Christmas is one my favorite holidays. I love the sparkle and the build up to the big day. I love picking out a tree and decorating it, writing Christmas cards, searching out just the right gifts for people you love and wrapping them up in pretty paper. I love that its a time for family and traditions. One of my favorite traditions of recent years has been to make an advent calendar for my godson Aidan and now also his sister, Keira. It’s a lot of fun to search out little gifts to fill the pockets. Since they live in Virginia and don’t usually see them over the holidays, its something special I can do to be a part of their holidays. I spent a part of last weekend hunting out little gifts (note that finding little gifts that will fit into those teensy pockets is not so easy!) and tonight, taking advantage of an evening catching up on Homeland, I wrapped them all up so I could mail them to Virginia before December 1. Advent calendars are a very German tradition. When I was a kid, we had the kind with little doors, that opened each day to a piece of chocolate in some sort of cute shape. I can remember waking up each morning excited to open the next door for that piece of chocolate, all the way up to the big door and chocolate on the 25th. I also remember my brother eating his whole calendar in one fell swoop! I’m really looking forward to the day when I’ll be able make an advent calendar for my son or daughter, and share with them all the many things I love about Christmas.
Here in Berkeley, its not uncommon to see all sorts of wildlife in the neighborhood. The funniest is the flock of wild turkeys that has made our neighborhood their “hood”. They’re always fun to see walking around but somehow seeing them casually walking around Thanksgiving morning, gave me a chuckle. You have to be a pretty confident Turkey to be strutting around on Turkey day!
I thought it would be appropriate to the spirit of day to give thanks for the many blessings in my life. Sometimes, in the hustle and bustle of life and the stresses of the everyday, its hard to remember how lucky most of us really are. I am so thankful for all of you, friends and family, who have supported me in this journey to be a Mom. It would be hard to be doing this without your love and support. I am grateful for being in a position in my life to welcome a child in my heart and home. Even in this time of waiting, I am grateful to be lucky enough to be waiting for this child to arrive. I am grateful for the good fortune of having good health and a happy life , to be able to live in a beautiful place I love, and to be doing work that fulfills me and that allows me to use my talents and learn something new every day. At this time, when there are so many in the world living in the midst of war and political strife, who are fleeing their homes for a safer life elsewhere, I am grateful for living a life that is relatively sheltered from harm and unrest. I am grateful for having been raised by loving and devoted parents, who gave me the foundation for a happy and successful life. I am grateful for my dog Bodhi my coming into my life—coming home to this bundle of boundless love and energy is always the highlight of my day. I’m grateful for all the creative people in this world, the artists, musicians and writers, who bring beauty and insight to our world and inspire life. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
This week I’ve been fostering a rescue puppy who came to us by way of Bodhi’s dogsitter. Rita is a spunky little puppy and Bodhi’s mini-me. They get along pretty well and Bodhi’s been a real trooper, sharing his toys and treats with this zippy little girl. They play well together though I can also tell that Bodhi is missing the attention of being the only dog in the house. Me, I’ve been giving double the belly rubs, am learning to walk two dogs without tangling leashes, and adapting to sharing my bed with not one but two wiggly pups.
In other parts of the country, a rainy day might be cause for sadness. Here in California, where we’ve been in a drought for the last four years, rainy days are days for celebration!That is, except if you are Bodhi. My Bodhi is a drought dog. He was born during the drought and he really does not know what to make of rain. He stubbornly refuses to go out in the rain, or for that matter even to go out when there’s a little mist or the ground is wet. Umbrellas make him nervous. We’ve had a few rainy days this past year, but nothing that he couldn’t wait out. But that may all need to change this winter as they are predicting an El Niño year with big rainstorms. To prepare, I bought Bodhi his own raincoat. Even that seems not to have swayed him…although he sure does look cute in it!
Friends have sometimes asked me about how I came to decision to make a go at being a single Mom. For me it was a long time and a winding road coming to this point. I think I started thinking seriously about becoming a single mom in my late-thirties, I suppose relatively late, but then I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer in life. Some have asked me why I waited. I never really thought about this time as “waiting.” I’ve never been one to be waiting around. I wasn’t “waiting” for a husband (I was pretty happy without one, actually). Sure, I might have been happy (and still would be—hint for any matchmakers out there!) to meet the man of my dreams, get married, have a baby, have that life. But that wasn’t where my life was and I wasn’t “waiting.” I was just living my life. My twenties and early thirties were a lot about school and finding myself professionally—deciding to going to grad school, getting my PhD, finding a job. Over the years, there was a lot going on in my family, and at my job, and I think I tended to focus on those responsibilities first, more perhaps than focusing at my own life. So, there I was, in my late thirties, when I really started thinking seriously about being a Mom, on my own. My way of handling challenges is to immerse myself in research and information, to try to figure it out rationally and logically (that’s the scientist in me!) and pursuing motherhood, or as I liked to think about it at the time “the baby maybe question” was no different. I did a lot of reading (boy, did I do a lot of reading on this), joined some single mom groups, did some hard looking at my lifestyle and finances and how this might work. It was all very logical and deliberate. The thing about becoming a single mom this way was that it is really a very deliberate choice; not an accident, not something I negotiated with a partner, but an active choice. I thought a lot about this from the perspective of the child, and to be honest, at times, had some misgivings about bringing a child into a solo parenting situation, whether this would be fair to them. I had a great childhood and a wonderful Dad. Would it be fair to deprive a child of having a Dad? I grew up with a Mom and a Dad and to be honest, didn’t have many (any?) single parents in my life growing up, or at least single moms who had chosen to be single moms, as opposed divorce or losing a spouse. I read some more, talked some more, thought some more. I thought about the kind of Mom I would want to be, about how I would want to raise this child. There was a lot of “is this the right choice,” “should I do this,” and looking back maybe not enough “do I want to do this.” It was ultimately when I took a class/workshop called “Motherhood—Is it for me?” that I had my epiphany. The class brought together women from all sides for the question—single women, partnered women, ones who thought they might want kids and those who didn’t think so but were unsure or with partners who wanted kids. It was in that group, with that great group of women, all so brave and willing to share their personal lives in such an open way, that it dawned on me that this isn’t a choice that can be made by rational calculation, its one you feel in your heart. This isn’t about “should I” but “what do I feel, what’s in my heart” And when I let myself, I did feel the pull of motherhood and a child deeply in my heart. That epiphany opened up my thinking and I could see more clearly that in my heart of hearts, being a Mom, having a family, was always something I wanted for my life and I could see that I would be a great Mom for someone, someday. And I didn’t have to have all the logistics figured out to be confident that this was what I wanted and the right path for me. Yes of course, one needs to be rational and make sure that the resources are also in place, but when I could see that more objectively, I could see that I do have everything I need to be a great Mom. And so I decided to take the leap. Of course, being single and without a partner meant that once I had “decided” it’s not like I could just get out there and make a baby, so to speak. It took more time— loads more time—and a lot effort, to get me to the point of being here. It’s been a long road to get here and I suppose sometimes I wish I had rushed things along, but that wouldn’t be my story then. And I wouldn’t then be here now, finding my way to the baby who would be my child, however that comes to be.
I had a great time this weekend meeting up in Washington DC with Noelle and her kids, Aidan and Keira, who came up from Virginia. Aidan is my Godson and I consider Keira my unofficial Goddaughter by extension. We had a great time going to the Natural History Museum, where highlights were the bug exhibit (crazy big tarantulas and glow in the dark scorpians!) and the crystal and gem collection (turns out Keira is gem gal!). The kids tolerated my forced march to see the White House, even though it was dark already and we could only see it from a distance. On Sunday we went to the National Zoo and introduced the newest family member—Pandie the Panda–to Keira’s menagerie. The zoo has a new baby Panda, Bei Bei, but we could only see him on the video-cam because Mama Panda and baby were still not taking guests. In between we had fun hanging out in the hotel, swimming in the hotel pool, timing the super long escalators at the Metro and overdosing on deep dish pizza and ice cream shakes from Shake Shack. Aidan has grown up into a sports nut but he’s nice enough to tolerate Aunt Katja’s dumb sports questions like —“who won the world series” and “how many innings are there in a basketball game.” Since Noelle and her family live so far away, I don’t get to see them so often but luckily work takes me to DC often enough so we can see each other in person every now and then. Aidan is now almost ten and I can’t quite believe that this little peanut that I held in my arms not so long ago is now such a big boy! Its been a gift to be a part of Adain and Keira’s lives and to have a role model for such a great Mom in my friend Noelle!
I’m a neuroscientist and in the course of some of my work reading, I’ve been reading and thinking more about the brain development and critical periods, and how this relates to child cognitive development. It’s known that the first few years of a child’s life are critical for proper brain development and there is some interesting work being done on the impact of social influences on early cognitive development. Good parenting, and a loving nurturing environment are known to be critical for a child’s development. There’s data to show that the care a child receives during this first critical period has a strong influence on who that little one will grow up to be, even beyond childhood. Less clear has been what’s going on in the brain that mediates these effects. How is it that experiences in this early window of life last for so long? What’s going on in a child’s brain during this period? I recently saw an interesting episode of the Charlie Rose Show this week on the neuroscience of parenting which addressed this topic.
A brief divergence before saying more about this topic— I am a big Charlie Rose fan. I just love this show. He has great guests and is really a thoughtful interviewer on a wide array of topics. Charlie Rose has an ongoing series on the brain which brings together leading neuroscientists (many of whom I know well from working on Neuron) to discuss current research in neuroscience. Eric Kandel (by the way, I’m proud to say one of Neuron’s editorial Nobel prize winning ed board members!) hosts the show with Charlie Rose. It’s pretty cool to see people you know and admire on Charlie Rose but more so, I think the show does a great job of discussing the science at a pretty high but still accessible level. Being a science nerd, I just love this stuff!! I know, you would think that I’d have enough neuroscience from work and would spend my off hours watching more mindless TV (I do that too, don’t worry! Just get me going about the latest episode of Scandal!).
In any case, this Charlie role episode on parenting was really interesting. The show covered a very wide array of topics related parenting from the hormonal control of parental bonding, to the importance of social interactions and caregiving on early life development, to post-partum depression. Through my work, I’ve read a lot of this research literature already but I really liked how the show brought some very diverse science together in a very “real world” way. I’d highly recommend watching it: Charlie Rose Brain Series: The Biology of Parenting
I was especially struck by the work on the brain circuits and mechanisms that control parental bonding. It turns out that parental bonding behavior is both hard-wired in the brain and also under powerful hormonal influences. We now understand that there are particular parts of the brain and particular neuropeptides in the brain that drive bonding behavior. It’s thought that post-partum depression, which often comes with a feeling of not being able to bond with one’s baby, might have something to do with abnormal fluctuations of these hormones. I started thinking about this from the perspective of adoption and especially from a birth mother’s perspective. Bonding with your baby and loving your baby is neurally and hormonally hardwired. Your heart and your head are working together. And yet, for a birth mom, she really needs to step outside of her own biology and her own feelings and make a really, really hard decision of what is ultimately best for her child, not just for now but for an entire lifetime. Not being in that situation myself, I can’t imagine how it feels to be faced making such a difficult decision, while confronting strong emotions, surging pregnancy hormones and a naturally growing bond with the baby you are carrying. I do know that taking the steps to do best by ones child, setting aside one’s own interests and feelings (and biology!), shows an awe-inspiring level of fortitude, bravery and selflessness.