Thursday, December 31, 2009

Breastfeeding in public? Target says no, then backtracks

Mother of three Mary Martinez was ousted from a Target store in Michigan earlier this month, after she began breastfeeding her hungry 4-week-old daughter in the electronics section.

Though there were few other shoppers in the area, Target security approached Martinez and her husband, Jose, and told them to leave. "He said, 'It's against the law. You have to go,'" Jose Martinez told Fox News.

The police were called, and even after an officer admitted that breastfeeding in public was not, in fact, against the law, the family was escorted out of the store.

I'm not sure whether this smacks of ignorance or is indicative of a cultural issue. So threw it out to my readers at's Child Caring blog, and now I'm throwing it out to you: Do you think this happened because of our society considers breasts to be sexual objects? Or were the security guards just ignorant about the rights of a woman to breastfeed in public?

Monday, December 28, 2009

New study links Autism and Schizophrenia

As the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out with new data earlier this month, verifying that autism and autism spectrum disorders are much more prevalent among children than previously thought, researchers at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver have found that autism and schizophrenia may be genetic opposites, pointing to the possibility of new treatments for autism spectrum disorders.

According to evolutionary biologist Bernard Crespi and his co-authors, Philip Stead and Michael Elliot, autism and schizophrenia are each caused by anomalies in the same places in the human genome. People without either disorder usually have two copies of these genes; people with autism were found to have a single copy, while those with schizophrenia had extra copies.

"Autism and schizophrenia have always been regarded as being quite similar, but our data pretty much says the opposite," Crespi told The Vancouver Sun.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Driving out of my comfort zone

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about my comfort zone. Or, more specifically, whether I leave it often enough.

Soon, we'll be packing our youngest kids into the car and driving 1,200 miles to spend the rest of the holidays with their big siblings and their grandparents. While I love my in-laws and my big kids dearly, I will readily admit that I am seriously questioning my sanity right now. Because the last long drive I took was from Syracuse, N.Y., to Hilton Head, S.C., and at the time I was 18 and did not require sleep.

Also: For that trip, the car was packed with four college kids, a fancy Walkman on which we recorded an audio journal of the adventure, and adrenaline. This trip? Two overworked, middle-aged parents, two pre-school age kids, and a dog. Massive difference.

Needless to say, this trip is way outside my comfort zone. And that is pissing off my husband. Because it's well within his.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What to make of the new mamogram guidelines?

I've got a couple years until I hit the big 4-0, but a recent cancer scare has made me start taking my health more seriously. There's a history of different types of cancer in my family, some fatal, on both sides. So when the new guidelines for mamograms came out last month, stating that annual screenings were no longer recommended for women younger than 50 (and that self-exams weren't helpful, either), I wasn't sure what to make of it. Wait 10 more years to start screening for something that's already in my family? Get tested for the BRCA1 cancer gene, and then decide? What?

I'll admit that my immediate reaction to the new guidelines was less practical and more along the lines of "if this was a man's issue, they'd be recommending more screenings, not less." After all, most health insurance plans cover Viagra but not The Pill, right? And breast cancer is the most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer deaths in American women. (More than 192,000 new cases and 40,000 deaths from the disease are expected in the U.S. this year.) Given the political focus on health reform, it's also easy to jump to the conclusion that this is really about heath insurance companies wanting to avoid paying for mamograms.

But it's not a male vs. female issue at all -- breast cancer does, indeed, affect men, too. Neither is the change all that sudden -- the data used by the government task force to determine the new guidelines has been around for years, according to the Los Angeles Times. Not to mention the fact that, up until a couple of decades ago, 50 was the age at which women were supposed to start getting regular screenings -- so if anything, we've returned to an earlier guideline.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Easy last-minute gifts: Sweetly-spiced nuts

Another homemade treat that takes nearly no time to make! I whipped up a double batch of these last night in 25 minutes -- and 20 of those minutes were spent just watching them bake in the oven.

Sweetly-spiced nuts

1 large egg white
1 Tablespoon water
6 cups walnuts (or pecans)
1/2 cup white sugar
2 Tablespoons dried rosemary, crushed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 teaspoons Penzey's Old World seasoning (OR Old Bay seasoning OR a mix of cumin, corriander, garam masala, and cayenne pepper)

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line two rimmed cookie sheets with parchment paper, and set aside.

In a large bowl, stir together the egg white and water.

Add the nuts, and toss to coat.

In another bowl, mix together the sugar, rosemary, salt, and spices.

Add spice mixture to nuts, and toss or stir to coat well.

Spread the coated nuts in a single layer on each lined cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes, stirring twice to make sure nuts toast evenly.

Remove from oven and cool completely before transfering to bags or jars. The nuts will get crispy as they cool.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

How old is too old to be a first-time parent?

My latest piece is live at! Today, I'm taking on the issue of post-menopausal pregnancy and asking whether it's fair to the child when people persue first-time parenthood in one's 50s and 60s. Here's an excerpt (click here to read the whole story and related news reports):

Too old to be a parent? Post-menopausal pregnancy triggers moral outrage

By Lylah M. Alphonse

BOSTON -- Some are seeking to add to their family after the loss of an older child. Others decide to act as a surrogate for a family member who can’t carry a child to term. Still others, years past natural child-bearing age, wish to experience pregnancy and parenthood first hand -- at any price.

Assisted reproductive technology -- including gestational surrogacy, donor egg and sperm, and in-vitro fertilization (IVF) -- have made it possible for women to postpone parenthood until their 50s or even later. Those who choose to go this route say that having a baby so much later in life is a fulfilling and life-affirming experience, adding that the numerous health risks involved are well worth it. But critics counter that it’s a selfish, immoral, and unnatural act -- and one that isn’t in the best interests of the child. ... [More]

Friday, December 18, 2009

Easy, last-minute gifts: Saffron-cardamom pistachio brittle

Every year, I fill baskets with homemade treats for my extended family. This is one of the most-requested items: a Persian-inspired candy made with fragrant saffron and cardamom and studded with pistachios. It comes together in minutes and makes a lovely last-minute gift.

Saffron-Cardamom Pistachio Brittle

1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup roasted pistachio nut meats
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 large pinch saffron threads

Measure nuts into a small bowl, add cardamom. Rub saffron threads between your hands to powder them, then add them to the nuts and toss to coat. Set aside.

In a 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup, stir together the sugar, salt, and corn syrup. Microwave on high, uncovered, for 4 minutes.

While candy is cooking, line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper, and set aside. Spray two spoons with non-stick spray, and set aside.

Quickly stir the hot syrup (make sure to scrape down the sides of the container), then microwave on high again, uncovered, for 1 more minute. It will turn a very pale gold color.

Add nuts to syrup, stir quickly, and microwave again, on high, uncovered, for 30 seconds.

Carefully pour the molten candy onto the parchment-lined baking sheet, and spread it out as much and as thinly as possible using the two sprayed spoons. Work quickly -- it hardens fast. Allow to cool, then break into pieces.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Is it possible to have an eco-friendly holiday?

Last year at Christmas, I stood in the living room amid the swirling scraps of wrapping paper and heaps of ribbon and ripped-up boxes, and thought, "There has got to be a better way."

At The 36-Hour Day, I'm talking about how I'm hoping to be a little greener this year. Having five kids makes for a lot of post-Christmas detrius, even though it's true that as the kids get bigger, the gifts get smaller (and more expensive). And the economy has dictated that this Christmas is going to be a little leaner than Christmases past. But if I'm going to go for a more eco-friendly holiday, there are still several areas where I can make a change or two.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Using your benefits may hurt your career

Of the many items on the average working mom's workplace wish list, a flexible schedule, on-site or subsidized day care, and paid sick leave are probably the most coveted. But a new study by the Academy of Management Journal suggests that some women are being penalized for using their companies' family-friendly perks.

City-wide curfews, and why they don't work

Malden, Massachusetts, is considering a curfew for its teenagers after late-night violence has rippled through the city. “We’re trying to help them to stay safe, to keep them from getting into mischief,’’ Ward Six Councilor Neil Kinnon, chairman of the ordinance committee, told the Globe's Kathy McCabe.

But as McCabe's article on points out, the people who are making trouble aren't necessarily teens -- and a late-night curfew might not solve the problem. In the first nine months of this year, 984 people were arrested in Malden, 55 of them juveniles. And only 11 of those kids were arrested after 9 p.m., according to Malden Police Chief Kenneth Coye.

Coye said most nighttime crime, such as vandalism or car break-ins, is committed by adults between 6 p.m. and midnight.

So what's the real point of the curfew? And does trying to enforcing an arbitrary one like this just encourage kids to break it?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Are good bargains bad for the economy?

As I mentioned recently over at The 36-Hour Day, I didn't take advantage of a single deal on Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

It's not because I didn't want a shiny new gadget or a gorgeous new outfit. It's not that my kids weren't clamoring for the latest noisy toy. It's because my budget has taken a serious hit this year, and even some incredible deals weren't enough to make me whip out the credit card unless I was oogling something we really need. And, frankly, we're very lucky; while there's tons of stuff we want, there's very little that we actually need.

An article in Time Magazine points out that, in the long run, the insane post-Thanksgiving bargains might actually be bad for our wallets -- and for the economy.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

$1 Million to raise a family? What are parents buying?

The cost of raising kids may have more than doubled to $1 million, according to new research.

Social researcher Mark McCrindle's survey of more than 4,500 Australians found that the average cost to raise a family today is $1,028,093-- a huge increase over the Australian Federal Government's estimate of $384,543.

Do the math to convert that to U.S. dollars, and the number is still shockingly high: $943,411.36.

What on earth are parents buying?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Wal-Mart and their workers: Will the $40M settlement change anything?

My newest gig launched today at All Voices, where I'm one of a handful of journalists from around the world hired to report for them as a Provoice Correspondent.

I'll be focusing on business, workplace issues, and work-life balance for the citizen journalism site and its 4 million monthly readers. My first piece, on Wal-Mart and the $40 million settlement it agreed to pay to some 87,000 workers in Massachusetts last week, is live now. Here's a tease:

...Workers in the United States have alleged for years that Wal-Mart managers denied or cut short their rest and meal breaks, refused to pay overtime wages, manipulated their time cards, or required them to work off-the-clock without pay.

Americans are outraged. But would those same working conditions raise eyebrows anywhere else? What's acceptable these days, and does it depend where the company is located? ...
Please click through to give it a read, share your reactions, and pass the word along!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Book review: Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran

When I find time to read, I usually reach for something that will either transport me to another world or give me a vivid look at someone else's life. Michelle Moran is one of my favorite authors, because her books do both, and more: Her meticulously researched novels are fiction based on fact, and time and again she artfully brings the past to life.

Cleopatra's Daughter is Moran's third novel set in ancient Egypt (and, later, Rome). As in Nefertiti (my review is here) and The Heretic Queen (click here for that review), the story is told from the point of view of a girl in transition. I reviewed Cleopatra's Daughter recently for the Boston Globe; here's what I thought of it:
November 24, 2009

They find an unlikely protector in their new guardian, Octavia, sister of Caesar and the wife whom their father, Marc Anthony, abandoned in Rome in order to be with Cleopatra in Egypt. But even from the relative safety of her home, they discover that life in “the greatest city on earth’’ is shockingly grim compared with the one they left behind. “Even Thebes, which had suffered destruction at the hands of Ptolemy IX, was far more beautiful than this,’’ Selene thinks as she views Rome for the first time. “There was no organization, no city plan, and though buildings of rare beauty stood out among the brink tabernae and bathhouses, they were like gems in a quarry of jagged stone.’’

In Rome, slaves are maimed or crucified by the hundreds if a single one rebels; assassinations are common; newborns are left out in the cold to die; and women have little value, forced to send away their daughters and remarry if Caesar commands it. “When a girl is born, a period of mourning is begun. She is invisa [unseen], unwanted, valueless. She has no rights but what her father gives her,’’ the slave Gallia, a captured Gaelic princess, tells Selene, who quickly understands that the only way to save her life is to somehow become useful to Caesar.

Moran skillfully weaves into her latest book plenty of political history and detail without ever weighing down the story, which is fast-paced, intriguing, and beautifully written; a subplot about a mysterious “Red Eagle’’ who is trying to incite a slave rebellion is riveting. In “Cleopatra’s Daughter,’’ she once again demonstrates her talent for taking long-forgotten historical figures and bringing them vividly to life.

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.

Cooking with kids: A delicious way to learn

It’s usually easier to get dinner ready yourself than it is to let your kids help, but if you constantly shoo them out of the kitchen you’re missing a valuable opportunity or two. For one thing, now that our oldest kids are teens I can say for certain that the window when kids think chores are fun and beg you to let them help is very, very small. For another, there are tons of opportunities to teach kids about cooperation, cause-and-effect, and even math while cooking a meal.

If cooking is a science, then baking is like chemistry: it requires precise measurements and certain ingredients in order for your experiment to be a success. Measuring ingredients helps kids understand fractions, rolling and cutting out cookies is great for hand-eye coordination, and your kids can identify shapes as they decorate. Bonus: You can eat your results.

Tomorrow (Dec. 4) is National Cookie Day, and while it's super easy to buy cookies, it's much more fun to bake them with your kids.

Consider how many kids you'll be baking with, how much space you have in your kitchen, and what you want your kids to get out of the process. Are your older kids working on fractions? Let them measure out the flour and sugar. Is your toddler learning about shapes? Spread a selection of cookie cutters out on the counter, but put the dough together yourself. Baking with budding artists? Make icing in advance, and let them customize the colors and decorate the cookies themselves (another great use for leftover Halloween candy!).

Baking expert Rachel Matheus of Mrs. Fields says you should be prepared -- you’ll inevitably have a mess. To make cleaning up easier, she suggests using a tarp or even some plastic garbage bags as a floor covering and use a disposable plastic tablecloth on the table, so when the fun is done you can simply gather up the plastic and throw all of the mess away.

Ready to get started? Here's an easy sugar cookie recipe from Mrs. Fields to try:

Sugar Cookies

Cream together:
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 Tablespoon vanilla

Mix together:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder

Add dry ingredients to creamed mixture alternately with 1/2 cup of milk. (It the dough feels sticky, refrigerate it for 20 minutes). On a floured surface, roll out the dough to about a half-inch thick and cut into shapes. Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes -- cookies will be a light golden color. Frost with your favorite icing and decorate with toppings.
If rolling and cutting aren't for you, try the kid-friendly peanut butter and jelly pan cookies, also from Mrs. Fields. (If you're worried about nut allergies, you can use sunflower seed butter instead -- Trader Joe's has a great one, or you can order SunButter online.

Peanut Butter Jelly Squares

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup salted butter
1 large egg
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup of your favorite jam or jelly
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter (or sunflower seed butter)
2 Tablespoons powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter a 9x13 baking pan.

In a medium bowl combine the baking powder and flour

In a medium bowl combine butter and sugar to form a grainy paste with a hand mixer on medium speed. Add the egg and vanilla and mix until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Add the flour mixture and blend at low speed until thoroughly combined. The dough will be firm. Divide the dough in half and form two circles. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap, refrigerate 1 hour.

On a floured surface, roll out each disk to a 9x13 rectangle. Place one piece on the bottom of the pan, and refrigerate 10 minutes more. Spread the peanut butter on top, and then the jelly. Place the other piece on top and pinch down the edges all around the inside of the pan. Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until golden brown and firm at the center. Cool in the pan, then cut into squares and serve.
If you don't have time to make a mess in the kitchen, you can still celebrate National Cookie Day and get a little learning in using pre-made cookie dough. Scooping out spoonfuls (or breaking off the pre-formed pieces) offers some counting practice, and any time spent being creative together is a wonderful chance to make memories with your child.

Do your kids like to help out in the kitchen? What's your favorite thing to cook with your kids?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Help for the holidays: Give more for less

Like most families, we're trimming our holiday budget, trying to economize in any way we can. My good financial intentions fell by the wayside, though, when I saw the Christmas tree at my youngest kids' preschool the other day. It was decorated with tiny colored lights and pairs of red and green paper mittens; each set of mittens had on it a needy child's Christmas wish.

The wishes weren't extravagant. A 5-year-old asked for "any toy." A 14-year-old wanted a set of extra-large fleecy pajama bottoms. A tween asked for a scarf, gloves, and a hat. Several teens each requested a gift certificate to a fast food place; one child asked for a gift card to a local grocery store.

My heart broke. I wanted to gather up all the mittens from the tree and buy everything I could. But of course I couldn't. Instead, I picked five sets of mittens -- one for each of my own five kids -- and started to think outside the box.

Great deal: gift certificates -- for free!

I've used a few times, to score bargain-priced gift certificates for friends and family. There are plenty of places to choose, from family-friendly fare to ethnic cuisine. Save even more by using their promo codes (keep an eye for the latest on Mir's great shopping blog, -- right now, "SAVE" gets you 80 percent off your order), but even without a code a $25 gift certificate only costs $10. Which means you can treat your crew to dinner without making much of a dent in your wallet.

For a limited time, is letting anyone and everyone send $10 gift certificates to anyone else in the U.S. -- for free. Feed It Forward 2009 is a great way to spread a bit of holiday cheer easily and affordably. The program runs through Christmas; go to to search for offers in your (or your best friend's) area.