calls from her car: “I’m on my way to Cape Cod to scatter my mother’s ashes in
the bay, her favorite place.” Another, encountered on the street, mournfully
reports that he’s just “planted” his mother. A third e-mails news of her
mother’s death with a haunting phrase: “the sledgehammer of fatality.” It feels
strange. Why are so many of our mothers dying all at once?
As an actuarial phenomenon, the reason isn’t hard to grasp. My friends are in
their 60s now, some creeping up on 70; their mothers are in their 80s or 90s.
Ray Kurzweil, the author of “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend
Biology,” believes that we’re close to unlocking the key to immortality. Perhaps
within this century, he prophesies, “software-based humans” will be able to
survive indefinitely on the Web, “projecting bodies whenever they need or want
them, including virtual bodies in diverse realms of virtual reality.” Neat, huh?
But for now, it’s pretty much dust to dust, the way it’s always been — mothers
included. (Most of our fathers are long gone, alas. Women live longer than men.)
It’s the ones who aren’t dead who should baffle us. My own mother, for instance,
still goes to the Boston Symphony and attends a weekly current events class at
Brookhaven, her “lifecare living” center (can’t we find a less technocratic
word?) near Boston. She writes poems in iambic pentameter for every occasion. At
94, she’s hardly anomalous: there are plenty of nonagenarians at Brookhaven.
Ninety is the new old age. As Dr. Muriel Gillick, a specialist in geriatrics and
palliative care at Harvard Medical School, says, “If you’ve made it to 85 then
you have a reasonable chance of making it to 90.” That number has nearly tripled
in the last 30 years. And if you get that far... it’s been estimated that there
will be eight million centenarians by 2050.
It won’t end there. Scientists are closing in on the mechanism of what are
called “senescent cells,” which cause the tissue deterioration responsible for
aging. Studies of mice suggest that targeting these cells can slow down the
process. “Every component of cells gets damaged with age,” Leonard Guarente, a
biology professor at M.I.T., explained to me. “It’s like an old car. You have to
repair it.” We’re not talking about immortality, Professor Guarente cautions.
Biotechnology has its limits. “We’re just extending the trend.” Extending the
trend? I can hear it now: 110 is the new 100.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? On the debit side, there’s the ... debit.
The old-age safety net is already frayed. According to some estimates, Social
Security benefits will run out by 2037; Medicare insurance is guaranteed only
through 2024. These projected shortfalls are in part the unintended consequence
of the American health fetish. The ad executives in “Mad Men” firing up Lucky
Strikes and dosing themselves with Canadian Club didn’t have to worry. They’d be
dead long before it was time to collect.
Then there’s the question of whether reaching 5 score and 10 is worth it — the
quality-of-life question. Who wants to end up — as Jaques intones in “As You
Like It” — “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”? You may live to
be as old as Methuselah, who lasted 969 years, but chances are you’ll feel it.
Worse — it’s no longer a rare event — you can outlive your children. Reading the
obituary of Christopher Ma, a Washington Post executive who had been a college
classmate of mine, I was especially sad to see that Chris was survived by his
wife, a daughter, a son, a brother, two sisters and “his mother, Margaret Ma of
Menlo Park, Calif.” Can anything more tragic befall a parent than to be
predeceased by a child?
These are the perils old people suffer. What about us, the boomers, now
ourselves elderly children? One challenge my entitled generation faces is that
many of our long-lived parents are running through their retirement money, which
leaves the burden of supporting them to us. (To their credit, it’s a burden that
often bothers our parents, too.) And the cost of end-stage health care is huge —
a giant portion of all medical expenses in this country are incurred in the last
months of life. Meanwhile, our prospects of retirement recede on the horizon.
Also, elder care is stressful and time consuming. The broken hips, the trips to
the E.R., the bill paying and insurance paperwork demand patience. A paper
titled “Personality Traits of Centenarians’ Offspring” suggests this cohort
scores high marks “extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.”
But even the well-adjusted find looking after old parents tough.
In the mid-’80s, when the idea of the “sandwich generation” was born — boomers
saddled with the care of aging parents while raising their own children — it
seemed like a problem we would eventually outgrow. Twenty-five years later,
we’re still sandwiched, and some of those caught in the middle feel the squeeze.
So what’s the good part? Time spent with an elderly parent can offer an
opportunity for the resolution of “unfinished business,” a chance to indulge in
last-act candor. A college classmate writes in our 40th-reunion book of
ministering to her chronically ill mother and being “moved by how the twists and
turns of complicated health care have deepened our relationship.” I hear a lot
about late-in-life bonding between parent and child.
My mother needs a minor operation. “I’ve outlasted my time,” she says as she’s
wheeled into surgery. “Anyway, you’re too old to have a mother.” Thanks, Ma.
What about Rupert Murdoch? His mother is 102. Also, if I’m too old to have a
mother, why do I still feel like a child?
Two weeks later, Mom comes to Vermont to recuperate. My father, who died a
decade ago at 87, is buried in the field behind our house (hope this is legal).
His gravestone reads “Donald Herman Atlas 1913-2001,” and it has an epitaph from
his favorite poet, T. S. Eliot, carved in italics: “I grow old ... I grow old
.../ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” Mom likes to visit him
there. Standing over Dad’s grave, she carries on a dialogue of one. “I thought
I’d have joined you by now, Donny, but I’m a tough old bird.” As she heads back
up to the house, she turns and waves. “À bientôt.” See you soon.
Her mother was Loretta Young. Her father was Clark Gable.
Yet Judy Lewis spent her first 19 months in hideaways and orphanages, and the
rest of her early life untangling a web of lies spun by a young mother hungry
for stardom but unwilling to end her unwed pregnancy.
Loretta Young’s deception was contrived to protect her budding movie career and
the box-office power of the matinee idol Gable, who was married to someone else
when they conceived their child in snowed-in Washington State. They were on
location, shooting the 1935 film “The Call of the Wild,” fictional lovers in
front of the camera and actual lovers outside its range.
Ms. Lewis, a former actress who died on Friday at the age of 76, was 31 before
she discerned the scope of the falsehoods that cast her, a daughter of Hollywood
royalty, into what she later described as a Cinderella-like childhood.
Confronted by Ms. Lewis, Young finally made a tearful confession in 1966 at her
sprawling home in Palm Springs, Calif.
Young was 22 and unmarried when she and Gable, 34 and married to Maria Langham,
had their brief affair. She spent most of her pregnancy in Europe to avoid
Hollywood gossip. Ms. Lewis was born on Nov. 6, 1935, in a rented house in
Venice, Calif. Soon she was turned over to a series of caretakers, including St.
Elizabeth’s Infants Hospital in San Francisco, so that Young could return to
When Ms. Lewis was 19 months old, her mother brought her back home and announced
through the gossip columnist Louella Parsons that she had adopted the child.
Ms. Lewis grew up in Los Angeles, cushioned in the luxury of her mother’s
movie-star lifestyle even as she endured what she later described as an
outsider’s isolation within her family and the teasing of children at school.
They teased her about her ears: they stuck out like Dumbo’s. Or, as Hollywood
rumors had it, they stuck out like Clark Gable’s. Ms. Lewis’s mother dressed her
in bonnets to hide them. When Ms. Lewis was 7 her ears were surgically altered
to make them less prominent.
Until Ms. Lewis, as an adult, confronted her years later, Young did not
acknowledge that Ms. Lewis was her biological daughter, or that Gable was Ms.
Lewis’s father. When Young married and had two children with Tom Lewis, a radio
producer, Judy took his name but remained the family’s “adopted” daughter.
And though conceding the story privately to her daughter — and later to the rest
of her family — Young remained mum publicly all her life, agreeing to
acknowledge the facts only in her authorized biography, “Forever Young,” and
only on the condition that it be published after her death. She died in 2000.
But Ms. Lewis revealed the story of her parentage in her own memoir, “Uncommon
Knowledge,” in 1994. She described feeling a powerful sense of alienation as a
child. “It was very difficult for me as a little girl not to be accepted or
acknowledged by my mother, who, to this day, will not publicly acknowledge that
I am her biological child,” she said in an interview that year.
After Ms. Lewis released the memoir, her mother refused to speak to her for
The lightning bolt that gave Ms. Lewis the first hint about her parentage came
during an identity crisis before her wedding day. Two weeks before her marriage
in 1958, Ms. Lewis told her fiancé, Tom Tinney, that she did not understand her
confusing relationship with her mother and that she did not know who her father
was. “I can’t marry you,” she said she told him. “I don’t know anything about
Mr. Tinney could offer little guidance about her mother, she wrote, but about
her father’s identity he was clear.
“It’s common knowledge, Judy,” he said. “Your father is Clark Gable.”
She had no inkling, she wrote.
In interviews after her book was published, Ms. Lewis was philosophical about
the secrecy in which she grew up. If Young and Gable had acknowledged her in
1935, she said, “both of them would have lost their careers.”
Much of Ms. Lewis’s account was painful to recall, she said. She quoted Young as
saying, “And why shouldn’t I be unhappy?,” explaining her decision to give
birth. “Wouldn’t you be if you were a movie star and the father of your child
was a movie star and you couldn’t have an abortion because it was a mortal sin?”
Young was a Roman Catholic.
After graduating from Marymount, a girls’ Catholic school, Ms. Lewis left Los
Angeles to pursue acting in New York. She was a regular on one soap opera, “The
Secret Storm,” from 1964 to 1971, and had featured parts on numerous others. She
appeared in several Broadway plays, produced television shows, and in her
mid-40s decided to return to school. She earned a bachelor’s degree and a
master’s degree in clinical psychology from Antioch University in Los Angeles,
and became a licensed family and child counselor in 1992.
Ms. Lewis, who was a clinical psychologist specializing in foster care and
marriage therapy, died of lymphoma at her home in Gladwyne, Pa., her daughter,
Maria Tinney Dagit, said.
Besides her daughter, Ms. Lewis is survived by two grandsons and her
half-brothers, Christopher and Peter Lewis. Her marriage to Mr. Tinney ended in
In a 2001 interview on CNN with Larry King, Ms. Lewis recalled speaking to her
mother about her early life.
“I was also asking her about being adopted,” she said, “as adopted children do.
They say, ‘Where are my ... ‘’ ”
Mr. King interjected, “ ‘Who’s my mother?’ ”
“Yes,” Ms. Lewis said. “ ‘Who’s my mother? Who’s my father?’ And she would
answer it very easily by saying, ‘I couldn’t love you any more than if you were
my own child,’ which, of course, didn’t answer the question, but it said, ‘Don’t
ask the question.’ ”
But at that point Ms. Lewis was wistful about her past. “Call of the Wild,” she
said, was one of her favorite movies. The love scenes between her parents, she
said, “show the love they feel for each other.”
Mr. King asked if she ever fantasized about the life she might have had if her
parents had married and brought her up.
“I would have liked them to have,” she replied. “But that is just my dream, you
know. Life is very strange. Doesn’t give us what we want.”
November 29, 2011
The New York Times
By SARAH MASLIN NIR
The week before they abducted their eight children from a
foster care center in Queens, Nephra and Shanel Payne stocked up at Costco on
supplies and dry goods, like diapers and infant formula for Nefertiti, their
11-month-old daughter, graham crackers and her favorite drink, pear juice. They
stashed family photos and important documents in a storage facility and crammed
a basketball and a football — essential for traveling with a Little League
team’s worth of boys — into their car.
They had just been told, they said, that New York City’s child welfare agency
was planning to put their children, who had been in foster care for nearly three
years, up for adoption rather than reuniting them with their parents.
“It’s either do something or let your kids get swallowed by a system that does
not have a heart,” Mr. Payne, 35, said. “To do nothing would have been more
hurtful, more reckless.”
The Paynes told their story during a nearly two-hour interview on Monday night,
five days after their release from jail. They sat side by side in the office of
Norman Steiner, the lawyer who represented them in their criminal case, their
pinky fingers intertwined.
It was a brazen act — two parents abducting their children from foster care in
broad daylight — and it set off an interstate manhunt and a rash of media
speculation on their whereabouts and on how they had succeeded at it. But to the
Paynes, that week on the run with their children packed first into a car and
then into a van was a respite of sorts — a time spent singing along to Michael
Jackson hits, tossing a football around and being a family.
Mr. Payne, a construction worker, and his wife, 28, a beautician, were arrested
on Sept. 26, seven days after they absconded with their children during a
supervised visit at the Forestdale child agency in Forest Hills. The police
found them on a roadside in Harrisburg, Pa., where they had just finished dinner
in their van.
They were sent to New York to face eight counts each of kidnapping — one per
child — among other charges. The kidnapping charges were eventually dismissed,
and the Paynes pleaded guilty in late October to second-degree custodial
interference, a misdemeanor for which they were each sentenced to 90 days in
jail and three years’ probation. On the day before Thanksgiving, they were
Child welfare advocates deplored the couple’s rash move, concerned for the
safety of the children. The children, seven boys and one girl, ages 11 months to
11 years, had been removed from the Paynes’ custody in March 2009 amid
allegations of abuse.
The Paynes said the Administration for Children’s Services had unfairly taken
custody of their children after one went to school with a bloodshot eye. It was
a result, they said, of a squabble among the brothers.
Child welfare officials declined to discuss the specifics of the case, citing
privacy rules. Still, they said, children are not typically removed from a home
because of a single issue. Agency workers must assess the children’s welfare,
and the decision to take custody must be approved in Family Court, the officials
The Paynes said that they were good parents and that they had religiously
attended parenting and anger management classes prescribed by officials. They
showed up at every child visit with platters of food, home-baked cakes and even
a juicer, they said, and they were devastated to hear that several of their boys
had been medicated for things like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
They were terrified, they said, when two of their children complained of not
being fed enough and showed up to visits with split lips and bruises. Agency
officials said those claims were never reported.
The Paynes said they learned in mid-September that Children’s Services had set a
goal of adoption for the children, and it was as if a switch had flipped.
Security at the Forestdale child agency, where the visits took place, was lax at
times, the Paynes said. (The center is reviewing security issues in light of the
abduction.) During their Sept. 19 visit, Ms. Payne said, she simply led the
children to the car waiting out back, and told them to be quick. “In my head I
was like, ‘Go, go, go, go,’ ” she said.
“It was like a relief; we just had no more pain,” her husband said. “Everything
we came to New York with, we’re leaving with.”
Willfully oblivious to the manhunt, they listened to music — not news — on the
radio and disassembled their cellphone. They headed toward South Carolina, where
they had lived before moving to the Bronx in 2007 and where their family still
had land. “Acres of land, produce growing out of the ground,” Mr. Payne said, a
smile reaching each side of his lean face. “It was going to be that freedom to
see our kids just running around — to be happy, to be safe — with their mother
His wife, whom he began dating after she wrote him a love letter when she was
16, continued his thought: “It would have been a dream come true, and for those
seven days that’s what it was like,” she said. At one point, she recalled, her
son Shalee, 6, awoke with a start. “He said: ‘I thought this was a dream. Thank
you so much for taking us,’ ” his mother said. “I know that what I did was right
because I heard it from my son.”
They got to South Carolina swiftly, stopping only to play catch and to eat at a
Chinese restaurant in Virginia, but when a reporter called a relative a few days
after they had arrived, they quickly left. They punched Harrisburg, where Mr.
Payne had once found work, into their GPS unit and headed there. Though Nephra,
the oldest son, had seen newspaper reports about the family, the parents somehow
still believed they would not be caught, they said. They had even started
planning to home-school their children.
They described the atmosphere in their van as “a party,” their last evening a
bizarre public idyll in light of the nationwide police pursuit. The boys
clambered onto a stage at a park in Harrisburg and showed off break-dancing
moves; Ms. Payne and the baby admired a cheerleading performance. They ate a
chicken dinner in the van, Nefertiti refusing to budge from her father’s chest.
Then, they said, around 10:30 p.m. came the sirens, the order to freeze, and the
barrel of a gun pointing at Mr. Payne. Nefertiti howled. Mr. Payne collapsed and
was hospitalized; he said he could barely move for several days.
“I just was empty, I just felt like I messed up, I felt like my world was over,”
he said. “All I could hear was my baby screaming.”
Police reports of the Paynes’ capture described the children as disheveled, and
there was speculation that they had slept in the cramped van. But the couple
said the family stayed in motels, paying in cash. And they adamantly denied any
Jail was a shock for the couple. Mr. Payne said he remembered feeling he had
done “something noble.”
Michael Fagan, the communications director for Children’s Services, said in a
statement: “We are glad that the children are safe and back in New York City.
After a thorough investigation and careful assessment of the children, they are
in the care of foster families, as they were before they were abducted by their
Both parents are forbidden to see their children or to speak to them on the
phone. On Dec. 15, they will return to Family Court to seek the right to see
June 19, 2011
The New York Times
By N. R. KLEINFIELD
AT the apartment in Brooklyn where George Russell spends four
nights each week, he checked the clock: 7:09 p.m. Wasn’t it 7:05 about 20
Never had time moved so slowly. Was the clock even working?
They had tossed the ball around, chased each other, done the book about a bear.
Now the dreaded bedtime video. Every night, Griffin, who was 18 months old,
insisted on this DVD about race cars, space ships and motorcycles, narrated by a
saccharine pair named Dave and Becky. Mr. Russell found them galling. Once,
while watching, he said, it made him “feel a profound despair like when I read
‘The Bell Jar.’ ”
He slid in the disc. Soon, his thumb was punching fast-forward. “It’s so much
better at double speed, isn’t it, Griffin?”
Darkness had dropped softly. Rain drummed on Plaza Street East.
Mr. Russell regarded Griffin and his curly blond hair. “He looks just like me
when I was little,” he said. “I don’t feel paternal toward him. Yet it’s odd
when I look at him and I see me.”
The setup is complicated. Griffin’s mother, Carol Einhorn, a fund-raiser for a
nonprofit group, is 48 and single. She conceived through in vitro fertilization
with sperm from Mr. Russell, 49, a chiropractor and close friend. Monday,
Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday nights, Mr. Russell stays in the spare room of Ms.
Einhorn’s apartment. The other three days he lives on President Street with his
domestic partner, David Nimmons, 54, an administrator at a nonprofit. Most
Sundays, they all have dinner together.
“It’s not like Heather has two mommies,” Mr. Russell said. “It’s George has two
Two addresses, three adults, a winsome toddler and a mixed-breed dog officially
named Buck the Dog. None of this was the familial configuration any of them had
imagined, but it was, for the moment, their family. It was something they had
stumbled into, yet had a certain revisionist logic.
Such is the hiccupping fluidity of the family in the modern world. Six years
running now, according to census data, more households consist of the unmarried
than the married. More people seem to be deciding that the contours of the
traditional nuclear family do not work for them, spawning a profusion of
cobbled-together networks in need of nomenclature. Unrelated parents living
together, sharing chores and child-rearing. Friends who occupy separate homes
but rely on each other for holidays, health care proxies, financial support.
“Some of the strictures that were used to organize society don’t fit human
change and growth,” said Ann Schranz, chairwoman of the Alternatives to Marriage
Project, a 10-year-old organization. “What matters to us is the health of
relationships, not the form of relationships.”
And so here on Plaza Street, four people are testing the fuzzy boundaries of an
age-old institution, knowing there is no single answer to what defines family or
what defines love.
Griffin, now almost 3, calls Mr. Russell “Uncle George” and Mr. Nimmons “Dave.”
At some point, Ms. Einhorn intends to tell her son the truth. Mr. Russell
worries about that moment. He never wanted to be a parent; he saw the sperm
donation as a favor to a friend. He did not attend the birth or Griffin’s first
birthday party. His four sisters were trying to figure out whether they were
Once a week, Ms. Einhorn went out, and Mr. Russell baby-sat. But only after
Griffin was asleep — Uncle George was like the night watchman. Until March 2010,
when Mr. Russell agreed to put Griffin to bed and see how it went.
There was a routine that had to be followed or it was tantrum world. A bath,
dinner, a story, the hated video, then a circuit of the apartment to say good
night to everything.
Mr. Russell loathes television, an aversion he connects to his father’s seeming
to have kept it on permanently. “Carol can watch, like, 52 ‘Law & Order’s back
to back to relax,” he said. “She likes shows like ‘Army Wives.’ I can’t even say
the words ‘Army Wives’ without irony or cringing.” He snapped off the television
and announced, “It’s time to take a walk.”
Barefoot, he hoisted Griffin into his arms and felt the pleasant response. They
said good night to the kitchen.
Good night, dining room.
Good night, plant.
Good night, George’s room.
Good night, outside world.
Mr. Russell gave Griffin a bottle, and lowered him into his crib.
Not bad at all. “I certainly don’t want to be the child’s parent,” he said.
Then: “What can I say, it’s lovely to hold a child in your arms.”
CAROL EINHORN once wrote a song called “Canyon.” It addressed
the void left by her father, who died when she was 5, after pancreatic cancer
came without proper notice.
She and an older brother grew up on the Upper East Side. Both parents worked in
finance; both had been only children. Mom remarried, but they broke up. That
angered Ms. Einhorn, the small family always shrinking. For herself, she wanted
two or three children, an orbit of relatives.
Ms. Einhorn went to Wesleyan University and became a singer and songwriter, once
singing backup for Roberta Flack. (Ms. Einhorn’s professional name is Caroline
Horn.) She quit performing in 1998, eventually becoming editorial director of a
publication for young people, Music Alive! She nearly married a medical student,
but reached her 40s with no Mr. Perfect or even Mr. Near-Perfect. In 2004, she
decided to have a baby anyway, and began researching sperm donors.
Mr. Russell had been a year ahead at Wesleyan. They bumped into each other after
graduation and became great friends. She thinks of him as a brother, especially
since her actual brother is a troubled recluse she has no contact with.
Mr. Russell grew up in Connecticut, where his sisters teasingly called him the
Godlet because they felt he was favored as the only boy.
His father worked at the State Department of Environmental Protection and now
lives with dementia in a center in Baltimore. His mother, who died in 1999,
professed to want 10 children, but, awakened by Betty Friedan, had her tubes
tied after 5. She returned to school and became a college professor. Mr. Russell
grew to view children as obstacles to ambition.
He came out in college, and afterward was a modern dancer, with a side job as a
legal secretary. At 34, he returned to school, and four years later became a
He sees utility in odd rituals. Sometimes he asks clients to scribble what
bothers them on a piece of paper, fold and staple it. Then he writes “Gone” or
“Goodbye” on the papers, and either burns them and tosses the ashes in the river
or drops them in a mailbox, no doubt baffling letter carriers.
When Ms. Einhorn told him her baby plans, Mr. Russell was shocked, wondering “if
she wanted to be crawling around on the floor at 45.” Later, listening to her
concern about “an empty space where the father would be,” Mr. Russell said,
well, he would be the donor.
Getting pregnant was wrenching — a miscarriage, autoimmune issues leading to a
trip to Mexico for a treatment unapproved in this country. The fifth round of
IVF was to be the last. Griffin was born on Oct. 21, 2008.
Then came postpartum depression. Griffin was colicky. One day, Ms. Einhorn wrote
in her journal, “I love my baby, I hate my life.”
THE double households began because of economics.
The tattered economy rocked Mr. Russell’s business — without jobs, people let
their musculoskeletal systems go — and his loans became a $250,000 whirlpool of
debt. He eventually filed for personal bankruptcy.
He had met Mr. Nimmons in 2007 at a retreat in upstate New York. One of four
children of a New York public-relations man turned California college
administrator and a homemaker, Mr. Nimmons describes his family as being “as
close to the perfect American family as you could get.” He worked as a freelance
writer, an editor at Playboy and a speechwriter for Geraldine Ferraro, and he
wrote a book on gay life before becoming special projects director at the Family
Center, a private agency helping families in crisis.
Mr. Nimmons lived on the bottom two floors of a brownstone he owned in Park
Slope, Brooklyn. He and Mr. Russell each had recently ended a long relationship
when they fell in love; they were not ready to cohabitate again full time. Ms.
Einhorn said Mr. Russell could stay at her place part time. For Griffin, that
would mean a visible male presence, the thing missing from her youth.
So in July 2009, the four of them embarked on a provisional commingling until
whatever came next.
On President Street, the men split the grocery and cable bills. Mr. Russell
covers the housekeeper ($70), since he’s fussier about unkemptness. Same with
the electric bill, because he always leaves lights on. Mr. Nimmons handles the
mortgage; Mr. Russell pays him some rent.
On Plaza Street, Mr. Russell gives Ms. Einhorn $100 a week for food and $60 of
the $100 for her biweekly housekeeper. He bought an air-conditioner for his
room; she paid for the installation. Keeping the refrigerator in balance with
Mr. Russell there part time, Ms. Einhorn finds, “is like working an algebraic
MR. RUSSELL fixed the food: flounder and pizza. Ms. Einhorn
wondered who was the edgiest person he could imagine as a Chia Pet. Mr. Russell
offered, “Mother Teresa?”
It was family dinner night. Simon and Garfunkel oozed from the stereo. Mr.
Nimmons was on his way; Mr. Russell mentioned something about trying not to shut
him out of the conversation.
Griffin watched a Thomas the Tank Engine video. Checking it out with half an
eye, Mr. Russell said, “I’m thinking of doing a doctoral dissertation on this.”
He asked Ms. Einhorn, whose Music Alive! job had recently been eliminated, if
she had considered working on the railroad.
They had so much fun together. They called each other Sweetie Cat and did cat
riffs; when she learned she was pregnant, Ms. Einhorn texted: “I am with
The Plaza Street apartment is elegant, a baby grand piano ruling the living
room. Two bedrooms plus the pint-size office where Mr. Russell unfurled a bed on
the floor, what he called his “camping existence,” until last April, when Ms.
Einhorn bought him a trundle bed.
When Mr. Nimmons and Mr. Russell met, Project Griffin was already under way,
which Mr. Nimmons said he saw as “another data point, and not a big one.” He and
Ms. Einhorn like each other, but are not close. As for Griffin, Mr. Nimmons
said, “I have a certain distant avuncular feeling.”
At dinner that Sunday, Ms. Einhorn veered into a story. Many years ago, her
mother was giving a party and a soufflé didn’t rise because of the weather; she
called Craig Claiborne, who actually answered, and told her to use cream of
“She was a pistol,” Ms. Einhorn said. “She sent a telegram to the White House
when Ford pardoned Nixon.”
Ms. Einhorn asked Mr. Nimmons what was going on, and he said, “Oh, I’m working
like a fiend.”
She told Mr. Russell she had gotten a light for him as well as the bed. “Not
only did I make your bed with sheets and lay down the rug,” she added, “but I
scrubbed the shower mat.”
He said, “You’re a good person.”
The night faded and Mr. Nimmons left. Ms. Einhorn and Mr. Russell liked to end
evenings with a ritual. For a while, they recited “intentions,” lists of
aspirations. Then they switched to “gratitudes.”
Ms. Einhorn started: “I had a really nice Saturday. I’m really grateful for both
play dates. And I’m grateful that this was my last week of work at a place where
I was underappreciated and underutilized. I’m grateful that I have a financial
cushion. I’m grateful that Griffin has grown just as he should and is saying
other words. ... I’m grateful that despite all the wacko middle-of-the night
wake-ups, I haven’t gotten sick.”
Mr. Russell: “I’m grateful for the yummy dinner. I’m grateful that Dave is
starting to understand my experiences and validate them rather than just
listening and putting a checkmark. I’m grateful that business has gotten better.
... I’m grateful for my new bed and my light. I’m grateful that I don’t have to
sit here with allergies.”
IT should be noted that Ms. Einhorn’s mother, Madeline Glick, who is 80 and
lives on the Upper East Side, adores her grandson and visits frequently. Ms.
Glick and her second husband don’t speak; Ms. Einhorn, though, regularly takes
Griffin to visit him.
Though Ms. Glick finds Mr. Russell delightful, she views the whole arrangement
as peculiar. “Though I recognize that male companionship is important to Carol,
I think he’s a little bit taking advantage of it,” she said. “I think his coming
and going at will is sponging off her. If he’s trying to figure out his
relationship with Dave, he shouldn’t be using her place to figure it out.”
As for Griffin, Ms. Glick thinks Mr. Russell’s relationship to him should be as
a trusted family friend, not as a father. “Maybe it’s narrow of me,” she said.
“George is pursuing a gay lifestyle and all, and I kind of want Griffin to have
a view of male masculinity greater than George.”
Thanksgiving got messy. Ms. Einhorn planned on dinner with her mother and
Griffin; Mr. Nimmons and Mr. Russell had invited friends to President Street.
Mr. Nimmons told Ms. Einhorn to drop over with Griffin, but not her mother. Ms.
Einhorn was offended but said only that they would pass.
Then, a few days before the holiday, Mr. Nimmons asked Mr. Russell to see if Ms.
Einhorn had a roasting pan he could borrow. She was furious — disrespecting her
mother, then wanting a pan!
Mr. Nimmons wrote her an e-mail saying he didn’t remember saying he didn’t want
her mother to come, and if he had, he hadn’t meant it. Ms. Einhorn did not think
that was enough.
They had their separate Thanksgivings, and Mr. Nimmons skipped the next Sunday
meal. He had lunch with Ms. Einhorn to smooth things over; she put it behind
her, but was still uncomfortable that he had forgotten an important
Sunday dinners resumed.
YEARS ago, over the Internet, Mr. Russell became a minister of
the Universal Life Church: a dozen couples owe married life to him. He adapts
weddings to their wishes. Once he was told not to mention “lifetime commitment.”
In another, one compulsory vow was never to watch a movie starring Helen Hunt.
Last summer, on a lake in the Poconos, the groom came by rowboat, the bride by
On the way to the Poconos, Mr. Russell was moody and quiet, making Mr. Nimmons
Mr. Russell has a deep playlist of anxieties. He is uneasy in public places (“I
have a nervous system like an air-traffic controller”); begins days feeling
dread (“I used to say I crawled up to self-esteem”); and feels the need to
audibly criticize movies while in theaters. He is disorganized: he did not use a
wallet until he was 45, because he found it hard to arrange.
He loses keys, phones, everything. He’ll neglect to insert coffee in the coffee
maker and brew hot water. He left the stove on; forgot to baby-sit for Griffin.
He is not shy about seeking help: “I’ve been going to therapy since God was a
child. I think I actually counseled Freud.”
Mr. Russell finds Mr. Nimmons too upbeat about everything. Mr. Nimmons finds Mr.
Russell too downbeat.
“George is vexed by things I don’t understand,” Mr. Nimmons said. “There was a
time last year when I asked him how he was and he said, ‘I’m bleak, I’m
despairing.’ I said, ‘Oh, my God, those are heavy words.’ ”
And: “There will be times I’ll say I notice we just spent 20 minutes talking
about what happened to you today. I haven’t had a question yet. I had a day,
Mr. Russell on Mr. Nimmons: “He wants to hear about the most interesting thing
with me, and I want to vent.”
And: “I greatly admire and deeply love Dave. One of his deficits is his denial.”
IN the kitchen, at 6:30 a.m., Ms. Einhorn told Mr. Russell about her dream: “I
was swimming in a pool and I looked up and saw a plane and I said, ‘What is
that?’ and the woman said, ‘That’s the fighter jet.’ Not a fighter jet, the
fighter jet. And then the fighter jet did a water landing.”
“Hmm,” Mr. Russell said.
“And I didn’t even watch ‘Army Wives.’ ”
Griffin smacked a plant standing on the countertop, and Ms. Einhorn told him not
to assault plants.
She was a few weeks into a new job at Midori and Friends, a nonprofit agency
that puts music programs in New York schools. She was eager to succeed.
Mr. Russell said, “One thing I’ve observed is that if every time you turn water
into wine, it doesn’t go well. They don’t write a book about you or anything.
They just keep on drinking.”
He tousled Griffin’s hair and said, “The question is, will the saintly little
messiah eat fruit salad?”
“I doubt it,” Ms. Einhorn said.
Uncle George was drawing closer to Griffin. He had taken him to the botanic
garden. Put his picture on Facebook, though the caption was cryptic: “He’s my
nephew. But biologically he’s my son.”
It bothered Mr. Russell if Griffin was peremptory. He also did not appreciate
the “chopped liver effect.” The other evening, he was reading a story when
Griffin said, “I want Mommy.” Mr. Russell said, “Oh yeah, chopped liver moment.”
They will not be celebrating Father’s Day. For one thing, Mr. Russell does not
think of himself as a father; what’s more, he views all holidays as
“premeditated disappointments.” Years ago, he invented the Russell Alternative
Holiday, observed on a floating date. He and Mr. Nimmons and some of his sisters
marked the most recent R.A.H. by going to see a Revolutionary War re-enactment
and parade. Actually, they were late, so they missed the re-enactment.
Ms. Einhorn and Mr. Russell joked about how they couldn’t believe they had not
gotten sick of each other by now. Yes, sometimes he found her bossy and caustic.
Sure, it annoyed her when he got didactic and made her feel talked down to. Yet
they rarely argued.
The nanny arrived, and it was time to go to work. “We have had 1 hour and 20
minutes of playtime, and it’s not enough,” Mr. Russell said. “It’s a little like
‘Letterman’ when you have insomnia.”
“I FEEL I’m more involved with your friends than you are with
my friends,” Mr. Nimmons said to Mr. Russell.
They were at the apartment on President Street. They made a point of having
unexpurgated discussions about festering issues. Buck the Dog was stamping
Mr. Russell: “I never bring up your friends as your friends, but you always
bring up my friends as my friends. It’s as if there was this big blackboard,
this tit for tat, and it’s way loaded on my side. There’s this weird rhetoric
where I feel I owe you something.”
Mr. Nimmons: “No, I just don’t get that much out of them. And they’re not all
people I would spend that much time with.”
Mr. Russell: “I think you’re pretty good about refusing time with my friends you
Mr. Nimmons: “Well, this is not an attack.”
Mr. Russell: “It feels like it.”
Mr. Russell mentioned how unsettled he felt: “All my knickknacks and things are
in the basement in boxes. I don’t see how there will ever be any place for them.
But maybe I’ll never live here full time.”
Mr. Nimmons: “That’s funny, because as I look around I see a lot of things that
Mr. Russell: “Like what?”
Mr. Nimmons: “That couch.”
Mr. Russell: “But we never use it.”
Mr. Nimmons: “I look at this bookshelf and I’m not sure where my books are. The
TV came with you. The cat lamp came with you. The box that it sits on came with
Then Mr. Nimmons added: “I had two rules of relationships that we violated. One:
It’s never a good idea to meld things into someone’s space. Two: You shouldn’t
move in together until you’re absolutely sure you can’t not.”
So they talked about the future.
Mr. Russell: “I don’t really know what I want to happen. I’m grateful to spend
time here with you, but this house doesn’t really pull me. There’s no space in
this house that feels like my space.”
Mr. Nimmons: “To me, it’s less about the space than about how we’re developing
as a couple.”
Mr. Russell: “To not even have a space is yucky. I don’t have a place at Carol’s
that’s mine except a bed and a plastic box with my clothes in it.”
Then he said: “I like living partly with you and partly with Carol. I liked
living by myself. But I actually think it’s healthier living around people. I
didn’t expect that.”
Then Mr. Russell said he had to go to Plaza Street, his musical-house existence.
He had laundry to fold.
MS. EINHORN unpacked the takeout Thai; she hadn’t the energy to cook. Mr.
Russell and Mr. Nimmons were in Italy. Ms. Einhorn, who had not dated since
getting pregnant, was missing her roommate.
Something was going on with her and this improvised family. She remembered the
hollow feeling when Griffin’s birth certificate came with a blank space for
father. She felt better when she included Mr. Russell on her census form.
They were soul mates, that was for sure. She remembered that first time she
visited her father’s grave, in the icy rain, and he came along. The name on the
tombstone was obscured by an overgrown bush. Mr. Russell knelt down and pruned
it, making it right.
“I’ve ended up in an unconventional setup, and it’s a setup that agrees with
me,” she said. “Sure I want love, I want intimacy, I want romance, but is this
desire to get married a beautiful dress that just doesn’t fit? I look at my
married friends and there aren’t many I’m jealous of. Some of them say they’re
jealous of me.”
She added: “You know, I got this rustic cabinet for $10 and stored it in the
office. When George came here one night, he said, ‘I’ve been meaning to tell you
how much I love that cabinet.’ He said, ‘Never leave me.’ ”
Suddenly, one night, they were talking about it.
Ms. Einhorn: “So this was supposed to have been this little stopgap maneuver and
now it’s, what, almost two years?”
Mr. Russell: “Yes. It’s really fun living over here.”
Her: “It’s fun having you. I don’t know if either of us has any urgency to
change this arrangement.”
Him: “No. It’s outrageous — who would choose this, living in two people’s
houses? But it’s only gotten better over time.”
“You empty the dishwasher, you cook, but I wonder if you should do more things,”
Ms. Einhorn said. “Like if a light went out, I don’t know if it would occur to
you to change that light. Because you wouldn’t know where the light bulbs are.
And that seems unusual.”
Him: “Well, if a light bulb went out, I would replace it. And I do know where
the light bulbs are. But your point is well taken.”
Her: “How does what I say feel on your end?”
Him: “I don’t actually know.”
Her: “Do you feel like the helpful guest?”
Him: “Sort of.”
“I don’t have any time,” he added. “So the thought of doing more is very
“It’s just conceptual,” she said.
ANOTHER evening slipped into dark on Plaza Street. Refreshed
by seltzer, the cohabitants kept alive a conversation about the weirdness of a
new opera centered on Anna Nicole Smith, and how there was once a musical about
Hiroshima, and how good the movie about Joan Rivers was, and how Ms. Einhorn had
never had escargots. Etc.
Mr. Russell had a headache and rattled out a couple of ibuprofen. He told Ms.
Einhorn how smart it was that they had bought the big bottle.
Curled up in a crib in the other room was a small child who one day will find
out that Uncle George is not exactly his uncle. “I’m fearful that he will be
angry or demanding, either one of which would be hard for me,” Mr. Russell had
said. “I’m worried he might say, ‘Well, why didn’t you decide to be my father,
being that I don’t have a father?’ ”
They plopped down in the living room and played a poetry game. Each wrote a line
and the other had to invent the next one, rhyming off the last word. They
sniggered at the results, the nonsense of it all.
Then they prayed that Griffin would not awaken at the zombie hour of 4:45 as he
had been. Mr. Russell hoped for 7:10. Ms. Einhorn, 7:12.
That bit of futility dispensed with, they turned to their bedtime ritual. Not
the gratitude list. This time, they would sing. They chose “Om Namo Bhagavate
Vasudevaya,” a Tibetan chant.
“Om namo,” they began. Their voices intersected and became one. Outside came the
sough of wind. They kept going. They sang. Yes, they sang.
The New York Times
By KATHERINE ELLISON
San Anselmo, Calif.
I WANT to
believe I have little in common with Julie Schenecker, who the police say
confessed to killing her two “mouthy” teenagers.
Ms. Schenecker, who was indicted on charges of first-degree murder on Thursday,
lives in Tampa, and is married to an Army colonel. I live near San Francisco,
and am married to a newspaper editor.
She, blond and tanned, drove her children, Calyx, 16, and Beau, 13, to soccer
and track meets. I’m brunette and sun-deprived, and drag two sons to violin
lessons and Hebrew school.
We most likely never would have been pals, even on Facebook, where, poignantly,
Ms. Schenecker has 394 “friends.” And yet what haunts me even more than the
terrible photos of her being led off by the police, her eyes rolled back like
those of a spooked horse, is what we’ve shared: a frightening record of anger
toward our children.
What strange evolutionary quirk makes adolescents evoke such powerful rage in
their mothers? Alone, like Ms. Schenecker, night after night with my
argumentative sons while my husband was working away from home, I’ve felt that
fury rising from the soles of my feet, at the sight of a carefully made meal
thoughtlessly dumped in the sink or, worse, a little brother scratched and
While my older son, who has both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and
oppositional defiant disorder, is something more than the usual adolescent
provocateur, let me be clear that not even in my wildest dreams have I ever
imagined shooting him. Still, pushed to my limits, I’ve done things that I know
full well have been dangerous and harmful — mostly yelling, but also, during a
few explosive fights, pushing and slapping. And abundant research on family
violence shows that I’m far from alone.
Uniquely awful as the killings of the Schenecker children were, the all too
familiar themes in this story make it urgent that the hectic debate about their
mother moves off the pages of social network sites and into our places of
worship, doctors’ offices and city halls.
It chilled me to read that the police questioned Ms. Schenecker for slapping her
daughter three months before the killings — behavior that I’ve unfortunately
shared with millions of other American parents. In a 2007 study of 141
adolescents, published in the journal Development and Psychopathology, 85
percent reported that they’d been slapped or spanked. Moreover, the latest
government records show that more than 121,000 cases of physical abuse against
minors were reported in 2008.
Even as corporal punishment is declining in social acceptability, about 7 in 10
Americans agreed, in a 2004 survey, that children sometimes need “a good, hard
spanking.” This came despite mountains of studies establishing that such tactics
do children much more harm than good, increasing the risk of anxiety, depression
and addiction. Moreover, it’s easy for spanking, slapping and swatting to
escalate — sometimes even to the point of deadly violence.
My husband and I passionately oppose corporal punishment, which helps explain
why my blunders alerted me that I needed help. I ended up devoting a year and
thousands of dollars to getting such help, from therapists and honest friends.
I spent much of the year learning about A.D.H.D., a condition I soon realized
that I shared with my then 12-year-old son. Among its classic symptoms are
conflict-seeking and hot-headedness. Humbling as it was, I ultimately heeded
friends and professionals who encouraged me to shed my fantasy of being the
victim of a raging, impossible child, and own up to the ways I was contributing
to our fights.
There were other therapies as well, including neurofeedback and medication for
me and my son, financed in part by an ever-expanding equity loan. Today, while
we still argue, we’re out of the danger zone, though I can’t stop worrying about
how many other parents lack the rare advantages I’ve had to get us there.
The mad housewife is a reliable comic icon, her trials trivialized as boredom
and cabin fever. It’s hard for most people to accept that mothers — even maybe
their own mothers! — can be unloving, and sometimes unsafe. Which helps explain
why killings like those ascribed to Ms. Schenecker, among some 200 American
mothers who kill their children every year, always seem so surprising.
It’s easy to write these cases off as freak results of severe mental illness.
But most of these women’s stories also include a lot of ordinary stress and
social isolation, the fallout from divorce and the dispersal of extended
families. Increasingly cut off from real-time conversations, mad housewives find
solace in e-communities, where “life” is so much more soothing and predictable
than dealing with teenagers. While news reports say Ms. Schenecker was seeking
help from real-life counselors in the weeks before the killings, her Facebook
page, with its pretty family photographs and homilies, is a portrait of polished
Amid the debate about whether social networks are depriving us of healthier,
non-virtual encounters, a University of Texas study last fall claimed that
Facebook was not supplanting such interactions. Perhaps that’s true, but one
thing I’m sure of, from my own lucky odyssey, is that all the poking and tagging
in the world can’t compete with a pair of real-time eyes when it comes to
noticing that someone needs more help than she’s getting.
Fifty years ago, American family structures were remarkably
uniform. The rich married at roughly the same rate as the poor and middle class.
Divorce rates were low for the college educated and high school graduates alike.
Out-of-wedlock births, while more common among African-Americans, were rare in
almost every region and community.
That was a long time ago. The intact two-parent family has been in eclipse for
decades now: last week, the Pew Research Center reported that in 2008, 41
percent of American births occurred outside of marriage, the highest figure yet
recorded. And from divorce rates to teen births, nearly every indicator of
family life now varies dramatically by education, race, geography and income.
In a rare convergence, conservatives and liberals basically agree on how this
happened. First, the sexual revolution overturned the old order of single-earner
households, early marriages, and strong stigmas against divorce and unwed
motherhood. In its aftermath, the professional classes found a new equilibrium.
Today, couples with college and (especially) graduate degrees tend to cohabit
early and marry late, delaying childbirth and raising smaller families than
their parents, while enjoying low divorce rates and bearing relatively few
children out of wedlock.
For the rest of the country, this comfortable equilibrium remains out of reach.
In the underclass (black, white and Hispanic alike), intact families are now an
endangered species. For middle America, the ideal of the two-parent family
endures, but the reality is much more chaotic: early marriages coexist with
frequent divorces, and the out-of-wedlock birth rate keeps inching upward.
When it comes to drawing lessons from this story, though, the agreement between
liberals and conservatives ends. The right tends to emphasize what’s been lost,
arguing that most Americans — especially the poor and working-class — would
benefit from a stronger link between sex, marriage and procreation. The left
argues that the revolution just hasn’t been completed yet: it’s the right-wing
backlash against abortion, contraception and sex education that’s preventing
downscale Americans from attaining the new upper-middle-class stability, and
reaping its social and economic benefits.
This is one of the themes of “Red Families v. Blue Families,” a provocative new
book by two law professors, Naomi Cahn and June Carbone. The authors depict a
culturally conservative “red America” that’s stuck trying to sustain an outdated
social model. By insisting (unrealistically) on chastity before marriage, Cahn
and Carbone argue, social conservatives guarantee that their children will get
pregnant early and often (see Palin, Bristol), leading to teen childbirth,
shotgun marriages and high divorce rates.
This self-defeating cycle could explain why socially conservative states have
more family instability than, say, the culturally liberal Northeast. If you’re
looking for solid marriages, head to Massachusetts, not Alabama.
To Cahn and Carbone’s credit, their book is nuanced enough to complicate this
liberal-friendly thesis. They acknowledge, for instance, that there are actually
multiple “red family” models, from the Mormon West to the Sunbelt suburbs to the
More important, Cahn and Carbone also acknowledge one of the more polarizing
aspects of the “blue family” model. Conservative states may have more teen
births and more divorces, but liberal states have many more abortions.
Liberals sometimes argue that their preferred approach to family life reduces
the need for abortion. In reality, it may depend on abortion to succeed. The
teen pregnancy rate in blue Connecticut, for instance, is roughly identical to
the teen pregnancy rate in red Montana. But in Connecticut, those pregnancies
are half as likely to be carried to term. Over all, the abortion rate is twice
as high in New York as in Texas and three times as high in Massachusetts as in
So it isn’t just contraception that delays childbearing in liberal states, and
it isn’t just a foolish devotion to abstinence education that leads to teen
births and hasty marriages in conservative America. It’s also a matter of how
plausible an option abortion seems, both morally and practically, depending on
who and where you are.
Whether it’s attainable for most Americans or not, the “blue family” model
clearly works: it leads to marital success and material prosperity, and it’s
well suited to our mobile, globalized society.
By comparison, the “red family” model can look dysfunctional — an uneasy mix of
rigor and permissiveness, whose ideals don’t always match up with the facts of
But it reflects something else as well: an attempt, however compromised, to
navigate post-sexual revolution America without relying on abortion.
February 18, 2010
The New York Times
By RUTH BETTELHEIM
AS we have just passed the 40th anniversary of that much vilified institution,
the no-fault divorce, it is an appropriate moment to re-evaluate how divorce
affects families, and particularly children. The California law took effect on
Jan. 1, 1970, and was followed by a wave of marital separations that continues
to this day — and also a wave of rhetoric condemning divorce for harming
children and undermining the fabric of society.
As divorce is clearly here to stay, it may be more productive to instead ask how
the process of dissolving a marriage might be changed to avoid, as much as
possible, damaging children.
This challenge is not as great as widespread preconceptions would suggest.
Studies conducted in the past 20 years have shown that on all meaningful
measures of success — social, economic, intellectual and psychological — most
adult children from divorced families are no worse off than their peers whose
parents remained married.
Researchers have found two explanations for this. Children who have to cope with
their parents’ separation and post-divorce lives often grow resilient,
self-reliant, adaptable and independent. And children benefit from escaping the
high-conflict environment of a rocky marriage. After their parents’ separation,
as conflicts fade, children recover.
Sustained family conflict can cause children to experience the kinds of problems
that are usually attributed to divorce: low self-esteem, depression, high
anxiety, difficulty forming relationships, delinquency and withdrawal from the
Given that reducing family conflict is good for children, the best way to
protect them during divorce would be to minimize the acrimony of the
proceedings. No-fault divorce, now practiced in every state except New York, has
been one step toward this goal. But issues relating to children in divorce cases
are still very often decided by long, heated contests between the parents.
Custody disagreements are settled by a judge’s determination of what is in “the
best interests of the child.” In practical terms, this means that both parents
do their utmost to demonstrate that they are the better parent — and that the
other one is worse, unfit or even abusive.
At stake are not only the participants’ self-esteem and their relationships with
their children but also their financial security. As child support is often
linked to the proportion of time the children spend with each parent, the days
and hours of their future lives become tools for one parent to extract payment
from the other. This is a recipe for warfare, with the children’s well-being
both the disputed turf and the likely casualty.
What children need instead are no-fault custody proceedings — which could be
accomplished with two changes to state family law. First, take the money out of
the picture by establishing fixed formulas for child support that ensure the
children are well taken care of in both homes, regardless of the number of days
they spend in each. Second, defuse tension by requiring parents to enter
mediation to find a custody solution that best meets the needs of all concerned.
Agreements reached through mediation would need to be binding (subject to the
approval of a judge), so that they could not be discarded or contested later if
new disagreements were to arise. Although some parents might worry that this
would diminish their opportunities for recourse, mediation would actually give
them greater control over the outcome than a judge’s unilateral verdict does.
In an adversarial custody battle, no one wins, but children are the biggest
losers of all. Intelligent legislation could promote the one thing that children
of divorce need most: peace between their parents.
Ruth Bettelheim is a marriage and family therapist.
May 27, 2009
The New York Times
By DAVID LEONHARDT
The big influx of highly educated workers into finance in the
last two decades has been the subject of some national hand-wringing lately.
President Obama, college presidents and economists have all worried aloud that
Wall Street has hoarded human resources that might otherwise have gone to
science, education, medicine or other fields.
Now, new research is suggesting that the shift also brought another cost — a
cost that fell mainly on the people, especially women, who took jobs in finance.
Among elite white-collar fields, finance appears to be uniquely difficult for
anyone trying to combine work and family.
Finance, on this score, is worse than law and worse than academia. It is far
worse than medicine, which emerges from the research as the highly paid
profession with the most flexibility. Near finance at the bottom of the list is
consulting, another field that became more popular in the last two decades.
The research, by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz of Harvard, answers a question
that college students, for all their careful career planning, rarely consider:
which jobs offer the best chance at balancing work and family life? A decade or
two after college, however, that question often comes to dominate conversations
among friends and between spouses.
On almost every aspect of work-life balance, finance and consulting look pretty
bad. People who take time off in those fields suffer large penalties, both in
terms of money and career opportunities, once they return to full-time work. And
part-time jobs are hard to come by, which often forces people to make a choice
between working a 70-hour week and leaving a job entirely.
One set of statistics neatly summarizes the findings. After surveying Harvard
College alumni 15 years after graduation, Ms. Goldin and Mr. Katz estimated the
average financial penalty for someone who had taken a year and a half off and
then returned to work. In medicine, that person earned 16 percent less than a
similar doctor who had not taken time off. Among people with no graduate degree,
the gap was 25 percent. For both lawyers and Ph.D.’s, it was about 29 percent.
For M.B.A.’s, a group dominated by finance workers and consultants, it was 41
percent. Given how much money many make, they can probably do just fine even
after such a pay cut. Yet the size of it suggests that time off puts them on a
completely different career track.
“The good news is that there are at least some professions where women have been
able to carve out a set of policies that are compatible with family life,” Jane
Waldfogel, a Columbia professor who studies families, told me. “The challenge
for the next generation — and it isn’t just about women — is to extend this to
Ms. Goldin and Mr. Katz, who are two of the country’s leading labor economists
and have published the crux of these findings in the American Economic Review,
studied Harvard graduates from the last 40 years. That allowed them to compare a
fairly similar group of students over a long period, but had the disadvantage of
creating a decidedly atypical survey group.
So the two economists compared their results to two other surveys — the National
Survey of College Graduates, run by the National Science Foundation, and a study
of University of Chicago business school graduates — and found broadly
According to the most recent National Survey, for instance, 21 percent of
doctors in their late 30s and early 40s work less than 35 hours a week. The
share was roughly 14 percent for M.B.A. graduates, as it was for lawyers and
people with Ph.D.’s.
The idea that medicine offers more choices than other elite professions may come
as a surprise, given that medical training requires notoriously long hours of
study. But once doctors reach their 30s, many of them seem to be rewarded with a
wider set of options than their counterparts in other fields.
When I heard about the new findings, I immediately thought of two friends of
mine, a pediatrician and ophthalmologist married to each other and living in
Colorado. Their years of training were typically grueling. While they were in
medical school and residency in Northern California in the 1990s, they were
surrounded by people at dot-coms who were working shorter hours and making
vastly more money.
But today, they have the best work-life balance of any parents I know. She works
two and a half days a week and is on call eight weekends a year. He arrives at
his office early every morning and takes short lunches so that he can work four
days a week. He is also on call 10 weeks a year. They have jobs they love, and
they spend a lot of time with each other and their children.
As Al Franken, the comedian turned politician, has observed, “Kids don’t want
quality time. They want quantity time — big, stinking, lazy, nonproductive
quantity time.” And research on emotional and intellectual development suggests
that kids are right to want what they do.
Obviously, certain medical specialties still don’t allow for much flexibility.
But a significant number do. (The same seems to be true of public policy and a
few other fields; among people with a master’s degree in something other than
business, the average pay penalty for taking time off was 13 percent, slightly
below what it was for doctors.)
A telling example of a flexible field, Ms. Goldin points out, is obstetrics. It
seems to be the archetypal field that must operate on someone’s else clock — a
baby’s. Yet as the ranks of female obstetricians have grown, they have figured
out how to change that.
Group practices are now the norm, and the doctors take turns being on call. A
family’s primary obstetrician isn’t guaranteed to be the one who delivers the
baby. In many practices, every doctor will see a woman at least once during her
pregnancy, so she knows everyone who may deliver her baby.
Wall Street, consulting firms and law firms have resisted this group approach to
work. The partners claim the work is too complicated to be handed from one
employee to another. In some cases, that’s no doubt true. Often, though, I bet
it isn’t. “Why are women’s bodies less complicated than someone’s account?” Ms.
Goldin wryly asks.
The general resistance to group work — and to flexibility — instead seems to
stem from old habits, much as obstetricians once would have scoffed at the
notion of a group practice. The downsides of allowing people to share work would
probably be outweighed by the benefits of being able to hire talented people who
want satisfying careers and aren’t willing to work 70-hour weeks.
For now, that group remains largely female. But there is some reason to hope
that fathers will be increasingly drawn to such jobs as well. Over the last four
decades, according to the economists Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst, men have
increased the average amount of time they spend taking care of children.
(Harvard men, however, have not, the Goldin-Katz data show.)
The question of how to balance work and family is almost inevitably a thorny
one. Easy answers, free of compromise and sacrifice, are rare, especially for
people who don’t earn nearly as much money as doctors.
But if you’re a teenager or college student trying to decide what to do with
your life, you at least may want to start thinking about the question. I
promise: Most of you will spend a lot of time thinking about it later.
October 5, 2008
The New York Times
By FERNANDA SANTOS
Rummaging back through the thousands of weddings he has
performed at the Manhattan Marriage Bureau, Walter Curtis can find a wealth of
vivid memories: The bride who showed up in a princess costume one Halloween. The
126 couples who came before him over the course of a single Valentine’s Day. The
former Balkans freedom fighter who, when instructed to kiss the bride, turned
and planted a smooch on Mr. Curtis’s cheek.
He has a harder time finding anything colorful to say about the setting: a
warren of offices on the second floor of the Municipal Building, its hallways
lined with cracked tile floors, fading yellow walls and dim fluorescent
lighting, where city employees like him have been giving true love a brief,
secular send-off since 1916.
“I love my job,” said Mr. Curtis, who is in charge of the marriage records room,
as he rested his large frame on a creaky chair in the bureau’s conference room.
“But I don’t think I’ll miss anything about this place.”
Later this fall, the bureau will move to new quarters — a grand hall lined in
marble and lighted by chandeliers — in a city office building just a short walk
to the north.
The relocation will mean more than just swapping one space for another, or
reconfiguring furniture into new surroundings. What will happen, in fact, is the
death of the marriage bureau as Manhattan has known it for generations: a
storied but shabby place, long on protocol but short on charm and comfort.
The move, an idea that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has nursed for almost as long
as he has been in office, was inspired in part by concerns about dignity. The
bureau’s appearance has not changed much over its 92 years, and despite periodic
renovations, Room 257 — which houses the wedding chapel — looks as
bureaucratically stiff as all the other Municipal Building offices. The chapel
itself has no adornment except a pulpit used by the handful of officiants who
perform the ceremonies.
The other reason for the switch is purely strategic. City officials see in the
revamped marriage bureau an opportunity to market the city as a wedding
destination, offering it as a more tasteful alternative to Las Vegas, where a
bride can be led down the aisle by an Elvis impersonator or married in a
There will be none of that in New York. What there will be are doors coated in
bronze, heating-unit covers fashioned by a Brooklyn artisan to match the
building’s Art Deco style, and ornate columns throughout the 5,000-square-foot
space, which once housed the State Department of Motor Vehicles, at the corner
of Centre and Worth Streets.
For the first time, the city will offer conveniences like a dressing room where
brides can touch up their makeup, and perhaps a shop where they can buy
bouquets. And couples will not have to endure the metal detectors or X-ray
machines that greet visitors to the Municipal Building.
“The people who want to get a city wedding in the greatest city in the world
deserve a better experience,” said George Fertitta, the chief executive of NYC &
Company, the city’s official marketing and tourism organization.
But fancier quarters will probably lead to higher prices. A ceremony now costs
$25, and though the first deputy city clerk, Michael McSweeney, said it was
unlikely the fee would go up by the time the new bureau opens, he did not rule
out an increase soon after that.
Jamie Drake, the interior designer who redecorated Gracie Mansion and Mayor
Bloomberg’s private home on the Upper East Side, is in charge of the project,
which will cost an estimated $13 million.
There are things, however, that no renovation can change, like the frantic pace
of the “I do’s” emanating from the chapel, or the fleeting alliances forged in
the waiting room when a couple recruits a witness from among the strangers
gathered to attend other weddings.
On Sept. 25, a Thursday, Nicholas Weiss and Donna Spivey, who live in Harlem,
found a volunteer: a taciturn man wearing a Muslim prayer cap.
Mr. Weiss and Ms. Spivey, who are both 35, were the last of 51 couples to get
married that day, a number slightly below the daily average of 58 weddings
performed at the bureau over the past eight years. The ceremonies ran from 48
seconds to two and a half minutes, and each couple seemed to have a different
reason for being there.
“Technically, we’re already married — we got married in Costa Rica on April 6,”
Mr. Weiss, a derivative-sales trader, said with a grin.
“But it was so complicated to register our marriage in New York that we figured
we’d come here and do it again,” added Ms. Spivey, who works in marketing at
For Sophia Atkinson, 35, a police officer in England, and Derek Sives, 39, an
engineer in Scotland, it was a question of convenience. They had met three weeks
earlier at a bar near Mr. Sives’s home in Aberdeen, but found the marriage
requirements in the United Kingdom so stringent that it made more sense to marry
in New York.
“We were going to go to Vegas,” Ms. Atkinson said, “but we couldn’t get a
Some couples chose a municipal wedding because it was cheap, or quick, or
because they needed to make their unions official for health insurance or
immigration purposes. Some did the ceremony, then left for a big party. And for
some, the city wedding was the entire celebration.
It is a long, if not always hallowed, tradition. As far back as 1895, aldermen
performed weddings free in the basement of City Hall. Some took place in the
kitchen, which was so dark and unkempt that some couples refused to be married
there. After complaints that aldermen were charging fees and pocketing the
money, the State Legislature in 1916 established a marriage bureau under the
control of the city clerk, whose office was in the newly built Municipal
There are marriage bureaus in each of the five boroughs, but the one in
Manhattan is by far the busiest and best known, drawing a cast of brides and
grooms that is as diverse as the city itself — people like Maura Romero, 31, and
Antonio Cortéz, 42, office cleaners from Mexico who live in Brooklyn; Sanatou
Diarra, 43, and Moussa Bagayoko, 50, longtime friends from Mali who live in East
Harlem; and Elena Pak, 28, a bartender from Uzbekistan, and Rinat Khasanov, 31,
a graduate student from Russia, who live in Queens.
On Sept. 25, they all filled out forms and placed their names on a list before
heading to the waiting room, where five rows of aluminum chairs face the chapel
doors — a process that Mr. McSweeney, the deputy city clerk, described as
“egalitarian.” No appointments are made; the weddings are first come first
served, and waits can be long. (There are no plans to change the policy in the
new location, but city officials hope to make the waits more comfortable.)
The rules are bent occasionally to accommodate celebrities like Mel Brooks and
Anne Bancroft, who were wed there in 1964, or Matt Damon and Luciana Bozan, who
were married there in 2005, two years after they met while Ms. Bozan was tending
“We will do it on rare occasions to avoid having the place mobbed by fans and
paparazzi,” Mr. McSweeney explained.
And the ceremonies, though short and nearly identical, can be tender. On this
day, the longest took 2 minutes and 32 seconds, as Tahui Chang, an accountant
from Vietnam, exchanged vows with Ken Eng, a credit analyst born in Manhattan.
The officiant, Soraida Burgos, took time to welcome their 18 guests. She asked
the bride to hand her engagement ring to the groom.
“Sir,” Ms. Burgos told him, “when you place the ring on her finger, you are to
place the wedding band first. It goes closer to the heart.”
NOT long ago, friends of mine confessed over dinner that they
had put spyware on their 15-year-old son’s computer so they could monitor all he
did online. At first I was repelled at this invasion of privacy. Now, after
doing a fair amount of research, I get it.
Make no mistake: If you put spyware on your computer, you have the ability to
log every keystroke your child makes and thus a good portion of his or her
private world. That’s what spyware is — at least the parental monitoring kind.
You don’t have to be an expert to put it on your computer. You just download the
software from a vendor and you will receive reports — weekly, daily, whatever —
showing you everything your child is doing on the machine.
Scary. But a good idea. Most parents won’t even consider it.
Maybe it’s the word: spyware. It brings up associations of Dick Cheney sitting
in a dark room, rubbing his hands together and reading your most private
thoughts. But this isn’t the government we are talking about — this is your
family. It’s a mistake to confuse the two. Loving parents are doing the
surveillance here, not faceless bureaucrats. And most parents already monitor
their children, watching over their home environment, their school.
Today’s overprotective parents fight their kids’ battles on the playground,
berate coaches about playing time and fill out college applications — yet when
it comes to chatting with pedophiles or watching beheadings or gambling away
their entire life savings, then...then their children deserve independence?
Some will say that you should simply trust your child, that if he is old enough
to go on the Internet he is old enough to know the dangers. Trust is one thing,
but surrendering parental responsibility to a machine that allows the entire
world access to your home borders on negligence.
Some will say that it’s better just to use parental blocks that deny access to
risky sites. I have found that they don’t work. Children know how to get around
them. But more than that — and this is where it gets tough — I want to know
what’s being said in e-mail and instant messages and in chat rooms.
There are two reasons for this. First, we’ve all read about the young boy
unknowingly conversing with a pedophile or the girl who was cyberbullied to the
point where she committed suicide. Would a watchful eye have helped? We rely in
the real world on teachers and parents to guard against bullies — do we just
dismiss bullying on the Internet and all it entails because we are entering
difficult ethical ground?
Second, everything your child types can already be seen by the world — teachers,
potential employers, friends, neighbors, future dates. Shouldn’t he learn now
that the Internet is not a haven of privacy?
One of the most popular arguments against spyware is the claim that you are
reading your teenager’s every thought, that in today’s world, a computer is the
little key-locked diary of the past. But posting thoughts on the Internet isn’t
the same thing as hiding them under your mattress. Maybe you should buy your
children one of those little key-locked diaries so that they too can understand
Am I suggesting eavesdropping on every conversation? No. With new technology
comes new responsibility. That works both ways. There is a fine line between
being responsibly protective and irresponsibly nosy. You shouldn’t monitor to
find out if your daughter’s friend has a crush on Kevin next door or that Mrs.
Peterson gives too much homework or what schoolmate snubbed your son. You are
there to start conversations and to be a safety net. To borrow from the national
intelligence lexicon — and yes, that’s uncomfortable — you’re listening for
Will your teenagers find other ways of communicating to their friends when they
realize you may be watching? Yes. But text messages and cellphones don’t offer
the anonymity and danger of the Internet. They are usually one-on-one with
someone you know. It is far easier for a predator to troll chat rooms and
MySpace and Facebook.
There will be tough calls. If your 16-year-old son, for example, is visiting
hardcore pornography sites, what do you do? When I was 16, we looked at Playboy
centerfolds and read Penthouse Forum. You may argue that’s not the same thing,
that Internet pornography makes that stuff seem about as harmful as “SpongeBob.”
And you’re probably right. But in my day, that’s all you could get. If something
more graphic had been out there, we probably would have gone for it. Interest in
those, um, topics is natural. So start a dialogue based on that knowledge. You
should have that talk anyway, but now you can have it with some kind of context.
Parenting has never been for the faint of heart. One friend of mine, using
spyware to monitor his college-bound, straight-A daughter, found out that not
only was she using drugs but she was sleeping with her dealer. He wisely took a
deep breath before confronting her. Then he decided to come clean, to let her
know how he had found out, to speak with her about the dangers inherent in her
behavior. He’d had these conversations before, of course, but this time he had
context. She listened. There was no anger. Things seem better now.
Our knee-jerk reaction as freedom-loving Americans is to be suspicious of
anything that hints at invasion of privacy. That’s a good and noble thing. But
it’s not an absolute, particularly in the face of the new and evolving
challenges presented by the Internet. And particularly when it comes to our
Do you tell your children that the spyware is on the computer? I side with yes,
but it might be enough to show them this article, have a discussion about your
concerns and let them know the possibility is there.
March 12, 2008
The New York Times
By MELISSA FARLEY
and VICTOR MALAREK
WHAT do we know about the woman Gov. Eliot Spitzer allegedly
hired as a prostitute? She was the one person he ignored in his apology. What is
she going through now? Is she in danger from organized crime because of what she
knows? Is anyone offering her legal counsel or alternatives to prostitution?
“I’m here for a purpose,” she said in a conversation with her booking agent
after meeting with Governor Spitzer, according to the affidavit of the F.B.I
agent who investigated the prostitution ring. “I know what my purpose is. I’m
not a ... moron, you know what I mean.”
Her purpose, as a man who knew patiently explained, is “renting” out an organ
for 10 minutes. Men rent women through the Internet or by cellphone as if they
were renting a car. And now, in response to the news about Governor Spitzer,
pundits are wading into the age-old debates over whether prostitution is a
victimless crime or whether women are badly hurt in prostitution no matter what
Whose theory is it that prostitution is victimless? It’s the men who buy
prostitutes who spew the myths that women choose prostitution, that they get
rich, that it’s glamorous and that it turns women on.
But most women in prostitution, including those working for escort services,
have been sexually abused as children, studies show. Incest sets young women up
for prostitution — by letting them know what they’re worth and what’s expected
of them. Other forces that channel women into escort prostitution are economic
hardship and racism.
The Emperor’s Club presented itself as an elite escort service. But aside from
charging more, it worked like any other prostitution business. The pimps took
their 50 percent cut. The Emperor’s Club often required that the women provide
sex twice an hour. One woman who was wiretapped indicated that she couldn’t
handle that pressure. The ring operated throughout the United States and Europe.
The transport of women for prostitution was masked by its description as “travel
Telephone operators at the Emperor’s Club criticized one of the women for
cutting sessions with buyers short so that she could pick up her children at
school. “As a general rule,” one said, “girls with children tend to have a
little more baggage going on.”
Whether the woman is in a hotel room or on a side street in someone’s car,
whether she’s trafficked from New York to Washington or from Mexico to Florida
or from the city to the suburbs, the experience of being prostituted causes her
immense psychological and physical harm. And it all starts with the buyer.
March 9, 2008
The New York Times
By LAURA M. HOLSON
AS president of the Walt Disney Company’s children’s book and
magazine publishing unit, Russell Hampton knows a thing or two about teenagers.
Or he thought as much until he was driving his 14-year-old daughter, Katie, and
two friends to a play last year in Los Angeles.
“Katie and her friends were sitting in the back seat talking to each other about
some movie star; I think it was Orlando Bloom,” recalled Mr. Hampton, whose
company produced the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, in which the actor
starred. “I made some comment about him, I don’t remember exactly what, but I
got the typical teenager guttural sigh and Katie rolled her eyes at me as if to
say, ‘Oh Dad, you are so out of it.’ ”
After that, the back-seat chattering stopped. When Mr. Hampton looked into his
rearview mirror he saw his daughter sending a text message on her cellphone.
“Katie, you shouldn’t be texting all the time,” Mr. Hampton recalled telling
her. “Your friends are there. It’s rude.” Katie rolled her eyes again.
“But, Dad, we’re texting each other,” she replied with a harrumph. “I don’t want
you to hear what I’m saying.”
Chastened, Mr. Hampton turned his attention back to the freeway. It’s a common
scene these days, one playing out in cars, kitchens and bedrooms across the
Children increasingly rely on personal technological devices like cellphones to
define themselves and create social circles apart from their families, changing
the way they communicate with their parents.
Innovation, of course, has always spurred broad societal changes. As telephones
became ubiquitous in the last century, users — adults and teenagers alike —
found a form of privacy and easy communication unknown to Alexander Graham Bell
or his daughters.
The automobile ultimately shuttled in an era when teenagers could go on dates
far from watchful chaperones. And the computer, along with the Internet, has
given even very young children virtual lives distinctly separate from those of
their parents and siblings.
Business analysts and other researchers expect the popularity of the cellphone —
along with the mobility and intimacy it affords — to further exploit and
accelerate these trends. By 2010, 81 percent of Americans ages 5 to 24 will own
a cellphone, up from 53 percent in 2005, according to IDC, a research company in
Framingham, Mass., that tracks technology and consumer research.
Social psychologists like Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology who has studied the social impact of mobile
communications, say these trends are likely to continue as cellphones morph into
mini hand-held computers, social networking devices and pint-size movie screens.
“For kids it has become an identity-shaping and psyche-changing object,” Ms.
Turkle said. “No one creates a new technology really understanding how it will
be used or how it can change a society.”
Marketers and cellphone makers are only too happy to fill the newest generation
gap. Last fall, Firefly Mobile introduced the glowPhone for the preschool set;
it has a small keypad with two speed-dial buttons depicting an image of a mother
and a father. AT&T promotes its wireless service with television commercials
poking fun at a mom who doesn’t understand her daughter’s cellphone vernacular.
Indeed, IDC says revenue from services and products sold to young consumers or
their parents is expected to grow to $29 billion in 2010, up from $21 billion in
So far, parents’ ability to reach their children whenever they want affords
families more pluses than minuses. Mr. Hampton, who is divorced, says it is easy
to reach Katie even though they live in different time zones. And college
students who are pressed for time, like Ben Blanton, a freshman who plays
baseball at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, can text their parents when it
suits them, asking them to run errands or just saying hello.
“Texting is in between calling and sending and e-mail,” he explained while
taking a break from study hall. Now he won’t even consider writing a letter to
his mother, Jan. “It’s too time consuming,” he said. “You have to go to the post
office. Instead, I can sit and watch television and send a text, which is the
But as with any cultural shift involving parents and children — the birth of
rock ’n’ roll or the sexual revolution of the 1960s, for example — various gulfs
emerge. Baby boomers who warned decades ago that their out-of-touch parents
couldn’t be trusted now sometimes find themselves raising children who — thanks
to the Internet and the cellphone — consider Mom and Dad to be clueless, too.
Cellphones, instant messaging, e-mail and the like have encouraged younger users
to create their own inventive, quirky and very private written language. That
has given them the opportunity to essentially hide in plain sight. They are more
connected than ever, but also far more independent.
In some cases, they may even become more alienated from those closest to them,
said Anita Gurian, a clinical psychologist and executive editor of
AboutOurKids.org, a Web site of the Child Study Center at New York University.
“Cellphones demand parental involvement of a different kind,” she said. “Kids
can do a lot of things in front of their parents without them knowing.”
TO be sure, parents have always been concerned about their children’s
well-being, independence and comportment — and the rise of the cellphone offers
just the latest twist in that dynamic. However it all unfolds, it has helped
prompt communications companies to educate parents about how better to be in
touch with their children.
In a survey released 18 months ago, AT&T found that among 1,175 parents the
company interviewed, nearly half learned how to text-message from their
children. More than 60 percent of parents agreed that it helped them
communicate, but that sometimes children didn’t want to hear their voice at all.
When asked if their children wanted a call or a text message requesting that
they be home by curfew, for instance, 58 percent of parents said their children
preferred a text.
“Just because you can reach them doesn’t mean they have to answer,” said Amanda
Lenhart, a senior research specialist at the Pew Internet & American Life
Project, which is studying the impact of technology on adolescents. “Cellphones
give teens more of a private life. Their parents aren’t privy to all of their
Text messaging, in particular, has perhaps become this generation’s version of
pig Latin. For dumbfounded parents, AT&T now offers a tutorial that decodes
acronyms meant to keep parents at bay. “Teens may use text language to keep
parents in the dark about their conversations by making their comments
indecipherable,” the tutorial states. Some acronyms meant to alert children to
prying eyes are POS (“parent over shoulder”), PRW (“parents are watching”) and
KPC (“keeping parents clueless”).
SAVANNAH PENCE, 15, says she wants to be in touch with her parents — but also
wants to keep them at arm’s length. She says her father, John, made sure that
she and her 19-year-old brother, Alex, waited until high school before they got
cellphones, unlike friends who had them by fifth grade. And while Savannah
described her relationship with her parents as close, she still prefers her
“I don’t text that much in front of my parents because they read them,” she
said. And when her parents ask who is on the phone? “I just say, ‘People.’ They
don’t ask anymore.”
At first, John Pence, who owns a restaurant in Portland, Ore., was unsure about
how to relate to his daughter. “I didn’t know how to communicate with her,” Mr.
Pence said. “I had to learn.” So he took a crash course in text messaging — from
Savannah. But so far he knows how to quickly type only a few words or phrases:
Where are you? Why haven’t you called me? When are you coming home?
When his daughter asks a question, he typically has one response. “ ‘OK’ is the
answer to everything,” he said. “And I haven’t used a question mark yet.” He
said he had to learn how to text because his daughter did not return his calls.
“I don’t leave a message,” he said, “because she knows it’s me.”
Savannah said she sends a text message to her father at least two or three times
a day. “I can’t ask him questions because he is too slow,” she said. “He uses
simple words.” On the other hand, her mother, Caprial, is more proficient at
texting and will ask how her day was at school or how her friends are doing.
(Her mom owed her more facile texting skills to being an agile typist with small
Early on, Savannah’s parents agreed that they had to set rules. First, they
banned cellphone use at the dinner table and, later, when the family watched
television together, because Mr. Pence worried about the distraction. “They
become unaware of your presence,” he said.
Mr. Pence is well aware of how destabilizing cellphones, iPods and hand-held
video game players can be to family relations. “I see kids text under the table
at the restaurant,” he said. “They don’t teach them etiquette anymore.” Some
children, he said, watch videos in restaurants.
“They don’t know that’s the time to carry on a conversation,” he said. “I would
like to walk up to some tables and say, ‘Kids, put your iPods and your
cellphones away and talk to your parents.’ ”
But even he has found that enforcing rules is harder than might be expected. He
now permits Savannah to send text messages while watching TV, after he noticed
her using a blanket over her lap to hide that she was sending messages to
friends. “I could have them in the same room texting, or I wouldn’t let them
text and they would leave,” said Mr. Pence of his children. “They are good kids,
but you want to know what they are up to."
Other families face similar challenges.
In 1999, Marie Gallick got a family plan for her and her three children and
found that each of them had a different approach to cellphone use. One of Ms.
Gallick’s sons likes to talk, she said, while her other son, Brandon, who lives
near her home in Raritan, N.J., preferred to text. How much they communicated
with her, she said, depended on their mood. And she found she had to be careful
about what she said and how.
“There is emotion behind it,” she said. Once, one of her sons didn’t answer his
cellphone when she called, so she sent him a text saying, “NICE OF YOU TO TURN
ON YOUR PHONE.”
“They thought I was mad,” she said. Ms. Gallick did not understand that using
capital letters was the same as yelling. (She said she had the same problem when
she began using e-mail, which, perhaps, makes her problem as much about adapting
to digital shifts as it is about communicating with children.)
Brenda Ng, vice president for consumer insights at T-Mobile, the cellular
provider, said her company’s studies show that while cellphone use can cause
division, it, too, is “the glue” that cements relationships. “It may seem
mundane, but they keep people together,” Ms. Ng said.
Consider this: Brandon Gallick, who is 23, recalled a night last year when he
was driving home on a country road near Hillsborough, N.J., and a large donkey
ran in front of his car. He couldn’t wait to get home to call his mother. “I had
to text my mom right away,” he said, noting he sent text messages to friends,
too. “I wanted to tell her about it because it was so funny. We don’t see many
donkeys in New Jersey.”
Ms. Gallick appreciated the message. “I like it when he does that,” she said.
“It makes me feel special.” But again, the unintended consequence was more
miscommunication for her.
“It took five texts before I thought he really meant it,” she said. “What I find
is that you have to text each other more to understand each other than if you
just picked up the phone. You are constantly asking, ‘What did you mean?’ It is
a form of alienation but at the same time it is keeping us in contact.”
In fact, texting appears to be easier than talking for some cellphone users,
providing yet another distraction for them inside their cars. Mr. Blanton at
Vanderbilt, like many of his peers, texts his mother and friends even when both
of his hands should be on the steering wheel.
“I can text without looking at the phone,” he said. “It’s definitely not safe.
Sometimes I’ll look up and I don’t remember where I’ve been driving.”
MS. TURKLE, the M.I.T. professor, says cellphones offer another way for the
Facebook generation to share every life experience the second it unfolds.
“There is a slippage from ‘I have a feeling I want to make a call’ to ‘I need to
make a call,’ ” she said. “You don’t get to have a feeling before sharing that
Ms. Turkle recalled a vacation with her daughter in Paris, where she hoped to
immerse her in the local culture and cuisine. “Part of the idea of Paris is
being in Paris,” Ms. Turkle said. But during an afternoon stroll, her daughter
received several calls and text messages on her cellphone from friends back in
Boston. Her daughter, she said, felt compelled to return every one.
When Ms. Turkle asked why she didn’t turn off her cellphone and enjoy the city,
she said her daughter replied, “I feel more comfortable talking with my
friends.” But her daughter’s friends didn’t even really want to talk. “They just
want to know where you are,” Ms. Turkle said. “It’s a new sensibility.”
It is a new sensibility on many fronts. Jan Blanton said her relationship with
her son, Ben, is closer because cellphones make reaching out so simple. And that
has caused her to reflect on her relationship with her own parents.
In the early 1980s, when she left home to attend college, Ms. Blanton said, her
relationship with her parents was frayed. “We didn’t have open communication,”
she said. “I wasn’t close to them. Maybe once a week I’d call. My parents were
happy when we were out of the house.”
Ms. Blanton wonders if things might have been different if they had text
messaging back then. Her son now sends frequent text messages to his
grandfather, discussing baseball and fishing. “I can write better than I talk,”
said Ms. Blanton, whose relationship with her parents is now close. “I think we
would have had a better experience.”
It is likely that in just a few years, younger members of the digerati will
consider cellphones like those the Blantons are using to be relics. While many
consumers have become fashion-conscious about the latest in technological
devices, analysts say that young children and teenagers are particularly so and
more likely than their parents to continually gravitate to something new.
Mr. Hampton said his daughter Katie recently asked for a BlackBerry so she could
better send e-mail to her friends and have unfettered access to the Internet.
“I said no,” he recalled. “It’s not necessary.”
But then again, Mr. Hampton said, he may change his mind. “No one is teaching
kids how to use these things,” he said. “But in fairness, adults don’t know how
to use them, either.”
February 21, 2008
The New York Times
By SAM ROBERTS
The American family may be under stress, but most children
still live in two-parent households, the Census Bureau reported Wednesday.
Over all, 7 in 10 children live with two parents, about two-thirds live with two
married parents, and about 6 in 10 live with both biological parents, according
to the latest analysis, which is drawn from 2004 surveys.
In 1970, 85 percent of children were living with two parents and 11 percent with
their mother only, proportions that shifted to a little more than 70 percent and
slightly more than 20 percent, respectively, in 1990.
The comparable figures in 2004 were about 70 percent and 23 percent. The figures
suggest that the tumultuous shifts in family structure since the late 1960s have
leveled off since 1990.
“We’re not seeing the rapid change that was going on between 1970 and 1990,”
said Rose M. Kreider, a Census Bureau demographer and author of the study of
children’s living arrangements. “Evidently, we’re at a place where things are
not moving very fast.”
Still, more than 1 in 4 children were living with only one parent.
The proportion who lived with two parents varied widely by race and ethnicity —
87 percent of Asians, 78 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 68 percent of Hispanics
and 38 percent of blacks.
Among the nearly 19 million children living with their unmarried biological
mothers, 18 percent were living in households where the mother had a partner.
Over all, 94 percent of the nation’s more than 73 million children were living
with at least one biological parent, 8 percent lived with at least one
stepparent, 2 percent lived with at least one adoptive parent, nearly 4 percent
were living without either parent, and a little more than 2 percent were living
with their grandparents only.
Nearly 4 in 10 children lived with at least one sibling.
· Body discovered three weeks after disappearance
· Police not treating death of 15-year-old as suspicious
Tuesday September 25, 2007
The family of the missing Hampshire schoolgirl Rosemary Edwards were told
yesterday that the body of a young woman found in the New Forest was that of the
missing girl. Police who had been searching for the 15-year-old, who disappeared
from the family home after an argument three weeks ago, said they were not
treating the death as suspicious.
Rosemary's father, David, said the family were "completely shell-shocked" by
the discovery of the body.
Speaking from his home in Dibden Purlieu, which borders the New Forest, Mr
Edwards, a computer programmer, told the local Daily Echo: "Rosemary touched so
many people's lives. It seems impossible to believe she was so low that she felt
life wasn't worth living."
On a newspaper message site that the family had used to publicise Rosemary's
disappearance, her mother, Jennifer, wrote: "People look for blame and answers
but sometimes there is no one to blame. Some questions can never be answered."
A keen horse rider and talented student who already had a GCSE A-grade in maths
and a B in art, Rosemary had been due to return to school on the day she went
missing. Her body was found by two walkers on Sunday in an area of the New
Forest known as Busketts Lawn Inclosure, near Bartley, 10 miles from her home.
The discovery came just days after a £100,000 reward was offered for the
teenager's safe return.
Rosemary's brother, Robert, 19, posted a tribute to his sister on the Facebook
website. He said: "Rosemary had a fantastically good 15 years of life and will
be missed by all, especially her friends and family. We don't know what could
have happened in Rosemary's life to lead her to the circumstances that have
occurred. But I know deep down that she knew that so many people loved her and
cared for her."
Rosemary had not been seen since 10.30pm on Tuesday September 4, when she went
to her bedroom after an argument with her parents. They had banned her from
horse riding and other activities after finding out she had lied over how she
lost her part-time job in a shop.
Mr Edwards, who was the last to see her when he went to her bedroom to say
goodnight, has written of his regret at their last conversation together and his
torment in blaming himself for her disappearance and of the events that led up
Writing on an internet forum before his daughter's body was found, he said:
"Rosemary told us she had left her part-time job, but we later found out that
she had been sacked for a minor transgression which shocked her employer and us
because it was so totally out of character.
"As parents, we didn't want this to be the start of Rosemary going off the
rails, so we imposed a short ban on accessing the internet and a longer ban on
He later realised, from texts and emails he had found, that she was going
through "some kind of torment in her head ... I played the blame game for the
first few days, but it is very self-destructive, on top of all the other
He said that when he last saw her he asked for a hug, but she refused. He then
gave her a kiss on the cheek. He added: "I wish I'd said how much I loved her,
but how many other parents do this constantly just in case it could be the last
time you see your son or daughter?"
Police said a post mortem examination was being carried out yesterday.
Wed Jan 3, 2007
3:41 PM ET
By Leah Schnurr
TORONTO (Reuters) - A five-year-old
Canadian boy can have two mothers and a father, an Ontario court ruled this week
in a landmark case that redefines the meaning of family and examines the rights
of parents in same-sex relationships.
In a ruling released on Tuesday, the Ontario Court of Appeal said the female
partner of the child's biological mother could be legally recognized as the
boy's third parent.
The biological father, named on the boy's birth certificate, is a friend of both
women and is taking an active role in the child's life.
"It is contrary to (the child's) best interests that he is deprived of the legal
recognition of the parentage of one of his mothers," Justice Marc Rosenberg
wrote in the ruling, which did not name the three parents or their child.
"Perhaps one of the greatest fears faced by lesbian mothers is the death of the
birth mother... Without a declaration of parentage or some other order, the
surviving partner would be unable to make decisions for their minor child."
The two women, who have been together since 1990, told the court they did not
want to adopt the child because it meant the father would lose his status as a
The Institute for Canadian Values, which opposes a 2005 law allowing same-sex
marriage in Canada, dismissed the ruling as an act of "naked judicial activism".
"The court saw this case as an opportunity to entrench so-called alternative
family structures in law without submitting the idea to the rigors of the
legislative process," Executive Director Joseph Ben-Ami said in a statement.
Same-sex marriage has been legal in Ontario since 2003, and across Canada since
The latest judgment overturned a 2003 ruling by the Ontario Superior Court of
Justice in which the judge found that he did not have jurisdiction to declare
the woman a mother.
Families feel they have lost
in their child-rearing skills
Sunday November 12, 2006
Ned Temko and Denis Campbell
Many parents have lost confidence in
how to bring up their children properly and feel inadequate, isolated and
unsupported in coping with the pressures of modern family life, the government
Mothers and fathers often feel
'disempowered' as parents, and find it particularly difficult to enforce rules
so their child does not misbehave, according to Beverley Hughes, the Minister
for Children and Families.
In an interview with The Observer, Hughes voiced alarm that parents have much
less faith than previous generations in their abilities to raise and guide their
children, and wanted help to deal with their conduct.
'I've talked to a lot of parents and one thing that has really struck me, and
this is across all social classes, is a sense of lack of confidence around the
parenting role - and particularly around setting boundaries for children,' she
Hughes will announce plans tomorrow for a new National Academy for Parenting
Practitioners to provide useful, reliable advice to parents and children's
experts on what has been proven to work, which will start work in autumn 2007.
Many parents clearly wanted help in 'understanding their children's behaviour'
when difficult situations arose, she said, adding: 'Increasingly what many
parents say they want is help with feeling comfortable with their own authority
with their own kids, and being able to set down boundaries and stick to them.'
Many parents watch television shows about child-rearing such as The House of
Tiny Tearaways to pick up tips on how to handle aspects of their children's
behaviour because they feel unequal to the task, she said.
'I find them as fascinating as everybody else. That speaks to this lack of
confidence. What should I be doing? How can I control this three-year-old? In
some ways it's astonishing. But it's there and we should be responding to it,'
said Hughes, a former probation officer and lecturer in social policy.
The minister identified a weakening of inter-generational family ties, an
increased number of women working and greater pressures on children as key
factors behind the widespread loss of confidence among parents.
'Many parents in the past had a lot more support from families. Families were
closer. They had their own
mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, around them. And the speed of change,
and the pressures - both on today's parents and on the children they're trying
to bring up - are probably different. So you've got less support for parents
from their families and at the same time a rapidly-changing world with lots more
challenges in it than there were, and I think those two things come together
quite potently for many parents now,' said Hughes.
Mary Macleod, chief executive of the Family and Parenting Institute, a leading
charity and think-tank on children's issues, said Hughes had highlighted a
'Many parents tell us that they feel less confident at raising their children
than they think their own parents were, and they feel that they are scrutinised
and judged as parents in a way that has not happened before. It's a common
feeling,' said Macleod. 'From surveys we have done and discussion groups we've
held with parents it's clear that quite a lot of parents don't feel confident
about their own abilities.'
Many were anxious about the safety of their children and how to get them through
the teenage years without them getting into trouble, she said. They also worried
about pressure on the family through children growing up too soon, peer
influences and judgmental stuff about parents in the media.
Parents also resented the fact that they only got help from official agencies to
deal with their children when, for example, a son or daughter truanted from
school repeatedly or got into trouble with the police, Macleod said.
Hughes, who will make a keynote speech on family policy tomorrow when she
addresses the FPI's annual conference in London, stressed that the state cannot
get too involved in the rearing of children.
'Only parents can parent,' she said. 'It is not the Government's job to tell
parents how to nurture their children. When you're a parent you don't want to be
told what to do - whether by your mother-in-law, a health visitor, and certainly
not by the state.'
October 17, 2006
The New York Times
By ROBERT PEAR
WASHINGTON, Oct. 16 — Despite the
surge of women into the work force, mothers are spending at least as much time
with their children today as they did 40 years ago, and the amount of child care
and housework performed by fathers has sharply increased, researchers say in a
new study, based on analysis of thousands of personal diaries.
“We might have expected mothers to curtail the time spent caring for their
children, but they do not seem to have done so,” said one of the researchers,
Suzanne M. Bianchi, chairwoman of the department of sociology at the University
of Maryland. “They certainly did curtail the time they spent on housework.”
The researchers found that “women still do twice as much housework and child
care as men” in two-parent families. But they said that total hours of work by
mothers and fathers were roughly equal, when they counted paid and unpaid work.
Using this measure, the researchers found “remarkable gender equality in total
workloads,” averaging nearly 65 hours a week.
The findings are set forth in a new book, “Changing Rhythms of American Family
Life,” published by the Russell Sage Foundation and the American Sociological
Association. The research builds on work that Ms. Bianchi did in 16 years as a
demographer at the Census Bureau.
At first, the authors say, “it seems reasonable to expect that parental
investment in child-rearing would have declined” since 1965, when 60 percent of
all children lived in families with a breadwinner father and a stay-at-home
mother. Only about 30 percent of children now live in such families. With more
mothers in paid jobs, many policy makers have assumed that parents must have
less time to interact with their children.
But, the researchers say, the conventional wisdom is not borne out by the data
they collected from families asked to account for their time. The researchers
found, to their surprise, that married and single parents spent more time
teaching, playing with and caring for their children than parents did 40 years
For married mothers, the time spent on child care activities increased to an
average of 12.9 hours a week in 2000, from 10.6 hours in 1965. For married
fathers, the time spent on child care more than doubled, to 6.5 hours a week,
from 2.6 hours. Single mothers reported spending 11.8 hours a week on child
care, up from 7.5 hours in 1965.
“As the hours of paid work went up for mothers, their hours of housework
declined,” said Ms. Bianchi, a former president of the Population Association of
America. “It was almost a one-for-one trade.”
Meaghan O. Perlowski, a 32-year-old mother of three in Des Moines, said in an
interview, “Spending time with my kids is my highest priority, but it’s a
Ms. Perlowski, who is a full-time pharmaceutical sales representative, said she
did grocery shopping and errands on her lunch hour and cut back on housework so
she would have more time with her children.
“We don’t worry much about keeping the house spotless,” she said. “It’s
sometimes a mess, cluttered with school papers, backpacks and toys, but that’s
Fathers have picked up some of the slack. Married fathers are spending more time
on housework: an average of 9.7 hours a week in 2000, up from 4.4 hours in 1965.
That increase was more than offset by the decline in time devoted to housework
by married mothers: 19.4 hours a week in 2000, down from 34.5 hours in 1965.
When Ms. Perlowski took a business trip on Thursday, her husband, Jim, took time
from work to be home with their children, ages 1, 4 and 7.
In Miami, Ian D. Abrams, a 33-year-old marketing executive, said that since his
daughter was born two years ago, he had done “a substantial amount of cooking
and cleaning, to take that burden off my wife,” but he admitted that home
repairs were often delayed. His wife, Yolanda, took a full-time job as a state
court employee when their daughter, Marley, was 14 months old.
The researchers found that many parents juggled their work and family duties by
including children in their own leisure and free-time activities. Married
mothers, in particular, often combine child care with other activities.
Tammy L. Curtis, 34, a schoolteacher in Glendale, Ariz., outside Phoenix, said
she typically worked from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but always made time for her
5-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.
“I cook less,” Ms. Curtis said. “I exercise less. And I do a lot of
multitasking. When my son is at soccer practice, I sit on the sidelines grading
papers. I have no time for personal relaxation.”
The book’s two other co-authors, Prof. John P. Robinson and Melissa A. Milkie,
are also sociologists at the University of Maryland. Rather than relying on
anecdotes and images in the mass media, the researchers used “time diaries” to
measure how families spent their time. Using a standard set of questions,
professional interviewers asked parents to chronicle all their activities on the
day before the interview.
Katharine G. Abraham, a former commissioner of labor statistics, said the new
book provided “the definitive word” on how parents allocated time between paid
work and family responsibilities. The most recent numbers, for 2000, are
remarkably similar to time-use data in a new survey conducted annually since
2003 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau.
Gary L. Bauer, a Christian conservative who defends traditional marriage as
president of the advocacy group American Values, said the research was
encouraging in one respect.
“It indicates that parents, especially mothers, instinctively know that the line
promoted by social scientists in the 1960’s and 70’s — that professional child
care can provide all the things that maternal care can — is not correct,” Mr.
Bauer said. “Mothers made adjustments in their own lives to ensure that, even
with jobs outside the home, they provide what only mothers can provide.”
The authors cited several factors to help explain how parents managed to spend
more time with their children, despite working longer hours:
¶ Many couples delay having children to “a point later in life when they want to
spend time with those children.” People who are uninterested in raising children
can “opt out of parenting altogether,” by using birth control.
¶ Families are smaller today than in 1965, and parents are more affluent, so
they can invest more time and money in each child.
¶ Social norms and expectations have changed, prompting parents to make “greater
and greater investments in child-rearing.” As couples have fewer children, they
feel “pressure to rear a perfect child.”
¶ Many parents feel they need to keep a closer eye on their children because of
concerns about crime, school violence, child abduction and abuse.
While married mothers and married fathers were approaching “gender equality,”
measured by total hours of work, the researchers found stark differences among
women. These disparities suggest why working mothers often feel hurried and
Over all, the researchers said, employed mothers have less free time and “far
greater total workloads than stay-at-home mothers.” The workweek for an employed
mother averages 71 hours, almost equally divided between paid and unpaid work,
compared with a workweek averaging 52 hours for mothers who are not employed
outside the home.
On average, the researchers said, employed mothers get somewhat less sleep and
watch less television than mothers who are not employed, and they also spend
less time with their husbands.
February 28, 2006
The New York Times
By KATY BUTLER
From infancy until he reached the
threshold of manhood, the beatings Daniel W. Smith received at his older
brother's hands were qualitatively different from routine sibling rivalry.
Rarely did he and his brother just shove each other in the back of the family
car over who was crowding whom, or wrestle over a toy firetruck.
Instead, Mr. Smith said in an interview, his brother, Sean, would grip him in a
headlock or stranglehold and punch him repeatedly.
"Fighting back just made it worse, so I'd just take it and wait for it to be
over," said Mr. Smith, who was 18 months younger than his brother. "What was I
going to do? Where was I going to go? I was 10 years old."
To speak only of helplessness and intimidation, however, is to oversimplify a
complex bond. "We played kickball with neighborhood kids, and we'd go off
exploring in the woods together as if he were any other friend," said Mr. Smith,
who is now 34 and a writing instructor at San Francisco State University. (Sean
died of a heart attack three years ago.)
"But there was always tension," he said, "because at any moment things could go
Siblings have been trading blows since God first played favorites with Cain and
Abel. Nearly murderous sibling fights — over possessions, privacy, pecking
orders and parental love — are woven through biblical stories, folktales,
fiction and family legends.
In Genesis, Joseph's jealous older brothers strip him of his coat of many colors
and throw him into a pit in the wilderness. Brutal brother-on-brother violence
dominates an opening section of John Steinbeck's "East of Eden," and in Annie
Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain," the cowboy Ennis del Mar describes an
older brother who "slugged me silly ever' day."
This casual, intimate violence can be as mild as a shoving match and as savage
as an attack with a baseball bat. It is so common that it is almost invisible.
Parents often ignore it as long as nobody gets killed; researchers rarely study
it; and many psychotherapists consider its softer forms a normal part of growing
But there is growing evidence that in a minority of cases, sibling warfare
becomes a form of repeated, inescapable and emotionally damaging abuse, as was
the case for Mr. Smith.
In a study published last year in the journal Child Maltreatment, a group of
sociologists found that 35 percent of children had been "hit or attacked" by a
sibling in the previous year. The study was based on phone interviews with a
representative national sample of 2,030 children or those who take care of them.
Although some of the attacks may have been fleeting and harmless, more than a
third were troubling on their face.
According to a preliminary analysis of unpublished data from the study, 14
percent of the children were repeatedly attacked by a sibling; 4.55 percent were
hit hard enough to sustain injuries like bruises, cuts, chipped teeth and an
occasional broken bone; and 2 percent were hit by brothers or sisters wielding
rocks, toys, broom handles, shovels and even knives.
Children ages 2 to 9 who were repeatedly attacked were twice as likely as others
their age to show severe symptoms of trauma, anxiety and depression, like
sleeplessness, crying spells, thoughts of suicide and fears of the dark, further
unpublished data from the same study suggest.
"There are very serious forms of, and reactions to, sibling victimization," said
David Finkelhor, a sociologist at the Family Research Laboratory at the
University of New Hampshire, the study's lead author, who suggests it is often
"If I were to hit my wife, no one would have trouble seeing that as an assault
or a criminal act," Dr. Finkelhor said. "When a child does the same thing to a
sibling, the exact same act will be construed as a squabble, a fight or an
The sibling attacks in Dr. Finkelhor's study were equally frequent among
children of all races and socioeconomic groups; they were most frequent on
children 6 to 12, slightly more frequent on boys than on girls, and tapered off
gradually as children entered adolescence.
As violent as sibling conflicts are among humans, they are seldom fatal, as they
can be among birds and a smattering of other animals.
Siblicide is common among birds of prey, including tawny eagles, brown pelicans
and kittiwakes. A Pacific Ocean seabird known as the blue-footed booby pecks at
its siblings and pushes them out of the nest to die of starvation while the
parents stand idly by. A baby black-crowned night heron in Minnesota was twice
observed swallowing the entire head of a younger nestmate until it went limp and
looked close to death. Embryonic sand tiger sharks eat one another while they're
still in the womb.
Piglets are born with a special set of temporary "needle teeth" to attack their
littermates in the struggle for the mother's prodigal frontal teats; the runts
kicked back to the hind teat sometimes starve on its thin milk.
On the Serengeti Plain of Tanzania, spotted hyena pups, who are usually born in
pairs, bite and shake each other almost from the moment they leave the womb.
When the mother's milk is thin, the struggles often end with the death of one
pup from wounds or malnutrition — especially, curiously enough, if the pups are
the same sex.
Baby animals, researchers theorize, fight mainly to establish dominance and to
compete for scarce food. Human children, on the other hand, fight not only over
who got the bigger bowl of ice cream but also over who decides what game to
play, who controls the remote, who is supposed to do the dishes, who started it
and who is loved most.
Few experts agree on how extensive sibling abuse is, or where sibling conflict
ends and abuse begins. It is rarely studied: only two major national studies, a
handful of academic papers and a few specialized books have looked at it in the
last quarter-century. And it is as easy to over-dramatize as it is to
In 1980, when the sociologist Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire
published "Behind Closed Doors," a groundbreaking national study of family
violence, he concluded that the sibling relationship was the most violent of
human bonds. Judged strictly by counting blows, he was right: Dr. Straus and his
colleagues found that 74 percent of a representative sample of children had
pushed or shoved a sibling within the year and 42 percent had kicked, bitten or
punched a brother or sister. (Only 3 percent of parents had attacked a child
that violently, and only 3 percent of husbands had physically attacked their
John V. Caffaro, a clinical psychologist and family therapist in private
practice in the San Diego suburb Del Mar, defines sibling abuse as a pattern of
repeated violence and intimidation.
In an interview, Dr. Caffaro, a co-author of "Sibling Abuse Trauma," said abuse
was most often determined by a combination of disengaged upbringing by parents,
testosterone and family demographics. It occurs most often in large families
composed entirely of closely spaced boys, and least frequently among pairs of
sisters, he said.
"A kid can hit a sibling once and it can look pretty bad, but that's not what we
consider abuse," he said. "We're looking for a repeated pattern and when that
happens, somebody — a parent — has got to be out to lunch."
Abuse occurs most frequently, he said, when a parent is emotionally absent as a
result of divorce, long working hours, extensive business travel, alcoholism,
preoccupation with his or her own problems or other factors. "One or both
parents aren't really around much to do their jobs. It's almost a given," Dr.
Caffaro said, adding that "peripheral" fathers are particularly problematic.
"Things are chaotic, boundaries are blurred, and supervision is minimal," he
said, noting that those families do not always look chaotic from the outside.
"Sometimes the father is just basically extensively out of town for business and
Mom is not a good limit-setter," he said.
In other cases, he added, parents escalate conflicts by playing favorites,
ignoring obvious victimization, intervening only to shut the kids up or blaming
older children without understanding how younger children helped provoke them.
Dr. Caffaro said that in his experience sibling violence could rarely be
attributed simply to an extraordinarily aggressive or psychotic child.
In nearly 15 years of working with more than a hundred families and adult
survivors of sibling abuse, he said he could remember only a handful of such
cases, one involving a girl repeatedly beaten up by a brother with
schizophrenia. Although some children have poor impulse control, he said,
violence only becomes repeated abuse when parents fail to nip it in the bud.
Several adults, contacted through a classified advertisement posted online on
Craigslist and through a Web site for survivors of sibling abuse, said that
their parents had ignored their siblings' intimidation.
"My parents tended to lessen the significance of the abuse, telling me that my
brother loved me, really, and that he really was a nice person," wrote Kasun J.,
21, an Australian university student, in a posting on the Web site he started
under the pen name Mandragora.
Kasun J., who did not want to be further identified for fear of family
repercussions, said in an interview that he still kept his distance from an
older brother who once threw a clock and a set of nail clippers at his head.
Daniel Smith said that his parents rarely intervened when he and his brother
fought, figuring that "boys will be boys."
When he was in sixth grade, he said, a school counselor, concerned about a
violent short story he had written, asked him about possible abuse at home, and
he felt relieved and hopeful. But as soon as he told her that it was his
brother, not his parents, who was hitting him, the counselor dropped the
"I remember thinking that she was sort of a fraud," Mr. Smith said.
Other people interviewed said they were still haunted by memories of older
brothers — and an occasional sister — who dumped them out of bassinets, hit them
with mop handles, sat on their chests until they feared suffocation, punched
them in the mouth or stabbed them in the hands with a nutpick or compass point.
Several said they were second-born children, and they theorized that their
abusive siblings had resented being displaced. None wanted to be further
identified out of concerns about family privacy.
Many people said the effects of the early abuse had lingered into adulthood. Mr.
Smith, for instance, said that he still fights a tendency to avoid
confrontations, especially with aggressive people who remind him of his brother.
Another man, an academic in his 50's who did not want to be further identified
out of privacy concerns, ascribed what he called his "constant wariness" to his
physical intimidation in childhood by an older sister.
"I have a high need for solitude when I work," said the professor, who added
that the unwelcome shoving and wrestling started when he was a toddler and was
one of the defining influences of his early emotional life.
"I'm attentive to noise," he said. "If somebody's around, a lot of my brain
immediately turns to: Who is it? What's up? Are they going to bother me or
sabotage me in some way?"
Several people said that the abuse continued until they reached early
adolescence and became strong enough to defend themselves. In Mr. Smith's
family, however, the fights became even more violent when he reached his late
teens, because he took up tae kwon do, began lifting weights and eventually
One afternoon in the family kitchen when he was 19, in the course of a routine
argument, his brother half-heartedly slapped him. This time, for the first time,
it was Daniel who got his brother in a crushing headlock, and Daniel who pressed
a forearm against his brother's nose until it bled.
Knowing he could hold the position forever, Mr. Smith let his brother up. When
Sean tried to restart the fighting, Mr. Smith, much to his surprise, burst into
long, jagged sobs.
"I remember feeling like I should have been triumphant and I did feel some of
that, but I also felt scared and confused," he said. "It was a rite of passage
for me. I'd accomplished something and become my own person."
The brothers never fought again, never spoke about the violence and were not
close for most of their lives. Sean Smith went on to a difficult adult life, and
had only recently freed himself from addiction to alcohol and methamphetamines
when he died three years ago, Daniel Smith said.
Only then, he said, did he realize the unspoken depth and complexity of their
connection. When asked whether he had forgiven his brother, Mr. Smith hesitated.
"Once he died, I realized that we had a pretty strong bond that I didn't
understand or even knew existed," he said. "I can tell you I outcried everybody
else at the funeral."
A vivid picture of the life of the
average family in Britain is given in "Britain, an official handbook, 1961"
which is published today (HMSO, 25s). It contains a mass of statistics of the
life of the nation. It deals with the economy, industry, the trade unions,
farming, overseas development, the National Health Service, employment, the
monarchy and Parliament, the law, education, social welfare, and scores of other
The average married couple, it states, has a television set and a vacuum
cleaner, possibly a washing machine and refrigerator, and does its own house
decorating. The man of the house works from 42 to 46 hours per week, not
counting overtime, and in many cases his wife works, too. One third of the
married women have paid jobs, and half the women working for pay are married.
Fewer than 5 per cent of housewives employ paid help and fewer than 1 per cent
have a resident servant. There were only 178,000 domestic servants in England
and Wales in the early 1950s compared with 706,800 two decades earlier.
At least a quarter of the adult population play or watch sport, and three out of
four bet occasionally for small stakes on football "pools" and racing. The
cinema remains the most popular form of entertainment outside the home and to
young men, women and older children a visit to the cinema is still a social
occasion. About 5 million go to a dance every week, and there are 3,500 clubs
with more than 2 million members affiliated to the Working Men's Club and
Institute Union, 8,500 Women's Institutes in England and Wales, 4,000
horticultural societies, and 19 million spare-time gardeners.
There is all the difference in the
world between the Squire of the past and the Esquire of the present.
In the days that have passed away
the Squire of the village was, in sentiment at least, one of the gentlemen of
England; he was a man with an ancient pedigree, taking pride in his name, his
ancestors, his estate, his horses, and his tenantry.
But to-day if we cast an eye from village to village and parish to parish we
shall find that in the majority of instances the county family is known no
The [Squire's] estate has another lord, his traditions have vanished, and his
name alone remains - not, indeed, in the memory or hearts of the people, but
deeply graven on the tombs erected in the churchyard, recognised only by the
antiquary or the curious.
The pedigree of the Squire was as pure as that of a Plantagenet; his wife was a
scion of a house as noble and as proud as his own. He was a leader in all great
county movements without being too intimately versed in the details of county
He was patron of all local organisations. He was member for his county or for
some insignificant borough, the keys of which he held in his pocket.
He made the most of his opportunities, believing in the divine right of his
position and in the superiority and supremacy of his class.
His sons were carefully trained, the oldest to succeed him, the younger to take
their places in the army or the navy, or to cure the souls of the people in the
parish in which he lived.
He rode to hounds, and dispensed hospitality with a free hand; his rents were
moderate and punctually paid by the tenantry, who sometimes while trembling at
his frown, were ready to buckle the shoes upon his feet.
In days not long passed away his park was stocked with deer and his cellars with
port; he kept a family coach.
The Squire's wife received the curtseys of the women of the village with smiling
grace. Her sons were her pride, her daughters her difficulty - this owing
chiefly to the importance of their marriage with men of her own selection and of
her own rank.
She was not forgetful of the claims of the village women, the sick and the poor
and the troubled, but her presence in their tiny homes was not frequent, nor was
much consideration affected by the family as to the substantial character,
suitability, or sanitary condition of the hovels within which many of the people
lived or - shall I say - existed.