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Don’t Feel Guilty If You Don’t Have Time for Family Dinner

It’s 4:50 p.m. on a Wednesday, and this is the scene at my house: I’m madly rushing to finish up cooking dinner, while tripping on my one-year-old who, in preparation for her witching hour, has thrown herself at my feet. Meanwhile, the five-year-old is bemoaning his starvation, despite the fact that he had a snack an hour ago, and his dinnertime smoothie is already in front of him.


I slam their food on the table, like an ornery waitress at one of those 50s-themed diners, but I won’t be sitting down with my kids to eat tonight. Sure, I may plop down in exhaustion on the chair next to my son, but I’ll be up in three minutes, cleaning up spilled milk from my kindergartner or thrown food from the toddler.

My husband won’t be joining us either, thanks to his Silicon Valley job with a long commute and even longer hours.

Yet again, we won’t be having a family dinner together. Even though I know my husband and I spend plenty of time with our young children, I still feel guilty from seeing report after report extol the virtues of having every member in the family sit down together for an evening meal.

I know we’re not the only family who’s not having dinner together tonight and feeling bad about it. But a study from 2012 can assuage our guilt. Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that family dinner itself did not create the benefits that have been previously reported in children whose families share nightly mealtime. Those benefits were lower obesity rates, greater academic success, and fewer instances of substance abuse and delinquent behavior. Instead, family dinner was “a marker for families that have a bundle of traits that contribute to good child outcomes,” MinnPost reported.

Families that regularly have mealtime together tend to have more time and money and are more likely to have a non-employed stay-at-home mother than families who don’t dine together, according to the report.

Unlike in previous studies on family mealtimes, researchers for the University of Minnesota report were able to use data that asked both children and parents questions about their family life, and it asked these questions at several different times during the participants’ childhoods. The data came from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, a long-term study of a sample of 18,000 children.

The study’s conclusion is a classic example of confusing correlation for causation. It’s also reminiscent of recent research that indicates that the previously-reported benefits of breastfeeding have been exaggerated. (Breastfed babies tend to be in families with more resources than formula-fed children, and this socioeconomic status is more likely the cause of these children’s better health and well-being.)

In a similar vein, Bruce Feiler, a New York Times columnist and author of “The Secrets of Happy Families,” argued that it’s not the family dinner that yields the benefits, but the quality time spent together – no matter the occasion or time of day.

In his research into tens of thousands of cataloged chats around the dinner table, Feiler found that there is actually only 10 minutes of real conversation.

“The rest is taken up with ‘take your elbows off the table’ and ‘pass the ketchup’ and all that kind of stuff,” he told radio program “The Splendid Table.”

So if regular family dinners don’t work for your family – like mine – there’s no need to feel guilty. Ann Meier, co-author of the University of Minnesota study and University of Minnesota associate professor of sociology, told MinnPost that family meals “may be a nice kind of ritual context for good parenting to happen,” but families can connect with each other at other times and in other ways.

Feiler came to a similar conclusion, saying that as long as families can find 10-15 minutes a day to bond and have that “real conversation,” they will reap the same benefits as having family dinner. Taking the concept of “time-shifting” from the work world, he said, families who can’t eat together nightly can simply time-shift their family time.

How can your busy family carve out 15-30 minutes a day to check in and spend quality time together? Here are five alternatives to the revered family dinner:

Family breakfast

This is one of the alternate rituals Feiler recommended, but is family breakfast a truly viable option for families scrambling to pack lunches, make daycare and school dropoff, and get to work? Apparently so, I found when I crowd sourced family-dinner-alternative ideas from friends and parenting groups on Facebook.

“We only do family dinner one to three times per week, but we have breakfast together every morning,” said Beth Wolf, mom of two children under four in Chicago. “The kids get us up early anyway!”

Family breakfast is an ideal choice for families with little ones who are up at the crack of dawn. If you’re up with your kids and sleep deprived long before you have to start your morning commute, why not share some eggs and toast together?

Video chats

Since my kids changed their nap schedules this summer and started going to bed at 7 p.m. – before my husband even gets home from work – an evening video call through the Houseparty app has become part of my family’s daily routine. It’s a chance for my son to tell Daddy about what happened at transitional kindergarten that day and the toddler to say “Dada, Dada” excitedly when she sees her dad’s face – and a great replacement for the family dinner that doesn’t work with our family’s schedule.

Family video chats are well suited for families where a parent travels a lot or works odd hours, like Laura Birks-Reinert’s family in New Jersey. Her husband works nights, so she and her twin six-year-old boys Skype with Daddy at 7 p.m. every day, sometimes during bath time.

Play

Many families feel like mealtimes aren’t the best time for real conversation anyway. Families with young children often spend most of dinnertime cleaning up spills and managing one crisis after another. Tweens and teens feel like they’re being interrogated about school and friends when everyone is gathered at the dinner table, staring at them.

Family play time might, in fact, be a better way to spend quality time than mealtimes.

“In our home, our family spends plenty of time together,” said Teresa Currivan, parent coach and mother to an 11-year-old in Oakland, Calif. “As long as some of that is quality time, I’m fine skipping the family dinner. Our family does improv games together, Nerf battles, etc. Play lends itself to more connection than sitting and eating together all the time – at least for my gang.”

Blogger and author Kelly Holmes has instituted five to 10 minutes of family cuddle time in bed after everyone returns from work and school to give her family of five a chance to re-connect before their busy evening routine starts.

While family play happens more spontaneously with little ones, there’s still ways to engage with older kids. Families can gather for weekend board game nights or participate in daily conversation games that author Bruce Feiler recommended. Those games include “Bad and Good,” in which every family member takes a turn telling one thing that was good about their day and one that was bad, and “Pain Points,” where everyone talks about a difficult situation they’re facing.

Special weekly routines

Like the weekend board game nights I previously mentioned, creating weekly family traditions is another great way to bond, especially as your kids grow older and want to spend less time with you and more time hiding in their rooms (on Snapchat with friends).

Move family dinner to Sunday night, and invite the kids to help you prep and cook. Bring the family together for Sunday brunch, go for a walk Sunday afternoon before dinner, or sit down for a movie and bowl of popcorn Saturday night.

Driving time

Make use of all those hours you spend in the car, shuttling the kids to and from after-school activities. Instead of conversation during family dinner, this is where your family’s real discussions can happen.

Car chats are what works best for Jacqui Pastoral-Conclara and her husband in San Bruno, California, as they drive their three boys, aged 11, 13 and 15, to after-school sports and weekend travel tournaments.

“I found that the time we drive to the games is the perfect opportunity to connect with my kids,” she said. “They tend to be introspective and profound in these conversations when trapped traveling in the car with their parents.”

And if your child is feeling a bit reticent about opening up on their own during the drive, try one of Feiler’s conversational games: “Bad and Good” or “Pain Points.”

A special note about teenagers

Remember that University of Minnesota study showing that family dinner isn’t what leads to the positive outcomes in children? There’s one exception – teenagers. (Teenagers are always the exception, right?)

According to the researchers, adolescents whose families shared mealtimes tended to report fewer symptoms of depression. Study author Ann Meier theorized that these regular family meals might be an opportunity for parents to check on their teenager’s emotional well-being and intervene if necessary.

Note: There was no similar association between family dinner and adolescent substance abuse or delinquency, like shoplifting or damaging property.

But again, if you’re a parent of teenagers and can’t fit nightly family mealtimes into your schedule, connect with your kids with Sunday dinner or conversation during car rides.

No matter what your children’s ages, try to take at least 10-15 minutes a day to really be there for them. Put down your phone, turn off the TV or car radio, open your ears, and see what happens.

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Between the sleepless nights, endless worries, and persistent temper tantrums, parenting can feel like a fast track to gray hairs and wrinkles.

Now, researchers at Northwestern University have proven what we've suspected all along: having children does, in fact, speed up the aging process. A new study, which was published last month in Scientific Reports, found that each pregnancy can age a mother's cells by up to two years.

Each baby ages a mother’s cells

Researchers studied 821 women in the Philippines between the ages of 20 and 22, with various reproductive histories. They examined two separate markers of cellular aging—telomere length and epigenetic age—to measure the toll pregnancy takes on the body.

"Telomere length and epigenetic age are cellular markers that independently predict mortality, and both appeared 'older' in women who had more pregnancies in their reproductive histories," Calen Ryan, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in biological anthropology at Northwestern, said in a statement. "Even after accounting for other factors that affect cellular aging, the number of pregnancies still came out on top."

The researchers were surprised to find that cellular aging increased between about six months and two years for each additional pregnancy—a figure much higher than what they originally anticipated. Meanwhile, women who were currently pregnant had cells that looked significantly younger than predicted for their biological age."

It's an interesting situation in which pregnancy makes someone look temporarily 'young,' but there appears to be some lasting, cumulative relationship between the number of pregnancies and more accelerated biological age," noted Christopher Kuzawa, PhD, senior author of the study and a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University.

Our telomeres shorten and our epigenetic age increases

Telomeres, which are stretches of DNA at the end of chromosomes, protect our DNA and make it possible for our cells to divide. Longer telomeres are associated with longer lives and better health. As people age and as cells divide and replicate, those telomeres shorten.

Given that there is hyper cell production during pregnancy, it makes sense that those telomeres would shorten and, therefore, appear to age dramatically.

"During pregnancy, more cells need to be produced for carrying and nurturing the fetus, such as in red blood cells, placental cells, and more," said Dr. Kim Langdon, an Ohio-based retired OB-GYN who writes at Parenting Pod. "In addition, the cells in all organs such as the heart and uterus enlarge. This is known as hypertrophy—and when cells hypotrophy, their telomeres shorten."

Meanwhile, the epigenetic age begins to climb. This is an estimate of a person's biological age based on changes in the DNA that are caused by environmental factors, such as toxins and stress.

In other words, pregnancy puts a lot of pressure on the body. "I'm not really surprised," Langdon told Healthline about the findings. "Every OB-GYN knows the extreme stress to the system that pregnancy causes."

Throughout pregnancy, the blood volume increases by 50% as does the cardiac output, which puts strain on the heart. The kidney function increases and the lungs have reduced capacity, which causes breathlessness.

Why, then, did the pregnant women seem so much better off?

It may all come down to the immunological, hormonal, and physiological changes that take place during pregnancy to support development of the baby.

For example, pregnant women experience elevated estrogen levels, which can lower oxidative stress and prevent damage to telomere length and epigenetic age. Once the baby is born, though, those shifts are no longer necessary.

The findings may not be permanent

The study supports previous evidence that women who have had more pregnancies are more susceptible to certain illnesses and have slightly shorter life spans. Earlier this year, researchers from George Mason University found that childbirth could age a woman by as many as 11 years.

While it may be nerve-racking to learn that having children can accelerate the aging process, scientists still don't fully understand why this happens and don't want women to worry.

According to Langdon, we are far away from understanding if these findings could impact family planning or the longevity or long-term health of the mother.

"We don't know if these findings are permanent," Langdon said. "More longitudinal studies need to be done over many years, even decades, to see if this is reversible or if it really can predict when you will die."

The researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Washington have already started they working on a follow-up study that will examine the same group of women 13 years after their cellular measurements were first taken. Eventually, we'll be able to see if the women's cells continue to appear older throughout their life.

Until then, though, you can keep blaming your kids for those fine lines and dark circles.

Originally posted on Healthline.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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I always thought I'd have babies. As in, multiple babies. Maybe three or four? I knew it would be hard. I knew pregnancy was tough and childbirth was no walk in the park.

I just didn't know how tough. And I also had no idea how hard my recovery would be.

It's been nearly four months, and I'm still taking pain medicine. I'm still using the witch hazel pads and haven't touched toilet paper. I'm still struggling with issues from my labor and delivery that just won't go away.

I'm still dealing with the emotional guilt that comes from feeling like I failed my daughter because I don't remember her first moments of life due to the trauma of what my body went through.

My birth story was traumatic and terrifying—and rare.

At 38 weeks pregnant, I had been in what we thought was labor for almost two days—but was actually a kidney stone. I was in constant, terrible pain for nearly 48 hours straight, and morphine didn't take the pain away—it only took the edge off. I watched out the hospital window as the world went by outside, and the hours dragged on.

I didn't sleep because of the pain. My body was completely drained and had gone into survival mode because of what felt like endless torture. Eventually, I was induced because of a small leak of amniotic fluid and had to give birth in an exhausted physical state and a completely anxious mental state.

I was in no way ready to have my baby—the baby I had been so ready for just weeks earlier.

This lead to all the things I had hoped to avoid for my birth—inducement, more inducement because I wasn't progressing fast enough, having to lie flat on my back, epidural, episiotomy and forceps.

By the time my sweet daughter finally entered the world, and they placed her in my arms—all I could do was immediately fall back onto the bed and close my eyes. My body was shutting down from sheer exhaustion. I wasn't even able to look at my brand new baby, let alone admire her or watch her take her first breaths. This part of my birth story still breaks my heart.

After they moved me to my recovery room, I asked my husband what our delivery room number was—because I never wanted to go in that room again. I didn't want to see it. I didn't want to walk down the hallway past it. And I really didn't want to think about what happened in there. My mind was scarred by the fear and anxiety I experienced.

The hardest part of all of this is that now, the thought of getting pregnant again terrifies me. My heart longs to have a house full of little feet running down the halls, yet my body says "closed for business." It's a confusing tension.

I know of women who have suffered through experiences much worse than I have. I know there are stories out there that are almost unbelievable. I don't know if or when or how I will ever feel ready for another baby again.

Yet, I have been realizing a few things.

It's okay that I'm scared. It's okay that I didn't feel as strong as I hoped to be. It's okay that I didn't power through childbirth without assistance. It's okay that I wasn't like the moms who can give birth in their sleep.

And it's okay that I wasn't physically able to witness my daughter's first moments of life. It doesn't make me a bad mother. It won't ruin my daughter's life. She doesn't even know what happened—only I do. I'm the one whose heart is broken because of this—not hers. She was in mama's arms and that's all she knew.

So I'm giving myself grace. I'm letting my mind and body heal for however long it takes. I'm not going to feel the guilt of failure—because I didn't fail.

So, mama with the traumatic birth story, please give yourself grace too. You're a good mom. You're a strong and powerful woman who has done something amazing.

You brought life into this world.

Your body didn't fail—you survived, and you're a mother now. And it's absolutely, 100% okay if you change your mind about having another baby. You have permission to feel exactly how you feel, right now at this moment.

Don't feel like less of a woman because of a story that was ultimately out of your control. You did it. You really did it. That is what makes you a strong, powerful woman. You are amazing, and you are a rockstar for going through what you did.

And you know what? You're killing this whole motherhood thing, too—just so you know.

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First responders do a lot of heroic things on the job. We're used to seeing police officers on TV pulling victims to safety or chasing down the bad guys, but sometimes heroism looks a lot different. Sometimes, it looks like breastfeeding.

A Facebook photo of a police officer breastfeeding a hungry baby in an Argentinian hospital has now gone viral for a very good reason. It's a simple act, but to that hungry baby, Officer Celeste Ayala is certainly a hero.

The photo was posted to Facebook by Marcos Heredia, who says he witnessed the police officer comfort and breastfeed a hungry baby while on duty at the Sister Maria Ludovica Children's Hospital in Buenos Aires.

According to Heredia, who tagged the officer in the Facebook post, Officer Ayala was attending the busy hospital on August 14 when she noticed the baby, a patient, needing care and comfort, and took it upon herself to give it.

"I want to make public this great gesture of love that you had today with that little baby, who without knowing you didn't hesitate, and for a moment you fulfilled [as if] you were their mother," reads a loose translation of Heredia's post.

Multiple Spanish-language websites report the 6-month-old baby Ayala breastfed is the youngest of six siblings who were in the process of being placed into foster care because their mother did not have the resources to feed them. The children were at the hospital for the medical exams they needed before being moved into foster care when Ayala came into contact with the baby, who was desperately hungry while waiting, according to reports.

Metro reports Ayala spoke to local media in Buenos Aires, explaining that she noticed hospital staff were overwhelmed so she, a mother of two, asked if she could comfort and feed the baby. "I noticed that he was hungry, as he was putting his hand into his mouth, so I asked to hug him and breastfeed him. It was a sad moment, it broke my soul seeing him like this, society should be sensitive to the issues affecting children, it cannot keep happening," Ayala reportedly said.

Not only is Ayala a mother and a police officer, but she is also apparently a volunteer firefighter as well. Her fellow firefighters joined in the chorus of people supporting Ayala's simple heroism on social media.

'We want to congratulate the voluntary firefighting cadet Celeste Ayala who yesterday in her job as police officer whilst she was on guard duty at the hospital, breastfed a young child who arrived crying."

Sometimes, first responders pull people from a burning building or save people from a hostage taking. And sometimes they feed babies.


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