#MicroblogMondays: You Never Can Tell

MicroblogMondays

Several years ago – I don’t even remember when exactly – I planted bulbs for spring. The following spring, a few came up, bloomed once or twice, and then died off thanks to the over-zealous squirrels who think our yard belongs to them.  In subsequent springs, we would often have one or two bulbs that would shoot up and tease us, but never bloom and finally wither.

That was the case this year too.  We had an impressive-looking shoot that was a lovely green but no hint of any flower to come just as the year before and the year before that. When we were packing the car for the beach two weeks ago, I commented that I wondered if it would ever bloom. Jimmy said he didn’t think so, and we shrugged and left for the beach.

And we returned from the beach to find this:

Blooming flowersWe were so surprised! And of course it had to bloom while we were gone, but we were still able to enjoy it for another week.  I don’t know what made the difference this year. I know sometimes bulbs can take a while to flower. We have received a lot of rain this year too, but I don’t know if that contributed. All I know is that I had written off this plant, and it proved me wrong.

Politics of the Swimsuit

This morning, a 2014 piece by Jessica Turner titled Moms, Put On that Swimsuit, came across my FB feed. 

Turner’s message to mothers is good and necessary: put away your vanity and body issues & play with your kids at the beach or pool.

No quibbles there. 

My issue with the piece came when Turner started to help women – mothers only – accept their less-than-perfect bodies because the “imperfections” like a soft, stretched belly and larger thighs are the leftover evidence of pregnancy and childbirth.

Ouch. I hate articles like that because they fail to acknowledge the experience of women who build their families without the physical acts of pregnancy or childbirth. So even though I am a mother, my extra pounds are just fat? I have no justification for it according to Turner.

I’m probably reading way too much into her piece and allowing my own history to influence my reaction, but it is difficult in a society in which conversations about motherhood are dominated by the physical parts.

And what about non-mothers? The child-free? Are they supposed to have perfect bodies since they weren’t ravaged by pregnancy and childbirth?

How about we change the piece to this:

Dear women, you are beautiful and wonderful the way you are. You wear whatever you want at the beach or pool because you are a human being with dignity and deserve to be at the beach or pool regardless of appearance, parental status, income, marital status, sexual orientation or gender identity. You are a human being and that is what matters.

We are much anticipating leaving for our first beach vacation of the summer next weekend. It’s been a long time since I was a size 6 18-year-old who prided herself on being close to model height and weight. I weigh more than I’d like and dread seeing family and friends who knew me when – and I have no excuse for it other than food and age. But I will be rocking my Land’s End tankini with the skirt bottom and I think I will look pretty damn cute! I’ll still be the palest person on the beach, but that’s OK. I’ll slather on copious amounts of sunscreen and build sandcastles with Daniel and play in the water.

A Mishmash of Thoughts Around Mama, Mommy, Motherhood and Blogging

Last Monday I stumbled across Elissa Strauss’ Longreads piece titled “The Rise of ‘Mama.'” An entire 4000-word piece on a term that is very common in the South? Sign me up! I call my mother “mama.”  Mommy is too childish and “mom” seemed too harsh to me. I called my father “daddy” too.

Strauss’ piece is about how many women on their blogs and other sites starting in the 90s prefer to use “mama” for lifestyle reasons and to reflect the kind of mother they plan to be:

…I noticed a number of alternative moms who referred to themselves as “mama.” This was the radical homemaking, attachment parenting, extended breastfeeding bunch, and “mama” was right at home with their folksy, back-to-the-earth approach to motherhood.

Mothers prefer “mama” over “mommy” because it connects them to the past and has connections with “mama bear.” It is also helps them avoid cliches around motherhood. How many times have you been referred to as Kid’s Mom or subtly condescended to with “Mommy ____,” insert your own hot button term. Mommy blogging. Mommy politics. Soccer mom. Mommy tracked. Helicoptor mom. Strauss points out that “mommy” has become a term that replaces a woman’s individual identity and name.

All of this is very interesting and true I suspect, but I thought the strongest part of Strauss’ piece was the last third when she delves into feminism and how it has influenced current mother practices and behavior.

Notes Strauss:

It’s not an understatement to say that feminists completely struck out when it comes to getting communal protections for mothers; we are one of three countries in the world without a universal maternity leave policy, and we also fall very short when it comes to making sure that all working families have access to safe and affordable childcare. Yet, this doesn’t mean we as a culture don’t place much emphasis parenting, because we do—it’s just all on the parents, and it’s driving them many of them nuts.

Word.

While our mothers juggled their role in the workplace and parenting, often favoring the workplace, we strive to do both and overcompensate with our children. I love that Strauss also ties the pressure to have a drug-free birth, breastfeed and practice attachment parenting to this.

There’s also a link between the stalled gender revolution—we’ve seen a rise of stay-at-home mothers in recent years, going from 23% of mothers in 1999 to 29% in 2012—and the idealization of motherhood. The bigger, and more important, a job we make motherhood, the harder it is going to be for those women who have the financial choice to go the office to do so. Especially as long as our work culture remains so inhospitable to parents with young children. If it is the “most important job in the world” (mothering) vs. some office job where one constantly feels both undervalued and a nuisance because she made the decision to have children, who, if money is not a factor, would choose the office job?

This is not meant to be a knock on anyone who believes in and practices attachment parenting, stays at home, or preferred to breastfeed.  It is about the increasing pressure to do all of this and I’ve felt that in some ways, the rise and promotion of many of these practices are meant to keep women divided so that workplace and societal changes never make progress.

But all the while we are still without real choices. So at what point does this mama pride become, consciously or not, a way to accommodate the fact that mothers still don’t have equal access to economic, political and cultural life?

***

Dooce announced a few weeks ago she was going to stop blogging which I thought was a nice footnote to Strauss’ piece.  Dooce was proclaimed “Queen of the Mommy Bloggers” and helped kick off moms sharing their lives online – the good, the bad and the ugly – what has been referred to as a radical act.

What does it mean that Dooce is shuttering her blog and moving on to other opportunities?  Is it the beginning of the end for “mommy blogging,” that hated pejorative? Just this week, two of my blog friends have announced they are going to quit blogging. They have both blogged for years. Are we facing a mass exodus?

i don’t think so. I think the allure of blogging, the sharing, is what will keep it going. Though derided my many, mothers blogging enables them to connect to a wider world and has provided so much companionship and recognition that you are not alone for mothers around the world. That “me too” epiphany is powerful and not easily done away with.

Maybe Dooce’s exit is for the best. Maybe it will end the “mommy blog” perception and allow a smaller spotlight on the practice so that the bloggers can return to the true point of blogging: catharsis and connection.

Dooce also pointed out that the increase in other social media channels – twitter and its ilk – had changed blogging.  Yes it has. It has increased the number of platforms involved to cultivate community. And that’s hard. We have all talked about how hard it is to have a conversation when some is on the blog, some on FB, and some on twitter. But that’s not going to change. Mommy blogging has reached the point in which its long-time practitioners can remember the “good ol’ days” and long for them wistfully. Change happens even in this sphere.

***

Yesterday I finished Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed, a book of essays by prominent writers about their childless-by-choice lives.  Strange reading choice perhaps? Maybe I wanted to see how the other half lives. It was a good book, and I enjoyed all the essays. I was especially curious to read Lionel Shriver’s because I read We Need to Talk About Kevin late last year, and it disturbed me. It was supposed to disturb me, but I also felt like Shriver got a lot wrong because she does not have children. Perhaps that is presumptuous of me but when one is writing a book about a disturbed child and maternal affection, it might help to have experienced it. Something rang false in the book.

Anyway, the majority of the women did not want children because of terrible childhoods and also because they recognized it would be difficult to achieve their professional and personal goals if they had children.  To be fair, while these women loved children – dispelling the myth that child-free women hate children (duh) – none of them had ever longed to start a family and that is truly the primary reason they didn’t.

I come back to the economic motivations not to have children and how doing so can impact their professional lives. I know that writing isn’t your typical 9-5 profession and might be filled with more economic uncertainty than other professions – I wish she had included non-writers too. But that ties in so neatly to what Strauss wrote in her essay. Most of us know that when we become mothers, we are going to lose a lot of freedom. Most of our freedom. No more sleeping in. No more jetting off to an exotic vacation or any vacation at the drop of the hat. Sometimes, though, I think the professional sacrifices we end up having to make are unexpected. Sick children. School vacations and teacher workdays. Special needs and therapies. Appointments. Inability to stay for meetings after a certain hour. Trying to call in to a meeting with a needy child in the room. I’m not saying those things are impossible, but they are HARD.

You do find yourself making choices that aren’t really choices because they are the only option you have. And as Strauss pointed out, thanks to policies in this country, it is up to the parent to figure out all of this.

I admire these women for knowing what they didn’t want and sticking to their guns. Because being a working mom is hard.

***

As the title says, this post is a mishmash, my attempt to reconcile and connect a jumble of thoughts going through my head. Hopefully it makes a tiny bit of sense.

#MicroblogMondays: Listen to Your Mother

  

It is hard to believe, but this is show week for Listen to Your Mother: Raleigh-Durham. We have tech rehearsal on Wednesday and our shows are Thursday and Friday.

This is our third year producing it, and each year the time before the show seems to go faster and faster. I swear it seems like we were accepting submissions and scheduling auditions only yesterday.

We have a great cast and a diverse, incredibly moving set of essays. Watching the cast come together and bond is always one of my favorite parts of this process.  I talk a lot about what an honor it is to facilitate these wonderful women’s access to a stage and audience to share their stories, but it truly is. These are ordinary women, ordinary in the way we all are, but with stories to share, stories we all have.

I always find myself singing. “Another Op’nin’, Another Show'” this time of year. Listen to Your Mother isn’t exactly a show like what is meant in the song, but it feels right.

So cross your fingers and send us good wishes later this week. Our Thursday show is sold our and Friday close to it. And another Listen to Your Mother year will come to a close.

Then out o’ the hat it’s that big first night
The overture is about to start
You cross your fingers and hold your heart,
It’s curtain time and away we go!
Another op’nin’,
Just another Op’nin of another show

The Incident at the Grocery Store

I said (on Twitter) I would post about our Tuesday night incident at the grocery store, but then I changed my mine because of some of the issues involved. But I cannot stop thinking about it and with a whole 48-hours distance, I’ve decided to post what happened. 

Tuesday night, Daniel and I were walking into the grocery store to buy cookies for a class project they were doing the next day. 

Suddenly, a voice behind me said, “Why did you stick out your tongue at me? And why are you making such ugly faces?” I turned around to see a man behind us. I bent down to Daniel and asked him if he stuck out his tongue at the man because I was going to tell him to apologize and then Daniel, who is going through quite a rude phase, said, “You’re going to jail” to this African American man. Let us all cringe at this unfortunate, poorly-timed comment.

The man replied, “oh I see you have been watching TV. That’s right…start them early.” Then he shook his head and walked past us.

I was in shock and fuming because this man had just called my child racist when in truth, he was being an asshole.

We bought the cookies and Daniel was helpfully acting up in the cashier’s line and wanting all the candy. The man was by the customer service desk, observing all of this. I looked at him as we were leaving and he raised an eyebrow and shook his head at us.

I should have let it go. Maybe I should have walked over and apologized for my child sticking out his tongue and try to explain he was being an asshole.

Instead I walked over and asked him if he had anything else to say to me. He told me that what else could he think when my child said things like that other than it must come from the parents. I tried to explain that Daniel is 5 and loves his Lego police set and that he would tell anyone to go to jail. He said I didn’t even apologize to him. I said I didn’t have a chance and that he doesn’t know anything about me. He says all he knows is what he sees, a mid-30s white woman with a child who knows hate.

Our voices are rising as you can imagine and Daniel, who doesn’t know what is going on, starts flailing an arm at the man. I drag him away and the man shouts, “see? You have a horrible-ass kid with terrible parents.” 

I shake my head and leave. 

I was pretty devastated after that and Daniel was upset too. That night he kept saying he was going to put that man in jail forever and all I can think is how that exactly what that man has to fear. 

I’m sorry it happened. I’m sorry that 5-year-old kids being assholes can be an unfortunate trigger. I’m sorry that this incident has shocked me to my core when as a privileged white lady, this is rare for me while likely a common occurrence for many others. I’m sorry it is a challenge taking my child out right now when he is too often rude, sassy and defiant despite my best efforts.

Mostly, I’m just sorry.

It’s Hard Out There for a Working Mom

This piece made the rounds last week. In it, Katharine Zaleski apologized for the condescension and outright disdain she showed towards her coworkers who were working mothers.  Her apology might have been more tolerable if it had come before she herself became a mother and realized that gee, it’s hard out there for working moms.  Zaleski has seen the error of her ways and is co-founder of a company that seeks to match women with work-at-home tech jobs.  Her piece rubbed me the wrong way because of her privilege that eased her decision to lean in or lean out.  The majority of women don’t have C-level positions at start-ups coming their way.  At the very least, I hope I wasn’t nearly the asshole she was to working moms in her office before I had kids.  And really, that’s the crux of it.  Was it really so difficult for her to attempt a modicum of empathy for those women? Was it really that impossible for her to think that maybe she might have kids someday and how would she like to be treated in the workplace?

One of the best responses to Zaleski’s piece was adamant in her refusal to accept the non-apology.  Anne Born notes that being a working mom would have been more bearable if just one person had backed her up or spoken up as she received comments and side eyes doubting her work ethic. By not extending any support, no matter how small,  women like Zaleski became just “one of the guys.”  And Born is writing about what she experienced in 1997, a time not that long ago. She concludes:

I worked with too many women like you, Ms. Zaleski, who reinforced that I was just a lesser version of the other women I worked with who did not have such tedious family obligations. Working women are worth less enough already without your help – or your apologies.

Sometimes I think that with all the media coverage of “leaning in” and telecommuting, we think that it is easier to be a working mom than ever before. This topic has been on my mind a lot, especially since in NC, children missed almost 2 full weeks of school due to snow and sleet in February and for many working parents, that time must be made up or vacation used.  Working from home is not permitted in all workplaces.

The truth is that it is still very hard to be a mom who works outside the home. It’s even more difficult if you need further accommodations.  I think that there is a perception that daycare and programs like after-school care make it easy to work 8-5 if you are a working mother. That’s true if everything goes to plan, but what I and several other women I know have learned, it is as fragile as a house of cards.

  • Think of the mother whose child qualifies for one of the few free preschool options available in NC. The problem is that while these preschools end when the school day ends, after-school care is not available for these students. The mother will need to leave work at 3:30 to transport her child to some other program so she is able to return to work in order to fulfill the hours she is expected to work. The logical answer would be to let her telecommute but sadly, her position classification makes that option unavailable. She also cannot take her lunch hour at that time because OSHA rules dictate that she take a break after 6 hours of work.
  • After-school care is a godsend, but imagine if you are a mother whose child cannot cope in the school-sanctioned program.  Maybe the child is acting out or just not coping well and on the verge of being expelled.  Maybe the mother can hire a student to transport her child home and stay with the child until after work or maybe, if she’s lucky, she finds an alternative program that will pick up her child from school and take her to a program that is more suited to the child’s needs.  While this mother will be relieved to find any option that works to keep her child safe and engaged while she fulfills her expected hours, these options cost money, likely more money than the school-sanctioned after-school program. These are also options that are likely more available in larger cities than smaller ones. What would be the answer for the mother who lives in a small town?
  • Maybe your child is in a small school that is perfect for your child’s needs, and your child is thriving, but the after-school program goes only to 4 PM.  Maybe in this case you have the ability to make up some of the missed hours, but you live in fear of a meeting being scheduled late afternoon and any hint that you might not be a dedicated employee who deserves the responsibility she has been given. You worry that coworkers view you as Zaleski viewed her coworkers who had children.

It is easy to say that these women should find other jobs that are more flexible, but the reality is that many workplaces are less flexible than you imagine.  After all, even Yahoo rescinded its telecommuting policy.  I work for the state and while there are drawbacks to being a state employee (flexibility being one), it has decent health insurance, paid time off and security. It is also one of the largest employers in my state. It isn’t that simple to go get a new job, especially when children are involved.

I applaud Zaleski for her epiphany (even if it is infuriatingly late for those women she worked with prior to having her own child) and her effort to make things better for working women through her new company. The problem is that her company will help only a small subset of working women: those with in-demand technical skills. What about the rest?  What about the factory worker or hourly office worker who finds herself walking a tight rope of child care and praying that the few options that exist will work for her family? What about those women for whom telecommuting is not allowed? What about women who have children with special needs or needs that mainstream programs cannot support but who still need to or want to work?

We still have a lot of work to do to help mothers succeed in the workforce.

 

 

Eula Biss’ ‘On Immunity’

I first read excerpts of Biss’ On Immunity in Salon months ago. I was finally able to get it from my local library 2 weeks ago.  It is a slim book, so I read it quickly in about 2 days, but it is a beautiful, profound book.  It is a mother’s and a literature professor’s exploration of vaccination and an analysis of the terms used, arguments made and history. Biss appears to be pro-vaccination, but the book is full of vivid personal moments, and she manages to straddle the difficult area of highlighting parental concerns (her own and others) and using evidence and anecdote to respond. She doesn’t preach; she explores and explains and comes at it from a mother’s point of view which is disarming.

Honestly, I don’t even know how to review this book.  I kept it past the two-week checkout window so I could re-read it and post on it.  It is a beautiful, intelligent book, and I highly recommend it, especially in light of the measles outbreak and latest reports of mumps as well.

I am pro-vaccine.  Daniel is fully vaccinated, and I believe that vaccines are a public health miracle.  We are fortunate that we have never had to experience a polio outbreak or smallpox epidemic with little hope for a cure.  Maybe it is because I’ve read way too many biographies of historical figures, but I cannot think of vaccines as anything but good.

But. I felt nervous when Daniel needed to receive the dreaded “MMR” vaccine. He received it on time, but I closely monitored him.  I agree that these decisions are difficult, especially when it is your tiny, fresh new baby who is being poked.  I get it. I get how easy and comforting it is to think if only you can feed you child the best, safest food; provide the safest, most enriching environment, you can somehow stave off disease of all types, ranging from the flu to cancer. What we forget or don’t want to think about is that we are all irrevocably tied to our environment and all the good and bad things in it. We have far less control than we think, including over our own bodies.  As The Emperor of All Maladies (a book I had read already and one that Biss references) points out, cancer is us.

I don’t think I can do justice to this book in a review, so I’m going to post some quotes that stood out to me.

When I search now for a synonym for ‘protect,’ my thesaurus suggests, after ‘shield’ and ‘shelter’ and ‘secure,’ one final option: ‘inoculate.’ This was the question, when my son was born – would I inoculate him? As I understood it then, this was not a question of whether I would protect him so much as it was a question of whether inoculation was a risk worth taking. (p. 7)

The very expression ‘herd immunity’ suggests that we are cattle, waiting, perhaps to be sent to slaughter. And it invites an unfortunate association with the term ‘herd mentality,’ a stamped toward stupidity. The herd, we assume, is foolish.  Those of us who eschew the herd mentality tend to prefer a frontier mentality in which we imagine our bodies as isolated homesteads that we tend ether well or badly. The health of the homestead next to ours does not affect us, this thinking suggests, so long as ours is well tended. (p. 20-21)

When I ask the pediatrician what the purpose of the hep B vaccine was, he answered, ‘that’s a very good question,’ in a tone that I understood to mean this was a question he relished answering.  Hep B was a vaccine for the inner city, he told me, designed to protect the babies of drug addicts and prostitutes.  It was not something, he assured me, that people like me needed to worry about. (p. 23-24)

The brief that public health measures are not intended for people like us is widely held by many people like me.  Public health, we assume, is for people with less – less education, less healthy habits, less access to quality health care, less time and money. (p. 24)

One of the mysteries of hep B immunization is that vaccinating only ‘high risk’ groups, which was the original public health strategy, did not bring down rates of infection…But rates of hep B infection remained unchanged until the vaccine was recommended for all newborns a decade later.  Only mass vaccination brought down the rates of infection and it has now virtually eliminated the disease in children. (p. 25)

When the last nationwide smallpox epidemic began in 1898, some people believed that whites were not susceptible to the disease…And when smallpox arrived in Middlesboro, Kentucky, everyone in the black section of town who resisted vaccination was vaccinated at gunpoint. These campaigns did not limit the spread of the disease, but all the risk of vaccination…was absorbed by the most vulnerable groups. The poor were enlisted in the protection of the privileged. (p. 25-26)

If it was meaningful then for the poor to assert that they were not purely dangerous, I suspect it might be just as meaningful now for the rest of us to accept that we are not purely vulnerable. The middle class may be ‘threatened,’ but we are still, just by virtue of having bodies, dangerous. (p. 27)

In a study that invited people to compare various causes of death, Slovic found that people tended to believe that accidents cause more deaths than disease and that homicide causes more deaths than suicide, when the opposite is true in both cases. (p. 37)

‘Intuitive toxicology’ is the term that Slovic uses for the way most people assess the risk of chemicals…For toxicologists, ‘the does makes the poison.’ Any substance can be toxic in excess. Water, for instance, is lethal to humans in very high doses…But most people prefer to think of substances as either safe or dangerous, regardless of the does. And we extend this thinking to exposure, in that we regard any exposure to chemicals, no matter how brief or limited, as harmful. (p. 38)

Allowing children to develop immunity to contagious diseases ‘naturally,’ without vaccination, is appealing to some of us. Much of that appeal depends on the belief that vaccines are inherently unnatural…Vaccination is a kind of domestication of a wild thing, in that it involves our ability to harness a virus and break it like a horse, but its action depends on the natural response of the body to the effects of that once-wild thing. (p. 41)

The idea that toxins, rather than filth or germs, are the root cause of most maladies is a popular theory of disease among people like me. (p. 73)

As for mercury, a child will almost certainly get more mercury exposure from her immediate environment than from vaccination. This is true, too, of the aluminum that is often used as an adjuvant in vaccines to intensify the immune response.  Aluminum is in a lot of things, including fruits and cereals as well as, again, breast milk. Our breast milk, it turns out, is as polluted as our environment at large. Laboratory analysis of breast milk has detected paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, flame retardants, pesticides and rocket fuel. (p. 74)

Though toxin is now often used to refer to man-made chemicals, the most precise meaning of the term is still reserved for biologically produced poisons.(p. 74)

Immunity is a public space. And it can be occupied by those who choose not to carry immunity. For some of the mothers I know, a refusal to vaccinate falls under a broader resistance to capitalism. But refusing immunity as a form of civil disobedience bears an unsettling resemblance to the very structure the Occupy movement seeks to disrupt – a privileged 1 percent are sheltered from risk while they draw resources from the other 99 percent. (p. 95)

Paternalism has fallen out of favor in medicine, just as the approach to fathering that depends on absolute authority no longer dominates parenting. But how we should care for other people remains a questions. (p. 98).

Autonomy is usually imagined as the alternative to paternalism. But in what is sometimes called the “restaurant model” of medicine, the paternalism of doctors has been replaced by the consumerism of patients…And the doctor, who was a father in the paternalistic model, is now a waiter. (p. 99)

Once you are infected with chicken pox, the varicella virus never leaves your body. It lives in your nerve roots and must be kept at bay by your immune system for the rest of your life. (p. 115).

We used to live among wild things, mountain lions on the ridge and fires raging on the prairie. There were dangers….It is difficult to imagine any type of chicken pox, with its distinctive rash described as a ‘dew drop on a rose petal,’ as sinister. And it is hard not to suspect, when the two types of chicken pox virus are termed the wild type and the vaccine virus, that the wild type might be superior. (p.115-116)

The natural body meets the body politic in the act of vaccination, where a single needle penetrates both. The capacity of some vaccines to generate a collective immunity superior to the individual immunity produced by those same vaccines suggests that the politic has not only a body, but also an immune system capable of protecting it as a whole. (p. 126)

The anxieties generated by the AIDS epidemic have bled into our attitudes toward vaccination. Needles, as we learned from AIDS, can spread disease. The needle itself has become ‘dirty.’ AIDS reveals that our immune systems are vulnerable to sabotage and can be permanently disabled. (p. 136)

AIDS education taught us the importance of protecting our bodies from contact with other bodies, and this seems to have bred another kind of insularity, a preoccupation with the integrity of the individual immune system. Building, boosting and supplementing one’s personal immune system is a kind of cultural obsession of the moment. I know mothers who believe this is a viable substitute for vaccination, and who understand themselves as raising children with superior immune systems. (p. 137)

Biss’ On Immunity is truly an amazing book. I think I’ve read it three times now, and its study of the language used in vaccine discussions has taught me so much. I urge everyone to read it.