Book Shelf

Best way out of a Mommy Trap: Don't get into one How to Avoid the Mommy Trap: A Roadmap for Sharing Parenting and Making It Work by Julie Shields, Capital Books, 2002, $26.95.

The title couldn't be more intriguing-promising, as it does, to show us the way to shared parenting. Unfortunately, even the author points out that this can be harder done than written. Even as she was trying to finish the book, Shields notes, she was finding herself falling into her own Mommy Trap.

And that does seem to be the point throughout: We mommies are in traps of our own making. We criticize the dads when they do things their way instead of ours. We set the bar too high. We don't ask for enough.

I have a pretty involved parenting partner in my husband. We even took turns as the full-time parent for the first three years. So how come, now that they're bigger, it seems that I am the one who finds them after-school care, buys the birthday presents, cooks them healthy dinners and generally does everything else? I'm not sure, even after reading Shields' take on this work-sharing idea.

But I do have some thoughts on ways to change my life. I'll start by asking everyone to write down all the jobs they do in the course of a week and, using that as our base, begin to shift the load a bit. Shields' best advice: Let hubby take on the new jobs. Don't become an expert, for example, at packing school lunches. Instead, tell Dad that he does it better and leave him alone to do it his way.

Sadly for those of us who already are trapped, Shields devotes only two of the 13 chapters to “getting unstuck.” The vast majority of the book is aimed at women who have yet to become mothers. She offers loads of advice on how to negotiate your way into an equal parenting partnership, how to strengthen your negotiating position and how to ensure that neither of you assumes the woman should be responsible for all things home-related.

And therein lies the real value of this book: Buy it in bulk and pass it along as an engagement present to all the young, naive women you know who honestly believe their future hubbies will be happy to get up for the 2 a.m. feeding. Cindy Richards

Children's mental illness is no-fault brain disorder It's Nobody's Fault: New Hope and Help for Difficult Children and Their Parents by Harold S. Koplewicz. M.D., Times Books, 1997, $15.

In September, Chicago Parent ran a heartrending and informative story by Liz DeCarlo about her son, Anthony, and his mental illness.

The story offered great resources for parents, but it also included DeCarlo's very candid feelings.

For 7-year-old Anthony, the diagnosis brought great relief: His problem had a name. For DeCarlo, the effect was devastating. “I wanted no one to know and I wanted this whole thing cured quickly and kept secret,” she writes. “My feelings of having done something wrong were overwhelming. ...”

DeCarlo didn't wallow in those feelings. She is a strong advocate for her son in the face of doctors who have not always been on her side.

As I read her story, I thought of Harold S. Koplewicz. His book is a great resource for parents such as DeCarlo who need help figuring out how to deal with this problem. The title says it all: It's Nobody's Fault.

While the book is six years old, it still is pertinent because the stigma of mental illness has not gone away. And, as DeCarlo points out, between 9 and 13 percent of children ages 9 to 17 have a mental illness. Clearly, a lot of parents need help.

Koplewicz has the credentials. He is a child psychiatrist and founder-director of the New York University Child Study Center. But this does not get in the way of his writing a readable and informative book on what mental illness means and what parents can do.

He starts from the basic premise that there is no logic for the stigma and parents shouldn't have blame themselves. After all, the brain is an organ like the kidneys and the lungs. No one would blame the parent if the child had diabetes or asthma. Mental illness is a brain disorder, a result of “DNA roulette” and there are treatments and help.

And that, he says, is the only thing a parent should worry about-being a strong advocate for his or her child's needs. Even in the face of doctors such as the ones DeCarlo encountered.

The only old thing in the book are references to “ground-breaking” discussions on drugs. Those talks have been public for a while-we're now debating over medication. But Koplewicz's explanation of the drugs is still concise and helpful. Susy Schultz

Here is an uplifting story with hope about foster care Another Place at the Table: A Story of Shattered Childhoods Redeemed by Love by Kathy Harrison, J.P. Tarcher, 2003, $23.95.

The state of Illinois is threatening to move every kid out of Maryville Academy in Des Plaines and I can't help thinking they all would be better off if they could go and live with Kathy Harrison.

In her book, Harrison describes her journey from a happily married Head Start teacher and mother of three children to an award-winning foster parent. Although I still don't have much hope for children in foster care generally, Harrison makes me believe there are good foster parents out there, despite a fragmented system that offers no training, too little money and too much red tape.

During Harrison's journey, she grew from thinking she could save every child to a hard-won insight about what might be possible. As long she was the conduit between the various principles in the system, her kids got what they needed. Harrison is extremely honest about how heart-breaking and difficult it is to be a foster parent specializing in sexually abused girls. Sometimes she hates the kids, the social workers, the parents, the lawyers and all of the other players. But mostly she keeps a sense of humor and perspective.

She's the kind of parent who constantly checks things, realizes she's made a mistake and learns how to do it differently. Unfortunately, as soon as she figures it out, the state moves the child, just as Illinois is threatening to do at Maryville.

With little formal training, she manages to provide comfort to children with the most horrific histories. These kids seem to expect the worst from others they encounter, even after they have been removed from the abusive situation. Her single best quality seems to be her ability to empathize not only with the abused girls-who often seem cold and unable to make attachments-but to empathize with the abusive mothers of her charges, too. But mostly, she makes a strong case for altruism by staying focused on what her foster children need. She lets them know that someone cares, as well as what the limits are.

This is a great book for people involved in the child welfare system, but it also offers lessons for the rest of us who fund a system that fails so many kids. Marylou Guihan

Kids Eat Chicago

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