Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Trait That Makes Us Human

A couple of months ago Jasper and I were tucked under the down comforter on the "big bed," reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Book six of the Harry Potter series is probably way too dark for a seven year-old, but he has always had a sturdy grasp on the difference between fact and fiction, and he doesn't scare easily. I had just arrived at the part where Dumbledore has died and the members of the Order are huddled together in shock. I looked down at Jasper and saw tears on his cheeks.

"Are you crying, sweetie?" I asked.

He nodded. "I'm crying because Lupin is sad, and he's my favorite character," he said.

And then I cried, too, partly because Mrs. Weasley had just entered the room to discover that her oldest son, Bill, had been horribly disfigured, and partly because it was such a joy and a relief to see that kind of empathy in my son.

Empathy is, Wikipedia says, both the ability to feel what others are feeling and to imagine another's perspective. The American Psychological Association calls it "the trait that makes us human." What empathy is, whether we as a society are deficient in it and, if so, how we can create more of it has been on a lot of minds, including mine, since well before December 14. That grim day, though, has given us all a new sense of urgency.

When you grow up in a house with narcissistic personality disorder, empathy is as rare as rhodium. Which is why, when Jasper was born, Jonathan and I quickly decided that we did not care whether he could do square roots at two or compose a sestina at four or dunk a basketball at ten. All we cared about was that he had empathy. When he was a baby we watched his affect, checking for evidence. Did he cry when others were distressed? As he grew into a toddler we often worked on the cognitive piece, trying to help him understand why Sophie was crying or why Sam had thrown his toys across the room.  We both knew, too well, that there are some people for whom empathy is missing. And then when he offered a crying child his stuffed animal, we cheered.


I haven't been able to stop thinking about The Moment. The panicked rush to the school, the wait at the firehouse, the reunions happening all around them until there were forty of them left. Their children's names on a piece of paper. Being ushered into the back room of the firehouse, their minds racing with desperation. Maybe he's hiding in a closet. Maybe she's wounded. Wounded is OK. I'll take wounded. The wait. The prayers and the invocations to God and Jehovah and Allah and the Universe. And then The Moment. The unendurable moment: my child is dead.

There's that moment, and then there's the rest of your life.

I read that the parents' main worry and concern was that their children didn't suffer in their last moments. Were they afraid? Did they know what was happening to them? Every parent who has lost a child has asked themselves these questions. I'm lucky in comparison. I have spent eight months constructing a narrative in which death caught Balthazar unawares and without great pain. I don't know how the parents of Sandy Hook Elementary will be able to tell themselves a story which they can endure. 


My intense feelings about the need for empathy and its sorry state in our culture began earlier this year with a spate of tragedies involving children and their coverage on the internet. If you want to retain your faith in humanity you should never ever read internet comments. I realize it's probably unfair to extrapolate the end of civilization from an unrepresentative sample of trolls, but the amount of judging of other people online is stunning.

Marina Krim, the mother whose two small children were murdered by the nanny, was excoriated online for employing someone to help her watch her kids, and explicitly blamed for their horrible deaths. The woman whose children and parents died in a house fire on Christmas Eve was blamed for having a live-in contractor boyfriend who did some work that wasn't up to code and then put some apparently live ashes in a paper bag in the mudroom. The mother of a vision-impaired two year-old who died when she lifted him up to see some African wild dogs and he fell into the exhibit, was tried and sentenced for murder in forums on many sites. How many times did I see the words, "I have absolutely no sympathy for (fill in the name of a person who has suffered a tragedy)". Because of what others perceived to be their errors, their failings, these suffering women had, according to many of their fellows, put themselves beyond the Pale, outside the reach of human compassion.

I can fall into it as much as the next person. When a Kennedy died playing football on skis, I said, well, that was stupid. When Michelle Duggar was pregnant with her twentieth kid despite almost dying with the nineteenth, I shook my head. There's always someone who ties their skateboard to the back of a car, or someone who tries to climb Mt. Hood in the winter by themselves without an emergency beacon. But I'm taking a harder look at myself, and my conclusion is that this kind of thinking is a failure of empathy and a huge moral lapse. Because even if someone made a mistake or suffered a failure in judgment, does that lessen their family's pain? Are the rest of us mistake-free? Whatever happened to "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?"

What happened in Newtown, CT is that rare event in which it's next to impossible to blame the victims or their families for anything. Those parents sent their kids to school. Those children went to school to read and sing and make puppets out of paper plates and popsicle sticks. They can't even say that security at the school was lax; they had just installed a security system in which the doors were locked and people had to be buzzed in. Still, there are people out there who say the principal or the teacher should have had a semi-automatic weapon. They were at fault for being unarmed.

When I googled empathy, in addition to coming across an adorable YouTube video of
Mark Ruffalo teaching a puppet about the word on Sesame Street, I found that one of the top entries on empathy was Glenn Beck explaining why empathy is bad.

Empathy is bad, he believes, especially for Supreme Court justices, because it might lead her (it was Sonia Sotomayor he was talking about) to take other people's experience into account when applying the law. I always thought that "justice is blind" meant unprejudiced or impartial, but apparently it's supposed to mean without compassion. Justice, says Beck, doesn't look at the guys in the back of the truck being shot at by helicopters, or the children shot to death with semi-automatic rifles.

I watched an amazing video yesterday made by author and philosopher Roman Krznaric that says all of this better than I can, but one of his points is that empathy is potentially revolutionary. Which, I think, is why some people are so afraid of it.

I don't generally do politics, not because I don't think it's important but because I don't think I'm much good at it. I wrote a paper about racism when I was a senior in high school that only got a B+. My mother thought it was self-righteous, and I have no doubt it was. I'm still not over it. But here's my political statement anyway: Everything follows from empathy; empathy is the beginning, not the end.

With empathy for the victims of gun violence, not just the children and educators of Newtown, CT, but the children of inner city Chicago and women who are victims of domestic violence and moms who attend midnight movies and dads who sell products at mall kiosks, we might change our laws. With empathy for the children of Afghanistan who are blown up while collecting firewood, we might change our foreign policy. With empathy we might reevaluate how we fail to treat and care for the mentally ill.

With empathy, Adam Lanza could not have done what he did. Maybe he was one of those people for whom empathy was always missing. Maybe he had a psychotic break. But I hope and believe that for most of us, empathy can be taught and modeled and encouraged.


A couple of months ago my mother said, referring to Balthazar's death, that she was glad that I had not had to confront evil.

"You mean like if someone had murdered him?" I asked.

"I just think that would be so hard to encounter evil," she said. She sounded as if she were comforted by the thought that Balthazar had not died at the hand of another human being. I wanted to say that I was glad for her that she had come to this peace about Balthazar's death, but that her peace wasn't my peace.

When my mother said that, though, she might as well have had the events of December 14 in mind.  Except that I don't believe in evil the way she thinks of it. I believe that we make this world, with our actions, our words, our beliefs, our policies and laws. With our empathy, or lack thereof. And that is why it is way too easy to say that Adam Lanza was evil. Adam Lanza was a product of our world. This is who we are? This is what America has become? Is this the country we have bequeathed to our children, asking them to live (and die) in it? It cannot be.

Lupin dies in Book Seven. Jasper will cry. I will cry. I will thank the heavens for the tears that make us human.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Late Parenthood

Yesterday a friend of mine posted a link to a piece in The New Republic about late parenthood, The Grayest Generation. It's been making the rounds for the last couple of days, and it's so hot on the interwebs right now that I had already read a critique of it on Slate before I read the actual article. The title of the critique when I read it: Why It's a Terrible Idea to Wait Until Thirty-five to Have Kids. I've got to hand it to the editors at Slate. From the very beginning of this journey, when we were considering whether or not to try to have another child, their writers have been there, every day of the week, always ready with the fear-mongering and the judgment. Today I see Katie Roiphe has a new screed about the "feminist fertility myth."

How can I blame them, though, when I lap it up? Looking for statistics to bolster my position; looking for arguments that add to my guilt. Late parenthood: yes, I have a dog in this fight, I'm just not sure which dog. Do I defend it, because it's what I "chose"? Or condemn it, because this last time it went wrong?

I use scare quotes around the word "chose" because one of the things Judith Shulevitz, the author of the original essay, seems to be questioning is the extent to which we all choose our choices. Children are conceived, born and raised at the intersection between personal choice and social and economic factors that are outside of our control.

Of course no one likes to think about that. We all believe in personal responsibility, and it's comforting to think we have control over our lives, especially when things go well. It allows us to feel we deserve it. To write about this makes me feel like a big whiner explaining why all of this is not my fault. But I spend every day thinking about how this is all my fault. Today, I will spend at least part of the day thinking about how it's not.

The single most important factor in any discussion of late parenthood is contraception. Talking to Jasper a couple of months ago I realized that he thinks you have to try to have a baby. In his universe, parents make the decision to have a child, then they try to have one. Which is, of course, what Jonathan and I did, both times, so it's no wonder he thinks that. He has no idea how radical a notion that really is. That for most of history and in many parts of the world today, children are something that happen to you, whether you want them or not. Whether you can feed them or not. Contraception has altered everything. And I just want to say, thank God for that. All of the politicians who want to return us to a time when women were at the mercy of men and of our reproductive capabilities can go fuck themselves.

When I was a kid I fully expected to be a young mother. But I noticed a long time ago that the trajectory of my life is much more similar to my father's than to my mother's. I got a graduate degree before marriage. I bought my first house at 34. I had my first child at 34. I had my second child at 41. For my mother, all of those milestones happened a decade earlier, except for the grad school part. She went to graduate school at around the same age I did, except that she was already married with a small child.

I didn't make any of my choices in a vacuum. Based on the massive economic expansion that occurred when my parents were young and their relative affluence when I was growing up, certain risks seemed to make sense. For instance, I married someone I was emotionally compatible with but whose financial prospects were uncertain. My grandmother would not have done it. Charlie was a nice guy, I hear, but Dan was the one who was going places. Which is not to imply that my grandmother didn't love my grandfather. It's just that economic calculation absolutely factored in.

I've already talked about how a writing career never made sense, financially. Someone like my father, who grew up poor at the tail end of the Depression, could not have become a writer even if he wanted to. That choice was made possible, again, by the relative privilege of my upbringing. Not because of actual financial support, but because of the (misguided, it turns out) belief, born of comfort and stability, that things will go well and that, if not, a safety net exists.

I wanted to have a child at thirty. But our writing careers were nowhere at that point and it was pretty obvious that if we had a baby the books we were working on would likely be stillborn. We bickered about it, but neither of us was willing to allow that to happen. The moment I sold my first book, having a child became our top priority.

The books I published didn't sell. Was it bad luck, poor marketing, or the fact that they sucked? It's impossible to untangle the various pieces. Then the economy collapsed, which affected whether or not our subsequent books would sell (or not) and whether or not we could find other work in the absence of book sales. All of which played into our delaying B until 40. There's no guarantee we wouldn't have lost a child earlier, because stillbirth can and does happen to women of all ages. But if he had died when I was 32 there would have been time to recover. There's no time now. And maybe we wouldn't have lost him. Who can say?

I've got no problem, personally, with being an older parent. I don't feel or look old, though maybe that's just because I live in Portland and all the moms are my age. The grandparents don't figure into our equation, child-care wise, but that's a function of distance more than age. I'm not longing for an empty nest. I don't want to spend more time going to the symphony. I'd much rather step on Legos in the middle of the night until I'm 50. When, according to Jasper, I will be officially old. And I'm not sure that my living until Jasper is 70 would really be the boon to him that Shulevitz seems to think.

I'm also not a fan of judging people for how they make their families. Adoption, surrogacy, IVF, single mothers by choice, same-sex partners, child-free, early, late, I'm happy that people have so many choices now. I can't speak to the medical problems that arise with older parenthood. For that I refer you to my brother, the pediatric geneticist. A big issue, though, as Shulevitz identifies it, is that in America today, people are being pushed by economics into later parenthood, which she believes is bad for children, families and society, when it's not even what they want.

It is clear that through a combination of my own (debatably poor) choices and outside forces, I will likely not reach my "intended family size." I intended to have two, and I don't have two. Which may not seem like a big deal in a dangerously overpopulated world. No one will miss the child I didn't get to have, except for me. But on a personal level it's pretty heartbreaking.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


I mentioned several months ago that I couldn't see how I would be able to send a Christmas card. How would I acknowledge Balthazar without being morbid and creepy? How could I send a card if it made no reference to him at all?

Fortunately I've never been a Christmas letter writer, so the dilemma was just about the card and the family picture, if there was to be one. Over the weeks I made some half-hearted efforts at brainstorming, but I didn't get far.

Idea one: a picture of the family with me holding the brass-studded Ukrainian box where Balthazar's ashes reside. See: creepy. It's a nice box and everything, but it's just a box. It's not a baby. Also, how could I smile in that picture? It reminds me of the photographs taken the Christmas my grandfather was debilitated by a stroke. I don't know whose idea it was to take those pictures, but there are way too many of them in the family's box. My grandfather is wild-eyed and slack-jawed; my father and my aunt are absolutely grim. My grandfather died in January. No one should have to sit for a photograph like that. 

Idea two: a picture of the family with me holding Captain Zimbo. I suspect that would make people cringe. More importantly, it would make me cringe. I think I have a problem with me holding anything. It's too much like a stand-in. It's too much like Lizzie Sidall telling her friends to hush, or they'll wake the baby. I can't put anything else in the Balthazar-shaped space.

My friends in the perinatal loss book group have been throwing out suggestions. Some of them have walked this road longer than I, and they've managed to devise ways of honoring their babies that work for them. One woman in my group said she put butterfly stickers on her cards, to represent her baby. I liked that idea. Iconography suits me. It's the art history major in me.

Once my therapist asked me if I wanted to work in the sand tray. I was deeply skeptical of the idea as more therapeutic hoo-hah, but if you feel bad enough you'll try anything, I guess.

It occurs to me that I'm suspicious of things that don't involve language. It's my preferred medium, and where I feel safest.  But I love art, and images are important to me. Almost as important as words.

In the sand tray I built a mountain, and on top of the mountain I placed a crashed Lego helicopter. Inside the helicopter I put a blue glass pebble. Down on the flats I made a lake, beside which three other blue glass pebbles stood together. I felt badly about how unreachable the pebble in the helicopter atop the mountain was, so I built a path around the lake and up the hill out of rocks. Of course that's wishful thinking. In life there is no path. In death, maybe. If you believe in heaven, which I don't.

I found I liked the exercise. It got me out of my analytical brain to another part. The dreaming brain. The image-making brain.

The truth is, Balthazar already has his own iconography in my mind, and has since the early days of Captain Zimbo. It was just a matter of making it explicit to myself. The things that make me think of Balthazar are airplanes, flight, bees, tulips, the color white, owls.

Balthazar's symbol is a snowy owl.

I once read an interior design article in Vogue in which Aerin Lauder, granddaughter of Estee Lauder and an executive with her eponymous beauty company, told the writer that she repainted her sitting room seven times to get the right green. I suppose the Occupy part of me should have been disgusted and shouted "Down with the plutocracy!"  but what I actually said to myself was, I can so easily see, if you had the money, how that could happen. I once told my husband that there was no point in having a house at all, if we couldn't paint all of the rooms.

Do not ask me what I was doing reading Vogue in the first place.

As a result I thought it might be a challenge to find a card that was not just any snowy owl, but the right snowy owl. I figured, though, that the internet has everything. So I Googled. The first image I found that was even close to what I was looking for was this: 

I didn't like it. The owl looks cold and helpless, huddled in the snow like that.

And somehow the cute, graphic owls are too cute. Like this: 

It makes me focus on the fact that the adorable little owl is all alone.

My favorite one was this: 

This owl is alone, but you don't get a sense of loneliness from him. Instead, you get a sense of majesty and power. Those gorgeous white wings could be the wings of a muscular angel. He's in flight, not stuck on the ground. He's about to land, but because he wants to. He's unfurled himself in all his beauty. It's not quite a photograph, which would be a little bit too National Geographic for my purposes, but it's detailed. It's not cheesy, like this one: 

It was even available in card form.

The problem: it's available in card form in the U.K. The British Red Cross does not ship to the U.S. I went so far as to email them and tell them the card reminded me of my dead son, but I stopped short of calling and begging or of flying to England to procure them. I do not have Aerin Lauder's bank account.

I didn't want to settle for one of the wrong owls, though. So I kept looking and eventually found an owl that is not the owl I wanted but is a pretty good owl:

The owl's alone, but he doesn't look lonely. He's cute, but not impossibly so. He could be snowier, but presumably I have many years of Christmas cards ahead. There are lots of snowy owls out there. Now I just have to take a picture of Jasper and Fluffy to put inside. Easier said than done. That cat is not shy with his claws.

Jasper says his symbol is an ocelot.

The only downside to all of this iconography stuff is that I can see how in a few years I could be living in a house crammed with a collection of stuffed animals and ceramic owls and all kinds of junk. And then every little item becomes suffused with meaning and you can never clean your house. 

One of the trees some friends thoughtfully gave us, died. We tried not to dwell on it too much. The plants we received we now have a responsibility to keep alive, because they are Balthazar's. I can't throw out that weird 6 pound 8 oz heart-shaped pillow covered in camouflage flannel even though it's got a hole in it and is shedding its fill, because it's his. I don't want to create a responsibility for any more objects.

Though I think one glass snowy owl Christmas ornament could be nice. With the understanding that if it breaks, we'll just order a new one and not act like he's died all over again. He's not in an ornament any more than he is in a box.