Tagged Families and Family Life

The Grizzly in the Purple Pants

Ties

The Grizzly in the Purple Pants

My mom and stepdad wanted me to be more manly. In Cub Scouts, I just wanted to make the troop cupcakes.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Jan. 15, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Russell Lee spat a wad of snuff into a Planters peanuts can. We sat at a picnic table in his backyard, next to the railroad tracks. He jackhammered the ground with his right leg.

“Your mom’s having an affair,” said Russ, my mother’s husband.

“What’re you talking about?” I stared at his face — grayed muttonchops against skin bronzed from working under the Texas sun. Hummingbirds buzzed past us, sucking sugar water from the cherry-red feeder. I wanted to crush them.

Russ struggled against tears. “And she has AIDS. I have proof.”

His accusation rang false, but adults held secrets. Then 21, I had mine.

I had met Russell Lee even before my mom did. When I was 5, my uncle took me to visit one of his ailing relatives. In walked a brawny guy carrying a motorcycle helmet and wearing purple pants. His thinning black hair was long and curly.

I wondered if he was a hippie. I’d seen ones on TV but never in real life.

When I was 6, my father, a suit-and-tie-wearing principal, descended into psychosis from abusing alcohol and speed. My mother, Nelda, a petite blonde schoolteacher, escaped with me when the death threats became body blows and a brandished .38.

Mom filed for divorce. The court forbade my father from future contact. We never saw him again.

Three months later, my mom’s sister arranged a blind date with one of her in-laws. He turned out to be Russell Lee, the man in the purple pants.

Mom loved that Russ had overcome life obstacles. One-quarter Cherokee, he was the last of 12 kids in an evangelical family of sharecroppers in the Ozarks. His mother died when he was 7. At 14, Russ quit middle school. He married four years later, had two kids, and by 45 had been divorced for a decade.

Within six weeks, he and my mom married. We moved from a middle-class life in conservative San Antonio to a duplex covered in psychedelic posters in liberal Austin.

My mother told me that Russ was my father now, so I should call him Dad.

I was a first grader and did as told but felt like a liar. Russell and I had met only four times.

He was an avid outdoorsman. I loved books and music. Scrawny, blond and asthmatic, I embodied my stepfather’s opposite, an albino salamander next to a grizzly bear.

Mom wanted me to be more like normal boys. She and her husband decided to remold me.

Cub Scouts was first. I kept offering to make the troop cupcakes.

They redoubled their efforts.

Every boy should know how to hunt and fish, Russ said. I wanted to play Scrabble, but he took me fishing. I threw the pole into the water. He had me shoot a rifle at a coffee can. I missed. “The only ones who’ll be safe are the deer,” he said, shaking his head.

Over time, the relationship with my stepdad became more contentious. Russ grew irate when I was elected student council president my junior year, saying the position interfered with my J.C. Penney janitor job.

He wanted me to quit, but I argued that the position might help me with college scholarships. Nelda and Russ had no money. I negotiated a compromise. “I won’t run again next year.”

But my plan was to run for senior class officer.

The next fall, we went to dinner at a relative’s house. Our hostess hugged me. “The ladies at church say you were elected class president. Congratulations!”

My stepdad smacked his fist against his thigh. “You promised me!” He didn’t look at me during the meal.

“You lied! Now you gotta quit,” he yelled, later in the car.

I startled myself when I said “no.”

He wanted me to move out, but my mother begged for me to be able to stay. I avoided him, going into their home just to sleep.

Each semester of high school, Russ insisted I take an auto repair class. I always stalled, promising “later.”

Every man should know how to work on his car, he said.

Before my last semester, Russell brought up the mechanics’ course again.

The only way I could fit it into my schedule was by dropping calculus, physics and AP English, so I refused.

“Don’t you disrespect—”

“I’m not meant for manual labor, like you!” I shouted. “I have a brain!”

“Get out.”

I stuffed my backpack.

“School ends soon. Let him stay until then,” mom pleaded.

Russ acquiesced, but skipped my graduation.

I moved out. When Russell and I saw each other at family events, we’d shake hands for show but keep our distance.

In my junior year of college, Russ was diagnosed with lung cancer. After he’d recovered from surgery, Nelda moved into a motel. My stepfather stayed at the house by the railroad tracks.

When my mom asked me to go see him, I agreed — as a favor to her.

It was during that visit he announced that my mother had AIDS, and that she had been cheating on him with the train engineers.

“When the horn blows, it’s a signal.” He believed my mother was meeting the railroad staff for trysts in a nearby abandoned shack.

“The tracks bend there,” I said, pointing. “The horns are warnings.”

He didn’t believe me. “There’s proof she has AIDS in the shack,” he said.

I crossed the tracks and went inside. “Nelda has AIDS” was spray-painted on a wall. But I recognized Russ’s handwriting. His capital “I” looked like a tadpole swallowing its tail.

When I called my mom, she cried. “He kept accusing me of grotesque sexual infidelity. I couldn’t take it.”

Because of our history of emotional distance, I wasn’t wounded by Russ’s break with reality. He’d been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when I was in my teens. But mom hid the depth of his mental illness from me.

After his lung surgery, he’d stopped taking his meds. Mental illness made his greatest fear appear true: Nelda didn’t love him.

Witnessing the extent of his disorder made me kinder. I started visiting my stepdad on weekends. We convinced him to visit his psychiatrist, who recalibrated his medications. Nelda and Russ reconciled.

Though I’d come to understand him, it took me the better part of a decade to allow myself to trust him — and my mother — with my secret. At 30, I told them I was gay.

“Never made any difference to me,” Russ said.

My jaw hit the floor.

“He’s known since you were 16,” Nelda said. “A boy telephoned. Russ went to get you. You fainted.” I remembered the phone call, but hadn’t realized they did, too. A guy from Nebraska I had a crush on had called long-distance. We’d met at student council camp and I’d been desperate for him to like me.

She paused. “It was hard for me, but he says you were born this way.”

So, Russell Lee had been my secret ally all along.

When I was 45, he fractured a hip, had a heart attack and went into a coma. That night, the nurses told Nelda she had to leave. She hugged Russ. Though he was unconscious, his arm pulled her closer.

I flew back to Texas from New York. “There’s little chance for recovery,” a doctor said. We signed the papers to unplug the respirator.

The morning of his funeral, I walked outside. A hummingbird hovered near my face.

“If I could choose anyone in the world as my dad, I’d choose you,” I whispered. The tiny creature floated a moment longer. Then, it darted away.


Court Stroud lives in New York City, where he’s working on a book.

Zoom Funeral Tips

How to Hold a Virtual Memorial Service

A virtual memorial offers several advantages: It’s easy for distant guests to attend, and you can record it.

Credit…Derek Abella

  • Jan. 14, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

When my 80-year-old father recently died, coronavirus restrictions meant that our family, like many others, could not safely gather for a funeral. My mother, brother and sister-in-law in New York, along with me in Berkeley, Calif., hastily organized a memorial service on Zoom.

What could have been a disaster or fodder for an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” ended up being incredibly moving. Rather than diminishing the experience or getting in the way, videoconferencing facilitated an event filled with emotion, humor and love. During a difficult time for our family — in a devastating year for the entire world — that was an unexpected blessing.

Despite our fatigue with remote work meetings, we all were struck by how well-suited it turned out to be for a memorial.

Families who are opting for video memorials are probably doing so because of pandemic restrictions limiting the number of people who can attend an indoor gathering. Since you can join a virtual event from anywhere — and with minimal planning — more people are likely to attend than if they needed to travel to an in-person event.

In our case, the immediate family was on both coasts, one grandchild was in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the rabbi, Jeff Salkin of Temple Israel West Palm Beach, a longtime friend and former student of my dad, was in Florida.

With a videoconferencing service, you can style your memorial as you like. While we did not include photos, videos or music, nothing prevents you from doing so. In addition, a virtual memorial costs much less than an in-person event, where you’d have to pay for the brick-and-mortar venue and perhaps catered food. And you can easily record the event to share and save for posterity.

A virtual memorial also might accommodate more speakers than an in-person event. Ours began with moving eulogies by Rabbi Salkin, followed by my brother and me, then morphed into an impromptu shiva, as numerous guests offered wonderful remembrances and reflections about my dad. The event lasted two and a half hours; many people remained the entire time.

My father’s was not Rabbi Salkin’s first Zoom memorial service. He was skeptical before he led a Zoom gathering after his stepmother died of Covid-19 in April.

“I feared that such funerals would be alienating,” he said. “I was wrong. Wi-Fi carries the love quite effectively. In person, you can hold people’s hands and embrace them. On Zoom, it’s more about holding people’s eyes and simply being with them, in every way that matters.”

At the beginning of lockdown, Zoom ran into security issues. As the technology writer Brian X. Chen detailed in a column in April, weak privacy protections resulted in uninvited “Zoombombers” crashing meetings in embarrassing fashion.

That happened when my kids’ school district started distance learning: A nude man entered a virtual class and used racial slurs. It was a lesson for our family to be sure our event was password protected.

Even Jonathan Leitschuh, a software engineer and security researcher who identified flaws in Zoom’s security protocols that allowed hackers to take over Mac users’ webcams in 2019, turned to Zoom to plan a funeral for his mother who died in April.

“I went in terrified about a Zoombombing,” Mr. Leitschuh said. “I’d seen the same media coverage everyone else did.” But he said: “For this use case, I wasn’t aware of a better platform.”

There are several alternatives to Zoom, including Google Meet, Skype and GoTo Meeting, which may offer enhanced security protections and come with their own inherent trade-offs.

Funeral homes are also offering livestreamed services, in conjunction with limited in-person memorials. Chris Robinson, a fourth-generation funeral director in Easley, S.C., and spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, said his funeral home has been livestreaming services via its website, allowing anyone to attend without the need to download software or register for a videoconferencing platform.

“It’s important to go ahead and put together a virtual service,” he said, “rather than wait until the pandemic is over, because it could be a long time, and delaying indefinitely can be an ongoing trauma.”

In my family’s case, we were truly impressed by how videoconferencing, which can be so enervating in our daily work lives, enabled us to celebrate my dad’s full life in a beautiful and moving way.

If you have to arrange a memorial service on a video platform, here are some tips.

Go Pro

We purchased a one-month subscription to Zoom Pro (right now it’s $14.99 a month and you can cancel at any time). It allows for up to 100 participants (other plans allow for more, at additional cost), with unlimited meeting time, and stores a recording in the cloud. We’re glad we did. If we had had to limit the time of the event, we would have missed many moving contributions from participants.

Identify Someone to Handle Logistics

Because I created the account, I was the de facto meeting host. In hindsight I wish I had handed the role to my 17-year-old daughter, a digital native. Responsibilities include admitting people from the waiting room; muting all mics as appropriate; unmuting the officiant or other speakers; troubleshooting technical issues; providing assistance to guests; and passing messages along to family members in the chat box. Introduce the tech host at the beginning of the service, so people know whom to contact for help.

Familiarize Yourself With Platform Settings

The back end of video platforms have settings that can be tricky if you are new to them, especially if it is an emotional event. The host can go through the “toggle” switches in advance to figure out how to mute people upon entry or enable the waiting room, a security feature that keeps guests in a queue until the host admits them.

Who Will Lead?

Our virtual memorial succeeded, in part, because the rabbi wasn’t thrown off by the difficulties inexperienced Zoomers had muting themselves at the start. When the service segued into the shiva, my mother moderated — greeting people and making sure everyone who wanted to offer a remembrance had the chance to do so.

Plan a Dry Run to Anticipate Issues

Schedule one or more short practice sessions to work out kinks and make sure you’re on the same page about various roles. Some participants at our event were complete Zoom novices, fearful of missing the eulogy, and self-conscious about holding up the program as they attempted to mute as requested. We recommend offering tips to guests about logging on and off; muting and unmuting; switching screen views; and using the chat function — either along with the invitation, or on request ahead of the event. Don’t assume that everyone will be joining with up-to-date devices.

Invitations

We sent an email to notify friends and relatives of my dad’s death and of the Zoom event, including a link and password. Each of our family members compiled and distributed our own lists. You can also use Zoom to send email invitations.

You’re on TV (Sort of)

Without being obsessive, think about your on-screen appearance, makeup, lighting, camera height and angle and backdrop.

Beware of Tech Gremlins

While we were spared technical disruptions, the specter lurked in our minds. Many parts of the country experienced power outages this summer, and we’ve all had our internet connections go down or struggled with microphones and screens that freeze at just the wrong time. Although impossible to predict, be mindful of what could go wrong and how you’d handle it.

Ultimately, you want to make sure the virtual event accomplishes the same things an in-person funeral or memorial service would, honoring the life of the deceased and comforting the survivors. As it turned out, many more of my parents’ circle — friends and family in their 70s and 80s — were able to attend the funeral than would have been able to, even without Covid restrictions. Likewise, more people spoke than would have stepped to the lectern at an in-person funeral service. And the video we have is a blessing, which will enable my family to keep my father’s memory alive and hold on to vivid memories of those who so loved him.

Steven Birenbaum is senior communications officer at the California Health Care Foundation in Oakland, Calif.


When I Was Labeled a ‘Troubled’ Teen, I Obliged

The author in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York in 2007, during his second stay in a wilderness therapy program. 
The author in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York in 2007, during his second stay in a wilderness therapy program. Credit…via Kenneth R. Rosen

Voices

When I Was Labeled a ‘Troubled’ Teen, I Obliged

I was sent to three “tough love” programs meant to redirect me. Trying to run away from one made me feel that I had no choice but to become what I had been told I was.

The author in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York in 2007, during his second stay in a wilderness therapy program. Credit…via Kenneth R. Rosen

Kenneth R. Rosen

  • Jan. 12, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

All I heard was rain, my thumping heart harmonizing with the tempo of the tempest outside. I waited for the night watchman’s light to sweep over my bunk. He disappeared into the hallway, into the next room of clients who he noted to himself were present and asleep and so moved to the next room.

When he entered another room, I hurried behind him, crouching, to the central alcove, from where I made my escape. My plan included a list — backpack, peanut butter, headlight, rain gear, stolen MapQuest printouts, knife — and a destination, Boston. I’d run to an unfamiliar city, across a state to which I’d been taken against my will, to meet a future I could not be certain was any better. The rain seemed less like a portent, more an encouragement, as if each wind gust carried with its rivulets the words, It’s your time. They’ll never find you. Go now.

They were the escorts. Transporters. Redirection specialists. They, usually two men who take unsuspecting teenagers in the middle of the night to therapeutic programs across the country, went by different names. I was certain they were coming for me. They had come for me several months before the night of my escape, in late winter 2007, at the request of my parents who saw no other way to set me straight. My mom and dad hired the men, after consulting with school officials, psychologists and an education consultant, to take me from my bed and to deliver me like a wasted soul to an experiential therapy program in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. They believed they were practicing “tough love,” making the difficult choice to send their child away to forge a better future away from home.

Some of the gear the group carried through remote stretches of New York State. 
Some of the gear the group carried through remote stretches of New York State. Credit…Kenneth R. Rosen

From New York I’d go on to a program in Massachusetts. I did not know it then, but I’d become one of the tens of thousands of “troubled” or “at-risk” teenagers carted off to these unregulated, private industries each year.

The years leading up to my being taken and the eventual break out is now a blur of misanthropy. I was reckless, taking my mom’s car out for joy rides without permission, skipping class, distrusting authority figures like the high school principal and local municipal authorities sent to curb my behavior, to put me back on a path more, how should we say, normal.

In the nearly 12 months I’d spend between the experiential wilderness therapy program (twice), a therapeutic boarding school in Massachusetts and a residential treatment center on a ranch in Utah, I lived up to the designation of a troubled teen. The programs were what the media called part of a tough love movement, which flourished in the early aughts but still exists today.

The Academy at Swift River, a former therapeutic boarding school for troubled children, in Cummington, Mass., in spring 2007. The author spent months here before trying to escape, after which he was sent to a remote ranch in Southern Utah.Credit…Kenneth R. Rosen

I’d return that type of love to my parents, ignoring their written letters, our only form of communication, vetted and censored by my “therapists.” I felt betrayed and discarded. They pleaded with me to accept the programs and to do my best to succeed in them. It felt like they wanted me gone. Really, I was being groomed for institutionalization. The juvenile and criminal justice systems the programs ventured to save me from instead prepared me for adult incarceration. By the end of my time away I recognized a bliss associated with handcuffs. Lockup and lockdown meant the familiarity of strip searches, drug tests, isolation cells and men who handled me like I was worthless: hallmarks of the programs that became synonymous with the word homebound.

But losing any self-actualization and inner-direction came later. On the night of my escape, I still believed I held some agency over my future, shrouded in uncertainty though it was. What would I do in Boston? I didn’t care. How would I earn money? Where would I stay? I would figure it out once I was far away from this place.

My parents were no longer trustworthy. They were part of the growing number of my adversaries working to keep me from personal liberties. At the program I was restricted access to food. I was allowed only communication with my parents, not my friends back home. If I chose not to respond to my parents, I would also be cut off from my peers in the programs. Either way, I’d lose.

The night the author tried to run away from the Academy at Swift River, he started from this alcove.Credit…Kenneth R. Rosen

I was given prescription medication to ease my anxiety and depression, which left me hollow and numb. I was made to answer questions about my life and emotions until, I was told, I got them right, framing things in a way the program and therapists felt more accurately told a story about my deviance that I then internalized. My journals were confiscated, their private contents used against me in “therapy sessions.”

I wasn’t troubled or bad. I was alone, all the angst and hormonal shifts of adolescence compounded and weaponized against me. I was backed into a corner and told to change, made to think I’d become reproachable and unwanted. What they wanted from me — to be happy, well-adjusted, open to therapy and the mind-numbing boredom I associated with schooling — seemed a betrayal of the very thing they wanted me to be: myself.

Meanwhile, I had broken a number of rules at the school — “cheeking” medication, drinking hand sanitizer, fraternizing with girls. I was certain then, by the fourth month at the program, that I was doomed for another “transport.” Then one night they came.

I’d been waiting, staring deep into the white ceiling overhead, my inability to sleep soundly forever cemented. Before I could jump down from the top bunk bed, the escorts announced that they were there for a different boy, my roommate. He stood from his bed, his head hanging. He pulled a pre-packed suitcase from underneath his bed (we all had our own type of go-bag), gave a weak smile, shrugged, told me he’d see me again, however unlikely, and left with the men flanking him out the door, choosing to go, as they called it, the “easy way.” He had already gone the “hard way.”

Picked off. Kidnapped. Taken. Call it what you wish, but trying to sleep each night with the notion that a pair of strangers could come to lift you from your bed, whether your actions were deserving of this treatment or not, haunts me, haunts thousands. Having watched my roommate get taken was surreal. It made real for the first time what had happened to me, brought into context that it was happening to others, and eventually sold me on my own desire to flee. I would not wait to be taken. I had to get out. No one would take me. I would lead myself away.

Now, standing outside the central alcove with my back to the doorways of the program, I stared into the fields of the Berkshire mountains, another expanse of seclusion and remove, the rain washing over me in blinding sheets. I bent into the storm, leaning into the wind that soon turned, pushed at my back, leading me away from this place into the deep, heaving thicket at the far end of the program’s property.

The author’s room at the academy in spring 2007. Sometimes the boys played Monopoly at night in the bathroom, seeking a rare opportunity for unsupervised recreation. Credit…Kenneth R. Rosen

I vaulted a fence and tore my rain pants. Water and a cold breeze swept into the tear. I began to shiver. Boston seemed farther than ever, the return to my previous life an impossibility. My mother once told me “to strive, to seek, to find, and never to yield,” cribbed from the Tennyson poem. But yield I would, turning around and greeting my future and any hope I had for making it my own. I was told I was troubled and believed it and ran because that’s what bad kids did.

I unceremoniously turned myself in to the night watchman because I had lost all strength to continue being bad. I wanted to be good, loved. It was as much a desire to get away that drove me from the program as it was a display of disapprobation and the final displacement of my waning emotional strength. I would fold into the programs, accepting that if I were to change it would be by a force better accepted than rejected, one that had overpowered and broken me into a shell of my former self.

Those programs are now a distant memory, but the contours of those inescapable feelings of rejection and dismissal, of living up to the expectations held by others and not myself, follow me. When I find the energy to keep those memories from chaining me to a different person, a different time, I do my best never to yield.

Kenneth R. Rosen is the author, most recently, of “Troubled: The Failed Promise of America’s Behavioral Treatment Programs.”

Juggling My Children, Their Alcoholic Sitter and My Own Sobriety

Ties

Juggling My Children, Their Alcoholic Sitter and My Own Sobriety

The babysitter says she has nine days sober, but we all lie, every addict, every alcoholic.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Jan. 8, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Tonight I left my children with our longtime babysitter, who claims she is nine days sober, but is possibly drunk or high.

At the very least, she is exhausted — the kind of exhausted that seeps into your bones and calcifies. I am leaving my children with her because I trust her. Four years, she has cared for my children. She has made them paper crowns and cardboard castles, bathed them and sung them to sleep. She and I have lunched and sipped tea. Together, we have summited mountains of paperwork to secure her health insurance, a new car, a new apartment.

I know her, I trust her. This is the mantra I repeat to myself from my office upstairs, where I am listening to every thump and bump and giggle below.

I am in the house. I didn’t leave. It’s the middle of a pandemic; no one leaves anymore. That’s how I know my children will be alive when I finish working. But as the night goes on, I start checking the baby monitor, because my children are not in bed and it is after 8 o’clock, after bedtime, late and getting later. When they finally appear — my 5-year-old daughter doing a cartwheel, my 3-year-old son dragging his blankies, the babysitter, alert and smiling — I release a breath I had not realized I was holding.

How many days of sobriety do you need to babysit? To be trustworthy? Seven days? Thirty days? Ninety days? Conventional wisdom holds that the physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal — the nausea and sweating, the shaking and disorientation — usually subside in three to five days.

The babysitter says she has nine days sober, but we all lie, every addict, every alcoholic. I detoxed in the hospital’s drunk tank. On day two of sobriety, I had a seizure. On day six, I had a panic attack. On day nine, I could put on my own pants, barely.

But the struggle doesn’t end with the physical. It’s mental. The misery of protracted withdrawal — dysphoria, depression, irritability — can drag on for weeks. Twelve-step programs refer to this as “the monkey on your back,” because the cravings weigh on you, pick at you, natter in your ear about how much more bearable this conference call, this meal, this round of hide-and-seek might be with a drink. My first sponsor insisted I find a job and keep busy, which I did, and I stayed sober.

Tonight, I’m paying it forward. I am giving the babysitter a job. I am keeping her busy. I am hoping she stays sober.

But what if I weren’t an alcoholic? Would I have asked her to leave? Would I have said I’m not comfortable, and sent her away? This babysitter has become something more akin to family. She has told me stories of being dragged through her childhood like a fiberglass boat through the shallows: a father who left, a mother who did her best, a grim foster care placement, and the briny scrape of countless other dangers, both visible and not. This babysitter — whose heart is miraculously intact despite the damage it has endured, including a recent brush with death and viral cardiomyopathy — could I have asked her to leave?

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says she should stay. Being of use is important, it says. The fellowship of another alcoholic is crucial, it says. Still, I wish she hadn’t confessed. I wish she hadn’t told me over the kitchen island, in front of the children as they were eating spaghetti, as they were eating her every word, saving their questions for the morning when I know they will ask me, What is drinking? What is sober? Why is her face so fluffy?

They do not know what it is to be bloated. They do not understand edema or addiction. They have never seen me drink alcohol, not once, not ever. I will have to explain it to them. They share my blood, so it’s possible that this thing, this alcoholic affliction may be metastasizing in them, even now, as they lie in their beds, chattering back and forth. I will have to explain at least part of it to them in the morning.

Someday they will want to know all of it. How I stopped drinking. How I writhed as the alcohol and dope leached out of my system. How I was dry. For years I was dry, like a desert, like the air in winter, like a pile of ash. Angry. Pimpled. Thirsty. That first year, I locked myself away in a halfway house where I learned how to shower, how to clean a toilet, how to cook spaghetti, how to wash a dish, how to make a bed, why you should care about making your bed. And AA meetings every day. For three years, every day. I had the Big Book nearly memorized — the acceptance passage, the serenity prayer, How It Works, the steps and traditions. I remember so little now.

I’ve been sober 18 years, so long I don’t even think about drinking and drugs anymore. Not really, anyway. Not often. Definitely not every day. But once in a while, maybe out at dinner with friends, when someone orders a red wine, or a beer, or a vodka tonic.

Vodka. I’d like seven vodka tonics. I’d like to slip inside a bottle of vodka, to bathe in it, to slosh, just for the night, just for a little while.

That’s how I know my addiction is still there, still lurking, still hungry. After 18 years it’s probably ravenous, but it’s not starving. Starvation is something you die of, and addiction cannot be killed. You can’t excise or eradicate it. You have to contain it. Dam it. Barricade it. Even then, it whispers. Through whatever levees you erect, it gurgles. It splashes out a Morse code of desire. You become a certain kind of deaf, a certain level of numb, all the time, every day. That’s the work. That is how you progress from drunk, to dry drunk, to sober human. You’ll never be just human. You’ll always be a sober human — a person almost, but not quite.

My babysitter has nine days sober. When she tells me, she says how proud she is. I have given her my children for the night. When I go downstairs, they will be asleep, or will be in bed contemplating going to sleep. She and I will talk. I will tell her what it was like, what happened, what it’s like today. I will tell her half-truths — not even. She will tell me what it is like for her right now, today, with her nine days sober. I will believe half of what she says — not even.

Tomorrow night, she will watch my children again. She will hold them, and her soon-to-be 10 days, as tightly as she is able. I know her, I trust her. She will keep the children as safe as she knows how. I pray their laughter and shrieks and glee will keep her safe in return. These are the things alcoholics do for each other. These are the things that keep us sober. These are the things I hope someone would do for my children, should they need it.


Sarah Twombly is a writer and mother to two young children.

How to Design Your 2020 Holiday Reboot

How to Design Your 2020 Holiday Reboot

It may not be the perfect storybook holiday, but it rarely is. Why not use this year to reset and create your own traditions?

Credit…Cristina Spanò

  • Dec. 22, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

Like everything else this year, the Covid-19 pandemic has turned the holiday season on its head, thanks in part to restrictions on travel and gatherings.

For some, the idea of forgoing their annual holiday traditions is upsetting, especially given the difficulty of this year. But for others, who may find the usual holiday rituals stressful at best and triggering at worst, it may come as a relief. Instead of making their annual “guilt trip” home for the holidays, they’re able to use this year to reset and create their own traditions.

I talked to experts about the role traditions play in our lives and how to make the most of the nontraditional 2020 holiday season. Here’s what they had to say.

Why do traditions matter?

Why humans care so much about traditions and rituals has been the focus of Dimitris Xygalatas’s career. “It’s especially puzzling because I’ve asked thousands of people why their rituals are important to them,” said Dr. Xygalatas, an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut, “and the most common response is to look at you and say, ‘What do you mean, it’s just what I do,’ or ‘I don’t know — that’s just our tradition.’”

After two decades researching this topic, Dr. Xygalatas says that like others in his field, he has found that traditions and rituals serve important functions on both personal and social levels. “On the personal level, those rituals or traditions provide meaning in our lives by giving us a sense of structure and familiarity,” he explains. “And on the group level, they help shape our collective identities, and find the sense of belonging and cohesion within our groups.”

According to Marissa King, a professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, our commitment to holiday rituals also stems from the fact that human beings are exceptionally predictable, with many of our behaviors “guided by inertia” and an inherent need for social order and stability. “If you think about why we have rituals — whether that’s from going to get a tree, or doing an office Secret Santa — it’s really a way of reaffirming our collective identity and shared values,” Dr. King said.

Rituals around this time of year — specifically, the winter solstice — have been around for millenniums. “For as long as humans have been around, we’ve been aware of changing seasons, and the winter — in whatever hemisphere you’re in — marks a new year,” said Pam Frese, a cultural anthropologist and professor at The College of Wooster. In other words, our urge to observe or celebrate the passage of time each year in December predates any modern version of the holidays and our desire for structure and being part of a collective identity has kept the traditions alive since.

In his own research — both in the field and the lab — Dr. Xygalatas and his team have found that when people are stressed, they perform more ritualized actions. And after measuring their physiological responses, they observed that those who participated in more collective rituals tended to have lower cortisol levels and reduced levels of anxiety.

Unfortunately, this presents a challenge for us in 2020, living through a pandemic. “At the moment when we need them the most, that’s when we have the least access to those cultural typologies that we use to soothe our anxiety,” Dr. Xygalatas says.

This also offers insight into why, despite warnings and requests from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other infectious disease experts to stay home, some people are flouting the recommendations and traveling to visit family and friends for the holidays — something Dr. Xygalatas says is itself telling. “This is one way in which you see how important rituals are to us,” he explains. “There are a lot of people risking their lives to take part in them.”

Is it Time for a Reset?

Not everyone shares this enthusiasm for the holidays and their accompanying rituals. In fact for some, holiday traditions can feel more like entrapment than something to celebrate, according to Dr. King.

The good news, she says, is that this year we have the chance to reconceptualize the holidays, finding new ways to recreate stability and a sense of belonging by starting our own traditions. For example, if you’ve lost someone close to you recently and were dreading certain holiday activities because it puts a spotlight on their absence, Dr. King says we can use the unusual 2020 holiday season to our advantage.

“I think there’s an opportunity right now for us all to have that suspended reality, and create our own traditions based on what might feel more comfortable,” she explains. “Oddly, I think — particularly if you’ve had hard holiday experiences — they may, in some ways, be more authentic.”

Of course, you don’t need to have suffered to want to start your own traditions. For instance, many people in their 30s and 40s who now have families of their own may still feel obligated to travel to their hometown each year and recreate the holidays of their childhood. While this may keep their parents happy, it also makes it more difficult for them to create traditions as their own family unit.

Take inventory of family traditions

Communication tools like Zoom and FaceTime provide us with opportunities for virtual visits with family and friends that didn’t exist on such a widespread level even a decade ago. But 2020 has not only taught us how convenient it can be to have the technology that allows you to see loved ones face-to-face: we’ve also learned that using it can be exhausting.

Rather than attempting to recreate your family’s entire holiday agenda on Zoom, Dr. Eugene Beresin, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, recommends first taking an inventory of your typical traditions, and determining which make the most sense to continue remotely. This way you can devote your time and energy to the activities best suited for virtual participation.

This is also your chance to create new holiday traditions, like a virtual family game night or a remote karaoke party (where holiday songs are not mandatory). “You can invent tradition,” Dr. Frese says. “Lots of people do this. What makes it a tradition is passing it on and keeping it active every year.”

Cook together, virtually

There’s a reason so many people consider holiday meals to be among their favorites of the year: food tastes better when it’s connected to a ritual. “Our taste is shaped by our subjective experiences, and this is part of it,” Dr. Xygalatas explains. “On holidays, it might include the fact that you have taken part in the preparations, or the long wait, or all the bells and whistles that surround the ceremony. But mostly it’s because of the importance we attribute to the ceremony itself.”

And while having various members of your family gather together online to virtually share a meal can be nice, Dr. Xygalatas recommends taking it one step further. “Don’t just do the eating part: do the cooking part online, too,” he says. “Get a sense of actual, active participation in the preparation of food and decorations even. Maybe livestream the whole day.” This way, even if your version of your family’s signature casserole doesn’t look exactly like your cousin’s, the act of preparing the dish together might improve how it tastes.

Share family stories

Dr. Beresin suggests making a point of including family stories in your celebrations this year. “Our brains are wired for narratives,” he explains, adding that if no stories come to mind, you can start by looking through old photo albums. And while everyone responds to funny memories — like the year the dog knocked over the Christmas tree — Dr. Beresin says that tales of resilience can be especially beneficial for children, particularly this year.

“Those kinds of narratives are super important to make a deeper connection with the family, and to help kids realize that sometimes we get stronger when we go through hard times,” he said.

And if your family is still living off the same four stories from the Great Depression or World War II, remind them that in years to come, they’ll be able to reminisce about the year they celebrated the holidays during a pandemic.

And don’t forget to document this year’s celebrations: They are going to be great material for future generations.

Teaching My Kids to Drive While Black

Ties

Teaching My Kids to Drive While Black

I’ve raised them to be confident and to advocate for themselves. Now here I was saying, don’t do it with the police.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Dec. 18, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

There was lightning, thunder and heavy rain the recent day I accompanied my 18-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter to get their driver’s licenses in Austin, Texas.

I wish I could say I thought nothing more of the passing storm. But the air felt moody and foreboding, as if it was urging my Black family to turn around, go home, lock our door and run the clock back to when my kids were little and couldn’t go anywhere without me. To when I did not imagine that any routine police interaction might play out as horrifyingly as it did in the cases of Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Philando Castile and others.

I kept my grim thoughts to myself because my children were already beyond excited to achieve this belated milestone after the many disappointments of a pandemic year. I did not want to be the cause of another, so on we went. Neither complained about the almost three-hour wait at the D.M.V., thanks to pandemic backlog. Both grinned ear-to-ear as they showed me their new licenses. I smiled back at them and meant it. They were now officially young adults. I refused to let what might happen to them dampen what had indeed happened.

I’d once read that teenage drivers need about 1,000 hours behind the wheel before they’re truly ready to go solo. Between boarding school, summer excursions and shared custody, my kids were never in any one place long enough to make a consistent go at learning to drive, much less for me to teach them as well as I wanted to. Then they came home to me because the pandemic shut down their high school and college for the rest of the school year.

One of the few upsides of having their academic and social lives limited to screens, and the roads near empty, was that there was finally enough time for them to get in a lot of driving hours. They practiced the right speed in residential neighborhoods, learned who goes first at a four-way stop sign if two cars arrive at once and braved getting on and off the two major highways that define Austin. Their confidence grew as spring rounded into the heady promise of summer.

But no amount of confidence behind the wheel can change my children’s maple syrup-colored skin, even if they wanted to — and they don’t. All the self-love lessons I’ve been instilling since birth have taken root and blossomed mightily.

Also blossoming mightily has been my fear of the ultimate ugly, of their untimely, unjustifiable deaths.

I began emphasizing things I thought might help keep them safe on the road when they were away from me. “YOU,” I told them, “do NOT have the luxury of speeding. Or joy riding. You, yes you, must pay attention. ALL the time!”

A friend recently went through the same D.M.V. ritual with her son. She and I say the same things, “No drinking and driving, no texting and driving, don’t fiddle with your music when you are changing lanes.” We both worry because driving at this age is the cause of many deaths. But where our shared concern stops, I must continue with lessons for Black children only. I’ve realized I feel secure only when my kids are home for the night, wherever they are, no matter their age.

Meanwhile, I wondered, what can Black people do without fear? When can we let go? When do my kids get to be just kids like their white friends? Sleeping; jogging; walking; wearing that teenage staple, the hoodie; heading home from a bachelor party; and leaving church have cost Black people their lives.

As they learned to give more gas going uphill and to always use their indicators, I tried pushing away the bird watcher incident in Central Park; and thoughts of the San Francisco homeowner whose neighbors insisted he didn’t live there, was illegally painting a Black Lives Matter sign, and called the police. My heart aches with each new incident, with unending, rolling waves of sorrow. I come up from one and another pulls me right back under.

I’ve drilled them on what to say: “Yes, officer. No, officer.” And with what to do: Turn your music off, especially if it’s rap; call me; start a recording on your phone before the officer gets to the car; put your hands on the steering wheel and keep them there; have your license and car registration handy.

Which left me torn about an ideal I’ve also drummed into them: Always self-advocate. Now here I was saying, don’t do it with the police. Know from Breonna Taylor’s case that things can turn deadly before you figure out what’s happening. Know that if you do speak, you might not be believed when you say you can’t breathe. I was both grateful for my son’s grace and devastated by his knowing when he said, “Don’t worry, Mom, I understand I have to live first so I can speak up later.”

The kids often said my driving corrections were too grumpy, that I yelled unnecessarily if they took a turn wide, didn’t look over their shoulder before changing lanes. I said we’d driven the same roads repeatedly, that they should know by now. I didn’t say how frustrated I was that as they continue on out into the world, they’re likely to be assessed first by the color of their skin and not the content of their character.

I’ve always known that motherhood involves starting to let go the minute the baby arrives. Earning a driver’s license is one of the great pit stops on a child’s road to independence. My kids are good drivers, but my fear remains. “It’s not you I worry about,” I tell them repeatedly, “it’s other people.”

As I watched my son adjust his mirrors, double check that he had his license and registration before nervously backing out and driving solo for the first time to a friend’s house, it was clear: I’ll need to make room to celebrate the good moments, not just mourn the bad. He waved and smiled one last time through the rearview mirror.


Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Suzanne McFayden is a writer, philanthropist and mother of three.

The Loneliest Childhood: Toddlers Have No Covid Playmates

Childhood Without Other Children: A Generation Is Raised In Quarantine

Covid-19 has meant the youngest children can’t go to birthday parties or play dates. Parents are keeping them out of day care. What is the long-term effect of the pandemic on our next generation?

No playdates in sight: Alice McGraw at the Mount Olympus monument in San Francisco. 
No playdates in sight: Alice McGraw at the Mount Olympus monument in San Francisco. Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

  • Dec. 9, 2020, 4:00 p.m. ET

Alice McGraw, 2 years old, was walking with her parents in Lake Tahoe this summer when another family appeared, heading in their direction. The little girl stopped.

“Uh-oh,” she said and pointed: “People.”

She has learned, her mother said, to keep the proper social distance to avoid risk of infection from the coronavirus. In this and other ways, she’s part of a generation living in a particular new type of bubble — one without other children. They are the Toddlers of Covid-19.

Gone for her and many peers are the play dates, music classes, birthday parties, the serendipity of the sandbox or the side-by-side flyby on adjacent swing sets. Many families skipped day care enrollment in the fall, and others have withdrawn amid the new surge in coronavirus cases.

With months of winter isolation looming, parents are growing increasingly worried about the developmental effects of the ongoing social deprivation on their very young children.

“People are trying to weight pros and cons of what’s worse: putting your child at risk for Covid or at risk for severe social hindrance,” said Suzanne Gendelman, whose daughter, Mila, is 13-months-old and pre-pandemic had been a regular play-date buddy of Alice McGraw.

“My daughter has seen more giraffes at the zoo more than she’s seen other kids,” Ms. Gendelman said.

It is too early for published research about the effects of the pandemic lockdowns on very young children, but childhood development specialists say that most children will likely be OK because their most important relationships at this age are with parents.

Still, a growing number of studies highlight the value of social interaction to brain development. Research shows that neural networks influencing language development and broader cognitive ability get built through verbal and physical give-and-take — from the sharing of a ball to exchanges of sounds and simple phrases.

“My daughter has seen more giraffes at the zoo more than she’s seen other kids,” said Suzanne Gendelman of her 13-month-old daughter, Mila.
“My daughter has seen more giraffes at the zoo more than she’s seen other kids,” said Suzanne Gendelman of her 13-month-old daughter, Mila.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

These interactions build “structure and connectivity in the brain,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They seem to be brain feed.”

In infants and toddlers, these essential interactions are known as “serve-and-return,” and rely on seamless exchanges of guttural sounds or simple words.

Dr. Hirsh-Pasek and others say that technology presents both opportunity and risk during the pandemic. On one hand, it allows children to engage in virtual play by Zoom or FaceTime with grandparents, family friends or other children. But it can also distract parents who are constantly checking their phones to the point that the device interrupts the immediacy and effectiveness of conversational duet — a concept known as “technoference.”

John Hagen, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Michigan, said he would be more concerned about the effect exchanges on young children, “if this were to go on years and not months.”

“I just think we’re not dealing with any kinds of things causing permanent or long-term difficulties,” he said.

Dr. Hirsh-Pasek characterized the current environment as a kind of “social hurricane” with two major risks: Infants and toddlers don’t get to interact with one another and, at the same time, they pick up signals from their parents that other people might be a danger.

“We’re not meant to be stopped from seeing the other kids who are walking down the street,” she said.

Just that kind of thing happened to Casher O’Connor, 14 months, whose family recently moved to Portland, Ore., from San Francisco. Several months before the move, the toddler was on a walk with his mother when he saw a little boy nearby.

“Casher walked up to the two-year-old, and the mom stiff-armed Cash not to get any closer,” said Elliott O’Connor, Casher’s mother.

“I understand,” she added, “but it was still heartbreaking.”

Portland has proved a little less prohibitive place for childhood interaction in part because there is more space than in the dense neighborhoods of San Francisco, and so children can be in the same vicinity without the parents feeling they are at risk of infecting one another.

“It’s amazing to have him stare at another kid,” Ms. O’Connor said.

“Seeing your kid playing on a playground with themselves is just sad,” she added. “What is this going to be doing to our kids?”

The rise of small neighborhood pods or of two or three families joining together in shared bubbles has helped to offset some parents’ worries. But new tough rules in some states, like California, have disrupted those efforts because playgrounds have been closed in the latest Covid surge and households have been warned against socializing outside their own families.

Alice, 2, with her mother, Lindsey McGraw. Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

Plus, the pods only worked when everyone agreed to obey the same rules and so some families simply chose to go it alone.

That’s the case of Erinn and Craig Sheppard, parents of a 15-month-old, Rhys, who live in Santa Monica, Calif. They are particularly careful because they live near the little boy’s grandmother, who is in her 80s. Ms. Sheppard said Rhys has played with “zero” children since the pandemic started.

“We get to the park, we Clorox the swing and he gets in and he has a great time and loves being outside and he points at other kids and other parents like a toddler would,” she said. But they don’t engage.

One night, Rhys was being carried to bed when he started waving. Ms. Sheppard realized that he was looking at the wall calendar which has babies on it. It happens regularly now. “He waves to the babies on the wall calendar,” Ms. Sheppard said.

Experts in child development said it would be useful to start researching this generation of children to learn more about the effects of relative isolation. There is a distant precedent: Research was published in 1974 that tracked children who lived through a different world-shaking moment, the Great Depression. The study offers reason for hope.

“To an unexpected degree, the study of the children of the Great Depression followed a trajectory of resilience into the middle years of life,” wrote Glen Elder, the author of that research.

Brenda Volling, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan and an expert in social and emotional development, said one takeaway is that Depression-era children who fared best came from families who overcame the economic fallout more readily and who, as a result, were less hostile, angry and depressed.

To that end, what infants, toddlers and other children growing up in the Covid era need most now is stable, nurturing and loving interaction with their parents, Dr. Volling said.

“These children are not lacking in social interaction,” she said, noting that they are getting “the most important” interaction from their parents.

A complication may involve how the isolation felt by parents causes them to be less connected to their children.

“They are trying to manage work and family in the same environment,” Dr. Volling said. The problems cascade, she added, when parents grow “hostile or depressed and can’t respond to their kids, and get irritable and snap.”

“That’s always worse than missing a play date.”

Family Rifts and Estrangement Threaten Mental and Physical Health

Personal Health

When a Family Is Fractured

For most people, estrangements and family rifts are a source of chronic stress that threatens “mental, social and physical well-being.”

Credit…Gracia Lam
Jane E. Brody

By

  • Dec. 7, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

Show me a family that has not been fractured — temporarily or permanently — by a fury-filled rift between two or more members and I might believe in miracles. Just about everyone I know seems to have experienced such a distressing event, often with painful psychological and sometimes physical effects that carried over to relatives who had nothing to do with the precipitating dispute.

Rifts can begin with financial, religious, political, even existential conflicts. Common precipitants include contested wills, disputes over parental care, sibling rivalry and charges of favoritism.

Sometimes the incident may have been imagined. A woman who had been molested as a child falsely accused her mother’s husband of molesting her son and severed all contact between her father-in-law and her children.

As with the molested daughter, rifts can stem from a previous trauma that distorts a person’s perceptions of reality. Or a relationship-severing dispute may reflect years of accumulated resentments that were never expressed or addressed.

In a new book based on the first-ever national survey on estrangement and in-depth interviews with 100 men and women who achieved a reconciliation, Karl A. Pillemer, a family sociologist and professor at Cornell University and Weill Cornell Medical College, discovered that family rifts were surprisingly pervasive and often result in long-lasting emotional and physical distress.

His random survey of 1,340 individuals suggested that “about 25 percent of the population is living with an active estrangement,” he said in an interview. “For some of these approximately 67 million people, it doesn’t make much difference, but most people experience the rupture as aversive.”

As he wrote in “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them,” published in September, “Even in our rapidly changing society, family relationships matter.” For most people, estrangements are a source of chronic stress that threatens “mental, social and physical well-being,” he concluded.

I know because I’ve been there. A beloved aunt, who became my surrogate mother after my biological mother died while I was in high school, abruptly cut me out of her life when, instead of wedding a fellow Jew, I married a Christian. I made three serious attempts at a reconciliation, each of which she initially accepted, then sabotaged, at which point my husband said, “Never again, she’s hurt you once too often.”

I kept saying “I can’t believe this is happening in my family,” a refrain Dr. Pillemer frequently heard from those he interviewed. And as he also found, there was often “collateral damage” when other family members are drawn into a dispute they had nothing to do with. I lost what had been a warm and loving relationship with my aunt’s daughter, my first cousin. It was never restored.

Among those Dr. Pillemer interviewed were children who never knew their grandparents or who missed out on all manner of family events — holiday celebrations, birthdays and anniversaries, weddings, vacation trips, even funerals — because of a rift between two adult relatives.

Unresolved rifts can precipitate chronic stress in one or both participants that undermines their emotional and physical health. The resulting anxiety or depression can worsen heart disease and diabetes, cause reproductive problems, undermine immunity and even shorten the person’s life, studies have suggested.

On the other hand, rifts can sometimes be health-saving for the person who precipitates them. For example, people may cut a relative out of their lives who is physically or emotionally abusive or engages in criminal activities or other antisocial behaviors they find threatening or abhorrent.

A cousin with whom I had enjoyed many visits growing up disappeared from my life forever when he married and his wife severed all contact with his family because the father-in-law was a crook.

“Estrangements can be adaptive,” Kathleen Smith, a family therapist in Washington, D.C., and author of “Everything Isn’t Terrible,” told me. “Estrangement can be a way to manage unsustainable tension and anxiety.”

But, Dr. Smith added, people should realize that family rifts often have a cost, especially in what Dr. Pillemer calls “loss of social capital”: the people you can rely on for spiritual, physical or even financial support in times of hardship or stress. Who will help care for children or manage the family business when parents are seriously ill or injured?

Reconciliation is often not easy, but the folks Dr. Pillemer interviewed who achieved it said it was well worth the effort. I can attest to that. This summer I helped resolve a fury-filled rift between two relatives — a father and son — who I knew really loved and needed one another but held radically different views of how to live. Though long simmering beneath the surface, the final rift was fueled by unfiltered emails filled with heartbreaking, angry accusations from the son and statements like “You ruined my life, I can’t live with you in it,” prompting the father to email a detailed rebuttal denying any wrongdoing.

Although untrained in psychology, I understand, love and am respected by both father and son yet had enough detachment to remain rational. Happily, my intervention resulted in a heartwarming rapprochement along with tools to help maintain it that happen to match several of Dr. Pillemer’s suggestions. Most important, I told both that for a reconciliation to work, rehashing of past hurts and rebuttals had to cease and the relationship restored on a new footing that goes forward, not backward. Dr. Pillemer calls it “living life forward.”

As he wrote, “People wish to impose their vision of the relationship’s past on others. They insist that the other person must understand what really went on and admit his or her critical failings.” But as two long estranged and now reconciled sisters he wrote about discovered, “Going over the past was just not going to work for us; we learned how to move ahead together.”

As Dr. Pillemer reported, “Cutting someone off may have brought immediate relief from conflict and negativity, but most people longed for a return to the relationship and felt that the rift stood in the way of achieving a life well-lived.” Statements like “I’m done,” “It’s over” don’t always mean done forever. Both Dr. Pillemer and Dr. Smith suggest reaching out periodically to maintain contact and attempt a reconciliation. People and circumstances change, and one day it may become possible to build a bridge across the rift.

How to Find — and Spread — Joy

How to Find — and Spread — Joy

Even during the pandemic.

Credit…Melanie Lambrick
  • Dec. 6, 2020, 1:20 p.m. ET

“Joy” may not be the first word that comes to mind in the middle of a pandemic, but people across North America are looking for ways to find — and share — it. Here, suggestions from Times readers, on how they are brightening the days of friends and family with gestures large and small.


“I made a big batch of chocolate chip cookies for Election Day and delivered them to friends. I so enjoyed seeing my friends and hearing their voices ‘in person’ (socially distanced and masked, of course). Happiness for my friends and also for me.”

Erica Ginsburg, Philadelphia


“I live alone in Telluride, Colo., a mountain town know for healthy, high altitude outdoor living. During the pandemic, I have taken to delivering pots of homemade yogurt and fruit crumbles to friends. I make the yogurt in small Mason jars. Friends return the empty jars to me, sometimes with a few nuts or pieces of dried fruits (great for snacks while skiing and snowshoeing). I then drop another few jars of yogurt on their porch, sometimes with an individual portion of a fruit cobbler or crumble. Our cold temps mean we don’t worry about refrigeration. A friend who raises honey bees here generously shares honey, which is perfect for topping the plain yogurt, for those who like it sweet (I prefer the tart flavor, and even add lemon zest to my own).”

Kyle Koehler, Telluride, Colo.


“Each year, I test my old lady legs with a handful of 5K races. Nearly every race benefits a cause. This summer, looking to scratch that itch, I almost signed up for a virtual race. But while the cause was certainly worthy, I wanted a more personal experience. So, I created Kristy’s K’s, my own charitable race series. Once or twice a month, I push myself on a timed run, dedicate that run to someone special in my life, and make a donation in that person’s honor. I send them a certificate, complete with a sweaty finish-line selfie. To date, I have donated to my nephew’s kindergarten classroom, an art museum in Kansas City, the Ohio Ornithological Society, an adoption foundation, a nonprofit that supports neighborhood public schools, and a fund-raiser to equip high school science students with molecular model kits and digital pocket scales for at-home learning.”

Kristy Zurbrick, Dublin, Ohio


“A dear friend recently was given a major medical diagnosis. She’s not ready yet for talking or socially distant visits. Instead I text her daily photos of my cat, who she’s affectionately dubbed the Pinkness. #dailypinkness.”

— Kim Burnett, Denver

Credit…Kim Burnett

“I spread joy through notes and gifts. After my downstairs neighbor gave us Parmesan cheese when we had none and needed some, I replaced it and included a six-pack of Narragansett. I put Post-its on five of the beers saying “Thank/you/for/being/a totally great, considerate, awesome” and then circled ‘neighbor’ on the sixth beer.”

Pamela Roy, New Haven, Conn.


“Every Monday morning I send a postcard to my three elderly aunties. They live far away and because of Covid cannot have visitors, and calling on the phone is cumbersome because of hearing and other health issues. So, at the start of Covid I started a ritual of writing to them and putting cards in the mail every Monday morning. I haven’t missed a week yet! And, of course, it makes me feel good, they enjoy the anticipation of mail and it gives me time each week to reflect on the world, from large stage (politics, weather events, movies to watch) to small world (critters in the yard, walks taken, dreams had, memories shared).”

Laurie Zyons Wood, Manitou Springs, Colo.


“I don’t go into work every day but have to go in about once every two weeks. Along the way I stop for an egg sandwich at a drive-through. I always pay for the tab of the car behind me, no matter the price. Makes me smile and I hope is a good start to their day too!”

Mary Bell, Portland, Ore.


“This past weekend, I enlisted my daughter-in-law Gayle’s help to make a Ukrainian food takeout menu for 20 family and friends. I made pierogies, of course — two kinds: sauerkraut and bacon and mashed potato and Cheddar cheese — holopchi (cabbage rolls), Ukrainian sausage and crepes (nalysnyky) with cottage and ricotta cheeses. Of course, we topped the pierogies with bacon bits and sautéed onion and ate them with sour cream. The recipes are from the cookbook ‘The Prairie Table’ by Karlynn Johnston. My daughter-in-law made a salad of cooked chopped beets, carrots, sweet onion and dill pickle with a dressing of vegetable oil and vinegar with some dill pickle juice. And, for dessert, she made a delicious sheet cake. We packaged all of this in takeout containers, kept the hot food warm in the oven and enjoyed short visits with our family and friends who came for takeout on a cool Sunday afternoon.”

Lucelle Prindle, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada


“I have been sending postcards to family, friends and acquaintances who (pre-pandemic) I would regularly see in social circles. “Greetings from Bellevue!” or “Aren’t you happy this isn’t just another election mailing?!” Hoping to catch recipients by surprise and let them know that I miss them and they cross my mind.”

Bethany Beal, Pittsburgh


“We have a group of neighbors who meet once a week for happy hour. Since Covid we’ve changed our restaurant happy hours to new digs in town — our garages. We clear out the cars, put our indoor/outdoor carpets on the garage floor, toss in a folding table with a pretty linen tablecloth for appetizers, place 20 candles, fairy lights and a lit Christmas tree in for light and then open the garage doors for fresh (and often cooler these days) air. Even though we wear ski jackets and blankets to stay warm in Kohler, we socially distance by about 10 feet and enjoy an hour or two of beautiful togetherness.”

Beverly Davidson, Kohler, Wis.


“My mother-in-law couldn’t come for Christmas as planned, which is hard given it’s only her second one alone. She’s in Maine and the risk is too great. So, we mailed her an Advent calendar of sorts. It started on Dec. 1, when she could open the box, and then every day leading to Christmas it contains a new goody to unwrap. Cheese straws made in my home state, North Carolina, tropical-scented lotion to remind her of those sunny beaches she loves, handmade crafts from the kids and the finale on Christmas Day will be the annual photo calendar I make with all the shots of her kids and grandkids she hasn’t seen from the year! We even included a bag of treats for her cat Virgil, so he could be in on the fun. We’re really sad she can’t be with us, but this gives us joy; and we hope it’ll bring her some too.”

Laura Browning, Raleigh, N.C.


“I live in Portland, Ore., and I regularly make mandalas in the woods near my house, using flower petals, leaves, mushrooms and other found natural objects. Many delighted passers-by have told me that the highlight of their day is coming across a creation by the “mandala fairy” on their walks. It makes me happy to be able to contribute a bit of uplift in these challenging times.”

Donna Zerner, Portland, Ore.

Credit…Donna Zerner

“I have gotten great satisfaction lately out of harvesting and sharing seeds from my fennel plants. I have three large ones next to my patio — they are bronze fennel — which I planted to attract swallowtail butterflies. This summer I had a ton of gorgeous caterpillars on them, and many butterflies and bees so they were a pollinator favorite, which of course, means many seeds. I’ve shared them on a seed exchange here in my town, mailed them to friends around the state, in Philly and in New York, and am prepping a batch to send to a friend in Italy. Fun part — they can be saved to plant next spring, or used for cooking. As a thank you from one friend, I received a fabulous recipe for a coriander/fennel seed digestive that is apparently common in Indian culture.”

Laura Marchese, Montclair, N.J.


“I was cleaning out my garage when I came across a carton containing high school memorabilia. Among the awards and notebooks, were 5-by-7-inch senior photos of my best friends with long inscriptions to me about our friendship and about the fun times we shared together during our four years in school. I sent the photos off to each one of them, and was happy to receive texts back saying what a laugh they had looking at themselves at 18, and reading their heartfelt comments. We are all now 75, and have been reconnected through the extra time Covid has given us.”

Maureen Fitzgerald Bennani, Lexington, Mass.


“I have been both finding and spreading joy by feeding and otherwise looking after a small group of cats that lives at a community garden where I rent a raised bed. These guys are blissfully unaware of the mess humans have made of the world. They are unerringly cheerful. Each day when I arrive at the garden, the cats come bounding toward me with excited meows and raised tails. They rub around my legs as I’m preparing their food bowls. I haven’t been working at a job since the beginning of the pandemic, so I consider this outing to the garden my new daily commute. Taking care of these cats gets me out of the house and out of my own head.”

Diana Parker, Phoenix, Ariz.


“I took up painting while in quarantine. To keep me motivated to paint, and to bring joy to others, I sent a group of friends each a picture frame in the mail. Every month, or when the season changes, I send them a new painting that relates to the changes. It keeps me motivated and brings joy to my friends as they swap out the new painting each month.”

Kaitlyn Hall, Munster, Ind.


“I’ve been thinking about the holidays a lot this year, since I’m not flying home to my mom’s. To make up for it and as a way to really spread some joy over a couple of months’ time, I sent my mom a kit for an amaryllis, an indoor flower that grows in the fall and starts blooming in winter. I sent one in October and we’ve been watching it grow and bloom together long distance. I got one too so we could kind of do it together. Mine, I’m calling it the inauguration bloom since it seems to be taking a little while.”

Nicole Lanzotti, Oakland, Calif.


“We have a lot of children on our street here in Winston-Salem, N.C. When the weather was warmer, I went to the front porch and played the accordion for the children who were riding their bikes or in a stroller at the same time every day, Monday to Friday. Children’s Happy Hour at 4 p.m. In colder weather, I leave little surprises — a flowering pansy, a special rock or a little card every day under the mailbox. This becomes a destination for the end of their daily walk. The parents appreciate this. And it brings me great joy too.”

Linda McKinnish Bridges, Winston-Salem, N.C.

These entries have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Not the Widow, Just the Ex-Wife

Ties

Not the Widow, Just the Ex-Wife

Can grief for loss be rekindled by final loss? Or is it grieving for the end of possibility, to revisit the decision and to ask him, “Did you ever regret leaving?”

Credit…Lucy Jones

By

  • Dec. 4, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

My middle-aged son, Nick, calls from his car to tell me he’s racing up the 405 from his office in Los Angeles to a hospital in Ventura, to be with his father, who is on life support. The staff at his assisted living facility couldn’t find the “do not resuscitate” document allowing him to die from the heart attack that had deprived his brain of oxygen for 30 minutes. Nick’s been on the phone with the E.R. doctor, urging him to remove the breathing tube his father never wanted. They remove it.

Although I haven’t lived with Eckart for 30 years, I’ve been his second health advocate for more than a year, ostensibly to help Nick, who lives 90 miles away, and also for reasons I haven’t wanted to look at. I hesitated before asking, “Do you want me to meet you there?”

When we enter the E.R., Nick goes quickly to his father, touches his hair and his warm cheek and puts his hands on Eckart’s chest under the blanket. I won’t know Nick held his hands until later when he tells me that he wanted to feel their strength one more time. Eckart had spent his last year in a wheelchair, becoming weaker each month but managing, until recently, to hide the dementia that had begun years ago.

Although I have put my hands on my euthanized animals, my fear of dead humans keeps me from touching my former husband’s face. I can only touch the blanket and say, “What a complicated fellow you were.” Our son knows the history, and I am saying it for him as well as for myself.

His father came out to me when Nick was 10 but didn’t leave until Nick was 14. Another five years would pass before our son would know why. It was the late 1980s, AIDS had exploded, adding a taboo to Eckart’s revelation that hadn’t been there before. Not only was it still secretive, it was dangerous to be a gay man when who you were could take your life.

We spent nearly an hour in the small room with Nick signing papers, a social worker kindly offering sympathy, and the young doctor who had disconnected the breathing tube, after locating the D.N.R. document, reassuring us that Eckart would have been brain-dead. A risk-taker from his childhood in Germany, he’d exited as speedily as he’d driven, first the autobahn, and then American highways. Once a strikingly handsome man, he now lay with his mouth wide open, his dentures left in his assisted-living studio apartment this one last time.

I’d introduced myself as “Nick’s mother” and sat off to the side. The social worker wanted me to know that there were bereavement support groups in the small town I lived in. But were they for former spouses? Did I qualify for support after 30 years of living apart? Can grief for loss be rekindled by final loss? Or is it grieving for the end of possibility, to revisit the decision and to ask him, “Did you ever regret leaving?”

I realized I’d always been waiting for him to say about our 20 years together, “It wasn’t nothing.”

Despite my history with this man, the hurt, the fury, and the deep doubts he’d sown when he canceled 20 years of our life together, I didn’t want to leave him there alone, to be wheeled away to a cold vault, pending more paperwork and cremation. I wanted us to sit with him, to be together as a family. I imagined that if we kept a vigil I might be able to touch his skin, then still warm, and for the first time be less afraid of death. For as his spouse, albeit former spouse, I was next in line — or so it seemed there in the all too bright light, shimmering around me.

In the following weeks, before the scattering of his ashes, the “sea burial,” as Eckart’s brother called it, and the memorial luncheon which included just six of us, I was surprised to find myself back in the album I thought I’d left behind decades ago: meeting Eckart when I was 25, a young journalist from New York on assignment in West Berlin, marrying in New York, having his child and those 20 years together before being left in midlife. He’d framed my youth and my motherhood and created some protection from my bipolar, often psychotic mother.

No longer in the foreground of each other’s lives, we remained in each other’s background for decades, never as out of touch as others who divorce. It wasn’t nothing, even in separation.

As Eckart had embraced the gay life in New York, while living with us as a family, any self-confidence I still had was chipped away — for living with a closeted gay person isn’t a recipe for feeling desirable. Keeping the secret from our son did its own kind of damage. As the years followed, when I was asked why I had never remarried or re-coupled, I would say crisply, “I’m cured,” when really I was in retreat, where no one could reach me. I was ultimately on my own, accompanied only by pets I could trust — our cat and my long line of dogs.

For too many years the animals I would rescue were stand-ins for me. It was I who needed to be rescued, except on those days when I was a grown-up some of the time. I’d recovered from years of agoraphobia following a postpartum depression, but didn’t realize that humiliating midlife dating was perfect terrain for a phobic who didn’t know how to drop the story line, didn’t know how to live in the present tense.

It’s taken too many more years to finally admit that Eckart wasn’t the cause of my solitary life after the marriage but that, just as I’d allowed my ill mother to seduce and reject me, seeing myself as a reflection in Eckart’s eyes was a learned habit — as familiar as loving the unavailable, troubled mother. I’d married the absentee parent as so many of us do. Even if I’d had no control over the end of the marriage, I had some choice in how to respond, how to prevail and even to flourish instead of retreating.

For when choice seems impossible, it is still there, squirreled away where we can’t see it but there, just the same. Or as we discover, not choosing is the choice.

Linda Gravenson is a co-editor of and contributor to “In the Fullness of Time: 32 Women on Life After 50,” and recently completed a memoir.

How Teenagers Use Free Time Affects Mood

Adolescence

How Teens Use Downtime to Connect, Distract or Reflect

Different choices for how young people use free time lead to different kinds of relief.

Credit…Antonio Giovanni Pinna
Lisa Damour

By

  • Dec. 3, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

When pandemic-weary adolescents get to take a break, what should they do with themselves? The main aim, of course, should be to feel better after the break than before it. But different downtime choices lead to different kinds of relief. Adolescents (and adults) might want to reflect on the options for how they spend their free time — whether they’ve got 20 spare minutes today or can anticipate more unscheduled time in the weeks ahead.

Here’s a look at three ways teenagers tend to spend their downtime, and the particular benefits and challenges that come with each.

Connecting With the World Digitally

Young people often use their downtime to text with friends or check their social media accounts — and with good reason. Particularly under the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic, teenagers rely on these platforms to connect with peers and to keep up with headlines. Spending time online might deliver the boost of an amusing exchange with a friend, a clever meme or good news about a favorite sports team. If it does, that makes for a restorative break.

But, of course, it can go another way.

Checking in on social media or the 24-hour news cycle is the psychological equivalent of sidling up to a slot machine. Hitting the jackpot — receiving digital love from a friend or finding an encouraging update about a vaccine — feels good. Pulling the lever and losing — whether that’s your messages being “left on read,” meaning the recipient doesn’t respond, or catching a depressing headline — is pretty much bound to happen from time to time.

For teenagers, especially in the context of the pandemic, turning to social media as a way to recharge can be a high-stakes gamble. Jill Walsh, a Boston University sociologist who studies technology use among adolescents, finds that having fewer in-person interactions has left many teenagers feeling “incredibly uncertain about their friendships.” Previously tolerable ambiguity in communications can now be highly distressing. Dr. Walsh notes that “getting a text that simply reads ‘k,’” — shorthand for OK that can be read as friendly, curt or angry — “can create a huge amount of emotional labor as a kid tries to figure out what it means.”

Before defaulting to downtime scrolling, teens might weigh the possibility of seeing a mood-lifting post against the chance that they’ll run into something distressing. A well-spent break should help to ease the mind; it shouldn’t open new tabs to worry over in our mental browsers.

Getting Lost in Distractions

There’s a lot to be said for taking occasional, all-consuming mental vacations, especially during a pandemic. Research on chronic stress shows that engrossing, happy distractions, such as competing in a sport or losing oneself in a movie or a book, can help young people weather persistently difficult circumstances.

Happy distractions may be a particularly apt choice when teenagers find themselves dogged by worries about school, peers, rising Covid-19 rates or anything else. Peggy Zoccola, an associate professor of psychology at Ohio University who studies the impact of stress and coping on the body, has found that ruminating over unpleasant events raises blood pressure and heart rate and triggers the ongoing release of stress hormones. Distraction, however, stops or attenuates the biological stress response. “It’s important,” she says, “to be able to recover and not always be pumping out these stress hormones.”

In fact, transporting diversions can be useful in two ways at once. According to Dr. Zoccola, they both draw our minds away from negative events that can trigger our biological stress response and at the same time pull them toward positive experiences that may prompt the release of natural mood-improving substances in the body that work much like opioids to help us feel better.

That said, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. While pleasant distractions provide valuable mental and physiological breaks from stressful conditions, “my hesitation with recommending distraction,” Dr. Zoccola said, “is that while it can get people out of the moment, if it goes on too long, that might prevent folks from addressing an issue, or might create a new one.” Teenagers can run an easy check for themselves by asking, “Are my distractions getting in the way of what I need to do?”

Creating Space for the Mind to Wander

As a third option, young people sometimes use openings in their schedule for pursuits that are engaging, but only to a degree. Researchers use the term “soft fascination” in connection with activities that require attention but don’t entirely occupy the mind, such as spending time in nature or taking a long shower. More absorbing endeavors, such as playing a video game or solving a puzzle, recruit what’s known as “hard fascination.”

Compared to hard fascination, soft fascination uses less mental bandwidth and leaves more room for the mind to wander and reflect. Avik Basu, an environmental psychologist at the University of Michigan who researches soft fascination, explains that activities that “don’t swamp the mind” are more likely to be restorative because “a softly fascinating environment allows for reflection — and that’s when the problem-solving part of our brains can really get to work.”

In other words, soft fascination relieves stress by helping us close those mental browser tabs; unhurried reflection lets us sift through mental clutter, quiet internal noise and come up with fresh, useful solutions. According to Dr. Basu, “the ‘aha’ moments you have in your shower — that’s the problem-solving mechanism of the mind working. The answer just bubbles up!”

Unfortunately, for many young people, the pandemic has swept away previously routine occasions for soft fascination. Indeed, many of us have come to appreciate how much mental housekeeping we used to do as we made our daily commute or walked along a familiar route to work or school. Teenagers might now have to go out of their way to seek low-key activities when their minds feel cluttered. And they may need adults’ encouragement to do so, because simply going for a stroll or looking out a window can seem boring compared to the allure of online catching up or consuming distractions.

When it comes to self-restoration, we all have options — with connection, distraction and reflection being chief among them. Caring for our mental and emotional health matters now even more than usual, so it’s essential for people of all ages to take the breaks that best address the needs of the moment.

A Shifting View on Telemedicine

In March 2019, a robot entered a patient’s room in California and a doctor on its screen told him and his granddaughter that he was dying.

This experience, posted to the granddaughter’s Facebook page, was treated as a scandal. Newscasters questioned the humanity of a health care system that would do such a thing. Words like callous, heartless and cold were used to describe this apparent lack of compassion and care.

Bad news, it seemed, should be delivered only by compassionate individuals, with good communication skills, who are actually in the room with the patient. Not at a distance over a screen.

Just a year later, Covid-19 changed all that.

We had a highly contagious virus devouring hospital resources, a combination of factors that made hospitals inhospitable to families. Almost overnight, most American hospitals strictly limited visitation.

In the early days of the pandemic, some staff members could not ignore the human toll of isolation they were witnessing, and started using their own cellphones to connect patients with their families, if only for a few moments. This would never have happened pre-Covid, when fears of HIPAA violations and a mandate for personal privacy had always kept personal phones in pockets.

These virtual reunions were powerful and almost always positive — not only for the patient and family, but for staff. They brought humanity to days filled with stress and sadness.

And for the patient, alone in the hospital, the iPad on a stick represented not a cold robot but a portal to their loved ones. Where just last year, communication through a screen felt crass, all of a sudden, it became the only compassionate thing to do. Hospital teams expected families to be resistant, but we discovered receptivity and profound appreciation for the ability to connect, by whatever means available.

Before we all realized it, we had entered the era of tele-health — where instead of an iPad representing coldhearted indifference, it now symbolizes our human desire to connect and communicate. Just as we have found creative ways to continue to connect socially through life-cycle events — video cocktail hours, Netflix parties, Zoom weddings and funerals — we have realized that technology can provide so much more to the care of patients than we thought it could.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when I knew I would have to start interacting with families virtually, I was apprehensive. The hallmark of a palliative care team’s work has always been in-person, human connection. As facilitators of arguably the most difficult conversation topic of all — death — we literally lean into emotions that most people would run from. Unlike most medical interactions, we are not transactional, extracting a vial of blood, a signature on a consent form. Our service is to witness, reflect, and be truly present. We have been trained to provide a certain physicality, pulling up a chair, making eye contact, holding a hand. Could we really do that on a screen?

But our team had no choice, and having no choice can be clarifying. It was clear we needed to bring in the technology and at least try it. We received an emergency grant from the San Francisco-based Stupski Foundation and got to work, deploying 30 new iPads to various teams in the hospital so they would be able to access our services more readily.

The choreography of this experience varied, depending on the technology and staff available. The set up could sometimes feel like we were on a film set, the med student encased in PPE playing the role of camera operator, minus the professional training, holding the iPad shakily over the patient’s face as the Zoom panel looked on. Sometimes I was the person “bringing” others — family members, our chaplain, or our social worker — into the patient’s room on the rolling iPad. Other times I was “rolled” into the room, the virtual consultant, sitting on my couch, my poodle curled next to me.

I was working offsite for our first virtual encounter. The patient had Covid pneumonia and had been in the intensive care unit on a ventilator for weeks. The intern who consulted us warned us that his family was frantic, angry, calling incessantly in search of information. We arranged for all six siblings to join us in our “Zoom room” to meet with us, get a medical update, and see their father, intubated in the I.C.U.

I was surprised by how nervous I was, nervous that I didn’t know what I was doing, that I would be perceived as a fraud. “You’re not even with my father, right now?” I imagined his irate daughter saying to me as I fumbled with the technology.

Before the meeting started, I joined our chaplain and social worker in the “Zoom room” to strategize our approach to this uncharted virtual territory. Having worked together for a decade, we are adept at reading each other’s body language in person, but we knew this would be different, all of us facing forward in a grim Hollywood Squares. We anticipated it could so easily get out of control — family members grieving alone in their homes, anger brewing, even a Zoom-bomber, which I’d been hearing about. We devised a subtle hand signal so that we would be less likely to trip over each other during the video visit. “Ready?” I asked, before holding my breath and pressing “admit.”

To our surprise, it turned out to be less challenging than we expected, as did all the ones that followed. Any initial doubts I had about this medium were erased by the relief of families connecting in this desolate time. True, they didn’t have much of a choice, having been shut out of the hospitals. But their heartfelt appreciation of a physician’s presence was a striking contrast to the national sentiment expressed just 12 months earlier, where an iPad on a stick was seen as a cold robot. Now, it was perceived as a lifeline. One patient said to me as I hovered from home in one of the Zoom squares, “I don’t know who you are, but thank you for bringing my family here to be with me.”

Over the next few months we learned how to better translate our in-person presence to an online format. Where I would normally hug or touch a patient on their shoulder, now I put my hands over my heart. Instead of looking directly into their eyes, I made sure to always look directly into the green light of my computer’s video camera. I stayed quiet as the families wept and spoke to their unresponsive loved ones.

I discovered that I can be compassionate on and off the screen, which made me wonder: Is the most important factor for delivering excellent care physical proximity? Or is it depth of focus, and quality of communication? Is it dependent on technology or the person using the technology?

In this work I have discovered that telehealth is not merely a pale substitute for in-person care but rather a viable alternative, even offering some distinct advantages. It allows patients to see their loved ones from all over the world. It reduces the risk of exposure to Covid or other hospital-borne infections. It also allows us to preserve precious PPE for the primary teams who need it.

Telehealth has been in the background of health care for a while, primarily in rural communities where distance limits access. Now that Covid has pushed it into the mainstream, many more of us have seen and felt its benefits. Health care teams are grateful to have it available, and patients and families are not shocked when an iPad is rolled into a room or they are invited to a Zoom call. While I look forward to a time when face-to-face interactions are the norm again, I am grateful for the wide acceptance of this new tool that will continue to help us support patients and families everywhere.

We’ve learned that it’s not about the medium, it’s about the message, and the way it’s delivered.


Jessica Nutik Zitter (@JessicaZitter), a palliative medicine and critical care doctor in Northern California, is the author of “Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life.”

My Brother, the Hospice Graduate

Photo

Credit Giselle Potter

When I was a college sophomore living in a sorority house at the University of California at Santa Barbara, my parents called to tell me that my baby brother, Gavin, was dying. He had been given a diagnosis of a very rare disease, Aicardi–Goutieres Syndrome.

The doctors immediately placed him in hospice care.

He was 4 months old.

I hung up the phone and rode my red beach cruiser to class, trying to pretend that it was like any other day. I sat through Spanish class, but stared off into the distance, numb to what was happening. When I emerged, the sun seemed too bright. People were laughing, talking on their phones, surfing waves at sunset and meeting up with dates at coffee shops.

I thought back to Gavin’s birth in June. He looked like the rest of the babies in our family, with a thick pad of blond hair. A happy baby. Then at 6 weeks old he started having fevers of 104. They turned into weeklong affairs. And no one knew why.

My parents and Gavin’s doctors tried, for the next few months, to solve a seemingly unsolvable case. We just wanted to know what was wrong. But when we finally had the right diagnosis, it was awful. His disease had triggered brain calcifications, causing permanent brain damage. He was going to lose his motor skills and be unable to eat, so he would eventually die, we were told.

At first, I wanted to avoid dealing with the situation. The playground feeling of my oceanfront college campus was in stark contrast to the atmosphere at home, where my devastated family waited, heartbroken. My impulse was to stay away. I didn’t want to be crushed by the grief that was promised to me.

But I also knew I couldn’t live with myself if I never tried to face it. So I dropped out of college and spent every day with him and the rest of my family, including my sisters, who were 9 and 14 at the time.

Gavin’s disease showed up like Louisiana rainstorms — quick, strong and mean. Sometimes he was the handsome baby who smiled at me with his innocent blue eyes. Then, it was as if he was gone. Possessed. His fevers were now paired with jitters and vomiting. Gavin would shriek uncontrollably, turn a pasty gray and roll his eyes in different directions.

Mom called these visits from the Monster.

The hospice nurses stopped by every week to check Gavin’s temperature and weigh him. There was no handbook on learning to love your dying baby brother, but eventually, I did. Instead of hiding from the Monster — when his body shook, his lips turned jelly purple, and drool spilled from his mouth — I looked at him and said: You are worth it.

With his impending death sentence, Gavin was baptized in an oversize white gown. Mom wanted his soul to be protected.

After the ceremony, we played a slideshow of his short life. I saw a picture of me holding him and thought to myself, how could I not love you? We all loved him, the best way we knew how.

My parents did not give up on him, even though he was on hospice. A major change came when a friend of my mom’s who was an occupational therapist suggested the Haberman bottle, a baby bottle with an elongated nipple for children with special needs. Part of the reason Gavin was in hospice care was that he could no longer breast-feed and it was hard to get him nutrients. But he took pumped breast milk through that bottle.

And somehow his demise never came.

On Gavin’s first birthday he was taken off hospice: a hospice graduate.

The journey shifted. Instead of waiting for a baby to die, we were learning to love and live with a handicapped boy.

Now, Gavin is 9 years old. He is a quadriplegic; he cannot walk, talk or eat solid foods, but he is a survivor. He is joy.

That doesn’t mean his life is easy – for him or for the rest of the family.

Every morning one of my parents carries him downstairs around 7 a.m. They sit him in an egg-shape chair in front of the TV to watch cartoons, usually “SpongeBob” (he’s graduated from “Sesame Street”). His breakfast usually involves bran cereal for digestion, a fried egg, a couple of blueberries, maybe a waffle, sometimes crispy pork sausage. All of that is put into a coffee cup with whole milk and butter, and puréed with an immersion blender.

Gavin’s three epilepsy medications get pulled into plastic syringes. Then the hero of the morning carries a tray, with a handful of towels and a water cup, along with the delicious breakfast surprise and medicine into the TV room, and the real work begins.

Feeding Gavin can take up to an hour. And it can be messy. Sometimes he spits up his food, other times he is just not feeling well and he lets it roll down his chin, onto his neck.

Gavin’s life includes physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. But it also includes floating in the pool in a life vest, going to school and even gleefully crossing the finish line in a marathon – with my husband pushing him in a stroller.

Instead of dismantling our family, he has brought us closer together. We treasure Gavin’s small accomplishments, whether that is running down the driveway in his special gait-training walker or using an eye-gaze communication device or nodding to let us know that he wants to use the bathroom, play with his sister or bounce on the trampoline.

We don’t know what his future looks like. But we don’t know what the future looks like for any of us. The mystery of his life is no different from any of ours.

Courtney Lund is working on a memoir about her brother.


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Challenge No. 7: Try a New Sport or Craft

Photo

Slacklining is like tightrope walking, but the rope isn’t as tight.

Slacklining is like tightrope walking, but the rope isn’t as tight.Credit Brian Lee for The New York Times

Challenge No. 7: Try a new sport or craft.

When we mix things up a bit, we give ourselves memorable moments — and make summer stand out more in our minds. This week, why not do something entirely new? The challenge: Learn a new sport or craft, and revel in using your hands and body in a new way.

Learning something new, whether it’s physical or mental, seems to be good for our brains, especially as we age. Research suggests that learning a new physical skill in adulthood, like a new sport, may lead to an increase in the volume of gray matter in parts of our brains related to movement control. Learning a mentally challenging skill offers additional benefits: participants in a research study who learned to quilt, take digital pictures or both showed enhanced memory abilities.

And, of course, learning something new can be fun, especially when we do it with a family member or friend.

What should you try? How about paddleboarding, badminton, slacklining or surfing? Or if it’s too hot outside, keep it cool by learning to code (try a free Hour of Code) or taking a tapdance class.

Last week, we suggested letting the kids take over. Here’s what we heard:

Becca Mitchell of Branford, Conn., wrote; “Our challenge was to fill our long driveway with color! We used chalk (some soaked in water, which made the colors more vibrant) and sidewalk paint. We invited friends, neighbors and family members to stop by throughout the day.”

Emma Chen of New Jersey, who is 12, wrote: “For this, I decided to walk around town with five of my friends. Only one of us had a phone for emergency contact. We bought a bunch of stuff and I got to explore the town around my school since I just moved here!” She added: “It made me feel independent because our parents weren’t there.”

Photo

Credit Renee Tratch

On Twitter and Instagram, we saw a post about a fishing tournament and a list of a child’s wishes including “play pickleball.” That’s a sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong and would be new for some of us — maybe it could fulfill this week’s challenge. (The list, posted by Renee Tratch of Toronto: swimming, fishing, go to beach, pick flowers, get slushies, play pickleball, bike ride, explore and play mini-golf.)

What will you try or learn this week? I’ve been carrying around the instructions and material for crocheting friendship bracelets all summer, and this is the week it happens. Tell us what you try, and how it goes, by commenting here or emailing us at wellfamily@nytimes.com before next Tuesday, Aug. 9. How did it feel to stretch your mind or body in new ways?

Be sure to sign up here for the Well Family email so you don’t miss anything.

We’ll share reader stories and post next week’s challenge — the last! — on Thursday, Aug. 11. The real goal, as always: to savor the summer all season long.

Harry Potter’s a Dad: ‘Accio, Pacifier!’

Photo

Harry Potter fans wait for the release for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Harry Potter fans wait for the release for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”Credit Yeong-Ung Yang for The New York Times

Our family is just home from the bookstore, with multiple copies of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” in hand, gamely reading in a new format — the book is the script of the play by the same name, and thus a different reading experience from the seven novels that came before it.

There will be no spoilers here, but the very title makes clear that “The Cursed Child” is a story about parents and children in a way that the original series never was. Harry Potter is a father now, and one question this book will answer is how the Boy Who Lived — when his parents didn’t — handles that role.

As an orphan, Harry himself could operate free of the burden a parent’s fears, love and expectation can place on a person. Now, as a parent, he has to confront it.

For readers who started reading these books when the first one came out nearly 20 years ago and grew up with Harry and friends, the scenes that reveal the characters as adults are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Though the story has serious themes, the sheer fun of returning to the familiar magical world is a delight.

And there are certainly moments when real-life parents can fantasize about the possibility of a magical assist. Imagine being able to use a spell like “Accio Binky!” to return a dropped pacifier to the sleeping baby, or “Expelliarmus Mobilio!” to expel a mobile phone right out of a teenager’s hand.

Molly Brennan, a mother of two attending a book release party on Saturday night at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, N.J., suggested a spell called Behavioramus. “I would dodge it,” said her son, Logan Brown, 9. “I like my behavior how it is.”

Becky Middleton of Glen Ridge, N.J., who has four children ages 6, 9, 9 and 11, said her spell of choice would be volume control. Rob Fechner of Montclair, the father of two boys ages 7 and 10, asked for a spell “to pause time so I could get stuff done and take a nap.”

It’s giving nothing away to say that none of those abilities seem likely to make raising children any simpler for Harry, Ginny, Hermione and Ron. As Julia Miner, a mother of three who lives outside Washington, D.C., said Sunday, when she was up to page 70 of “The Cursed Child,” parenting teenagers has challenges no matter who you are. Magic has never helped much with relationships in the Harry Potter universe, and the fact that wizards face some of the same bitter limits that Muggles do has always been a part of the series’ appeal.

But for many parents and children in this universe, the books are conversation–starters that help connect us, engaging us in the same world. Now our conversations can go further.


In the comments or on Facebook, tell us what spell would help you most as a parent.

Cancer in the Family: Compliments on Being Thin

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Credit The author with her daughter, Devon.

“I’m so jealous. You’ve lost so much weight, you look amazing,” a friend says to me. “I’d love to catch the stomach bug this year and lose a few pounds myself.”

I smile. I don’t know what to say.

Since January, one of my 12-year-old twin daughters, Devon, has been in isolation in a Boise, Idaho, pediatric oncology unit receiving chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia. Her sister, Gracie, remains behind, in a little town south of Sun Valley. To cope, she has assigned herself as captain of Devo’s Fight Club, a band of peer supporters started with a sweatshirt she designed in the first 36 hours of her sister’s diagnosis.

Their dad and I have been driving the two and a half hours between home and hospital, splitting the week between our daughters, our jobs, middle school’s demands, puberty’s capriciousness, sports, music and running a household that includes cats, dogs, horses, cows and fish.

Devon’s cancer was as random as a dice roll. She had swollen gums for a week and then, a simple blood test to rule out mono instead declared that this sleek, athletic, freckle-faced cowgirl had a rare and often fatal leukemia.

My husband says he has gained weight since Devon’s diagnosis. I have lost weight. A lot. Neither one of us notices the other because we relate over phone or email mostly, and offer a country-style, four-finger half wave from the steering wheel as we blow past each other on the highway between towns.

Over the next 120-mile drive I am perplexed and obsessive.

“I’m so jealous. You look amazing.”

I’m nearly 51 years old and was prepared for the idea that menopause would keep me round despite my best efforts. How much weight have I lost? Was I really that fat before? Should I eat before I get to the hospital or after? The smell of food makes Devon sick. Eating in front of her seems torturous and unfair.

After I arrived at the hospital, a friend stopped by to visit. Before acknowledging Devon, she looked at me. With purrs of envy, she commented on how thin I looked. Again, I was at a loss for words. My daughter was not.

“My mom is not skinny because she worked at it,” Devon told our visitor. “It’s because I’m sick.”

The friend waved it off in the way that one deflects praise of a nice outfit with “this old thing,” and we all moved on. But every time someone notices my weight loss with a tinge of envy it makes me cringe.

Please, I want to tell them, do not admire how thin I have become since my daughter’s diagnosis — unless you are suggesting I look undernourished and want to give me a cupcake. My weight loss is not a goal you should aspire to, nor should it be confused with health and well-being. I was perfectly happy and fit in my pre-cancer-kid size, and a little hurt to hear that this shrinkage that could cost me a lot more than new pants makes me more beautiful than ever.

But what is most painful for me is the collateral damage to my daughters. When they hear that Mom is enviably thin, they hear that this is a reward, a take away for the suffering. That thin is best no matter the circumstances.

Gracie, a minute ahead of her twin, but always an inch and a pound behind, is now getting stretch marks from growing so fast. When her peers note how she “swims” in her choir dress, her mind begins the dance with body consciousness. Weight fluctuations are somewhat inevitable in adolescence and during menopause, but certainly magnified under the circumstances.

Devon’s physical changes are pushed to the bottom of most people’s thoughts now, because in this setting of a hospital room, she’s supposed to look wan and pale. Instead, her inner beauty and sense of humor are noted.

I’ve been sick and thin enough times to know I don’t want to be either. But my girls are facing this for the first time, and the ripple effects of this entire traumatic episode will surface the farther we get from the cancer. Hospital social workers are preparing us to watch for anxiety, regression, depression, eating disorders, apathy and sleeping issues. And signs of cancer returning, of course. And survivor’s guilt in Gracie, which could carve out a whole new emotional journey.

Devon, thankfully, is home now. But I’ve just been told that five months in the hospital have cost Devon nearly a third of her body mass. That her overall strength is that of a 90-year-old, and that after the chemo, her heart, which once pounded fearlessly, is in danger of failing. Her brain is wobbly from the lack of nutrition and her skin is translucent and cold where it once was earthy and warm.

When she returns to school next year, navigating the social riddle of middle school — now half a year behind her peers — and still mostly bald, and undoubtedly still thin, she will return with a self-consciousness she has never known.

Do not covet her thinness. Admire her resilience, and tenacity, and sheer will to live.

And, if you look into her eyes and you can see they are dim from the struggle, a happy-to-see-you smile or just saying nothing at all will do more than you know to help her find her way to loving herself as life has created her in this moment.

If you want to know how someone is, look in their eyes, because their size is not where the information is.

Summer Challenge No. 6: Kids’ Choice

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A group of Pennsylvania teenagers made beaded friendship bracelets as one of the many activities they came up with to spend 24 hours outdoors.

A group of Pennsylvania teenagers made beaded friendship bracelets as one of the many activities they came up with to spend 24 hours outdoors.Credit Kelly Kopera

Challenge No. 6: Let the kids take over.

So far, the Well Family Intentional Summer challenge has been led by the grown-ups. We’ve taught our children street games, encouraged them to try wild flavors of ice cream and walked or biked with them instead of driving. This week, we invite you to shake up that family dynamic and let your children make the call: What do they want to do (within reason) to make the most of this summer?

Research shows we gain more happiness from doing something than buying something, and like adults, children and teenagers get much of their pleasure from the planning process. Being a part of making something happen makes us value it even more.

And children have their own ideas about what makes for a perfect summer day.

Their choice might be fairly simple (my youngest son asked that we play mini-golf) or far more elaborate, like the plans of 17-year-old Kelly Kopera of Phoenixville, Pa. She wrote:

For the past four years, our neighborhood group of friends has set aside a day for the ultimate “intentional summer challenge” — staying outside all day.

It all started one night early in the summer of 2013. My brother, Tim, and I were out in the driveway enjoying the first of many summer nights to come, and we didn’t want to go inside. One of us said to the other: wouldn’t it be fun to spend a whole day outside?

A few weeks later, we did it — we stayed outside from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., accompanied by some friends and neighbors here and there, and time allotted for bathroom breaks. The day, which we dubbed “11 to 11,” became a tradition in our family and neighborhood.

The next year’s 11 to 11 was successful, with growing participation and commitment. Since our kitchen was undergoing renovations, we had a Porta-Potty in our yard, and didn’t even have to go inside to use the bathroom! The following year, however, we wanted to take it a step further. With a core group established — my brothers Tim (now 16) and Kyle (14), along with our friends since grade school, Kimmy (16), Keli (16) and Matt (15) — we stayed outside from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and then slept in a tent in our backyard before going back inside at 11 the next morning. We also declared it a “tech-free day” — no one was allowed to look at their phones for the entire time we were outside, enjoying summer and each other’s company.

Last year’s “11 to 11 to 11″ featured “extreme hopscotch” extending all the way down our block, a water balloon fight, a trip to our local pool, backyard croquet, a scavenger hunt and a bonfire. This year we’ll be going to the pool and a nearby creek to keep cool; playing “glowquet” (croquet after dark with glow sticks on the wickets), card and board games, and classic summer games like manhunt; and capping off the night with some stargazing before we get into the tent for the final 12 hours. It’s a summer tradition that we all look forward to every year, and we’ve been planning this one for a long time to make it the best one yet!

Last week, we challenged you to learn the name of a wildflower, tree or something else you find outside — and we offered a quiz to test your plant knowledge. Some of you complained that the quiz was too easy; about a third of you got all the answers right.

Anne, a reader from Rome, asked for the names in Latin, too. “That way people all over the world will know what you are writing about. Gratias vobis ago.”

But BusyLizzieBe wrote: “Youngsters’ disconnect from the natural world is deeper than I ever imagined and deeply disconcerting. In a volunteer situation, I have even encountered children who have never seen a caterpillar or a butterfly.”

Sue Peterson of California sent an email: “This past weekend, we went camping with friends, and there was quite a bit of concern about being able to identify poison oak. It was funny, because everyone had a slightly different identifying factor (rounded leaves, how many leaves on a stem, spots on the plant, etc.) and no plant we found seemed to have them ALL, but they would always have a few.”

She and others suggested using Google’s image recognition feature. “They are not exact, but it was fun to see the other plants that look so much like the plant I had found, but were slightly different, and learning the technical names and nicknames of different plants was fun.”

This week’s challenge: Whether it’s a full 24 hours outside or 18 holes of windmills and dinosaurs, why not let your children pick a summer moment? Tell us what they chose, and how it goes (and don’t forget to ask them what they thought, too), by commenting here or emailing us at wellfamily@nytimes.com before next Tuesday, Aug. 2. Were they more creative than you expected, or did they suggest an idea from summers past that you’d forgotten?

Be sure to sign up here for the Well Family email so you don’t miss anything.

We’ll share reader stories and post next week’s challenge on Thursday, Aug. 4. The real goal, as always: to savor the summer all season long.

Crossing Paths: A Baby and His Grandfather

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Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

In a photo essay, Thad Russell and Josephine Sittenfeld chronicle the end of life of a beloved father and the beginning of life of their new baby.

Nov. 20 – Thad

I’ve left my very pregnant wife, Jo, and our little daughter, Polly, to drive up to northern Vermont to retrieve my 86-year-old father and bring him back to Providence.

But when I get there, Dad is hunched over in his chair in the living room. He looks thin and tired, unshaven, confused, cold, short of breath.

In a weak voice he says that his lungs aren’t working and he can’t get enough air. With his arm hanging limply over my shoulder I move him toward his bedroom. I take off his shoes and glasses, turn off his light, and kiss him goodnight. I go to bed shaken to the core.

Dad grew up on a farm, played football in high school, went to M.I.T. to study engineering and architecture, and had a long career designing and building houses.

He became an expert skier back in the 1950s when downhill skiing was rebellious and dangerous.

And now, maybe for the first time ever, he doesn’t want to get out of bed.

I call my friend Bill, an emergency room doctor. He tells me quietly and firmly, “Call 911 and get him to a hospital ASAP. Don’t think about it. Just do it.”

This is the last time my father will ever see his land or be in his own house or sleep in his own bed. In fact, it is the last time he will sleep in any bed that isn’t in a hospital or nursing home. It’s the last time he will live without the assistance of a walker or a wheelchair, a professional caregiver or an adult diaper.

At the hospital, Dad’s cardiologist puts it bluntly. “Your father needs a new heart, and he’s not going to get one. I’ve used up my bag of tricks. Have you thought about hospice?”

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Jo

That tiny, rapidly fluttering shape amid the gray static — even though I’ve been through ultrasounds before with my first child, the evidence of the life inside me is still awe-inspiring. I feel excited and tearful.

Nov. 28 – Thad

Dad’s vital signs are bad. He has trouble breathing and now needs oxygen full-time. It’s Thanksgiving morning, and Dad is taken by ambulance from the nursing home to the Miriam Hospital. I meet him in the emergency room, abandoning Jo to cook her first turkey and prepare for a house full of in-laws. The emergency room staff does a battery of tests and confirms what we already know: Dad is suffering from late-stage heart failure.

But after a few hours, he’s released, and I bring him home for Thanksgiving dinner.

Dec. 25 – Thad

Amazingly, Dad is able to be at our house on Christmas Day. He doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, or even Jesus for that matter. But he does like a good turkey dinner.

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Jan. 9 – Jo

I wake up at exactly midnight with contractions. Around 6 a.m. the contractions get closer together. Polly wakes up and thinks it’s funny that I’m mooing like a cow. Thad and I take Polly to a neighbor’s house and head to the hospital.

I have another killer contraction in the lobby. I’m on all fours on the floor, moaning. People are staring.

Once we finally get to the room, I get into the tub. It feels good to be in the water, but the contractions are painful and intense — after the tub I’m on a ball, then on the bed, then standing, then on the toilet, then back on the bed.

Thad is on the phone in the next room trying to coordinate a urology appointment for his dad when all of a sudden things intensify. The baby’s head starts crowning, and it burns like hell. The nurse runs out to get Thad. And with a few more pushes our baby is out.

When they hand him to me, he’s big and grayish, but pretty quickly turns pink.

It’s intense and beautiful and crazy and amazing.

Baby Curtis lies on my chest, still connected through the umbilical cord, and Thad and I just take him in.

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Jan. 13 – Thad

Dad is excited to meet his first grandson  —  and a little confused. He keeps calling him Matt, and asks when we have to give him back.

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Jan. 24 – Thad

A nurse calls to tell me that Dad has fallen. I meet him in the E.R., again. He looks pretty beat up and has a big gash on the top of his head.

The test results worry the doctors.

And yet he survives  —  for days, then weeks, then months.

I visit Dad as often as I can and for as long as I can. I pick him up and we go on little field trips: to doctors’ appointments, to get new eyeglasses, to get his hearing aids cleaned, or to our house for dinner.

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Occasionally, I find Dad asleep in his room, his face lit by the light of CNN Headline News. Some nights I stay with him for quite a while, rubbing his feet, watching him breathe and wondering what he is dreaming about.

I feel conflicted  —  it’s not that I want Dad to die, but I sometimes wonder if this is the way he ever wanted to live.

Dad can’t walk, get dressed or complete most basic daily routines without assistance, but his spirits are good.

In July, Dad has a bad fall, spends another week in the hospital. I call my siblings and tell them it’s time. We’re going to start hospice.

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Aug. 8 – Jo and Thad

Dear Family & Friends –

We are sad to report that Sam died Friday evening. He was 87 years old.

For the past year, Dad continually impressed us with his dignity, toughness and overriding will to live. He  —  and we  —  were rewarded with some distinctly good days that we will never forget.

But last week, he and his heart decided it was time. He retired early one evening, declaring that his bed felt “wonderful,” and started his long sleep.

In the end, he passed quietly and gracefully, surrounded by his family (including his bouncy and bubbly baby grandson Curtis, who played happily at the foot of his bed), and a wonderfully compassionate team of rotating attendants and nurses.

Ever the solar animal, he waited until just after sunset to pass.

With love and thanks,

Thad & Jo

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell


Thad Russell and Josephine Sittenfeld are photographers who live in Providence, R.I., and teach at the Rhode Island School of Design. More of their work can be found at thadrussell.com and josittenfeld.com.

Helping Our School-Age Children Sleep Better

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Credit Getty Images

Everyone knows that getting a baby to sleep through the night can be a big challenge for parents. But sleep problems are common among preschool and school-age children, too. As we ask children to function in school, academically and socially, fatigue can affect their achievement and behavior.

Australian research on sleep problems in children has included work aimed at the “school transition” year in which children adjust to a school schedule. In a study of 4,460 children, 22.6 percent had sleep problems, according to their parents, at that transition age of 6 to 7 years. “We were surprised, we thought it was all baby sleep” that was the problem, said Dr. Harriet Hiscock, a pediatrician who is a senior research fellow at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne who was one of the authors of the study.

Those results led to a randomized controlled trial of a brief intervention for children in their first year of school. A group of 108 parents who felt their children had sleep problems was divided into two groups. One group got a consultation at school, with a program of strategies tailored to the child’s sleep issues, and a follow-up phone consultation; the other group got no special intervention and served as controls. Parents in the intervention group were counseled about a range of possible measures to improve sleep, from consistent bedtimes and bedtime routines to relaxation strategies for anxiety that might be contributing to insomnia. The children in the intervention group resolved their varying sleep problems more quickly, though sleep problems got better over time in both groups. The interventions also produced positive effects on the child’s psychosocial function and parents’ mental health.

The most common sleep issues for children around the age of school entry, Dr. Hiscock said, definitely include limit-setting issues — that is, some of them need their parents to make the rules and routines clear. But there are also children with what sleep specialists call “sleep onset association disorder,” in which a child has become habituated to falling asleep only in a certain context, requiring the presence of a parent, or needing to have the TV on, to cite two common examples. Very anxious children are also often problem sleepers. And then there are children beset by nightmares, night terrors and early morning waking.

Screen use is a major issue in childhood sleep, and more generally in childhood these days. The first recommendation is always to get the screens out of the bedroom, the same recommendation made for improving adolescent sleep, and for adults in the current best-selling book by Ariana Huffington. All of us, old and young, are vulnerable here, but it’s a good place for parents to draw the line for their children, even when they can’t quite manage it for themselves.

Reut Gruber, a psychologist who is an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University, where she is director of the Attention Behavior and Sleep Lab, said that there is a close association between sleep and a wide range of cognitive functions, including attention, executive function and memory. When children go to school, “they need to pay attention and plan and follow instructions, all of which fall under executive function, which is very much affected by sleep,” she said.

Many parts of the brain work less well when children are tired. “The prefrontal cortex is very sensitive to sleep deprivation, and it is key to the brain mechanisms which underlie executive function and some of the attentional processes,” she said. “The amygdala is affected by sleep deprivation and is essential for emotional processes.”

These different but connected brain pathways led her to be interested in the way that sleep affects many different aspects of academic performance. In an experimental study of a small group of 7- to 11-year-olds who did not have sleep, behavior or academic problems, the children were asked to change their sleep patterns, so that they were sleeping an hour less per night, or an hour more. After five days with less sleep, she said, there was measurable deterioration in alertness and emotional regulation, and after five days with more sleep, there were gains in these areas.

For the past several years, Dr. Gruber and her colleagues have worked with a school board in Montreal to develop a school-based sleep promotion program that was piloted in three elementary schools; results were published in May in the journal Sleep Medicine. The intervention involved a six-week sleep curriculum for the children, to teach them about healthy sleep habits, and materials designed to involve parents, teachers, and school principals, who were asked to consider the sleep ramifications of school schedules, extracurricular activities and homework demands.

The children in the intervention group extended their sleep by an average of 18.2 minutes a night, and also reduced the length of time it took them to fall asleep by 2.3 minutes. These relatively modest changes correlated with improved report card grades in English and math; the control group children’s sleep duration did not change, and their grades did not improve.

The goal of the intervention was to help families make sleep a priority.

“How do you make changes in your priorities, find the way as a family, as a school, as an individual, to reshuffle things, no matter how much homework, no matter how many aunts and uncles coming for a visit, that bedtime will still be respected?” Dr. Gruber asked. “We all agree in principle, but how do we actually incorporate it into daily life?”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently endorsed the 2016 guidelines issued by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, that 3- to 5-year-olds need 10 to 13 hours of sleep per day (including naps), while 6- to 12-year-olds need nine to 12 hours for optimal health and well-being.

Dr. Gruber advised that a child should wake up naturally, without requiring energetic parental encouragement. If after nine or 10 hours of sleep, a child still seems very tired, parents might wonder about whether a sleep disorder is affecting the quality of the child’s sleep, she said.

But for most school-age children, it’s an issue of habits and routines, screen time and setting limits. Many of us know, as adults, that we don’t get as much sleep as we should, or that we don’t practice very good “sleep hygiene,” as the experts would say when they advise us to get the screens out of our bedrooms, create regular routines and avoid caffeine too close to bedtime. Making school-age sleep a family priority is a good way to get everyone focused on what really matters: waking up rested and ready to function well, in body and mind.

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Learning to Scale Peaks From My Underprotective Mother

Photo

Credit Giselle Potter

I grew up hearing stories of my mom’s grad school days at M.I.T. in the early ‘90s: pulling all-nighters in the Fishbowl, a cluster of computers off of the Infinite Corridor; writing messages to other Project Athena users on black screens with green text; sneaking through tunnels at night. Later, after dropping out, she gave birth to me.

And after that, she climbed mountains in the Himalayas: Everest and K2, Gasherbrum II and Kanchenjunga. As the only child of a single mother, I stayed in Connecticut with my grandparents during her journeys, swinging on the swing set in their backyard, waiting for her to come home.

I missed my mom desperately and feared for her safety — so much so that she nicknamed me Mrs. Potts, after the motherly teapot in “Beauty and the Beast.”

But death was a real possibility in the Himalayas. I understood that much. Luckily, my mom always came back, her fleece smelling like countries I might never see.

For my 18th birthday in 2010, my mom drove from Connecticut to Boston to visit me at Harvard. She parked beside my dorm at 9:30 p.m. and texted: Come outside.

I met her at her car. We drove across Cambridge in her silver Subaru, not talking much. She parked at M.I.T. near the Small Dome, a structure that sits atop 10 Ionic columns. From the car, the dome looked like the surface of the moon.

“Leave your ID and wallet in the car,” Mom said.

“What?”

“Just do it.”

We slipped through one of the building’s open doors. She held my hand as we snuck upstairs, past corridors of professors’ offices and classrooms with empty chairs. The few students we passed didn’t recognize us as trespassers.

We found our way to the door she was looking for. The crash-bar read: “Emergency exit. Alarm will sound.”

Mom took out her car key and gingerly depressed the latch. She procured a piece of duct tape from her pocket and covered the latch so that the door wouldn’t lock. The alarm didn’t sound. Without another look back, she stepped onto the roof and started walking.

I hesitated in the doorway, one leg out and one leg in. “Mom,” I called out. “I’m scared.”

I was not then (nor am I now) drawn to climbing. For years I had a deep fear of mountains –– they represented an uncontrollable force, the thing that took my mother away from me when I felt like I needed her the most. But as early as elementary school, I understood that my mother’s way of healing was to seek solace in ascents and summits.

Many American parents would probably say their primary responsibility is to keep their children safe, to teach them to respect authority and stay out of trouble. These were not my mother’s goals.

She turned around to smile and reassure me. “You’re going to love it.”

I followed her. Late September wind gathered along the sides of the buildings, blowing my hair up and out, wrapping stray curls around my face. The late-night pedestrians under the streetlights looked like Lego figures.

We trekked across a long section of the roof, turned, and stared up at the dome. The summit. Mom laced her fingers together and went down on one knee to give me a boost. I took my fingers out of my pockets and breathed on them, trying to summon some warmth. I stepped onto her hands.

The first time we tried, I stepped without confidence and stumbled. The second time, my hands made contact with the lip. I did a half-pull-up and wriggled my torso onto the dome. I rolled over, turned around, and called down to Mom: “You coming?”

“No. You go. I used to have the upper body strength to do this alone. Not now.”

“You sure?”

“Go enjoy the view.”

I kept climbing, trying to get handholds and footholds on the surface of the dome.

I stopped just before the window above the atrium of the building, not wanting to feel vertigo, not wanting to test how thick the glass was.

From up that high, I could see the Charles River unfurled like a wing. Stray lights reflected on its surface. The domed skyscraper on Huntington Avenue stood across the river, as regal as a Himalayan mountain –– or what I imagine one looks like. I’ve only seen pictures. The moon was full, another gray dome in the sky.

I scrambled back down. We walked in silence across the roof, through the door (Mom removed the piece of tape with her fingernails), down the stairs, across the lawn, and into the silver Subaru. Only there did we collapse into laughter, relief. We’d had our adventure. No parking tickets waited on the windshield.

A year ago I rode my bicycle solo along the length of New Zealand. In the South Island, I cycled to the base of Aoraki Mount Cook, the mountain where Sir Edmund Hillary’s mountaineering career began. It was there I realized that my mother’s example has allowed me to be a female adventurer of a different sort.

I didn’t become a mountain climber, but for the last two years I have been traveling mostly by bicycle in the United States, Fiji, Tuvalu, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. I’m halfway through a project to collect 1,001 stories about water and climate change from people I meet.

Now I can see that my mom’s birthday gift to me was more valuable than the kind that comes wrapped in paper and ribbons, even though the only tangible thing she brought was a strip of duct tape.


Devi Lockwood is a poet who will be attending the United Nations COP22 climate talks in Morocco in November as a youth delegate for SustainUS.

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Summer Ice Cream Adventures

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Noah, age 5, with his blended fruit rainbow ice pop.

Noah, age 5, with his blended fruit rainbow ice pop.Credit June Wai

In last week’s Intentional Summer challenge, we proposed making or trying an unusual flavor of ice cream. You did not let us down.

One of our readers, MJM, wrote: “On a trip to Northern Michigan with siblings, their families and our parents, we ate at the wonderful Rowe Inn in Ellsworth. On the menu for dessert: asparagus ice cream. We tried a bowl to share with the table. I think the overall sentiment was, well, we tried it, but not again.”

On Instagram, saltnpepperhere posted honey lavender ice cream; twosw offered coffee and Oreo; and kathelemon showed us a Hoyne’s Dark Matter beer ice cream sandwich.

Here at Well, we sampled corn ice cream in the office, and one of our editors tried lemon-jalapeno ice cream from the Pittsburgh Ice Cream Company at a pickle festival called Picklesburgh.

Photo

Coffee-Oreo ice cream.

Coffee-Oreo ice cream.Credit Twosw

Caitlin Fish emailed: “I’ve been experimenting with many different ice cream flavors this summer, but so far my favorite has been an interpretation of the popular snack ‘Ants on a Log.’ I make a celery cream base, swirl in peanut butter, and add golden raisins that have been plumped in a fresh ginger syrup. Surprisingly addictive!”

Tina Frühauf wrote: “I am known for being able to sorbet everything, at least so my friends say. Indeed, in our SoHo home, sorbet has become a verb, a process of turning and churning imagination into creamy frozen desserts, from avocado-tequila to basil, fig-red wine with rose water, and herbal varieties such as cilantro.” For a recent German-themed dinner party, she made a “sauerkraut” sorbet with green cabbage, lemon juice, sugar and limoncello. “The unusual aftertaste of the first spoon dissolves with the second,” she assured us.

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Hoyne’s Dark Matter ice cream sandwich.

Hoyne’s Dark Matter ice cream sandwich.Credit Kathelemon

June Wai made rainbow ice pops with her son, Noah, age 5, layered with raspberry, strawberry and cherry, orange, golden kiwi, green kiwi, blueberry, and black grape and blackberry. “Each fruit was blitzed in the food processor with a touch of honey (we used Colorado honey) and frozen layer by layer, 30 minutes at a time,” she wrote. Next time they are going to try a vegetable ice pop, she said.

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Honey lavender ice cream.

Honey lavender ice cream.Credit Saltnpepperhere

Madeleine Blandy, age 10, of Arlington, Mass., wrote to tell us about her family’s “ice cream nominating convention” to vote on what flavor to make at their annual gathering in Cape Cod. Her grandfather created rules on the voting, which started in June. “You got as many votes as 100 minus your age, which favored the kids more,” Madeleine explained. “Among the oddest flavors was salty licorice, and other creative flavors included black pepper cardamom and corn.” The winners were lemon blueberry muffin, raspberry chocolate chip and Oreo crunch.

“The rules state if your flavor wins, you have to help make it — and eat all of the leftovers,” she wrote. Sounds like a delicious family tradition to us.