Max is the damaged one on the left.

Max is the damaged one on the left.

I felt terrible about missing the sunrise with my son, Max.
I’d brought him all the way to Utah for March break and still managed to neglect him.
So I did a few things.

  1. I’m a writer, so I wrote about it for the Medical Post here (

You have to sign in to read it, but it’s worth it to read the comments, including a thought-provoking account from a doctor whose dad was a workaholic another who says light-heartedly, Me too, and I hope I’ll can make it up with my grandchildren.

2. I decided to read up on families. I research other things that interest me, from cardiac ultrasounds to how to make applesauce without peeling the apples. Why not families?
I wanted to read about realistic families, not glamourized ones promoting a political and/or religious agenda.
So far, I’ve read these:
Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families. Not bad. I loved the idea of brainstorming about the qualities that make your family unique. Max and I had fun making up lists for up as individuals (for example, “environmental stewardship” is very important to me, but not to anyone else, unfortunately) and as a family, although I would never call it our family brand. I hope our little tribe is one of the few things in the world that’s not marketed and sold.

I also liked the research pointing out that knowing your family history makes kids more resilient, so I’ve made an effort to talk about basic things like how Matt and I met (“Oh yeah,” said Max, in a bored voice. “You needed a ride home from school, and someone said, ‘Why don’t you ask Matt Innes? He always has a car because he lives in the country.”)

I did try to play word games with the kids at supper time, because apparently parents dominate the dinner table, which is no fun for the kids, who learn verbal skills if you engage them. I thought it would be just as fun to concentrate on music, math, or another language too.

Neither the ideas nor writing style were earth-shattering, although it was nice to hear a guy struggling with the same sort of questions, and to learn that basically no one manages to have a date night. Most of the themes are encapsulated in this NYT article, and you can download Feiler’s toolkit for free here.

Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at HomeI thought The Happiness Project was pretty good, and this is much the same. Rubin picks goals of the month, based on some research, and reports up on how she and her family responded. I adored the idea of Wednesday adventures with her daughter. Imagine, every week, exploring New York with your kid. I was jealous, since a) my emergency room schedule varies every day/week/month/year, so I could never do this, and b) I don’t live in NYC. Yes, I could find adventures in my neighbourhood, but after a few months, we’d be scrapping pretty hard. Clearly,  having the time and money to do this would make us much happier.

Anastasia's musical adventure in NYC. More exciting than South Glengarry? You decide.

Anastasia’s musical adventure in NYC. More exciting than South Glengarry? You decide.

I was glad it wasn’t all picture-perfect. Rubin then suggested weekly adventures with her lawyer husband (whom she raves about earlier, how ideal he is), and he basically said nope, not interested.

I don’t think either of these books made me happier. To be fair, I’m a happy person anyway, and I’m not looking for extra cheer, just ways to prioritize my family.

Books I’ve already read on families

Bruce Brooks’s Midnight Hour Encores. God, I love this book about Sibilance T. Spooner, the 16-year-old world-class cellist, raised by the world’s coolest dad, and who decides to search for the mother who gave her up at birth. Sibilance has attitude with a capital A. I have to admit, when I read it as a teenager, I didn’t get the ending. It’s really about choosing her family and therefore her destiny. But I loved it so much I bought it, and when an acquaintance failed to return it a few years ago, I bought it again.

Katrina Kenison’s Mitten Strings for God: I almost didn’t read this because of the word God, but it was one of the first books I reached for during my maternity leave with Max. “Like Thoreau, I love a broad margin to my life,” Kenison wrote, and I felt like I could breathe again. No, I don’t want to work myself down to sinew and bone so I can buy a lot of crap. I want to write and love my family, thank you. Although when I tried her technique of just breathing with her son when he cried, Max sobbed, “I. Don’t. Want. To. Breathe!” and I thought, Yeah…I’m never going to attain this maternal sainthood. I also enjoyed the sequel, The Gift of an Ordinary Day, where her boys are teenagers and she’s struggling more how to reach them, plus loses her job and buys a broken-down house.

Karen Maezen Miller’s Momma Zen and Hand Wash Cold. So funny and honest. I loved that she attended her school reunion and preened when guys marvelled how good she looked, and then she had her daughter and realized that kids just suck the juice right out of you. I liked Momma Zen a little better; I just find it hard to believe that me doing all my own chores is the path to nirvana.

David Sedaris’s The Man Who Mistook His Hat for a Meal. When I first heard this story, I laughed until I cried. My dad loved to eat questionable things, and so do I. Because it’s cheap, because it’s good training for Armageddon, just because.

I looked up books on family relationships, and I just wasn’t feeling it.

For example, Little Women comes up often on reading lists, but since I only re-read the parts about Jo and couldn’t stand Amy, it doesn’t seem like a family book to me.

Similarly, the Little House on the Prairie books, for me, were more about pioneer life (poor, perfect yet blind Mary! Pa eating watermelon even though he thinks he’ll catch malaria from it! Horrible locusts!).

I did love the All-of-a-Kind family books, but learned more about Judaism than about deep family relationships.

Maybe I’m super plot-oriented, but I was far more interested in Tom, Scout, and Jem than family per se in To Kill a Mockingbird. And I’m not planning to buy Go Set a Watchman because of the questionable role of the author’s lawyer, which is outlined extremely well in this Bloomberg article.

How about you? What does family mean to you, and do you have any good book suggestions?