Postpartum Body Changes You Should Know About

POSTPARTUM BODY CHANGES YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT

Anna Nowogrodzki

THE GIST

  • Many women who’ve given birth have postpartum pelvic floor issues that can require physical therapy. Look out for peeing when you laugh, sneeze or exercise, or for very frequent urges to pee.
  • Treatment for pelvic floor issues isn’t just Kegels (and a lot of people do Kegels wrong).
  • If penetrative sex hurts after the first few times, go slow, use lube and try non-intercourse forms of sex. If it still hurts, see a pelvic floor physical therapist.
  • If you feel like something is falling out of your vagina, you may have prolapse. Consult your doctor for a referral to a pelvic floor physical therapist.
  • Scar pain is common after both C-sections and vaginal births even up to a year postpartum. Scar massage may help.
  • If your back, shoulders or hips hurt, make sure you’re carrying your baby and baby gear on both sides of your body equally, and see a physical therapist.

When I was pregnant, I read four books on pregnancy and two on childbirth. I read no books on what my body would be like during the first year postpartum, because I had never heard of any. During that first year, many people are underinformed about their own bodies, even as they learn vast amounts about their babies. Many of us are cleared for sex and exercise at six weeks postpartum, but a body that grew another human can take much longer than that to heal — and can be permanently changed in some ways. 

For this piece, I discussed health in the first postpartum year with two ob-gyns, a nurse, two physical therapists who specialize in treating postpartum bodies and two mothers. All the experts said many people have questions about what is normal, and they recommended calling your obstetrician, midwife or primary care provider if you’re concerned about something specific. For many symptoms, a next step will be a referral to a physical therapist. The experts stressed that you don’t have to live with pain, discomfort or leaking urine, and that your health is as important as your baby’s.

WHAT TO DO

  • Don’t ignore concerning changes.

Peeing a little when you sneeze, laugh or exercise is such a classic postpartum symptom that many assume it can’t be fixed. Not so. It’s called stress incontinence, and it’s a symptom of a problem with your pelvic floor, a set of muscles that stretch, bowl-shaped, between the tailbone and the pubic bone. Urge incontinence, in which you feel the need to urinate very frequently, feel you have a very small bladder or feel you can’t hold it, is also due to pelvic floor muscle stress.

If you have any kind of incontinence, a good first step is a referral to a physical therapist who specializes in pelvic floor issues. “Being pregnant puts stress on your pelvic muscles” because of the weight of the fetus, said Dr. Tamika Auguste, an ob-gyn at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. Vaginal delivery or a C-section can further stress your pelvic floor, especially if the C-section was unplanned and occurred after some amount of labor. “Oftentimes women don’t always recognize immediately how much of a toll that still took on their vaginal canal and pelvic floor,” said Alison Colussi, D.P.T., a physical therapist specializing in pelvic health. Muscles that stretch during delivery can either remain too loose or over-tighten in response.

  • Do pelvic floor exercises — but not just Kegels.

When you think pelvic floor, you probably think Kegel exercises — in which you contract your pelvic floor muscles. But Kegels are not always helpful, and they’re hard to learn how to do properly on your own, Colussi said, so it’s best to visit a physical therapist if possible. Some women’s pelvic floors are overly tight, “in a constant state of mini-Kegel,” as Colussi puts it, which Kegels would only exacerbate. Even when pelvic floor muscles are weak and need strengthening, “the focus is much more on finding the full range of motion of those muscles, which includes both relax and contract,” Colussi said.

The relaxing part is hard. I tried to do it while on the phone with Colussi. “I’m not entirely sure if they’re relaxed or not,” I told her. “Am I actually trying to contract something accidentally?” She laughed. “I hear that 10,000 times a day,” she said.

Often, Colussi said, patients come in looking for an exercise to do for 10 minutes every day. “But the question is not what’s a good exercise,” she said. It’s more about how people move in every one of their daily activities, from getting out of bed to picking up mashed fruit off the floor to lifting babies out of their cribs. The proper way to pick up that mashed fruit or a baby in a car seat is to squat down, keeping your center of gravity over your hips and not tilting forward. Then exhale, engage your abs and straighten up using your leg muscles, not your back. 

  • Don’t put up with painful sex.

It’s common to feel discomfort or pain the first few times you have penetrative sex after childbirth, but after that, don’t put up with it. The first step is of course to go slowly and be gentle with yourself. Often ob-gyns will advise using an over-the-counter lubrication product, because breastfeeding suppresses estrogen production, and estrogen produces lubrication, explained Dr. Alison Stuebe, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and chair of the taskforce that wrote the newest American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines for postpartum care. But lube is just a beginning, our experts all agreed.

In addition to dryness, pain during sex can be caused by pelvic floor dysfunction, other tight or stretched muscles or scar pain from a tear or episiotomy during a vaginal birth. Sex can hurt for patients who’ve had C-sections as well, because both C-sections and the process of pregnancy can stretch or tighten muscles. Ask your obstetric care provider for a referral to pelvic floor physical therapy.

Dr. Stuebe also directs patients to “The Parents’ Guide to Doing It,” an episode of “The Longest Shortest Time” podcast with sex advice columnist Dan Savage as a guest. Savage discusses types of sex other than penetration. Unfortunately, some women experience pain with any kind of sex, usually from increased nerve sensitivity, said Colussi.

  • Seek help if you feel pressure in your vagina.

Some women come to Colussi saying they feel pressure in their vagina, like something is obstructing their bowel movements, “or like a dry tampon is half falling out of me,” she said. Sensations like these could mean a pelvic organ prolapse, when an organ (uterus, bladder or urethra) shifts from its original position or presses against the vaginal wall. “Prolapse is probably the thing women are least prepared for,” said Colussi.

Severe prolapses can be fixed with surgery or alleviated with a pessary (a support in the vagina to prop up the prolapsing organ), but milder prolapses can be managed just by lying down more frequently and avoiding high levels of pressure in your abdomen, Colussi said. “Oftentimes for a woman it feels a lot worse than it actually is,” she said, but in other cases prolapse can be more severe than it feels, so it makes sense to see a health care provider. To better manage pressure levels in your abdomen, don’t bear down when pooping; and exhale instead of inhaling or holding your breath when you exert yourself. If you find yourself grunting and then holding your breath when you lift something heavy, try exhaling instead. 

  • Ask your doctor about scar pain.

If you feel pain in your C-section scar or scar from a tear or episiotomy, see your medical provider. A doctor may recommend scar massage or scar mobility treatments from a postpartum physical therapist. However, be aware, scientific data on the effectiveness of scar massage is limited because it has barely been studied, Dr. Stuebe said. A 2011 paper concluded that scar massage is “anecdotally effective” but found that surgical scar massage of any kind had only been studied in a tiny sample size of 30 patients. Scar pain is common. A year after giving birth, a study found, 18 percent of women who had C-sections still had pain at the incision site, and 10 percent of women who had vaginal births still felt pain in the vagina or perineum (the area between the vagina and the anus).

  • Learn to carry your baby on both sides.

Carrying a baby, lifting a baby and holding a baby while breastfeeding are hard physical work, especially for women who were pregnant. Your posture and movement habits change during pregnancy from carrying around extra weight in new places, and your body also produces the hormones relaxin and progesterone, which loosen your ligaments and joints.

Baby product design doesn’t help. “Car seats and cribs have changed drastically” in recent years, said Colussi. They’re carefully designed for infant safety, but not for parent ergonomic safety. Infant or “bucket” car seats are heavy, and usually parents carry them in their nondominant arm, causing muscle imbalances. She recommends that parents practice early and often carrying their babies on both sides equally. “Cribs are hard because the rails can’t go up and down anymore,” she said. Colussi recommends that parents, especially shorter ones, place a step aerobics stepper next to the crib.

If pain persists after making these changes, physical therapy is a good idea.

  • Use proper form for sitting up.

If you feel a gap in your abdominal muscles, you may have diastasis recti, in which all the layers of the abdominal muscles, the rectus abdominus, separate in the middle. This happens normally during the latter part of pregnancy to make room for the growing uterus, but if it persists at your six-week postpartum checkup, ask your provider, who may refer you to a physical therapist. To avoid putting too much pressure on these muscles, avoid crunches or sit-ups, and when you sit up, don’t sit straight up using just your abdominal muscles: Roll onto your side first and use your arms.

WHEN TO WORRY

  • If you have shortness of breath, pain in your chest or seizures, call 911.
  • If you have an incision that does not heal, a temperature above 100.4F, too much bleeding (soaking one pad per hour or a blood clot the size of an egg or larger), a red or swollen leg that feels painful or hot, or a headache that does not get better with medication or is accompanied by vision changes, call your medical provider.
  • If you had gestational diabetes, make sure you get screened for diabetes according to your medical provider’s advice.
  • If you had high blood pressure (pre-eclampsia) during pregnancy, make sure your blood pressure is monitored according to your medical provider’s advice. (You are still at risk for pre-eclampsia up to six weeks postpartum.)
  • If you quit or tapered smoking or other drugs during pregnancy, see your medical provider for a postpartum support plan. The stresses of life with a baby can lead to relapse. 

SOURCES

Debra Bingham, Dr.PH., R.N., professor of nursing at the University of Maryland and executive director of the Institute for Perinatal Quality Improvement, Aug. 23, 2018

Tamika Auguste, M.D., obstetrician-gynecologist at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, Aug. 27, 2018

Alison Colussi, D.P.T., physical therapist at Physical Therapy Center of Rocky Hill in Rocky Hill, Conn., Aug. 27, 2018

Alison Stuebe, M.D., M.Sc., associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Aug. 27, 2018

Holly Herman, D.P.T., physical therapist at HealthyWomen HealthyMen Physical Therapy, Aug. 27, 2018 “Save Your Life: Get Care for These Post-birth Warning Signs,” the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric, and Neonatal Nurses, 2016

When a New Mother’s Joy is Entwined With Grief

WHEN A NEW MOTHER’S JOY IS ENTWINED WITH GRIEF

Claire Zulkey

Maggie Nelson’s Mother’s Day tradition is to take a family photo at the grave of her daughter Emily, who was stillborn.

Every Mother’s Day, Maggie Nelson, her husband Mike, and their three young children head to the cemetery to take a family photo at the grave of their daughter, Emily. She was stillborn in 2010, but her twin, Mikey, now 7, survived.

“People say, ‘That’s kind of sad,’ but I can say, ‘I’m a proud mom of four. Here I am with all of them,’” Ms. Nelson, 39, said of the photos of her and the kids gathered on the grass by Emily’s stone plaque. A Bloomington, Ill., kindergarten teacher, she is a member of an unofficial sorority of women who experienced acute grief while postpartum.

The grief of fathers, adoptive mothers and other relatives after a family death is no less real, but postpartum women in mourning endure a particularly complicated blend of physical and emotional duress.

First, there are factors that can affect any new mother: the physical discomfort of childbirth, the lack of sleep and anxiety about the baby.

After giving birth, a new mother experiences rapid drops in levels of estrogen and progesterone and steep increases in prolactin. This can result in strong feelings of fatigue, irritability, insomnia and sadness known as the baby blues, which the National Institute of Mental Health says affects up to 80 percent of women.

This is not the same as the more intense, ongoing postpartum depression, which doesn’t reveal itself immediately, says Christiane Manzella, a senior psychologist who specializes in bereavement at the Seleni Institute, a women’s counseling center in New York.

Grief disrupts the body in different ways, with effects that can include a weakened immune system, a perilous situation for a new mother.

“I was a mess, to put it in a nutshell,” said Gayle Brandeis, 50, a Nevada writer whose mother committed suicide in 2009, days after Ms. Brandeis gave birth to a son. She experienced bouts of dizziness and had difficulty catching her breath. “I was really worried that my milk would dry out. I had a lot of stitches and walking was very painful,” she said. “I felt so disoriented in my body.”

Bereaved new mothers need people to remind them that there are no wrong feelings.

“It feels incredibly isolating because you’re supposed to be happy,” said a Boston-area 47-year-old mother of two who works in marketing and asked to be identified only by her first name, Susan. In 2012, when Susan was on bed rest with a high-risk pregnancy while living overseas, her mother died unexpectedly. She could not travel for the funeral and was able to attend only via Skype. When Susan eventually gave birth to a daughter, her relationship to her baby was not what she expected. Her daughter had acid reflux, screamed a lot and slept little.

“I thought there would be this bond that I wouldn’t want to break because she was somehow my mom incarnate. It wasn’t that at all.” Throughout this experience, Susan, like most grieving new mothers, wondered, “Is this normal?”

Pediatricians are on the front lines of spotting signs of postpartum depression in new mothers, since they see babies and mothers sooner and more frequently than obstetricians. Dr. Dafna Ahdoot, a Los Angeles pediatrician, has helped grieving new mothers who were anxious about their surviving baby’s health, concerned over whether they could take their newborn to an out-of-town funeral, or worried that their grief would negatively affect the baby. She advises grieving new mothers to prioritize their own eating and sleeping by securing help with night feedings and switching to formula feeding as needed if breast-feeding is too difficult.

Many therapists specialize in postpartum depression or grief and can address both. “It’s so hard to tease those symptoms apart,” says Juli Fraga, a San Francisco psychologist who specializes in postpartum depression.

A woman may think: “‘Why wouldn’t I be crying? I’m not sleeping.’” She helps her patients try meditation or breathing exercises to reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and then discuss, as needed, next steps like seeing a psychiatrist or integrative medical options.

Not all women have access to or even desire professional support. With initiatives like Therapy for Black Girls, the mental health community is working to build a bridge to African-American women who may mistrust medical institutions.

“African-American women are at higher risk for premature birth, and so we are losing our babies,” says Keisha Wells, a counselor in Columbus, Ga. “If you’re dealing with that and you don’t have anybody to talk to and you’re a person of color, that’s added sorrow.” Ms. Wells did not have access to this type of mental health care 11 years ago when her twin sons, born prematurely, both died. But she said she found comfort in faith-based support.

In the first weeks after a birth paired with a death, close loved ones can lighten a new mother’s load by making thoughtful executive decisions. Ms. Nelson’s twins’ room was painted half pink and half blue, and set up with two cribs. Friends repainted it and removed Emily’s crib. “Nobody asked,” Ms. Nelson said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be asked. It had to happen, and friends and family had to take care of it.”

More than anything, most grieving new mothers need to express their grief. After Ms. Nelson took Mikey home, a friend brought over a picnic dinner.

“She put the basket on the counter, took both my hands in her hands and said ‘Tell me about Emily,’” Ms. Nelson recalled. She said she appreciated that opportunity. Other well-intentioned people misunderstood and said, “I didn’t mean to make you sad,” when she’d start to cry. She said she wanted to tell them: “Emily’s death makes me sad. You talking about her makes me hope-filled, it makes me proud. The tears are going to come, but let me do that.”

Many grieving mothers find solace in the stories of others, be they in books, online or in groups.

Ms. Nelson was intrigued by the show “This Is Us,” in which the main characters lose one of their triplets at birth and impulsively decide to adopt an abandoned baby. “The first episode made me angry that they were like, ‘We’ll just take this baby home instead,’ but when they later showed the raw emotions that she had, I was a little more on board,” Ms. Nelson said.

Mourning new mothers eventually find a way to honor both their lost loved one and their child using what is known as a continuing bond grief paradigm. Dr. Manzella said that it can be compatible with the ongoing waves of grief many mothers who have gone through loss experience, and that the thinking about grief has evolved from the “accept and let go” ideas in the classic “five stages of grief” model of the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. “Why not continue loving in absence and getting solace from the sense of love?” she said.

Sometimes, finding a way to mark the loss can help.

Each year, Ms. Nelson and her family honor Emily’s birthday a day before Mikey’s, since her heart stopped beating the day before he was born.

“I have my day to be sad,” Ms. Nelson says. “We go to the cemetery with balloons. The kids are fully involved. Then the next day is all about Mikey.”

Dealing With Interfering Grandparents

DEALING WITH INTERFERING GRANDPARENTS

Carla Bruce-Eddings

How to navigate a challenging relationship.

Parenting can often feel like trying to survive amid barely controlled chaos, so having a wise, experienced grandparent to help out can be lifesaving. But if that grandparent has trouble adhering to basic boundaries, it can feel as if the chaos has maddeningly multiplied.

When families expand, there is a significant shift in roles and responsibilities — one that is easy to make light of until conflicts emerge. Frustrating as these conflicts may be, it’s important to keep in mind that lots of families experience them. Joanne Gottlieb, L.C.S.W., a New York-based licensed clinical social worker, cited religious practices, disciplinary styles, technology and diet as some of the most common areas for intergenerational parenting conflict.

“I would place ‘intrusive grandparents’ in the general category of challenges that adults and couples face in managing relationships with their respective families of origin, and with parents in particular,” she said. “This is a constant theme of therapy.”

So how to best navigate the convergence of these new roles so that everyone feels respected and valued?

  • The moment you notice a negative pattern emerging, deal with it quickly. Don’t wait until you are ready to tear your hair out to approach Mom or Mom-in-Law.
  • Choose a time when everyone is calm to discuss conflicts — and remember that your parent or parent-in-law has your best interests at heart, and your child’s too. Put the child’s needs first – not your own.
  • Bear in mind that child-rearing advice often changes from one generation to the next, so there are bound to be some ideas that a grandparent subscribes to — most likely ones that you were raised with — that you find outdated now.

It’s vital to remember, in the thick of it, why grandparents’ presence in your child’s life is so crucial. “Grandparent love and knowledge is essential to a child’s self-esteem and self-identity,” said Roslyn Hunter, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist in New York. “They need to see themselves as part of something larger than their parents. They need to find their place and feel part of a family that has a history.”

To try to resolve conflicts, therapists suggest you should say what you need to say — clearly, respectfully and, if necessary, more than once. Meagan Hammerbacher, mom to a 3- and 5-year-old, is committed to clear and consistent communication with her mother-in-law — even if it hasn’t yielded the desired results just yet.

“I have asked my mother-in-law multiple times to please refrain from giving my children sweet treats and sugary drinks, and to consider the food that she generally feeds my children. Sadly, she rarely listens to my requests,” she said. Enlisting her husband to join the discussion was difficult at first, but she encouraged him to attend a few therapy sessions to feel more comfortable about opposing his mother, and now they are on the same page.

Such harmony between partners is the ideal first step in approaching tough conversations with a parent or parent-in-law, but it has not led to harmony in this case. “In all honesty I do not see the situation being resolved because his mother is of a different era,” Hammerbacher said. “I have realized that she is never going to listen to me and follow my directive, and it is not worth the constant fight with my partner because he does not want to fight with his mother.”

Until she feels ready to re-approach this conversation, Hammerbacher has decided to back off: “The only other resolution is to teach my children about healthy eating so they can advocate for themselves,” she said. “It is more likely that she will listen to my children when they tell her ‘Grandma, that food is not good for me!’ ”

Other parents live with their frustrations for the sake of the overall relationship. For Tanya Copenhaver, 41, continual conversations with her mother about her 4-year-old have been stressful, but she has decided she can deal with the dynamic. “I often feel judged by my mother when it comes to my parenting,” she said. “I used to let these things really bother me, and often, I still find myself starting to defend myself.” But she has come to realize that her mother truly does have the best intentions, misguided as her efforts sometimes feel.

“Often I bite my tongue and remind myself she means well and loves my daughter dearly,” Copenhaver said. “And I remind myself that the benefits of having my mom so involved in our lives far outweighs the frustration I feel.”

Grandparents find navigating this relationship tricky, too. Keesha Davis has strong opinions when it comes to her 1-year-old granddaughter, but over the course of her first year, she has intuited the best times to speak up and to remain silent. “I’m still adjusting … I’ve learned to just be quiet, observe and chime in when I really think I should chime in,” she said. Recently she had a disagreement with her daughter and daughter-in-law about giving their daughter apple juice while babysitting. While the mothers stood firm — no juice — Davis told me that they are open to advice in other areas. “I think they’re coming to terms with saying, ‘You know what, my mother is very logical when it comes to certain things,’ ” she said. “I’ve raised kids, I babysit kids. … So they do sit back and say, ‘Wait a minute. What she is saying is correct and we can benefit from listening.’ ”

Try to bear in mind that each generation has its own parenting beliefs, and parenting advice has changed over the years. Today’s grandparents put their babies to sleep on their stomachs and used crib bumpers — practices that are no longer followed. Parental bans on corporal punishment can also be perplexing for grandparents, many of whom adhered to the “spare the rod” justification for spanking.

In these cases, making your stance crystal clear from the start is of utmost importance, Gottlieb said. “The parent needs to communicate clearly that physical discipline is not permitted,” she said. “If the parent is not sure that the grandparent, or any caregiver, will respect this wish, then I would advise that the parent not leave their child alone with that person.” Try to avoid long explanations or arguments; your rationale can be as short as a simple reminder that cultural norms have changed, so much so that a child’s mentioning in school that he was hit could prompt a call to child protective services.

“I would say that one of the frequent issues is cultural, particularly for immigrant families,” Hunter said. “Grandparents expect parents to follow cultural traditions from the old country. Parents often resist because old traditions are not practical for modern life.” In these cases, it’s important to avoid the instinct to be dismissive or overly critical of a practice that you may not understand. After all, your parent raised you. Talking through the reasons for your parenting decisions, and listening to grandparents talk about their own philosophies, may not lead to a quick solution, but it will help promote understanding and reduce discord.

Hunter reminds parents that they have the final word. “It’s important to remember that grandparents do not actually hold more power than the parent — even if the grandparent in question is providing some kind of support,” she said. If a parent asserting herself to advocate for her child jeopardizes the relationship with the grandparent, or vice versa, that is a different issue. “In either case the child’s needs are not being put first,” Hunter said. “The adult’s needs are being put first with the child being used as a tool.”

Parenting is a lifelong job; it doesn’t end when a child has entered adulthood. You are charged with creating a safe, nurturing environment for your child, as well as learning from the wisdom and, yes, missteps of your parents. A three-generation dynamic should feel fluid and mutually supportive, especially during times of conflict, experts stressed. Demonstrating positive examples of communication and compromise with a parent or parent-in-law will help your child navigate her own approach to problem solving, as these are skills that “make emotions and the world feel manageable,” Gottlieb added.

Finally, it always helps to take a deep breath and remember that your child has different needs from the other people in her life. Despite Tanya Copenhaver’s occasional misunderstandings with her mother, she is willing to turn a blind eye from time to time for the sake of offering her daughter a crucial childhood benefit: “Grandma’s house isn’t home, and grandparents get to have a different relationship with our children than we do,” she said. “When I’m not there, it’s O.K. if my daughter eats an extra candy or gets to eat applesauce, graham crackers and a marshmallow for lunch. Those are memories she will have forever.”

Remembering her own loving relationship with her grandmother, she added: “I can only hope that my daughter gets to experience that special bond with my mom.”

My Marriage Has a Third Wheel: Our Child

MY MARRIAGE HAS A THIRD WHEEL: OUR CHILD

Jancee Dunn

Jancee Dunn, left, with her daughter Sylvie and husband Tom.Creditvia Jancee Dunn

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.

Jancee Dunn and her family. 
Jancee Dunn and her family. Creditvia Jancee Dunn

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 Reportsready 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.

A BETTER ME MAKES A BETTER WE: AN INTERVIEW WITH ELLYN BADER, Ph.D.

Kyle Benson

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.

Getting a Good Night’s Sleep Without Drugs

GETTING A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP WITHOUT DRUGS

Jane E. Brody

Alternatives to prescription drugs for insomnia offer better, safer and more long-lasting solutions, experts say.

Shakespeare wisely recognized that sleep “knits up the ravell’d sleave of care” and relieves life’s physical and emotional pains. Alas, this “chief nourisher in life’s feast,” as he called it, often eludes millions of people who suffer from insomnia. Desperate to fall asleep or fall back to sleep, many resort to Ambien or another of the so-called “Z drugs” to get elusive shut-eye.

But except for people with short-term sleep-disrupting issues, like post-surgical pain or bereavement, these sedative-hypnotics have a time-limited benefit and can sometimes cause more serious problems than they might prevent. They should not be used for more than four or five weeks.

In April, the Food and Drug Administration added a boxed warning to the prescription insomnia drugs zolpidem (Ambien, Edluar, Intermezzo and Zolpimist), zaleplon (Sonata) and eszopiclone (Lunesta) following reports of injury and death from sleepwalking, sleep-driving and engaging in other hazardous activities while not fully awake.

Last July, a Georgia woman was arrested when she drove the wrong way on a highway the day after using Ambien, as prescribed, to help her sleep. Although she had consumed no alcohol, she flunked a standard sobriety test and told police she was unaware of how she ended up going the wrong way.

Although extreme reactions to these sleep drugs are thought to be uncommon, they are unpredictable and can be disastrous when they occur. Some have resulted in vehicular fatalities.

As many as 20 percent to 30 percent of people in the general population sleep poorly. They may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, some awaken much too early, while others do not feel rested despite spending a full night seemingly asleep in bed. For one person in 10, insomnia is a chronic problem that repeats itself night after night. Little wonder that so many resort to sleeping pills to cope with it.

“Short sleep is not just an irritant. It has real consequences beyond just feeling crummy the next day,” Adam P. Spira, a sleep researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told me.

However, Dr. Spira and other experts report that there are better, safer and more long-lasting alternatives than prescription drugs to treat this common problem. The alternatives are especially valuable for older people who metabolize drugs more slowly, are more likely to have treatable underlying causes of their insomnia and are more susceptible to adverse side effects of medications.

“Insomnia is typically undertreated, and nonpharmacologic interventions are underused by health care practitioners,” Dr. Nabil S. Kamel, a geriatrician now at Cox Health in Springfield, Mo., and Dr. Julie K. Gammack, a geriatrician at the St. Louis University Health Sciences Center, wrote in The American Journal of Medicine.

In other words, when persistent insomnia is a problem, before your doctor writes a prescription for a sleeping pill, ask whether there are other remedies that may be safer, more effective and longer lasting.

For example, if pain or other symptoms of a medical disorder are keeping you awake, the first step should be treatment of the underlying ailment to minimize its sleep-disrupting effects. I once spent three sleepless nights tortured by intense itchiness until a dermatologist prescribed medication for what turned out to be an invasion of bird mites. More recently, my middle-of-the-night leg cramps have been nearly entirely eliminated by consuming eight ounces of quinine-containing tonic water (actually, diet tonic) every night before bed. If you can’t handle that amount of liquid close to bedtime, drink it earlier in the evening or perhaps try a herbal remedy that I use when traveling: Hyland’s Leg Cramps, which contains quinine as one of its active ingredients.

Sometimes, the medication given to treat a chronic ailment interferes with the ability to get a good night’s sleep. In that case, the doctor may be able to prescribe a lower dose, substitute a different drug or adjust the timing. But when the symptoms of a chronic ailment itself disrupts sleep, treatment by a specialist, including perhaps an expert in pain management, may be needed to improve your ability to sleep. If persistent emotional problems are what keep you awake, consider consulting a psychologist, psychiatric social worker or psychiatrist before reaching for a sleeping pill.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is now considered the best treatment for insomnia, especially for older adults. It teaches people to challenge disruptive negative thinking and replace it with positive thoughts that counter arousal and induce relaxation. Before going to bed, try using soothing imagery or meditation to reduce cognitive arousal.

The American College of Physicians recommends cognitive behavioral therapy as “the first-line treatment for adults with chronic insomnia.”

It is much safer than drugs and, unlike sleeping pills that work only when taken and shouldn’t be used long-term, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I, teaches effective strategies that continue to work long after the therapy ends.

The physicians’ college suggests that if needed, sleep medication should be used only short-term while learning the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia.

Also helpful is what sleep experts call stimulus-control therapy — limiting bedroom time to sleeping and sex. You learn to associate the bedroom with sleep by avoiding activities incompatible with it. If you spend too much time lying sleepless in bed, your brain starts to link the bedroom with not sleeping. Also avoid going to bed when you’re not sleepy.

If you don’t fall asleep after about 20 minutes in bed, Dr. Kamel and Dr. Gammack recommend getting up, perhaps taking a bath or reading, then returning to bed when you feel sleepy.

If all else fails, sleep-restriction therapy can be effective even after a week or two, especially at eliminating prolonged wakefulness in the middle of the night. It doesn’t restrict sleep itself but limits the time spent not sleeping by restricting time in bed to how long you currently sleep. Go to bed at about the same time every night, set an alarm to get up, and maintain that waking time every day for at least two weeks no matter how much you slept the night before. Finally, gradually extend your time in bed by 15 to 30 minutes, allowing a week between each extension, until you are able to get the amount of restful sleep you need with little or no wakefulness in the middle of the night.

Why Women, but Not Men, Are Judged for a Messy House

WHY WOMEN, BUT NOT MEN, ARE JUDGED FOR A MESSY HOUSE

Claire Cain Miller

“The Smiths share the drudgery of housework, for they both have important war jobs,” the Office of War Information wrote about this photo circa 1944.

They’re still held to a higher social standard, which explains why they’re doing so much housework, studies show.

Even in 2019, messy men are given a pass and messy women are unforgiven. Three recently published studies confirm what many women instinctively know: Housework is still considered women’s work — especially for women who are living with men.

Women do more of such work when they live with men than when they live alone, one of the studies found. Even though men spend more time on domestic tasks than men of previous generations, they’re typically not doing traditionally feminine chores like cooking and cleaning, another showed. The third study pointed to a reason: Socially, women — but not men — are judged negatively for having a messy house and undone housework.

It’s an example of how social mores, whether or not an individual believes in them, influence behavior, the social scientists who did the research say. And when it comes to gender, expectations about housework have been among the slowest to change.

“Everyone knows what the stereotype or expectations might be, so even if they don’t endorse them personally, it will still affect their behavior,” even if they say they have progressive views about gender roles, said Sarah Thébaud, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an author of one of the papers.

The additional time that women spend on unpaid household labor is a root of gender inequality — it influences how men and women relate at home, and how much time women spend on paid work.

On average, women spend 2.3 hours a day on house tasks, and men spend 1.4 hours, according to Department of Labor data. Even when men say they split housework evenly, the data shows they do not. (Women do more of these kinds of chores in the office, too.)

One of the recent studies, in the journal Demography, analyzed American Time Use Survey data and found that mothers married to men did more housework than single mothers, slept less and had less leisure time.

“One possibility is what people believe is expected of them to be a good wife and partner is still really strong, and you’re held to those standards when you’re living with someone,” said Joanna Pepin, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, who wrote the paper with Liana Sayer, a colleague at Maryland, and Lynne Casper from the University of Southern California.

Other possibilities, Ms. Pepin said, were that men created more housework; single mothers were more tired; or children did more chores when they lived with a single mother.

Women tend to do more indoor chores, research shows, like cleaning and cooking, most of which occur daily. Men do more outdoor chores, like lawn mowing or car washing, which happen less often.

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Another recent study, in the journal Gender & Society, looked at people in opposite-sex marriages and found that even though men who live in cities spend less time on outdoor chores than suburban or rural men, they don’t spend any additional time on other kinds of chores. Women spend the same amount of time on chores regardless of where they live.

The pattern demonstrates how much housework is considered women’s work, said the researchers, Natasha Quadlin at Ohio State University and Long Doan at the University of Maryland, who used data from the American Time Use Survey and the Current Population Survey.

One way to be masculine is to do typically male chores, they concluded — and another way is to refuse to do typically female ones.

These studies relied on survey data to show what people do. A study published last month in Sociological Methods & Research tried to explain why women do more housework. The researchers conducted an experiment to uncover the beliefs that drive people’s behavior.

They showed 624 people a photo of a messy living room and kitchen — dishes on the counters, a cluttered coffee table, blankets strewn about — or the clean version of the same space. (They used MTurk, a survey platform popular with social scientists; the participants were slightly more educated and more likely to be white and liberal than the population at large.)

The results debunked the age-old excuse that women have an innately lower tolerance for messiness. Men notice the dust and piles. They just aren’t held to the same social standards for cleanliness, the study found.

When participants were told that a woman occupied the clean room, it was judged as less clean than when a man occupied it, and she was thought to be less likely to be viewed positively by visitors and less comfortable with visitors.

Both men and women were penalized for having a messy room. When respondents were told it was occupied by a man, they said that it was in more urgent need of cleaning and that the men were less responsible and hardworking than messy women. The mess seemed to play into a stereotype of men as lazy slobs, the researchers said.

But there was a key difference:Unlike for women, participants said messy men were not likely to be judged by visitors or feel uncomfortable having visitors over.

“It may activate negative stereotypes about men if they’re messy, but it’s inconsequential because there’s no expected social consequence to that,” said Ms. Thébaud, who did the study with the sociologists Sabino Kornrich of Emory and Leah Ruppanner of the University of Melbourne. “It’s that ‘boys will be boys’ thing.”

Most of the time, respondents said a woman would be responsible for cleaning the room — especially if the occupants were in a heterosexual marriage and both were working full time.

“The ways it gets reinforced are so subtle,” said Darcy Lockman, the author of a new book about the unequal division of labor, “All the Rage,” and a clinical psychologist. “‘I should relieve my husband of burdens’ — it’s so automatic.”

Social scientists have been observing these pressures for decades. In 1989, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote “The Second Shift,” documenting how even in dual-career couples, women did significantly more housework and child care than men. In 1998, the sociologist Barbara Risman described in the book “Gender Vertigo” how people feel pressure from members of both genders to perform certain roles.

Since then, men’s and women’s roles have changed in many parts of life — but not regarding housekeeping. In a study last year, Ms. Risman showed that Americans are now more likely to value gender equality at work than at home.

Bigger forces shape these beliefs. Employers increasingly demand employees to be on call at work, for example, which can end up forcing one parent (usually the mother) to step back from work to be on call at home. This happens for same-sex couples, too, showing that it’s not just about gender — it’s also about the way paid work is set up.

Policies that encourage men to take on more responsibility at home — like use-it-or-lose-it paternity leave in Canada and Scandinavian countries — could increase their involvement, evidence suggests.

The stereotypes start with what boys are taught. Research has found that when mothers work for pay and fathers do household chores, their sons become adults who spend more time on housework.

So far, what we know about the next generation is that girls are doing less housework. But boys aren’t doing that much more.

Preparing My Family for Life Without Me

PREPARING MY FAMILY FOR LIFE WITHOUT ME

Mary Bergstrom

After eight heart attacks, a young wife and mother with an uncommon condition curates her legacy while decorating a new home.

Putting up pictures in our new house last fall, I opted for nails, not tape. My family had just relocated from California to Brooklyn, our fourth move in five years. With so much change, it had been hard to feel settled, but it was my job to try.

I wanted to create a sense of stability while my children, then 8 and 11, were still innocent enough to believe that life could be stable. I wanted to create a sense of hope while my husband, Jonathan, was still young enough to start over.

Although I was only 45, my precarious health had taught me to use time wisely. On the agenda that day was to get settled in our new home, a wide brownstone with big windows, just like I had always wanted. With light reflecting against high ivory walls, the house had a familiar feeling of peace. As Jonathan tended to the unpacking, I charged myself with decorating, a job that sounded frivolous, but I knew better.

With the children at school, I sat at the kitchen table, digging through boxes. Over the years I had taken thousands of photos, wanting to document every moment of our time together, make each one extend as far as possible. I was looking for pictures that had the power to turn bitter memories into sweet. Images that said, “I love you more than anything.” Images that whispered, “I can’t express how sorry I am to leave you.”

I headed upstairs with photos, nails and a hammer. My children had their own bedrooms, each with a window looking into the garden. I would start there and work my way through the house. By the time they got back from school, our new home would be filled with cozy memories. If I couldn’t make my family feel safe, I could at least create some level of comfort.

I flipped through options, looking for shots of us touching skin and smiling wide to convey happy intimacy, of us camping to hint at the natural cycle of life and of them with family and friends to show that love is always available.

Every day, I prepare. I take a slew of medications and supplements. I go to this doctor, that psychic. I pray. I keep nitroglycerin in my car, in my backpack, by my bed. My hospital basics are packed. After eight heart attacks, I have learned to be ready.

Jonathan ducked his head in. “How’s it going in here?”

“You scared me,” I said.

“Join the club.”

Jonathan is seven years older than me. He has a stressful job. He doesn’t take vitamins or exercise regularly. Even so, my health has been the primary focus for our entire marriage. Nothing can compete with spontaneous coronary artery dissection, an uncommon and incurable condition that has taken over my left, right and diagonal arteries. I could have a fatal heart attack tomorrow or I could not. It’s the not knowing that has made me live in the present.

“How does this look?” I said, holding a wooden frame against the wall. In the photo, my daughter is a baby asleep in my arms. I’m kissing her forehead, wrapping my sweater around her tiny body. I remember this moment and, because I have told her about it time and time again, so does she.

“It’s not just good,” he said, “it’s good enough.” Of course, he was right.

Since I had my first heart attack at 32, we have opened up to each other in ways that wouldn’t have seemed possible before. We no longer indulge in setting and not meeting expectations. We stay present and keep moving forward. We help each other get on with whatever comes next. With uncertainty, we have become confident partners.

The first time I had a heart attack, no one took me seriously. The emergency room doctors assumed I was having a panic attack. What could be wrong with the newlywed with a Pilates body?

No one paid any attention until the blood test for troponins came back positive. Troponins are proteins that are released when the heart has been damaged. Looking me up and down, they asked if I had taken cocaine.

One by one, the doctors walked away from my case, prescribing medication for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, problems I didn’t have.

We turned crisis into opportunity. The universe, we reasoned, was inviting us to live our dream life. Jonathan and I moved to China. We adopted two children. I started a business and wrote a book. Life was a glamorous adventure; I got everything I thought I wanted.

Then, eight years into that perfect life, I had another heart attack. My heart stopped for 10 seconds.

When you count them, 10 seconds isn’t long. My children can’t get their shoes on in 10 seconds. Sometimes it takes 10 seconds for me to remember where I parked the car. But 10 seconds is long enough to see what’s on the other side of life — to feel my grandpa again, to see the light, to find peace.

Those 10 seconds changed everything. After my near-death experience, we moved back to the United States. I gave up my business. I never went back to my old life. I never wanted to.

Because of my condition, I feel an urgency to help my family understand who I am and what I believe in. Shedding old ideas about work and success, I have been able to show them what matters most to me, and I have been present as they explore what matters most for themselves.

This way of life is work. It takes double doses of spirituality, optimism and pragmatism. Every day, we practice. We talk about what life would look like without me, we joke that I am the Health Queen, we pray. Their confidence is my greatest achievement. In our bubble, I’m just a mother and a partner, and for that, I’m both grateful and proud.

Over the years, we have shared more about life and what I have experienced in death. We have learned to accept what is and release what isn’t. We have had time to make plans for this life and also talk openly about wanting to be a family again in the next. After this incarnation, we hope to be hawks.

So far, our luck has stood up; I have recovered from every attack. My heart’s ability to pump blood actually increased after the last five heart attacks. Its ejection fraction went from 47 to 36 to 50. A normal range is 55 to 65. With so many unknowns, there is a lot of room for miracles.

Through the window, I saw the neighbor feeding an impressive congregation of squirrels and birds. Our dog raced to the fence. “Stop barking!” I called out. I rapped on the window to get her attention.

When I yell, my chest tightens. I sense heart attacks long before doctors can. I have learned to trust myself and so I do. I put down my tools, sat on the edge of my daughter’s bed. Heart attacks have shaken me while I was working out, house hunting, sleeping, getting ready for yoga and helping with homework. My heart makes no guarantees.

The tightening across my chest stretched like a rubber band. There was a pinching close to the defibrillator that was implanted near my heart. A new discomfort but not an attack. As soon as my heart relaxed, I returned to selecting pictures.

More than decorating, I was curating my legacy. These images would surround my family the next time I went to the hospital, and they would provide comfort if I didn’t come back. These pictures would become priceless.

“I love you from here to Paris to Ubud,” I say to my children when I put them to bed, calling out places we used to go before I anchored us closer to home. My interests don’t extend so far anymore. I stay with my children until they fall asleep, and, in the morning, they crawl into bed with us. We are so lucky. I wouldn’t give up this intimacy for anything.

To stay with my family, I have tethered myself to new ways of doing things. I have stopped eating and sleeping the way I want. I have exercised more, then less, then not at all. I have learned to rely on doctors more, then less, then not at all. I have hunted for possible cures more, then less, then not at all. What matters most is already in front of me.

This heart has provided complete clarity, become a trusted instrument for focus. Fear is a distraction; love and gratitude are my true purpose. That morning, all I could do was stay clear on what matters most. I picked up the hammer and nail. I could see it come together: a house filled with happy memories, a place we could settle.

Life as A Parent: What Kind of Father Will You Be?

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.”

Humility in Relationships

HUMILITY IN RELATIONSHIPS

Os Hillman

“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.

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