Friday, March 26, 2010

Small Packages

The other morning, I took Ethan on a little adventure to Barnes and Noble.

We happened to arrive just before a scheduled story time. Great! I thought. What perfect timing!

Unfortunately, story time was aimed at two and three year olds. My kindergartener listened, skeptically, to about three minutes of the cutesy wootsy story and song about ducks and then mortified me by announcing, quite loudly, "THIS IS SO STUPID!" So much for that outing, right?

But something else happened while we were there, something that left an impression on me.

There was an arrestingly adorable boy running around the aisles -- a bright-eyed little towhead named Andrew. He was 19 months old. I know that because I overheard his mother answer a stranger's question. And then I heard the familiar pause, and the apologetic follow-up. "He's just very small for his age."

Oh man, have I been there. My heart sank, reflexively.

I used to say the same thing. Every time. And I still do occasionally, when I can see people looking askance at my tiny son, who at five-and-a-half weighs 33 pounds sopping wet and stands a mighty three foot-four. We used to joke that he was going to drive rear-facing. I know what it feels like to have your husband accidentally dress your almost-four year old in his nine-month-old brother's shorts. And have them fit.

Oh my! said a well-meaning mother at the pool last summer, eying my two boys, who are almost exactly three years apart. You sure had them close together, didn't you?

Well, no. I didn't actually. Not at all.

Ethan has always been small. He was born small -- a few ounces shy of six pounds -- at 38 weeks, due to a somewhat mysterious condition called "IUGR," or intra-uterine growth restriction. Getting him to grow during his first few years was torturous. I held my breath at every weigh-in and familiarized myself with every weight gain trick in the book. One handout from his doctor's office read like some sort of diet parody. "Never eat vegetables plain!" it warns ominously. "Add butter, margarine, cream sauce, hollandaise, cheese sauce, salad dressings, sour cream and mayonnaise." (Not all at once, I hope.) "Plain crackers should have cream cheese, cheese spread, peanut butter, jelly, or margarine to increase calories," it goes on. It recommends canned fruit in heavy syrup over fresh. And my personal favorite, "Choose meats breaded, fried and sauteed in oil or butter." Well, who wouldn't? (There's also a recipe for a chocolate peanut butter milkshake that has -- I kid you not -- 1070 calories a cup. And that's seen as a good thing.)
I never realized, though, that having a child of Ethan's size carries its own unspoken stigma in Momville, where small babies are often viewed as second class citizens. On the mothers' message board I used to frequent, it was standard practice to return from well visits and post your baby's "stats." And though few might admit it aloud, ironically, in a culture where thinness is obsessively prized by adults, when it comes to babies, bigger is most definitely seen as better. "Isabella is in the 95th percentile for weight AGAIN," a mother might crow. Those damned percentiles were seen as scores, as if a baby deemed to be in the 90th percentile for weight was somehow being given a higher grade than one in the 30th. The mothers of babies who were "only" in the 50th percentile or less often posted nervously about what could be wrong with their children. It was hard not to feel defensive, or make self-mocking jokes about our featherweights. My son finally hit 20 pounds at his two year well check. Is there such a thing as a 20 pound two year old?, I asked the pediatrician, only half kidding. He finally debuted on the weight charts -- hello first percentile! -- some time last year.

I know where this comes from, of course. Whether nursed or fed formula, our babies' size can feel like the one tangible, measurable manifestation of our parenting, especially in the first few months of life, when they bring so little else to the table. (Think about it: Why do we put newborns' weight and length on their birth announcements? Um, because there's nothing else to say about them?) Those that grow big and, well, fat, are clearly doing fine, their little plump bodies a literal reflection of their health. And those like Ethan? Their charts are stamped with the gloomy "failure to thrive" label, with all the implications therein.

I watched with great interest, as both a mother and a journalist who's written a great deal on science and health, as the doctors walked the fine line between "He's just small" and "There's something amiss." We tried desperately not to intervene unless it was truly warranted. But one test led to another and another. Poor little -- literally -- Ethan was poked and prodded and schlepped to myriad doctors, one all the way in Philadelphia. At 14 months, after an endoscopy suggested he might have a rare form of food allergy, Ethan was put on a so-called "elemental" diet. For two months, he wasn't allowed to eat or drink anything -- nothing -- but a foul-smelling prescription formula. We propped him in his high chair that Thanksgiving with books and toys, hoping he might not notice the feast he couldn't take part in. For one horrific week I have mostly blocked out of my memory, he had a feeding tube in his nose. Until Dr. Bob Wood, the brilliant guru of pediatric food allergies at Johns Hopkins, stopped the madness. "There are only so many ways you can torture an essentially healthy child," Dr. Wood told us in his measured, reassuring tones. "There's nothing wrong with him."
So in our case, it was all a bad dream. Though he continues to be monitored by doctors we trust, the current feeling is that Ethan is perfectly healthy. He's just...small and thin. Like lots of kids. Like lots of adults. It's nothing for us to be ashamed of. Or apologize for. Or feel the need to explain to random strangers who ask how old he is at the bookstore or the pool. The vessel my amazing, precious son came in is just...small. Not bad. Or diminished. Or lesser. Just small. He's anything but failing to thrive in the things that matter. In fact, I could fill this space with nothing but a record of his breathtaking achievements, the things he can do so effortlessly that belie both his size and his age. But then I would really be breaking a mom rule.
Saccharine aphorisms are hardly my strong suit, but there is one I repeat over and over, like a mantra.

When it comes to Ethan, I always say, we like to focus on the things about him that are big: his heart and his brain.

I shared that thought with Andrew's mom at Barnes and Noble the other morning. I hope one day four years from now, she'll hear another mom defensively explain that her son is small for his age. And she'll pass it on.

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn
Click to see it full-size

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

And Now Back to our Regularly Scheduled Programming...

I was all set to kick off my Idol blogging season with a report about Idol fashion. I've long been mesmerized by watching the contestants' transformations, from the awkward (but in a folsky, organic kind of way) mall-clad hopefuls we see during the auditions to the awkward (but in a overly stylized, totally unnatural kind of way) creatures we see during the competition. What exactly is the Idol stylists' aesthetic? I've never quite been able to pin it down.

But just my luck, last night was actually a major disappointment in that regard. Most of the contestants looked -- dare I say -- almost normal? Nice, even? Until we got to Siobhan, that is. During the Miley Cyrus segment, she looked like something out of a teen movie. You know the one I'm talking about. The painfully geeky misfit with a heart of gold (oversized glasses, circa 1983? Check!) gets invited to the movies with the alpha girl cheerleaders. Thrilled beyond words, she puts on the coolest outfit she can think of (My pink jacket! My big necklace! My acid washed jeans!), only to discover that the whole thing was a set up: they only invited her as a goof, to ridicule her. But of course, she then turns out to be telekinetic and douses them all with pigs' blood or something.

"Is she on drugs?" my husband asked, completely seriously, while watching Siobhan be "mentored" by Miley Cyrus. (For the record, he also asked "Who is she?" when Miley got out of her car. And then, "Why isn't she wearing pants?")

And then, because we never do know what to expect, either vocally or fashion-wise, from our friendly neighborhood glass blower, Siobhan channeled what appeared to be...a mid-80s Sheena Easton during her performance. What exactly was going on with the hair, pray tell?

OK, so now that that's out of the way, I have a terrible confession.

All these seasons of Idol watching have left me impatient. I've suddenly lost my taste for watching the heretofore fascinating winnowing process by which our field of 12 is narrowed to a handful of serious contenders and then, finally, to one winner, be it one of the Kelly Clarkson/Carrie Underwood variety or one of the Ruben Studdard/Taylor Hicks variety. I have...Idol fatigue. I just want to get on with it. Meaning right now I have no patience for watching even one more week of the contestants we already know have absolutely zero chance of winning. I just don't have it in me. That means you, Tim "Totally Out of My League" Urban. And you, Andrew "Peaked Too Soon" Garcia. And you, Katie "Give it Four Years" Stevens. And you, Paige "There's Nothing Really Noteworthy About Paige Except Her Very Beautiful Eyes, Which Is Exactly Her Problem" Miles. Oh, and speaking of the 80s? It is my duty to mention how badly Paige stunk up the joint last night, with a Phil Collins song with which I never miss an opportunity to torment my friend Steven, who was a -- how shall we say? -- big fan of it when we were in 11th grade. I even requested it at his wedding. But alas, the band didn't know it.

I mean, can we just stop the charade already? It's very clear already who the serious talents are here: Crystal Bowersox. Michael Lynche. And, of course, Crazy Eyes Killah Siobhan, although interestingly, Dial Idol seems to indicate she doesn't have much of a fan base. It's also clear who the almosts and nearlies will be: Scruffy McMuffin Lee DeWyze and Didi "Brooke White 2.0" Benami. (Who's a Sabra! Who knew?!) And then there are those who seem certain to secure a solid place in the pantheon that includes luminaries like Kevin Covais and Anwar Robinson: Aaron Kelly, who my friend Amy and I have just taken to calling "that creepy 16 year old boy." And Casey James, who, given the thousands of fantastic songs that have graced the top of the Hot 100 chart, went with...a 1985 Huey Lewis song. Need we say more? (Husband's comment: "Nobody will be talking about that at work tomorrow.")

He's absolutely right. Just wake me in six weeks, will you?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

About That New York Times Piece...

I am someone who reads blogs. I love blogs. I was once so moved by the words I read on a blog that I sent a gift to a total stranger who'd suffered an unspeakably cruel loss. I have already pre-ordered my copy of Half-Baked, by the ferociously talented Alexa Stevenson of Flotsam. And I think that Ask Moxie's infant sleep advice is smarter than all the books of Drs. Weissbluth, Karp and Ferber combined. Obviously, I, too, am a mother with a blog, albeit one I post in erratically, and one whose biggest claim to fame until now is that it was the most popular blog at my parents' split level on Long Island.

What I am first and foremost is a storyteller. For almost 20 years, I've had the privilege of dropping into other people's lives and telling their stories, in books and newspapers and magazines. My Sunday Styles piece in the New York Times was a story about an interesting world that many Times readers had no idea existed: a world where hundreds of women are so serious about blogging that they would take a day out of their lives (and even plane fare and the cost of a hotel room for some) to actually take a seminar on how be better at it. And while bloggers themselves know that some of their peers are actually making money by blogging, that many are trying to "brand" themselves, and that major corporations and PR firms are taking notice, many non-bloggers still do not. I didn't know that until not too long ago. That's interesting. That's news.

Mine was not the first story about bloggers, nor will it be the last. It did not touch upon every amazing, transformative and innovative thing going on in the blogosphere. It was a window into a particular slice of life, and gestured to what that slice suggested about the larger community: that mom bloggers had evolved into a "cultural force to be reckoned with." That women "live online" these days and that bloggers are actually the new go-to parenting experts. That blogging had "opened up a whole new world" for some, who felt "empowered" by their new connections to corporate America. I mentioned that there is concern that some bloggers may have gotten caught up in the influx of giveaways and sponsored posts and swag because there is. And that's one part of the story I was telling.

The tone of the piece was light. That's because this was a Styles piece about a cultural trend, not an inquiry into the minutiae of the sub-prime mortgage crisis for the Economist. (If readers disagree with the placement of the piece, they should let the editors of the Times know.)

And here comes my shocking confession: Bloggy Boot Camp seemed like fun. The bare feet? The sippy cups? As a journalist, those are precisely the kinds of textual details that convey a scene to a reader. I included those details because personally, I found them charming, the very thing that made the mood at Boot Camp so unique and fun and, yes, girly. Tiffany Romero was warm and hilarious and clearly very passionate and savvy about social media. I thank her and everyone at Boot Camp for allowing me to observe and talk to them. My intent was never to vilify or belittle Tiffany, SITS, Boot Camp or the world of mom blogs at large. And I'm genuinely saddened that that intent, and my professionalism, could somehow be so grievously misconstrued and called into question by some within the blogging community.

The ferocity and scope of the response within the blogosphere to this single newspaper article suggests to me that there's a bigger story out there, a story that apparently very much still needs to be told. Ultimately, I hope the exposure in the Times and the resulting dialogue will allow both bloggers and journalists to move forward towards getting to the bottom of that story.

Finally, I'm well aware that many readers reacted strongly to the headline and the graphic. I saw neither of them before the story ran and while I suspect they were meant to be humorous, I'm sorry they've turned into such a lightning rod. In the meantime, I can say with certainty that the only children who have ever been neglected due to their mother's blog are my own, who I've barely had a moment for since the story was posted. I think they've watched Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs approximately 250 times. I hope you'll understand.

Disclaimer: In this post, I am speaking as a blogger and freelance journalist, not on behalf of the New York Times.

Monday, March 8, 2010

American Idol: The Drinking Game

So I'm a little obsessed with American Idol.

I used to sweat my picks in my weekly Idol pool as if the well-being of the entire western hemisphere rested on whether Mandisa or Kellie Pickler was going home. (Knock it all you want, but I did come in second one year.) When the pool ended, I needed an outlet, so I began to grace this space with my trenchant blog posts about Season Eight. Did anyone read them? Not really. But I had fun.

In one of my, um, less stellar moments as a mother, I allowed my then-three-year-old son to watch a little too much of Season Seven. And then I shamelessly exploited him shared his adorableness on You Tube.

But lest you think that eight seasons of attentive Idol watching (I missed the first one; I think I was too busy planning my wedding? Or was that the first season of The Bachelor?) have all been for naught, I give you this, people. Something tangible. Proof that I've been paying attention. You can thank me later.

The Totally Un-Official Clever Title TK American Idol Drinking Game

Drink Once Every Time...

  • Randy uses the phrase, "You can really sing!" (Drink twice for "Dude, you can really sing!")
  • Randy says someone has a "[insertartistnamehere] vibe jumping off."
  • Randy says a song or an artist is one of his all-time favorites. (I mean, for real. The man says this about everything.)
  • Randy seems uncomfortable having to go first, and gives a review that could sort of go either way, as if he's waiting to see what every one else thought before staking a claim.
  • Randy calls a performance "dope" or "hot."
  • Randy says, "You know I'm a fan, right?"
  • Randy calls anyone "dawg."
  • Randy says, "I don't know. It was just aw-ight for me."

Drink Once Every Time...
  • Kara references another contemporary artist that the contestant should have covered, but mostly just shows how much Kara knows about other contemporary artists. ("You could have done Adele, or Duffy, or Lily Allen...")
  • Kara uses the phrase "changing it up."
  • Kara references the singer's tone.
  • Kara calls someone "sweetie" when she's being critical.
  • Kara uses the word "artistry."

Drink Once Every Time...
  • Simon calls a performance "cabaret."
  • Simon calls a performance "indulgent."
  • Simon uses the phrase "complete and utter" (Drink twice for "complete and utter mess.")
  • Simon says, "If I'm being honest with you..." (So is he just bullshitting us the rest of the time?)
  • Simon calls a performance "forgettable."
  • Simon likens the performance to something he could have seen in a hotel bar.
  • Simon predicts the contestant won't be coming back next week. (Drink twice if he somehow cleverly links this prediction to the lyrics of the song. Drink three times if Simon predicts the contestant is the winner.)
  • Simon accuses the singer of shouting or shrieking.
American Idol Grand Finale Broadcast

Drink Once Every Time...
  • Paula says something completely incomprehensible. Oh wait. Paula's not on the show anymore.
  • Ellen wears a tie.
  • Ellen comments on the contestant's "look."
(We're thin on Ellen, obviously, because she's yet to show us her go-to phrases. So, just drink every time you see Ellen, 'k?)

Drink Once Every Time
  • Any of the judges congratulates a contestant for knowing exactly who they are.
  • Any of the judges scolds a contestant for "not knowing what kind of artist they want to be."
  • Any of the judges says a song was too big for someone.
  • Any of the judges lauds a contestant for making a song "their own"
  • Any of the judges criticizes a contestant for not making a song "their own."
  • Any of the judges belittles a performance as "karaoke."

You should now be totally drunk. Which is probably the best way to watch Idol anyway.

What about you? Got anything to add? Let's hear it!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

We're a Family

So today marks my big guy's half birthday. Since his birthday typically falls outside the school year, we actually got to celebrate in his classroom this morning. Here he is, walking the earth around an imaginary sun five times to mark each year. (I swear I'm taking him for a haircut this very afternoon.)

Feeling a bit nostalgic, it seemed a perfect time to share something I had long forgotten about. This has to be one of the most amazing moments of the last five and a half years of parenting, and one that we had the unbelievable good fortune to capture on tape.

This is Ethan just before his second birthday. My husband thought it would be fun to make a "day in the life" video, so he was holding the camera as we walked around the neighborhood. What happened next, well...I think it's pretty obvious from my reaction that we didn't script or plan this.

Enjoy! And Happy 5.5, E. We love you to the moon and back.