Posts By Katy

Friendship casualties and lonely mothers


Part 2 in a 3-part series on parenting

Friendships have been, for me, a sad casualty of this career. My friends without children don’t enter my life. I mostly see the mothers of children my daughter likes. If I am lucky, we enjoy each other’s company, but rather than sharing tips or woes, parents often hide their struggles with their kids because these struggles are now failures of career proportions.

Isolation from friends, in turn, takes a terrible toll on marriage. Women turn to their husbands for the sorts of intimacies we relied on from other women. Suddenly this one person, already so different by gender alone (I did not count men as my friends before I married) is supposed to be everything. Which is, of course, impossible. 

Women are lonely. I hear it everyday. My personal fantasy is Sex and the City. But not the shopping or the brunch. It is sharing confidences of a daily nature with someone real, live. Watching that show, I remember how much  zest is gained by laughing or confiding in others.

If you look at who is blogging, a lot of them are mothers; I suspect that many blogs exist because women are lonely. We miss the sort of confidences we used to share with real friends and now tweet and text to whomever might be listening.

When I realized I really was in this strangely alone, stopped asking and reading I asked myself what I thought I wanted Penelope to have: Resiliency, a sense of agency, and the belief that the world was a safe place which would welcome her.

Behavior and character do not come from magic. They come from a multitude of opportunities, from temperament and shaping. This is where my training as a psychologist helped me get through childhood. I know that I can only hope to get it right, at best, some of the time. I know that being ‘good enough’ is really not very complicated. In fact, it is quite simple. But it is hard and repetitive work and requires a great deal of self-forgiveness. 

To be continued…

The Ivy League Rules For Parenting


Just in case you were ready to accept that life is precarious, that our most important decisions are made with blinders on…along comes another reassuring reversion to The Rules. These are not the rules of dating; they are the next set, the rules of how to parent. More precisely how to mother.

The ever-burgeoning ‘science’ of parenting follows on the heels of the new ‘science’ of eating and the ‘science’ of happiness.

Americans keep looking to books for answers rather than ‘figuring it out’ or asking their elders and their peers. Whether you have ingested the pressure of The Over-Scheduled Child or participate in the backlash of The Free Range-Child, this cult of parenting has created enormous stress.  Mothers, marriages and friendships fracture and the very children whom this focus was meant to help burn like leaves under the intensity of our gaze.

Women who looked forward to leaving work, now find that the land of organic juice boxes and competitive martial arts makes raising children seem as hard as getting tenured. Detail-oriented ambitious women channel the same drive used at work into their homes: children have become a career. The joy of parenting may vanish because, ironically, parenting has become rarified and precious.

In our heads we all have an ideal mother we imagine ourselves. This new type of career mother makes that image real. Mine was a combination of Mary Poppins and Kate Spade. In my daydreams I take mother magic out of my Kate Spade bag along with my iPad. In reality I achieved neither the look nor the respect with any consistency.

Parenting is far more haphazard than I ever imagined. This is a terrifying idea for an ambitious woman used to measurable accomplishments and endless analysis. Standing in front of a playground, shuffling my frozen feet, I lamented out loud my bad habit of resorting to the BIG VOICE.  Another mother, a truth-teller, said to me “I often feel that this is not my real family. My real family is much more well-behaved.” “Aha,” I exulted, “there’s another like me.”

I also know a mother who sent vegetables to school with her daughter every day even though she knew that her daughter always brought them home. She sent them so the teacher could see “I wasn’t a bad mother.” This was, in essence her “Facebook lunch.”

What has, I hope, saved me from becoming truly mired in this conversation is a combination of my work and laziness. I don’t have time to follow the level of social intricacies required to navigate the world of  school. I can’t even be on time! And, frankly, I truly believe that my daughter’s teacher is the person best qualified to teach my child.

As Adrienne Rich wrote, we should use our energy where “it is taken up, restored and given back.” For me, being there in the morning and at night, framing my daughter’s day makes me feel connected to her.

To be continued…


Mold And Phosphorescence


One March weekend, over twenty years ago, I bombed my apartment with pesticides and went out for the night. The weather had turned cold. I could see my breath when I opened the windows and hear the reassuring hiss of chemicals cleaning the air.A car outside spun on ice. I was tired and impatient. Tired of slapping at my ankles and impatient because impatience is my nature. I blotted my lipstick and headed out.

Driving home after midnight was slick. The road from Brookline to Cambridge had become black ice and I was slightly exhilarated by the challenge. Sunday passed, forgettable. Monday, however, a surge of fire burned over my legs and arms as though I had spent the night sleeping under a radioactive sun. I turned on the air conditioning as I drove to work. By midday I had hives and my mouth burned  continuously inside. When I asked my colleague, Victoria, to look at my skin, she sent me immediately to the ER in the hospital where we worked.

My immune system had gone to war with the world. Overnight I became a foreigner. I was suddenly allergic to  familiar things, places and, depending on what they wore, people.  With glacial slowness and hundreds of trials and mistakes, I would have to climb out of the huge pit I had dropped in overnight.

I received the diagnosis of MCS. Family and doctors both helped and hindered. My illness fell into the group that border between the known and the unknown, the tragic and the merely hysterical. Chronic Fatigue, Lyme disease, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Pain Syndrome, Sjogren’s Syndrome.  

This physical change divided my life. Looking back from childbirth, divorce and the death of both parents, this time was the most terrifying I have known. Those other, developmental changes fell into the realm of what normal life brings. But my own self was neither familiar nor trustworthy. I was no longer a continuous line of associations. My past filled with scent and touch was severed. 

Ironically, I had sworn never to become this ill. My mother had spent a good portion of my life with fibromyalgia, bed-ridden and fragile. Consequently, I exercised a lot, took my share of risks, and inhaled deeply from life. I wanted to feel intensely alive.  

Genetics and stupidity trumped it all. In a few destabilizing years, I moved three times. I gave away my clothes and furniture. Every few months I stopped trying to live with my illness and simply rebelled against it. During those times I infused my blood with Vitamin C, rotated my diet, took hundreds of supplements, and drove to neighboring states so doctors could pass magnets over my body.  

When I emerged from the worst of this crisis, I became uncertain if I should have children. I told this revelation to my mother and she said she understood.

Fast forward. My daughter is 12. I am divorced and she is ebullient, popular, and practical. One week recently, also in March, I fell through time. In a few days I was deep into a surround of pain I had forgotten. Pulling down her shade made me wince. My deepest fear was that my daughter would see me as disabled or incompetent, even insane because my illness can’t be seen. I discounted twelve years of parenting in a day.

Mold was the problem. This time I could smell it in the house. My eyes began to tear and twitch. My bones ached. My daughter herself said, “I smell something awful.” My denial dissolved. She has allergies and asthma and zero anxiety about either. She carries an Epi-Pen and takes inhaled steroids every day. She is sturdy and secure as they come. Touch wood.

I scrubbed the washer and sink like a surgeon. But the smell came back, as though the earth itself were decaying under our house. One night I sat in my office and realized I was afraid to go home. The last days I felt myself become granular—as though I had sat in the sun all day and grit under my skin. My blood felt fiery.

But my daughter was coming home for the weekend the next afternoon. I was stumped. Was it time to pretend or was it time to escape?  Would this pass with distraction or worsen? What was sound and what was wise? Not the sort of answer found in a parenting book.

The only wisdom I could find was this: Where could I function best? I checked 

into a hotel and felt no better. We stayed for three days. Penelope knew exactly why we were at a hotel. She didn’t buy my tale of a mini-vacation for a minute. We talked truth. How long would we stay? Would we move back home? If not, could I keep the house for her to visit? Children need life to make sense and my job was to create reason. I answered carefully. Parenting had taught me that promise breed mistrust. 

We went to see Cinderella. I watched her watch the movie; I could not rest my elbow in the seat between us. The last night in the hotel she put her wet head on my shoulder, sleek as a seal in the king size bed. We listened in darkness to My Family And Other Animals. From the hollow of our white room we travelled to Corfu and saw a boy swimming in a phosphorescent sea. I listened to the story with all my concentration, the solid British voice reading aloud.

I lectured her a bit sternly: “We don’t do helpless. We have what is most important here, love. We can get our things. I can go to work and you can get to school, to your friends and to dance.” Solemnly she nodded. No comment.

The next morning she smiled. “I don’t want to leave. What time is breakfast?” Unlike her I dreaded what was to come, unwinding my muscles to get up, solving the murky puzzle of mold or moving. But there was a victory that weekend. I had feared I would become a mother who burdened my child but I kept most of my terror and doubt inside. 

I hope to take Penelope to Greece. We can go to Corfu, see the lemon- and pink-colored villas, and find dolphins surfacing, throwing off light from the phosphorescent sea.   

Who, What, Why? : The Questions of Suicide

I’ve been asked to write about suicide. Can you write about something that makes us speechless?. The news of a suicide intrudes into our lives suddenly, like an iceberg looming in front of our small unsteady boat. What is true about suicide?  A few facts but none of them answer the questions that underlie essays about suicide prevention and statistics:  Why her? Why him?  Why not me?
What should I have done to help?
Copycat suicides do exist. The contagion effect does exist.  Asking for help does help. Depression can cause suicide. People who  feel a little better after depression often get a surge of energy to kill themselves. Sometimes there are clues. Statistically, the person most at risk for killing himself is a middle-aged man with no community, a history of mental illness and a completed suicide in his family. Patients discharged from the hospital who are chronically depressed or suicidal are most at risk within the first 48 hours of discharge.  And the ability to talk to others truly can help change our thinking.
Sometimes, however, there are no clues.  I have patients who live securely with a plan for suicide tucked into their back pocket. I have had many patients who kept knives or razorblades in their cabinets ; living with a Plan B felt safe. They were in control. My own father, a lanky oncologist, told me he had cyanide pills from WWII in his basement workshop. Although he joked “they probably wouldn’t work by now,” he wanted to be able kill himself if circumstances or his pride dictated. My mother told me in a rash confidence that she continued smoking so that she would die before my father. She died suddenly of a cerebral aneurysm-  leaving us dumbfounded.  She got her wish. My dad lingered for nine years in the stupefying air of Alzheimer’s Disease, listening to Schubert. 
Teenagers tell me stories of walking out onto the roofs of the tallest buildings in Boston “just to see.” To see what? Whether their dizzying fear of heights will overcome their desire not to feel? I have called the caretakers of hotels to tell them to raise their security access to roofdecks.
The desire to stop pain is not the same as wanting to die.
 I saw one patient  every week for nine years. One day after a New Year’s holiday, he tried to kill himself. I  thought I knew him well. My hubris.  After I  returned from a vacation, I waited for him in the office at a church where I worked. Snow piled up beautifully on the brick church while I waited.  When he did not show, I was mildly surprised and picked up the phone.  I began making calls to find out where he was but I was not worried.
In fact, he had taken an enormous overdose of his psychotropic medicine after living tortured by schizoaffective illness. He was saved by the odd fact that his blood thinners diffused the toxicity of his overdose. This man was lovely, tall and funny; he tried to overpower his aloneness and psychosis with joy. He wrote poems.  He chanted gregorian chants.  He longed for and feared intimate connection with equal force.  I’m not sure his life was any better for having survived. The morning I discovered his overdose, I cried and shook.  Foolishly I had believed that our connection,  only of therapist and patient, was enough. But it was a gold thread thrown across an abyss of darkness. 
Mostly, I wanted to rush to the hospital. Lawyers stopped me in case his family would blame me for the overdose and sue the clinic. It’s true. I would have been a terrible witness. I wanted to confess and be absolved. I sought help. I realized that my vow as a psychologist was ” to do no harm,” not to keep people alive.  For my career I had confounded these intentions and they had to be untwined.
 I reduce my understanding of suicide to one truth. We underestimate the “otherness” of other people. They are not thinking what we are thinking. They are not feeling what we feel. When their minds wander they do not go where ours might. A woman drops her childhood friend like a dress that is too tight. Partners turn on a dime. A child we thought wouldn’t make it, suddenly finds a passion and launches on their own. Someone we shared a life with, a team with, a class with, kills themselves. It happens again. And again.  We wonder.
 Do they see something that we don’t?
In my own family there has been one completed suicide. I was told it was a heart attack. My grandfather, embezzled out of his money in his own shop, stormed out of a family dinner on Riverside Drive and checked into a hotel. His body was found the next morning and my own father was called to identify it. Cause of death = heart attack. Actual cause = overdue of barbiturates.
Recently I heard three wildly divergent responses to a suicide. The first: “If she could do that could I?.” The second: “I can’t imagine this. I never could imagine. Can you?” And the third: “Who among us hasn’t imagined this before – or at least said it?” None of these responses were insensitive.  None were wrong. They all came from people reasonably attuned to the range of feelings in life.  Some people will never kill themselves.  Some will.  And some people can walk a middle line, wondering what would tip the balance.
But the assumption that we can truly know what it is like to be another person – that we walk along next to someone assuming they are  like us- that assumption is inevitable but wrong. In the car last week, I asked my daughter what she ( at twelve)  was thinking about. “Candy,” she replied. The next day I asked her the same question. “I just remembered I have a math test.” When I asked her if she was nervous she replied: “No, Not at all. Just don’t be late.”
I am always grateful for health. Both kinds. All kinds.


See Jane Read. See Jane Jump.


I identified myself as a reader at the same time I understood I was a self. I was at day camp which seemed quite far away from my home in the city,  though of course it was not. Underneath a dense triangle of pine trees, I remember holding a book open before me as I walked the  path.  Suddenly the words made sense. I saw pictures where I had seen dark code. 

My own daughter struggles when she reads. She is not the first with her hand up in class, eager to share her thoughts about the characters or images inside her. After years of waiting for her quick mind to catch fire, I realize that reading is “not her thing.” Not that she can’t, or won’t read. But not at any moment, any pause. The sheer delight of dipping into a a book does not beckon her. The libraries that were my home away from home do not call her. Annabelle generously commands the playground, the snowball fight and the dance studio where she shepherds younger girls with subtle grace. They flock around her asking for their hair to be brushed into buns, smooth as glass.

I watch the laborious unnatural training of her mind to read and it strikes me as surprising. She observes my inability to get a package back in its wrapping and laughs at me. I find myself rethinking my lifelong companion, my addiction, the pure peaceful pleasure of reading.

My daughter does not always want me to read to her though I want to open the world of my childhood. I want to introduce her to the families I knew. The words unfurl as I read to her, stored in the place age has not decayed. I cannot remember most of this morning but I can remember what comes next in the Rush’s first Saturday or how the All of A Kind Family slept in chocolate cracker crumbs traded in the dark.  The Brown family that harbored Paddington and his marmalade sandwich wait to entertain her.

The hunger to read has been, for me, like other people describe the hunger to practice medicine or be in nature. Only in the books of childhood was I free from the romance tale. Girls are thinking and talking and feeling; they are using all their senses to become known in the world and explore history, cities, fields, mysteries. Books have the power to stop the passage of time,

Before ‘happily ever after’ arrived, before the princess and prince eclipsed my stories, I ran free. Childrens’ books remind me of a time when my deepest being was absorbed in an enterprise of pure imagination. As I read I was an orphan in India,  sister with a rare phoenix bird, a British child entering a wardrobe with rustling furs that led to Narnia.

When I wait online at her school, Annabelle bursts out of the line with excitement. When I ask her about her day, she shakes with excitement. I wonder how long it will be before she peppers her definite needs with the word  ‘like’, before she asks friends if she looks ‘fat’ in her clothes, before she finds her anger terrifying?  Books which guide girls quickly turn into a romance plot- each one ending with love like The Holy Grail.

If there were one thing I wish she could grasp- It is that she is already complete. Everything which comes next is misunderstanding. Books may deepen and enrich us.  They can mirror and extend our understanding of ourselves. But books also distort glaze over our goals and change our sense of an ending. Curiously, like my own mother, Annabelle favors detective stories: the mastery of right over wrong. The sense of justice, The role of the detective.  She reads in an investigative manner, methodically and for purpose. Perhaps her body and dextrous hands will give her more pleasure than my imaginings did.

Perhaps she will be freer than I was. I could not imagine having a book and choosing to ride a bike or play outside instead. Her own extroverted nature may force her away from the distortions of introspection. She has so many friends she does not hide behind a book. Perhaps her joy in investigating will serve her well as she pushes off from the land of childhood, waving.  This week she was still confident she could be a french teacher, a orthopedic surgeon or choreograph the dance of a shooting star .