Monday, May 18, 2015

A History of Sleep Deprivation

I've been enjoying the TimeHop app on my phone. It's fun to see old Facebook posts about things my kids said, or pictures of them, or other random happenings, or information I came across and wanted to share.

What has struck me, though, is just how many of those posts are about sleep, and how I wish I could get more of it.

Since I've been on Facebook for about seven years, give or take, some of these posts go back pretty far, at least to S's infancy. And almost daily, one of the posts from one of the years going back to when S was a baby has said something along the lines of, "I hope [whichever baby] lets me sleep tonight," or "WHY is [baby] not asleep yet?" or "I need more coffee," or "[Baby] actually slept through the night last night!"

And I'm still feeling that way, with Y approaching 19 months. Sleep is such a feature when it comes to babies and toddlers, it's such a central theme. I've had a baby or a toddler in my life nonstop for 8-1/2 years now, and in all that time, I've had just a few months here and there in which everybody in the house was sleeping through the night. This is not an exaggeration. It's simple truth. My Facebook history is witness to that.

Sleep is such an issue that there is a whole growing industry of "sleep consultants" who will meet with you in person or virtually, assess your baby's sleep habits and environment, and give you a personalized plan to get your baby sleeping through the night. A consultation and plan, with follow up, can run in the hundreds of dollars, and I imagine many parents feel it is money well spent. I feel like I know enough about infant sleep that if I had the will and the strength, I could do all this myself and have my kids sleeping through the night. But since I don't have that willpower, I don't think I could bring myself to follow someone else's plan, either. I'm not saying you shouldn't use a sleep consultant if you think it will help. I'm just saying I don't think it's the answer for my family.

The problem is that there is such a wide range of advice and rhetoric around infant and toddler sleep. At one end of the spectrum are those who say that by three to four months of age, you should put your baby in a crib in a dark room at a set bedtime, shut the door, and walk away, and don't return until the time he is "allowed" to wake up. No amount of crying from him should sway you to comfort him or in any way appear to be giving in to him. Because, they say, babies need to learn to sleep on their own, and if they don't learn it young, it will be harder and harder to learn it as they get older!

At the other end of the spectrum are those who say that a baby needs what she needs, and you should respond every time she asks for you. Indeed, if she needs to sleep in bed with you and suckle at your breast all night, then that's what you should do so that she feels safe and protected and secure, and so she knows that you will always be there for her. Some kids will need to sleep with you until they're five or six, but most will ask for their own bed at some point. After all, they say, in other cultures, the whole family sleeps together in one big bed anyway, so why do we in the West think it's wrong?

With this kind of contradictory advice about what you "should" be doing for your baby, and what your baby "should" be doing, what is a new parent to believe? Who's right?

I think both are right. And neither. I think parents and baby have a right to a good night's sleep, have a right to their needs being met, and have a right to negotiate the best possible sleep for everybody. I adamantly disagree that if you don't "teach" a baby to sleep through the night when he's six months old, then he'll be waking at night for years. I also adamantly disagree that if parents are simply uncomfortable allowing a baby or toddler to sleep in their bed, they should do it anyway for the best interests of their child.

How you go about finding this middle ground will vary depending on your personality and parenting style. I'm a hands-off type, and after four kids, I've learned that eventually you hit a wall and have to make a change, and usually at that point it's easier than you expected it to be to make that change. I'm also lazy about enforcing a schedule or pattern, and I am pulled in too many directions at night to focus so strongly on just one of the kids. Usually I get a sense of what I need to do, then find a way to work up to it, and then suddenly implement the new rule, which takes a few nights or weeks to stick. I tend to take things in stages. First, put him in his own bed (as opposed to mine). Next, wean him from needing to nurse at night (in the hope that if he doesn't have that to wake up for, he won't bother waking up). Finally, if he is still waking for comfort even if he's not nursing, help him learn self-soothing techniques so he can put himself back to sleep instead of calling for me. This was the general process I did with G starting at about 15 months, and it took about eight months until he was totally falling asleep on his own, in his own bed, and sleeping through until morning without waking me.

I have the benefit of knowing that they do eventually sleep through the night. My 8 and 6-year-olds take their own bath or shower, get themselves in PJs, and read to themselves in bed, then put themselves to sleep and sleep through until morning (barring illness, bathroom, or nightmares, of course). Neither was always that way, and indeed both woke me many, many, many times at night until I finally decided to attempt a change. Change is slow but inexorable, and eventually you realize, hey, it's been a while since I needed to tend to him at night!

I'll be starting the next stage of this process with Y soon. He's already sleeping in his own bed, but, unfortunately, I usually end up sleeping there with him most nights. He also nurses several times a night and nurses to sleep for naps and bedtime as well. My next project will be to night-wean him, so that he no longer needs or asks to nurse at bedtime or throughout the night. I hope that he will simply start sleeping through the night at that point, but, judging from my experience with G, I will probably have to tend to night-wakings for a few more months, and possibly do some light sleep training, before everyone in the house goes to bed, goes to sleep, and sleeps through until morning.

What a luxurious time that will be!

Maybe a few years from now, when I look at my TimeHop or my Facebook history, I won't be inundated with complaints about my babies' sleep. Instead, I'll be relatively well-rested, alert, and able to focus more of my energies on living life, instead of craving sleep.

I wish you all good nights and good sleep.

If you have any questions about infant sleep, I've written on this subject many times. Check out the sleep tag for lots of stories and information.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Socks for Mother's Day

I wear socks All The Time. I hate walking around barefoot, but I also hate wearing shoes indoors, so I tend to kick off my shoes when I get in the house and then walk around in my socks all day. (I'm in my house almost all day, most days.) The unfortunate consequence of this habit is that my socks wear out pretty quickly and need replacing.

The problem is, one of the last things I would think to buy for myself is socks. There's always something else that needs buying. The kids need new clothes and shoes. There's a field trip coming up. Everyone needs haircuts. We need groceries, diapers, baby wipes. This bill or that bill is due. Socks? Who would put socks on the list when there are so many more immediate needs to fill?

And so, on Mother's Day three years ago, my husband left me to spend the day with my mother and G, who was a baby at the time. He took N and S, the two older boys, off to have lunch and go shopping. When we reunited later that afternoon, he handed me two big packages of socks that he and the boys had picked out for me. One set had various types of smiley faces on them. Another was colorful with various patterns. No boring socks around here!

I thought it was such a great idea, to get me socks. It's not an extravagant gesture, but I don't need or want extravagance. I feel guilty when I spend our money on myself, and something expensive and overwhelming would make me wonder what bill I now couldn't pay because of money spent on something I didn't really need. But socks are useful, and I could tell he had picked out ones he knew I would like.

This quickly became a tradition, and now every year on Mother's Day, I receive several pairs of fun new socks to replace the ones that are wearing out.

This year, my husband outdid himself and entered into a conspiracy with my aunt to purchase not only socks but a pair of slippers, to be delivered to her house and paid for with her credit card (he reimbursed her with a check) so that I couldn't see the charge on our bank activity! I had mentioned in passing a while back that I should get some slippers, and he remembered and sought out a pair for me.

Mother's Day is about honoring the mother or mothers in your life. It's about thinking of them, and letting them know you're thinking of them. Even though it's a small thing, socks for Mother's Day, to me, means, "Here, you deserve to take care of yourself first once in a while." It means, "I noticed your socks all had holes in them, and that can't be comfortable to walk around in!" And it means, "I remembered that you wanted slippers, so I got you some."

What are your "socks" for Mother's Day?

Friday, May 1, 2015

More on Vaccination: A Simple Risk-Benefit Analysis Regarding the Measles Vaccine

The other day, I took my perfectly healthy, 18-month-old son to the doctor. The nurse weighed him and measured his height (27lbs., 4oz., and 33.25"). The doctor looked in his eyes, nose, mouth, and ears, felt his abdomen, listened to his heart and lungs, asked some questions about his development. Then the nurse came back, and I held him still for a minute while the nurse swabbed his bare thigh with some alcohol and jabbed him with a needle. My son cried indignantly. I put his pants on, thanked the nurse and doctor, declined to make a further appointment at the moment (his next checkup will be when he turns two), and left the office. I buckled him and his brother into their car seats (checking to make sure their straps were properly tightened and their chest clips were aligned with their arm pits), then drove them to the park, where they played for an hour with a babysitter while I went to appointment of my own. It was a sunny, gorgeous, perfect day, and the boys had fun going down the slides, swinging, and eating a snack. I picked them up, buckled them carefully into their car seats again, and drove to McDonald's, where they ate a special lunch. Then we got back in the car and drove home, following traffic laws. I nursed the toddler in his bed, and he fell asleep and took a nap while his brother watched TV. The rest of the day was similarly uneventful.

The next day while getting the toddler dressed, I checked his thigh where he had been given the shot and couldn't find the spot where the needle went in.

Today, he is cheerfully playing with his brother in the living room. We're going to the supermarket soon. Later, we'll go see the oldest in the school talent show and have tacos for dinner.

If you're waiting for some kind of dramatic, "AND THEN," you're not going to get one. And that's the point.

I have "come out," as it were, as pro-vaccination. I believe that vaccinations are one of the greatest medical advancements and discoveries of the past several centuries. I have seen the data and charts and listened to the expert researchers. I have read articles by people who believe vaccinations are in some way harmful and do not find their arguments to be convincing. All four of my children are and will continue to be vaccinated according to the schedule recommended by the CDC and their pediatrician. The only vaccination I refuse is the hepatitis B shot at birth, because I have done my research and learned that the purpose of the newborn hep B vaccination is to prevent vertical transmission of hepatitis B from the mother. Since I know I do not have hepatitis B, I feel it is unnecessary to give this vaccination immediately upon being born. My concern is that so much happens in the first day or two postpartum that I want to do as little as possible to disrupt my new baby's simple needs to be near me and breastfeed, while still taking the recommended courses of action when medically appropriate. Thus, my children begin the hep B series at their two-month checkup, along with several other shots.

You only hear stories about people who have a story to tell. When their day is as completely ordinary as mine was, it's not interesting. And since most of the millions of children who receive vaccines each year have completely ordinary days afterward, we don't hear their stories. See, it's easy to use scare tactics to drum up public outrage and support for your cause. And when you've personally witnessed a child who had a bad reaction to a vaccination, it's completely understandable that you would be scared that something like that could happen to your own child. I get that.

The problem is, what I encounter again and again when I see anti-vaccination rhetoric is a complete misunderstanding of statistics and how they work.

For example, someone might say: "Measles was on the decline before the vaccine was introduced." But that is not a correct interpretation of the statistics. Measles deaths were on the decline, due to better sanitation and medical care, but measles cases were still quite frequent, and so were complications of measles. According to the CDC: "In the decade before 1963 when a vaccine became available, nearly all children got measles by the time they were 15 years of age. It is estimated 3 to 4 million people in the United States were infected each year. Also each year an estimated 400 to 500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 4,000 suffered encephalitis (swelling of the brain) from measles" [my emphasis]. However, "Widespread use of measles vaccine has led to a greater than 99% reduction in measles cases in the United States compared with the pre-vaccine era."

Another misuse or misunderstanding of statistical information I see frequently is the assertion that while measles has caused no (or less than a handful) of deaths in the past 15 years, the measles vaccine has caused over 100. This represents a clear misunderstanding of how statistics and risk-benefit assessments work. Consider the number of measles cases there were in 15 years, and divide the number of deaths by that relatively small number. Your result is the risk of dying from measles in this century. The number of measles cases in the United States in 2014 was almost 600, and so far in 2015 is close to 200. So let's say there were 800 measles cases in the last year and a half (in the United States - there are millions of cases of measles yearly in other parts of the world and tens of thousands die from it). As far as I can tell there have been no deaths from measles in that same period - in the United States - or perhaps one. A toddler did die of measles in Germany recently (also a First World country with good sanitation and health care). If we say one death out of 800 cases of measles, we get a risk of 1/800 = 0.00125 or about 0.1% (which was also the risk of death from measles before the vaccine was introduced). Indeed, according to studies, the general risk of dying from measles is about 0.1 to 0.2%, or 1 to 2 out of 1000. Now, the only reasonable comparison to make with this is the risk of death from the measles vaccine. To find out the risk of dying from a measles vaccine, we need to know how many measles vaccines were administered in 2014 and how many died from receiving that vaccine, and do the same math. That number is harder to come by, but we can estimate. There are close to 4 million babies born in the United States each year. About 98% of these babies will receive an MMR vaccine at age 12 - 15 months. 98% of 4 millon = 3,920,000 (3.9 million). I can't find data on how many deaths are attributed to the measles vaccine in a given year, but for the sake of argument, let's take the CDC's report that there were possibly 3 deaths from encephalitis that apparently was caused by the MMR vaccine. (If I'm reading this correctly, that's three deaths ever, not three deaths per year, so I may be considerably overestimating this number. But, for the sake of argument, let's use it anyway.) So if three infants die because of receiving the MMR vaccine, out of 3.9 million who received it, that's a risk of death of approximately 0.000001, or 0.0001%. That's much smaller than the risk of dying from measles itself. If people stop vaccinating because they believe that the vaccine is more dangerous than the disease, then we will begin seeing deaths in the hundreds again, once mass outbreaks start occurring with the regularity they did in the 1950s and 1960s.

Of course, measles deaths aren't the only concerns. There are plenty of other complications possible from measles, not the least of which is that your child will have to stay out of school for a week or two, as will all of your other children as they almost inevitably come down with measles as well. This is an economic risk more than a health risk, but it's worth considering!

Now, I understand that if your baby was one of those three that died of MMR-related encephalitis, it is no laughing matter, and knowing the stats is no comfort. But sometimes, even if we do a proper risk-benefit analysis, and we make the obviously safer choice, we might still fall into the unfortunate, tiny percentage. That's true in many areas of life.

Here's a good example of how that kind of thinking works: Let's talk about seat belts. You won't find many people who would say that you're safer if you don't wear a seat belt, right? I mean, really, almost everyone agrees that you should wear a seat belt when you're in the car and that seat belts save thousands of lives every year. Most states have laws requiring some or all of a car's occupants to wear a seat belt when the car is in motion. Very, very rarely, we hear of a case in which a person's life was saved by the fact that they were not wearing a seat belt. Perhaps the car hit a guard rail and then went into a river, and if the driver had been wearing their seat belt, they would have gone into the water, but because they were ejected from the car on the first impact, they didn't drown. Most reasonable people would agree that there is a minuscule chance of being saved by not wearing a seat belt, and this is not a reason to quit wearing your seat belt regularly. There are far, far, far more cases in which people are saved because they were properly restrained, or, tragically, they died because they were not wearing their seat belt.

If you knew that one-in-a-billion person who was saved by not wearing a seat belt, you might be inclined to think that seat belts aren't as safe as the "experts" say they are, that wearing a seat belt is actually dangerous because it can cause bruising, or that wearing your seat belt means you'll be trapped in the car after a bad crash. You might be inclined to think that because your friend survived by not wearing a seat belt, this might happen to other people, too, and you wouldn't want to be the one who keeps wearing a seat belt and put yourself in danger of dying in a similar situation to the one your friend survived.

That all sounds ludicrous, right? The same type of arguments are made with regard to vaccines. Yes, unfortunately, tragically, some children suffer adverse effects from vaccines. A very, very small percentage of babies and children have experienced severe side effects related to receiving a vaccine. (Note: Study after study has failed to identify any risk of autism from vaccines. But other vaccine injuries do occur and are noted by the CDC on their website as possible complications.) I don't take this lightly. Indeed, I think more research needs to be done to try to identify individuals who are at risk of complications so they can be protected.

A final thought on this for the day.

If my car is broken, I take it to a mechanic to fix it. I might do some quick research on the internet to find out what the likely problem is and how much I can expect to pay to fix it. I might even look to see if it's something I can try to fix myself. But it is often the case that I need someone who knows more about cars than I do to investigate the problem and fix it. Sure, I could spend weeks learning all there is to know about my Toyota, find a supplier for the parts I need, and have a go at it, but most likely I would not do as good a job as someone who is an expert in the field. I haven't seen hundreds of Toyotas with this problem. I haven't fixed it dozens of times. I don't know all the pitfalls and tricks and shortcuts that can make the task easier, more efficient, and safer. And I might end up doing more harm than good if there's actually something else going on.

People specialize in various fields and become experts in those fields. Most people cannot be experts in everything. When we need information or action regarding a field we are not as familiar with, we consult someone who lives and breathes that subject. If we don't like what they have to say, we find another expert and get another opinion from someone who also lives and breathes that subject. If I don't like the quote the first contractor gave me for replacing the floor in my kitchen, I'll call another one. I don't know how to lay flooring and I don't think I'd do a good job. If I don't like the landscape design the first gardener proposed for my front yard, I might call another gardener and get his thoughts. I don't know anything about gardening and design, or irrigation systems, or native plants, so I wouldn't trust myself to do a good job.

In a similar vein, I can do some reading on the internet about vaccines, how they work, risks and benefits, and so on, but I don't trust myself to be able to completely assimilate all of this information because I don't understand all of it. I haven't spent years studying biology, epidemiology, immunology, statistics, anatomy, physiology, and so on. The best I can do is some shallow research, learn what questions I'd like to ask, and then ask the people who have spent years studying those things, and who live and breathe this kind of work, to explain it to me as best they can. And when those experts recommend a course of action - and not just one of them, but something close to all of them - then it makes sense to me to follow that advice.

This is also my stance when it comes to other aspects of life. For example, overwhelming evidence from decades of research has concluded that breastmilk is the optimal nutrition for babies and that breastfeeding results in healthier babies and a healthier population. Thus, I advocate for breastfeeding, breastfeeding education, and breastfeeding support.

When there is more ambiguity in the research results, such as those that report on various types and effects of diet and exercise, then I read what I can and make a decision I feel comfortable with based on what we know so far. I may also consult people whose opinions I trust for what they recommend or understand about the subject.

I understand enough about statistics to look at the statistics I'm given even by people who are against vaccination and make an informed risk-benefit analysis. I am comfortable - very comfortable - with my decision to administer vaccines to my children and to have appropriate ones administered to me as well. And, from the standpoint of public health, I understand enough about how disease spreads to know that it's important for as many people as possible to receive those vaccinations.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

But WHY Is There A Correlation Between TV and Obesity?

I read an article the other day about a study that found (again) a correlation between TV watching and obesity in kindergartners and first graders. According to the article, the study found that these young children who watched more than two hours of TV a day had a much higher risk of being overweight or obese than children who watched less than one hour. But children who watched between one and two hours also had increased risk of obesity, even though the AAP suggests a maximum of two hours of TV per day for that age group. The takeaway here is, more than one hour of TV a day in 5 and 6-year-olds correlates to a greatly increased rate of obesity.

A simple response, then, is, "Kids shouldn't watch TV." But it isn't that simple.

Two things stick out for me.

1) This is a correlation, not a causation. They did not say that watching TV causes obesity. They even stressed that in the article. We see a correlation, but we don't know why. Why does watching more than an hour of TV seem to correlate to higher obesity rates? They also found that using a computer more than an hour a day did not have the same correlation to obesity, so it isn't the use of a screen, or the sitting and staring, that's a problem. It's the TV, specifically.

2) Didn't we already sort of know this? I mean, researchers have been studying TV watching for decades, and every so often they come out with another study that says, basically, "Kids are watching too much TV and it's making them fat." But they still don't know why. They used to think it was simply because TV was replacing physical activity, but that doesn't seem to be the case, exactly (see above).

Another article reported one older theory as to the reason TV watching correlates to obesity: It's the commercials. Kids are exposed to commercials that make them crave unhealthy food, and that contributes to weight gain. This is an interesting theory. To me, it makes sense, then, to study what kind of TV kids are watching, and how. With Netflix and other streaming services enjoying such high popularity these days, lots of kids are avoiding commercials. My kids rarely see commercials because they watch their shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime. So if there were a study that took two groups of kids, one that watches more than two hours of TV per day but exclusively on an internet streaming service, and one that watches more "traditional" network TV and are exposed to commercials, would we see a difference in obesity rates?

I'd like to offer a few other questions that should be asked.

- Are the kids who are sitting and watching TV more likely to be snacking while they watch?

If so, what are they snacking on? Perhaps kids using computers and iPads are not eating, because their parents don't want sticky fingers on the electronics. In this case, there should be a difference between TV-watching and other screen use, but there should not be a difference in Netflix versus network TV.

- Why are these kids watching so much TV?

Maybe the TV-watching and the weight concerns share the same underlying cause, rather than the TV directly causing the obesity. The L.A. Times article linked above said that the researchers controlled for variables such as socioeconomic status and demographics (which were the first variables my own mind jumped to for a possible explanation), but I'd posit that, for example, kids at home in the afternoon watching TV and snacking can cross demographic and socioeconomic lines, so there may be more that can be investigated here. My kids usually get up in the morning and watch some TV while my husband and I get ready. After school, I'm often working or getting dinner together and whatnot, so my kids, again, are watching TV while I do that. I'm lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where I can send my older two outside on their bikes to play most of the time, but there are plenty of kids in all demographics who don't have that luxury. Learning more about the environment these children spend so much of their time in would be helpful.

- What's the difference between using computers and playing video games and watching TV?

Why is computer use not correlated with obesity but TV is? Is it because the child's brain is more actively engaged when playing a video game than when he's sitting passively and watching TV? What is the fundamental difference, here? I watch my 6-year-old play video games and he's jumping up and down and shouting and generally enjoying a full-body experience while he plays. That same 6-year-old will then sprawl on the couch like a lump while watching Ninjago or My Little Pony. There's a clear difference in physical engagement with the media. I feel strongly that this issue requires more study.

My kids watch a lot of TV, so this data concerns me. My kids also play video games and use the computer, so it's not just hours of TV every day, but they do watch a lot of straight-up TV. I know why and how they've ended up watching so much TV, and the ball is squarely in my court to make the change, if a change is needed. Now, while my oldest admittedly is struggling with his weight, my other three are of average weight for their height and age, and I don't think the reason for my oldest's being overweight is that he watches TV. Frankly, my younger three have watched more TV at a younger age than he did. Now, an anecdote is not data, and my family by itself is not statistically significant, but the results of these studies may still affect my parenting. As a parent who likes data and science and evidence-based philosophies, I really want to know more about this phenomenon so that I can make an informed decision about my children's screen use. If I am given a compelling reason as to why there is this correlation between weight and hours of TV, then I can decide if I need to cut way back on the screen use or if there are other factors I can control that will mitigate the effect of the TV itself.

I watched a lot of TV as a child. Even in the 1980s, researchers and doctors were becoming concerned with the strong association between hours in the front of the TV and weight. I was far from an overweight child despite my television watching habits. But there are many more options out there now than when I was a kid, and there are other screen-time possibilities besides simply switching on the tube and watching what's on. There are other ways to watch TV, such as on a tablet, computer, or phone. There are premium and subscription services. There are tablet games and phone games and PlayStations and XBoxes. "Screen time" doesn't just mean TV time anymore, and it's very important to sort out what's the most harmful and why and to figure out what, if anything, can be done to help improve the situation.

Sure, it's easy to say, "Watch less TV." But sometimes that's not as easy as it sounds.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Maybe It's Depression?

Sometimes when I feel vaguely under the weather, I don't really connect all the random "not-quite-right" feelings into one, "Oh, I'm sick!" revelation right away. "Why am I so tired?" I wonder. "I feel thirstier than usual. What's with that?" "I'm kind of cold." And then someone mentions a virus going around, or another member of my family comes down with something, and it'll click. "I must have a cold!" And then the next day or a few days down the line, the stuffy nose, sneezing, cough, and other hallmarks of the cold will begin, as if by realizing I might have contracted a virus, giving it a name, brings it to life.

But it's only once I've decided, "Yep, I'm sick" and allow the symptoms to crash over me, to rest and up my fluids and behave accordingly, that I can then continue on to recover from that minor illness.

A similar experience happened this week, but it's not a cold I realized I have.

It's depression.

And it took about two months for me to link all my various, vaguely unpleasant symptoms, put them all into a box, and label that box "Depression," but once I did, it made total sense.

I've been seeing a therapist for several months now. I wasn't sure what I needed when I first made the phone call and set up the first appointment, but I knew I needed "something." Someone to talk to, someone to help me make sense of what was going through my mind. I wanted to be a better parent. I wanted to understand myself better. And she has helped me with a lot of those questions.

Then why, I wondered, after starting to feel so much better about life and myself and my parenting, why is it so hard for me lately to just be that person?

Why am I so tired? I mean, sure, the baby doesn't sleep extremely well, but it isn't worse than it's ever been, and it's gotten marginally better, and yet I feel so tired all the time.

Why am I eating all the time? I can't get enough sugar. All I want is pasta and bread and snacks and treats, six times a day.

Why can't I just focus on one task and get my work done? I'll sit down to do 20 minutes of work, and three hours later I'm still working on it. Sure, Facebook is engrossing, and Candy Crush is fun, and, yes, the kids keep distracting me and pulling me away. But even with all of that, why does it take all day to do one simple task?

Why am I so irritable? Every little thing any of my kids does just sets me off on an epic rant. I'm cursing more (I try to hold back the worst of it when I'm around my kids, but I've been letting quite a few more of those words slip through than usual). I yell at the drop of a hat. I don't like it.

Why do simple tasks seem so monumental? I have to do laundry. Ugh. Getting it out of the dryer is so annoying. I'll do it tomorrow. Cooking dinner? Forget it. I'll just make pasta. I have to put a check in an envelope and walk all the way to the end of the driveway to mail it? I'll take it out later.

Why is it suddenly so hard for me to run, when I've been running for six months now? I felt so sluggish, slow, like I had no stamina. I turned to hiking up the hill behind my house and staring out at the ocean instead of doing my interval training and working up to a 5K like I had planned.

Why do I feel so detached? Nothing is interesting enough to bother with. Yeah, I have an idea for a story or novel, but it's too much trouble to actually sit down and write anything. I'd like to read that book, but it's so long and big and heavy. I guess we could go to the park, but it sure seems like a lot of effort to get everyone into the car and all. Go to the beach? Nah.

The thing is, I'm functional. I do eventually get work done. I get the dishes washed and the laundry folded and put away. I go out and run/walk three times a week. I make lunch and dinner for the kids and do the shopping. I pick them up from school and get them to Hebrew school on time. I pay the bills and have been keeping up with the budget. I even took on a little extra work and am getting that done, too, albeit more slowly than I'd like.

That's where depression is so sneaky. It takes up residence in the back of your head and plays with your mind, manipulating your emotions and your memory so you don't connect the dots. There's no stuffy nose or vomiting or localized pain to signal exactly what's going on. There's no telltale rash or high fever to broadcast to you and everyone around you that you're sick.

But you are sick.

Depression is an illness. It's a physical problem just like appendicitis or diabetes. And just like those more obvious diseases, in most cases it is treatable. For some people, psychotherapy alone is enough to help them out of the fog of depression and on the way to normal function. For others, medication helps the brain manage hormones appropriately and regain the chemical balance that lets them recover.

I had my suspicions about two weeks ago, that maybe all of this discomfort was related. When my therapist suggested getting a psychiatric evaluation and discuss medications with a psychiatrist, suddenly I was able to throw all those symptoms into a box and put on that label. And even just doing that has helped me feel better. Just putting a name to it, understanding that this isn't the real me. This is an illness. This is the disease talking. I can manage a disease. I can understand it. And I can control myself better knowing that there isn't something horribly wrong with me as a person, but maybe I need a little help finding myself under this pile of symptoms.

It's so, so important to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of depression. Depression can be mild, but it can still rule your life in a way you're not aware of. When depression is severe, immediate help is vital, but a mild depression can drag on for months without any obvious manifestations except maybe a little irritability, a little sluggishness, a little, "Huh, I'm feeling kind of...not quite me," and you don't have to let yourself feel that way.

It's only once you identify the symptoms, attach the label, and put it all together that you can begin to find your way out. You may not even realize how poorly you were feeling until you start to feel better.


Please note that many common antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications are compatible with breastfeeding. Talk with your prescribing physician about options that will work for your situation.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Finding the "Yes" on Passover

This week is Passover. It started with the first seder last Friday evening and ends this Saturday after sundown. In the meantime, we, as Jews, are prohibited from eating any kind of leavened bread, along with other restrictions, which is both more complicated and simpler than it sounds.

It does mean a huge disruption to our routine, a change in the way we handle and plan meals, and me saying "no" to many requests for various snacks and favorite dinners.

My kids' spring break from school happens to coincide exactly with Passover this year, which is quite rare. There is often some overlap, but to have the entire holiday off from school is a luxury. Removing the need to pack school lunches from the already complicated week surely helps.

My husband and I want our kids to form happy memories associated with Passover. Rather than dreading it every year because they can't have pasta, rice, sandwiches, peanut butter, and pancakes, we want them to look forward to macaroons, special desserts, the excitement of the seder meals, and other treats.

But the reality is that kids are far more likely to remember the nos than the yeses. They won't remember that we gave them dessert every night and sometimes after lunch, too. They won't remember that we handed out macaroons randomly throughout the day and had bottles of Dr. Brown's Cream Soda on the table at dinner.

What they'll remember is that they couldn't have chips. They couldn't go out to eat. They couldn't have their hot dog in a bun or their meatballs over spaghetti. There's no pizza, no mac and cheese, and we're trying to make them eat way more vegetables than we normally do (because there's nothing else to eat!). And the only vegetables they're guaranteed to eat, peas and corn, are prohibited on Passover.

It's only a week (well, eight days, really). As adults, we know how short a week really is. We're adaptable. We understand the "why" and the "how." We can get creative. We know how hard we're working to provide a fun and interesting time for the kids, to provide good food and meet their needs. But to them, it feels like all we're doing is saying no.

For the first few days, we thought we could manage on just meat, potatoes, and eggs, but it quickly became clear to me that the kids needed something else. They needed some kind of snacky, non-healthy treat. I took them to a supermarket with a decent-sized kosher-for-Passover selection (45 minutes from our house), and we picked out some treats and easy lunch items to ease the "no" aspect. We had chicken franks for lunch today, to their delight. I also found fish sticks that are potato-crusted instead of breaded, which will be great for lunch tomorrow. We got kosher-for-Passover pasta, which is made from tapioca and potato starch and was surprisingly pasta-like in both taste and texture. I bought turkey lunch meat and some packaged snack items. I came home with much happier kids.

Parenting is always a delicate balance of meeting needs, acknowledging wants, and trying to explain that sometimes things are just the way they are. It's looking for opportunities to say Yes when it feels like all you do is say No. It's teaching and learning, giving and taking. None of this is more clear than on Passover.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Reflections on Being a Work-At-Home Mom

When I we first made the decision that I would work from home while our kids are young, I had all sorts of fantasies about how I would spend my time.

If I was at home, that meant I could chaperon field trips for school, volunteer in the kids' classrooms, attend daytime events and conferences at school, do activities with the kids like going to the zoo or crafts or gardening or baking, stay on top of household chores and cooking, run errands during the day, be available for homework help and supervision, not have to worry about finding childcare during school breaks and sick days, and save money on babysitting and childcare.

Now that I've been in the work-at-home (WAH) game for eight years (!!), I have mixed feelings about it.

Some of my hopes and dreams for this arrangement have certainly proven true. We have needed far less day care and general child care than we would have if I worked full time. However, I have found that I've needed to make use of babysitters and preschool some of the time, both for my kids' sake and my own. It's hard to get work done with kids in the house, especially when they're toddlers! I tell anyone considering going the WAH route: you WILL need some childcare, so work that into your budget!

Now that I have two elementary school-aged kids, all my plans to help out in the classroom and attend field trips are totally out the window. I discovered that I simply don't want to do those things, even though I theoretically could. Having two little ones still at home with me is part of the problem, because I can't really have them in the classroom with me, but even if I could obtain care for them, or even if they're welcome at a particular event, I tend to avoid volunteering. I also do need some hours at home to get my work done.

I have in the past made an effort to go out with the kids to the park, or take them out for lunch, or set up playdates with their friends on occasion, especially during school breaks. But, I find that I am very set in the routine of working at home. I like to work during the daytime hours as much as possible so I don't have to stay up late working after they're in bed, so I avoid multi-hour outings at mid-day, which is my most productive work time.

I don't like doing crafts. I do like to cook and bake, and I have started including my older two in those endeavors. Baking, especially, offers great lessons on measuring and math, and they seem to enjoy the process. Cooking is a very valuable skill, and they may as well start learning it now!

I do like to run errands during the weekdays. Stores tend to be less crowded, and if it gets done mid-day on Wednesday, then we have weekends free for other things. I do laundry during the day, too, which is super convenient.

Most importantly, though, I am home. If my son gets sick at school and needs me to come get him, I can. If there's a half-day, or conferences, or an early dismissal at school, I'm here and can easily go pick them up. I don't have to scramble for childcare if there's a blip in the schedule, like week-long conferences or the odd day off. I pick them up from school every day and can supervise homework. I can do doctor's appointments during the day or immediately after school, leaving early morning and evening appointments open for parents who have longer work days. I can and do attend their class plays and book fairs and other events.

The biggest downside to being a work-at-home, as opposed to stay-at-home, parent is that my kids don't really get the attention they would get from me if I were not working. Similarly being a work-at-home, as opposed to work-out-of-the-home, parent means my kids are hanging around the house doing nothing instead of being engaged at daycare! It's a bit of a stuck-in-the-middle feeling.

When you work at home, naptime is precious!

If I take time away from my desk to be with the kids, I feel guilty that I'm neglecting my work. I feel pulled toward my computer so I can get more done, bill more hours, earn that paycheck. But if I am sitting at my desk working, I feel guilty that my kids are in another room trying to entertain themselves. I am impatient with them when they interrupt me for needs and wants, and I don't like having to ignore them for stretches at a time so I can finish up my work. It's very difficult to find a balance.

I love my job and the flexibility it offers so that I can be home. But I know that the fantasy I had, of being available to my kids, just isn't the reality I'm living. I'm in a funny in-between place, and it's hard to define my role.

Being at home means I get to see moments like this, when the toddler found a hat and just had to wear it!

I do tend to believe, though, is that my kids will remember that I was there. They'll remember being picked up by (or coming home to) Mommy every afternoon. They'll remember being cared for by me. They'll know I was doing my best to give them what they need while meeting my own needs and the needs of the family as a whole. I do sometimes wish I had a regular office job and they were all in school or daycare all day. I do sometimes wish I didn't have to work at all and I could be a full-time stay-at-home mom. But I think either way I would be in some way less happy than I am now, in this funny in-between place.