Monthly Archives: January 2013

Things we do to help our baby with T21 thrive

When Yirmiyahu was about six weeks old, I found time to call a couple of people with older children with T21.  Both of them warmly congratulated me and when I asked about what they found helpful for their child, told me the most important thing was to love him.  I understand the importance of this advice – too much time is often spent mourning the diagnosis instead of falling in love with the special baby that we were gifted with – but at the same time, I wanted concrete information.  I loved Yirmiyahu before he was born and didn’t have any ambivalence when I learned about him having T21; what I wanted to hear was what could I do to help him moderate the difficulties that come along with his diagnosis.  I got almost no suggestions to this question other than take him to therapy.

Not long ago, I shared what we’ve done with a mother in Australia who wanted to know what she could do to help her baby with T21.  Since I started researching this when Yirmiyahu was 2 days old (thanks to being moved to a hospital room where I could access the wifi!), I was fortunate to gain a lot of information early on.  Some of the things we do are based on reading done since his birth, others are things that we implemented based on my prior knowledge of nutrition or child development.  Almost all of these suggestions would be helpful for a typical baby, too.


1) Breastfeeding – this is very important for every baby, and a baby who is born nutritionally depleted (as those with T21 are, regardless of the health of his mother) benefit even more.  I’m grateful that for the first ten weeks Yirmiyahu got exclusively my milk (though we then began supplementing since we had challenges with weight gain); my plan had been to continue in this way long term but unfortunately things didn’t work out that way.  Our main health issues have come from introducing formula and if he was exclusively nursing we could have bypassed a lot of this.

2) Nutrivene-D vitamin supplement – individuals with T21 have an extra chromosome in every cell of their bodies, which means that there is 50 percent more metabolites; this creates a situation called ‘gene overexpression’.   There are ways to treat this overexpression; I think of it as adding vitamins so that he has the same proportion as those without the extra chromosome.  There are those who say this is unproven and a waste of money; there’s nothing in my research that leads me to think this is an unnecessary or unimportant addition to his daily diet.  Yirmiyahu gets a half teaspoon daily, split between two bottles.  The taste supposedly is unpleasant but we haven’t had any problem with him drinking it along with his formula.  (Here’s an article that covers some of the relevant biochemical issues.)

3) Fermented cod liver oil and butter oil – these work synergistically together, and he gets 1/4 t. of each daily.  I emailed the Green Pasture company to find out how much DHA was in each teaspoon, and they sent me the following information:

Each teaspoon of fermented cod liver oil contains:

  • 1825 IU vitamin A
  • 427 IU vitamin D
  • 150 mg EPA
  • 90 mg DHA

What I especially like about both of these oils is that they are food sources of these nutrients, not artificially boosted, so the body absorbs them more completely.  These are beneficial in many ways, but a main concern of mine in addition to supporting cognition is improving bone health – individuals with T21 have underdeveloped facial bones, which I believe is connected to their nutritionally depleted status.  Adele Davis wrote about underdeveloped facial bones and their connection to nutrition many years ago.

4) Probiotics – about 9 billion cfu daily – I mix this into one of his bottles along with the Nutrivene.  Yirmiyahu was born with transient leukemia and in his first days of life had very high dosage antibiotics administered to bring his white blood cell count down to the normal range. I began giving this at six days old via his feeding tube (I mixed it with the milk I expressed); probiotics were critical to rebuilding his digestive flora, but are very important for everyone.  Gut health is at the root of all health.

5) Baby GAPS protocol – we’re beginning to introduce other foods using the baby GAPS protocol.  This begins with meat broth, gradually building up quantities and adding in blended vegetables, meat, chicken, etc.  I plan to add a little bit of juice from our homemade kimchi into his bottle of broth in place of the recommended yogurt.  Since individuals with T21 are almost always sensitive to gluten and casein, as he gets older I intend to keep him on a gluten free, casein free diet.

Physical/cognitive development– physical development leads to cognitive improvements, and cognitive improvements lead to physical development, so I can’t separate this into two separate categories.

1) Crawling track – we keep him on his stomach as much as possible, though not nearly as much as recommended by Glenn Doman.  He doesn’t like being on the inclined track for long with his head downward, but we’ve found he loves being on it with his head positioned upward and can stay there for a while in this position.  I attribute his strong muscle development mainly to the time he’s spent on his stomach.  Last week his physical therapist, who usually doesn’t make any comments about his development, told me she was impressed by how well he was holding certain positions.  She has a traditional perspective on physical therapy which sometimes contradicts the neurodevelopmental approach (eg doesn’t see tummy time or crawling as important, just sitting and standing), but rather than disagree I go on doing what I’m doing and let her by surprised when he’s doing so much better than she expects.  :)

2) Balance exercises – we lift him up and down ten times, several times a day, and from side to side ten times a few times a day.  DH also does a swinging set of exercises with him.  All of these are according to the Doman suggestions, though as with everything, I don’t do anything as much as he recommends.  These are really fun and Yirmiyahu loves them, and I appreciate things that are easily and naturally integrated into life that don’t feel therapeutic but are beneficial.

3) Grasping exercise – this begins with having a baby grasp your finger when put into his palm, and then continue until he can support his weight fully when holding on to your thumbs.  When Yirmiyahu was born he had very low muscle tone, and the instinctive reflex to grasp something was totally missing; to expect him to independently support his weight by holding on to something seemed wildly unrealistic for him.  But we kept encouraging him every day to grasp our fingers and when he did, bit by bit would slightly pull our finger away to encourage a firmer grasp.  Now he can pull himself up from a laying position while holding on to my thumbs; several people have recently commented on how strong he is when they gave him a hand and he began to pull himself up!

4) Baby wearing – I usually wear Yirmiyahu in a wrap when I go out.  This is great for his vestibular system and also good for his cognition, as he experiences the world more actively than if he were lying in the stroller.

5) Cross patterning – these are exercises that are done to strengthen the connection between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. We recently began doing this once or twice a day; three of us manually do these exercises with him by moving his arms, legs and head in the rhythmic, alternate motion that is used in cross-crawling.  I have mixed feelings about this because Yirmiyahu hates it.  Right now we only do a couple minutes at a session.  I’m considering changing this to a two person team, moving just his arms and legs; maybe he’ll do better with this.  I’d like to build up to five minutes twice a day. (Update: we tried patterning with two people, and it’s much, much better!  He usually smiles or looks content for most of the time; when he starts to cry we stop right away.  Now that it’s so much more pleasant for him, I don’t feel ambivalent anymore, and I think within a day we should be able to build up to ten minutes a day, broken up into several short sessions.)

6) Oral motor exercises – I do these sporadically with Yirmiyahu; these are exercises to help increase his oral motor awareness and strength.  It would be good if I were more regular, but I got off track when ds14 was hospitalized.  I plan to be more consistent about this as he begins solids.

7) Deep pressure exercises – I began doing deep pressure with Yirmiyahu when he was four days old and in the NICU.  I began with squeezing each part of his hand and arm slowly and deeply, to help him build awareness of his limbs; when he got out of the NICU I could touch more parts of his body so I then moved on to doing it on his legs and feet.  I try to do this at least twice a day, and coordinate it with diaper changes.

8) Massage – I massage Yirmiyahu about once a day, usually at the time of a diaper change.  Massage benefits muscle tone and motor functioning.  Here’s a paper about the benefits of massage for children with T21.  He also gets a professional massage once a week at his visit to the naturopath.

9) Music – music benefits the brain and also prepares a baby for speech, by improving his auditory tonal processing.  We play classical music almost every day, usually Mozart but I like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Rossini is my favorite classical composer so they also get regular airtime in our home.

10) Books – Jim Trelease writes in the Read Aloud Handbook about parents of an infant with T21 who constantly played audio recordings of books; he met them when the girl was beginning college.  Hearing lots of language is stimulating, particularly books with patterns (eg ryhmes).  When I read with the littles, if Yirmiyahu is awake he sits on my lap to listen.  We also just started accessing audiobooks from our library in the US (very exciting!) so now we often have stories being read aloud.  When reading with just him I keep the words very simple, just pointing at something and clearly telling him the name of it.  This is something I’d like to do a lot more of but I don’t have the materials or time to create them, so I work with what I have and it will have to be enough.

11) Alternative health therapies – I take Yirmiyahu to a naturopath every week who does craniosacral work, reflexology and massage with him.  I love taking him because he LOVES this!  He has the look of a little prince as he languidly stretches out and enjoys it all.   The craniosacral work is particularly important to keep the bones of the head and face in alignment.  This is a bit of a complex topic but one thing I’m hoping is that this will help expand his palate, which is very high and narrow, which affects the pituitary gland which in turn affects growth.  (Most kids with T21 are smaller than their same age counterparts.)  More active plans for expanding his palate will wait until he’s older though this is something I began thinking about within the first hour of learning he had T21.

Yirmiyahu also has lots of older siblings who play and talk with him plenty, so he gets lots of love and attention!  We repeat sounds that he makes back to him, and try to clearly articulate sounds and exaggerate the shape of our mouths to make it easier for him to imitate.  We try to be sure whenever he’s awake that he has some kind of stimulation but in the same integrated way that you would treat any baby.  I feel it’s very important that it doesn’t feel to him or everyone around him that everything is therapy, since it reinforces the disability label and mindset.

I have an intake appointment at Shalva in Jerusalem at the end of February, and once they have a slot for us hope to take Yirmiyahu once a week for a morning of therapies – speech, physical and occupational- he’s only getting physical therapy right now.  We’re on the waiting list at the Feuerstein Institute in Jerusalem and we’ll see how to manage that once we get to the top of their list!

There are neurodevelopmental programs that take six to eight hours a day, but I can’t do anything like that without neglecting everyone else in our family.  And I honestly don’t want to do a program like that because it feels imbalanced to me (not to say that it’s imbalanced for others; if they can do it and stay sane, that’s fantastic!).  Yirmiyahu is just one member of our family, and him having T21 doesn’t make everyone else’s needs disappear.  So I do what I can in ways that I can fit it into our day.  Something that was really helpful about getting the positive feedback at the evaluation at the Feuerstein Institute, when they told me that he’s on a very different level than most babies with T21 that they see, is that it helped me let go of the feeling that I’m failing him by not doing more for him and instead feel positively about what I am doing.


Homemade herbal diaper cream

Recently we began giving Yirmiyahu a special hypoallergenic formula, hoping that this will resolve the wheezing that began when he stopped exclusively having mother’s milk.  Unfortunately, just like when we tried soy formula, his bottom began bleeding within a day of having it – clearly something in the formula is irritating his skin (he also simultaneously developed a slight rash around his mouth both times).  And the wheezing has only slightly improved.

The obvious thing to do is stop giving him this formula, but we were told that we need to give his body time to adjust to it.  That’s what we’ve been doing, but everyone dreads when he needs to be changed – he’s usually a very easy going baby, but now he screams when he has a dirty diaper and it takes a few minutes until after the diaper is changed until he stops.

With our last nine children, I’ve almost never used any kind of diaper cream.  The only thing I can remember is applying coconut oil twice when one of them had a yeast infection.  Then again, they were all exclusively nursed. and he hasn’t been, so unfortunately I’ve needed this pretty often to deal with the side effects of different formulas we’ve tried.  However, this is so bad that the standard zinc oxide cream just isn’t enough.  So I decided to make my own supercharged herbal diaper cream.

Homemade Diaper Cream

  • 2 cups coconut oil
  • 1/4 c. comfrey
  • 1 T. yarrow
  • 1 T. echinacea
  • 1 T. St. John’s wort
  • 1 T. chamomile
  • a few olive leaves
  • 2 oz. beeswax pastilles

The first thing you need to do is infuse the oil.  There are two ways to do this, quickly or slowly.  The slow method is to let the herbs sit in a jar of oil for 4 – 6 weeks; the fast method – which is obviously what I needed – is to mix the herbs with the oil and then gently heat it.  This can be done over a double boiler on a low flame for two hours, or in a covered ovenproof dish for three hours at 200 degrees.   I asked one of the kids to do this step, and should have chosen the second choice since we don’t have a double boiler and the herbs got a bit crispy.  Still usable, but it made the final product a darker color.  Strain the oil through a fine mesh cloth.

Mix the strained oil with the beeswax pastilles (I bought them at the local health food store – 45 shekels for 400 grams), gently reheating them together and stirring the mixture until smooth.  Once it’s finished, pour the warm cream into containers of your choice; wide mouth is preferable for access.  I used a two cup size plastic container for household use (past experience showed me it was a mistake to use glass jars for something taken out so often by so many different aged children), and a smaller four ounce lidded tin to keep in the diaper bag.  It solidifies once it’s cool.  The yield is a bit more than two cups.

Most recipes for salves and creams call for extra virgin olive oil as a base, but I prefer to use coconut oil for the antifungal and antibacterial qualities that it has.  I used coconut oil for the huge batch of first aid salve that I made over three years ago that lasted until now (actually, if we hadn’t moved we’d still have some – we only had room to bring one small jar with us), and I was very, very happy with how effective it was.  My inlaws (who got some for Chanuka the year I made it) gave me back the empty container a year later and when I returned it to them refilled, they told me they were very happy I took the hint :) – they said it was excellent.

I decided to boost the healing properties of this cream by adding in a number of herbs that are anti-inflammatory, antibiotic and soothing.  I considered adding in lavender essential oil but decided that enough was enough.  :)   It’s not necessary to use all of these herbs; you can use the comfrey and add in as many or few of the other herbs as you have, keeping each one to about 1 tablespoon.

I just started using this for Yirmiyahu so I can’t say how fast it’s worked, but from past experience with a similar salve I’m optimistic that it will be very helpful.  Though I created this to be used for diaper rash, it can be used for burns, bug bites or cuts.  In a home with small children, a good multipurpose antibiotic cream is worth its weight in gold!


Sexual predators and the grooming process

In light of the news about the conviction and yesterday’s sentencing of a high profile case of a child molester, I’d like to share some thoughts on the general topic.  Not specific to this warped individual, who thankfully will now be put away where he can’t hurt anyone else (sorry to pique your interest if you don’t know what I’m talking about, but I prefer to stay away from discussing individuals), but about some general important aspects to understand about child molestation that were clearly evident in this case.

For years when I heard about sexual molestation within religious communities with strong modesty guidelines, I often wondered how this was possible.  After all, it would seem that children who are raised with an understanding that the body is private and has been taught to maintain clear boundaries between men and women wouldn’t be easy targets for predators.  It was after I learned about the grooming process and the way that sexual predators position themselves that I was able to understand this.

This was very disturbing information to me, but it’s so critically important for parents to understand about this, because this knowledge can help us to protect our kids.  Molestation and abuse are unfortunately realities in every community, and I’ve written in the past about the importance of speaking to our children about personal space.  When I’ve spoken about different aspects of this topic with people in person, in almost every situation I’ve been met with skepticism or disbelief about the reality of molestation and abuse within the Jewish world.

I understand how hard it is to emotionally accept that people who look like upstanding members of a community – or even just average looking people – would act in such a degenerate and evil way.  That’s why it’s so important to at least somewhat understand the mentality of molesters.  The development of a trustworthy persona is calculated and purposeful, to position themselves as upstanding individuals above reproach.  Once people view them in a positive light,  it will be very hard for people to believe accusations of abuse against the predators – and molesters use this psychological phenomenon known as the halo effect along with cognitive dissonance to their advantage.  (Read here for a detailed story of how this played out with a well-known sports coach.)

Predators are constantly scanning for targets.  They are looking for the weakest and least confident children, those who are troubled, come from difficult home situations, or whose parents are busy and not very available.  The most emotionally vulnerable families and children are the least likely to protest wrong doing, and the predator also knows that if a victim does speak up, they won’t be believed because of their social status.  It’s an amazing strategy, really – pick someone who is emotionally suffering, then when they try to tell the truth about what is happening to them, claim that because of their emotional suffering, they can’t be trusted.

Once they target the victims, they then begin the grooming process.   The abuse doesn’t always begin immediately – the predator softens their defenses and continually tests their boundaries.  Even if you don’t usually follow links, please read this one as well as the article above to understand why and how this works.

I’m warning you that this is difficult stuff to read about.  But you need to understand this, and realize that talking to your kids about respecting physical boundaries isn’t enough.

We must be actively involved in our children’s lives.  You don’t want them to feel there’s no one at home for them to talk to, that you’re too busy for them – that leaves the door wide open for someone else to walk in and fill that need.  One goal is that a child will feel able to tell us about what happens in their lives, even the unpleasant things.  How would you react if your child came home and said he had been fondled?  Would you get angry at him?  Tell him it’s not possible, he must have misunderstood?  That he brought it on himself by doing something?  Would he know that you’d believe him and support him?  I’ve read so many horrible stories in which parents refused to believe the child – if a child tells you something, don’t downplay it or ignore it.  There’s no one else who’s going to help them if you can’t or won’t, and then the predator has free reign.

Even if you have spoken to your kids about appropriate touch and have a good relationship with them, you still need to keep an eye on them.  I see lots of kids locally who have minimal supervision from a young age.  I’ve been really concerned when I’m in a park and see a large number of children playing and relatively few parents there to supervise.  Who is watching the kids?  Kids need supervision.  It’s not possible to supervise every child at every minute, but we need to keep an eye on where our kids are and who they’re with.  The younger they are, the more careful the supervision has to be.

The fact is that parenting takes time and energy.  I know, this is discouraging when a parent feels she doesn’t have enough time or enough energy.  But there are really no shortcuts in parenting.  Be available, supervise, build emotionally solid relationships, and pray.


Upcoming Israeli elections

Tomorrow is election day in Israel.

Last week I got an email from a community organization strongly advocating that we vote for the United Torah Judaism (UTJ)/Gimmel party in the upcoming elections in Israel.  I read it thoroughly but wasn’t convinced.

Then I got a call from a volunteer telling me that that I should vote for Gimmel; I listened but remained noncommital – I didn’t like being asked to commit verbally to voting for any party.  To my American sensibilities, this was a breach of boundaries.  Then dh got a call on Friday morning, in which he was pressured to say that he would vote Gimmel.   I had seen some advertising of some other parties and one particular party appealed to me, but I needed to do some more reading and find out what each party actually stood for.  Last night dh mentioned that he’d probably vote Gimmel and I was dumbfounded – I looked at him in disbelief and asked, “Why?”  He hadn’t had a chance to do any research on the parties, but when I gave him some introductory information and he continued with his own research, he quickly changed his mind.

We were married on Israeli election day in 1992, the first year that Gimmel was a party.  This was our party, this was how our entire peer group voted – we never thought to ask what the platform was because it was obvious that this was the party for the serious supporters of Torah.  There were Gimmel election slips that at some point were thrown onto the dance floor at our wedding, and the crowd went wild when dh danced holding one up.  That was then.  :)

What is UTJ/Gimmel?  This is the yeshivish charedi ashkenazi party, and a vote for Gimmel is portrayed as a vote in alignment with the Torah leaders of the generation.  This year there was a proclamation that those who are working who vote for Gimmel will have a share in the Torah learned by all of the learning men who are being supported by the party, that this is .  This was supposedly stated by a very prominent Torah leader, though I have to admit to a certain degree of skepticism when it comes to rabbinical proclamations – I believe many of the the stated positions of the elderly Torah leaders are too often manipulated or outright lied about.  This is considered by some to be a brilliant move but I found the Yissachar/Zevulun reference disturbing – as if the Torah learning of someone working isn’t as valuable as the Torah learning of someone in kollel.

I looked at the Gimmel platform to see how they described their party, and though their theme song is catchy, it was clear to me that this isn’t the party that represents our interests.  Here in Israel, our family would be labeled as ‘working charedim’ – and the interests of working charedim are often different from those in full-time learning.  For example, we want our boys to learn secular subjects in high school and train for a career, and assume they will serve in the army.  The representatives of Gimmel are against all of these things.

So who to vote for?  Unlike in the US when there are two major parties and then the independent, here in Israel there are a lot of parties.  A lot.  34, to be exact.  That meant doing enough reading to narrow down the choices and hopefully find one that we actually agree with.   Until recently, I was strongly leaning towards HaBayit HaYehudi, but am now shifting to Am Shalem.  Am Shalem (link to good article detailing their positions) is a new party and seems to best share our values and politics, though if it will be able to garner enough votes for a seat in the Knesset is still unknown.  I’m willing to take the chance that I’m throwing away my vote to help bring a new and positive voice to the Knesset; if enough others who share these beliefs are willing to do the same, Am Shalem (letter Tzadi) will be voted in.

If you’re living in Israel and are totally bewildered about the Israeli election process, take heart.  Once you start to read it’s not nearly as overwhelming as it seems.  Here are a couple of places where you can begin your reading.  Once you get started, you’ll begin to find lots more available if you’re interested.

Jerusalem Post – A political guide for the perplexed – this is okay, not so thorough and I wouldn’t make any decisions based on the information in this, but it’s a starting point.

The 2013 Knesset Elections – this is a helpful post about elections that has some good links at the bottom, one of which will lead you to a more detailed description than above of the party platforms.

A vote is a very personal thing, and there are good aspects to most political parties.  The tricky part is to know what you believe in and then find the party that advocates for that.


Weekly menu plan

This morning marks six months from the time we met with the geneticist and were told that the testing results conclusively showed that Yirmiyahu had Trisomy 21.  As such, I was scheduled for a follow up visit today with the geneticist  but decided against going – I’m assuming (based on the first visit) they want to see how we’re coping emotionally and offer counseling if we’re suffering too much grief or emotional pain.  That’s not really where we’re at so I cancelled the appointment along with the appointment with the pediatric hematologist (which was scheduled for the sake of convenience since it was at the same hospital, but Yirmiyahu doesn’t need to be seen until March).  So instead of spending hours on the bus, I can post my menu plan for the week.  :)

Sunday – b – oatmeal; l – mushroom barley soup; d- stir fry, roast potatoes, beans

Monday – b – banana bread; l – lentil soup; d – meatloaf, french fries, salad

Tuesday – b – pancakes; l – baked potatoes, souffle, tomato salad; d – colcannon

Wednesday – b – fried potatoes, breakfast beans; l – lentil rice casserole, salad; d – cabbage meat soup, baked potatoes

Thursday – b – banana bread; l – chili; d – kasha pilaf, meatballs, vegetables

Friday – b – apple oat scones; l – split pea soup

My dd18 did the planning last week, and stayed up late one night when I was already sleeping and filled the freezer with a number of dishes for the coming week, like the proverbial shoemakers elf. :) As I was writing this out, I got a call from the municipality education representative – he got a report from the school that I refused the psychological counseling ‘recommended’ and wants to meet with me this afternoon to see if we can cooperate with one another.  (This is a nicely phrased way of saying they want me to agree to do what they want – my experience with institutions has repeatedly been that ‘cooperation’ is one sided. )  Since I already have a physical therapy appointment for Yirmiyahu in the afternoon and now this meeting, dd’s planning and preparation will be an even bigger help than I envisioned!


Do I wonder about returning to the US to live?

>>It has been very convenient for me that you and your family made Aliyah at the same time we did, especially since we did not come in the Nefesh b Nefesh group and do not have many friends here in our same situation. So I have been able to check in with your blog and find support. Thank you.
After reading about your ds13 ( I hope that he’s feeling better!) and the school thing, I have to wonder. Is it better for them in America?
My son came here ready and excited for a challenge, in Torah and otherwise, and has been so disappointed…so I ask u simply, do u think of going back?<<

Honestly, I’ve had quite a few challenges since moving to Israel.  Some of these I anticipated, some I didn’t.  When a good friend visited recently and got caught up on all the stuff that you don’t get to read about :), she told me she can’t understand why we’re staying here, that it seems too much for one person to be hit with so many difficulties.

I came here with the attitude that we were going to make it here and this would be our home long term.  I knew it would be tough – though I didn’t predict it would be this tough! – but I had faith that we could weather the challenges together as a family.  If I had ambivalence about it, then there are so many points that we would have turned back.  There are things that would be better for all of us in the US.  I loved many things about living in the US, some of which I really miss.  But the things I miss the most aren’t things that would be helped by moving back.

What I miss most are some intangible aspects our family life.  We’ve had a high level of connection within our family as well as independence from ‘the system’, and that has changed in some ways.  The connection is thankfully still good, the independence not so good.  The most significant factor that would make me move would be if I felt I had compromised my family and there was no way to remedy that other than to move back to the US.  While I don’t like some changes, I don’t feel powerless – I have the ability to change the things I don’t like but it means making a couple of significant changes regarding how things are right now (which you’ll all be sure to read about this if/when they happen!).

I really love living here.  I feel right here, that this is where we belong.  That doesn’t mean every day is a walk in the park.  A couple of days ago I posted about a situation that pushed me as close to being fed up as I’ve come, but that made me want to leave Karmiel, not Israel.  But tough times pass.

I believe that the initial adjustment period to living here is about three years – a year is a drop in the bucket, when you just begin to feel like you’re coming out of a long, dark tunnel – and we’re just seventeen months into our first three years (my ‘eighteen month aliyah update’ post  this week was wrongly titled :)).  Time takes time, and there’s no substitute for that.  I’m not sticking it out because I’m stubborn but because I trust that we’re making a long term investment in our future by being here.

When you plant a seed, if you keep yanking it out of the ground to see how much it’s grown, it’s never going to grow – you have to trust the growth process even when things look dark and there’s no sign of growth.  That’s kind of how I feel about making aliyah – I can’t constantly be examining everything and wondering if I should move back to where we were.  You can’t go back in time, and it’s a false illusion that we could automatically go back to what we had, because moving back would be a significant adjustment at this point for everyone that would create its own issues.  So I try to keep my eye on the long term goals while dealing with the short term difficulties.

Even with everything we’ve had to deal with, I’m glad we’re here.  I’ve asked the kids their thoughts about the move to Israel, and almost all of them have said that they’d rather be here than the US.  And I truly believe that by being willing to keep moving through the tough times, to believe in our ability to be successful and happy here, that we’ll get beyond the difficulties that are part of just about everyone’s early aliyah experience and be really glad that we kept on keeping on!


An unexpected lesson from my old planner

This morning I finally sat down to go through last year’s planner and transfer any information that was still relevant to this year’s calendar.  This is mostly phone numbers, but I also sometimes write down passing thoughts I want to remember and sometimes those are worth copying over again as well.

Usually I really enjoy this process, because as I flip through each week of the past year, I see notations about so many things that I enjoy remembering.  Every year I delay in throwing away my old planner because it has so many good memories – actually, I didn’t throw away the planners for the three years prior to making aliyah until we moved to Israel!  Today was the first time in years that this was a different kind of experience.

As I went through page after page, I began to have a sinking feeling in my stomach that got stronger and stronger.  I always transfer the information at one sitting, to get it all done and then move on to something else.  But without thinking consciously about what I was doing, I got up in the middle to make lunch, then realized I had done it to avoid seeing any more pages.  Somehow living through the last year wasn’t so bad lived one day at a time, but to flash through so much of the last year in an hour’s time was overwhelming.  Though I would tell anyone that it hasn’t been an easy 18 months, this is the first time that I emotionally felt how difficult it was.

Then I read a question that I had written many months ago:  “How can I live a life I love right now?”  Usually this kind of question is hard for me; I rarely have an instinctive answer and usually I have to stretch to think about what could make my life better.  Today an immediate visceral response flashed through my mind.  Naturally, the two things that came to mind aren’t things that I’m currently doing.  :)

The reason I’m sharing this is because it’s all connected.  There is potential for a different kind of experience the coming year when I can not just answer the question, but integrate the answer into my life.  Not just for me, but for anyone who feels like they’d like to upgrade the quality of their lives.

It wasn’t fun looking through my planner, but it was productive!


Eighteen month aliyah update – psychological intakes that presume too much – or don’t take into account enough

A couple of days ago I enjoyed a mother daughter trip school trip to the Sea of the Galilee/Kinneretwith dd12.  This was especially nice because I began my day with a meeting with the school guidance counselor regarding dd12 and ds10 and continued carrying residual tension from this throughout the day.

This wasn’t a meeting I wanted to have or felt was necessary, but as a teacher friend told me, it would be unpleasant for me to go and it would look bad for me to refuse the appointment. When dealing with schools, one thing you have to realize is if there is ever an issue, the school structure is never at fault.  It’s always your child’s fault, or you as parents.  So they’re a bit myopic when looking at problems, because they won’t consider significant factors that might be the root cause of a problem.

The thought that kept going through my mind after this 90 minute meeting was, ‘when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’.

Here is an example of what I mean by that:

Dd12 has gotten very limited assistance at school in learning the language – the national decision to do away with ulpan for kids was disastrous but the law is that now students are to receive in-school language instruction – at best, this has been a forty minute session twice a week.  Do you know how little this is when you’re sitting for hours in a classroom, listening to lectures with no visual prompts to give you a clue what is being discussed?  Dd is a very visual learner and I anticipated that picking up the language wouldn’t be easy for her (in contrast to our auditory learners, who have learned it the most quickly).  The assistance she’s received has been very inadequate for her needs and though she’s bright and wants to do well, she simply doesn’t yet have the language skills to make this possible.  (For example, she’s an advanced math student but once they moved from equations to verbal problems, she was unable to do the work because she doesn’t understand the questions.)

The guidance counselor told me that she’s too quiet, doesn’t seem motivated to succeed and as such she’s concerned that dd is clinically depressed.   Of course she’s quiet, she can’t comfortably converse in Hebrew yet!  She’s friendly and talkative when she’s with English speakers.  And she’s motivated when she understands the materials in front of her. What she needs is academic help in translating the school materials so she can be successful, which is what I explained to them.  But they said, ‘Oh,  we can’t offer her that.  But a nice thing the school can do for you is provide subsidized psychological treatment.’

Psychological services are the tool – ie, the ‘hammer’ – they have to offer, and she needs to be diagnosed with emotional difficulties (the nail) for them to use their tool.   So you see, if we accept their ‘help’, it won’t be what she needs, but what they have to give.  (Her tutor knows her better than anyone else in the school and was very disturbed by this assessment; she’s told the guidance counselor that dd is struggling with language acquisition, not emotional problems.)

I’ve run into something that I didn’t anticipate about living in northern Israel, where there are relatively a small number of Anglo immigrants in this part of the country.  That’s a very important fact that has some major negative ramifications.  In highly Anglo areas, families making aliyah are so common that there’s a pretty good understanding of what the behavioral norms are for families new to the country.  There’s also a lot more support.

Here in the north, we don’t have that.  Instead of support and understanding, we face unrealistic expectations and far too often, negative judgments and presumptions about our children and our family functioning. When our kids are successful and acclimate quickly, it’s taken as par for the course and not worthy of much more than a passing comment.  When there’s any kind of struggle – as it’s inevitable that there will be…you get a lot more than a comment.  In the situation with dd, limited experience with new immigrants caused the person doing the assessment to drastically underestimate the language and adjustment factors and to see pathological behavior where it doesn’t exist.

(By the way, I told the counselor that with all due respect, she doesn’t have much experience with new immigrants and isn’t taking into account the most critical factors.  She told me that she spoke to two colleagues who live in RBS and did some reading, so she’s up to speed on the topic.  But two brief conversations and doing some reading don’t equal real life experience. She’s a truly good person with good intentions, but she is limited in this situation by her lack of experience.)

As part of this conversation, it was recommended that we open a file with social services so we could get psychological counseling for our children, which I adamantly refused.  Maybe this was just a strategy to get me to accept the school subsidized offer of services which followed, I don’t know.  An Israeli friend who works in the school system was horrified and furious when she found out that we were told this – this is the kind of thing that literally can destroy a family.  I’m fortunate that I can defend myself in Hebrew; most new olim don’t have that advantage.  Someone who made aliyah thirty years ago, the mother of a large family who has a lot of personal experience with many aspects of the system asked me how I had the strength to advocate for our kids, because this is an unpleasant situation to deal with.

My naturopath told me yesterday that I’m a ‘lioness’ for my kids – and you know what, she’s right.  You have to be here, because the system will eat you up and spit you out without blinking, all in the name of ‘helping’ you.  Yes, that sounds really negative but that’s how it feels to me.  As my friend mentioned above said in Hebrew, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.  Everyone is very nice and it’s supposedly all about ‘helping’ you, but that doesn’t mean that you’re actually going to be helped.

My husband was shocked after this meeting at how the baseline assumption was that we’re a family in crisis, despite the fact that we’ve done incredibly well in adjusting to life here.  The fact is, on paper we have significant strikes against us: 1) we’re a large family – this presumes that our children are emotionally neglected because we probably don’t have time for them; 2) we have a baby with T21 – this presumes that we’re overwhelmed with this and we can’t meet the needs of the other children; 3) we’re new to Israel – this presumes that we’re emotionally in crisis; 4) we have two kids struggling in school (never mind that everyone else is fine or that kids who were born here have difficulties in school, too!) – this presumes that they need psychological assistance – and refusing this presumes that we as parents are in denial or problematic parents; 5) we used to homeschool – this presumes that we are dysfunctional and imbalanced to begin with (since homeschooling is so uncommon in Israel).   So before we even walk in to a meeting we’re behind the eight ball.

It takes a lot of emotional energy to repeatly counter the unspoken message that something is wrong with you. I often feel like I have to prove myself – it’s not just a feeling, that’s the reality – and recognize that how I present will determine in large part the assessments that are made about my kids.  I’ve had a lot of challenges here, but I don’t think I’ve found anything as disturbing as these efforts to redefine what our family is according to their five minute glance.  It’s like they want to take away our healthy family identity and replace it with their labels.

If a child needs help, I want him to have it.  I don’t assume I have all the tools necessary and welcome the assistance of those whose strengths compliment mine.  However, it’s clear that we’re on our own when it comes to finding real solutions – if I weren’t a long time homeschooling mom used to assessing my kids’ needs and finding ways to meet them independently, I would be despairing or apathetic by now.  The current solutions include me sending academic materials with dd to work on in class (homeschooling materials- yes, I think it’s ironic), dd16 volunteering to come to dd’s school twice a week during school hours to translate materials so she’ll be able to do her assignments, looking for natural and unthreatening ways to integrate Hebrew at home, and looking for a job or volunteer opportunity where she can use her strengths and build a positive identity not dependent on school performance.  (She’s not interested in homeschooling or that would be a possibility as well. )

I didn’t anticipate that putting my kids in school would put us in the situation of being scrutinized and judged to this degree.  Being new to a country or being part of the system doesn’t mean that a family doesn’t have a right to privacy or dignity.  Even if someone had warned me about this, I would have thought that this wouldn’t be an issue we’d be likely to face since we’re a pretty strong family – but now I know that being stable doesn’t really matter.  I’ve wondered if this is harder for me to accept this kind of nosing into our lives than others (my impression is that this isn’t uncommon) since I was used to being independent of ‘the system’.  Or maybe others are having it harder than me because they aren’t as able to advocate for themselves as I am.  I really don’t know.


Responding to online criticism

I was asked by a reader who was bothered by a response to her comment by another commenter:

>>how do you deal with people who disagree with you online?  do you get a lot of personal emails where people ‘fight’ with you
about your views on things?<<

The truth is that I’ve been very fortunate – I have a very high quality blog audience.  I’ve occasionally been attacked personally and/or had strong aspersions cast on my views, but I rarely have people who email me privately to discuss their issues.  They generally post a scathing comment under an email address contrived to protect their anonymity (eg someone@gmail) and that’s it.  Even that’s pretty minimal.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me.  My positions on some issues have shifted over time, and if I don’t even agree with my past self sometimes!  That being said, there have definitely times that I’ve felt very hurt and judged by things that have been written, and I’ve had to take a break from posting in order to regrow my emotional skin – I try not to take things personally but I think it’s natural to feel hurt when people say unkind things to/about you.   People too easily forget that behind every computer screen is a person with feelings, and I try to remember this about others as I hope they will keep that in mind when reading what I write.

There are those who would say that once you put your views in the public domain, you have to accept that people are going to disagree with you.  Kind of like, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”  As I said, I expect that some people will disagree but to attack someone isn’t okay, even if they share their positions publicly.  Being respectful of others may be even more important in an online venue than in person, since online things are so easily misconstrued.

I think one thing that has helped me avoid negativity here is that I try to avoid controversy, though this is a highly recommended tactic to build a blog audience.  It might be a lot more interesting for people but I don’t think the world needs more negativity and hostility.  This makes it tricky for me to express opinions that I feel strongly about that are going to bother some people, so it’s a fine line that I have to walk.  But it also means that those who are quick to sling arrows don’t usually hang around here.

I try hard to give people the benefit of the doubt, to assume that even if something sounded harsh that perhaps I misread the tone, or that perhaps the person doesn’t have great communication skills but didn’t mean any harm.  This and some time and space from the issue at hand usually help me regain perspective.  And sometimes people who commented harshly later wrote to apologize for expressing themselves inelegantly, which is always a nice bonus!


Young child stealing treats – how to respond?

>>I have been dealing with a situation for a long time now and am out of ideas as how to handle it. This morning I gave up and just started yelling at my kid, and I know that is NOT the solution. My 3 year old wakes up at 5 am and gets into the cabinets and eats all the candy. That upset me but it seems normal enough, so i threw out the candy.  hes been doing that for weeks with different treats, and I have been getting angrier and angrier that he isnt following my directions. But what really really gets me upset is when he lies to me and tells me that he didnt eat it.  I was fuming this morning because he lied to me on 3 different counts.

I am at loss as what to do.  I am trying to teach him to tell the truth but even as I do that he is lying!

What should i do?

It sounds so silly but I feel like every morning is ruined because i am stuck disciplining him first thing in the morning when i should be giving him love!<<

First of all, take a deep breath and a step back.   Sometimes we get so caught up with issues in front of us that they look much bigger than they are.  Kids take treats without permission and it’s really normal.  He wants sweet stuff and so he takes it.  As adults, we get to eat what we want, when we want, but kids don’t have that kind of independence.  Think how hard it would be if you really wanted a chocolate bar and your husband refused to let you have one – isn’t it possible you’d try to get it when he wasn’t around?  I remember when my oldest was five, seeing him cramming a handful of sugar into his mouth just as I came into the kitchen – I was appalled.  But most of my kids at a young age (and sometimes even not such a young age) have done something similar.  Just an hour before I got this question, ds5 notified me that he found a date pit behind the bathroom door, where ds3 apparently went to eat it without being seen after helping himself from the cabinet. :)

Often the reason we’re getting upset isn’t the circumstance itself, but our interpretation of the situation.  When you tell yourself he’s lying, that creates a lot of negative emotion for a parent.  I don’t see something like this from a three year old as lying; small children have a very flexible sense of reality.  By shifting the perspective on what he’s doing, we can remove a lot of the negative emotion that is behind our excessive anger.

It might be helpful to see if you can find a solution to the need that’s being expressed.  Would it be helpful to create a predictable routine around when he gets special foods?   Maybe you can work out something with him as to so he knows when he’ll get treats – like make a regular time each day that he gets something special (it can be something healthy if that’s a concern – a fruit, popcorn, dried fruit, nuts, homemade baked goods), and let him take it out when it’s time to eat.  Since he’s taking things so early in the morning, perhaps the night before the two of you can prepare something that you can leave on the table, covered, for him to eat when he wakes up.  Make a big deal of how special this is, how he’s such a big boy that you know he can serve himself this food even before you’re awake.  Be very careful to keep this positive; don’t bring up his past ‘sins’ or make him feel guilty or defensive.

If you see him taking something he shouldn’t, try saying something like this, “That looks really yummy, doesn’t it? I bet you wish you could eat a hundred pieces! Yum! That would be so tasty! But I think if I ate a hundred pieces my tummy would be sick. Do you think your tummy would feel good if you ate so much?” The point isn’t the words you use, but the message behind it – to show him that you understand him and aren’t blaming him, because he’s going to feel trapped and guilty if you catch him doing something that he already knows you disapprove of.  The question at the end isn’t to get an answer as much as to move away from the situation, to give him a way to save face and maneuver out of a potentially sticky situation.