Boobie cupcakes and Kaleidoscopes: Thoughts on Weaning and “Lactivism”


-Donna Harel, PhD.


So after 3.5 years of nursing, my little one and I finally weaned. The kid got a remote control truck, I got a mammogram, and we had a weaning party, complete with boobie cupcakes. For us, weaning was cause for celebration, not only for my kid (because being a three year old and moving on to a life apart from the sustenance and comfort and embodied connection with Mama is a big damn deal), but also because it marked for me a transition to the next stage of being a mom. I’ve come to see motherhood as an enterprise that begins with a big bolus of oxytocin and goes downhill from there.

Over the 9.75 years of my nursing career (that’s a third of my adult life), I’ve had a mixed relationship with breastfeeding. My first nursing experience with Ella was one in which I positioned myself in an oppositional stance to what I perceived as the wider mainstream culture. Breastfeeding wasn’t as entirely common in 2001. At the time, I was conducting research among homeschoolers, for whom breastfeeding served as a cultural norm. Indeed, many moms extended the breastfeeding relationship well past the age of three or four, and some went as long as age seven. So in that community I experienced tremendous support for breastfeeding: It brought me credibility as an anthropologist insider.

Over the course of my nursing career with oldest, I began to teach childbirth, and I became something of a “lactivist” with a mission to promote and normalize breastfeeding. I was on top of the latest research, taught birth from the perspective of how a birth experience might affect breastfeeding (namely, the relationship between whether or not a birth was medicated and how quickly the mother would connect with the baby). I taught partners how to be good advocates for the breastfeeding mom. I had information on the optimal way to introduce a bottle. I explained why babywearing promoted breastfeeding and how  the “private” breastfeeding was a problem in that it sent moms the message that they should be sequestered away from other people and that breastfeeding should be hidden. The list goes on and on.

And I breastfed everywhere. I breastfed while lecturing at a homeschooling conference. My baby had fussed in the back of the room, disconsolate, so I stopped my lecture, asked my husband to bring her to me, put her in the sling, popped her on my boob, covered us with the tail of the sling, and continued to lecture. A mom came up to Andy afterward and told her that I was her hero.

I breastfed at the post office and while doing research at Van Pelt Library. A security guard came up to me and asked, “Did you know that that baby is nursing? I don’t think you can do that here.” I looked up at her. Oh boy, lady, please kick me out, I thought. I would love to get my degree for free. Instead I smiled. “Yes. I am aware that there is a child on my breast. I put her there. You don’t have a problem with it, do you?” She mumbled and turned away. Fortunately, breastfeeding has become more common and less controversial (if it ever was) in the 12 years since my oldest and I weaned.

She weaned unceremoniously at three years and nine months. She has a January birthday, and, by the time Halloween rolled around, I realized that she was no longer nursing for a minute before rolling over and falling asleep. It felt like the right time for both of us. At that point, she was already out of my bed. We would read and nurse to fall asleep, until the nursing stopped.

My experience with breastfeeding my second child was unremarkable, with one exception. I had built up the importance of breastfeeding to my older sister, who had a breast reduction in her late teens and was unsure whether she would produce enough milk for her expectant child. So committed was I to this mission that I would pump milk for this unborn child as I nursed Maya in the morning and at least once or twice more per day. I built up a formidable supply. But sitting up with a baby in the morning and pumping, while trying to attend to the needs of a demanding five year old, was not alway easy.  

It took my obstetrician, sitting with me on the floor of my room at the psych ward of the very cushy hospital where I was recovering from the first manic episode of my adult life, to put an end to it. She gently said, “Donna, I think you need to give that up.” I had placed such tremendous importance on breastmilk, that it had built up terrific anxiety for my sister and allowed me to compromise my health and sanity as well as my relationship with my kids.

I did have a funny experience tandem nursing both my daughter and my niece (who are five months apart) at the pool while my sister took my oldest in the water. The fact that I so seamlessly and mindlessly picked up my niece to nurse her when she fussed speaks to another theme of breastfeeding for me: it is the lazy woman’s crutch. Instead of figuring out how to distract or redirect one of my kids, I have often stuffed a boob in their mouth. It’s easy, provides a needed moment of calm for both me and the kid, and functions as a reset.

This crutch came in handy when I took a three year old to the March for Women’s Lives in 2004. We were on the National Mall in Washington, DC, at one of the largest protests in recorded history. She was tired and cranky and overwhelmed by the crowd. I sat down to nurse her, noticing, not far off, a tattoo-covered mama doing the same with her toddler. We gave each other a knowing look of solidarity (apparently that’s a square on “breastfeeding bingo”–just next to “creepy guy leering at you”). The moment provided me with a sense both of the normalcy of breastfeeding and of how it served as something of a lame tool in my mothering toolkit.

In the summer of 2008, when my middle was 2.5, we discovered that I had Lyme disease and decided to wean immediately. Doxycyclene, the antibiotic treatment for Lyme, turns the adult teeth of a nursling black (or is it green?). I remember speaking with my therapist that morning: How would I share the news with Maya? What kind of substitute or prize could we offer? How would we mark the occasion?

I picked her up from camp that afternoon and said, “Guess what? You’re WEANED!” And we bought a special cup, celebrated with a family dinner, and had a weaning party, complete with boobie cake. She seemed to have felt very special. I teared up. This marked what I thought would be the completion of an important part of my life: six years of caring for my kids in this particular way. Because I had breastfed my oldest so long, three years and nine months was my standard. I felt as though I were cheating my second. Still, we both did fine (abrupt weaning can hurt), and we moved on.

Now that my breastfeeding relationship with my last child is over, I am recalling that I really do have a sense of severance from my kids at that stage in our relationship. I not only need to be more resourceful, but I also have to work to find ways to connect. This kid happens to be very cuddly, so we are still holding each other and hugging quite a bit. But I remember being almost mad at my other two. They were no longer physical extensions of me. Not only could I not kid myself that I was eating for two, but I started to see them as somehow other. hat’s what psychologists call individuating, I think.  

I’m ALL about helping kids become independent. It’s my policy to not do shit for anyone that they are capable of doing for themselves (although I break this rule all the time, usually when we are in a hurry). This rule makes me feel superior to all of the helicopter parents out there. Aren’t they trying to raise an adult? I’m so virtuous in my benign neglect. And I don’t think that I think of my kids as narcissistic extensions of myself. Who am I kidding? Of course their accomplishments are because of my amazing support and the brilliance of my cook-for-yourself-or-starve-I-already-fed-you-from-my-BODY-for-three years-what-more-do-you-want? attitude. And of course they act like assholes because of my deficient, inconsistent,  permissive parenting. Or maybe it’s the age. Or their chemistry. Or all three. That’s it, when they suck, it’s yes, yes, and yes. So I knew that the decision to wean would bring with it the risk of being at sea while we figured out our newly reconstituted relationship.

That first night was miserable. My little one couldn’t fall asleep and epitomized forsakenness. This child still claims that falling asleep without nursing is impossible (even though the kid has fallen asleep for babysitters and family this way since infancy). I routinely offer assurances that we will still be able to cuddle, and care, and be together even without milk. It’s going pretty well.

I held a weaning party, replete with boobie cupcakes and activities out of a desire to talk about breastfeeding and hear people’s stories. I want to explore the intensity around the need that people feel to breastfeed in order to perform a certain kind of motherhood. The extent to which women feel power as they hold their baby to their chests and feel that the baby is soothed, fed, contented. Nursing mothers can watch their kids grow at the breast.Gets a surge of oxytocin that is so powerful. Did they experience a feeling of wellbeing that bonds the mother to the baby? A peaceful feeling of a baby moulding with their body?  Did they think they developed a communication system of cues and responses as I believed I did?  Did they grow in confidence and competence? Did they become smug?  Did this line of thinking and talk cause more harm than good?

My own experiences were by and large wonderful, but I recognize that I had so many privileges.  For me, breastfeeding became an excellent excuse for lying down with a baby or toddler in the middle of the day. By the time Ronnie was born, I was an avid knitter and was able to knit while she was nursing as we lay down, Ronnie eventually falling asleep in the crook of my arm. We also would read while nursing, and this became a favorite activity for my kid. This probably helped promote the reading bug. And my kids always smelled like my armpit.

Yet, the backache from holding a child in the crook of your arm. The frustration if they begin to wake when you unlatch. The need to pee held hostage if you don’t want to wake the baby and have to start over. The annoyance of a little hand groping for the other breast. Perhaps to prime the pump, but it’s annoying as fuck and began to sour my breastfeeding relationship with Ronnie. The “gym-nurstics” of a toddler who uses you as a fucking playground while they have your boob in your mouth. Pick an activity, kid. Sit the fuck down, because if you are the piggie, then I must be the trough. Not cool, kid. I won’t miss that.

I wonder if I’m going to miss having a lactivist’s sensibility. Like many activist’s arcs, my relationship with the subject has softened or, at least, changed over time. I’ve become more sensitive to the displacements that women might feel when they don’t breastfeed. I hold in one hand a glee over the research and awe over the substance of the stuff and the magic that we attribute to it. I have a friend whose child was a surrogate, and she paid the surrogate mother to pump and ship breastmilk for six months after her child’s birth. So, over the last 20 years, the message that breastmilk matters has gotten through.  

And, while I am psyched, so psyched, about this, my activism has always had a strong class-based critique. I will always remember checking in with a Starbucks barista who had taken my childbirth class. When I asked her how the breastfeeding was going for her three month old, she said: “Oh. I had to stop. It was hard to pump. We don’t really have a long enough break time, and I always felt like I was skating out on my co-workers. Also, there was no other place to do it but the bathroom. There are only two of them here, and the customers would bang on the door. It was too much.” Hell yeah. And Starbucks was a company that long touted its breastfeeding friendly policies for its corporate workers.

I distinctly recall feeling elated to learn that the Affordable Care Act had within it provisions that required pumping facilities for workers. Our society has definitely become more breastfeeding friendly, particularly for some sects of the workforce.  But the health benefits of breastfeeding and the opportunity to nurse and pump seem to remain privileges that beget privileges. And my gynecologist’s office offers has formula samples (although I think you have to ask for them at most hospitals these days, so as to not undermine breastfeeding, which is cool). So the public health work in this area continues.

I did my part as a childbirth teacher, as a role model of boobs akimbo, and as an amateur lactation consultant. I connected a grad school friend, who was about to adopt a newborn, with an area pediatrician who was also a lactation consultant. She had a hormone regimen for promoting lactation, and the mom was able to nurse her kid. That was cool. And I’m pretty proud of the few stories where I talked a new mom off the ledge at the hospital where “they” were telling her this, that, and the other about why she should supplement, stay separate from her baby, etc. I always made a case for intuition, which, more often than not, meant the mom advocating for breastfeeding and, on occasion, the mom intuiting that something was actually wrong and that a short amount of formula plus pumping to increase supply was the right way to go.

One of my sister’s friends (my sister was always pimping me out as a source of help) wrote to me a year after her kid was born to let me know that not only did I help steel her courage to be a badass, fierce, protective mama bear (pediatricians love those), but that she also was pumping extra milk for a milk bank and was thinking of becoming a lactation consultant. So, hurray for lactivism! And I knitted many a boobie hat: a beanie that looked like a breast so that when a mom was asked to cover up, she could put it on her baby’s head and everyone could appreciate the splendor of a boob, even as the baby’s head covered the real deal.

I hope I haven’t milk shamed anyone. I’m sure that in my efforts to go, “Here! Nursing! Get used to it!” I probably alienated some people and made them feel uncomfortable. There are so many ways for people to make moms feel bad. It’s endless, really.  


And when we played “breastfeeding bingo” at the weaning party, most of the women with kids under the age of 10 did not experience resistance, ridicule, or disdain from others in their breastfeeding journeys. I won for most places and activities associated with nursing. Other than having sex, being the driver of a moving vehicle, or getting a blood draw, I cannot think of anything that I haven’t done while breastfeeding.

For the kids, the weaning party was a playdate that punctuated for my child a new stage in life, much like an upsherin would be for an orthodox boy or a head-shaving for three year olds entering monasteries for training. For the moms, the weaning party was a chance to chat a bit about breastfeeding and parenting. I had solicited friends’ tales of weaning on Facebook and had gotten some interesting stories. It turns out that weaning gets little systemic chatter. But people were happy to talk about what precipitated their decisions to wean and how it felt physically and emotionally.  

I included kaleidoscopes as party favors. They invite us all to find beauty within constant change. I’ve actually decided that I should start a kaleidoscope collection and always make them gifts for life-cycle events. Who knows what I’ll be able to think about when I’m not in a milk fog?


“Yes, You’re Going to Die, but Probably not today.” Reflections on how to Support Laboring Women.

By  Donna Harel, PhD.

I got down to the eye level of the woman struggling on the toilet in front of me. Catrina grimaced and searched my eyes, pleading for relief. Crying out, she asked, “Am I going to die?“

I took a deep breath and smiled. “Yes, you’re going to die,” I said, “but probably not today.”

I dispensed this little bit of wisdom off the cuff with my childbirth student as she labored in her apartment. This simultaneously uncomfortable and comforting reality has carried me through many of my own darkest moments and has encouraged some of the people in my life. Your world may be falling apart. Or at least it feels that way. One day you will die. Probably not now. Let’s see what we can do to get you more comfortable in the meantime.

In over 13 years, I taught natural childbirth to more than three hundred couples. I sometimes provided them phone and text support as they faced decisions in their labors — I never provided advice and instead reminded them of what we learned in class as a framework to make decisions. Catrina and her husband, Brian lived in the apartment across the street, and we had built a friendly rapport during our class together. So when she called just after bedtime to ask for support — her doula would only meet her in the hospital — I had no trouble leaving my family for a little while.

Her labor had progressed pretty rapidly, and by the time I wended my way through the dimly lit, carpeted halls of her building, I could hear quiet moaning outside her door. Brian didn’t look exactly helpless as he answered the door, but he seemed pretty relieved to see me. Someone else to bear witness to Catrina’s pain for a while. And in some moments during labor, that’s all a support person can do.

He led me towards the bathroom. He had kept the lights in the apartment low. Good, I thought, someone had listened in class. Bright lights make most laboring women anxious. No one gives birth in caves anymore. Still, elements that can support a woman turning inward, and not cause her to feel in high alert (such as bright lights, loud noises, machines that go “ping,” people chatting or saying worrisome things), can help keep at bay her stress response, which both hurts and undermines the efficiency of labor.

What was I doing here? I had only attended four other births: my own birth; a hospital birth of a woman whom I had never met (outside of seeing her baby emerge from her body for five minutes); and my two births as a laboring mother. I was born in the typical fashion of 1970s white, middle-class America. My mother’s OB turned to the anesthesiologist and said, “Shut that woman up!” So they knocked her out and extracted me from her body. She awoke to a scrubbed and tubbed bundle in the isolate next to her.

The first birth I ever witnessed took place during my senior year of college. I was visiting Andy at the hospital during his internship, and one of the OB residents invited me to sit in on a labor. When Andy’s pager jolted me awake (we’d squished together on a cot in the intern’s call room) at 3 a.m., I bolted upright and stumbled, already nauseated from the jarring wake-up, through the quiet halls of the hospital towards the labor and delivery floor. As I entered the birthing room, I was confronted with the sight of the laboring woman squatting on the birth table. She barely registered the presence of the people around her, and I was just another face in the parade of hospital personnel she encountered during her labor. As she grunted her way through the process of birthing her third child, I felt my nausea rising, both both the adrenaline of my jolted awakening and from the starkness of the scene. With one great big roar from the mother, another person was suddenly in the room. Holy crap! I have no right to be here, I thought, but wow! Then mom reached for her baby, but the doctor handed him instead to the nurse. Again, holy crap! Far off from becoming a mother myself, this amazing scene gave me a little hint of the power of birth and of the problems of how we do birth in our society, which would propel my journey into birth activism.

As a budding anthropologist, I had a clear sense of birth as a human experience and how it was constructed differently in different contexts. I wanted to explore alternatives to the misogyny of the “biomedical industrial complex,” which in America constructed birth more as a “crisis in need of management” than as a normal part of human experience. By that point, I had spent a few years hanging around homeschoolers for my dissertation research. Many of the mothers in my study cited their natural childbirth experience as formative in their instinctual trust of themselves as parents. Finally, I wanted to go for the adventure and differentiate myself from the experiences of my mother and my mother-in-law.

Married to a physician who felt most comfortable with the hospital setting and who was socialized through his training to see birth as inherently risky, I did not seek out midwifery care, and at the time I knew nothing of doulas. I found a doctor known for her support of natural childbirth, and we took a birthing class with two other couples. Andy and the other two moms were fluent in the language of medicine: one was a chiropractor, and the other was a nurse practitioner. All three of them had a “got this” attitude.

Still, during our last class, when all three couples huddled around a bucket of ice water, the three moms immersing our hands in the ice while our partners tried to support us, I had two reactions: first, a complete desire to escape; then an appreciation that the other women were doing this, too. The inescapable sting of the ice creeping up my wrists commanded most of my attention. I felt my neck and shoulders tense. I tried to relax, but it was a struggle. I envisioned legions of women before me feeling this all-encompassing sensation. This vision, along with a singular sense of grit, propelled me even as my instinct was to pull my hands out of the water before the 90-second timer went off. The partners stepped up big time in this first taste of what trying to support a laboring woman actually might be like. Andy’s steady, firm hand, running clockwise circles on my back as he leaned in, suddenly made me feel a little better. I felt both comfort and security. We could do this.

The ice water turned out to be an interesting analogy for labor. The discomfort can be inescapable at times. You can play with it: notice its quality, find the edges of where the pain ends. You can try to relax the rest of your body (tensing other parts really does amplify the discomfort). You can tune in to the voice of the gentle guides around you, you can tune them out, and tune into your body. You can visualize: calm scenes, cute baby parts, warm light, a vise or a fist squeezing your partner’s testicles (if your partner is male). You can get quiet, hum, scream, sing, and rock. You can appreciate its purpose (each contraction brings you closer to the birth). Whatever you do with it, labor involves discomfort.

And others, to a limited extent, can support a woman in labor. They can rock, soothe, massage, guide, coach, protect from surrounding distractions, and stay with her. They can advocate for her dignity and safety. They can bear witness to (and cheer) her experience. They can be, as one student put it, “a rodeo clown to distract the doctors and nurses so she can have peace and quiet.” They can watch, in awe and in love.

So, after a pretty powerful experience in my own labor with my daughter Ella, and in an effort to goof off from writing my dissertation, I became a birth junkie. I trained in one of the major methods of natural childbirth in the U.S. This method highlights the role of the partner as coach and birth companion and offers a heavy dose of “consumerism” — teaching expectant couples what is normal in labor and how to be good (informed) consumers of maternity care services. I tried to promote safe, empowered births and postpartum experiences for the families I taught.

My birth activism had an arc: the insufferable assuredness of a new convert; the predictable moment of sticking my foot in my mouth; the eventual comfort of knowing my material well enough to know when to take a soft touch and when to be more vociferous about what I wanted to share. Eventually, it stopped being my life goal to empty all the hospitals of birthing women, and I returned to the core principle of wanting to support families in having safe and empowered births, however they defined them.

Still, I initially felt ill-equipped to support Catrina as she labored on the toilet in front of me. And seven years of teaching expectant couples how to give birth “safely and with dignity” hadn’t really prepared me for the intimacy of this moment. Shouldn’t this be her husband’s job? Where was the doula? Why was I here again? Oh, yeah, she asked me.

And when I really looked into her face, I saw not only a woman in labor crying for reassurance, but also an infinity of moments as a parent and from life on this planet. I conjured a genuine smile. It turned out that her infinite moment of pain did come to an end. She now has an amazing daughter, who, like my own kids and children of all time, have split their parents’ worlds wide open: a mess of pain and suffering and joy and goop. And snot. So much snot.

I’ve reminded myself of this in my darker moments, and I hold it up to others when I bear witness to their burdens. Whether this comforts or scares you: You are going to die. But probably not today. How can I help?

Who are You in Bed With Anyway? The Virtues and Vices of Co-sleeping and Attachment Parenting.

By Donna Harel, PhD.

Once, while enjoying morning intimacy, I was greeted with a sweet little hand across my chin, covering the left side of my mouth and my nose.  My three year old, brought down to my bedroom a few hours earlier, had rolled from my side of our queen sized bed, to the 20 percent of real estate on my husband’s side of the bed.

The kid was clearly asleep, and our little scene continued for a few minutes until the hand moved down my chin and towards my neck.

“MMMM Mommy.”

My husband shot up,  letting out a quiet, exasperated groan

I whispered “damnit!” And then more audibly, “Yes, sweetie?”

“I love you.”  She rolled away from me and began to snore.  We laughed quietly and began our day.  I vowed to write about the shitty aspects of the “family bed. But we had this romantis interruptus coming.  It’s been seventeen years in the making.


When we brought our eldest home from the hospital, I was mired deep in the discourses and virtues of the “family bed.”  I had been conducting my dissertation research —an anthropological study of the homeschooling movement— among families who often extolled the virtues of co-sleeping.  Later, when I wrote up my ethnographic analysis of these folks, I connected their co-sleeping arrangements to some of their learning theory.  But at the time, I gobbled up all of the reasons that it made sense.

A few years later, as a childbirth instructor, I used my considerable influence among confused, worried expected parents —who, to be sure had a “natural” approach to birth and were therefore primed for my teaching —to extoll the virtues and normalize co-sleeping.  I saw co-sleeping as a part of a triad of what was then called “attachment” parenting.

“I’m approaching this as an anthropologist and mom.  Let’s see what you can do to put your baby’s needs: for connection and so forth, in concert with your own.”  I could offer every reason under the sun for all three aspects of Attachment Parenting.

Breastfeeding had become a no-brainer.  I didn’t need to educate most of these folks on the virtues of breastmilk, but I always made it a point to talk about the health benefits to mothers, which was largely absent from breastfeeding advocacy conversations.  After all, sometimes benefits to the baby were not entirely motivating when breastfeeding proved challenging.  And while basic breastfeeding information was also out in the ether, I wanted to highlight how co-sleeping and baby wearing could promote breastfeeding.  I always emphasized ways to not put what the baby needed in opposition to what parents, particularly mothers, needed.

Sitting around nursing a baby can be lovely and blissful (when things are going well) for a while, but it gets really old when you need to get up to pee or fix a sandwich or conduct other basic human functions.  And some babies could fall asleep while held, but would wake when you tried to put them down. I would detail the ways that babies that are held are calmer and better regulated, how baby-wearing promoted breastfeeding, and the convenience of not pitting the baby’s needs against the parent’s.

I wore my babies nearly around the clock.  I usually bristle at the word “instinctual” because it’s so loaded, but we developed an intimate, non-verbal and nearly automatic system for me to sense from their tiny movements and sighs, when to pull my breast up and out towards their little mouths, when they needed patting, when to shift position, etc.  They were generally calm, because as little primates, they had connection, food, warmth and often rocking.  And or the most part, regardless of all of the snuggliess and the ability to kiss the tops of their little heads, I could basically get with my life: move about, cook, not feel trapped on the sofa, help an older child with legos, do what I had to do.

But it’s easy to go overboard. My mom described these “primitive” practices with disdain, at times.  Once, when my Maya, my second child, was 6 months old, she reached out for the salad tongs that I had been using to mix marinara sauce into some linguine.    Somehow her finger nicked a hidden, sharp edge of the tongs and cut her ring finger.  That was not sauce, I broke my baby! As I  headed to my father in law’s house, my mother admonished me over the speaker phone, “Maybe you could put your appendages down sometimes instead of insisting on those third-world parenting practices.”

Despite feeling raw and rattled, I retreated into defensiveness “Maybe.  But your five year old granddaughter knows her way around a kitchen and feels secure and trusts me, so…so…so there!” I stammered.  Like many grandparents, my mom offered a mix of assurance that I was doing things the right way, combined with an uncanny ability to route out the insecurities.  In this case, she was probably right.  There is a time and a place to put babies down.  We don’t live in tight-knit communities, neither villages nor a busy apartment building, always teeming with kids and ready adults (or eight year olds, for that matter), to pass a baby off when we need a break, whether for safety or our own mental health.

I had a realization one day when I was trying to carry a load of laundry up the stairs that perhaps it would make sense to put the baby down first -that’s how accustomed to baby-wearing I had become.  So both my mom and I were on to something.  As I described in my dissertation, it’s tough to enact a “village epistemology” (or way of thinking about the world) in the suburbs.  Inevitably something gets taxed: either maternal sanity or some version of well-being for the kid.  At the same time, I think it never hurts to err on the is of connection and trust. For me, keeping my kids in a sling definitely promoted that.

Can you have too much attachment?  Most advocates of “attachment parenting” would probably say no.  I’m inclined to agree, but I also think that it’s really, really easy to develop boundary issues if you aren’t cautious.  Those same non-industrialized societies in which babies have a high degree of physical contact, tend to have a version of childhood that places greater demands on children (whether for childcare at an early age or with expectations for contributing work), than Western suburbanites.  So it made sense to me (and a lot of the homeschoolers in my study), that kids should be involved in some of the real work of participating in a household.

This, too has provided the double-edged sword in my own household. My kids developed early and enduring competencies in some areas, namely in the kitchen and in language and social development. but they sometimes express resentment at too much responsibility.  I’m beginning to suspect that kids may be resentful regardless of what we do.


But what of the kid in the bed when I would have preferred some alone time with my husband?

Co-sleeping had been a part of our plan all along.   As an anthropologist, I studied ethnopediatrics: research and theory that considers the intersection of biology and culture with regard to childhood. I understood that solitary-sleep arrangements for babies and small children are relatively new in human history. Parents have slept apart from their babies only in the last few centuries and only in a few places. In many contemporary cultures, particularly those that aren’t western in their orientation, co-sleeping remains widespread.

We felt justified in bucking the conventions of mainstream (read “White,” “Middle Class,” ) American culture, which imbued childhood sleep arrangements with a core value of individualism and independence. My physician-husband and I armed ourselves with solid research on infant-sleep. We readied our responses to challenges from our parents, friends and pediatricians. Since then, we have  learned to not defend or over-explain our  parenting decisions to would-be critics.

For our first to kids, we got a “co-sleeper,” a side-car to our bed, where, just as the packaging suggested, the baby could stay in arms-reach for easy nursing and “safe” distance. We struggled with the set-up, but it looked lovely. Ultimately, it worked as an excellent changing table and place for my books. The baby slept in the crook of my arm.

With our second daughter,  born five years later, we set up another co-sleeper. With the trauma of having her baby sister in the NICU for awhile, our five-year old landed back in our bed. It felt wrong to kick her out of our room when the baby came home. So we made a tight, cozy foursome in our queen sized bed. Eventually, we got both girls into the futon in the second room. I nursed the baby to sleep as I read to her big sister.

Things got lower-maintenance for kid number three. Prior to her arrival, we considered what gear we needed. We didn’t bother with the co-sleeper. We already had a bed rail to go along my side of the bed, so we ordered a pool noodle. A pool noodle? Yes, they do a great job of filling the gap between a bed rail and the bed, so that an infant can’t roll underneath.

Since we had lots of hand-me-downs and gift clothes, our baby registry really consisted of diapers, wipes, bath stuff, clothes and, of course, the pool noodle. Through the work of Dr, Harvey Karp (of “The Happiest Baby on the Block” fame), we  we learned about the joys of swaddling, shushing and using a baby swing to keep her contentedly asleep for hours til we all went to sleep. We even got a cool device called a “baby shusher,” something of a white noise machine with a deliberate “shushing” sound that allegedly mimics the sounds of life in-utero.  So we evolved as parent-consumers.

Co-sleeping worked, by and large, for our family.  We believe we saved our kids and ourselves the pain involved in sleep training. This delayed the pain of getting them out of our bed and cost them, perhaps, their sense of mastering independent sleep before Kindergarten.

Of course the “pain” of sleep training is a matter of perspective.  We felt that a baby crying, alone in a crib was drawing up it’s only resource to alert the people around her that she needed something: contact, company, motion, people. And that teaching the child that their cries would not be answered would have a profound impact on their sense of trust in their own capacities and in their caregivers.  And we really wanted our kids to trust themselves and trust us.  While this approach felt second nature for us, ever the neurotic academic,  I found ample research to support this perspective.

That said, I have a neighbor, a psychologist, who interpreted her children’s cries in their cribs as “I’m so tired. I’m so tired.” From that perspective, she was helping her children build a skill of self-soothing and behind that, independence. I could hear that.

I didn’t buy it because I believed that independence, which, as a good American, I highly value, would emerge after dependent needs were sated. Some attachment parenting advocates postulated that needs satisfied at their appropriate time would help the kid move on, whereas needs not met at their appropriate time would warp and come out sideways later on. That’s where my head was, and remains, as I lay down with my each of my kids to cuddle them to sleep.

It’s what I reminded myself on the many nights during which we resented an elbow in our ear or a foot in our behinds.  Or the inconveniences of finding intimacy outside of our bed.   Or, at times, the quiet desperation hedged on the hope that if we could see them, and could see that they were asleep, all would be well.  We have often felt stupefied by how such a small person could take up over half (the middle half!) of the bed. But we made it work. For us.

During the time 12 years that I taught natural childbirth, I waxed and waned on how much I preached the gospel of attachment parenting.  I would present expectant parents with the research.  I did this in large part to help them make informed decisions, which  might not jive with their peers, parents or the conventional wisdom. In my best version of this presentation, I conveyed that where baby and children sleep are entirely the domain of parents. Not in-laws, not doctors, not me, your childbirth teacher. I still stand by that assertion.  I would also caution my students that they would likely encounter references to adult intimacy that included “going to another room.”  I always found this advice classist and unrealistic.  But again, each family could do what made sense to them for their specific circumstances.

I’ve loosened up on dogma over time. I’ve seen parents who sleep train and have great connections with their kids and I’ve met co-sleeping families who seem pretty disconnected.   Sleep arrangements, like all family arrangements, need to work for everyone, particularly the parent(s).

By age 2.5, we had transitioned Ronnie to a big kid bed in a room with big sister number two.  We eventually carved out a small room for her.  But almost every night, usually around dawn, Ronnie calls for Ella, who brings her to my bed downstairs.  For the longest time, we would nurse back to sleep.  These post-weaning days, it’s a bit more of a crap-shoot, but the kid usually does fall back to sleep after a few minutes.  Pretty deep sleep, actually.

The getting busy with a kid in the bed part? Every co-sleeping family I ever discussed the matter with say the it happens on occasion. Every anthropologist I ever conferred with indicted that parental intimacy —particularly quiet parental intimacy— in proximity of sleeping children is fairly widespread.  We felt that it bested the worry of a kid walking on us.  We learned to be discreet.

Our eldest maintains that once she heard us and was traumatized forever.  I regret that, although I like to point out that kids walk in on their parents all the time, regardless of where they start off their nights.  I also sometimes regret that I didn’t develop habits of routinization that had my kids go to bed and stay asleep at predictable hours.  Sometimes I regret that we co-slept.

But rarely.  Nothing comes close to feeling the rhythms of a peaceful baby or toddler asleep in your arms or against your belly.  My husband claims that  nothing comes close to waking in the middle of the night and seeing everyone asleep peacefully.  He points out that the few times we did try separate sleep with a monitor, he spent most of the night startled by every hiss and pop that would come through the airwaves.

But in the mean time, we have to laugh off the interrupted intimacy, the interrupted opportunity to meditate, write, finish a thought or complete a task.  But so many things as parents can strain our sense of humor.  There’s no helping it: we’re outnumbered and have been since the day we brought the first kid home.  So trying to find the funny in the absurdity helps.

We’re learning that no matter what the age of one’s kids, there is no perfect sleep.  No great sleep when they are infants.  No great sleep when they finally go off to their own beds.  No great sleep when they have a sleepover.  And certainly no good sleep while waiting up for a teenager to come through the door.  I can only imagine what it’s like for parents once their kids have left for good.  You learn to sleep, I’m sure. But no doubt, always with an ear or an eye half opened.  We only have one parent left, but my sandwich-generation friends say that there’s no good sleep when you have elderly and ailing parents. For now, we’ll have to hope for the funny and hope for the best.


Anthropologist Meriden Small’s Our Babies Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent provides an outstanding and accessible treatment of parenting practices cross-culturally.

Anthropologist James McKenna is the world’s leading expert on parent-child sleep arrangements. In this article he makes a compelling, research-based, and nuanced case against the mainstream injunction that “Babies should never sleep with their parents.”

Accessible resources on Attachment:

Bill and Martha Sears have occupied the parenting world as the most accessible resource on attachment parenting. They have written several books (alas, thin on citations) on the subject and have an active web site at

Ruth Newton, Ph.D., offers a synthetic guide to attachment in The Attachment Connection: Parent a Secure and Confident Child Using the Science of Attachment Theory.

See also medical reporter Katie Allison Granju’s research synthesis of attachment parenting, Attachment Parenting: Instinctive Care for Your Baby and Young Child.

Neuroscientist and attachment advocate Mayim Bialik has also weighed in with an accessible research and experience-based book on attachment parenting through and past infancy, entitled, Beyond the Sling.

Gender on the Fringes: Why Our Biologically Female Child Wears Tzitzit Part-time.

-By Donna Harel, PhD.

So our biologically female child, Ronnie, has lately asked to wear tzitzit “like the other boys” at her Chabad Montessori Preschool. We stand at the intersection of shifting ideas about gender and different Judiasms. As an anthropologist, feminist, and progressive Jew, I feel rebellious on several fronts. At the moment, my unwavering love for and trust of my kid steady and center me as the kaleidoscope keeps swirling my view.

As Ronnie’s shifting gender identity unfolds, I find our lives embedded in multiple contexts and narratives -some discomfiting. My feminist sensibilities rankle against what feels like a master-narrative from the world of Trans-gender advocacy. To be sure, a growing alphabet soup of gender identities reveals the idea of “trans” implies a gender binary currently under deconstruction. I am heartened to know that individuals and parents, fighting the good fight, are taking seriously the shifting nature of categories that they must simultaneously embrace, advocate for, and deconstruct.

However, I feel at odds with two aspects of what I’ll call a “Trans-formation” narrative. First, a teleology -a predictable, inescapable narrative– seems at work.  It holds that the “this” happening in our family, has an endpoint. The master Trans-formation narrative suggests that we might be kidding ourselves that Ronnie’s shifting gender identity is a phase.  Eventually, we will need to accept something with which we presumably have issues.  Yet, I’m finding the concept of a “phase” helpful as a heuristic (rather than a source of denial as the Trans-formation narrative would have it).

A phase can last a week; a phase can last till sexual maturity, a phase can last til death.  I generally see life on earth as a phase in an ongoing, soulful adventure in the jungles of time and space.  So I embrace the notion of phase even as I hold for all possibilities for my child’s gender identity.  Thus, I’m currently rejecting the “Trans-formation” narratives —as I have encountered them— a deterministic distraction from  being present with my kid and their needs,

The feminist in me is also frustrated that the concept of a “tomboy” has become outdated. Over the last few decades, the term has fallen out of use perhaps because it marked as distinctive –rather than normal– traits of rough and tumble-ness among females. Why call girls tomboys simply for reflecting a diversity of ways that girls can live in the world? I get that on the surface, “tomboy” is a sexist term. But, lately, I’m pining for language and a framework for my child to flesh out the particular version of girl that s/he might happen to be.

Ronnie  has been told by almost everyone who s/he has encountered in their 3.5 years that s/he is “cute.” S/he has two, considerably older sisters (by 8 and 13 years). They are emerging as powerful young women, and are conventionally feminine. Ronnie goes to a school in which all of the teachers and most of the mothers wear skirts, most women cover their hair and almost all of the girls wear skirts or dresses. So almost all of the females in Ronnie’s life and their own experiences with dimunative girlhood (what a good friend referred to as “all that cuteness bullshit”) reflect a sensibility about femaleness that counters their desire to be a powerful, roaring, superhero, soldier, firefighter, rough-and-tumble kid. A little language of “tomboy” might give Ronnie some breathing room around the idea of femaleness. Without it, s/he seems to be pushed to picking a team.

No one told Ronnie that s/he has to pick a team, but in their world, as it stands, s/he seems compelled to make a choice.  At the moment, team Boy takes the lead. At  Ronnie’s Orthodox preschool, (an outstanding Chabad Montessori) embedded in a world that appears highly gendered, only one pivotal moment in the day is demarkated by gender: that moment in morning group time when the boys and girls take turns standing up and saying their respective prayer: Girls thank God for making them according to God’s will/plan and Boys assert that they God’s soldiers -a symbol for Ronnie that holds great appeal at the moment.

So here’s the rub: these soldiers wear tzitzit. Every day. All the time. For Orthodox boys, tzitzit form a pivotal part of their family’s expressions of devotion and community. Tzitzit are the sign and symbol of orthodox Jewish male identity.  And Ronnie has seized upon tzitzit as a symbol  of the (male) power that s/he is after.

But Ronnie is NOT an orthodox Jewish boy.  Our family identifies as progressive Jews. In our (Conservative) synagogue, people wear tzitzit on their tallitot (prayer shawls), only when we pray.  They serve as reminders of ADULT obligations of mitzvot (commandments) and connecting those to our prayer experiences. I take this distinction seriously. I identified tzitizt as separate from the prosaic world and bristle at the idea of my kid wearing their “Tallit katan” (little tallit) while playing in the dirt, going to the grocery store, or using the bathroom.

So, like many other parents who send their kids to Jewish Day schools, we must reconcile the tension between our home practices and those of our child’s social world. In Ronnie’s world at school -a place in which s/he spends most of their waking hours during the week (with the exception of all of those days off to the holidays!)- boys  wear tzitzit all the time. Asking Ronnie to take the tallit katan out only to pray–our initial impulse– (particularly as they go UNDER the shirt) would make Ronnie stand out when s/he clearly wants to blend in, and unduly burden the staff. So Ronnie will wear the tzitzit under the shirt while at school as long as s/he pleases.

I’m more than a bit irritated with secular friends and family that question or LAY BLAME for Ronnie’s transforming gender identit(ies) on the fact that s/he is attending an Orthodox school. This line of argument goes that if the community weren’t so sexist, s/he would’t be forced to identify as a boy.  Some of the people in my life cannot see past the covered hair and tzitzit common in this community. The anthropologist in me is rolling my eyes at the  lack of subtlety and appreciation of internal differences among groups –in this case among Orthodox Jews.

Chabad, which does a tremendous amount of outreach, has a general ethos of acceptance. Consequently a colorful cast of families traipse through their doors. We are not the only progressive Jews to send our kids there.  From the outside, one cannot easily discern that some of the mommies (Orthodox or otherwise) are doctors, lawyers, researchers, professors, businesswomen. My friends haven’t seen me walk into that building in the middle of the summer, dressed in workout clothing and looking like the Whore of Babylon, only to find warm welcome. I don’t doubt that the Chabadniks will continue to invite us to their events, but these folks know that I have drunk the kool aide at my own progressive, egalitarian shul.  Some  know that I have given divrei Torah on Shabbat -they know that I have no plans to leave my synagogue and still they greet us with welcome. As we are.

Ronnie has a an amazing, experienced teacher who is, kind, loving and committed to helping our child unfold into their best self.  As a parent, I couldn’t be happier with the compassionate, Ronnie-focused response to our unique situation. The director, in a quick moment of kindness, creativity and expediency, decided that henceforth all of the bathrooms would be un-gendered for the preschoolers. How cool was that?  So we are staying put for now.

Some kids gravitate towards superheroes. At the moment, our kid’s favorite superhero garb is their tallit. S/he kisses it in the morning and it’s offering her a shroud of belonging as s/he finds a place in the world.

While we have settled the physical fringes for now, we have much to reconcile in our other worlds. Ronnie may very well turn out to be transgender. Should that come to fruition, we will accept and affirm every aspect of our child.  For now, dismayed by the anemic variety of choices for strong and powerful females in our culture, I’m holding out for team Tomboy.  Best still, Team Ronnie.

Decluttering the Emotional Debris: How I Cleared a Path to Being a Prolific and Healthy Writer.

-By Donna Harel, PhD.

Photo credit: Edite Artmann

“I’m okay being a prolific and healthy  writer, even without any validation.”Last week I took the above “challenge statement” to my therapist’s very comfortable chair.* I worked through the baggage that keeps me from owning and living my ideal writer version of myself.

Think of all of the art, literature, music, science, or any creative endeavors that civilization would have lost had people waited for validation.

Our world promotes immediate and constant validation. These days, many people, particularly millennials, (dubbed the “validation generation“), tie their self-worth to the number of “likes” on a Facebook or Instagram post. I don’t pretend to be immune to its tug.

I know that if I want to own the identity of “writer” in a prolific and healthy way, I need to work through the validation bit.

To me, it’s worthwhile. Like many others, I feel an intrinsic need to write.

If you seek to put your creativity out there, it helps to clean out your inner closet.  I also have the hubris to believe that I might contribute something valuable.

I seek a “healthy” relationship with writing – by “healthy” I mean non-obsessive, less painful, and part of a balanced life. Writing often feels like giving birth: intense, requiring full focus, sometimes painful, always draining; it’s also deeply satisfying. And like giving birth, it has often called for validation: “Look what I did!”

Apparently, I’m not alone in my pursuit of writing. Some polls suggest that 80% of Americans would “like to be an author.” So I have slim odds of success.

The writing coach in me laughs at this statistic. I’ll encourage us all to forget that potential New York Times bestseller and write (or do any of our art or experiments) for our own reasons and with our own goals. We might be imperfect at it, but we do it for our own purposes. It’s perfectly fine to create simply because you feel that you have to, or because you want to make sense of something, or to touch even the smallest of audiences.

Two themes emerged as I worked to clear my path to prolific and healthy writing. Perhaps they’ll resonate for you too.

First, I had to confront my “imposter syndrome” – feelings of inadequacy even in face of information that the opposite is true. People who experience imposter syndrome feel chronic self-doubt. They feel like fakes who attribute their successes to luck or anything other than their talents and hard work.

This feeling haunted me during grad school. I mostly got over it when I earned my doctorate, but sometimes I still look at my diploma and wonder: when will they come to take it back? When I write, I keep thinking “Who the hell am I kidding?”

The second theme emerged as I sat in my therapist’s chair. Emotions connected to lack of fulfilment cropped up. This second theme might sound familiar to those who strive to create something outside of themselves that’s transcendent and enduring.

Apparently, I had an enduring sensitivity to how my late mother sometimes felt unfulfilled as an artist. My mom always busied her hands with needlework of all varieties, “wearable art” clothing, drawing, and mosaics. When I visited her at craft fairs during grad school, I witnessed her deep disappointment when people who came into her booth either didn’t buy or didn’t commend her wares. This strong impression about artistic fulfillment likely affected my own identity as a writer.

It’s no news that we can over-identify with the emotions of our parents, siblings and other figures in our lives. Fortunately, some mindful reflection can help us confront and move past those blockages.

I conjured, in turn, my feelings of both the imposter syndrome and over-empathising with my mom’s disappointment. I gave myself a chance to behold those uneasy feelings. First without judgment (easier said than done), eventually with compassion. The strong emotions and sensations eventually dissipated. When I finished this process, the goal – in this case, being a prolific and healthy writer – didn’t shake me up anymore.

I’m confident that other issues will nip at my heels as I journey further in my craft. Who among us gets to create in complete peace?

Still, I find our efforts to discern and confront whatever impedes us worthy. I think we do it best when we examine our emotional and experiential debris with honesty, compassion, and forgiveness.

Many people see this as an important process in our work as humans. It’s certainly a central component of my work as a writing coach. When we embrace this vital inner work, we stand a chance to move forward in our craft and in our lives.


*The therapy that I employ (with my therapist) is  Neuro Emotional Technique Therapy (N.E.T). In this approach to therapy and wellness, you identify a particular goal which you articulate as a challenge statement. The work is to then uncover whatever impedes that statement to resonate as true for you. The goal of the therapy is to clear out any obstructions on the path towards achieving that goal. I like this therapy because it leaves to me the onus of coming up with the goal.

I approach therapy and transformation (as a patient) inspired by psychologist Victor Frankl. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl identified freedom as residing within that “…space between stimulus and response.” Like Frankl, I think our humanity lies in our freedom to choose our reactions.


Why Pinterest Fails Us

Photo credit: (Left), Chelsea Johnson, October 21, 2013

Photo credit (right).  “Roy” on

-By Donna Harel, PhD.

Growing up, I loved the “neighbors helping neighbors” section of my mother’s Women’s Day magazine. It’s no surprise that this progenitor of clever domesticity and craftiness has evolved into a  social media powerhouse: Pinterest.

Pinterest, as their website describes, is the “world’s catalogue of ideas.” Users create “pins” – visual bookmarks – to other websites:

A pin could be a delicious dish, your next adventure, a DIY project, or love at first sight… Boards help you nest away your pins by theme or topic. your favorite collections are right at your fingertips. You can pin wild and free!

Think Martha Stewart on steroids. As an anthropologist who commits to imperfection, Pinterest’s prescriptive nature troubles me. As with many corners of our culture, Pinterest’s call of perfectionism – and the opportunities to fall short –– always awaits.

Why? Because full-time Pinterest users who use professional photography and photo editing provide the majority of content on Pinterest. As with the glossy magazines that preceded them, pin boards promote a disjuncture between the ideal and the real. No one on Pinterest posts crappy versions of their Halloween crafts, cupcakes, or gifts for teachers.

Several websites are dedicated to Pinterest “fails” (the tagline of my favorite one reads “Where good intentions go to die”). They illustrate (with great humor) the gap between the ideals of Pinterest perfection and the realities that many people struggle to execute. I know that if I bothered with these clever projects, I’d be posting right along with the other “Pin Reapers.”

My “Bento box lunch” board reveals my personal aspirations. Such cute ways to encourage my kids to eat healthy, wholesome foods! Somehow just pinning their pages, I feel inspired and virtuous.

I know full well that like other Pinterest posters, the people on the Bento box boards pour passion and tons of experience into their pages. I’d like to think that it’s all they do. The anthropologist in me sees the people who post and the people who pin engaged in practices that reveal a host of complex cultural ideologies. My Bento pins illuminate some of the trouble with Pinterest.

In her article “Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus,” Anne Allison, an anthropologist who specializes in contemporary Japanese culture, argues that obento – the art and practice of making Bento boxes – serves to institutionalize an intense form of mothering.

Japanese nursery schools help transition children from home life into wider society, with a particular focus on putting the needs of the group over those of the individual. For example, children must eat lunch quickly and completely before the group may go out to play. Japanese mothers must make the food appealing and easy to consume, lest their youngsters endure the humiliation of delaying recess for the rest of the class.

Allison found that despite these high stakes, the Japanese mothers she encountered often treated the design and execution of obento – a process that could take between 20-45 minutes per day, along with panning and shopping –  as an outlet for creative expression. They employed a range of items: containers, decorations, molds, stamps, etc. The production of obento was an abiding topic of conversation among mothers and the subject of entire magazines and specialty items. Fun, but inescapable.

Bento boxes represent aspiration for me, but rarely match my reality. Instead,  I prefer what I call “grazing boxes.” I guest-blogged about them on Kariane Nemer’s thoughtful family lifestyle site, Everyday Intentional Living, which you should totally subscribe to (after you finish reading this post). I think that grazing, choice, and independence (when it comes to food) work well for many kids – if their parents can manage it. I’ll be the first to admit that these practices are not just about food prep. They reveal wider ideas about childhood. As an advocate for the imperfect, I’m most likely to set up an ice cube tray with a few nibbles and some hummus for my kids, rather than a cute, orderly bento box.

Scrolling through pin boards, whether for Bento boxes or Halloween party ideas, I feel both inspired and overwhelmed. For better or worse, Pinterest offers myriad ways to improve our lives.Taken with a healthy dose of humor and skepticism, Pinterest can be great. But the next time you pin something, remember the kids in the Pumpkins.


On the problems associated with perfectionism:

Celeste Chua offers a cogent look at perfectionism:

See also Hara Estroff Marano’s 2008 article:

Pinterest Fails:

Bentos and Culture:

Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus

Anne Allison

Anthropological Quarterly

Vol. 64, No. 4, Gender and the State in Japan (Oct., 1991), pp. 195-208

An example of a Bento page.

On the problems associated with perfectionism:

Celeste Chua offers a cogent look at perfectionism:

See also Hara Estroff Marano’s 2008 article:

Pinterest Fails:

The 34 most hilarious Pinterest fails ever. These people totally nailed it!

Bentos and Culture:

Japanese Mothers and Obentōs: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus
Anne Allison
Anthropological Quarterly
Vol. 64, No. 4, Gender and the State in Japan (Oct., 1991), pp. 195-208

An example of a Bento page.

Public Rituals For Grieving: Lessons from saying Mourner’s Kaddish for three and a half years 


By Donna Harel, PhD.

Humans have evolved many different ways of managing and commemorating loss, which is always a private as well as social matter. In other words, we have technologies of time and space and material for processing grief.

Pop-up vigils and memorials, burials, cremations, wakes, shivas and, these days, online tributes, mark passing as well as grief. Some traditions emphasize honor for the body of the departed, others treat it as potentially defiling. Some traditions expect grief to be a private affair, others treat it as more social. In some cultures, public wailing, often through hired hands (keening in Ireland and Scotland, Uluation in Muslim tradition) is designed to help mourners connect with the grief in their hearts and at times show the status or esteem of the departed. My own tradition, Judaism, has an elaborate technology for dealing with dying, treatment of bodies, funerary rites, grief and mourning.

Jews mark intense period of mourning for a week, and status as a mourner continues throughout the first year. Regular moments throughout the calendar mark the passing of a loved one beyond the year. Growing up, I was always told that the rituals were not for the dead, but for the living. While many people see these practices as archaic, I personally found them to be healing. Here’s my take on what amounted to a protracted and somewhat unusual experience. While the details were a bit unique, I suspect that they may have a wider resonance for those dealing with loss.

Each week, like a small boat surrounded by others, the name (and the life it represents) floats just a bit further away -one or two waves at a time–until at the end of the year it finally floats so far into the distance and is no longer recited. They will recall the name once a year, remembered more as a distant star than a long-launched boat. If you follow the name as it makes its steady progression out to sea, you hear the names of the other boats, whisked off just a bit further as well. New boats come each week as the familiar ones start to leave. A steady progression across the year in a sea of names. You stand that year as you listen to the names recited. You connect, once a week to the lost soul, now a boat whose distance away marks a longer tether to the grief, the celebration, the mix of memories and emotion.

The reading of names and the ritual of standing and reciting Kaddish Yatom, or “mourner’s kaddish,” the Jewish prayer of remembrance, takes place in my synagogue community each week. In some settings, people recite mourner’s kaddish daily and in others, the names are not recounted. Traditionally, the recitation is a social act and most communities call for a minyan or gathering of ten adults (in very traditional communities only men) as a requirement for the recitation. I suspect that these requirements underpin the social support embedded in the call to public grief. In many communities, people come to minyan for the explicit purpose to ensure that others may recite the mourner’s kaddish. Fun fact: a Torah can stand in for a person to creat a minyan. As the mourners stand for the minute or so, reciting the incantations, either reading or with eyes shut, the community holds them, reciting their bits of ritualized responses. The community creates time and space for the mourners to connect and commune with the memories of their dead loved ones.

Nearly every Shabbat morning between July 2012 and January 2016, I stood for mourner’s kaddish. 175 recitations. I  closed my eyes as the words, even those moving with my own breath, washed over me. First I stood with my father on the shabbat morning following my grandmother, Rachel’s death. She was the last of mine and my husband’s grandparents – those eight sweet people who treated us with so much adoration, unconditional love and very little rebuke. When I stood each week for a year and recited Mourner’s kaddish, I had a chance to commune not only with them, but with that feeling of unconditional adoration and love.

Overlapping that year, by about a week, I began to stand also for my beloved father-in-law. He passed away in July of 2013, shortly before what would have been the due date of a miscarried baby. I’d been connecting to that loss throughout the year of mourning my grandmother. I spent much of 2013 with a growing belly. The promise and disjuncture between life and death, punctuated mourner’ Kaddish  and our third daughter was born in April of 2014. She nuzzled against me in her sling every time I reconnected with her grandfather, her namesake.

My own father passed away in May of 2014, when the baby was 7 weeks old. The names of our two fathers bookended me and the baby as I mingled generally fond memories and impressions with sweet little nuzzles. A dear friend and teacher passed away later that summer, just as my father-in-law’s name cycled out, his boat launched as a distant star. I dwelled in only fond memories of the friend, and she remained a steady companion as I recited kaddish in the year that followed.

My mother passed away in October of 2014. Her death brought to the sacred recitation the mix of feelings that only mothers can bring out in their daughters. All the while, my own little girl started to poke her  head out of the sling. How many times did she nurse during this recitation? This act of mothering surely smoothed over many of my ambivalent feelings.

When my mother’s husband passed away in January of 2015, the baby and I would stand each week with a swirl of memories and mixed, often fraught, emotions. For a while, my father’s name remained on the list. Three parents. One friend. Four sets of emotions. My dad’s name sailed further and further away until May, when his ship launched off into the distance. My beloved friend, always such a strong voice for embracing the other’s burden, steadied me as I faced the impending encounter of standing with singular thoughts of my mother and her husband. The last shabbat that I heard my friend’s name announced, I suddenly incanted “Infinite love and gratitude” instead of the proscribed words. This was her parting gift as her name sailed off into the distance.

So July came and all of the steadying guides and easy relationships had truly departed. As I stood up during the first encounter –just me and my mom and my stepdad– I breathed deeply for the work ahead.  I shifted the 15 month old on my hip and sought to shift from ambivalence to compassion. For the three months, the tight knots of frustration began to loosen. Slowly, slowly, the sensations of the love and nurturance my mother bestowed upon me began to take over. Yes, she was m difficult and not always kind. Judgmental and often divisive, and all those things that some mother’s can be. But between the steady sounds of the incantation, the soft cooing sounds of the baby and the small still voice urging “infinite love and compassion,” I truly swelled with gratitude by our final week together. I recall kissing the baby’s head, then the siddur and wiping the tears that had rolled down my cheeks. “Thank you, Imma,” I uttered as her boat launched out beyond its tether.

“So,” I thought to my step-father as I rose the next week, “It’s just us now. Can we do this?” No one else would be doing this for him; I was the lone torch-bearer. My stepdad had been an imposing figure. A lanky Vietnam veteran- turned carpenter, he was always composed and gentlemanly. He had taken  tireless care of my mother. Yet he always exuded a undercurrent  of  darkness and suppressed  anger. After 15 years of caring for my mother, he was at sea after her death. He was overwhelmed by her convoluted accounting, which required near-forensics to disentangle. He had vascillated between terrific gratitude for our concern towards him and seething anger that we three daughters hadn’t done enough to lighten his burden. He never explained himself before taking his life, and I spent the ensuing months of reciting mourner’s kaddish working through anger and frustration.  I sought connection and gratitude. Images of silly dance parties and construction projects with my girls eventually flashed within my mind’s eye. I envisioned him and my mom dance at my sister’s wedding. And in the months and weeks between October and January, I found gratitude and peace.

When I finally remained seated after three and a half years, I noticed, for the first time, what it’s like to play the part of the community -to hold others as they stand and connect with their departed. I have come to believe in the sacredness of both ends of the production. I still feel the rhythms of the sea of names as they float by, marking time for us as a community and connections of lifetimes for those who remain behind.

I firmly believe that our most intimate encounters with anything divine come by way of others. Ideally, others are there for us as we grieve and rejoice, connect, and say goodbye. So whether you are standing for mourners kaddish or bearing witness to those who do, you are engaging in holy work. And for that, I feel infinite love and gratitude.

Indeed, the closing lines of the mourner’s kaddish call for the establishment of peace within ourselves, among our people and for all creation. Kaddish Yatom is, indeed, a structure and a framework to achieve achieve exactly that.

So what do we do without these very specific technologies for processing grief?

Our day and age abounds with opportunities to miss out on grieving and opportunities to create structures of time and space to grieve. As a person who doesn’t live a highly structured life, I appreciate that my tradition created those structures for me and that I was fortunate enough to make use of them. Without them, however, we might do well to make a weekly or regular time for communing with our losses.

Consider setting an alarm, finding a regular place to close your eyes, listen to the same tune, sounds or poem. Write your way through the relationship. Whatever you do, find time and space and a ritual of sorts to connect, reflect, say “sorry,” “thank you,” “why?”
I hope you find infinite love and gratitude or at least bits of peace.
London Mallee offers a a generalized survey Continue reading Public Rituals For Grieving: Lessons from saying Mourner’s Kaddish for three and a half years 

Your kid doesn’t have to pick a team.


To My Straight and Gay Friends: Your Kid Doesn’t Have to Pick a Team.

By Donna Harel, PhD.

So October 11 is National Coming Out Day. Should your child/student/any kid in your life be brave coming out to you, here are some things to consider.

I picked a partner, not a team. And here’s why that matters for your kid.

I don’t have much to gain by coming out at as bisexual at this point in my life. I could easily ride out the rest of my life on the straight privilege that comes from passing in a largely heterosexual community and never bat an eyelash. I doubt that anything I share about being Bi will much change my world, because I’m pretty privileged. I am a white, Jewish, middle class, doctorate-holding, self-employed, able-bodied cis-gendered woman, happily married to a wonderfully supportive, straight, cis-gendered man. (To his credit, he has never once in our 23-year relationship asked “Can I watch?”) I live in a relatively progressive community. I’m mostly secure in my own skin. Coming out will likely fluster my wonderful mother-in-law and help us shed the few remaining bigots in our lives. It will also help me allay some vestigial guilt about “passing” in a world that has been pretty rotten to my LGBTQ sisters and brothers. But I doubt it will rock my world that much.

So why the (YAWN) reveal?

Generally, I don’t have much need to be out and proud and loud every day of the week. But I also know that hiding and staying silent might imply shame. It doesn’t. And I’ve passed so long without even thinking about it that I had almost forgotten the value of visibility: creating space for others to breathe. For you. For your kid, your students, your neighbors.

And I don’t want to sustain a very dangerous quiet.

As I said, for most of the people in my world, this is a big yawn. Maybe it gives someone hipster creds to have a bi friend. Lucky them. Still, I believe that one more seemingly -straight person coming out may alleviate some suffering on the part of young people in our world. And here’s why:

Last fall, I worked as a writing coach with a student who wrote a poem about coming out to herself as bisexual. It was filled with self-loathing and frustration, and revealed that she had struggled with a good deal of self-harm. She only identified her poem as autobiographical after I shared a bit about myself. It was probably the first time I had come out in years, because that’s how my world rolls these days. But I felt that it would help her to hear it. And when she did, she exhaled deeply and fully. Everything about her lightened: her face, her shoulders, her demeanor. By sharing, I had given her the room to breathe. And then I listened.

After that first, deep, healing breath, the problems associated with being bisexual tumbled out: Her school had an LGBT alliance, “But nobody there talks about the Bi part of the LGBT.” She believed she would have little support at home or even among her friends. People in her world “wanted her to pick a team.” She was only out to her therapist (and now, to me) and explained that it took her a very long time to sort through her complicated feelings, crushes, and relationships. She didn’t think that the people in her life were up for the ride. “What’s the point of going through all that work of coming out to my parents as a lesbian and then maybe bringing a boy home at some point? They would treat me like I was crazy. Or that they had somehow won. They just don’t get it.”

Most people still don’t get it with bisexuality. “Bi Invisibility” (aka “Bi-erasure’) is a thing. Not only an Identity Politics thing, but also a serious visibility issue with public health consequences. (See, for example) A recent JAMA Internal Medicine article, which compares Health and Health Risk Factors between Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Adults and Heterosexual Adults in the US, affirms that Bi people suffer higher rates of depression, substance abuse, partner abuse and suicide than gay or straight folk. (JAMA Internal Medicine, September 2016, Vol 176, No.9). Bi people are often dismissed in both the straight and gay communities as inauthentic (s/he just needs the “right man/woman”). They are often invisible.

We live in a world where most people like to know which team everyone plays on. Maybe that helps people to know where they stand. Yet even classic rubrics to understand sexuality, sexual identity and orientation have evolved beyond the Kinsey Scale. (See for example, the Southampton Multidimensional Scale of sexuality). And sexual identity and orientation are far more complex than attraction and sexual activity with regard to same-sex and opposite-sexes. In addition, our understandings of multiple (non-binary) sexual identities have expanded in recent years. Bisexuality (or non-mono sexuality) and for that matter, pansexuality, etc. disrupt easy categorization, which can unsettle people.

Ask any Bi person if they were ever dismissed as confused, fickle, or promiscuous. It’s likely they have been. I don’t ever remember picking a team, just a partner, who happened to be my opposite sex. And how did it feel when my folks rejoiced that I “finally got over that phase?” It felt like crap. It not only denied who I was, I also felt like a sell-out. My choice elided visibility. And that matters. Not just for me, but also for your kid.

So here’s my National Coming out day blessing /prayer for our kids and communities:

Most of us enlightened folk have thought through how to respond were our kids to approach us –very bravely– and come out as gay. If you haven’t, give it some thought. We’ll wait.

Okay. Nice job.

But here’s where it gets tricky: Could you open your mind and heart a bit wider to the idea that your kid might be bisexual? Or Pansexual? And they may not have the language to express it? And that even your most enthusiastically supportive response to them coming out as gay may shut down other less-fixed possibilities? If they come out, can you respond with support for who they are, but not fixate on the language they use to convey it?

If a kid braves to come out to you tomorrow or ever, consider these actions:

Hug him.
Let her know that you appreciate that it might not be easy to talk about her sexuality.
React in a simple, loving, accepting, and perhaps, subtle way. Mirror whatever language he uses.
Remind her that you love her unconditionally.
SHOW him (don’t tell him, that’s weird) that you understand sexual fluidity -that people’s sexuality sometimes transforms over time, which is why labels become straightjackets.

Accept that whatever she tells you is how she feels. Right now. But don’t let the “right now” discount other possibilities or her previous experiences. Bear in mind that while jumping on one label might cause more harm than good, you don’t have the right to discount what your kid is saying now. Or what they said last month. Or will say next year.

I invite you to say what a dear friend of mine told her daughter. “I love you. You be you. You don’t have to label yourself, and don’t let anyone else label you either.”

And for goodness sake, be the kind of parent that sets the tone for love and acceptance. Be the kind of parent that your kid could come out to.

Happy coming out day!

While I am no expert in this area, I will gladly field questions and suggestions as best as I can.

Please feel free to circulate this piece to audiences of teachers, parent communities, coaches, public health groups, clergy and anyone else who wants to support young people as they figure out and assert their identities and health needs.

Here are some links to articles and resources on coming out and bisexuality, which you might find helpful:

When Your Child Comes out, Six Pieces of Advice

5 Ways That Bi Erasure Hurts More Than Just Bisexual People

Here’s What Happens When We Erase Bisexuality – And How You Can Be a Better Ally 

TED Talks on having difficult conversations and coming out:

On the range of LGBTQ identities:

Why visit Your Public Interest Anthropologist?

Thanks for stopping by!

My training as an anthropologist, writer, and writing coach shapes how I see the world, how I write about it, and I how I encourage others to write.

I became an anthropologist and writer with a few goals:

1. Study in a field that explores the range of expression of what it means to be human.

2. Learn how people’s stories, symbols and ideas fit into the wider picture of culture. I sought to understand the connections between the personal and the social.

3. Develop a form of writing and expression that uses the everyday details of people’s lives to illustrate the bigger, often interconnected ways that we inhabit our world(s).

4. Learn how to engage in issues of Public Interest as an anthropologist. That means engaging in relevant topics and trying to weigh in as clearly and accessibly as possible.

I commit to these principles in my research, writing, and how I guide others to write.

Our stories tell bigger stories.

Let’s tell our stories!

-Donna Harel, PhD.