Tuesday, March 22, 2011

An open letter about scolding mothers

About all I know about Kelly Oxford is that she's funny, Canadian, and says funny things on Twitter. I'm not sure how I wound up following her. but I'm glad I do.

She's foul mouthed and brash and sometimes unkind ("How old were you when you realized Robin Williams wasn't funny?"—probably around 35, I think—and "Weird that as an adult, all the emotion I'm hearing in Madonna's 'Crazy For You' is Madonna hoping she hits all the notes and can hold them.") and she makes me laugh ("Your kid’s ready to come out of diapers when she yells, 'Hey, guys I’ll be down soon, I just need to get Mom to change my diaper' Right?"), often because many of her tweets hold both humor and a grain of truth ("Anyone who says 'I'm a bitch before I get my coffee' is a bitch after they get their coffee too.").

Oxford tweets things that "nice women" don't often say and that "nice mothers" hardly ever do, though she has small children ("Older 2 kids better sharpen up because the 2yr old yelled, "YOU GO GIRL!!" to her Dad in this restaurant and now she's my favorite.").

Kelly Oxford

I suppose anyone who dabbles that close to the edge of decorum gets a lot of complaints. A few days ago, apparently, she got some when she made a joke about, of all things, Victoria Beckham's thinness. On her blog, Oxford writes an open letter to this complainer:
Yesterday I tweeted something like, “I wonder how many waiters served a pregnant Victoria Beckham and think to themselves ‘Eating for one are we?’”
But I erased it because it was brought to my attention that Joan Rivers already said “Congratulations to Victoria Beckham, who’s pregnant with her fourth child! She’s finally eating for one.”
You then sent me many, many messages on Twitter which said, and I paraphrase:
This isn’t funny. I hope your children grow up with a good sense of body image. What you say and do as a parent is what your children learn
Oxford proceeds to shred the complainer's argument, making a lot of good points, most not directly applicable to the experiences of those of us who don't regularly crack celebrity jokes to our 100,000+ Tweeps.

But a few apply to my own life, and maybe yours if you've ever received (or issued!) criticisms, snap judgments, and faultfinding about your (or someone else's) mothering or life choices. I wrote about this once, and wish I'd included lines like these:
 You are the reason that mothers feel as though they cannot be themselves. Why women who aren’t mothers question their ability to raise a child and fear losing themselves
Oh, and this part is relevant, too, if any of those criticisms you've heard involve your kid having "an ounce of personality" (or a pound, or a ton):
... That any ounce of personality must be squashed in order to raise ‘good’ and ‘proper’ and ‘kind’ children. That’s bullshit.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Toxic comments on the "mommy" essay

Yikes. I just got through skimming the comments on the WSJ essay I extolled in my last post.  With the exception of a few shining jewels of polite or even enthusiastic agreement, they are overwhelmingly critical and in many cases downright nasty.

Which, God knows, is not atypical in anonymous internet comments, especially in connection with articles about child-rearing or motherhood (more on that in a moment). Anyway, after reading them I was moved to dwell on this issue yet again to point out three things:

1.) Approximately half of the comment posters missed the essay's point entirely. They seemed to think Brodesser-Akner was complaining about her children calling her "mommy." Which I thought she made clear was not the problem. Her complaint involved the frequent use of the word by other adults to describe her, themselves, mothers in general, or any activity (blogging, working part time, bickering about work-family balance) in which mothers are, or supposedly are, involved.

2.) Those who, after reading an article, are going to take the extra time to log onto the site, compose a comment, and then post it, probably should not have the comment read, "This article was a waste of time." Why not waste a little less time by not adding a comment which is yet another waste of time?

3.) I can understand why, to many people, it may seem no big deal whether a woman with children is referred to (stressing again that we're talking by people other than her kids) as mommy, mother, mom, mama, ma, female parental unit, person of maternity or member of the child-rearing community. And sure, compared to, say, what’s happening in Japan, it isn't. But then, neither is probably 99.999 (add a bunch more 9s) of what's on the internet and only a slightly smaller proportion of what's reported in the WSJ, or any publication.

Still, the words we use to describe things actually are important. Media depictions of people and their roles are important. Those things shape our culture and influence the way we view each other and our contributions to society. Try this experiment: Say you're an employer, evaluating two comparable candidates for an important position. Both of their resumes indicate they're currently not in the paid workforce. In the interviews, you ask each what she's been doing. One says, "I work at home, caring for my children." The other says, "I'm a mommy."

All other things being equal, which one are you going to hire?

As I said in my last post, women's roles in business and politics have changed dramatically over just a couple of generations. Women's roles as mothers still lag behind. Mothers pay a wage penalty in the workplace compared to non-mothers with comparable jobs and backgrounds (including women without children and men either with or without children). Women still do the bulk of childcare and housework. As a culture, we're trying to figure out how to reconcile these things, still trying to work out the bugs. That's a big deal, and as we go through that process, the issue of what words we use, along with any number of other details, is indeed important enough to write about.

Dismissing mothers' concerns as "whining" or "overwrought" or "a waste of time" or "silly" or "trivial" or "yeah, yeah, we get it already" is incredibly common—even among people who are otherwise sympathetic to feminist concerns—for reasons I am still trying to understand. I hope to write about this, too, someday, because writing about something is often the best way to make sense of it. (If anyone can suggest a way to, say, google "whining" and determine how often words like those are used to apply to mothers compared to everyone else, I would greatly appreciate it.)

In the meantime, if we want people to take mothers' issues seriously, it doesn't help to refer to them as mommies' issues.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Let's give "mommy" a rest

There's probably a German word for this: the experience of reading something that precisely expresses some inchoate feelings that have been floating around the edge of your consciousness for a while without your having fully explored them, even though you do intend to do so at some point and maybe write an essay about them, which you now realize is impossible because this other writer has managed to describe said feelings so articulately that even though you're kind of disappointed at the loss of your own essay you go, "Yes! Yes! This!!" and click immediately to your blog to link and post about it. I suggest, Readingfeelingtheregoesyouressaybloggenfreude.

That's the experience I had upon reading Taffy Brodesser-Akner's "Time for a War on Mommy" in the Wall Street Journal's online blogs.

Brodesser-Akner complains about the ubiquitousness of the word “mommy” to describe women with children—especially as a modifier to “track,” “wars,” “blogger,” etc. The label, she argues, does a disservice to everyone involved: to the particular women in question, to mothers in general, and even to their children—who do not, contrary to conventional wisdom, necessarily benefit from growing up under the impression that their maternal parental units’ lives revolve entirely around their existence.

Photo from momlogic.com

Let me just pull a quote or two to give you the gist:

Why are we grown women calling each other Mommy? Is being a mother such a silly avocation that we have to baby it up, stringing it with the hormones and gushy feelings of what our children call us? Does it strike anyone that calling a woman who has had a child Mommy is demeaning and infantilizing? Does it strike anyone that calling philosophical disagreements Mommy Wars is no different than screaming “GIRL FIGHT!” as two strippers go at it in a mud pit?


Maybe you think I’m taking this too seriously. But consider this: When we allow our children to name us, a name they use before they can speak, and then we go by that name in the world, are we doing them any favors? When our children see that we are first and foremost a mother, and a mother in their terms, I believe they suffer.

I have long hated the use of the word "mommy" by anyone but my kids (who, sadly, haven't uttered it for at least a decade, and in fact now often upgrade to the crisply mature “Mother”).

As someone who longs to dignify the role of motherhood—to spread the idea that although, yes, we often spend an inordinate portion of our days watching cartoons and managing poop, caring for children is ultimately an important project, one among many important projects in which we are engaged—I find the word “mommy” demeaning and condescending. To me, it sends the message that a being involved with children is silly and trivial and babyish. And so, it implies by extension, am I.

By the way, like Brodesser-Akner, I wrote a Salon essay that ran under a headline with the word “mommy” in it. But in that case, the subject’s mommyishness was the whole point—I was talking about a phenomenon (schmaltzy mass-emails about motherhood) that in itself was demeaning, condescending, trivializing, etc. etc. I was fine with that.

So I disagree with Rachel Larimore who, writing for Slate's XX factor, half agrees with that "mommy" is overused but pooh-poohs Brodesser-Akner's annoyance as overwrought. Larimore skirts the edge of arguing that what words we use to describe things don’t much matter. Which seems a strange position for a writer to take.

“And really, aren’t the terms mommy wars and mommy track largely creations of the media?” Larimore asks. Well, yeah. Is someone who writes a blog for an online politics and culture magazine seriously arguing that if some term’s widespread use is confined mainly to the media then we can safely ignore it, confident that it has zero effect on anybody's actual lives or their perceptions of things?

Larimore also notes that fathers "don’t sit around wringing their hands about it all or devout thousands of column inches to the issue." Right. Maybe that has something to do with stay-at-home mothers outnumbering stay-at-home fathers about 34:1, with even mothers with full-time jobs still doing the lioness’s share of work at home. Maybe it is related to the fact that, although fathers are unquestionably changing more diapers than they did a generation or two ago, in that same time many many many more mothers are working outside the home (sorry, too rushed to look up statistics; might actually be more than three "manys") while still struggling to get their domestic lives to catch up from 1963. In any case, are a few thousand column inches here or there really too much to ask, considering they're analyzing one of the most dramatic social changes of all time?

By the way, I noticed, among the comments, one by a poster named Taffy forlornly asking, “Was my comment removed for a reason?”

I don’t know if that’s THE Taffy, as in Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the author of the WSJ piece. I don't know if Slate actually removed Taffy's comment, or why. But I'd like to let The Taffy know—as well as, really, any Taffy, along with people not named Taffy —that your comments (including, needless to say, comments defending any and all uses of "mommy") are welcome below!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Vacation? What vacation??

A few of the commenters over on WBUR who heard my "Here and Now" program earlier were a bit put off by my comparing staying home with kids to a luxurious vacation, both on the air and in the accompanying essay.

Frankly, I just don't understand their confusion.

What are you other SAHMs trying to tell me -- that your kids don't feed you grapes and fan you with palm fronds every day while you lounge on the beach watching Oprah and eating bon bons?

Just kidding, of course! Bon bons are much too fattening.

Seriously, I can bring up an image of myself on a typical day at home, especially when my boys were small, standing knee deep in scattered toys, the kids running around yanking curtains off the windows and throwing scrambled eggs on the ceiling between fist fights, me holding an overloaded basket of laundry, looking at a sink full of dirty dishes, my throat hoarse from yelling ...

What, that's not how you like to spend your luxurious vacations?

To clarify. I didn't mean "luxurious vacation" in the sense of, well, luxurious. Or, even, technically, involving vacation. Not as in time away from work, anyway. Because of course, caring for children is hard, hard work. The hardest work I've ever done. Times 10.

(Quick anecdote: I used to be a newspaper reporter. My ex-husband was, and still is, a newspaper reporter. He would come home after I'd had a long, hard day with the kids, and have the nerve to complain about his job. I'd say, "Look. I've done your job. I know it can be hard. But one thing I can say is that I never ended a day of newspaper work with a throat that was sore from yelling.")

(Poor guy just wanted to vent a little at the end of a long day of breadwinning? No wonder he divorced her, some of you are probably thinking.)

Anyway! What I meant was that being with my children every day was filled with the rich experiences that a wonderful vacation can provide, the priceless memories that stay with you for life. And by luxurious I meant expensive. Possibly unaffordable.

It was my way of attempting to explain how I can believe that women probably shouldn't quit their jobs to stay home with their kids, and at the same time not regret that having done so myself. That's a difficult thing to explain, involving two seemingly contradictory statements -- the financial mistake paired with the lack of regret -- and people don't always understand what I'm trying to say.

That's OK. I'll keep trying. That's what we're here for!

Did you stay home with kids? Do you regret the decision, or cherish the time or both? Or, if you continued working, do you have any regrets in the other direction? How do you like to spend your luxurious vacations? Comments on all of the above or any other seemingly contradictory issues are more than welcome!

Welcome, "Here and Now" listeners/website readers!

My interview NPR's "Here and Now" program finally aired today (it had been bumped a couple of times earlier for breaking news in Egypt). If you missed it, you can listen to it here. (Click the button near the top of the page.)

For those of you who are visiting after hearing the broadcast, welcome! This is a good place to discuss work-family balancing, the financial hazards of stay-at-home parenting, pressures on mothers, and other life choices women make and the cultural context in which they make them.

Feel free to suggest topics, or just write your thoughts. Glad to have you here!

P.S. If you like the "Here and Now" segment, you might also enjoy a call-in program I did recently on Minnesota Public Radio with law professor Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law and author of Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter. You can hear it here.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Other People's Parenting

My friend and editor (frenditor? nah, sounds too robotic) Jennifer Niesslein has written a wonderful essay in the spring issue of Brain, Child, which she co-founded and co-edits, about the power of Other People's Parenting.

In "The Village: How Other People Influence Your Parenting," Jennifer talks about the ways that our social networks—not the online ones, like Facebook; the real-life ones, like the parents of the kids who go to school with your kids—can affect our parenting behavior, causing us to throw extravagant kid birthday parties (or disapprove of them), punish our children for mouthing off by dabbing hot sauce on their tongues (or be horrified by the practice), and so on.

So true! It's part of what I was trying to get at in my 2005 essay, "Volvo Trash," in which I wrote about owning a Volvo that was respectable on the outside but a trash can inside, about living in a Volvo-loving neighborhood but feeling more like ... well, maybe a bit more like the Mazda Protégé that I eventually acquired instead (and which, 10 years later, is, as of last night, totaled; but that's another story).

I so remember how much my parenting, especially when my children were small, was influenced by what I felt my parenting community—progressive, educated, NPR-listening types—would deem appropriate. As I put it in that essay:
Toy guns were out, of course. Network television was frowned upon, the Disney Corporation suspect, fast food restaurants questionable from many angles: nutritional, environmental, vocational, culinary, aesthetic.
Which do you like better, McDonald’s or Burger King?” my son once asked a neighbor kid.
“Our family,” the girl replied loftily, “does not eat fast food.”
Again, I understood the reasoning and even concurred. But half-heartedly. Without television and Disney videos, I never would have got dinner made or read an entire newspaper. Those indoor playlands at fast-food restaurants offered precious rainy-day recreation—and reading time for me—for the price of a couple of burgers. In a weak moment in the toy aisle, I allowed Jack to select a plastic gadget with a trigger that discharged little foam rings.. Don’t call it a gun, I instructed him privately, it’s a space shooter. That made it sound comfortably kitschy, like a weapon a Martian might wield in a ’50s sci-fi movie.
I eventually loosened up, quit worrying about what my parenting community might think about this or that. Partly because I realized, “Hey, my parenting community would frown on a great many of my parenting decisions—screw 'em.” Partly because everybody loosens up as their kids get older.

But I haven't completely escaped the influence of Other People's Parenting. Maybe I never will.

Friday, March 4, 2011

I may have overplayed the James Franco card

ME (to 16-year-old son): Did you hear that James Franco made it to class at Yale at 9 a.m. the day after hosting the Oscars?

SON (with no apparent enthusiasm): He's a diligent boy.

Yale Daily News via New York Times
ME: It's not so much that he made it across the country. Of course it's humanly possible to get from LA to New Haven overnight. What's interesting is, that's how important he considers his education -- he didn't even use "I just hosted the Oscars" as an excuse to skip class.

SON: Mm-hmm.

ME: And did you know he's also earning a master's at NYU?

SON: An ambitious young man.

ME: That's a full-time program, you know.


ME: And just think, meanwhile he also starred in one movie, appeared in several others, wrote a book, had an art exhibit at the Museum of --

SON: -- and learned heart surgery, yadda yadda yadda. OK!!!!!!!

Hmm. Is it possible I overplayed the Franco card? Maybe I should have added that my son would have done a better job as Oscar host.