"A Mother's 17-Year-Old Secret" in Brain, Child Magazine

Parenting your teen inevitably stirs up a lot of memories of your own teen years. As you stare in awe at your 15-year-old driving a car for the first time, it can feel like yesterday that you first excitedly and nervously grasped onto the stirring wheel and told your foot to push on the gas pedal. When you catch your teen doing something “teen-like,” you may be reminded of the time you snuck out of parents’ house in the middle of the night and the dog started barking and gave you away (or maybe...hold breath...you didn’t get caught). As you help your teen navigate his or her teen joys and challenges, you will decide how much and what you want to share about your teen self. I have always been cautious with how much of my past I shared with my teens. I would imagine that most of us determine that some (or many) of our teen experiences should never be shared with our children. What we may not be aware of, however, is that some of the “secrets” we bury could be effecting how we parent our teens. “A Mother’s Seventeen-Year-Old-Secret” explores the how and why I decided to reveal a piece of my hidden past to my 17-year-old daughter. I am honored and thrilled to have this piece running in one of my favorite motherhood publications/blogs Brain, Child Magazine. Brain, Child Magazine

A Life-Changing Mission to Peru—Smile Network Working its Magic

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As I look back at my last post about preparing for my trip to Peru, I notice that much of my focus was about the anxiety I felt in leaving my family for nearly two weeks. I am extremely grateful to have returned home safely and to realize that most of my nervousness about leaving was, of course, completely unnecessary. My kids didn’t miss a beat in my absence, and my experience in Peru was everything I hoped for and more, impacting the deepest parts of my soul.

No one can prepare you for how you are going to feel when you are immersed in a place where you see so clearly the fragility of life, and yet see how incredibly strong the power of love is. A place where you feel that you are making a difference and yet there is so much more you want to do to help.

I was immersed in a world so far from my own. A world in which, despite my Rosetta Stone lessons, I struggled to communicate with the Spanish-speaking Peruvians. And yet, through my broken Spanish and their broken English, we often found that we could understand one another. I was in awe of how most of the Peruvians I met lived with so little, and yet they did not complain.

Many of the “life-altering” aspects of my journey are buried deep in my heart, however, I am going to try to give you a glimpse of how the Smile Network mission prompted me to access parts of myself that I didn’t even know existed. Thus, this blog post is longer than most, as I attempt to make some sense of, to process and to share with you some of the ways in which this experience has enriched my life and has significantly opened my heart and mind.

The Universal Language of Mothers=Love

Sixty-plus mothers (and several fathers) arrived with their children at the Children’s Hospital in Lima last week. Perhaps they had seen a flyer, or were informed by a doctor or friend that Smile Network International was to arrive at the Children’s Hospital in Lima on Feb. 1st. Some traveled for days by bus, with little or no money to support themselves. One mom explained that she had been staying in Lima with relatives for two weeks because she did not want to miss the opportunity for her child to have surgery.

On intake day, Nan and Dawn (friends who accompanied me on the mission) and I handled medical records, and gave each patient and their parent/s a number. At the end of the long day, the doctors (two plastic surgeons from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and one from Cook Children’s Hospital in Texas, along with two residents from Mayo, and the chief of plastic surgery at the Lima Children’s Hospital) provided Gina, our mission coordinator and Kim Valentini, founder of Smile Network, the surgery schedule for the week. In turn, Gina and Kim, (with the help of the mission’s co-lead, Peruvian born, Ronnie, and Mira, another translator) alerted the families of their child’s surgery date and time,.

In the days that followed, however, we would soon realize that schedule changes were more the norm than the exception. Variables that were out of our control like prolonged surgeries and striking hospital workers (which occurred two of the 6 days we were there) made it nearly impossible to stick to the original schedule. The schedule changes were agonizing to some of the patients and their families (and the volunteers felt their pain as well).

Mothers and their children waited at the hospital from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., with no comfortable place to sit, no air conditioning (temps in the 80s) and no toilet paper in the bathrooms, in hopes that their child would be called for surgery. And most of them were...eventually. The patients, ranging in age from 2 months to 10 years, needed to fast for 12 hours before surgery, and their cries of hunger could be heard well beyond the 3rd floor, where dozens of families crowded together to wait, and to hope.

Eight-year-old Lisbeth, was scheduled for a palette surgery on Monday (surgery day 1). After fasting all day, she was sent home Monday evening because the doctors were held up in another surgery. Volunteers assured her that her surgery would be on Tuesday and to come back the next morning fasting. When our mission coordinator had to break the news to her Tuesday evening that she would not have the operation that day either, she dropped her head into her hands, and said, “Oh my G-d.” Most of the volunteers cried with her and her devoted mother.

By Wednesday afternoon, Lisbeth was finally called for surgery. The nurses placed her on the gurney and led her to the elevator that would take her up to the operating room floor. Her mother looked at me with pleading eyes and motioned with a head tilt that said, “Please go with her.” I bolted up to the 7th floor and made it in time to meet Lisbeth at the elevator. Her eyes were filled with fear. All the waiting and the anticipation, and now the time had come for her to have her second operation to close her cleft palette. (Even when palette surgery is performed once, as patients grow, their palettes can open again, and a subsequent surgery can be necessary. Smile Network did not perform Lisbeth’s first surgery.)

Closing her palette meant that food and liquid would not pour out of her nose when she ate and drank, and that her speech would become more understandable.

I stayed with her as she waited in the hall outside the operating rooms. I hugged her and held her hand as tears dripped down her face, and tried to tell her in my broken Spanish that she was going to be okay. As the nurses rolled her into OR #2, my hand stayed connected to hers. I could sense her fear growing as she took in the machines, sharp instruments and needles present in the operating room. “Mama,” she cried, and I squeezed her hand tighter. I could no longer stop my own tears as I looked at her and thought of my youngest daughter, about the same age as Lisbeth. Despite her attempts to fight him off, the anesthesiologist secured the mask over her mouth. As she breathed in the sedating gas, she soon fell into a deep sleep. It was time for me to let go of her hand so I could step out into the hall and regain my composure.

“This is my girl,” I said to the doctor as he whisked past me to enter the operating room. “Take good care of her.” He nodded.

Lizbeth’s surgery was successful.

Fabriano is a beautiful 5-year-old boy who had a severe cleft palette. His mother is a single mother whose deep love for and devotion to her son is transparent. Fabriano’s surgery was extremely complicated and our amazing team of doctors worked for more than five hours to close up the gaping hole in his palette. Fabriano did not fair well after the surgery and needed to remain on a ventilator. There were no available rooms in the ICU and so for two days, Fabriano remained in the OR, because it held the only available ventilator. This meant that his mother was not allowed to see him. Our mission photographer took pictures of Fabriano to show his mother, which brought her some comfort. On day three, an ICU room opened up and the last I heard, Fabriano was improving, and that he is going to be okay.

Fabriano and his mother are continually in my prayers.

There is a story for each of the patients that Smile Network treated throughout the week, and I experienced many more “world stands still” moments. As I banded and gowned patients, rocked crying babies, played with older children waiting for surgery, distributed, toys, blankets and care kits that were donated to Smile Network, visited with other (non-Smile Network) patients on the ward (some whom have been there or will be there for months for various surgeries, recoveries and/or treatments), comforted mothers, chatted with fathers, fed and held babies after surgery, observed cleft lip and palette surgeries and transported messages from the OR to anxious mothers, and witnessed the elation and relief of mothers seeing their baby’s transformed smile for the first time after surgery, my heart was continually bursting with love and compassion for the patients and their families.

 With Love, There is Sometimes Pain

There is an inevitable and unavoidable sadness that occurs when spending a week at a children’s hospital. Sadness in witnessing the sheer anguish of parents who had just received the news that their 4-year-old son did not make it through the brain surgery performed by Peruvian surgeons in an OR adjacent to the designated Smile Network’s operating rooms. My heart continues to ache for these parents. I can still see their faces.

Sadness in seeing the haunted, blank stare of a 16-year-old girl holding her 2-month-old baby after he was unable to undergo the cleft lip and palette surgery because the anesthesiologists could not stabilize him under sedation. And then later, when I saw her eyes filled with tears as she tried to console her crying baby and asked her if she had eaten all day, if she had any money, or if anyone was coming to the hospital to see her and her baby. Her answer to all three questions was a simple, empty, “no.” I gave her a sandwich, and put some cash in her hand, and hugged her—a child, all alone, with a two-month-old baby to care for.

I wanted to tell her it was going to be okay but I couldn’t.

Pivotal Moments

As I zigzagged between the sadness of some mothers and the elation of others, I tried to keep my own feelings in check. I was grateful that I could offer a smile, a hug or my arms to hold a baby. I loved to hear a mother’s sigh of relief and see her eyes fill up with tears of happiness when I delivered the messages from the OR. “I saw your baby. He’s doing great. The doctors said that the surgery is going really well. It won’t be much longer.”

I am grateful that I was able to be a part of an incredible team of doctors, residents, translators, a doctors' assistant, and a photographer who, in following Kim’s lead, volunteered their time, expertise and their hearts to practiced Tikun Olam (repairing the world) and reshape the lives of those helped at the Children’s Hospital in Lima.

I love knowing that each one of the families will walk away from the hospital, not only with a child whose smile is hopefully brighter, but also with the notion that there are people in this world who care about them deeply, and are willing to provide help. Kim Valentini formed the Smile Network from a place of love and compassion. Her daughter, when once asked if it was hard for her to have her mom gone so much simply stated, “If my mom isn’t taking care of these people, I don’t know who would.”

And the people who Kim touches with her work feel her commitment to them. The love and appreciation expressed by the Peruvian children and the families we served was immense. Parents and grandparents brought hand made gifts and small bottles of wine to the volunteers. They told us through their tears that they understood how much we are doing for them and that are eternally grateful.

What these people probably do not realize, however, is what a tremendous impact they have had on me; how grateful I am for the way they shared their love and trust with me; and that they have expanded my heart in more ways than I could have ever imagined.

As I said my emotional goodbyes to my new amigos in Peru, I hugged each one and told them, “Yo no te olvidaré.”

I will never forget you.

The Agonizing Necessity of Letting Your Child Fail

PositiveWaysFailureAffectsMindThere is no getting around it, even though you may try to shield them from it, and find ways for them to avoid it, your kids will at some point have to face the dreaded agony of failure. For most moms, myself included, whether we admit it or not, when we see our children experiencing failure or disappointment, it feels like the sky is crashing down on both them and us. And sometimes, probably more often than not, we feel the pain even deeper than our children do. In most cases, our children bounce back from their disappointments relatively quickly, and yet we often stay stuck in them for way longer than we know is necessary or appropriate. Furthermore, many well-intentioned mothers, in an effort to try to “spare” their children from having to deal with failure, will go to borderline crazy lengths to assure that their child’s “fall from grace” will be cushioned or avoided all together.

Question to ponder:

What does it feel like to witness your child experience failure?

And even deeper:

Do you feel that your child’s failure a reflection on you as a mother?

Lately I have heard so many moms talk about their successes or failures of their children in a way that it is difficult to decipher who’s is who’s. I recently texted a friend to see how she was doing and she responded that her daughter made the varsity soccer team and her son had lost his tennis match. I wanted to respond, "But wait, I really wanted to know how YOU are doing!" Can we, as mothers, separate our identities from our children’s?

Before I go any further, I have to write a disclaimer: Anyone who knows me knows that I am as guilty as the next mom of allowing my entire being to be directly and significantly affected by what is happening (or not happening) in my children’s lives. I ride the crazy train with my kids and have a first class seat on that well know parenting helicopter that so many of us ride. I obsess about whether they will make a sports team, do well on their tests at school, be asked to a dance or be admitted to their college of choice.  Having said that, I am actually working on this issue within myself right now, so I have become hyper-aware of my own hovering and somewhat controlling nature, as well as that of so many of the lovely moms in my life.

As I dissect this issue of mothers being somewhat unhealthily enmeshed in their children’s lives, I start with a seemingly simple, yet extremely complicated question: Why? Sometimes when my husband has reached his limit on listening to me go over and over and over my worries and concerns about a kid-related issue, he will just stop me dead in my tracks and say, “Why do you care so much? Maybe it would be good if you try to focus on something that you can control, or go do something for yourself instead of obsessing about an outcome over which you have ZERO control. You gotta stop worrying about the kids’ stuff. It’s theirs, not yours.”

Although there is a little sting to his directive, I know deep down that he is right (darn it!). He is encouraging me to give myself permission to let go. To trust that the chips will fall where they may for our four kids, and most importantly to trust that they will be ok, wherever their chips fall. And if their chips fall the “wrong” way, and they feel sad and defeated, then my husband and I will be there to love and support them, and to help them regain their footing so they can put their chips back on the table.

We moms have such a tough time with the letting go piece. From the moment we hold them in our arms as newborns, we are programmed to “make it all better” for our kids. We make it our life’s work to make life good and safe and happy for them. But thankfully, Wendy Mogel (Blessings of a Skinned Knee and Blessings of a B-) comes along and beautifully teaches us how kids must fail in order to grow.  She explains that we are doing our children and ourselves a major disservice by not allowing them to experience failures and disappointments. When mothers don’t set clear boundaries with their children, and take on too much of their children’s “stuff,” they run the risk their children developing this line of thinking:

“I don’t really have to care, or feel anything about whether or not I make the team, make a bad decision, or get an A or a D on my test because my mom is taking it all on. Therefore, I am not even really accountable for my actions or inactions, because mom’s got me covered.”

Some moms, (myself included, on a few occasions), will actually not only take on their children’s successes or failures emotionally but will go a step further. They will intervene. They will call a coach, a teacher or an admissions director and threaten, question, manipulate, and even beg or bribe the person in the decision-making position to give their child what she “ABSOLUTELY DESERVES!!!” Okay, this is probably a good time for mom to step back, be very honest with herself, and figure out whether this is about her or about her child.  This type of behavior sends an even scarier and potentially hazardous message to her child, which could sound like:

“You are not capable of accomplishing your goal/s on your own and therefore you need me to step in and take care of it for you.”

This deprives your child of learning the invaluable, character-building lessons that one learns from failing or falling short of a goal, with resiliency at the top of the list. It also could lead your child to feel that:

  • “My mom does not believe in me enough to let me figure things out for myself. I must be inadequate.”
  • “My mom cares more about whether I make the team or get the grade she expects me to get than she does about me as a person. She doesn’t love me for who I am, she loves me for what I do. Therefore if I come up short of her expectations, she won’t love me.”

Confession: My daughter got a B- on a paper her senior year. She is a fantastic writer and that was not a typical grade for her on any type of writing assignment. I am friendly with her teacher and when I saw him at her school one day, I said casually, “Hey, why did you give Sophie a B- on her last paper?” He stopped, looked at me straight in the eyes and said in a very serious tone, “Because I knew it was not her best work. She knows she can talk to me about it if she would like.”

Yikes! I cannot even begin to explain the scolding I received from my daughter when I crawled out of my shame hole a few days later and told her about it. “Mom! I wasn’t really bothered by it. It wasn’t my best work. I can’t believe you did that! Why would you do that?!”

With helicopter parents attending job interviews with their children http://huff.to/18cx1PG and micromanaging their every move, it is hard not to get sucked into thinking that being overly involved in your children’s lives is a way of showing your children that you care. It’s difficult to draw the line and know when it’s ok to advocate for your child, and when you need to bite your tongue and/or detach yourself from their “stuff.”

Next time you want to step in and try to prevent your child from failing or facing disappointment, take a moment to sort out your own feelings, and ask yourself:

What am I afraid of?

Dodging the Cancer Bullet

bulletWith Angelina Jolie’s recent disclosure of her decision to have a double mastectomy due to her discovery that she carries the BRCA 1 gene mutation, many women may be taking a closer look at their genetic history. I uncovered mine several years ago as I sought to trace the trail of breast and ovarian cancer, which killed my paternal aunt at the age of 47, two great aunts and had struck two cousins, who are currently survivors. I made a phone call to a cousin (who was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 30), and we discussed our lineage and how this gene mutation seemed to have been passed down through the generations on our paternal side of the family. I hung up the phone and concluded that if we were right, then that gene mutation could have also landed…in me. As a wife and a mother of four children, two daughters and two sons, I knew I wanted and needed some concrete answers.

I called a genetic counselor and we talked at length about the cancer present in my family. She explained that because I am of Ashkenazi Jewish decent, my risk of carrying the BRCA1 or the BRCA2 gene mutation is five times higher than that of the general population, and 60% of women who do carry the BRCA 1 or 2 gene mutation develop breast cancer. She also mentioned that it might make sense to talk with my father about being tested because this gene mutation would have come from his lineage and it would be helpful to know whether or not he was a carrier, whereby determining if my sister and I were truly at risk. My immediate thought was, “My dad, undergo genetic testing to find out if he passed a breast cancer gene mutation to his daughters when he had recently buried his beloved 47-year-old baby sister who died from this disease— how in the world can I ask him to do that?!”

But I did—and without hesitation, he said that he said he would do this for me and for my sister (a mother of two daughters), who was more ambivalent about undergoing this process. Soon after, my dad and I met with the genetic counselor, and it was determined that he would have the blood test to find out if he carried either of the BRCA gene mutations.

I left the office and he went to the lab for the test.  We were told we should expect a call in about four weeks.  I worried—for myself and for my sister. I made a plan that I would be proactive and have a mastectomy and a hysterectomy if I carried the gene. I was determined to stay ahead of the bullet.

A little over a month later, my dad got the call that the results were back from the lab but that no results, positive or negative, would ever be given over the phone.  The next day, my mom, my dad, my sister and I sat down in the counselor’s office and the counselor divulged the results to my father,

“You have the BRCA 1 gene mutation.”

“There is a 50/50 chance that each of your daughters could have it.”

My mom cried. My sister and I were in shock.

As we all walked slowly out of the office, my dad mumbled, “I’m sorry.” “It’s not your fault, dad,” was all I could say as my heart pounded so hard I thought it would jump out of my chest.

We stopped at the front desk to schedule a date for my sister and I to have our blood test. “Is there any way we could have it done now,” I asked as my hands shook and my mind raced. “I can take you and your sister back one at a time in 15 minutes, does that work?” “Yes,” I said without even looking to my sister for approval. She hadn’t said a word.

We left our blood samples and left the office feeling completely depleted.  I glanced over at the University of Minnesota hospital where my paternal aunt, who was not much older than I was now, had taken her last painful breath, leaving her two young sons motherless and her husband a widower. The feeling of pain and loss resurfaced, and was now mixed with terror.

Three weeks later, we got the call to come in for the results. I got to the office and my sister and her husband were at the desk. “They can’t see us together, we have to go in one at a time,” she said to me in almost a whisper. “Okay, well David (my husband) isn’t here yet so you go first,” I told her.

It was fast. She was in and out of the consultation room in less than five minutes. She walked over to me as I paced the waiting room.  She looked at me, but kept her eyes slightly averted from mine, and she shook her head, “I don’t have it.” “Oh thank g-d,” I said as I hugged her. But she still couldn’t look me in the eyes.

I knew why.

Still no sign of my husband. Both my sister and brother-in-law offered to go in with me. “No, I am okay.” I couldn’t wait another second so the front desk person escorted me to the tiny consultation room and I waited for the counselor.

“All I can say is that you two are very lucky,” she said as she walked into the room and took a seat across from me. “I often see cases where the gene gets passed down to one daughter and not the other/s but I rarely see cases where none of the children inherit the gene mutation from a parent who has it.”

“So I don’t have the BRCA 1 gene either?”

“No, you don’t.”

I don’t remember what I said to her. Maybe I hugged her. I came rushing out of the room to find my husband right outside the door on the verge of tears. “You gave me the wrong address. Are you okay,” he asked eagerly. I told him the news and when we got out to the waiting room, my sister was not sure what to make of our teary eyes. “I don’t have it either,” I assured her.  As we embraced each other, we fully exhaled, as we had not done for over a month. We immediately called our parents who were out of town and anxiously awaiting our call.

“I prayed and prayed for this, I told g-d that nothing else mattered,” my father said, his voice quivering with emotion.

Since this ordeal, several of my close friends have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Some have lost their breasts and their ovaries to this horrible disease, and this week I attended a funeral for a friend (a mother, a wife and a daughter), in her early 50s, who battled breast cancer for 20 years. I have other friends who have tested positive for the BRCA gene mutation.  Some of them, like Angelina Jolie, have made changes to their bodies to try to increase their odds, and some have chosen not to and are being proactive by having frequent mammograms.

It is essential that if there is a history of breast and/or ovarian cancer in your family, especially if you are of Ashkenazi Jewish decent, you must not be afraid to ask questions, and dig into your family’s health history.  Contrary to an old belief (one that even my OB told me many years ago), that breast cancer can only be “passed on” through the mother’s side of the family. Well, as we know now, this could not be further from the truth.  Men can carry this gene mutation, and although their risk of breast (yes, men can get breast cancer) and prostate cancer is still relatively low, early detection is key for them as well. Furthermore, fathers can pass this the gene mutation to their daughters, putting them at a much higher risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer.

Whether you see a pattern in your father’s, mother’s or spouse’s side of the family, do not be afraid to ask your loved ones to be tested so that everyone in the family can be better equipped to protect themselves from the cancer bullet and alert any offspring who may need to be tested. And please do not let fear stop you from being tested yourself.

This information could be a matter of life and death.

Afraid to Go to School: Reflections on Gun Violence From an 8-Year-Old

"I am afraid to go back to school tomorrow," says my 8-year-old daughter after being home for spring break for two weeks. "Why, honey," I ask. "Because I am afraid we are going to have a lock-down. And I am afraid that someone is going to come into our school with a gun and start shooting. And mom, you know that anyone, really, can just walk into our school, any kid for sure. And the windows in our classroom aren't bulletproof, you know, and we have shades on our windows but there is a little crack in one so someone could for sure see in and shoot us all. Mom, why do people even buy guns? What do they need them for? I don't really feel safe anywhere cause there are lots of crazy people who have guns and shoot people." It was hard for me to even find the words to respond. I told her that the adults in the school would keep her and her classmates safe and that she need not worry. And that they need to have lock-downs because they need to make sure that everyone knows what to do if something happens. "Can you please just homeschool me," she pleaded. "Honey, you are safe at school. Really, you are," I responded trying to sound as convincing as I could. But the truth is, as much as we want to believe this, we don't this to be a fact. The families at Sandy Hook thought their kids were safe. And they should have been. Because school should be a safe place for our kids. (This is not always the case for children/schools in war-torn countries, but America...is this really too much to expect?) Children reach a certain age when they  start to make some difficult connections: there are school fire drills because a fire could actually happen, and subsequently, they understand that there are lock-down drills because some lunatic could enter their school and start firing away.

And this is the visual that is keeping my 8-year-old  up at night. What a sad reflection on our society.

"Honey, you need to go to sleep, it's late," I try to soothe her. "But when I close my eyes, I see scary things," she says. "When you close your eyes, just picture the sun in the sky, the bright, happy sunshine," I say. "That's just what I was thinking, Mom, that I will try to see the sun with my eyes closed," she says as she starts to relax. I stayed with her until her breathing became more steady and she drifted into what I hope would be a peaceful sleep. As I reluctantly pulled away from her, I whispered in her ear that I love her and will always do whatever I can to keep her safe.

Please keep her safe. Please keep all of our children safe.