December 1, 2016
By Jill Rothenbueler Maher
Many of us are heading, in the words of a song, “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house” for the holidays. All the family gatherings make me wonder, who is this modern grandma? Does she fulfill the stereotype by meeting us at the threshold, sporting an apron dusted with a bit of flour?
The grandmother of 2016 may be an older member of Generation X or a Baby Boomer. She may be spending holiday time with her children, grandchildren, and even her own parents. Geographic separation may require that some of her interactions take place by phone or video chat with Facetime or Skype. Instead of greeting us at the doorway in her apron, she may greeting us on the holiday via her phone when she gets home from work.
She may love her family but might not love to bake cookies for them, that tradition that we still associate with the older generation. In fact, grandma (if she even permits herself to be addressed as such) may be too busy working to bake or partake in other traditional ‘grandmotherly hobbies’ like quilting and preserving applesauce. A majority of grandparents are still working.
People don’t always conform to stereotypes. I remember when I became aware of my stereotype when I interviewed an elderly woman for this newspaper and assumed she would enjoy cooking and baking. She surprised me when she informed me that wasn’t true for her.
Grandma of 2016 has far fewer grandchildren than a grandma who was alive when most of Bay View’s homes were built in the early 1900s. The number has decreased from a dozen to about six grandchildren, and the trend line keeps heading down. In my own family, my maternal gram had four kids and my paternal gram had five, while my parents and my in-laws each had two children. My husband and I have one, making our extended families an example of the shift toward smaller families.
Here’s hoping that I get to be a grandma and that I am done working at the office by then!
The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at
November 2, 2016
By Jill Rothenbueler Maher
We often hear that children can drown in a very small amount of water. To help stay safe, parents take their children to swimming lessons at St. Ann Center or Milwaukee Recreation. But recently we’ve been reminded that water can harm children in a very different way: it can contain lead which harms children when ingested. Kids should have zero lead in their bodies and they should be tested for it as many as three times by age three.
Lead can enter our water through several sources, and a big concern is the pipe that runs from the water main into the home. For homes built before 1947, which includes mine and all my local friends’ homes, the pipe contains lead unless it was replaced. When water sits idle in that pipe, it can pick up the lead and carry it into our home and through our faucets.
Water concerns take me back to childhood. People who lived in the greater Milwaukee area in 1993 certainly remember the cryptosporidium outbreak that year. We heard about restaurants getting ice shipped from Chicago to ensure it was safe. Cryptosporidium jokes temporarily replaced ones about the Bears or Vikings.
At my parents’ home in an older New Berlin neighborhood, I was consuming water from a private well unaffected by the outbreak. But hearing about Milwaukee’s water issue from the nightly news on the kitchen TV meant that many of us looked at a glass of water in a different way. Then the fear waned and worrywarts got more concerned with things like BPA getting into food from can linings and plastic bottles.
Local Lead Concern
Now that I live in beloved Bay View, I was concerned when I heard Mayor Barrett warning residents about the city’s drinking water and recommending home filters. The concern doesn’t end at the doorstep. We received a letter that Milwaukee Public Schools is testing the water our daughter sips from the school bubbler, and my husband and I both drink tap water at Milwaukee workplaces.
Friends say they are very worried about the safety of drinking water, especially for their children. It seems reasonable that in smaller bodies, contaminants can have a larger effect. Infants drinking formula made with tap water may be getting constant doses of lead from their earliest days. The way I see it, kids’ health is more of a worry than our adult bodies, which aren’t doing the hard work of growing.
The attitude seems to be worry mixed with feeling overwhelmed, when they research filters. Despite the concern, being overwhelmed can lead to inaction. I myself wonder whether our refrigerator’s filter is adequate but haven’t taken the time to research it. Unfortunately we can’t just fill jugs at the Pryor Avenue artesian well and feel safe because it’s afflicted with excessively high strontium levels.
Recent concern about the quality of drinking water reaches beyond Milwaukee. We’ve probably all heard about massive problems in Flint, Mich., and I recently learned of less publicized problems with well contamination in Kewaunee County and Door County, Wis. There, the issue is not from lead pipes but from contaminants due to agricultural use of manure. As many as one third of Door County’s wells are contaminated according to the Green Bay Press Gazette’s reporting on comments made by State Rep. Joel Kitchens. Door County is typically considered a wealthy area so its problems illustrate that unsafe drinking water isn’t an issue that affects only impoverished urban areas.
Here at home, I plan to keep doing what our home inspector recommended when we purchased our home years ago — make sure we don’t consume the water that was lying stagnant in the main overnight. For example, upon waking in the morning I’m sure to flush the toilet and use water in other ways before pouring it into a tea kettle. I’m concerned that recent demolition in the area could shake lead loose. I’ve called the State Lab of Hygiene at (800) 442-4618 to get a bottle for a lead test. It’ll cost us about $30 and we’ll get results in 10 days.
What You Can Do
You can check whether you home’s water service line has been replaced with a lead-free pipe on the City of Milwaukee website: goo.gl/TqamNg. The page offers information that helps homeowners determine whether or not the previous owners changed the pipe.
Furthermore, the City of Milwaukee Health Department recommends any households with residents or visitors that include children under the age of 6, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should also:
Only use bottled water from a known lead-free source or cold, filtered tap water (use an NSF/ANSI Standard 53 certified water filtration device) to make formula, concentrated juices, and for cooking and drinking. If using water directly from the faucet, use only water from the cold water tap that has been well-flushed for a minimum of three minutes.
Test children for blood lead level. Follow the “3 before 3” guidance by testing children for elevated blood lead levels three times before the age of 3.
More Steps to Consider
Purchase a home filtration system. Find a list of products at milwaukee.gov/water or call Customer Service, (414) 286-2830. Drinking water filtration systems or pour-through filters can reduce or eliminate lead. Look for products certified by NSF/ANSI under Standard 53 for removal of lead and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for installing and maintaining the filter.
Replace your lead service line or interior plumbing using a licensed plumber. Call the Milwaukee Water Works, (414) 286-3710, for more information.
Have your water tested for lead from a source like the State Lab of Hygiene at 800-442-4618. Find a full list of laboratories at milwaukee.gov/water (click “L” in the alphabetized list) or call Customer Service, 414-286-2830.
Flush your plumbing after any water utility work or internal plumbing work. Physical disturbance of the lead service line or lead plumbing by activities such as water main replacement, service line leaks, home plumbing repair, water meter replacement, or main breaks may release lead into the water.
List of water filters recommended. goo.gl/aqMIO3
Source: City of Milwaukee
The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at
UPDATE: This article was updated to reflect that the water is piped to homes in Milwaukee from the water main, not the sewer, as was originally stated.
September 1, 2016
By Jill Rotherbueler Maher
Smiles were the topic of conversation at a recent dinner. My husband and I enjoyed our meal with friends whose newborn just began smiling for the first time. We shared their excitement over that important facial expression.
Another friend joked that little humans are preprogrammed to smile just when their parents are getting to wits’ end with caring for a newborn. She thinks it’s a “survival of the species” hereditary pattern.
Whatever the reason, little smiles are an adorable signal between adults and children. As they transition from infant to toddler, some children will be taught sign language so they can clearly make requests like “more food” or its opposite, “all done.” It’s worth the time spent training kids because wee ones can typically signal with hands before their speech makes their desires clear.
As children transition to preteens, their nonverbal expressions can be more difficult to interpret. Our daughter recently started rolling her eyes. Of course, we didn’t teach her that one! Then again, we probably did unintentionally teach it by doing it ourselves.
We likely ignored the first time she did it and now we typically take it in stride. Sometimes we tease her that she’s giving us “teenager eyes.” We certainly haven’t used the retort that I’ve seen advocated on parenting blog Motherlode, which is, “That’s rude. I’m trusting you’ll soon find a more mature way to let me know what you’re thinking.”
I might keep that line in the back of my mind and paraphrase it when she gets more aggressive. So far, she has used it in more of a “you’re so goofy” manner than a “you’re sooooo annoying” manner. As she becomes a true preteen, eye-rolling might become a way to camouflage deeper feelings. She may find it an easier way to avoid a topic she doesn’t want to discuss or fears she’ll cry about. Then eye-rolling could be a way to stop a conversation without walking out of a room.
It’s difficult to remember my own preteen years, but I would guess I invoked this communication technique behind my parents’ backs much more than to their face. It’s odd to use a nonverbal expression that nobody else sees, but I’m guessing it can help a young person establish a sense of self. Kind of like slamming a bedroom door but lower on the annoyance scale.
Slamming a bedroom door is another milestone, one we haven’t experienced yet. When it happens, we probably won’t brag about it at dinner!
The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
August 1, 2016
By Jill Rothenbueler Maher
I vividly remember as a child being sent with a bag of corn to the cement steps of our home. I would peel each cob, dropping the husks and silk into a brown paper Piggly Wiggly bag. If we had family or friends joining us for dinner, it seemed like a really big job and I resented it a little. Once in a while, one of the ears we bought from the roadside stands would be rotten and the surprise of finding brown ick instead of golden ears would gross me out a little.
Helping out with meal preparation was the norm in my family of origin, even though my sister and I didn’t always enjoy it. My husband and I have made it the norm for our daughter. Part of the reason we have her help out is that we heard it could help combat her minor case of “picky eater.” It really seemed to work since she enjoys a variety of foods now, as long as onions aren’t on the plate! We also wanted her to help make dinner so that she didn’t come home from daycare and plop in front of the TV, leaving the adults to work on the evening meal.
Kids’ contributions can begin with rinsing and drying raw vegetables or slicing anything soft enough to be pierced with a butter spreader. As they mature, they can progress to a butter knife and other knives. They can grate cheese and cut basil or other herbs.
In Montessori school, some children grate cinnamon sticks. Even young children can put a napkin at every plate.
Cooking and baking together can even involve a little math, like teaching how to double a recipe or to make three-fourths cup with one-fourth and one-half measuring cups.
I think the very best helping hands are those that come forward after dinner to help clean up!
July 5, 2016
By Jill Rothenbueler Maher
Summer is cruising by and we are already talking about Summerfest in the past tense. What does summer truly mean for the modern Bay View family?
It certainly differs from the media representation of summers in other parts of the nation, especially in coastal media. For example, I see articles in East Coast blogs about summer sleepaway camp but don’t know any Midwesterners who actually send their children to these camps. “Summer camp” around here usually refers to a Milwaukee Recreation-run camp that supervises kids during the day. It’s the equivalent of daycare for older children.
Many of my friends and I do take our children camping but it’s a shared experience, typically over a long weekend in a state park.
A more humble concept of what summer should look like is children staying up late to catch fireflies and playing “ghosts in the graveyard.” This one also doesn’t apply, and one reason is that most kids and parents need to be up with an alarm clock in the morning.
Other than my friends who are teachers, most people I know spend most of summer much like the rest of the year — working! Just over 25 percent of American families have a parent staying home in summer and the rate probably holds true for Bay View. The definition of “family” makes a huge difference. Is mom on her own or can she tag team with the father? Can grandparents or other relatives help out?
The reality leaves most parents struggling to find childcare for 10 or 11 weeks while school is out. Tandem concerns are scheduling and cost since many camps do not cover the entire length of a work day and most private ones eat into the parents’ wages. The situation can get dangerous when strapped parents leave children home alone. When school starts again, that gets detrimental if the “summer slide” slows their scholastic progress.
The best part of summer, in my opinion, is the type of “priceless” experience that is rarely advertised. It’s hanging out in the area’s beautiful parks while kids play, making up their own games revolving around sticks or throwing rocks into Lake Michigan.
Simple fun in the sun is priceless — even if it requires a day off work.
June 2, 2016
By Jill Rothenbueler Maher
Occasionally a daydream of mine will involve our daughter going to college, even though she is only in grade school. Sometimes it’s a sentimental thought, like how, when she moves, she will probably want to pack a small fleece blanket that was sewn and given to her as a gift by a babysitter. More often it’s a darker thought about how we’re going to fund it.
The cost is, well, crazy for a four-year state college. When I was born in the mid-1970s, the cost of college in 2015 dollars for tuition, fees and room and board was $7,833 for one year. Today that same data point is $19,548. And that’s only one of four, perhaps five, years! My husband and I both work full-time and only have one child, but the dollar figures published by The College Board are still daunting.
The climb in the cost of college seems to have a trajectory unrelated to other economic trends and not correlated with sanity. The consumer price index is barely budging but still college costs creep higher. I’m suspicious that college costs are a bubble that’s going to burst because parents aren’t going to put up with it. Maybe a huge shift in public consciousness will require a signaling event, like if Malia Obama had chosen not to attend college rather than to attend Harvard after a gap year.
Thinking back to my own college years, I remember my parents being advised to budget about $10,000 for the whole package: tuition and fees plus room and board (in on-campus dorms). We put together my parents’ savings plus academic scholarships. Now it seems like a whole different ballgame.
We currently get advice from a financial planner and have a savings plan in place, but loans will be a factor. Those loans can really affect a borrower’s later choices, for example, some younger co-workers talk about how their loans will be a factor in when they will have their own children. They don’t want to try to raise a child burdened with significant student debt.
When I had my own loans to fund graduate school, that debt was the last thing I thought about before I fell asleep at night. Worries about college loans may now be an American norm, but I wonder how long parents will put up with it.
April 30, 2016
By Jill Rothenbueler Maher
We make mundane daily decisions about children’s sleep, food, and clothing. One of the small but longest-lasting parenting decisions may be how much we share about our children. Unless you’re a blogger writing a column about your child in the local newspaper, the most likely place to create a digital heirloom for your child is social media.
The digital heirloom probably includes photos and videos. Kudos to you, if you’ve pulled this one off, and extra points, if you’re printing out photo books as keepsakes. I’ve got two caches of photos—for a while I stashed them on a hosting site and I printed books, though that habit of creating books only lasted about two years. I’ve got another set on Facebook. Oh, yeah, and a third set stored primarily on my phone, where they are automatically backed up. If our daughter gets interested in pictures from childhood, which seems likely, I hope I can patch together a good biography.
Some people are bothered when other people post pictures of their children, especially with tags that identify them. Some are even annoyed when the child’s own grandparents post pictures, for fear of pedophiles or other criminals, or feeling that the poster violated a private moment inside a home. In researching this column, I read about “an unwritten rule of parenting that you don’t post pictures of other people’s children.” I haven’t heard of that rule and would have to scroll through my own history to see if I’ve been violating it.
Far-thinking parents try to rein in their child’s online identity by grabbing online names on sites like Twitter and Facebook and then prohibiting pictures of children or limiting the pictures to ones which wouldn’t be embarrassing or humiliating down the road. To me, it’s very challenging to determine what could be fodder for a bully or a teaser in 10 years—in my own childhood they were amazingly innovative and could even makes jokes about common American middle names—but it’s worth considering.
Then there’s the “words” part of a digital legacy. This one is more fraught with concern for many parents. How much should we be sharing about our kids for both safety and privacy?
Sometimes my daughter hangs out with me while I scroll through my Facebook news feed on our huge home monitor, where she can easily read over my shoulder. Should she be seeing what other parents post about her friends?
When we post, even if it’s banal, should we be using our children’s names? When we do so, we’re leaving behind a digital footprint that may live on indefinitely. I’ve partially addressed this by not using her first name online. Surely that’s not foolproof, but it seems like a logical step to take and one that a few friends employ. Perhaps it’s a tiny hedge against “bad guys” out to hurt kids or a hedge against embarrassment with future friends or even potential employers.
I often notice that it’s easy to feel uneasy in this new territory. Digital habits are one of the more difficult areas to navigate for ourselves, and now we need to guide our children as well.
April 1, 2016
By Jill Rothenbueler Maher
If you’d ask me about presidential politics, I’d tell you that I’m tired of the topic but the truth is that political articles continue to grab my attention. Our family doesn’t talk frequently about politics, but our daughter is interested in the possibility of a woman being elected president. I struggle to know how much our 8-year-old daughter should be allowed to keep up with this election.
Quick, newsy updates heard on the car’s radio seem too brief to be problematic. Then again, who knows what will happen and what topics will still be raised in this year’s wild political ride!
Convention coverage and debates are much more in-depth and I’m not sure that my husband and I should let her watch.
During debates, the candidates sometimes act in ways I wouldn’t want her to emulate, for example, interrupting and disparaging one another. All in all, I can live with that. We could work around the fact that presidential debates begin around her bedtime and continue past when she’s normally sleeping. I myself rarely watch them live and typically watch a recorded version, time-shifted to a more convenient hour.
More problematic is that they sometimes turn to topics that she doesn’t know about and that I’m not ready to explain yet. I’ve heard of parents prescreening the debates for this reason, but that seems like too much effort to me.
She is interested in local races, too. We can’t miss the yard signs when we walk on a sidewalk and candidates knock on our door. The local debates and issue forums are primarily live (some are tweeted, but that’s difficult for a child to follow) so we don’t have the option to shift to a more convenient time. While I’m more comfortable with the tone and topics of these, they aren’t very practical.
So I guess snatches of the presidential politics are our family’s only option.
Looking ahead, it’s odd to think that she will almost be a teenager during the next presidential election year. Maybe that time around will be more normal and it’ll be a better time to talk about big issues with her.
February 29, 2016
By Jill Rothenbueler Maher
Sometimes we can plow through life without stopping to think about our kids beyond the mundane assembling of backpacks, making of dinner, and policing of homework. But then they deliver a line which really cracks us up.
The unexpectedness makes these things particularly funny. After overhearing a conversation between my husband and me, our 8 year old looked at me with a wry smile and said, “He finally understands you.”
The comment made me laugh because it’s true and also because I didn’t realize she was analyzing our marriage.
Humor can point toward great underlying reasoning and even indicate a profound thought many adults would overlook. To express this, many people use the phrase “out of the mouth of babes,” which is adapted from Biblical verse Psalms 8:2.
Sometimes a child’s unfiltered honesty is hilarious, and that was the case for us recently. I ordered some severely distressed jeans and tried them on, first looking in the mirror and then showing my husband and daughter. I thought they fit well and were trendy but couldn’t look at them the same way after our daughter exclaimed, “Yii! I thought you fell down in the snow. Then I looked at your butt and saw it was dry.” Those jeans were on their way back to the store the next day. The incident was humbling and funny and writing about it makes me smile again.
Our friends have a little hardcover book especially designed for recording their kids’ sayings, which will bring even more laughs in years to come. Good fodder for wedding toasts!
It’s fun to read the little quips my friends share on Facebook. I enjoy the little jokes, especially when I know both the parent and child and can picture the child saying the line. But the very funniest things are always the ones our own children say.
February 1, 2016
Lots of us live in Bay View’s old homes and apartment buildings—many of them have been reroofed and re-sided but rely on bones that are about 100 years old. When I’m hanging out at a friend’s old house, I sometimes daydream about how many children have lived in a particular house over the decades. How many little hands have pulled at the built-in cabinet doors? How many little feet have stood on those hardwood floors and grabbed a cookie from a countertop?
If the daydreaming was translated into data and we were to graph out those numbers for 100 years, the resulting line would reflect national downward trends in the population.
Bay View blocks that used to teem with dozens of kids, especially the blocks with duplexes, now have only a handful of children. It’s part of the trend of the decreasing number of children per household in the United States.
In 1936, a few decades after the first occupants lived in many Bay View homes, Gallup researchers surveyed families and found respondents’ mean ideal-number of kids was 3.6. By 1971, it had declined to 2.9. Since then it dropped further to 2.6.
The average cost of raising a child, from birth until they reach age 18, has risen over the decades, from $198,560 in 1960 to $245,340 in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Adjusted for inflation and calculated for raising a child from ages 0 through 17 in a middle-income, two-parent family.)
What families told researchers is also reflected in real-life family size. The number of women age 40-44 with four or more children, what many would consider a big family, has gone down from 36 percent in 1976 to 12 percent in 2014. Those numbers come from a May 2015 Pew Research Center report.
The cost of raising a child has shot up over the decades—Gallup found cost to be the most popular reason why couples aren’t having more kids. Housing is the largest expense for most families. Healthcare expenses have increased a lot, as have education and child-care expenses.
Childcare is such a part of modern parenting that I had to reread the following sentence a few times, “In 1960, child care costs were negligible, mainly consisting of in-the-home babysitting.” This appears in a report Expenditures on Children by Families, 2013 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Given how commonplace childcare is today, that sentence really emphasizes one way parenting has totally shifted. My friends certainly wouldn’t say the cost of childcare is “negligible,” especially the care for babies and toddlers.
Our solid, old homes have stood through other major swings in American families: the prevalence of divorce, more births to unmarried women, and the near-extinction of the “homemaker” role.
I’m a married mom who works full-time and who has one child, and I wonder if my parenting experience is more essentially similar or dissimilar to other parents who have lived in this home, on this street or in this neighborhood for the past 100 years? I guess that’s the subject of another daydream.
December 31, 2015
One sanity-preserving tactic I’m planning to emphasize this year didn’t come from Facebook, Pinterest, or a blog—it just popped into my head. It’s not the ever popular and helpful idea of staying mindful and being in the moment, which does help calm my brain when I practice it.
Instead, it’s prioritizing the things with long-term effects over the short-term ones. For example, in a busy week that is overstuffed, a dentist appointment wins over a haircut. Healthy teeth are significant in the long run while today’s haircut doesn’t affect the future. Similarly, if we really have to get out the door soon because we’re already a minute or two behind schedule, brushing teeth wins over combing hair.
Taking time to listen when our daughter is really upset wins over making it to an event on time. Occasionally, hearing her out is more important, and we just have to be late.
Snuggling with our daughter at bedtime wins over pre-selecting my clothes for the following workday. Unless I’m giving a presentation or have a big meeting, snuggle time is going to win because it’s much more valuable.
Having friends over, even if the house is messy, wins over cleaning. This is a challenging one but I want to enjoy friends and look past the clutter. The house can be straightened up another day.
As parents and caregivers, we can’t do it all or we’d get no sleep. We’ve got to pick something so we should go with the important stuff. Maybe it’s the makings of a good New Year’s resolution.
November 30, 2015
By Jill Rothenbueler Maher
Baby’s first steps are exciting for parents and caregivers. But in today’s world there are two first steps, and I’m not talking about those made by the left and right feet. I’m referring to the traditional first step, when a child begins to walk, and the other, a child’s first online experience. Both are milestone steps, which may not be far apart because this nation’s children are taking their first steps online before they reach their first birthday.
We used to hear about a digital divide where wealthier children get more online access, but being online is no longer a “rich kid thing.” Even low-income, urban, minority children commonly use mobile devices, with most owning one of their own by age 4.
A study of their habits found that 44 percent of children under age 1 used a mobile device every single day. Ownership of mobile devices surpassed their ownership of televisions by children as young as 2. Results from this study are to be published in this month’s issue of Pediatrics, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Based on this and the families we know, it’s safe to say that many children will be getting new digital devices this month—and some of them may still be in diapers. This is one of the major ways that our kids’ childhood is different from our own.
It’s easy to feel uneasy in this new territory. We aren’t totally sure what the guidelines should be, not to mention how it’s affecting cognitive, social and emotional development. But if we take a deep breath, it seems that a lot of the basic parenting rules apply.
Two guidelines recommended by AAP:
Treat media as you would any other environment in your child’s life. The same parenting guidelines apply in both real and virtual environments. Set limits; kids need and expect them. Know your children’s friends, both online and off. Know what platforms, software, and apps your children are using, where they are going on the web, and what they are doing online.
Set limits and encourage playtime. Tech use, like all other activities, should have reasonable limits. Unstructured and offline play stimulates creativity. Make unplugged playtime a daily priority, especially for very young children. And—don’t forget to join your children in unplugged play whenever you’re able.
AAP also suggests playing together, being a good role model, and keeping up face-to-face communication.
New devices don’t necessarily mean new principles, just new ways of applying them.
More info: goo.gl/gYL0eU and