Friday, March 26, 2010

Anger, Threats, Fear

It’s official. The health care bill is now law. Many people are angry. Some are making threats. Others fear this new law will take away their freedom instead of improving the quality of their lives. Anger, threats, fear…I understand those feelings and share them, but in a very different way.

I am angry when I think of my twenty-three year old friend who died from kidney failure because he didn’t have health insurance and was no longer covered on his parents’ policy once he’d graduated from college. Even now, almost two decades later, I remember visiting him in the hospital room. He’d already slipped into a coma by the time I’d arrived at County, the Los Angeles hospital known for handling low income and indigent cases. I crowded into the tiny room with his mother and another friend and we sat, watching his labored breathing, not knowing, but suspecting that in a few hours, he’d be gone.

When it was time to go, his mother walked me into the hallway and we talked briefly. I knew him, but not her. He was like so many of us in L.A. who are the far flung progeny that ended up moving away from our families and childhood homes, a young man who’d come to town, found a job, made friends, created a surrogate family when his own was so distant. I had never met his mother until that moment. Meeting under such circumstances was both awkward and freeing. After trying for a moment to exchange the usual greetings, she burst into tears. Strangers, we hug and held onto each other, sharing our mutual sadness over her son’s needless and imminent death. Her pain was so excruciating, so deep. It was only the second time I’d witnessed the pain of a mother who knew she would have to bury her own child. As my grandmother said when my own mother was dying, “Burying your own child is wrong, it’s unnatural, and it’s not how it was supposed to be.” I wasn’t a mother then, and until I had children of my own, I really had no sense of how much this woman and my grandmother had hurt. Now, just the thought of something little harming my own children, the flu, a broken bone, fills me with worry and sadness. Losing a child to an illness, particularly when the death might have been prevented if the person had medical insurance is a pain no parent should have to suffer. My friend’s mother and her husband had worked for the government their entire lives and were now retired. She had given a lifetime of service to her country, yet her country had failed her now by not providing her son with desperately needed medical care which might have saved his life.

I have had several relatives who have had long periods of hospitalization, one who was almost bankrupt by it. They had medical insurance, but the coverage had limits and once they’d reached the lifetime limits they were expected to pay out of pocket. In the case of my aunt, a retired teacher, her hospitalization cost over a hundred thousand dollars. Hit with huge bills, having to make the choice between eating, keeping a roof over your head, providing for your family, the hospital bills, the amount so overwhelming that owing that much almost seems surreal, they chose to ignore them. They stopped picking up the phone when first the hospital then the collection agencies started to call. Those are the real threats. When the cost of saving you threatens to destroy your life and everything you’ve built up over the years. In my own family, I’ve seen what was a very real threat under the old health care system – that we are all really one major medical emergency away from going bankrupt.

Years ago, while traveling alone abroad, I fell ill. I was staying at a small B&B in the French countryside, came down for breakfast and passed out before making it to the table. I awoke on the sofa to find the owner of the B&B, an elderly French lady with shocking white hair who wore a slim fitting black cotton dress everyday of my stay with her, putting a compress on my head. She didn’t speak English, and my French was passable for a tourist, but limited to questions about asking your name, finding the restroom and knowing how to greet you morning, noon and night. I did not have the vocabulary to discuss serious medical issues. When I was rested, she walked me to door and pointed in the direction of the town’s hospital. I had been sick, a small cold, I thought, but I was traveling and wasn’t going to let feeling a little under the weather interfere with my adventure. As I made my way down the cobblestone streets of this ancient town which couldn’t have had more than five or six hundred residents, I grew fearful, not of what was wrong with me, but of how I was going to deal with whatever illness it was while traveling abroad. I wasn’t at home with my doctor. I had health insurance, but surely a small hospital in France would be considered an out of network facility. I wondered if I would even be able to communicate with the doctors. Would my care be good or would the language gap cause a miscommunication which would cause something worse to happen to me? What if I couldn’t afford to pay what I assumed would be the astronomical costs of an emergency room visit in a foreign country? I imagined what a visit to the emergency room in L.A. would be like, waiting two to four hours just to be seen and if I was at a hospital that wasn’t covered under my insurance plan it would cost me hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars to pay for treatment. I prepared for this to be worse.

I turned the corner and was surprised to find a hospital building with a modern exterior jutting out from the town’s ancient stone walls. The nurse didn’t understand English, but took the time to speak to me slowly in French, as if talking to a young child, using words and phrases I could grasp. They quickly whisked me into an examination room. The nurse took my blood pressure, temperature, drew some blood. The doctor came in right away, listened to my chest, looked in my throat and ears. He explained to me, again very slowly and patiently in French, that I had an ear infection which caused me to lose my equilibrium. That coupled with a fever and being generally run down had caused me to collapse. The doctor wrote me three prescriptions and sent me back out to the nurse’s station. As relieved as I was that my illness had been minor, I was afraid that seeing the bill would make me sick all over again.

The nurse sat me down at her work station and put the bill on the table. In French, she explained the different charges and pointed out the final total. My mind was on overload, sick, trying to calculate dollars from francs, guessing at the exchange rate. When I figured it out, I was certain I was wrong. In disbelief, I asked the nurse in French, “The total is twenty-five dollars?” She nodded and added in French, “If you can afford to pay it.” The cost of my emergency room visit was nominal and I didn’t have to pay for it if I couldn’t afford to. I was being treated under their national healthcare plan which stated that everyone had the right to good care regardless of their ability to pay. I pulled a wad of fracs out of my fanny pack and handed her the money. I shook hands effusively with everyone from the doctor to the nurse to the janitor mopping up the floor on my way out the door.

I clutched my three prescriptions in my hand and again walked down the cobblestone streets towards the pharmacy, giddy about my good luck at the hospital, but certain that at the pharmacy, I wouldn’t be so fortunate. At home, three perceptions, even with my health insurance, could still cost me anywhere from thirty to fifty dollars. When I approached the counter, the pharmacist took my prescriptions and started to fill them. Since he didn’t speak English either, he called his son in from the back room and the boy translated. The kid couldn’t have been ten, but his English was perfect, as if he’d spent hours of classroom time honing his accent or watched way too much American t.v. His father handed him the bill to explain to me. Again, I took a moment to make the conversion from francs to dollars, but when I did, I was certain my calculations were wrong. The boy saw the confused look on my face and said, “Yes, it is seven dollars.” His father said some thing to him in French too quickly for me to understand and the boy added the same phrase I had just heard at the hospital, “If you can afford to pay for it.” Payment was optional? When was the last time you were in a pharmacy in the U.S. and someone said that to you? I happily paid my seven dollars for three prescriptions and returned to the B&B to take my medications and recover from my illness.

The owner of the B&B made soup for me and encouraged me to put my feet up on the sofa, bringing over an afghan that someone, maybe she, had lovingly crocheted, and put it over me. I was sick six thousand miles away from home. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to afford to take care of myself, that even if I could pay, the treatment would be poor and I’d get sicker or die as a result. But my fear was unwarranted because the country I was in had decided that the health of its people and even visitors like myself was a priority. I was cared for most certainly better than I would have been at home.

Now that has changed. The passage of the health care bill will ensure that everyone in the U.S. has a basic level of coverage and quality of treatment. I’m not saying the new law is perfect, but it is a start. There will be some difficulties and challenges at first, and the anger, threats and fear may continue for some time, but in the long run, it will help our our nation to have the assurance that the health care needs of the people most important to us – our aging parents, our families, our children - will be met.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Bench Me, Coach

I was up at 4am, had the local news on t.v. and was fumbling with the coffee maker, trying to brew the elixir of life which keeps me functioning, when I heard a news story about the dangers of over scheduling your children. ( It talked about how today's kids are becoming stressed from so many classes, play dates, sports practices and family obligations that parents were seeking new ways to slow down their lives. But when they got to the part about how many new parents were hiring parenting coaches to help them de-clutter and de-stress their lives, I almost dropped the coffee pot on the floor.

Parenting coaches? Apparently, it is a relatively new and unregulated profession, an off-shoot of life coaches in some ways - where people with no real credentials and/or very little formal training other than just being a parent themselves, get to hang out a shingle and charge around $300 a month per client for other parents to call or email them for advice. They also provide such services as overhauling your family schedule to limit the family's activities and bring order to the house by sorting through and throwing out the growing mountain of outgrown toys and clothes.

Whatever happened to asking a mother, sister, brother, neighbor or friend for advice? And that's free. What happened to taking responsibility of your own home and schedule by limiting your own family activities and cleaning out your own toys and clothes? I don't see why you have to hire out to do this. Parenting coaches argue that asking friends or family for advice brings an agenda ridden response which isn't helpful. In some cases, yes, that may be true. But for the most part, even in a friend of neighbor's personal opinion, you can always find some helpful part that may work for you. And if not, move on and ask someone else until you do find something useful. Or pick up a parenting book and do some reading.

Customers of parenting coaches say they love the service because any time they have a question about how to toilet train little Suzy or wonder if little Johnny should be biting in the first grade, they can pick up the phone and call for help without the judgment a friend or family member might impose on the question or the expense or stigma of going to a therapist. When my oldest, Nicole was younger, any time she started doing something unusual, which to us as new parents seemed like every other minute, I'd pick up the phone and call my father, a child psychiatrist and ask for his advice. I'd think, how great, I have one of the country's leading child experts on speed dial and I don't even have to pay a session fee. I'd get Dad on the line, tell him what we were observing and then ask for his opinion. The conversation always went something like this:

Me: So, what do you think?

There would be a long pause on the other end of the line and then,

Dad: Did you read that parenting book?

I'd laugh and ask again, and he'd point out how helpful the book could be. Sometimes he would weigh in with his opinion, but he didn't want us to get into the habit of throwing up our hands and turning to others every time we had a parenting question. As parents, we needed to learn to work through and solve issues on our own using the tools we had.

If some parents can and want to pay $300 dollars or more a month to have someone manage their parenting issues, then that is their choice. But think of how much more empowered and accomplished and confident they would feel about their parenting skills if they didn't relinquish that power to someone who, in many cases isn't any more qualified to be a parenting coach then they are.

The article compared a parenting coach to a baseball coach, saying that they are there for support and guidance. They help you improve your swing and hit a home run. They help you to feel comfortable on the field, and pull you off when it is too much. I'm not against getting help from time to time when issues seem insurmountable, but to have a personal coach on call to help with every parenting concern seems like overkill. If anything, all I'd want my coach to do is bench me, preferably by convincing my husband that I need a break from dishes, laundry, grocery shopping, errands, school pick ups and drop offs, work, and fixing up the house and would do better with a week or two or three on a tropical island sipping rum punch. Do you think I could get the parenting coach to recommend that?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Customer Disservice

I had a run in with an exterminator the other day. He told his boss that rather than standing me up for an appointment on three separate occasions, that he’d been out to my house to service it. The problem was, there is no way he could have performed the service because it was an inside issue and I was home waiting to let him into the house, but he never showed up. The manager insisted that I was wrong, that the technician had been out and completed service to the house and that somehow I’d missed him. Now unless I was having a psychotic break and missed letting a strange man with a canister of deadly pesticides inside my home, the technician wasn’t telling the truth and was trying to cover with his boss.

I fired Antimite because of the bad experience I had with them, found another company that my network of mom neighbors recommended – all I had to do was send out one email asking for names of exterminators and I got a dozen responses back within minutes – but I realized how much time and effort we waste out of our day dealing with the maintenance and upkeep of our homes and families. It’s time I would much rather spend with my hubby and kids.

I feel like a massive amount of time is sucked out of my life dealing with exterminators, carpenters, lawn guys, rug cleaners, auto mechanics, not to mention doctor’s, dentists, orthodontists and optometrists. Yes, time must be spent taking care of our bodies, our homes and our vehicles so that they all run safely and efficiently, but sometimes it makes me feel like the focus of my life is on the upkeep of it, rather than the living of it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

What’s In That Sippy Cup?

Earlier this week I read an article on called Babies in Bars, about a growing confrontation between bar goers in Brooklyn. (
Apparently, the local watering holes are being overrun by parents who no longer want to be sequestered at home just because they now have offspring and have decided that it is okay to bring their infants and toddlers with them when they go out to drink. Aside from always being a fan of clever alliteration - Babies in Bars – clearly I am easily amused – I loved this article! I picture Hell’s Angel’s bikers trying to park their hogs out front of a bar only find all the spaces filled by baby strollers. That’s the world we parent in today and I find it fascinating and frustrating.

The main thrust of the debate on the side of the non-toddler carrying bar goers is that they go to a bar to have an adult experience. They say that they feel funny drinking and socializing (okay, we know they really mean flirting) in front of children and don’t like being told to watch their language if they let off a stream of obscenities while kicking back shots. The non-toddler side wants the drinking parents with kids to stay home or get a sitter.

The drinking parents assert that they have a right to go out and take their children anywhere...(really, are X rated movie houses next?) They complain of the isolation of being “trapped” at home with a baby and of the need to get out, socialize and “let off steam” by meeting friends at a bar and sipping some chardonnay. They argue that the cost of baby-sitters these days (which in some cities is a mega painful $18 to $20 an hour) makes hiring a sitter every time you want to go bar hopping cost prohibitive and that taking baby along to the local pub is the only alternative if the drinking parents are going to continue to have any kind of post-baby social life.

The bar owners worry that the drinking parents who come in with their kids strapped to their chests in Baby Bjorns, or pushing large, bulky Peg Perego strollers, take up too much room in their establishments with their baby gear, or worse yet, they let their mobile toddlers roam the bar like free range chickens looking for grain. The bar owners are faced with trying to satisfy two distinctly different types of clientele in an economic downturn where business is tight and you can’t afford to lose customers.

Here’s what the drinking parents are missing – your post-baby life isn’t supposed to be like your pre-baby life. You don’t get to just wedge a baby into the life you already had. Things will change and part of that might mean that if you can’t get a sitter for some adult time in adult places, then you will have to find new places to go to socialize which fit in more with your post-baby life. A woman’s body isn’t the same after having a baby, why should your social life be? Don’t get me wrong, I love my wine and when my gals were babies, I even considered forming a club called Mothers Who Drink – but someone more clever than I am wrote a book by the same title and beat me to it! I enjoy my evenings out with my hubby, and even though I have kids and even like other peoples’ kids (most of the time), I really don’t want your toddler up in my face at a bar while I’m sipping my martini. No babies in bars.

Post-baby life is just that - post-baby, meaning it will and should be inherently different in many ways. I got terribly lonely and isolated after the birth of my second kid. I was forced to go back to work six days after my baby was born, treated horribly and then fired a week later. After that I did battle with a bout of postpartum from which I never thought I’d recover. I desperately needed to get out and see other people just to feel alive, but I didn’t go bars with my baby in a stroller. Coffee shops, book stores, the park are all places that new parents can go to socialize and beat the baby isolation blues without having to drag their offspring into places that are clearly designed for adults. There are no high chairs in bars…that should be the first clue that your kid probably shouldn’t be there. And if you insist that drinking has to be a part of the experience, go to a family friendly restaurant with drinks on the menu. If it means that maybe, for a little while you have to restrain from bar hopping until your kids are older, you can afford a sitter or trade off with a neighbor, altering your lifestyle is one of the things you signed up for when you decided to change your life by bringing another life into the world.

Some would say it’s not fair and that they can and will live their lives in the same manner that they did before kids. Good luck with that. Your kids won’t let you, and eventually, you won’t want to. Forget about the desire to go bar hopping – for the first four years of being a parent, I didn’t have the energy to go to work, go to the market for groceries or pick up my kids from daycare let alone hang out at some bar. By 8 o’clock, I was lusting after sleep, not Stoli. But my generation of parents and those after us were raised to believe that we could have anything we want, it was our right. We are the entitled ones and part of that as parents meant “parenting our way.” We feel that our children should be smarter, cleaner, better behaved because we read all the right parenting books, took pre-natal yoga and subjected our kids to more hours of Baby Einstein than even Einstein could have watched. We do all that, and then we’re frustrated when our babies can’t and don’t oblige us and the rest of the world doesn’t always agree that our little mini-me’s are as adorable as we do or that they belong everywhere we want to go. We want to take our babies to bars, five star restaurants, luxury resorts and movies late at night showing films not intended for someone sucking a binkie. But unfortunately, these parents in Brooklyn and elsewhere who are flooding bars with babies need to realize that your life will have to change with kids and part of that means not taking them into bars to have beers spilled on their heads or having them subjected to foul language or bar brawls just because you want a night out on the town. Your post-baby life will be different. And it should be…that’s part of the fun of watching yourself go through the various stages of your life. Imagine your life like a good novel. You sure wouldn’t be happy with the book if chapter one was the same as chapter five, would you?

Friday, March 5, 2010

What Makes Her a Him?

I’m not very big on what celebrities do or don’t do with their children. I really don’t care because honestly, for the most part, the way they have to bring up their children, the resources they have to do it with, and the challenges they have in trying to raise a semi-well adjusted human being are vastly different from the issues I have with my own family. I’d much rather hear how the mom next door is coping than read how Tori Spelling spent almost six hundred dollars on bedding for her kid’s crib.

But I was in a checkout line the other day and I saw a magazine cover questioning how Brangelina was raising their daughter. I was already about to have a meltdown because some entitled woman was holding up everyone in line while she bullied the store manager into letting her use expired coupons that she was too lazy or stupid or both to have redeemed before the due date. I was sorry that my children had to witness her demonstrate the life lesson that sometimes when you make a big enough stink, you get what you want even if you don’t deserve it! But I was even more bothered by the magazine’s accusation that somehow Angie and Brad were doing harm to their kid by letting her cut her hair short and wear boy’s clothing.

Not that the Jolie-Pitts need me to come to their defense, but I felt very strongly about what the magazine was implying. Basically, they made it seem as if by letting their child wear boy’s clothing and cut her hair short, she would somehow want to be a boy – meaning it might make her a gay or want to physically become male. Somehow, they’d forgotten the quote, “The clothes don’t make the man…” They don’t make the toddler either. I knew some folks whose 5 year old son loved to dress in frilly dresses and could tell you the brand of perfume you were wearing from twenty feet away. Everyday it made his father shudder when he’d come to pick up his son from pre-school and find the boy wearing a pink dress and playing with the girls. You know what? The kid grew out of that phase and on to something else. The point is, your kid is going to be who they are going to be regardless of what you let them wear or how they cut their hair. Parenting already feels like a minefield of mistakes just waiting to explode in your face if you make the wrong decision. I think that passing judgment or predicting dire consequences based on how another parent dresses their kid or cuts their hair is just plain unfair. We have enough on our plate already just teaching our kids not to behave as badly as the coupon woman in front of me in line.