a few brief reflections on Mother’s Day

My Mother's Day So Far

Today is Mothers Day here in the United States, and this will mark my twelfth Mother’s Day in awareness that I am a mother. I am writing here briefly, before spending the day with family and then opening my home, this evening, to the community for coffee and cake.

Mothers Day can be difficult for many people – for those still harboring feelings of anger, resentment, fear and blame about their mother, their lack of mother, or their own role as mother – and for those who’ve lost a mother or don’t believe they ever had one. In that spirit, I’d like to offer a little bit about my own experiences. I have a few painful things to discuss, but I also hope to bring some hope, humor, and gratitude.

It is hard to be a mother in the culture I live in. It is my opinion that most individuals are very kind to mothers, on a one-to-one basis, and most folk have some respect for the work of caring for vulnerable human beings. Culturally and socially, however, there is a great deal of unskillfulness. Mothers are not supported, validated, or respected very much. They are condescended to, sniggered about, sanctified in sticky-sweet two-dimensional caricature, and left to impossible standards and back-breaking work within a deeply child-segregationist culture. Many people – and not just mothers – suffer around the issue of motherhood. Mother’s Day has not been, for many, an uncomplicated day of remembrance, reflection, and gratitude.

My childhood wasn’t perfect, and for many years I blamed my mother most of all. This caused me much suffering for many years, and because we can never truly suffer privately, I made others suffer. Every unkind word, every malicious thought, every private stoking of my resentments, caused me harm and caused others harm. I cannot overstate how my own resentments towards the adults in my life hurt me most of all. When I became a mother my judgments convicted me far worse than any person reading here could. My resentment, anger, fear, and spirit of unforgiveness robbed me of many moments I could have truly been awake, aware, and alive.

Do you know what I worried about, when pregnant my second time and carrying, for the first time, a baby to full term? I did not worry about my relationship with my partner, or how to pay the bills, or if I’d be able to breastfeed, or carseats or diapers. I worried that I would not be able to love my child. It seems a very silly fear given how things ended up, but is it really? I guess I believed that if I didn’t have a sort of bottomless loyalty and a deep bond I would not be able to do the substantial work ahead. I apparently had a complete lack of faith in something that exists within all human beings – the drive to care for those vulnerable.

I was not prepared to be a mother, and I made many mistakes as a mother. Some quite grievous. Society does not forgive a mother who makes mistakes – ever. So, I had to learn how to forgive. I had to learn to forgive, or die a messy, miserable death. In learning forgiveness I began to see that things are not always as they seem. Even very loving people do terrible things; and even those who seem incapable, can have reserves of strength and kindness that are simply incredible.

For me, being a mother is about patience, love, and service. I cannot long or happily do the work of motherhood for my own ego or personal gain (believe me, I’ve tried!). I will never be able to push my buttons to Autopilot on this one; it is a daily practice of learning, making mistakes, forgiving, usually laughing, dusting off, and getting on. It is more like climbing a mountain with dirt and sweat and moments of dark, clammy shadow before I step up on the trail and the full power of the sun warms the flesh in a way inexplicable and miraculously joyous – than it is in any picture of any glossy magazine. The strength and ferocity I get from being a mother is a byproduct of a faithful practice; it cannot be manufactured or created by myself, and it cannot be purchased or bargained for.

Forgiveness, patience, prayer, gratitude – and chores. The chores aren’t new, but the forgiveness, patience, prayer and gratitude are – relatively so. It is quite stunning when I reflect how many years I walked around without any real sense of gratitude. This was a mistake, because any human being at any moment can make the choice to breathe, and if you can choose to breathe, you can probably choose gratitude (or you can decide you want gratitude!). With gratitude, I can experience humility. With humility, I can experience humor and serenity. With humility, I do not grab up more bitterness, resentment, and emotional pain. This is my spiritual make-up; I do not pretend to guess at yours.

Yesterday, buying flowers, I saw many who were buying flowers for their mothers. Many were buying them to place on a grave. My mother still walks the earth and through her my ancestors have been carried along, and they are here within me now. The good parts, the faithful parts, and the ugly little troll-like mean-spirited bits. It is really kind of funny, as I read once: “life is not so serious as the mind makes it out to be”. This morning I can choose love, and honor, and a bit of humor, and I can show my mother some kindness. If I can show my mother kindness I can show any human being kindness.

the personal: how the fuck did i ever survive being a new mama?

This post is dedicated to my friend Kiara, a kick-ass mother.

Please No Thank You

A few years ago my mother announced she had a complaint. When she came over to pick my two kids up for the odd playdate (a less-than-once-weekly occurrence), they weren’t always fully dressed. “Can you make sure to have them in coats and boots in case I want to take them somewhere? It was terrible today as I wanted to take them on a walk and we couldn’t.” She was actually mildly pissed.

The blood rose in my cheeks as I experienced, lightning-fast, a series of emotions. Shame, because I failed as a mother, of course, by not having My Shit Together 100% Of The Time (and also, my small children’s Shit Together, that too is requisite), then a mixed-up flaring of resentment, impotent rage, and despair. The same old despair I’ve felt in every restaurant when my two year old’s happy laughter received glares, in every mom’s playdate group when women would talk about their duty to do all the nighttime parenting because, of course, their husbands did “real work” during the day and shouldn’t have to care for their own children at night, the same despair I’d hear when people sneeringly spoke of “soccer moms” and “housewives” and their opting-out and how it destroyed Feminism plus America, et cetera. I could go on.

The despair was so familiar it just made me tired. Here I was, 24/7 with two small children, working my ass off around the clock, around the clock, to feed and clothe them, often without being able to eat or take a crap by myself – let alone have quality private time to reflect and pursue my art and craft, or to read, or to watch some trashy television uninterrupted – and yet someone who comes over every two weeks to take my kids for an hour or two can’t be bothered to spend five minutes finding jackets and boots? What the fuck, mom? Don’t you remember having kids and having to do everything, all the time?

It gets better, because before I could say anything at all my husband assily weighed in. “Yeah, I notice sometimes when I get home from work the kids aren’t fully dressed.”

FUUUUCKK YOOOOUUU. Just: Fuck You.

That’s what I thought, anyway. What I said, I can’t remember. I think it was something like: if you want to go on walks with your grandkids, keep spare coats at your place. Husband, do you not remember your one year at home and how much work it was to care for small children, P.S. you only had ONE to care for at the time and you only did it for ONE year. I don’t remember what I said; I only knew I had the presence of mind to stick up for myself relatively politely. Because: yeah, it would be nice if the kids were fully dressed whenever was convenient for, you know, other adults, and if I was on that 100%. But it would be even better if other grownups understood that caring for babies and small children is demanding on every plane – spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical – and the primary carer needs as much help as he or she can get. Have a little grace, people.

You know, 99% of the help I received as a new mother- and I am not exaggerating here – was from other new mothers (and occasionally, some veteran moms). Full stop. Looking back on this I feel despair for how undersupported we were – and many of these women were middle-class and college-educated, with a variety of privileges, et cetera – and how this culture of “moms can do everything [& therefore they better damn will]!” stunts the humanity of so many who haven’t had the opportunity nor responsibility of 24/7 care of a dependent. Shit, during infancy and toddlerhood I can count on one hand the times a friend without children watched my kids for more than five minutes. And a father, without his wife or female partner helping – including my OWN father? ZERO. Motherfucking zero! My own brother and sister have never watched my kids nor hosted them for a playdate or sleepover, with one exception a few years ago when my daughter hung at my brother’s house for a couple hours while I caught up at a bar with a friend about to get married.

I know what you’re thinking. Well, those of you readers who are jerks, anyway. The world doesn’t owe me anything because I hatched a few kids. You’re right. The world owes me and my children nothing, I suppose. But then, the world didn’t owe you anything, either, when you were a baby and infant. Right? Good thing someone gave and gave and gave and gave, no matter how half-assed or whatever! Looking ahead, presumably the world won’t owe you anything should you live a long life and see your body fail with age, or should you become disabled or dependent in any way. Yup. Nobody owes anyone nothing, right?  What a lovely little world that is you’ve dreamed up.

What some of you other readers are thinking, is: new moms are goddamned heroes. And  they are! The women who helped me when I needed help, are the absolute keystones in my faith in humanity. The only regret I have – the only one! – is I didn’t ask for more help when I needed it. See, I was operating on that whole Self-Sufficient, Perfect Mom thing. It is an absolutely debilitating meme to live by, and the children involved suffer more than anyone else.

Now, I’m aware my experience isn’t universal (it is, however, visceral, as you can probably tell by my writing style here). I’ve had things easier, & harder, than others.

In some ways I’ve been rather privileged. I’ve always had enough to eat and always had a home. I was raised by a family that, while definitely idiosyncratic, demonstrated a lot of love for one another (and yeah, just so you know… I’m a lot easier on my mom and my husband, today, now that I respect my own needs more). I’m a white working class woman, married to a white man, the father of my children. I’m cis-gender and occasionally have passing privilege as middle class. I’m not physically disabled and I’ve had an actively invested partner, however brilliant or poor his strategies as a father have been.

But on the flip side, I know there are many new mothers out there who receive or received support from not only their partner but many people in the community – not just other new moms. I think this is far more rare than it should be, but I know that this is some women’s experience. And for several of the years I was parenting I also was battling the disease of active alcoholism – a subject for another writing some day – and the resultant and root mental and emotional health issues, which I will briefly say kept me in the veil of Self-Sufficent, suffering mama. In other words, I didn’t ask for nor accept help as much as would have benefitted me. I would have told you I was supported just fine. I would have told you I had it covered. I was determined to be a Good Parent and raise Good Kids.

My kids are ten and eight today and not a day goes by people don’t try to place their every behavior – and their education, and their clothing, and their social niceties or lack thereof – as an issue that should be addressed directly to me, their mother, because you know it’s All My Business to control, basically. And I say, No. I can’t live that way any more.

It is an act of radical feminism that I no longer allow people to push me around on this noise; that if someone has a complaint regarding my child’s behavior (which is rare), whenever possible, I arrange for them to discuss it with the child. It is an act of radical feminism that I “let” my kids go begging at my mother’s for food – which they do on occasion – because, if she doesn’t want to feed them, she has the right and responsibility to say “No” just as I have and exercise a similar right and responsibility regarding the other children in my neighborhood, when I don’t have the groceries or time to spare. It is an act of radical feminism I “let” my kids dress as they see fit, I “let” them cuss, and I “let” my kids have their own life, so I can watch it unfold and, when it seems needed or warranted, I step in to help them.

Because as their mother I am their nurturer, advocate, and Helper. I am not their Warden nor their Jiminy Cricket; they need their own conscience, their own spirituality. It is an act of radical feminism I no longer apologize for my children or for bringing them on this planet; it is a sheer act of Will that I don’t operate from this place. You think mothers aren’t indoctrinated with this? You’d be wrong.

I still don’t have the ovaries to send my kids on the Amtrak down to their uncle’s place in Portland and say, “Hang out with them for a few days, your future family life could benefit.” I still feel that sting of Obligation when I see the kids’ socks are worn-through because their father doesn’t track that stuff (because he knows I will). I’m not perfect as a mother, nor as a feminist.

I don’t resent the help I didn’t get – anymore. Honestly, I don’t. I just feel sad about it. Sad my family and friends – and larger culture! – couldn’t do better, because they were scared and self-protective and selfish. Sad about my inability to ask for help, because I was full of pride and fear. I’m sad about my history, but no longer ashamed or angry. Today one thing I can do about my past – hustling my ass to be the Perfect Mother and never letting my kids make mistakes, nor allowing myself this courtesy – is help other children and carers, especially mothers. I can open doors and smile at them and show compassion when their child is melting down in the grocery store. I can tell them, You Aren’t Imagining It when they tell me they feel unsettled, overworked, and under-appreciated. I can tell them, obliquely or directly – you don’t have to apologize for being a child, or a mother who cares for a child.

Not on my account, anyway.

Creepitude!

My mom “nurses” a creepy alien baby at the Art Festival.

"Do Your Job"

My son & I.

breastfeeding: not just ladybusiness

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mamiscl/4968830387/This piece is featured in Squat! Birth Journal‘s Spring Issue. I encourage an exploration and/or support of this lovely zine (available in paper or digital form); certainly a great gift for an expecting family-to-be! It’s a wonderful publication.

Over my twitterstream my friend Wendy links to a piece of, once again, sex discrimination against a woman feeding her child1). We’ve all heard it before. A woman is feeding her baby in a shop or a library or wherever, when an employee approaches and tells the woman she must leave, often invoking (their fallacious understanding of) the law and – at least in North America – usually in violation of protected rights. And certainly counter to common sense, compassion, and an understanding of public health.

It’s too bad more people don’t seem to see it that way.

Breastfeeding discussion is continually ignored and/or marginalized by the mainstream, made into a fringe issue although it concerns us all – our progress toward an egalitarian society, our support of families, our stewardship of the environment, and our county’s medical costs and spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being. Even movements self-identified as pro-woman often pick and choose which reproductive rights they support and advocate for, ignoring the societal edifices concerning birth, babies, and fulltime care of children – which necessarily ignores the women involved. If you Google “breastfeeding and feminism” you will see communities concerning the former subject discussing the latter, but rarely the reciprocal; mainstream pro-feminist discussions in general do not concern themselves with breastfeeding even though something like eighty percent of USian women do become parents at some point.

Keeping breastfeeding peripheral to social justice discussion contributes to extremely low breastfeeding rates in the so-called developed world (which are lower still in marginalized groups such as black mothers, teen mothers, and native or indigenous mothers, etc.). After all, anyone remedially-versed in the experiences of infant care and feeding understand that support, or lack thereof, is a major if not the major factor in aggregate breastfeeding success rates.

While some without children, or some with older children, or some men believe they can continue to ignore the health and well-being implications of poor breastfeeding rates and the compounded lack of choice afforded to already-stressed marginalized populations, such a luxury is not experienced for the child nor the child’s carer. These peoples’ daily realities are put under additional stressors. Thus when an individual receives repeated shaming messages or policing language and repressive strategies against her, she is most likely to experience discouragement, uncertainty, and isolation; she is at a very real disadvantage. Or as the author of “A tired hungry baby” writes:

I knew the law. I knew my rights. But I was still upset. And not the angry, self-important, righteous kind of upset. The teary, scared, “they”‘re going to kick me out of the store”, “I”‘m here with my kids” type of upset. It was clear I was about to be thrown out, and I was pretty sure that if I was going to be forced to justify feeding my baby, I was going to cry. And I felt truly alone.

This experience and this sentiment could have been written by so many of my friends – and many of these are “educated” women with class, hetero-, cis-, and racial privilege. Which puts the question: at what point does our mainstream dithering about “public decency” get real, and admit the costs we are requiring so many others to pay? “Gross, I shouldn’t have to see that!” seems incredibly trite and inhumane when considering our socioeconomically-classist culture, to put it frankly, requires black, brown, poor and working-class mamas and families pay multifaceted costs – and by heaping on body-shaming and gender-policing we’re just making it harder. “Gross, I shouldn’t have to see that!” tweeted by a white Portland hipster without children is such a disheartening and ignorant response when I consider, for instance, the lived reality of a child up all night screaming from a painful ear infection (and the work/sleep missed by carers and the stress for all involved). To get a little 101, ear infections, which account for thirty million trips to the doctor each year and are experienced by an estimated 75% of babies, is a risk decimated by a factor of at least two for a breastfed child2. And that’s just one real-life health issue and one potential pragmatism for parents, and it makes me irritated enough to knock that Stumptown out of said urbanite’s hand.

“Gross, I shouldn’t have to see that!” hurts real-life families, real-life people.

“Gross, I shouldn’t have to see that!” is something that should have been eliminated from our public discourse a long, long time ago.

This is why it is key that those who are not at this moment stuffing a nipple into a baby’s face – including men, including formula-feeders, and including those without children – support breastfeeding and stand up for families’ rights and for mothers to young children. When the mainstream frames breastfeeding an issue that the individual mothers should be fighting, all on their own, it throws the game (especially considering the corporate power and cultural reach held by formula producers: phdinparenting.com has some great information on this). Concomitantly, framing infant feeding as solely individualistic and “choice”-based is also at heart of those who shame individual formula feeding families (moms) for “not trying/caring hard enough”, too (sadly, there are many of these voices, although for the purposes of this piece I should note bottle feeding mothers are generally not asked to leave public spaces based only on their method of feeding).

So while there are many breastfeeding mothers who stand up to pressure and have a generally positive feeding career, the vast majority of breastfeeding mothers have been pressured to stop feeding and most have been shamed explicitly or implicitly while others stand silently by or dismiss the topic as a “women’s issue” (because, you know, those aren’t important).

This means often, as in the above-cited author’s case, at the point an episode of discrimination is most acute and immediate, she is likely extremely disadvantaged in her response. Consider also that mothers who breastfeed:

* are expending 300 – 500 extra calories a day per breastfeeding child (yes, some women are breastfeeding more than one child), and those are just the calories required to produce milk, not those needed to care for, comfort and nurture, clean for, etc. anyone else in the family.

* are often severely sleep-deprived (personally, I cannot overstate this effect on my life when I had infants).

* are usually dealing with hormonal and physical changes while they:

* are also under endemic body-policing and -shaming pressures including scrutiny of their weight, the state of their skin or hair, and their changed or changing body shape.

* are often under cultural policing as well; this is levied at mothers of color, those without class privilege, those outside the heteronormative spectrum, those with multiple children, etc.

* are usually constantly segregated and policed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways by virtue of having children, by our adultist and child-unfriendly cultural norms.

* are often under-supported by their family, friends, neighbors – and, too-often, their partners (even well-intentioned ones), if they have one.

* are in the throes of what many would identify as one of the most life-changing experiences they’ve had - the twentyfour-seven care and responsibility for another human being, and an incredibly vulnerable one at that.

It is my position that any restriction of breastfeeding should be taken as sex discrimination - whether legally promoted or de facto by policy, societal attitudes, etc. As such, I haven’t yet heard a compelling argument to support it. A disdain for a function of women’s bodies doesn’t seem meritorious enough to warrant prescriptive measures.

It’s time for others to adopt that standard as well.

Because in North America, fighting for the unrecognized humanity of these women, babies, and families, often seems a never-ending job against a seemingly bottomless pit of ignorance and oppression. Today, as I finish this piece, a blogreader sends me an article from The Root, in which a woman nursing in the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. was hounded twice by security and told she must enter the bathroom and sit on the toilet to feed her child3.

So, yeah. “Gross, I shouldn’t have to see that!” needs to go.

* Photo credit: 3º Lugar – 2º Concurso Fotogra¡fico Regional “Fotografiando la Lactancia”. Released under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

quick hit: feminist readers: have you leveled-up?

Neighborhood Kids

Sorry y'all, but your parents should have thought about that before they had you.

People of Color, People with Disabilities, LGBTQAI People, plenty of marginalized persons have movements behind them, and yet in social justice circles people feel free to openly say “I hate children” without repercussions. Children are routinely beaten in the name of “good order and discipline” (and parents are blamed for not doing so in the name of “not being attentive parents”) and no one pays attention. We expect children to be silent unless spoken to, and we often walk around and talk around them as if they aren”‘t even there. And possibly more importantly, like our little friend, they notice when we don”‘t notice them. They notice when we fail to take them into consideration. They notice when they don”‘t matter. They notice when the world, when those who are meant to love them, don”‘t fucking see them or hear them. – from “Children Take Up Space (and Notice When We Don’t Notice)” by Ouyang Dan

Young people are scary because they are a social group whose rights we are reluctant to recognize. They are human beings with personalities, attitudes, opinions and needs. Just like misogyny arises out of a fear of women exercising their human rights; hatred of children arises from our wish to subordinate children. – from “We Hate Children” by Feminist Avatar in Scotland

Today, after reading an incredibly awesome piece of rad fem by a stellar author, I put forth a genuine and heartfelt question: Why do so many (not all) feminists exhibit vitriol and/or a non-inclusive attitude for children and their carers? Specifically, with regard to carers, I find there is a huge void where sensitivity, inclusivity, and a valuing of nurture-work and mothers is needed – even more specifically, mothers usually excluded and/or belittled are those non-white, non-middle- or upper-class, child- and home-oriented, disabled, neurologically atypical, gay, queer, or trans.

Two from the commentariat weighed in. The upshot of their responses: it’s “ridiculous” to say feminists hate mothers*, and anyway feminists have no real power so they’re just angry (and hey, understandably so, from my perspective) but their words only “sting” and have no real-life repercussions.

My charges of child-hate sentiment in the feminist sphere and resultant oppressions went unacknowledged and unaddressed.

One comment contained the following, which really has me chewing over it. See, I’ve heard this sort of thing before. Lots:

“Many radical feminists question why women wish to become mothers, because the planet is overpopulated and children are men”‘s all-time favorite weapon of choice to use against women. Not to mention that having a child ensures that you”‘re either raising another potential victim or another potential perpetrator.”

Here’s the thing: I’m dashing this off while being tugged at by my kids, mother, partner, and cats. Here I’m deciding to write to my readers – not the Haters, not the developed rad fems or those who want to discuss or ‘splain theory whilst ignoring lived realities of mothers/carers and children, and frankly, not those who hold anti-child views (sadly many of them don’t even know who they are). But if you find yourself generally wondering if you have any anti-child lingering sentiments (hint: yes you do), please read on and more importantly, read the links supplied.

I’ve written before, briefly (F-word example), of the unwillingness of some feminist discussion to acknowledge deeply-entrenched adultist tenets. These worldviews simmer under the surface but make themselves known in commentstreams of any article daring to defend children and their carers, especially one supporting their rights to be out in public at their levels of need (hey listen… I simply couldn’t bring myself to link to multiple vitriolic examples of breastfeeding hate, which are endemic in the US). One of the reasons I don’t self-identify as a feminist (although I absolutely support many feminist goals, and read and support many self-identified feminist activists) is because of the many ways feminist discussion has let down so many groups and continues to do so: today’s mainstream feminist discussion is often rife with demonstrations of racism, ableism, psychophobia, transphobia, adultism, and classism.

When discussing children the conversation – in mainstream and social justice spheres alike – is usually two-dimensional and frankly, played out: it seems we divide children into two classes: children parents can afford to feed – so parents have a duty to raise them “well-behaved” (regardless of the costs and pro-oppression indoctrination) and forcefully educated according to the institutional system – versus poor families with children. The solution in the latter case is – you shouldn’t have had them in the first place. In these often class-stratified discussions, pregnancy is often only discussed in terms of abortion rights (which are absolutely under attack) but not birth rights or holistic child-stewardship and nurture practices (including, shocker, the right to raise children without by-rote institutionalism). Like many in the self-identified right-wing, prominant progressives concern themselves with the care and quality of life – the life of babies or mothers (or non-babies and the right not to be a mother, which I unreservedly support) – concern which ends abruptly if a child emerges from the womb. I’m thinking of a progressive behemoth site with thousands of readers that describes itself as staunchly feminist; on this site a single author has posted merely two articles – out of thousands, scores of which concern abortion – that discuss birth culture and attendant realities in America (more dismal than you might imagine; yet it is still only considered fringe to advocate for revolution therein). There is – wait for it – one article discussing breastfeeding. One. In my opinion a feminist schema worth its salt would hold breastfeeding as a reproductive right and would, y’know, tackle birth reform. I won’t hold my breath.

The abovementioned rad fem comment seems to place a lot of value in asking WHY a woman would reproduce given how shitty things are. First of all, I commend objections to the multifaceted and ubiquitous narratives that a woman’s sole function is to reproduce. And things are pretty bad – and not only that, many people don’t even know it nor concern themselves. However, the reality is in having these same 101 social justice queries ad infinitum without deeper explorations of mother-and-child life we are letting down the women who do breed (something at present count, around 80% of women) as well as their children and (if they have them) partners.

Most women who feel and exercise what they believe is free choose to have children, even the “educated” (or seemly or middle class or whatever) ones, likely had little idea just how hollow the promises of “equality” (socially or within heterosexual partnerships) really are today. In my opinon this is largely due to misogynistic and kyriarchal mindsets – and in no small part also fallout from a child-segregationist culture. Many first-time parents have had little to no experiences caring for or being around well-nurtured children nor exposed at length to healthy child environs; almost every adult has moved from the position of child-as-oppressed to adult-in-privilege, and often will enact the damaging scripts they were forced into for so many years. The concepts of happy, celebrated, and idyllic motherhood are promised but ill-supported once baby arrives (although many mothers and fathers and carers manage to find genuine enjoyment and meaning from parenting). Our culture still functions to make many women choose between the family life she’d like and meaningful or respected paid work and financial support (and note: routinely criticizing and belittling traditional “women’s work” skews our ability to find meaning therein), even while we criticize these women for ever making sacrifices of one for the benefit of the other. We sentimentalize family life and mothering, but we also continue to frame parenting as huge drain that is less meaningful than Statusy Career or material acquisition, which of course erases the millions for who Statusy Career is not an option, a current reality, and/or a life-calling. More to the point, the needs of children are routinely, routinely ignored and the child class is raised while often being relegated to – still! – being seen, or not, and not heard – and often ill-protected (child abuse – verbal, physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual – another endemic and tragic occurrence that our school systems and supposedly progressive American ideals have not done nearly enough to halt or stem).  On the subject of child-raising anyone with an opinion weighs in and often gets a clown-horn for the front pages, while those who continue to successfully advocate and care for babies and children largely outside oppressive schema are relegated to the fringe or downright vilified.

I think I can understand a lot of feminist anger regarding children and motherhood, although I wish those vocalizing anger would consider their words carefully. Many women without children are tired of the oft-fed line that one’s life is not fulfilled unless one reproduces and that without kids a life is empty or sad or even “selfish”. And I agree, this seems like a lot of bullshit. But that is precisely my point – the promises and Hallmark-sentiments surrounding “motherhood” are deeply problematic and when many women step into this role – for reasons and in quantities that are no one’s business to be prescriptive about – the reality is quite shocking.

As for the arguments against marriage, motherhood, etc. due to these institutions functioning as patriarchal tools – yes, I get it (although find me an institution that never does function thusly). But here’s my thing – once the child is on the premises Planet Earth is it really appropriate and helpful to discuss how they shouldn’t have been born in the first place – or espouse a glum scenario that the child is destined to be either “victim” or “perpetrator” (that is they are a cipher and academic subject – not a whole, multi-faceted human being with a heart, mind, integrity, and a future full of mistakes and triumphs)? In asking for feminist responses to mother and child, to be told another version of “women shouldn’t become mothers/children should think about that before existing” is not addressing living mothers and children; it’s requesting we just have fewer mothers and children. Very, very tolerant, supportive, helpful, and on point (tongue planted firmly in cheek).

Where is the acknowledgment that if the world is ever going to experience positive change – either episodically or by the whole – it is precisely the raising of children outside oppressive regimes and mindsets that will make this happen?

While discussing the wretched state of Child, where is the attendant activist discussion and pragmatic approaches to treat the living and breathing children, here and now, who need adult advocacy and increased agency?

Bizarrely, sometimes social justice conversation indulges in the make-believe that each person (or nuclear/bio-family) is an island. Self-sufficient and all that. This framing ignores the fact our lives began with others caring for  us – however many mistakes our carers may have made, the vast majority of us received an incredible amount of work and nurture – and most of us will have a period of vulnerability bookending the end of our lives, too (those with disabilities or extenuating circumstances may not have the luxury of the normative but false “self sufficiency” narrative often promoted). It’s incredible to me how many grownups pretend they are separate, apart, do not rely on others, never did, never shall.

Author Naomi Aldort, who I’ve referenced here, wrote a book called Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves. I’ve found it to be absolutely true that in the vocation of caring for other human beings my spiritual, emotional, and intellectual life has benefitted. My reality – mine – is that until I had children my activist mentality was almost non-existant and my passions were self-focussed; I rarely thought about how many others needed help, how many others had fewer privileges and resources and abilities than I. I am a flawed human being and continue to do my work, including self-improvement while trying to increase my stewardship for other people, for animals, for the planet. I am not perfect, but I will probably never support a worldview that doesn’t make it an active discussion point: helping those who need help and compassion, whatever population or class they belong to. Using such populations merely as theoretical entities (not human beings) might be necessary to get the ball rolling sometimes – but runs the risk of being a very underdeveloped and condescending strategy.

Some reading:

“On Hating Kids” at Feministe

“On childhate and feminism” at the Noble Savage

“My Child Takes Up Space” at Womanist-Musings

“The Ethics of Representing Childhood in Western Culture” by Naomi Aldort

And finally, “Children Take Up Space (and Notice When We Don’t Notice)” at Random Babble (quoted above), from which I offer this summation:

“[W]e as feminists, womanists, and social justice activists (and I”‘ll let you know where I fall on that scale when I figure it out) really fail hard at seeing children as what they truly are; a marginalized class of people who need their rights fought for and protected.”

Absolutement.

*(Um. Really.)

quick hit: how to meet ‘girls’ IE, respect the c*ck

On FB today my partner Ralph shared a wee video from an author and self-styled relationship guru named Greg D. – the proprietor of a website, DVD, etc. with a tagline cited as “Pure Attraction – The Art of Christian Social Dynamics”. I’ll let you watch for yourself.

Although Ralph’s resultant commentstream was full of people expressing revulsion for this man and his condescending yet cringeworthy and inept “tactics” to make himself seem approachable and relaxed and, mostly, to meet his goal: getting closer to a woman – I mean “a girl” – for his own purposes of relationship, I would imagine many people in our social sphere are likely to mock this as a symptom of Christian dysfunction instead of examining, you know, men and masculine culture in totality. It’s easy (and occasionally fun, to some) for many of my peers to make fun of this man because of his stated goals of helping Christian men and his unabashed identity within a Christian church (or other targets, like his appearance), but of course there are so many secular approaches to “dating strategies” for men that involve condescencion, “openers”, inauthentic performance, predation, stereotyping of women (much of it misogynistic or even trigger-warning worthy), and a bevy of extremely problematic approaches to women – including, as in this video, a complete insensitivity to women’s lived realities. To wit, a stunning ignorance that the supposedly refreshing and straightforward, “You’re adorable/beautiful/sexy/hot” and/or big brother/little sister approach upon a first-time meet is not universally experienced as complimentary, welcomed, charming, and/or desired, however a woman may respond in the moment she’s confronted by it. See, many people call-out these dating gurus and “How To Meet / Bed Ladies” as being inept and dehumanizing but kind of silly and harmless and ha-ha, no one actually uses these (oops, some people do!, p.s. did you know when you kill women specifically because they’re women we don’t call it a “hate crime”, whee!); conveniently these same people simultaneously ignore the misogynistic root of most approaches and their disturbing prevalence in mainstream magazines, media, etc. that make money hand over fist and adorn the landscape of public life (oh hai Maxim!).

Departing from the mainstream media and back to the personal, in watching this video tonight with our small dinner-guest group I felt deflated. Partly it was my mood, but partly it was mentally living out my history and memories. At some point I grimly identified aloud having had all these approaches levied at my person (including, verbatim, “You’re adorable,” etc., the video opener that bothered me most), and this took me on a mental trip through the many nuances of incredible Assery I’ve experienced, like the much-older coworker who told me over our first lunch in the breakroom that he hoped we could be “fuck buddies” – a particular record-scratching moment that immediately precipitated a soul-cocktail of simultaneous tedium and mild despondency - the persistant fellow at the meetup who upon my rejection threatened to hit me, the fellow that staggered up to my friends and I (ah… StaggerPuss has happened to me so, so many times) and asked if there was truth in the whole, bears-can-smell-menstruation myth (answer: Fuck. Unbelievably. Off. also: no. Also: Fuck Off, have I mentioned? Also: Steve Carell is hilarious).

At my brief omission at being on the receiving end of “openers”, our male friend (who, like my partner, is able to participate in discussion of human rights issues for women without suddenly having his Man Card revoked) said, “I’m sorry you’ve experienced that.” Even then my kneejerk response is that whole, “I’m nothing special” bit I always feel like pointing out: I believe a lot of women have experienced a lot worse or more frequent than I have and of course, some women who’ve experienced what I’m naming might tell you these behaviors don’t bother them (and some women are often labeled as “undesireables” in a myriad of ways and they get a whole bevy of other Assery I’m not even touching on here). But the desire to quickly deflect attention from my protestations of mistreatment, or my knee-jerk impulse to say, “Oh it’s not that bad”, is precisely what I’ve been Feminized to do – my whole life.

My friend can’t apologize for things he didn’t do to me, personally, although (I think?) I appreciate his sentiment. See, what is more important to me is we quit the bullshit that sex is some kind of predatory evo-psych reality and the oppositional sexist dictum that women categorically withhold sex and physical affection (which is shitty and manipulative of them to do) and men cheerfully and/or aggressively should pursue these goals (which is only their right, after all). Men need to decide for themselves if women are people as opposed to male-fable plot-points or sexual receptacles or ego-fodder. Me personally, just tonight anyway, I’m a bit tired of trying to convince people of the former, even if I know it deep down in my guts to be the truth and the lived reality we should aspire to.

When any writer objects to some of the predatory, problematic, rape-apologist, patriarchal, oppositionally sexist (P.S., read this book) and/or patriarchal axioms of a man’s actions or a masculine institution (traditions and behaviors that often include and/or support the practices of racism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, transphobia, and classism, to name a few), inevitably someone steps in with their “What About The Mens?” wail. You know, Hey these guys are just trying to start a conversation and they get nervous too! AND/OR not every guy who tries to talk to a lady is a would-be rapist and you are totally saying that about all guys right now! AND/OR what’s a guy to do these days, one time I opened a door for a lady and she got all upset about it!

And yeah, I get it. I understand men are human and exhibit frailty and clumsiness and they want love (yay!) and of course, I am partnered with a man whom I love and respect and I cook for him and and sometime mend his clothes and I even let him touch my goodies and everything!  I understand and believe patriarchy really, really does hurt men too (and please do read that previous “WATM” link). That doesn’t excuse the repeated derail into making conversations about women’s experiences ALL about men and their rights to sex/hurt feelings, etc. But I get that men are hurting too.

Because, on a less social justice bent, I think often of the many men and women who suffer social anxieties; the many men and women are lonely and want connection. It is also true that many people are afraid of loneliness and vulnerability and, sadly, those of us who can help will often shy away from such people. I think of the twelve year old girl visiting the other day who routinely worries about “creeps” following her and I tell her, Well most men aren’t dangerous creeps. And I know it sucks to be called or considered a Creep when you’re not. But it also sucks for so many men to put themselves in the Not Creep category and lift nary a finger or think nary a thought about the fact that while they’re all busy being the Not Me & Not My Problem they’re making sure things stay exactly the same way for everyone else.

I hope there are a few fellows who read here and understand that seriously, I am not going to personally mock them for making clumsy pickup attempts or having really crappy or ill-formed ideas about ladies because heck, lots of ladies have the same. It isn’t really a man-vs.-woman thing at all (but many want you to believe it is) since so many women have internalized misogynistic and sexist worldviews. But men benefit from male privilege and don’t always see the hurt their sisters have had (and continue to have) wreaked upon them. It hurts these totally-decent men when they realize they’ve been authors and conspirators. And yeah, I know that’s a hard realization to have. I do.

But if they let their injured ego stand in the way of a commitment to doing better, it’s a huge shame. For all of us – including people these men deeply care about, no matter if their gurus and “dating” self-styled experts demonstrate a bottomless void where Awareness, Wisdom, and Compassion should be in evidence.

And now, in closing, I give you the world of fiction – which is, sadly, not all that fictional – and a wonderful scene performed by Tom Cruise from the film Magnolia:

the conversation that never happens

Ed.note: This piece was originally published in Life Learning Magazine and is intended for readers familiar with the field of autodidactic learning and/or forms of homeschooling. It is somewhat more specialized than typical writings at Underbellie in that it was tailored less for generalized audiences and it is a bit more personal than typical UB pieces; but as I’ve said before, Underbellie is not a 101 space.

Life Learning Magazine is a publication I whole-heartedly endorse (and no, I do not get a kickback or whatever for saying this); you can subscribe to this publication here: [ link ]

Nels swims!

As some gentle and bearded songwriter once asked, Where do the children play-ay-yay-yay?

My children are Nels and Phoenix are six and eight.  They are well-spoken, physically active, able-bodied, happy, early and adept readers, mathematically proficient, (usually) well-”mannered”, direct, articulate, and fairly compliant with regards to Authority.  Because in many respects they are pleasing and convenient to other adults in my community they are often assumed to be being raised “right” (by my husband Ralph and I).  This means when friends, acquaintances, and strangers find out they are homeschooled (or unschooled, autodidactic, or life learners to be more accurate) the question of how they’re turning out so well despite the <gasp!> lack of structured learning in their life is a subject most grownups ignore with studious precision.

Most life learning families who’ve been doing this a while run across the question How can children possibly learn outside of school? online, likely because many of us seek out the discussion with other like-minded unschooling familes.  But in the real world with our friends, acquaintances, and sometimes our family they keep their minds and mouths shut like a trap.

It its way it’s almost humorous.

Keeping one’s children out of school and not imposing home-curriculum is a fringe choice in this country.  Given that, I think part of the reason this conversation doesn’t happen is many of us prefer to think of fringe people as being, well, wrong.  When we see their choices working out well it’s a bit uncomfortable.  Thus it’s much easier to think of my kids or myself as some kind of an exception to the rule.  The kids are either “bright”, or I am a super-hard working mama administrating organized curriculum and I have extraordinary “patience” to spend so much of my time with my own children (why children are assumed to be such a horrible group of people to be forced to mingle with is the subject of another article).

Last Friday I volunteered at our local historic theatre for a movie showing. As we volunteers milled about in the lobby I struck up a conversation with my seventh-grade English teacher B. (I am 33 so I took her class almost twenty years anon). The subject came up of the G. family, neighbors I had known as a child.  They were a wonderful family with three kids, a warm and cluttered house, lovely home-cooked food, a garden and an impressive treehouse.  They were also homeschooled, and back in the day they were the only homeschoolers I knew.

I told B. I’d run across the youngest child D. at the grocer’s; he had grown from the small boy I knew to a very tall young man barely recognizable to me (although recognize him I did). When I spoke to D. I brought up homeschooling and he’d told me he disliked it and felt much happier when he’d been enrolled in school (that was about as much time we had before his employer needed him again).  Relating this story to B. I’d meant to convey my amusement that as an adult who’s thrown herself into the world of learning with her children, at least one member of the seminal family I knew as The Homeschoolers on first blush wasn’t sharing my enthusiasm.  But my ex-teacher B. interrupted my story to offer:

“Well, I think you’re probably being more thorough than S. [the children's mother].  You know, the girls had reading comprehension issues.  I mean nothing against S. but I’m sure you’re more…” she trailed off (more what?).

Get that?  My ex-English teacher immediately assumed, first, I was teaching reading and, secondly, whatever impressions made by the G. girls were evidence of some inherent deficiency of the homeschool model (not say, the fact different children show different abilities at different ages, or B.’s own bias in favor of compulsory schooling).  The fact my kids were performing to her standards meant I was doing something extra awesome that apparently most parents couldn’t or wouldn’t be willing to do.

Now when I hear the oft-spoken rather narrow-minded ideas of how children learn I sometimes speak up and sometimes I merely listen.  In this case I said the first thing that came to mind. “It’s funny you’d say that, because both my children were early readers but I never ‘taught’ them how to read.”

“Well, but you read to your children,” she responded earnestly (and how does she know this I wonder?). Then she quickly amended, “I’m not saying S. didn’t read to her kids, it’s just…” and the conversation once again puttered out awkwardly.

Many unschoolers know exactly where B. went next.  She asked, “How long are you planning on keeping them out of school?”

Right, because even though my kids are so obviously flourishing (so well my six year old son did the raffle drawing on stage that night, reading numbers loud and clear and showing a great deal of gravitas in the public eye), truly this must be either a quirk, or they are “brilliant” or “clever”, or I am doing some kind of hard-core educational stuff that I will surely not be able to keep up with (this reminds me of some of the points on “The Bitter Homeschooler’s Wish List”1).  There was in B.’s mind no curiosity as to what we were actually doing for our education; experiences of “academic achievement” must only stem from innate brilliance or school-like strategies of imposed learning.

Now, I know B. is just one person and this is just one brief conversation; and yet I’ve had these exact same exchanges many times in our burgeoning unschooling career.

Because if we were to admit that autodidactic children in a loving and secure environment perform very well indeed in aggregate (given nearly any marker of success), we’d have to then question the many tenets of the school model.  One thing I’ve observed about most educators (and many parents and carers) I’ve met is that no matter how much they disliked (or currently dislike) school, or admit they learned very little, or saw and/or experienced shocking instances of bullying, or didn’t retain the knowledge taught therein, or weren’t particularly well-fed or emotionally-nourished during their childhood, or “coasted” through or were patently ignored as a person, they really don’t want to consider perhaps things could be better.

What would I want to happen differently?  I guess I’d like to see in my interfacing with the public more discussion of the things so many assume are true (such as: school, homework, and externally-enforced “discipline” are needed to produce joyous, competent children-cum-adults who are a credit to our society).  Now I am a realist and know that for those who claim many “can’t” unschool, there are many, many more who simply won’t consider it as an option.  The sad thing about this is not merely it impedes growth in the number of life learning families, it’s that in avoiding the discussion with successful unschooling families, parents and carers ensure they are closed to possibilities and mere “consumers” rather than authors.  They remain alienated from the true nature of their children and self-neutered in the tools and convictions to ratify change.  It keeps the adults who have the means and support to do the most good merely busy messing about in making only cosmetic improvements to their children’s scholastic environs (if they put in effort at all). Many parents follow their children’s teachers’ dictums regarding their kids’ performance and sometimes even their kids’ characters.  Parents and carers force children to complete homework (hours of this after nine-hours of compulsory schooling) and chase grades instead of swarming the halls of our schools to demand and enact more meaningful reform.

I’d hope for the families who can’t unschool or homeschool – or as is very common, can’t bring themselves to consider homeschooling or unschooling – that they might at least begin to understand the nature of learning and support their children accordingly.  Perhaps they might begin begin to see their children as being in the right by their natures, and with clear eyes address the demagogy of factory-based schooling and the deep flaws within.  Within schooling families, perhaps at parent-teacher conferences instead of listening to the teacher pick-apart their child’s “performance” they could sit with their child in the knowledge it is not their child who is the problem; he or she is likely coping as best one can in such a system.  That for the schooling famlies who have the resources maybe they’d advocate for higher adult ratio in classrooms, maybe they’d volunteer more in classrooms, maybe they’d speak up against piles of homework that in American schools begins in kindergarten.

And I wish they’d stop making every effort to not talk to me about my children and their learning journey.

Bio for the article:

Kelly Hogaboom  is a writer, sewist, wife and mother living in a semi-urban little green coastal smudge of Washington state. She cooks, sews, raises kids, cats, and chickens, and spends her days joyfully living.  You can find her journal at kelly.hogaboom.org and her twice-monthly columns on social issues and B-movie culture at underbellie.com.

  1. “No. 18 – If you can remember anything from chemistry or calculus class, you’re allowed to ask how we’ll teach these subjects to our kids. If you can’t, thank you for the reassurance that we couldn’t possibly do a worse job than your teachers did, and might even do a better one.” from Secular-homeschooling.com

look fabulous or go home

Look fabulous!

"Why on EARTH she'd think box pleats were acceptable in society is beyond me!"

I’ve been meaning to write a post about Nice White Lady Syndrome, a condition I myself struggle with. Hell, I used to be a walking Typhoid Mary (I’m trying to heal, people).  NWLS is elusive for me to describe but it’s real.  I could easily off-hand name some of the common traits. We with NWLS are concerned with being “nice”, of course, and will go to great lengths (including avoidance of subjects or people) to ensure the facade does not shatter.  We are incessantly – internally or aloud – policing the bodies, clothes, manners and appearance of ourselves as well as other women, thereby making sure any concept of “sisterhood” runs concomitant to the pledging of a sorority that allows some (worthy ladies) in, while some are most stridently refused.

Yet despite the desire to be “nice” many afflicted with NWLS will devolve to hateful language and ad hominem attacks if you call out – however respectfully and accurately – problematic behaviors. In fact in our rigidity against admitting wrongdoing we have a core of steel that matches the most unapologetic purveyor of hate speech.  Now I hardly need point out that not all white ladies who are nice suffer from NWLS (so please don’t be bringing me that bunk). 1  I shall leave it for another post to write much more about my thoughts on this little syndrome but I will say: you see its true colors when you disagree with our most treasured bigotries, perpetrations, and prejudices.

Case in point, I enjoy following Gertie’s Blog for Better Sewing, a lovely series of entries that are akin to one of those entrancing, snapping insect-killer lamps for so many American mid-to-upper class white ladies like myself (we’re in the “working class” category if you’re curious). On May 28th Gertie wrote a bit about her experiences in classes with (illustrious and amazing) professional Kenneth King. In brief, her post stated the following: that as she pursues an interest in fashion and fitting clothes for oneself, inevitably she begins to find problems in the fit of ready-to-wear (RTW) clothing she sees out in the world.  Thus her passion for personal clothing construction becomes a nit-picking enterprise on other people’s clothing – and this troubles her a bit.  Or as Gertie herself says, “It makes sense that as we become more proficient fitters and sewers, we’ll become more observant of the garments all around us. (Unfortunately, we might also become more annoying, petty people in the process!)”2

Gertie makes a good point but the issue is not so simple as mere “nit-picking” or “petty[ness]“, since the intersection of a whole mess of issues comes to the fore when we begin to look at other (usually female) bodies and decide what looks good or bad (I think of sexism, racism and classism FAIL right off the bat, but of course homophobia and transphobia rate quite high).

Sure enough, many comments following this post exhibited quite the buffet of harmful worldviews: mostly with regards to body shaming, a whiff of slut shaming, and socio-economic class insensitivity to put it mildly.  Essentially the reader is treated to many lectures on people who wear too tight jeans and too-small stretch fabrics which means they are basically Letting Us All Down by not looking good enough.

Wait, why am I writing “people”? The vast, vast majority of the eighty-three (so far) comments on this post concern women’s bodies, full stop.  The list went on: people (women) are in denial about their size; thus they wear ill-fitting clothes which are somehow a grievance committed against us, the viewer; people are gross for being fat but they’re really gross for not disguising this fat in some way according to the standards of the poor innocent bystander who has to see this body.   All women should consider body shapers or getting their bra fitted. People should make sure to have their pants properly hemmed because please – “spare a few bucks”, your dry-cleaner can do it for you. Shaming and dehumanizing language abounds: “embarrassing sausage-in-a-casing look”, “trashy”, “rubbish”, “gross”. Muffin-tops, camel-toes, and skeletal women are all disgusting. Anyone and everyone outside of the parlances of what fashion provides should either learn to sew or do whatever it takes to not look slovenly.

I won’t deny that, as a seamstress myself, fit analysis is a huge subject and once you get some chops you may notice poor fit all around you.  It’s where one crosses the line into the many types of dehumanizing language and assumptions, insensitivities, and unacknowledged privilege that things get gross.  Along with this nasty stuff comes the adjunct prescription that all women owe everyone, everywhere the duty to wear something flattering or becoming according to – well, I’m not sure who gets to decide that part (the “flattering” prescription for ladies is a feverish mantra in our society).3 In these four-score comments only one (Tasia’s) pointed out there might be financial and lifestyle considerations that might excuse someone for not making Looking Their Absolute Best a high priority.

There were glimmers of hope in the conversation.  Several commentors laid the issue of poor fit in part at the fashion industry’s ill-service to women in particular aspects.  But many comments were kind of muddy – like this one, which took me on a roller coaster of hope before quickly plummeting into more typical territory regarding fat people and compulsory-DIY4:

I also deplore baggy shoulders and shapeless side seams on plus size women, myself included. I don’t blame the women for this, they can’t help it because many manufacturers offer poorly executed plus size designs. And at certain income ranges that is all that is available to them. When I see this I want to grab the women and tell her, “Yes, you can buy a t-shirt for ten dollars, but if you make your own it will actually fit you and look good and you will feel better about yourself when you see how sleek you really can look!”

Oh dear good Lord.

Then there was: “there is nothing more tragic than a larger busted woman with a seam that SHOULD go under her bust…”

Nothing! More! Tragic!

Believe it or not dear reader, I could go on with more problematic content.  Wondering what might happen, I sent this email to Gertie:

I think it’s awesome you are starting to really SEE clothes and fit issues – and that you have the means, time, and privilege to explore a self-education in creating well-made, homesewn clothes. It’s also wonderful you are sharing your experiences with your readers! I have you in my feed reader and look forward to your writings.

But with your last post, I’m sure your intent was not to start a classist bunch of fashion-and-clothes policing. Where I live lots of people are just trying to pay the bills and feed their kids and have clothes on their backs and try not to freeze their asses while they wait an hour between buses (and of course, I’m a white American and surrounded by far more wealth and privilege than many global citizens have). I seriously cannot imagine looking at ANY fellow human being and picking on their “rubbish” or “trashy” or “cheap” sense of style.

I know there are ways to talk about fashion and the pursuant fun of achieving it that respect all human beings. I am sad to see your comment stream is not a respectful space in that manner.

I love your writings and I hope you take my comment knowing I come from that place.

Gertie wrote back almost immediately and asked if she could publish my email in an Op-Ed on the site. I agreed, although my stomach sank because You know? I’m not super-awesome about wanting to speak up about social justice a crowd of inter-netz anonymous who had committed such egregious class and size acceptance FAIL already. But hell, I know I’m okay with what I wrote so I said Sure.  The morning of May 31st the little “Op-Ed” was published with my email and a sparse introduction from Gertie.5

Since most my Underbellie readers are beyond 101, you can imagine what happened next.  A very small series of comments granted my points; many sent up defensive arguments and of course, ad hominen attacks on yours truly (one commenter described me as “insane”! Shoehorning in the ableist pejorative – w00t!). A handful of people said I was “unfair” and handing out “badges” of wrongdoing (so apparently, no matter how politic you point something like this out, you’re being – let’s face it – a pesky bitch to cite it at all). Notable too were the many who said there was “nothing wrong with Gertie’s original post” (although I’d made clear I was speaking about the reader comment stream specifically), a classic Derail that carried through the discussion over. & over. & over.6  I was accused of taking myself too seriously, told I should take on a “real” social issue, and that everyone should wear “sackcloth and ashes” to meet my standards of social justice.  I expected a few attacks, but I will admit I was surprised to hear how many people claimed style and clothing options have nothing to do with socioeconomic class.

Interestingly enough, those who defended my points said when it comes to commenting on other people’s clothing, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” (this happens to be another adage in the NWLS canon). Although I have often employed the “don’t say mean shit” strategy at specific instances in my life, what’s funny is of course, we absolutely can discuss fashion and fit and style – holding there are good and poor strategies and builds for clothing – whilst respecting other human beings who inhabit clothes we personally wouldn’t wear (and due to our various degrees of privilege may not have to).  Eschewing describing a woman as “trashy” is something I can commit to while discussing an erroneously-drafted or ill-fitting empire waist – this latter an interesting subject to me in terms of garment fitting as I don’t often wear this particular style myself. And yet again, discussions on this subject often devolve into that policing bit; that is, a woman who fully knows well where her empire seam is and doesn’t give a Good Goddamn is thrown under the wheels as Unsightly; so too is her sister who is busy thinking about things other than clothing like – oh I dunno for example, food, shelter, her job(s), her family, her passions, her aging father she’s providing round-the-clock care for in the home, her chronic pain issues, her looming layoff, etc. etc.

Most odd of all were the accusations I was this kind of lurky dark-sided outlander trying to make Gertie “feel bad” for her silly hobby (someone claimed I said “frivolous” and of course as you see – I didn’t).  As most my readers here know I share the same exact hobby (garment sewing). Sewing is a life-blood creative source of joy for me; incidentally, I also share some of the same types of privilege Gertie does. I don’t require her to feel bad about any of these things to make my points.

So you know, my whole speaking up thing just felt like oh, making-fart-noises-with-my-mouth. Fail.

But you know?  Amongst the comments following the “Op-Ed” were some diamonds in the rough:

purplesews wrote:

I grew up steeped in the idea that the best thing to do was go home and stay indoors until you’d lost blankity pounds and then buy clothing – and it’s taken me some time to unlearn that and learn to fit my own unique figure without jumping right to disliking myself – so yeah, that comment thread did make me sad in places. The idea that you owe it to other people to wear “the right” clothing for your age/size/coloring/whatever tends to annoy me – while the fact that the market can’t presently provide most of us with the right clothes for our bodies is one of my hobbyhorses. But then, I feel this way about a lot of kindly-meant fashion advice, right down to good old Stacy and Clinton: I feel like if you walked up to the average poorly-dressed person and handed them $1500 and walked away, they would – well, probably pay off part of their mortgage, but if they had to spend it on clothes, they would probably be better dressed immediately, advice or no advice. I also think it’s interesting that we as a culture look down on vanity – there’s definitely some puritanism to the everybody-in-t-shirts aesthetic – but are very gung-ho about having some duty to others to look nice. It’s a strange dynamic.

emadethis wrote:

This is well-said. I shudder to think of people stopping others on the street and pointing out the defects in their garments. I’m distressed when I see poorly made garments on the rack. The deeper you get into sewing, finding these defects becomes just an outgrowth of your learning. A lot of people cannot afford well-constructed items, myself included. I consider myself blessed that I can sew for myself, but many are not in that camp either, and we need to respect where people are on that continuum.

Solitary Crafter writes:

Maybe I just have low expectations of people on the internet, but I avoided the comments on that post because I assumed that it would devolve into critiquing body size and that comments would be made about people shopping at walmart and all the rest.

As much as I enjoy sewing and crafting magazines and blogs, it’s always clear that people like me – poor, redneck, white trash – aren’t considered to be the ‘class’ of readers or commenters desired or expected and the issues faced by poor sewers and crafters, those of us who shop at walmart and thrift stores for fabric and patterns, tend to be either ignored or brushed away as unimportant.

No, I don’t expect everyone to cover the issues facing people like me, I have other resources for that, but neither do I expect understanding when the issue comes up.

Maybe I’m a coward and maybe I’m just pragmatic, but this is one subject that never can be resolved, even among people with the best of intentions.

A handful of comments like these in an otherwise rather dismal showing gives me hope that what I write and speak about is important (enough).  In particular Solitary Crafter’s comment tugs my heartstrings – I know exactly the exclusion and dismissal she speaks of and indeed was pointing it out.

Part of me aches for the person (woman) who is defensive and angry at my observations. I really do know what it’s like to suffer the pain of having my “niceness” bubble popped, especially in an exposed setting. I know what it’s like to be called out in public (which the inter-netz obviously is) and while many can shake it off, I have on occasion blanched and felt my heart race at such things.  In short, I really do have empathy for how upsetting this sort of thing can feel (and I was only calling comments out primarily with regards to classism; you want to see NWLS in full-blown danger mode, speak up when a white lady has said or done something racist - and yes I’m aware by even suggesting “white” has anything to do with these kinds of behavior I am inviting some indignant denial-screeches!).

An investment in being “nice” is/was a seductive condition.  There were so many perks (if I had good “intentions” my actions could not, I repeat not be called into question) even while it took away my ability to handle constructive criticism and listen to other worldviews. Additional “perks” came in the form of believing I was someone who Meant Well and was Part of the Solution and it was totally other people who were Part of the Problem. Since I had a black boyfriend or a few gay friends or since I came from a “poor” background I’d passed some kind of test where if someone ever brought up those issues with regard to my behavior I’d know I wasn’t in the wrong(, ever), so please do not ever point that out.

I won’t say learning differently wasn’t painful. It was (still is sometimes). In my case (personal story), I became active on a social networking site that had a significant proportion of women of color and queer women and unmarried women with children and I got schooled more than once. I was told when I had said something racist, or classist, or elitest, or using heteronormative language or being a garden-variety asshole. It hurt.

Funny thing is even after I left this community I kept seeking out those types of spaces online.  I kept wanting to learn more even if it meant being called out (sometimes in error, but often with a fair bit of accuracy), yes “publicly” and often not nearly as politic as I myself tried to intervene here.

In attempting to shed my biases and denials and sense of White Lady Sainthood (and I hasten to add I am still working through these things) I’ve become a much better listener and I have a broader perspective. I’ve experienced a greater diversity of friends online and IRL who value what I bring to the party.

But some, it seems, still prefer to stay “nice” – until they have to shout rudely over someone else. I wish them the best in their journey.

Do read the links below, especially the writings of Tasha and Natalie.

***

Thanks Arwen and Paige for your personal assistance in writing this post.

Photo credit: clotho98 on Flickr

Mentioned/Further Reading:

“Body Image, mothers, classism, fashion, Karl Lagerfield, and social inclusion” at lisaschweitzer.com

“Nice White Lady to the Rescue!” at Alas, A Blog

stuff white people do, a blog

“Defensiveness as a Signpost of Privilege” at Shakesville

“Where My Sistas At? The Underrepresentation of Black Plus Size Models in Mainstream Fashion” at racialicious

“Are There Class Cultures?” at classmatters.org

Very brief primer on how classism functions within feminism or women who consider themselves pro-woman, at everything2.com

“Women and Class” (and the avoidance to discuss the latter) at classmatters.org

Tangentially and to sort of soul-destroy anyone still clicking through my links, while searching for a CC-licensed picture I found this charming series of comments under the photo titled “Fatties”. If yer so inclined you can sooth your eyeballs on the photo caption of this treasure: “My Neighbor Is A Big Fat Ugly Pig”. OK, I’ll stop now. Promise.  Just: it was rough finding a photo.

A little ray of sunshine – because there are many people out there working for the Good: definatalie is writing some of the best articles re: fashion snark. Besides her “skinny jeans” post you can read “Confessions of a Former Snarker” recently published on her blog.

  1. This is similar to nice guy vs “Nice Guy“, as explained here and many, many other places.
  2. You can find “Like ANTS Crawling on Your SKIN: Clothing Pet Peeves.” at BfBS.
  3. One of the  most amazing, wonderful rebuttals to this very common and socially-enforced meme is definatalie’s “You Can’t Bully Me Out Of My Skinny Jeans”
  4. Concomitant but not in response to Gertie’s post, blogger Tasha Fierce wrote beautifully on this subject the next day: “The Class Dynamics of DIY”
  5. Op/Ed Column: on Fashion Policing at blogforbettersewing
  6. Derailing for Dummies

the cost of “manners” amongst the ladyfolk

Oh, the tension!

What lies beneath? Hint: sometimes, Very Big Scary Feelings.

“Manners are the hypocrisy of a nation.” – Honore de Balzac

Recently on another mommy blog a question is put forth: How do we respond to friends who parent differently? The blog author relates a story of her friend, a carpool mom who one day drops a child off to the mother and says, “I ran through McDonalds for dinner because we were pressed for time, hope that’s okay” to which the mom replied, “Well, it’s really not” [emphasis by the blog author]. The blogger asked us to weigh in on the interaction.

Before I scrolled down to read the comments I predicted the following: the public (and predominantly female) voice would be against the woman who voiced her displeasure. Sure enough: as comments trickle in they cite her as “rude”, “self-righteous”, and “proselytizing”1; public sentiment is set against her (although notably she has been relegated to third-party status, the carpooling friend having related her version to the blog author).

Look, no one needs to say the word “bitch”. We all know how women who slip up and display a lack of social grace or who stand up – if at all imperfectly or “not nice enough” – for their values are going to get heavily policed socially (for instance one commentator says that since the child was being carpooled and this is a service, it was “rude” of the anti-fast food mother to speak up regarding food preferences).

In the comments section I put forth the following: if I ask a friend if something is “okay” I believe I should be prepared to hear the answer, warts and all.  The blog author responded quickly and alternatively inflated or ignored my points: thus my advocacy for authenticity amongst friends meant I was opposed to “civilities” like “How are you?” and that I wanted “every single conversation in my day to be an earnest, honest, heartfelt one”. The blog owner also set up a strawman defense defending her friend’s choice to buy McDonalds (since I am in agreement the mother did nothing “wrong” by purchasing this food, the relevancy of this defense escapes me).

Let me get to my point.

In many female friendships in my peer group, the rituals of “manners” and socially-policed quid pro quo often supplants authenticity and openness.

Go ahead and read the sentence again, carefully. I know it’s kind of a long labored thing. But I wanted to be super accurate in what I’m trying to say.

Look, if I was in the carpooling mom’s position I’d probably have felt stung.  I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to do right by a friend and received either a tacit or explicit referendum on my choice. Most women reading here know the pain of having one’s friend snub us verbally or speak with a “tone”.  It hurts, badly. We simultaneously empathize with our friend and feel horrid about letting her down while we also respond with a reflexive and defensive anger.  These things all make up a big bag of Suffering and like any animal we seek to avoid suffering.

Given that, it can seem seductive to just agree we’ll all play by “manners”.

I like talking about punctuality to illustrate my points on “manners” because this is an issue I have seen play out over and over again over the years.  For instance: according to the code of “manners” I should be on time to your dinner.  But if I am late (which it’s easy to be while juggling small children and a job and daycare and a partner and pets and a household) I may attempt to stifle my feelings of failure at having not performed my social duty of perfection: I will offer an apology and then, right on the heels of that, an excuse for why I was not on time.  This apology-cum-excuse is a nullifying maneuver; as the latecomer I am breathlessly expounding on why the whole issue is all about me and my (small or large) drama, while my host(ess) may feel hurt and/or angry but is powerless to say as much without looking like a troll according to our codes of conduct (I am perfectly aware that in some scenarios lateness does not give offense whatsoever). The host has been outplayed, not so much deliberately but as a side effect of the feminine-means-perfection roles and rituals that create severe social and personal fallout.

Do you know how many women I’ve heard say, “Maria, I’m sorry I’m late.” with the pause and presence that a true apology deserves, perhaps with a gentle hand on Maria’s arm or at least eye contact?  A small handful. These days I apologize in this manner when I’m late but it’s something I’ve had to work on. I still hate being late not only because I want to be considerate to the host(ess) but because of my resultant feelings of female-fail. Manners are ostensibly about the former considerations, yet the rituals of “manners” often play out according to the ugly morass of the latter.  In female society it is so tempting to avoid our discomfort by playing the game, almost a chess match of thrust-and-parry because we don’t want to feel shame and we don’t want to feel “wrong”.

If only our self-saving machinations didn’t have such potential to hurt our friends.

I have long lost count of the times I’ve seen women in a social setting say something is “okay” when really, deep down, it isn’t. Using the example of lateness, I once heard my friend E. excuse herself for being an hour tardy to the dinner fête her friend H. had thrown, because H. had been late to a party E. threw a half year ago. E. kept a list of her friend’s perceived faults (she never once paid for the pot they’d share; she let her kids eat “too much” candy) and then applied her own barter and balancing act based on this internal scorecard (respectively: therefore it was okay if H. footed the booze bill entirely; H. was responsible for the sabotage in E.’s otherwise flawless family dietary plan). This all happened internally; these trades were not negotiated openly nor made known in the friendship.  And if it sounds like normal “human” behavior to some I can tell you E. and H. had deep hurts levied against one another (I got to hear some of them) that also rarely, if ever, were aired directly with one another. No, they were aired more or less to other women entirely. More third-party speech.

I wish I could say the example of E. and H. is a rare one; however it was all too common in my peer group at the time.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Many years ago I had the good fortune to make friends with a woman who was both authentic and purposefully opposed to ad hoc quid pro quo arrangements.  She was going through a hard time in her life and had decided (in self-protection) that relationships should exist with contractual agreements (either verbal or written).  These agreements would, in her mind, keep her “safe” from the types of betrayals (one severe and of marital nature) that had hurt her so in the past.  (More on her contracts and their success in a minute.)

At first my new friend puzzled me because she didn’t play by the “rules”. She would, for instance, not allow me to purchase her latte when I was flush with cash and wished to do so.  It was apparent to me she was not doing this to rebuff me or out of a prickly sensibility around money; she simply didn’t want to risk engaging in the Game. Although I was surprised by her stubborn refusal – which never wavered – my mind also immediately flashed to the many “hints” and jabs that other women voiced about friends who “owed” money for this or that transaction that had been offered in the spirit of a gift.  In this first interaction with my friend I intuited issues around money would be considerable safer and less anxiety-inducing between us (incidentally, this meant a lot to me at the time; being a family of four with all sorts of financial problems cropping up I had little room to spare; life is easier for me today). Over the  years my prediction proved correct.

My friend’s worldview was formed as a self-protective one but as a near side-effect I came to trust her, immensely. I could ask her if she would buy my dinner and she would say, “As a gift, or for repayment? When will you pay me back?” while being truly open to either (and holding herself able to refuse). If I asked her for a favor or an opinion I could trust her response; I wouldn’t have to “prove” my virtue if I asked for something. Concomitantly, I was treated to her direct advocacy; if she didn’t want to watch a movie or eat a certain kind of food she would simply say so.  One time she removed a chair from my house (with my permission) and had a carpenter friend bolster it to support her weight (we had very rickety chairs as a rule). At first I felt an immediate small humiliation that I had so failed in a hostess as to not have adequate furniture. I felt slight aches of shame and reflexive anger.  But knowing her I had no reason to fear she was doing anything other than problem solving for the sake of her comfort so we could enjoy our friendship to its fullest. Over a short period of time my discomfort subsided and I felt gratitude for her action. It also was not lost on me that as a family of four with one income and two small children I perhaps could be forgiven my lapse of furnishings.

Our friendship is longstanding and it has had a portion of wrongs committed and apologies; it has not been free of strife.  I will say that considering how intimate we have been the amount of conflict and hurt I’ve felt is much lower than any friendship I’ve experienced.  The quality of trust, openness, and authenticity in this friendship is still a standout in my life. I am glad for her example as it has informed me in my other friendships. I wish more women would catch on.

As for my friend’s concepts of protective contracts and agreements, this was an issue she struggled much over and her views altered, morphed, spread, and softened. She experienced over time a reality that nothing, not really, could protect her from betrayal and victimization. But she retains her stalwart sense of authenticity, her ability to voice her feelings clearly, and a receptivity when I do the same.

While I could talk more about the quality of this friendship I would like to get back on point with a radical concept.  When our friends respond with honesty (in their words and their tone) that reveals displeasure or hurt in response to our actions, let’s try to remember something.  The anger and hurt we so immediately feel?  This cannot be truthfully attributed as The Entire Fault of the Person Who Is Wronging Us. We can remind ourselves it is our lifelong socialization to be properly feminized and to police other women that is causing us the most pain.

The pain is real but our reactions can improve. We can ask ourselves with gentleness and curiosity, “Why do I put so much pressure on myself to never make a mistake?” We can ask ourselves, “Why do I feel so humiliated and angry so quickly?”  We can remind ourselves, “My friend is trusting me enough to be honest in her communication. Take a deep breath; this is an important moment.”  We can say, “Please tell me more,” and mean it.  We can say (if we decide it is called for) “I’m sorry” to our friend – and mean it.  We can stop saying “sorry” when we don’t mean it.

Maybe we’ll even be brave enough to tell her, when the moment is right, that her tone or response hurt our feelings; maybe we can tell her with openness, without undue attachment to outcome, without reprisal waiting in the wings, with intimacy and honesty and Love.  My guess is she’ll surprise you by apologizing in turn (if she didn’t earlier in that wonderful, open and vulnerable moment).  These are transactions in a friendship that are rare, difficult, beautiful, and form strong relationships. Real female friendship can be accomplished with an eschewal of malicious speech, hidden daggers and the dwelling on hurt feelings, without chewing one’s nails and suffering in silence or venting in the ears of a third-party, never to be aired with clarity to the one who needs us to seek reparations.

“Manners” may serve us reasonably well in fitting in socially (like not shouting “Fuck!” in church) but they are a meager edifice to secure our hearts and minds upon in lieu of honesty; besides the obvious that no two people can agree on when “manners” are called for and when they must be eschewed, and no two people have the same background and therefore education in “manners”, they are in final analysis rituals that are not solely adequate in times of interpersonal difficulties. I have seen the most “mannered” women harbor the deepest and darkest angers, there to fester and become something silent and resentful and twisted.

In contrast I remain in supreme trust that my friend will tell me if I hurt her, and she remains trustful I will listen openly if she tells me.

And yes, we still say “Please” and “Thank you” and “How are you?”

This post is dedicated to my good friend Cynthia.

***

Photo credit: x-ray_delta_one on Flickr

childbirth is natural / childbirth is danger danger!! or perhaps: if you’re a woman you suck

Newborn Nels

I totally had this baby to make you all happy, and it didn't even work!

A recent slight disintegration of discussion at a feminist blog I generally enjoy underscores the facts:

Women get it coming and going regarding childbirth and children. Just: constantly. And from the most elaborate and varied angles.  It’s almost breathtaking.

Just a primer in case you’re completely clueless: women are put down if they don’t want children or feel ambivalent on the subject. Childfree women (or childless women, or if someone can find a term that doesn’t offend those with kids or without, let me know) are harangued pretty regularly – when will you have kids? What? You don’t want to? Why not? What’s wrong with you? Oh you poor (unnatural, frigid, spiritually-devoid) thing.  If you don’t have kids you don’t have a life.  Tsk tsk.

Women who do want children but can’t make it happen – their bodies don’t provide the technology, they don’t feel they could support a child, they don’t have the support they require, there are physical or mental or chemical or financial barriers?  These women are constantly marginalized from the smallest throw-out sentences in children’s books (“A womb is a special place inside a woman where babies grow” purrs a very well-meaning, liberal-sentiment children’s book) to the glowing pictures of women-in-hospital, life fulfilled, yay baby!  Birth is talked about as “natural” – yet in the fervor to reclaim and rescue America’s abysmal birth culture these discussions can further alienate and hurt those who don’t have a “natural” or complication-free experience.  Infertility is somehow still a woman’s “fault” or failure; at best there is an insensitivity about the whole business.  “Just adopt!” chirps the seriously problematic hand-wave (socioeconomic class fail, to start) so many pipe up with when a woman has a problem breeding the more typical way. To my own consternation I hear women chirping proudly how easily they get pregnant, it happened at the drop of a hat, blah blah, with no regard to the woman standing next to them whose eyes fill with tears at hearing such oblivious enthusiasm.

Women who want children and then have them?  Here’s where we get right up close to the subject of birth where misogyny really ramps up.  You see garden-variety and boring misogyny when birth is discussed in any detail: accounts of orgasmic birth* (best-case, awesome birth scenario) and birth rape** (a very bad-case scenario) vilified, pooh-pooh’d, or ridiculed.  It would be boring and played-out if I didn’t regularly see how much these dismissals hurt actual women, their children, their partners, their families.

I’m one of the last category mentioned above – a woman who wanted, then had children – and I could wax eloquently on how that opens a whole shit-storm of criticism.  You birth the baby in the hospital or with drugs?  You’re a sell-out, a wimp, a failure, either a privileged prima donna or a sad statistic.  This goes double (or triple) if you have a C-section or if you (gasp!) formula-feed your child.  Women are cut open and subjected to the complications of heavy-duty abdominal surgery (the current C-section rate in this country is on the rise and at about 30 percent; some states have a 38% rate) and then the women themselves are made to feel like failures.

Have a baby at home (on purpose)?  You are an irresponsible, silly, vain (or ignorant) hippie.  [raises hand]

And for mothers, this is just what you’ll get five minutes after breeding the little person(s).  I haven’t got into the de-statusing and wage gaps and judgment (work outside the home or not? You’ll get it either way) and picking-at for childcare and schooling and career choice that await women in all walks of life.

Not everyone wants to admit this, but babies and childbirth are kind of everyone’s business – yes, men too. And yet your “everyday man” and fathers are, of course, mostly exempted from the vicious part of these conversations. While (white) men are still the primary women’s health policy makers, the OBs (who generally assist in most births in this country), the law- and policy-makers in this country, and even though they are often in positions that direct quite a bit about how pregnancy, labor and delivery goes down for many American women, they do not suffer the consequences and recrimination for birth outcomes nor passionate discussions about integrating family life with paid work. In the trenches, where women hurt the most, some of their bodies savaged or messed with and their life choices – to breed or not to breed, and how things play out when living their lives – sneered at, their emotions on edge and their sufferings and triumphs diminished or laughed at.  Too few men take these issues up as the human rights concerns they are.  Women are shunned and blamed for their suffering, if not additionally accused of Ruining America for being not-mothers or not-good-enough mothers or over-involved mothers.

I have no easy answers.  Yet probably Step One would be to give more credence to women and their lived experiences.  If a woman says she doesn’t want to have a child, please do not second-guess nor pity her, and please take away from this Actual Real Woman a commitment to stop assuming all women want babies, babies, piles of babies.  If the statistics show a wage gap and a lack of fair housework distribution between heterosexually-paired partners, respect that as a reality that involves, you know, actual people, and is a further testimony to our culture’s continued inequalities which yes, we should be working to fix.  If a woman speaks up about her birth or birth culture in this country, please take this as seriously as a discussion on your pet social justice topic, because reproductive rights and experiences fall under human rights issues that are happening to, again, real people.  Allow the many suffering women and babies and the statistics in America’s poor birth climate some consideration.  If you can’t or won’t do much about it, at least respect those who are fighting the good fight.  Because there are good reasons to fight it.

Step Two might be to stop attacking individual women for their choices or their life circumstances.  Just because you are personally squeamish about the phrase “orgasmic birth” does not give you the right to mock the real, actual women who find the subject important.  Just because you breastfed and stayed home to take care of your children does not give you the right to weigh in on the love, hard work, and commitment of any particular woman who did not (in this example) breastfeed or stay home.  Remember, we don’t pick on dads for this stuff, which is a red-flag for sexism at best.

And finally – again, just for starters – we all need to listen and believe.  Because something about the anti-women sentiments that rear up in these conversations remind me of a phrase I hear oft-repeated in school and childcare environments, a phrase I have never liked: “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit”.  Our cultural history has been one of silencing women, calling their concerns about housework or babies or jobs with or without kids silly, allowing their bodies to pay the price for being female.  You don’t have to understand it all (indeed, even highly-involved activists are continually learning), but belittling the conversation?  Uh, no.

Because: “If you don’t find time to change the world, then you’re busy keeping it the way it is.” (unattributed)

Mentioned/Further Reading:

“Non-Medical Reasons for a Rise in Caesarian Sections” at Sociological Images

* Several accounts of orgasmic birth at unassistedchildbirth.com

** Birth rape: “More Than a Traumatic Birth” at truebirth.com

A review of Heather Has Two Mommies at Raising my Boychick

“Maternal Death in the United States: A Problem Solved or a Problem Ignored?”, 3 part article by Ina May Gaskin

VBACtivism at the Feminist Breeder

the over-involved Momster, a convenient premise to continue the laydee-hatin’

The MOMster

Why did I even bring this thing home?

The anti-mother element in our culture is one of the hardest things I live with.  I feel its sting on behalf of many categories of mother (because yes, our culture categorizes us) even when I don’t have personal membership in the latest group being lambasted (formula feeders, c-section patients, morbidly obese mothers, mothers in any class besides working-class, mothers of color).  When mama-bashing occurs in a way that seems it could apply to my specific person, I feel it lasered in on my any possible defect even though hell, I know I’m a pretty good mom and a decent human being.

Still, whenever I fail – however briefly or epic in nature – it’s the cultural judgment and denigration of womanhood and motherhood, this enormous pressure to be all kinds of awesome (intelligent, fit, beautiful, kick-ass, kind, organized, unique, sexy, wise and whip-smart), that roars loudest in my ears.  For the moment I swim in guilt and smallness, knowing I’m deficient, and no other mom is as shitty as I, and I’m screwing my kids up, and it’s too late even though they’re only six and eight because I’ve set up all this pathology with my Horribleness and I’d should just give the whole thing up but then that would really screw up my kids and just: Suck.

But that’s just me.  No other mothers ever feel this way, right?  <snort!>

Because, you know, mothers are one group we don’t like to give a break to (like so many groups we belittle).  Our culture’s judgment and callousness towards mothers seems so needlessly cruel (although I suspect it has its uses, more in a minute).  Whenever our media crows the latest horrific thing that has happened to some American child the wail sets up: “Where was the motherrrr?!?”.  More disturbing still, there are those who seem to think the misfortunes befalling children are the just deserts to these women who’ve somehow failed their children (Seriously? Because a child being harmed or killed or dying isn’t already, you know, some of the worst shit that could ever befall many, if not most, parents?).  Mothers are too involved, not involved enough, overbearing, pathetically passive, too selfish, too selfless, too absorbed in their children, too preoccupied with things not their children.  They’re sell-outs if they stay at home to raise families; their priorities are skewed (and wrong and anti-family) if they aren’t home enough.

Briefly, and before I get to my main point, in late October 2009 I remember reading the sickening account of the Richmond, California 15-year old girl who was raped by many male assailants during a school dance.  The story was deeply sad and awful as such stories are; troubling me further were the vast amounts of comments online blaming both the victim herself – and her mother (just for, I suppose, the two of them not having the female decency to avoid rape). As many point out, internet discourse can be shockingly uncivil or cowardly; yet as it is also pointed out, it can also reveal thoughts and feelings people harbor deep within.  In the Richmond story I was struck by how much blame was attributed to the females in the case: the victim and her mother – women both deserving empathy, support, and compassion, I hope it need not be said.

This might seem a shocking example of wrongheadedness but I am here to say it’s nothing new.

It hardly matters the most recent bit I’ve read on the internet that gets immediately to the Mama-hating, because it’s such a common trope.  Funnily enough and as I’ve said, it always hurts to read.  Today’s example (which I am deliberately not linking to; it’s actually not that important who wrote it) happened to be the charge that moms are Boring and their over-involvement is The Cause of Our Country’s Problems.  You know, by ardently caring about chemicals in baby bottles or our parenting techniques or the carbon footprint of our family car we are creating a culture of tit-sucking Dependents who won’t be able to do anything for themselves.

Right.  So now: Mamas?  You’re boring.  Also, P.S., you’re Ruining America.

This flavor of vitriolic Mama-depreciation is nothing new.  Authors, pundits, and pop-culturalists have trotted out this particular bit since long before I ever birthed my own: the obsessed monster of a mother who has no life except for living vicariously through her kids.  She used to have a career but now she’s all nipple-shields and carseats and SUVs (we used to diss her minivan and soccer-chauffeuring).  Her involvement with and work for the family are not the result of her genuine caring and the heterosexist hierarchy that both demands these efforts and offers little status nor esteem for them, but rather her pathetic underdevelopment – a projection of her own Narcissism and shallowness.  Her interest and fascination with family life and babies demonstrates her profound limitations; these will surely and inevitably lead to her attempting to manage everything about her children’s lives which will result in ruining said children’s lives and, by extension, Everything Else.  So at this point an article like this will typically have some really cute and sarcastic (but rarely real-life) examples of Epic Fail, like how this woman’s children will be living at home at age 40 and won’t be able to hold a job, yawn yawn, you get the idea.

There are so many problems with this sort of article it’s hard to know where to start.  Let me just begin with what occurs from the example of my personal lived life, because funny thing is?  No woman I’ve personally known is anything like this caricature.

I started my family in a mid-to-upper class environs (though our little family, economically, qualified and qualifies as working-class), mostly white, self-identified “progressive”, and to a soul very – very – doting first-time parents.  The women I knew were those the Over-Involved Mother insults are often referring to: they had privilege (white, straight, moneyed as far as the globe goes), obsessed in doing well by their kids and often mourning their careers (whether on temporary hiatus or rejected permanently).  They found themselves up to their thickened middles in kid-care and parenting books and temporarily sexless marriages (not a uniform factor to all unions I knew, but common enough).  They really did care about this stuff and they talked about it – not all the time, but a heck of a lot.  They were literally just like these articles claim! OH SNAP! HA HA!  LADIES ARE STOOPID!

Of course, all these women had personalities, drives, desires, and yes, ambitions extending beyond family life (although why women, and not men, are supposed to apologize for their passionate work in “family life” boggles me).  A conversation on the playground about the best highchair might not sound too earth-shatteringly Thinky to someone who doesn’t have to worry about keeping a baby safe while eating (and anyway, as to highchair conversations being dull, I wonder why mothers should be required to be more damned entertaining and urbane than anyone else?) but the women themselves were not boring.  You had only to ask, to spend time paying attention – to change the subject if need be because hell, that’s allowed – and you’d find them as Special Snowflake as, well, anyone really. Like M. who was an amazing cellist (who kept teaching music even after breeding) and a pretty gifted photographer and had a career in pro-choice activism.  Like A. who’d waitressed and barfly’d and traveled Central and South America and now balanced a single income with a family of four including a former trust-fund husband while they both didn’t really know how to pay bills.  Like S. who was the most organized person I knew and had made it a priority to travel to lots of druggy outdoor festivals and made Wild and was a catalog of counter-culture.  Like A. who with her husband started an art supply store, and who could get so passionate about social justice that while she talked her breastfeeding child would pop off and A’s nipple would be an angry point while her mouth and mind, undistracted, spoke her passionate truth.  Like B. who read fashion blogs and knew more fashion than anyone I’ve known and started a little recipe blog such I ended up starting my own (I have decent enough readership, incidentally).  Like T. who was a former teacher and had gone through difficult and heart-wrenching infertility treatments and who taught me a lot about being less of an asshole about that sort of thing.  Like K. who was a former drink-and-drug ingenue, a chemical engineer, proficient seamstress, social activist, and B-movie buff.  Hey, psst, that last one is me.

It’s true that many of these women did obsess, and I do mean obsess, about partnership and new motherhood (P.S. they obsessed and thought and dreamed and talked about lots of other stuff, too). And why shouldn’t they?  It is fucking intense!  It has been, for me at least and alternately during different times in my life: amazing, exhilarating, more exhausting than anything I’ve known, rewarding, deeply troubling, by turns sublime and mundane.  I’ve had a lot of hard-working (and incidentally, a handful of well-paying and relatively socially prestigious) jobs, and while I loved those jobs and cared deeply and performed well, there’s nothing that has rocked my worldview quite like mamahood (probably because I was raised in a culture and family that kind of sneered at it).  I am not a boring or shallow or eye-rollingly obsessive person for caring – even caring a lot, for a time in my life – about homebirth or cloth diapers or cooking or sewing up the most perfectly soft blanket I ever could.  I’m not more silly than anyone else doing any other thing because each of these efforts increases my awareness of my abilities, of others’ needs, of the earth, the environment, my neighbors, of Love, of craftsmanship and failure and triumph.

Additionally, it seems almost Feminism 101 to point out the conversation dissing over-involved (and boring!) mothers gives fathers an Out entirely. For every over-involved laydee wondering how to pen a birth plan there is often a father who relies on her to shoulder the large part of the burden of worrying about such a life-changing event.  For every highchair enthusiast female there is often a male bankrolling or helping to bankroll the purchase.  Women who run about cleaning house and looking up recipes and reading on parenting techniques are often partnered to an (often male) person who comes home to a child (or children) well-loved and well taken care of.  What gifts these must be for him!  (He often comes home to dinner made, a house and checkbook managed, and a partner who deeply cares about his happiness and helps care for his needs, whatever her personal idiosyncratic tendencies.)

I know some people would like to believe that because I or any other mother (remember, we do not punish fathers so direly for showing any of the above passions or proclivities) get excited about reading up on childhood allergies or learning how to clean with vinegar and baking soda or cooking gingersnaps for a school function that we are tedious Bores of the first degree.  I mean, it’s a little confusing because people like eating the gingersnaps and benefitting from our volunteer efforts and they sure as hell, at some point, likely benefited from such a woman taking care of them. But now?  It’s so passé.  And worthless.  And shitty for America.

So, I don’t relate to the Out-Of-Proportion Over-Involved Mother because I haven’t yet met her – that I know of.  Now a real, true, rabidly-focused or even pathological parent?  Yes, this person exists (in all genders and sexes).  I know this because – guess what, there are all kinds of people out there!  (Like today I read about people who fervently collect artifacts involving human hair!*). She’s just: damned rare.  Really.  Or she’s remained elusive to me at least.  And don’t be so quick to smirk at a mother’s passion and endeavors – a passion that may very well be a temporary life stage borne of the life-changing event of parenthood.  This passion will often involve forging a person who cares passionately about other people, and her endeavors hopefully help raise a generation that learns how to care for one another as well.  After all, truly caring for one another – deeply and with consistency – is not always a culturally-expounded virtue but one at times in our lives we all, every one of us, desperately need.

Because seriously?  Next time you think moms are so, you know, MOM-like and boring and shallow because they give a shit about strollers?  First off, consider going and fucking yourself**, because someone changed your diapers and fed you and loved you up (and if you didn’t get the last I am deeply, deeply sad to hear this), and secondly – just, give me a break.  Women are people.  Even moms are people.  Just people, no more, no less.  And they certainly don’t owe you some kind of hip Awesomeness, all the time.

Kind of mind-boggling, eh?

Mentioned:

Rape in Richmond, CA from CNN.com

“What’s Wrong With Granola, Anyway?” by Wendy Priesnitz from Natural Life Magazine

Annual Hair & Trade Show in French Link, IN. Mr. Kendall, curator: “Mr. Kendall: “My life revolves around hair.”

** “Go Fuck Yourself”