Monday, November 10, 2014

Checking in

Well, it has been a while, but I thought I would check in and maybe get the ball rolling again by sharing two articles.  The first is an essay I wrote for a conference dedicated to my former teacher and mentor, Miriam Hansen.  It takes up her notion of vernacular modernism and relates it to the Dead End kids films of the early 1930s.  I include it here because it gives a preview of the work I am doing on the figure of the urban child.  I am currently writing a book (or trying to!) called Fantasies of Neglect: Imagining the Urban Child which aims to consider neglect as a common trope for the urban child but also considers the power of neglect as enabling -- as letting kids have freedom and mobility.  And it pits earlier models of parenting and what we can call benign neglect against contemporary models of helicopter parenting, to consider what's been lost for kids. It includes chapters on the Dead End Kids; Shirley Temple, Jane Withers and Little Orphan Annie; mid-century texts such as Harriet the Spy and Eloise and films like Kramer vs. KramerPretty Baby and the Little Fugitive; African American representation in The Quiet OneThe StreetThe Planet of Junior Brown, and Cool World, as well as Fat Albert and Sesame Street; and discussion of helicopter parenting in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; with an epilogue about dystopic texts like The Hunger Games.

This essay only takes up a very small part of the argument but will give you an idea:

The other article I wanted to include is one that was in yesterdays Sunday NY Times.  This essay on "The Mommy Problem" takes up the failure to neglect (my words) as a problem for women who are expected to be "all in" at all times, and to forget their selves and their desires when they become moms.

If you read either of these and send a comment I promise I will try and blog more often.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


One of the cool things about my kids' school is the way the kids are graded.  When they were little, they never got letter grades, just 1s, 2s, and 3s.  For each class, there were about a dozen or more skills that the kids would be graded on -- able to read complex sentences, able to recognize and recall new vocabulary words, able to say colors in Spanish, able to manipulate small tools,  etc.  Each one was marked with either a 1 for "excels," 2 for "progressing," or 3 for "needs work."  Now, in middle school, they get letter grades but their teachers still think in terms of competencies and can still break down their performance into parts.  In math, for example, rather than do larger comprehensive tests, they test "standards," 30 or 40 across the year.  Each standard is a different skill -- a step along the way. 

I like this idea of thinking in terms of competencies and individual skills.  I am not sure I can apply it to my own classes, but I have tried to break down my grading into parts, so that with papers, I give a specified number of points to the introduction, the structure, the evidence, the style, etc.  It makes grading seem less amorphous and, I think, harder to argue about.  It helps students think more concretely about the work of writing an essay, too.

I have been thinking about my own competencies.  Against my usual self-perception as not-quite-a-grown-up, when I list my competencies, I can see certain grown up traits.  I am:
able to pay my bills
able to drive a car safely even with a 100 mile commute in often terrible weather
able to teach students about film
able to publish
able to organize conferences
able to feed my family
able to get my kids to school on time
able to do laundry and never have anybody run out of undies
able to play tennis (well, I get a 2 for "progressing")

On the whole, I am a fairly competent parent.  I managed when they were little never to have them fall out a window, be left behind in a mall, be driven in a car seat on the roof of a car, or be given poison for snack. Now, what counts as competency is both easier and more complex.  It is less about keeping them safe in a baseline way -- although we still have to worry about cycling in the city, seatbelts, etc. - and more about trying to figure out what is age appropriate. Like, how able are they to handle racy material?  How much knowledge is too much?  What movies are okay for kids who are almost 11 and almost 13?  The barn door has been left open at our house for a while but there are still moments when I feel the need to shut it again -- when the kids started watching It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, for example.  Or when my daughter wants to watch Game of Thrones, having read the books. Too much sex, too much nudity, too Showtime, I think. I know it may not be too much for them and that they probably know more than I think,  but it is too much for me.  I am not ready to have them see and know quite so much.

The biggest and most exciting challenge is figuring out when and how to let them show their own competencies.  And especially their ability to be alone and independent in the city.  At home, we leave them in the daytime and have started having short nighttime dates without a babysitter.  We are working up to longer ones.  The kids do fine and barely notice that we are gone. Their friends Mr. TV and Ms. iPad keep them company.   A bigger goal is to have my almost 13 year old start going around the city on her own.  She is doing classes this summer that are an EL ride away.  She and I both want to have her start taking the EL on her own -- or actually, with a friend (I am ready for them to be co-independent but not solo).  Knowing the free rein I had as a kid, I know it is silly to be concerned, but nowadays kids do not have the mobility we had and it requires training.  She will need to do a few run-throughs with me or the other mom.  And I will need training, too.  To breathe and trust and let her grow.  My grade on this, right now, is a 3 -- needs work -- but I am hoping to progress.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

My Foray into Doctor Who

One of the weird things about being a mom is that you watch a lot of movies and TV that you would not otherwise watch.  (And you read things you might not read -- lately,  I am reading the Divergent series to keep up with my tween girl).  While I enjoyed seeing recent animated films and discovering Hayao Miyazaki with my kids, I was also forced to watch a lot of superheroes and sci-fi.  My husband introduced the kids to comics early on, as well as video games, which led to superhero movies like Ironman, Superman, X-Men, Batman, etc.   These I can take because they tend to be rather campy and fun.  He then started introducing the kids to science fiction -- sci-fi monster movies, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Doctor Who.  The monster movies were fun -- we mainly watched them on a big screen at a theater that specialized in revivals and would have monthly monster matinees (sadly no more, as the theater was purchased recently). The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Doctor Who were a tougher climb for me.  For whatever reason, I never had much interest in science fiction -- did not get excited about the possibility of time travel, aliens, or whatever else one is supposed to care about.  But Doctor Who grew on me a bit.  The new series is more like a rom-com than science  fiction -- sure, there are Daleks, and Cyber Men and Weeping Angels and other scary stuff, and lots of metaphysical worrying, but one can enjoy the show as a story of friendships and romance in crisis situations.

I never had much academic interest in Doctor Who. But I did become interested in my daughter's liking for it ad for sci-fi and fantasy generally.  More and more, girls like this stuff.  And more and more it is cool for girls, as well as boys, to like it.  No longer castigated as loserish nerds or geeks, fans and fangirls embrace their nerdiness -- and celebrate it!  My daughter started a blog all about her fandoms.  It consists mainly of her repostings of things from other blogs but shows her exploring a wide range of topics and ways of engaging pop culture.  She creates "ships," reads fan fiction, makes connections among fandoms and among texts, discusses politics, especially gay rights, and more.  In tumblr, she has a community of sorts, people who share her interests and do not find her weird for having them.  So, when she tells a friend at school about an episode of Supernatural and gets a blank stare or disdainful response she knows she has a community that supports her.

This is her blog.  There is a bit more of the f-word than I would like -- these kids seem to use it like an exclamation point.  Mostly, the swears are not hers but reposted by her (small comfort for me, but something):

Because of her, I was asked to write about teen girls and Doctor Who for Antenna, a blog on TV.  So, here is my defense of fangirls.  This is for Sam.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Mommy Wars in the 1920s

I started reading a novel which may be familiar to some of you, but is new to me:  Dorothy Canfield's remarkable The Home Maker from 1924. This is one of those novels that feels very ahead of its time.  Canfield writes of a woman who goes out to work when her husband has an accident, and her husband  becomes the primary caregiver when he is home in a wheelchair.  Both thrive.  Ultimately -- spoiler alert -- when the man is healed, he pretends to still be crippled so that he can maintain his homemaking role and his wife can continue to work out of the home.The kids are better off and so are both parents.

I am only a little ways into it, but already find the description of the mother very resonant with today.  The mother makes "healthy" muffins for her food-sensitive boy and scorns friends who give their kids store bought cookies and buy dinner from the deli rather than make it from scratch. Canfield renders the mother's desire for perfection, her frustration with her kids, who are not perfect, her frustration with her husband whom she feels undermines her work and does not have enough ambition through the horrible honesty of passages like this: "These were the moments in a mother's life about which nobody ever warned you, about which everybody kept a deceitful silence. . . moments of arid clear insight when you saw that your children would never measure up to your standard..."  countered by "Her children! She must live for her children! And she loved them she did live for them!"  I am not sure what kind of a parent the dad is, or how he will manage homelife differently from the mom, but I am eager to find out.

More than the narrative itself, Canfields' preface sounds very contemporary as she maps a 1920s version of the Mommy Wars.  One one side, she sees people who think the only way to be married is to have a house in the suburbs, a lawn, material possessions and a "Ford in the garage," "kept in order by a woman with long hair who spends most of her days in the home, and paid for by a man with short hair who lives most of the time out of it."  On the other side, she sees people who view the first position as tyrannical and claim that "the only self-respecting combination for two human beings is for both of them to be short-haired and latch-keyed, and for both of them to work outside the home, leaving the children to specially trained experts, to pay whom the short-haired parents work in offices like decent twentieth-century folk."  Canfield refuses to pick sides or even limit the options to these two.  Instead, she writes: "We could realize that every human being is different from every other, and hence each couple of human beings is different from every other couple: and within the limits of possibility decency we could leave people free to construct the sort of marriage that is best for their particular combination."

What I like about this is that it is not about "choice," in a context in which the choices are limited to two -- stay at home or work.  It is more about diversity and difference and making things work as you see fit, working together.  I am not sure if "possibility and decency" would allow unmarried couples, gay couples, single parents by choice, or other groupings for Canfield, but, to me, she opens up a range of options and urges us to respect them all. I know I am a better mom because I  work outside the home (or really at home in my office much of the time).  And I also know that I can fall into the trap of thinking that my way is best and being snobby about moms who stay at home.  Canfield reminds me that what works for me may not work for everybody and also, I hope, opens rather than closes down options for people who think they need to choose a side.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Almost Girlfriends

My daughter is now old enough -- 12, in seventh grade -- that we can sometimes be almost girlfriends.  She sits in the front seat of the car and fiddles with the radio, choosing music she likes. A few weeks ago, before school started, we went and got mani-pedis together, and watched the movie Date Night on the salon TV. I took her to my hairdresser and we both got haircuts.  She has started wanting to try caffeinated drinks -- she likes Refreshers at Starbucks, tried a decaf pumpkin latte but barely drank it, has started bringing tea to school (fancy flavors from David's Tea, more chocolate flavored than tea, with lots of milk). She has some interest in clothes and we go shopping in the Juniors and Ladies sections at places like Target, Express, or Urban Outfitters -- no more kid stores for her.  We talk about our crushes on actors -- Benedict Cumberpatch is a shared favorite. She tells me about her fan-girl activities and favorite shows.

It is tempting, then, to talk to her like a grown up.  We have never baby-talked her or hidden much of the reality of the world from her.  She knows that there are freaks with guns, and wars, and poverty, and that mom does not like the TeaParty, and she knows that mom and dad have had friends die, and she knows about sex and drugs. I don't mean that.  I mean it is tempting to bitch and gossip.  It is tempting to talk to her in the worst ways that girlfriends do.  When she talks about middle school, it is tempting to say what I think -- who among her friends is a b**ch, who is anorectic, who will sell her out when boys come to call, who will be pregnant by high school, who is not very smart. 

Instead, I have to remind myself that I have to talk to her AS a grown up and remember that she is not one, that I am not her peer but her mother.  I have to walk carefully through the minefield of middle school and let her find her way.  Rather than name a girl as a mean girl, I have to ask if anybody is making her feel bad, or how she felt when so-and-so said something rude.  I have to remind her that she has two years more in this school with these kids and that she has to maintain cordial relations.  I have to ask her what her role is in various encounters, if she is to blame for any awkward interactions, or animosities among friends.  I have to help her be mindful of her own behaviors and comments and make sure, as best I can, that SHE is not a mean girl.

My best strategy is to treat her as I treat friends after a break up.  After a few gaffes, I have learned to be sympathetic, but noncommittal.  Never say "Good, I hated that guy/gal," or "Good, that guy/gal was cheating on you," or "that guy/gal hit one me," or "I thought that guy/gal was mean to you" or "that guy/gal was weird" or anything else that will come back to bite me on the hiney when my friend reunites with that guy/gal.  Now, I try to stay within "how do you feel about the break up?  Are you happy or sad? Relieved? What can I do to help you get through this?"

Middle school is a series of wounds and break ups, large and small -- friends abandoned then rediscovered, friends drifting apart, friends being mean one day and wonderful the next, friends trying on new roles as boyfriends and girlfriends, and friends jostling for placement next to certain boys and girls at the expense of others.   All we can do is be available and open, to listen to their complaints, to guide them to avoid as many pitfalls as they can, to protect them from their own worst impulses, and to let them know that these wounds are not as big or deep as they seem in the moment.  We have to talk the best ways that girl friends do, as girls who have your back and lend you support, and model ways of being girls without there being mean girls or victims.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Breastfeeding, by Guest Blogger Barbara Brickman

I am still on hiatus from blogging but happy to share guest blogger Barbara Brickman's take on the personal politics of breastfeeding:

Less than two years ago and a mere handful weeks after our son was born, my partner and I took our new baby to a faculty potluck. As might be expected, we were tired, we were struggling to figure out all the surprises of first-time parenthood, and we were learning daily the strange ways of being a same-sex couple with a baby in a very conservative small town in a very conservative state. This is a place that doesn’t recognize our marriage of nearly eight years and it is certainly not a place that recognizes my partner’s status as a parent, much less a mother (without the biological ‘connection’), or would consider granting her a second-parent adoption, which she should never have to seek in the first place as the only other parent our son has had since conception (and even before). So leaving that hostile environment outside for a safe faculty space inside seemed like a good idea. My partner strapped on our baby carrier, we loaded up the diaper bag, and we headed out for our first social function since our baby was born.

We had not been at the party five minutes when my partner ended up in a conversation with another female faculty member who had had a baby a few months before ours arrived and who also had her child nestled in a sling around her that evening. I went away to get us some food and came back to find my partner with a strained (and pained) look on her face and clearly eager for any excuse to leave the conversation. Part of me is glad now that I was not there to hear this other female faculty member turn to my partner as she got out our bottle of expressed milk and gasp in self-righteous indignation, “You aren’t breastfeeding?!” This might seem like a small statement (or accusation, to be more precise), but behind it lies a whole sea of nastiness and judgment and petty abuse from other mothers like this one. I have since daydreamed of having been there at that moment and punching this entitled, obnoxious woman in the face. No, my partner isn’t breastfeeding. She can’t. And thank you for reminding her of this fact when she is told every day by our culture, by our parents, by a tiny voice in her head that she isn’t really a mother without that biological tie. Of course, I’ve imagined many (what I think of as) biting comeback lines since this incident: “I know, why do you take your pre-Oedipal bliss and shove it up your tightly wound ass!” or perhaps the more direct, “I’ve got an idea; let’s say you mind your own fucking business.”

It boggles my mind to think of all the reasons why a new mother might not be breastfeeding and, therefore, might need you to keep your fucking mouth shut. Maybe she got an infection and can’t breastfeed because of the pain. Maybe she’s not producing enough milk and has to supplement with formula. Maybe her baby rejected her breast for whatever reason. Maybe she’s a single working mother who either cannot or chooses not to breastfeed and pump because of the incredible constraints on her time. Maybe (if you can wrap your tiny head around this) she’s an adoptive mother and is bonding with her baby though bottle feedings. All of these reasons and more cause so many women whom I know personally or have met through their writings to feel incredible sorrow, shame, and self-loathing. They feel less than women, less than mothers, or failures at the very start of the long, challenging road of parenthood. Many of them are professional women and/or academics who waited because of career goals to have a baby and who struggled just to conceive in the first place, much less take the baby to term. I know many academic women who wanted to have children and have lost their chance or who are still waiting, hoping. And now to top it all off, they have to listen to your blind ignorance, your ridiculous insensitivity, and your just plain cruel, self-involved bullshit. Maybe this new mother just didn’t want to breastfeed or pump and is giving her child perfectly good formula. Isn’t that her decision to make? I can’t believe I’m saying this in 2013, but isn’t it her body to do with as she sees fit?

In the short time I’ve been a parent, I have gotten unsolicited and, frankly, unnecessary advice on breastfeeding, on car carriers, on what I eat, on what the baby eats, on when the baby should sleep, on when I should sleep, on how to carry the baby, on where to send the baby to school. And all of it, I mean all of it, is meant to discipline me through shame, senseless competition, and insidious ‘well-meaning’ disapproval. Is the woman who said this to my partner and who has since offered innumerable pieces of unwanted ‘advice’ and ‘expertise’ an academic? Yes. Is she an avowed feminist? Yes. Was she, in that moment, more of a harm and antagonist to me and my partner than any person we have met on the streets or in the doctor’s offices and shops of our small, conservative town? Yes.

Somewhere, somehow, they have managed to divide us yet again with this bankrupt and many times deconstructed myth of motherhood. Mother and child union. The perfect bliss that only a mother can know. An attachment that is more important than your partner, than your job, than you. It’s like not being able to wake up from some patriarchal wet dream of the ‘appropriate’ relationship between mother and child with a voiceover narration by a supposed female ally. Or, someone’s cast me unwillingly in the role of Steinbeck’s Rose of Sharon and my director is one of these hellish, arrogant sanctimommies. How did this essentialist nonsense come back with such a vengeance? And shouldn’t we be committed with every atom inside us to destroy it once again. For my partner. For my friends. For women, period.

Barbara Jane Brickman teaches at the University of Alabama where she will begin an assistant professorship in Media and Gender Studies this fall. Her book, New American Teenagers: The Lost Generation of Youth in 1970s Film, was published by Continuum Press in 2012.