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When I was six-years-old, four six-inch tall stuffed toys arrived with a bubbling hot, deep-dish pie from the new Pizza Hut that opened within walking distance of our house in New Jersey.


“They were just $1.99 with a medium pie,” said my mother, and I grabbed all four, before reaching for an onion- and pepper-topped slice. These were brightly colored Disney toys – with tags that marked them “Made Especially for Pizza Hut” – golden Pooh, pink Piglet, steel-gray Eeyore, orange Tigger. I held them, two by two, in my small greasy hands, while I picked off the toppings and then the cheese. I dropped red tomato sauce into my lap and onto Piglet’s left ear. Crumbs landed inside Pooh’s red t-shirt.

I was so excited to have new toys and I was sure that my old toys would be ecstatic to have new companions. I cleaned a space on my desk for my four new friends. Beside them, I placed a plush-covered mechanical beagle and a porcelain doll. I climbed into my pink gingham canopy bed and shut my eyes tight. Like most children, I thought that my dolls and teddy bears came alive after I went to sleep.

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I didn’t read the original  “Winnie-the-Pooh” by A. A. Milne  until several years later, when I was nearly 10 years old. My elementary school language arts teacher handed me a copy. I was a shy child who often found herself lost in the pages of a book, even on the playground. Up until then, I had been reading fabricated Pooh stories in books like “Disney’s Story-A-Day for Every Day of the Year: Winter” or “Disney’s Story-A-Day for Every Day of the Year: Autumn.”

The night that my teacher gave me the book, I put Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, and Tigger on my pillow and read to them: “Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-The-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders….” I didn’t want to put the book down and, when my mother took it out of my hands at bedtime, I woke up early and finished it while eating my breakfast.

In the modified Disney versions I had been reading, Christopher Robin and his friends didn’t get into the escapades I was reading about in Milne’s stories. Now when my Pooh and Piglet played together at night, they recreated their adventures in the Hundred Acre Woods in my own house: Pooh got into a tight place as he attempted to exit Rabbit’s house; Eeyore lost his tail and Pooh found it; Piglet met a Heffalump.

In the “real” Winnie-the-Pooh, Ernest H. Shepard’s black and white “decorations” showed a shirtless Pooh, so I snuck into my mother’s bedroom, took her sewing scissors, and eagerly cut off the apple-red shirt that my Pooh wore. At 10, I surely knew that my toys were inanimate objects, but just as my classmates continued to believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy while on the cusp of puberty, I clung to my bookish fantasies.

My classroom’s copy of “Winnie-the-Pooh” – its cover a faded orange, several of the pages torn, and some pencil marks around the poems – became mine for the rest of the school year. I renewed it every week for months, carefully printing my name on the index card in the back. On the last day of the school year, I reluctantly gave the book back to my teacher. I owned few books: my immigrant parents could not afford many. I wanted a copy of my own.

That summer, we went to India and I carried Pooh and his friends in my backpack with me. My mother made me leave them there at my grandmother’s house, so I could play with them “when we resettled in India” (which we still haven’t done). I was devastated. My toys would be so far away! Would they miss me? I wondered. When we came back to New Jersey that August, the beagle and the doll looked lonely, so I put a few other toys near them – a purple and white teddy bear that played “Auld Lang Syne” when you squeezed its tummy and a blue-eyed baby doll tucked inside a multicolored quilt.

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As I grew up, I learned more about my childhood friends. I read more about Milne, his son Christopher Robin, and Christopher Robin’s real stuffed toys that inspired the books’ cast of characters. I visited them, one high school summer, at The New York Public Library – Winnie-the-Pooh, solemn, without a honey pot; Piglet with his face slightly smashed in (“where a dog had bitten him,” according to Christopher Milne); Tigger, sober and sedentary; Kanga, without Roo (who was apparently lost somewhere in Sussex); and Eeyore, the way I imagined he might be, quiet and pensive, looking at his front hoof. I finally bought a paperback  boxed set of all of A.A. Milne’s Pooh collection  and put it on the top shelf of my bookcase.

This summer, I pulled that boxed set off my shelf, as I spent the season in my parents’ house in New Jersey with my four-year-old daughter. Each night, she and I snuggled under the covers and read a chapter of “Winnie-the-Pooh” and, then, “The House at Pooh Corner.”

The interesting capitalization tripped me up at first as I read aloud, but by the time I was on page four, I was back in love with the simple, natural, and affectionate bear, as was my daughter. I realized I must have set all of Pooh’s Poetry and Hums to made-up music as a child because they came rushing back to me as I read on.

The first movie my gentle and sensitive child ever sat through was  Disney’s “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”  and she recognized many of the books’ plot points from the film.

“I know that story, Mama!” she said, as she drifted off to sleep.

“Sort of,” I said. “But this version is better.”

For those few weeks, we talked about Pooh over bowls of oatmeal in the morning, and whistled “Sing ho! for Piglet (PIGLET) ho!” during bath time. I told her that Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends recently went back on display at NYPL after more than a year of repairs, and that my Disney Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and Eeyore still reside in my grandmother’s steel cupboard along with the frilly frocks, Enid Blyton books, and colored pencils of my childhood.

When I was 10 years old, I never understood why Eeyore becomes so annoyed with Piglet when they come across a letter “A” made out of  three sticks arranged on the ground: “Not O, A,” said Eeyore severely. “Can’t you hear, or do you think you have more education than Christopher Robin?” And I didn’t know what Christopher Robin meant when he said, “I’m not going to do Nothing anymore… They don’t let you.” 

But now I understand. While reading these beloved books to my daughter, I gathered what I missed – that here was a story of a peaceful animal kingdom ruled by a single benevolent being, an Eden interrupted by a Tree of Knowledge.

My child is not far off from starting kindergarten, and she’s already learning how to “not do Nothing anymore” in preschool. Soon, she will no longer refer to her stuffed toys as her “friends,” as she does now, and I once did. One of the joys of raising a very young child, for me, lies in indulging her and my pleasure of make-believe.

My observations are hardly profound. Generations of parents before me have come to understand that the proverbial days are long, but the years are short. Still, I can’t help but feel that catch in my throat, especially as she begins to become curious and asks about weightier subjects, like the vastness of the universe as she looks into her telescope or about her paternal grandfather’s Parkinson’s Disease as she plays hide-and-seek with him.

I have no desire to hide her away in Paradise, for I believe that every caregiver’s task is to prepare at child to fly. And so it is, once again, Milne’s words that bring me comfort: “But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”

Who said motherhood doesn't come with a manual?

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A man stood by the side of the road, thin and ragged, holding a battered cardboard sign. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel, willing the light to turn green. He was close enough that if my car window had been rolled down, I could have reached out and touched him. But the windows were shut, a solid barrier between us.

"Mommy, what is that guy doing? What does his sign say?" my daughter asked from the backseat. She was in kindergarten, just beginning to read.

I cast a side-eyed glance at him. "His sign says 'Homeless and Hungry'," I told her. "He's asking for money."

"Well, aren't you going to help him?" she asked. "He's hungry!"

I rarely carry cash, so it wasn't a lie when I mumbled, "I don't actually have any dollar bills with me right now." I felt a pang of guilt, though. To my daughter, it was obvious that we should come to the aid of a hungry man who needed help. Had I lost sight of my own humanity, zooming past this man without a second glance?

Next time, I resolved, I would stop and give something.

The following day I stashed a few one dollar bills in the console of my car and designated it "the homeless fund."

About a week later, on the way home from school, we came upon another man panhandling. Homeless Vet, his sign said. I gave him a couple of dollars through my car window. He was gracious, and the interaction only lasted a moment.

As I drove on, I realized I was feeling something I hadn't expected: happiness. I remembered then what I had learned in my early twenties as an Americorps volunteer, that giving makes you feel good.

This continued for a few months. My daughter would announce "There's someone with a sign!" and I would scrounge for loose change or bills. But I wondered if we could do more. The people we gave to were often stationed near the interstate exit closest to our house, close to a McDonald's. What about gift cards instead of cash?

My daughter and I talked about other small things someone who lives on the street might like. "A bottle of water," she suggested. "A snack."

I went online for ideas and found several ideas for care kits. We went shopping and packed a few large Ziploc bags with chapstick, tissues, bottled water, granola bars, $5 McDonald's gift cards, and pairs of socks. I stashed them in my glove compartment to have on hand, and my daughter and I began putting together a handful of bags each month.

Since then we have given away many of these care packages. The recipients have been men and women, young and old. Some are disheveled and some are well-groomed. The messages on their signs vary: "Far From Home," "Hungry," "Anything Helps," "Vietnam Vet," "God Bless." Every time we give a bag away, though, we are met with thanks.

Then recently, it was my turn to do the thanking. My daughter and I were at the local nature center and I had forgotten to pack sandwiches for lunch. A small hot dog stand was our only option, so I started to order. Then I noticed the "cash only" sign.

"Oh...wait. You don't take credit or debit cards?" I asked.

"We only take cash," the man running the stand replied.

"Never mind," I said, embarrassed and flustered. "I don't actually have any cash with me."

Immediately my daughter began whining. "Mooommmmy, what are we going to eat? I'm starving!"

The vendor looked at her and then at me. "Wait here," he said and began preparing two hot dogs.

"But I don't have any way to pay you," I protested.

"It's okay," he replied, "I'm giving them to you. I want to do this. Let me do one nice thing today."

My voice caught as I thanked him, humbled to experience this level of kindness from a stranger. I felt a combination of discomfort with my situation combined with gratitude. For a moment, I realized what it must feel like to be on the other end of our care package project.

I'll never know the impact of our project. But so what? I'm not a Catholic, but I am a fan of Pope Francis. "Give without worry," he said in an interview last year about giving to the homeless. Because giving to someone in need is always right."

It's been three years since my daughter and I began giving away our care packages. If she hadn't shamed me into trying to help a hungry man, I would still be avoiding eye contact with people on the street who ask for assistance. Instead, I remember how I felt that day at the hot dog stand. I also think about the vendor's words: Let me do one nice thing today.

The care packages are a simple project. But in a way, they're anything but simple. The project has given me the chance to model kindness and compassion to my child. It's created an opportunity for us to work together. And it's allowed us to experience the joy that comes from doing something good.

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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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