Monthly Archives: February 2012

You know, I’m OK with my miscarriage

Recently I’ve seen a couple different discussions of miscarriage that emphasize how grave and terrible a miscarriage is, including this article from Babble: 10 Things You Should Never Say to a Miscarriage Survivor.  Now, I agree with that article – those are really stupid things to say to a woman who’s just had a miscarriage.  And I certainly agree that a miscarriage is a terrible experience.  Everyone knows that “miscarriage” means losing a pregnancy, but there are further nasty elements I didn’t know about until I had one.  First, it’s a fairly drawn-out process, rather than an event.  It took several days for my body to finish the obvious part of the process, and several weeks for my HCG levels to drop and the medical visits to be over.  Also, miscarriage really kicks you while you’re down – you’re having this traumatic emotional experience, and in addition it’s painful and can be really horrifyingly gross.  So I agree that miscarriage  is a terrible experience on just about every front.

But the thing that isn’t true for me is the idea that it’s a lasting trauma.  Of course I felt gutted when the doctors told me what was happening, and all my hopes for that baby disappeared.  But really, my main source of pain was the worry that I would never be able to have a baby at all (it was my first pregnancy).  As it turns out, one year after my miscarriage, I had a three week old baby.  I was very nervous during the first few months of that second pregnancy, but everything went fine.  She’s a terrifically wonderful 8 year old now.  And she’s part of the reason I don’t have lasting pain about that first pregnancy – as you can see from the timing, she wouldn’t be possible if that first pregnancy had stuck.  Of course if it had, I’d have a different fabulous kid and wouldn’t know I was missing anything, but still my hindsight will forever be colored by my love for this child.  So the comment that “they will always grieve the one they never got to know” just doesn’t apply to me.  I really don’t grieve anymore, even though I did have to grieve at the time.

People say you never get over a miscarriage, and it will be sad forever.  Again, this isn’t the case for me.  I can remember how sad and wretched I was at the time, and I can imagine that many women do feel lasting sadness, but actually I have gotten over it.  People say that losing a pregnancy is the same as losing a born child, and for me that’s also untrue.  I think I would truly be sad forever if I lost one of my children.  Maybe it’s because I really don’t view an embryo as a “baby.”  In fact, it upset me that the medical professionals who informed me of my miscarriage kept saying “your baby.”  I felt distressed enough at the end of all the potential and hopes, I didn’t want people telling me I’d lost more than I actually felt I had!  Of course this is difficult for the health care folks to navigate – probably a majority of women would prefer they use the term “baby” and would be offended and hurt if they said “embryo” or “fetus” instead.

And that’s the real upshot of all this musing – it’s legitimate for women to feel however they feel after having a miscarriage.  And they’re bound to have strong feelings.  That combination is what makes all those dumb comments so problematic – no matter what you think you know about miscarriage, each woman is going to have extremely potent and individual feelings (and some of them may even conflict with each other), and to vocally assume you know her feelings is insensitive.  I agree that the best thing to say is “I’m sorry.”  Maybe “Is there anything I can do for you?”  And if you’re close, I’ll offer something useful a family member said to me: “It’s OK to feel awful, and it’s OK to feel OK too, when you do.”

(Oh, and I have some black humor for you that I appreciated even at the time, when I was grieving.  If you are having a miscarriage and you stay up all night watching movies to distract yourself, do not choose the ones I did: Like Water for Chocolate (huge focus on a baby and breastfeeding), Love and Sex (main character has a miscarriage), and Someone Like You (main character’s sister has a miscarriage).  I kid you not, I had no idea about the movies except the first was critically acclaimed and I’d been meaning to see it, and the latter two were fun, silly romcoms – what better to take my mind off my own troubles!)

Nutritionism and baby formula

Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Ruth Uchida, left and Haruko Nagahiro, m . . . - NARA - 539478I’m listening to the audiobook of In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan.  I’m on Chapter 1, and I’m already blown away – he’s such a great writer, and his message is so applicable to my life.  One thing that struck me as he began discussing nutritionism (the ideology that food is significant only for its nutrients, and how they promote health) was that the approach was perfectly illustrated by the history of baby formula – we figured out protein, fat, and carbohydrate, and got really excited and obsessed about analyzing foods for those building blocks, and assumed we had it all figured out.  Feed babies a liquid with the same amounts of macronutrients as found in human milk, and babies would thrive even without mother’s milk.  Only we started finding new constituents of breast milk that we’d missed originally, and we saw the babies using the formula develop health problems.  And this continues up to this day!

Well, shut my mouth if Pollan didn’t quickly come to the baby formula issue, saying exactly what I had been thinking.  “The entire history of baby formula has been the history of one overlooked nutrient after another…and still to this day babies fed on the most ‘nutritionally complete’ formula fail to do as well as babies fed human milk.  Even more than margarine, formula stands as the ultimate test product of nutritionism and a fair index of its hubris.”

Maybe what we need to do is stop blaming individual mothers for “choosing” formula (often moms don’t really have viable options), and acknowledge that our whole culture around eating is seriously messed up.  Science is great – you guys know I love science!  But we do tend to get overly enamored of its fruits sometimes.  America especially strikes me as besotted with technology, even when actual science shows us that the technology produces poor outcomes.  We like gadgets, we like control, and we like improving on things.  And we’ve become so used to this approach that we have trouble seeing when we should chuck it.  Margarine turns out to be more evil than butter?  The answer is to take out the trans fats . . . and add fiber to it . . . and also add probiotics.  Never mind eschewing processed food and eating whole foods like our ancestors did.  Baby formula isn’t close enough to breastmilk to protect babies’ health?  The answer must be to add DHA to it . . . and probiotics!  Never mind changing our work life to allow moms to actually feed their babies breastmilk, or making sure pediatricians have extensive knowledge of breastfeeding support.

It’s heavy stuff to ponder – I feel a bit panicky at the prospect of abandoning my nutrient-focused, “food for health” perspective and maybe just eating like people did before Kellogg’s (and Nestle, of course).  But maybe I can do it, if I learned to trust my body to feed my babies properly, and changed my personal culture to ditch nutritionism and trust appetite.

Sleeping through the night – preschool edition

Getting up throughout the night with an infant can really wear you out, but there’s a special suckiness to having an older child who slept well for a while, then started waking  up multiple times a night.  It’s like your brain and body get calibrated to sleeping all night, and getting wrenched out of that routine makes the effects of sleep deprivation all the worse.  Or maybe you just get soft.  Or perhaps it’s the unfairness of it that makes it seem more bitter – “I thought we were done with this!”

Sadly though, lots of children seem to go through this.  Getting a baby to the point of sleeping through the night isn’t a one-time achievement, but actually the first in a series of parenting challenges regarding sleep.  Preschoolers can be delightful and amazing as they start to really become individual people who understand how the world works, but all that independence and knowledge can also lead to night time waking and fears about going to bed.

In our case, we’re facing the aftermath of a nasty illness that broke up our kid’s sleep for many nights in a row.  One night when she was coughing every minute or so, I finally just brought her downstairs and we watched TV for a while.  As you can imagine, she has extremely fond and vivid memories of this occasion.  It would be awfully tempting for her to just wake all the way up when she has a brief awakening in the middle of the night, and call me to see if we can do it again.  In addition, it can just become a habit to have a parent come when the child wakes, and they begin to rely on intervention to get back to sleep, and continue to do so even when they’re well again.

So, what can be done?  Sure, some people will tell you that the answer is to shut the door and let ’em cry, however long it takes.  Y’all know that I don’t really buy the hysteria over possible brain damage and permanent, severe psychological problems allegedly caused by leaving children to cry to sleep.  But that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good, go-to idea.  The good news when it comes to preschoolers is that you can reason with them to a certain degree – an option unavailable with infants.

Elizabeth Pantley pursued this course most sensibly in writing her excellent book The No Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers.  She interviewed children and asked them what approaches would inspire them to sleep all night and not call on their parents.  I’ve taken one of the top answers and put my own spin on it to solve our preschool sleep problems.

What answer is that?  Brazen, unapologetic bribery.  Most kids said they’d roll over and go back to sleep on their own quite happily if they got a small toy in return once morning came.  So here’s what we do at our house.  At bedtime, the child gets a ticket (I use Avery printable business cards that I bought for some other purpose long ago).  The two sides represent the two options the child can “spend” the ticket on.  She can call me in the middle of the night, and turn in her ticket then (that side is shown at the top of this post).  Or she can keep it all night and turn it in for an item from the prize bucket:

If she’s actually sick, or the power goes out, or something like that, a visit from Mom is free.

I like the ticket plan because it gives the child something they have to give up to get a visit, which gives it a bit more oomph (we tend to value things we’re asked to give up more highly than things of equal value we have an opportunity to obtain).  At the same time, I frame it as spending the ticket, a value-free description.  Losing the ticket isn’t a punishment, but the child opting to trade the potential toy for a parental visit, if she decides that’s worth more to her.  It keeps everything very positive and fun.

For the record, we had great success with this idea with Chloe, and we decided to introduce it with Claire as she began recovering from her cough.  It has worked like a charm, and she’s been sleeping all night without intervention ever since her cough calmed down!  Once our current prize bucket is empty, we’ll switch to turning in the ticket to get a sticker on a chart, which will eventually lead to getting a toy, and then once that toy is earned, let the system go.  There might be some complaining, but by then she’ll be in such a rhythm of good sleep, it should hold.  And I’m not afraid to drop $10 at the Dollar Tree again if she has troubles again in the future!

Learning about the solar system

Isn’t this cute?  I saw it on Pinterest, and it really is adorable.  Unfortunately it also gives the impression that:

  • All the planets are bunched around the sun such that they jostle each other as they orbit
  • In fact, Mercury, Mars, Neptune, Earth, and Venus seem to share the same orbital distance, as do Uranus and Saturn
  • All the planets are close in size – Mercury is about half the size of Jupiter
  • There are stars sprinkled amidst the planets (though arguably those are distant stars in the background, I suppose)
  • We’ve sent the space shuttle zooming out to visit Jupiter and Uranus
  • Maybe the astronauts were visiting the one-eyed green aliens out in that vicinity
  • And of course, Pluto is a planet

Now, I know this picture isn’t meant to be Serious Science Education – the planets all have adorable little faces, after all.  But I do think kids get very wrong ideas about the solar system from popular media (check out Bad Astronomy!), and this made me search out some fun and illuminating ways to show them how things really are.

For a fabulous demonstration of the scale of our solar system, check out this half-mile-wide web page.  Make sure your scrolling hand is in good form first!

For a more hands-on demonstration, you’ll need a roll of toilet paper and about 120 feet of space to work in, if my guesstimate is right.

On a nice day,  you could find an outdoor area where you can go 1,000 yards in a straight line (good luck!) and make a model of the solar system in which the Earth is a peppercorn, Mercury is a pinhead, and the sun is an 8 inch ball.  At Home Astronomy also has some other fun astronomy activities for kids.

If you have an old car that’s got 230,000 miles on the odometer, you can tell your kids the car could have driven to the moon!

You can read stories and watch movies, and talk about how science fiction writers have attempted to deal with the ridiculous amount of space between us and other planets – warp drives, cryogenic “sleep,” mass effect relays (yes, I’m impatient for the new game to come out), and so on.  And don’t forget to talk about the problem of communication over vast interstellar distances, which inspired Ursula K. LeGuin to imagine the ansible, a device which has become a standard part of scifi writing.

And regarding Pluto, you can watch the charming and funny Neil deGrasse Tyson in The Pluto Files.

I’m not saying don’t watch dumb Hollywood movies that get astronomy all wrong, or buy cute prints for the nursery with goofy aliens on them.  Just that it’s a good idea to balance out the “facts” that get mangled for dramatic or artistic purposes with some fun and amazing education on how things really are.

(Since I criticized her solar system piece, I should point out that Steph Says Hello has a lot of really cute, fun artwork you should check out.)

Discussing death with kids – secular style

Cake AND death!

Now that my little one isn’t quite so snotty/coughy/awake-all-night-y, here’s a quick post for discussion: how do parents who don’t believe in an afterlife talk about death with their kids?

Since Chloe is 8, she’s starting to understand death in a more adult way – like, it’s permanent.  And real – it will happen to everyone she knows, including her.  She had a bad fall and busted up her face pretty good last Friday, and I think that contributed to her pondering this stuff.

I can’t help but pull out a little hope for life everlasting by introducing the concept of transhumanism, but at the same time I feel the need to deal with the idea that one day we’ll just stop, and we won’t be anymore, in any capacity, for eternity.  Luckily Mark Twain has thought of a great quip to cover this most grave of contemplations: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

How do you discuss death with your kids?  If you believe in an eternal afterlife, how do you avoid freaking them out with the idea of endless aeons of consciousness?  Because that freaked me right the hell out as a Catholic child!  Before ever reading it, I had intuited the punchline of Stephen King’s story “The Jaunt.”  But perhaps I have always just been far more morbid than the average person.

Product review: Basic G

Crunchy moms are always looking for cleaning products that really work, without exposing the family to toxic fumes or unduly harming the environment.  Vinegar has to be the number one recommended “natural” cleaner, and it does work for a lot of applications, particularly cleaning glass.  There are indications that vinegar disinfects, but as this article points out, the claims for vinegar’s disinfection properties are often vague, and purported demonstrations of its effectiveness in isolated tests just doesn’t give me that warm fuzzy feeling that official documentation does.  Well, Shaklee claims to offer the best of both worlds – their Basic G disinfectant has those reassuring government tests demonstrating it’s effective against 40 different microbes, while they say it’s better for the environment and safer for the user than the mainstream alternatives.

Basic G lists didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride and n-Alkyl (C14-50%, C12-40%, C16-10%) dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride as its active ingredients.  Shaklee’s information is full of happy-sounding but somewhat imprecise descriptors like “no fumes,” “safe,” and “environmentally friendly.”  I have to say I’m rather frustrated as I try to figure out whether this stuff is really much better for humans or the Earth than bleach or Lysol.  Shaklee doesn’t offer any concrete evidence.  Googling turns up lots of breathless reviews that take Shaklee’s claims at face value, and a couple sites that complain the ingredients are toxic.  Of course, I suspect these sites are pretty quick to clutch their pearls at any “chemical,” and would object to any cleaner that isn’t safe for use as a dessert topping.

Shaklee likes to note that Basic G is “EPA registered,” leaving the implication that the product is somehow certified to be environmentally friendly, but that is not what “EPA registered” means.  If a disinfectant (in this situation referred to as a “pesticide”) is registered with the EPA, that means it has been tested and confirmed to kill certain microbes effectively, and the EPA has determined certain standards for its use.  That is certainly useful information, and one reason I like Basic G is that there’s official confirmation that it works, but I think many customers are going to assume the EPA registration means it’s “green,” and that’s not the case at all.

I can tell you that the Basic G concentrate bottle and the bottle it’s meant to be diluted in both carry the standard warnings against drinking, inhalation, eye contact, and prolonged contact with skin.  Some Shaklee distributors’ sites say the diluted product is so safe you could drink it, but obviously that’s not recommended, and the fact that the warnings come on the dilution bottle as well make me really doubt it’s that safe and gentle.  (It’s also worth noting that bleach, while it is toxic and can be dangerous, really can be drunk when properly diluted.)  After all, this fluid is meant to kill living organisms with minimal contact time.  Anything that can do that is going to be potentially toxic.

So, let’s assume that this is an effective cleaner that is relatively safe if handled properly, but which isn’t as benign as soap and water or vinegar.  What’s it like to use this stuff?  Well, Shaklee doesn’t make it very easy to use.  They offer a spray bottle specifically meant to hold the diluted product.  However, the instructions on the concentrate tell you how to make 1-2 gallons of cleaner, while the sprayer holds 16 ounces.  To use the right amount of concentrate for the sprayer, you need to do some fractions, then measure out 3/8ths of a teaspoon of Basic G for each 16 oz of water.  Unfortunately, the sprayer isn’t worth all this trouble, as it has two settings: “OFF” and a high psi stream that tends to rebound at you when you shoot it at any surface.  Now I know why the warnings suggest safety goggles!  I hied over to my grocery store and bought a 32 oz sprayer (takes 3/4 tsp of concentrate) with a fully adjustable nozzle that lets me set it somewhere between a spray and a mist, like I like it.

Now that I bought a decent sprayer and wrote the correct formula on the concentrate bottle, I’m pretty happy using Basic G.  I use it in the same way I used to use bleach solution – I spray down my sink at the end of cleaning, to make sure any foodborne germs are killed, and I spray counters that may have contacted raw meat or eggs.  For disinfection of cutting boards, dishes, and utensils I just use hot soapy water or the dishwasher.  To avoid anything nasty growing in my cleaning implements, I use dish cloths that I wash in the laundry on hot, and brushes that I chuck in the dishwasher.  I find soap and vinegar sufficient for cleaning my bathroom surfaces, as I don’t prepare food on them!  So my use of germicidal solution, whether it’s bleach or Basic G, is pretty limited, and I’m not too worried about having undue impact on our health or environment.

So, bleach or Basic G?  I don’t see good reason to assume Basic G really is greener than bleach, and I use relatively little germicide so any impact is minimal.  For Basic G, one $20 bottle of concentrate will fill my spray bottle 256 times.  Several Shaklee consultant sites mention that once mixed it will last for 30 days.  To obtain it I need to locate a Shaklee rep or buy it online and pay shipping.  With bleach, I need 1 teaspoon per 32 ounces of water, and I can buy 576 teaspoons of bleach for about $2.  However, bleach solution needs to be made fresh daily, which is a pain.  And yet, it’s much easier to buy some bleach during my regular grocery run than it is to procure a bottle of Basic G.  I think they’re about neck-and-neck.  But it looks like my current bottle of Basic G will last for a few years, so I have time to think about it.

Addendum, 2/20/13

Grace was incisive enough to question the assertion that one must mix new bleach solution each day. I tried to find a source for that instruction, and didn’t find anything concrete. The WHO states that “chlorine solutions gradually lose strength, and freshly diluted solutions must therefore be prepared daily.” The CDC offers the more helpful (if more math-intensive):

Hypochlorite solutions in tap water at a pH >8 stored at room temperature (23ºC) in closed, opaque plastic containers can lose up to 40%–50% of their free available chlorine level over 1 month. Thus, if a user wished to have a solution containing 500 ppm of available chlorine at day 30, he or she should prepare a solution containing 1,000 ppm of chlorine at time 0. Sodium hypochlorite solution does not decompose after 30 days when stored in a closed brown bottle

Personally, for home disinfection, this makes me feel comfortable using bleach solution for a month or more, since I store it in a closed opaque bottle, and I’m not trying to disinfect an avian flu site or protect a cystic fibrosis patient. I clean up, and the bleach is a little safety net. If my 1:100 solution winds up being more like .5:100 by the end of the month, I don’t think I’m going to worry about it.

Thanks Grace, for bringing this up!

Just adding a note – if you wish to offer some facts, or even opinions about how great Basic G is, have at it. But if you include any marketing materials, including any link to your personal Shaklee sales page, I’m just going to mark it as spam. So don’t bother trying to drum up business with comments.

Nursing in Public – Tips for Avoiding Problems

As requested, here’s a direct link to the graphic version of my list:

Fun books for skeptical families

While I want my children to have freedom of conscience and choose their own belief path, of course I hope that they wind up believing as I do.  And in any case, I want them to have a good perspective as well as critical thinking skills when they evaluate the field of possible religious and philosophical beliefs.  So while I avoid authoritarian indoctrination, I admit I do guide them towards skepticism and religious literacy (knowing about lots of religions, rather than being taught one religion is just the way it is).

If you’re a parent at all interested in this approach, get yourself over to Dale McGowan’s blog The Meming of Life.  After all, he literally wrote the book on Raising Freethinkers, and his work has inspired my approach.  I’m not as good as he is about getting the kids out and about, seeing churches and mosques, going to UU religion classes, or anything like that.  But that’s more because I’m an anti-social hermit than any flaw I might see in the suggestions.

So, what’s an anti-social hermit to do?  Why sit around the house and read, of course!  Here’s a sampling of the books we’re reading these days that give some perspective on myth and religion, as well as a smattering of books from my YA days that I feel helped set up my brain for skepticism.

Currently we’re reading Stories from India, from Usborne Books.  I really love this book – it has Rama and Ravana (looking suitably creepy), Ganesha destroying a buffet, and a jackal who fell into a vat of dye and became revered as a god, until the monsoon came and washed him off.  They’re interesting and fun stories, beautifully illustrated.  And they give some insight into how stories about gods and magical creatures go, which is great inoculation for when someone comes to your kid with a Bible and tells them it’s the Truth.  The reading level is just a bit of a challenge to my intelligent-but-not-a-smooth-reader 8yo.  We take turns reading aloud.

Simlarly, we have the classic D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths.  I remember reading this in 5th grade, and loving it.  It covers the standards: the birth of Aphrodite, Persephone and Demeter, the Labors of Hercules, and so forth.  But it also has some gems not so widely known, such as the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, a couple who survived a flood sent by Zeus to punish mankind for wickedness, and Atalanta, a badass girl who gave the guys a run for their money in hunts and foot races.  (If you grew up listening to Free to Be You and Me, you’ve heard a verion of her story.)  The stories are often somewhat rambling and they tend to flow into each other, so it can be hard to say, “We’re just going to read about Orpheus tonight,” or to quickly grab the book for reference.  But still, this is a winner.

On my list to buy/borrow, I’ve got Trickster and Anansi Does the Impossible, which will take off nicely from the themes of tricky animals and gods in Stories from India.  I admit I’m also setting her up to fully appreciate the awesomeness that is Anansi Boys, when she’s old enough to read it.

Another book we have on our shelf, but which is a little bit advanced for Chloe right now is The Number Devil.  It’s all about a boy who hates math, and a devil who teaches him all about the cool tricks of math and how amazing it can be.  I looked at the start of the book, where he talks about infinity (you can always add one to any number), and it seems very fun and intriguing.  I think I’ll have a better appreciation of math when we’ve read it, never mind my kid!

Now, to hearken back to my early teen years.  I was a voracious reader, and ironically I loved anything with a supernatural theme.  It probably started with John Bellairs/Edward Gorey novels or The Girl with the Silver Eyes.  I quickly progressed to The Chronicles of Prydain.  My uncle gave me ‘Salem’s Lot when I was 12, and I’ve read almost everything King has written since.  I tore through Lois Duncan’s entire catalog in short order (this was long before I Know What You Did Last Summer became a silly movie franchise), and I still remember my utter delight at finishing the Belgariad, only  to discover that there were 5 more books about Garion & company.  Oh, and A Wrinkle in Time – I’ve actually been meaning to re-read those.  They were spellbinding when I was a kid!

Weirdly, I think reading fantasy, science fiction, and horror can contribute to a skeptical mindset.  Maybe it gives your brain practice at thinking about magical stuff, while knowing it’s all pretend.  Maybe these books use their fantastical settings to explore ideas and themes that question our conventional beliefs.  I do know that lots of freethinkers seem to be nerdy types with a common love for these titles, as well as D&D, zombies, Joss Whedon, and video games.  Do these interests lead to disbelief, or do those of a skeptical bent gravitate to geek culture?  Hell, maybe it’s just the reading that drives the inclination to inquiry. In the end I don’t care – I just want to share these awesome reads with my kids for pure enjoyment, and if it helps give them a skeptical outlook, all the better.