Mama Colada: Knock me down, it’s all in vain, I get right back on my feet again.
So hit me with your best shot!
I am a boxer.
So now you know. I am a boxer. I have hit other people in the face and kidneys, for sport. I have danced around a boxing ring, spent hours running backwards up and down Market Street in Philadelphia, and inhaled the sourness of the basement boxing gyms in the public housing projects in Philadelphia. It’s a conflicted story. A pediatrician who boxes. A college girl who boxes. A Pakistani girl who boxes. A girl who boxes.
There’s a far more important story to tell right now. It’s the story of why I love Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali’s life is a story of sacrifice and conflict. For me, his heroism is the embodiment of ultimate sacrifice and the inherent, inescapable conflict of being human. His life was dedicated to destruction and peace. He channeled inhuman force and angelic gentleness. He enacted a dangerous rebellion and grassroots diplomacy. This courage of conviction led him to become The Greatest by giving up everything.
We don’t have to give up everything to win as parents. We don’t have to destroy anything (though when you watch a toddler gleefully topple a tower of blocks, you see that drive of creative destruction). Still, sacrifice is a daily part of parenting. Not the sacrifice Ali made. He unwittingly gave his life for his sport, and this is the utterly gripping tragedy of his story. Whatever it took, he did it. As we raise our babies into fulfilled, moral young adults, we don’t have to go that far. Yet, if we remain mindful of the the beauty of sacrifice, it’s so much easier to get up one more time at 3 am to feed a newborn, or calmly remind a 2 year old that we don’t bite people, or quietly take the hit when a frustrated teen slings angry insults.
Let’s think for a moment about what it was like for Ali to win those famous fights, against Foreman and Frazier. If you have seen When We Were Kings ( if not you should, today) you have watched him stand as this mass of a man pummels his head- think of the steadfastness, and yes, ignorance, of this. At this point you have no doubt heard the description of the victorious moment in the Thrilla in Manila, when Ali and Frazier were both “as close to death” as they had ever been, in Ali’s words… It’s beautiful and hideous. Just like all of our lives, every day.
I am a pacifist, a pediatrician, and a scholar. And I love Muhammad Ali. I love him because he gave up his beautiful, brilliant, explosive life for his work. His work started out as simply winning fights. But he was so much bigger than that. He became a flashpoint, a bolt of lightning in the civil rights movement. He never stopped working for the underdog. We aren’t larger than life, most of us. But we can make small sacrifices every day to make things better for our kids, our family, and our communities. We can accept the inherent conflict of parenting life. Those impeccable tiny toes and those endless dirty diapers. Those little hands in yours as you cross a busy street, which then viciously smack you when frustration hits. Those magical young adults with minds firing on all cylinders and then making the stupidest choices. Rope a dope. It’s all part of being our greatest.
Mama Colada: Keep it Together!
At our elementary school, the “TRES traits” or qualities are Respect, Responsibility, Integrity, and Caring. When it comes to integrity, kids, and parents, for that matter, have trouble defining it. We resort to that poster “Integrity means doing the right thing even when nobody is watching.” OK, but we still struggle to define it. And it might be the single most important, unique, and consequential trait in our list. It’s certainly important for raising healthy, fulfilled children.
I sometimes reflect that integrity means being loyal to a clear set of values, or remaining steadfast in the face of challenge to your morals. Integrity requires honesty, consistency, and reliability. In medicine, we talk about the integrity of skin, or even a whole organism. We use integrity to mean say ” the whole thing is all in one piece.”
Since integrity is central to my approach to parenting and medicine, I decided to find an official definition. Merriam-Webster’s definition is presented here:
1: firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values : incorruptibility
2: an unimpaired condition : soundness
3: the quality or state of being complete or undivided : completeness
The third definition, “ the quality…. of being complete or undivided” is a key to confident and satisfied parenting because one needs to know one’s values, and “keep it together” during the incessant onslaught of parenting challenges. Additionally, all caregivers must function as a moral unit. We must remain morally complete and unified when making decisions about everything from how we speak to the cashier at the grocery store ( kindly), or how we re-direct our three year old who is flinging fists at their brother (calmly), to discussing technology use with a fourteen year old (firmly).
Let’s take meals as an example. Daily, parents ask me how to feed their child. In my mind I answer like this “ Why are you asking me? Who made me the expert on toddler meals?” What I say out loud is “Most toddlers will give you a tough time about eating, since one of their main jobs at this age is to identify limits and assert their independence.” To be totally honest, medical school and postgraduate training don’t teach us much about nutrition. In our handbooks, we have guidance on the minimum daily required milligrams per kilogram per hour of potassium for tiny babies, or how to feed a child when their only nutrition comes through a tube in their jugular vein, but not much education on normal nutrition.
I had to search independently for this information, and I found it in sources as diverse as Michael Pollan’s books, e.g. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, to the American Academy of Pediatrics website. Other organizations, even Baltimore’s very own Under Armour company, offer websites and apps to identify and track your nutritional needs.
These are helpful and I support the use of data and technology to optimize health. But they don’t help you identify the values underlying your approach to nutrition. Why do families feel so anxious about everything from what babies should eat, to what type of sports and instruments to play. I think this anxiety results from a need for more integrity, in the sense of “remaining complete or undivided” in the face of stiff and perpetual challenge.
I don’t mean to assert that parents today are dishonest or lacking morals. Not at all. I worry though, that because of vast and rapid cultural transformation, our values are perpetually obscured and challenged. Do we really want to eat the fresh fruits and vegetables that are best for our physiology, or do we want to “Have it Our Way” at Burger King? It’s not easy to “keep it together” under the constant media and marketing assault, especially as it now resides in our palm, pocket, or our two year old’s tablet.
So instead of wondering if one tablespoon of carrots is better than two tablespoons of blueberries, or if the Blue Lizard sunscreen is that much better than the Coppertone brand, we should clearly identify our values, then apply those values when we wonder about food or sports choices. Keep it together, as parents, as families, and as communities.
Here’s my new blog. It’s called Mama Colada. It’s named after that song from the 70’s called “Escape,” the Pina Colada song. In the song, this bored couple looks for fun and adventure in the personal ads in a newspaper. That’s the ancient times equivalent of Tinder. The husband answers his wife’s ad, not knowing it’s she who was looking for someone that also likes Pina Coladas, and getting caught in the rain, and who’s not into yoga, but does love champagne. What they wanted was right next to them, they just had to see it. Over the past 5 years I have had to recognize that what I need, to feel fulfilled and actualized as a parent, co-head of a family, and an individual, is right here inside me. I just have to recognize it. And that’s why this blog is called Mama Colada. I never knew…
Frankie Say Relax: Don’t Bake It.
Today our twin daughters and their friends put on a bake sale to raise money for the local homeless shelter. Our son played ice hockey, and our daughter went somewhere and had her hands henna-ed. I had mostly nothing to do with any of it. And I planned it that way. I’m convinced that our kids need less attention, and more boredom.
Five days ago one of the twins came home and announced that I needed to help her bake two batches of brownies and a few batches of cookies for an independent philanthropic bake sale. I flat out refused. I reminded them that I don’t get involved in baking projects. Baking is my husband’s super-power, so I suggested she talk to him about it, or better yet, find a brownie recipe and make some brownies herself.
Our 14-year-old son, decided to take his ice skating to the next level by joining a hockey league. I literally stood there and shivered while the other parents coaxed their kids’ hands into their gloves and laced up their 12 year old kids’ hockey pants. Others lobbed exhortations at their three-year -old Gretskys for an hour while they tried to simultaneously skate backwards and in circles.
The eldest made pancakes with friends who slept over (soot-colored, Playdoh-textured, but still edible, pancakes), completed a strength workout from some kind of app I can’t even figure out how to download, and then went off to Green Fest and undoubtedly wooed the local vegan activists and henna tattoo artists.
Why do you care? Because while supporting them, and loving them more than I love the ocean, cats of all sizes, and potatoes in most incarnations, I intentionally ignored them. It was for their own good. No, really, it was.
I don’t have data or science to support my contention that kids need to be ignored more. But I hypothesize that they need to be left to their own devices daily. They need boredom, and useless pastimes. They should produce lopsided dioramas and salty pancakes. They should walk in the woods even though there might be ticks in the grass.
I’m just convinced that while Gen X offspring probably benefit from all the Mandarin lessons and $100/hour calculus tutors and travel every-sport, they also need to be ignored. We should allow them to deal with failure, and boredom, and even danger. They have to have some trial runs with a safety net. They have to be able to fill empty space in their schedule. They have to know how to solve their own problems.
So for Mother’s Day in 2016, give yourself the day off. Not because “you deserve it” (you do). Not because you don’t love your kids to Pluto and back (you do). But because they deserve a little benign neglect, and you deserve to see what kind of magic kids will make, if you just trust them for a minute.