one girl reading

October 19, 2006

readin’ and groovin’

Filed under: children's books, picture books — Susan @ 2:33 pm

My kids love to hear stories about themselves. We talk about when they were babies, about how tiny Henry was when he was born and how we could see Charlie sucking his thumb on the ultrasounds. We talk about their first steps and first words; Henry particularly likes the story of how Charlie, at 18 months, would announce, “CLOTHES ARE DRY!” every time he heard a buzzing noise. Personally, I liked when he called out “DINNER’S READY!” each time the microwave dinged.

A few years ago, my parents gave the boys some Personalized Storybooks for Christmas. Henry’s was a Disney’s Winnie the Pooh book that included him in Pooh’s adventures; Charlie’s was about traveling back to the time of dinosaurs, and included the memorable line, “I am Charlie, from the future.” The boys liked these books, because their names were in them, but Charlie wanted to know why his picture wasn’t in the book, and eventually Henry caught on that his story was just a bastardized version of A. A. Milne’s stories. And I thought that was the end of personalized books.

But a week or so ago, we received Charlie’s personalized copy of The Robots of Sedna, and the boys love it. When I ordered the book, I was able to specify eye and hair color, and to indicate that Charlie wore glasses. I was also able to include Henry and Charlie’s friend Cate in the story, which both kids love.

The book itself is very sweet; Charlie is the captain of a spaceship, and he saves the galaxy from a pair of fairly ineffective bad guys. The main character is courageous and cheerful, and there is no violence at all, just lots of good problem solving (and one rocket crash, in which no one is hurt). The story has a nice moral–“Your family and friends know you are one of a kind!”–and the illustrations are bright and cheerful.

The book comes with a cd, which I found kind of meh. A recorded voice reads the story, complete with a ding sound that tells kids when to turn the page (remember that?). Charlie didn’t like that the voices were wrong; the Charlie in the story sounds like a girl, and the voice of Cate is clearly a boy. Plus, this particular cd includes a selection of songs, all of which have a kind of 1970s hippie musical feel to them (think songs that didn’t make it into Godspell). And the songs are looooonnnnng. The first time we listened to it, I dozed off and Charlie wandered away to play, all during the first song. Henry, however, LOVES the cd; he sits with the book in his lap and follows the story and shushes anyone who talks during the music. So it is possible that Charlie and I are just missing the point of this part of the package. Or that we’re too cynical to enjoy the hippie songs about being brave and special.

My kids spend a lot of time pretending that they are characters in the stories we read; it’s been fun to read a story where they really ARE characters. I’m just hoping they don’t start singing those songs.

September 27, 2006

who’s afraid of Arianna Huffington?

Filed under: nonfiction — Susan @ 12:26 pm

I am fascinated by Arianna Huffington, primarily because she is famous solely for being Arianna Huffington. I admire her for her outspokenness and her incredible ability to continuously recreate herself (she’s a Republican! no wait, she’s a Democrat!). She is the founder of the Huffington Post, and currently has a new book out, On Becoming Fearless. I wanted to like this book, I really did. Really.

Huffington’s claim–which I agree wholeheartedly with–is that we live in a culture of fear, and that women are particularly vulnerable to fearmongering. We are constantly barraged by reminders of all the ways we are failing–at home and at work and everywhere in between. Every choice we make is met with criticism and over time, we internalize that critical voice and allow it to control our decisions. We become fearful, and this fear infects our lives. We fear that we are failing our children and our spouses and our parents. We fear that we’re not working hard enough or making enough money. We fear that we are ugly. We fear that we will not succeed, and so we don’t.

“The most common response to this crisis of self is conformity,” Huffington writes in her Introduction. “So, ironically, the woman who appears to be well adapted may be the one who simply has become the most comfortable being governed by her fears, while the ‘neurotic’ one is still gamely struggling to reach her fearlessness.” As I read this, I thought instantly of the minivan driving soccer mom, and of my resistance to that stereotype. I think, in this moment, that Huffington is right; one way of allaying fear–or at least of creating the appearance of allaying fear–is to conform to the group. Once you are part of the group, there is nothing to fear. Except, of course, that the fears don’t vanish once you’re part of the group; they just eat away at you while you drive your minivan to soccer practice. Huffington identifies the places in our lives where we are most likely to be fearful–our relationship with our bodies, for example, or with work or money or love–and offers strategies for overcoming these fears. She looks at other literature in this area and quotes interviews with friends and Huffington Post readers and cites her own personal experiences. She is confident that women can, indeed, become fearless.

I like the idea of this book quite a lot. But the book itself left me puzzled and more than a little irritated. While this is not a Mommy Wars book, it employs that same us-against-them rhetoric. Huffington is critical of women who chose to approach the world in any way that differs dramatically from the one she is advocating here. She writes about an Oscar week party at which she found herself seated next to Hugh Hefner and his entourage, “the three pneumatically endowed platinum blondes on his arm.” She describes them as “horrifying . . . . At some point, they must have been lovely. And most likely, they still would be–but we’ll never know. That level of heavy construction and demolition can never be undone.” I am not a fan of plastic surgery, but I am even less a fan of this rhetoric. What divides women, what keeps us fearful and guilt ridden and angry about our inability to advance and succeed is, often, the criticism of other women, or at least our sense–our fear, if you will–that we won’t measure up in the eyes of other women. I think Huffington has a point about the Playboy bunnies and their desire to recreate themselves as Every Man’s Fantasy, but rather than attacking these young women (and they are young, very very young), I would have preferred she deconstruct the ideal they represent.

Too often, the book devolves into Practical Advice From Arianna, which is of little if any “practical” use in my real life. In the book’s first chapter, Fearless About the Body, Huffington asserts that “we can never really be fearless until we stop judging our looks and accept them.” Agreed; her argument is dead on. But her application falls short, particularly when she advocates solutions such as “Never get up from the table feeling stuffed or guilty, but never get up without feeling satisfied” and “Get enough sleep. . . . I try to get seven to eight hours of sleep a night as often as possible.” Quite honestly, I try to sit down at the dinner table whenever possible and I will take any sleep I can get. Reading about Huffington’s lunch hour hikes with her girlfriends or her yoga practice didn’t really give me any new insight into loving my body; instead, it left me feeling like I needed to get a whole new life, one that included a yoga instructor and a house in the California foothills.

Ultimately, I found this book unsatisfying and frustrating. The myriad references to Huffington’s own life–intended, I imagine, to be enlightening and charming–were incredibly irritating. She writes about her dear friend Sherry Lansing’s gift of a session with the aesthetician Mila Moursi, and goes on to rhapsodize about how “my regular facials include microdermabrasion . . . But even the simplest home facial can cleanse and freshen up our skin and our spirits,” she adds, in what seems to be an afterthought intended to include readers who don’t have a standing appointment with a famous Hollywood aesthetician. Huffington talks about returning phone calls during a seaweed wrap and checking her Blackberry during yoga classes. I tried to imagine what the equivalent of these might be at my house, but all I could come up with was eating M&Ms in the laundry room while the kids watch Clifford. I couldn’t connect with Huffington, although I wanted to; I wanted to feel like there was some real practical take-away message, but it seemed that the message was that when you’re Arianna Huffington, you CAN stop being fearful.

I think Huffington is right: we live in a culture that barrages us with reminders of how we are failing and imbues us with fear. I think that her message–that women CAN overcome fear, that we CAN succeed, personally and professionally, that our lives will be more rewarding if we take risks and make decisions based on what we KNOW not what we fear–is crucial, particularly for young women. But I think there is not enough of that message and too much of Arianna Huffington in this book.

This review is part of BlogHer’s first virtual book tour. You can find more reviews–and get your own review copy of Arianna Huffington’s book–at BlogHer.

August 24, 2006

the lie about mothers and daughters

Filed under: good books, miscellaneous, nonfiction — Susan @ 11:04 am

I am skeptical of memoir, not so much because I am uninterested in other people’s life stories but because I am leery of the sense that simply because an author says something happened in this way or that, it is then imbued with a sense that this is the Absolute Truth. Memory is always colored by subject position, and the truth–as we learned from James Frey, if no one else–is a slippery fish.

Catherine Lloyd Burns clearly understands this dilemma. She opens It Hit Me Like a Ton of Bricks with her mother’s insistence that Burns “should write a disclaimer . . . which clearly states there are three truths: mine, yours, and the truth.” Burns’ book, which she has subtitiled A Memoir of a Mother and Daughter, examines this space between her truth and her mother’s truth in order to illustrate that the truth about mothers and daughters is more than just the sum of these other truths.

Burns writes in spare, lean prose. She opens the book with a tiny chapter titled “Something Nice About My Mother,” which both explicates the book’s title and disabuses the reader’s notions that this will be another paean to perfect motherhood. A phone call from her mother sends the nineteen-year-old Burns scurrying home, expecting her mother to apologize for what she sees as a lifetime of neglectful parenting. Instead, her mother shares what is clearly a profound revelation, the “ton of bricks” of the title: “If you kill yourself, it is simply not my fault. I am off the hook. None of this is my fault. I am not responsible . . . And I couldn’t wait to tell you.”

This is, in many ways, a horrific way to start the story of a mother-daughter relationship, but Burns has an excellent sense of timing and pacing. The first half of her book (Part One) is all about Burns’ life as a daughter. She grew up wealthy and spoiled and basically unsupervised. When she is nine, her father dies suddenly, leaving her mother a widow for the second time. As a child–and, remarkably, as an adult looking back at her child self–Burns is baffled by her mother’s insistence that they carry on, that they not continue mourning her father. Her childhood self is grounded in the fact that her mother will only love her if she is somehow different. And so she bumbles through childhood and adolescence and adulthood struggling to be what her mother will love.

The turning point, both in the book and in Burns’ life, comes with the birth of her daughter, Olive. Now that she is a mother, Burns begins to rethink her own mother’s position and responses. She chooses to parent her daughter in the extreme opposite of her mother’s parenting; she is obsessively hands-on and involved, where her own mother was detached and distant. She begins her life as a mother smugly assuming that unlike her OWN mother, SHE will do this better. She will do it RIGHT.

What she finds, of course, is that there is no one right way to love a child, no one truth about how to mother. Instead, like all of us, she finds that the ideal picture of motherhood that we all carry with us has nothing to do with the day-to-day of loving a real child: “My daughter, who was supposed to spend her childhood basking in the warm glow of my idyllic maternal love, is having a time-out in the next room. And I am in a foul fucking mood about shit that has nothing to do with her.” The revelation that motherhood is hard, that children are trying, that perfection is a lie, isn’t new or startling; what is new and startling is Burns’ ability to talk about how a mother can seemingly fail her child and be a good mother all at once.

July 5, 2006

ahoy, mateys!

Filed under: children's books, good books, picture books — Susan @ 4:48 pm

Charlie is all about pirates these days. We have swords and headscarves; we dress up and pretend his bed is a ship and we’re sailing to Treasure Island. We have three hundred million tiny Playmobil pirate figures, plus a ship and a jail. Every figure has a pistol. A TEENY WEENY pistol. That has to be picked up at the end of every day.

Fortunately, Charlie also likes pirate books, and today we bought The Night Pirates, written by Peter Harris and illustrated by Deborah Allwright. This is a beautiful book about a little boy named Tom:

Tom was a nice little boy.
Tom was a brave little boy.
Tom was a little boy about to have an adventure.

Tom is awakened one night by the sound of pirates stealing the front of his house, to disguise their ship. But these aren’t any pirates; they are “Rough, tough little girl pirates, With their own ship.” Tom joins the girl pirates on their voyage and helps them to steal the grown-up pirate Captain Patch’s treasure. Then the girl pirates return Tom and his house front and disappear, “Stealthy as shadows, quiet as mice.”

The story, by Peter Harris, is beautiful; the language is poetic and peaceful. I love that the pirates are girls, and that they are rough and tough. The text appears in various sizes, to emphasize what should be read out loudly and what should be whispered.

The accompanying illustrations are also lovely. The girl pirate captain has wild, curly brown hair and a big purple pirate hat. The colors are primarily deep blues and purples, which gives it a nice bedtime story look. Charlie likes the pages that show the grown-up pirates sleeping; he likes to point out how many of them are “baretoes.” He also likes the one page in the book that is printed the long way–rather than reading from left to right, the book has to be turned and read from top to bottom.

This is a beautiful book, and one that is a pleasure to read again and again and again. And again. And then once more.

July 2, 2006

you, sir, are no Edith Wharton

Filed under: bad books, fiction, novels — Susan @ 8:42 pm

Eliot Schrefer’s debut novel, Glamorous Disasters, follows the social climb and fall–okay, stumble–of Noah, an SAT tutor hired by various prestigious and wealthy New York City families to insure their children’s success in life–or to help them beat the SAT. Whatever. The novel centers around Noah’s work with the “troubled” (read: spoiled and neglected) Thayer children, Dylan and Tuscany, who are both one party away from complete disaster. Thus the title, I suppose.

Schrefer’s novel has been compared to both Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’ The Nanny Diaries; neither comparison works for me. The Nanny Diaries relies heavily on the near-anonymity of the protagonist; we know just enough about Nanny Drew to sympathize with her as she struggles to do her job under increasingly bad and bizarre conditions. Her ethical struggle is clear: leaving her job means leaving her four-year-old charge with no one to love him, which is unconscionable. Schrefer tries to recreate this same type of relationship between Noah and his students, but it is difficult to believe that two hours a week of tutoring could result in the same bond (particularly since Dylan spends his entire tutoring sessions IMing and text messaging his friends). Additionally, Schrefer allows us to see Noah thinking about his sexual attraction to fifteen-year-old Tuscany, which frankly just made me like him even less. We are told, over and over, that Noah feels torn between his small-town Virginia roots and the Upper East side word that his Princeton alum friends inhabit, but this tension seems more like a staple of the genre rather than a true character trait.

But if Noah is no Nanny Drew he is even less Wharton’s Lilly Bart. Schrefer wants us to feel that Noah’s dilemmas are not of his own making, that he is overpowered by the world of his wealthy students and their immoral parents, but at every turn we see Noah making bad choices and then flinching when the consequences come around. He is sitting on a dark secret, about a former student and the lengths to which he was willing to go in his devotion for her, and this comes back to haunt him–but frankly it’s his own fault. And, of course, unlike Lilly Bart, who was constrained–and, ultimately, destroyed–by her gender and the rules of society, Noah has other options for repayment of his massive student loans. He could get a real job, for example. Or he could just stop getting over-involved in his students’ lives and tutor them, rather than trying to save them. Either way, this is a disaster of his own making.

In large part, this novel fails because the characters are both entirely one-dimensional and entirely unsympathetic. Noah’s students are alternately pampered and ignored by both their parents and their tutor, but unlike The Nanny Diaries‘ Greyer X, we just don’t give a damn about them. The Thayer kids, with their drugs and parties and lackadaisical attitude toward anything of relevance in the world, are clearly past redemption, or they are on their own, self-determined road to redemption–there is nothing that Noah can do that will change that, and all his whining about needing to help them is just that: whiny. Little Greyer, on the other hand, is a child, and we are drawn in by the hope that maybe Nanny can compensate for his parents neglect and stupidity adn stop him from growing up to be, for example, Dylan Thayer. While The Nanny Diaries tugs at our heartstrings, Glamorous Disasters only irritates; in the end, small children are sympathetic while slutty, druggie teenagers just aren’t.

Finally, Glamorous Disasters has the dubious distinction of including–on page six–what is arguably the worst line ever written: “His hair looks like he has just taken a nap, or been licked by a goat.” I don’t have any idea what that image–of Dylan Thayer looking like he has been accosted by a farm animal–has to do with anything else in this novel. Unfortunately, Schrefer often tries to make up for any sense of depth in his narrative with turns of phrase like this one. In the end, the only disaster in this novel was the novel itself.

June 26, 2006

superheros redeemed

Filed under: children's books, fiction, good books, novels — Susan @ 3:02 am

For the past, oh, probably two years, Henry has been fascinated by superheros. And by “fascinated” I mean “obsessed.” My house is strewn with superhero action figures, our playdates consist of pretending to be various members of the League of Justice, and dinner conversation revolves around which hero has what power and how he might use it. Charlie likes to mix it up by announcing that he prefers the bad guys, and frankly I’m starting to sympathize with him. Those superheros are driving me berserk.

Fortunately, Wade is always on the lookout for ways to redeem himself (he’s the one who started the whole damn superhero thing) and a week or so ago, he came across The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy, Book 1: The Hero Revealed, by William Boniface. It’s the story of Ordinary Boy, a ten-year-old resident of Superopolis, “Where everyone is exceptional! (And we mean that in a good way).” All the residents of Superopolis are superheros, except Ordinary Boy, who is, as his name implies, ordinary: “everyone here, except for me, has a superpower. The thing is, though, they only have one power. You won’t find some guy who can fly and has X-ray vision and is strong enough to lift a truck. It just doesn’t work that way. Sadly, just as with looks, talent, and brains, the powers that people end up with are hardly equal.” Like all boys his age, Ordinary Boy is searching for something to set him apart from all the other kids in his grade. Unfortunately, when your friends have super strength and the ability to change into bubbling ectoplasm, this is quite a challenge.

This is an incredibly smart and funny book. Boniface deploys all the conventions of the superhero narrative–the evil villain who consistently fails to exploit the hero’s weakness, for example–in a way that is accessible to young readers. He also mocks those conventions, but with great kindness. Ordinary Boy carries his L’il Heroes Handbook with him at all times; it not only tells him the names and powers of all of Superopolis’s residents, but provides the addresses of the secret hideouts of all the city’s super villains.

That information comes in handy when Ordinary Boy and his friends set out to solve a mystery: why is it so hard to get all 64 of the Amazing Indestructo collector cards? Of course, in their search for the missing card, Ordinary Boy and his friends uncover a great and sinister plot to . . . well, you’ll have to read the book. But I will say this: the story is predictable enough to be fun for young readers but clever enough to be engaging for their parents. A good deal all around.

Boniface does a good job of skewering the conventions of the superhero narrative, but he also mocks the conventions of marketing, particularly marketing directed at children. When Superopolis’s greatest superhero, the Amazing Indestructo, recommends McCavity’s Ultra-Paste, Ordinary Boy says, “I never used to like their toothpaste because it sticks to your teeth and sort of tastes like mushrooms, but if AI recommended it, I would have to give it another try.” I found this part of the story absolutely hysterical, because we have the ENTIRE line of tie-in Batman toys for a television series my children don’t even watch. And I hate those poorly made pieces of junk with a passion.

I can’t say enough good things about this novel; it is well written and funny and smart. Ordinary Boy, of course, turns out to have powers his friends don’t, like good critical thinking skills, and despite his lack of conventional superpowers, only he can outsmart the villain. Unlike the other superhero books my kids tend to pick up–all of which are movie or TV tie-ins–this one has a good message and enjoyable prose. Honestly, I will be sad when we’re done reading it.

I’m already waiting for the sequal.

May 12, 2006

it’s not a mommy war, it’s a culture war; or, happy Mother’s Day, Caitlin Flanagan!

Filed under: good books, nonfiction — Susan @ 2:59 am

My housekeeper didn’t show up today; she called after lunch to say that her daughter had broken her arm and she had just gotten home from the doctor and could she come tomorrow instead? How about Monday? I asked, thinking that this would be easier for her and for us. Yes, she said, Monday.

But of course this morning I had done MY half of the housework to get ready for the houskeeper to come and do the OTHER half, and because this week I wanted her to do some extra things, I had gone ahead and stripped the boys’ beds and cleaned the kitchen–you know, to make up for the extra things. So this afternoon, I had to finish what I started, because despite their protestations, the boys can’t sleep on bare mattresses tonight, and then I thought that while I was at it I could take a Clorox wipe to the fixtures in our bathroom which made me think that, really, it was the BOYS’ bathroom I ought to be wiping up and maybe spraying with Lysol before I put out clean hand towels and bath rugs. I did all that, and now my house is in some funny limbo where it’s not REALLY clean, but it SMELLS kind of clean and the bathrooms are fairly germ-free–in other words, I spent an hour doing the kind of half-assed houskeeping that led me to hire the cleaning lady in the first place.

All of which made me think that I should finally write about To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife. Caitlin Flanagan has been taken to task by liberals and Democrats and feminists (and liberal Democrat feminists, which is where I put myself on the spectrum) for being classist and racist and sexist, and I agree with all these criticisms. But honestly, they weren’t what struck me the most about this book.

Flanagan writes that this book “is about the stubborn longing for an earlier way of life, and about the way that longing manifests and reasserts itself in the imagination of so many modern women. It is less a book about what we have gained than it is a book about what we have lost” (xxiii). In her exploration of “what we have lost,” Flanagan offers some really insightful observations about the cultural swing towards idealizing domesticity (the return of the BIG white wedding, the middle class adoption of the nanny, the deification of Martha Stewart); these parts of the book–the historical and sociological readings–are fascinating and spot-on. But each of these observations is followed by a story from Flangan’s own life–my personal horrific favorite being the one in which she encourages her nanny to protest the government’s treatment of domestic workers, but refuses to pay the nanny when she wants the day off to participate in a strike.

Through all of this, I kept waiting for Flanagan to make some larger connection to other cultural trends, because I think there is a clear link between this longing for Donna Reed and bans on gay marriage and abortion, and fears about sexual predators and the safety of our public schools, and our obsession with SuperNanny and plastic surgery shows–all of which evidence, to me, a longing for the kind of past that Flanagan mourns. But instead of following through and reading this in some definitive and useful way (the home–and by default the, wife and mother, who is always identified with the home–is the site of the new culture war, for example, which I think it is), she writes about how she responded to her son’s bout with stomach flu by summoning the nanny to clean up the mess. No wonder the feminists are angry.

Flanagan is dead on that what we are seeing is a nostalgia for a bygone era, but her happy claims about how she is embracing her traditional marriage don’t do anything to allay–or even identify–the fears that are causing this nostalgia. In the wake of Columbine and Elizabeth Smart and 9/11, we are all desperate for a time and place where home felt like a safe haven, and we are looking to women–to mothers–to make the world safe again. When things go wrong at home–in the house, in our schools, in our country–women are blamed. After the Columbine shootings, the media asked over and over how it was possible that the shooters’ parents–particularly their mothers–didn’t know what was going on. When Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her own bedroom, it was her mother’s fault because she was the one who brought the crazy man into the house in the first place. And most wrenching of all is the story of Laura Manning, who was badly burned in the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center and spent nearly a year in hospital recovering–a year in which, media reports emphasized over and over, her infant son learned to walk and celebrated his first birthday without her–because, see, she risked her life to go to work instead of staying home with her baby.

We live in a culture of fear and the media’s obsession with the “Mommy wars” plays on this fear by insinuating–or, really, saying right out–that women are failing their children no matter what they do. The domestic sphere has always been associated with women, while the public sphere is the province of men. When women leave the home and step into the public sphere, bad things happen. Likewise, when men settle too comfortably into the domestic, the world goes to hell. I think Flanagan is absolutely right that we are longing for a time when things were simple–but she is overlooking the reality that “simple” often meant “unjust” and “oppressive.”

To Hell With All That is well written and often funny, but it was a baffling read for me. Over and over, Flanagan seems to be on the verge of some fascinating revelation about our society–about how living in a credit-based culture means that anyone can buy class, about how nannies walk the line between members of the family and hired help, about how breast cancer threatens to rob women of their essential femininity–but she doesn’t follow through. And this, more than her politics, was what I found so disappointing.

May 6, 2006

How I Learned to Love the Mommy Wars

Filed under: good books, nonfiction — Susan @ 3:03 am

This review was originally published at mamazine.com.

Recently, my stay-home mom life has gotten almost unimaginably chaotic. My five-year-old son was diagnosed last spring with ADHD; subsequently, he was diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disability,which is very much like Asperger’s syndrome, which is a form of high-functioning autism. In the past month, he has gone off his ADHD medication (for medical reasons), started speech therapy every Wednesday (with a therapist who isn’t sure how to help him), and virtually stopped going to preschool (because his unmedicated behavior is so distracting to the other kids). My three-year-old has had strep throat three times since Christmas (twice in the past four weeks); if he gets it again, we will have to talk about taking his tonsils out. My husband is swamped at work; he comes home late and brings his laptop with him, and after we put the boys to bed, he works. I have virtually no daycare, because in the normal course of things, I don’t need it–after all, I am home, full time. But recently my life has been one emergency after another and I am often stuck without anyone to watch whichever child is not in need of a visit to the doctor. As a short-term solution, I am borrowing a working mom friend’s baby sitter during the hour on Wednesdays when Henry has speech therapy and Charlie needs somewhere else to go. The rest of the week, I just juggle, trying to schedule one child’s appointments when the other is in school. And somewhere in there, I am supposed to balance the checkbook and stop at the grocery and maybe pick up the house once in a while. Because this is my job.

This kind of chaos is precisely what motivated me to leave my underpaid but intellectually fulfilling teaching job to stay home with my children in the first place; after all, someone needed to be available for doctors appointments and sick days. I was an adjunct, paid by the class; my husband had a full-time job with health care and other benefits. The choice seemed simple and logical. Didn’t it make sense to have someone’s full-time job be the kids? Didn’t it make sense for that person to be me? For the most part, it has, particularly when things have started to fall apart. The other day, I was telling a friend that I had four Henry-related doctors appointments in one week, and she said, “Imagine if you were working and trying to get to all these appointments.” Yes, I said, it would be nearly impossible. Good thing I’m NOT working.

But the funny thing is this: as my day-to-day life has become almost unimaginably complicated, I have begun to daydream about returning to work. The more impossible it seems for my family to function without me at home, the more I want–well, NOT to be home.

In the midst of this domestic and personal chaos, I picked up Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families, a collection of essays edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner. Quite honestly, I didn’t expect to like the book; I was put off by the title, by the claim that mothers are choosing sides and “facing off,” by Steiner’s assertions that women are angry about their choices, regardless of what those choices might be. I don’t believe that the “Mommy wars” exist in the real world; I believe that they are nothing but rhetoric and media hype. In my experience, working mothers and stay-home mothers are, essentially, mothers, and we are able to find common ground and sympathize with each other. The friend I am borrowing the baby sitter from is an attorney with two children the same ages as mine. On Wednesdays, she goes to work and her sitter is with the kids all day. She has been happy to have Charlie come and play while I am at the speech pathologist’s with Henry. My friend has never once made me feel like I am inconveniencing her or failing my children. She has been a lifesaver in the past few weeks, practically and emotionally. I am not at “war” with this woman–which is a good thing, because she has the baby sitter.

I expected not to like Steiner’s book; instead, I was pleasantly surprised by it–in fact, I have found myself nodding and underlining and, more than once, weeping as I read. The essays themselves are powerful, moving explorations of individual choices. The authors are black and white and hispanic and middle eastern; they write about staying home and working and that crazy something in between that we call “working from home.” They range in age from their mid-20s to their mid-60s. Most write from a position of financial security and social privilege. Nearly all are writers by trade.

For the most part, the writers in this collection refuse to engage with the more inflammatory “Mommy wars” rhetoric; they are thoughtful about their own choices, and take full responsibility for their perceptions of other women. In “I Hate Everybody,” Leslie Lehr writes honestly and compellingly about how she is “infuriated by the world’s double standard when it comes to motherhood and work.” She has hated, at various times, working mothers, stay-home mothers, her husband, herself, and a car salesman. Throughout her essay, though, Lehr–like most of the other writers in this anthology–owns her point of view; she does not blame other women for her angst, but instead illustrates how we use other women as a mirror to measure our own choices.

What surprised me the most, though, was how this book made me reconsider my own position in this conversation. While I don’t believe that women fall easily into categories of “working” and “stay-at-home,”I assumed that the essays by women like myself–educated women who explicitly chose family over career–would make the most sense to me. Instead, the most disappointing essays in the collection were actually those written by stay-home mothers, who employ the aggressive Mommy wars rhetoric to defend their choices, or assert their superiority as mothers. Catherine Clifford claims that “when a child isn’t mothered by her mother, something precious and irreplaceable is lost to both of them;” Iris Krasnow blithely confirms that women who chose to have children “have a fundamental commitment to spend a lot of time with them.” These stay-home moms romanticize life with children in a way that is completely unfamiliar to me just now, in the chaos that is my home. Unlike the working women in this collection, the stay-home moms fall back on the “moral high ground” rhetoric: children need their mothers, childhood is short, the best moments are the ones that can’t be scheduled. I don’t believe that mothers are, universally, the best caregivers, nor do I believe that complete devotion to my children and their needs will make me a successful mother. In fact, I have learned recently that complete immersion in my children’s lives makes me a cranky mother, one who is not really enjoying her children’s childhood.

As I was reading this book and putting out fires at home, I had the chance to speak with Leslie Morgan Steiner. And I will be honest again: just as I did not expect to like this book, I did not expect to find much common ground with Steiner, who defines herself as a working mother: “I have to work,” Steiner writes in her introduction. “I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t.” Her experience, her subject position, was so completely different from mine. What could we possibly have in common? Quite a lot, as it turned out. Steiner is eloquent about her vision for this book; she talks about how “no one is in the business of trying to make moms feel good about ourselves.” We rarely tell each other that we are good mothers, Steiner says. She told me an interesting story, about a friend who suffered from postpartum depression. Her friend, Steiner says, couldn’t get any help, but years later, when the same woman had a heart attack, help was everywhere, despite the fact that the heart attack was a fairly straightforward, manageable medical condition, unlike PPD. Motherhood, Steiner says, is a “social demotion,” but it is one that comes with high expectations: we live in a culture that tells mothers that unless we are doing our very best all the time, we are failing our children. The real Mommy wars, according to Steiner, are not between individual groups of women but between mothers and the culture at large, which teaches us that the only way to be a good mother is to always strive to be the best mother. Unfortunately, there are no good measures of what makes a good mother, and so we internalize this struggle and measure ourselves–and our choices–against other women.

Unfortunately, we live in a media-based culture; we look to the media for advice about what to wear and who to vote for and how to discipline our children. And right now, the media is obsessed with the pretend “Mommy wars.” We are force-fed images of Diane Sawyer asking stay-home moms to tell working moms what they are “missing” by not being home with their children. We are confronted, over and over, with the worst case scenarios, carefully staged for TV audiences. The most insightful moment in Mommy Wars comes in an essay by Veronica Chambers. Chambers, who did not have children at the time she wrote the essay, describes herself as a “mole,” spying on working mothers and stay-home mothers in order to learn what she can about being a mother herself. She finds herself, at different moments, agreeing with both sides; she also finds herself, at other moments, startled by what she hears from both sides. “I understand that knowledge is power and women share these stories to feel connected,” she writes. “But I am beginning to think that there’s a part of this journey to motherhood that I want to make alone, without the weight and worry of so many other women’s experiences. How will spying on other mothers help me when I don’t know where my own journey will take me? . . . I watch the mommy wars and I can only imagine the worst because it’s the worst that leaps out at me in the stories I hear and the books I read.”

I think Chambers is dead on: when the media tells, over and over, the story of how one mother is better than another because she works or because she doesn’t, it gets us nowhere; it is the worst kind of story we can hear about what it means to be a mother. Mommy Wars is, fortunately, not full of the worst, at least not in a stay-home-moms versus working moms kind of way. Instead, it is a thoughtful, if often unsettling, look at the choices women make and the repercussions of those choices.

November 28, 2005

the butter people

Filed under: miscellaneous, nonfiction — Susan @ 12:03 am

Yesterday, during the boys’ Enforced Rest Time, I was surfing the Interwebs, trying to get a handle on my Christmas shopping (okay, no I wasn’t; I was reading blogs. I am in deep denial that Christmas is only WEEKS away, as I have purchased NOTHING and am overly aggravated by grandmotherly type people asking what the boys need–they don’t need anything). Anyway, via Mamazine, I came across Linda Hirschman’s provocative essay about the feminist politics of the opt-out ‘revolution’, and I found myself thinking OH MY GOD SHE’S RIGHT. And it was killing me.

Hirschman’s theory is essentially this (yes, I think you should read the whole essay, but it’s long and you are busy so I will summarize): ‘while the public world has changed, albeit imperfectly, to accommodate women among the elite, private lives have hardly budged. The real glass ceiling is at home.’ What does this mean? It means, as Judith Warner argues, that the ‘choice’ to stay home is not a choice per se, but a default acquiesciece to generations of gender sterotyping. It is a fall into the model where the half of a couple with the uterus gestates and births and feeds the baby–and, while she’s at it, feeds the rest of the family and cleans the bathrooms and drives to doctor appointments and plans craft projects and . . . you get the idea. While the half of the couple with the penis conquors the world.

Yes, I exaggerate, and no, this isn’t (exactly) how it works at my house. I do not have gainful employment (unless you are counting this web site, and that won’t be ‘gainful’ until you people CLICK THOSE GOOGLE ADS a few more times). But I am one of the women that Hirschman talks about, whether I like it or not. I am able to stay home because we do not, honestly, need my income, and I am aware how fortunate I am to be in that position. Yet Hirschman argues that this kind of rhetoric is a large part of the problem–discussing the ‘choice’ to stay home in terms of economic ‘need’ ignores the intellectual and social needs of women. She writes about ‘the feminist moral analysis that choice avoided: The family — with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks — is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women. Therefore, assigning it to women is unjust. Women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust.’

While I agree with Hirschman, I still like to think of myself as a feminist, as someone who did not buy into the Father Knows Best narrative of domesticity (really, who vacuums in a dress and heels?). I kept my own name when I got married, despite the fact that it aggravates my mother and confuses the insurance company. And while I really DID choose to stay home when Henry was born, I did not necessarily chose to be a ‘housewife’ (a term I despise even more than ‘SAHM’).

I am, in fact, a complete failure at the ‘housewife’ part of this job. I don’t cook, I pay someone else to clean, and my motivation in doing laundry is entirely selfish (I am particular about the laundry–get over it). I love my children, and for all kinds of reasons I am thankful that I do not ‘have’ to work, but my god there are days when I crave the company of adults–not just other mommies, but people who have read the New York Times recently or have actually FINISHED a novel or seen a movie BEFORE it comes to the dollar theater. My friends and I talk about how much we wish we could do these things, but we’re not actually doing them–we’re too busy scraping Playdough off the hardwood floors or loading the dishwasher or making doctors appointments. Or whatever it is we do all day with the kids. Because often, at the end of the day, I wonder–what DID I do today?

Hirschman, however, sees a way out: ‘The home-economics trap involves superior female knowledge and superior female sanitation. The solutions are ignorance and dust. Never figure out where the butter is. “Where’s the butter?” Nora Ephron’s legendary riff on marriage begins. In it, a man asks the question when looking directly at the butter container in the refrigerator. “Where’s the butter?” actually means butter my toast, buy the butter, remember when we’re out of butter. Next thing you know you’re quitting your job at the law firm because you’re so busy managing the butter. If women never start playing the household-manager role, the house will be dirty, but the realities of the physical world will trump the pull of gender ideology. Either the other adult in the family will take a hand or the children will grow up with robust immune systems.’

I have never managed the butter at our house, and I think it’s the only thing that keeps me sane. I struggle with the mommy thing, not so much because my children are not who I expected them to be, or even because I am not the mommy I imagined I would be, but because I don’t want to do the ‘housewife’ things. I would rather spend my child-free time reading long essays about the failure of third-wave feminism, because that makes me a better wife and mother and member of society. And one could argue that I took all this on–the kids, the houswork, the butter–when I decided to leave my job and ‘stay home’. One could argue that Wade goes to work and doesn’t get to choose what he does and does not do there. But I think that misses the point. Wade’s job does not define him as a person; mine does. And Hirschman is right, the mommy job defines us not by our intellect or our social activism but by our gender, and heaps on us the gender expectations of a century ago.

For the longest time, Charlie went around yelling, ‘You’re supposed to help the butter people!’ We were baffled by this, until we realized that it was his mis-hearing of a line from The Incredibles (‘You’re supposed to help OUR people!’). I don’t want to be one of the butter people; I don’t want to be the mommy all the time. And I am torn between knowing that for my family, having me ‘at home’, making doctors appointments and playing soccer and reading Harry Potter aloud is the best possible thing and feeling like I have somehow compromised both myself and my family by conforming to (and thus confirming) the gender stereotypes.

And you wonder why it takes so much coffee to get through my day.

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