Bringing up Baby

Alumni take a variety of approaches to parenting

They don't come with instructions. But they do come with plenty of advice, and a whole range of options for care. Whether to breast feed or bottle feed, use a diaper service or disposables, these are just the first of many decisions parents have to make--decisions that are often dictated by other choices, like whether to stay at home or go back to work, have at-home childcare or use a daycare center. And that's just the beginning.

The who, what, and where of parenthood have never been more complicated, but the tradeoff--for the fortunate--is a real choice about how to raise our children, and how to conduct our lives while doing so. Whatever the choices we make, there is always a latest study, statistic, neighbor, parent, or even complete stranger ready to confirm that those choices are the right--or wrong--ones.

It took a long time for Susan Bencuya '78 and her husband, Paul Sager, to decide they wanted kids. "It seemed like such a massive thing to try--of course it's not something you just try, it's forever," says Bencuya, who was thirty-one when her first child, Rachel Sager, was born. "I felt like I'd gotten a lot of traveling done and accomplished a lot by then. I think you resent parenthood less having gotten those things under your belt."

By the time Gordon Duffey '56 became a father at age fifty-eight, he had been a student a Yale Law School, a soldier in Korea, a Fulbright Scholar in France, a Directing Fellow at the American Film Institute, a book writer and lyricist for stage musicals, a screenwriter, and an exporter. He and his wife, Linda Palazzolo, have one son, Samuel Duffey Robinson, now six.

"As older parents we were concerned about the possibility of genetic abnormalities, but our son turned out to be healthy, lively, and creative," says Duffey. "I believe that I'm a more caring and calmer father now than I would have been in my thirties and forties--no matter that occasionally someone will ask if I'm Samuel's grandfather."

Although Kate Mali Pingeon '84 and her husband, Henden Pingeon, planned to have children soon after they married, things did not turn out quite as planned. Pingeon had three miscarriages before successfully carrying her first set of fraternal twins, Winston and James, to term and then two more miscarriages before another set of twins, Clara and Alice, were born. Finding out she was pregnant with a second set of twins "was a real shocker," recalls Pingeon, who is herself a twin.

Opinions on what it's like to have a newborn vary widely. Will Talpey '83, who is beginning a year as a stay-at-home father, characterizes his first weeks with daughter Emily Rose Talpey as a blast. "It's both the hardest and most rewarding job I've ever had," he says.

On the other hand, being a new parent was sometimes overwhelming for Bencuya. "Having a baby hit me like a sledgehammer," she recalls. "I had been working full time in Boston. Just being home every day blew my mind. My mom stayed with me for two weeks after my C-section. I remember once it was raining and the baby was crying, and I turned to my mother and said, `I don't think I can do this.' I realized how difficult it was going to be."

As the father of teenage twins Kyle and Kyra, and eleven-year-old twins Brittany and Briana, Jeffrey Shachmut '73 knows a thing or two about infants and young children. "You've got to keep a good sense of humor, and you need to be able to cope with sleep deprivation," he observes.

"As a parent, you also have to let go of the list mentality," adds Bencuya. "If they don't nap, your day changes."

Deciding whether or not to continue to work outside the home is one of the hardest decisions parents face. Pingeon originally planned to keep working at the Faye School in Lincoln, Massachusetts, after her first set of twins was born. "I took a maternity leave but then found I really wanted to be home. I was lucky that the timing conveniently coincided with the end of my contract," says Pingeon, who has been at home ever since.

Shachmut, who is associate dean of students and director of residence life at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, continued to work, while his wife, Stephanie Plotkin, a physician who is a native of South Africa, stayed at home. "We talked about having one of us at home," says Shachmut. "It could have been either one. At the time, she was making more money than me, but we both felt very good about having mom at home. Being a full-time mom is a noble profession--and a lot of work."

When Talpey and his wife, Carla Burkley, learned that they were expecting, they were both beginning residencies at Maine Medical Center in Portland. "It didn't take long to reach the decision to have me stay at home," recalls Talpey. "I told Carla there were no rules written about how to proceed; either of us could take time off. It made sense for her to keep going because her residency in obstetrics and gynecology is a year longer than mine in internal medicine. This way, we'll be able to look for jobs at the same time."

For Lisa Dowd Schott '80 and her husband, Stuart Schott, deciding who would do what hinged on which of them got a job in a rural setting first. "Having us both work in Cleveland was too intense," she says. "I commuted to a full-time job while Stu worked part time, and my mom watched our son, Steven. I missed a lot that first year, and I realized early on that it was too much. Until you have a child, you don't necessarily know what it will mean."

As it happened, Schott found a job in Kenyon's alumni office, where she is now director of alumni and parent relations and annual funds. "When we first came to Gambier, Stu worked part time as an admissions interviewer," she recalls. "Even that was too much, so he became a full-time daddy. We knew it could work because we had role models on campus. A lot of the reason it's gone so well is because of the kind of person Stu is."

When the Schotts' second son, Lee, was born, Schott was able to nurse him for the full first year. "I'd just put a sign up on my door. I stopped missing my kids, even though I was working full time," she says.

Whether the decision is to stay at home or work, there are always tradeoffs. Pingeon's husband's job as a venture capitalist often meant he had to work long hours. "Being alone in the evenings when the two boys were infants was hard," she says. "When you're at home it's challenging to maintain a feeling of worth--the whole self-esteem thing. In Lincoln, there are a lot of working mothers trying to balance full-time jobs. I do feel a bit exempted from the pressure to emulate them because I have two sets of twins, but I think I'd be home in any case."

Talpey finds he is well suited to his new role. "I'm a homey kind of a person," he says. "I like hanging around the fort. Getting up at three in the morning to feed Emily is a job, but it's not the same as getting up in the night to treat someone with a heart attack. We have our own little routine worked out--at least in my mind if not in Emily's. But I do miss the camaraderie of the hospital, and I end up going there at least once on most days so Carla can nurse the baby."

After many years of two- and three-day-a-week jobs, Bencuya now works close to full time at home as a freelance editor, an arrangement she prefers. "While I was still commuting to work, Rachel had a bad fall at daycare and had to have nineteen stitches," she recalls. "Both my husband and I were in Boston. I knew it was being taken care of, but I wanted to be there so badly. There I was stuck in South Station."

Duffey's wife continued to run her design company throughout her pregnancy and for several years after their son was born. Recently, though, Palazzolo sold her company, and she now has an office at home. "Although we had the help of a nanny for the first four years, both Linda and I arranged our careers to be flexible enough to be his everyday caretakers," says Duffey. After her second set of twins, Pingeon also hired a nanny. "We needed the extra pair of hands. It takes both of us; it's really a two-person job," she says.

Regardless of who stays home, and how little or how much other help is involved, in most cases both spouses pitch in. "It's a source of irritation for me when someone says, `That's the woman's job,'" says Shachmut. "We both did everything. Our whole life revolves around the children. The only time we generally have as a couple is late at night."

In the Schott household, Lisa does the cleaning and Stu cooks, gardens, and takes care of the kids. "He's also the one who makes the doctor and dentist appointments," says Schott. Duffey reads to his son at night and helps him with his homework. On most days the two play basketball and soccer, take a hike, or go swimming. "Linda's pregnancy was the highlight of my life," says Duffey. "I was there to cut the cord, and ever since I've been a very hands-on papa."

After children arrive, religion often takes on a new importance. Bencuya's family joined a Unitarian Church. "I haven't got a completely-thought-through answer for when my kids ask, `Why do we have to go to church?' I usually tell them something along the lines of `Because I want you to think about your place in the world--not just about yourself, but about everyone else too," she says. Both Shachmut and his wife are converts to Catholicism. "We have a strong faith and prayer life," he says. "In our family, it's a daily thing; it's central to establishing and reinforcing morals." When their son was christened, the Duffeys joined St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Pacific Palisades, California. Their son went to preschool and kindergarten at the parish school.

Choosing where to send children to school is yet another parental crossroads. "My husband and I are both products of private schools, but we're committed to public school for our children, at least through the elementary grades," says Pingeon. "The system here is great, and the children can walk there." Bencuya's kids also attend a public school, just down the street from their home in Franklin, Massachusetts. "I have so much more autonomy now that they're in school," she says. "I can work and still always be there to pick them up. It's much easier than before." Shachmut's kids attend parochial school, and they are active in dozens of academic, athletic, and church activities. "We literally have to have a written schedule for everyone," he says.

Then there's the decision about whether or not to try to have more children. "Having twins was great once I got past the first couple of weeks, and it's just gotten better," says Pingeon. "Now we think it would be weird to have just one baby at a time--but, obviously, we're not going to have any more." In spite of the challenges of being a parent, Bencuya and her husband decided they did want another one. "Both of us were from families with more than one kid, and we're close to our siblings," she says. "Our second child, Ben Sager, was easier, not such a shock to our lifestyle; maybe because we were experienced." Talpey also anticipates that he and Burkley will have another child.

Regardless of what choices are made, or the age of the children, to be a parent is to live permanently, at some level, with the flip side of parental love: worry. "When you have a child you start to make plans regarding the end of your life," says Duffey. "Suddenly you have important responsibilities--like insurance, wills, and college funds--that you didn't have before."

Now that her kids are twelve and fifteen, Schott can look back and know that, despite the financial sacrifices, she and her husband made the right choices. "They've been easy kids and lots of fun," she says. "But you always worry that something will happen. That's the hard part: even in Gambier, life is real."

In the end, whether they feel more like Duffey--"I was born to be a father"--or more like Bencuya--"I'm doing O.K., but I'm not a super mom. I love my kids, but I don't feel like I've found my true calling being a mom"--most agree that their Kenyon experience has stood them in good stead. Bencuya compares her college years to being a parent and concludes that "having kids is harder than an oral exam. When you're in college, you think you know all the answers. When you have kids asking questions about everything from deodorant to skin color, you find out that you don't. By the time you're ready with a really good answer, they've moved on to the next thing."

Pingeon envisions a time--after her girls are in school--when she will go back to work. "Being at Kenyon gave me the confidence to feel like I could do anything--that I can take these years off, and that there will be, at the end, something for me to do, and do well," she says. Talpey, who acknowledges that it will be hard to go back to his residency at the end of the year, is also grateful for his liberal-arts background. "I could just stay in the house, put Emily in the bouncy seat and watch the `Today Show,'" says Talpey, "but my education helps me to observe and remark, to pay attention to small wonders--like Emily discovering her left hand."

Kat Anderson, a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group, is the guest editor of this issue of the magazine. She lives in Ithaca, New York, with her husband, Max Pensky '83, and their daughter, Anna Bronwyn Pensky.

A Few Facts

In 1998, 67.6 percent of American women with children under eighteen worked outside the home.

In 1997, women made up 46.2 percent of the labor force.

By 1997, mothers participating in the labor force had increased to 72.1 percent, from 47.3 percent in 1995.

In 1996, the percentage of families with children headed by a single parent, usually the mother, stood at 27 percent.

In 1996, 20 percent of children lived in poverty.

In 1996, the teen birth rate (ages fifteen to seventeen) was 34 percent per 1,000.

In 1996, the infant mortality rate in the United States was 7.3 per 1,000 live births.

In 1995, 40 percent of children under age six participated in nonparental childcare arrangments.

In 1995, 80 percent of companies offered flextime to at least half of their workforce.

In 1995, 26 percent of the Standard and Poor's 500 companies offered paid paternity leaves.

In 1994, in almost one third of the more than six million married-couple families with preschoolers, the father took care of the children during the mother's working hours.

In 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act was made law.

In 1973, in Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional right to privacy extends to a woman's decision to have an abortion.

In 1966, the last restrictive legislation on birth control was eliminated.

Sources: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Center for Work and Family at Boston College, 1998 Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1991 Time Almanac, U.S. Census Bureau, Whirlpool Foundation Study

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