Written on February 10, 2015 at 11:21 am , by Suzanne Rust
By: Suzanne Rust
Photography by: John Huba
When they were younger, despite their artistic tendencies, Hannah Sessions thought she might become a lawyer and Greg Bernhardt imagined a career in education. So how did they wind up down on the farm? A love of Vermont and good food plus a yearning for a bucolic lifestyle and creative work inspired the couple to invest in a property that they converted to a goat dairy. Fifteen years later, their Blue Ledge Farm boasts 140 goats and produces award-winning artisan cheeses. Now these first-generation farmers cannot image a better life for their family of four.
Which three words best describe your family?
Active, creative, earnest.
What made you choose a goat dairy and cheese making operation?
Goats were an affordable alternative to cows when it came to the capital investment involved in starting a dairy. We always had our sights set on making cheese and we were very excited by the diversity of cheeses you can make with goat’s milk. Lastly, we felt like there was room in the market for excellent artisanal goat cheese. Hannah says that since getting to know goats and their personalities, she would be hard-pressed to work with any other animal.
What is the most rewarding thing about your lifestyle? What is the most challenging?
The things that are the most rewarding are also the most challenging! It is very rewarding to work where we live, and that is also the greatest challenge. Working where you live allows you to be very efficient with your time, to multi-task and to seamlessly blend family and work life together. We get to work together every day, and we are available for our kids.
It is also challenging because you never actually leave your place of work and there is always something that needs tending to. It is rewarding to be deeply connected to weather and the seasons, but that, of course, it also very challenging as weather dictates our ability to harvest feed and many other things. It is wonderful to live with the companionship of hundreds of animals, but challenging to never travel because we are responsible for their care.
You are both first generation farmers. What are the biggest misconceptions about farm life?
One big misconception is that farming is easy, and anyone who can hoe a row of lettuce or muck out a pig pen can do it. You do have to do physical, dirty jobs from time to time, but farming is high tech and takes an incredible amount of knowledge. We wear many “hats”: plumber, electrician, veterinarian, mechanic, accountant, public relations, builder, and graphic designer to name a few. We weren’t born into a farming family so we have learned to gather knowledge when and where we can! Fortunately, folks more experienced than us have been very generous with their time since the birth of Blue Ledge Farm. And we can always “Google it”!
How hands-on are you two at this point? Do either of you actually milk the 80 goats twice a day?
Hannah manages the herd of 140 goats and is very active in vaccinating, breeding and general care of the animals, and takes a few milking shifts per week. We have a great team of milkers so that no one person is burdened with milking twice a day!
Greg manages the cheese production, but between making hay, keeping the books and maintaining operations about the farm, our cheese maker, Megan, has her hands in more actual cheese curds than he does.
What do you love most about the cheese making process?
I enjoy seeing the development from milk, to curd, to a formed shape, and then a fully aged cheese. I also like the fact that we are creating a product that is nourishing to body and soul. (Greg)
How do the kids help around the farm?
Our kids are busy with their school and sports lives during the academic year. They will bottle feed kids during kidding season and in the summer they help harvest hay, give farm tours to visitors, and they sell cheese at our local farmer’s market. Like all of the farm kids I’ve ever known, they are willing to lend a hand when needed!
How do you think they are benefitting from the life you have chosen?
Our kids have never wondered what it is that their parents actually do for a living. They see us working, and they understand that hard work and diligence makes an idea reality. They have a lot of pride in the product that we produce and our part in the community.
Were you two always very environmentally conscious, or did that come once you started working on the farm?
Hannah was voted “most environmental” in high school, and both were vegetarians before starting Blue Ledge Farm and raising their own animals for meat.
Did either of you ever imagine that you would be running a dairy farm?
No, Hannah thought she would be a lawyer and Greg thought teaching was his future. We both always aspired to be artists.
You are both painters. Tell me a bit about that creative side and how you make time for it.
We paint during the slower months on the farm (September through March), but a painter never really stops working! We are always craving more time in the studio, but the farm, the landscape, and our animals are our muse, our subject matter, and our source of inspiration. I think our deep connection to these things comes through in our paintings, and if we weren’t constantly juggling the farm and the art, our paintings might be missing something.
Any short “farm bloopers” to share?
Years ago we answered a local ad for three piglets, so wild that they were “free to anyone who can catch them!” We felt we were up for the challenge but after chasing piglets for two hours we drove away with one lone piglet in the back of the truck. After stopping in town for a quick errand we headed for home, only to discover upon arrival that the lone piglet had in fact escaped from the truck! What followed was three days of heavy rain and no sign of the pig. Then, out of the blue we get a call from a nearby town “you missing a piglet?” The poor pig had taken residence under a porch, chasing away their dog. With help, we went and retrieved the piglet. How this person traced the piglet back to us is still a bit of a mystery– small town Vermont!
For more information check out: www.blueledgefarm.com
Written on February 3, 2015 at 9:55 am , by Suzanne Rust
Necessity is the mother of reinvention. Jennifer Conlin and Daniel Rivkin, foreign correspondents with posts in Europe and Africa until 2010, felt it was time to return to the States with their children. But after two decades of living abroad, they realized that the transition would be tricky—especially in the middle of a recession. A move to Michigan with Jennifer’s parents and brother turned out to be the winning solution. Jennifer shares her multigenerational you-can-go-home-again experience.
Describe your family in three words.
Hilariously thriving together.
How did your living arrangement come about?
The simple answer? It was a combination of being homeless refugees dodging a revolution and returning somewhat jobless to America to ensure our family’s safety.
We moved in with my parents full-time in late August of 2010, having lived in Cairo, Egypt, the previous year. We sensed the country was about to go through a difficult transition by the increasing restrictions being imposed on journalists working there (our livelihood), and decided to leave at the last minute before the next school year started. Six months later, the first revolution occurred.
My children knew Ann Arbor well, having spent part of every summer of their lives at my parents’ rambling colonial home, so they felt comfortable in the house and already had bedrooms here, as did Daniel and I.
Harriet was starting her first year of college in England, so she didn’t move in with us. Daniel didn’t arrive until late October, since he had to move us out of our home in Egypt and finish up his job there.
How do most people react when you tell them about your situation?
Shock. They tell me that if they lived with their parents there would be a homicide within months. But then, after they come over and see us all together they get very jealous. They see the wisdom in it, the love, and what a great time we all have together.
What was the transition like?
Enormous. We were used to living overseas, as we had for 20 years (the children had never lived in the States and were mostly raised in London). As a result, we were accustomed to having zero family nearby. Suddenly, we were all under one roof, my older sister was just down the street, and I also have dozens of cousins in town. At first it felt rather smothering because we were so used to being fiercely independent. But we needed family.
Our transition was harder outside of the house, where we were all trying to adjust to living in the U.S. for the first time as a family. Inside the house, we could break down when we faced difficulties. My parents and brother gave lots of hugs and advice during those first months when we all felt like complete foreigners despite all being American.
Have you reverted to old family dynamics now that you’re living with your parents and your brother?
Yes, but in a good way. I have always been close to my mother and father, and we never argued much when I was growing up and still don’t. Also, because I lived so far away, our visits usually lasted about a month, whether they were coming to visit us overseas or I was going to stay at their home with the kids. But I do find myself tiptoeing into the house if I come in late, like a teenager, not wanting them to know I stayed out past midnight. My brother and I were close growing up, but we also always teased each other a lot and still do—I tease him about women, he teases me about staying in shape because we were always very athletic together.
What is the biggest reward you get from your arrangement? What is the most challenging aspect?
By far the biggest reward is that there’s always someone here to help out, whether it is cooking, babysitting, dog sitting or helping with homework. My mom and dad both still drive, so they helped pick the kids (now just Charles) up from after-school activities when I had to work. I never have to turn down a work trip with them here to watch the children, and they have us to help them take care of the house, get to doctor’s appointments and entertain. They love having people over but it was getting too tiring for them, as was keeping up the house. My husband and I love to entertain, so we have a lot of multigenerational parties and dinners now.
The most challenging part is that we ended up buying their house three years ago, since we decided our living situation made us all better off economically. But Daniel and I would really like to make some decorating changes. Given that my mother was an interior decorator, she has a lot of opinions on how the house should look. She is pretty classic in her style and a lot of our things are fairly exotic because we’ve lived all over the world, so we don’t always agree. We only finally got our belongings out of storage six months ago, and a lot of them went straight to the attic. It still looks more like my parents’ house than our house.
How do you divide the household duties?
My brother always takes out the trash; my father orders all of us around the garden, telling us what to cut back and weed; my mother is obsessed with vacuuming the house and dusting. I do most of the cooking and shopping, and my husband is like Mr. Clean. He sweeps through the house every night, putting everything away and making sure the house is spic-and-span for all of us in the morning. The kids do next to nothing, I hate to admit. But they have zero time. One of the biggest shocks we had moving to the States was how full-on American childhood is: sports, extracurricular activities, community service and then huge academic pressures. They clean up their rooms….once in a while.
What does dinnertime look like?
This year we’re eating together less often, with everyone busy, but we still sit down at least twice during the week for dinner—and nearly every Sunday night. My mother acts as sous chef for me, chopping things and setting the table. I love to cook so we eat very well, but it’s not always to everyone’s liking. We have serious food issues here. My dad thinks every meal should be meat and potatoes, Florence is a vegetarian, Charles hates tomatoes, my mother has lots of allergies (including garlic!), and my brother is slim but eats a TON of food (though, thankfully, anything). Daniel and I like grains and fish and eat lots of trendy health foods, like quinoa and farro, that my father thinks taste like dust. But I don’t cater to anyone—what you’re served is what you get!
How are your children benefiting from living with their grandparents? And how do their grandparents benefit?
The children are now so much closer to their grandparents, obviously, but they are also wiser for the experience. My dad is a World War II history buff and my mother was an English major (she won the same fiction writing prize at the University of Michigan that Arthur Miller won while he was a student here). Between them they are great homework helpers. They also love to tell stories of their childhood to my kids. Charles, an avid piano player, has learned to play Cole Porter, Gershwin and a million musical theater songs thanks to my parents, who bought him a book of their favorite tunes. My mother has had her granddaughter, Florence, in town and learned all about modern feminism from my activist daughter. She will soon have her other granddaughter, Harriet, here direct from England, as she is moving into our home in January. My mom is a huge Anglophile, so having Harriet around to watch Downton Abbey with her will be a treat. My parents have little time to feel old with so many of my kids’ friends around all the time. And their friends love my parents. I came home the other day to find two of Charles’ friends sitting watching football with my father. Charles wasn’t even here! They stayed anyway to hang out with my dad. It was the cutest thing ever. And my parents have 24-hour tech support, since they can barely operate a television, let alone the computer.
What is your advice to others for making it all work?
You have to have a sense of humor, lots of patience and be able to compromise. But you also have to communicate well and say what you feel when you feel it so things don’t boil over into an explosion. You have to really love each other but also give space when it’s needed. Sometimes we need time alone with our kids, and my parents have to leave so we can have our own family time. And sometimes they need time alone and need us to go out so they can relax without chaos.
Privacy can be the hardest part. As my kids say, they will never be able to throw a party we don’t know about. For that to happen they’d have to have five adults out of the house all at the same time. Good luck with that!
What is the most surprising thing that you’ve discovered about living in a multigenerational household?
How economical it is—we can all live so much better together, sharing costs, than apart. And how mentally helpful, not harmful, it is—all of us are there for each other if someone has a bad day. Plus we have lots of different viewpoints on how to solve problems if someone is facing something difficult.
Please share a funny moment that has come out of all this.
When we first moved in, Florence had a new friend over and her mother came to pick her up from our house. I answered the door, having never met her before, and could see her looking around at all these antiques, floral couches, chandeliers, etc., wondering about my old-fashioned taste. But it was my mother’s taste, of course. I’m more Pottery Barn than Laura Ashley.
Then my brother suddenly came up behind me. She assumed it was my husband, and I had to tell her it was my brother. Then my parents waltzed into the room and she was even more confused.
“Whose house is this?” she suddenly asked.
My face went red and I had to say for the first time, “All of ours.” She soon became a great friend and we laugh now at how awkward I was admitting for the first time that I was living in a multigenerational home.
Written on January 15, 2015 at 1:13 pm , by Suzanne Rust
Flexibility is one of the cornerstones of sane parenting, especially when you have a child with special needs. As the parents of 9-year-old Sabrina and 12-year-old Max, who has cerebral palsy, Ellen Seidman and her husband, David, have become flex masters—they don’t let challenges dictate how they live their lives. This attitude keeps the family strong and acts as a source of inspiration for Ellen’s award-winning blog, Love That Max. We talked with Ellen about going with the flow.
Which three words best describe your family?
Down-to-earth, adventurous, fun-loving.
How has having a child with special needs changed your outlook on life?
I’ve always been a person who likes to be in control, which has come in handy for making sure Max gets the services he needs. But having a kid with cerebral palsy, a condition for which there is no cure, has given me a roll-with-it sensibility. He can’t catch the softball? Okay, so we’ll just play a batting-only game of T-ball. Can’t get him to go into a restaurant because it’s too loud for him? Okay, we’ll try another one. You have to be flexible when you have a child with special needs, or you will drive yourself up the wall.
How would you describe your parenting styles?
Me: Disciplinarian. Husband: Marshmallow-like—and he’ll readily admit it too.
What is dinnertime like at your home?
First, I have to rip the kids away from the TV. At the table, we’ll talk about upcoming activities and how school is going; Max uses an iPad with a speech app to help him communicate. A lot of times, Max will try to get us to hold the spoon and feed him, but we tell him he has to do it himself—we’re all about encouraging independence.
What is your family’s favorite activity?
Traveling of any kind—road trips, plane trips, train trips, wherever and whenever!
How does Sabrina relate to Max and vice versa? Has being his sister made her a more empathetic person?
In many ways, my kids are typical siblings: They squabble, they’re competitive with each other, and they want to make sure they get the same size of birthday cake. But because Max has physical challenges, Sabrina has to help him sometimes—say, with holding the Wii remote or drawing something he wants. As the years have passed, she’s become more likely to instinctively help him without my asking. Ultimately, I can imagine that this will translate to her having a hearty sense of empathy for others with disabilities—but because she can also see Max’s abilities, she’ll know that even though people with special needs have their challenges, they are capable in so many ways.
What is your pet peeve about how people treat Max?
The staring. It’s so rude. Hello, didn’t your mother teach you any better?! I’d much rather people come up to us and engage in conversation rather than gawk. Or even just say hi.
Your biggest concerns?
They’ve changed over the years. When Max was a tot, I was anxious about his development and what he would and wouldn’t be able to do, and when. While he’s doing really well for himself (he walks and has some speech), I’ve come to accept him for who he is, keep hoping for progress, and keep getting him therapy up the wazoo! My biggest concern, which I’d venture to say is shared by every parent of a child with special needs: What will happen when my husband and I are gone?
How has your blog, Love That Max, helped you?
I started my blog to inspire and inform parents of kids with special needs. I’d been through so much grief after Max was born, and I wanted to help others who were in that dark place. I know from comments and emails that parents find comfort in my writing, which does me good. But I also get so much in return: new perspectives on handling Max’s challenges and practical information too, like the best kind of sneakers to fit Max’s foot braces. It’s also been extremely satisfying to show people who don’t know anyone with special needs how absolutely awesome they are. I don’t want pity for my son—just inclusion and respect. When I hear that I’ve changed the way people view those with disabilities, I’m damn proud.
What is the most important thing you’d like people to know about special-needs children?
It’s best for parents to explain to their kids early on that children with disabilities are more alike than different from them. They should teach them to not be afraid of those who don’t act, talk or move like they do. Please encourage your child to say hello to children with special needs at the playground, the park, a party, wherever.
What surprises you most about parenting?
How cute your kids remain, even as they get older! They are as yummy and adorable to me now as they were when they were roly-poly babies. I still can’t stop kissing them. Only now, they’re getting embarrassed about it.
Any New Year’s resolutions for you and your family?
We don’t make formal ones, because the second you make them they are doomed to fail, so I’ll just say that our unofficial resolution is: Find more time for fun!
Written on December 4, 2014 at 12:45 pm , by Suzanne Rust
For this Manhattan family, December means a holiday double-header: Christmas and Hanukkah. Catherine Coppola, a Catholic, her husband Ric Frank, who is Jewish, and their daughter, Celia Frank, pull off this dual-religion feat by combining old and new traditions in “roll-with-it” New York City style. They treated us to a glimpse of their particular winter wonderland, where Christmas ornaments and a menorah mix and mingle.
Questions answered by Catherine unless otherwise noted.
What do you like most, and least, about raising a child in New York City?
It’s great to have the incredible opportunities available here, especially for music and arts education. But it can be difficult for a child to be surrounded by high-end stores and all kinds of food and products that may not always be affordable. The flip side of that disparity, though, is the learning experience of growing up among many different kinds of people and levels of wealth, and the awareness that we are lucky to be in the middle, which can give a kid a healthy perspective.
How would you describe your parenting styles?
I try to talk things through, and accept the fact that the talk may go south, in which case tomorrow is another day. Sometimes you just have to leave it for a while and come back fresh.
My style is changing and evolving. The main thing I do is pick and choose my battles, and try to stay supportive. —Ric
What are some of your family’s Christmas and Hanukkah traditions?
For Christmas, tree decorating includes a goofy version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to go along with a set of ornaments that was given to me by some very good friends, and then we’ll drink eggnog, attend church and have dinner with my extended family. For Hanukkah, we light the menorah and sing the blessing, which Celia knows in Hebrew.
Have you found any challenges to living in a dual-religion household? If so, how have you dealt with them?
I was a church organist for many years, and Celia attended many services with me while Ric practiced his music, so it was natural for her to become part of that community. It also allowed Celia to participate comfortably when we attended church on holidays with the larger family.
Ric was not raised with synagogue attendance except on high holidays, but he always reads the services at home on the holidays and has tried to engage Celia in that way. So for us it has always tilted more toward the Christian side, and that can be a challenge for Ric, whose extended family is not on the East Coast. The challenge is that even with the best intentions, exposing Celia to both traditions can leave her confused as to which religion she is.
How did your friends and family react to your marriage?
We were introduced by a friend of Ric’s, and both his and my friends were happy for us. I had been married before, and about my first husband my father had raised the very legitimate question of why was he divorced. With Ric, my dad asked, “At 44, why has he never been married?” Parents will always have some trepidation until their child’s mate proves that they are a good person who will share your essential values. Once it was apparent that that was the case, my parents were fine with Ric. The only objection came from my very traditional Italian uncle. When I visited him in Bensonhurst and told him I had met a good guy, he asked, “What nationality is he?” When I said Jewish, he put his head in his hands and just shook it back and forth. Once he got over the surprise he was fine. With Ric’s family there was really no issue—his parents liked my cooking!
What song best captures the spirit of your family?
“My Girl.” It was our favorite early in our relationship as a couple, and it captures our love for Celia.
What do you love most about Celia?
I love that she is able to assert herself when necessary but that she seems to know the difference between assertiveness and aggression. I’m actually a little jealous of the way she is able to make her needs and feelings known—and this is true whether they are feelings of anger or of love, with which she is very generous. I also admire the way she can hold her own in conversation, whether with peers or adults, and I am very proud of her honesty and her work ethic.
In addition to Cathy’s thoughts, I really love how Celia stands up for equality across the board whether related to gender, age, race or religion. —Ric
What’s the biggest challenge for your family?
We need to remember how good our life is and keep the trivial things that we argue about in perspective so they don’t weigh us down. And when it’s not so trivial, we need to put a priority on communicating clearly what we feel and need from the other person in the situation. Sometimes that seems even more challenging in a family of three, where the triangle of emotions can be very intense.
Any tricks to keeping sane while trying to do the whole work/life balance juggle?
Yoga and meditation for Ric, Pilates for me and creative work for both of us in performing and writing; it’s also important not to be too hard on yourself. Allow yourself some shortcuts, like a take-out night. Eating together feels good even if you didn’t cook the meal!
Written on October 8, 2014 at 10:13 am , by Suzanne Rust
Mornings that begin with a big family hug are a sweet way to start the day for Chris Osner-Hackett, his husband, Bob Osner-Hackett, and daughters Cai and Ava. Their busy schedules are tempered by calm weekend activities like Friday movie night, long walks with their two dogs, and jaunts to the Kalamazoo Farmers’ Market.
Questions answered by Chris Osner-Hackett unless otherwise noted.
Which three words best capture your family?
Loving, grateful and supportive.
How would you describe your parenting styles?
Bob and I have completely different parenting styles. While we’re both supportive of our girls trying new things, Bob is by far the adventurer while I lean toward measured caution. Chris is the worrier and Bob is the encourager. We share the role of disciplinarian. Our styles, for the most, complement each other.
Have you felt accepted by your community?
Yes! First and foremost, we have a truly supportive network of family and friends who love and accept our family unconditionally. We have truly felt welcome wherever we have lived—whether Ohio, New Jersey or Michigan. We like to think it’s because once people get to know our family, it doesn’t matter that we are gay dads. Or it could just be that everyone loves Bob. Sure, there’s an occasional stare where you know someone’s thinking, “Must be dads’ night out with the kids” or “What is the dynamic of that family?” It really doesn’t faze the girls or us.
What surprises you most about parenthood?
How two children brought up in the same home could be so totally different. We have a serious and logical 8-year-old with a dry sense of humor, and a three-and-half-year-old who is animated, boisterous and keeps us laughing.
What are the biggest challenges that your family faces?
Finding time to have a sit-down dinner together.
No different than any other family—balancing the needs/wants of both a three-and-half- and an 8-year-old. We do believe we may face tougher challenges in the years ahead as we deal with questions around adoption and our nontraditional family. —Bob
What is the best moment of the day?
When Ava, our three-and-a-half-year-old, initiates the morning family hug.
What happens on a typical weekend?
The kids love Friday movie night. Saturdays are usually filled with dog walks around the lake, the Kalamazoo Farmer’s Market and lots of outdoor activities, like bike riding and tennis.
What are your tips for balancing work and family?
We are fortunate that Bob is able to be a stay-at-home parent. The benefit of having him home with the girls cannot be measured. As for me, I’m fortunate that my employer allows for good work/life balance, allowing me to prioritize the kids’ activities (sports, plays, lessons).
What is dinnertime like at your home?
Organized chaos—while our goal is to have a sit-down family meal, it doesn’t always go that way. Dinners are often preempted by an 8-year-old that, like daddy, is a picky eater, and a three-and-a-half-year-old who would rather play than eat, and the uncertainty of Chris’s arrival time.
Are you cooking this Thanksgiving? Any specialties?
Chris likes to boast about his homemade pumpkin pie, which he claimed for years was a family recipe until one year when he learned that “the secret family recipe” could also be found on the side of the Libby’s Pure Pumpkin can! —Bob
How did you feel when the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was struck down and you were able to make your marriage legal? What was that moment like?
A big step forward, however, there’s still a lot of work to be done at the individual state level. We’ve been together for 14 years and have considered ourselves “married” since our June 2003 commitment ceremony in Maui. We then filed for a domestic partnership while living in New Jersey, and finally had a legal wedding in Toronto in September 2013, post-DOMA. The striking down of DOMA, while momentous and exciting for the LGBT community, didn’t change the way we felt about each other. We had felt married for 10 years.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about homes with same-sex parents?
The biggest misconception is probably that children need parents of both genders; that with same-sex parents a kid is missing out by not having both a mom and a dad present. We believe this to be false for many reasons. Our daughters know of their circumstances. We’ve been open and honest about their adoptions and the fact that not all families are alike. We have also surrounded them with strong female role models—they have three grandmothers plus godmothers and many aunts/great-aunts/surrogate aunts that are very active in their lives. As long as kids are shown love every day and have a committed person in their lives dedicated to providing them a safe, loving environment, it shouldn’t matter what their gender is. In the end, love makes a family.
Categories: Parenting Teens & Tweens | Tags: blended families, Bob Osner-Hackett, Chris Osner-Hackett, Family Circle, modern family stories, Modern Life, November 2014, parenting girls, same-sex parenting
Written on September 4, 2014 at 12:58 pm , by Suzanne Rust
A trip to Ethiopia was a life changer for Allie Haley and Tim Hill. While volunteering at an orphanage, they met, fell in love with and eventually adopted a 3-year-old boy named Bini. The couple brought their son back to America 10 months later and grew the family with daughter Bronwyn—all of which made Hamish, their Labrador retriever, very happy. They gave us a peek inside the world of the Haley-Hill clan, or as their friends like to call them, “the Hillaleys.”
Three Words for Family
Bronwyn says loving, Bini says grateful, Tim says crazy. I’d go with all three of those.
Haley and Hill Parenting
We’re pretty relaxed and very silly. Tim and I are both deeply sarcastic people, and we spend a lot of time joking with the kids. We also spend a lot of time together.
As Bini says, adoption is happy and sad. You’re happy you found a family, but you’re sad you lost the first one. I think that sums it up perfectly. People are always telling Bini how lucky he is, and it makes me want to scream. It’s not lucky to have your parents die or to be abandoned, to be left at an orphanage and live there for months or years, to be taken halfway across the world by people you don’t know, who probably don’t look like you, to a place that is completely different from your home. There’s nothing lucky about it. Something has to go pretty terribly wrong for a child to have to be adopted, and to tell kids they’re lucky is an insult to them and their history. Tim and I feel that we are the fortunate ones, to have found this amazing child and to be allowed to be his parents. We are all happy to be able to be a family. That’s the lucky part.
Both children come into our bed early in the morning. The dog jumps on the bed too, and it’s just all of us together for a brief moment. The kids are getting too big for this to happen much longer, so I’m enjoying it while I can.
Mealtime is cuckoo, crazy and loud; it’s sheer insanity. We eat together every night, and by the time dinner rolls around, everyone is either wired or tired. It’s a lot of the kids singing songs and telling stories and jumping around and drumming on the table with a little eating thrown in.
Gaining a Son
We have an unusual adoption story. We met Bini when we were volunteering at his orphanage in Ethiopia. I’ve known I wanted to adopt since I was 3 years old, and I thought it would be a good way to make sure we saw what happens at an orphanage (to be confident that it was a good idea). In order to get Tim to agree to volunteer there, I had to promise him I wouldn’t try to adopt any of the kids, which I did because adopting would have been foolhardy and idiotic since we were traveling around the world and didn’t even have a place to live when we came back to America. About two weeks in, Bini was brought to the orphanage by his grandmother. As you can imagine, it was totally devastating. He had just turned 3 and had been abandoned by the only family he had in the world. I tried to befriend him to cheer him up and fell in love with him pretty quickly. It took a couple of weeks to get Tim on board, but by the time we left Ethiopia two months later, we knew we would be coming back for Bini. Fortunately, Tim says it was the best promise I ever broke. We applied to the adoption agency on June 17 and arrived in Ethiopia on January 12. It was a surprisingly short time because we identified a specific child, and he was an older boy.
We were very lucky in myriad ways, not least of which was his adjustment. We spent about a month with him in Ethiopia, which helped, and we spoke a little bit of Amharic, which also helped. When he got to America, he had trouble sleeping through the night for a while, and I had to stay with him for three weeks when he started preschool, but comparatively, he had a very smooth transition. Helping him then is the same as helping him now: We sit with him and try to calmly soothe him.
We have a difficult time educating other people about trauma and abandonment issues. If you don’t have a child with a history of trauma or loss, it can be difficult to understand their reactions. Most children who have been adopted have a trauma history, even if it’s “just” the trauma of being separated from their birth mothers. Trauma and abandonment issues manifest themselves in countless different ways, and we are still learning about them as we try to educate the other people in Bini’s life.
Peas in a Pod
Bronwyn was born almost 18 months after we adopted Bini, and 17 months to the day after we brought him home. He was thrilled to have a sister. While she was in utero, she would kick when he talked, but she would only do it for him. He called her his baby for years. He helped feed her, and he played with her, and he took very good care of her. To this day, they are best friends. She idolizes him and he teaches and protects her. We were very, very lucky. We always knew he would be a great big brother, but we had no idea they would have such a beautiful friendship.
A few years ago, we went camping with friends in Botswana. We all became hooked immediately (because who isn’t going to love camping in Botswana?) and started camping around here. It’s not nearly as glamorous, but we all get away from the iPad and the TV and spend some time together. And we’re actually becoming better at cooking things other than s’mores, which is exciting.
Trick or Treat
The kids don’t know what they want to be for sure. They have done combined costumes for the last few years (Crocodile Dundee and his croc, Michael Jackson and a zombie, and a Ghostbuster and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man). This year, they are still debating: It’s between Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia or Wonder Woman and Superman. Star Wars is winning!
Allie’s Cause: Lola Children’s Fund
I’m the director of Lola Children’s Fund, a nonprofit organization that funds an orphanage and community programs for HIV-affected kids and families in Mekelle, Ethiopia. I started it five years ago, when we went to Ethiopia to adopt Bini. Abebe Fantahun, a friend of ours, asked if I would help him start an orphanage in northern Ethiopia because HIV-positive kids were literally dying in the streets. I said yes, and now we have three different programs: Lola Children’s Home, the day care and the community outreach program. Abebe is a gifted social worker who was orphaned himself as a young child, so he really understands children, and the kids and their families are amazing. It’s been a real privilege to be able to work with them.
Written on August 12, 2014 at 2:14 pm , by Suzanne Rust
Four years ago, Bruce Ham lost his wife, Lisa, and his three young girls lost a mother, but with love, music and silly moments, their family is still strong. Ham shares their story in his book, Laughter, Tears and Braids: A Father’s Journey Through Losing His Wife to Cancer, and opens his home to us.
Your family, in three words?
My youngest daughter gave me one word, “weird.” I prefer creative, humorous and close.
Although I’ve been told, “Be a parent, not a friend,” I am their friend, big-time. But I also have pretty high expectations. They don’t get away with much. I was once told by my oldest daughter that I was the strictest dad in America. I believe that was slightly exaggerated and specifically tied to a desire to have an extended curfew.
It is critical that we eat together as many nights a week as possible. That’s our time to unwind, share and laugh. Some of our best stories about my wife come out at the dinner table. I try, but I am not a cook. My last-minute go-to food is a store-bought smoothie.
We have an island in the middle of our kitchen, which is smack-dab in the center of our house. That table is the hub: It’s where we eat, where homework is completed, where friends gather, where I write. When Lisa was alive, she always wanted to eat dinner at the island. I insisted on the table in the great room. When she died, it hurt too much to sit at the table with her seat empty. So almost all our meals have been at the island over the past four years.
My girls are very forgiving of my inadequacies when it comes to filling their mother’s shoes. But I have to believe the void that has been left is our biggest challenge. It comes out at times through tears. It comes out at times through frustration—like when they are the last kids picked up at the after-school program because I’m working late or when I totally forget they have a field trip. Lisa would have never forgotten something like that.
I am amazed at the resiliency of my girls. I’m amazed at their flexibility. It would have been so easy for them to shut down or to find a path that wouldn’t have been healthy. Instead, I have three daughters who are strong. One is the student body president. One spends time really trying to love and help others; her heart is as big as the ocean. The other is a comedian and actress. What an incredible combination.
Taking a Moment
I escape through exercise. I jog or go to my room and do push-ups and pull-ups. That’s how I clear my head.
The first three years after Lisa died, I did everything I possibly could to avoid a “normal” weekend. It was just too hard to be in the house that long. It’s easier now. It seems like I’m constantly driving—getting the kids to where they need to be. And about once a quarter, we have a massive sleepover with 15 or more girls at the house. That’s always an interesting evening. We’re also very involved in our church on Sundays.
Lisa had a beautiful voice and so do all my girls. My wife listened to one kind of music at a time. Winter was country, summer was pop, and you didn’t even think about turning on anything but the Christmas radio station after Thanksgiving. But country music most reminds us of her. She loved the Dixie Chicks—”There’s Your Trouble” most reminds us of Lisa.
Remains of the Day
I still tuck each of my kids into bed at night. We laugh, sing, sometimes we cry. With my oldest, we tend to just talk. Sometimes we’ll chat for an hour or more. That is what I most look forward to every single day.
My oldest daughter, Bailey, has Lisa’s leadership skills. She sees a challenge and tackles it. She’s not scared of anything. My middle daughter looks just like Lisa. She has so many of her mother’s expressions and mannerisms; she is a ninth-grade version of her mother. My youngest has my wife’s carefree attitude about life. There isn’t much that gets that kid down. She’s happy, just like her mom.
It’s the little things. I miss dancing with her. She had a beautiful voice. She used to sing along with the radio in the car and I would listen to her. If she knew I was listening, she’d stop. But sometimes I’d act like I wasn’t paying her any attention, and all the while I’d be in wonder at what was coming out of her mouth. I miss that. I miss all her clothes in my closet and her Coco by Chanel. And her flannel pajamas that I used to complain about.
A Mother’s Pride
I think she’d be proud—of her girls and of me. Proud that we’ve put the pieces of our life back together after it all was torn apart. Right before she died, she told me that she had the easy part. That if she died, she would be in peace. She told me that I had the hard part: trying to move on with our three daughters. I didn’t believe her at the time, but now I know what she was talking about. It’s been beautiful to build this sort of relationship with my children, and it’s been very, very hard to move forward.
I’m a better man, a better father, than I ever imagined I could be. When you lose someone you love that much, it puts life into perspective. I treasure my time here on earth. I appreciate the small things, like holding hands or eating dinner with my kids. I work smarter; there just aren’t enough hours in the day. I have much more empathy for others. And I’ve discovered that whatever life throws at me, I can handle—which surprises the heck out of me.
Written on June 30, 2014 at 2:21 pm , by Suzanne Rust
You’ve probably been hearing a lot about coding in the news lately, and perhaps wondered what it is. Simply put, coding is the act of writing a program using a programming language. This is what makes it possible for us to create things like websites, apps and computer software, but I recently discovered that coding is so much more. It basically opens the gate to an array of exciting creative careers, but unfortunately, women aren’t getting as involved as we ought to be.
According to the National Science Board, women make up a mere 26% of computer science and mathematics professionals in the United States. Female participation in computer science has actually declined to 18% from its peak of 37% in the mid-1980s. This is disquieting because STEM professions (science, technology, engineering and math) are expected to grow by 17% from 2008 through 2018, compared to 9.8% for non-STEM jobs. There are some incredible opportunities out there, and women are severely underrepresented. We have to change that, starting with our daughters.
Personally, I’ve been bugging my 14-year-old for the past year. “Look at these crazy stats! Don’t you want to learn to code?” Her response: “No, Mom, it’s not me.” Argh. This conversation went on and off. I didn’t want to push her if she felt it wasn’t her passion, but I wasn’t quite convinced that she understood all that coding encompasses or all that you can do with it, because quite frankly, I didn’t either. Well, Google to the rescue.
Last Thursday we were lucky enough to attend Google’s Made w/ Code launch here in New York, and it turned out to be a game changer for both mother and daughter. Host Mindy Kaling, special guest Chelsea Clinton and an outrageously talented and diverse group of women who code made a roomful of young women understand the endless possibilities. Danielle Feinberg, director of photography for Pixar, talked about her work on Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo and Brave; Miral Kotb, creator and CEO of iLuminate, discussed marrying her two passions, tech and dance, in her choreography; and Erica Kochi, cofounder of UNICEF Innovation, shared how she helped spearhead the development of technology that does things like track the distribution of 63 million insecticide-treated mosquito nets in Africa.
It was pretty exhilarating.
These dynamic women managed to make coding not only more accessible as a concept but fun, and my daughter and I were finally able to grasp all that coding can do. Now I’m scrambling to find her a coding class (nothing like trying to make last-minute summer arrangements!), but I don’t mind because she is open to learning a whole new set of skills that could possibly guide her toward a fascinating, ever-evolving career.
Perhaps Kochi put it best: “Coding is not some random numbers running across a screen; it’s a powerful tool that you can use to build the world you want to see.” Start building, ladies.
Written on May 23, 2014 at 1:16 pm , by Suzanne Rust
Here we go with the latest episode of Celebrity Family Antics…
Over the past few years, the unconventional parenting choices of Hollywood power couple Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith have been under a microscope: their decision to let their children Jaden and Willow “self-govern,” allowing a then 12-year-old Willow to shave her head, permitting Jaden to unleash his views about the “evils” of education on Twitter, and their general belief in a no-punishment-zone for their teens.
However, when their latest drama, an Instagram photograph featuring 13-year-old Willow languishing on a bed with shirtless 20-year-old actor and family friend Moises Arias blew up on social media, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services took notice. They have launched an investigation on the Smith family.
Have you seen the photograph? I like to think of myself as a very open-minded person, and an open-minded parent. I lean toward a live-and-let-live philosophy, and it takes quite a bit to ruffle my feathers about other people’s choice. But I have to admit, that image did indeed ruffle them; it just didn’t look right, no matter which way I flipped it. I am not a prude, nor do I think I have a particularly dirty mind, but I tried to envision a scenario in which I would feel comfortable seeing my 14-year-old on a bed, draped at the feet of a half-naked young man, even a good friend of the family’s, and I really couldn’t.
Apparently, the couple has no issue with the photo; Pinkett-Smith has lashed out, saying that the image is not sexual in nature, and she has accused the media of acting like a bunch of pedophiles. I can’t image the authorities removing those kids from the house, but a thorough investigation is happening. I’m not sure if the situation merits such close attention. Although I am not fully comfortable with what I saw, there is chance that a photo is a photo. Willow just hanging out with a family friend. I queried my kids for a reality check. My 21-year-old son, who tends to be the more conservative of the two, did not like what he saw, and even my 14-year-old, who didn’t immediately think it was wrong, understood how it would upset people.
I think all the uproar has, in part, to do with the fact that for so long the Smiths were seen as a golden couple who could do no wrong. Glimpses of their kids acting out a bit in the past few years have made them more human, and put a little chink in their dazzling armor. Who wants that kind of scrutiny?
Parenting is the great equalizer: You will be judged whether you live in a trailer or a mansion. I would never pretend to tell others how to raise their children, because I certainly don’t want to be told how to raise mine. As parents we all make choices that are seen, at one time or another, as unsatisfactory to other parents. For the record, I am not “parent-shaming” the Smiths, but I am scratching my head and having a bit of a what-the-heck moment with this latest conflama.
What are your feelings about it? Do you even care? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Written on May 1, 2014 at 3:15 pm , by Suzanne Rust
Between Instagram breakups, hateful Facebook posts and viral videos of knockdown, drag-out brawls, it’s easy to be pessimistic about social media and concerned about the negative effects they can have on our children. However, YouTube sensations like Bethany Mota, Rosanna Pansino and Michelle Phan remind us that the glass can actually be more than half full.
These successful young women have taken the challenges they faced in their lives and turned them around. With the simple click of a video camera, they’ve created a platform of hope and positivity and a way to connect millions of souls. It’s no surprise that YouTube featured them in its first high-profile and multi-platform advertising campaign this past April, which included print ads on New York City subways as well as TV commercials that aired during the MTV Movie Awards and the season 7 premiere of AMC’s Mad Men.
Mota, Pansino and Phan radiate a confident, upbeat vibe that we could all use—plus they offer some good makeup and baking tips! For different reasons, these young women once felt like outsiders, but they found a way in through their videos. No, they are not talking rocket science, arguing politics or coming up with a cure for cancer, but they have created a positive following, and if they can make our kids overcome their insecurities and feel better about themselves or help them feel connected, I say that’s a good thing.
Mota, a California native who is now 18, was cyberbullied as a younger teen. She grew anxious and depressed to the point of not wanting to get out of bed. She felt alone and needed a place to vent, so she started to do it on YouTube, where she eventually found a family—now over 6 million strong—in the beauty and fashion world. Mota uses her channel as a platform to provide empowering messages about self-confidence to her teen followers, aka Motavators. Her straightforward tips clearly resonate with her audience.
Pansino, 29, who says that she was quite the nerd and gamer growing up, felt that she needed an outlet to express her awkwardness. She also inherited a knack for baking from her grandmother and decided to combine her passions. On Pansino’s channel you can watch her Nerdy Nummies videos, which are just what they sound like: She creates Minecraft Rice Crispy Treats, Lumpy Space Princess Lollipops (from Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time series) and Lego Pinata Cookies. Basically, it’s an affable, goofy baker’s lovefest, and it’s resonated with almost 2 million subscribers.
Phan, 27, was teased at school because she looked different (her background is Vietnamese). She also had to overcome living with a father with a gambling addiction who abandoned his family, followed by an abusive stepfather. The former art school student found her escape through drawing, which eventually evolved into makeup tutorials and a huge fan base of well over 6 million subscribers. Phan now has her own line of cosmetics: EM, which (appropriately) stands for Empowering You.
Written on April 22, 2014 at 2:33 pm , by Suzanne Rust
“Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” It has been almost 20 years since Hillary Rodham Clinton uttered those powerful words at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, but her commitment to the cause has grown stronger over the decades.
Since leaving her job as secretary of state, Clinton has made women’s and girls’ issues a central theme of her work. Last Thursday at the Lower East Side Girls Club in New York City, Clinton, along with her daughter, Chelsea, held the first installment of Girls: A No Ceilings Conversation, a series of talks that the Clinton Foundation will conduct to get feedback from women and girls across the country and around the globe. The goal is not only to collect data and celebrate progress, but to address the challenges and gaps that impede progress. Clinton is looking to create a 21st-century agenda for equal opportunity and help ensure the full participation of women in the world.
As the mother of a teenage daughter, I was thrilled to be in that room. Few things make me happier than seeing young women achieve greatness, and few things fill me with more rage than the discrimination and injustices that girls encounter around the world. Initiatives like this one, that give girls a voice, are an excellent place to open dialogues, raise awareness and make changes.
Moderated by actress and advocate America Ferrera, the empowering discussion brought together women of all ages to discuss their experiences and their hopes for the future. Questions came from girls in the room as well as from four schools in different parts of the country via Skype and thousands of others via Twitter and Livestream. Topics of conversation ranged from the lack of women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields and the value of good role models to the importance of asking for help and speaking out, our obsession with physical perfection and much more.
The event, already energized by major girl power, was further galvanized by the announcement of Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy. As mothers, our greatest ambition is for our children’s dreams to be limitless. Grab the other women and girls in your life (and the men and boys as well!) and get involved in the conversation. The Clintons want to know what’s working and what isn’t so that we, as women, can gather as a team to make global changes. The Clintons cite the African saying “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We can’t think of a better mantra.
Watch the entire conversation below.
Written on April 2, 2014 at 5:10 pm , by Suzanne Rust
Awaiting college acceptance letters can be one of the most unnerving experiences for a high school senior, unless of course you are Kwasi Enin, the Long Island teen who scored big-time with fat envelopes from all eight Ivy League schools: Harvard, Brown, Yale, Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania. (Oh yes, and he also got into Duke, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Geneseo and Stony Brook University.)
Enin is the product of a public school education, at William Floyd High School in Mastic, Long Island, and is a first-generation American, the son of immigrants from Ghana; they made huge sacrifices for their children and expected excellence in return. Under their guidance he studied religiously and was expected never to come back with a grade below 95.
Enin took the SATs three times before he was satisfied with his score: 2,250 out of 2,400, placing him in the 99th percentile for all students taking the exam. He’s also a straight-A student who scored highly on many of his Advanced Placement exams.
In addition, Enin is a viola player, and a cappella singer and a shot-putter—in short, perfect Ivy League material. (I smiled and was relieved to hear that the 17-year-old aspiring doctor is also a fan of video games.)
I feel so proud of this kid, bless him and his parents, but it’s easy to feel like an underachiever next to such accomplishment. I’m also the parent of bright kids, but my parenting style is definitely not of the Tiger Mom persuasion, and my kids, although no slouches, just might not pull off such a dazzling Ivy League coup. I can live with that, truly I can, but I have to say Enin has certainly raised the bar for what is possible.
As a parent, how does Enin’s story make you feel? Does it inspire you? Let us know in the comments below.