Saturday, June 30, 2012

Guest Posting Spotlight on Interracial Families

Today I'm over at Musing Momma with a guest post as part of the spotlight on interracial families. I talk about some of the challenges my family has faced as well as how having a biracial child has impacted my philosophy on parenting. You can learn more about the series--including how to submit your own story--here.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

BlogHer Book Review: What Alice Forgot

I signed up for this BlogHer book review of Liane Moriarty's What Alice Forgot somewhat reluctantly. The description sounded like a heavy-handed romantic comedy, and I'm not much for romantic sap.
After a bump on the head at the gym, our protagonist--Alice Love--wakes up feeling fine but thinking that it's ten years earlier. And ten years ago her life was pretty good; she was a twenty-nine-year-old newlywed who had just bought a money pit of a fixer-upper house and was giddily expecting her first child. But reality is hard to take. She's now thirty-nine, in the middle of a nasty divorce, living in her gorgeously renovated home, and she has three children who she doesn't remember at all.

Despite my reservations, I found myself getting drawn into the story. I won't give away too many details because the real joy of this book is the discovery of a secret life. The narrative is never boring, and Moriarty skillfully intertwines Alice's first-person (and memory-muddled) perspective with epistilary forms from both Alice's sister (who is struggling with infertility issues that threaten her marriage and her own sanity and who is writing hypothetical letters to her psychologist) and Alice's "adopted" grandmother (who is writing letters to an old estranged lover as she dips her toe into the dating scene in her new assisted living community).

By tying together these women's voices, What Alice Forgot becomes more than a light-hearted treasure hunt through one woman's forgotten history (though it delivers on that front) and transcends into a woman-centric exploration of some of life's larger questions: What's the meaning of love? What's the role of a parent? How do you make relationships (of all kinds) last?

I was actually surprised at some of the personal connections I felt while reading this book, and it made me question--in a way that such "fun" reads rarely do--my own perspectives.

What would I think of my life if I woke up today with the mind I had ten years ago? I would have been seventeen and very, very hopeful about the future. Would I be disappointed in my choices? Proud? Have I excelled beyond what I had imagined?

What was so sad to me was the way that Alice had drifted away from so many friendships in ten years and how the friends she'd accumulated instead weren't doing much to fulfill her need for human connection. She'd spent so much time trying to fit into the part of the perfect upper-middle-class housewife that she'd forgotten who she was before that role.

But perhaps the most poignant part of the story was watching--in reverse--a marriage between two people who truly loved one another fall apart. Is it really that easy to stop prioritizing a relationship that you've grown to take for granted? Is there a breaking point, a point of no return, or is it just so many little things that there's really no way to predict where you could turn back around?

This is a fast read that kept me engaged, and I've found myself thinking about the characters and their lives often even since I've finished it. If you're in the market for a fun summer read that touches upon some serious themes, I'd recommend it.

You can follow the discussion about What Alice Forgot over at BlogHer.

Compensation Disclosure: I was compensated for this review, but all opinions and ideas are solely my own. 

#KeepItReal: Are Magazines Here for Us or Advertisers?

Yesterday marked the beginning of a three-day campaign challenging magazines to #KeepItReal by promising to print one unaltered photo an issue. No photoshop, no "tweaking,"just real people representing real bodies.

Why is this so important?

Because media impacts the way that we think about the world around us. When all of the images of culturally-defined "beauty" that we see around us are altered, we begin to internalize a body image that is (literally) unattainable. No one can look like those models, not even the models themselves.

While this is disturbing enough for grown men and women who are now holding themselves up to unrealistic ideals, it's even worse for kids, especially young girls. Young girls are getting the message loud and clear that their bodies are their enemies. They're dieting at younger and younger ages and obsessing over every "imperfection" on their bodies at a time when they should be free to develop a strong sense of identity and self-worth.

Some people will counter that this has always been the case. And it's true that young people have looked up to celebrities and models for generations, but the Photoshop era has brought in a new twist. While before the celebrated bodies were often only representative of a small segment of the population, now the photos are representative of no one.

Take a look at this Photoshop "Hall of Shame" to see how even already extremely thin and flawless people are being airbrushed and altered:

What's the Point of Media?

I also think that this campaign brings up issues surrounding the purpose of media. Is media a reflection of its audience or is media designed to control that audience?

This campaign was sparked by a teenage girl's petition asking Seventeen magazine to promise to run one unaltered photo per issue. She took her signatures (which have now reached more than 80,000) to the magazine, but they didn't agree. Why?

Print media is struggling to keep up with new forms of online entertainment. Why wouldn't Seventeen want the positive association with pleasing a large subsection of its readership? And it's not as if this request is to stop using Photoshop at all. This is a request for one unaltered photo. Can that really be that disrupting? 

Perhaps it can. I think that part of the reason so few magazines are willing to get on board with this campaign--even in the face of so many readers who are obviously supporting it--that there's something deeper going on. 

Flawed People=Rich Companies

Magazines get money from their subscriptions and readers, sure, but they also get money from advertisers. Most of these magazines, which are primarily aimed at women, are bolstered by advertisements from the beauty industry. 

The beauty industry needs you to feel flawed. 

No one is going to go spend hundreds of dollars on ridiculous things like prescription medication to lengthen their eyelashes or even just expensive cosmetics if they feel that there is nothing wrong with their actual bodies. The more flawed we feel we are, the more money we're going to spend to make up for it. 

According to the Body Project, in 1990 Americans spent $20 billion on the beauty industry, enough to pay for:
2,000 women’s health clinics;
33,000 battered women’s shelters;
400,000 four-year university scholarships;
200,000 vans for safe nighttime transport;
1 million highly paid child care workers; or
1 million home health aids for the elderly
But the industry--like all industries--has been pressured to grow. Leveraging new advertising strategies, as this infographic demonstrates, the beauty industry has grown to $59 billion.

These numbers don't even include all of the weight loss and "diet" food markets that benefit from showing people that their bodies are unacceptable.

I'm not saying that every dollar we have needs to go to building health clinics or that we can't spend any money on individual things that we want for ourselves, but I am saying that we should take a step back and think about what "wanting" those things really means.

Think about it. It's bad enough to be constantly comparing ourselves to models who have professional make-up and personal trainers and the financial resources to buy the best-fitting clothes. That alone is likely to make us see "flaws" in ourselves that aren't actually flaws. But when we're comparing ourselves to images that aren't even of real people, we can't win. There is no amount of money we can spend to look like a living version of a Photoshopped image. There's not even an amount of money that the actual models can spend. These images are not real. We're being sold a lie. And we pay for it dearly.

Demand Better From Our Media

We have to demand better for ourselves. 

Yes, magazines exist to make a profit, and yes, showing us unattainable images of "beauty" in order to make us feel flawed is a great way to sell more advertising slots to make up companies and diet pill manufacturers. 

So we have to hold them accountable. Media does shape us, but we shape media, too. If we demand diverse representation (and this goes beyond body image--many of these magazines show very few images of women of color, and those that do often "whitewash" them to lighten their skin and hair), then we can start to change the way that this power differential operates. 

We don't have to be at the manipulative whim of a beauty industry that profits off of our insecurities. And that doesn't mean that we can't ever buy make up or cute clothes; it just means that we have the right (and the responsibility) to demand respect from these companies and our media. They are both, after all, a reflection of ourselves. 

So please, join the #KeepItReal campaign and demand better for ourselves and for our future.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Abortion Debate and Social Media: A Space for Agonistic Rhetoric

This post is not about abortion. I know that I have readers who identify as pro-life and readers who identify as pro-choice. I'm not trying to persuade or even really comment on either of those positions.

But abortion is one topic where emotions run particularly high, and that makes it a place where we can see the way rhetoric operates in our society. This is a post about rhetoric.

So, here goes.

Today, I shared a wonderful picture on Facebook that someone I follow had shared. Here's the photo from its original source, a blog called Strawberry Mohawk that I hadn't heard of but that looks like a really fun site. When I saw it, I was immediately inspired by the themes that it tied together: motherhood, work, power, feminism, breastfeeding, and beauty. Here, take a look:

Used with permission--thanks Strawberry Mohawk! 
But that's not where the post I saw on Facebook came from. It was being shared by a group called New Wave Feminists. I didn't think anything of it when I first shared it, but later I clicked on their page and saw that they are a pro-life group that has set themselves up as "reclaiming" feminism for a pro-life cause. 

When I saw this, my stomach turned. My immediate thought was to go and delete the post that I had "shared" from my Facebook feed. I didn't want to be associated with a pro-life agenda, mainly because I don't really like being involved in that particular debate but also because, if you really press me to pick a side, that's not the side I'm going to pick. I was afraid that--just by sharing this picture--I was sending a message about myself and my beliefs that could immediately alienate a lot of my blog readers and Facebook friends and maybe cost me a few points in the online feminist community. 

So, I started to delete it. Then I stopped myself. I went back to the New Wave Feminists website. I read a little (not all of it, so I can't vouch for everything there). I can say, without a doubt, that I disagree with almost everything this website is saying. They are anti-Planned Parenthood and anti-birth control (and I am absolutely, unequivocally in support of both). They are very clearly anti-abortion. 

But I'm a big girl. I know that not everyone in the world thinks the way that I think. And, furthermore, I know that I can learn by reading and thinking about views that are different from mine. And as far as views that are different from mine go, this particular website does a good job of at arguing in clear, non-inflammatory rhetoric. The tone feels to me as if these are real people with real lives who are arguing for what they believe in--you know, just like I do. Just because I don't happen to come to the same conclusions as they do doesn't mean I have to stick my fingers in my ears and run in the opposite direction. 

In fact--and this is where it might get a little tricky--I think that listening to them makes my arguments stronger. 

It's called agonistic rhetoric (and it happens to be the foundation of what's looking to be my dissertation topic, so I've been submerged in it quite a bit lately). 

A Dualistic View of Rhetoric

To give a (rather simplistic) overview, a lot of talk about rhetoric tends to place it into a dualistic framework. At one end we have collaborative rhetoric and at the other end we have antagonistic rhetoric. 

While both of these forms of rhetoric have their uses (and I'm a huge fan of cooperative rhetoric as a whole, because--as the hippy, crunchy nature of some of my posts might have suggested--I'm all about getting along with one another), our tendency to boil everything down to their simplest components and then pit them against one another means that--even among very intelligent academics--the way that we think of these forms of rhetoric often ends up looking like a group of people sitting around a campfire whispering poems about kitties and rainbows to one another (cooperative rhetoric) on one end and a cluster of unhinged lunatics holding knives to each other's throats (antagonistic rhetoric) on the other. 

In addition to grossly oversimplifying these two rhetorical approaches, this sort of dichotomy completely ignores the fact that not all conflict has to be negative. In fact, recognizing that we start from places of difference in our discussions gives us the opportunity to have a conversation that could actually have an impact on the issue at hand. 

Bringing in Agonism

Again, I'm oversimplifying these ideas both so that I can work on wrapping my own mind around them and because this is a blog post, not a book. For the sake of this argument, we can think of two people who are going to get into a discussion about a topic. 

In cooperative rhetoric, those two people are going to work from a place of--as the name suggests--cooperation. The goal of cooperative rhetoric is usually to set aside differences and find the common ground in order to work towards the same goal. You can think of the beer summit Obama orchestrated between Henry Louis Gates and the policeman who stopped him at his front door as an example of this. The goal is to get along. 

In antagonistic rhetoric, the goal is to win the debate--at any cost. Often, one person in this debate is better prepared because s/he knew that there was going to be a debate (usually because he/she started it)  and the opponent didn't. For the purposes of this discussion, you could think of antagonistic rhetoric as a mugger waiting at the end of a dark alley. The mugger doesn't care if the opponent is harmed, isn't concerned about making the fight fair, and plans to "win" at any cost. 

Finally, in agonistic rhetoric, both opponents recognize that there is going to be a fight, but that fight doesn't have to be hateful. You can liken agonism to a boxing match. The opponents are both aware of the event in advance, they are both trained in the art, and there are some rules and parameters to keep the fight fair. Also, the opponents aren't trying to utterly destroy one another. While a win is still important, so is sportsmanship. 

Boxing match

Benefits of Agonism

Patricia Roberts-Miller has this to say about agonism:
Furthermore, the competition is not ruthless; it does not imply a willingness to triumph at all costs. Instead, it involves something like having such a passion for ideas and politics that one is willing to take risks. One tries to articulate the best argument, propose the best policy, design the best laws, make the best response. This is a risk in that one might lose; advancing an argument means that one must be open to the criticisms others will make ofit. The situation is agonistic not because the participants manufacture or seek conflict, but because conflict is a necessary consequence of difference. -From "Fighting Without Hatred"
Risk. A boxing match includes certain risks that sitting down for a beer or even attacking someone in an alley doesn't have. If you choose an equally skilled opponent, you may lose.

But that risk comes with benefits as well. As Walter Ong discusses in his book Fighting for Life:
in order to know myself, I must know that something else is not me and is (in some measure) set against me (15)
In other words, setting ourselves against that which we are not has the potential to give us a great understanding of what we are.

Ong goes on to say:
truth is symphonic. A symphony involves many instruments or voices struggling against or with one another--in a contest, 'against' and 'with' come to the same thing. (33)
The idea is that the strongest argument cannot exist unless it has other strong arguments with which to contend. You may very well be right about your position (as your passion and your logic tells you you are), but if you do not allow yourself to test that argument, then it is not productive. It is not illuminating truth.

In order to hone his/her skills to their finest, a boxer must take on the strongest competitors. In order to hone an argument to its strongest, a rhetor must test it against the most worthy opponents.

To put it another way, we can turn to the Biblical proverb:
Iron sharpens iron.   

Back to the Point: Facebook Pictures and Abortion

All of that to say that I think I was wrong. My reaction when I saw that the picture (which I loved) was being used by a pro-life group shouldn't make me shy away from sharing the picture.

I recognize that abortion is a particularly heated topic--perhaps our most heated topic--but this really applies to just about everything we argue about. If we're afraid to be seen even associating with the "other side," then we're not really entering into true discourse. We're setting up echo chambers. We may say that we're doing this to support cooperative rhetoric, but is that true?

In fact, I think that picture and the way it's being used does more to set up cooperative rhetoric than anything else. Here's an amazing picture of a breastfeeding mom and it's being shared by those who are vehemently pro-life and pro-choice alike. What does that mean?

To me, that means that there is a lot of common ground that gets lost in these debates. There are a lot of values and experiences that people on both sides of this issue share. I think that if we recognized that and started from that place, we could then handle the fact that we may have to be opponents on some other elements of the debate.

It's like, after we sit down and have the beer summit together, we can get up and box it out--on even footing. (Wait, would we be drunk? Does that make it a fair fight anymore? I think I'm mixing metaphors. You get the point, right?)

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, we have to believe enough in our arguments to be willing to test them, and that means that we can't just run screaming from opposition. It also means that we need to be willing to test them fairly and not wait at the end of a dark alley to batter unsuspecting opponents over the head with arguments they aren't prepared to counter.

I've made a vow to be better at practicing this kind of rhetoric myself, and--for me--that means not bristling at the first sign of dissension. I am strong. I can dissent as well.

Picture: CT State Library (boxing)

Television and Perspective: I'm a Buffy Virgin, Too!

Inspired by this post written by a self-proclaimed "Buffy Virgin" and the easy access to the series via Netflix Instant Watch, I've decided to start watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer for--get this--the very first time.

This may seem strange. Let me explain.

I grew up in the sticks. Really, there were literally a lot of sticks. They fell off of the trees, which the skilled technicians said were part of the problem in our television reception--that and the whole being isolated from all humanity thing. Because of this, we couldn't get any "regular" television channels. We also could not get cable.

The only option for television (except VHS tapes, of course) was satellite. And we had one. It looked pretty much like this:

big satellite dishes

I'm not exaggerating when I say this thing was huge. In fact, once it had fallen defunct and did little more than mark our backyard like some ill-placed space junk, we threw the garden hose over the top of it, pushed a giant trampoline up against it, and slid down the side on our own homemade water park. (Shut up! I lived in the sticks! This was prized entertainment.) In addition to being huge, it was also ironically limited. Though we could get hundreds of bizarre channels that most of my town-dwelling, cable-having schoolmates had never heard of, we could not get the regular channels that most people get just by sticking some tin foil on top of their TVs. 

All this to say that--while I got plenty of all-night marathons of Taxi and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which I think did wonders for my sense of humor and budding feminism)--I was utterly outside of any social interaction that centered on television. I had never seen any of the things that my peers had seen. 

So, I completely missed Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The television show, anyway. I saw the movie. In fact, my little sister was so obsessed with the movie that she watched it over and over and over again until I finally hid the tape because I could not take one more second of it. 

She found the scene where Pee Wee Herman dies an obnoxiously loud death particularly amusing:

I did, too. The first three times. After that, not so much. 

Want to know a secret? I hid the tape up in the couch springs. I refused to tell anyone, not even when that couch was tossed into a burn pile of junk. It's not that it was a bad movie, per se, but five times in one day? Try it. See how many days you can take.

So, here I am, fifteen years late to the party and watching teenage hijinks as a grown woman. But when I went to the Pop Culture Association conference, there was an entire subsection of Buffy analysis. And so far I've only watched to the first episode's opening credits, but I'm already seeing some potential for feminist analysis. In that minute, a couple is breaking into the school to make-out.

The boy is looking like a 1950's greaser stereotype and the girl is playing innocent and scared. He's being very predatory, and of course I'm waiting for the twist and expecting him to be a vampire. But then this happens:

So, you know, there's some potential here. 

What do you think? Would Buffy hold the same meaning for you now as it did when you were younger (or are you a Buffy virgin, too?!) Have your perspectives and analytical abilities changed in a way that would alter the show? If so, would they make it better or worse? 

Oh, and--if it's good--I'll probably blog about it some. If you want to use this as an excuse to re-watch the series, I'd love for you to join in on the conversations. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

On Jockstraps and Bras: Gendered Language in Fitness Reviews

So remember when I (jokingly) wrote that one of the reasons I was enjoying getting more fit was because I knew it upped my chances of surviving the zombie apocalypse? Well, now I get to put it to the test! I'm signing up for a Zombie-themed 5k in October (just in time for Halloween). It's a 5k with an obstacle course and it includes running away from zombie volunteers who are trying to take away your flags (like in flag football; you get three of them). If you make it through the obstacles and the course with at least one flag left, you're a "survivor" and eligible for prizes. If not, you can still finish the race, but you're a "zombie."

It sounds fun, and it sounds motivating because it's going to challenge me to get in shape in new ways. I know that I need to work on upper body strength in order to be prepared for the obstacle course and that I need to work on running faster.

All that to say that I need some new fitness gear. I've started working out several times a week, and the clothes that I'm using are mostly cheap and not holding up all that well. In particular, I want to make sure that I have some good sports bras.

So I, of course, turned to the internet, which holds all the answers about everything, you know.

Except "How to catch up on my laundry." I'm disappointed in you, internet. 

If You "Must" Buy a Black Bra--Geez, What's Wrong With You?

While searching for "best bras for running" one of the first sites I came to was this article from Runner's World. I scrolled to the bras in my size, and was surprised by some of the descriptions.

There's the Luluemon Athletic Ta Ta Tamer (I'm not making that up). Its selling points? It "comes in flashy colors—turquoise, melon, deep purple, or, if you must, black—and features removable pads that help add shape." The primary focus is on how it "nicely keeps the boob form" while you are doing intense exercise. In other words, this is all about how you look while working out, not about how you feel. There's no mention of support, comfort, anti-chafing features.

Similarly, the Nike Swift U-Back is described as "stylish" and comes in "dark purple, royal blue, mango, and three more subdued colors." There is a quote from a user who mentions the broad straps and adjustability, but the focus of the review is--again--on appearance.

There are some other bras reviewed that have more focus on utility, but I found the tone of this article disappointing for a site that's supposed to be about fitness. I care much less about how "cute" a piece of underwear is then how well it's going to function during a workout.

The Manliest Drawers Of All 

Curious, I wanted to see how Runner's World talked about men's clothes to see if it had the same focus on appearance. While looking for articles to compare it to, I came across this one about underwear for runners. It includes women's and men's reviews, so I can have a direct comparison of the language in the same place.

The first thing I noticed was the way the language of the reviewers was described. For all three types of underwear reviewed by men, the reviewers merely "said" whatever it was they said. For the women, however, one reviewer "gushed" and another reviewer "loved."

Women--we just get so much more excited about our undies.

All of the reviews in this article did a much better job of focusing on utility than the sports bra one did, but the women's reviews did go out of their way to point out the drawbacks of visible panty lines and whether a particular pair allowed the reviewer to still feel "feminine." I saw no such discussion of the perceived masculinity of the men's briefs.

One Size Fits All?
But they're just so . . . manly!
Overall, the men's reviews had fewer subtle mentions of attractiveness and more focus on function. I don't think it's any coincidence that women often report feeling intimidated by male-dominated weight rooms. Men's exposure to fitness advice (while still having an aesthetic dimension) includes a much more nuanced inclusion of power, agility, and strength. If women are being told--even in spaces that are supposed to be dedicated to fitness--that our path to fitness must be lined with colorful bras and cute, feminine underwear, we're ultimately being told that fitness is all about appearance.

But I doubt the zombies give you a pass for looking nice.

Photo credits: tamburix,RogueSun Media

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links for the Week)

Here's what I've been reading that made me smile, sigh in frustration, and think. What about you?

The Good

Pretty All True has a story about parenting that made me laugh out loud, as her posts so often do.

mama nervosa has a great post on raising girls to be brave with their bodies:
As a feminist mom, I want my daughters to have positive relationships with their bodies: I want them to see their physicality as a source of strength, health, joy and pleasure. This is pretty easy with small children. They are still at ages where physical activity and play dominate their social lives. They attend schools that focus on free, outdoor play in nature, where the children are encouraged to climb, explore, dig in, and get dirty.
On a related note, I really enjoyed this article featuring 25 images of female adrenaline seekers. Thanks for the inspiration, ladies!

The Bad

I spent so much time complaining in my blog posts this week that I feel the need to skip over "The Bad" and move right on to the "The Curious." I trust you'll be able to find your own sources of frustration on the web. If you are at a loss, I suggest you try some YouTube comments.

The Curious

Raising My Boy Chick has a great article that examines some of the complexities of what eating "local" really means, especially in a neighborhood undergoing gentrification:
So here’s my choice: I can buy dinner from a locally-owned restaurant that’s been here for decades and uses conventional produce and imported noodles and factory farmed meats frequented by the people of color who have lived here for decades, or I can buy it from the three year old place that uses local and organic and fresh everything and is all the rage among the white people who have lived here for three years.
Offbeat Bride has a post examining wedding "humor" that jokes about grooms' (and occasionally a bride's) last chance to run

Over at Love Live Grow there's a post about public attitude toward children that really resonated with me, especially this part:
When I used to work in a restaurant, oh, 14 years ago or so, I used to bitch about the mess that children left on the floor. I was completely dumbfounded how such an immense amount of food could end up on the floor, and weren’t those people so rude! Fast forward, and now I have a child who leaves a truly amazing amount of food on the floor sometimes. Sometimes I try to clean it up, because the critical voice in my head is mine, but it’s really kind of silly. It’s silly for me to pick up food crumbs by hand, when there’s an employee nearby who has a broom, has to sweep the place anyway, and gets paid for the time either way. 
The truth is that children are messy sometimes. And loud sometimes. And they run around sometimes. And they bang on things and drop things. And they and their parents should still be welcome in public spaces.
So, that's what I've been reading. What about you? 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Children: They're People, You Know?

"Feminism is the radical idea that women are people." -Rebecca West

This quote is meant to point out the very basic and commonsense basis behind feminism. Women are people, so they deserve to be treated like people.

A theme keeps emerging in the online conversations I've been a part of the last week: discussing both of those Atlantic pieces, participating in the Feministe discussion about Wurtzel's piece, debating whether you can be both an attachment parent and a free-range parent over at Free-Range Kids.

The theme is that many people seem to be glossing over the fact that children are also people. PhD in Parenting has an excellent post (you should go read it) about the compatibility of attachment parenting and feminism. In this post, the hierarchy of power comes up, and do you know who's on the bottom of that hierarchy? Children.

Yes, yes. Children are necessarily less capable of participating in many of the parts of society because they're not--you know--grown yet, but that doesn't make them less worthy of consideration as human beings.

PhD in Parenting explains that, when we put aside stereotypes about feminists and attachment parents and realize that they both stem from a perspective deeply informed by humanism, there is no conflict:
When examined from that perspective, it is no wonder that true feminists seek to break down the same hierarchies in their homes that they also seek to break down in society. Why would a woman who fights for equality and respect for herself then choose to parent in a way that doesn't respect her child's needs and personhood?
Baby toes

Traditional Views of Parenting

In that Free-Range Kids post, one commenter kept coming back to espouse the philosophy of John Rosemond, a "traditional" parenting advisor who I have heard of but haven't read, so I have to say that I'm really only capable of critiquing the commenters version of his parenting advice (though it's a version I've heard many times in many places). 

But critique that I will. 

This commenter continuously pointed out how damaging he thought attachment parenting was because it didn't teach the child to respect the parents. He insisted that children should not be "coddled" in the middle of the night because they need to be taught that they are just crying for want of attention and not because they have a true need. He went so far as suggesting that parents make a child's room inescapable and close the door, refusing to come back in until morning. He advises parents put babies in their cribs, close the door, and don't come back--no matter if the child is screaming--until their chosen time of waking. His basis behind this was because the spouse needs to come first. 

He used the gender neutral language of "spouse" earlier, but later he started talking about how he knew an ideal couple where the young woman scaled back her photography business so that she could spend more time being a wife because she recognized that when her husband came home from work, his needs came first, before hers and before the child's. 

I'm really not trying to get into a debate over whether cry-it-out or spanking or any other method of parenting is "okay," and I definitely think that you can respect your child without being an "Attachment Parent," but I can't pretend to be okay with the methods this man is advocating and the reason is simple: these methods do not treat a child like a human.

It is this traditional philosophy that brings us ideas that children should be seen and not heard and that children should not get any say in household decisions. 

Sure, a child crying out in the middle of the night might not need something in the sense that s/he will die without it, but that doesn't mean that the child doesn't need something in the sense that s/he is feeling legitimate emotions worthy of attention and respect. The idea that infants are manipulators trying to run their world through terror may be appealing (trust me, I know it can seem that way), but they're just people trying to express themselves without the benefit of language, experience, and established social norms. They're learning, and it's our job as parents to teach them. The lesson that I want to teach is not "If I don't think your needs are worthy of attention, then they are not needs" but rather "You have a right to your needs and the expression of them, and I will listen." 

Seeing Children as People in the Feminist Sphere

So it's really no surprise to me that someone who ascribes to the "traditional" hierarchy that PhD in Parenting discusses would make decisions that limit the humanity of both women and children, but what does surprise me is the way that children still get relegated to the bottom rung even within feminist discussions. 

Time and time again I have seen the feminist discussion of the role of mothers fail to take into account children as people. 

The Wurtzel piece is the most obvious as she meticulously defines feminist goals as economic goals and then goes to great lengths to insist that motherhood is not worthy of economic consideration. But at least with Wurtzel, the demeaning and narrow view of mothers is straightforward. It frustrates me more when I see this view of children come up more subtly in feminist discussions of women's work. 

Clean clothes

Way, way, too often, I see mothering lumped in with all of the other chores of housekeeping that women are unfairly burdened with. 

I understand how it can happen. Women are also unfairly burdened with the responsibilities of parenting, and that can also hinder their ability to enter into work outside of caregiving, but that does not mean that raising a child is in the same category as scrubbing toilets and doing laundry. Raising a child is not a chore to be overcome (or even ignored). Raising a child is a human relationship that should be valued for that reason. 

Of course, men should also value the human relationships they form with their children (and they do, and I think we have to talk about how traditional gender roles unfairly devalue the parent-child relationship for men too, often in ways that leave them less access to those relationships). 

Of course there are a lot of chores that come along with children that didn't have to be done before: diapers, bathing the child, cooking, washing bottles, extra laundry. And yes, the burden of those extra chores from childrearing (which all too often fall squarely on the woman's shoulders) need to be examined for equity. We can lump those in with the other household chores and have a discussion about the division of household labor and the value of that work and whether women should just refuse to do it to make a point, etc. 

But we cannot do that to parenting. Parenting a child goes way, way beyond changing diapers and washing tiny clothes, and to act as if that bond, that relationship is simply one more checkmark on a list of chores to be accomplished in a day, one more barrier to women's equality in the economic sphere (the only sphere that counts, apparently) lowers children to a status that is subhuman. 

And children are people, too. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Anne-Marie Slaughter Looks at the Real (and Messy) Balance Between Feminism and Motherhood

Right after I posted my last post where I rant about that Wurtzel piece, I read "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" from Anne-Marie Slaugther.

I think that a lot of the debate over feminism and motherhood (even when it's wrapped up as a stab at the 1%), is a generational shift, and Slaughter gets right to the heart of it:
Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating “you can have it all” is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.
I find it a little ironic that part of the debate about whether you can mother and be feminist is stemming from an older generation of women attempting to shape, nurture, and grow a new generation of feminists--you know, kind of like mothering.

She talks about how her belief in the ability to "have it all" was shaken to the core when she moved from jobs in academia (demanding, but on her own schedule) into a high-power job in Washington (exactly the type of job that Feministe's Jill was saying women need to be working towards in her response to Wurtzel) where the schedule was rigid:
In short, the minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be
And I know that so much of that earlier debate focused on how women's "choices" can't be at the heart of feminism, but I just don't buy it. I think that it's valid to want to be a valuable professional, and I think that it's valid to want to be a competent parent. I don't think that those choices and wants are somehow outside of the debate of feminism. I think that they are at the very core of that debate.

I also think it's very important to pay attention to the way that Slaughter frames the importance of role models. Jill's comment on Feministe was largely about how women need to be in those high-profile jobs to pave the way for the young feminists coming up behind them. But Slaughter's experience suggest that simply being present in those jobs is not enough. The young women coming up behind her have, time and time again, expressed that they have no interest in following her unless there is a path that allows them a balance between family and work:
I sat across from two vibrant women, one of whom worked at the UN and the other at a big New York law firm. As nearly always happens in these situations, they soon began asking me about work-life balance. When I told them I was writing this article, the lawyer said, “I look for role models and can’t find any.” She said the women in her firm who had become partners and taken on management positions had made tremendous sacrifices, “many of which they don’t even seem to realize … They take two years off when their kids are young but then work like crazy to get back on track professionally, which means that they see their kids when they are toddlers but not teenagers, or really barely at all.” Her friend nodded, mentioning the top professional women she knew, all of whom essentially relied on round-the-clock nannies. Both were very clear that they did not want that life, but could not figure out how to combine professional success and satisfaction with a real commitment to family.
So, I have to ask, when do you move from being a role model to being a cautionary tale? In order to be a role model for young women, you have to model a role in which they can actually see themselves. That means that we have to tackle this conflict between motherhood and parenting head-on. We can't--as Wurtzel tries to do--call issues with parenting a distraction from the "real" work of life. Parenting is part of that real life, and if feminism is going to be a part of women's real lives, it has to address that.

And Slaughter's article is a good example of a piece that does address that in real--and messy--ways. She doesn't have all the answers, and she is fully aware (and admits) that in places her observations don't jive with feminist ideals (for instance, she recognizes that women feel differently about leaving their children at home than men). But this is a conversation that, to me, has much more applicability to real lives because ideals are just that: ideal. We can use them to inform our decisions, but we cannot use them to mirror our lives.

Have you read this article yet? What do you think?

Well, I Guess I'm Not A Feminist After All: Elizabeth Wurtzel, Feminism, and Motherhood

I said I wasn't going to read it.

I heard about it, of course, this piece by Elizabeth Wurtzel that's ostensibly pointing out the problems with the women in the 1% but that also makes a lot of sweeping, dichotomizing statements about what "real" feminists do with their lives. But I said I wasn't going to read it because I don't want to get dragged under that tidal wave again. It's easy to draw a bunch of lines around your own actions and then label them as an identity. It's easy to cast off the people whose lives don't look like yours and decide that they're just not part of "it"--whatever it happens to be.

But then I got dragged in anyway. Jill over at Feministe has a post up about why she loves Wurtzel's piece, and she makes some decent points about the importance of feminism having a definition and that, sometimes, that means being critical of choices that women make:
Feminism is not about choice – at least not insofar as it’s about saying “Any choice women make is a feminist one and so we can’t criticize or judge it.” Feminism isn’t about creating non-judgmental happy-rainbow enclaves where women can do whatever they want without criticism. Feminism is about achieving social, economic and political equality for all people, regardless of gender. It’s not about making every woman feel good about whatever she does, or treating women like delicate hot-house flowers who can’t be criticized.
I highlighted Jill's definition of feminism in that quote because it's the same as mine. No conflict. But there is a lot of conflict in the things that she goes on to say, and I think it's because--in Wurtzel's argument--"social" and "political" equality gets tossed enthusiastically aside because, as Wurtzel so clearly lays out:
And there really is only one kind of equality -- it precedes all the emotional hullabaloo -- and it's economic.
Oh really?

Jill goes on to compare the discomfort that some of us might feel over Wurtzel's piece to the discomfort we feel when other patriarchal bargains are pointed out to us:
I wear make-up and I shave my legs, but I don’t get bent out of shape when someone references The Beauty Myth or points out that beauty culture and norms are not great for women. And sometimes I do get bent out of shape when someone criticizes my choices, because it sucks to feel judged. But I’m also a grown-ass woman, and I can see a lot of value in being made uncomfortable; I can see a lot of value in recognizing that sometimes I’m doing something that on a grand scale is less than great, even if I have my reasons and even if that realization isn’t going to change my behavior (but especially when it does change my behavior).
And I get that, I do. I even agree. I think that it's very valuable to examine our own lived experiences against the principles that we say underpin our ideologies and see what matches up. I think it's also okay when individual decisions that we make don't necessarily meet every single one of those principles because, hey, we're living lives, not allegories. And I think that people can still be feminists even when some of the decisions they make are not necessarily feminist decisions because people are more than just feminists, and maybe some of their decisions have to be made out of competing frameworks. That's the beauty--and the complexity--of being a real human being.

So I value Jill's insight on that account, though I think she missed the mark overall. In fact, I valued her opinion so much, that I decided to go and actually read this highly-cited, highly-controversial piece. I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised by some sort of nuance or applicable discussion to how the ideals feminism work out in complicated lives.

I was not pleasantly surprised.

The Relationship Between Individuals and Systems Who Act Within Them

If you get bent out of shape over the judgment you feel about shaving your legs during a discussion of the Beauty Myth, it is because you see how your individual actions are informed by a larger system of oppression. The problem, however, isn't you, it's the system. It's okay to feel judged--that's a natural reaction--but most of us can eventually step back and recognize that the people doing the judging are talking about the system that informs those decisions to begin with, not the individuals making the decisions.

Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits

In my opinion, Wurtzel is doing the opposite. She is not starting from a system of oppression and talking about how that informs (consciously or subconsciously) individual decisions; she is starting with individual decisions and conflating them with systemic issues, and she points very direct fingers at any woman who is living her life differently from herself. And while she's doing it, she cuts "real feminism" off for a whole lot of people.

Here are some of the parts of the essay that really, really dug into my soul:

Earn Money Or You Don't Count
"Real feminists earn a living, have money and means of their own."
Whoa. I know that she's bouncing off of a discussion about the 1%, and I know that it's all fun and games to mock the rich for their horrible grasp of humanity (as if they are a monolith with no diversity of thought), but let's take a moment and just look at this statement. So a woman who cannot work for economic means, maybe because of a disability or maybe because she's living in an oppressive society that won't allow her to, is now not able to be a feminist?

Also, look back up at Jill's definition above. She says that "Feminism is about achieving social, economic and political equality for all people, regardless of gender." Though Wertzel apparently disagrees (it's all about the money, baby), I still find social and political equality important. Sometimes doing the work to attain social and political equality might be the very work that goes unpaid in a society, so does that mean that women who are volunteering in these realms now can't be feminists? Because they're not "earning their keep?"

And--perhaps the thing that irks me the most about this entire argument--isn't basing every definition of success off of monetary wealth wrapped up very deeply in patriarchal structures and capitalism? Why should the only way to access gender equality be by taking women out of traditionally feminine spheres and placing them into traditionally male ones without regard to their abilities, talents, passions, and--yes--icky "feelings" that Wentzel is so upset about.

Don't Betray Other Women By Being Different From Them
"I have to admit that when I meet a woman who I know is a graduate of, say, Princeton -- one who has read The Second Sex and therefore ought to know better -- but is still a full-time wife, I feel betrayed."
Well, we should all live our lives to make sure we aren't "betraying" anyone who has appointed themselves a feminist expert.

It's Not Work Unless You're Paid
"being a mother isn't really work. Yes, of course, it's something -- actually, it's something almost every woman at some time does, some brilliantly and some brutishly and most in the boring middle of making okay meals and decent kid conversation. But let's face it: It is not a selective position. A job that anyone can have is not a job, it's a part of life, no matter how important people insist it is (all the insisting is itself overcompensation)."
Okay. I'm on the record for saying that motherhood is not a "job," and I stand by that. I think that "job" denotes some very specific requirements, like a set definition of the scope of your responsibilities and pay. However, I think it's utterly ridiculous for Wentzel to say that "being a mother isn't really work."

Of course being a mother is work. I also don't understand how the fact that "it's something almost every woman at some time does" makes it less important in a feminist discussion. Isn't the fact that most women will mother at some point in their lives make it a very important arena for feminist examination?

And here's the thing, the reason us crazy mothers get so bent out of shape and want everyone to recognize THE HARDEST JOB IN THE WORLD is because this is work that cannot and will not go away. If I choose not to wash my dishes or scrub my floor because I find that work distracting to my other economic goals, the consequence is a dirty house. If I choose not to parent my child because I find that work distracting, the consequence is--at best--a child (who is going to grow up and become a member of society, so I don't understand how we can pretend this is of no consequence to the future of feminism as well) who is not nurtured and--at worst--criminal neglect of a human being's basic needs.

Unless the argument is that feminists cannot have children (which maybe it is, beneath the surface, in which case, can you please just say that? At least then we'll know what we're dealing with), someone has to do the work of caring for these feminists' children. I'm absolutely not saying that the work of parenting should fall squarely on the mother's shoulders. I am a strong proponent of equally shared parenting, and I think that parenting is absolutely just as much a father's responsibility as a mother's.

And I think there is a very important conversation to be had (and that is happening, including on this very blog) about those roles, but part of that conversation means valuing the work of caregiving in a way that allows movement between work outside the home and work inside the home outside of strict gender binaries.

Further devaluing the work of caregiving, which has already been devalued within the patriarchal and capitalistic systems, isn't going to do anyone any good, and it certainly isn't going to open up avenues for more gender equitable caregiving arrangements. And--at the end of the day--someone still has to raise the kids.

The Life You Have Outside Your Dollar Worth is Pointless

"Which is to say, something becomes a job when you are paid for it -- and until then, it's just a part of life."
Right. It's a "job" when you get paid for it. But what's so "just" about a "part of life"? Why should monetary worth be the only thing that's valued in a human being? I refuse to accept that definition of value because I refuse to see myself as a cog in the money-making machine. I choose to work outside of the home, and--yes--the financial benefits of that work help sustain my family and give me a sense of security, but that's not why I do the work. I do the work because I love it. I love teaching, and I feel a sense of fulfillment when I do it. I suppose I could have made more money doing something else. I could be working eighty hour weeks and fighting tooth and nail in a cutthroat economy to become a CEO or high-profile lawyer or something else that would make a more visible impact by becoming a woman in the highly-scrutinized workforce. Would putting aside my desire for a family and my own talent and passion for teaching make me a "real feminist"?

Or could it be that by raising a daughter with feminist principles, writing a blog that examines the way that gender works in pop culture (which I wouldn't be able to do if I were working eighty hour weeks) and teaching students who have been deemed "at risk" how to communicate their ideas more clearly to the world around them might actually be contributing to the feminist movement, too?

I know that's a lot of thoughts, and I know this is a touchy subject, but I really would love to hear what you think about this debate. In some ways, I'm glad for the controversy because I do think this is an important issue to talk about. In other ways, I think all this accomplishes is us screaming over top of one another without any rhetorical listening. So, what do you think?

Photo: katerha, 401K 2012

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cage Fight: Attachment Parenting VS Free-Range Parenting

I follow Lenore Skenazy's blog Free-Range Kids and today she had a post that talks about the infamous TIME breastfeeding cover and the philosophies of Attachment Parenting and Free-Range Parenting. She references Bonnie Rochman's TIME article about the free-range holiday of Take Your Kids to the Park . . . And Leave Them There Day.

Rochman's article celebrates the liberating philosophy behind free-range parenting and would be great, except for this one part:
You might call free-range parenting the antithesis of attachment parenting. Or perhaps the antidote.
What? Free-range parenting is the "antithesis" of attachment parenting? Do we really need to make this an internal version of the Mommy Wars?

Boxing Gloves

To be fair, Rochman does go on to say "It’s not that free-rangers technically couldn’t be attachment parents, but they believe that once kids get old enough, it’s good — nay, essential — to let them be."

But her use of "technically" and her earlier pitting of one against the other suggests to me that she doesn't think they're very likely teammates. Or, at the very least, she knows that creating this kind of tension between mothers is exactly the kind of thing likely to drive controversy (and page views). 

Which is frustrating because my parenting is informed by both free-range and attachment philosophy, and I see absolutely no conflict between the two. In fact, I think that they are natural corollaries, at least in the way that I envision them. 

I don't really label myself an "Attachment Parent" or a "Free-Range Parent" because I--as I suspect is true for most people--am simply a parent trying to do the best I can in raising my kid. But that doesn't mean that I don't value different schools of thought and take into account differing ideas as I make those decisions. 

There are many parts of attachment parenting that have informed decisions I've made. It was attachment philosophy that informed my breastfeeding relationship, my decision not to use cry-it-out methods, my acceptance of co-sleeping, and my use of baby slings. I am drawn to attachment parenting because it emphasizes creating a bond between parents and child that instills confidence and trust in one another. 

Which is why I think it fits so nicely with free-range philosophies. Free-range points of view inform my decision to allow my daughter to climb on the playground unassisted so that she can test her own abilities. It was also with free-range philosophies in mind that I depended primarily on floor play instead of devices that restrained my daughter's movement as an infant. As she gets older and more capable, I anticipate more free-range parenting decisions.

But I've been absolutely heartened by the comments on the Free-Range Kids post. Commenter after commenter has come forward to say of course you can be both an attachment parent and a free-range parent. Several people have pointed out that attachment parent lays the foundation for free-range parenting. If you know that your child has a firm bond built on trust and confidence, then s/he is much more likely to be capable of the independence inherent in free-range decisions. 

So can we please, please, please stop boiling down all these "movements" to overly-simplistic labels and stereotypes and recognize that most parents are making well-rounded decisions based on their own experiences and philosophies. I know very few people who grab ahold of a "movement" and form their entire parenting identity around it.

We take what works, we leave what doesn't, and we hope that we're giving our kids the tools they need to grow and thrive. I'll wear that label. 

Photo Credit: KWDesigns

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Finding Time for (Creative) Work When You Have Kids

Last week, I published a BlogHer review for My Artist's Way Toolkit, a website designed as a companion to Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way.

As I mentioned in my review, I didn't find the system all that helpful for my particular writing style, and one of the reasons for that is time. Cameron's method stresses the importance of "morning pages," three pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness writing churned out in the early moments of waking.

Don't get me wrong. I teach writing, and I am a huge proponent of free writing and writing every day. I  definitely see value in this habit, but I had the same problem that many, many of the commenters over at the BlogHer main post about morning pages have: mornings are hectic.

Commenter and commenter echoed some version of the same sentiment: "I have kids. I can't write three pages longhand in the morning." I've blogged before about just how precarious my morning routine is, and I only have one child. Plus, I'm not a morning person. I wasn't particularly adept at getting out the door in one piece before I had another human life added to my list of responsibilities.

Coffee Club
AND I don't drink coffee, so I can't even make cute quips about how
you can't mess with me until I've had my first cup. Life is hard. 
There is, of course, a well documented historical debate wrapped up in this conversation. Creative work is often seen as this very engaged activity that feeds the soul even as it risks consuming the artist. (I can't find the quote right now, but I'm thinking of a musician who said that he did drugs because there was nothing in real life that could match the high of making music.) Creating is consuming: of time, of self, of energy. 

But then, so is motherhood. 

Because so much of caregiving (and not just mothering, but also household maintenance) has traditionally fallen on their shoulders, women have not always had equal opportunities to enter into these kinds of creative endeavors. It is this inequality that Virginia Woolf tackled so deftly in A Room of  One's Own. Here she notes that a woman needed independent financial means and her own space in order to write.

What further complicates Woolf's understanding of gender inequalities and creative work, though, is motherhood. As Marina DelVecchio writes in this great blog post on the topic:
But this brings us to the third component Virginia Woolf does not mention that often stands in the way of female writers: motherhood. In thinking about women writers and motherhood, consider all the blogging mothers out there. There are hundreds of thousands of them, from all over the world, writing stories and poems and books between toddler naps and dinner preparations, carpool and play dates. Like Brontë, their writing is interrupted by reality’s necessities for women. Mother writers have to write the stories in their heads while shopping for food; they have to create visual outlines of story plots while compiling and checking off daily to-do-lists. They compose poetry in snippets and drips and drops of free time they find in a singular day. They write their books at night after their kids are safely tucked into their beds, or they wake up extra early like Sylvia Plath used to do, rushing out lines of poetry she had memorized and jotting them quickly on paper before the kids woke up. Mother writers abandon unfinished stories and poems and book ideas in hopes that the muse that brought them would return at some point; preferably when the kids are in school or asleep. 
Unlike Hemingway and other male writers, women writers write in between mothering. Supported by their husbands, they can find spaces well enough, but time is not theirs; not when motherhood and family predominate. Male writers continue to have this freedom, for even after they are fathers, they can still go to “work” to write; they can leave the household and the children to the care of their wives. But for women, the home and the children belong to them first, and they suffer the want of writing in silence, stealing time where they can get it just to write a line or two, or even a page that will make sense hours later, long after the muse has departed. 
I wonder what Virginia Woolf would say about this.
op shop quilt 

That's certainly how I write, patching together the pieces of an idea until there is some discernible whole. This very post was written that way, thinking about it while loading the car up before daycare drop off or running at the gym, writing part of it on lunch break at work. Some posts are in the works for days. Some never get finished at all. For the most part, this is the same process I use for my scholarly writing as well: I write what I can, when I can.

There are times, though, when that simply will not do. Sometimes, the writing has to come out. Maybe the topic has sparked some passion, maybe I'm working through some sort of mental block that won't come undone until I expend this energy.

And sometimes, not often, but sometimes, that can clash pretty hard with parenting.

I don't think that this particular clash is limited to motherhood and writing, though. In fact, I can think of a couple of instances where this topic comes up directly in song lyrics (penned by men) as they're performing them. 

On the intro to Wyclef Jean's Carnival II: Memoirs of an Immigrant, you can hear a pencil writing in the background of the song and then Wyclef speaks some of his lyrics to himself, but then he's interrupted by a child crying: "Come on chill out Angie/Let daddy finish writing" is the next line of the song. 

Ludacris' song "Tell it Like it Is" is framed with a conversation with his daughter. He's talking to her and then says "Now go in the other room. It's about to be some grown folk talk in here." At the end of the song, a child's voice says "Daddy are you finished with grown folk talk?" to which Ludacris replies "Yeah baby. You can come back in here. Come give daddy a kiss. You know I love you, right?" and then the child returns to say "And I love you always." 

In other words, I don't think that its just motherhood that is occasionally incompatible with creative expression, but parenting in general. The fact of the matter is, though, that someone has to be taking care of those children. When they are sent out of the room by those male speakers, it is presumably the mothers who are doing that caregiving. 

As long as mothers (perhaps forcefully, at times) claim that same right--to have a momentary break from the duties of parenting in order to create--then there's a chance for equitable navigation of the creative work and parenting outside of ascribed gender roles. If that negotiation isn't (or can't be) made, then where does that leave women who want/need to create? 

Which brings me back to The Artist's Way and morning pages. I completely believe that there are moments when creative work is absolutely all-consuming and needs undivided attention, but is it realistic to expect that to happen every morning? If we define creative work in that way, doesn't that essentially cut a whole lot of parents (mothers and fathers) out of the definition? It's one thing to need some uninterrupted time now and then to complete a pressing project, but I can't imagine a space in which I could demand that every morning, and it's not because I'm in an inequitable caregiving situation, but because that simply doesn't match the reality of the life that I live (I wouldn't be able to give that kind of request to my husband, either.) Does that mean that I cannot ever truly create? Are my words pieced together when time allows less valuable? 

Of course I'm biased, but I don't think that's true. Learning to write in the spaces of our lives is a skill, and I am happy to have the opportunity to both do creative work and to parent. Both of these roles are important to me as far as what I produce and as far as who I am and how I identify. Could I write "better" pieces if I were not a mother? Perhaps. They'd probably be more polished, less rushed, and more focused. But then I would also not be who I am, and so they would lack the perspective with which I approach my writing. I could, in short, not write what I write any other way. 

What do you think? Are "morning pages" realistic for parents? Do you notice a tension between your creative work and your parenting? 

Photo credits: anthony_p_cnixielinks

Monday, June 18, 2012

Adidas Shackle Sneakers and Silencing the Dissenters

Forgive me. I am about to rant.

I just . . . I just don't even know anymore.

Perhaps you've seen the new Adidas shoes that come complete with ankle shackles:

This Daily Mail article has a good discussion of why this product is so problematic (as if it's not already pretty clear), pointing to both the obvious reference to slave shackles and--as one dissenter noted--the allusion to the "prison industrial complex" (check out this infographic that compares education and incarceration spending, if you want to know more about that particular problem). 

Right on cue, though, the comments are filling up with people who just can't see what the big deal is. Here are some examples:

"Some people can be "insulted" by just about anything. It's getting tiresome. If you don't like them, don't buy them." -PuterPrsn

"Some people will moan about anything just to moan. Get a life." -Jess

"This form of political correctness is getting on my nerves and once again, somebody is fishing for attention here by interpreting something into that fashion bit that is not there. Yawn"

And so on and so forth. 

When I started the petition against Kraft's MilkBite commercials asking Kraft to stop portraying multiracial individuals as flawed, I received similar pushback. Commenters told me "people like me" and my "PC-ness" were "destroying America." One man told me my concerns made him want to jump of a building if "this is what the world is coming to" (and I was the one overreacting!) People say that they're "just commercials" and the Adidas sneakers are "just shoes." 

These are probably the same people who thought that Vogue cover of LeBron James was "just a picture":

Look. I'm not telling you that you have to be offended over the same things I am. I'm not even telling you that you have to be offended by anything, ever. If you truly believe that all of these objects are "just" objects with no impact or referential value to the world around you, then you have that right, and I imagine that your life is indeed a lot simpler than mine. I'm not trying to take that away from you. 

But that's not what I believe. I believe that these images and products are part of our culture and that our culture matters because it's not only a reflection of ourselves but a direct influence on our future. We internalize these messages and use them to inform the way that we view the world. So when people tell me to stop worrying about a commercial or a shoe because there are so many "real" problems in the world, it's precisely those "real" problems I have in mind when I'm complaining. Things do not get that bad in a vacuum; the ideas start somewhere. 

So if you're not offended by sneakers that feature shackles around the ankles, I'm not going to tell you that you should be. You have the right to your own interpretations and experiences. But I am also not going to sit idly back and watch as people come forward in droves to try to intimidate and silence the people who are offended. Because do you know what? When you do that, you're not just taking the neutral stance you pretend to be, you're consciously perpetuating the problem. You're actively trying to maintain a culture where images like these are acceptable and if you truly didn't think that those images had meaning, why would you be so invested in making sure that no one complains about them? 

So go ahead. Tell me that I'm ruining the world with my oversensitivity. Tell me that these are "just shoes" and "just commercials" and "just advertisements." Call me names. Try to shame me into silence. Everything I've learned about the world tells me that images have meaning, and I'm not going to forget that simply because it is too disrupting to a narrow-minded worldview perched upon privilege, and I'm not going to stop pointing it out. 

After all, all those things you call me? They're "just words." 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Landscapes and Dreams: Thinking of My Father

My relationship with my father was difficult at best, but I prefer not to dwell on the times that were hard. Instead, I like to step back and look at the grander scheme of how our lives crossed and intertwined, and part of that can be told through the stories of where we lived.

I grew up in the sticks. The high school I went to was small (I graduated in a class of 50) in a small town (pop. 2000), but that's not where I grew up. I grew up outside of "town," unincorporated land that didn't have its own city limits. We had acres of land, much of it woods, and there weren't really neighborhood kids to play with because there wasn't really a neighborhood. There were gravel roads and ponds and trees and cows. I wasn't a farm kid, but we did have a menagerie of animals at one time or another: a horse, some goats, some chickens and ducks, pigs, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, and even an aquarium of hissing cockroaches. I grew up surrounded by nature and loved it. 

Later in life, my father and I would grow into a very strained relationship, but early on, we were connected by the land, by the rural lifestyle. We would garden and "hunt" (which meant I carried around a BB gun and scared away all of the rabbits he was theoretically trying to shoot). He taught me how to identify edible plants and clear brush to make paths through the trees. I went to school with scabbed knees and scratched legs. We climbed trees, swam in muddy water, and fell asleep under the stars. He taught me to fish, to mark trees so I could find my way back to the path if I wandered off course, and to appreciate the wonder of the natural world. 

It's interesting, though, because this world was not the one my father grew up in. In fact, he grew up not too far from where I now live. His parents were children of immigrants (German and Italian) who ran bars near one another in St. Louis. Once they married, they stayed in St. Louis with their children until--like most Midwest cities--the urban problems became too much for them. My father left high school at the age of 16, and he told me tales of gang wars and bloodshed, violence his parents were unwilling to accept. Eventually, they moved to the country, and my father finished high school two years late. 

To him, the country was a haven, an escape from the violence and trouble that marred his childhood. Almost all of his stories were negative, and I remember--when I was first choosing to move to the city with my own family--wondering what he would think of it. 

After all, I was once his little girl, a child that he had coached to repeat the maxim "You can take the girl out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the girl." 

But I know his time in this city was not all bad. I've heard the stories his relatives have shared. I've seen the pictures. He had a life here, and so do I. 

It's not that I hated the country. In fact, there are parts of it I sorely miss: the brightness of the stars in the absence of the city glow, the sounds of the spring peepers announcing the warmer weather, the expanse of lush grass beneath my feet, and the peace of solitude. 

But that life is not for me. I--despite being an introvert--thrive off of being around people, and for me that means being in a place with diversity. I don't just mean racial diversity, though as the mother of a biracial child, that is important to me. Growing up, my exposure to the world was very limited; my lens was narrow. It wasn't until I knew that there were other ways to see that I found my own vision, and I never would have been able to do that if I hadn't left the enclosure (and maybe even the safety) of my small town. 

It's ironic. My father and I have inverted paths. He spent his entire childhood in the city, growing more and more frustrated with the problems of urban living, and then he escaped to the country and considered it an oasis that opened a different part of his soul. He took up gardening and hunting. He wanted the rural life to soak into him and his family. 

Missouri River

I spent my entire childhood in the country, growing more and more frustrated with the limitations of rural living, and then I escaped to the city and considered it an oasis that opened a different part of my soul. I walk on paths of concrete through manicured parks and explore quaint cafes. I want the city life to soak into me and my family. 

St Louis Arch @ Night

In the end, I think our weaving paths demonstrate a similarity we share (because--despite the problems we had in our relationship--I do see myself in him sometimes): we are passionate about our perspectives, and we must live them fully. Where I live is a part of who I am, and while I can adapt to many things, being in the midst of a vibrant urban community makes me most alive, just as silently fishing alone in the early morning dawn made him. I think that, if he were alive today, he would understand. 

Photo Credits: ChrisYunker, jimmywayne