Embracing the Joys of Extended Family

My father, Alvin Edelson, with his storytelling sisters, Reva and Anita

My father, Alvin Edelson, with his storytelling sisters, Reva and Anita

The wonderful New York Times article by Silas House, “The Growing Generational Divide” so eloquently discussed what I agree is one of the elements lacking in so many young people today: their connection with older family members. He argues that young people know the intricacies of celebrities’ lives more than they understand their own family histories. Next week, I’ll be traveling to Minneapolis for the unveiling of my beloved aunt’s tombstone. The unveiling is  a Jewish ceremony that occurs within a year of a person’s death. As I read this piece, memories of casual Sundays spent with my aunt came flooding back. She and her family moved to Minneapolis when I was just 10, but any time she visited, she and my father’s other sister would take the stage. The two women were the funniest I’ve ever met, and we would spend hours listening to them weave true-life tales, amusing anecdotes that they told with great expression. There were no soccer games or music classes to rush to; everyone in my family would linger over a brunch of bagels and kugel and be truly entertained. My interest in telling peoples’ stories — albeit in writing — in many ways was rooted in my love of hearing their recollections. One of the best summers of my life was when I was 15 and traveled to Los Angeles and spent three weeks with my grandmother. Though many teens would not relish this type of experience, I loved it. We stayed up late playing the card game, War, while she gossiped about the family’s secrets. There was plenty of family history to discuss, as my grandfather was the oldest of 11, 10 boys and the youngest a girl. A great listener, my grandmother was often the confidante for many of her sister-in-laws. I was fascinated by the stories she would tell, some slightly scandalous, about the back stories of her many relatives. It was better than any television drama. My grandmother was crazy about me and I could do no wrong in her eyes. A children’s writer, she was a voracious reader — she bragged that she had read every book in the library of the town where she grew up — smart, affectionate and kind and truly one of the best companions I ever had. I still remember her cackling laugh and her homemade blintzes. And I cherish the time we had together.

When I visit my mother in the Detroit suburbs, I’m always touched to walk into a delicatessen and see throngs of grandparents with their grandchildren, catching up on the week’s events. When I sent one of my children to camp one year, there were as many grandparents as parents giving the overnight campers bear hugs and sending them off on the bus. These children have had a great gift, with extended family being so much a part of their lives.

In his article, House points out that we will have an onslaught of aging boomers in coming years. I will be one of them. I hope that, as our population ages, we’re able to maintain that connection with young people, and that they realize what a treasure it is to bond with their elderly relatives. Now that my father and his sisters are gone, I realize that more than ever.

Taking the Sting Out of the College Admissions Race

Each spring, we’re bombarded with articles about the continually increasing selectivity of the nation’s top colleges. This held particular relevance for me this year. My baby, and third born, will be starting college in the fall. I’m thrilled that she got into a highly respected college, one that was her top choice. But I’m even happier that this process is over. The stress leading up to this decision weighed heavy on both my daughter and her parents. I believe strongly that your self worth should have nothing to do with the college you attend, but everywhere she would go her senior year, the inevitable question would surface: Where are you going to college? My daughter is happy she can now answer that, but even more, she is delighted that she can focus on the excitement of learning. She is hugely relieved that the rat race to getting into college has ended. As stressful as this has been for her, it doesn’t compare to the pressures that so many other high school students face, because of the incredible high school she has attended. I discussed this in my most recent Huffington Post blog:

As a journalist, I tend to shy away from taking strong positions on issues I cover, but there’s one belief I will share, since I feel so strongly about it: We need to put an end to the unnecessary and unhealthy emphasis on college admissions.

Reflecting on Boomer Reinvention

As a freelance journalist with more than enough work to keep me busy, it’s not unusual for me to produce roughly two to three articles a week, many representing significant time and effort. I feel very fortunate and am happy for the assignments, but this situation rarely offers me the time to step back and review some of the subjects I’ve covered and the implications of the developments in a particular area. So I was pleased to be contacted by Garrison Leykam, a radio host in Connecticut, who was interested in speaking about the way boomers are reinventing retirement. It’s a subject I’ve written about extensively, and I enjoyed the chance to look back on my previous articles and chat about the important ways that boomers are making their mark on this phase in their lives. You can catch the interview here.

If Diagnosed With Breast Cancer, Don’t Let Worry Rule Your Decision

Just slightly over 12 years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Having just turned 40, and then the mother of three children ages four, seven and 10, it would be an understatement to say this diagnosis rocked my world. At the time, I knew just a handful of women my age with breast cancer. Today, those numbers are swelling. And many, gripped with fear about the breast cancer returning, and eager to get it out of their body for good, are turning to radical treatment that, in many cases, won’t alter their survival rates. In an article I wrote for Glamour, I had the opportunity to delve into the reasons why many young women are opting for unilateral and bilateral mastectomies, removing their entire breast, when a less invasive lumpectomy followed by radiation would be just as effective. By speaking with women who chose this course and those who decided to get lumpectomies, I was able to better understand the factors motivating this very difficult, personal decision. In the end, every woman has to decide what’s best for her. There’s no doubt about it. Getting a breast cancer diagnosis is scary. But as we kick off breast cancer awareness month, I hope women will take the time to research the extensive studies and research on the most viable treatment options. I hope they’ll get a second opinion and connect with other breast cancer survivors to hear what worked for them, and what didn’t, so they’ll know all their possible options before heading into surgery. In tackling this disease, education is often the best weapon.

Leading a Purposeful Life

          I’ve been spending some time covering the importance of purpose these past couple of months. It started with Vic Strecher’s book, On Purpose,

which documents his painful but ultimately fulfilling journey following the death of his daughter, and how his realization that having a purpose could help him to lead a healthier life. I wrote about Strecher for The Wall Street Journal. Then, my editor at Michigan Today asked me to write a piece on the same topic. Last week, I was approached by another editor about writing an article about the way that having a purpose can help those involved in the care of others to live healthier. The reaction to these pieces from readers sharing their stories of how purpose helped them to be happier was overwhelming. It lent even more support to the theory, now being proven out by a variety of studies, that when you have a meaningful purpose, one that is transcendent and not self-involved, you’re motivated to engage in behaviors that help you live longer. Strecher believes this is a far better model for health care. You won’t quit smoking if someone tells you that it could kill you. But you’re inclined to quit smoking, exercise, reduce stress and sleep better when you’re motivated by a greater focus, beyond yourself, one that ultimately helps others. With so many of us engaged in worry and ruminating about our own issues and often selfish endeavors, this seems to make sense in so many ways. It’s now spurring a rethinking of what we need to live a healthier, happier life, amidst the craziness of our fast-paced, technology-filled society. In the end, getting back to basics, and spending our time in the simplest of pursuits that contribute to making the world a better place, seems to hold significant merit. It certainly is some great food for thought.

Two Brave Teens Taking the Sting Out of Mental Illness

 

Okay. A mother can brag, right? When my 16-year-old daughter and her co-editor approached me about the possibility of writing an editorial for a mainstream newspaper after the Dean of her school would not allow the school newspaper to publish stories where students revealed their struggles with depression, I thought it was a great idea. But I never envisioned that what transpired would have such a significant impact. The result of their efforts was this editorial that ran in The New York Times. The piece was the top third emailed article on The New York Timeswebsite of the day. It generated over 200 heart-wrenching, thought-provoking comments on all sides of the issue. The girls received numerous messages, as did I, from those who have struggled with depression all of their lives, thanking them for bringing this issue out of the closet. I’m of course proud of my daughter for having the courage to take on her school administration and speak out about an issue that she feels is so important. But I’m just as gratified that this has sparked such a significant discussion about how to address mental health. The girls articulated their reasons for writing the article in an interview that ran on National Public Radio Schools seem to be struggling on how to handle this situation. But one thing is clear: the answer is not to sweep depression under the rug and make people feel ashamed for their suffering. Let’s hope this article, which has inspired so many to speak up about depression, begins a crucial dialogue about how to help the many struggling teens, and to prevent the rash of suicides we’re seeing in young people.

 

The Recipe for Less Stress on Modern Parents? Relax

I’ve been intrigued with two new books focused on the challenges that modern parents face. I’m in the midst of reading Jennifer Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun, which was featured on NPR recently. I feel a bit validated, as many of the issues women are facing today, and their problems, were highlighted by their own mothers in the book I wrote with Deborah Carr, Making Up With Mom: not enough “me” time and too much time invested in their kids. Senior says that women today are stressed, primarily because they’re in the service of their children. In our book, the mothers of these women complained that they brought the pressures on themselves. They don’t let their children entertain themselves. They should be less indulgent and less scheduled. They helicopter parent them until they lose the ability to be resourceful and self-sufficient. We wrote that these types of complaints were cause for a generational rift. I’m curious, if we went back, seven years after interviewing these mothers of young children, whether they would agree that Mom was right. In her book, Overwhelmed, also featured on NPR, Brigid Schulte, makes many of the same arguments that Senior does: that women today feel compelled, more than ever, to do it all, to be the perfect career woman and the perfect mom and in doing so, are super stressed.
When my children were young, I found myself on the same treadmill as those featured in both of these books. A type A person by nature, I scheduled my kids in scads of extracurricular activities, booking them with a lineup of summer camps that made them busy as a corporate CEO. With my oldest child, now 22, I was slightly obsessed with ensuring she get into a college with the most prestigious name. I poured money into standardized test tutors. I sweated over ever B that came home on a report card (though there were rarely any.) I worried about my kids’ welfare and their future. I worried about my job. But, listening to the authors on recent NPR interviews — who themselves are the parents of young children caught up in the rat race — I realize that I’m no longer that person. With the benefit of time, I have changed. Now the parents of three almost grown-ups: ages 22, 19 and 16, I have a very different view. I’m not obsessing. And I’m no longer overwhelmed. With my third child beginning the college search, I’m not focused on pushing her to apply to the most competitive schools. Instead, I want her to attend a place where she’ll feel comfortable and happy. She’s decided, to reduce her own stress levels, to apply to several schools where she has a strong chance of being admitted. That’s lifted the pressure on her to agonize over scoring high on the standardized tests. She’s bright, resourceful and delightful and I’m sure she’ll make the most of her education and be successful — wherever she goes. And I’m taking a cue from my oldest. As she embarked on babysitting before finding a full-time job, she remarked that the only qualification of a mother these days is to be a cook and a chauffeur. She sees the craziness of parents’ lives today and has sworn that she’ll do it differently. Should she have children, her time will not be spent in the car. A recent college graduate, she’s looking to surround herself with a community of supportive friends. Instead of slaving away at a low paying internship or punching a clock at a nine-to-five office job, she got a position on a farm. Money isn’t the priority for her; the chance to be outdoors in nature makes her far happier, at least for now.
If anything good is to come out the intense lifestyles of today’s middle-class parents, and their musings about the negative impact it has, it’s that our children will likely do things differently. I’m already seeing that in the millennials who are focused on meaningful passions and non-profit work, on changing the world for the better, on protesting round-the-clock hours spent at work, on leading a balanced life. This all makes a great deal of sense to me. Instead of getting caught up in such matters that ultimately will seem trivial: sports trophies, long discarded report cards and a bevy of college acceptance letters, my wish for my children is simple: to have people in their lives they love who love them back. That support can get you through the toughest of times. I’m sure that mothers today will continue to complain about how they’re falling short and how insanely busy their lives are. I hope that this discussion will ultimately lead to moderation, to giving kids — and with that adults — less to do, so they learn how to be bored and even work at a minimum wage job and perform household chores. In the end, these years will fly by and many of us will wish we spent less time agonizing over the challenges, and more time embracing the true joys that come with parenthood.