Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Xmas Cheer

Christmas is when I become the most stereotypical mom in the world. For some reason, I feel a need to instantiate and continue traditions that I never had as a kid.

First, I help the kids decorate the tree and set up Santa's village in our front window. In a fairly predictable gender split, my husband puts the tree together, hangs lights and does the outdoor stuff. I always look forward to this, then get frustrated and potentially cranky because a) the kids tend to hang all the decorations in clumps, b) they will not let me get rid of the Care Bear ornaments they picked out as kids, and c) I know that our devil cats will destroy everything in a matter of hours (so far this year, they have been relatively restrained. They have only broken 3 ornaments and removed two branches from the fake tree.) Then, I have the kids do their Santa letters -- with lots of pictures.

The kids and I usually head to the German Christmas market downtown where they each buy a small wooden toy or, this year, a hat with an animal head on it. Then, we wait in very long lines for crepes, for the kid who doesn't eat meat, and sausage for the kid who does (separate lines , separate sellers). We go to a department store to buy teacher gifts -- lots of Frango mints and soaps from Lush. My husband has never done this duty. I am sure he would if I asked him -- and he buys the gifts for his side of the family and actually shops better for me than I do for him -- but for some reason I do all the obligatory gift buying -- like most women -- for birthday parties and teachers. I also tend to buy most of the kids' presents, stocking stuffers, etc.

We make gingerbread, at least once. (This year we did our first batch using jack o' lantern cookie cutters because somebody had given them to me after Halloween and it seemed like we ought to use them. Real gingerbread men, trees, and reindeer will follow). Like decorating, this is a mixed bag -- the joy of doing something with the kids vs. their insistence on putting way too much stuff on the cookies, making them inedible with candy dots, sprinkles, icing. On the plus side, once they decorate the cookies I lose interest and don't eat them.

The most bizarre fixation is my need to send Christmas cards. Prior to marriage, I only sent Christmas cards once in my life, when I lived in Australia, was missing people, and thought cards of Santa with koalas and kangaroos at the beach were too hilarious to resist. Childbirth led me to send cards. I think it is a competitive mom thing -- as I am sure all my furious holiday activity is -- an effort to show the world how darn cute my kids are. So, every year, I frantically take pictures, or look through pictures from the last year trying to find just the right ones, then prepare the card, an annual ad for my family. I do not write Christmas letters. Usually, I find them weird and depressing -- I had one friend who would send passive aggressive complaints about her husband in the guise of a Christmas letter and another who would talk about how great everything was until she and her husband split. I figure that if people really know me, they know all my news, and, if they don't, they don't want to know it. (But there are two I get every year that I enjoy, so if you send me one, assume yours if the good one and keep sending it!) My card fixation extends to receiving them - in the last few years, we added a card display to our Christmas decorating. We hang tinsel on our stair railing and clip cards to it. I like seeing them pile up -- the collector in me gratified, the competitive mom in me comparing their pictures, sayings, and designs to ours. The kids like clipping them, making sure that their friends are foregrounded, that boring work related ones or ones from the insurance guy are hidden.

Our best family tradition is our Christmas Eve party -- a large open house in which kids run crazy and grown ups drink and eat until it is time to send kids to bed and prepare for Santa's arrival. We buy most of the food, so it is a no hassle event. And it is the one that is least restricted to me and the kids, the most communal, and the most about just sharing with others.

My kids love all these traditions and would be miserable if I stopped even one. I dread the day they don't want to do them. I am sure there is an element of trying to be super mom, just once a year, but it is also really fun to share the holiday with kids and to regain that sense of wonder and belief.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Family Romance

For an assignment in French class, my daughter had to describe her family. According to my daughter, the teacher said you could invent a family. So, my daughter, who is obsessed with "30 Rock" -- (and, yes, that is probably not good for a ten year old, even less for her 8 year old brother. How did it happen? I am not sure. One day, they were watching such inappropriate shows as "The Simpsons" and kid shows like "Phineas and Ferb" or "iCarly," and the next they were laughing at Jenna's affair with a man who plays her as a drag queen, or the man Liz meets who seems perfect but turns out to be into plushies. Along the way, they added "Suburgatory" -- which my daughter uses as a template for everything she can roll her eyes at -- and "Modern Family." I swear I am not pushing this stuff. I don't want my kids to be hip, or too grown up. I'd be okay if they wanted to watch "Spongebob Squarepants." But the boundaries keep shifting. My daughter drives the engine, and my son follows. She wants to be sophisticated. She wants cultural references. Even when she was little, she watched slightly weird out of-her-bracket stuff, like "The Monkees" and "Star Trek." ) -- well, anyway, when asked to create a family, she created hers out of the characters from "30 Rock." Her mom, Liz Lemon; her dad, Pete; Kenneth as her brother; and Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy as her grandpa.

I accept a good family romance. Kids are supposed to want to find out that they are orphans and that their real parents are richer, prettier, better than their real ones (I actually discussed this with my son the other day because he was having his own more traditional wish that daddy and I would turn out to be phonies). But how bad are we that she replaces us with such messed up characters? Or does she want us to be more messed up? Heaven forbid.

I'd love to say I am nothing like Liz Lemon but the appeal of that character is that every nerd girl who had trouble finding dates, didn't know how to wear eye shadow, and didn't like most guys she met finds herself in Liz. Maybe my daughter is finding herself, too.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


I have been reading Stephanie Staal's book Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life. In it, Stall describes her progress through feminism in terms that are very similar to my own. She says she grew up fairly confident that the gains of second wave feminism had been won. She had a working mother, was expected to get a good education and have a career and did not feel any obstacles to her success based on gender. Rather than a complacent post-feminist, she describes herself as being energized by feminism in the late 1980s, in relation to Anita Hill and other contemporary events. She transferred to a women's college, and took women's studies classes. But, she says, it wasn't until she got married, then had a child, that she truly experienced any of the issues related to feminism -- that she felt the burden of being a woman in expectations about household chores, maternity leave, work vs. home divides, parenting, etc. She re-encounters Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique at a crisis point in her life, and finds it surprisingly relevant in ways she had not when she was an undergraduate. So, she decides to go back to school and audit the year-long Feminist Texts course she took as an undergraduate at Barnard. What she finds through her participation in the class is both how much she has changed and how different the current generation of feminists are from when she was young.

In many ways, this book is one of those about which I think "Oh, I wish I had written this" and "Oh my goodness, she is writing about me." As I have said, my own experience of feminism was largely academic until I hit my thirties, got married and had kids. And now, I feel all the issues and contradictions of feminism's gains and limitations daily. Like Stall, I have had the opportunity to revisit feminist texts, but, in my case, as a professor not as a student. While I had been teaching feminist theory in film studies for years, just last year, as Director of Gender Studies, I had to teach a survey of feminist theory ranging from Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to the present. Some of it was material I had never read and some I had not read in decades.

We talk a lot about generations in relation to feminism -- dividing feminist history into first, second and third waves, and worrying about post-feminist and whether the gains of feminism have been lost or what the future will be. In my class (and in all my classes), the divide is enacted often between the teacher and students. My students are sometimes much more hooked into contemporary gender issues than I am. For example, they have a working everyday familiarity with transgender people that I do not. At the same time, they have adopted many attitudes I would view as post or anti-feminist, such as the idea that stripping or making out with another woman at a bar for male pleasure is "empowering" and a question of "choice." Most professors I know have expressed some frustration that students do not "get" it, that they think all our problems are solved; and many students I know have reverted to a view of feminism and feminists (meaning us, their teachers) as whiny or as forcing issues unnecessarily.

But my experience of reading or re-reading feminist texts has also put me in a dialectic with my younger self and with younger stages of feminism. Like Staal, I have found some texts that had seemed dated to me before to be newly relevant. In other cases, texts that carried radical promise and were exciting to me when I was younger can sometimes feel dated because they did not lead anywhere.

More than anything, though, what I love about dipping back into the history of feminism is accessing the anger. I miss the sense of righteous indignation and moral certainty in the current climate of irony, eye rolling, and complacency. I love reading something like "The Redstockings Manifesto" from 1969 that says "Women are an oppressed class. Our oppression is total, affecting every facet of our lives. We are exploited as sex objects, breeders, domestic servants, and cheap labor. We are considered inferior beings, whose only purpose is to enhance men's lives." Compare this to the "Riot Grrrl Philosophy" of 1995 which exists "because us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways" or "The Third Wave Manifesta" of 2000 that addresses a host of issues including health care, access to the military, equality in the workplace, reproductive rights and more, but all in gingerly inclusive language such as this: "To have equal access to health care, regardless of income, which includes coverage equivalent to men's, and keeping in mind that women use the system more often than men do because of our reproductive capacity." If the 70s gave us the film A Question of Silence in which a group of women who have never met before jointly beat a man to death, then refuse to speak about it and laugh hysterically in court -- a film I find bizarrely exhilarating and that my students find deeply offensive and immoral -- today we have Bridesmaids or Sex in the City which articulate female frustration but suggest that it can be solved through better friendships, better men, and a good drink.

These newer forms of feminism address many of the issues that were seen as failures of second wave feminism. They aim to include a diverse range of positions, and people, including not just women of color, or women in poverty, but also men, and the many diverse and expanding LBGT and queer communities. The enemy is no longer obvious, the issues are complex and contradictory, and the goals are unclear. As Staal discusses, the students in today's Fem Texts class parse every situation with incredible sophistication. But they lack the sense of friction and anger that initiated many movements and that drives many of us old gals back to the old texts and old ways of thinking.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


I have been thinking a lot lately about breasts. A few months ago, at the start of the school year, I bought my ten-year old daughter her first training bra. Part of me worried that her "buds," as they are called these days, were a bad sign of excessive milk hormones. Ten seemed young to me for breasts, or any other signs of puberty. But for today's girl, it is normal. Beyond this slight concern, part of me also felt pride. In what? In seeing her grow up, certainly, but also, I think, in seeing that she seems to have inherited at least that part of my shape. I have never been an especially sexy or conventionally attractive girl -- never had the long limbs, indented waist, or overall skinniness of contemporary ideals. But I always had decent boobs. Of course, lately, they have been changing. When I was young, they were a perfect C. Then, after two pregnancies and two combined years of breastfeeding, I thought -- as books told me -- they might get smaller. But, no, they grew, to double Ds, without the rest of my body getting bigger. Rather than growing out, or up, I think they began to spread and descend. Soon, I feared, they'd hit the stomach level one sees in older women. So, I partly looked to my daughter as the promise of youth. And I liked sharing the experience of being people with boobs with her -- like when she confided in me that they hurt when she bumped them into things, or told me which other girls were sporting bras in class.

Recently, I had breasts on my mind for a different reason. For the first time, I got a call back on my mammogram. Two weeks after my annual exam, I had to go back, but I turned left to diagnostics instead of right, where the baseline mammograms go. Once in the new space, I felt immediately pathologized. To get to the locker room, I had to be escorted by a volunteer (apparently those of us in the suspicious boob category can't figure out how to walk down a hall anymore). My volunteer was very nice, almost too nice. After showing me where I could stow my things and where to wait, she announced, "I'm a hugger" and offered me one. I accepted, to be polite. But I figured the hug meant I must be dying. It did not help that it was national breast cancer awareness month and everywhere I turned there were pink ribbons!

After three hours of getting additional mammograms and ultrasounds, my doctors still could not determine whether what they saw was cancerous. There were new calcifications and they were "massing" but they hid in my now overly large boobs from the ultrasound. So, we scheduled a biopsy. Another two weeks. Once there, I realized that my focus on the diagnosis had put me in denial about the biopsy itself -- a more elaborate surgical procedure than I had realized. This time, I got taken by another volunteer -- not a hugger -- to an even further locker room. Laying on a bed with my breast hanging through a hole, another mammogram guided the surgeon to vacuum out some material to test. With a small incision and a big bandage, and the instruction to sleep in a sports bra for a day, and avoid any blood thinners, I was left pondering what it would mean to have my breast cut open, even partially, or, in the worst case, removed altogether.

Afterwards, while waiting for results, I went to get my haircut. Allure magazine had a special article on breast reconstruction. Pictures of various women showed different post-surgical solutions, ranging from full blown implants to insertions of fat from the belly into the breast. Intellectually, I thought that all that mattered was my health, and my being around for my family, but, gee, when I saw the tattooed nipples, I felt some deep pangs of fear about losing that part of me that had been so central to my sexuality, my maternity, my understanding of what clothes looked good on me. And I worried that if I lost my breasts or they were perceived as sick in any way, it would ruin my daughter's pleasure in hers.

Lucky for me, the biopsy found only benign material. But now I am pathologized. I have to go back in six months, so they can see . . what? whether the non-cancerous stuff suddenly changed into cancerous stuff? or that there is more non-cancerous stuff? Weirdly, the doctor put some kind of chip in my breast, a signpost that will show future surgeons where the biopsy was. Sort of a "keep off the grass" for radiologists. I am told it will not show up in airport scanners -- something I had not considered, but now will wonder about endlessly.

I'll never look at my breasts the same way again.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Scatterbrain

Uh oh. It's starting again. Last year, I had a stretch of time when I became quite, well, absent minded, or forgetful. Scatterbrained actually. More than once, in fact, more often than not, I was screwing up dates. I'd book a meeting, then remember that I had already booked another meeting at the same time. In the worst instance, I booked an important speaker to come to campus (a former professor of mine whom I admire but who scares the heebie jeebies out of me, still, almost twenty years after my dreadful presentation in her class), then booked a trip (on a plane!) out of town the same day.

How does this happen? I have a calendar on my phone that syncs with my computer and my iPad. And I have another hard copy calendar at home that the school provides with important school events pre-printed on it. I enter things into my calendar and so does my secretary. But somehow, sometimes, I just don't look, or perhaps don't see what is in front of me.

At some point, I realized that I was having a slight breakdown. I attributed it to peri-menopause (which I don't think I've officially reached but which I find easy to blame a lot of things on) and overwork. At the end of the day, I just had too much to do. I kept collapsing dates because the boundaries between work time and family time were getting harder and harder to keep. So, with my husband, I worked out my schedule so he did some things I would normally do, and I let some things go at work and it all seemed resolved.

Then, this week, it started again. I suddenly realized (and the sudden gasping realization is key to this phenomena) that I had to do some guest teaching on Friday, and had not made arrangements for anyone to get my kids from school. So, I started doing some fancy emailing. I realized that my son had a birthday party to attend that day, so emailed a host of moms to see if anybody could pick him up and take him to the party and had it almost arranged before I discovered that, in fact, the birthday party was a week later, and on a Thursday not a Friday.

Funnily enough, just before my sudden gasping realization, I got a call from a friend who, like me, is a professor, a commuter (and we commute, no joke 100 miles each way!), and a mom. She was driving to campus for a meeting. But she had only barely realized she had the meeting. Or, rather, she had made plans for the meeting -- arranging childcare, booking other meetings for the time before and after it -- but all on the wrong day. And on the true day of her meeting, she had plans to do lots of work at home. What a mess.

At first, I felt relieved and a little smug that it was her and not me who had messed up. But it must be catching. My own scatterbrain dementia returned. Just today, I found out that I booked a dinner party for the night of my kids' school open house. Oh well. I think it is a disease common to many working moms. We try to be everything to everyone and don't want to be called out as not meeting our responsibilities in any sphere, so we over commit. Maybe getting scatterbrained is nature's way of telling us that we can't.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Frequently, when I see my mother, she tells me that she doesn't know where I came from. It isn't my feminism she questions, or my interest in gender, or film, and it isn't my being a wife and mother. When my mom questions my origin, it usually has to do with my knitting and cooking.

For my mom, when I took up knitting it marked me as not hers partly because she is terrible at crafts. When I was a kid, she had an old fashioned Singer sewing machine -- one of those with iron wheels, built into a table that ran by foot power, not electricity. It was old then, and clearly outmoded. On it, she would occasionally sew a hem here and there, or maybe a dress, but they were awful. She managed to make slipcovers (something of an obsessive specialty of hers) because she could hide the flaws more easily than on clothing.

I have, in fact, proved myself her daughter when it comes to sewing. A few years back, I bought a cheap portable sewing machine so that I could hem my own pants, a modest ambition motivated by the fact that I am 5' 2" (and shrinking) and have to take a minimum of 4" off every pair of pants I buy. But I am terrible with a sewing machine. Every single time I use it, I have to use the handbook to remember how to thread the thing. My hems are uneven, and sloppy. I rarely assay anything more complicated than a hem, and when I do, like when I made my son's Halloween costume last year, the results are poor (let's just say that his monster costume was not quite what we had imagined.) I would probably be better off paying the $10 to have my pants professionally hemmed.

Knitting, for me, differs from sewing. There is no practical reason for me to knit. It costs way more to knit a sweater or baby blanket than to buy one. And it takes a long time. I started knitting to pass the time when my kids were little and I found myself in a room with them when they were watching Elmo or playing but could not be left alone. Now, it supplements my own TV watching, provides an activity on planes, and otherwise fills the void. I like the process, like learning new techniques, and admire the artistry of watching knots become patterns.

Where my mom would sew out of practical necessity, like me, she could never imagine knitting for pleasure. More than just a skill question, my mother's surprise at my knitting registers as a kind of alienation. She simply can't fathom it. To her, it smacks of something too homespun, too old fashioned. For her, feminism meant never having to take the long road again. Betty Friedan diagnosed the feminine mystique as, in part, being about creating unnecessary work. For Friedan, the housewife's move to suburbia represented an expansion of domestic duties, as a way to fill the void (if you have to drive your kids everywhere, and you have to volunteer at school, then it justifies your not working and helps fend off the boredom of inactivity). So, Friedan recommended moving back to the city, getting a smaller place, and, in effect, what could be called good-enough housekeeping. For my mom, who worked most of her life and worked full-time from the time I was ten, with four kids and a husband to care for, domestic duties were full enough, thank you! So she, like many women, treasured convenience. She wanted ready made clothes, store bought knits, and convenience foods. She wanted to make her life easier. She never settled for good enough housekeeping -- though lord knows none of us cared or merited her high standards, though I now appreciate them -- but she took what shortcuts she could.

While Friedan's model could be seen as proto-sustainability (less is more), current feminist practice diverges from hers. Now, as part of sustainability movements and green politics, we tend to seek ways to make life hard again. Rather than shop at a supermarket, we choose to visit the farmer's market, Whole Foods, specialty butchers, and organic bakeries, making multiple trips and stops. Rather than processed foods, we try to cook from scratch, to make healthier and more natural foods. We have live chickens in our yards! We poo poo the convenience my mother treasured. Where she tells a story about discovering the miracle of McDonald's on a cross country road trip with four kids and very little money, we view fast food as a poison, if not a crime. My mother is shocked that anyone would make tomato soup rather than buy canned. To her, it is like hunting for meat when you could just go to the store. We, a la Michael Pollan, tend to think that hunting would be more honest, natural, better.

Third wave feminists initiated the DIY movement as a means of reclaiming craft and the pleasure of domesticity from what they considered an overly rigid feminism. But let's not forget the reasons women walked away from much of what we now fetishize as DIY: for them DIY wasn't a choice, but a necessity. Now, when I choose to make the soup or knit the blanket, I know I can also choose not to, and that the pleasures of post feminist domesticity should not lead us down a path where we imagine that being organic means that those activities are "natural" or "organic" to our role as women.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Captive Women

I recently read Emma Donoghue's THE ROOM. Amazing book. The story of a women held captive in a soundproof backyard shed is narrated by the five year old son she bears while in captivity. The first part of the book details his routine, and expresses his attachment to the small space he lives in, which he calls Room, and the objects that fill it, a bed, a rug, a toy made of leftover egg shells. At first, the boy, Jack, does not know, because his mother, called Ma, chooses not to tell him, that there is a world outside the room. He thinks everything else -- except the man he calls Old Nick who visits his mom nightly -- is TV. Dogs are TV, cars are TV, stores, outdoors, all TV. The book eventually allows Ma and Jack to escape and details their adjustment to living in a bigger world. The trauma of this, of being let out of an enclosed space and from a very small and simple world to a much bigger, more complex and interactive one, is as compelling as imagining the enclosure. The book makes you aware of space, of what it means to be truly removed from the public sphere, from being able to circulate and speak. (It also reminds you how small and simple life can be, in almost a Walden way.) It intensifies the mother-child bond, as the child relies exclusively on his mother, still nurses at five years old, and has never spoken to another soul (he hides in a wardrobe when Old Nick visits).

THE ROOM led me to read Jaycee Lee Duggard's memoir, A STOLEN LIFE which details her 18 year captivity in a backyard enclosure. Duggard's story differs somewhat from the fictional THE ROOM. Where Ma, in the fiction, tries every day to contact the outside world by screaming at the soundproof skylight and flicking lights in the night, Duggard never tries to escape. Too young and scared, and eventually too dependent on her captors and afraid of angering them, she stays put, even when they begin to allow her small outings to thrift shops and other stores, and even as she begins working with the computers and the Internet. Even when her captor bizarrely brings her to the FBI, she initially does not reveal her identity.

While both these books present situations that are obviously extremely rare -- stranger abductions are only 1% of all abductions and rarely are successfully maintained this long -- they both have some resonance as tales of "marriage," or marriage as practiced in the 19th century. The women, taken quite young, are brought into sex by a man without really knowing what sex is. They leave their mothers when they are still children. They have babies with no knowledge, but somehow assume the role of mother. They are left home while the man goes into the world and they depend upon him utterly to bring food and other necessities. While this deep split between the private sphere of the wife and the public sphere of the man has broken down since the 19th century (and was always somewhat less strict than we have been taught), there are still residual assumptions about the male's role as breadwinner and still ways in which many women are relegated largely to the home. More than that, both stories remind us how difficult it is for women in any kind of abusive situation to break free. Duggard articulates this well, at one point saying that the verbal abuse was more crippling and disabling for her than the physical. They suggest how important it is to be aware -- not just of the creep lurking near schools or playgrounds, but also of the clues around us of women in crisis.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Sometimes I Slip

As the Juan Williams scandal made clear, even the most staunch liberals sometimes have bad thoughts. And, despite all my best intentions, sometimes I fall into pre or anti-feminist traps:

Sometimes, I wish my daughter would care more about her appearance.

Sometimes, I wish my son were more of a jock, or even vaguely interested in sports.

Sometimes, I want my daughter to have a crush on a boy, or Johnny Depp.

Sometimes, I wish I were a stay at home mom.

Sometimes, I want to tell my son that he is being a "pussy," or to "man up."

Sometimes, I hope my kids will be popular.

Sometimes, I wish my daughter would wear a dress.

Sometimes, I want to purge all my son's less masculine toys.

Sometimes, I want my daughter to like anime and superheroes less and read Little Women or Heidi.

Most of the time, I love them exactly as they are and hope the world loves them as much as they deserve.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Hello Princess

The Disney Princess phenomenon has been well-bashed, by Peggy Orenstein among others. Thankfully, I never had a Princess-loving daughter. She had a small moment. One time, when she was about five, she was invited to a birthday party at which girls had to dress up in princess costumes and have make-up put on them. Worse, they then had to humiliate the birthday girl's dad, who had to sit in a chair and have the girls all dress him up in princess garb, for reasons unclear to me then or now. I was appalled. We had been listening to Free to Be You and Me in the long car ride to the party. This was a key record for me when I was a kid -- my fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sullivan, a hippie with Ali McGraw hair, would play it every day and we'd run around the classroom and dance. I got the DVD years later and both my kids liked it a lot. So, after listening to "Parents Are People" and "William's Doll," and other songs aimed at breaking down gender stereotypes, there we were at a princess party, with my daughter, wearing eye make up and a gown and glitter on her face. She loved it. But she never got full-blown princess fever and she never went for dolls. And over time she became super cynical about both dolls and princesses. She and I shared a feminist disgust at the after-school Princess class organized at her K-8 school, which consisted of little girls and the grown teacher wearing tiaras and gowns, with parents PAYING for this. So, when we went on a Disney cruise recently, it was she, more than me, who was appalled. Because every time, and I mean every time, she entered a dining room, or a theater, or when she re-entered the boat after an excursion, or when she arrived at a hotel, or got on or off a shuttle bus, someone who worked on the cruise would greet her, saying "Welcome home, Princess." (When I was her age, my family went to London and my pixie haircut and brown velvet pantsuit led the entire staff of the hotel to greet me as The Little Master, so perhaps hotels are geared to humiliate ten year olds). For me, it was the "home" that galled -- as if Disney were some ur-home for all of us, our collective womb (and maybe it is). But she really hated being called Princess. It was both the offense of being assumed to want to be a princess, and the constant need to define kids by gender that irked her. And what about the boys? The Disney folks had no idea what to call them. Prince doesn't have the cache of Princess. Pirates seem to be now the gender equivalent but you can't really hail boys with "Welcome home, Pirate (murderer, rapist, thief)." Maybe they could just call them Mickey and Minnie? Or maybe they could just say "hello."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Free Range Tragedy


In 2008, journalist Lenore Skenazy created a major controversy when she let her son Izzie find his way home from Bloomingdale's with a subway map, and cash, but no phone. Called "America's worst mom," she became an advocate of "free range kids" in her blog and book of that name. I read Skenazy's book for an academic project I am doing on the idea of neglect -- what I am calling a fantasy of neglect -- in literature and film about and for children. Reading it, I have become aware of my own helicopter parent tendencies -- my inability to give my kids the freedoms I had when I was their age. Like most people my age, I remember leaving my house on a summer morning and telling my mother I'd be home at dinner. In between, I might go to organized activities at the park (gimp, plaster of Paris, kickball), hang out in the woods, wander the neighborhood, go to a friend's house, or walk to the store. I never had a problem beyond the usual kid stuff of being hassled by other kids, yelled at by neighbors . My kids, by contrast, have never walked down the street by themselves. They still don't ride bikes alone and, when they bike with us, we use tandems because biking across highways and in city traffic is too risky for little bicyclists. Reading "Free Range Kids," I have wanted and tried to give my kids little freedoms -- on our recent trip, we let the kids wander the cruise ship alone, and get lost, using in-ship phones to contact us when they got worried. I stopped walking them into school and try to give them more responsibility in the house.

Today, when I read about the murder of Leiby Kltezky (see link above), my heart sank. Here were parents doing exactly what I wanted to do -- letting their kid have some small independence by walking part of the way home from day camp. They showed him the route, rehearsed it with him, and still he got confused. Stopping to ask for help, one would hope that most of the time the person asked would not turn out to be a psycho, but in this case, he chose the wrong person, or was chosen by him. I shudder to think of whatever happened between their initial contact and the discovery of his dismembered body two days later. I feel terrible for the parents. They were not irresponsible but trying to let the boy grow, and feel some freedom. Now, though, they will carry the terrible weight of their decision and now those of us who might want to give our kids freedom, which is also a way of giving ourselves freedom, will feel unable and will hover more closely than ever.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Sister Wives

Some time ago, I mentioned my fantasy about having a sister wife, like on Big Love. I just got back from a family vacation and got as near to the sister-wife method as I am likely and, I have to say, it works. My father-in-law took us and his two daughters' families on a Disney Cruise, then the parents and kids -- sans grandparents -- went to Disney World. The grandparents were not in a position to help. My father-in-law has been having some health issues and needed a fair bit of care from his wife, children and in-laws. But that still left 6 adults to take care of 7 kids. Much of the time we all hung out -- so all parents were pretty much consumed by childcare -- helping kids order meals, finding potties, making sure they didn't go crazy when the service at the restaurant was so slow, or after they'd eaten (for reasons I can't fathom, Disney would usually have the kids eat their meals before ours arrived, so they would not be hungry but they were very bored). At times we could drop the kids at the kid center (Camp something or other, filled with workers from Great Britain -- nobody working on the cruise was American -- maybe because they worked 84 hours a week for no overtime!). And one glorious afternoon, we let the kids roam the boat by themselves, a rare taste of independence for city kids who never get to walk down their own block by themselves. Mostly, though, it was shared sister-wife style parenting with brother-in-law-wives as well. I was more than happy to take the three 8-year olds for a walk around the boat and to the arcade so my sisters-and brothers-in-law could have an hour of grown up time. And I was very happy when my brother-in-law played with my kids in the pool and let me read for a while. I was happy to take their kids on teacups while they took mine on Space Mountain. Trading off meant that nobody felt the burden too much. We all got to know our nieces and nephews better and felt like we had an actual vacation.

Sadly, both my siblings and my husbands are scattered all over -- San Francisco, LA, Massachusetts, and Arlington, VA, with us in Chicago. We do not have the family support system that some people still have. Our only local family -- the generous grandparents above -- spend most of the year in Florida and then come here for three months in summer. They have babysat once in ten years. They warmed to it just as my father-in-law fell ill, so who knows if that will ever happen again.

My sister has some of this. A single mom by choice, she moved to the town where my parents live when her daughter was born. My mother became the nanny for the first two years and she and my dad still drive their granddaughter to play rehearsals, attend school events, take her to church, and have the odd family dinner together. When they drive my sister crazy, I try to remind her how lucky she is. And how she and my niece have probably done more to keep them going in the last ten years than anything else.

Sadly, my fantasy that it would be this shared "takes a village" sister-wife community all the time if only we all lived nearby is probably false. My sister-in-laws live only a few miles from each other but said they never see each other. One is a stay at home mom with three kids, the other runs a dog-walking and boarding company. Somehow, they can't grab a coffee, visit each other, or swap childcare duties. Unlike my mother, who is retired and whose children are grown, they are too busy to find ways to make themselves less busy. They can't extract themselves from what they are doing to find a way to share the burden.

So, how can we do it? How do we access the village that it takes to raise our children? And where on Craig's list is the section for sister-wives?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Sitter

It is summer, so my kids are not in school. Some years we have done camp, but this year, for a variety of reasons -- our travel schedule, the kids lack of interest -- we got a sitter to cover as many days as possible so that I could work (write a few articles, prep classes, proofread and index a manuscript). We hired a teacher from the kids' school so we already knew her and trusted her. It is so great having a sitter! She comes at 8 and leaves at 4PM. She takes the kids to the pool or a beach, the park, the zoo, bowling, and/or plays with them here in the house. She gives them lunch, and makes sure they clean up whatever toys they get out. They like her, she likes them, and we are all happy.

Part of me feels guilty, of course. It is weird to pay someone to take care of your kids when you are in the house, as I often am. And I regret a little that they are having fun with her instead of me. I think occasionally that I should be taking them to the beach more. But I also know that I am not always fun. Since I am not paid to take care of them, and have other stuff to do in the house besides take care of them -- like laundry, cooking, grocery shopping, cleaning, etc., as well as my own academic work -- I know that I would not spend 8 hours being a nice mom, but would drag them on an errand or fill the days with "hang on"s and "just a sec"s. So I try to make the time we do have pleasant -- knowing that I have been able to get most of my work out of the way so I can be a nice mom when they are with me. On weekends, in the afternoon, and at night, we do lots of fun things and usually with my husband, too.

But mostly I feel jealous that I can't have a sitter all the time. Or at least for the crucial gaps in our childcare schedule -- Someone to take care of the kids on sick days, so my husband and I don't have to take a day off work. Someone to cover school vacations. Someone for Monday holidays and the "teacher conference" days. I don't want one all the time. I like dropping the kids at school and picking them up. I think it is important that I, or my husband, is with them when they do homework. I like meeting their friends when they have playdates. But I'd love to have access when I need a sitter. Without family nearby, and living in a city, where we do not have neighbors we can count on, or even know that well, we are somewhat isolated and self-reliant when it comes to childcare. We don't have the money to have a full-time sitter or to keep one on retention. So, we usually patch things together -- a sitter or camp usually covers us for about 3/4 of the summer. And that still costs a lot! We take a lot of days off to cover the rest of summer, when inevitably our sitter becomes unavailable, or camps end (they still operate on some assumption that parents will be in the Hamptons for August!). I start teaching weeks before they go back to school. It is all the scheduling issues -- the days off from school, sick days, vacations -- that make our life as parents difficult and that make it especially difficult to have two working parents. Every summer, I find myself thinking that maybe next summer I will somehow be able to be a full-time mom, just for the summer. This means no writing, no work beyond the most basic prep for teaching. It means giving up a lot of what I do and who I am. But, until they get old enough to be independent in the summer -- unimaginable now -- it will pull on me and urge me away from work.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


How much shame is okay? Seemingly, one of the by-products of post-feminism is a loss of bodily shame. On the one hand, this signals a positive body acceptance, a move away from the beauty and body ideals that can be so terribly constricting for women -- leading to such diseases as anorexia and bulimia, as well as self-loathing. This is "Dove campaign" feminism -- love me and my curves and my flaws. It is also the backbone of the Fat Pride movement. But pride in fat is tricky, a step or a few steps beyond acceptance of imperfection. Fat Pride signals a more defiant stance -- women and men "claiming their fat" as the song "The Ladies Who Lunch" puts it. But Fat Pride seems dangerous -- do we want to have pride in diabetes, pride in heart disease, pride in the myriad health problems caused by obesity? Should we be angry when an airplane tries to charge us for two seats or embarrassed that we require two seats? Isn't a little bit of shame a good thing?

I ponder this not simply as summer starts and I am seeing way to much flesh paraded shamelessly around my neighborhood (male, female, young, old -- too many bellies, too many giant legs, giant arms, too much cleavage); but as I am raising two kids, and wondering whether to instill shame or not. In part, it is an issue related to weight. My mother used to touch her fingers to my stomach when it got pudgy and let me know if I was looking fat, to encourage me to lose a few pounds. It was demeaning but effective. But was it a good idea? I never had an eating disorder -- I didn't have what I took to be the resolve (I took laxatives once, had to get off a public bus to find a bathroom in a Chinese restaurant and vowed never to go that route again). (I know thinking of it as resolve is sick, but like many girls I was a little envious of anorectics until I understood the depths of it better and knew a few friends who suffered from it -- then I recognized that it was a terrible illness, not willpower). I never had an especially good body image. Now, I look at pictures of myself as a kid and I see a healthy relatively lean kid but then I was convinced that I was pudgy. So, did I have too much shame?

What do we tell our kids? When my son got chunky a few years ago, we worked to teach him better portion control and better habits. We didn't shame him or call him fat but we did tell him that he was gaining too fast and needed to take better care. It helped him learn and he now thinks about what he eats a bit more, but still enjoys food. If we didn't teach him, but "accepted" his fat, would we have been doing him a favor or leading him into a lifetime of bad health?

With my son and my daughter, I have discussed food and body in terms of health and fitness, not appearance. I have made clear to both kids that they should be healthy, that they should not worry about the ideals in magazines, that plastic surgery for appearance is unnecessary, that they are normal, wonderful kids. That's relatively easy.

But what about other kinds of bodily shame? As puberty looms, I think about sexual shame. How much should I worry about my daughter's changing body? What can she wear and what can't she? I feel a prudishness growing in me, a desire to cover her, hide her, protect her from the gaze. But that seems a wrongheaded shame. My shame, not hers, as she has none, not yet at least. Part of me wants to keep her shameless, proud, open, and free. Still, I want to teach her to protect her body, to know it privately and share it wisely, not to show it heedlessly. Is this too focussed on the body? Too alienated from it? Or just realistic?

Gender bending toddlers


This article from the Sunday NY Times deals with gender bending kids and their parents. Unlike some of the parents I've discussed in previous posts (see Child X and the discussion of Harry vs. Haley on Oprah below) who decide to change their kids gender according to which behaviors they adopt, these parents are trying to let their kids be whatever they choose -- meaning girls who wear "boy" clothes, boys who play with dolls or paint their toes. It seems potentially like these parents could really break down some barriers and create new ways of understanding gender, and disentangling behavior and biology. Still, the article gets at some of the difficulties -- how the parents sometimes feel they have to apportion their open-mindedness according to societal rules (nail polish at home but not at school) or when they choose to ignore those rules, and how parents can potentially differ on these issues (in one case, a dad is more forgiving than the mom, and in another the dad is grappling more than the mom).

Thursday, May 26, 2011

who rules redux, with new voices


Here is a young feminist posting on Beyonce's Run the World song. Apparently, this gal isn't so sure that girls rule. It is nice to hear a cranky YOUNG feminist.


The video itself would lead one to believe that when girls run the world, the world will be some strange mad max-esque nightmare of burned out vehicles in a desert landscape, and that "ruling" will consist of wearing sexy designer bondage outfits, double-stick tape to avoid breasts popping out, and impossible shoes. There is something creepily colonial about the footage, in addition to its pseudo-empowering postfeminist message. I am not sure what is worse -- the fantasy that girls will run the world only after some apocalytic nightmare, that ruling will consist only of asserting rule, the costumes, or the way Beyonce "disarms" the enemy (whose reasons for attacking are unclear) by (I think) opening his shirt or touching his chest? When the men all pop their shields up at the videos' end, is that supposed ot be as foolishly phallic as I think?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

child x


This is an amazing story. I get what they are doing, sort of. I mean, I understand that they don't want to box their kid into stereotypical roles, or have assumptions imposed on the kid. But, once again, I feel like sex and gender are getting tangled. Let's say the kids has a vagina and no penis. (The article says there is no biological ambiguity.) So, in conventional terms, we'd call that kid a girl. The parents are worried that the girl would face undue expectations of female gendering -- that grandma would buy a doll, or that people would talk about how many hearts she'd break later in life, or that nobody would ask her dad if he planned to toss a football with her. But isn't this something we all manage by saying "she can do what she likes, and we'll see what her tastes and interests are, not decide based on her sex."

The parents already have two biological boys who like to wear their hair long and wear pink. And the parents are "unschooling" (an extra loose version of homeschooling) them. Which, I guess removes them from some social strictures as well as some forms of socialization. But, still, the boys face difficulties, because people don't know how to "read" them. So, the boys ask their parents to please let people know they are boys. The boys don't think ambiguity makes their life any easier. And, despite wearing long hair and pink, they do not perceive themselves as girls. They believe they can be pink wearing, long-haired boys. And so do I. But somehow the parents feel that isn't enough, that removing the "stigma" of sex would help them more -- despite the fact that the kids say they feel bad about not being able to be in a conventional school and that they ant to tell people they are boys.

Now, the new kid, Storm, will not be assigned a sex. Therefore, the parents reason, nobody will impose definitions. But, in not assigning a sex, aren't the parents assigning their own definitions. If Storm is a biological female, and it turns out that she likes things that have historically been gendered masculine, then does that mean she is not a girl? Only by assuming that our gender and sex have to match do we decide that sex is something to be re-named.

Once again, I have to ask whether the parents' sense of gender ambiguity is too narrow. As with the kid on Oprah I discussed in an earlier post, I feel that the parents here are imposing stricter gender definitions by denying sex than if they let their boys be gender bending boys and let Storm, whoever and whatever she is, be whoever and whatever she is, without worrying about whether who she is fits or does not fit conventional gender stereotypes. Wouldn't the parents serve him/her best not by turning his/her sex into a guessing game but by allowing her to be herself, wearing pink or blue or green and playing with dolls and balls and dinosaurs and tupperware, or whatever s/he likes. Break the stereotypes by all means. But don't impose stereotypes of your own by removing labels like "girl" and "boy" as if that fixes everything.

Monday, May 23, 2011

in loco parentis

I teach film and gender studies at a University. Usually, I think about my relationship with my students and not about their relationships with their family. But every year, on graduation weekend, I come into contact with student's families and I realize that my relationship with the student has become part of that student's relationship with his/her family. Usually, this means that the parents have heard of me, or heard about a class I taught. This year, for example, I talked to a lot of parents about my Sinatra class. I also had a lot of general conversations with parents about what the student's major meant to them. In the case of gender studies, there were some parents who spoke very approvingly of their child's choice to major in gender studies. They saw that it had been very beneficial to their child. Some were not as convinced, perhaps, or were glad that the student had a "practical" major as well. The most amazing conversation I had, though, was with a dad whose daughter majored in film and took many film/gender classes from me, as well as one on feminist and gender theory without a film component. The father took me aside and told me that he and his wife had been worried by the fact that their daughter was somewhat narrow minded and conservative about gender. Living in LA, the dad said, they felt she should be more open. So they were delighted when she took my courses. He said it really made her think and change her views -- on abortion (which I don't think I ever explicitly addressed, but would have come up in a few films), gender roles, feminism, homosexuality, transgender, and more. He said that I was not only his daughters' favorite professor but the family's. It was an amazing conversation. I was very surprised and pleased -- nobody has ever ever thanked me for making their daughter less conservative! But it was also amazing to remember the impact that we can have. When sometimes it seems all students care about is grades and the market payoff for college, along comes someone who seeks just to expand her mind. And parents who appreciate that and seek it with her and for her. It made me appreciate my role as mentor in a whole new way. And it gave me a model for how to think about my own kids and what they can find at school.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Today, I dodged a special Volunteer Appreciation breakfast at my kids' school. I was included because I volunteered last week to cover the classroom during teacher appreciation when the teachers are taken to lunch outside the school. (One of the kids in the class remarked that he thought it was odd that the teachers left the school in order to feel appreciated. Ha ha.) I felt that they could best appreciate the time I had taken to volunteer by not taking up more of my time thanking me. I am appreciating myself today by cleaning my office, getting rid of the traces of this semester's classes, and organizing the materials I need for this summer's writing and class prep.

The volunteer system at school never feels very voluntary to me. Nobody has ever said that I have to volunteer, but there is an ethos that assumes that you will volunteer for field trips, classroom parties, special events, etc. All of this on top of attending the frequent assemblies, concerts, class presentations, parties, and other in-school events that parents are expected to attend. So I generally allocate one to two things per child -- meaning I try and do one field trip for each kid if possible and one in-class volunteer session. So, this year, I did Teacher Appreciation in the 4th grade (which had me in the classroom for about two hours, just making sure the kids didn't run amok) and Ellis Island Day for the 2nd grade (in which the kids pretend to be entering Ellis Island and we check their medical status, papers, money. I like to make them change their names.) I brought home made donuts to my son's "half birthday." I fell down on the field trips, but am going to the zoo in two weeks time, getting one in just before school closes for the year. Along the way, I attended holiday concerts, an assembly in which they celebrated reading (I missed one in which they presented on infectious diseases because I was away at a conference and felt guilty for weeks), plus a Native American museum (kids make dioramas and you walk through the classroom talking to them about their work) and an Egyptian museum (for this, they also wore costumes). All within working hours. (The band concerts are at night).

I understand the impulse -- parents should be involved in their child's education, it takes a village, etc. But there seems to be little understanding from within the school or even among the parents that people might not be able to frequently attend events between 8 and 3PM on weekdays when people work. When I was a kid, the school day was when my parents didn't have to worry about me or take care of me. But now, we are supposed to be on call all the time. Some dads do volunteer and dads often attend the concerts, assemblies and presentations. But, of course, most of the volunteering falls on moms. Many of the moms at our school are stay at home moms. Actually, a surprisingly large number. Most of whom had jobs, and big serious jobs, at some point in time. The volunteer system feeds on them, because they are seen as "easily" able to show up for any and all school events. It also, I suspect, helps some of them feel that their stay at home status is a necessity, because paid work would make it hard to volunteer. The school becomes another unpaid job for them. The temptation for me and other moms and dads who work for pay is to rely on these stay at home moms (and few stay at home dads) to take up the slack. The temptation for the school and for our kids is to see these parents as more committed. Along the way, we erase the idea that postfeminism taught us that being a stay at home is as valid and as hard as working outside the home. We extend the stay at home parent's nurturing role beyond their family and ask them to be substitute parents for the rest of us.

I'd rather that the school would make clear its expectations. Rather than assume that everybody can just skip out of work whenever they feel like it (and amazingly there are doctor and lawyer parents and other people who have much less flexible jobs than mine who manage this stuff), just say up front that the price of school (on top of its exorbitant price tag) is one volunteer activity per year per parent. This would equalize the gender imbalance, create more equality between working and stay at home parents, and make clear that it is an obligation not a choice.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


My career is going very well. Recently, I was elected to the Executive Board of the national academic organization for cinema scholars, I am running the Gender Studies program on campus, my book, The Apartment Plot, came out a few months ago, I've organized some great conferences, I've had some good speaking invitations, and I just got promoted. It is all good, but I still feel ambivalent about it. It isn't that I feel success is undeserved. I don't have that kind of self-loathing. Instead, I both want success and fear it. Or, rather, I want success but fear what it entails. Mainly extra work. Every step up, every bit of recognition, carries with it the threat of more meetings, more committees, more travel, more time away from the family. Yes, I can tell my kids that it is good that their mom works and has her own identity, and they believe it, but when that means I miss a recital or some other school event or even when it means I miss a few breakfasts or dinners with them, it makes me feel guilty. And I know that every thing I do affects my husband and takes away from his work time. as he takes up the slack for me (in addition to doing his own usual share) with the kids. At the same time, when I tell a work-related person that I will only stay at the conference for a shortened time or will skip a dinner, because I want to see my family or need to got a recital, I feel like a feeb, a failure. This is the familiar bind of the working mom. But what to do? Sometimes I fantasize about having an Alice, like in The Brady Bunch. But, aside from the expense, I don't want someone else being my substitute at home or even being in my home that much. I treasure the private space of our home and our family. Watching Big Love, I sometimes think that what I need is a sister-wife, someone who shares my family and has the same stakes as I do, who can spell me and my husband when necessary. But I wouldn't like the husband sharing, or the assumption that my sister wife should be a stay-at-home mom herself (or the creepy polygamist dresses). I guess one way to look at it is that I have managed so far, and seem to be getting rewarded and recognized for good work, despite my constant feeling that I'm not doing enough or will be found out. Maybe the more we all assert our right to not be everywhere at every minute -- to miss a recital, leave a conference early, dodge a meeting -- we can help make new rules and new expectations.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

When Harry met Haley

In my Feminist and Gender theory class, as we discussed transgender issues, I brought in numerous representations of transgender and/or intersex, including such touchstones as Hedwig and the Angry Inch, TransAmerica, Orlando, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. As we discussed transgender, we started thinking that transgender was the most radical space for rethinking the relationship between bodies and gender, by making the body seem mutable and by underscoring a fissure between body and gender and between biology and gender. However, at the same time, we kept feeling that certain ways of talking about or imagining transgender led back to essentialism. The idea that one is "really" a woman inside or "a man trapped in a woman's body" seems to have some idea of what it means to be "really" a woman or a man, some sense of a gendered soul that seems to assume authenticity (as opposed to gender performance) and that assumes that nature makes mistakes (in giving the "wrong" body) rather than assume that gender is culture, not nature.

All of this became much more problematic when we looked at an Oprah episode (where else?) about raising a transgender child. What is curious in this segment (linked below) is that the 7 year old now-girl Haley, who was formerly a boy, Harry, never said to her parents "I want to be a girl." The parents, who describe themselves as progressive parents trying to raise gender neutral children, say instead that it was just "obvious." I am not sure what the exact process was -- whether they legally changed the child's name or whether her teachers know her story -- but there seems to be some secrecy attached to this, as Lisa Ling describes the family as "brave" for telling their story, suggesting that Haley's identity is now taken to be that of a girl in her community and that this show would be an outing of sorts. In any case, what bothers me is that these supposedly progressive parents could not imagine their boy, Harry, as a boy who could like painting his nails, wearing his hair long or playing with dolls and cuddlies. This, despite the fact that numerous parents tell stories of their sons doing exactly that -- as behaviors that they may or may not "grow out of." Instead, when he took on the gender neutral characteristics that they say they encouraged, they read him as a girl. In other words, they forced gender stereotypes onto him and decided that if he did such "feminine" things he must be a girl. I am not suggesting that there are not children who might feel a conflict between their inside feelings and outside body or that transgender is in actuality much more complicated and less rigid than many popular representations make it seem. But I am questioning the way in which transgender, in certain conceptions of it, allows us to re-map gender stereotypes and re-assert gender binaries, rather than explode those assumptions. So, my question is, why can't Harry be a cross-dressing nail painting boy? Why does wearing a dress and painting nails automatically make him a girl?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Who Rules

Recently, my son asked me why, since there are so many myriad T-Shirts and other signs that say "Girls Rule" and "Girls Rock," there were not shirts that said "Boys Rule?" (It was a little bit like when my daughter, a knee jerk feminist in her own way, expressed anger that Barack Obama and not Hillary Clinton got the presidential nomination -- "But we have never had a woman in the White House!" We had to explain that not only women have been oppressed and that it was still pretty darn good to get an African American man there.) I explained to my son that there had always been an assumption that "boys rule" and that that had made it important to say that girls were cool and girls could rule. But, still. What is a little boy to think? Girl power has worked so well as a merchandising tool for the younger set that girls truly do rule in most media. iCarly, Hannah Montana and other cool tween girls dominate cable TV. The boys in these shows are generally full-blown idiots, virtually unable to function in the world (both Carly and Hannah's brothers), or they are crafty liars who succeed only through deception (Zack or Cody in the Disney series). The girls, however, are smart and strong and funny. In even the smartest children's lit, there has been a sea change in how boys and girls are represented. In the Magic Tree House books, two kids time travel to help Merlin and his sister Morgan le Fay find treasures for the library in King Arthur's court. It is nerdy and historical stuff and we love it. The girl, Annie, is intuitive, good with animals, and fearless -- she plunges into every adventure with the absolute certainty that she will come out okay. Her brother, by contrast, is more bookish, and a bit afraid. He can't move forward without doing research and even then is usually pushed by his younger sister. Neither fits an exact boy-girl stereotype. But there is a way in which we can no longer imagine the boy as fearless, or an adventurer. In order to allow girl power, he has to give up some of his power. So, what do tell our sons? "Move aside, it's your sister's turn?" Or "Nobody rules, at least not by virtue of their sex." But, can we say that really?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

This blog is about being a mom, and a feminist, in a post-feminist world. It is about the difficulties of managing work and family and the ways in which the promises of feminism have yet to manifest, as well as the ways in which they have. It is also about encounters with post or anti-feminist worlds in my role as mom. And it is about trying to raise kids, a 7 year old boy and 9 year old girl, as they encounter gendered assumptions about the world. Though I am an academic, this blog is not about my academic work, except insofar as I teach gender studies and frequently bump up against the assumptions of a post-feminist world in class and in discussion with students, both male and female, as well as among colleagues.

What do I mean by feminist and post-feminist? By feminist, I mean that I believe in equality for men and women, and also between heterosexual and homosexual worlds and for all LBGTQ people. Feminist issues include equal pay, child care, health care, education, and other material issues. But it also encompasses discourse and culture, the way we speak of women and men, and gay and straight, and the way we are all represented in the culture. It includes ideologies of sex and gender, and the taken for granted assumptions that guide our lives. By post-feminist, I mean many things. In part, the post conveys a sense that some people believe feminism is over, that the battles have been won. Post also suggests a postmodern feminism, more youthful and playful perhaps, but also potentially more superficial. It includes promising ideas like girl power, but can slip into ideas about self-exploitation being empowering (girls gone wild, e.g.).

In my own life, I have changed over time from being a post-feminist to a feminist. I went to college in 1982. At that time, I thought most of the battles had been won. I had no reason to believe otherwise. I could assume that I could go to any college I wanted (depending upon my scores, not my sex), that I would have a career, that my career would not be limited by my sex, that I could choose to have a child or not, that I could choose to marry or not, that I could get my own place to live, my own bank account, a car, and whatever else I needed to live. I knew that I did not need a man for financial security. So, I felt grateful for the feminists who came before me and figured I was all set. And that was sort of true, until . . . once I became a wife, and people talked to me differently -- gave me more respect in some cases, assumed my husband was boss, in many others, thought they had me pegged. Then, the decision to have children, a decision my husband and I shared. But dealing with pregnancy and coming up against the way in which "our"decision to have kids affected me -- my health, my job (as I took time off to care for the child, thus losing salary, benefits, time to do research and writing) -- made me begin to feel the pressure of difference, and the imbalance of motherhood vs. fatherhood, even with a great feminist husband. Now, increasingly, I feel the tension between motherhood and work -- my need to get to a meeting vs. my schedule of driving the kids to school, the school's assumption that I am free in the middle of the day to attend field trips, my boss's assumption that I am free in the late afternoon for a meeting (when I have to pick up my kids). I also feel the pressure of trying to raise kids without gendered assumptions, kids who will be open to non-traditional families, non-stereotypical ways of being boys and girls or whatever they want to be, knowing that their friends and teachers are not always as open or cognizant of difference as they might be (kids more than anyone police each other and let boys especially know what is expected of them). These pressures are not mine alone. My husband shares them. And that makes me feel the need for feminism more, to create ways for all of us to manage the realities of family and work better.