The Friendships That Hold Us Safely in Their Keep

5 07 2017

“One loves not just the happy memories. At a certain point in life, one is aware that one simply loves one’s memories,” wrote the novelist Natalia Ginzburg.

And that was the thing about my sister. She had been there for all of them. After she died, just over a year ago, my memories were all sad ones. The last hard days, the letting go.

Then, so slowly I didn’t notice them returning, other images began to reappear.

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Long summer afternoons, birthday dinners, and singing the Miss America theme song in the bathroom. Shorthand jokes. The rainy night we looked for my lost tooth under a pile of wet leaves.

Then, too, were our fights in the car, parents’ lives and parents’ deaths. A shared moral compass, a sense of humor. Landscapes and decades. Wrong turns. Failures. Diminishments. The interesting thing was, the older we got, the less any of that mattered.

As time went on, the sting had gone out of all of them. Whatever selves we had tried on in our life had been folded in, like egg whites into the batter.

What bound us together was not that we always liked each other. Because we didn’t. It was the certainty of each other, knowing that no matter what, she’d be there. Whether harm was coming from the outside world or inside our selves.

“I’ll miss you,” she said the day before she died, and that’s when I knew. This was going to be far worse than I thought. Not only was I going to lose her, I was going to lose all the reflections of me that came from her eyes.

As the weeks went by, my sorrow took the form of a solitary retreat with no idea where to go or why. A year passed and early one winter morning, I was in bed staring at the white walls of the sky. We had been a family of two, so the answer to letting go of my sister was still no.

When my father died 45 years ago, my mother sat at his bedside crying that she couldn’t imagine life without him. “I know you’ll always love me, ” he told her, “but I can’t bear to think of you wasting your life in misery.” He said that when his father died, his young mother turned bitter and unhappy. “Promise me, that won’t be you.”

The opposite of love, I think, is loneliness. One ties you to the center of the universe, the other cuts you off. Good friends came to get me. Slowly, I tried. Dinner, emails, joining them on short holidays, taking a friend’s son to college. Raking leaves.

Still, there was a reticence on my part, a hidden awkwardness. Not to overstay my welcome or use up my invitations. Scanning their faces for signs of weariness. I said thank you and would you mind, and kept on my best behavior, which can be exhausting.

I didn’t dare wear my torn leggings and black socks to breakfast, wipe my runny nose with my sleeve or throw a hissy fit. I didn’t keep anyone up late going over something I was writing or have a family joke told about me. The truth with a side of tenderness.

What is it really that makes us feel secure with our families, or with those who are like family?

To feel that we are valued, that we are not cast adrift. To trust we can be ourselves, and that all our many selves will be part of an ongoing story. To share the solace of being human. And know there is a place we will hear, as we slide into home, the umpire call, “Safe.”

Thanksgiving came and I was invited to spend it in Washington. The next day, five of us who had been a close-knit film team, former colleagues who had gone our separate ways, went to a new restaurant. The kind where you wear jeans, drink expensive wine and the waiter describes the farm where the chickens were raised.

The next day, they went back to their lives and I returned to New York. Everyone wrote what a good time they had and named their favorite dishes. I was ready to say the charred brussels sprouts and cucumber ices except that what I kept thinking about was not the food but how they had all rearranged their plans to see me. Everyone at ease, even in the pauses. Sharing good news and bad. Forks reaching across the table. Familial reminders, “Don’t eat that, it’s too spicy for you.” How for a few hours I did not remember to be on my best behavior, I simply was.

I thanked everyone for coming and said how much it would mean to me to do it again.

I added, “I think you’re stuck with me.” A friend wrote back. “Stuck with you? Did you ever think you’re stuck with us?”

This renewed desire for deep attachments is a sign of wanting to rejoin life, isn’t it?

My friends, I am lucky to say, held on tightly even on the days I wanted to let go. When I could find no place for myself, they did. By what miracle that happens, I don’t know.

I’ll never stop thinking about my sister; missing her is a part of me now. At the same time, I’ve felt a growing warmth in the company of friends.

An act of kindness can bring me tears. A bit of teasing slides me off the chair. A favor asked, a fear confided. A future assumed. A late night call for help with a son’s homework. With each encounter a piece of story is laid down, like stones along a path.

These ties of friendship that hold us safely in their keep, that shape and share our memories, are among the hardest, most mysterious and most precious of all. Moment by moment, year by year we entrust ourselves to each other. In light of life’s fragility, friendship is our terra firma.



Morning Walks With My Son

5 07 2017

When Lev was going into third grade he couldn’t decide whether to switch to a new school, so we made a list of pros and cons. The pro side filled up with cramped sentences written in Lev’s sweet, illegible handwriting, while only one word appeared on the con list, in huge letters: FAR!

Distance is definitely an important consideration when choosing a school, especially when there is no school bus available and your parents don’t have a car. But, still, the cramped sentences on the pro side won out, and Lev enrolled in the new school, a bit of a distance from where we live in Tel Aviv. There were three ways to get there: Take a taxi, ride a bike or walk. The walk took half an hour.

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A taxi or a bike would get him there faster, but I tried, every morning, to tip the balance in favor of walking.

There’s something magical about Tel Aviv at 7:15 a.m. The half-awake streets are filled with industrious birds and languid cats, but almost no people.

At first, on our way to school, we played a game called “Where’s Everybody.” Each of us took a turn explaining where all the people who filled the streets later were: They’d been abducted by aliens; they’d moved to an enchanted castle; they were establishing another Hebrew-speaking country in the African savanna. But wherever they were, their absence enabled us to discern all sorts of sounds and details we could barely notice when the city was bustling, and to talk about things that somehow, at other times of day, we had no time to discuss, such as:

Which superhero has a more highly developed sense of humor, Spider-Man or Hawkeye? (Spider-Man, by a knockout.)

And what government minister we wanted to be if the prime minister offered us a position in his cabinet. (I wanted to be education minister and Lev chose the very specific position of minister of desserts.)

There were regular stops on our long journey to school: the bald guy’s grocery store where we bought soft pretzels and chatted with him about sports; the natural juice bar where we drank banana-date shakes and heard updates from the bleary-eyed owner about his baby girl who refused to sleep at night; the square with the brazen pigeons that insisted on having all the benches to themselves and cooed in complaint whenever we tried to sit down next to them for a minute.

Since I am not a creature of habit, those morning walks with Lev became almost the only ritual in my life, a kind of slow, pleasant awakening in an equally sleepy universe, until one evening that spring, Lev had a slightly upsetting talk with my wife, Shira, and me.

He told us that all the kids in his class were old enough to walk to school alone and, at 10 and a half, so was he. I stammered something about living much further away than the other kids, but Shira traitorously pointed out that even though it was a long walk, there was almost no traffic, and so with a broken heart, I had to agree that there was no reason Lev couldn’t go to school by himself the next morning.

Saying goodbye was hard. Not to Lev, who looked even more excited and determined than usual, but to our shared journey, which I had grown so used to. That evening, Lev told us that he had walked to school quickly and arrived 10 minutes earlier than he usually did. The next day, he broke his previous record by two whole minutes. On the third morning, when I walked barefoot down the steps with him, a bag of garbage in my hand, I told him that I was proud of him for being responsible enough to walk to school alone but if he ever wanted company, I’d be happy to go with him. Not to supervise, I stressed, just to share a morning walk. He didn’t answer, just nodded, and after I threw the garbage in the bin and turned to go back home, he called, “Are you coming?”

That conversation took place a year ago, and ever since, we’ve been walking to school together every morning. Israeli sports, according to our grocery store owner, could use some improvement, the brazen pigeons in the square just seem to be getting fatter, and the natural juice bar owner’s baby girl sleeps through the night now and can even say “Papa.”

The day after school ended, the sound of obsessive bird chirping woke us to the first morning of summer vacation. After we brushed our teeth and got dressed, Lev opened the front door and gestured with his head for me to come. We went downstairs and began walking quietly toward the school.

“Isn’t it great that summer vacation is here?” I said casually, in an attempt to make sure he was aware of the new circumstances.

“Absolutely,” he said with a nod, and bent to pet a cat. “I don’t have to schlep my schoolbag anymore.”



‘My daughter felt forgotten’: parents on working late

21 06 2017
man with child on his shoulders with both smiling
 Less time at work can mean more time to play with the kids. Photograph: Bbernard/Shutterstock

According to a study by the charity Working Families, only one in three parents leave work on time. We asked readers to tell us why they work late and how their absence from home affects their families. Some names have been changed to protect identities.

Tina, 38, analyst, France: Small kids don’t need you to earn lots of money, they need you to spend time with them

There is no culture of presenteeism at my company – no one gets brownie points for staying late. If I chose, I could work at home more (I currently do one day per week at home), and leave earlier. However, I would miss out on social and professional contact, and the career and development opportunities that brings, as well as feeling more part of the team. No one is directly discriminating, but if I am not there, I do not get the opportunities that others do.

My kids would love it if I could pick them up from school. My son was asked recently what he would change if he were boss of the school, and he said: “No after-school club, the parents come every day.” When I do make it, they are so happy to see me there. If I could get home on time I would be with the kids more, to play with them, teach them things and help them with their development. It would give me more time to feel on top of things in life, not just scraping by day to day.

My mother gave up work to bring up three kids. She went back when I was about 11. We clearly benefited enormously from all her input in terms of our education and development. I feel like kids of parents who are around more get a head start in life. It may seem strange coming from a family where both parents have good jobs and are relatively well paid … but small kids don’t need you to earn lots of money, they need you to spend time with them.

Tom, 40, financial analyst, the Netherlands: I am sick of staying so late

 Staff reductions with increased workloads make for a permanent sense of job insecurity. As the primary source of family income, covering all expenses, including mortgage and school fees, I feel the pressure to ensure I can continue to support them. I seldom work less than 50 hours a week.

It is often hard on my children, who complain about what time I return home. My wife can be stressed by having to deal with the children for long periods without additional support, and I am sick of staying so late. That said, in the time away from work I do try to ensure that I’m present and available: that we spend good-quality time together, doing things like reading bedtime stories and walking the dog. But I’m a person who also needs alone time, and getting anything like a reasonable balance no longer feels possible.

Molly, 34, architect, Dublin, Ireland: Having to leave early for work means I can’t breastfeed my son

I think a lot of architects are still recovering from the last recession, which left many of us unemployed or out of the industry for several years. So when the whole office is still there at 7 pm it is difficult to be the only one leaving on time each day. It has a terrible impact on us. I have a young son and he will only go to bed for me. If I am home late he goes to bed late and is exhausted and upset. My current office is relatively flexible if I come in early but it is limited. The only reason I stay late is that being unemployed again is worse than the stress of working late and having a tired baby.

An unexpected problem I have is that it affects breastfeeding because with my working hours it is difficult to be there both when my son wakes and falls asleep. He only has milk at those two times, so some days he misses out on that crucial nutrition. That is an extremely difficult thing for me – to leave early for work with him asleep because he is exhausted, and me knowing he isn’t getting his milk.

Owen, 41, manager, Washington DC, United States: It’s affected the kids’ concentration at school

There is more work to do than the staff can deliver. I know that to keep my manager’s salary I need to continue to deliver the same results so I end up working until 7 or 8pm. I used to take work home to do after the family dinner when the kids are in bed, but as I get older I find it harder to motivate myself back to work once I’ve switched off. Hence I stay later. Mealtimes and bedtimes get pushed back. This was fine for a while, but recently it’s affected the kids’ concentration at school and even their grades – although I can’t say this is definitely the reason, it just feels like it. It also puts a strain on my wife, who has the kids all by herself for longer. If I had more time with my family I think they would be happier as the day-to-day events wouldn’t always come second to work.

Stef, 38, PR manager, Scotland: I probably don’t play enough with my kids

I like my job, so staying later at work is satisfying; I get home around 7.30pm most nights. It also helps to delay having to face the chaos of over-tired children, the bedtime battle and hours of chores that wait for me. I probably don’t play enough with my kids; my husband does that more than I do. I end up having very little time with them during the week, but I don’t work Friday afternoons so I make up for it then, if I can. Also, my house is an absolute tip – all of the time. If I didn’t stay so late at work, my kids might have a better bedtime routine if I were there, as I am strict about trying to get to bed on time.

Jason, 38, software developer, Nagoya, Japan: We feel guilty when we can’t do things as a family

The primary reason I stay late is the workload. The workload in an average week is about 65 hours, and falling behind is considered a sign of poor performance that can seriously limit a person’s career. I have no plans on staying in the same job beyond 45, and this means needing to stay late to stay afloat. Our son is less than a year old and quite an active child. My wife is always exhausted. She just doesn’t have time to accomplish everything she needs to do for her work, and everything she wants to do at home. I help out as much as I can with the laundry, dishes, nappies, bottles, and everything else, but there’s only so much noise you can make after 10 on a work night. When the weekend comes around, we want to spend as much time together as a family, but end up dedicating half of our waking hours to cleaning. We feel guilty when we can’t do things as a family. We feel awful when the house is a mess. But we feel exhausted by nine every night. Going home early would open up our evenings and weekends more.

Karina, 55, teacher, England: My daughter felt forgotten

As a teacher, it was impossible to complete work duties in a regular eight hour work day. As a single parent either my teenage daughter spent lots of time alone at home or she had to spend afternoons at my school watching me work. I was tired and completely overwhelmed. My stress levels were sky high and my daughter became resentful of my career, and she and I were on antidepressants. My daughter felt forgotten and acted out by ditching school. The irony of teaching, was that I spent more time with other people’s children than I did with my own child.



My Dad’s Sudden Outburst: ‘I Love You’

18 06 2017

“I love you.”

Those three simple words messed me up for an entire week. I asked my wife if she heard them, too, or if I was hallucinating. I couldn’t believe the man in front of me said them. It wasn’t the message, but the messenger: my father.

Who was this impostor? Could it be that this Pakistani-American immigrant, who grills halal lamb chops in boxers and sandals while listening to Sabri Brothers qawwali, had just said this to his almost-3-year-old grandson, Ibrahim?

I understand how fatherhood, and grandfatherhood, can profoundly change a man. The joyous burden forces some of us to adjust our career priorities, creates excessive anxiety for tiny people who don’t pay rent and inspires a lifelong goal of trying to become the only man in existence who looks cool driving a Toyota Sienna.

But this sentiment from my father was a drastic disruption of a life I had always known.

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In my 36 years of existence, my parents have never said “I love you” to me or vice versa. We are not an “I love you” family. Years ago, my mother told me “I love you” was for “Amreekans” and “goras” (white people), which at the time were synonymous, until they realized South Asians and other immigrants had every right to claim the American label as well.

On Facebook, I recently asked if other children of immigrants, who are now parents, have witnessed a similar transformation.

My old college friend Hooma Multani said some of us were used to a “Klingon-type way of displaying affection” and said her Pakistani father used to pat them on the back really hard instead of dispensing hugs and kisses.

“Unconditional love” for some of my immigrant-children friends was as mythical as wearing shoes in the house or talking back to elders. There was always an implicit understanding that love was very conditional, often based on achieving good grades and behaving properly.

Many of us grew up with chappal — sandal — diplomacy. If you messed up, you would figuratively “eat” the chappal or be threatened with eating the chappal in the near future. Yet here’s this strange man, my father, scolding me on FaceTime for using a firm voice with my son, who was running around naked throwing Lego pieces in the air. “He is special and very smart,” my father informed me without providing evidence. “You have to be gentle with him.” If I had thrown a single Lego piece fully clothed, I would have felt diplomacy across my face.

When I was growing up, my father did plant big, wet kisses on my cheeks, which I would wipe off with my palms. There were our weekend trips to comic book shops, consistent encouragement for my artistic endeavors, many terms of endearment (“Wajoo Baba” — no one calls me Wajahat in my home) and comparing me to pieces of organ meat in Urdu (it’s a sign of affection).

However, there were no “I love yous” or P.T.A. meetings attended.

Unlike me, my father didn’t spend two hours with the family on a Thursday night testing a dozen double strollers at Babies “R” Us, after already investing significant time researching different brands and prices. I also have zero memories of my father taking me to hang out with other brown dads wearing their babies in a 360 Baby Carrier at a park on a weekday without any wives present. In fact, if you saw several brown men alone with babies in a playground in the 1980s, you would be excused and applauded for calling the police.

My father does notice the difference. He tells me that for his generation it’s a cultural change. When he was young, he said, fathers weren’t expected to sit near their wives or even hold up their kids in public. My grandfather, whom I remember as being affectionate with me, was not “demonstrative” when my father was growing up. My father doesn’t blame him for his reserve. They were victims of partition, traumatized, forced to migrate to a new country. Even though they were loving, my father said “they had zero capability” to express their love as we do now.

“We don’t have the words for it in the language,” said my father-in-law, a retired Pakistani-American doctor, meaning there’s no phrase that is the literal equivalent of “I love you” in Urdu or Hindi. He now uses it all the time, not just for his grandchildren, but also with my wife and her siblings. He credits American culture and his kids for helping him learn how to express it.

I was thinking about all this recently as I was opening my Ramadan fast with a few friends, all children of immigrants, who are now parents. We were trading stories about how our parents have mellowed with age, softened with our kids and resorted to using Bollywood melodrama when it comes to guilt and discussions of mortality. We realized our parents are old now. Time can’t be taken for granted.

None of us had ever told our parents “I love you.” None of us had ever heard it from them.

I came home and called my father. I asked him why he never said it. He reasoned you don’t have to say it to show it. Indeed, it’s true, and my privileged life and upbringing was a testament to that.

“Sometimes people say it so much that it sounds hypocritical,” he said. “It becomes just words, and words don’t mean anything.”

But some words do have meaning. They don’t have to be hoarded. They don’t need formality. They can and should be given out freely. And it’s a sentiment that makes for a pretty economical gift. I know what I’ll try saying for the first time when I talk to my dad on Father’s Day.



Same-Sex Parents Still Face Legal Complications

5 05 2017

At gay pride marches around the country this month, there will be celebrations of marriage, a national right that, at just two years old, feels freshly exuberant to many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

But while questions of marriage are largely settled, same-sex couples who choose to have children still face a patchwork of laws around the country that define who is and who can be a parent. This introduces a rash of complications about where L.G.B.T.Q. couples may want to live and how they form their families, an array of uncertainties straight couples do not have to think about.

“There are very different laws from state to state in terms of how parents are protected, especially if they’re unmarried,” said Cathy Sakimura, deputy director and family law director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “You can be completely respected and protected as a family in one state and be a complete legal stranger to your children in another. To know that you could drive into another state and not be considered a parent anymore, that’s a pretty terrifying situation.”

Adoption laws, for example, can be extremely contradictory. In some states, like Maryland and Massachusetts, adoption agencies are expressly prohibited from discriminating based on sexual orientation. At the same time, other states, like South Dakota, have laws that create religious exemptions for adoption providers, allowing agencies to refuse to place children in circumstances that violate the groups’ religious beliefs

Alan Solano, a state senator in South Dakota, sponsored his state’s adoption legislation. He said he was concerned that if those groups were forced to let certain families adopt, they might get out of the adoption business entirely, shrinking the number of placement agencies in the state.

“I wanted to ensure that we have the greatest number of providers that are working on placing children,” Mr. Solano said. “I’m not coming out and saying that somebody in the L.G.B.T. community should not be eligible for getting a child placed with them. What I hope is that we have organizations out there that are ready and willing to assist them in doing these adoptions.”

But as a practical matter, lawyers who specialize in L.G.B.T.Q. family law say that in some areas, religiously affiliated adoption organizations are the only ones within a reasonable distance. Moreover, they say, such laws harm children who need homes by narrowing the pool of people who can adopt them, and they are discriminatory.

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Cathy Sakimura, the deputy director and family law director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. She cautions that, “You can be completely respected and protected as a family in one state and be a complete legal stranger to your children in another.” CreditPeter DaSilva for The New York Times

“There is a very serious hurt caused when you’re told, ‘No, we don’t serve your kind here,’ and I think that gets lost in the public discourse a lot,” said Susan Sommer, director of constitutional litigation for Lambda Legal. “There’s just this narrative that absolutely ignores, and almost dehumanizes, L.G.B.T. people. They’re missing from the equation here.”

There are a number of laws that can affect L.G.B.T.Q. families, from restrictions on surrogacy to custody, and the landscape is constantly shifting.

Within a single state, there can be layers of befuddling complexity, with certain rules in place that help gay families and others that restrict them. But even in states that tend to have friendly laws, life is more complicated for gay parents.

Alice Eisenberg and Anna Wolk live in Brooklyn, and they decided together to get pregnant. Ms. Eisenberg carried the child, and Ms. Wolk was an equal partner every step of the way. For legal reasons, the couple was married before their daughter, Olympia Bruce Lavender Wolk, was born, and both parents’ names are on the birth certificate.

Nonetheless, they are in the middle of doing a second-parent adoption.

The process varies from state to state — some states do not have them at all, instead offering stepparent adoptions — but in New York, the process is lengthy and complicated. Ms. Wolk must be fingerprinted and provide every address where she has lived, down to the month, going back decades. A social worker must do a home visit with the couple. The whole process will cost them about $4,000, they said, and could take a year to complete.

“We won marriage, and people thought the fight was over,” Ms. Eisenberg said. “But having to adopt your own child feels way more invasive, upsetting, disturbing.”

The Supreme Court has ruled that an adoption in one state must be honored in another, so even if a nonbiological parent is on the birth certificate — a right that stems from a recognition of the couple’s marriage — L.G.B.T.Q. family law experts strongly recommend an adoption, or some kind of judicial decree as the strongest protection.

“It seems both insulting and ridiculous,” said Ms. Sommer of Lambda Legal. “But sadly, the reality is, if you can manage it, you should do it.”



How to Be Healthy When Your Family Isn’t

5 05 2017

College students may be able to get advice from a registered dietitian within campus student health services. (GETTY IMAGES)

You can’t ask a 7-year-old to do the grocery shopping for a family.

Similarly, children’s “choice” of what they eat is largely made for them by parents – based on what options are brought into the home. Not surprisingly, research finds that children’s eating habits – the amount of fruits and veggies they eat, for example – are greatly influenced by parents’ own dietary proclivities. If parents care about eating well, their kids are more likely to eat well.

Likewise, whether parents prioritize physical activity – and if they’re active with their children – tends to be positively associated with children’s own activity levels. Parents’ caring about physical activity, higher exercise levels and encouragement of physical activity in kids is also linked to lower rates of obesity in kids. In short, parents’ and kids’ activity levels are closely aligned. “They’re very strongly correlated,” says Paul Veugelers, a professor of epidemiology in the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health and director of the university’s Population Health Intervention Research Unit, who has studied parents’ influence on kids’ health behaviors. “Parents are the role models for the children.”

Certainly families don’t live in a vacuum. Socioeconomic factors – whether a family grows up in poverty, which is strongly associated with how much education parents have – can have a huge impact, since less education is linked to poorer health choices. (Also, families with fewer resources may have more trouble affording healthy food and may have less access to parks in certain impoverished areas, among other disadvantages). So experts say it’s important to think in terms of environmental influences in the broadest sense, from schools and communities to society as a whole, particularly as an obesity epidemic has expanded the waistlines of kids and adults across the U.S. and in many places around the world.

However, at a most elemental level, the influence of the family on an individual’s well-being and choices remains strong, even as one gets older and leaves the home. “Families are central to how we eat [and] how we live,” says Marina Chaparro, a registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in children and families based in Miami, and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Really parents shape a lot of our habits and are a key influence in how we grow up in general.”

So when it comes to changing kids’ health habits – like improving how a child eats – it’s always a family affair. “Although individualized kind of treatments can work, when we’re talking about children, really we need to focus on a family-based approach,” Chaparro says. “It’s going to be really, really difficult to see any kind of change, especially behavior change that is long-term when not all the family is aboard.”

But where young kids’ healthy – and unhealthy – habits are largely established for them by their parents, as children reach adolescence, begin to challenge norms at home and grow into young adults who leave the home, there’s opportunity to break from unhealthy family traditions. Of course, even when not living under the same roof, making changesthat run counter to how a person grew up to live well can prove a tall order.

“Change is hard,” says Emily Ozer, a clinical and community psychologist and a professor of community health sciences at UC Berkeley School of Public Health in California. So she recommends starting with small tweaks. For example, for all the talk about diet and exercise, one could easily forget the third pillar of health: sleep. Instead, make a goal to get adequate rest if you’re among the 1 in 3 adults the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates don’t get adequate rest. In addition to the overall mind-body benefits of getting at least seven hours of shut-eye (and some adults need more like eight or nine hours of sleep), being well-rested can reduce the likelihood you’ll eat more to get through the day or to stay up at night, plus boost energy to support physical activity goals.

Trying to break from an unhealthy family tradition, and not sure where to start? Consider seeking guidance from a professional. That could be talking to a trainer at a local gym to develop a workout routine, if you’re out of your element or don’t know how to maximize your sweat equity, or seeing a registered dietitian to develop a healthy eating plan you actually want to follow. For those in college, some campus student health services have registered dietitians on staff who will work with students – including those with diabetesor who wish to lose weight or simply eat better – to develop an eating plan, Chaparro says.

Remember, too, that just as your home environment may have contributed to your eating poorly or spending a lot of time on the couch when you were growing up, if you’re living on your own, you’re likely to have more say in creating an environment that better supports healthy living to reduce the likelihood of slipping back into old, unhealthy habits.

If you have a choice in where you live, you might pick a walkable neighborhood and perhaps even find an area with access to bike paths, Veugelers says, where you could pedal to work rather than driving.



I’m not going to tell you again: we’ve hit Peak Dad

24 04 2017
From Balenciaga’s show at men’s fashion week, Paris
 From Balenciaga’s show at men’s fashion week, Paris. Photograph: Swan Gallet/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

Like many fathers of 17-year-olds, I’ve become accustomed to my son nicking clothes out of my wardrobe. I’ve put this behaviour down to laziness, combined with the poverty of youth. If I’m honest, I had taken it as a backhanded compliment too – a sign that maybe I’m not so past it after all.

But now I’ve discovered that he’s just doing what teenagers do – following the latest sartorial trend – Peak Dad, as interpreted by Balenciaga at men’s fashion week.

No doubt the Peak Dad look has more than a twist of irony about it, if these highlights from the Fashion Dads Instagram account are anything to go by. But it’s definitely a thing. It must be, as it has featured in all manner of style magazines, from GQ and Esquire to Dazed & Confused.

I’m not going to make any claims as a fashion expert, but as somebody who earns his living advocating involved fatherhood, and is reasonably up on how the media presents dads, I do reckon that lurking somewhere in this phenomenon is a cultural shift. I think it comes from a growing recognition, through personal lived experience, that a) dads exist, b) they might matter, and c) we might even want to celebrate them.

In 2011 I started a blog, Homer Simpson Must Die, in my spare time: an attempt to chronicle and analyse media representations of fatherhood. It felt at the time like a gap in the market. The blog didn’t last very long (did I mention I’m a dad?) But revisiting it now is quite interesting, because it shows how far we’ve come in the intervening years.

Barack Obama, pictured with wife Michelle and daughters Sasha and Malia, is the poster-boy of “Peak Dad”
 Barack Obama, pictured with wife Michelle and daughters Sasha and Malia, is the poster-boy of “Peak Dad” Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Not long after I started my blog, a dad from Pennsylvania went viral when he complained about a Huggies advert that played with the “hapless dad” stereotype. In the offending clip, nappies were given the ultimate test – being handled by cack-handed (literally, as well as metaphorically, one presumes) fathers. The joke misfired, and the outcry led the company to pull the commercial.

Later the same year, I railed against Procter & Gamble’s “proud sponsor of mums” Olympics campaign, and two Christmas ads by leading supermarkets (Asda and Morrisons) that effectively positioned mothers and fathers as two different species: one selfless and domestically downtrodden, the other lazy and incompetent. No prizes for guessing which was which.

Yes, you’ll still encounter the hapless dad – or his new best mate, the fundamentally lazy but creative “dad hack” dad. There’s a touch of dad-bashing in the Peak Dad phenomenon, but it’s different, more sympathetic.

It’s worth clarifying that there is still a long way to go before dads and mums inhabit a level playing field as workers and caregivers. Men still do just 24 minutes’ childcare for every hour done by women, the gender pay gap is 18%, and we have the most gender-unequal parenting leave system in the developed world.

But it feels like brands are finally noticing that younger fathers especially are taking a fairer and more active role in parenting, or at least want to (nearly half of dads under 35 would take a pay cut to spend more time with their children). Positive, hands-on fatherhood is becoming normalised.

My theory is that this is finally happening because today’s advertising and marketing executives have “lived experience” of dads who did their best to put food on the table and be a positive presence in the home, or who did all the hands-on parenting (albeit part-time, mostly) post-divorce. Some of them are now “living the dream” of hands-on fathering themselves, and then reflecting it back at us.

Could it be that this newfound recognition of dads’ fearless, stereotype-busting “doing” of fatherhood in a world that still positions mums as the parenting experts is the inspiration behind Peak Dad? A glance at its poster-boy, Barack Obama – by anyone’s estimation, a man who seems to have achieved career success and a high level of involvement in his children’s lives – suggests to me that it might be.

Fashion is, I suppose, about finding your tribe – communicating something about your beliefs, values and background to the people around you. Sometimes we look far afield for our inspiration; sometimes we look close to home, for comfort. I asked my son what he thought of Obama’s style. A quick sweep of Google Images and the answer came: “Yeah… he’s jokes.” And then, as if by magic, he stroked my arm and gave me his best pleading look: “By the way, have you got that sweatshirt I was going to borrow?”



9 Fun Ways to Get Kids Reading This Summer

5 04 2017
Mother helping daughter read book in library

Let your child take the lead in selecting books to read. (SAM BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN/GETTY STOCK IMAGES))

Did you know that kids can lose crucial reading progress during summer break? Fortunately, reading just a few books before school starts can save kids from losing those school-year achievement gains.

Parents play a crucial role in their children’s reading attitudes and behaviors, as well as helping them find the right book to capture their interest. Here are ways to get kids reading and help them develop a lifelong love of books:

Let your child pick. Most kids say their favorite books are ones that they choose. Kids also admit not reading if they don’t like what we select. So, get your child involved. Take him to the library or bookstore or show him online resources, such as ALSC Summer Reading Lists or Common Sense Media, so he gets a choice. While you’re at the library, join the summer reading program, if you haven’t already, so your child will have even more incentives to read.

Make sure the books match your child’s reading level. Check your child’s last report card or reading achievement scores for clues. You can also teach your child the five finger book rule: Have your child turn to any page and start reading. The child should put a finger up for each word he or she doesn’t know. If your child holds up five fingers, try another book.

Think outside the book. Don’t be too picky about what your kid reads. Cereal boxes, cartoons, the sports page, baseball cards and graphic comic book novels are fine. Find what piques your kid’s interest. What are her hobbies? What are other kids reading? Remember, what’s most important isn’t literary merit but getting your kid to feel comfortable with reading.

Carve out reading time. Kids say a big reason they don’t read for fun is that there just isn’t enough time. Set aside time so reading becomes a daily family routine. Eliminating just one TV show or activity could free up 30 minutes a day to read. Or give your kid the option of doing the dishes or reading a book. I’m betting your child will choose the book.

Make reading material accessible. Stash books in backpacks, bathrooms and cars, set them on the dining room table or put them in baskets, so it’s easy to pick them up quickly during a lull.

Build your home library. Research finds the number of books in a home strongly influences academic performance. You don’t have to break the bank, but you do need to have reading materials available. Dig out that library card. Go to library sales or book fairs. Stop at garage sales. Subscribe your kid to a magazine tailored to her interests, such as “Sports Illustrated Kids,” “Discovery Girls,” “Highlights” or “National Geographic Kids.” Or set up a book exchange with your neighbors.

Start a summer book club. Find other kids that your child can read with as part of their playdate activity. Start a kid-parent book club with other parents. Initiate reading parties at different kids’ homes: Everyone brings their favorite book, serve snacks and then let the reading begin!

Be a movie critics. Encourage your child to read a book, and then watch the movie version – and consider inviting your kids’ friends or neighbors to join them. “Harry Potter,” “Wonder,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” “The Outsiders” or “Hatchet” are a few favorites. Have the kids debate if the book or movie was better.

Read aloud. Studies find that most kids stop reading for enjoyment around the age of 8, which is also the same age we usually stop reading to our kids. So, keep reading aloud. Set the amount of time you read to match your child’s attention span, and gradually extend it. Have each family member who is old enough to be able to read take a turn, or have different family members act out parts of the book as they read.

Reading improves vocabulary, comprehension, test scores and attention span, and books can transport children to other worlds and transform their hearts. Reading can also help our children be more open to differences, cultivate new perspectives and nurture their empathy. Helping our kids learn to love books can instill lifelong memories and be one of our greatest parenting legacies. So go grab a book, and encourage your kids to do the same!



Empowering Women to Break the Jihadi Cycle

5 04 2017

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Husnul Khotimah Tuban had no previous business experience when she started her roadside shop selling sandals and dolls in Jatirogo, East Java. She had to work to support her two children and picked the trade almost at random. Business was fine. She could put food on the table. After she attended free entrepreneurship training last year, though, she picked up one useful idea: print some of the sandals with the phrase “This belongs to the mosque.” That simple tweak, she said, has turned local mosques into major clients, because it deters visitors from making off with the specially designated “sterile” shoes available there.

“We must constantly innovate products so that consumers do not get bored,” she told me, like a seasoned entrepreneur — which she is not.

Instead, Tuban had to go to work because her husband is a jailed terrorist, charged in 2014 with illegal arms possession and militant activity. Her business training came from an innovative University of Indonesia program that targets jihadists’ wives in an attempt to stop extremism at the family level.

Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, is well-known for its diverse, tolerant religious climate. But when jihadism arises — and it does — it tends to spread like wildfire among tight family networks. Generations of Indonesian jihadi cells have sprung up and evolved by now, from Darul Islam to Jemaah Islamiyah to today’s sympathizers with the Islamic State. For children born into such families, whose fathers are often incarcerated, the chances of forging a different path can seem nil. So imprisoned jihadists’ wives face the enormous stress of being their families’ sole breadwinners and, effectively, single parents.

Indonesia has long been a pioneer of counterextremism and rehabilitation aimed at male jihadists. Recent instances of recidivism show that these efforts are imperfect. Nevertheless, two fascinating, small-scale programs are taking a different tack: empowering jihadists’ wives through work and education to set them up for life outside the extremist fray.

Since 2015, the University of Indonesia’s Police Research Center has run the Entrepreneurship and Proselytization Empowerment Program to help the wives of jailed extremists through counseling and business training. It was created by Prof. Sarlito Sarwono, a psychologist with an abiding interest in extremism and terrorism who died last November. The program, continuing without him, has just wrapped up its first cycle of workshops for jihadists’ wives and has reported highly positive results from its 18 participants.

Another nongovernmental agency, the Institute for International Peace Building, also gives loans and business training to extremists’ wives, focusing on those whose husbands have been released from jail. It has now helped three such families get back on their feet despite the stigma that follows former extremists.

A key member of the 16-person Police Research Center’s team, who has taken a greater role since Sarwono’s death, is Nasir Abas, a former terrorist. Abas fought against Russian forces with the Afghan Mujahedeen in the 1980s, and then was prominent in Al Qaeda’s Southeast Asia affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, until he served a prison term from 2003 to 2006 and effectively switched sides. Now he advises the Indonesian government on counterterrorism. He has been instrumental in locating and speaking with imprisoned male extremists and persuading them to allow their wives to work with the Police Research Center’s program.

Three people visit every jihadist’s wife who enrolls in the program: a psychologist, a Muslim religious teacher known as an ustadh and a policewoman. After two or three visits to break the ice, the women can enroll in the program’s workshop.

“We need these women to be part of counterterrorism because they’re the missing link in the rehabilitation equation,” Abas told me. “When militant jihadists return from jail, we need another person in their lives to be a positive force.” Otherwise, he says, they face insurmountable odds in resuming a productive life.

The agency held workshops last year across Java, Indonesia’s most populous island. In addition to group discussion on the challenges of having your husband in jail and raising children alone, the women also receive business training from Sutie Rahyono, an entrepreneurship professor.

After attending the training, Tuban said, “I was able to start my business even though I had no prior experience.” Her business success has given her confidence as a homesteader — and to talk frankly with her husband, who is still in jail.

“I’m very optimistic because my husband has promised that he will not repeat his behavior or rejoin Islamic radical groups when he’s out of prison,” she said.

Judith Jacob, a researcher at the London School of Economics, explained that “the family unit, broadly conceptualized, is important to Islamist militant networks in Indonesia.” It is, she added, “not unlike what royal families in Europe did to secure alliances.” She cites Abas as an example: His sister is married to one of the masterminds of the infamous 2002 Bali bombings.

While these kinship ties are an important pathway to radicalization, she said, they could also function as the opposite, because “families are also obviously a support structure when militants are released from prisons.”

The program represents a potential sea change emerging in counterextremism circles toward more practical, less ambitious goals.

“Our target has shifted over the years from deradicalization to disengagement,” the late Professor Sarwono told me last November. “This means we don’t try to change someone’s ideology — there is, after all, no way to truly know what’s in someone’s mind. We want to reduce the possibility of re-engagement with extremism. And families are instrumental for that.”

The Institute for International Peace Building, the other prominent Indonesian program for wives of jihadists, takes a similar stance. It has given small business loans of about $375 to $750 to three women whose husbands have completed their prison terms. One woman who did not want to be identified publicly, along with her husband, who was released from jail in 2011 and struggled to find employment, were the recipients last year of a small business loan and training to open a stall selling “bubur ayam” — chicken porridge — in the suburb where they live with their children. In the end, he sold the porridge for only about six months, after which the stability and income he had gained gave him the confidence to transition into a job as a security guard.

Another released terrorist’s wife in East Java received two cows so they could get started in the cattle trade, and the third, in West Java, received training and equipment to start a fried-duck stall.

They are all now repaying their loans in installments.

“Women are more reliable,” says Dete Aliah, International Peace Building’s managing director. “When male jihadists go to jail, the entire burden of running a family is handled by the wife alone. And on top of all that, there’s the community and family stigma. They bear the consequences of their husbands’ ideology.” But that is exactly why they are in a good position to get their families back on track, she says.

Aliah has interviewed 60 wives of imprisoned terrorists, and said 85 percent of them want their husbands never to re-engage with violent extremism.

“These men long to achieve high social standing,” said Noor Huda Ismail, the organization’s founder. “What we can remind them is that there are paths to do so as a husband and father.” He should know. He became an extremism expert in part because he attended a radical Central Java boarding school known as the “Ivy League for jihadists.”

According to a midterm evaluation from its 18 participants, all viewed the Police Research Center’s job training program positively, and together they gave it an 85 percent approval rating. Among both projects, all of the women who started or helped to start their husbands’ businesses are still afloat, and none of their children have reported an engagement with extremism.

But both of these projects are still tiny. One reason is that Indonesia has a relatively low number of terrorists, especially considering the size of its population — 250 million. Abas estimates that between 400 and 500 terrorists, most of them men, are in jail. The projects themselves, though, are hobbled by two factors. Extremists are highly suspicious of the government, so nonstate agencies have to cultivate their networks and funding with discretion. But donors are hard to find.

“Present or former terrorists don’t trust — they have an allergy to — B.N.P.T.,” as Indonesia’s national counterterrorism agency is known, said Abas.

Aliah echoed the sentiment, saying that B.N.P.T. “are considered infidels, trying to weaken the jihadi spirit.” That is one reason that the two organizations aiding wives are both privately funded. They feel that they can’t, in good conscience, utilize government funding.

Nevertheless, private funding is hard to come by, because many potential donors are leery of engaging with terrorists in any way, and harbor doubts that reintegration can succeed.

“Donors are very hesitant to give money,” said Aliah. “They don’t want to inadvertently finance terrorists.” She said some prisoners’ wives in East Java are clamoring for training for a batik fabric business, but don’t yet have any money to start one.

Indonesia is not alone in trying family-focused counterextremism experiments. In Germany, Daniel Kohler founded the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies, which focuses on families, and particularly mothers, as the unit through which to deradicalize young people who turn toward Islamist extremism. The Austria-based organization Women Without Borders also runs a series of “mother schools” (including one in East Java) to train mothers to detect and curb signs of extremism among young people in their community. Still, even these efforts choose ideology as their battle front. The two Indonesian initiatives stand out for their resolutely practical, vocation-based approach.

Antarctica is the only continent that remains untouched by extremism in the 21st century, and no country has yet found a good solution for returned jihadists. If these two Indonesian programs are replicable, they may be a valuable blueprint. So it will be worthwhile to track their progress in preventing recidivism.

“Our challenges are countless: limited funding, social stigma and even the simple geography of Indonesia,” said Abas. “But terrorists returning to society is a fact of life in many places now. I strongly believe this is the best long-run approach.”



What to Say About an Absent Dad

5 02 2017
A mother and daughter have a serious talk.

Listen and respond patiently to your kids’ questions about their dad. (GETTY IMAGES)

“Dad questions” come suddenly and at unlikely moments.

Unfortunately, there are no magic answers to your kids’ questions because the circumstances that lead to solo mothering differ widely.

For some moms, solo motherhood was a deliberate life choice. Such moms may have used reproductive technology or simply planned their pregnancies with a cooperative partner. Other women become solo moms by chance. What began as a shocking surprise evolves into a welcome and life-changing event. Divorced moms often cope with dads who are only inconsistently present or entirely absent in their kids’ lives. Other divorced dads rush into another relationship and create “new” families that sadly – and predictably – don’t include the kids from a previous marriage. Exclusive relationships sometimes break up leaving the mom unexpectedly and disproportionately responsible for raising the kids.

If you feel angry or upset just anticipating these questions, make addressing your own emotional needs a priority.

Begin by writing down exactly what fuels your anger or brings tears to your eyes. Express your disappointments, regrets and sadness over how your expectations were never met. To add a healing and ritualistic touch, consider shredding or burning what you’ve written. If you decide to keep what you’ve written, take care your kids don’t inadvertently stumble upon your private writings. If you chose to vent your feelings online, that’s your personal choice.

No matter what path you choose, it’s challenging to express and sort out painful feelings. If you feel overwhelmed or increasingly upset, seek help through a support group or from a mental health professional. Taking these brave steps forward will ensure you’ll be ready to answer your kids’ inevitable questions about their dad.

Here’s what you need to know to get ready:

Know what to expect. Most kids begin asking Dad questions around the age of 4 or 5. Before that, kids believe all families are just like theirs. Kids at this age begin to notice different types of families at day care and at neighborhood or extended family gatherings. Of course, media influence kids’ perceptions, too.

Begin the conversation by talking about what makes your family unique. Build on your kids’ observations by talking up the unique advantages and positive qualities of different family types. Celebrating differences in other families sets the stage for your talks about your own unique family. Instill in your kids respect for the life choices other people make.

Keep your conversations age-appropriate. Stick to basic facts. Keep your explanations simple. Your kids are unlikely to understand what commitment, trust or intimacy mean. Reveal more information slowly as your kids mature. Avoid changing the subject when their questions persist or are posed at inopportune times. Kids often ask the same questions repeatedly. It’s fine to say you simply don’t know or to turn the question around and ask your kids what they think might be the answer. Above all, listen patiently to encourage your kids to talk about their feelings.

Don’t lie. Lying never works. When kids eventually discover the truth, the loss of a present and loving dad will be compounded by their loss of trust in you.

Strive to remain positive. Keeping your message positive will be incredibly demanding, especially if their dad is neglectful or routinely dodges his responsibilities. Kids who have been neglected or abandoned will express rage, hurt and anger. Comfort them as only a mother can. Resist the urge to say things which may be factually true, but terribly hurtful to your kids.

Think long term. Staying positive to protect your kids requires all the strength and maturity you can muster. Look for opportunities to say positive and truthful things about their dad. Keep in mind that everything you say about Dad becomes part of how your kids view themselves. So, when you take the high road, your kids gain added measures of happiness and confidence. Think of harsh words about their dad as sharp arrows. Protect your kids from such wounding words just as you would protect them from physical danger.