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).