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Coping with the death our dog – as a family

Last week, we lost Dempsey, our almost-12-year-old Golden Retriever, midway through our family vacation. Dempsey started with us on our spring-break road trip—from Vermont to North Carolina, to visit my husband’s parents. He never made it home. With Jon and I each holding one of his paws, petting his head, Dempsey passed peacefully on the floor of a vet’s office in Calabash, after spending a good morning with us on the beach.


As we’ve been sharing the news, nearly everyone has asked: How are the boys? Almost 5 and almost 7, they seem to be fine. But dealing with the death of a pet looks very different when you’re 5, versus when you’re 7, versus when you’re 38 or 39. And, as a parent, it’s your job to support the grieving of everyone in the group.

Confronting the reality that our dog was going to die. And soon.  

We didn’t have much time to process Dempsey’s imminent death. Yes, he had all sorts of benign bumps but he seemed totally fine. That is, until it became clear that he was totally not fine. It was our second day on vacation, and we’d spent the day in DC. When we returned to my uncle’s, we learned that Demps hadn’t moved all day. At first, we blamed arthritis and the previous evening’s “puppy” play; hours later, he still wasn’t eating or drinking and hadn’t gotten up. Something was very wrong.

I put the kids to bed, and Jon took Demps to a nearby emergency vet clinic. He returned two hours later, with the worst possible report: Dempsey had a huge mass on his spleen, which likely had ruptured. And would continue to do so. We had two options: euthanize or a try a high-risk surgery that might buy him three to six months.

After lots of talking (with each other, with the emergency vet, with our vet back home) we decided against the surgery. We’d try to take Dempsey to the beach one last time—if it seemed he could make the six-hour trip. We’d visit him at the clinic and then decide. I worried what this uncertainty would do to the kids. Then we realized: with death, the only certainty is that it’s going to happen. We never know when.

Preparing the kids

That next morning, we explained that Digs was very, very sick and would die very soon—in a couple of days, maybe even that day. Julian, 7,  was visibly upset so I pulled him into the next room. I showed him the X-rays, pointing out how the tumor, larger even than Dempsey’s stomach, was pushing against his organs, bleeding into the inside of his body. This seemed to make it very real for him. He cried and asked when Dempsey was going to die. “I don’t know,” I told him. “Maybe today, maybe tomorrow.” “I will miss him when he dies,” Jules told me. “Me too.”

Kai, 5, just keep repeating a single question—casually, almost cheerfully:  “Is Dempsey going to die?” Grieving ourselves, Jon and I found it difficult to keep answering that question again and again but we did our best to answer it directly, over and over. “Yes. Yes, he is.”

Embracing the “extra” time

At the clinic, Demps appeared stable enough to chance taking him along with us to Calabash. I was conflicted: what if a severe rupture occurred in the car? On the highway? With the kids? The vet encouraged us to go for it, sending us with pain medications to last a few days and the numbers of a few emergency clinics along the way.

The boys processed the fact that Dempsey was leaving with us in their own ways. “We get extra time with Dempsey,” Kai kept repeating, his tone upbeat. “But we’ll miss him when he dies,” Jules would add somberly every time. Jon and I were just trying to stay present, to soak up every moment. We snapped our last full-family selfie with Digs outside of a McDonald’s somewhere in North Carolina.

Saying our goodbyes

We made it to Jon’s parents, who welcomed us all with relief. Dempsey laid down on the cold floor in the sunroom, refusing food. By the next morning, he could barely could lift his head. Today was the day. We called the vet in Calabash, gave Demps his pain meds and asked the boys—in the next room playing LEGOs—to come in and say goodbye. Still in their pajamas, they approached awkwardly, sat next to him on the floor and embraced him from either side. I snapped a photo. Jules smiled grimly. Kai kissed Demps, then ran back to his LEGOs, shouting, “Good-bye, Demps!” over his shoulder. His nonchalance was unexpected, but I trusted he was handling this in a way that was best for his young brain. Jon and I left for the beach with Digs.

By the time we arrived, Dempsey had perked up considerably. He walked pretty easily, on his leash, along the shoreline. We took a video (which I still haven’t had the courage to watch). We sat on the sand, the three of us, Jon and I looking into Dempsey’s soft brown eyes. After an hour near the water, we left to get him an ice cream at the beach shop. It was 9:30 a.m. Jon came out with two scoops of vanilla in a cup. “Shouldn’t we be eating ice cream with him?” I asked. Jon agreed, went back in and came out with two more cups. We sat on a bench dedicated to someone’s deceased relative on a landscaped island in the middle of parking lot near the pier. It was the first time we finished our ice cream before Dempsey did. We had to spoon feed him. But he ate it.

We drove to the vet. Sat in the parking lot. Decided we weren’t ready. Jon looked up dog-friendly parks on his phone. We GPS-ed to a wooded trail, lined by azaleas just over the border in South Carolina and walked a little more—where we came to meet Coach. He was a bait shop owner who also drove a school bus. A textbook extravert. So friendly. When Demps plopped to the ground on the path, Coach asked how old he was. “Almost twelve.” Coach near-shouted, “That’s ancient in dog years—what a lucky guy!” We’d told him nothing about the significance of our walk. At that point, I was ready. So was Jon. We were meant to meet this Coach guy.

Coping with the loss, family-style

Jon and I adopted Dempsey right after we bought our house—before marriage, before kids. He was our first child, our best buddy/most easy-going roommate and, finally, our beloved elderly relative for whom we just had to make the hardest decision. A compounded loss, to say the least. And when it was all over, we didn’t know quite what to do. Until we did.

Jon and I looked for the nearest bar and ended up at a smoky place with mirrored windows—essentially a bowling alley with no lanes. We each ordered a Corona and a shot of Tennessee whiskey (Dempsey was born there), which arrived in small plastic cups. We slammed them back in honor of the “Greatest Dog Who Ever Lived.” We cried and we laughed. No one gave us a second glance. It was a great place to be at a really shitty time.

Back at home, with the boys and colored pencils, we started a list of all of the reasons Dempsey was so great, a la The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (by Judith Viorst). I’ve read this book—about a young boy who recounts all the good things about his cat after it dies—many times to my kids because I love how it honors the the range of beliefs people have about death. Our family spans the spectrum. My in-laws shared a poem with the boys called Rainbow Bridge (a beautiful place “just this side of Heaven” where people meet up with their deceased pets when they die). I wouldn’t have thought to share this story but it seemed to be a great source of comfort to Kai. So we went with it.

Honoring the memories

Kai’s still a bit fixated on Rainbow Bridge. Yesterday, when I showed him a photo I’d taken at his brother’s baseball game, he brought it up again. “That’s a good picture, Mom. Don’t forget to show it to Dempsey when you die. Are you excited to be on Rainbow Bridge?” What I wanted to say was this: Do you even KNOW what Rainbow Bridge means? But of course he doesn’t—he’s looking to us to help him make sense of this all. And so I simply said, “It sounds like a really nice place” and decided it was time to pull out the Barney book again.

Last week, Julian told me not to think about Dempsey because “you shouldn’t think about sad things.” After we talked about keeping the happy memories, he requested a party to celebrate Dempsey’s life. “With cupcakes that look like Dempsey.” I think we’ll shoot for August 5, his would-be birthday.

As for me, I keep expecting to hear Dempsey’s nails against the wood floor, to meet his greeting at the door. I’m working through a bit of guilt—for not taking him on daily walks after the kids were born, for taking his ever-loving presence for granted. Still, I’m mostly grateful for how it all went down last week: Demps made it to the ocean, he experienced minimal pain. We got to say goodbye, surrounded by the support of our families. I’m pretty sure that all of this is hitting Jon a bit harder: Demps was his bud, often the only sane being in a home often exploding with emotions.

“You always knew what you were getting with Demps,” Jon had told me at the dive bar in South Carolina. So true: Dempsey was always happy to see you, ready to lift you up at the end of a shitty day. As for the rest of us in this family—well, sometimes it feels like we’re just a bunch of cohabiting humans tumbling over each other’s struggles. But we can make that better.

“I promise I’ll always say hi every time you walk in the door,” I’d told Jon, laughing. And crying. And meaning it.

Who said motherhood doesn't come with a manual?

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We've seen the tired old trope in articles, commercials and television shows so many times: working moms just have too much to do. They're chauffeuring kids around to evening practices, making lunches after said kids go to bed and staying up till the wee hours of the morning catching up on their relentless and stressful jobs. The message is clear: working moms are tired and burnt out. They don't get enough time for themselves because they're so busy giving it all to their families and their jobs. But does this really line up with the working mothers you know?

Here's a secret many working mothers have figured out: less really is more. The minimalist movement—simplifying your life and stuff to gain more time—has revolutionized life as a working mother. The minimalist mom gets a full night of sleep, has time with her kids and, importantly, has time for herself. Here's how:

1. She says no.

A minimalist mom knows her limits, her interests and what the tipping point is for herself and her family. So, she limits volunteering to what interests her and what she can reasonably fit into her life. She guards her Wednesday nights—the night she always takes off from family duties to hit a yoga class or do something for herself—fiercely. She also says no to her kids: it's one out-of-school activity at a time and Sunday mornings are always for family. She's also mastered saying this at work: No, I can't take your work on. No, I won't be staying late to finish your last-minute request.

2. She knows where to spend her money for increased quality of life.

She would rather hire a bi-weekly cleaner than buy a pair of designer jeans. Weeknight meals are easy and from the slow cooker or just a simple spread of crackers, cheese and fruit. Fast food and takeout is expensive, and she'd rather spend that money on a babysitter and three courses at that new trattoria for date night. She is happy to buy the expensive snow boots for her oldest so they last through all three kids—saving not only money, but also time shopping. The kitchen renovation can wait until the youngest is out of daycare. Until then, she'd rather use fun money to buy an extra week of vacation and road trip as a family. Her spending aligns with one of her biggest values: having time for the things and people she loves.

3. She doesn't care what other people think.

Her workwear is five outfits for each season and no more. It's professional, flattering and easy. No one notices if you've worn the same outfit for seven Tuesdays in a row. She doesn't care what grandiose delicacies are brought for the school bake sale: She brings the same delicious butter cookies (the ones that they can freeze a quadruple batch of dough for) to every event requiring a cookie or baked good. Keeping up with the Joneses—who are stressed out and broke—isn't her thing.

4. Her kids do some things, not everything.

The family lives by a shared Google calendar and there are set rules around weekend playdates and kids' activities. Their kids have a healthy mix of structured activities and unstructured play time. She is a person first; chauffeur, playdate arranger and sideline soccer mom second.

5. She delegates like the boss that she is.

She hasn't done kid laundry since her oldest could reach the stacked washer dryer on his own. Her husband alternates meal planning and grocery shopping with her every week and makes all the kids' dentist appointments (she does the doctor appointments). She only takes the dog for a walk when she wants to; otherwise the kids do it. When an older kid forgets his or her lunch at home, they know that they have to figure it out for themselves: raiding their stash of granola bars in their locker or borrowing money from a friend for lunch. She understands she can't do it all, but rather, she and her family can do the basics together.

6. She knows what she and her family need (and want).

Her non-negotiables are her running group that has met every Saturday at 7 A.M. for a decade, a long weekend away with her spouse every fall and bedtime stories with the kids at least three nights a week. She knows what people and things fuel her—this makes it easy to say no to things that don't. She has a rule for friends that invite her to those kitchen gadget/jewelry/leggings parties: if she knows the salesperson well, she'll buy one item but won't attend the party. Every other invitation is a no.

7. She has hard and fast rules around taking work home with her.

Her team knows that if they have something urgent after 6 P.M. they better call her. She doesn't check email once she has left the office until 6 A.M. the next morning. When she gets home from a week of work travel, she takes a four-day weekend. Her schedule is blocked out from 4 P.M. onwards. so she isn't scheduled into end-of-day meetings that could run long. She meditates for 10 minutes at the end of her shift so she can leave the work stress at work. She guards her personal time and mental space fiercely.

8. She views work as a break from family time and family time as a break from work.

Being mentally present and engaged at work and at home means no guilt over enjoying her balance of work and family life. She cheerfully enjoys that there's no diapers to change for nine hours a day Monday to Friday, and when she's home she revels in being out of her office and untethered from her phone and laptop. Learning to quickly switch gears from work, family and personal time is a skill she has mastered to simplify her life.

The minimalist working mother doesn't do it all: she does the things that are important to her and to her family. Her list is unique to her and no one else. How she spends her time and her money directly aligns with what she values. This ethos of living her values makes it clear, fast and easy to make decisions. She knows that time is her most valuable resource and she spends it wisely at home and at work.

Originally posted on Working Mother.

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When I was pregnant I worried about what would happen if the baby cried for me while I was in a deep sleep. Like so many pregnancy worries, though, blocking out my baby's cries was something I didn't really need to be concerned about. An alarm clock can go off inches from my head and I'll sleep through it for hours, but if my baby cries at the other end of the house, I'm wide awake.

It turns out, the sound of my baby crying impacts my brain very differently than a beeping alarm.

I'm hardly the first parent to make this observation, and science is on to it, too. There's plenty of research about how a baby's cries impact its mother on a physical level. A study of mother mice published in Nature found that adding oxytocin (a hormone released in strong doses during labor and lactation) to the brains of the mamas changed the way they processed the sound of crying pups—and helped them learn how to recognize and respond to the sounds.

A dose of this “motherhood hormone," it seems, leads to increased sensitivity to the sound of your child in distress.

According to Robert Froemke, that study's senior investigator, this suggests oxytocin amplifies the way the auditory cortex processes incoming cries from our own babies. He says the same seems to be true for female mice as female humans: The sound of a crying baby stirs up a great sense of urgency.

This physiological reaction allow us to develop rapid, reliable behaviors to our babies' cries, says Froemke. In time, it also helps us learn what the cries mean—and how we can respond in a helpful way.

When our babies cry, “[as parents, we] don't know what's really going to work, we just try a bunch of stuff. Let's change a diaper, let's feed the baby, let's do a little dance," he says. “Eventually we learn this repertoire of parenting skills because we're all in, we're all invested and that baby depends on us absolutely to take care of it."

Researchers believe that it may be this hormonal shift in the brain that alerts a mother to the sound of her child's cry.

Mothers' brains have a different level of sensitivity to crying babies

In humans and in mice, dads often respond to a baby's cries, but the brain chemistry is a little different: According to Froemke, extra oxytocin doesn't speed up the reaction to crying pups in male mice the way it does for females.

"There is a difference in terms of [ a father's] sensitivity to oxytocin. We think that may be because the male oxytocin system is already maxed out," he explains, adding there is something about living with a female and child that contributes to a natural oxytocin increase in mouse dads. (Further proof moms aren't the only ones to deal with big hormone changes.)

But when it comes to the brains of human parents, there is more evidence that the brains of men and women respond to crying babies differently. A study published in NeuroReport looked at the brains of 18 men and women who heard a baby crying while inside a brain scanner. The women's brain activity suggested an immediate alertness, while the men's brain activity didn't change.

That study suggests there are gender differences in the way we process baby sounds, but a lot of dads will tell you they can't and don't sleep through a baby cries. And that's for good reason: According to Froemke, it's no biological accident that babies signal distress in a way that can pierce parents brains even when our eyes are closed.

"Parents have to sleep, too," he says, but, "Sounds penetrate our brains, they tap into something deep and we can quickly rouse from a deep slumber, jump out of bed and tend to infant needs."

Just as my son is biologically wired to be my personal alarm clock, I am biologically wired to hear him—even if I can still sleep through everything else.

[Originally published October 18. 2017]

[Editor's note: This story is a letter from a woman to her husband. While this is one example of one type of relationship, we understand, appreciate and celebrate that relationships come in all forms and configurations.]

To my husband,

We met when I was 22. We started building a life together. We became each other's best friend, cheerleader, guidance counselor, and shelter from the storm. We laughed together, cried together, and stood up in front of all the people who matter to us and vowed to stay together until one of us dies.

We said the words without irony or hesitation, knowing that while we weren't perfect, the problems we could face in life would never be enough to break us.

And babe, I had no clue what our future held. But I knew I wanted to experience it only with you.

Then we got pregnant! And when our son was born, I marveled at the fact that we made a person. You and me. It honestly still blows my mind even five years later.

I'd heard women say things like, I fell in love with my husband all over again once I saw him as a daddy. I love watching you be a daddy, too—but just like becoming a mother has been transformative for me, becoming a father has been transformative for you, too. And it has taken us some time to get to know the new versions of ourselves.

We worked together—mostly on the same team—and have shared so many beautiful lessons and experiences together. Everything is new when you're a first-time parent! And this new dynamic of three definitely threw us for a loop—I wasn't used to sharing your attention with someone else, and I wasn't used to sharing my attention with someone other than you.

It took a few years to hit our stride. I think maybe we never had big things to disagree on before we became parents. It threw me off to be anything but harmonious with you. But just like we said we would on that gorgeous September wedding day, we found our way back. We stayed on each other's team.

And then I got pregnant again.

We were planning a huge life change already— moving across the country to start anew, restart your business and make a new future. I didn't have an easy pregnancy this time. And generally, for many reasons, life seemed harder than ever.

Our daughter was born and it didn't take long for postpartum depression to steal me away, for far longer than I should have allowed it to. I was scared to get the help I needed and I let it get the best of me. I'm truly sorry for that. I'm mostly sorry that I sometimes let it get the best of us.

It's easy to love a partner when it's just the two of you. Our priorities were never tested then—you were at the top of my to-do list, and I was at the top of yours. But—funny thing—this whole parenting thing seemed to make life a little more complex. And when your kids are little, and completely dependent upon you, there are many days when there just isn't much left over for anything or anyone else.

Babe, we're in it right now. Really in it. These are the parenting trenches. The baby years. These years can make or break us. And can I be so bold as to say: I think they're making us.

They're making us learn how to communicate better. How to find common ground when we disagree about real stuff, like the ways we want to raise our children. We're invested in not only the outcome but the short term effect. We're a team.

They're making us think about the future. Not just the fun stuff, but the difficult stuff like estate planning, life insurance, and college funds for the kids. They're making us challenge ourselves to provide our children with comfort and opportunities. We've always worked hard but the stakes have never been this high.

You know I'm the optimist, the dreamer, while you consider yourself the realist—but I think we can agree on this: going through some of the tough stuff with you by my side has shown me that we are stronger than the tough stuff. We can get through it. We can get through anything. As long as we hold on to each other.

Motherhood transformed me. Fatherhood transformed you. And having kids completely transformed our marriage. We'll never be who we were on our wedding day again.

Time marches forward—only forward. I miss the carefree version of "us", but I love this version even more. Because we know what we're made of now, and in so many ways we didn't before.

I'm sure that in our lifetime, many more obstacles will arise that will transform our marriage. But I've never been more confident that whatever may be, we'll find a way through it—together.

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Baking Christmas cookies together is a family tradition for many, but the Centers for Disease Control is warning parents that if your recipe contains raw flour or raw eggs, you really shouldn't sneak a bite before it is cooked, and neither should your kids.

The CDC is warning people not to eat raw cookie dough, cake mix or bread as we head into prime baking season.

The agency acknowledges the appeal of a spoonful of chocolate chip goodness but asks that we "steer clear of this temptation—eating or tasting unbaked products that are intended to be cooked, such as dough or batter, can make you sick."

Salmonella from raw eggs is, of course, a concern, and so is the raw flour. According to the CDC, flour needs to be cooked in order to kill germs like E.Coli. That's why the CDC is asking parents to "say no to raw dough," not just for eating but even for playing with.

"Children can get sick from handling or eating raw dough used for crafts or play clay, too," the CDC posted on its website.

On the Food and Drug Administration's website, that agency advises that "even though there are websites devoted to 'flour crafts,' don't give your kids raw dough or baking mixes that contain flour to play with." Health Canada also states that raw flour should not be used in children's play-dough.

The warnings follow a 2016 E.coli outbreak linked to contaminated raw flour. Dozens of people got sick that year, and a post-outbreak report notes that "state investigators identified three ill children who had been exposed to raw flour at restaurants in Maryland, Virginia, and Texas. Restaurant staff had given them raw dough to play with while they waited for their food to be served."

The CDC worries that with flour's long shelf life, products recalled during the 2016 outbreak may still be in people's pantries (although the CDC notes that any raw flour—recalled or otherwise—should not be consumed).

If your kids do have flour-based play dough, don't worry.

Some parents are still choosing to use flour-based craft dough to make Christmas ornaments or other crafts this holiday season and are reducing the risks by A) making sure the kids aren't eating their art, and B) thoroughly washing little hands, work surfaces, and utensils when the dough play is over.

Other parents are choosing other types of craft clay over flour-based dough.


During the 2016 outbreak, the FDA called for Americans to abstain from raw cookie dough, an approach Slate called "unrealistic and alarmist," noting that "the vast, vast majority of people who consume or touch uncooked flour do not contract E. coli or any other infection."

Two years ago, 63 Americans were made sick by E. coli infections linked to raw flour, according to the CDC. We don't know exactly how many Americans ate a spoonful of cookie dough or played with homemade play dough that year, but we do know that more than 319 million Americans did not get sick because of raw flour.

Are there risks associated with handling and consuming raw flour? Yes, absolutely, but it's not something to panic over.

Bottom line: Don't let your kids eat raw dough when they're helping you bake cookies for Santa, and be mindful of raw flour when choosing crafts for kids.

(And if you have just got to get your raw cookie dough fix, the CDC notes that cookie dough flavored ice cream is totally safe as it "contains dough that has been treated to kill harmful bacteria." Sounds like mama's getting Ben & Jerry's tonight.)

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