Protecting children

A horrific story out of Florida says that a mother killed her two teenage children, shooting them because they “mouthed off” to her.

The article is here.

As more information was published, it turns out that the daughter and mother were in counseling for problems between them because the mother felt that the daughter’s behavior had changed for the worse when she started in her current school. In counseling, presumably one on one, the daughter told the counselor of at least two incident in which the mother had been physically abusive. The counselor, as mandated by law, contacted the authorities and they became involved. This was in November of 2010. Authorities came to investigate and with the daughter’s report of being slapped several times on one occasion and of a previous incident that involved bleeding from the lip, the authorities decided not to pursue further investigation since there was no lasting damage. Several days later, the mother ran her car into the back of a trailer causing damage to both vehicles and both drivers. Before she could be tested for drugs or alcohol after the accident, she left the hospital. Further disclosures have the mother as having a drug and alcohol addiction and her own mother knew that she was depressed.

So I have a couple of questions:

1. Was there not a way to prevent her from buying the gun that she used to kill her children? She bought it only days before the shooting.

2. Was there not a way to assess just how much of a danger she could be to her children?

Or are we so hungry for freedom and self-determination that we will risk children’s lives rather than embarrass or hurt the feelings of their parents?

Most risk assessments are not geared to teenagers in upper middle class homes. They deal with infants and little children usually living in poverty, in single parent homes, or with parents who for one reason or another are not able to provide adequate care. But what about a child who lives in a middle class or more affluent home with college educated parents who are high achievers? Is it so difficult to believe that addictions and mental illness also exist in these homes?

I wish I had the answer as to how to assess the danger to kids. It would have to be an assessment that took into account things like drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, outbursts of emotional or physical abuse, threats, acting out behaviors, depression and rage. It would have to be an assessment model that is easy for the investigator to use. And, of course, the investigator would have to be able to detect inconsistencies that would point to deception.

I don’t have the answer, but when I think of these children and tens or hundreds of others who could have been protected, I know that we need to come up with something that works.

He will disappoint you

Last night I went to a wedding. It was, of course, beautiful. The groom was handsome, joyful, the happiness radiating from him. The bride was lovely– beautiful, gracious, exuding joy. They were full of energy- dancing and twirling and smiling and laughing. It was beautiful.

I didn’t know them very well, and so I didn’t say much aside from “mazal tov!” but I thought about what I might want to tell them in order to help them have a happy life together.

The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that what I might say is “S/He will disappoint you.”

Why such a negative message?

We enter marriage sure that it is the solution to all of our problems. Someone will be there to love us, to support us, to help us. This person will help us in just the way we want to be helped. S/he will hold us when we are sad and laugh with us when we are happy. This person will support us in things that are important to us and to them we will always be the smartest, cleverest, most beautiful/handsome person in the world.

But, of course, that is impossible.

Two people have two different points of view. They have different priorities. They may attack a project differently. One wants to research and plan and the other one wants to “just do it already.” One buys something for the house and the other thinks that the deal wasn’t good enough or the features weren’t sufficient or maybe that not all of them were needed.

In short, s/he will disappoint you. S/he will not always support everything you say or do. S/he will not do things the way you know they should be done. S/he will be critical sometimes.

It is inevitable. But it is not a tragedy or even a crisis.

People who want to live a happy life together gradually come to the realization that they are different from their partners. Disagreement is not disloyalty. People have moods. They have ups and downs. Sometimes s/he will seem to be irrational. Sometimes we are the irrational ones.

The important thing is the abiding love and respect and commitment that permeates the relationship. With all of the disappointment should come the underlying sense of love and commitment, of happiness in building a life together, of shared goals and a shared vision of what a warm and loving relationship can be. Relationships evolve. With attention, they can improve steadily over time and going through life with a person you love is a wonderful thing. Even if sometimes, s/he disappoints you…

“Honors” surprises

As I thought about people who should have been honored and haven’t been, I thought about a teacher, Elsie Chomsky, I had in Hebrew college. She taught education and her ideas were brilliant and eye-opening! She was a household name because she had also taught my mother!! She was married to a man who became very famous (at least in Philadelphia) but my perception was that she was overlooked.

In thinking about her, I decided to do a google search and see if there was anything at all written about her. What a surprise! There was a whole 38 page article.

But that is not the whole surprise.

You see, on page 11 was the following:

Here we come to a dramatic break in Elsie Simonofsky’s story. Sometime in
l926-27, she left her job, family, peer-group, and friends to move to Philadelphia.
An air of mystery surrounds this period in her life. Her file in the Office of the
Registrar at JTS contains a “To Whom it May Concern” letter dated December
10, l926–a strange time for Hebrew teacher to be job-hunting– affirming that she
has satisfactorily completed her teacher’s diploma and is “entitled to teach in
Jewish religious schools.”

Why might she have decided to relocate? One source attributes her departure to
an unrequited romantic attachment; she felt she simply had to leave New York.

In 1965, I was engaged to be married. Four weeks before the planned wedding, with guests already RSVP’d, the apartment already carpeted, and a final fitting of my wedding gown, my fiance decided that he didn’t want to marry me. I was an emotional wreck. I had such difficulty believing it that I didn’t call any of my friends to tell them, but on the following Sunday, when I showed up at Hebrew college, there was no way of avoiding it. I told my friends and I burst into tears. I couldn’t remain in class, and so I went and sat in the student lounge.

A couple of minutes later, Mrs. Chomsky appeared. She and I had never had a personal conversation. She was my teacher. She sat on the sofa next to me. I don’t remember the exact words she said , but it was something like this.

“I just heard what happened. I know how hard it is because I went through it too. Believe me, your future is going to turn out better than you ever dreamed.”

So yes, I know what happened to her in 1926.

But there’s more.

My parents sent me to Israel and Europe for the summer, just a few weeks later. When I came down to the hotel lobby at the President Hotel in Jerusalem my first morning, Mrs. Chomsky was there. Together we walked to the Wizo shop on Jaffa Road so that I could buy an embroidered blouse for my sister. Having her show up there so unexpectedly, I thought it was as if she were my guardian angel.

Oh, and about my future… she was right.

Your children deserve a happy childhood

Most of us, when we decide to have children, think about how cute and sweet and lovable babies are. We think of their smiles. We fantasize cuddling them and holding them and having them fall asleep on our shoulder. If we think ahead, perhaps we see them building things with blocks or taking their doll or action figure for a walk. We may picture ourselves reading them a story or pointing out interesting flowers or trees or birds.

We may not necessarily realize that aside from the physical care of children (not an easy proposition in itself), we all are responsible for their emotional safety and security.

In the early years of marriage (roughly the first 15 or so), couples typically spend a lot of energy both getting to know each other’s foibles and trying to rectify them. They often express their frustration with each other. Some of this is all right. If one spouse can help the other grow and develop him/herself in a positive way, then those types of encounters can lead to positive things for both the individuals and the relationship. So often, though, people think of the relationship as a zero-sum game. In order for one to be up, the other must be down. They vie for the top position and are never happy because no one can occupy the top position all of the time if two people are vying for it.

Some couples go through this process in quiet ways. They try to influence each other by words and deeds. Sometimes they resort to manipulative measures. But, in the end, if they are both working toward the same goal, a happy life together which includes both of them feeling good and happy, then the uncomfortable times at least can yield good results.

Other couples are in a constant struggle to prove to each other that he/she is smarter, better, more clever, better liked, etc. than the other. This constant struggle impacts badly on those around them.

I am acquainted with a couple that has been married around 50 years. I have not known them the whole time, but I have known them for a significant period of time. It has not happened that I have been with the couple and they were not in some sort of struggle with each other. He picks at her; she picks at him. They do it everywhere- in front of friends, relatives, and strangers. It has become a habit. It may never end.

That is what should not happen.

All couples go through the struggle for ascendancy. At some point, the sooner the better, they should come to the point where they realize that their happiness is entwined with their partner’s. If my husband is miserable, so am I. If my wife feels hurt and put down, I feel the pain.

At that point, the marriage can turn around and become a place where people are appreciated and nurtured.

And the children will feel it. They will see that their mother and father are working together. They will feel safe and secure.

They deserve it.

Still crazy (about him) after all these years!

Still crazy (about him) after all these years!

Count your blessings

Recently I had the most unpleasant experience of being with a mother and her adult daughter (no relation to me) over a period of time. The daughter is an intelligent woman with a family and career of her own. The mother, now over 80 years old, is healthy- and physically and mentally comparable to a person 20 years younger. From the first time I met them, the daughter was critical of pretty much everything her mother said. However, the criticism was not even subtle; it was loud and harsh. When the mother would speak, the daughter would tell her loudly, “No one wants to hear you!” or “You’ve said that a hundred times already!” or “Why are you talking about that now!” The others who were present found the mother witty and charming. We also found the daughter’s hostile outbursts embarrassing to listen to. We reassured the mother that we were indeed interested in what she had to say.

For me, it was particularly hurtful. Although my mother was far from perfect, I always felt that it was my responsibility to act with kindness and respect toward her. After all, she did give birth to me and raise me and despite the negative things she said and did, I loved her. She died much too young and I miss her.

I wanted to say to the daughter, “Count your blessings! Your mother is alive and healthy and independent and completely mentally and physically fit. She is witty and clever and engaging. She has a unique perspective and lots of stories and experiences to share. Someday she will no longer be here and you probably will regret the way you acted toward her. Then, it will be too late to apologize or to make up to her for the pain you have caused her.”

We live with the illusion that life, as we know it, will continue forever, but unfortunately, those we love will not always be here. We need to know that the time we spend with them is precious.

Obligatory “I’m getting old, blah blah blah” post

Yes, it happened. I can’t believe it. A very frightening thing happened to me just a few days ago. I had a birthday. And no, not just any birthday, but that one that rejects any rationalizations. I am getting old.

Once, when I asked my father if it was awful to get old (he never did get old) he told me that it beats the alternative. I agree.

But how did this happen?

How can it be that I still am 30-something inside and, well, this old?

On the one hand, it seems that there is no logical escape from the conclusion. On the other, here are a few of the things that I didn’t think I would be doing when I got old:

Having what? 27? 28? 30? grandchildren*
Picking fruit off trees in my garden, in ISRAEL!
Seeing giant tortoises and magnificent frigates and blue-footed boobies in the Galapagos
Zip-lining over cloud forest in Ecuador
Visiting Machu Picchu
Taking another group of people to China
Writing a blog

So yes, the number did change, but a number is only a number. Life is more fun every single year. I am blessed.

And yes, it’s much better than the alternative.

*Depends on how you count

I wonder

I was brought up to be a rich girl.

When I was four years old, my mother sent me to dancing school where I was taught by a personal friend of Anna Pavlova. I danced a toe solo at five and a half at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra. In the summer, we would go to Atlantic City, renting a home there for the entire summer and taking the maid with us.

By the time I was in my teens, I had not a room of my own, but a floor of my own in the house. I had a bedroom, a study area, a sitting room and a bath. My clothes were as expensive as the clothes I buy today– in 1960! I was taught to appreciate the finer things in life like fancy restaurants and new cars.

My mother dressed in clothes that were high fashion. She was always ahead of the trends and many times I went with her as she took her new dress or suit with her to the milliner to have exactly the right hat made to match it, often taking some material from the garment to draw the outfit together.

That privileged stance was in direct opposition to my experience at high school. There I was the outcast, not having moved into the same neighborhood as the other Jewish girls in our school. We Jewish girls were a real minority at our high school, the first of a vanguard breaking into the formerly pristine suburbs. In our class of 675, we were probably fewer than 20. Antisemitism was not encouraged by the school, but its subtle and not-so-subtle appearance among the other students was ignored. Being rejected by the small minority of Jewish girls was very painful.

I had most of my social needs met by my friends in Hebrew high school, and later Hebrew college. With them I was on an equal footing and their unaffected manner and their acceptance of me, the misfit, allowed me to feel normal for the first time.

It was probably through them that I acquired my values. They were kind, unselfish, open, accepting, and full of fun. By spending time with them, I began to realize that my discomfort with my upbringing was well-founded.

Shedding the privilege I had been given was liberating. Instead of disdaining the world as not meeting my expectations, I could appreciate it and even love it. Suddenly I could enjoy new things, new experiences, and new people.

Recently, I have been to the Galapagos Islands three times. It was interesting to see how different people responded to the experience.

Mother sea lion and newborn infant

Mother sea lion and newborn infant

I was overcome with emotion, actually each time I visited. I was astounded by the beauty of raw, unspoiled nature. I loved watching the birds and the sea lions and the iguanas and the land tortoises. Unthreatened by humans, they had no fear and allowed themselves to be photographed, even posing for us, it seemed sometimes. There I was with G-d’s creation. What could be more awe-inspiring!

Nazca booby

Nazca booby

Most of the people I was with reacted that way.

But some did not.
“Where are the flamingos?” “Why aren’t they here?”
“Why aren’t there more animals?”
“Why can’t I walk around alone instead of having to go with a naturalist?”
“I already saw a blue-footed booby; what’s next?”
“OK, so I have seen the albatross babies. Enough already!”

At first these reactions made me feel angry. What do they want! But then I just began to feel sad for these people. Their privilege was blinding them to the beauty of the world. They were unable to share the awe of seeing a newborn sea lion nuzzling its mother. They couldn’t enjoy seeing the boobies protecting their young. They couldn’t share the excitement of seeing the magnificent frigates puffing out their red pouches.

Blue footed booby feeding her baby

Blue footed booby feeding her baby

I am grateful that that veil has been lifted from me and that I can look beyond myself and share the wonder of the universe. I hope someday that our privileged travelers will be able to do the same thing.

How to break up a marriage

A long time ago my sister had a flirting acquaintance with law school. I was, at the time, studying family therapy. We used to joke that I would break them up and then she would get the cases.

But actually, as a therapist, I always did whatever I could to preserve marriages. No marriage is wonderful all the time. We go through difficult periods individually and as a couple that try our patience, that test our coping skills, that make us wonder why did we ever choose to marry this person. Usually, however, these times pass and some of us go along as we were beforehand and some of us grow through the experience and deepen our relationships and some of us grow further apart.

When a couple consults a family therapist, in my opinion, the therapist should never take the side of either spouse. S/he should take the side of the marriage. Particularly if there are children, the couple has a lot to lose by dissolving their marriage. Of course some marriages can’t be saved and shouldn’t be, but many can and should.

One trap therapists fall into is recommending a “trial separation.” Usually the complaining spouse pushes for it and often therapists decide that it would not be harmful. I disagree.

Imagine that you are in a contentious situation with your spouse. You feel that s/he is overly dominant and you have no breathing room. Or you feel that s/he is overly passive and you have to carry all of the weight of the marriage and family. Now imagine your spouse or you move out of the situation. Suddenly the domination stops. Suddenly it’s not your spouse opting out of the work of the family but his/her not being present. What does it feel like? It is a relief. It’s quiet. There is no contention. You sleep and wake on your own schedule. You eat if you’re hungry and don’t if you’re not. Life is a lot better.

Tell me: how is this supposed to motivate couples to get back together?

There was a period of 4 years when my husband and I lived in two different countries because of work and family obligations. I would visit him for periods adding up to 3-4 months a year and he would visit me for about one month a year. I loved the times when we were together. But the times we were apart were good times too. I liked the freedom of being able to establish my own rhythms and activity patterns. Had our relationship otherwise been problematic, the time that we were apart would have convinced me that it was a good arrangement.

Sure, family life brings strength and love and security. We enjoy the closeness and warmth of being together, working on common goals, sharing experiences together, supporting each other in difficult times. But what if all of that is missing? Then wouldn’t separation be less painful than a problematic relationship? Couples who have gotten to the point that interactions with each other are painful have difficulty picturing warm, close family family relationships.

In the over 30 years I have been a therapist, I have never known of a couple who had a trial separation who ended up working on their marriage.

If the intention is to break an abusive cycle and allow people to get the distance and perspective to realize that they really shouldn’t be together, trial separation is a good idea. Otherwise, it’s a mistake.

Families and honesty

As if I really have to tell you…

The basis of any close loving relationship is honesty. Family members should know that they can count on each other to tell the truth. Children must be able to trust their parents in order for them to feel secure. One way that parents can teach this is to let the children know that even if it means getting into trouble with mom and dad, it is always better to tell the truth. Sometimes we would explain it to our children like this: Suppose I told you that if you act nicely now I will give you ice cream after dinner and then after dinner I say I didn’t really mean it, how would you act the next time I promised a reward? How would it feel if you couldn’t trust me?

My own children were, by and large, pretty honest growing up. I am certain there were some lies and deceptions, but if so, they were not of consequence. I knew I could count on them to tell me the truth and they knew they could count on me to take them seriously.

In fact, once we had a babysitter that one of my children didn’t like. The child asked me not to have that babysitter again, but wouldn’t tell me why– and I did not call that babysitter again. Only months later did I learn the reason, and it was good that the sitter did not return. Similarly, when there was a problem at school, I always asked the child first to tell me what had happened. I always got a straight story and I always advocated for my children when appropriate.

When our oldest son left for college in Israel, we all still were living in the US. Before he left, he asked me to promise to let him know if anything happened to anyone in the family– illness or other important things he should know. I told him that I would because I knew that if I didn’t assure him that he would know, he could be in a constant state of tension- wondering if everything is OK at home. After all, back then, before mobile telephones and before the university dorms even had hall telephones in them, communications consisted of letters that took between 5 and 10 days to arrive from the US. But it was only because he knew that he could trust me that my answer was reassuring.

Some families are not honest about things like illnesses and other unpleasant information because they want to protect either themselves or others. That can create big problems.

Once we knew a family where a somewhat distant family member died suddenly at 92 years of age. Members of the family decided not to tell one of the older people to spare her feelings. However, a few weeks later there was a wedding to which both would have been invited. How to explain the absence of the deceased family member? Their solution : a trip to Europe. In our family, from then on, “going to Europe” took on a sinister connotation.

In my own family, my mother hid information about my father’s illness that was essential to my sister’s and my health. My mother hid her own illness from her friends, many of whom were like sisters to her. It robbed them of their ability to support her and it robbed her of the support they could have provided.

Bad news is hard to share, but secrets and lies separate people and doing that at a time when love and support are needed is simply a very bad choice.

But seriously, folks

Back to the real reason I started this blog– this blog that has wandered around the world, engaged in politics, and has told you how I feel about Israel. Back to talking about family relationships…

Let me begin by saying something rather radical that will summarize what I am about to say:

Don’t take people who are upset seriously.
That’s it. Don’t.

OK, Let me go back and talk about it and then you will understand, I hope.

When we are little and non-verbal, our tantrums usually consist of non-stop crying, flailing, and throwing things. As we get a little older, our parents encourage us to express our displeasure in more socially acceptable ways, i.e., talking about it. So, by the age of twenty or so, we (most of us) stop screaming, yelling and throwing things and instead use words to express our displeasure.

So far, so good.

However, it sometimes happens that we use words in the same way as we used our stuffed toy animals and blocks and little train cars–we take them and throw them at others like weapons.

In response, those who love us are hurt, surprised, and often themselves become angry and hurtful.

So here we are. Mature, adult two year olds having a simultaneous tantrum.

Now what happens in tantrum state?

The person who is having the tantrum has two major objectives
1. To get his/her point across.
2. To let the other person/people know how upset he/she is.

In accomplishing the second, often the message of the first is lost. Not only that, but the listeners may actually be less motivated to hear the message as they move to defend themselves and pay back in kind. Which is why most arguments do not end well.

Few people realize, however, that when someone is in tantrum state he/she often loses control of his/her ability to think clearly and may say lots of things that he/she doesn’t mean. Some of those things may have dire consequences.

Take my uncle.

When my cousin was a freshman in college my cousin decided to grow a beard. My uncle did not like the idea of his son having a beard. He tried to cajole him and finally, in a tantrum state, threatened him- telling him that if he didn’t remove the beard, he couldn’t come home.

Do I have to tell you the rest of the story?

It was not a happy story.

Did my uncle mean to lose his son for a long period of time? I strongly doubt it. He just got carried away.

What could have happened instead:
My cousin could have listened to the tantrum. He could have responded calmly or not at all, he could have gotten up and walked away. Chances are pretty good that once my uncle got back in control of himself, he would have still not liked the beard, but might have realized that it wasn’t worth losing his son over it.

Example two:

When I began studying for my doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania at age 42– after having been in clinical practice as a family therapist, I was ambivalent. On the one hand, the idea of getting a doctorate was very exciting. On the other hand, I felt the level of instruction in certain areas was naive and simplistic and since the tuition was high, I wasn’t sure I wanted to make the investment of our family’s resources.

I don’t remember what specifically set me off, but one morning, early in November, before we had received any tuition bills, I got really angry and told my husband that I was dropping out and didn’t want any more part of the nonsense going on at the school and that I could think of a lot of things to do with my time and our money that would be more productive etc. I went on and on. He didn’t answer. I’m pretty sure it was because he didn’t know what to say. But after a while, it just ran down. I was finished and I picked up my books and left for school.

Could it have ended otherwise? Surely. Had he gotten sucked into the tantrum, he would have urged me to continue and I would have dropped out just to show him that he couldn’t control me.

Tantrums do bad things to people.

When I was seeing couples in marital therapy, often what the spouses would complain about was what the other one had said at the height of a tantrum. Usually, the spouse either didn’t remember having said it or regretted saying it. In fact, it was not the spouse speaking from his/her rational mind. It was that reptilian brain that all of us have inside of us. It is that primitive fight or flight mechanism that that springs into action when we begin to feel any sort of threat.

So what should we do when someone we care about starts having a tantrum? Don’t respond in kind. Listen, to the message but don’t take everything he/she says seriously. Really. He/she doesn’t mean half of what he/she is saying. There’s no need for there to be more than one two year old in the room. Not feeding the flames helps extinguish them. And once the person is rational again, maybe the problem can even be solved!