We are so super thankful that in celebration of Father’s Day & Pride Month, to have had a very dear and close friend of Matteo & Dr. Cao, author Garon Wade, speak to us about his recently published memoir, "You'll Always Be White To Me".
If you're looking to be inspired, to understand and realize the true power of love and its possibilities, please take a moment to listen to the powerful words Garon shares with SSP as he talks about his adventurous life, his book, and his incredible adoption journey - addressing racism, homophobia and personal heartache, all told with his most uplifting, raw and emotional voice.
The full interview transcript can be found here:
SSP: Hi everybody, this is Jen from the SSP team. I help SSP with their blog and social media. We are so super excited and thankful that in celebration of Father’s Day & Pride Month, to have a very dear and close friend of Matteo & Dr. Cao, Garon Wade here today to speak with us. Garon just recently published his memoir, “You'll Always Be White To Me”, which deals with issues such as adoption, racism, homophobia, and personal heartache. And as one reader says, “It's an authentic example of how to take control of your life and be your own champion!”. Another reader shares, “Garon leads us through a lifetime of adventure, relationships and lessons in gratitude. His memoir shows us that with love, it is possible to save lives, heal heartache, make a home across the world, fulfill our dreams, and create a family of our own design. Engaging story told with the cadence and charm of a natural storyteller”. Thank you again for joining us here today. We'd love to ask you questions about your book, and dive a bit further into your adoption experience.
Garon: Thank you so much for having me. It's so nice to meet you.
SSP: So what prompted you to write the book?
Garon: You know, it's sort of taken many phases. I would say in my 20s, a lot of people suggested that I write my story, because I grew up in a very different way. I felt like I was too young, you know, who wants a memoir, by someone in their 20s. So for so many years, I just kind of forgot about it honestly. And I know I tried to accomplish things in my career and in terms of adopting my children. And about the time that Colin Kaepernick became every headline in the United States, I started to sort of think about what it means to be a brown or black guy raised by white parents. Because the one thing that shocked me the most out of all the coverage about him was that almost nowhere has anyone mentioned that he has white parents. And I thought it's such an interesting and different perspective, when you're raised by white parents, but you're living your life as a brown and black person. It really is like an entirely different experience. And so I started to think about, you know, that side of my story. And that's sort of where the beginnings of it happened. I had my husband always saying you need to write your memoir, you need to remember, and I was like, dude, I'm so busy. We have kids, and we have careers and all this stuff. So actually, in 2020, we flew to South Africa, and we completed a four year adoption of our son Emmanuel. And when we arrived back from South Africa in March, we of course landed in a pandemic. And I was off from work. And I was sitting at home with my kids. And again, my husband came to me and he said, Garon, if you don't write this memoir now, you will never write this memoir. So I said, I hate it when he's right. You know? I did, I sat down. And once I started it, just there it was, it was like 10 hours a day for three months.
SSP: Wow. It's like the gift of time that you would never have had otherwise. Something positive that came out of the pandemic for you.
Garon: Yeah, exactly.
SSP: So this book narrates an incredible journey, through racism, growing up brown while LGBT, losing your mother at a young age, adopting your children and finding love. What did you discover about yourself as you were writing the book?
Garon: That's a great question. I think I realized how therapeutic it was, without ever intending for it to be that. You have the chance to really sit down and go through your life and go through 10 plus countries, things and people and places, people I lost. I think in the regular stream of life, you don't have that time to really think about it at length. And as I was writing it, I revisited so many great things and hard things. And I realized how cathartic it was, in a way, to just to just write about it to get it out for myself. I mean, no one else was there, just me and a computer, but I just put it all out on paper and it felt really amazing.
SSP: In the book several times you seemed like you were in the right place, just at the right time. And people seem to open up doors for you in your next chapter. One example, being Donovan at the DC tower. In other instances, life is very rough. And several times you were discriminated against, because of what you look like. And what's your take on how life works - now that you've been able to reflect on all of this?
Garon: Well, how life works. I just think we're all here for such a short time. And we don't really know what paths our lives are going to take. I'm not a person that is religious, and I don't believe in destiny, but I do believe in the sort of cause and effect of the here and now. I'm just where you happen to be on a given day and the people that you are interacting with. And, you know, it's just that that sort of truth that if you just are kind to people, and you interact in an authentic way with people that you're around, and treat people well, you just honestly never know who's going to be your friend or who's going to open a door, or who's going to remember you for something that you never would have thought you'd be remembered for. That's how I choose to live my life. That's how I try to live my life. And I think in certain instances, it has opened doors that I just can't even imagine would be opened. Especially having lived in situations that were difficult in my life. I think a lot of it, you see both sides, you realize that life is a lot of hardship, a lot of great stuff, and just always trying to navigate through it right.
SSP: So in the book, your own white American grandma tells you that she loves you, but she made racist remarks about brown skinned people and the Asian community in front of you and while talking to you. What was it like for you to grow up dealing with this? And how did you overcome it? Or are you still working on overcoming it?
Garon: I'm good. You know what I mean, for me in my life I’m good. I think, as a young boy, it was hard. And I think when you're growing up in a family where you don't look like other people, my parents were really all love, you know, and those people, people who have read the book, or will read it tomorrow, realize how I have this beautiful family. But when it came down to leaving Africa, or Europe or the Middle East and traveling to their small home in South Louisiana, to my grandparents house, it was - it was different. I mean, they absolutely loved me, but they were also absolutely racist. And so I think, for me in writing the memoir, the exploration there for the reader is like, how do you juggle those two things? How do you balance being a grandparent who loves your brown grandchildren, and yet, who is absolutely racist? And that was kind of the fascinating part of all that to me, as I reflected. How did these two worlds come together? I just hope it gets better. For the next generation. I hope this conversation is not a question that someone sitting in your position will ask in another generation, I hope it's just not. There's a lot of work to be done.
SSP: Yes, absolutely. And speaking of your grandma, she herself went on an amazing journey of self discovery while dealing with you being true to yourself, and building your own family. Right? Digging deep inside yourself, what do you believe was the event that changed everything in your grandma's perception of things?
Garon: Strangely enough, I think it was us adopting our son, our first son, Matteo, who was adopted from the Maryland DC area. You know, it's sort of a classic thing that people can find it within themselves to discriminate against a couple. But when faced with discrimination against a child, it's it's a harder thing, you know, and once we had Matteo, I think she just saw us as a family. She didn't quite get it, she didn't really understand it, but she fell in love with the baby, and that opened the door to us having a relationship as an adult and it is strange to me, of course, because I don't see the world through that lens. But you can imagine a woman that had grown up in Texas and Louisiana after the Great Depression, never having seen black and brown people in her immediate circle. Never having been friends with gay people. I think this was an entirely different world for her.
SSP: You have such a sense of compassion and understanding for those that have different viewpoints and it's refreshing. You don't carry anger in your voice. I don't sense anything like that.
Garon: I think when you live around the world as I did, what you see is that people are people are people, they want the same things, you know, on a very basic level they want access to resources, they want safety for their children, they want to access to health care for their families, they want to be able to just live a life that allows them to pursue endeavors. And at a relatively reasonable level, they're just trying to live right to make it. And whether I was in the Middle East, or at the bottom of Africa, or in Europe, or wherever, I mean, I think that you see racism, you see prejudice and all forms towards women, towards gay people, towards people with disabilities in the United States, towards the Native American population, you know, this list goes on and on. And I don't harbor anger because I feel like I just wanted to change and I think specifically in my family, we made changes. That's the point of the book, change - it's possible, it may be rough and love can be very complicated. Possible. I think when we turn our backs to each other, and just say, I'm not talking to you anymore, to some degree, nothing ever gets solved, you know?
SSP: So who do you think should read your book?
Garon: Well, you know, as soon as I read it, and as soon as I saw it for the first time, and I was kind of like, looking at it, I was thinking... Where's this gonna go? You know, and I guess I feel like no book is for everybody. That's just the truth. There's not a single book in the world that everybody should read. That's not a fact. But I think for this book, I really feel people who enjoy global adventures, who want to go to 15 plus countries, and dive into those cultures. And that's a reader who will love it. I also think that anybody that enjoys stories about family - whether it's a dysfunctional family, of which there's plenty in here, or you know, the aspects of a loving family. I'm a huge fan of films and books about dysfunctional families. Like "The Family Stone" or anything Baumbach produced, like "The Squid and the Whale" or "Margot at the Wedding". I'm such a fan, because I think those complicated dynamics are true in all of our lives. Like every family has something, you know. And so if you enjoy family stories that are interesting and difficult, I think this could be a great book.
SSP: Moving on to the next part here, and celebration of pride and Father's Day, we'd love to learn more about your adoption journey, which you spoke a little bit about. How would you describe it? And were there obstacles you faced that you think are more unique to the LGBT experience?
Garon: So no, I don't think that any obstacles that we faced were because we were a gay couple. I think that we arrived at a very specific time in 2012...I spent some time in the United States, you know, where equality was being legislated essentially. And I, we lived in DC, and at the time, DC had very equal rules, you know - laws around gay couples adopting and straight couples adopting. So for us? No, I think it was the same as if a straight couple adopted in terms of South Africa. My husband and I are the first gay married couple from the United States that were able to adopt from South Africa. We didn't really know what to expect, you know, but I had lived there. And I had sort of followed the culture over many years in the country. South Africa had marriage equality, a while before the United States did. So to some degree, I had a good amount of faith that this would be a great thing, and possibly we would face very little obstacles. And it was, it was great. Actually, in South Africa, the crazy thing is, the four of us would be walking around town, and have these African men in the mall or in a market screaming things like “You guys are power dads” or “We love your family!” And you know, it was fascinating. Like that doesn't ever happen in America. We were like, these guys are really showing us a lot of love here. Yeah, so I think we were lucky to come at a time when this was all possible. When you ask that question, I think of the many gay men and women who are older than me, who meet our family and say, I would have loved to have a kid, you know, but it just wasn't possible for so long in this country and in many countries it is still true. And really, my heart goes out to them, you know, because I know how that feels. I mean, I have wanted to be a parent since I was a kid. So to know that I actually arrived at a time when that was possible... It just means a lot to me.
SSP: So the adoption process wasn't as challenging as you might have thought. Was your experience different from what your expectations were going in?
Garon: Well, in DC... and this is remarkable. After we did all our paperwork inside with an adoption agency, we had a three week adoption. We got our son in three weeks, which I've still never heard anybody experience in that timeframe. On the flip side, for our second son, it took four years, four years due to the South African government to some degree not being as efficient as it could have been. And maybe the process is not being as streamlined as possible. But, so, yes, those four years really did a number on us. And I hope that for parents that are out there thinking about it, beyond the trials and tribulations I guess of adoption - it's hard,... emotionally to hold on to that hope for four years and not know what's going to come through. But as I always say that we had a great first adoption, so I have nothing to complain about. I'm sure there's many families who had a rough first adoption.
SSP: Again, your positivity is amazing. We all need to learn a little from you. So there continues to be this lingering issue of a culture, you know, permeated in the belief that children need the complimentary distinct roles of mother and fathers. Why do you think this way of thinking still exists? And why is there still the strong opposition to gay adoption that lingers in the United States?
Garon: Well, to me, I've never understood it. I mean, I've always said, If I was straight, I feel like I would be the biggest proponent of gay people. Because I don't understand the discrimination factor. I mean, in terms of a family, I think we all know people who are raised by their grandparents, or their grandparents and their mother, or their father and his parents, there's so many combinations. But somehow, when we get to sexuality, it's like, that's what people are thinking of, which also is so surprising to me. I always say when I meet a straight couple, I'm not like - Hey, nice to meet you. And I'm not thinking about them having sex. I'm thinking about who they are as people. One thing I will say on a more serious note is like with our kids, we try to buy books for them where they are exposed to children and people that they otherwise would not be exposed to, so that they are seeing a different way of life. We have to read for 25 minutes every night. And they complain sometimes, but we still make them. So we all sit around together, and we read for 25 minutes. And I think that's so important. I do wonder how many straight families have their kids reading books about gay families? Or how many white parents are showing their kids books about black families? Or how many families like mine are teaching their kids about the Native American culture and communities around the country? And about disabilities as well. I feel like if we all tried to do a bit more of that we would all be so much more exposed. But honestly, I think the truth is, when you ask, why has this continued to perpetuate, for so long? It's because of exposure. People are so locked into their communities, and have very little visibility out there so you don't need to form a different opinion. It’s sort of self perpetuating unless you make an act of change.
SSP: Absolutely. We do the same in our house. And it's so important that it starts when they're babies, when they're small. What else needs to change? So we can open up the process to more loving homes of gay parents - to make it a little bit easier?
Garon: While I while I'm very supportive of the kind of paperwork processes that it takes to adopt the first time - because anyone that's been through it, you know, there's FBI checks, there's local state, police checks, there's professional references, personal references, I mean, the list goes on and on. One thing I think could really help the system is if they figured out a database for families that have already adopted and then being cleared and documented so that when they go to do it a second time, they're not starting over. That, to me, is the biggest failing that I see in that route. Because, you know, many families that adopt do go and adopt again. But the second time, they're starting as if they never did it, and you're going through all these checks. And meanwhile children are sitting in orphanages in foster care, just waiting for a family. You can cut that time out, and accelerate all of this in a responsible way, and yet, a faster way.
SSP: And do you have any additional words of encouragement? You've already offered so much, but anything else to say to those LGBT couples who are looking to adopt? Anything else you'd like to tell them?
Garon: Yeah. It's hard, but it's so rewarding too. You can't even imagine the love that it brings to your home and to your life. And when it gets tough, when you're going through the paperwork, and they're asking for more and more documents, or when the wait gets really long, you know, just remember that on the other side of that, the kid is going to change your life in a huge way. And you are going to change their life in a huge way. To some degree, there is this. I've heard it many times. In the adoption community, there's this kind of idea where anyone that says an adopted kid is lucky - that's, you know, frowned upon, discouraged, etc. I understand where it comes from. But as I think I can speak well, on this topic, given that I am an adopted kid, and an adoptive parent. I think it goes both ways. You know, you're lucky to find each other. Because those players in that situation matter hugely. And I think I'll probably get a lot of pushback for this, honestly. But I think as a kid who was adopted and a parent, and as a person who has adopted twice, both domestically and internationally, it's absolutely both sides of that story who are really lucky to have each other. I certainly feel that I feel so lucky to have been adopted. I was left on the steps of a hospital during a war in Sri Lanka, and who knows what would have happened to me. And on the flip side, my son sat in an orphanage for two and a half years. And I'm so happy that he ended up in our home. So yeah, if you feel like you can do it, and you want to do it, go for it. Go for it...it will change your life.
SSP: Thank you so much. Beautiful words. And I just want to ask one last question here. Before we end the interview, how are you celebrating Pride as a family? Are you guys doing anything special?
Garon: I wish I could say absolutely, but here's the thing - we live in a very gay friendly city in Lauderdale. And I feel like to some degree there's celebration throughout the year at different times, like even Halloween here is like Pride in a way. When you go to the gay beach, its flags everywhere. I probably should be more intentional about it. I haven't given a lot of thought to it. I have a lot of great friends who are doing giant parties, or they're traveling to serve, you know, to other Prides- we kind of do it throughout the year. Honestly, we don't wait for this one moment. It’s more about books. We have a book called Families and it's about all sorts of different families and includes gay dads and lesbian mothers, and just everything - grandparents, kind of what we were just talking about. And I read that to my kids at night and we talk about it. And for us, Pride isn't just a once a year thing, we try to wrap it into everything. I'm excited though. I just feel a little different this year with not having access to travel everywhere. I love the Vice President Kamala Harris at Pride in DC the other day, I love seeing that and President Joe Biden posting something about pride in the gay community. I mean, you know, after four years it was so nice to see. So nice to have the government back in everyone's corner.
SSP: Yes!. Again this is Garon Wade and his book is “You'll Always Be White To Me”, available now on Amazon. We'll also share the link on our social page. Again, thank you Garon!
Garon: Thank you so much. Those are excellent questions. I seriously really appreciate it. I've been doing a press circuit. And so it's just interesting to see what different interviewers ask. And these are, these are excellent questions. Thank you so much.
Perhaps you have been lucky enough to have Dr. Katiusca Acosta as your pediatrician. You know she is super thorough, friendly, and an amazing doctor overall...but do you know she loves to do Zumba (and no, unfortunately we don’t have a video of this, but maybe next time)! She has a wide variety of interests and is passionate about many issues that drive her as a pediatrician every single day… and ultimately pushing her to make a positive impact in so many lives.
SSP: Our SSP families would love to learn more about you, as you have made such a positive impact in so many of their lives. Can you tell us about where you grew up, and what led you to becoming a pediatrician?
I was born in the beautiful Caribbean Island of the Dominican Republic. I lived on the island until I was 10 years old. Then we immigrated to the United States, to Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
It all started in senior year of High School, I completed an internship at a local hospital and realized that not only were women underrepresented in medicine, but most importantly women of color. I was often used to translate difficult diagnoses to Spanish-speaking patients.
Women of color are less likely to obtain a college education and thus pursue higher education. Factors such us low income, lack of mentors to keep them motivated as they are growing, and lack of support from families and/or becoming pregnant at a very young age can all influence a young woman’s decision to attend college and pursue higher education after college.
Being a mentor or becoming someone that young children of color can look up to and relate to fueled my desire to become a doctor, specifically a pediatrician.
SSP: Who would you say are your biggest inspirations and mentors?
My parents, because they were able to raise three women and give them excellent education with minimal wage jobs. My mother was a teacher in the Dominican Republic. My father was a police officer.
Once in the United States, they had to give up their respective careers to put food on the table for my sisters and me. They took minimum wage jobs and worked in factories to provide for us. They always encouraged us to do our best in school and pursue a college education. They wanted us to have all the opportunities that they couldn’t have.
SSP: I understand you are very passionate about fitness, what is it that you enjoy and how does that influence you as a doctor?
I enjoy running, high intensity interval training and Zumba as a means to stay fit.
I try to motivate kids and young adults through my own experiences with health and fitness, especially those that are struggling with obesity. Due to the COVID -19 pandemic, there has been an increase in the number of obese children due to inactivity and confinement to their homes. During the child or teen’s wellness visit, I usually discuss how making small changes, such as drinking more water- can make a big difference. I ask parents to involve the entire family in making changes in their daily eating habits.
A daily afternoon walk or trip to the park, even during the winter - to ride a bike or simply walk can have a great impact, not only physically but mentally.
SSP: You are also a volunteer for Physicians for Human Rights - can you tell us about the organization, and how you are involved?
I completed a training throughout the pandemic to help migrant children gain refugee status in the US by means of a physical exam and documenting any potential signs of physical abuse. It’s important that children that are being persecuted or abused in their countries get a second chance at leading a better life. Equally important is reuniting families and children that have been separated through unfortunate circumstances.
I have the training but have not completed any cases yet due to COVID -19.
SSP: What do you think is the most rewarding thing about being a pediatrician at SSP?
Just the daily interactions with the children, no matter how terrible your day is going, the children lift your spirit with their innocence and warm smiles. One hectic morning, I was involved in a minor car accident on my way to work. I was late and feeling so anxious after the incident. I had to see my first patient, a 4YO girl, and just coming into the room to her bright smile and her fun, cheerful personality made my day!
“Amaya, where are you”??? I yell, after searching for our 8 year old daughter in every nook and cranny of our house. “I’m in the garaaagggeee”!!!! I hear her scream back. I go out to see what she is up to, and of course she is digging through our recycling and collecting boxes upon boxes and other interesting papers and trash in her little arms. This is an almost daily occurrence in this household, and while my OCD self shudders at the thought of bringing garbage back INTO the house, I know she is about to spend hours creating the most random and unique objects and her imagination is soaring. “Mom, this box is going to be a volleyball court and this old string is going to be made into the net”! “Mom, I’m going to make a milk carton out of this piece of this colorful paper I found”! It’s endless. I see old cereal and shoe boxes, she sees an indoor miniature golf course and a giraffe mailbox.
In celebration of earth day and nurturing our children’s beautiful and innovative minds, I’m going to share some of her creations, along with links and how-tos so you can try something similar at home!
1) Miniature Golf Course
What you will need - these are suggestions, you really can use almost anything:
2) Candy Squishy (this is an Amaya original and a much more simple project)
What you will need:
What you will need:
4) Giraffe Mailbox (another Amaya original)
What you will need :
Before you start putting this together, make sure when putting together the giraffe both boxes have openings with lids facing bottom. Cut a rectangular hole towards the back of the larger shoe box (this is where the "mail" will go). Cut sides towards the front of small top box cover (this is so the giraffe can open its mouth)!
And to continue the fun, you can leave your child surprise notes or letters inside for them to find!
5) Egg Carton Collection Box (for jewelry or anything your little one likes to collect)!
What you will need:
If you want to add flowers made from another egg crate, check this link out!
6) Fidget Spinner
What you will need :
Here's a video tutorial as it explains the best and you can pause along the way.
6) Origami Milk Carton
What you need :
This is also too complicated to list the steps, check out this how-to video.
park slope Mother-daughter duo launches mask CHAIN business during covid: interview with kathryn mora
During this past year, parents have struggled with how to manage the extra time at home with children, trying to find more productive and fun ways to keep kids engaged. Meet Kathryn Mora, who basically nailed it, and did what many of us dream of doing. She is a Park Slope mom who launched a beaded mask chain business with her 12 year old daughter and CEO, Layla. Kathryn was able to spend precious time creating a business with her girl, who in her words is the “real brains behind the company”! A truly inspiring story for us all.
SSP: What inspired you to launch Mora Mora?
Like many this year, we have been working to adapt to our new reality of keeping our children engaged and off screens. Between schooling online and the normal screen time struggle, craft-time became a huge part of our day to break them away from those screens. One of the projects we worked on was making mask chains just for ourselves. Friends and family saw what we’d created and wanted them too. It became a really special time, especially for me and my 12-year-old daughter Layla – who it’s getting harder and harder to find activities she is eager to do with me…those tween years are coming on hard!
Requests for our mask chains started to expand beyond our immediate circles, so we decided to start selling them. For Layla this was especially a fun prospect because not only does she love beading, but she really loves the idea of having a business, so before we knew it - Mora Mora was launched.
SSP: What makes your product so unique?
Finding ways to involve and engage tweens and teens these days beyond Tik Tok is a real struggle. When you support Mora Mora – you’re not only making your masking easier and more stylish, but you are supporting the creativity of a child and her drive to learn about what it means to run a business. As well as supporting a young woman learning to be empowered by her own vision and dreams.
SSP: Can you please tell me more about your CEO, Layla?
Layla is a twelve-year old firecracker, and the real brains behind the company. I am solely her guide. When you give her a task to accomplish – she will take it beyond the finish line.
But I’ll let Layla tell you a bit more about herself: “I love the Harry Potter series, doing art, writing and acting. I also aspire to be a lawyer because I love to debate and defend.”
SSP: How are the different designs determined and how are they made?
There is a lot of trial and error when we make our mask chains. We spend a lot of time beginning chains and then undoing them until we get something we love. Mostly we start by laying out a color palette. Then we play around with the pattern. We also think about how the colors and patterns will match with different masks. We started a collaboration with my friend and owner of LuluLuvs who makes gorgeous handmade hair accessories for kids with Liberty fabrics. She has been making face masks also with the same beautiful Liberty materials. Layla and I have been creating mask chains that match the different patterns and colors.
Our line of chains for kids is also a big driver in some of our designs. We want to find fun combinations for kids that will encourage them to properly mask. Masking for children is not easy. Making sure those masks stay clean and don’t get lost is a real motivator in the designs we make with children in mind.
SSP: Being that you just launched this past month, what are your plans for this year & will you be expanding your product line?
It looks like we will be wearing masks for a while longer even with the roll out of vaccines. So, we will keep making mask chains! But all our chains can be used as eyeglass chains, necklaces and wrap bracelets.
Layla has been layering them and using them as necklaces. Upon request, we can also add eyeglasses/sunglasses loops to any chain so they are very versatile!
We create new chains all the time and our creativity and interest haven’t run out. We just bought some beads in fun bright colors for the Spring and Summer. One great thing about living in New York is the access to the amazing bead stores in the garment district. Many of these New York treasures have shut down over the past year but we are happy to be able to support the ones that are still around. We also have a friend who is scouting out and buying beads for us in the Southwest, so we are really excited to create some fun designs from those.
SSP: It’s wonderful to see something creative and beautiful come out of this pandemic. What would your words of advice be to other creatives and entrepreneurs, who are considering starting a small business at this time?
I think it’s a great time to start a small business. The whole world is going through a sort of reset, and I think everyone has learned to step back and slow down this year. Now is the time to really explore all those creative ideas and passions that have always been put on the backburner because life has been so busy. Start small and start simple, but start!
Another word from Layla: “Just create beautiful things and have fun!”
SSP: Where can we purchase Mora Mora chains and do you have a social account we can follow to see more?
You can purchase chains from our Instagram account @moramoranyc or online at www.shoplululuvs.com. More styles are created and added regularly.
As we all know, Covid has totally ravaged businesses, and has taken an especially hard toll on fitness studios and gyms. One local favorite, Align Brooklyn, a yoga-based boutique fitness studio in South Slope, is one such place that was greatly impacted by the pandemic. We spoke to Pamela Brown, co-owner of the studio, to see how they are doing and how Align has been able to shift their business in this new reality. Most importantly, Pamela reminds us why self care is so important, especially now, and how Align can help you take the necessary steps to make this a priority.
SSP: How has this pandemic affected your studio since it hit back in March of last year?
To say that the pandemic affected us is truly an understatement. The pandemic was like getting hit by a tsunami. We saw the wave coming, but there was nothing we could do to get out of the way. The main part of our business has been group yoga and fitness classes. When we closed the studio last March, we never imagined that we would not be going back to the space or that group fitness classes would still be prohibited by the city almost a year later.
SSP: How have you been able to pivot your business model, being that you couldn’t continue the in-person group classes that Align thrived on?
It was immediately clear that we wanted to sustain our community and our business during the closure. The day after we closed, we started filming video content. We quickly set up an on demand site and offered Zoom classes.
We knew that immunity was a key issue, and so Dr. Brown began offering weekly webinars on aspects of immunity and inflammation. We now have over 600 classes and a ton of educational content available online to members.
But we also knew that offering classes and content would not be enough. We also needed to offer the support our community needed to continue to prioritize wellness during this difficult time. We created an app called Align Coach that provides daily reminders, educational content centered around our 5 pillars of wellness (nutrition, movement, sleep, mindset, environment) and an accountability tracking system. Dr. Brown checks in on clients several times a week and offers feedback, information and support.
SSP: Can you share specifics on the kinds of online live classes, webinars and workshops you are currently offering, and the benefits they provide?
We offer most of the same classes: yoga, mat Pilates, barre, functional fitness and recovery.
The true highlight of our program are the wellness aspects. Classes and movement are essential, but so are other wellness habits like sleep, anti-inflammatory/pro-immunity eating, mindset and our environment.
On most Wednesdays Dr. Brown offers a free wellness workshop where he quickly covers a topic. It’s just 30 minutes and is a perfect midweek lunch break! The live event is open to all for free and the recordings are available to members.
All of our classes and workshops are designed to support wellness. For us wellness is not only the absence of disease, it is also a high quality of life as measured in both vitality and longevity. Everything we do at Align Brooklyn and inside The Aligned Life wellness membership is designed with this in mind.
SSP: Wellness and self care, especially for folks like our SSP parents of young ones, is more urgent and necessary than ever before. How do the Align classes address the issues that so many are facing these days, like lack of proper sleep and unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety?
There are two critical things to understand about wellness: wellness is a habit and in order to master the habit you have to track. With sleep and stress there is often a knowledge gap. We close that gap with educational content that takes less than 3 minutes to read, but provides links to deep dive into any topic of interest. By providing these daily educational reminders that come at the same time - 8am - each day via email and notification, already we are helping build a habit of thinking about self care.
Next thing to understand and appreciate is that it will take 66 days to really get into the habit of something. A lot of people have heard that you just need to do something for 21 days to form a habit, but the latest research says it’s more like 66 days. Once we know this we can understand that without support - especially now - it’s unlikely that we will be able to gain consistency over wellness habits. The other important thing to know is that tracking in and of itself improves behavior. Not everyone likes tracking, but research shows that it is effective for everyone.
You mention sleep - sleep is essential and there are some specific habits that can facilitate sleep. All of our memberships start off with a wellness evaluation with Dr. Brown. It’s a confidential HIPAA compliant questionnaire that helps us identify what aspect of wellness that improving will offer the biggest gains. Stress, sleep, movement, nutrition and our environment are all overlapping. By identifying one thing to work on scientifically, we can be realistic and save clients time. From there, Dr. Brown customizes a program and makes recommendations. If the client provides raw data from 23andMe we can personalize even further.
After the wellness evaluation, Dr. Brown follows up with all members - typically once a week - to see how they are doing and if anything needs to be tweaked. By offering access to tools from classes to tracking, and mixing that with support, we are seeing great results.
SSP: What do you want to communicate to those of us that have neglected ourselves, and believe we don’t have the time (or energy) to commit?
The pandemic is not likely to have a hard ending. If you’re waiting for Covid to be eradicated before taking wellness seriously, you’ll be waiting a long time and doing yourself a disservice. Hopefully, we will soon get the numbers down and eventually we won’t have to wear masks, but going back to “normal” life is a ways off, even with the best vaccine results. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of committing to wellness as a routine. Self care can’t just be a one off or weekend thing anymore.
Although Covid is dangerous for everyone, the most serious illness is generally found in the elderly and folks with preventable chronic diseases - and I say this with the caveat that these are broad categories and we are still learning about other aspects of the illness. But, in any case we should all take much more seriously the need to maintain a low inflammatory lifestyle to have positive outcomes, if we do get Covid, but also to live our very best and most vital lives. There is truly only one way to do this - you have to take some time each day. You should also get support and have some expert guidance, so that you can use science to personalize your activities for your unique body and life.
SSP: The South Slope neighborhood is looking forward to returning to your studio and feeling a sense of community there as they did for so many years. What does the future look like for Align, and what can we expect?
We have some very exciting plans on the horizon! We are planning to reopen in a nearby space - just a couple of blocks away - that is 3 times the size and will offer outdoor options. It will be a state of the art facility that will be designed with the reality of this pandemic and future ones in mind. We will offer community workshops, classes - when safe, chiropractic, myofascial therapy, and some retail. We are hoping to be able to reopen in the spring!
To help Align survive this challenging time, please consider supporting the Gym Mitigation and Survival Act.
To learn more, go to https://www.alignbrooklyn.com/.
Rewind to over a year before the pandemic. My sister Lana Vogestad mentioned that she was well on her way to creating an immersive online yoga and meditation platform, which would be heavily influenced by her love of art and most importantly her genuine passion for wanting to help others. Living in southern Maine, she was able to team up with the incredibly talented videographer Brett Wiese Saunders, and the end result, Yndi Yoga, is a deeply engaging yoga and meditation experience that offers us a much needed escape. With landscapes and soundscapes that transport us to beautiful places, she reminds us to breathe. Something we all need to do a little more of today.
SSP: Can you tell us about how your life as an artist, yogi and teacher led you to the creation of YNDI?
Yoga and art have been at the center of my life for over twenty years, and even though they have always influenced each other, YNDI has been the ultimate culmination of it all. It’s been so fulfilling to bring it all together and explore dissolving the boundary between yoga and art.
The more you practice yoga, the more you notice how it impacts your life outside of the actual physical practice. It inevitably affects all areas of your life and how you connect to the world around you. It affects your relationships with others and with yourself, and teaches you many invaluable skills to improve your wellbeing. Yoga elevates consciousness, and art has the power to do that as well, and thus they both expand your horizon and introduce you to new territory to be experienced.
For many years, I've been creating experiential art to take the viewer into the present moment using visuals, sound and a minimal aesthetic. Directly influenced by my own yoga practice, the work invites you to relish the present moment, stripping away distraction, just like a focused yoga or meditation practice. My teaching has been influenced by my art as well, taking what I’ve learned about valuing the importance of authenticity, making deliberate decisions with the actual led practice, the physical space and the sound, so it all enhances a healing and transformational experience for practitioners. YNDI is an all-encompassing multi-sensory experience with diverse powerful yoga classes and meditation with stunning cinematography and custom composed soundscapes, to connect you to something bigger.
SSP: What kinds of classes can one find on YNDI, and are they appropriate for beginners as well as experienced folks? What about people with physical limitations?
All of the YNDI experiences are accessible, powerful and transformational. There’s a diverse selection of yoga classes rooted in different disciplines, including therapeutic Hot Yoga, express classes when you’re short on time, and classes tailored for newer students, students with injuries or just looking for a slower paced practice, in addition to a great selection of challenging classes for more seasoned practitioners. A Fundamental tutorial is available as well with in-depth alignment instruction covering the key postures and how to modify them, which can be integrated into any of the yoga classes. On YNDI Yoga there’s also guided meditations including Yoga Nidra, which is a magical yogic sleep for deep rest. As an YNDI member has shared, “YNDI is just as beautiful to watch as the practice is to follow”, and the custom soundscapes by Dj. Inc in Atlanta and Mikael Lind in Iceland perfectly compliment each experience.
SSP: I understand you also offer live YNDI classes? What kind of classes are these and how often are they held?
Even though it’s virtual, the livestream classes are a great opportunity to feel community and we have members from around the world who join, so it’s really fun.
I teach an hour livestream yoga class every Thursday at noon and also offer special livestream events collaborating with composers and musicians, including our amazing YNDI DJ in Atlanta, Dj.Inc, who spins live from his turntables while I teach. It’s also been fun to lead family yoga livestream and have my niece Amaya, a former patient of South Slope Pediatrics, assist me from NY!
SSP: The visuals and landscapes featured in your classes are breathtaking. Can you tell us more about how the cinematography and environments we are transported to in class adds value to the experience?
We’ve created a world that people can retreat to from the comfort of their home and travel through beautiful landscapes and soundscapes to connect with more peace. The visuals and sound all work together in enhancing a truly transformational experience during a powerful yoga practice or guided meditation. The cinematography is stunning with beautiful imagery that eliminates distraction and contributes to a profound awakening experience. The filmmaker I’ve been working with, Brett Wiese Saunders, is an award winning documentary filmmaker and has such an innate artistic sensibility infusing magic into each video. The cinematography and environments are a tremendous part of the YNDI experience.
SSP: This pandemic has taken an incredible toll on parents' wellness, specifically for parents of young ones. How does your platform help address those of us trying to finally prioritize our health in 2021, and offer flexibility at the same time?
This has been such a challenging time for parents, so first off, parents need to pat themselves on the back at the end of the day for simply surviving. It’s impossible to get everything done and I know this having a six year old myself. Yoga and meditation have helped me enormously during this time! If you can give yourself just a few minutes in the day to simply be with yourself, your breath and turn the chatter of your mind off, you end up giving yourself so much more time and feel revitalized. YNDI is a unique platform with how it’s multi-sensory with captivating music, beautiful cinematography and professionally recorded voiceovers with clear instruction. YNDI offers short 5 minute meditations to 90 minute transformative yoga practices. There are different length classes to suit your schedule. For example, a busy parent can set their alarm just a little bit earlier, roll right out of bed and fit in a fulfilling practice in as little as 40 minutes before the day starts. YNDI makes it easy, you just need to press play and you’ll be engaged. It’s amazing how focusing on your breath and connecting with your body can improve your mental state. Petty worries dissolve and positivity grows. You’re more present and happy which you deserve as well as your loved ones.
For more information, go to www.yndiyoga.com,
In this amazing community of South Slope Pediatrics families, we are honored to know so many who are accomplished in the arts and performance. One such SSP mother is Dava Krause, a stand-up comedian and writer who speaks of the raw truths of motherhood, including the shift and loss of identity.
SSP: Your list of accomplishments as a comedian is expansive, from writing to producing, to voice over work, to stand up, musical comedy, and acting as a regular in TV shows. How do you balance all of this and being a mom to 2 young children?
When I first had my daughter Delaney I definitely went into shock at the lack of time that I had. I formed a writing group immediately through Park Slope Parents and 10 weeks postpartum began meeting regularly with a group of four or five other parents who are also trying to carve out time to write stuff. Once my daughter was sort of sleeping through the night and my body realized I wasn’t getting up every 3 hours with her (around two years old), I started to do comedy again at night but then I was trying to get pregnant again...suffered two miscarriages and it really set me back emotionally. It was hard for me to give myself permission to take that time to heal before I forced myself to go back out again. And then I sort of realized that for the time being, I would need to focus on my writing and put performing aside for a bit. And that was hard for me to live with.
SSP: What is like being a mom in comedy?
Right now? It’s great. A lot of my contemporaries who have decided to have kids realize that motherhood is an important part of their identity and talk about it in their act. I feel for a long time that women in any field had to hide the fact that they were moms or at least keep it separate from their professional lives. Or it was an unspoken rule that if you were a professional and wanted to have kids that it was *fine* but it should NEVER get in the way of doing your job. Or if it did get in the way that it would make you a less serious professional. Or people just assumed they knew you had kids that you weren’t as ‘dedicated’ to your job, which is garbage - especially for me who went to an all girls school, which was very pro-women in the workplace and that sort of feminism that's all about ‘we can do whatever men can do’. But I think with the pandemic and lots of people working from home, that there’s going to be a huge shift - or hopefully there will be a shift - in the way people view ‘working’ in this country. Who you are at home and who you are at work both exist within a person simultaneously, and it’s hard to split those two identities up in regular times - but especially when your kids are sitting next to you on a zoom call. Hopefully people start to understand that just because you’re a parent and you prioritize time with your family that it doesn’t mean you’re going to do a job any less efficiently than someone who doesn't have kids. In fact, working parents are the most efficient people I know. When you have an hour to get something done you put your head down and you do it. If you have two hours to do the same task there’s a lot more time to d*ck around.
SSP: Who are the women or men in comedy or in life who inspired and influenced you?
My peers. When I first started out in comedy in Los Angeles there’s a group of us ladies that would get together and do open mics every single night. It’s the same thing as when I formed that writing group when my older daughter was first born. Those are the folks that were doing the work just like I was while trying to be a parent. That group and my mom group and all the comedians and writers who I am privileged to call my friends - they were and are my inspiration.
SSP: What would you say is your style of comedy, for those who are not familiar? Is the material fictional or more heavily based on truths?
My comedy is heavily based on truths. It’s based on sarcasm and self deprecation. Always has, always will.
SSP: Are many of your stories now shifting to realities of being a mom, in the pandemic?
I haven’t created anything that has anything to do with the pandemic because quite frankly I’m living in a pandemic while also trying to guide my kids through a pandemic. That in itself is too much and to be honest I have been living every single day in crisis since March. But my most recent project(s) are all about being a mom because I’m still quite not over the complete and utter identity shift that happened when I became a mother almost 5 years ago... like I say in my pilot ‘Baby Steps’, motherhood did my identity what I did to my vagina. Ripped it to pieces and as I’m putting it back together again it’s not quite the same. Is that too raw for the South Slope Pediatrics audience?
SSP: The loss of identity in motherhood is universal to all new moms. Can you tell us about your most recent project, “Baby Steps” and how you address that?
I think the total utter destruction of my identity when I became a mother was a complete shock to me and I’m still working through it. ‘Baby Steps’ is all about who you think you’re going to be as a parent before you become a parent and how it all goes out the window after you become an actual parent. For example, the character I play, Nell, who is obviously based on me, believes that as soon as she has a kid she’s going to go right back to work and not miss a beat. And for some women that may be how it is and that’s 100% fine. But for me, like I said, I just couldn’t bring myself to do comedy anymore. And when your entire identity is built on the fact that you’re a career minded person and that you’re going to stop at nothing to become the best at what you do and then that desire is ripped from you completely - it can be devastating, disorienting and utterly depressing. And the impulse is to try to figure out what that means and who you’re going to be now. But Nell starts to figure out, like I did, that she’s not gonna know who she is right away and that she’s going to have to discover herself all over again in baby steps. And a large part of how she’s going to do that is with the support of this new mom group that she forms. Because it takes a village to raise a child and part of that is allowing parents time and room to grow into who they will become as well. And I mean all parents. Because I think for a long time society and gender norms have expected people who identify as men to not feel like they should want to spend time with their kids, or take time to settle into their new identity as parents as much as people who identify as women. But that’s not the case or at least I don’t think it should be. Becoming a parent is a major f**king thing whether you’re a man or a woman or identify as either or neither. Humans should have the time and space to bond with their babies and figure out who they will be as parents and people.
SSP: What are you currently working on and how can our readers see more of your work?
Right now I’m working on a podcast with a fellow mom comedian and writer. I can’t say too much about it but it’s a continuation of the themes that I’ve spoken about with a fun little twist. The best place to get news about this and other stuff would be on my Instagram : @davakrause.
Thank you for having me! I love Dr Cao and Matteo and everyone at South Slope Pediatrics! You are part of my village and I am eternally grateful for all of you!
After working as a learning specialist for over a decade, Mara Koffman, SSP mother of two, launched Braintrust with her business partner Jen Mendelsohn. Braintrust is a platform that connects parents with certified teachers and specialists for private tutoring. She realized, after tutoring herself for so many years, that there was a real need for a space that could foster connections between parents and teachers. Braintrust empowers parents to choose the teacher who is the right fit for their child, and it also provides teachers with a meaningful platform to connect to those parents. This service is more useful now than ever before, as parents struggle to find additional support during the pandemic. We spoke to Mara to learn more in this month’s SSP interview.
SSP: How was Braintrust born and how did your life experiences lead you here?
I've worked as a learning specialist in NYC for over a decade. Prior to launching Braintrust, I worked in schools, tutored for other companies, tutored privately, and built a previous tutoring company of my own. Throughout all of those experiences, I've seen how difficult it can be for parents to connect with educators who have the training and expertise to provide students with effective learning support. Word of mouth recommendations often lead to dead ends, and agencies provide variable service at a premium price. That's why I created Braintrust.
SSP: Please tell us about the services Braintrust provides, and it’s personalized approach to learning. How is this unique, and why is it important?
Teachers make better tutors, and with Braintrust, parents can connect with certified educators and learning specialists for private tutoring. You can think of us like a Care.com for finding exceptional tutoring support. We help families match with teachers by area of expertise, experience with specific disabilities, availability, and price. In this way, we make it easier to connect with expert tutors for every learning need and budget. And with Braintrust, parents receive session reports and progress reports after each meeting so they can easily track gains and understand learning goals. In this way, students have a better learning experience and parents have a better service experience.
SSP: How do you work to find the right match of student and tutor?
We are the only tutoring platform designed by a learning specialist to think like a learning specialist. As a result, our unique algorithm, search filters, and other tools empower parents to connect with Braintrust educators who have the training and expertise to meet each child's unique learning needs. Plus, parents can schedule free Zoom interviews with tutors to ensure a perfect fit. And if a family needs more help finding the right match for their child, they can email us at email@example.com for additional support.
SSP: How are the tutors vetted?
To apply to tutor with Braintrust, educators identify what and whom they teach best, when and where they’d like to work, how much they charge per hour, and what specific training and certifications they have. Next, a member of the Braintrust team reviews each new teachers’ profile, including by checking their teaching and training certificates and evaluating their work experience before verifying the account. Last, tutors who meet our instructor standards and pass a criminal background check are approved to be featured in our marketplace.
SSP: How have you seen the pandemic and hybrid or remote learning models create new challenges for children, specifically the younger age set?
I think virtual classrooms have been particularly challenging for younger children and those who have learning or thinking differences. This is in large part because it is so difficult to create individualized learning experiences in online classes with such a wide range of students. While one-on-one and small group instruction work incredibly well online (I've been tutoring online since March with amazing results), teachers are trying to support up to 68 students at a time in some remote classrooms. As a result, it is nearly impossible to monitor engagement and progress as teachers otherwise would, and more students than ever are struggling as a result.
SSP: Working parents are struggling to provide the support our children need, now more than ever before. At what point do you recommend looking for additional tutoring services, and reaching out to Braintrust?
Parents have become total superheroes in this pandemic. I just want to say we all deserve a pat on the back for getting through this – it’s a lot! But if you are feeling overwhelmed, your efforts to support your child are leading to conflict in your relationship, or you see your kid struggling to keep up or make progress in class, a tutor can make a world of difference for the whole family. Because Braintrust educators understand learning and development, have training and experience with a wide range of curricula, and set their own prices, we have amazing tutors available for every need and budget. Our mission is to make it easier for families to connect with the support they need, while empowering our incredible educators to do what they do best!
For some lucky parents, potty training comes naturally for the child. But for most of us, let’s be honest... it’s not easy at all and can take months of work (and frustration)! Bottom line is that it doesn’t happen overnight and it can be one of the most intimidating and difficult tasks for parents. Meet Ashley and Sean Wang, SSP parents of a young Milo who was the inspiration behind their new product, PottyPants. These intuitive crotchless underwear lets the child go to the bathroom without the need and fear of pulling their bottoms down in time, and provides a step between being naked and wearing underwear. We spoke to Ashley to learn more about their new product innovation.
SSP: I think the name might give away what it does, but please tell us what exactly Potty Pants are, and why any parent in the process of trying to potty train their child may get very excited about your new product?
PottyPants, as the name suggests, are intuitive crotchless potty training underwear designed by parents who understand how confusing and frustrating potty training a toddler can be. It was also inspired by what Chinese children use to potty train at a very young age(most of them under two years old). One of the most common potty training issues for toddlers (including our shy two-year-old) was the inability to pull down/up their underwear during potty training. The most popular potty training method is to train your toddler naked, but when we tried to train him naked in the house, we noticed he was uncomfortable not having the safety of a diaper anymore and started holding his pee and poop for hours until we put a diaper on him to go outside or before naptime. After we switched to training him with regular underwear, he struggled so much with getting his underwear down when going to the potty and ended up peeing in his underwear most of the time. As soon as we put Milo in PottyPants it all clicked for him. He felt the comfort and privacy that the diaper provided for him but was still able to use the big boy potty without struggling to pull his pants down.
SSP: How was this idea born?
The birth of PottyPants goes back to our son Milo's potty training journey in December 2019 when my husband and I decided to take the plunge into the unknown. In the week that we had time off from work, we spent the entire time chasing our naked son all over our Brooklyn apartment to try to get him to use the potty. We often spent up to an hour at a time with him in the bathroom, trying to coax him into peeing or pooping into the potty with no avail as we found out how stubborn he can be. In the end, he outwitted and outlasted us, and we decided to delay the potty training until "he is ready". Fast forward to the onset of the COVID lockdown, we were both at home, and we thought there was no better time to get him potty trained before starting pre-school in the fall. For almost two weeks, we tried the naked training, and with underwear, only to go through the same motion where he kept holding his pee and poop until one of us put a diaper on him. As a mom, it was heart wrenching to see your child holding his pee for the entire morning and not worry about his health. Just as we were about to give up, my husband suggested that he was potty trained at 15 mo old when he was a toddler in China and told me about these Chinese split crotch pants. He immediately made a prototype, and, to my surprise, within minutes of wearing them, he went to sit on the potty and peed for the first time on his own. That's when we knew we possibly had something that could help him and other children to potty train.
SSP: What do you think makes Potty Pants so innovative, when looking at what is already on the market? How do they work exactly?
When we looked at the products on the market to help with potty training, they were either diapers disguised as training underwear or cotton training pants where children first learned to pee in the pants to make them aware of the wetness of the pee. That did not make sense to us as we thought it would most likely create the impression it's ok to pee in your pants for some children. With the crotchless potty training underwear, it lets the child go on the potty without the fear of not being able to pull down the underwear in time. In addition, for those shy children who simply do not like to be trained naked, PottyPants offer the privacy and comfort of having underwear on during potty training at home. Lastly, the fabric is oh-so-soft! We sourced a bamboo & spandex blend so not only are they soft, stretchy, and quick-drying, but bamboo is one of the most sustainable fabrics in the market.
SSP: I love how you have described these pants as an encouragement based method of training. Can you tell us more about that?
From our perspective, potty training should be at your child's own pace and parents/caretakers should never punish them when they have an accident. In the end, potty training is not a three-day boot camp (at least for the majority of children) but a long journey, which often takes months before a child truly masters it. PottyPants serves as a tool that parents can use along with patience, commitment, and, most importantly, it's about making potty training a bonding experience with your child! We also provide quick videos and a free printable potty training chart on www.pottypants.com featuring our Potty Training mascot, Xander Panda!
SSP: Do you have any other tips for parents who have been struggling with potty training and can't see the light at the end of the tunnel?
Don't give up and stick to a routine that works for your child but be flexible and look for other ways to help your child if a method did not work. Most children will have relapses where they will have accidents even when you think they are potty trained. A child as young as two and younger can be successfully potty trained, as millions of children in other countries have shown us.
SSP: Since PottyPants' launch, how has the reception from parents and the public been?
We really didn't know how American parents would respond to the concept of potty training with crotchless underwear at home. So far, the response has been so positive and encouraging. Parents are really connecting with the process and love the fit and fabric of PottyPants. We are thrilled to take away some of the stress of potty training from fellow parents. We are already getting several requests for expanded sizes and color options - stay tuned. :)
SSP: What words of encouragement do you have for other parents in our community who are looking to follow their dreams and become entrepreneurs?
I am still having a hard time calling myself an entrepreneur- we are just getting started! My advice to the parents out there during this challenging time is to make lemonade out of lemons. PottyPants was born out of desperation - every method we tried before just did not work. Instead of being frustrated and giving up, we created our own method. Despite being locked down at home during a global pandemic, we can all find hobbies or rediscover interests that inspire and motivate us and hopefully help discover the potential we have to help others.
To learn more about PottyPants, go to https://www.pottypants.com/
For teens in particular, the Coronavirus pandemic is adding new stress, fear and uncertainty to their worlds. Many are having a tough time coping emotionally with the disrupted routines and are feeling more depressed, anxious, and angry. Some of these elevated emotions may be signs they need more support during this difficult time. We spoke to Erik Luna, a Park Slope father of two and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, who speaks more about these challenges teenagers are facing, and what we can do as parents to best support and seek help if needed.
SSP: Can you please tell us about yourself and what therapy you provide? Do you have a certain approach to therapy that you follow?
I was born and raised in San Francisco, and came to NY for graduate school in the late 1990’s. I’m a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I graduated from NYU in 1999. For eleven years I provided therapy in public elementary, middle and high schools. I started a private practice part time in 2005, and since 2010 I have been doing full time private practice in Brooklyn Heights.
It’s a blended approach of psychodynamic and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) principles. CBT is very much about the here and now and being able to realize how your perspectives affect your feelings. CBT also involves monitoring and assessing your feelings/moods and provides tools and techniques for better management. There is not much of an emphasis on the past. A psychodynamic approach on the other hand is more about exploring the past to better understand the reasons for how we currently feel and behave. I always say if your house is on fire, you call the fire department to put out the fire (CBT). Then you need to call in the arson investigator to figure out what caused the fire in the first place to prevent the fire from reoccurring (Psychodynamic). This allows you to go back and look at the genesis and root causes for your feelings and behaviors.
SSP: As we all know, the reality of COVID-19 is deeply affecting teens’ mental health. What kind of challenges are you seeing more of during this pandemic?
First of all, I think everything is exasperated. If you had anxiety or depression before, that will be increased. For some adolescents that previously had these conditions well managed, it has now reached a point where it’s become a struggle again. For the general public, I think more people are feeling depressed and anxious since COVID started.
I think much of it, in particular with adolescents, is that they are struggling with the notion of uncertainty. These are uncertain times. There is a natural rhythm to their year - school starts, and there are breaks, and then summer. Back in March that abruptly stopped. The normal rhythm has been thrown into chaos. Everything has a beginning, middle and an ending. We just don’t know where we are at right now. In the spring, many teens were counting on summer camps to open as an indication that we were returning to normal. For the most part, that didn’t happen. Now there is a lot of emphasis on returning to normal with the resumption of the school year. However, if you are in a blended model, there is a high level of uncertainty about what the school day will look like. Many teens think that it will look like it did before COVID. There will be a lot of shock when they realize they now need to wear masks and will be limited interacting with other peers. In many cases, they will no longer be able to move from class to class. I am worried that many teenagers will be disappointed when they realize this is the new normal for in-person education. Some private schools are even doing a tent system. The students are in tents set up outside with classes conducted under the tents. The more flexible teens are to the new normal, the less stressed they will be.
Teens naturally have FOMO (the fear of missing out). FOMO is now less about feeling left out of activities with peers and more about missing out on where they feel they should be. I was talking to a college freshman and there is this notion of not getting the true college experience. Currently freshmen are often not able to eat in the dining hall. There are limits as to how many people can be in a dorm room and many classes are virtual. Normal ice breakers are not happening which makes meeting others hard. This is a very different experience than what they signed up for (and paid for). High school seniors are frustrated over missing prom and graduation – thinking this is not how senior year should be.
I almost feel like adolescents are less worried about being sick and more worried about getting family members sick and really worried about the stigma of being sick. There is less worry about not being able to recover from the disease and more worry about passing COVID to family members. They are also concerned that they will be labeled as the “COVID kid.” They are terrified to think they could be the individual responsible for shutting down a school.
SSP: What do you think are the main contributing factors most impacting this age set?
Definitely the isolation. Developmentally teenagers are supposed to be socializing with their peers. They are at an age where they should be relying less on parents and more on their friends for emotional support. Now this is much less of an option. Not only are kids missing hanging out with friends in an unstructured way, they also have less structured activities with peers. Sports have significantly been hampered, there are not many camps, and not a lot of extracurricular activities are happening. There is also a narrowing of friends groups. Teenagers are mostly interacting with their core group and less with acquaintances. Their socializing options have greatly narrowed.
Although Zoom and Facetime are helpful, it’s not a complete substitute for hanging out with friends in-person. I do think that kids are relying more on video platforms, which is understandable with less options, but it’s not the same as hanging out with your friends after school and on weekends.
SSP: As parents, how do we best balance wanting to have our children reconnect with their peers socially and emotionally when they are feeling so very isolated, while deterring reckless behavior during COVID. What is the best approach?
Kids cringe when I say this but I think partially supervised interactions is the answer. What that means is that if you have a yard, which many of us in NY don’t, inviting small groups of teenagers to hangout in the yard but in a manner that can be supervised from a distance. It doesn’t mean having the parents hang around with the group of teenagers, but rather having the parent be present in the background so the teens are gently reminded to follow safer guidelines. Some of the biggest concerns when teens hang out by themselves are they are naturally impulsive, more susceptible to peer pressure, and they just get so excited. They live in the moment! This makes socially distancing, wearing masks, and engaging in safer behaviors more difficult for them. Even if there is a prearranged social safety contract about how to be safe with their friends and they genuinely want to follow these rules, it’s so hard in the moment when they are with their friends.
If you don’t have a yard, have a parent go to the park with the teens and stay an appropriate distance away. This way the teens are with their friends but there is also a quiet reminder that they do need to follow these socially distanced guidelines. It’s a fine line, it’s a dance – you don’t want to be in their face, they need their privacy, but usually it is not realistic to put forward these COVID safety guidelines and expect them to always follow it on their own.
Some parents are doing socializing pods where they are able to contact other parents, get tested, and limit socializing with other people. Kids are able to be safer knowing these pods lower the risk of transmitting COVID. It’s all about finding lower risk versus higher risk activities.
SSP: What warning signs should we be looking out for in our teens when they are feeling depressed? What should trigger us to seek professional help?
I think when people think of depression they think of an individual being sad or melancholy. This is more true for adults. Depression in teens can manifest in different ways. They can be that way, sad and melancholic, however, there are many other emotional and behavioral changes associated with teen depression. Some of the emotional changes can be having diminished interest or a loss of interest in activities that they used to enjoy. Depressed teens can also have a difficult time motivating to participate in activities that used to be natural or easy for them to engage in, including academics, hanging out with friends and hobbies. Emotional outbursts can also be a sign of adolescent depression. Depressed teens can have big mood swings, increased tantrums, and increased outbursts of anger or sadness. Many people reach out to me saying “My teen is so angry”, but it ends up being a depressive component. I think if you asked the parent if their kid is depressed, they’d say oh no…but when you ask the parents if their teens are happy, they start to realize it may be more than just teen angst and a depressive component may be present.
There are also behavioral concerns associated with depression. A big one is self harm, which can include cutting. Depressed teens can also have significant weight or sleep changes. They frequently isolate themselves, even if they want to see friends. They may want to reach out to a friend but lack the drive to do so. Their social motivation is gone. Other depressive behavioral concerns include alcohol and drug use and certainly suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.
As far as when to seek professional help, kids are actually very willing and often recognize they want/need help. Sometimes just asking is a good first step. Often they say, “Yeah, I could use someone to talk to.” Recognizing the need for emergency help is critical for every parent to know. If you suspect that they are a danger to themselves or someone else, it can’t wait and needs to be addressed immediately. This includes immediately calling 911, contacting a physician, or going to the ER. If there is a previous relationship with a psychiatrist or therapist, reach out to them immediately. While seeking professional help may be able to wait a week or two, emergency help needs to be instant. It’s important to distinguish between the two.
Depression and anxiety are treatable, and kids get better. I always feel that when someone seeks treatment, it’s the low point, but they are now seeking help to improve themselves. It’s amazing how much easier it can be tackling life’s obstacles without being clinically depressed or anxious.
SSP: What can we do as parents to best help and support them during this time?
One major way to help support children during this time is for parents to manage their own anxiety. Sometimes parents are struggling more than teens or struggling just as much. So it’s also important for parents to seek help and support for their own anxiety/depression. Parents are worried about getting sick themselves and worried about the health of their extended family. Parents are also worried about money and the uncertainty of their job. By getting the support for themselves, they are better prepared to be able to focus on their childrens’ needs.
I also think it’s important to remind teenagers that they are not in this alone. I talk to teens who are caught up in missing their friends and missing other opportunities. I remind them that everyone is going through this to some extent. Most people are feeling the way they do to some degree. If there was ever a shared experience among us, this pandemic is truly it.
What goes along with the uncertainty is the need to be flexible. I know I sound like a broken record but If teenagers can’t adjust to the reality of the new world, this experience is going to be very hard on them. If they can accept that maybe some activities will need to be modified due to COVID, it will be less stressful for them. If they can accept that having a parent 20 yards away as they socialize with their friends in the park is tolerable, they will feel better. As I said earlier, maybe they can switch to a lower risk sport like tennis, where you can socially distance, instead of a canceled higher risk sport like football. Less flexible teens sabotage themselves if they continue to insist activities must continue as they used to or they won’t participate at all. To summarize, being more flexible and less rigid is going to make this process easier.
At some point the world we know will be much improved. Everything has a beginning, middle and an end. We just are not sure where we are at now. Sometimes that statement is helpful. Many kids just want to hear that it will go away by 2021. If they imagine a definitive date when COVID has disappeared, they feel they can get through a few more months until that date. Unfortunately, nobody can guarantee when the pandemic will end. The idea that experts are uncertain how long this will last is terrifying for them. When teens realize and accept that everything eventually has an ending, they understand our current scenario (and struggles) will also eventually end.
The question is whether it will end quickly or slowly. I don’t think we are going to wake up one day and it will instantly be over. I think change is going to be more of a slow growth toward improvement. It’s less like turning on a light and more like the sun slowly rising. The sun slowly starts to rise and things start to brighten. However, it takes awhile for the sun to fully come out and be overhead.
Erik Luna can be reached on his Psychology Today profile.