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images-1The Word of the Day today on the Word Spy web site is niephlings, a new portmanteau that means one’s collective nieces and nephews. It seems like a good idea for there to be one word to mean all those kids, no matter what their gender — though an earlier version of that word, niblings, is a lot more appealing to me. (Word Spy explains that niblings comes from niece/nephew plus sibling, which is something you probably know without having it explained to you.)

This all puts me in mind of how lovely Meta has been about Nutmeg’s baby, Meta’s own little nibling. It’s been wonderful to watch her excitement at her impending aunt-hood — something made possible partly, I think, because Meta so sincerely likes Southpaw (and has always loved Nutmeg). And it’s made possible, too, by something I suspect is true about Meta but have never felt it was my place to ask: that she doesn’t really want kids of her own. This little niece/nibling/niephling/sofralia — or, as we like to refer to her in our mostly-journalist family, TK — will be Meta’s chance for a baby to love and nurture at close range. I’m delighted to see how much pleasure she’s getting from it in prospect.

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techmeme-tagsWhen Nutmeg and Southpaw announced that they were having a baby — something I was surprised by, since I hadn’t allowed myself even to hope that they’d start trying to get pregnant so soon — just about the first thing they asked was what iDaddy and I wanted to be called. Not having thought much about imminent grandparenting, neither of us had much to say.

On the subway ride home, though, iDaddy came up with a name he liked: Grumpy. It’s funny mostly because he’s such a thoroughly un-grumpy man, even-tempered and kind-hearted and so glass-half-full in his perspective that I often make fun of him and call him Polllyanna. (You might not believe it, but it can be very annoying to be a pessimist living with a perennially sunny guy.) If anyone in our pair should be Grumpy, I told him, it should be me.

But Nutmeg and Southpaw loved it, and Grumpy it will be.

I had some thoughts of my own for what I’d like to be called. If it were to be a name true to something in my nature or my interests, yet also a kind of “grandma” name, how about Grammar? I’m a writer, I love grammar; I can go kind of nuts over a misplaced apostrophe. Or how about Gamma, the kids countered, since the thing I write about is science.

Both of those names sound okay, I guess. But what I really want is a variation of a Grandma word that the baby herself invents, when the time comes. If I managed to avoid getting ahead of things when it came to wondering when Nutmeg and Southpaw might start trying to have a baby, I should be able to avoid getting ahead of things now, when I try to aniticipate what I’m going to be called when that baby finally arrives.

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ImageWhen the dentist asked if I felt like keeping all my teeth for the rest of my life, that’s when I started to feel my age. The rest of my life? I started to count. How many years does “the rest of your life” mean? Maybe it’s actually not that many — 30 if I’m lucky, 20 or 25 if I’m like the average American 60-year-old woman. I don’t like making such calulations, since when I look backward, 20 or 25 years is the blink of an eye ago.

So, yes, I said to him, I’d rather keep all my teeth for the rest of my life if possible, thank you very much.

The question got me thinking about Grandpa and his dentures. Back in the 1960s, when we were growing up, being old automatically meant you had a mouth full of false teeth. In fact, when Avuncular was little he used to ask how long he’d have to wait until he was old enough to have teeth you could take out every night and put in a little water glass by the bathroom sink. He and I would wake up early when our grandparents were sleeping over, so we could stand next to him as he stood at the mirror with a collapsed old-man face and would transform before our eyes: grab the top teeth from the glass, shake them out, put them in, shake out the bottom teeth and put them in, and there he is again, our handsome Grandpa.

No one has dentures these days, so what we’re going to do with these problem teeth at the back of my mouth is put in crowns rather than yank them out. It’s a long slow process of oral restoration.

Is this the first of a long line of such procedures? Will a doctor soon ask me if I feel like keeping both my hips for the rest of my life, or if I’d like him to insert a fake one to replace the one that’s wearing away? How about one of my organs? My kidneys are likely to putter out, if they’re anything like my father’s were (and I suspect they are), so maybe that will be a question some day, too. Do you want these kidneys? Do you want a different one? Do you want to plug yourself up to this dialysis machine and pretend you don’t have kidneys at all, just let the machine do the work for you?

As Ur-Momma says whenever she notices changes in her skin or hair or ability to breathe when walking up the hill near her apartment, a body isn’t designed to live 89 years. No, it’s not, no matter how much care you take in how you feed it and exercise it (neither of which I’m doing quite enough of). So what happens when it starts falling apart, by inches — especially when you’re only 60? My two back teeth might be the beginning of a long line of decay — decay is actually the word my dentist used in describing the problem that leads me to need a crown — and I suspect that all I’ll be able to do about it, at least for a while, is try to shore things back up as well as I can.

(By the way, the teeth in that photo belonged to George Washington. I saw them in a photo on Twitter posted today by Lindsay Fitzharris, a British medical historian and creator of a web publication called The Chirugeons Apprentice.)

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5920123882_08625a21cb_zI love this series of photos of empty nesters standing in the room their kids used to live in, which was recently written up in Slate. The project, by Dona Schwartz (who also took a series of photos of couples at the other end of parenthood, standing in the rooms they were preparing for the babies they were about to have), is a fascinating one, trying to capture the emotions of this particular rite of passage using images rather than words. But there’s a weird sameness to the photos, too, and I can’t figure out whether this is reassuring or discomfiting. Almost all the couples (and one solitary mother, who is either divorced or widowed; the text doesn’t say) stand side by side in the bedroom of their college-age son or daughter. Maybe it’s because the kids are still coming home for school breaks that the beds are still there, though some are piled so high with boxes, books, and clothes (and, in one case, a discarded exercise ball) that it’s hard to imagine Junior actually finding any place to sleep.

The only couple that’s gotten rid of the bed is the oldest one, whose children have been out of the house for five years. (The length of empty-nestdom in these families, at least those whose photos were used in the Slate piece, ranges from two months to five years.) No one in these photos is smiling. Is that the way they really feel when they go into their children’s empty rooms, sad and lonely and regretful? Or are those hangdog expressions just the ones Schwartz chose among the many photos she took of each couple, because she was trying to say something about how it feels when a child grows up and leaves? Her own picture, alongside her partner Ken, is the last one in the Slate collection. She says her somber expression is largely because she’s sad about the end of this interesting project. But shouldn’t she and Ken be a little more elated now that the last of their SIX children has flown the coop?

The expressions of these empty nesters are a contrast to the ones Schwartz caught in her series of parents-to-be. While there were a surprisng number of serious (frightened?) expressions among the younger subjects, about half of them were smiling, some quite expansively, as they looked happily into the future, their eyes shining and their faces lit with expectation.

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ImageIt’s a delicate dance, this parenting of grownups. From the point of view of the adult daughter, I’ve always strived for some distance; I moved out of the house at 16 to go to college, moved out state at 19 to start a new life with my new husband, moved a comfortable 250 miles from home when we decided to start a family. iDaddy and I raised our girls with only an occasional visit from my parents, either at our house (my preference, because then they were less likely to treat me like a child) or theirs.

I knew the connection wasn’t strong enough for Ur-Momma. I knew that, from her point of view, the visits weren’t frequent enough. I knew she didn’t like talking to us only once a week, seeing us only once every few months. But it was pretty much exactly right for me.

Now that I’m on the receiving end of the not-frequent-enough visits and chats, I see how much it must have pained her when I kept her at arms length — at arms length from my life and, especially, from my daughters. Now we see our girls once a month, maybe twice, even though they live nearby. It’s not enough for me, and there’s nothing I can do about it but ratchet down my expectations.

For a while when Nutmeg was single, we saw her often, maybe every week and a half. Sometimes iDaddy and I would take her to a play or out for dinner; sometimes I’d meet her after work for a drink; sometimes iDaddy and she would go together to a football game. During this time, when Nutmeg was about 24 to 28, Meta was married to Wilcoand living a four-hour train ride away. So I didn’t see Meta often, but I was in constant g-chat contact with her — electronic chats that were sometimes even better than chats in real life, in much the same that hard conversations with her during her childhood were often better when we were in the car and she was in the back seat, confessing to the back of my head.

But now Nutmeg has a boyfriend, and she’d understandably rather spend time with him than with us, or even than with him plus us. And Meta has left Wilco and moved to an apartment not far from Nutmeg, where she’s busily — you might almost say frantically — building an incredibly active social life. So even though they’re now both living about an hour away from us by subway, they’re usually too busy to see us when we suggest it.

In fact, the last time I suggested a family get-together Nutmeg let me know, gently, that I had kind of pissed off Meta with the invitation. “Did she ask to get together this much when I didn’t live here?” she asked Nutmeg, clearly feeling hemmed in by our proximity. It’s the kind of question I would have asked Avuncular about our parents (he always lived in the same metro area, so he never knew the luxury of distance that I knew). That’s why it stung. When I used to think, “Why does Ur-Momma need to see me AGAIN?” it was because I felt no need to see her; our connection was fraught, and our contact was, from my end, mostly merely dutiful. So knowing now that Meta bristles at my contact in exactly the same way is terribly painful.

It’s a balancing act, though. Do I not invite her, and make her feel left out? Is that better or worse than inviting her too much, and making her feel burdened? And how much should I really communicate with and visit Nutmeg? We’re both journalists working for the same publication, which makes the balancing act especially hard. I try not to dump my career concerns on her too much — yet a few weeks ago, when I had a couple of assignments I had failed to mention that she had to hear about from an acquaintance, she felt miffed that there was something about my professional life that she didn’t know. Yet obviously there’s plenty about her life that I don’t know — not the professional stuff, which she eventually tells me all about, but the intimate questions I can’t ask, about marriage, babies, houses, plans . . .

As I said, a delicate dance.

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Nutmeg and I have started a book club, and last night we had our third meeting to discuss Room by Emma Donaghue.  (I think Nutmeg and I loved it a little more than the others did, but we had a rousing conversation even with those who were a little less in awe of the book, which I still heartily recommend.)  In the course of our book talk, we ended up talking about The Bridges of Madison County, a book Nutmeg picked up the summer before she went to college, read without knowing anything about it, wept, and proudly announced that when she went off to college she would have a ready answer to the inevitable question, “What’s your favorite book?”  Easy, Nutmeg said; her new favorite book was The Bridges of Madison County.  To which Meta promptly replied, “That book is crap.”

It was a funny story, and it was germane to our discussion about whether Room is a gimmicky book like The Bridges of Madison County or some Stephen King books, or whether it’s something better.  But I took it another way.  As we laughed at Nutmeg’s story, she said something that made me a little sad.  “Yeah, she knew it was a dumb book.  That’s because Meta was the smart one, and I was the stupid one.”

That’s not exactly true, but it’s truer than I want to believe.  Meta was always super-smart, almost dysfunctionally so, and she was a tough act to follow, even for Nutmeg, who was really smart, too.  Meta always was reading, inhaling Shakespeare and Victor Hugo from a very young age, and Nutmeg liked books but had other things she preferred doing.  I tried to deny that we had typecast the girls quite so blatantly, but Nutmeg was insistent.  “Remember that card Dad made when Meta graduated from college and I graduated from high school?” she said.  “That was the running joke — she was smart and I was sporty.”  She smiled as she said that, and it looked like an  authentic smile — but this morning I’m not so sure.

I was especially sensitive to this whole idea of typecasting and favoritism at the book club meeting because I had, just hours before, had a long phone interview with a sociologist who’s spent the past 20-plus years studying the effects of parental favoritism, both on the parent and on the child.  She told me that almost every mother she interviewed (who were generally in their late 60s to early 80s) was willing to admit that she preferred one child over another along at least a couple of dimensions.  They were responding to questions like “Who do you feel closest to?” and “Who would you call in an emergency?” and “If you need caregiving, who would you most like to provide it?”   Just recently she started asking another question, an especially fiery one: “Which child has most disappointed you?”

And here’s the thing: the preferences are normal, and inevitable.  But the “kids” (who in this study were generally in their 40s and 50s) suffered as a result.  In families in which the favoritism was most extreme, the researchers found, kids were most likely to have psychological problems like depression.  And this was true whether or not the kid in question was the most favored one.  In other words, in families where it’s clear that Mother prefers one kid over another, it’s just as oppressive to be the chosen child as it is to be the unchosen one.

All of which makes me wonder: when we joke around with our kids about which one’s smart and which one’s sporty, when we make the suggestion to one of them that the other one’s driving us crazy, when we babysit more for one son’s kids than for another son’s or give one daughter a necklace that the other one wanted, are we doing more damage than we know?  In that same hand-made graduation card that Nutmeg referred to last night, iDaddy and I had included the line, “and they loved them very very much, and exactly equally.”  Because we did — we do — love them equally.  But is that enough?

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Articles that make sweeping claims for an entire generation make me crabby, and the essay in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine was no exception.  It was by Judith Warner, who isn’t usually prone to over-generalizing, and her point (I think; it wasn’t a great essay) was that we Baby Boomers have ruined our Gen Y children, raising them with an eye on boosting their self-esteem rather than teaching them skills and humility, creating a generation of young people who are entitled, narcisstic, unwilling to work hard, and have that annoying interrogative way of talking.  OK, the interrogative thing is just my own pet peeve — all the others are stereotypes that come straight from Judith Warner.

She defines this cohort — who have also been called, variously, millennials, echo boomers, Generation Me — as people born between 1982 and 2002.  Really?  That includes Nutmeg, who’s 26 — but it also includes my 18-year-old niece and my cousin’s 10-year-old daughter.  These people could not possibly all be in the same generation.

That’s the first objection, then.  The second is that there are so many exceptions to Warner’s observation that her whole point strikes me as meaningless.  Yes, my exceptions are anecdotes — but so are her generalizations.  Warner herself admits that she bases her opinion on interviews with nine young people.  Nine.  Based on that, and on a couple of interviews with a couple of psychologists, she concludes that kids today feel entitled to jobs that are rewarding, creative, and worthy of them; they turn down job offers as though there’s a whole string of alternatives waiting in the wings; they don’t know how to make compromises; they wear flip-flops to work.  What emerges based on her nine interviews, she writes, is

a picture of emerging adults with a striking ability to keep self-doubt — and deep discouragement — at bay. Many were jobless, others were dissatisfied with their work or graduate-school choices, yet they didn’t blame themselves if life failed to meet their expectations. They didn’t call into question their choices or competencies. It was as if all the cries of “Good job!” they heard as children armed them against the repeated blows of frustration and rejection now coming their way.

To her credit, Warner defends these kids — they’re resilient, she writes, and maybe the fact that they were raised in an atmosphere of “unremitting ambient anxiety” from 9/11, Columbine, and blah blah, has given them a higher tolerance for the kinds of stress they’re facing now as they try to figure out how to make a living in a tough economy.  But I’m sorry —  even positive generalizations make me twitchy.  My own two daughters never acted especially entitled — there might have been times when Meta felt insulted by the demands made at her entry-level jobs, but she reacted to that the way any mature employed person is supposed to, by doing her job while looking for a better one.  Both of them always seemed willing to work long hours if that’s what it took to do their work.  (Warner writes that employers complain about kids who expect to work 40 hours a week and no extra.)  And since I know a bunch of their friends, especially Nutmeg’s friends, I can say that most of the young people I know are serious, hard-working, willing to put up with an employer’s crap if they have to.  They might grumble about it — often on Twitter and Facebook, which does make me nervous — but they do the work.  They are not the Generation Me kids that Warner describes.

And anyway, what would be so unusual about that if they were?  Wasn’t the Me Decade the term Tom Wolfe invented to apply to MY generation, those of us who were young when he wrote his classic New York magazine cover story in 1976?  Maybe a little self-focus and high self-regard is part of what it means to be in your twenties, no matter what generation you’re in.  Maybe that’s what it takes to figure out your rightful place in the world.

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