in freezer with your U-boat, filling and refilling the display cases with food for customers who needed This-Kind-Of-Cool-Whip-Not-That-One and their very favorite flavor of Ben & Jerry's to soothe their aching souls. With your Harry Potter glasses that got steamed up when you left the freezer and your silly jokes and lovely compliments, you stole my heart and have kept it safe within yours all these years.

I knew then that you loved the algorithms and benchmarks and physical work and customer care involved in retail, even the times near Christmas that were manic and fraught. You have the energy level and the personality and intelligence to keep most of your employees and customers happy, and you do good in the process. You help our community with the donations from your store, thousands of dollars a year to groups and individuals who need help. I saw you on Thanksgiving this year, giving your personal cell phone number to a woman who'd been misled about where to get a wristband, saying you'd find her that netbook for that price, no matter what. She teared up and nodded and trusted you, as she should. You're a trustworthy guy, and true to your word.

As for the jerks who tee off on you and vent their frustrations with life? I'm sorry. You shouldn't have to deal with that but I also know that's retail. People get upset and it's your job to try to calm them down. You do it exceptionally well, as you do with our eight kids at home. We miss seeing you these days but as you said this morning, it's almost over. Christmas is coming, thank you baby Jesus.

Until then, I appreciate all you do for our family and countless other families out there to make our lives comfortable and our holidays special.

Love, Lisa

P.S. If you're a customer shopping over the next four days, or doing returns starting on Friday, please be nice to the employees, who are as frazzled as you. Same money pressures as you, same sick kids as you, but not free to vent their frustrations.

Be like them. Don't use a convenient excuse to justify bad behavior. Just smile, suck it up and go home to your families having done the best you could.

I'm not against presents. I've bought plenty for our family, and invested time and money and effort in trying to express something with each one.

But if you weren't able to find that perfect gift? You weren't looking in the right place. A kiss and "I love you" and "thanks for everything you do" are always right there, on your lips.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

This or That: Kitchen Edition

Have you ever wondered whether a decision you make at home on auto-pilot is the right one? I do, and have decided to stop guessing by...asking my husband Mark to figure it out. It started with the
dishwasher. We have two (remember: eight kids).

What cycle uses the least amount of energy and water? Here's how it goes:
  • Smartwash (no heat)--best
  • Smartwash (heat)
  • Normal (no heat)
  • Normal (heat)
  • 1 hour (heat is not an option)--worst
Sigh. I've only been doing that wrong for about three years. Has to do with how hot the water has to be and for how long to get the dishes clean faster, and how much fresh water is needed when you don't have time to filter. These results were specific to our Kenmore models but are pretty consistent across models.

Bad news for the environment: The drying cycle only adds another 9% onto the energy used per cycle. This seemed miniscule to me, especially since the dishes are wet and my dishwasher gets moldy when I go days and weeks without using the "heat dry," as I stoically do. I didn't mean to, but the first time I used the dishwasher after hearing the "9%" I used the heat cycle, and now I'm up to using it about half the time. I figure I'm still ahead if I lay off the 1-hour wash.

So we moved to clothes washers and dryers. We have a top-load model in the basement (no pictures down there, please) and a front-load model in the kitchen. The front-load is newer and hanging in there, 9 years old and churning out 3 loads a day minimum, partly because Mark has become an amateur appliance repair man for obvious reasons. So I already know our upstairs model is more efficient (hallelujah) but USA Today's recent comparison of top and front loading models of the same year did the comparison. They say front loaders save money in the long run (because they're more efficient) but cost more up front so you need to use them a lot and keep them a long time to make the savings significant.


Of course I always use the hottest, shortest drying cycle, for the same reasons I use 1-hour wash, or run through the rain hoping to get less wet: a less-is-more fixation with Time. Only the hot, fast cycle keeps up with the wash cycle. So I'm not looking this one up, folks. I don't want to know.

We move onto stoves. I use my natural gas stove instead of my electric stove whenever I can so I hoped this was smart because I really hate my electric stove. Not that my electric won't get plenty of back-up use for the holidays, but we've had it for almost 15 years, since before we had a gas line installed, and the imprecision of the burners is explained here on How Stuff Works.  Gas stoves use three times less energy than electric before you even consider the cost difference. 


Now to fridges. I can't do a comparison of different kinds because mine are the same except for the icemaker. One has through-the-door ice and water, the other doesn't have an auto ice maker at all and this turns out to be the significant difference>Listings from EnergyStar

  • Top mount freezer (w/o  ice)--best
  • Bottom mount freezer (w/o ice)
  • Top mount freezer (with ice)
  • Side-by-side (w/o ice)
  • Side-by-side (with ice)--worst
So if you thought having the icemaker on the outside of the fridge saved energy from the opening and closing, you are apparently wrong. That's not why we got it (it was a Brady Bunch thing, I always wanted one, and notice how nicely I keep the orange but skip the avocado color scheme) but keep in mind the differences in energy use are slight, about 13 dollars/year between the most and least efficient kinds of fridges, when comparing similar model years and are affected more by how cold you keep them both than what type you have. 
Brady Bunch kitchen from Brady Bunch Blog

Still, I'll probably get a top freezer model when one or both of these crash and burn. I kind of miss the big, open spaces. I can't even fit a big pizza box in my fridge or freezer, jeez. And the slimy water tray for the icemaker and water supply that always needs to be bleached? Changing the water filter? re-sealing the rubber to make sure that when one side closes the other doesn't pop open? I'm over the side-by-side thing. 

But a little concerned how a top-model will look next to a side-by-side, and what to do when we only need one fridge. What else would I put in there? 

I have other this-or-that dilemmas chasing their tail in my brain, about how much energy the twinkle lights all over my house (and yard) use, but I'll save investigation for closer to Christmas, when it's relevant to sane people who only string them up then. 

Or maybe not investigate at all.

Love, Lisa

Sunday, November 2, 2014

My Parenting Playbook

My youngest daughter thinks I'm unreasonable about her bedtime, and of course 
she may be right. I'm closing in on my 10,000th day as a parent, and with all the extra practice from all the extra kids, I have a playbook I stick to pretty closely.  
I can't have long debates over bedtimes for 10,000 nights, I'd lose my mind. So I become rigid about some things because I think they're right or they're effective, and I won't debate them. They become a kind of parental operating manual that my husband I mostly share, though we have our own styles. Here are some of my go-to's over the years: 

  • If you're sarcastic, I'll stop talking to you until you're merely sullen. If you're polite I'm going to beam at you like endless sunshine and bathe you in attention.
  • If you're late for curfew, you'll get locked out and have to knock and face your father. He won't be happy.
  • If you're on time for curfew, you have to knock and come into our room. Our light is on low until everyone is home. You have to talk to us until we say good night. This is not a one-word conversation. 
  • You have a brother or sister, or two to share your room. You have to find a way to share and get along. We're not going to broker many peace deals because you're always going to be living with other people in life. You have to practice.
  • If you bully any of your siblings, hell will rain down on you in the form of innumerable chores you need to do in their stead and kindness reparations that can be grueling.
  • If you're crying or whining or nasty in public, we'll leave. I won't be happy. You'll have to find a way to make it up to me. Until then things will be tense between us, and there may be grounding. It depends on how bad you were. 
  • We're in charge of your religion until you're sixteen. Conveniently, this is just past the age of Confirmation. 
  • Mistakes are constant, and natural, for all of us. The thing is to recognize
    them, and do something different next time. That might be a mistake too, but eventually you'll get to the right place. If you don't recognize a mistake, or learn from it, I'll tell you. If I make a mistake and you were right, I'll tell you that too. 
  • Driving is expensive and can be dangerous. We're not going to help you get a license or let you borrow a car until we're impressed with your judgment and decision-making skills. This can vary between the ages of 16 and never. (Similar rules exist for cellphones and computers). 
  • Chores are a given, and unpaid, just like mine. If you screw them up, you'll have to do them over but that's your choice. There are some extra jobs, including babysitting, that you can get paid for. A good attitude will help you get these jobs if you want them. 
  • If you put in the effort of being on a team, I'll put in the effort of going to every game. With pleasure, no matter how I have to rearrange things at work. Ditto for awards ceremonies, recitals, concerts and art shows, and then we'll get ice cream because you make me so proud. 
  • I'm going to have opinions on your classes/colleges/relationships/jobs because I know you, and I know stuff. I'm going to try to convince you to do things that I think are best for you, and you pretty much have to hear me out. That's all, just listen. Then I'll help you when you choose something else. 
  • Once you finish school, you need to get a job and move out into the world. There may be extenuating circumstances that keep you home, but if so you still need to be working and contributing to the household as an adult. 

There are more, but the point is that the more kids you have, the more chances you have to find the "parent plays" that fit your personality, your family, and most of all that work. If you're lucky, they also make you laugh. On long car trips, driving alone with a car full of kids can be a nightmare. Having an SUV  that fit nine of us was a decidedly mixed blessing. So there was always the promise of McDonald's. Always. And the kids who were good on the ride got Happy Meals. The rest got a hamburger (no cheese) and a milk. 
from the root

The Sad Meal.

We have a home version too (peanut butter sandwich, no jelly, and milk) for kids sent to bed early.  There's a lot of chuckling from the older kids when they see it threatened, but I'm sure they'll use it themselves when they're parents. There's a culture and camaraderie to growing up in a big family that I don't even fully understand, because the family I grew up in was small. Knowing that most of the experiences you had as a child are shared with this whole group of people is kind of cool. 

Including having a Mom who rolls her eyes and defers to her rulebook every time you have a complaint. 

As to the rigidity part of all this, I think it's more like a parental routine, and I'm not that bad overall. I took a quiz to check ;) (see below). My rules have built-in wiggle room. If there's a big game on and you're into it, you can stay up to see who wins. But a movie? That can be recorded and watched the next afternoon, hit the sack.

It's gotten to the point that when faced with a tough situation regarding one of our kids, the first thing my husband and I ask ourselves is "what did we do last time?" and then "how did that work out?" Like coaches who don't get too riled by a few bad plays and are always fine-tuning the game plan to try to keep the team ahead. We still want to win, and for our kids to have great lives, but we're not going to get there by throwing out everything we've learned. So bedtime is 9:00 on school nights in middle school, 10:00 in high school, lights out 30 minutes later. 

Of course she is our only child at home in school now, so might be occasionally lax in rule enforcement ;). 

Love, Lisa

What's Your Parenting Style?


Sunday, October 26, 2014


I've spent my life in America but I do get outside our borders on occasion. Ireland and Scotland when I was young, a honeymoon in Innsbruck, a little bopping into Canada, two anniversary cruises in the Caribbean. One tension-filled car trip from Southern California into Tijuana for kicks
Our cousin and masterful
tour guide Roberta Bourassa
(what were we thinking?).

But only one trip was life-altering, and that was to Italy with extended family on my mother's side. The trip was led by my mom's cousin Roberta, who got every detail of the trip right. And while I loved our trip to Florence, even more the ones to San Gimignano, Sienna and Pisa, it was the daily rhythm of life in our base town of Lucca that affected me most. Lucca is a walled city where families walk together in the late afternoon, before going back to work and then out together to dinner with their friends.

Candle Night photos from
This is common throughout Europe, of course, but alien to most Americans.  Every night when our group went out to dinner, there would be tables overflowing with groups of family and friends holding their babies, eating three courses, drinking wine and talking deep into the night. Then walking through the old stone streets to their home, lit by street lamps and string lights, stopping in shops, and chatting with people they knew. That's on a regular night, not even a special occasion like last month's Candle Night festival of Santa Croce. There are a lot of festivals in Italy, each even more beautiful and communal than everyday life.

In America we go home at the end of the day and have dinner with the spouse and kids, then watch TV or maybe take them to soccer practice. There used to be a boardwalk on a beach near my house, not the same since Sandy, but before then it was filled with families at night walking and talking, but most of them were immigrants; the rest were alone, running or walking a baby or dog. Not a bad thing, but not the same. Weeks (or months) go by between when most of us see even close friends. Parties are centered around kids' events like graduations. Festivals are an arts and crafts festival in the summer on the green, rather than celebrations of the community we form. 

I've been to a few First Night celebrations, New Year's Eve events that almost capture the European feel of strolling with family and chatting with friends amidst lights and laughter, but in New England, it's cold on December 31st, and most of the events have to be inside, which limits the effect. I know there are also riverside strolls in a lot of American cities that capture the look of a European town, but they're largely for tourists, and shopping, rather than the residents.

Burning fires
Bridge near the basin
Then I came to Waterfire last night in Providence, and it was beautiful, and spiritual and communal. My daughter who goes to school in Providence is already hooked, she and her friends come down every time it's lit. I would too. It's amazing not just for what is on display, but for how it makes you feel connected to the place and the people around you. 

Boat of drummers

Glass blower at work
There were street performers and food stalls and artists selling their work and others creating more. Gondolas cruising along the river, some with tables and waiters and wine. Fire tenders cruising along the pyres, restocking  each one with 15 pieces of wood when the flames burned low. The night was cool but heat poured off the fires in waves with the wind, wrapping you with warmth and a smoky scent, then moving away. 
Josh, Ciara and Mark
taking phone pics

Two of their favorite tiles
At what looks like it used to be an aqueduct, thousands of tiles the kids of Providence drew after 9/11 are on display in accordian-like rows, next to a guy on a stationary bike raising money for cancer research.  Looking up, there are glass skylights built into the dark sky. Looking out, all the building in the city are lit up, pink and purple at the state house, some brick walls with a blue projection of a "Yes to 5" for arts funding. 

You can buy a blue star and write a story on there in someone's memory, or a card that's placed under a lit luminaria. I laughed at some of them and cried at others, and watched others around me do the same We shared a shrug or a smile. Such is life, that those left behind try to make sense of their loss by making strangers feel their pain, or sometimes their joy. I like the anniversary and love notes a lot. I liked the straight-out mourning even more. There's a purity to ripping our clothes and pounding our chests in public; or placing a card expressing our feelings next to a fire and waiting for it to catch. 

In between the eating and crying and laughing and talking and taking pictures and watching and admiring the primal fires raging over the water, I gave thanks for a daughter to likes to stay connected, and take her parents to Waterfire be part of
the Providence night, and then hole up in our  hotel room on the pull-out couch, overlooking the basin where the waterfires burned past midnight, watching the World Series and eating fresh kettle corn and giving thanks for us too.  

Because last time I wrote about how nice it is when adult kids move out, but in truth, it's only good if you still have adventures together, meet their friends, go shopping, let them show you new things and take you new places. 

Magical places you'd never been despite their being so close, that feel so familiar, like you'd been here before. Or should have, at night, before and after a three-course dinner together. 

Love, Lisa

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Long and Winding Road to Adulthood
I read all the parenting books when my kids were young, until I found my own voice and style of dealing with their constant needs, demands and squabbles. I checked a book or two when they were teenagers and I was spent, looking for magic but finding solace in the phrase “this too shall pass.” But there are no books on how to handle young adult children, and I remember being mystified by their ongoing needs, demands and squabbles. I grew up at a time when kids moved out around 18 and came home for holidays and visits. That’s what I did.

These days? Not so much. I looked at my kids on their 18th birthday with pride but also wonder at how incomplete they still were, wet clay that still hadn’t made it to the kiln. None of them had held more than a summer job, and a few of those were lost to immature behavior. Only three had their driver’s license, only one had significant money in the bank. None of them had been in more than one relationship (if that), and only one could cook meals.

So was I the slacker? I tried, I swear, but my kids were not-at-all-ready-for-prime-time adults at that age.

Robin Marantz Henig website
When have they been truly grown up and ready for independence? 24. Ish. 

The first article I read that captured my reality was 2010’s “What is it with twentysomethings?” in the New York Times Magazine. I carried that article around with me for days, pulling it out and pointing, saying "See? This is what I mean." All my friends' kids were younger, though, and they looked at me like I was deranged, which was becoming true. I was 46 years old and had my kids young--at my mother's advice--so that I could "enjoy" my middle age.But unless helping my twentysomethings navigate the world counted as enjoyment, I was out of luck. My kids were 23, 21, 20, 20, 17, 16, 14 and 9 and I felt as deep and thick with parental responsibilities as I had ten years earlier.

More so, even, because my 20-year-old daughter had a 9-month-old baby and was back in college. My husband and I promised five more years of support for her to finish school, get a good job and move out,which felt realistic. Also endless, because full-time parenting is a ball pit, fun for a while but then just tasks to be picked up (or smacked with) one or two or three at at time, all day and night long, no matter whether you're at work or in bed or in a dentist's chair. If you're not replaying an argument, you're texting about car use, or frustrated over walking into a kitchen messed-up by adult children who should know better.

Seth Saith Blog 
Except they don't feel like adults. They feel like really big teenagers, and that's where the NYT article started.  Developmental psychologists noting the trend and call it "extended adolescence," (Why Millenials aren't growing up) or "pre-adulthood" (As America changes, manhood does too) or "delayed adulthood" (The case for delayed adulthood) or "trial independence" (Supporting older adolescents in hard economic times) and cite driving economic and sociological factors you can read about in these articles. Legal issues have been raised ("NYT Emerging Adult article begs legal questions") and partially answered, for example by raising the age for adult criminal charges in my state from 16 to 18. Neuroscience has found reasons why kids naturally mature in their mid-20's. We may have been pushing too hard for a late-teen "adulthood" in the past out of economic or military necessity but kids that age make a lot of mistakes. We know this. Thus the raised age for drinking.

Connie to the Wonnie blog
Whomever you want to disdain or blame, the reality is that over the last couple of decades,since I was their age, the point at which kids move out, get full-time jobs with benefits, get married and have kids has crept up by at least five years. and left kids emotionally, financially and physically semi-dependent on parents until their mid-20's. Which isn't fun from either side, but it's not a reason to panic either. Kids these days do mature, just at an overall slower rate.

Once I realized that, I relaxed. It's a challenge to stop making your kids' dental cleaning appointments if they live in your house and are still on your insurance, or to make them grocery shop or cook for the household when they do a half-as-good job, but Mark and I have mostly figured out that balance of helping and heaving that gets our kids out the door and ready for the world by 24. Ish.

Now that half of my kids are that age, I see the light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, we're still helping with rent here and there. Yes, we buy groceries for the son in grad school, and lend a car to one daughter so she can get back and forth to work. We help them find jobs. I walk my granddaughter to the bus stop every morning, and help my freshman-in-college with grammar in her papers. My husband periodically confiscates debit cards to enforce saving and doles out spending money from the kids' own accounts. Life has a sharp learning curve between 18-24, and it's nice to have adults there to smooth out the edges. Necessary, even.

Which is why my adopted kids are lucky they're not still in foster care. If they were, they'd age-out at 18 and be totally, brutally, incomplete and alone.

CNN article on risks to children aging out of foster care
This isn't to bash state child welfare systems. I've proudly worked for one for many years, and received assistance from another in raising our special needs kids. I'm also not sure what the answer would be in terms of supporting kids beyond the age of 18. There are programs in most states to pay for college for kids who've aged out of foster care, and to assist in finding an apartment. Grants for furniture, and Young Adult Services that help with mental health care and job training.

But if you are unfortunate enough to lose your parents, or have your parents lose you when you're a child, and then fortunate enough to be placed in a foster home where you feel safe and supported, that unfairly ends at 18, when you're supposed to be grown up.

Except you're not, If anything, you're less prepared for adult responsibilities than those who live with their parents. In foster care you have fewer natural supports, fewer role models, fewer safety nets. More problems. More needs. The biggest of which is that you need more time to grow up and successfully start your own life, like everyone else your age.

Today is Blog Action Day with a focus on injustice, and my goal is to raise awareness of the the Jim
Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative to extend foster care to the age of 21, along with continued permanency planning to keep kids in foster care connected to families throughout their adulthood,or even to continue adoption efforts through agencies like Wendy's Wonderful Kids and You Gotta Believe.

Because if there were a way to make kids independent these days by age 18, I would have found it.

And today it's to be a successful and independent adult before your mid-20's, even with family.

But especially without.

Love, Lisa

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Water First

from The Heart of the Matter blog 
My garden was out of control this year. I blame the compost bin, which split down the sides this year and forced us to chuck a full year's worth of loamy chunks into our raised beds before we planted, but my son Chris takes credit for emptying his pond filter into the fallow beds, disgorging all manner of scum he's convinced is the source of all bounty.

Or maybe we have tiny gardening gnomes who weeded at night. None of us did the weeding.

Regardless, the few plants we inserted did well. Better than well. Not all of them, actually. A couple of pepper plants were routed by the insane growth rate of one pumpkin and two watermelon plants, plus a couple of eggplant and cucumber plants. And a billion tomatoes we did not plant. Have a look.

watermelon and cukes

rogue tomatoes (and an oak sapling)
 We watered, the sun shone, and the plants grew because whatever was in the dirt was apparently a veritable feast of nutrients. The vines stretched under the picnic tables, the tomatoes leaned over the fence. You couldn't gently step between the cucumbers to pick the three kinds of tomatoes (cherry,
 grape and roma) without squishing a stem. We all got into the habit of snacking on overflowing bowls of tomatoes in the evening while dinner was in motion but not quite taking form. And if we could find them, we picked the cucumbers when they were smaller and sweeter and snacked on them that way too. Making room for more cucumbers to come.

The pumpkins and watermelons were a whole other matter. We've tried to grow them before, in the ground above a rock wall in our backyard, but the soil wasn't as rich or deep and they never took off. Not until this year did we learn that for all those buds and flowers and leaves, only a few pumpkins and watermelons grow, and they need to be nurtured and guarded and protected. Lifted off the ground with cardboard so they wouldn't start to rot. Marveled at every day, with all of us peeking in on them and saying "wow, that's amazing." When they were picked, the pumpkins were different shapes and sizes, and one took about a month longer than the others to mature.

Kind of like kids.

This week I thought of little else beyond my friend Lesley Siegel, who died on Wednesday of cancer. She was a marvel of a woman, an inspiration, a kick-ass boss and a crusader. She gave me many of my sharpest, most accurate criticisms, and the one compliment about my work as a psychologist that I hold nearest to my heart.  She was the Medical Director where we worked at Riverview Hospital, and then for the whole of DCF in our state. She was a crusader for kids in state care, who were the majority of who we treated as a state-funded psychiatric hospital, and  moved the state mental health system as a whole toward effective, trauma-informed psychiatric care in less restrictive settings and with minimal use of meds.

When she was blocked or frustrated in her first two missions, she focused on the third, because that was within her control. She made every doctor who wanted to prescribe psychotropic meds to a child in foster care convince her and her small battalion of nurses that the plan was sound and the meds were needed. Often they couldn't, and this is why:

This is a tomato plant that was badly supported. I have a piece of PVC and some yarn rigged to hold up the plant (because I wasn't prepared for tomatoes, and couldn't keep up with their growth), but in the process I tied the yarn too tight and cut off the supply of water. The leaves withered, and the plant looked sick. Chemicals added to the soil would not have helped, It needed better, looser, kinder supports.

If a plant is dry, water first.

There's an opinion piece by Michael Price about being moved from home to home and treated more casually than the furniture that Lesley commented on, and she's right. I have one son who was in foster care and very much needs his neuroleptics. I have another who weaned himself off when he turned twenty and looked and felt better immediately. I felt like a fool for keeping him on so long, and his psychiatrist shook her head and said she should have considered he had a personality disorder earlier, and tried him off meds and with a different kind of therapy.

That treatment will at some point probably be DBT,  which is intensive and complex but often effective for kids who have experienced trauma, and another treatment Lesley championed. Under her guidance, we were trained by the treatment developers, and rather than asking why a child in distress would need the treatment, we reversed course and asked "why not?" If trauma was the cause of a child's distress, then DBT and related treatments should come before meds, or instead.

My poor plant here was splashed with pond goo, which Chris thought would be good for them like it was for the soil, or maybe he was just careless, but the plants were hurt and never recovered their photosynthesis balance. Again, adding chemicals to the soil wouldn't help, they needed to be washed off  as soon as we noticed signs of distress, and then given added supports so new, healthy leaves could grow. And they needed to be protected from humans randomly chucking pond goo their way.

Lesley wrote up her approach to giving medication approval, without the plant metaphors, for this national presentation. In her approach, she's helped a lot of kids. She also helped me, with her example. She seemed fearless, though I know this must not have always been true. She was funny and original, in the way she told me to match my shoes to my pocketbook once in a while, or to read this book tonight, or to think again when I came up with a too-pat answer. She was brilliant.

Because she always remembered that kids need love first. Then support and a healthy environment. After that, if they're struggling, then fine, get them some good mental health care. Even meds.

But never instead.

Love, Lisa

Sunday, September 14, 2014


The word implies improvement. Cars become safer, medical treatment more effective, the universe better known. While change is can be positive, negative or indifferent, progress is good—ending a stalemate, closing in on a goal.

Or so I thought.

1.    1.
forward or onward movement toward a destination.
"the darkness did not stop my progress"
forward movement, advancegoingprogressionheadwaypassage
"boulders made progress difficult"
1.    1.
move forward or onward in space or time.
"as the century progressed, the quality of telescopes improved"
go, make one's way, move, move forward, go forward, proceed,advance, go on, continue, make headway, work one's way

Last week Mark and I moved our daughter Ciara to college and the feelings swirling around our backyard get-together the night before she left--and the truck during our trip to Providence, and the dorm room as we helped her settle in--were decidedly mixed. She’s a bright, intense, fascinating creature and raising her has been a daunting labor of love. That she settled easily into a college that felt just right for her was a relief so satisfying that I was in tears and a dazed kind of awe. 

Ciara's new groove
She is progressing toward the life she wants, but it’s not an improvement over the life she had before. She loved her high school and thrived there. She has remarkable friends and a family that made it to every game or meet or assembly in a rotating cast of twos and threes and fours. She had the attic bedroom at home with her own bathroom. In her words, she had it Gucci.

But this isn’t simply a heap of change either. There’s nothing random about where she’s going to school, or even her life in high school before. More than any of our seven other children, she has an internal motor that drives her forward, whether what comes next is a challenge or reward, or even a painful confrontation. Ciara is fearless in that way, which doesn’t mean she doesn’t get scared. Only that she doesn’t let fear change her course. 

Leaving home is progress, but like change, it’s a mixed blessing. She’s excited and nervous. We’re delighted and sad. Progress comes in muted colors as well as shiny, bright ones.

This week Mark and I moved our son Chris from a homeless shelter to a rented room and our feelings are just as swirly. Chris is just as determined as Ciara to find his own way in life, and when he moved out earlier this year to attend Job Corps we all knew he wasn’t coming back home. He’s a clever, passionate, sensitive soul who is equally tough to deter from the course he’s chosen and is convinced is right for him. Except his choices, in hindsight, are often setbacks, and the progress he wants to see—toward independence, and his own version of happy comfort—is minimal. The difference is how thoroughly his “now” goals wrestle his “later” goals into submission. His focus is intense, but mostly on what he wants today. Where Ciara is the fabled ant, he’s the grasshopper.

Chris's new pad
Not an easy way for an adult to live. Of all our kids, he’s made us the most gray. Also the most aware that parenting means that you always care, but not that you always do for your kids, or even that you always like each other. Hard feelings have passed back and forth. Advice has been given and rejected. Help asked for and refused. Substance abuse, learning disabilities and psychiatric problems are only partly to blame. The rest is the same steely will Ciara possesses, aimed in a different direction.

He was razor-close to being back on the streets but an apartment came through three days before his discharge, and a job one day after that. The look on Chris’s face as he took in the tiny room that was his alone and free of our usual parental tyranny was just as quietly eager as Ciara’s, and as parents we felt just as nervously proud.

From an early age, kids play the game of life by their own rules, with all the inherent ups and downs, disappointments and successes.

Leaving parents like us on the sidelines, cheering them on with our fingers crossed.  

Love, Lisa