Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Faux Feminism

In the Huffington Post's recent article Friendly Fire, Glennon Melton attempts to open and then forever close the Pandora's box of working motherhood versus stay-at-home motherhood. Melton is upset with "ladies" who "insist on making everything worse by kicking each other's asses." From what I can tell, this kicking of each other's asses means any voicing of one's opinion on the subject, although the only example she gives is a radio debate she once heard, described as "vicious" and full of "sucker punches." The extreme nature of her sole example leaves readers without any clear sense of who Melton's "angry, debating ladies" really are. Does she mean anyone who holds an opinion? Voices her opinion? Sticks up for her opinion? Tries to force her opinion? As the article unfolds, the answer is quite troubling. Melton only acknowledges two types of women: those who are bullies and those who are perpetually insecure about their choices.

Melton was once a working mother and now stays home with her children. She narrates for us the endless voices of her own gory guilt, bemoaning "the internal and eternal debate moms endure all day, every day." She offers no background about her choices or lack thereof. The journey she describes is flat and hopeless, the epitome of the grass always being greener. She learns nothing, enjoys nothing, and recounts only stress that itself comes from a fear of negatively affecting others even as she clearly works hard to care for them. "I understand the act of kicking one's own ass," she says. "I do it all the time." This, she seems to believe, is the essence of motherhood. It is inescapable.

The article becomes especially strange, though, when she scolds both sides of the debate herself, without any irony and in terms that are simultaneously fluffy and offensive. She addresses both camps with the opening line: "Are you nuts?" Without working mothers, she demands, "who would show my daughters that some women actually change out of yoga pants"? And without stay-at-home mothers, who would "wait with [my son] in the parking lot when I forget to pick him up? Who would watch my daughter while the baby gets her shots? Who would knock on my door and tell me that my keys are still in the front door, the doors to my van are open, and my purse is in the driveway?" If these are what Melton sees as the most notable results of different childcare decisions, it is no wonder she so dramatically misses the mark on so many other points.

The wishy-washy moral of Friendly Fire is: Be nice to each other so that our daughters learn to be nice to each other. Does she really think that's the answer? Moreover, does she really think that's the problem? At best, it masks the symptoms of a very real deficiency. When humans feel threatened and insecure, we tend to lash out. We tear down others in a wrongheaded attempt to make ourselves feel better. Melton's insistence that we act nicely and accept feeling bad as our natural maternal reality doesn't strike me as possible much less inspiring, healthy, or good for our daughters.

It's time we find the courage to examine our complicated feelings about the realities of motherhood so that we can move forward. Mine is a generation of women raised with the notion that we could seamlessly start families and maintain careers if that's what we wanted. Most of us are realizing that we can't have it all as advertised. Putting infants into daycare so we can return to work feels wrenching even for those of us who are eager to get back to our professional lives. Quitting jobs and putting careers in peril to care for our babies a little longer feels professionally irresponsible even for those of us who, given the choice, would never do otherwise. All our decisions feel like losses because we weren't prepared to have to sacrifice anything.

But Melton stops here. It all feels bad, she says, so let's at least stop being mean to each other. Indeed, weaving false and divisive narratives to cope with our pain is counterproductive, but so is clinging to a self-flagellating narrative such as hers. Let's place our emotions where they belong. It sucks that the perfect balance of career and motherhood doesn't exist as blissfully as promised, but guilt and a false sense of failure won't get us anywhere. Let's make our lives, enjoy them, and prepare our daughters to love themselves through their own difficult decisions.

I'm sure Glennon Melton strikes a major chord with many mothers when she proclaims that "instead of tearing each other up, we could each admit that we're a bit torn up about our choices, or lack thereof." I agree, but not without advocating for the next step. Of course I miss going to work. Of course you miss your kid when you're at work. We can and should talk about these things but not as if they define our motherhood. If one of us needs to make a change, let's provide support towards that end. If we are living our best under the circumstances, let's celebrate.

Melton says many good, if not profound, things. She's right that our daughters learn much from us about what it means to be a woman. She says of her own daughter:
I'd like her to learn that a woman's value is determined less by her career choices and more by how she treats other women, in particular, women who are different than she is. I'd like her to learn that her strength is defined by her honesty and her ability to exist in grey areas without succumbing to masking her insecurities with generalizations or accusations. And I'd like her to learn that the only way to be both graceful and powerful is to dance among the endless definitions of the word woman... and to refuse to organize women into categories, to view ideas in black and white, or to choose sides and come out swinging. 
When I left the workplace to stay home with my new daughter, I went through a difficult transition that lasted longer than it should have due to the insecurities and generalizations to which Melton refers. But I've since met a handful of women who speak with automatic candor about being a mother and they have been a cure for me. They say things like, "I'd rather work three ten-hour shifts in a row than stay home with my 2-year-old full time," or, "I'm living my dream of being a stay-at-home mother," or, "I work more than I want to right now, but my son is loving daycare," without a trace of self-deprecation. So yes, let's stop tearing each other up, but let's do something even more revolutionary and stop tearing ourselves up. Being a healthy role model for our children has nothing to do with whether or not we work when they are young. My daughter will grow up seeing me make my own decisions, ones that are good for me and my family. This is the best way to teach her to live, I believe. I don't want her to hear women debating an important issue and say, "Why don't they just be nice to each other?" I don't want her to think that no matter what decision she makes, it is necessarily lacking. I want her to know that there will always be judgements and that they don't matter in the end. I want her to live in a world where women are honest about what they want, brave enough to strive for it, and proud of however close they come.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Mommy Card Phenomenon

My friend sent this link to me the other day along with a request that I write about the Mommy Card phenomenon. Have you heard of these things? The idea is that it's challenging for parents of small children to exchange contact information at, say, the playground or swim lessons or whatever, and that it's even harder to keep track of the names and faces of parents and kids, much less which ones go together and whose number you found in the pocket of your coat. Mommy Cards are basically business cards printed with the names of parent and child (for instance: Jane Doe, John's mom), contact information, and often a photograph of the child for further ease of identification.

I have a problem with two things right off the bat. First of all, I cringe at most uses of the term "mommy." It's just one of my things. I'm fine with accidental cute. The kitten at the pet store yesterday that kept batting at my daughter's pigtail? Purely, intensely, ridiculously cute. But I cannot abide contrived cute. The faux-word "preggers," for instance, is a big problem for me. "Mommy," while somewhat passable when uttered innocently by a small child, makes my skin crawl as soon as adults start applying it to things. 

Mommy Cards. Perhaps I'd be less prone to the immediate eye-roll if they were known as Family Cards, which brings me to problem number two. Since the name specifies that this product is for mothers, it encourages the assumption that fathers have no use for such a tool and thereby perpetuates our culture's dysfunctional overfeminization of parenting.

But if you make it beyond the default terminology of Mommy Cards, there are in fact all sorts of subcategories such as Daddy Cards and Family Cards and Grandparent Cards. So, for the sake of argument, let's just pretend that I renamed this phenomenon and they are hereby all referred to as Family Cards. Do I still cringe at their existence?

Not as much as I once would. Now that I'm a full-time parent, I absolutely understand how these cards are useful. Many parents are eager to socialize with other parents and foster community among families. It's not always possible to scrounge up a pen and paper and exchange contact information while your toddler is running towards the street or throwing a holy fit. It's also true that keeping track of multiple acquaintances and their children can be mind-boggling. 

That was my nonjudgmental, diplomatic, mature response. Did you like it? Because I'll admit that my natural response to Mommy Cards is dismissal tinged with disgust. I like pen and paper and generally carry them with me. I don't give out my contact information nearly enough to warrant a printed card. I choose my friends carefully and don't feel the need to hang out with someone just because our kids are the same age. If we get along well enough to exchange information, I won't need prompts to clarify my impression of you. 

And while those are all actual, personal reasons why I'll never be a Mommy Card carrier, I believe there's a more insidious, sexist juxtaposition at play that makes them an easy target of disdain. The conceit behind Mommy Cards is that they merge elements of business culture and stay-at-home motherhood, but the cutesy name suggests a narrative more along these lines: Someone cute - a mommy - is handing out business cards as if she were a professional, which is simultaneously adorable in its precociousness and pathetic in its pretense. It's a set-up. Even if these cards are a good idea in their purest form, their marketing relies on the stereotype of infantilized stay-at-home "mommy" desperate to participate in the grown-up world despite her lack of professional life. 

I really wish they had caught on as Parent Cards or Family Cards. I still wouldn't use them, but at least there would be one less thing in the world that promotes referencing mothers and motherhood in a manner that should be reserved for children and fuzzy animals. Negotiating the implications and judgments of stay-at-home motherhood is already spectacularly complicated. The last thing I need is to be baited into rolling my eyes at myself.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The One Trimester

I don't particularly enjoy being pregnant. Overall, the experience is a phenomenal one studded with countless awesome moments, but on a daily basis it's a drag. Clumsiness becomes a real threat. Clothing is particularly ill-fitting, uncomfortable, hard to find, and expensive. The ability to multitask might as well be a superpower. Less energy. No whiskey. Moodiness. Unpredictable appetite. No whiskey.

The first trimester is especially rough in its own special ways. I'm not fond of morning sickness, but even worse than relentless nausea is the encouraged fear of early miscarriage and resulting pressure to remain tentative and secretive about one's pregnancy for the first thirteen weeks. Besides being contrary to all joyous instincts, this strategy requires months of white lies and the avoidance of potential support during a particularly physically and emotionally vulnerable time.

I am a tall, skinny person and my body did nothing to conceal my second pregnancy beyond the first eight weeks. People regularly guessed I was four or five months along when I was only two, so I went ahead with an announcement as soon as my doctor confirmed a fetal heartbeat at ten weeks.

When I miscarried a few days into my second trimester, I decided to report the sad news in one big, awful bandage rip of an email rather than suffer the same traumatic conversation over and over again. Also important was my impulse to curate this disclosure instead of abandoning such personal news to gossip and scattershot word of mouth. The correspondences that resulted, like the miscarriage itself, triggered in me wave after wave of sorrow but also delivered an unexpected catharsis and swell of new strength.

It's true that early miscarriage is surprisingly common. It's also true that acting on the initial desire to celebrate a wanted pregnancy can undermine the eventual wish to mourn a lost pregnancy in private. If I'd been able to wipe news of my pregnancy from everyone's memory, thus sparing myself any obligation to disclose and discuss my miscarriage, I imagine I would've gone that route in a second. Still, in the same way that I suffer those first trimester white lies, I'm relieved to have shed what would have been a heavy secret and lonesome sadness in favor of the stories and support I've been offered by so many wise, kindhearted people.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Otherwise Occupied

This blog has never been frequently updated, but my posts have indeed slowed to barely a crawl. It turns out that I'm pregnant once again and, just like last time, baby-growing has leached from me all ability and desire to write. As a result, even the sparse post schedule I had established will likely continue to falter in the months to come.

But I have not abandoned my blog. In fact, I have a few half-written posts that keep hissing at me from offstage, demanding to be finished. And my hazy brain is bound to clear up someday.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Not Nice

I recently ran into an old coworker at the grocery store. The last time I'd seen her I was six months pregnant and she was leaving our organization after having landed some version of her dream job. Now my thirteen-month-old peered up at her from behind my legs.

"Is this your daughter?" she asked.

"It sure is," I said.

She gave the requisite compliments. I asked about her job and she gave me a brief summary of its pros and cons.

"Where are you working now?" she asked.

"I'm still home with this one," I said.

"Wow," she said. "That must be nice."

If you ever want to watch me struggle against my temper, say something to this effect. A common variation:

"You are so lucky to be able to stay home with your baby!"

In fact, my partner and I have made and continue to make a number of very large sacrifices - financial, professional, artistic, and emotional - so that one of us can always be with our daughter. It's a constant struggle that we've prioritized from the beginning. As well as being the best thing I've ever done, it's by far the hardest for a million different reasons.

Let's just say it's a lot of things, but it's certainly not nice. And although I realize there are many people who can't stay home with their small children no matter how much they want to and no matter which way they rearrange their lives, these are never the folks who call me lucky. Luck has a part to play in everyone's life, yes, but I promise you that's an entirely different conversation than the one being rudely, wrongly, and self-servingly assumed in these instances.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

In Praise of Co-workers

One of the hardest things about swapping a day job for stay-at-home parenthood for me has been the lack of co-workers. I miss the automatic interpersonal perks and challenges of seeing the same people on a regular basis, of striving to accomplish tasks with and sometimes in spite of them, of sharing a common professional environment, experience, and set of inside jokes. In my adult life, work friends have always been invaluable.

Which is why, I suppose, so many new parents sign up for groups and classes. Joining can provide much needed structure, support, and social interaction for those embarking on an all-consuming, high-stakes new way of life.

I get it. I totally do.

And I wanted nothing to do with it when my daughter was born.

I doubt that acquaintances peg me as an introvert. My friends and family often reject it as an appropriate descriptor for me. It's true that I'm friendly, that I enjoy people and good conversation and many aspects of socializing, but I absolutely love being alone. Anything that involves mingling is nothing I want to attend. Groups larger than five stress me out, whether comprised of close friends or strangers. I hate using the phone; lack of access to facial expressions and other physical cues renders me hopelessly awkward. I realize that I'm not an extreme introvert by any stretch - I adore spending time with my family or a few close friends, and I tend to enjoy even gigantic parties to some degree once I acclimate to the scene - but I identify with term for very real reasons.

My tendency towards introversion became more intense right after my daughter was born. Although the general consensus is that new mothers benefit from participating in parenting groups or mama-baby yoga classes or some sort of activity along those lines, I was far from interested. "The last thing I need is to spend more time talking about being a parent," I'd tell my partner. Or, "Just because someone has kids doesn't mean I want to hang out with them." Or, "I didn't like yoga classes before I had the baby, so I don't imagine bringing a fussy infant along would make it suddenly my favorite thing."

I was drained all the time and impressed if I managed to care for the baby and feed myself throughout the day; the last thing I needed was an appointment hanging over my head, much less one that entailed presenting my bedraggled self to new people. On top of that, the idea of going out of my way to further self-identify as a mother when motherhood was swallowing my life whole in the first place seemed ass-backwards. What I needed was a break from the baby. Some time alone. The chance to read a book. A drink at a bar with a friend. A walk without the dog. Anything that had nothing to do with being a caregiver. 

Now I see that the one-two punch of endless exhaustion and no free time might have been assuaged by the regular company of those experiencing the same challenges in service of the same goal. Like co-workers, stay-at-home parents share a line of work, speak a kind of jargon, and are generally eager to commiserate and trade notes, all of which provide some serious mental health benefits. It's true that I needed free time and sleep more than anything, but I didn't get either by not joining a new mothers' weekly stroller stroll (which I just made up but I'm sure exists). I wish I had handled my reticence about new parent activities the same way I've learned to handle my reticence about parties and other large, mingle-y gatherings: if any small part of me thinks it could be fun, I ignore my introverted self and just go.

Which, like everything, is much easier to do now that I get more than two hours of sleep at a stretch.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dear IUP Readers:

I've been kicking around a few new ideas for this blog.
Mostly I'm thinking advice column.
Shall we try it? Let's try it!


If you're looking for a second opinion and would like to hear from IUP, lay out your situation/question/dilemma/concern in an email. I'll take it from there and we'll see how things go.

NOTE: Your correspondence will be re-posted here if chosen for a public response. Signatures will not be altered, although IUP will confirm before publishing anyone's full name or other potentially confidential information.