Excerpt From Jan. 17 Newsletter

Here’s an excerpt from my latest newsletter. Please subscribe, folks!

It’s January Jersey. Which means the sky is a greige color that all the designers are putting on their walls.

I know all about griege, because we’re in the middle of a painting project at home. Between being grounded in the house with various medical testing for Ian and a dull spot in between writing projects, I have some time on my hand. I decided that it was time to rent a steamer from Home Depot and tackle the last two rooms in our home that still had the previous owner’s wallpaper on the walls.

So, our bedroom furniture is covered with plastic tarps, and my office is inhospitable, until we can finish the job. When we embarked on this plan, I expected to finish off in a week or two. In reality, we are still a month of weekends away from applying any paint — griege or otherwise – on the walls. 

I have a writing topic on hold. The topic is all approved by an editor, but we’re just waiting for one of the presidential candidates to bring up a specific education topic. The candidate is not cooperating, so I’ve done a little background research and am just waiting. And catching up with my other job, which is housewifery. 

I never planned on being a stay at home parent, who works gigs on the side. I planned on having a prestigious job in the university or a policy think tank. That’s why I wasted most of my twenties in graduate school and finished the PhD. But here am I. Drinking rosé with the soccer moms and spinning away the muffin tops on Monday mornings. 

On most days, that’s just fine. I have time to paint walls, check in on my mom, make sure the college kid has filled out the right forms for next year’s dorm assignments, attend IEP meetings, talk with the lawyer about the guardianship papers, and arrange appointments with a contractor who has to fix the hole in the foundation by the garage. 

Other days, I get impatient with my situation. Freelancers don’t get the choice assignments or get paid very well. I miss teaching college classes, even six years later; though I don’t miss grading papers, which always sucked. I miss the identity of a full time job. 

As a neurotic progressive, I also feel guilty. Others don’t have the option to have a flexible job. I’m able to support my kids, both the special ed and the typical one, so they’re two steps ahead of kids who don’t have a parent like me. Which is totally unfair. In a world that is falling apart, I’m staring at Benjamin Moore paint colors so long that I have actual opinions on Grey Owl grey versus Metropolitan grey. I should be out there in the thick of things, making changes, instead of looking at Pinterest boards. 

I handle the guilt by writing. Writing is a source of guilt, too, because writing is becoming more and more of a rich person’s game; there are fewer and fewer traditional journalism jobs. But it is an effective soap box. I also join local political organizations and progressive parents groups. 

There is a growing parental political movement happening. Parents — okay, mostly women — are showing up at board of ed meetings and state house protests. They’re forming letter writing committees. They’re organizing fundraisers for political candidates. Not all of them are progressive, of course. One group of parents in New Jersey just pushed back against a new vaccination law. Other groups are too focused on changes in our own privileged town, and aren’t advocating for all kids. But there are other parent groups that line up more with my political leanings. 

This situation isn’t getting a lot of attention from the press, because most journalists have full time jobs in the cities. Even the education reporters aren’t showing up to Board of Ed meetings. I am. And so, weirdly enough, being a stay at home parent gives me a professional advantage. Life is funny that way. 

So, on this greige day, I’m working and not working at the same time. At noon, I’ve got a date with Lauren at the hair salon who will make my hair a more uniform red and give me a good Jersey blowout. And we’ll talk. She’ll tell me about her mixed race family and her husband’s contracting hustles. We’ll talk about her middle school son and his struggles in school. I’ll walk out of the salon with sleek red hair and some fodder for half a dozen articles. 

At some point, I’ll figure out how to make more money from all this working and not working, but that’s for another day. 

Having It All, Means Having No Sleep

Helaine Olen writes a great column about Ada Calhoun’s new book, Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis.

…Calhoun’s subject is exhaustion and anxiety, experienced by all too many women who were brought up in the 1970s and 1980s to believe we could somehow “have it all” — domestic harmony and perfection, children and fulfilling, lucrative work that mattered.

It turns out that promise was a fairy tale for the early years of feminism’s second wave. But, as Calhoun recounts, the myth was accompanied by a simultaneous ratcheting up of expectations placed on women, even as government and societal support crumbled. Parenting turned into a vocation, with the result that, even as the number of mothers with jobs has swelled over the decades, mothers of today spend more time with their children than the mothers of 50 years ago. The millions of Gen X women who have given birth in their 30s and 40s have found themselves confronted by the double whammy of needing to care for those children — as the cost of child care has surged — while also caring for older parents. (Let me note here that men, on the other hand, rarely fall for the tripe that they can do it all. Gen Xer Beto O’Rourke claimed his wife, Amy, raised their children “sometimes with my help,” while Andrew Yang, of the same generation, routinely references his wife, Evelyn, “who’s at home with our two boys.”)

My Fitbit measures my sleep. I have never scored higher than a “fair.” Usually, I get a poor. Partially, it’s due to hormones. But when I’m wake up at 2:00am, I find that I’m thinking about the chore list. I’m making lists in my sleep.

I do a lot. I’ve got a various writing projects — some for fun, some for money, some for promotion. I’m managing kids’ issues. Even the college kid still comes with responsibilities, because college has way fewer supports than in the past. It’s terrible to think of our loved ones as ticking time bombs, but our parents will need more help soon.

As Helaine’s article sort of points out, some of this is our fault. Do we really need to putting so much time into parenting? Do we really need cool, but poorly compensated jobs? Why can’t we just admit that we can’t “have it all” and make some compromises?

I still do “want it all” though. I’m not ready to give up yet. So, after an hour of sponging off wallpaper glue off the office walls, mapping out the weekend schedule, and signing up the younger kid for a sports program, I’m heading to the coffee shop to work for a while. All with about five hours of sleep.

Lucky: Excerpt From January 7, 2020 Newsletter

Here’s an excerpt from the last newsletter. (Subscribe, folks!)

January 7, 2020

The new decade has started with a bang here at Apt. 11D. Of course, we don’t actually live in Apt. 11D anymore. We live in an undisclosed location now after learning a while back that one shouldn’t actually name one’s blog after a real life address. Apt. 11D is more of a metaphorical home. But that’s neither here nor there. Let’s just say that things are pretty crazy at home. 

My younger son was diagnosed with epilepsy yesterday after suffering a mild seizure last November. I wrote about the details about the first incident and how we found out the news on the blog. You can read it about it there, if you like. 

Today, I just want to say how fortunate we are. That sounds crazy, right? My poor kid is saddled with autism and epilepsy. He’ll have to take medication for the rest of his life. We’ll be going to more doctor’s appointments and managing medication. Bad news for all, right? 

Well, yes, of course that is true. Ian has handled this news with grace and dignity, and we love him hugely. There’s no doubt that this diagnosis is an added burden on his already complicated life.

At the same time, we know that we’re lucky, because Steve and I can handle our end of the burden without losing our heads. I have a flexible job and work from home. We’re not dependent on my salary to pay the mortgage, so I could stop work entirely for a year to concentrate on Ian’s troubles, if necessary.

Fifteen years ago, when Ian missed the “speaking in full sentences” milestone at age 2, we entered into the world of parenting “kids who don’t fit into neat boxes.” In a yahoo chat group, I asked other parents like me, “how does anybody without an education and time deal with all this stuff?!” It was so overwhelming at that time. Another mom responded, “yes, it’s horrible, but you can’t think about others right now. You have too much on your plate. Just deal with your own problems.” 

So, I can deal with this hurdle. I can give myself the time to process this information and keep myself mentally healthy. I can read up on the latest treatments for epilepsy. I can schedule doctor’s appointments without losing a job. I can manage my other responsibility at home — making sure my college kid has his head on straight, keeping everyone dressed and fed, making sure that the house is repaired and sturdy. I can even maintain my writing job by taking on projects with longer deadlines. 

I am lucky.

Yet, it is still possible to think about the bigger picture. While taking care of our own situation, I can also manage to advocate for those who are struggling to educate and care for family members with disabilities. Those parents, my counterparts in the Bronx and Newark, are always my people. My votes, my political commentary, any power that I have as a writer on the national stage, is always with them in mind. 

Work and Life In Chi-Town

Last Tuesday at around 4:30, I was sitting at my desk studying google maps trying to figure out how to get from O’Hare airport to a hotel in the Loop in the cheapest way possible. I won a scholarship from a journalism group to attend a writers conference in Chicago, which paid for the hotel, airfare, and the conference, but ground transportation was my own responsibility. A cab ride wasn’t going to break our budget, but I like my side of the Quicken budget to be in the black, not the red, so I studied the subways lines.

I happened to look over at Steve’s desk behind me in time to see Ian sloop out of his chair and hit the floor. His eyes were open, but his body was stiff for about five seconds. When he came back to consciousness, he asked why he was on the floor and said that he had image flash through his head before he passed out. He said he thought he was at a New Year’s Eve party. He said that this image had flashed through his head a few times in the past month.

I’ve seen seizures before. When I was a special ed teacher in the Bronx many years ago, I had a student, Shawnee, who would have grand Mal seizures every day in the class. She would shake and tremble for about ten minutes. Ian’s episode wasn’t anything like that, but it still did scream “seizure” to me, so I texted his reading tutor not to come and immediately called his pediatrician and neurologist.

Afterwards he was fine. Went back to his video games and his homework like nothing happened. I was a wreck. I scheduled doctor’s appointments for the following day. I told Steve. I arranged with my sister to help out with one the appointments, because I had my own appointment to get my usual pre-conference haircut and blowout. The cab was going to pick me up to take me to Newark airport on Thursday at 5:30am. If my hair was good, I could just wake up and go. Dinner plans were scrapped, so Steve got a pizza on the way home from the train station.

At the second appointment at the neurologist at 5:00, she said that she didn’t think that Ian should be left alone until we figured out what was going on. So, I arranged coverage of Ian between the end of school, before Steve got home. Again, my sister was enlisted to help. Steve left work early, but couldn’t skip out of work entirely.

The conference itself was good. The topic was the transition from high school to college. Various experts, who hoped to be sources for news articles, gave presentations for two days. We crammed into a stuffy little room at Northwestern and asked questions that were general enough to not show our hands to other journalists in the room.

As I walked through a deserted Newark airport at midnight on Friday, I relaxed for a minute. The adrenaline that had kept me going through those few days was ebbing. My overnight bag dug into my shoulder, because I always overpack when I’m nervous. Next time, I’ll pack less, I promised myself.

But will there be a next time? I’m already long in the tooth for this career. My most recent plan was to do something completely different for a couple of months, and write some long form essays and book proposals that have been percolating for months. I even filled out a job application before Ian’s slump. My sister texted me to say there was a message on the answering machine from a manager of a bookstore.

Plans to work outside the home were shelved, because I need to be available for more doctor’s appointments. I can’t take advantage of family to mind the kid, while I work a minimum wage job for kicks. Hopefully, we can figure out what happened quickly, and then I’ll try again after the holidays.

Over the weekend, I just processed information and recovered from the days of stress. I cancelled plans with friends and nested with family. Jonah came home for the day. I cooked. I boiled down some chicken bones from the freezer and other scraps to make a witch’s brew of soup broth.

I did a couple of chores in the morning yesterday, and then left to pick up Ian at 2:00 for an EEG test. The technician measured Ian’s head and marked up his forehead with a red marker. We assured Ian that those marks were for the suction cups sensors, and there were no plans for brain removal. We sat in a dark room for an hour, as the technician looked for misfires in his brain. We’ll get results today. If the test is inconclusive, he’ll have to wear an electrode cap for two days for better results.

Hopefully, the tests will show that he was just tired or dehydrated. Maybe it was a weird kind of migraine headache. But 30 percent of people with an autistic spectrum disorder also get epilepsy, so we do have to seriously prepare ourselves for a worse case scenario. The worse case scenario isn’t terrible — medication is great these days — but it will be just one more burden on the kid, who already has his share of burdens.

With fingers crossed for a good phone call from the neurologist at 9, I’m making adjustments in work plans. I’ve been writing an essay in my head for the past day, using the scraps and bones of information from the conference, previous articles, and recent experiences. Like my chicken broth, it’s going to take some time for all this to cook and for the flavors to marry. Hopefully, in the next few weeks, Ian will have a clean bill of health and I’ll have an essay or two sealed up in tidy little jars that can be sent to editors.

Will Childcare Policy Lead to Another Mommy War?

When Obama started talking about childcare during the State of the Union last night, the social conservatives on my twittered started grumbling. If Obama was going to hand out money to families with two working parents, would he also give money to families where one parent cares for the children on his/her own? Why was he giving preferences to one form of family over another?

Here’s a sample.

Where Women Work and What Unemployed Women Do

The Upshot is one my first reads of the day. Best new section of the New York Times by far. They had two great articles in the past two days. There is so much data to be unpacked. Loves it.

Yesterday’s article was about the differences in time-use studies between unemployed women and men. There’s a lot of info in that chart, but the main take away is that unemployed men are unhealthy, watch a lot of TV, and spend a lot of time looking for a job. Unemployed women spend most of their time caring for others and doing housework. They are healthier than when they worked.

Today, they have a map of where working women are most common. The upper mid-west and New England have the highest proportion of working women.

These numbers are tough to unpack. Are women unemployed, because they live in wealthy communities that support stay-at-home mothers and have spouses with high paying careers? Or are they full time parents, because the obstacles to work are too high? Are they caring for elementary aged children with relative ease or are they caring for multiple aging adults and special needs kids?

If unemployed women have a full range of choices and are financially affluent, then there doesn’t seem to be a problem. Choices were freely and happily made. If unemployed women are facing the same dismal job market as men and can’t afford childcare or eldercare, then there’s a real problem. The fact that the employment of women has a geographic pattern makes me think that childcare policies and job opportunities are major issues. The Upper Midwest and New England have more progressive policies for parents.

The Impact of Low Investment in Family-Friendly Policies

Compared to European countries, the United States has minimal investment in child care programs and maternity leave policies. All this means, that the U.S. has fewer women who stay in the workforce after they have children. That’s not news. What is news is that the percentage of prime aged women in the workforce has declined dramatically in the past few years. “After climbing for six decades, the percentage of women in the American work force peaked in 1999, at 74 percent for women between 25 and 54. It has fallen since, to 69 percent today.”

The sharpest drop in labor participation is among low skilled, unmarried mothers, but there has also been a dip in higher skilled, married women, too.

It’s hard to work when you have kids. Schools are not set up for working parents. Maternity leave policies are too short. Child care is insanely expensive. If a child has special needs, then the system is even more hostile.

There is no urgency to make reforms in an economy with a 16 percent unemployment rate for men. I think that we’re going to see a lot more small businesses and entrepreneurial work by the higher skilled women in the next decade. Lower skilled women are going to work in the shadows for extremely low wages. Sadly, they are lining up at my dad’s food pantry three hours before opening time in the cold.