On the worst night, when our 1-pound daughter was fading in the darkness of her incubator, my husband opened a book and began to read aloud.

"Chapter One: The Boy Who Lived."

He needed to say those words. I thought it was strange that he’d chosen the first book in a seven-volume series, a series that totals more than 4,000 pages, for a little girl who might not survive the night.


Juniper in the NICU. Photo by Cherie Diez. All photos used with Kelley Benham French's permission, except as noted.

"How about 'Goodnight Moon'?" I offered. "That’s a good book."

Tom saw it all more clearly than I did. He wanted Juniper, born barely viable at 23 weeks gestation, to hear a story about children who could fly. He wanted to read to her about a baby who survived the most powerful evil in the world because his mother stood by his crib and protected him with her life.

In our family, the Harry Potter books are dog-eared and worn.

My husband wanted to initiate our daughter into our tribe. My stepsons, Nat and Sam, grew up reading the books criss-cross applesauce underneath restaurant tables. They played Quidditch on rollerblades and made wands out of chopsticks and string. On their 11th birthdays, they began checking the mailbox for their invitations to Hogwarts, clinging to the hope it could all be real. J.K. Rowling’s stories, along with the Springsteen canon, made up our shared mythology.

Photo by Alex Wong/Newsmakers/Getty Images.

Now, as Tom held that faded book, the dust jacket long lost, he was reaching out to our daughter with a protective incantation of love and belonging.

Stories were invented to conjure meaning from randomness. They give us our history, even our identity. It made no sense that Juniper came crashing into the world 16 weeks early and the size of a kitten. It made no sense that machines could keep her alive or that she could be snatched away. It made no sense to parent a baby in a plastic box, but that was what we learned to do.

"Stories are a promise," Tom told me when he’d had time to think it through. "They are a promise that the ending is worth waiting for."

Juniper didn’t understand a word of the story, of course.

But she could tell us, by the monitor pinging at her bedside, that she loved the parts about Hermione and that she hated the gruff voice of Hagrid the half-giant.

Juniper in the NICU. Photo by Cherie Diez.

When Tom read to her, she breathed better, held her temperature better, seemed generally more content. Tom read every paragraph in a soothing, sing-song voice, and when he stopped, her oxygen levels would plummet and the alarms would blare.

"Keep reading!" the nurses would shout.

He was nearly finished with book one when Juniper had another awful night. We were rushing to the hospital when he started crying at the wheel. "What if she never hears the end of the story?" he said. "What if she never learns how it ends?"

Five years later, Juniper is a wild and joyful kindergartner. And one day this spring, while she was off at school, a large box arrived at our house.

The shipping label showed an address of Mailboxes, Etc. in Edinburgh. I waited until Juniper got home to open it.

"Is dat for me?" she asked. She didn’t notice my shaking hands.

I hadn’t told her that a month or so earlier I’d gotten a Twitter message from Jo Rowling. She said she’d heard about Juniper on an episode of Radiolab and had been jolted when she’d heard Harry’s name. She said that she’d cried and that she wanted to send us something.

When I saw the message from Rowling the first time, I screamed. Then I tried to seize the moment to tell her what she’d already given us. I’m sure I didn’t capture it.

I told her that her books brought our family together in midnight lines that snaked through Walmart, where we always bought four copies so we wouldn’t have to share. In our all-night family readings, we raced each other to finish but then slowed in the last chapters because we couldn’t stand for them to end.

When Juniper arrived and Tom started reading, those stories helped me see that being a parent wasn’t something I might get to do someday, it was something I could do right now, for however long it lasted. They helped Tom and I write the story of our own lives — of who we were in those long, wrenching months. They gave a generation of children the most powerful gift imaginable: the lessons of love and friendship and bravery and decency and the ability to apparate to a better place with the turn of a page. They gave our family its sacred text. They guided us through the dark.

I sent Rowling this photo:

Juniper, all grown up!

And now, I unwrapped Rowling’s books from the box, sent all the way from Scotland, and handed them to my daughter.

"She loves me," she said, because she already knew it. She hugged the books tight.

I opened the first book to the first page and read her what it said:

"To Juniper, The Girl Who Lived! With lots of love, J.K. Rowling."

A few months later, our own book was published. It tells the story of Juniper’s six months in that hospital, in that yawning neverland between the womb and the world. It’s about the science that made her possible and the love that saved her in the end.

Harry is in it, and Hermione and Ron and Ginny and Dobby and all the rest, because they were there with us as surely as the doctors and nurses and God himself.

When the book came out, we mailed one off to Scotland, to Rowling, signed by Juniper:

"To Jo, Who made us believe. With love and gratitude, Kelley, Tom, Juniper."

Now, our little girl sorts her chickens into the houses of Hogwarts. She voted for Hermione for president. At night, she tells me, she sees Hermione in her dreams.

Last night, we opened "Sorcerer’s Stone" and started the story all over again. This time, Juniper was old enough to follow every word.

Ahead of her lies the hippogriff and the golden snitch and the time-turner and a sprawling, dazzling world where girls are the smartest, the strangest people make the best friends, and you can’t judge someone until you see what they have seen. She will be reminded that no one gets through life alone, and children carry the strength inside them to right the world.

I hope she will remember that she has carried a bit of that magic with her, all this time.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

True

The energy in a hospital can sometimes feel overwhelming, whether you’re experiencing it as a patient, visitor or employee. However, there are a few one-of-a-kind individuals like Elaine Ahn, an operating room registered nurse in Diamond Bar, California, who thrive under this type of constant pressure.

Keep Reading Show less
via Pexels

If you know how to fix this tape, you grew up in the 1990s.

There are a lot of reasons to feel a twinge of nostalgia for the final days of the 20th century. Rampant inflation, a global pandemic and political unrest have created a sense of uneasiness about the future that has everyone feeling a bit down.

There’s also a feeling that the current state of pop culture is lacking as well. Nobody listens to new music anymore and unless you’re into superheroes, it seems like creativity is seriously missing from the silver screen.

But, you gotta admit, that TV is still pretty damn good.

A lot of folks feel Americans have become a lot harsher to one another due to political divides, which seem to be widening by the day due to the power of the internet and partisan media.

Keep Reading Show less
Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

Family

Mom and stepmom become best friends and hope to inspire more togetherness

The "Moms of Tampa" are officially besties and loving it.

Meet the Moms of Tampa, winning hearts online while advocating for healthy co-parenting.

Tiffany Paskas and Megan Stortz, aka the Moms of Tampa, weren’t always the best friends that they are now. The unique story of how they became that way is catching a lot of positive attention and shining a light on how we might rethink co-parenting dynamics after divorce.

Stortz and her ex-husband Mike (married now to Paskas) share custody of their 11-year old son, Michael. At first, like many moms and stepmoms, Stortz and Paskas never spoke to one another.

Paskas explained to local NBC affiliate WFLA, “We just didn’t know it was okay to talk. We were under the impression, being children of divorce, that the ex and the new never intermingle, so it was like, best to stay away. So that’s kind of how we dealt with the first four years.”
Keep Reading Show less

Prior to baby formula, breastfeeding was the norm, but that doesn't mean it always worked.

As if the past handful of years weren't challenging enough, the U.S. is currently dealing with a baby formula crisis.

Due to a perfect storm of supply chain issues, product recalls, labor shortages and inflation, manufacturers are struggling to keep up with formula demand and retailers are rationing supplies. As a result, families that rely on formula are scrambling to ensure that their babies get the food they need.

Naturally, people are weighing in on the crisis, with some throwing out simplistic advice like, "Why don't you just do what people did before baby formula was invented and just breastfeed?"

That might seem logical, unless you understand how breastfeeding works and know a bit about infant mortality throughout human history.

Keep Reading Show less