Tuesday, January 19, 2010
A Rant Before Reading
These are the books I just picked up from the library.
To say that I am excited about reading them would be like saying Jack makes a teeny bit of a mess when he eats pudding.
I have strong feelings on the subject of motherhood. When I started writing my dissertation, I thought abortion was my personal hot-button issue, but by the time the project was complete, discussions of abortion took up maybe 30 out of 300 pages. Maybe. Instead, I wrote word after word, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, and end note after end note about mothers. Real mothers, the women who begged Margaret Sanger for birth control, or lobbied to keep day nurseries open so they could keep working after World War II soldiers came home, or suffered from the "problem with no name" that Betty Friedan diagnosed in the 1960s; idealized mother images, shadowy figures in Planned Parenthood's organizational literature who obediently saw their doctors for prenatal care and diaphragms, learned how to space their children so that childbirth would no longer kill them, and realized that sacrifice, piety, hard work, and deference to experts were secrets to happiness in their homes; and of course potential mothers, all women, all female fetuses and toddlers and preschoolers and grade school girls and awkward middle-schoolers and teens and married women, all socialized from the moment their sex was known to care to nurture to breed. Even childless women in the literature were defined by their negative motherhood.
It's a leap, of course, and one that I did not have enough textual support for, really, to claim that Planned Parenthood discourse was a neat little microcosm of larger America. Of course the campaigns the organization ran, the ideologies it deployed, the idealized mother figures it used were influenced by culture, by context, by the political landscape, but as the fabulous historians on my dissertation committee reminded me, the relationship between rhetoric and reality was not as linear as I wanted it to be.
Still, what I took from my study was this: we are seriously f*cked up when it comes to motherhood in America. Let's face it, it is increasingly less common that families can live comfortably on one income (wages have simply not kept pace with productivity since the 1980s-- thanks Reaganomics). There are more and more 2-income families, but the rhetoric of motherhood, parenthood, family hasn't changed. We still pay lip service to the value of the SAHM, but we (the social we, the federal we) aren't putting our money where our mouths are. This is where my argument starts to become discombobulated, where I know how close I stand to this critical problem (and I am forever grateful to the professor my first year at PhD school who had us read Michael Walzer, who argues that critical distance can be measured in inches and helps to sort out the problem of prophecy, as it were) because the money issue introduces a problem that Friedan famously, disastrously skirted. It's a status symbol of sorts to stay home with your kids. Oh come on now, of course it is. It announces to everyone, "I don't HAVE to work. I choose to stay home. Money, you see, is not an issue." Which, in turn, makes working moms take one of two really shitty positions. You can say, "Screw it. I need the money. I have to work. But oh god I wish I were home with my kids," neatly devaluing the 40 or more hours a week you spend engaged in outside-the-home activity. Or you can say "I work, but it's not like I HAVE to,", tripping all over yourself to reassure everyone that you have the LUXURY (the financial luxury) of choice, but you chose work and that doesn't make you as much of a shitbag as it sounds at first breath because you are really fulfilled by your career, but you have to stop short of insulting women who don't work in order to justify yourself and it's not because women are catty or because you are jealous; it's because our culture makes moms feel like shit no matter what.
I am sure you can tell by my increasing defensiveness that I fall into the second camp of working moms. I am so defensive that when people ask me if I work, I make a huge deal about how I am still home with the kids a lot and my husband's hours are flexible and I just got my PhD last May. That last one is especially funny because it has NOTHING to do with the original question, but I just babble it on out there as if it does fit in, as if it explains ANYTHING. Because I can't just say yes and move on-- I feel terrible that I am a mother of 2 small kids and I work outside the home. But here's the catch: I don't like staying home with them. I don't like it. I suck at it if I do it for too long (I mean, 5 weeks off in the winter, a week in the spring, and the whole summer? Plus at least one full day a week-- that's too much time for me to be good. Think about 24/7!) (And? Do you see what I just did there? I tripped all over myself to tell you how much time I do spend with my kids because I feel so guilty for working and feel guiltier for choosing to work and feel guiltier still for liking it so goddamn much.) (And there-- another jab about choice, about how all options being equal, I chose to go to the office-- another little slip of the fingers that illustrates my claim about SAHM as a status symbol).
I almost cried the other day at Harry's swim lessons because I found out that 3 other moms of kids in his class have PhDs are work part time (one at a college and 2, who are psychologists, in private practices). It was wonderful to talk to them about the daily scramble and the conflicts and how not to drown in the dissonance.
The thing that I didn't know when I was childless and scoffed at staying home and at people who think daycares are evil and at husbands who didn't help with everything is this: You love your babies more than anything in the world, and they are tiny and helpless and hypnotically adorable and when they cry, you want to be the one they cry for. Also that breast is best and pumping sucks, so forget help in the middle of the night.
I didn't feel this way because I am a woman and I am "hard wired" or biologically predisposed to feel this way. I do think, however, that women and girls are culturally conditioned to feel this way, to assume the burden of care and to work out elaborate justifications for why they WANT this burden or why they are shirking it. I mean, go to freaking Toys R Us and check out girls' imaginative play toys versus boys' imaginative play toys. It's still pink kitchens and fake make up to rocket ships and chemistry sets.
I am no stranger to creepy message boards and the mommy wars waged on them. I know that SAHMS are made to feel bad for SAH. I know there are terrible arguments about wasting education, etc, designed to make SAHMS ashamed so WOHMS can feel better (and from a historical perspective these arguments are really funny because women were only allowed to be educated in the first place because the founding fathers thought it would make them better mothers, who would, in turn, raise better citizens). I spend most of my days passing for a SAHM. I send my kids to a part day nursery school where almost all of the kids have SAH or WAH moms. I go to the Little Gym, which is all SAHMS and nannies. I run my errands with my kids during the day. Part of this is intentional-- I feel so bad that I don't stay home that I act as if I do. I understand the value of an at-home parent, and Ben and I contort ourselves to be home as often as we can and to give them the opportunities they'd have with a full- time at-home parent because ultimately (and flame away here) I do think it's best for tiny kids to have one-on-one attention in the home (and maybe I have just been duped by en vogue parenting ideology). That's why we have a nanny to care for them when we can't. I like that it is below zero today and I left them barefoot in a warm house playing a board game with someone who loves them. I hate that that someone is not me and that I don't really want it to be. Not today when the adventure of new semester is rolling out fresh in front of me.
It's not fair, I don't think, to plead the fifth on the issue of motherhood in America or to dismiss it, saying something like, "Meh. Everyone makes the choice that's good for her own family." Here's why:
First of all, the notion of choice is misleading here. To say that we choose is a very capitalist and consumerist way to look at the issue. It assumes that we all come to the buffet line with the same size plate, that we are all selecting from the same array of scrumptious choices. That's just not true. Some women aren't choosing at all; they're doing what they have to do; they're selecting the only available road, and then they're being made to talk about it, to think about it, as if they chose it for themselves. Because if it's a choice, we don't need longer maternity and paternity leaves. If it's a choice, we don't need federal infrastructure for equitable, accessible daycare. If it's a choice, then it's not a right, and if it's not a right, then we don't have to help you pump at work, or take your sick kid to the doctor, or be compensated in any way for the work you perform everyday in your home.
Second, what happens inside your house affects what happens inside all of our houses. The choices we make about raising our families are certainly private, but all of these private choices together make up our public notion of family, of motherhood, of social justice. In a very real way, what happens in your house directly affects what happens-- what can happen-- what we can imagine happening-- in my house, in the White House, in every house.
So, that's how I feel BEFORE I read the books above. I'll check back with you after I read them.