TIME politics

This Is the Childcare Program Obama Was Talking About

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Galerie Bilderwelt / Getty Images American propaganda poster showing a woman working in an airplane factory, circa 1943

A World War II-era program got a shout-out in Tuesday's State of the Union

On Tuesday, during his State of the Union address, President Obama spoke of helping middle-class families afford childcare — and, he pointed out, we know we can do it because we’ve done it before. “During World War II, when men like my grandfather went off to war, having women like my grandmother in the workforce was a national security priority — so this country provided universal childcare,” he said. “In today’s economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever.”

That program, established in 1942, was a joint venture of the War Manpower Commission and the Office of Defense Health and Welfare Services. And, it turns out, getting the program in place wasn’t just a matter of freeing up men and women to contribute to the war effort — it was also a “national security” issue on the home front, as unattended children across the nation got up to no good.

Here’s how TIME explained the program in the July 27, 1942, issue:

If father & mother both must work to win the war, somebody will have to look after the children. In war factories alone there are already 1,000,000 women workers, and 3,000,000 more are expected by next year. The children of some of these women have been found locked up in cars and Washington Government offices, or wandering the streets with door keys around their necks. Child delinquency in the U.S. is up sharply; Washington itself has had a wave of juvenile housebreaking and shoplifting. Last week Washington decided it was time to do something about the wartime care of U.S. children.

Federal Security Administrator Paul V. McNutt had appointed a child-care coordinator: sandy-haired Charles Irwin Schottland of the Children’s Bureau. Mr. Schottland went straight to Mr. McNutt’s War Manpower Commission for help. His problem: how to overcome the scarcity of servants and of day nurseries. He also had a plan: let the U.S. make grants to States to finance a variety of child-care facilities.

WMPC promptly approved the plan and decided to issue a directive for the Office of Defense Health and Welfare Services to carry it out. This week Coordinator Schottland prepared to tackle Congress for the necessary funds. As a start, he already has $6,000,000 for 1,250 WPA nursery schools.

It’s worth noting that the Works Progress Administration nursery schools mentioned in that piece were not originally related to the war effort; in fact, economic concerns — like the ones facing the nation today — were the impetus for their establishment. During the Great Depression, the nation faced a double-whammy of needy children and unemployed teachers; so, in October of 1933, Harry Hopkins of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration announced that more than a thousand nursery schools would be established nationwide through the Emergency Education Programs.

Those original WPA nursery schools technically closed, along with the WPA itself, in 1943. By then, the defense program had launched, and nursery schools and childcare facilities were able to apply to be subsidized with Defense funds, through the Lanham Act, to try to stay open. And, as a bonus, defense funds — unlike the WPA programs — weren’t restricted to families in poverty, which meant that middle-class families could also benefit from those childcare centers, making the WWII-era program almost universal. (Communities did have to prove that they were impacted by the war effort in order to get federal funds.)

One 2013 study found that the decision to fund childcare with the Lanham Act did in fact lead to a greater rate of employment among mothers, and that their children were better off in the long run. But, unlike the program Obama envisions for the modern world, the Lanham Act childcare centers were always meant to be a temporary solution. As soon as peace came, women were expected to return home to care for their children themselves. Congress gave women a few extra months, through March of 1946, to make arrangements, and then the childcare centers were closed.

At least one person, however, thought back then the way the President thinks today.

In her “My Day” column from Sept. 8, 1945, the former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt described the letters she had received from women who wanted the centers to stay open: “But we have to face the fact that there are married women with young children who have to go to work. In such cases, it would seem to be in the interests of the community to organize child care centers and see that they are properly run,” she wrote. “These children are future citizens, and if they are neglected in these early years it will hurt not only the children themselves, but the community as a whole. Many communities can carry the expense of such organization for children’s centers without any state or federal help. But where state help is needed, it should be given; and when states are incapable of giving sufficient help, it should be forthcoming on a national scale as it has been in the war years.”

TIME Family

The 3 Comments Adoptive Parents Hate To Hear

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

Adoptive parents have real love, with their real children, and are real families. End of discussion

xojane

I am at the grocery check out line with my four-year-old son, and the cashier says:

“Your son is so beautiful.”

“Thank you, we think so too,” I reply as I note her observing my blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin.

She inquires, “Is your husband dark-skinned?”

“No, he isn’t.”

“Oh, well is he from Latin America?”

“No, he isn’t.”

“Oh,” the cashier replies beginning to look puzzled but now wants to solve this mystery. “Well, your son has such beautiful dark features.”

“Thank you, we think he is so handsome too.”

She probes some more.

“That is so interesting, you and your husband are fair-skinned, but your son has dark features.”

The running commentary in my head says, “Thank you, Sherlock, for pointing out the obvious to me. I had never noticed that before.”

But the words that come from my mouth say instead, “I know, it is because our son is adopted.”

“Oh, he is adopted. That is so interesting . . .”

Now, the next few comments in the conversation I know are well-meaning, but please hear me out because they can really cause my heart rate to increase, breath to shorten and blood pressure to rise.

However, let’s first talk about adoption. Adoption is beautiful and not that rare of an occurrence. Chances are likely that you know someone adopted, have met adoptive parents or perhaps have even mulled over the idea of adopting. Regardless of adoption or through biological birth, like any regular parent I love my four-year-old son. He means the world to me. Yes, our son is adopted, and just like your story, our family story is incredibly special, vulnerable, and personal.

But that is just the point; our family story is our special story about how we have a family, just like yours is yours. However, in my experience, when people hear the word adoption it seems to give them this idea that they can, tact aside, ask many personal questions about life, our son, and the context that he was adopted from.

Before I get ahead of myself, let me save you the grief or embarrassment of saying the following three comments that inevitably always arise in a conversation.

1. “You are so amazing for adopting — I couldn’t do what you did.”

This comment gets me every time! First, would you ever say that to a new mother who just gave birth to a child? “You are so amazing for giving birth.” No, never! In fact, that would sound absolutely ridiculous if such comments were made.

Secondly, and more importantly, these comments are utterly false because every child deserves a home. Life is not about me, and I am not a saint; it is my son’s and every child’s right that is born on this earth to have parent(s) that deeply love and value them.

The “I couldn’t do what you did” part just makes you sound like you haven’t fully thought that sentence through because, yes, you could adopt. Regardless, every child deserves a home. Adoptive parents are parents just by a different means. But that is all. They are parents, not saints.

2. “Are you going to have any of your own real children?”

Really?! You have got to be joking. I did not know that having a child come from my uterus was the only criteria for some relationship to be considered real! Think about this: Is the love to your spouse or partner real? Do you question that bond of love and ask others if their bond is real? My son is my own real child! It does not matter to me as to whether my son comes from my own actual body because I can 100 percent confidently tell you he feels like he is a part of me.

On a different note, when you find out my son is adopted and ask me this question, coupled with the fact that you don’t even know me, this can be highly offensive. Rather, it would be much more appreciated if you asked, “How many more children will you have?”

3. “Do they know who their real family is?”

It is 3:30 a.m. and our son has just woken up to crawl into our bed because he is scared. Sleepily I say to him, “Hold on sweetie, let’s let Daddy sleep. I will come lay beside you.”

(Having three in a queen-size bed inevitably means one of us isn’t going to sleep that night.)

He slumps down back to his bed, which happens to be right beside our bed, but on the way he hits his head on the night-time dresser. Startled by his cry of pain, I jump out of bed as fast as lightning, pick him up and start consoling and rocking him. My husband is awakened by the commotion and jumps out of bed to get a cloth for the tiny cut on his face.

In light of the story, let’s get back to the question of knowing who our son’s “real” family is. I think it is safe to say that teaching our son the difference between right and wrong, teaching him how to communicate and respect others, showing him how to ride a bike, hold a spoon, wipe his bum, and, most importantly, giving him unconditional love and support are the requirements for being a real family. So to answer your question, yes our son knows exactly who his real family is.

Now, I do not want to leave you feeling shamed or like I will harp on you should you ask me any questions about my family. I know what you mean when you ask me these questions of “realness,” but language is powerful and has serious connotations that can leave adopted children not feeling like they are truly a part of a family. How tragic! The take home message is: Please be tactful of what you ask, especially if you do not know me.

Adoptive parents have real love, with their real children, and are real families. End of discussion.

Renae Regehr is a graduate student and mother. This article originally appeared on xoJane.com.

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

How to Talk to Your Kids About Martin Luther King Any Day of the Year

Dr. King Addresses Meeting
Robert W. Kelley—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a protest meeting in Atlanta in 1957

If he hadn’t been assassinated in Memphis in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. might have lived to be 86 this year. And despite the victories of the movement King led, the issues of justice and peace he fought for are still with us. Apart from watching the film Selma—which as Tina Fey joked “is about the American civil rights movement that totally worked and now everything’s fine”—what are some concrete ways to talk with kids about King and his legacy, not just on Martin Luther King Day, but in ongoing conversations?

Clayborne Carson, founding director of the King Institute, professor of history at Stanford University, and author of Martin’s Dream, suggests parents look at King’s childhood. The civil rights leader clearly describes the injustice he suffered in his autobiography: “For a long, long time I could not go swimming, until there was Negro YMCA. A Negro child in Atlanta could not go to any public park. I could not go to the so-called white schools. In many of the stores downtown, I couldn’t go to a lunch counter to buy a hamburger or a cup of coffee. … I remember seeing the Klan actually beat a Negro. I had passed spots where Negroes had been savagely lynched. All these things did something to my growing personality.”

King also recalls how his mother talked about these issues with him: “She taught me that I should feel a sense of “somebodiness” but that on the other hand I had to go out and face a system that stared me in the face every day saying you are “less than,” you are “not equal to.” … Then she said the words that almost every Negro hears before he can yet understand the injustice that makes them necessary: ‘You are as good as anyone.’”

Andrea McEvoy Spero, director of education at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute at Stanford University, suggests that parents can talk their own elementary age kids through the same issues by starting with a basic discussion of what’s fair and unfair, and what it means to be part of a community, with questions like, “What does it feel like to be excluded? What can I do to help other people feel included?”

By middle school, McEvoy Spero says, kids can wrestle with King’s statement that “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” And parents can help kids answer that question not just by asking their kids, but by asking themselves, what they are doing for others. “Our young people are watching us,” she says.

In high school, kids are ready to “get into the complexity,” McEvoy Spero says: how to fight like King did to defeat the three interrelated evils of war, racism, and poverty. Older kids can start asking not just what they can do to help, but what they can do to create change. And they’re old enough to turn to King’s writings, like “The Drum Major Instinct,” or the famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

At any age, it’s important to help students remember that King wasn’t a legend, but a person, just like them. “If you put someone on a pedestal, they you can’t really be like them,” Carson says. “But if you realize that he was a human being just like the rest of us, who was caught up in a great movement and did extraordinary things, then people begin to understand that they can do extraordinary things, too.”

TIME celebrities

Actor Dax Shepard on Wife Kristen Bell’s Intense 33-Hour-Long Labor

Actor Dax Shepard and Actress Kristen Bell attend the 2015 People's Choice Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Jan. 7, 2015 in Los Angeles.
C Flanigan—Getty Images Actor Dax Shepard and Actress Kristen Bell attend the 2015 People's Choice Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Jan. 7, 2015 in Los Angeles.

The actor thinks dad-to-be's should be given epidural as well

After watching wife Kristen Bell give birth to their first child, daughter Lincoln, Dax Shepard thought he had seen it all.

But then the actress needed a last-minute c-section with their second daughter — and the Parenthood star quickly realized how very wrong he had been.

“Kristen, God bless her, was in labor for 33 hours,” Shepard, 40, said during an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, airing Thursday. “[Her labor with Lincoln was] 15 [hours]. That’s child’s play.”

Bell wasn’t the only one reeling from the “intense” delivery. “She got an epidural hour 14 — as you should — and I think dads need something,” he explained.

“I deserve something because I was along for the ride,” he said. “It’s still a car crash and I’m in the passenger seat. I’m playing Katy Perry and I’m breathing and I’m rubbing her back and I have fatigue and I think, ‘I need something for this, help me.’”

Once she was wheeled into the operating room, things took a bittersweet turn for the dad-to-be. Although Shepard was excited to witness the delivery of his baby girl, he admits he made one very big mistake.

“I had been warned by a lot of different gentlemen, and even my own mother, that said, ‘You might not want to watch the baby come out. [It’s] maybe not the greatest idea,’” he said. “What they did not warn me about was the c-section, which is way worse.”

“So there’s a sheet and then they go, ‘The baby’s here!’ Then you peek around the sheet and they’re lifting out the baby, but then you notice your wife is completely disassembled,” he continued. “I can see inside of her.”

As Shepard celebrated their daughter Delta’s much-anticipated arrival, he also found himself unable to look away from the aftermath of the birth.

“I was like, ‘It’s a girl! Your liver’s out, I think. And those are definitely your intestines. And she has your eyes! Oh my God, put her back together correctly.’ “

The new dad joked, “After seeing this autopsy, I would rather see a school bus drive out of her vagina. It isn’t any worse than seeing your partner flowing over. Guys, I need medication if this happens again.”

Fortunately, despite the “heartbreaking” but necessary decision to undergo a c-section, Shepard said Bell has already bounced back.

“I have a healthy baby so everything’s great,” he says. “[Kristen]’s a super healer because she never smoked, never drank. Eats perfect. She’s like Wolverine! You cut her and as the knife’s going through, it’s sealing. If those kids came out of me, I don’t know what they’d look like. I’d still be in the hospital probably.”

But Shepard can take the credit for one thing: Delta’s unusual name.

“It was a joke because our first daughter’s name is Lincoln, which is very masculine,” he explained. “A friend of mine teasingly texted me, ‘Oh great, what’s this one gonna be? Navy Seal? Delta Force? Green Beret?’ “

The rest, Shepard said, is history: “I was reading this text out loud to Kristen and I said, ‘Oh, Steve said, “What if we named her Delta?” Delta! Delta Bell Shepard! That’s it!’ And that’s it.”

Now, the proud parents are settling into life with their 21-month-old and 4-week-old daughters. And although the transition from a family of three to four has been seemingly smooth, Shepard admits Lincoln’s love for her baby sister can be slightly dangerous.

“We’re all eating dinner and my mother says, ‘Guys! Guys! Guys!’ We look over — Lincoln has some rocks that she loves and carries around — and she’s throwing them in the baby bassinet to share. They’re big rocks,” he recalled. “There were no injuries, but that got our attention. Sharing is not caring, always. They say it is, but sometimes it’s almost murder.”

This article originally appeared on People.com.

Read next: Please Stop Acting as if Maternity Leave is a Vacation

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TIME Family

‘I’m Afraid My Baby’s Head Will Fall Off’

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

I'm afraid to write this, but I'm more afraid stigma will prevent other women from getting help

xojane

“I’m afraid my baby’s head will fall off,” I tell my psychiatrist.

She nods, normally, sympathetically, as if mothers everywhere suffer visions of their baby’s heads coming off their necks. “Can you explain that?” she asks.

And I tell her how, when I was 10, my father took me dove hunting. Most of the time, his shot didn’t kill the dove. So to end its suffering, my father would casually twist its head off. I watched in sick fascination, over and over, as his big hands almost gently wrenched the birds’ heads from their small gray bodies. I had no idea heads could be so precariously attached, no idea that one small twist could decapitate.

When I had my third son, I couldn’t stop thinking how delicately his head attached, how strong hands could twist and pull. It terrified me, this thin neck, this precarious joining of flesh and bone. I remembered the birds. I had seen their heads lie wide-eyed on the ground.

“That’s horrible,” my doctor said. She upped both my medications and added Xanax. “We need to get that under control,” she told me. “You can’t live like this.”

But I could. I did. And so do millions of other women.

I’ve been down the dark alleys of depression before. But it didn’t become utterly unlivable until I got pregnant. At eight weeks, we thought we were losing our baby. I sobbed for six straight hours, through the emergency room, the ultrasound, all the way home. I cried because I was still pregnant. I couldn’t possibly cope with this very wanted baby. How could I have made such a terrible mistake?

A case of borderline hyperemesis worsened my depression and anxiety. My husband left town for three days, which I spent consumed with thoughts of his imminent death. The panic attacks began: clutching bouts of heart-pounding terror that left me gasping for air, convinced every wheeze was hurting the baby.

When I admitted to my husband that I kept myself from suicide because I didn’t want to kill my baby, I finally got help: medication, and a real psychiatrist.

I was suffering from prenatal depression, which is experienced by 10 to 20 percent of pregnant women. Everyone talks about postpartum depression. No one mentions that the same hormones can trigger prenatal depression as well. Babies born to depressed women suffer higher rates of stress hormones, less coordination and motor control, and more sleep disturbances. Up to 14 percent of women take antidepressants during pregnancy, and their efficacy — and effects on the baby — is debatable. But for some women whose depression is severe enough that they can’t care for themselves or a child, their use is necessary. I was one of those women.

But my SSRIs weren’t enough after Sunny’s birth. Coming off a high-risk, debilitating pregnancy, I began to have obsessive thoughts. I would lay down with my son during nap time and think, This is how we will curl up after the apocalypse, when the nuclear bombs fall and we scrabble to live through nuclear winter. How would I feed us? Would people try to cannibalize each other? I was haunted by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Stephen King’s The Stand. The end felt nigh.

I had other symptoms. Constantly stressed, I snapped at my older sons. Depression doesn’t always look sad: It can look like mean instead. Normal kid behavior left me enraged; a simple lost shoe could ruin the day. I yelled. I stomped off to the bedroom. I couldn’t understand why my children had suddenly become so bad.

And I began, again, to worry my husband would die. I started crying in the bathroom. My baby, who I loved so much, felt like a terrible mistake. I was a mistake. I thought about killing myself, but knew he wouldn’t have anything to eat. I worried his head would fall off.

I needed more medication.

We had to tweak and tinker. But a year later, I’m on an even keel again. I needed a good deal of medication to get here, but the dangers of a depressed mother outweigh the medication passed through my breast milk (and for health reasons related to severe food intolerances, weaning was not an option). And other things helped, of course: I spend time outside; I eat well. I make sure to get enough sleep, and I cuddle my son as much as possible. I am happy and healthy. I am productive.

But I wasn’t always this way. I got help.

Millions of women do not.

And the first step toward helping women with depression is to take away its stigma. I’m afraid to write this. I worry about its implications for my relationships, for my life. We’ve been taught that depression means you’re weak or crazy. We worry it makes us less of a mother. We have been shamed for the vagaries of brain chemistry, for the feelings we can’t fix.

Millions of women suffer. They need us to come out of the dark and to say: I’ve been there. I am there. I hear you.

Depression doesn’t mean you hate your baby.

It doesn’t mean you hate yourself.

It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, a weak person, or a selfish person.

It doesn’t make you less than other mothers.

It shouldn’t make you ashamed.

It shouldn’t make you alone.

Elizabeth Broadbent is a writer and mother. This article originally appeared on xoJane.com.

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

Watch Gay Black Fathers Kordale and Kaleb Star In This Beautiful Nikon Ad

Video tells the family's inspiring story

Kordale and Kaleb Lewis are starring in a new Nikon campaign with their children.

The pair shot to fame when a photo of the two dads doing their daughters’ hair in the mornings went viral. It also drew homophobic backlash on Twitter with people taking issue with two gay black men raising a family.

Nikon’s “I Am Generation Campaign” shows the family telling their story in an inspiring video.

Kordale and Kaleb told the Huffington Post that the photo and now the video had changed their lives and how people viewed them.

“There will be those people who do not agree and will post negative comments or snarl their faces, but there are much more people who do agree and commend us as fathers and community activists,” the pair said in a statement.

[Huffington Post]

TIME Family

How to Talk to Your Kids About Immigration

Hannibal Hanschke—Reuters Participants hold a banner during a demonstration called by anti-immigration group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (Pegida) in Dresden, Germany, on Dec. 15, 2014

News stories about the debate over the DREAM act, the tens of thousands of children who arrive unaccompanied in the U.S. each year and even the backlash against immigrants in Europe after the Charlie Hedbo killings can raise all kinds of questions and stir up all kinds of emotions for kids. This is especially true when they involve children being separated from their parents.

We talked with William Perez, Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University and author of Americans By Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Education, for his tips on starting good conversations with kids about immigration.

Elementary age kids won’t grasp the more abstract issues surrounding immigration, Perez says. So conversations with them can begin with the fact that almost everyone living in the U.S. today comes from a family of immigrants – including theirs. “A good start would be discussing their family’s history of migration to the U.S.,” he says. “Why did they first come? What were the conditions in the country of origin?” From there, the discussion can widen “to conversations about contemporary migration, and the reasons families decide to live in a new country.”

Middle school kids can wrestle with more complex issues, says Perez, so parents can encourage them to broaden their horizons, by “reading narratives from families of different backgrounds about their immigration experiences.” And all the stories don’t have to come from the pages of a book. Middle school is also a great time, says Perez, for students to start “asking friends, classmates, or extended family members about their migration experiences.” How did their friends’ families come to this country? What was the experience of their grandmother, grandfather, aunts and uncles?

High school students “should begin to understand how immigration policies affect immigrants and their families,” says Perez. Families can discuss questions like why do some states have pro-immigrant laws while others have anti-immigrant laws? Perez also suggests that high school students read news stories about immigration from different sources, regions, and countries. Parents can encourage them to absorb what they read by asking questions like “Do these sources talk about immigration in different ways? If so, how? And why?” (One place to start might be this story in New York about an immigrant family who works fast food jobs in Texas.)

The bottom line, according to Perez: make sure that kids understand that immigration didn’t stop at Ellis Island. “Teaching about the history of immigration is important,” he says. But it’s also very important to help kids connect that history and current policies to their families and community.

TIME Culture

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Persian Food

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

My Iranian mother wanted me to cook recipes from the motherland. I wanted to be independent

My cavalier cooking practices have been a cause for shame and concern for my Iranian mother. To me, eating is just something you do to stay alive; for her and her legion of friends and family that grew up in the Motherland, cooking is a rite of passage to womanhood, the foundation of family and all things good in the world.

You know, everything a ready-made, heart attack-inducing Doritos Locos Taco is not.

So it comes as no surprise to find my mother one day standing by my open fridge grasping a small jar between her index finger and thumb.

“This is hell. I will put it on the side of the fridge, you know, in case you need it,” she says.

It’s just a coincidence that the name of this Persian staple spice—cardamom—is the same word for eternal fiery doom in English.

My mother has been sneaking in her favorite ingredients next to the Hershey’s chocolate syrup and the blue macaroni and cheese box in my kitchen ever since I began dating the man of her dreams, now my husband. Having grown up with his own Persian mother’s everything-fresh-from-scratch cooking, he wouldn’t mind eating a meal that’s not from a box. So the more serious we got, the less subtle her hints. She graduated to telling me, “You seriously need to learn how to cook. It’s not funny.”

Because her comments implied that cooking meant keeping a man, I was very adamant about never lifting a pan. Cooking in this cultural context seemed primitive, sexist, and totally un-American. Where did I get this idea? From my mom who, ironically enough, preached to my sister and me the importance of women procuring financial and personal independence and security through education, privileges she didn’t have growing up in Iran.

Still, I understood where she was coming from. In my mother’s Tehran, it literally “took a village” to raise and maintain a family. The older generation provided food for the burgeoning family, and food was a community affair where everyone helped with the preparing, cooking, and eating. One of my distinct memories from childhood in Iran in the late 1980s is the women in my family cleaning and stemming herbs for rice and stews at our house. Sitting around with their fingers plastered with wet dill and their mouths running with the daily gossip, they were a less sexy version of Sex and the City.

My family moved to Los Angeles in 1991 after a pit stop in Austria for a few months to get our papers together. Or, more specifically, we moved to the enclave known as Tehrangeles where Iranians—especially Iranian Jews—settled after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

But in L.A., I saw less and less of the chattering relatives, partly because they probably got sick of my mom giving them chores. But also because no one has the luxury or time to sit around stemming herbs all day when there are errands to run, e-mails to send, and nails to be manicured.

The idea was to adapt to American life enough to get by, but still speak, breathe, act, and eat Persian. Which led to a lot of awkward conversations at the school cafeteria explaining my pungent green stew to my friend with the crustless PB&J. And every Friday night, we always had to have the Thanksgiving-size Shabbat dinner, complete with the angry drunk uncle who asked the same questions every time (“How much money are you making writing? That’s horrible. You should go into real estate.”)

Starting a family of my own, I’m trying to reconcile this need to connect through food with the American notion of independence and can-do-it-all attitude. While I do need some guidance and appreciate when my mom brings over the occasional leftover split pea stew or herb quiche, I don’t want to come home to a tower of Tupperware in my refrigerator. The constant parade of handouts from my mom make me feel as if I’m failing as a nurturing wife and mother, roles I had totally been reluctant to take on yet will be damned if I don’t succeed at them.

So I decided it was time to add cooking to my repertoire. I mean, how hard would it be to buy some ingredients, mix them together, and throw them in a pot to cook if it meant so much to my family? Between Google and the TV, I was confident I could figure it out. I announced to my mother that I was cooking a traditional Persian meal for my husband. “That’s great, azizam,” she said, in a sort of God-I-hope-you-have-a-fire-extinguisher-handy sort of tone. “Let me know how it goes.”

I searched “dinner recipes,” then “easy dinner recipes” and finally “really super duper easy dinner recipes” and was overwhelmed by the number of ingredients, steps, and verbs. How do you zest a lemon? Dredge individual mint leaves with sugar? What the hell does dredge mean, anyway? Just doing the measurements alone seemed to require a Ph.D. in calculus. It occurred to me that I had never seen my mother use a measuring cup or an oven mitt.

I was not going to solicit help from my mother, so it was fortunate I remembered that someone had once given us a beautiful Persian cookbook called Food of Life. I swiped the dust off its cover and was delighted to find that it was a literary nerd’s dream come true. Besides recipes, there were pieces of Persian poetry, art, and stories.

“If wheat springs from my dust when I am dead / And from the grain that grows there you bake bread, / What drunkenness will rise and overthrow / With frenzied love the baker and his dough—” is Rumi’s erotic take on baked goods.

Excited at seeing my favorite recipe in English, I braved the long list of at least two dozen ingredients and committed myself to making rice meatballs.

It took me two days to prepare and make these meatballs. I shopped at Trader Joe’s for ingredients I recognized (eggs, rice, tomato paste). I headed to “Persian Square”—an area of Westwood Boulevard where the Iranian version of every business has a storefront—for those I did not.

At Sun Market, the couple running the place was happy to see “a young person” take interest in her native food. They helped me find everything I needed and threw in some unsolicited advice while they were at it (“You really should learn how to read Persian”).

So finding advieh—a mixture of cardamom, cinnamon, rose petals, nutmeg, and cumin—green plums, and summer savory was not really an obstacle. Putting them to use was.

When I was done chopping, slicing, rinsing, boiling, and whatnot, the kitchen was a CSI murder scene. There were grains of rice and petals of herbs on every exposed surface, including the stove, tiles, floor, and sink. Dante’s “Inferno” would have made a more suitable excerpt than Rumi’s poetic fancies.

My husband was grateful for the effort. He ate carefully, as if to detect poison before it was too late. Having taken one look at my disheveled exterior, he couldn’t fathom why I’d go through all the trouble. But it wasn’t really about him.

I wish this experience had made me fall in love with cooking. But at least I no longer found it synonymous with the Dark Ages. I had now tried on my mother’s shoes and saw what an ungrateful brat I’d been. I understand there’s an art driven by love for family and the incessant desire to feed and nurture them. I’m happily going to taken them up on their offers to bestow leftovers and swallow my pride until I get the hang of basic kitchen measurements.

That’s the paradox my mother embraced all these years slaving over elaborate meals while preaching the importance of prioritizing education, career, and independence: You can strive to have it all. Doesn’t mean you will, or that you’ll be good at it, but you can and should try because you have the freedom to do so. And that’s the luxury of being an American: not settling for one identity, especially if you’re a woman.

She was beyond amused when I recounted to her the tale of the rice meatballs. One day, to encourage me, she came over with a new bottle. “This is zaferoon. In America it’s called ‘saffron.’ It’s originally from Iran, where the best zaferoon in the world comes from. Ask anyone. Even Americans.” She pauses to make sure I’m watching her. “I’ll put it right here, you see? Next to the string cheese.”

Orly Minazad is a freelance writer and essayist in L.A. covering arts, culture, and everything in between. She wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a partnership of the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

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 relationships

Woman Goes Into Hospital for Back Pain, Gives Birth One Hour Later

The baby was 10 pounds

Weymouth, Mass., resident Katie Kropas thought she had put on some extra weight over the holiday season. But after going to the hospital Wednesday with complaints of severe back pain, the 23-year-old was surprised to learn that it wasn’t a food baby but, rather, a baby baby.

“They told me that I had a full term baby, ready to come, now,” Kropas told a local CBS affiliate. “So I found out at 10:15 and I had her at 11:06.”

Well, at least she had a full 51 minutes to process. The baby girl, named Ellie, weighed 10 pounds.

Kropas told NECN that she and her long-term boyfriend were shocked by the news. The new mom was reportedly on birth control and had a “pretty regular” menstruation cycle. She experienced no morning sickness and attributed her swollen feet to her 50 hour a week catering job.

Regardless of the surprising conditions, Korpas was very positive to the Patriot Ledger.

“It’ll be fun,” she said. “I’ll have lots of help.”

TIME psychology

10 Scientific Insights About Happy Families

family boots
Getty Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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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.

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