Sunday, May 13, 2012

I practiced "attachment parenting" before it was in TIME Magazine.

I was one of those new mothers who, as the nurse prepared to discharge my baby and me from the hospital, turned to my husband and said, "They're letting us take him?"

"He" is now 23, having survived my bumbling attempts at navigating his babyhood. What saved me in the long run is something that's being talked about quite a bit now because of the TIME Magazine cover featuring a woman breastfeeding a preschooler: attachment parenting.

But back in "my day" -- I can't quite believe I'm writing that -- I didn't know what it was called. It was simply instinctive, and it worked for me.

I wore my colicky baby in a sling. His dad and I didn't let him "cry it out." I breastfed him "on demand" -- such a weird term -- because he didn't seem to know he was supposed to be hungry only every two or three or four hours. Besides, it was the one thing that seemed to soothe him.

He slept with his dad and me; at first, we chose the "family bed" because it was really the only way any of us could get any rest. (Believe me when I tell you that my child slept for 20-minute intervals, and that was basically all. I began to understand why sleep deprivation is commonly used as a torture method.) But after a while, we realized we enjoyed the comfort of resting all together.

Members of my family, all well-meaning, thought I was insane. First of all, I had put my career on hiatus to stay home, and money was more than tight. Second, attachment parenting was anathema to the Dr. Spock generation; several people thought I was destined to raise a child who would breastfeed until he applied for a mortgage. (I didn't, for the record, nurse my kids as long as the woman on the TIME cover has -- I think anyone would agree that's pretty extreme. But I did breastfeed for a longer period than was common at that time.)

What people failed to understand was that my generation didn't invent attachment parenting. Many of its tenets -- baby-led weaning, "wearing" your baby -- are practiced all across the world (by cultures that don't sexualize breasts nearly as much as ours does, for starters), and have been since time began. People who choose to parent this way are simply going back to basics.

Dr. William Sears, godfather of this method of parenting, put it best in TIME: "It's all about making the best with what you have." It's not about "rights" or "wrongs" in parenting; it's about listening to your instinct and doing what works for you. And the dire warnings are for naught; needless to say, both my kids eventually stopped breastfeeding and sleeping in their parent' bed.

Mothering in this way worked for me and for my family. If bottles and cribs and schedules worked or are working for you, I'm all for that. I think it's really all about giving ourselves permission to raise the children we've been given in the way that feels right to us, without fear of judgment from other parents who purport to have things all figured out.

My children are grown now, and they're secure in the knowledge that they're loved unconditionally. Perhaps that's because of the foundations we laid for them; perhaps a more conventional method of parenting would have yielded the same results.

Yet this must be noted: Their dad and I eventually divorced, and a few people have questioned whether our singular focus on our kids meant that we didn't focus enough on each other. A fair question, and I don't know the answer. But I do know that the way we parented them from the outset probably helped result in the cohesive parenting that continued, and continues to this day.

As we all know, babies don't come with owners' manuals. I count my blessings daily that I was able to raise my children in the manner that felt best to me. The woman on the TIME cover? I imagine that's her goal, too.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

You're a freelance writer? Maybe not.

When someone asked the other day about my occupation, I told her I have two: I work during business hours as a professional communicator for a financial-services provider, and at night and on weekends -- and occasionally at lunchtime -- I'm a freelance writer.

Her response? "Oh, I'm a freelancer, too!" I asked her what publications she writes for, and she said, "Lots of them! I write stories and send them to websites and magazines." After a little more conversation, it became clear that the woman is indeed a writer, but she's not a freelance writer.

I'm splitting hairs now, I know. But the conversation irritated me.

It didn't irritate me because I corner the market on freelance writing, by any means, or that I'm a better writer than this woman or anyone else. It bothered me because I believe in this distinction: If you're not getting published, let alone paid for it, you're not a freelance anything. Not yet, anyway.

And here's an illustration to show you why that is. I'm fairly good at baking; I love to create cakes and brownies and pies and all sorts of options to satisfy the sweet teeth of the people I care about. But when someone asks me what I do, I sure don't reply, "I'm a baker." Why? Because I'm not. It's a hobby and a pastime, but no one pays me to do it, and I'm not trying to build a business from it.

I'm also not a professional blogger. Blogging is not freelance writing; it's writing, no doubt, and it's a passion and an avocation and something I engage in to express myself. But no one is advertising on my site, and I obviously don't earn a penny for it.

I do earn some pennies freelancing, though, in large part because I've worked really hard and earned the trust of some good people. My editors know these things about me: I'm accurate, I'm thorough, and I meet my deadlines. There are a ton of good reporters and writers in this market, but because I've been around for quite a while and have rarely screwed up -- we won't mention the mayor whose name I misspelled back in the day -- my editors know they can count on receiving a usable story from me without investing a whole lot of time and energy.

Also, freelancing isn't easy. Try covering a meeting at which you don't know any of the players and aren't familiar with any of the issues and finding a way to get a story out of the whole thing anyway. Freelancers -- many more than just myself, obviously -- do that daily, and often after working a full day somewhere else.

And in this age of "anyone can be a writer" social media, I take pride in the fact that I was taught well, and that I know the mechanics necessary for a person to make herself readable. Don't get me wrong -- I love that social media has brought out the writer in so many of us, and I freely encourage everyone I know to jump on board. But if you're not on deadline, you don't do what I do. That doesn't make your writing any less valid; it just makes it a different type of writing.

Writing is one of those things in which we all participate, like eating and walking and bathing, so it's probably a little harder to determine a degree of professionalism than it would be for, say, a sword-swallower or a rock climber. (If I were to say, "I climb mountains" -- and that were true -- you'd be less likely to say, "Oh, so do I.")

But if I were to be totally honest, maybe there's more to this: Maybe I'm protective of my writing because it's the one thing that's always defined me. As a little girl, maybe I didn't have a mom and maybe I was too tall and maybe I was awkward and nervous and had bad hair. But with a pen or a typewriter, I wasn't "less than." I had all the confidence I needed.

So I guess it comes down to this: I am not the only game in town by any means, and I'd lend my full support to anyone who wants to be a freelance writer. If you want to be one, don't stop trying; chances are your hard work eventually will pay off.

But until that day, respect the fact that for quite a few of us, writing is not a choice; it's not a hobby. It's a way to pay the bills and, if we're lucky, create something that might make a difference to someone.

Don't call yourself a freelancer, and I won't call myself a mountain climber ... that is, unless I become one. Anything can happen.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

To the "plant people" on 66th Street: Thank you.

I walk our dog, Isis, every day, and if I happen to get around to walking her while it's still light outside, I take advantage of Urbandale's trail system. If I cross the street and walk about another hundred feet, I can access a trail that takes us a couple miles -- perfect for a relatively small dog and an owner who's still battling some post-surgical knee swelling.

A couple of weeks ago, I began noticing, behind one of the houses that backs up to the trail, something curious: A milk jug filled with water, with the word "free" written on it. And next to it, an assortment of plants, much like the ones in the photo above -- which I happened to take home today. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The owners of the home must be master gardeners, or, at the least, aficionados, because they have some really lovely landscaping -- terracing, shrubs, annuals, perennials, vegetables, flowering trees, you name it. And like many gardeners, they obviously end up with an overabundance of plants.

And they give them away. Daily. To strangers.

Now, I'm Italian-American, and like most folks of my breed, I like a bargain, But even I felt funny as I surveyed the plants that first day. First, I looked around for a "Candid Camera"-type arrangement (that's an earlier version of "Punked" to you younger readers). Then I channeled one of my favorite writers, Frank Bruni, who mentioned in his memoir, "Born Round," that his Italian grandmother always wondered aloud, "What would the people think if I take something for free?"

I understand that feeling; I mean, we can afford plants. But they were just sitting there, and they were perfectly good, and they were free. So I chose two, took them home, and transplanted them. What a nice thing for those neighbors to have done, I thought.

A few days later, as Isis and I walked down the trail, I saw more plants. I didn't stop, not wanting to seem greedy. But on the way back, I saw a woman and her son walking toward me with a child's wagon filled with the free annuals! So I didn't feel as guilty when I snatched up two more to take home.

Today, I saw three lone chive plants sitting out by the makeshift sign, and Isis and I gathered them up as we meandered home. And although I probably really, truly won't take more, I'm still amazed by this thing that's transpiring.

In this day and age, when so many of us don't know our neighbors, what's prompted these kind gardeners to go to the trouble every day of digging up their extra plants, packaging them in potting soil, labeling them and setting them out on the trail? Why take the chance that they'll be wasted by kids who will throw them at one another, or be taken by folks who won't plant them properly?

Every day as we walk, I tell myself to go around to the front of the house, ring the bell, and thank the neighbors properly. But I haven't yet done that, and I can't even really fool myself into thinking that this blog post will suffice as a "thanks."

So I'm honestly trying to figure out what to do in return for the generosity of these kind neighbors. And while I'm doing that, maybe this will serve as a reminder to us to "pay it forward" -- or, at the least, to go the extra mile and, for no reason at all, do something nice.