HOW TO BE A SUPPORTIVE PARTNER DURING PREGNANCY (AND BEYOND)
Numerous studies have shown the benefits of having a partner who is supportive or perceived to be supportive. Conversely, having a partner who is perceived to be unsupportive is a predictor of depression and anxiety both before and after a child’s birth.
Start early. Being a supportive partner begins in the months before delivery, when an expectant mother’s anxiety levels may be rising about giving birth and the changes a baby brings.
Make a plan for your supportive role both during and after the baby’s arrival, but be flexible. There’s no script for how things are going to go.
New research indicates that supporters may need support of their own: They can feel isolated or rejected but question the legitimacy of their experiences.
you’ve watched any movies with birth scenes, you may have noticed that the
partner’s role often fits into one of two categories: He — and it’s always a he
— is a comically inept second fiddle, fainting just when he’s needed most, or
else absent entirely, inhaling a cigar in a nearby pub.
dated archetypes exist for a reason. What actually comprises a supportive
partner has only come into focus in recent years, as fathers and same-sex
partners have become more central to the birth and all that comes after. But
the research is resoundingly clear: A strong mate makes a difference. Having a
supportive partner is good for everyone involved, including the baby.
scientific literature is less clear on what specific strategies best support
pregnant women — it’s tough in a clinical setting to isolate the benefits of,
say, a well-timed hug or a promise to handle 3 a.m. feedings. But the three
researchers I spoke to distilled their studies into some real-world advice.
WHAT TO DO
Connect with each other well before the due date.
This should be
even more of a priority than buying the right stroller. “The focus is so much
on practical needs,” said Dr. Pam Pilkington, Ph.D., a perinatal psychologist who
practices at the Centre for Perinatal Psychology in Melbourne, Australia, and
founder of Partners to Parents, a resource site developed
by a team of researchers and psychologists at Australian Catholic University to
provide guidance for partners. “During pregnancy, people perhaps don’t focus on
the couple relationship, or supporting each other emotionally as much as they
terms, this means talking often and openly about how you’re both feeling —
anxious, excited, uncertain, whatever it is, Dr. Pilkington said — then
validating each other, making sure you both feel heard and accepted. An
example: After a month at home, a new mother might say, “I feel trapped here
all day while you’re at work.” The supportive answer here is not, “I need to
work so we can pay the bills. Why don’t you get your mother to come help?”
Rather, a validating answer would be: “I’m sorry that you’re feeling pinned in
place. It sounds like you’re missing seeing your friends at the office.”
Trying to build
mirroring-and-validating skills during the relative calm before your child’s
arrival will help cement your bond for the challenges to come, Dr. Pilkington
Make your good intentions known.
of service to another is what’s known in scientific vernacular as “offering
social support.” Researchers call it a mysterious force that has tangible
benefits. “There’s a magic about social support,” said Dr. Christine Dunkel
Schetter, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA who has
studied its effect on stressful situations, including pregnancies. “And the
magic is that when it’s really working in these kinds of situations, it’s about
things that take place between two people. And it’s about what one person says
to the other, or does, that makes them feel better.”
Part of the
magic of social support?Even when an expectant mother merely perceives that
she has a supportive partner, she’s more likely to come through pregnancy happy
and healthy, research shows. Studies have variously found that partner support
is associated with better birth outcomes and lower levels of distress and depression
among both mothers and infants.
But follow-up is
key, too, said Dr. Dunkel Schetter. If you don’t actually come through on a
promise to assume half of the diaper-changing duties, the benefits of perceived
support quickly trail off.
supportive partners will learn that the best kinds of support are nonverbal —
offering a hug during a low emotional ebb. And the support should be offered
unconditionally. “The person giving it can’t say, ‘Now you owe me, you’re
obligated, I’ve done so much for you,’ ” said Dr. Dunkel Schetter.
program developed by the Yale School of Nursing, provides social support
instruction, among other services, in a group setting for women and their
partners; it’s now available in health-care facilities around the United
States. (You can find a nearby location on the website.)
Take a birthing class — but be open-minded when the day arrives.
Classes like the
Bradley Method, which teaches that childbirth can be managed through deep
breathing and the support of a partner or labor coach, can be helpful in making you feel more
prepared, and offering a sense of what to expect. But Dr. Pilkington pointed
out that birth is not the same as being a cast member in a play. The baby
sometimes rewrites the script. Things take unexpected turns, or the mother’s preferences
before going into labor might change 12 hours in. The partner should avoid
rigid thinking about how it was supposed to go, and instead help the mother
roll with whatever’s happening and support her choices along the way, Dr.
Have a plan for the weeks after the baby arrives…
the partner can draw up an action plan in which he or she commits to executing
certain helpful tasks. Maybe it’s late-night feedings if the mother is going to
pump breast milk or your baby is on formula. Maybe it’s a daily break that the
mom can count on, like taking the baby out for a walk so she can nap or take a
bath, said Dr. Pilkington.
… But be flexible.
Planning to do
those 3 a.m. feedings is one thing. The searing exhaustion that kicks in after
four weeks of doing that is another. During your child’s early life, it’s best
to expect some meltdowns. (The baby will cry sometimes, too.) Revisit the plan
anytime based on whatever challenges you might face at each stage of your
baby’s life. It’s O.K. to ask for extra support from friends and family, Dr.
Pilkington said. Both parents can use a break in the first couple of months of
their baby’s life.
Know your role with feeding.
One task the
mother generally handles alone is breastfeeding. But a 2015 studyled by the University of Ontario
Institute of Technology suggested that a partner’s active involvement —learning
how breastfeeding works and providing encouragement — leads to “significant
improvements” in breastfeeding duration. Then think of simple, commonsense ways
to step up: Helping the mother stay hydrated by offering a glass of water,
bringing healthy snacks and providing a comfortable environment, Dr. Pilkington
For parents who
can’t breastfeed or choose not to, Dr. Pilkington says it’s important to
remember they haven’t failed. “How parents feed their infant is a personal
choice that should be based on their specific situation,” she said. If the
mother is pumping, you can help maintain the equipment and offer to bottle-feed
using the milk. Parents feeding their baby with a bottle — whether it’s formula
or breast milk — can split overnight duties, one taking the 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.
shift, the other holding down the 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. slot, for example. Partners
using formula can make sure there are adequate supplies on hand at all times
and know how to mix it. Some formulas can be premixed and stored in the fridge for
up to 24 hours, which could save an exhausted mom from having to drowsily scoop
powder in the small hours of the night.
Expect that your sex life will change — for a while, at least.
This is a
biological imperative, so expect the temperature to be dialed down in the
marital bed post-birth (for a duration that depends on the circumstances of the
delivery; consult a professional). And even after you’re medically cleared,
that doesn’t mean you’ll feel the same or have much energy for sex early on.
Make a point to seek out alternate forms of intimacy, like hand-holding and
cuddling, Dr. Pilkington said. The key, again, is to maintain an emotional
connection and strong lines of communication.
Look for signs of your own stress, and act on them.
psychological effect on partners after a baby’s arrival is mostly a black hole
in the scientific realm. Dr. Pilkington noted that only 19 of the 120 recent
studies around pregnancy touched on outcomes for fathers or partners, and
researchers openly acknowledge the need for more research.
But the few studies that have been done show that fathers can struggle to
navigate this interlude. Dr. Zoe Darwin, Ph.D., a lecturer in maternal health
at the University of Leeds in the U.K. who has conducted some early inquiries in
this area, found that men often feel stressed and detached but want to keep the
spotlight on the mother and child. “The research that we’ve done,” she said,
“found that although some of the men we spoke with felt excluded by maternity
services, and had experienced significant stress in this period, they often
questioned the legitimacy of their experiences and their entitlement to
support.” If you feel yourself struggling, let your partner know, and consult a
WHEN TO WORRY
If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, you may need more than a hug or the sage words of a parenting class. Seek professional help from a counselor.
Dr. Pam Pilkington, Ph.D., perinatal psychologist who practices at the Centre for Perinatal Psychology in Melbourne, Australia.
Dr. Christine Dunkel Schetter, Ph.D., professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA, expert on stress processes in pregnancy
Dr. Zoe Darwin, Ph.D., lecturer in maternal health at the University of Leeds in the U.K. who specializes in mental health and wellbeing during and after pregnancy.
An only child can make the relationship between Mom and Dad uniquely complicated.
Here’s a typical weeknight scenario in our household: My husband, Tom, our 9-year-old daughter, Sylvie, and I feel like ordering in, and after a lengthy debate, we decide on pizza. Later, while the three of us are eating pepperoni slices and playing Bananagrams, Sylvie reminds Tom that our wedding anniversary is coming up and offhandedly mentions that my favorite flowers are peonies. After a few rounds of the game, we consider a movie. Sylvie proposes “Escape From New York,” a film that has piqued her curiosity after hearing her father repeatedly imitate Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken.
“I’ll look it up on Common Sense Media to see if it’s appropriate,” she volunteers, opening my computer. Unfortunately, she reports gravely, it’s for ages 16 and up. “‘Except for a severed head,’” Sylvie reads aloud, “‘there’s little explicit gore. An atmosphere of cynicism and darkness pervades, including a negative depiction of a U.S. President.’”
Tom points out that this sounds like his Twitter feed. But I balk at the severed head, which is a pretty big except for.
I would never have predicted that the hardest part of parenting would be that our only child would come to fully believe she is the third person in our marriage. This arrangement began roughly as soon as she learned to talk.
As family psychologists such as Dr. Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D., point out, only children often feel like one of the adults. As with our tripartite system of government, they view the daily running of the household as a three-way power-sharing agreement. This is an issue more parents may have to deal with, now that one-child families are gaining ground. According to a Pew Research analysis of 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data, today 18 percent of mothers at the end of their childbearing years have an only child — up from 10 percent in 1976.
Tom and I have fully enabled Sylvie to feel like one of the gang, because we go almost everywhereas a trio. We’re usually too cheap to hire babysitters, and tend to travel with Sylvie, too, as she slots fairly easily into our itineraries. As a result, Sylvie has gotten used to being included, consulted, part of our in-jokes. This is not uncommon, says social psychologist Dr. Susan Newman, Ph.D., who has spent decades studying only children — a term I loathe, as it calls to mind a kid alone in a shadowy room, whispering quietly to his sock puppet “friends.” (I think we should revive the much more sprightly “oneling,” used by 19th century author John Cole in his book “Herveiana.”)
But our efforts to “empower” our oneling and make her voice heard have begun to backfire. To paraphrase Princess Diana when asked about Camilla Parker-Bowles: There are three of us in this marriage, so it’s a bit crowded.
One reason for our fluid boundaries is physical. It’s almost impossible to maintain them in a Brooklyn apartment a realtor would euphemistically call “charming and cozy,” one with bizarrely porous doors that actually seem to amplify sound. But it’s also emotional: Tom and I, like many parents of our generation, make an effort to be open and communicative with Sylvie. (“You can tell us anything, sweetheart!”)
When I was growing up, I would never have dreamed of sharing anything remotely personal with my parents. I had two siblings, and our family dynamic was solidly Us vs. Them — my sisters and I were one unit, my folks another. I wanted a different kind of relationship with our daughter.
But one consequence of all this closeness is that our child feels insulted if Tom and I go out to dinner alone. If we’re on vacation, she balks at being “dumped,” as she puts it, in the Kids’ Club. She would be happy to Photoshop her picture into our wedding photos. If Tom and I give each other a hug, she has gotten in the habit of jumping in between us.
At least she doesn’t referee when we fight, as she did when she was smaller. A couples’ counselor put a stop to that when he advised me to put a photo of Sylvie in a drawer by my bedside table. Whenever I was about to lose my temper with Tom, he told me, I was to run to the bedroom, pull out the photo, and say to it: I know that what I’m about to do is going to cause you harm, but right now, my anger is more important to me than you are. I only had to repeat that brutal phrase a couple of times.
But Tom and I still squabble about minor stuff, like whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher — and when we do, Sylvie jumps in and takes sides. (“Mom, you did it last time.”)
As a self-flagellating parent, I was recently drawn to a book with the dire title “The Seven Common Sins of Parenting an Only Child.” Ooh, sins — what am I doing wrong? Among other iniquities — overprotection, overcompensating — Sin No. 6 resonated with me: Treating Your Child Like an Adult.
“It can become so pleasurable for parents of an only child to have a miniature adult by their side that they may lose sight of the fact that their kid needs to be a kid,” writes author Carolyn White, former editor of Only Child magazine. I read this aloud to Tom as Sylvie, nearby, perused the latest issue of Consumer Reports, ready to counsel us on our next car purchase.
Sylvie may be comfortable around adults, but she is still a child, one who lacks the reasoning abilities and experience of a grown-up — so I must catch myself when I absently reply to her questions about money, or other parents, before realizing, whoops, shouldn’t have told her that.
As Newman advises, “Before you allow your child to weigh in, take a pause and ask yourself, ‘Is this really a topic or an issue that a 9-year-old should be involved in, or is this a decision for adults?’ ”
Sylvie needs time away from us to be a kid — time to act silly and make jokes about butts and drone on about the intricacies of Minecraft. She has a group of good friends, but I do see her picking up on her middle-aged parents’ habits, such as calculating how many hours of sleep she got every morning. Her posse at home is squarely in midlife, as evidenced by her choice of songs for her ninth birthday party — among them, Barbra Streisand’s LBJ-era “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” We are not the kind of posse a 9-year-old needs. Maybe she hasn’t yet subbed out her school backpack for a WNYC tote bag, but the danger is there.
And all of this coziness hurts our marriage, too. So I have to remind myself, sometimes daily, to cordon off our relationship. Our marriage has needs that deviate from my needs as an individual, as well as our needs as a family. I have to constantly ask, what would be good for the marriage? It’s important, as a couple, to have your own roster of in-jokes. It’s refreshing to drop F-bombs with impunity, and to gossip freely about other parents without having to hastily turn it into a teachable moment for your eavesdropping child about How Gossiping Is Really About Feeling Insecure About Your Own Life Choices. And it’s nice — no, essential — to go out to dinner, just the two of you, and speculate on which members of the waitstaff are sleeping with each other. You know, grown-up stuff.
A BETTER ME MAKES A BETTER WE: AN INTERVIEW WITH ELLYN BADER, Ph.D.
Interview Guest: Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is a co-founder of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy, which integrates attachment theory and differentiation. Through her work at The Couples Institute, she has specialized in helping couples transform their relationships since 1984.
The idealized relationship where partners are fused at the hip is not a healthy relationship, as it doesn’t allow for the unique differences of each partner. Bader highlights this fusion as a conflict avoidant stance that happens when one partner feels anxious or uncomfortable and attempts to merge with their spouse.
One way of doing this is becoming more like your partner in hopes of being loved. There’s a deep fear that says, “If I express my needs and have different needs than my partner, I’m going to be abandoned.”
The other conflict avoidant stance is loving your partner at arm’s length. The fear in this stance says, “If I become more open and vulnerable, I’m going to get swallowed up and lose my sense of self.”
As Dr. David Schnarch states in his book entitled Passionate Marriage, “Giving up your individuality to be together is as defeating in the long run as giving up your relationship to maintain your individuality. Either way, you end up being less of a person with less of a relationship.”
Fusion happens when a person is fearful of encountering differences. These can be minor differences including how one spends their time or their hobbies, or major differences such as conflict style and desire for togetherness. The opposite of fusion is differentiation.
The Risk of Growth
Bader describes differentiation as an active process “in which partners define themselves to each other.” Differentiation requires the risk of being open to growth and being honest not only with your partner, but also with yourself.
If you’re anxious, it could mean realizing that you lean on partner so much that if they become unstable, you both fall down. Your demands on your partner and the way you discuss conflict may be pushing your partner away, which is the very thing you fear.
If you’re avoidant, it could mean noticing that you neglect your partner’s needs and prioritize yourself over your relationship. As a result, you perpetuate the loneliness you feel. To grow in your relationship requires a willingness to stand on what Bader calls your “developmental edge” and differentiate yourself as an individual. To risk getting closer to your partner without pushing them away.
What Differentiation Looks Like
In conflict, a differentiated lover can give space to their partner who is emotionally overwhelmed while also remaining close enough to be caring and supportive, but not so close that they lose themselves emotionally. Instead of reacting with overwhelming emotion, a differentiated partner, according to Bader, expresses curiosity about their partner’s emotional state:
“Can you tell me more about what’s going on?” “Can you tell me about these feelings?”
The more differentiated you are, the less likely you are to take things as personally. As a result, you can soothe yourself or reach out to be soothed by your partner in a helpful way. Instead of saying, “You’re such a jerk. You never care for me,” a differentiated partner would say, “I’m feeling really overwhelmed and lonely. Could you give me a hug?”
To differentiate is to develop a secure way of relating to your partner. This earned security, as highlighted by Bader, is created both internally and developed within the context of a relationship. This requires being authentic with your feelings and needs.
You can cultivate a secure and functioning relationship by recognizing and taking responsibility for your part in creating unhealthy dynamics in your relationship. When you do this, you can then express your needs, desires, and wishes in a way that allows you and your partner to work together to meet each other’s needs.
When both partners are whole, not only is there more flexibility in the marriage, but there is also more intimacy.
12 INSIGHTFUL LESSONS TO HELP YOU HAVE A BETTER LIFE
Can you change your life for the better by changing the way you
think? Here are 12 insightful lessons that can lead you to a happier, better
There are many things that people must learn to accept about
life in order to be truly happy, and lead a better life.
While it is difficult for most of us to admit many uncomfortable
truths, once we do, we are able to lead a much more fulfilling life.
Accepting many of these things takes time, and often doesn’t
happen until we feel unsatisfied in our current situation.
Take, for example, my own experience with learning to accept a
few particular things about life.
My personal confusion and life wanderings
After finishing my undergrad, I landed a decent job as an
assistant project manager at a university office for sustainability. In terms
of entry-level positions it was a good one, and of course, it would look great
on my resume.
I was where I was supposed to be. In a relevant
job position, gaining valuable career experience, working to save money for
those looming student loans, in a relationship, meeting up with friends after
work, buying various consumer products, visiting my family at least once a
month, and generally meeting most of society’s other expectations.
The problem was I would sit at my desk from 8am until 5:30pm
staring at my computer screen. While I knew the projects I was working on were
important for improving sustainability on campus, I found it difficult to
connect with what I was doing.
Most of my friends seemed to be focusing on buying the latest
fashion trends, and drinking away most of their income. While I also
participated in these entertaining behaviors, I continued to feel disconnected
from the people surrounding me.
My relationship was only average. At first I thought it was true
love, and then over time, I realized it was a safe situation for both of us. We
were just sitting on the truth that neither of us was getting what we needed or
Nevertheless, I was an example of a successfully functioning
individual. Yet I felt unsatisfied with my life, even though according to most
people it was exactly where I was supposed to be.
While my experience might start to sound cliché, what happened
next led to an important learning curve in my life, and to something completely
different and absolutely satisfying.
I left my assistant project manager position and headed off to
travel Southeast Asia. Over three months I visited amazing places, met very
interesting people, ate partially developed duck eggs, drank local alcohol,
volunteered with rescued elephants, and did some other typical travelers
Insightful life lessons that can lead you to a better life
Where I went and whom I met wasn’t all that different to what
many people experience while traveling. But what was really vital was the time
away from my “supposed to”life.
I had some serious time to reflect on where exactly I was in my
life, and where I was headed. I noticed that many things I was doing didn’t
actually make me happy.
This learning curve and time for reflection led me to 12
absolutely crucial things to learn and accept about life. They can lead you to
a happier and much more satisfying life.
#1 You will never be able to please everyone
It is absolutely impossible to satisfy everyone else’s
expectations and demands. You will drive yourself mental if you don’t accept
the fact that you cannot live your life tailoring every move to please other
This goes for family, friends, and even bosses. Of course, you
need to perform certain tasks and fulfill expectations of your role in an
organization, or even relationship.
But, for example, that does not mean living up to your manager’s
belief that you should be available seven days a week to answer various emails,
or your mother’s perspective that you will only be happy once you own a white
picket fence on your well-manicured lawn.
You must let go of the idea that you can please everyone around
you. You will ultimately end up sacrificing something that is essential to your
#2 There are many definitions of success, find your own
Each of us is responsible for defining what represents success
for ourselves. To some people success is a six-figure paycheck, mortgage on a
two-story home, and new car, while to others it can be something completely
You need to map out and understand what you personally need to
achieve in your life to be considered successful by your own standards. If that
is a nonprofit job that doesn’t rake in the big bucks, but allows you to follow
your passion and purpose, then so be it.
#3 You friends will most definitely change over time
Not many of us keep the exact same friends into adulthood. Of
course, you may find a soul mate in one or two of your friends. But you are
also bound to lose friends, and gain new ones.
We change friendships over time because we are constantly
changing and growing. Interests evolve, and people transform into very
different individuals. Changing friends usually isn’t a negative thing, and
instead, is a reflection of your personal growth.
#4 Despite what you’ve always been told, you can choose your
I often read that you cannot change you family so you should
figure out how to deal with them now, or you’ll lose your mind trying later in
life. Yet, I don’t fully believe this. You are absolutely stuck with some
people who you are related to by blood. But that doesn’t mean you have to
consider them important people in your life.
There are some family members that we absolutely can choose.
What about our life partners? We are fully able to choose the person we want to
spend the rest of our life with. We get to hand select that person, and assure
that they hold most of the qualities we desire, and meet our fundamental needs
So, in fact we can choose our family. While some relations might
be set in blood, others are up to us.
#5 Relationships take a lot of hard work
Building off on #4, relationships take a lot of work in order to
be happy and healthy. Whether this is a relationship with a friend, family
member, professional, or life partner, you are going to need to work at it.
Working at a relationship means taking the time to understand
the other person and their goals, finding out how to be a positive presence in
their lives, and vice versa – and how to compromise.
Human relationships are absolutely necessary to feel connected
to your world, and to feel happiness. But you need to make the effort in these
relationships in order to reap the benefits.
#6 If you want to see change, you need to make it happen
Don’t sit around waiting for great things to happen in your
life. If you want and need something to change, you need to be actively
involved in pursuing results.
This can be in terms of relationships, jobs, personal
well-being, and a lot of other things. You must be proactive in doing. Simply
thinking about change is not enough. You need to take the steps involved with
altering your current situation.
#7 You need to get healthy
Your body is your own personal sanctuary. If you treat it like
it’s not important and fill it with toxins and chemicals, it will start to
resist you. You need to find a balance that works for you and your lifestyle.
Not all of us want to be at the gym five days a week, but that doesn’t mean you
should never lift a finger.
Whether it is a walk down your street, or a full on cross-fit
workout. You need to move, and after you move, you need to fill yourself with
fresh food meant for human consumption. Not the boxes of human manipulated
ingredients. Feel good about your body. It will change over time, but it’s what
#8 You should care about things happening around you
There are buckets of social, political, economic and
environmental problems facing our generation, and many future generations to
come. You need to stop living in your comfortable bubble and start becoming
educated on important matters around you. War and conflict continues to plague
countries around the world, resource exploitation and climate change are real
issues happening now.
You cannot avoid these things any longer, and you need to take
some form of responsibility in making our world a better place. That doesn’t
mean starting a multi-million dollar charity, or donating 40 hours of your time
a week. But it does mean you need to take small steps towards becoming a
knowledgeable and more sustainable human being.
#9 If you want something, take it
If there is something that you want, you know you deserve, and you
will take full responsibility for, then you need to take it. Stop worrying if
you are going to offend someone, and go for it.
If this is a promotion you know you deserve, or a relationship
you know is bound for greatness, take the risk and make it happen.
#10 You need to find a purpose
Having a passion is half the battle, but what allows your
passion to translate into effective action is purpose. You must define your
purpose in order to pursue meaningful life goals. That can be career related,
or just in general what you strive to achieve in your lifetime.
#11 You define your own happiness
Well, I am not a huge Kanye West fan but he makes a valid point, “I refuse to accept other people’s ideas of happiness for me. As if there’s a ‘one size fits all’ standard for happiness.”
If you can clearly outline what allows you to be happy, then
you’ve accomplished what some people strive towards, for their entire lives.
Know what makes you happy, because if you try to live someone else’s life, you
are bound to be unsatisfied.
#12 Take the more difficult route and be yourself
Defining purpose, finding passion, knowing what makes you happy
and defining your personal vision of success are extremely difficult to
comprehend and achieve.
But if you can organize just exactly how you want to live your
own life, and truly be yourself, regardless of other’s expectations and
judgments, you are going to find fulfillment and happiness. It’s your life, and
we really only do have one chance, so it’s better to be yourself.
So after having time away from my “supposed to”life I came home
thinking about what changes I needed to make, and what exactly I needed to
I ended up saving money working at a retail job, that for two
months was actually quite rewarding, and moving back to Southeast Asia to find
my own success and happiness.
It wasn’t exactly what people in my life were anticipating from
me, although my ex-boyfriend wasn’t all that surprised. I did lose quite a few
friendships because of their unwillingness to make the effort over such
physical distance. My family however, has been extremely supportive for the
Overall, I am extremely happy and successful. I feel like I am growing into an individual that I can be proud of. Although I am in my late twenties and I still don’t have a mortgage or a car, and rent a small studio and ride a bicycle, I feel liberated from what I was supposed to do, because now I am doing what makes me happy.
Well, it can be easier said than done, but if you are willing to learn to accept a few lessons about life, then you will set yourself up for a completely personalized journey, one that you’ll be proud of.
PATERNITY LEAVE HAS LONG-LASTING BENEFITS. SO WHY DON’T MORE AMERICAN MEN TAKE IT?
Men who take leave are less likely to get divorced, and have better relationships with their children, research shows.
In 2017, my family and I began an unintended experiment, testing the effects of paternity leave.
When my first son was born in 2012, I had only recently joined The New York Times and all I got off was the week of vacation I had stored up at the time.
By the time my wife and I had our second son in 2017, the newspaper had significantly ramped up its support for new fathers, and I got 10 fully-paid weeks to spend with our growing family. For my wife and me, those first two months of life with a newborn were just as sleepless as they’d been the first time around. But there were fewer fights and less resentment, and my wife got back to her own work more quickly.
Long after I returned to the office, I noticed little differences in the way I related to my second son that seemed most easily explained by the extra time I’d spent with him. To this day he regularly calls out for me in the night in a way that my first son rarely did. And when I am with him, I feel a certain intangible sense of ease that has only come more recently with my older son. This feeling of ease, along with my growing comfort with wrangling both kids at once, have had predictably positive effects on my wife, reducing her stress levels, and making us both happier.
While I’ve always been hesitant to attribute too many of the subsequent improvements in our family life to the parental leave I took in 2017, a growing body of research suggests that paternity leave does, in fact, have far broader effects than we might have anticipated, including some which endure years after the leave period itself.
Men Who Take Paternity Leave Are Less Likely to Get Divorced
Over the last two years, Richard Petts, a sociology professor at Ball State University, and Chris Knoester, a sociology professor at Ohio State University, have co-authored a series of papers, analyzing data from long-term surveys of thousands of American families. Their research demonstrates that paternity leave provides lasting benefits, not only to relationships between fathers and their children, but also to mothers and to relationships between the parents.
In their most recent paper, published in May 2019, Dr. Petts and Dr. Knoester found that, even nine years later, children whose fathers took at least two weeks of paternity leave after they were born reported feeling closer to their fathers than children with fathers who did not take leave. In research on married parents for a forthcoming paper, the sociologists found that even relatively short periods of paternity leave caused couples’ divorce risk to drop and to remain significantly lower for as many as six years to come, even as their children reached school age.
“The big news in the U.S. is that the boost is not just in the year or two after a child’s birth,” Dr. Petts told me. “It seems to be more sustained.”
This new work on American families builds on several earlier papers, mostly from Europe, where paternity leave is more common, which found that fathers are, in the long term, more likely to remain involved in parenting and to equitably divide household chores with their partners if they take time off after their children arrive. A recent study from Swedenfound that mothers whose partners were offered flexible paid leave in the year after a child’s birth were less likely to need antibiotics and anti-anxiety medication.
Public enthusiasm for paternity leave has been growing: A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that nearly 70 percent of Americans support some form of paid leave for new fathers. There are signs of a rapid cultural shift as well. Though, in 2014, New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy faced widespread criticism for taking three days off for the birth of his son, just four years later, basketball player Dwayne Wade was showered with support when he missed six games following his daughter’s birth in 2018.
There are several reasons new fathers in the United States return to work so quickly, the most obvious being the lack of a national policy mandating paid leave for all workers. The Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave, but its eligibility requirements are strict (to qualify, an employee must have worked at least 1250 hours during the 12 months before the start of the leave period, for an organization employing at least 50 people within a 75-mile radius), and many American workers do not meet them.
Even fewer American parents have access to paid family leave. Though six states — California, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Washington and Massachusetts — as well as the District of Columbia have passed paid family leave laws, their provisions vary. A March 2018 national survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that only 16 percent of workers in the United States have access to some paid family leave through private-sector employers.
And research suggests that, even when fathers do gain access to paid parental leave, they may be reluctant to take it. After California’s paid family leave law, the first such law enacted in the United States, took effect in 2004, economists Charles L. Baum and Christopher Ruhm found that the percentage of men taking time off after a child’s birth rose only modestly; the average period of parental leave taken increased by nearly five weeks for mothers, but only two to three days for fathers.
“Men who take paternity leave do tend to be stigmatized and viewed as less committed employees,” said Rebecca Glauber, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire.
How to Make Paternity Leave an American Norm
The successful expansion of paternity leave programs in other industrialized nations suggests that these cultural barriers can be overcome. Certain policies have been shown to be especially effective in encouraging men to take full advantage of paternity leave benefits. The adoption of a so-called “daddy quota,” for example — a use-it-or-lose-it period of paid leave earmarked for new fathers — has successfully boosted paternity leave participation rates in several Scandinavian countries. In 2006, in a departure from the rest of Canada, Quebec adopted a “daddy quota” similar to the Scandinavian model, offering five weeks of dedicated, non-transferable, government-paid leave to new fathers in the province.
Within two years, 75 percent of new fathers in Quebec were taking paternity leave, up from 22 percent before the use-it-or-lose-it “daddy quota” was implemented, according to research by Ankita Patnaik, an economist at Mathematica Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Patnaik found that men in Quebec who’d taken the “daddy quota” continued to spend more time on household work, even one to three years after completing their paternity leave. Further, Dr. Patnaik’s research found, these fathers’ increased participation in household tasks appeared to free up their children’s mothers to pursue their own professional ambitions. One to three years after childbirth, mothers in Quebec whose partners had taken the “daddy quota” were working an hour longer per day, on average, and were 7 percent more likely to be employed full-time, Dr. Patnaik found.
Richard Petts, the Ball State University sociologist who researches the impact of paternity leave on American families, said that he did not find solid evidence that paternity leave boosts mothers’ careers, but that may simply be because American fathers take much shorter paternity leaves than their Canadian counterparts.
For my part, I came out of my own paternity leave with an easy ability to take both of the kids as soon as I was done at work, or to handle sick days when they came up. That allowed my wife to transition back to her own job more quickly, and to commit with more confidence to new projects. We are both still as overwhelmed as most other parents of little kids, but at least we feel like we’re muddling through it together.
LIFE AS A PARENT: WHAT KIND OF FATHER WILL YOU BE?
Dedan K. Bruner
Growing up without a dad was my first lesson in parenting.
I was 35 years old when my mother gave me the box. It was during my first visit home to California from Washington, D.C., after sharing the news that my new girlfriend and I were expecting a child. The contents were sparse. Among them was a telegram that my mother sent to my father, who had been away in Botswana serving in the Peace Corps, announcing my birth. Also included was a letter my father wrote to my mother a few years later, stating that he was moving back to the United States and that my mother and I, along with my father, his new wife and their children, should all live together upon their return.
At the bottom of the box was a small stack of checks — these I remembered well. Right around New Year’s when I was 5 or 6, I received an envelope with almost a dozen $25 checks, each predated for a different month, plus a $50 birthday check for July.
Seeing the checks brought back a flood of memories. I’d hotly anticipated each one, and felt frustrated at how long it took for my mother, whom I called Bobby, to hand over my “birthday money.” I’d clung to those checks as evidence of my father’s ongoing support. So imagine my embarrassment as a teenager when Bobby confessed that the checks began bouncing a few months in, and she’d started paying me their value out of her own limited budget. Until that day, I’d naively believed my dad’s promise to fund my college education.
Bobby and I never talked about the box. We didn’t need to. My mother’s message was loud and clear: “What kind of father will you be?” The answer seemed simple. I had been thinking about the type of father I would be since I was a kid growing up without one.
Embraced by a circle of dads
When I found out I was going to be a father, I was working on Capitol Hill in a fast-paced congressional office. In the moments that weren’t consumed with congressional votes or meetings, one of our favorite pastimes was getting updates from the three office dads. There was Joe, our 30-something military liaison, who would tell stories about his twin daughters and his son who was born with cerebral palsy. Then Riley, our elder statesman, who along with his wife had decided in his 50s to adopt Ethiopian siblings. Finally, there was our boss, James, a father of three teenagers, the eldest of whom was diagnosed with autism.
These men loved being dads. While their journeys were different, their stories of breakthroughs, tiny victories and comic setbacks connected them and entertained us all. When I announced that I was going to be a father, they welcomed me to the club with the kind of love and support that I had never seen among men. They showered me with tips about car seats and college savings plans, and tons of little ideas to make each day special. Their energy was infectious and edifying. I knew I would be O.K.
Months later, when my daughter Ella was born, James showed up at the hospital with a copy of the local newspaper and the February 2011 issue of Essence magazine so my daughter would, as he put it, “always know exactly what was going on when she came into the world.”
Nine months after my daughter was born, her mother moved out. While difficult for both of us, it was for the best. At the time, she was a first-year law student with a rigorous schedule. There was no custody battle. We crafted a schedule that worked, splitting Ella’s time evenly between the two of us with built-in flexibility to absorb her mom’s studies and my busy seasons at work. Eight years later, while much has changed, the same plan is still in place.
Society does not expect a whole lot from dads, much less single dads. The bulk of the nurturing, and most of what we consider “raising” a child is said to be the work of mothers. Dads “provide,” give the occasional bit of “fatherly wisdom” and do all the “outside stuff,” like camping. As it turns out, toddlers need less fatherly advice and more clean diapers. Children do not require us to be “baby whisperers,” but they do require resilience. I discovered that running warm water through Ella’s hair was a sure-fire way to get her to fall asleep not because I’m good at being a father; on the contrary, I learned the hard way that changing a baby girl on an incline at 3 a.m. can cause pee to run down her back and into her hair — requiring an early morning bath.
Fatherhood means trial and error
Ask the average dad for advice on how to raise a son, and you’ll get tips on the proper age to start sports and how to deal with bullies. He might share his dreams for his son, strategies for discussing sex, and the proper way to grip a hand and lock eyes during an introduction. Ask the same guy for advice on raising a daughter and he’ll wince his silent condolences while recommending that you get a gun and forbid her from dating until she turns 30.
I adopted the philosophy that it didn’t matter if my kid was a boy or a girl — at least until puberty. There are no lessons that I would teach a son that I would not want my daughter privy to. Self-respect, consideration, compassion, kindness and good citizenship serve each gender well and can be modeled by either parent. While her mother is adamant that Ella not use “bad words,” I care more about making poor language choices — howshe uses her words. Every now and then, I offer my daughter amnesty — 10 seconds to get any curse words she really wants to say out of her system. The first time I offered, after I pinky swore that I wouldn’t tell Mommy, she said the “S-word.” Months later, when I offered again, she passed. While her mom and I may not always agree on strategies, our goals are the same.
No matter how hard I try, not everything I do will be right. My inability to style my daughter’s hair was frequently criticized by the women in our lives, and apparently nearly every kid on the playground. Several friends tried to teach me; I watched YouTube videos and bought expensive products, to no avail. One day after picking her up from school, my daughter hugged me and whispered in my ear, “I don’t think I want you to do my hair anymore.” The statement crushed me, not because of what she said but because I could imagine the ridicule she’d endured before reaching that conclusion.
A few days later, a neighbor called me over as we were returning home from school. Still sensitive from Ella’s rebuke, my guard was up. I was working through the best way to tell my neighbor to mind her own business when she said she appreciated seeing me as a father. She said she knew a lot of fathers but that she liked seeing me. Sometimes you don’t know how empty you have been until someone or something fills you up. Relieved, I thanked her. As we turned to walk away, she told me to bring Ella over Saturday morning so she could “figure out that head.” I laughed and dutifully agreed. To this day, she is still our go-to hair guru.
There is no secret (that I could find) to fatherhood. Being there and being engaged matter most. There are times when I cannot be there, but I remain engaged. When my daughter is with her mother, we chat before bed and again before school. While I enjoy my own pursuits, I also spend time planning activities and adventures to ensure that we get the most out of our limited time together.
On New Year’s Day this year, I launched On Fathering, an online destination that celebrates fatherhood the way the dads in my old office did. The goal is not to make money or hold myself out as an expert on being a dad, but rather to give fathers and fathers-to-be a safe space to explore the beauty of parenthood. With any luck, we’ll help banish the days when the best advice a new father of a daughter could receive is to “get a gun.”
THE SURPRISING BENEFITS OF RELENTLESSLY AUDITING YOUR LIFE
We tend to think that good marriages and happy families are born of love and care, not spreadsheets. But what if that’s wrong?
My husband had been trying to sell me on his method for years before I finally relented. An efficiency consultant who had once worked in the car industry in Japan, he wanted to “Toyota Way” our lives. I wanted him to keep his spreadsheets to himself.
But a house, a baby and some career changes later, as I was folding tiny T-shirts while doing an interview and rocking the baby’s chair with my foot, I gave in. I was overwhelmed. Maybe a spreadsheet could help after all.
The method, as my husband would be shouting right now, is of course more than just a spreadsheet. It’s based on the Japanese notion of “kaizen,”or continuous improvement, made famous in 2001 when Toyota singled it out as one of the pillars of the company’s success. You pick a goal, figure out the main components behind it, collect data on those components and work out what you can do to move closer to the goal.
In the case of Toyota, the goal was higher quality and increased profits. When we translated the idea to our home life, the goal was a little simpler but also a lot more complicated — happiness. We weren’t sure what drove it, so we decided to collect data on everything: how many hours we were sleeping a night, how long we spent on housework or child care, the amount of alone time, social time, commuting time, you name it. We assigned a score from one to 10 to each day, and then gave a primary reason for each score: not enough sleep, work sucked and, sometimes, “relationship bad feeling.”
Soon enough, we began to spot patterns: It turns out that the minimum number of hours I can sleep without wanting to run away from my family is five and a half. Less than an hour a week of personal time also sent me to a dark place. My husband found that his happiness rose and fell with hours spent hanging out with friends or sitting in traffic.
And so we started trying to improve our scores. We started small. I tried to shift around my workload to include more time to read and think. My husband began commuting by train so that he could bike from the station to work, incorporating exercise into his day and eliminating time spent in traffic altogether.
The project led to a major life change. Our spreadsheets hammered home that what contributed most to our happiness was time spent together or with friends — while, crucially, not working — and there was no way to get more of that if we continued to live in the Bay Area, one of the most expensive parts of the country. So I proposed an idea that would have seemed radical were there not so much data backing it: “I think you should quit your job, we should sell our house, and we should move somewhere cheaper,” I told my husband matter-of-factly one day. So we did.
Feeling uncomfortable right now? I get it. There’s a lot to feel anxious or eye-rolly about. I fully admit that in the first weeks of the project, I found it preposterous. I groaned about the time required to type in data, assign a score, all of it.
But a funny thing happened as I huffed through weeks of data collection. In addition to leading to a better understanding of what made us happy as a family, I also found the spreadsheet to be an incredibly useful tool for expressing things I might have otherwise avoided. It made the invisible visible. Instead of arguing about housework, for example, both feeling like we were doing more than our fair share, we could talk about it relatively objectively. On a day where I spent 14 hours taking care of the kids and doing house chores while my husband spent three, I was going to be unhappy, obviously. But we could just look at the numbers and then divvy up the chores evenly. Easy. No fight, no resentment. (Others have recently attempted more high-tech versions of a similar approach: One man, for instance, invented a chore-splitting app intended to keep track of who’s doing the bulk of the household work.)
It also enabled us to talk about what the transition to parenthood had meant for both of us — fewer work hours and loss of alone time for me; an intense commute and loss of social time for him — in a way that helped us stay away from competition or blame.
Before the spreadsheet, I had an idea I think many share: Marriage and family should more or less work. If you’re with the “right” person and you’ve made the “right” choices, your family life shouldn’t require a lot of discussion or effort. Your spouse should know that you need alone time and should give it to you. The appointments you keep in your head, the family social schedule you juggle — all of it should be noticed and appreciated. Good marriages and happy families are born of love and care, not spreadsheets and a daily happiness score.
But in the years since, I’ve reconsidered. Far from making our marriage seem cold and robotic, the spreadsheet sparked more honest conversations than we’d had in years. It also reminded us that we had more control over our lives than we had been exerting.
We stopped the project after a year or so, but started again last month. It’s five years since we first tried it, and we’re both feeling overwhelmed again. We’re in a much more precarious place financially now, after a few non-spreadsheet-related surprises, but we’re still determined to make whatever decisions we can to improve our lives.
In the course of researching a book on the history of motherhood in America, it occurred to me that this sort of exercise might be helpful for a lot of families, onerous as it may seem. Because the really intractable problems — like the social expectations placed on mothers, the gendered division of labor in homes, the invisibility of all sorts of care work — are not going to magically disappear. They’re not going to be erased simply by getting the right politicians elected or the right policies enacted (although those things will help).
People’s weird ideas about gender, about mothers and fathers and marriage and nuclear families, about who should do what and how much of it, about what really makes us happy, are deeply entrenched, often in ways we don’t even recognize. And so sometimes, when the baby is crying, when no one has thought about dinner, when bills need paying — when we’re caught, in other words, juggling some of the most fraught areas of our family lives, feeling emotional, ready to lash out — sometimes it really helps to have a set of calm, cool numbers on a spreadsheet.
“All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.'” – 1 Peter 5:5b
I’ll never forget the first time I discovered what a feeling was. It was in my early forties. “Surely not!” you may be thinking. Yes, it is true. Since then, I have discovered many men still live in this condition. It took an older mentor to help me understand the difference between information and a feeling.
Wives are frustrated because their husbands share information, but not their feelings. They want to know what is going on inside their man. The fact is, most men have not been taught to identify feelings, much less how to share them. It is something that men must learn to do because it is not a natural trait. If they do share their feelings, society often portrays them as weak. No man willingly wants to be portrayed as weak.
In order to become an effective friend and leader, one must learn to be vulnerable with others and develop an ability to share feelings. It is a vital step to becoming a real person with whom others can connect emotionally. This is not easy to do if your parents did not teach you to share your emotional life with others. Emotional vulnerability is especially hard for men. Author Dr. Larry Crabb states,
Men who as boys felt neglected by their dads often remain distant from their own children. The sins of fathers are passed on to children, often through the dynamic of self-protection. It hurts to be neglected, and it creates questions about our value to others. So to avoid feeling the sting of further rejection, we refuse to give that part of ourselves we fear might once again be received with indifference. When our approach to life revolves around discipline, commitment, and knowledge [which the Greek influence teaches us] but runs from feeling the hurt of unmet longings that come from a lack of deeper relationships, then our efforts to love will be marked more by required action than by liberating passion. We will be known as reliable, but not involved. Honest friends will report that they enjoy being with us, but have trouble feeling close. Even our best friends (including spouses) will feel guarded around us, a little tense and vaguely distant. It’s not uncommon for Christian leaders to have no real friends. [Larry Crabb, Inside Out (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Navpress, n.d.), 98-99.]
If this describes you, why not begin on a new journey of opening up your life to others in a way that others can see who you really are? It might be scary at first, but as you grow in this area, you will find new freedom in your life. Then, others will more readily connect with you.
THE MANY FACES OF FAMILY AND LOVE: THERE IS NO “BEST” ONE
A commonsense manifesto for valuing all families, relationships, and life paths.
Never before have people in the U.S. and other nations around the world organized their personal lives and their family lives in so many different ways. In the U.S., for example, nearly as many adults are not married as married. The most sentimentalized family type—mom and dad, married with children—now accounts for fewer than 20 percent of all households. There are more households comprised of one person living alone.
Children are living in many different kinds of families and households. A full 40 percent of them are not being raised by two married parents. Many are living with one parent, or with cohabiting parents, or with stepparents or grandparents, to name just a few of the most popular permutations.
“Family” is a many-splendored thing and it can take all sorts of shapes and sizes. Twitter embraced that notion when the writer Lucy Huber posted this tweet:
Stop saying “start a family” when you mean “have kids”. A couple is still a family. A single person and her cat is a family. A couple and their plants are still a family. Three weirdly close roommates could be a family. You don’t need kids to be a family.
Within a week, the tweet had been liked more than 185,000 times and shared more than 47,000 times.
Scholars have been writing about diversity in relationships and families and some of the most unlikely terms have been catching on. Take amatonormativity, for example. That one was coined by Elizabeth Brake. It refers to:
“the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types.”
Professor Brake argues against that assumption. She thinks that other kinds of relationships and social circles, such as friendships and care networks, should not be valued less than romantic relationships.
Though growing in popularity, the valuing of many different kinds of relationships and families and life paths is still an idea that meets with considerable resistance. A new and important report recently released by the think tank, Family Story, documents the ways in which marriage has come to be privileged and promoted as the ideal family form, even as fewer and fewer people get married or have children.
“The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism” argues that respect for all of our relationships, families, and life paths is built on four core values.
1. Equality “requires the reduction of social and economic inequality within relationships and between family types, as well as legal equality among different types of families and relationships.”
2. Autonomy “requires making it possible for people to freely choose their relationships and family types—including, but not limited to, marriage—by reducing structural and other barriers that stand in the way.”
3. Interdependence “means acknowledging we are all interconnected and dependent on countless other people (not just ones to whom we are biologically related or with whom we have a legally recognized relationship).”
4. Care “requires acknowledging all the ways that these different forms of relationships are supportive and meaningful, and the positive impact they can have on our lives and well-being.”
Principles of Family, Relationship, and Lifestyle Justice
The conclusion of the report spells out the principles of family justice. They include:
There is no hierarchy; stop saying that certain people, relationships, or families are better than others
“A person’s marital status, relationship status, and living arrangements say nothing about their character or value.”
“Unmarried people should not be treated as less mature, less valuable, or less accomplished than married people.”
“Families and relationships should not be ranked from best to worst based on their structure.”
“Marriage is neither more nor less important than other close adult relationships involving care and commitment.”
There are lots of ways to create a family
“Neither children nor marriage are necessary to create family.”
“Co-residence is not necessary to create relationships of commitment and care.”
People who live in ways that are not normative (or not perceived as normative) deserve respect
“There will always be people who prefer to live alone, to not have children, or otherwise opt to live their lives in ways that are not consistent with whatever the norm is at the time.”
“None of this is a reflection of their self-worth, and they all have a right to equal respect and concern.”
“An adult’s ability to freely choose a particular relationship status or living arrangement should not be restricted or blocked.”
For children, relationship quality matters more than the other factors that get so much attention
“Children do not need to live under the same roof as a same-gender parent (or same-gender role model) for proper development.”
“Children flourish in a variety of family types and living arrangements.”
“Relationship quality is more important than household structure.” (Examples of different household structures include single-parent families and nuclear families. This principle means that having a loving and secure relationship with a parent is more important to children’s well-being than whether they have one parent or two, whether their parents are married, or whether their parents live under the same roof.)
Family Story maintains that the marriage fundamentalists, who believe that “a family composed of a man and a woman in their first marriage is ‘the best’ or ‘ideal’ type of family, especially for children,” have promoted their ideas by distorting and weaponizing social science research. I have spent much of the past two decades critiquing that research and explaining what it really does show. It is good to have other prominent voices joining in.
WHY SOME CHILDREN ARE ORCHIDS AND OTHERS ARE DANDELIONS
W. Thomas Boyce
Many children are able to thrive in any environment, while others may flourish only under the most favorable conditions. New findings reveal the complex interplay of factors that creates “dandelion” and “orchid” kids.
One of the first skills taught to pediatricians and obstetricians is how to assess the physiological condition of a baby in the first few minutes after birth. As a novice physician, this was one of my favorite and most treasured duties—to be the first living soul to survey the condition of a never-before-seen human being, delivered red, squealing, and literally wet behind the ears at the end of a prolonged, critical, and one-way passage.
The formal assessment is done using the Apgar score, named for its inventor, Virginia Apgar, at one and five minutes following birth. Scores range from 0 to 10, the sum of a 0, 1, or 2 assessed in each of five areas of postnatal functioning, arranged into the acronym APGAR: Appearance (the pink or blue color of the body, hands, and feet); Pulse rate; Grimace (the crying or grimacing response to nasal or oral suction, or other stimulation); Activity (the degree and vigor of muscle flexion); and Respiration. Most babies receive scores ranging from 7 to 10. Those with scores below 7 may need more active and rapid stimulation or resuscitation, including a heated bassinet or a suctioning of the airway. For scores less than 4, we might insert a breathing tube to support respiration or even begin external heart compressions.
HOW DO KIDS COPE? To get a sense of how school-age children think about resilience, PT asked a few how they cheer up others or whether they have a go-to strategy for themselves. Their portraits follow.
Orchids and Dandelions
As a pediatrician for more than four decades, I have become vividly aware of the great unevenness—the disproportion—evident in the differences in health and development among individual children from the first moments of life. Even within single families, parents often tell me that all of their children were basically healthy, “except for Sarah,” or Julio, or Jamal. Pediatricians implicitly understand, from simple, day-to-day observation, that some children are inordinately affected by the forces that protect health and those that imperil it. And at the level of the community, we know that, within any given population of children, a small minority—about 20 percent of individuals—will suffer the majority of all illnesses and disorders.
Developmental science has convincingly shown that one of the origins of such differences is children’s early experiences of psychological trauma and adversity. Such experience can impede normal brain development, create obstacles to effective learning, and impair mental and physical health during childhood and over the remaining life course. This is why children growing up in poverty, children who are mistreated by their parents or others, and children exposed to violence within the family or community are all at risk for compromised development, educational achievement, and mental or physical health.
But all children are not equally susceptible to these effects. While some are powerfully affected by trauma, others are able to effectively weather adverse experiences, sustaining few, if any, developmental or health consequences. People tend to view these differences in susceptibility as attributable to an inherent vulnerability or resilience, imagining that some small number of resilient or “unbreakable” children have a special capacity to thrive, even in the face of severe adversity. Our research suggests instead that such variance is attributable not to innate traits but to differences in children’s relative biological susceptibility to the social contexts in which they live and grow, both the negative and the positive.
A majority of children show a kind of biological indifference to experiences of adversity, with stress response circuits in their brains that are minimally reactive to such events. Like dandelions that thrive in almost any environment, such children are mostly unperturbed by the stressors and traumas they confront. We think of them, metaphorically, as dandelion children. A minority of children—about one in five—show an exceptional susceptibility to both negative and positive social contexts, with stress response circuits highly sensitive to adverse events. Like orchids, which require very particular, supportive environments to thrive, these children show an exceptional capacity for succeeding in nurturant, supportive circumstances, but sustain disproportionate numbers of illnesses and problems when raised in stressful, adverse social conditions. We think of these as orchid children.
IVO, 10: “If someone is down, I try to promise them something complex, that takes some effort—and then I do it for them.”Photo by Karjean Levine
Developmental science is increasingly revealing that the relative indifference of dandelion children and the special sensitivity of orchid children to the character of their early environment are likely attributable to the joint effects of genes and social contexts. These epigenetic processes—in which environmental cues regulate the expression of genetic differences—are the likely regulators of children’s differential susceptibility to environmental influences. Recognizing this differential susceptibility is an essential key to understanding the experiences of individual children, to parenting children of differing sensitivities and temperaments effectively, and to fostering the healthy, adaptive capacity of all young people.
Origins of the Types
So, are orchids born that way, or do they become orchids by way of early life experience? Our first hint at an answer came from the very first moments of postnatal life.
What is especially interesting about the Apgar score is the degree to which the things it measures are controlled by the fight-or-flight autonomic nervous system involved in dealing with stress. Each subscore is an indicator of the body’s adaptation to the considerable physical (and possibly emotional) stressors of being born; low scores are a reflection of insufficiently adaptive responses. After all, birth is an extreme and unprecedented experience, and it is such experiences that tell us most about who we are as extensions of our individual biology.
Given that we all begin life by being plunged into an epic stress reactivity experiment, might we not wonder whether the Apgar score could tell us more than just whether we need to have our mouths suctioned or our bodies warmed? If lower scores were reflective of less adaptive, less compensatory fight-or-flight responses, might they also be telling us about a baby’s longer-term proclivity toward maladaptive responses to stress? Could our first extrauterine moments augur something important about our whole life yet to come?
That is exactly what we have found. Careful epidemiologic work by one of my doctoral students and a former postdoctoral fellow has found that in nearly 34,000 children from Manitoba, Canada, five-minute Apgar scores were predictive of teacher-reported developmental vulnerability at age 5 for a variety of developmental dimensions. For example, the teachers of children who had Apgar scores of 7 identified more areas of developmental vulnerability than they did for children with Apgar scores of 9 or 10, and kindergartners who had Apgar scores of 3 or 4 had more reported developmental vulnerabilities than did peers with scores of 6 or 7. (The teachers had no prior knowledge of their students’ Apgar scores.) The vulnerabilities that teachers reported might have included lower competence in following rules or instructions; an inability to sit still and focus; a relative lack of interest in books and reading; or an inability to properly grasp and use a pencil. At each lower step on the Apgar scale, such physical, social, emotional, language, and communication domains of development were all significantly more compromised five years later. Babies entering the world with greater fight-or-flight instability and less capacity for physiological recovery were more developmentally vulnerable.
EDDIE, 12: “To cheer up, I tell myself it’s going to get better; the problem won’t persist.”Photo by Karjean Levine
Nature vs. Nurture
One source of such variation in adaptive stability is surely genetic difference among infants, but genes alone do not make a child an orchid or a dandelion. As work by other researchers has shown, the genetic characteristics of children create their predispositions, but do not necessarily determine their outcomes.
For example, a consortium studying Romanian children raised in horribly negligent, sometimes cruel orphanages under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu, before his fall in 1989, discovered that a shorter version of a gene related to the neurotransmitter serotonin produced orchid-like outcomes. Children with this shorter allele (an alternative form of a gene) who remained in the orphanages developed intellectual impairments and extreme maladjustment, while those with the same allele who were adopted into foster families recovered remarkably, in terms of both development and mental health.
Similarly, a team of Dutch researchers studying experimental patterns of children’s financial donations—in response to an emotionally evocative UNICEF video—found that participants with an orchid-like dopamineneurotransmitter gene gave either the most charitable contributions or the least, depending upon whether they were rated securely or insecurely attached to their parents—that is, depending on factors that were not genetic.
We used to think that any trait or feature present at birth was “congenital” and therefore determined by genes or, in ancient terms, fated in the stars. A somewhat more contemporary version of this vision is known as genetic determinism, according to which all of our differences are firmly situated at conception in the merged DNA we inherit from our parents. We can think of this view as the “nature” side of the classic debate of nature versus nurture.
SAHANA, 7: “To cheer myself up, I play with my toys, call over my friends, and tell them jokes.”Photo by Karjean Levine
The Human Genome Project—the ultimate “nature” approach—promised to uncover the “genes for” autism, schizophrenia, heart disease, and cancer. But no such unitary genes or even sets of genes have been elucidated. It is now clear that who we become is not determined by a straightforward, one-to-one route from genes to behavior, or DNA to phenotype—the set of observable characteristics, such as eye color, personality, and behavior, that describe an individual. Our most vaunted, prized, and carefully articulated hypotheses pale in the face of the exquisite complexities of the natural world.
There’s an old pediatric adage that all parents-to-be are environmental determinists until they have a baby in hand, at which point they become genetic determinists. Here is what I mean: Before we have kids, we’re prone to seeing the misbehavior of a child as the product of flawed parenting. That kid throwing a tantrum at the table next to us in a restaurant? It’s obviously the parents’ fault for not controlling him—their nurture hasn’t accomplished what it needed to do. Once we’re responsible for our own felon-in-training, throwing the tantrum in the adjacent airplane seat, we hope that those around us understand that we’ve done our best, but the child came into the world with this temperament. It’s far more comforting to ascribe the behavior of our own noisy or troubling toddler to genes, for which we have only passive responsibility, than to our capacities as parents, for which we are more directly accountable.
In his book Either/Or, Søren Kierkegaard proposed that to fully understand the human condition, we need to dispense with the tendency to perceive the forces that form us as clear-cut dichotomies. Such binary views run counter to the complexities of our true character. Developmental science has in recent decades faced an “either/or” divide: The environmental view has demanded an allegiance to external causes, located within our social and physical contexts, and the genetic view has asserted that internal causes are preeminent, with genomes driving our phenotypes and lives. The positions have emerged as contradictory answers to the fundamental questions, “Why do some get sick and others do not?” and “Why are some so healthy and fulfilled while others are not?” We now know that it is almost never a matter of either/or, but rather both/and.
CALVIN, 9: “When I’m down, I think about things differently and try not to be nervous or stressed.”Photo by Karjean Levine
Unpuzzling Human Disposition
Every human disposition and disorder of mental or physical health depends on an intricate interaction between internal and external causes to take root and advance. The key to understanding human difference and to abating and preventing morbidity will involve a keener knowledge of how genetic difference and environmental variation work together to change biological processes. This approach to “unpuzzling” human nature and wellness brings us closer to understanding what makes orchids and dandelions bloom, wither, or move between these states over the course of a changing life. Both genes and social environments are almost certainly influential for both orchid and dandelion phenotypes, but it is likely the interaction of genes and environments that determine where the kids in my studies ended up on the graphs that we created to chart their behavior and health.
Human infants, even prior to birth, are remarkably and finely attuned to the dynamic features of their environment, first in the womb and later in the nest with which their parents surround them. The brain of the human fetus and newborn is a “black hole” of sensory capacity that can respond to its environment even before consciousness registers it. A newborn unconsciously adapts in the service of “early life programming,” as biological adjustments begin, without awareness, as soon as the brain begins to detect challenges. This early programming enhances the likelihood of short-term survival—at least until the capacity for reproducing comes online in puberty, but it may also have the downside of generating greater risks of chronic adult conditions, such as coronary heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and mental disorders. It is an evolutionary strategy of trading survival in the short run for diminished and less vigorous longevity.
We think that differential susceptibilities to the environment—and thus orchid and dandelion children—emerge in this way. In certain kinds of early social and physical contexts, important benefits to survival and thriving might accrue for children with special, enhanced sensitivities. Children reared in environments of continuous threat and predation, for example, might logically be protected by the vigilance and hawk-eyed attentiveness of orchid sensibilities. Millennia ago, having a few orchidish individuals within a hominid band might have been protective of the group, as attacks from animals and other groups arose. On the other hand, being an orchid might also be of great benefit to those living at the other extreme—in environments of exceptional safety, protection, and abundance. Here, the propensity of orchid children to be open and porous to environmental events and exposures would garner even greater advantages. Most children would thrive in such settings. Orchids would thrive spectacularly.
Outside of these most extreme conditions, however, being a dandelion must surely yield the greatest rewards at the smallest price. Dandelions seem impervious to all but the most virulent of threats and insults. Within the typical ups and downs of human societies, these are the individuals deemed resilient, hardy, and buoyant. Evolution should thus tend to favor a proliferation of orchid phenotypes at the extremes of environmental conditions, while dandelion phenotypes should predominate within the broad middle range of challenges. Sure enough, there is at least preliminary evidence that dandelions are disproportionately represented in settings where neither menaces nor great fortune predominate.
SIERRA, 9: “If I’m down, I think of my favorite things. My friend taught me this song [“My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music], and I sing it to myself.”Photo by Karjean Levine
Marking Our Genes
During a formative, seven-year sojourn in the frigid green wilds of Canada, at the University of British Columbia, I had the good fortune to meet Mike Kobor and Marla Sokolowski. Mike studies the molecular biology of the yeast genome, and Marla is a fly geneticist who discovered the foraging gene (known as for ) in fruit flies and is responsible for the work defining two major behavioral phenotypes in flies (and other species)—”rovers” and “sitters”— determined by DNA sequence differences in that gene.
Mike and Marla share a capacity for broadly envisioning the implications of discoveries in basic animal models for human societies: They discern our civilizations in our genes. We converged under the sponsorship of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), forming the Child and Brain Development Program, which Marla and I now co-lead. Our program quickly closed in on the captivating question of how genes and environments, especially environments of adversity and inequality, together produce known individual differences in susceptibility, behavior, health, and disease. The answer has proven key to a provisional understanding of where orchids and dandelions come from.
We have established that genetic variation—differences in the DNA code that makes up individual genes—plays a role in the genesis of orchid and dandelion children. Although many genes likely contribute to the phenotypes, those involved in brain development and function are almost certainly implicated. The expression of genes involved in emotion regulationand behavioral control, for example— features that are highly salient in orchids and dandelions—govern neurotransmitter communications among individual neurons.
But early environmental experiences undoubtedly play an additional role, especially exposure to adversity and threat and experiences of family or community support and nurture. Emerging science suggests that genes and environments contribute to the emergence of orchids and dandelions, additively and interactively, but until recently we had no real idea of how this interaction actually took place. The field that has now flooded this enigmatic landscape with new light is epigenetics, the science of how environmental exposures can modify gene expression without altering the DNA sequence of the gene itself. The Greek prefix epi—meaning “upon” or “above”—connotes how the epigenome, a lattice of chemical “marks” or tags, literally lies upon the genome and controls the expression or silencing of DNA.
KARSON, 6: “To cheer people up, I say to them, ‘Don’t worry, everything will be all right.'”Photo by Karjean Levine
Every type of cell we possess—blood, liver, lung, skin, brain—contains precisely the same genome, the same collection of genes with the same DNA sequences, half from our mothers and half from our fathers. The only way that the 200 or so different human cell types, each with a different structure and different functions, could be made from a single genome is if the functioning of our 25,000 genes could be independently controlled. That’s how the epigenome comes into play in embryonic development. Stem cells can become kidney cells or white blood cells only through the programmed, epigenetic regulation of those thousands of genes. Once a stem cell is differentiated—say, into a white blood cell—the functioning of that cell can also be adjusted (again, epigenetically) to accommodate or adapt to the conditions with which the cell or the whole organism is contending. For example, a child facing a seriously stressful environment might need to change white blood cells’ rate of division (increasing the number of available immune cells), the cells’ responsiveness to stress hormones (sensitizing them to the effects of cortisol), or their production of the molecules initiating and governing inflammation (such as the chemical messengers called cytokines).
So, the epigenome has two major functions: It regulates the differentiation of cells into their various types and tissues, and it facilitates an adjustment of cell function to respond to the conditions at hand. It does both of these by regulating the epigenetic chemical tags that attach to the genome, turning up or turning down the expression of the thousands of genes in each cell. It is a great and agile improviser.
Pianos and Equalizers
Think of the genome and epigenome like this: Your genes are the keys on a piano; each plays a distinctive note. But while a piano has just 88 white and black keys, your genome houses around 25,000 individual genes, making it thousands of times more complex. In the first kind of epigenetic regulation—cell differentiation—these keys can be played in different combinations, sequences, and timings to create a whole variety of different tunes—200 different ones, for each of the different types of cells in a human body. One corresponds to the production of neurons, another to white blood cells, yet another to skin cells, and so on.
Once cells are differentiated on this magnificent piano, the epigenome is then used for a second kind of process: the adjustment of cell function to the conditions the organism is encountering. Here, the epigenome serves as an “equalizer” that adjusts each cell’s functions, changing the way its tune sounds, like the levers on an audio equalizer adjusting the balance between sound frequency ranges to emphasize treble or bass notes. Although each type of cell always plays the same tune—a white blood cell will stay a white blood cell—the way that the cell functions can be adaptively adjusted to suit specific circumstances.
MILEVA, 7: “When I need cheering up, I snug with my stuffed animals.”Photo by Karjean Levine
For example, the body of a child encountering a major early life stressor, like maltreatment, might automatically adjust the functioning of many different cell types in order to adapt as well as possible to the experience. Adrenal gland cells might be called upon to produce more cortisol; nerve cells could activate the fight-or-flight system; white blood cells could respond to any physical injuries; and brain cells might dampen the child’s emotional response. And these would be only four adjustments among probably hundreds occurring at the same time.
Just as biobehavioral phenotypes, like orchid and dandelion children, are likely influenced by DNA sequence variations in many genes, it is probably also true that the effects of early experience on these phenotypes involve many epigenetic changes within multiple genes. Just which genes are different in sequence and where the epigenetic marks occur is still being worked out, for orchid versus dandelion, introvert versus extrovert, predispositions to depression versus predilections for joy, and other human differences.
What we now know with some certainty, however, is that most variation in human character, nature, and health will eventually be attributable to an interactive combination of differences in the DNA sequences of multiple genes, along with experience-driven differences in the epigenetic marks that shape the expression, or decoding, of multiple genes. What is wickedly complex in the number of variations involved is elegantly simple in design: Genes and experience interactively affect human destiny, and the epigenome is the physical link between a gene and its environment. You can think of human life as the song that issues from the epigenetic piano and its equalizer, the result of a complex compositional process shaped by both genes and environments. Each person is predisposed to play certain types of scores, like those of the orchid or the dandelion, but there is abundant space for unique variation and improvisation.