Internet Roundup: Motherhood, Part 5

Heather Havrilesky wrote a NYT op-ed about motherhood that went viral. It’s one of those things that’s so right I just want to quote it at length. She articulates what’s oppressive about being a mom today and rants about how annoying and off-putting it is when anyone who isn’t her own child calls her ‘mom’ or draws attention to the fact that she’s a mother.

Motherhood is no longer viewed as simply a relationship with your children, a role you play at home and at school, or even a hallowed institution. Motherhood has been elevated — or perhaps demoted — to the realm of lifestyle, an all-encompassing identity with demands and expectations that eclipse everything else in a woman’s life.

…at this particular moment in our history, some combination of overzealous parenting, savvy marketing and glorification of hearth and home have coaxed the public into viewing female parents as a strange breed apart from regular people. You might feel like the same person deep inside, but what the world apparently sees is a woman lugging around a giant umbilical cord….

You can love being a mother — and I don’t personally know a woman who doesn’t love it — and still hate being addressed as “Mom” or “Mommy” by someone who isn’t your child. You can love being around other women, or other parents, and sharing your ideas and emotions and experiences, and still not want the whole thing to be wrapped up in a big “Mommy” bow.

The Mommy bow chafes because it’s at once cloying and rife with contradictions…

I’m hesitant to throw myself into any high-maintenance child-related activity too enthusiastically lest I doom myself to becoming a specialist in an unpaid field that might cut into the time I spend on things like, I don’t know, making a living? Staying in shape? Seeing my friends occasionally?

The current culture demands that every mother be all in, all the time….

Somehow, as we’ve learned to treat children as people with desires and rights of their own, we’ve stopped treating ourselves and one another as such. But that’s not hard to understand when the reigning cultural narrative tells us that we are no longer lively, inspired women with our own ideas and emotions so much as facilitators, meant to employ at all times the calm, helpful tones of diplomats.

Of course, when things go viral people respond to it. Here’s a response that I feel kind of misses the point. It dismissively concludes that the pressure Havrilesky describes is just so much “keeping up with the Joneses” on facebook and Pinterest. But I think there’s more to it than that. Moms’ stress comes not from trying to one-up others, but from an unending struggle to feel barely adequate according to self-imposed standards that are unrealistic. It’s the insane expectations that are the problem, not silly competitiveness within moms themselves.

On the other hand, KJ Dell’Antonia has a great response. She zooms out and looks at the place of individual families in our society, concluding that the reason moms feel so much pressure is because they are not supported by our social structures and attitudes. American individualism tells families they’re on their own, and this is not natural for human beings, who have lived in more closely-knit communities until very recently. The responsibility for children used to be more dispersed among all the adults in a community, but now it all falls squarely on the parents, usually mostly on the mother. According to Dell’Antonia, the real problems are:

“The belief, embedded in nearly every element of our society, that families aren’t a national resource, but an individual cost.”


“The underlying assumption that I, and millions of other women, have made some kind of adorable lifestyle choice means that no one else need consider the needs of the children who result.”

In Memory of Elaine Fahrner

While I was in high school, my school lost four teachers. It was a small school, and the whole community was rocked by the losses, one after the other. Around the time of one of those deaths, we were reading Death of a Salesman in my English class. After seeing the chalkboard full of messages from students and going to a memorial mass, I remember thinking to myself that teachers are the ones who get the kind of funeral Willy Loman was dreaming about, but didn’t get. The outpouring of love and gratitude at the death of a teacher, especially one who died too soon, in the middle of her or his teaching career, or not long after leaving the classroom, can be overwhelming.

Now the school where I teach has experienced this loss. Our founding principal, Elaine Fahrner, retired last year after being diagnosed with cancer. She passed away on November 11. The memorial service was just as she would have wanted it: a bunch of people getting together to share stories, much more laughter than tears. The auditorium was so full that people were sent to get more chairs from the classrooms several times. Lots of people say a they want a funeral to be a celebration of life rather than a lamentation of death, but this gathering was more true to that idea than any other I’ve ever attended. Here’s a video that was played at the memorial service, compiled by my coworker Buffy Holton.

Elaine Fahrner believed in the importance of celebration so much that she made it a part of our school’s DNA, writing it into the mission statement. Every time a student earns a half credit, they get a certificate and stamp their list of requirements that’s displayed in the hall. It’s a little thing, but it gives them a sense of progress and momentum. When a student finishes his last credit, everyone is called out into the hall to celebrate. We blow an air horn and the student walks through a crowd of cheering friends. We have two graduations a year, and by the end of the ceremonies, my face hurts from smiling and my palms sting from clapping.

Because of our school’s unique schedule and fast student turnover, very few of our current students ever met Ms. Fahrner, which feels strange and wrong. I do think her spirit is a deep part of the school though, and that the teachers and administrators who knew her do our best to keep it alive. Knowing her means that we’ll always have an inner voice that advocates for our students’ best interests. Now, anytime there’s a problem in the classroom, we can ask ourselves, “What would Elaine do?” and know immediately how to do right by our students.

Ms. Fahrner’s goal was always to get students their diplomas, but never at the sacrifice of academic standards. At our alternative high school, we’re always working to strike a delicate balance between bending the rules to accommodate individual students’ difficulties, and holding the line lest all standards collapse. Ms. Fahrner always knew when to be tough and when to give a student a break. She had a preternatural ability to call a kid on his bullshit, while still letting him know she cared about him, communicating this complex emotional idea with a twinkle in her eye that let him know she was on his team. (She also graciously gave other principals and district higher-ups the same treatment when she felt it was necessary.)

We take pictures of our students the day they enroll, and the day they finish their classes, and display both side by side on graduation day. Sometimes the contrast between the two pictures is striking. There was one particular before/after that astonished us all, a handsome boy named Dexter White whom I taught in my first year at this school. In the before shot, he’s looking down with shoulders hunched, like a puppy expecting to be hit. In the after shot he has a radiant smile, his posture puffed up with pride and confidence. Elaine put that before/after picture into a Powerpoint that she showed to people at the district and potential donors, saying that it summarized what we did. She always said our purpose was to improve people’s lives, to open up opportunities for them by helping them earn a diploma.

I’ll always remember one time when I had a conflict with a student over his grade. He threatened to go talk to Ms. Fahrner about it, and I shrugged and told him to go ahead. She chewed him out so hard that when he apologized to me he actually sounded sincere. It felt so wonderful and freeing as a teacher to have that much confidence in my administrator, to feel so assured that she had my back. It was a feeling that I never had in my first two years of teaching before coming to this school. I didn’t realize how tiring it is to feel anxious about your boss’s reactions to everyday problems until I didn’t have to feel that way anymore.

At the memorial, Kay Wright, a coworker of mine and longtime friend of Ms. Fahrner, talked about what that support looked like for her. Ms Fahrner let her teachers try new things, and was understanding if they didn’t always work out. She supported experimentation even at the cost of occasional failure. Thanks to her encouragement, I set up my classroom and grading system in an unorthodox way that fits our schedule and culture better than a more traditional arrangement. I couldn’t have succeeded without the permission to fail that she granted me so generously. 2011-2012 was my third year in the classroom, and I was in my third school. My first two years had been rough, and my confidence wasn’t super high. Ms. Fahrner had faith in me as a teacher, and that meant so much to me. She helped me to believe in myself and the impact I could have on my students, and her trust gave me the strength to persevere.

I’m not sure that I’d still be teaching if I’d never met Ms. Fahrner. Going back to school after having a baby isn’t easy, and I’m not sure it would have been worth the sacrifice if I had been in any other school. I’ll always be grateful to her for bringing me to a place where I can feel supported and where small classes make teaching manageable and rewarding. Around this time in 2011, during my first year at her school, I ended a quick email to Ms. Fahrner with a sincere line that I’ll always be glad I included: “Have a great Thanksgiving! This year I’m thankful for you!” I feel the same way this year. I’m so grateful for having known, worked with, and learned from Elaine Fahrner. Every time we blow the horn, it’s thanks to her.

 What I’ve written here is just one person’s impression of Elaine Fahrner’s impact, how she changed my life personally. For a more thorough impression of what her loss means to the whole community, here are two more loving tributes that discuss her life more broadly.

The Women’s Room

The Women’s Room by Marilyn French


This book puts second-wave feminism into novel form. It begins with repressed housewives and ends with failed student activism. The first half reads like Mad Men: The Novel, and the second half is a bunch of debates about the best way to go about changing the world. Mira, the main character, survives an abusive relationship and rape attempt, a bad marriage to a doctor in suburbia, motherhood, a divorce, Harvard grad school, several intense friendships with other women, and finally, a good relationship that isn’t quite good enough. All of the marriages portrayed are so horribly unfair and unequal that they’re almost ridiculous to someone of my generation, and that’s something I’m thankful for. It doesn’t end happily; the characters scatter and none of them achieve success in both career and love/family. The somewhat depressing conclusion seemed to be that it’s best to embrace the temporary nature of happiness and not expect anything good to last. At a climactic moment, the text approaches and voices some of the most extreme radical feminist ideas, but I believe they are ultimately rejected.

This book made me think a lot, and made me feel like I understood what it felt like to be a woman 40-50 years ago. The issues and problems the women discuss are still very relevant. The Women’s Room describes the connection between the personal and the political, and shows how the characters are shaped by their environments and internalize the messages sent by their culture. For that reason I felt like it made a great argument for why these issues matter in the everyday moments of people’s lives, both then and now.

Internet Roundup: Education, Part 3

I wanted to share links to some of the smartest things I’ve read online recently about education. Here ya go.

The war on teachers is real. This article in the Atlantic describes the rhetoric about bad teachers as a “moral panic,” demonizing an entire group based on the actions of a few of its members and blaming a large and complex social problem on them. It’s totally divorced from reality, in addition to unfair and illogical, but it’s the dominant rhetoric in education today.

As a prime example of that moral panic, Time magazine had an offensive cover story recently that called teachers “bad apples.” Here’s an amazing response to that. Again, the problem is poverty, not schools or teachers.

Schools are not businesses, and should not be treated as if they are. So many people make analogies comparing schools to businesses and teachers to factory workers without realizing the problem with that rhetoric. The analogy doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny because there are fundamental differences in the purpose of a school and of a business: public good and private profit are

The hardest part of teaching: there is never enough. Never enough of any of the things necessary for success. I’m a recovering perfectionist, and I don’t think that makes me unique among teachers. Accepting “good enough” is painful for a perfectionist; how much more torturous is it to have to accept constantly falling short through no fault of one’s own?

I’ve written before about how teaching is a female-dominated profession, and the effects that has on retention. Here’s an examination about why that is, and what it would take to change it (hint: mostly just more money). I’m convinced that free on-site child care would attract lots of fathers to the profession as well as keeping highly skilled women in the classroom.

And, most exciting of all:

Diane Ravitch, my favorite education policy guru, is coming to Nashville today and I have plans to see her speak! I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about our specific situation here in our district. Here’s her latest article online, a review of  Yong Zhao’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. It’s mostly a criticism of standardized testing, showing how an overreliance on testing throughout history has made China less innovative and creative, and produced a culture of cheating.

The Opposite of Lonely

The Opposite of Lonely: Essays and Stories by Marina Keegan


Marina Keegan died in a car crash 5 days after her college graduation; this book gathers the writing she did while in school, including the title essay, which I read online before I heard about this book. That essay is about the kind of feeling a lot of us get around graduation time: nostalgic, proud, happy, full of potential and possibilities, super close to all the friends who are about to scatter. I wrote a valedictorian speech along some of the same lines as this 12 years ago, and it only took about a year for me to feel like I’d manufactured that feeling because it was what I wanted to feel at the time. I don’t say that to cheapen Keegan’s experience and what it must mean to her friends now, but I do wonder how she would have looked back on this writing later on if she’d had the chance.

The cynical question is whether these stories would have been published if Keegan had lived. It’s impossible to say, but I think she had at least as much talent as several creative writing grad students I’ve known, with less experience. Some of the stories are typical subject matter for an undergrad workshop, young men and women in complicated relationships with each other, their exes, and their parents, but others are more far out, like the one set on a doomed submarine, or the one about the government contractor in Iraq sending hopeless emails. Some of them make me wonder how someone so young could have had the information and life experience to allow her to write these kinds of things, and that’s probably a sign she was the real deal. It’s a shame that this book is all of her we’ll ever have.

Men Explain Things to Me

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit


This little book of essays on feminism is anchored by the essay that coined the term “mansplaining.” I’m grateful to Solnit just for inspiring this fun and accurate neologism and the many stories other women have shared about being mansplained. When she pointed out the condescending way men often assume that they know more than women, obliviously pontificating to women with much more expertise, and told the story so perfectly, she did all of us a service.

The other essays in the book discuss rape and violence against women, the IMF, gay marriage, activism, and Virginia Woolf. Solnit is passionate, knowledgeable, and articulate, aware of how women’s issues interact with problems of capitalism and colonialism. She ends with a note of hope, saying that we can’t despair because the future is never certain. It’s a quick read, and very informative.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

mr pen

This book is a quest narrative about the culture clash between a secret society focused on cracking a code left behind by one of the first printing press inventers, and the millennial generation Google-powered underemployed hackers who infiltrate it and solve the centuries-old puzzle.

Clay, the narrator, lost his tech-related job in the recession and gets a job at a strange bookstore. He starts dating a very enthusiastic Google employee who helps him decode one of the unusual books, triggering a quest to ‘save’ Mr. Penumbra, the bookstore owner, from the cult whose books he manages. My favorite detail of all was Clay’s old friend’s tech company that specializes in animating realistic breasts. Google is described as cultlike and vaguely Orwellian, but also radically democratic. It’s really fun to read and has a lot of great jokes and funny moments.

The quest narrative was satisfying, meta in a fun way, but to go a step further for me, the book would have had to argue a thesis about the transcendent nature of the printed word or something. As it is, the novel doesn’t seem to have an opinion about whether or not it’s good for Google to put all the world’s knowledge online, for example. Without that some kind of point, the most interesting parts of the novel, the connection between early printing and the internet, the religious aspects of the quest for knowledge on the part of both the old-fashioned bibliophiles and the Googlers and coders, become mere background. Also, I found the emotional investment in the character of Penumbra a little weak for the amount of work it was supposed to motivate.


Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte


This is one of my favorite nonfiction books I’ve read all year. It’s part sociology, part memoir, part self-help, and I think that’s the best approach to some of these issues. It’s important to show the big issues and social norms behind the struggles we have, the policies and ideologies, and it’s also important to show how we can make change as individuals, both through the author’s example, and through concrete steps we can all take. The three concepts of work, love, and play are the main organizing principles for the book, with long discussions about the meaning of each in our culture and our lives.

I’m glad this wasn’t purely self-help, because I think it’s so important to acknowledge that these things are not happening in a vacuum. People feel overwhelmed not because they have bad time-management skills, but because of our insane work culture and the way it conflicts with equally insane expectations of mothers, and increasingly fathers as well. Of course, if the book stopped there, it would be frustrating and depressing because then there’s nothing to be done with that knowledge. You get mad and have no way to channel the anger. Instead, Schulte takes the important next steps of discussing personal changes people can make to stop feeling so swamped all the time. A few of my takeaways:

  • Try as much as possible to live in the moment
  • Alloparents are super important and necessary.
  • Don’t wait until the to-do list is done and the house is clean to do something fun, or you’ll never do it.
  • Create routines to cut down on decision-making
  • Chunk time instead of multitasking, which is less efficient.
  • Take restorative breaks

I especially loved the discussion of leisure, a concept that seemed foreign to me in many ways. Our culture as a whole doesn’t value it and sees people who do as lazy. And historically, for women leisure has been nonexistent. That means that women often have to learn to let go, or give themselves permission, in order to enjoy themselves. That makes a lot of sense to me; it’s something I’ve experienced and seen in other women as well.

One point Schulte makes toward the end is that the thing that makes it so hard on working mothers is ambivalence: feeling unsure that you’re doing the right thing. Constantly second-guessing yourself is what’s so exhausting. If you can commit to what you’re doing and know you’re doing your best, that ambivalence can wither away, and that gives so much freedom. It’s hard not to feel ambivalent when the culture pulls you in two opposite directions at once, but turning off that feeling might be the only way to find peace.

The only small quibble I had with the book is the assumptions Schulte made about work and its structure. She talked a lot about telecommuting, working from home, working part time, job sharing, face time, sludge, Results Only Work Environments, and other issues that are more relevant for some types of jobs than others. For example, a retail worker can’t telecommute, but that isn’t because her job has an onerous bias for putting in face time, it’s because that workplace is structured around the in-person presence of salespeople and cashiers, etc. If my principal were to decide that my school is a Results Only Work Environment for teachers, that would involve completely re-envisioning our students’ educations in a way too radical to do without approval from the superintendent, and maybe the US Dept of Education. I guess this bias toward white-collar creative work is pretty common, but sadly, these workplaces are probably the easiest ones to fix. Making blue-collar and pink-collar jobs less overwhelming will be much harder.

The Jane Austen Book Club

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler


I picked up this book because I recently read Fowler’s more recent book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and because I love Jane Austen. However, despite loving Elizabeth Bennett more than chimps, I liked We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves more than this book. There’s something in Fowler’s style that’s kind of off-the-wall, and that’s especially well-suited for a narrator who was raised with a chimp and therefore is kind of uncertain about how human interaction works. Either that or Fowler’s just improved.

I didn’t find much in this book very surprising. It gave me no real new insight on Jane Austen. The characters seemed so different that it was hard to believe that they were friends and would be in a book club together. It was kind of predictable that the only man in the book club, who was of course single, would end up paired up with one of the ladies. (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man attending a book club is in want of a wife.”) It’s not bad, but it’s not amazing either.