TIME Parenting

The Grandparent Deficit: Fertility Isn’t the Only Biological Clock

Grandmother and granddaughter walk
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There's often one forgotten variable in the decision about having kids later in life

A few months ago I was sitting in the vast dining room of an assisted-living home in Washington, D.C., watching my 5-year-old niece bounce like a pinball between tables of seniors. It was a startling sight–that small, smooth blond blur amid a hundred crinkly faces. Her audience, mostly women in their 80s and 90s, grinned as she navigated all the parked walkers, canes and wheelchairs as if it were a playground.

Sahar is a bit of a celebrity here. Far younger than most of the other grandchildren who visit, she is a rare burst of kindergarten energy in a place where even the elevators move very slowly. She comes frequently to have meals with my dad, her grandfather. He’s 81, and she doesn’t know what he was like before dementia took hold. Nor does she remember her grandmother who died four years ago, except in the funny stories my sister tells so often that Sahar refers to them as if they were her own memories.

She and my two daughters are among a growing number of kids who will see their grandparents primarily as people in need of care rather than as caretakers. They are the leading edge of a generation whose mothers and fathers had children later in life. They’ve seen us juggle our jobs, their school schedules and their grandparents’ needs simultaneously–one day missing work to be at the bedside of a parent who’s had a bad fall, another day trying to call an elder-care aide from the back row of a dance recital.

It seems naive to say this tripart balancing act came as a surprise to me and my sister, but it did. Somehow, while we were worrying about our biological clocks and our careers, it didn’t occur to us that another biological clock was ticking down: that of our parents’ health. And while medical science keeps coming up with new ways to prolong fertility, thwarting the frailties of old age is harder.

Our parents seemed so vibrant, so capable in their 60s that we couldn’t imagine how fast things would change. We knew that three or four years could make a huge difference in our fertility, but it turned out that three or four years could also mean the difference between a grandmother who can take a toddler to the beach and one who can’t lift her newest grandbaby out of a kiddie pool because of arthritis.

My daughters may face an even greater grandparent gap. I was almost 39 when I had my second child. If she has a child at the same age, I’ll be over 80 when that grandchild enters pre-K. And I’m not alone here: about six times as many children were born to women 35 and older in 2012 as they were 40 years ago.

I’m aiming to stay spry, but by the time I become a grandmother, I’ll likely be past the age that my daughter can drop her kids off at my house for a weekend. Will I be one of those exceptional octogenarians who jogs every day? Will I be able to babysit, or will I need my daughter to find me a babysitter? I don’t know. But with about half a million people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s each year, plus the usual maladies of age, there’s a fair chance I’ll need some kind of help.

If I had thought about all that, I might have gotten pregnant a few years earlier, just to give my kids that little bit of extra time with my parents in their prime. Of course, it’s not as if my sister and I could have chosen exactly when we met the men who became our children’s fathers. Nor do I regret spending my 20s and part of my 30s living in different countries, doing all kinds of jobs, soaking up the world. It was glorious, and it made me a better mother. But I do know I’d give anything if my kids could have one more weekend at the beach with my parents in peak grandparenting mode–full of silly jokes and poetry and wry observations from extraordinary lives lived fully.

And now, amid the ongoing debate over when to lean into a job or a relationship or children, my take has changed. I want to tell my daughters, “Don’t forget grandparents in the high-pressure calculus of modern life. I would like to make it easier for you if you want to lean in and have babies at the same time. I’d also like to know your children.” Who knows if I’ll get that chance, given the million variables at play, but I want them to know it’s an option.

In the meantime, I’m leaning into this new phase, one ripe with gratitude even as my father fades, losing more of himself every day. My children are discovering that they are not always the center of the world. And while my little niece may never know what my dad was like when he used to hide Easter eggs or swim after us pretending to be a shark, his white hair pluming like sea foam, she’s learning something beautiful from her mother. She sees my sister visiting him daily, feeding him, talking to him. Sahar is seeing kindness firsthand. And she understands that the thin, confused man in the bed is someone worth loving. That he is family.

Schrobsdorff is an assistant managing editor at TIME


This appears in the March 30, 2015 issue of TIME.
TIME Family

Being a Stay-at-Home Mother Is Not a Job

xoJane.com is where women go to be their unabashed selves, and where their unabashed selves are applauded

I was able to do nothing but focus on giving my daughter the best early years at home that I could provide. That was a gift. Not a career

xojane

Alright, calm down. Before you get angry, you should know that I was a stay-at-home mother of my daughter for five years. I proudly made that choice, too, so I’m not speaking out of ignorance/anger/first-wave-feminist desire to put women down for their decision to parent from home.

And I definitely understand where the desire to complain about being a stay-at-home parent like it’s more rigorous than some lousy 9 to 5 comes from. I lived it. It was really hard. I was lonely a lot. There were many days I wanted to call in sick.

I also understand a stay-at-homer wanting to validate her or his life choice by calling it a “job.” We get a lot of grief from academics and professionals, and we’re very often belittled by our society for not contributing anything “valuable.” There’s a sense that we need to defend ourselves against a culture that wants to make us feel inferior or useless because of the way we’re spending our time, but trying to argue its worth by identifying it as something identical to a full-time career isn’t helping the cause. If you’re proud of how you’re living your life, there’s no need to rephrase it to make it more palatable to those who don’t agree with its worth.

Being a stay-at-home mother to your own kids is not a “job,” no matter how difficult it is or how hard we work. Period. Getting to do nothing but raise a person you opted to bring into the world is a privilege, and calling it anything else is ignorant and condescending.

Sure, parenting is hard work, but so is going camping or throwing a party for a friend; I don’t go around calling those things my “jobs.” And FUN FACT: While there are obviously labor-intensive tasks involved with running a household like cleaning and cooking, those are things every person has to do (or pay someone else to do) regardless of their status as parents, and they don’t define our life’s work.

Obviously, staying at home and taking care of people in lieu of working for wages is a valued lifestyle, but it is not a “career”; people who retire early to care for their elderly parents don’t suddenly tell everyone they’ve gone into the health care profession. Choosing to care for your own small child is no different.

Statistically, it’s unbelievable that I was able to afford being a SAHM at all. I found out I was pregnant three months into a relationship with a guy I’d met our senior year of college. I wasn’t the type who ever wanted children, but the minute I found out I was pregnant, I knew I wanted to keep her. Never mind that I was still living with my parents after moving back in with them during a mental breakdown my sophomore year at an out-of-state university four years prior. Never mind that I was only employed 15-ish hours per week and was due to graduate a few weeks later with a BA in English. Nope! We were havin’ a baby!

The wonderful, unassuming young man with whom I was about to take this ill-advised journey had earned his way through college as the Art Director for the student magazine, and he was able to start working a full-time, professional job literally two days after we graduated from college in May 2007. I started working part-time as an administrative assistant, but I was upfront about being pregnant and knew that I wouldn’t be able to stay on after having my daughter, especially because my pregnancy was rough on my health from the start.

After I gave birth, I worked part-time while my mother watched her free-of-charge, and for the first couple years, we participated in the government’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which helped provide tons of nutritious groceries for myself while I was pregnant and nursing, then later when my little girl was eating solid foods. Once my partner had moved to a more profitable job, we were able to quit the program, and I kept working freelance writing and acting gigs here and there. We survived the 2008 financial crisis (which happened the week we were away getting married all by ourselves, incidentally), and my husband got a new job three hours away from my family.

For a while, I kept plugging away at freelance work when I could find it, but was always confined to staying at home. Ultimately, though, I made the choice not to take the first mediocre full-time job that came along that required me to not be with my daughter in her early years in exchange for a paycheck that would just go back into childcare. We didn’t have any extra money, but I was able to do nothing but focus on giving my daughter the best early years at home that I could provide, and she was happy and healthy. That was a gift. Not a career.

During this era, I tried joining mommy groups and was constantly astounded by how many women reveled in bemoaning our apparently torturous conditions. Don’t get me wrong; it was nice to have people who could empathize with the frustration of existing in a perpetually disheveled state while someone literally screamed in my face a dozen times per day instead of clearly stating her requests. I loved The Feminine Mystique, and I fully understand that mothering isn’t completely fulfilling to most women.

However, the negativity that comes behind SAHMs’ unabashed martyrdom is belittling to the entire parenting community. For example, I listened with real compassion to one woman I befriended who spent a year (and thousands of dollars) on fertilization treatments to conceive her second child, only to begin whining about how much it sucked being pregnant once it finally happened. Other women in that social circle were happy to join in with her complaints; I was quick to leave.

I’d like to say that this was the scene at just one or two of the groups I desperately tried to fit into, but the truth is, for every mother who is happy with her choice to be a stay-at-home mother, there are at least three who are using its tribulations as a means to smugly declare their superiority to anyone within earshot.

“Mothering is the hardest job in the world!” is a phrase I’ve grown to loathe, but only because of the unemployed, self-righteous idiots who love to proclaim it after spending all their energy harping on their children or bitching about their spouse’s ineptitude. The mothers who don’t have time or interest in repeating that overused trope are the ones who recognize that the stay-at-home lifestyle is an incredible freedom they were in no way obligated to participate in, or are actually working to support the children they decided to contribute to society.

No, Stay-at-Home-Mothers, choosing to create your own little person upon whom you’ll spend all your time and energy is a hobby. It is a time-consuming, sanity-deteriorating, life-altering hobby — a lot like a heroin addiction, but with more Thirty-One bags. Whether you call it a “blessing” or a “privilege,” the fact remains that having someone else foot the bill for a lifestyle that only benefits you and your close family is by no means a “job.”

Have some self-respect, own up to your decision, and call it what it is: a lifestyle that is hard but definitely worth the struggle to you. The people out there who actually have jobs will appreciate you much more if you’re not going around whining about a way of life that is most parents’ dream.

Liz Pardue-Schultz wrote this article for xoJane.

Read next: I Am About to Become a Stay-at-Home Parent and I’m Terrified

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Family

I Don’t Want My Daughter To Hate Pink

xoJane.com is where women go to be their unabashed selves, and where their unabashed selves are applauded

I suddenly felt ashamed of putting a bow on my daughter’s head

xojane

“Good thing you put a bow on her head, so we know she’s a girl.”
A good friend sent me this text as a joke after seeing a photo of my daughter wearing a tiny silver headband with a bow on it.

This friend knows me incredibly well. She knows that most of my baby’s things are not specifically gendered. She knows our nursery is outer space themed: blue and gray with robots. She knows earlier that week she’d met us in the park where my one-month-old was rocking a Captain America onesie. (My daughter also has several Batman and Superman onesies — and Wonder Woman, obviously.)

But despite my friend knowing we’re just as likely to put our kid in a t-ball uniform as in a tutu, the joke bothered me. I suddenly felt ashamed of putting a bow on my daughter’s head. It was as if all my progressive, feminist street cred was choked out of me with the twist of a shiny ribbon. My gut reaction was to respond quickly (and truthfully), “This is the first time we’ve ever put a bow on her.”

I was about to hit send on this disclaimer text when I had an epiphany: I was feeling embarrassed because I put my daughter in something feminine, because feminine means frivolous and silly. This is NOT OK.

Society teaches us boy stuff is awesome and girl stuff sucks, even for girls.

It’s awesome when my little girl is dressed like Batman or a dinosaur, but why isn’t it just as awesome when she’s dressed like a ballerina? And how did I somehow fall into this way of thinking?

I grew up as a little girl who liked to climb trees while wearing frilly dresses. I’d say that is still a fair description of who I am today. I am feminine in so many stereotypical ways: I love shoes and make-up and getting my nails done is one of my favorite forms of “me time.” But these are things that I feel the need to justify. I find myself adding disclaimers and pointing out the ways in which I am not as traditionally femme: I’m a comedy writer. I know how to change a tire. I’m a lesbian.

But why can’t I just be a woman who kicks butt? Or better yet, a person who is a whole complex being, and as such has a blend of masculine and feminine qualities? To be human is to have a mix of traits and the faster we acknowledge that we aren’t cardboard cutouts predetermined by the way we urinate, the better off society will be.

Yet here I was ready to begin subtle coding on my one month old, apologizing for girlhood, womanhood, and femininity. “Cool girls” like boy stuff. “Cool girls” don’t wear bows. Girl stuff is silly.

Forget that. Femininity is not less than masculinity. It is a different kind of strength, but it is powerful and wonderful and deserves our respect. And that respect is way, way overdue. Why do we associate weakness with wearing lipstick? Didn’t lipstick-wearing women do the tough task of giving birth to and raising many of us? Weren’t suffragettes rocking high heels when they fought for, and won, our right to vote? Wasn’t Rosa Parks in a skirt when she became the catalyst for a civil rights movement? There is nothing fragile about feminine power.

Now, I’m not saying I’m suddenly going to cover my daughter in pink and bows. It grosses me out when people pretend like it’s shocking for a girl to be in blue or for a boy to snuggle his baby doll. Women are often still forced into femininity and trapped by it. We need the extra push and support when we do things that don’t fall in line with gender expectations. I love a woman who defies stereotypes and I hope my little girl has a thousand more women like Janelle Monae to look up to. Luckily, my wife, her mama, is one of those role models: a comic book illustrator working in the very male world of superheroes.

We don’t want our kid to feel confined by her sex, or societies expectations for gender roles. My wife and I have no idea at this point how she will identify later, but I want to make sure that as we present the world to our daughter it’s a world of “and,” not a world of “or.”

She is allowed to love sports AND fashion. She can spend her allowance at Game Stop AND Sephora. I don’t want her to grow up thinking that in order to be thought of as intelligent or treated as well as “one of the boys” she has to turn up her nose at anything “girl.” Or that girls who are smart and love to read can’t also want to be cheerleaders or love cute, fluffy things.

I want my child to grow up with no concept that any door could, or should, be closed to her. I want her to feel entitled to walk into any room and enjoy anything she wants to enjoy, but I am suddenly aware that needs to include pink rooms, too.

Amanda Deibert wrote this article for xoJane.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Family

Ground Zero in the Clutter Wars: My House

A stock photo of a messy room
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It's not easy being a purger in a house of hoarders. Here's how I coped

I do not get along terribly well with clutter — and I frankly have no interest in improving our relationship. I believe shelves, closets and drawers were invented for a reason — so they can remain completely empty. My feeling is, if Ikea’s display of its stylish new Framstå system can do it, why can’t I?

But I don’t live alone. I live with a wife and two daughters — ages 14 and 12 — and they take a less antiseptic view of things. Our home, which was originally advertised as a “sun-drenched two-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s fashionable Upper East Side,” has instead become something of a longitudinal study in the second law of thermodynamics, which, if you’re like me, is your least favorite law of thermodynamics, since it’s the one that states that all closed systems move inevitably toward entropy.

By closed systems, I don’t mean such who-cares stuff as the environment or the planet or the cosmos. I mean my personal space. And by entropy, I don’t mean molecules or thermal gradients. I mean schoolbooks and empty glasses. I mean shoes and clothes, dropped mid-floor, real-time, in such perfect simulation of the body that shed them that they look less like a mess than like a preteen parade float waiting to be inflated. I mean flyers for Memorial Day sales at stores that closed in 2006, subscription cards for magazines that ceased publishing when our children were in pre-K, discount offers for a first generation TiVo.

More and more, our home is developing what can only be described as geological strata: here are the crayon traces of the preschool epoch, which lie below the glitter of the Princess epoch, which itself was buried by the fabric-and-plastic sediment of the American Girl epoch. A thick layer of Tiger Beat precipitate is now fluttering down atop that, which, given enough heat, pressure and millennia, might at least compress itself into a useful fossil fuel.

I rage, rage against the rubbish — and do what I can to reduce it. I move about the apartment, gathering things up in what feels to me like an efficient stride-and-sweep pincer movement, but which even I realize is increasingly resembling a bustle. I collect dropped belongings and put them away in any handy drawer or armoire, a behavior I call helpful and my family members — along with most trained clinicians — call passive-aggressive. And when I’ve put something somewhere its owner doesn’t want it and therefore can’t find it, my refrain is always the same:

“There is one way to ensure that things are where you want them, and that’s to put them away yourself.” This argument has the twin qualities of both unassailable logic and a perfect, 0% success rate in changing anyone’s behavior.

One answer to our family impasse is an open dialogue, a frank exchange of feelings and a willingness for collective compromise. The other answer is the one that actually works: money.

Not long ago, my wife mentioned that she’s had her eye on a new platform bed. A platform bed, of course, would go in our bedroom — a room that on any given day is just one copy of Oprah away from needing its own Chernobyl-style containment dome.

So I made a deal: we would get the bed — and two new dressers, and two new night tables, and an upright chest, and a vanity, and discard all of the existing furniture if all of the clutter went. I would also surrender our entire walk-in dressing area to my wife and confine my clothes to my new drawers. It was the marital equivalent of land for peace.

My wife, to my delight, took me up on the deal. The clutter is now slowly being peeled back and thrown away, and the furniture delivery has been scheduled. My daughters, with the gimlet eyes of bazaar merchants recognizing a sucker with a Fodor’s guide and a wad of American money, requested the same arrangement and I agreed.

I am now buying them a new bedroom set too. In return, they promised two things: to keep the room neat and — much more important — to let me think I won.

Read next: Minimalist Living: When a Lot Less Is More

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TIME Parenting

How to Talk To Kids About Art

Mother and daughter in art gallery
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Even when you know nothing about it

It’s not always easy to talk about art. As the dancer Isadora Duncan is quoted as saying, “If I could say it, I wouldn’t have to dance it.”

Still, art is good for kids. Studies show that when they get into art, they’re more empathetic and more involved with their communities. They have higher career goals, better critical thinking skills, and better academic outcomes. Yet schools are increasingly finding art is squeezed out of their curriculum in favor of more “useful” subjects.

So how can a parent start good conversations with kids about art?

Barbara Hunt McLanahan, executive director of the Children’s Museum of the Arts in New York, says that the first thing parents need to understand about art is that “there’s no right and wrong. That’s the joy of it,” she explains. “Especially today when there’s so much emphasis on testing and standards. With art, you can encourage individuality. It’s good to be different.”

Parents may feel like they’ve got to be experts in art to talk about it, but McLanahan suggests a different perspective: learning along with your kids. “Side by side learning is one of our philosophies,” she says. You don’t have to know everything to start a conversation on art with your kids – you just have to be curious, and willing to learn.

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Michelle Lopez, Director of Community Programs at the Children’s Museum of the Arts, suggests starting conversations about art with elementary school kids with three simple questions. When looking at a work of art, start by asking, “What’s happening?” Give them a chance to form some opinions by asking, “What do you see that makes you think that?” Then keep exploring with, “What else can we find?”

Middle school, McLanahan says, is a good time for kids to start getting curious about the artist. Parents and kids can talk together about questions like, “Why would an artist make those choices? How would the piece change if they’d made a different one?”

As students move into high school, Lopez says, art can be an interesting way “to get to know your children as they get older.” When looking at art, kids often “project their views, thoughts, and emotions.” Then parents can “demonstrate that you respect their ideas or disagree” – all within the “safe space in the conversation about the artwork.”

The most important thing for parents and kids at any age to know about art? It’s pretty simple, McLanahan says: “Have fun with it. It’s all about having fun.”

TIME advice

34 Life-Changing Tips for a More Organized Home

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Organize any part of your home from entryway to bathroom to kitchen to bedroom

We asked pro organizers for strategies that help them conquer chaos in their own lives. The result: secrets that will streamline your day and restore your peace of mind (promise!)

Entryway: Furnish the Space

Take inspiration from Jenkins, who uses a Victorian-era dresser to organize her entry. “The drawers hold gloves, hats, and other outdoor accessories, and the mirror on top gives us a place to do a spot check before we leave,” she says. Another popular option: cube storage systems with fabric bins for each family member’s gear.

Entryway: Map It Out

Make organization a no-brainer with thoughtful placement. Put sports equipment or school bags on the way to the car or very nearby. Then kids can grab them as they’re headed out the door and put them right back as they return. “The farther away you put those things, the harder kids have to work and the less likely it is that things will get back to where they belong,” says Tokos.

Entryway: A Place for Everything

Get the most out of entry storage by giving each group of items its own designated space. Labels can help. Says Morgenstern: “If a shelf or a cabinet or a drawer is marked miscellaneous, it’s easy to put things into but impossible to retrieve things from.”

Entryway: Peg Rail

Shaker-style wood pegs hung by the door make it easy to hang hats, scarves, and even leashes on your way in or grab on the way out.

About $25; landofnod.com

Entryway: Charging Station

Create a neat place to power up phones and tablets. Make one, as we did, by drilling holes in the bottom of a wood mail sorter, to thread cords through, then give it a coat of color.

Read the full list HERE.

This article originally appeared on This Old House.

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TIME

More Than $310,000 Raised for Father Raising Quadruplets Alone After Wife Dies During Childbirth

Quadruplets born to Erica Morales at a Phoenix hospital on Jan. 15, 2015
Nicole Todman—AP Quadruplets born to Erica Morales at a Phoenix hospital on Jan. 15, 2015

His wife, Erica, died of blood loss on Jan. 16 while giving birth to their quadruplets two months prematurely

Carlos Morales wakes up every morning to his two two-month-old babies, Carlos Jr. and Tracy – and then rushes to the hospital to see his other two newborns, Erica and Paisley.

Although he is busy learning how to feed his quadruplets, bathe them and tend to their every need, he still can’t help but think of his late wife. Erica Morales, 36, died on Jan. 16, shortly after giving birth to the quadruplets. She never got the chance to see her babies or hold them in her arms.

“She should be here,” Carlos tells PEOPLE. “It’s slowly getting a little bit easier.”

Erica became pregnant with four babies through IVF but died after she went into hypovolemic shock, an emergency condition involving severe blood loss.

One of the things that Carlos finds comfort in is knowing that he doesn’t just have support from his family and friends, but also from more than 8,700 strangers who have donated to a GoFundMe page his friend created. In total, over $310,00 has been raised to date.

“To think that so many people are giving me whatever they can afford makes me smile,” he says. “Every single penny will help so I can give my babies a great life.”

Carlos, who works in manufacturing in Phoenix, Arizona, hopes he makes the right decisions for his and Erica’s children.

“I don’t want to mess up. Erica always wanted children and so did I,” he says. “These four babies were a blessing so I will make it work. I have to.”

His mother-in-law watches over Carlos Jr. and Tracy at home while he goes to the hospital to see Erica and Paisley, who will be going home any day now.

All four were born around three pounds, but they’re slowly growing and have now made it past the five-pound mark.

The four cribs at Carlos’s house are all lined up next to each other in the bedroom right next to his. As the newborns grow stronger each day, so does their dad.

“I can’t wait for us all to be together,” he says. “Seeing their tiny smiling faces gives me courage.”

At the same time though, he sees his late wife Erica when he looks at them.

“She gives me strength he says,” he says. “Even when I feel lost.”

TIME Family

‘I really don’t think that my son’s circumcision is any of your business’

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xoJane.com is where women go to be their unabashed selves, and where their unabashed selves are applauded

Strangers shouldn't be commenting on such private matters

xojane

I am reaching for the bananas hanging above the table, when something hard and round falls down by my feet and starts to roll. My belly, now the size and shape of a watermelon, has knocked over the apple display. Again.

I swing my basket to the left and look down, but all I see is the watermelon belly. I lean to the side, as the front view is no longer reliable. I spot the apple. I bend down awkwardly to retrieve it. I continue through the produce section, holding the basket behind me because it no longer fits in front.

After 41 weeks of constant growth, I can’t pinpoint where my belly ends and where the protruding corners and tabletops begin.

Watermelon baby has also blurred the lines between my personal space and the world’s opinions. For the past several months, strangers have been informing me that, by the look of things, the baby should arrive any day now.

On the day that the baby should have arrived, I went down to the public pool. The Internet assures me that there is nothing like a feeling of weightlessness to take your mind off the wait. I may have felt light, but the other swimmers reminded me that I didn’t look it.

“Mommy, look at her belly!”

“Yes honey, there’s a baby in there. There might be TWO babies in there!”

After many conversations like this, I am not surprised when the friendly man behind me in the checkout line starts talking. Does he want to predict the baby’s weight? Perhaps he wants to put his mouth near my navel and start singing a lullaby. This has happened before. Maybe he’d like to predict my weight?

He looks vaguely familiar. Tall-ish. Skinny-ish. Freckled. I will never guess his weight or sing to his navel. That’s not normal behavior.

Stranger: “So, are you having a boy or a girl?”

This is a favorite pregnancy icebreaker. From another mother, it might come with a knowing smile, like saying, I’ve been there too, I know how it is to wait and wonder and dream of dark round eyes and soft skin.

Alternatively, it is an easy and awkward admission that the entry of a new little life has left you speechless. Me, too, strange man.

But no, perhaps you are speechless for another reason. Perhaps you just can’t stop staring at my belly button, which has popped out like a turkey timer at the front of the watermelon. Like an awkward third nipple on my belly. Guess I should answer.

Me: “It’s a boy. Maybe.”

Stranger: “Oh, that was my guess. I knew because your belly button is sticking out.”

Me (in my mind): Like a turkey timer or a third nipple?

I try to think of something to say about his belly button, because that kind of compliment deserves a witty reply. Nothing comes to mind. I don’t spend much time thinking about other people’s navels.

Me: “You’re very observant. Thank you.”

I turn away and step forward in line. He bounces behind me, moving into my line of sight while also forcing people in the neighboring lines to move aside to accommodate our respective personal bubbles. They don’t need to be so polite, because he doesn’t seem to have a personal bubble. Mine has apparently been popped by the watermelon.

Stranger: “So, have you thought about circumcision?”

Me: “Excuse me?”

I would take another step forward, but my belly is already about to ram the person in front of me. There’s no escape.

Stranger: “Oh, you know, are you going to mutilate your child without his consent?”

He actually said that.

Me: “I think I forgot something back in the meat department. Uh, have a nice day.”

Leaving my position at the front of the line, I head for the safety of the refrigerators. I remember the many discussions I have had with my husband on this very topic. It is a fraught one, at the intersection of religion, culture, freedom, privacy, identity, and physical self-determination. It is not something I am remotely interested in reviewing with a stranger in the grocery store checkout line. Or anywhere else.

I also wonder at what age it becomes inappropriate to talk about a child’s genitals. With strangers. In public.

I’m flustered. My pregnant belly draws more attention than I ever anticipated. It has been offered a seat on a crowded bus. It has been adored by my immigrant neighbors in a language I don’t understand, but in a tone that’s unmistakable.

For many months, I’ve been sharing my physical body with a tiny human, a feeling that is both extraordinary and surreal. This does not mean that other, full-size humans have leave to touch my stomach or make loud, public comments about my body. I am not sharing it with the world, just the tiny soul that I am bringing into the world, and only for the few brief months when that soul cannot survive on his own.

I loop around the refrigerated section into the bakery, so intent to escape the store that I almost overlook the same gentleman standing by the display of organic dark chocolates and pomegranate juice. He is waiting for me. I join the back of the line at another register. He follows me.

Stranger: “So, have you thought about circumcision?”

Me: “I really don’t think that my son’s penis is any of your business.”

And yet, somehow it has become his business, just like my protruding belly button. The corner of a clipboard peeks out from his shoulder bag, and suddenly I recognize him.

I have passed him before, outside of this very same store, where he has tried to catch my eye. Do I know what happens in the slaughterhouses? Have I heard of Proposition 8? Don’t I agree that the city budget should be reformed? Would I like to sign the clipboard, to send a petition for redress?

Most recently, it is a referendum to criminalize circumcision in neighboring San Francisco.* Holding the clipboard and talking with him about the policy implications of such a ban had felt like a logical exercise. We could discuss the issues and weigh the importance of religious traditions against the rights of a minor to physical self-determination, debating the role that government should play in this kind of decision. Confronted in the cashier’s line, talking about a real live child — my child — felt like a personal affront, not an abstract policy concern.

There is a line between talking in abstract about the surgical status of the foreskins of all male children in the city, and talking about the foreskin of the child that is currently residing in my uterus.

It is the same line that stops the cashier from asking what I plan on doing with all those condoms, and keeps a stranger from commenting that I must be fat because of all the ice cream he just watched me eat. The line marks the place where my personal space begins and where your public interest ends.

Large as it is, my pregnant belly does not push me into the realm of public comment.

*And for those of you concerned generally about the foreskins of all the boys in San Francisco, the referendum was dropped from the ballot because it was decided that city governments cannot pass independent regulations on medical procedures.

Angelyn Otteson Fairchild wrote this article for xoJane.

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TIME Parenting

How to Parent Like an FBI Agent

Jose Luis Pelaez; Getty Images/Blend Images

No, you won't need any bugging devices

Ever feel like parenting would be a lot easier if you just had a full-time security team at your beck and call? And maybe an interrogation room?

You might not be able to swing that on this month’s budget, but Jack Schafer, a psychologist who and former FBI Special Agent, says parents can benefit from the tips of his trade. Here’s what he learned during 15 years conducting counterintelligence investigations – and how it applies to parenting.

Create the Illusion of Control
FBI agents are trained to de-escalate conflicts by giving subjects a choice, which helps them to feel like they’re in control. And “the feeling they have some control over a situation can work wonders, even for children,” Schafer writes in his recent book, The Like Switch: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Influencing, Attracting, and Winning People Over. Parents can do this, he says, without giving up any true authority. The trick: offer kids a choice between two options that both work for you. They can’t have anything they want for dinner. But do you know in advance you’re going to pick up food on the way home? Give them the option to choose between two good options.

Follow the Scarcity Principle
FBI profiling shows what many parents already know; that people tend to like things they can’t get much of. If you tell your kids not to do something, they want to do it even more. So how can a parent set clear boundaries without making kids eager to cross them? Let your kids know you trust them, Schafer says. When his daughter brought home a boyfriend she knew Shafer wouldn’t like, instead of forbidding her to see him, Shafer told her he trusted her to make the right decision. The boyfriend never made a reappearance.

Ask Indirect Questions
Especially as they get older, kids get suspicious they’re being interrogated, even when their parents don’t really work for the FBI. So asking direct questions isn’t always the best way to get the answers you’re looking for. Instead, use a classic FBI interrogation technique. “The best way to find out how your children really feel… is to ask them from a third-party perspective,” Shafer says. So if you want to know what your kids think about a sensitive topic, try bringing it up indirectly. Instead of asking, “Have you been drinking?” try starting a conversation with a hypothetical: “My friend’s son got caught drinking. What do you think his parents should do?” You might not get the answer you were looking for. But you’ll get to know your child.

Show Empathy
Another way FBI agents get people to open up is by letting someone know they understand what he or she is experiencing. “Demanding, threatening, or cajoling a response typically ends in a shields-up reaction” from kids, Shafer says. But empathetic statements, he’s found, can be much more effective, like: “You look like you are thinking about something pretty serious. You look as though something is really bothering you.” Greeted with this kind of empathy, kids will often share their thoughts freely. “Most teens want to tell their parents what’s bothering them,” Shafer says. “They just need a little encouragement and the belief that talking to you is their choice.”

Work the Case
The biggest thing parents can to connect with their kids? Just hang in there. In Shafer’s work, he’s observed that “The more time you spend with a person, the more influence they have over your thoughts and actions.” If parents aren’t around, kids start to take their cues from other kids. But “the more time parents spend with their children, the more likely the parents will be to influence them.”

Read next: How to Parent Like a German

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