Sunday, March 25, 2012

When You (Sometimes) Secretly Wish A Parent Would Die

In an article in this month's The Atlantic, writer-comedian Sandra Tsing Loh ruefully recounts the moment recently when a friend asked her how she was doing and she stunned them both by bursting out with the long wail "I wish my father would diiiieeeee!"

And, in the article, she proceeds to discuss her famously eccentric ninety-something father's lingering, increasingly frail and expensive life and the toll this is taking on his dignity and on the family. There are both emotional and financial stresses, the pain of an already complicated relationship made more so by the demands of his aging.

Sandra Tsing Loh has a lot of company among fellow Baby Boomers. We've watched our parents age, not always gracefully. We've seen final illnesses, sudden deaths, undignified aging and long lingering goodbyes for some of our most beloved family members. And in the midst of this, there may be moments of wishing it would all be over -- and then feeling horrified that we could think such a thing.

If we haven't been caregivers yet, we see the stress on a caregiving parent and fear the worst -- that stress will claim the life of the healthier spouse first.

Sometimes it happens.

My childhood friend Sue's mother cared for her demented husband for some years, then was stricken with cancer. Sue was devastated for both parents and juggled her job at an insurance company with coordinating treatments, hospitalizations and paid caregiving for both her parents.

One day, she got a call from the hospital that her mother was near death. Her boss insisted that she needed to stay for an afternoon-long meeting to wrap up a project. She protested that her mother might not survive until after the end of the meeting. After another even more urgent call from the hospital, Sue told her boss she needed to leave immediately and barely made it to her mother's side as she breathed her last. Then she went to her parents' home to find that her father's paid caregiver for the afternoon shift had not shown up and her dad had spent the unsupervised time alone smearing feces all over the living room walls and himself.

She called in to work and let her boss know that her mother had died. She told him she would come in early the next day to reschedule the meeting. He told her not to bother, that she no longer had a job.

She screamed soundlessly, tears streaming down her face, as she turned on the shower to bathe her father.

And all the while, Sue told me later, she raged inside: "Why couldn't you have died instead of Mom? When is this going to be over?" And then, filled with love and guilt, she embraced her dad under the running water.

I could empathize. My father suffered from Parkinson's disease and the related dementia as well as out of control diabetes. He didn't know night from day. He flew into rages. When my sister Tai or I would try to help care for him, he would make creepy, distressing sexual overtures. He was totally incontinent. He had an insulin shock at least once a day and seemed to live on a diet of rum and Coke and orange sherbet. He was surly and combative and delusional -- seeing hordes of brown violin spiders that weren't there.

There were times when I just wished my father would die so my mother could live. And one day he did. But it was too late. Mother was so exhausted and stressed that she died of a heart attack four months to the day after his death. We were heartbroken that our mother had not had the time to follow some of her long-deferred dreams. And we felt guilty, both when he was still living and after he was gone, that we had talked of our father's death so casually and, at times, wished for it so fervently. When he died, my anger and frustration melted away as I grieved for the loss of a father both monstrous and dear.

Losing a parent is a profound, life-changing event. And, for many Baby Boomers, there is a long goodbye -- the devastation of dementia, the long and painful road of cancer, the dwindling away of emphysema or COPD or heart failure. In these cases, you lose a parent over time, in heartbreaking increments -- and sometimes you wish -- for their sake and yours -- that it were over.

If you've found yourself in this situation, it doesn't mean you're a bad son or daughter. You may have times when you feel blessed to be able to give back to your parent, to care for the person who once cared for you. But there may be times -- when you see him or her suffering, when the indignities of infirmity are suddenly overwhelming and the stress of balancing your life with these new responsibilities may make you wonder "How long is this going to go on?"

Mixed feelings are normal.

You love your parent but hate the dying process.

You are grieved by the prospect of losing your parent -- and appalled at the prolonged ordeal.

You are distraught watching the suffering of someone you love so much -- and, at the same time, dread letting go and losing him or her.

You suffer through a multitude of losses when a parent descends into dementia, losing the parent and person you've always known and caring for the beloved stranger he or she has become.

And in those moments when you wonder "How much longer?" or "Sometimes I wish he (or she) would die" and feel instant remorse, it's important to remember that you are not alone, that such feelings are common in these stressful and sad situations -- and that no one else can read your mind.

It's important to admit your full range of feelings to yourself,  to forgive yourself, to accept yourself as is and, should you need to seek therapy in order to deal with your tumultuous feelings, get it sooner rather than later in order to have constant, non-judgmental support as you live through this major life transition.

Therapy may be especially important if there is a darker reason for wishing a parent dead: the pain of continuing to deal with a parent who always was and continues to be verbally and emotionally abusive, controlling or relentlessly critical.

In that case, it's best to seek counseling to work out your own feelings about your parent and endeavor to change the dynamic while you still can, while the parent is still living. Once a parent is gone, the hope that the relationship can change for the better dies with them. Perhaps changing the dynamics of your relationship will never be possible. But you can work through and resolve some of your own feelings so that you can feel more at peace with yourself and your parent at the end of his or her life.

Letting bitterness and anger linger unresolved through a parent's last years and death can erode the soul and lead to continuing unhappiness long after the parent is gone.

When our parents are in decline, there is so much that comes up as past, present and future converge. We mourn the loss of their youth and vitality, even as we feel our own beginning to wane. We may feel a mixture of fear and tenderness as our roles begin to reverse and we become the caregivers of those who took such loving care of us -- or not -- all those years ago.  And, in their decline, we catch a glimpse of our own future -- and feel the temptation to flinch and look away.

But perhaps we can best cope with a parent's decline by admitting our pain and frustration to ourselves and then accepting our ailing parent on his or her own terms, sharing the moment and entering their reality with a loving and generous heart.

It can be a challenge.

It isn't always possible.

But when we can manage,  even briefly, to be fully present with an ailing parent, it can mean lovely moments shared in the midst of sadness and decline.

Alzheimer's is slowly taking my dear friend Tim's mother away. But, in the meantime, when their hearts meet in the here and now, life still can have its good moments. When he visited her at her assisted living facility recently, she was beaming with pride and cradling imaginary twin babies in her arms, to the consternation of staff who were trying to get her to eat lunch. She frowned when one told her that there were no babies.

Tim smiled gently at his mother, imagining a time when she had held him and his twin brother Tom so tenderly. And he said "Those are such beautiful babies. You must be so proud. I'm so happy for you. Why don't we make a special bed in that bureau drawer over there for them so that you can get some rest and eat lunch? You need to keep up your strength to take care of those beautiful babies."

She passed the imaginary babies to him and he pulled out the drawer, softly smoothing the linens in there so the babies would be comfortable.

Then he turned to his mother, took her hand, and they looked at each other with love that transcended years and infirmity, a love that made the moment poignant, memorable and ever-lasting.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Happiest Birthday

After a horrific couple of months with major surgery, continuing chemotherapy, multiple hospitalizations, a brush with death, and a fall with painful and lingering injuries, my friend and neighbor Phyllis Skurda has emerged in triumph to celebrate her 74th birthday this week.


She spent her birthday enjoying calls from family and friends and treating a group of friends and family to a sumptuous feast at her favorite Chinese restaurant -- celebrating not only reaching another birthday -- but also her good fortune in friendships.

"What a wonderful surprise we had in moving here two years ago," she said, lifting a Coke in toast of a circle of friends and neighbors. "I feel I've known you people all my life and you've all had such an impact on my life. And I want to celebrate each one of you and thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you have done, in very individual ways, to help me so much the past few months."

                                     Phyllis and Walter Skurda - March 20, 2012            

And as I listened -- and watched tears glistening in the eyes of some of the friends gathered -- I thought that Phyllis had a point: in addition to being feted for reaching yet another birthday, one's birthday is an excellent time to remember our parents with love, and to express gratitude and thanks to the loved ones around us for all they do to make the passages and challenges of our lives bearable, interesting and maybe even fun and rewarding.

We may welcome birthdays as milestones and accomplishments. Remember how delicious it was to be 16 at last and to get that long anticipated driver's license? Or to turn 18 or 21 to be seen as a young adult. I remember actually looking forward to my 30th birthday -- which in reality was uniquely awful due to some difficult life circumstances at the time -- simply because I thought that being 30 would mean that people I met professionally would begin to take me more seriously. And I look forward to my 67th next month because I will then be older than my parents ever were -- and can put to rest that nagging little anxiety about following in my parents' footsteps with sudden cardiac arrest and death at 66.

But now, thanks to Phyllis' example, there will be a new aspect to my birthday this year -- and to Bob's birthday, three days after my own. This year, our birthdays will be occasions to give thanks: to our bodies for surviving, even thriving, through another year; to our parents for not only giving us life, but also a good start in life. And we're grateful for our friends -- both old and new -- who make such a wonderful difference every day of the year.

On our birthdays this year, we'll simply remember to tell them so.

And, in the meantime, here's to Phyllis -- and her happiest birthday yet!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Living Fully in the Present

I don't know what I expected exactly when I walked up to the door of the San Fernando Valley house where my lifelong friend Sister Rita McCormack and her friend Sister Anne, close since their youth in Ireland, are now living.

Sister Rita has been living with two deadly cancers -- melanoma, which affected one of her eyes and partially blinded her -- and mesothelioma. She turned 81 recently. And yet the woman who enthusiastically came to the door was vibrant, full of life and joy.

She was joined by Sister Anne, herself afflicted with cancer and, most recently with a broken hand suffered during a fall two weeks before. They talked about days filled with good works and excellent conversations -- especially morning visits over coffee and bagels with the rabbi at the neighborhood synagogue. They are as active as possible in parish projects and have been taken part in peace protests. And they revel in their new retirement life in a nice home with an allowance from their religious order. Despite the physical pain they've experienced and the uncertainty of the future, both Sisters Rita and Anne were filled with youthful energy and happiness.

I enjoyed watching these two dear friends preparing a lunch of salad and freshly baked Irish soda bread as they teased each other gently and laughed together about enduring personal traits.

And I told them that I was delighted to find them so filled with energy and joy.

Sister Anne smiled at me. "We were talking about that before you came, Kathleen, and I think it has to do with where we live in our lives," she said. "We live most happily in the present. Today is wonderful. The past is gone. And who knows about the future? But today -- today is just grand, isn't it?"

I was struck by the beauty and simplicity of her words and the wisdom of living mindfully and joyfully in the present.

So often we miss the full measure of today because we're looking ahead to new challenges -- either anticipated or dreaded -- or behind us to old regrets or to triumphs unlikely to happen again.

Pausing for a time in our rush from past to present, savoring the moment, can bring new joy and energy to our lives.

Just for now, take a deep breath, close your eyes and feel the sweetness of the air as your breathe.

Open your eyes and take in, with new appreciation, all you see around you: your pet's sweet, trusting face, the amber hues of the late afternoon, a flowering tree or early spring blossoms in your garden, a favorite painting or photo on the wall. Notice details you didn't take time to discover before.

Savor the taste of your food -- the sweetness of spring's first ripe strawberry, the freshness of some steamed vegetables, Give yourself the gift of time to appreciate texture and subtleties of taste.

Hear, with new delight, the voice of a loved one, the sounds of the night, or your favorite piece of music.

And tell yourself that right here, right now, you are at peace.

You may be facing illness, either your own or that of someone you love, but for this moment, all is well.

You may have had a major loss or terrible disappointment, but, in this instant, you can see, breathe, taste and hear sweetness.

There is so much joy in allowing yourself to live mindfully and fully in this moment. It is a resting place, a refuge from all that has come before and whatever lies in the ahead.

Embracing this enduring lesson from two very special Irish sisters has brought extraordinary peace to my own life in a month when health concerns have been all too present. Yes, there is that calendar filled with medical appointments for both Bob and me. Yes, I have concerns that health challenges may be on the horizon for both of us.

But right now, savoring a cup of green jasmine tea and delighting in its delicate flavor,  I'm watching a gentle breeze blowing through the flowering plants and sweet-smelling citrus blossoms in our back yard. Gus is purring at my feet and SweetPea is lying by the computer, resting her head on my right hand, purring softly. Bob, with Maggie on his lap, is doing his daily crossword a few feet away. We are all here together -- the whole family -- quietly enjoying each other on a breezy Arizona morning.

Today is, indeed, just grand.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Musings of a Marriage Counselor

I'll never forget the first couple I saw on the first day of my internship as a marriage and family therapist in training.

I felt a wave of revulsion as I read their file: They both had a history of drug and alcohol abuse. The husband had raped his 12-year-old stepdaughter six months before and his wife's response had been to relinquish custody of the girl to her own mother so that she could continue to live with Mr. Wonderful.

Only she hadn't been thinking of him as especially wonderful recently. Curiously enough, this had nothing to do with him raping her daughter. Both husband and wife shrugged that off as understandable drunken behavior. This couple had been court-ordered into rehab and found themselves clean and sober for the first time in their eight year marriage. They weren't sure they even liked -- let alone loved -- each other sober.

And so they were sitting before me, their anger escalating as they cursed each other in English and Spanish. I watched for a moment or two, aghast. Finally, awkwardly utilizing one of the techniques I had learned in couples counseling classes but had never applied in real life, I interrupted them and, attempting to bring them back to a happier time in the relationship and to discover the glue that held the relationship together, I asked them how they met and first came to love each other.

They stopped fighting in mid-scream and stared at me, suddenly united in their total disdain for this counseling novice before them. The wife's lip curled slightly as she replied "We had the same crack dealer, okay?"

The couples that followed -- court-ordered couples during my internship, less volatile but nonetheless troubled couples in my private practice -- were somehow never quite so challenging as that first couple, but all were in obvious pain.

Marriage counseling can be intense and is quite different from individual psychotherapy. In individual work, there is a therapeutic bond between the therapist and client. The therapist may be quiet and concentrate on listening and reflecting or may be more interactive, utilizing techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy. But there is an intense one-to-one relationship. The dynamic in couples counseling, however, is quite different: the emphasis is on the bond and relationship between the two partners, with the therapist observing, jumping in, making comments and recommendations, but being careful not to side with one or the other. Instead, the emphasis is on facilitating communication and resolution between the two partners.

And through the years, the couples I saw in therapy taught me a lot about how relationships work and how they don't. Most of them were married. Some were young engaged couples. And some were long-time gay or lesbian partners whose issues tended to be quite similar to the others. Thinking back on all the couples I've seen -- both couples who saved and improved their relationships -- and those who didn't -- I think about the relationship skills and qualities that successful couples so often share.

Successful couples learn to handle anger and conflict in a direct, but non-punitive way.  No marriage or love relationship is without conflict. It's how conflict is handled that can doom a relationship or facilitate its growth. Some people come into marriage with a distorted view -- perhaps a legacy of their own growing up years -- about what marital conflict entails.

For example, in statements to the press, deflecting media speculation that his young third wife Jessica was both verbally and physically abusive to him, the late Davy Jones remarked "Well, there is some verbal abuse, but isn't that the case in every marriage or relationship?"  No. Verbal abuse is not a part of  loving, lasting relationships.

Mature, loving couples handle their differences by discussing what is going on and how to resolve this -- minus angry accusations and judgments. That isn't to say there are no tight-jawed moments or raised voices. But there is rarely, if ever, any screaming or name-calling or, on the other hand, long sulky silences. Successful couples tend to face conflict head on, express their thoughts, resolve their issues and then go on.

My brother, who had a number of love relationships before finally marrying in midlife, marvels at the way he and his wife Amp are able to resolve problems. "We've never had what I would call a fight," he says. "We can get upset or irritated or frightened -- like when I accidentally left the gate open and we feared, for about ten minutes, that our daughter Maggie had escaped the yard and was running through the neighborhood (until we found her asleep in my home office). We stood there upset and I said that I would remember from then on to double check the lock on that gate. And Amp said quietly 'Yes, you will. We both will.' And then we hugged each other -- in relief and reconciliation. And that was it. That moment was more constructive and had much more power than a screaming fight would have had. We're true partners."

Successful couples are kind to each other. We're kind to our friends and even to strangers -- so why not to each other? It's amazing how unkind we can be to those we love most. I once saw a play that highlighted this phenomenon: a couple came to visit another couple at home and were treated, not as welcome guests, but as family members. The hosts spoke to them as they might their children or each other: "Don't do that! What were you thinking??? Clean your plate -- now! Don't put your feet up! Don't touch that!" And so on. And yet, kindness can mean so much over the years.

 I first saw one couple I'll call Briana and Josh when they were in college and dating. Although they professed to love each other, they treated each other with a combination of barbed humor, screaming accusations and vicious threats. It took some time to unravel the complicated web of their life experiences and personality traits that led to this inflammatory style of loving. In the interim, I urged them to strive to be kind to each other as each struggled with internal issues. It got to a point where they would anticipate my thoughts.

"Yes, I know what you're thinking," Josh said in a session one day as he struggled to rephrase a comment that had Briana in tears. And then both he and Briana, smiling through her tears, chorused "Be kind to each other!"

The lesson finally took. They learned to be kind even in disagreement and in adversity. And, many years later, they are the happily married parents of a young son.

Successful couples don't make idle threats.  A number of couples I've seen go straight to threats of divorce when angry or disappointed. The "D" word isn't something that successful partners use easily -- if ever -- during times of distance, anger or disappointment.

Even mentioning divorce as a possibility while in conflict conjures up a feeling of impermanence that can interfere with a couple's ability to work through some of the inevitable rough patches in their relationship.

There is the joke about someone asking his long-married grandmother if she and Grandpa had ever thought of divorcing during all their years and challenges together. And the grandmother replies "No, never. Murder, yes! Divorce, never!"

But there's something to that -- homicidal feelings aside. When divorce isn't on the table during your most difficult times together, you have more incentive to strive to make your relationship work for both of you.

Successful couples don't give up when the going gets tough.  Among the saddest moments I have seen, over and over, in therapy have been those couples wanting to call it quits at the first disappointment, the first major disagreement, the first instance of life happening around them. Some give up so easily -- thinking that they will find someone who isn't so hopelessly human and fallible.

Some years back, my long-married friend Mary McVea, observing that many couples in their Chicago-area social circle were divorcing, said that "When I ask one of them what the critical point was, what make them decide to divorce, I'm always struck by how minor it sounds. I want to say 'You're giving up on each other over that??"

Of course, with many emotionally estranged couples, what they say is the problem may simply be the last straw -- the last of a series of betrayals.

But too many seem poised to bail out of the relationship at the first hint of trouble. And, as a therapist, I always found that sad and a challenge to encourage them to rediscover and fight for their loving commitment to each other. Sometimes it worked. And just as often, it didn't.

Successful couples don't panic during a less intimate cycle in their relationship. There are many marriages within a marriage. There are recurrent cycles of intimacy and distance, of drifting apart and then rediscovering your love for each other. Some couples have more dramatic cycles of distance and intimacy than others. Some have down cycles that coincide with the stresses of major life changes -- the birth of children or the departure of children from the family nest or work challenges or retirement. Some couples panic at this juncture, wondering if the love and closeness they once felt is gone forever.  Some of these couples seek marriage counseling -- and may be able to rediscover their loving feelings. Others, knowing that every relationship weathers its share of storms, feelings of distance and joys of reconciliation, hold tight to each other and the relationship. Sadly, others panic and bail -- convinced that love is gone forever.

Successful couples want the very best for each other, making the partner a top priority in their lives. Couples have taught me over the years that love must be nurtured and treasured. People who start out with heartfelt good will, shared hopes and dreams can grow irrevocably apart if they don't give their partners and the relationship high priority in their lives -- and warm encouragement to pursue their dreams. That can be a challenge during the busy parenting and working years or times of career changes or going back to school. But it can be done.

When I returned to graduate school in my mid-forties to earn degrees in clinical psychology, I was one of relatively few married students as well as the oldest.  One professor, welcoming us to the program, told us to "kiss your partner goodbye for the next few years and maybe forever. People tend to get divorced quite often in this program because of the intense academic and time demands -- on top of many of you working full-time."

But the Dean came to the podium a few minutes later to suggest "Instead of kissing your significant other goodbye, embrace him or her and ask for support and pledge your support and your love through the challenging times ahead."

I took his directive to heart. And Bob was incredibly supportive as I embarked on an eight year odyssey of graduate school, a 3,000 hour unpaid evening/weekend clinical internship while working full-time and finally, six months of written and oral licensing exams before emerging --at last -- as a psychotherapist.

While I always preferred doing individual therapy from day one, I did a lot of couples counseling because I was the oldest and only married intern at my first internship site and thus in demand by troubled couples. And by the time I was licensed, I had so much experience with couples/marriage counseling that it continued to be a major part of my private practice.

But it was emotionally demanding. And Bob was there for me the whole time. Of course, ethically, I couldn't discuss my caseload specifically with him. But during my internship, after nine hours of working with warring, tearful, distraught and sometimes abusive partners, I would come home, look at Bob with love and appreciation, and embrace him quietly.  And I would say "You're so wonderful."
And he would smile and reply "Oh, my. It was that kind of day, was it?"

When I was in private practice and could handle the rigors of couples work with greater ease, Bob could still tell by looking at me when I walked in the door at night.

"You've been seeing couples tonight, haven't you?" he'd ask, knowing the answer already.

And I would tell him I loved him as I slid into his warm embrace.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Seven Things New Parents Want Us to Know

It all happened so quickly.

I was sitting in my brother's home office in Los Angeles, about to read a story to my two-year-old niece Maggie, whom I see all too rarely and who had spent the better part of the afternoon working up the courage to approach me with a story request. Just as Maggie came up to me with her favorite book and a tentative smile, a well-meaning family friend, mis-reading my caution with Maggie as dislike, swooped into the room and scooped up Maggie, saying "Come on, Maggie! Let's go play!"

Amp, my sweet, peaceful Thai Buddhist sister-in-law, whose grasp of English was tenuous only a few years ago, was in the room in an instant. "I'm really pissed off!" she said, her eyes brimming with angry tears. "I'm sick of this shit!"

Our collective jaws dropped -- both at her enhanced proficiency in English slang and also at the intensity of her anger.

It occurred to me then that we sometimes stir the ire of new parents with the very best of intentions. And I thought back to many therapy sessions with clients reporting conflicts and misunderstandings with their children over the grandchildren or eager aunties finding themselves nose-to-nose with a newly minted mother tigress.

A grandmother I once saw in therapy was often in tears because she lived to spoil her grandchildren and this was leading to continuing conflicts with her son and daughter and their respective spouses.

Another enthusiastic grandma expressed her outrage at "having to make an appointment to see MY grandchildren!" She was hurt and angry about her daughter-in-law's request that she call before coming over.

It's all so tempting -- to want to spend the maximum of time with little ones we love, to make them feel loved and cherished, to give our daughters or daughter-in-laws the child-raising wisdom we've learned through the years, to give our beloved grandchildren, godchildren or nephews and nieces some of the comforts and luxuries that we perhaps weren't able to give our children when we were younger and poorer.

And yet, all these good intentions can backfire into confrontations, tears and resentments if we're not careful.

Indeed, the best intentions can go awry, cause problems and rifts in friendships and family relationships. I've seen it often in therapy: a grandmother resentful that a daughter-in-law or daughter seems uninterested, even hostile, to her help and advice; an extended family member who feels shut out; an exhausted new parent who feels overwhelmed by responsibility and unsolicited advice that seems to imply that she's incompetent and a bad mother.

Of course, I've also heard in therapy and in daily life about parents who expect grandparents and others to shoulder more responsibility for child care than they want: expecting a parent to give up a job to care for a grandbaby; expecting their parents to be babysitters constantly on call. While many grandparents, fond aunties and friends welcome such involvement, others feel overwhelmed. One couple I know actually moved 1,800 miles away from their children and grandchildren -- whom they love dearly -- to get some time to themselves.

But that's another story, another blog post. Right now, my thoughts are with new parents and what they need us to know.

As I have watched and listened in therapy, talked with a variety of grandparents who are neighbors and observed over the course of that recent weekend with my brother and his family, some thoughts and rules came to mind. These rules are often unspoken, but any violations -- no matter how well-intentioned -- can lead to painful conflict. These include:

1. No matter how warm your connection, this isn't your baby.  The new Mom and Dad, no matter how inexperienced, rule. Even though you may have the parenting experience, defer to the new parents. Yes, sometimes the new parents don't know best, but make suggestions tactfully. You may feel an eye roll coming on when this inexperienced parent is giving YOU instructions for care, but this is her child. She needs to be the expert on her own baby in order to shoulder the new and constant responsibility. Ask "How can I help?" instead of rushing in with advice. And when you give advice, try framing it in a non-confrontational way: "Have you thought about...." or "I wonder how it would work if...." Be a collaborator in this much-loved child's care instead of letting the (often insecure) new parent think that you consider her (or him) incapable.

The best case scenario is to help the new parent feel more capable and confident with your warm, loving support.

2. Don't force closeness. You may have felt intense love the minute you knew this baby was on the way -- even from a distance. However, it may take the baby or toddler a little longer to warm up to you if you're not a part of his or her daily life. If a child sees you only occasionally, he or she may need time to feel comfortable. Don't insist that the child kiss you or sit on your lap.  Let the child make a decision about when or whether he or she will come closer.

Earlier in my last visit, as Maggie hovered beside my chair, I told her that I could move over and make room for her if she wanted to sit with me in the rocker. "No," she said, deciding, instead, to stand on my feet, looking into my face, as I read to her. Gradually, she began to wiggle over onto my lap, eager to show me a story on her iPad. But it was her choice. (Remember how you hated being forced to kiss Great Aunt Clara during her annual visit?) As eager as you may be to gather this precious child into your arms,  give the kid a break. Let the child lead the way.

3. Don't make assumptions. This includes assuming that the parents want to be away from the baby. Especially those of us without kids see the unending responsibility, the constant distractions, the sheer energy it takes to care for a baby or toddler and we assume new parents would like a break. And we assume that a break would mean being totally away from the child for a nice chunk of time.

That may be true for some. But many others would simply find an extra pair of hands useful while still staying close by. So you can give a new mother a break by preparing meals or doing housecleaning so she can relax and continue to bond with her new baby. Or you can give new parents a break by playing quietly with their child or children at home while they catch up on some postponed chores or take a nap.

Unless it's an emergency or unless Grandma plays a major role in their daily lives, babies and toddlers generally do better with parents nearby. Fun sleepovers can come a little later.

4. Don't undermine rules and beliefs or play out conflicts through the child. There is the joke that children and grandparents are co-conspirators against the parents. But, in real life, while your relationship can be pivotal and incredibly special, it's important -- especially with toddlers -- not to undermine the parents' rules, wishes and convictions. They need to learn to follow rules their parents set -- without interference.

This means not being the soft touch when it comes to discipline. If Mom or Dad says "No", it's not up to you to say "Yes." And if you're entrusted with the little one's care, even for a few minutes, it's critical to keep parental concerns in mind.

For example, I remember the angry tears of my long ago client Jody who had a toddler named Emily and an over-eager neighbor named Tracy, divorced and childless, who loved being Emily's play companion and who never reinforced any of Jody's rules for the child. When she ignored Jody's instructions during a visit to the play area of their local mall,  the situation quickly became a crisis.

When Emily was playing happily in the mall's large children's area, Jody, pregnant with her second child, suddenly had to go to the bathroom. She asked Tracy to watch Emily and to make sure that she didn't leave the play area. Jody returned -- less than five minutes later -- to find both Emily and Tracy gone.

With growing concern, she checked the immediate area and surrounding stores to no avail. Now frantic, she alerted Security and called her husband -- who was working at home and was on a conference call. He dropped everything and ran to join her at the mall. They searched everywhere -- finally finding Emily and Tracy at a store on the other end of the mall. Tracy's account was that Emily had started to wander from the play area "and I just followed her to keep her safe."

Both Jody and her husband were furious and distraught. It seemed not to have occurred to Tracy to contain Emily in the play area as asked or, if she was wanting her Mom, to take her to the restroom where Jody had gone during that brief interlude. Either of those scenarios -- rather than the one that unfolded -- would have made this a non-event and certainly would have made the parents less concerned about Tracy's judgment.

Some extended family and friends may feel that loving a child means being a playmate. Some of the permissiveness and lack of judgment seem to come from personal neediness -- feeling, perhaps, that your relationship will suffer if you reinforce parental rules. The opposite is true, of course. Children can have many playmates their own age. But adult relatives and friends who offer fun and the personal safety that comes with limits are treasured indeed.

I've thought a lot about my beloved Aunt Molly lately, remembering how my brother, sister and I loved her so much and what fun we had together. But it wasn't all fun. Aunt Molly's temper could be fierce, her justice swift. When we were with Aunt Molly, we knew that, in order to have those good times, we needed to behave like reasonable human beings. She loved to have fun with us, but wouldn't put up with any nonsense -- and we quickly learned the difference. If we tried to get around parental rules with her, we hit a dead end. She always stood up for our parents. (And when she disagreed with a parental action or rule, she brought it up in private with our parents, never in our presence.)

What I always sensed as a child and know for certain now is that Aunt Molly's love for us came, not out of her own personal neediness, but out of the fullness and richness of her life. We weren't her whole life and what she brought to us from her life beyond our family was incredibly valuable. I loved to read her poetry and short stories -- both the published variety and the ones she wrote just for us, just for fun. We were all excited when one of her scripts came to life before our eyes on television. As a teenager, I loved meeting her sophisticated friends and staying overnight in her very cool apartment. I felt enriched by her life as well as by her strong and enduring love. And the fact that she had expectations of us and set limits made us feel wonderfully safe and secure with her.

5. Don't drop in. Call first -- and ask if it's convenient to come over. Even if offering help, this is important. In some families and cultures, dropping in is just fine -- but, otherwise, never assume that it's fine. Call and say you'd like to be helpful and ask if this is a good time. If you constantly drop in to play with the baby or to spend a day with baby and parents, you risk wearing out your welcome. Routines can get disrupted. Alone time can be important for the new parents and baby.

"I used to feel so upset and conflicted when my two kids were babies," my friend Jessica told me recently. "People were coming over all the time to see them, give me advice and hang out just as I was trying to get the little ones down for naps and then have some time of my own to take a shower or clean up the house a little. I appreciated their enthusiasm and concern, but it felt impossible to get anything done -- even when they wanted to help. Sometimes the help they envisioned giving didn't fit with the kids' sleep schedules or with what I really needed. I felt guilty for being so ungrateful, but I found myself getting mad at so many people I loved for thinking that my 'call first' preferences didn't apply to them."

6. Love isn't a competition. Children flourish with love from family and friends -- and it's all important.

Think about the people in your own childhood who mattered so much -- and how each enriched your life in a unique way. If a child is fortunate enough to have two grandmas and a variety of other people who love him or her, it's cause for celebration. Being competitive can drive a wedge between you and the new parents. Both sets of grandparents, all the aunties and family friends can add immeasurably to a child's life. You will all have your unique relationships with this treasured child -- and, from the child's perspective, it's all good.

7. Don't automatically shower the child with gifts. There is so much more you can give a child besides material gifts. Time and encouragement and unconditional love matter so much. There are times, in fact, when gifts can get in the way of a developing relationship.

I once had a patient named Bea who had spent years buying her two grandchildren lavish gifts. Then she suffered through a late life divorce and ended up impoverished, living in a trailer on a very tight budget. And, as much as she loved them, her grandchildren didn't seem too interested in knowing her anymore. Part of the reason was their adolescence, when friends were a much greater lure than family. But another part of the problem was that, in the flurry of past gifts, real intimacy had never developed between Bea and her grandkids. Now that gifts were not at the center of their relationship, they had little to share with each other.

There are gifts that can also violate parental preferences for their children. For example, some years back, my sister Tai didn't want her daughter Nick to get into the Barbie thing, preferring educational toys. Nick's paternal grandmother would say "Nonsense! Every little girl loves to play with Barbies." It set my sister's teeth on edge and added to the conflict between mom and grandma.

I find I have to watch my own holiday exuberance with Maggie. Mike and Amp aren't crazy about the Santa Claus custom or, being Buddhists, the whole Christmas tradition. "Besides," my brother says. "She has too much stuff already. The greatest gift you could give her is the gift of time."

After checking with her parents, another friend recently gave Maggie an insightful gift: a baby doll to care for in anticipation of the arrival of her baby brother this summer. She has embraced this gift enthusiastically, though insisting that this new baby is a girl named Sarah.

Just keep in mind that too many gifts -- or gifts that upset the parents -- can build barriers, not bridges.

While parents rule, grandmas, aunties and good friends are all important to young child's growth and development.

I remember some of my parents' friends and family members to this day with great affection: Carl Mueller, so laid back and patient, who taught me to take time, lie on the grass and notice the shapes of clouds; Frank Camerlo, the husband of my father's secretary Angela, who had been an opera singer in his native Italy and who encouraged me to sing duets with him -- to my great delight. And my parents' friends Aggie and Mac McKenzie who brought such love and laughter to my life -- as a child and into my mid-life years. My maternal grandparents were a joy to me -- not to mention a lifesaver to my brother who lived with Grandma through high school and college. Aunts Evelyn and Ruth always made me feel special. And Aunt Molly...well, she was in a whole different category altogether. She was my love, my idol, my role model, my inspiration.

As we visited recently, Mike and I shared loving memories of our Grandma Gladys and Aunt Molly. He told me how pleased he and Amp were when -- possibly prompted by my talkative inclinations -- Maggie started to talk much more during weekend I was visiting.

"I'd love you to be another Aunt Molly to Maggie and Henry," Mike said.

Oh, how I wish!

But Aunt Molly was 27 when I was born. We shared 59 years of living and loving. No matter how much I might wish it, I won't have the luxury of such time with Maggie. During my growing years, Aunt Molly was a young woman, full of energy. I'm delighted to be an aunt -- and there is so much I want to experience with Maggie and Henry, too, after he arrives this summer -- even if I don't have the advantage of a young woman's energy. I can't ever really be Aunt Molly. She was truly one of a kind. But I can be a loving auntie in my own way and time and, happily, in a very different family dynamic.

But no matter how much I'll love them and hope to share many good times and fun adventures with Maggie and Henry, I'll never forget those unspoken but critically important rules!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Remembering Davy Jones

To millions of Baby Boomers, Davy Jones was the little British heart throb of the Monkees who sang "Daydream Believer" to screaming fans and then to nostalgia buffs for the rest of his life.

To theater-lovers, he was a star of London's West End and Broadway as a young teenager -- in a Tony-nominated performance as The Artful Dodger in "Oliver!" and as Sam Weller to Harry Secombe's Pickwick in the pre-Broadway tour of the musical "Pickwick" before he was co-opted by Hollywood and went on to Monkees' fame.

And, in a moment of his past and future at a crossroads, he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show with the Broadway cast of "Oliver!" on February 9, 1964 -- the same episode that introduced the Beatles to America.

For me, though, Davy Jones was my challenging final assignment in my first college Reporting class.

The assignment was to gain access to, interview and write an article about a public figure.

The professor might as well have said "For your final, climb Mt. Everest."  I was shy and scared of interviews -- not promising qualities in a future journalist.

So, in a move to decrease my nervousness, I decided to interview someone my own age. How bad could that be? "Oliver!" had closed on Broadway by 1965 and was doing a brief national tour of major cities. The show had recently landed in Chicago and I had seen it, marveling at the talent of young Davy Jones, who was exactly my age. I decided he would be the subject of my Reporting final.

The show's publicist -- an older woman -- smiled sweetly at me when I requested an interview. "Of course, my dear," she said with equanimity that surprised me. "Be at the stage door an hour before next Saturday's matinee. And I'll ask him to come to the theatre early that day."

And so I met him at the stage door. He smiled and invited me to the dressing room he shared with two adult members of the cast. His dressing room mates were there, laughing and joking. He asked them to keep it down, saying I was going to interview him.  They laughed again. "Interview US!" they said. "We know the real scoop! Ask him about his sex life!"

I tensed, clutching my notebook.

"Come on, guys!" he said affably and then turned to me with full attention.

We may have both been 19 years old, but Davy Jones was a grown-up. He was confident, good-natured and kind. On his own since the age of fourteen, he had the air of someone considerably older. I was a scared, self-conscious kid.

I started tremulously, asking uninspired pre-written questions, avoiding his steady gaze and frowning over my notes.

After a few minutes, Davy interrupted me. "Can I ask you something?"

I stopped and our eyes met.

"Why are you here? I don't want to sound like a jerk, but I'm curious. Usually when a girl arranges to come backstage, it's because she really wants to meet me. But you don't seem especially glad to meet me, so I'm just wondering..."

My lip trembled. My eyes filled with tears. "I'm not meaning to be rude," I said. "I'm just nervous. I'm the shyest person in my Reporting class and for the final I have to do a really difficult interview and..."

"And so you picked me?" he said, smiling, handing me a tissue to dab my eyes. "I'm not so bad. I'll tell you anything you need to know for your article. We'll get through this interview together. We'll get you an A+ for your final!"

And so we got through the interview, slipping into easy conversation and laughing together by the end. When I asked him to sign my interview notes -- which my professor wanted turned in with my final paper -- I added "If my professor calls to check with you, please don't tell her that I cried."

He laughed softly and gave my arm an affectionate squeeze. "I won't," he said. "But you may have some explaining to do to her about all those tear spots on your notes!"

He was right. My professor noted the tear spots and smiled. "Maybe the next interview, you won't cry at all," she said. "And maybe you'll sort of enjoy the one after that. And maybe someday you'll love interviewing."

And so it came to be. But the interview with Davy Jones was an important turning point for me. It was my very first interview with a public person. The Davy Jones article I wrote for my final was also my first national magazine sale (to the now long-defunct teen magazine "Ingenue.") And, thanks to his patience and compassion during that interview, I began to lose my fear.

So, through all the years our lives have gone their separate and singular ways, Davy Jones has always been dear to my heart.

The last time I saw him was some years back on a Chicago talk show when both of us were promoting our books. Middle age had left its mark on us. We were graying. I was totally at ease with interviews -- televised and otherwise. He had an entourage that included at least one of his young adult daughters. Before Davy's arrival, I had told the host of the show about our long-ago interview and he regaled Davy with the memory as soon as he walked in the Green Room.

I wasn't sure that he truly remembered the incident well or at all, but he was gracious - greeting me like an old friend.

When we found ourselves temporarily alone in the Green Room before the show, he turned, smiled and said "Can I ask you something -- again?"

I laughed. "I promise I won't cry this time. And I am glad to see you!"

"No, that's not it," he said quietly. "I guess what I want to know is...well...I hope I wasn't a jerk that day.  You know, being so young and having the great start to my career like that and having girls all wanting to meet me could be a very heady thing at times. I hope I was nice. I hope I didn't seem an egomaniac."

"You were wonderful," I said.

He looked relieved. "I'm happy to report that my head is now back to its regular size," he said. "I have a couple of teenage daughters who delight in telling me everything that's wrong with me."

We laughed and then we got the call to take our places on the set. "Showtime!" he whispered and squeezed my hand.

When I heard the news of his death yesterday, I felt a terrible sadness. I felt sad that this still energetic performer would die so suddenly and so young. I felt sad that the amazing success of his early career -- the Broadway accolades and the adoration of a whole generation of teenage girls for The Monkees -- didn't continue throughout his life. I felt sad that his life after the fame had faded had so many rough spots -- with losses and divorces and disappointments. And yet, it seemed, he was happy and gracious throughout his life, regarding his place in the nostalgia niche as a positive, treasuring his family and his growing number of grandchildren, and welcoming friends and fans alike into his life to the end.

May this sweet soul rest in peace and those who loved him -- from his family to his fans -- find consolation in warm memories.