Book Salad

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boxofbooksSo I published a book last week. It’s called Brain Changer: A Mother’s Guide to Cognitive ScienceI formatted the text and created a cover out of a free-use photograph and an open source knock-off of Photoshop. I collected blurbs and wrote about myself in the third person: “Janine Kovac is the recipient of the Glushko Prize for distinguished research in cognitive science and an Elizabeth George Foundation Fellowship from Hedgebrook.” I updated my Amazon author profile and my Goodreads profile. I put a picture of the cover on Facebook.

I always imagined publishing a book like birthing a kid. You know—there’s the anticipation, the list of names, the birth announcements. And to fit with the analogy, perhaps self-publishing was like a home birth where I called all the shots.

But this was more like rummaging through the fridge looking for salad items to throw together for a potluck. Since my goal was to build a backlist with a little ebook, I wasn’t looking to write a magnum opus; I was looking for 10,000 words that more or less fit together.

I came across a collection of blog posts I’d written for a website called Raising Happiness. The posts paired a tip for raising kids with its practical application as Matt and I navigated a risky twin pregnancy that resulted in micro preemie twins born three months before they were due—but viewed through the lens of cognitive science.

Originally, the NICU/cognitive science motif had been the premise of a memoir, but as I learned how to build scenes, transitions, and tension, the narrative arc of the micro preemie story leaned away from cognitive science and toward—of all things—the unexpected end of my ballet career. That book is still looking to make its way into the world.

But here were ten posts, already written, that could be thrown together and sold for $4.99 as an ebook. Perfect ingredients for my self-publishing “salad.” Unfortunately, the pieces were obviously written for online. There were references to other websites and as a serial, each post had one or two lines to catch the audience up to speed. The essays had to be cleaned up if I wanted to put them together as a book.

I didn’t worry about the narrative arc or the hero’s journey and I didn’t follow the self-help template. I just focused on how to make the pieces sound like a coherent whole.

It wasn’t until after I submitted my files for printing and ordered 25 copies of my book that I realized what I’d done. I’d written the book I’d intended to write seven years ago—a memoir of our time in the NICU and how cognitive science helped us through a very challenging time.

And it happens to make a perfect stocking stuffer. You can get the ebook through iTunes or Amazon and you can get a hard copy of the book here.

Empathy for the Mompetitor!

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In the most ideal of worlds, I would be able to completely rise above the mompetitions and still feel sisterly toward their participants without any hint of derision or condescension. 

But let’s be honest. They still irk me. However, this post does help.

The competitor of all competitors, the “Mompetitor” is that mother who engages you through a series of questions about your child. And then she one-ups you with the stories of her child’s precocious development. If your baby said his first word at eleven months, hers spoke at nine months. If your daughter was potty-trained by twenty months, hers trained herself at fifteen. If your kid performed at Lincoln Center at age twelve, her kid played Carnegie Hall at age ten.

I’ve met Mompetitors at the park and at the grocery store, but I didn’t expect to meet one in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit during the twins’ hospital stay. However, rather than brag about how her baby was bigger, better, and stronger than mine, this Mompetitor made it a point to emphasize how her baby was sicker and weaker. How many days were we in the hospital? (Ninety.) Her baby was in the hospital longer. How many surgeries did my babies have? (One each.) Hers had more. How many infections? How many blood transfusions? And so on. As if her situation were more serious than mine and therefore warranted more attention.

I found the Mompetitor to be irritating and annoying. Worst of all, I couldn’t shake the notion that really my babies were sicker and weaker. All of a sudden I was sucked into the “mompetition” and the only way I knew how to handle the situation was to walk the other way when I saw her. I could label and validate my feelings of irritation and annoyance, but it didn’t make them go away. And labeling and validating the Mompetitor’s feelings of superiority just made me more irritated and annoyed.

So here’s what I did about it.

Gratitude

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I’m a huge fan of gratitude. So much so that I edited an online gratitude journal for the Greater Good Science Center for the better part of two years. (The journal has now morphed into this cool research project.)

Here’s the original NICU gratitude post:

The nurses at the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley knew who I was before I’d even stepped onto the floor. Not because my boys were born at just 25 weeks’ gestation and were the youngest in the NICU. Not because, at 1 pound 12 ounces and 1 pound 9 ounces, my twins were the smallest in the NICU. The nurses in the NICU knew me because of our Aunt Rita.

“Tell your Aunt Rita ‘thank you’ from us,” nurses said to me, over and over as they stopped me in the hall or came by the twins’ hospital room. “What a wonderful person!”

Aunt Rita remembers birthdays and sends thoughtful gifts for no particular reason. She and her husband host a family reunion every summer at their home in the Midwest. know that she’s wonderful and fabulous but I couldn’t figure out how these Berkeley nurses knew that, too.

For the first month of the twins’ lives, they were in such critical condition, that each boy had a nurse standing at his bed side around the clock. The nurses showed me how to take my sons’ temperature (which had to be done every four hours), change their diapers (which were smaller than an iPhone) and touch them without over-stimulating their tiny underdeveloped nervous systems (with one hand resting firmly on the top of the head and the other hand firmly on the soles of their feet—no pats, no strokes, no light brushes).

These were the kind of details I posted in our private blog for family and friends. The day the boys were born I’d recounted brief details of the birth. When Aunt Rita saw the post, she sent a huge edible bouquet to the staff at the NICU. There were stems made of carrot and celery sticks and flower blossoms carved out of pineapples.

“Thank you to the doctors and nurses who are taking care of my nephews,” the card read.

“That bouquet was eaten in about twenty minutes,” one of nurses told me. “Even the kale.”

The metaphors for gratitude belong to a family of “moral accounting” metaphors. We say

we have debt of gratitude or that we pay our thanks. We say, “I owe him a thank-you.” Appreciation is earned. (Incidentally, many of the same metaphors are used for forgiveness: “Iowe him an apology.”) Moral accounting metaphors are often subconsciously used in bribe and reward reasoning, and ideas about sacrifice, guilt, punishment, and judgment of others. Gratitude researcher Robert Emmons would have said that Rita’s thank-you was freely given (one of the kinds of gratitude that makes us feel the happiest, for both the “thanker” and those who are thanked).

Wait, there’s more! It’s all here.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

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The garden metaphor is one of my favorites. I don’t want to use it ad nauseam, but I kinda hafta, in the account that it’s so cool.

Reposted from Raising Happiness, which offers science-based parenting advice:

I was so sure we were going to beat the odds. Five months into our high-risk twin pregnancyand I was the picture of health. The twins were doing great. We’d found a doctors’ group that specialized in high-risk pregnancies and we were in good hands. Our increased effort to build our village meant lots of play dates with friends and mini-vacations to visit family. My husband and I even made time for regular date nights. This “positive thinking” thing was definitely paying off.

But then two weeks before the end of the second trimester and three days before Christmas, a routine ultrasound showed signs of premature labor. My doctor immediately admitted me to the hospital for mandatory bed rest and medication to help stop the contractions. One week later the contractions started again and the twins were born via emergency cesarean section. Matt held my hand during the surgery and then he followed the boys the Newborn Intensive Care Unit. Michael (Baby “A”) weighed 1 pound, 12 ounces at birth. His brother Wagner (Baby “B”) was born at 1 pound, 9 ounces. They were 12 inches long.

If I had looked at the goals I had set up for myself during this risky pregnancy (carry twins to 32 weeks, avoid extensive medical intervention, have fat, healthy babies), I had failed at all of them.

But then I used my fancy garden metaphor. Read the rest here.

Dumping on your friends? Or Building a Village?

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If you’re following along at home with your own copy of Raising Happiness, this what I got out of Chapter 2 with a little help from conceptual metaphor analysis.

 

“I want to keep the news of our pregnancy to ourselves for a while,” my husband Matt said. “This is a private matter and it’s a scary situation. I don’t want to just dump it on people.”

I strongly disagreed with him. Given what the doctors had predicted, we were headed for rocky times—a month in the hospital for me and at least that much time in the hospital for our twins once they were born. This was not the time to keep news to ourselves.

People often talk about abstract concepts—patience, control, power, news—in terms of an object metaphor. We say, “I lost my patience.” “They grabbed control.” “He throws his power around.” Wekeep secrets and give news, as if it’s something tangible such as a ball just hand over to someone. (“Here, take this news. I don’t want it anymore.”) And negative events are often framed as having weight, as in: unbearable news or the burden of bad news. Heavy sorrow.

“Doctors tell us there’s a 50/50 chance that the twins won’t make it,” Matt reminded me. “I don’t want everyone to know that we’re expecting and then have to give them bad news. They’d all feel terrible for us and then I’d feel responsible for unloading on them.”

“We can’t do this all by ourselves,” I countered. “And I don’t want to hide our troubles from our friends and family.”

That’s the short story. Matt was wrong. I was right. Only I didn’t say to him that way. I said this way, in the rest of the blog post.

Putting On My Own Oxygen Mask First

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This is Guest Post #1 of 10 from Christine Carter’s Raising Happiness blog. You can read the full post here. In fact, you’ll have to, since I’m only posting a teaser here on my blog.

In August 2009 I discovered that I was pregnant with twins—a rare, 1-in-25,000 kind of pregnancy in which the twins shared both a placenta and an amniotic sac. The protocol for this kind of pregnancy is to monitor the mother and babies twice a month. If the mother is still pregnant at 28 weeks, she is admitted into the hospital until the babies are born.

A normal pregnancy is 40 weeks, but for a monoamniotic/monochorionic pregnancy such as mine, the best-case scenario is that the babies are delivered around 32 weeks’ gestation—the point at which the risk of the twins dying from prematurity is less than the risk of dying from umbilical cord entanglement in the womb. Babies born eight weeks early may still need help to breathe and eat. Although many do quite well, they are still at risk for learning and behavioral problems later in their development.

You don’t have to be a cognitive scientist (as I am) to know that in the face of scary and uncertain circumstances humans often act irrationally. I knew I was asking for trouble by Googling search terms such as “mortality rates for preemies.” But I did it anyway. I learned about horrendous fetal birth defects that I never knew existed and found entire forums of scared mothers.

The truth of the matter was that I had stumbled upon tragic circumstances that were actually quite rare and none of them had anything to do with monoamniotic pregnancies. But the more I read about these worst-case scenarios, the more probable it seemed that they would happen to me.

Cognitive scientists call this the salient exemplar effect—a memorable or tragic event makes such a great impact we assume that it happens more frequently than it actually does. For example, (statistically speaking) terrorist attacks and plane crashes are quite rare when compared to other accidents or acts of violence. And the likelihood that a terrorist attack will cause a plane crash is even less likely. Yet the tragic events of 9/11 frightened many people into thinking that air travel was riskier than actually is.

Left hanging? Read the rest of the post here.

Meet Janine Kovac, a Cognitive Scientist and Happy Mom of Three

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(reposted from christinecarter.com)

After completing my degree in cognitive science at UC Berkeley, I was pregnant with what my husband and I thought was our second child. Then, surprise! We were having twins. I had never given much thought to how a twin pregnancy could be different from what I’d already experienced. Then, halfway through our first ultrasound, the sonographer excused herself and returned a few minutes later with another sonographer to verify her findings. Usually babies (twins or not) develop in their own gestational sacs. However in my case, my boys were sharing both a placenta and an amniotic sac. It was a 1 in 25,000 kind of pregnancy.

Sharing the same space meant there was nothing to keep the umbilical cords from tangling, braiding, and knotting together. And if one twin died in utero, there would be no way to save the healthy twin—we would lose them both. A crimped cord that cuts circulation to point of asphyxiation was not inevitable, but it was unpredictable and unpreventable. The odds of survival without complications in this kind of pregnancy hover at about 50%.

After carefully outlining the risks and the protocols our doctor said to me, “There is nothing you can do to prevent the babies from dying. Don’t let it stress you out. You can’t do anything about it.” And then he sent me home.

That’s when I turned to Raising Happiness and the Greater Good Science Center.

Interesting, huh? You can read the rest of the post directly on Christine’s site.

Meet Christine Carter Who Wants You to Meet Me

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In 2008 I was up to my ears in parenting books and I couldn’t help but notice that many of these experts did not agree with each other. So I began to evaluate their works not on the basis of their words but rather on the abstract structures behind their words.

I know. It sounds boring. But it’s fascinating. So fascinating that it became the subject of my thesis A Linguistic Analysis of Parenting and the thesis won a fancy award (The Glushko Prize for Distinguished Undergraduate Research in Cognitive Science).

As I was compiling data for my research, I came across Christine Carter’s work. At the time she was the executive director for the Greater Good Science Center. It changed my life (and my thesis).

I’ll be the first to admit it. My thesis is rather dry. There are no pictures or exclamation marks anywhere. But I stand by the content. It’s pretty rad and gave me a way to navigate in the NICU when my husband and I were flanked by more experts who didn’t agree with each other. And Christine’s work (you can experience the Full Christine here) became the road map.

In 2012 I wrote a series of posts for Christine’s parenting site raisinghappiness.com, combining what I gleaned from her 10 Steps For Raising Happy Kids with stuffy abstract cognitive linguistics. I’m reposting them the essays for your enjoyment. Please check out raisinghappines.com and christinecarter.com if you have the chance. She offers a fantastic online class and all of her advice is science-based. Awesomeness. Exclamation point.