Poser

Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer

Poser-2This is one of my favorite memoirs I’ve ever read. Dederer describes the pressures of hipster parenting incredibly well. The story spans several years as she has two babies, moves from Seattle to Boulder and back, and becomes increasingly interested in yoga as exercise and philosophy. She also deals with some issues from her family of origin: her parents separated without divorcing in the 70’s, and her mother went to live with another man. I really related to her struggles with perfectionism. Here’s a great long quote that kind of encapsulates the central problem Dederer begins the book with:

We were a generation of hollow-eyed women, chasing virtue. We, the mothers of North Seattle, were consumed with trying to do everything right. Breast-feeding was simply the first item in a long, abstruse to-do-list: cook organic food, buy expensive wooden toys, create an enriching home environment, attend parenting lectures, sleep with your child in your bed, ensure that your house was toxin-free, use cloth diapers, carry your child in a sling, make your own baby food, dress your child in organic fibers, join a baby group so your child could develop peer attachments. And don’t quit your job. But be sure to agonize about it. And enjoy an active sex life. But only with your spouse! Also, don’t forget to recycle.

Goodness ruled me. I was thirty-one. All the moms I knew, at least the ones who were my age and lived in my zip code, lived by this set of rules. It was a variant form of that oldie, perfectionism, but without the hang-ups about appearances. We didn’t want to look good. We wanted to be good. We wanted a kind of moral cleanliness to touch our lives.

When I read those lines I was hooked. By the end I felt like I had learned and grown alongside Dederer, and that’s a feeling you love to get from a memoir.

The yoga stuff, though it was so central to the story and to Dederer’s evolution, was probably the least interesting part of the book to me personally. Especially Dederer’s hand-wringing about whether Western yoga is cultural appropriation. Mostly the classes she attends and the poses she describes seem to serve as a metaphor for releasing the tension in her life. As a metaphor it worked pretty effectively. I guess I’m proof that you don’t have to be interested in yoga to enjoy this book.

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Call Me Zelda

Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck

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This novel is from the point of view of a psychiatric nurse caring for Zelda Fitzgerald. The nurse really enmeshes herself in the Fitzgeralds’ dysfunctional marriage, to the extent that it’s unhealthy for her as well as her charges. The book really paints F. Scott Fitzgerald in an unflattering light. He’s controlling and alcoholic, leeching off his wife for creative inspiration while preventing her from self-expression. Zelda is described as so fascinating and dynamic that it makes you mourn for the books she might have written and the art she might have created if she’d been allowed. At the same time, she’s kind of the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, playing that role in her husband’s life, and in this novel, in the life of her nurse as well. Zelda makes me think of Virginia Woolf’s “Shakespeare’s Sister” and the waste of a genius born female in an age that wasn’t ready for that. The ending for Zelda is of course tragic, but the nurse’s own life improves over the course of the story, which balances some of the melancholy.

City of Lost Souls

City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare

COLS_coverAt the end of City of Fallen Angels, Jace disappeared, linked with the villain Sebastian and possessed by him. The Clave has called off its search Jace’s friends fear that his connection with Sebastian makes him a target. They summon demons and angels to break the bond, and Clary pursues Jace with the help of a fairy ring. The action moves quickly, as the group splits off to complete different parts of the plan, and then regroups to work on plan B or C.

The side characters are a strength of this series. Isabelle, Simon, Alec, Magnus, Maia and Jordan all have compelling love story subplots and even some steamy scenes of their own. That was a good thing, since in previous books Jace and Clary sometimes grated on me. However, in this book they didn’t, probably largely because being possessed kept Jace from displaying his most annoying characteristics and excused the lack of communication that created the narrative tension. The scene where he was temporarily free from his possession was the most powerful in the novel.

The ending sets up the final volume in the Mortal Instruments series to be pretty awesome. Jace and Clary are reunited and beginning to plot Sebastian’s demise, their romance hindered by some physical limitations that will surely disappear just in time to celebrate their final victory. Some other narrative loose ends that will have to be resolved: the Praetor Lupus calling in Maia’s favor, Simon’s new vulnerability to his vampire enemies, and the machinations of the fairy queen. Clare has built an intriguing magical world, populated it with flawed, brave people, and given them a nasty villain to fight. I’m glad it’s going to be getting the cable TV series treatment. Pass the popcorn, please.

The Mommy Wars, Part II

Yesterday I discussed a pair of essays that presented competing perspectives about whether a woman’s husband or children should be her first priority. Now I’m diving into a question that seems to be at the heart of the “mommy wars:”

Working Moms Vs. Stay-At-Home Moms

This is where the real culture battles are fought, isn’t it? Here’s a sweet letter from a working mom to her daughter, in response to her questioning if her mom loves her work more than her kids: “Dear Daughter, Here’s Why I Work” by Sasha Emmons.

Emmons speaks kindly and lovingly as she puts things in context for her young daughter, who doesn’t understand how careers work, much less the larger history of women in the workplace. She compares the job she loves to her daughter’s beloved art. She explains that working makes her happier and a better mother. She reminds her child of the fun things her mother’s income allows her to enjoy. She puts her choice to work in the context of a decades-long feminist struggle for respect and equality in the workplace, as well as her hopes for her daughter’s future. She concludes that yes, she does love her children more than her job, and if she had to choose she would choose her kids, but thankfully, she doesn’t have to choose. She gets to have both. And isn’t that a wonderful thing.

You will notice that nothing here is derogatory or pointed toward stay-at-home moms. Emmons is only talking about her own choice and nothing here implies anything about other women.

That is not the case in this response essay: “Dear Daughter, Here’s Why I Don’t Work” by Lydia Lovric

If you can read that without gritting your teeth and clenching your fists, you’re a better person than I am. I find the passive-aggressive self-martyring smugness here absolutely infuriating.

Lovric calls out Emmons by name and calls her selfish and materialistic. She goes on quite a while about her own thriftiness, ignoring the vital financial contribution working women make to their families, and the fact that for many families forgoing a second income would mean giving up medical care and electricity, not just vacations, new toys, and dinners out.

Every self-aggrandizing sentence in this essay is a back-handed insult to working moms. The essay is also incredibly unfair as a response to Emmons, because it misrepresents Emmons’s words (and how many people do you think clicked through to see what she really said?). Some examples, along with my translations of Lovric’s implied messages:

Other people may dismiss babies as simply blobs. But we both know better.

Translation: Working moms don’t care about their babies. They think they’re blobs that don’t matter.

I stay home because although I did love my job very much, I love you more.

Translation: Working mothers don’t love their kids enough. If they did, they wouldn’t work.

I stay home because although writing and radio did make me extremely happy, I knew that you seemed happier when I was around. And your happiness was more important to me than my own. And making you happy also made me happy.

Translation: A working mom chooses own happiness over that of her child, which is selfish and wrong. If staying home with kids doesn’t make a mom completely happy, it’s because she doesn’t love them.

I stay home because I want you to learn that family and love are more important than material possessions. A large home or fancy sneakers will not make up for an absent mother.

Translation: Working parents value material possessions more than family and love. They are not there when their kids need them, and stupidly expect that new toys will make up for their failings as parents.

It should be noted that Lovric does not include any discussion or comparison of how this issue affects men, besides a dismissal of “feminist objections.” She seems to think that her choice to stay home takes place in a vacuum, for example in a world without a gender pay gap. One woman’s choice is a drop in the bucket where larger social changes are concerned, but Lovric’s choice contributes incrementally to a society in which it’s a tiny bit harder for her daughter to find a good job and keep it after she has her own children someday. I don’t want to condemn her too hard for that, though, because I know that these “choices” often don’t really feel like choices at all, thanks mostly to issues like the pay gap and the way men and women are viewed differently in the workplace. We’re all just doing our best with the circumstances we’re in, and balancing the needs of children, adults, and bank accounts.

What bothers me the most is that when a message like Lovric’s goes out into the world, it makes working moms assume that, until they hear explicitly otherwise, most stay-at-home moms feel the way she does. And that undermines any solidarity that could have existed between the two groups. Catty judgment like this makes it that much harder for women to trust each other, talk to each other, and support each other. It’s such a shame because working moms and stay-at-home moms seem like they could be such perfect partners and allies, sharing child care, resources, advice, and commiseration. Their interests are really not opposed. After all, membership in these groups is fluid, since most stay-at-home moms eventually go back to work, and some working moms may take an extended leave to care for family members later in their lives. Most members of both groups would like more opportunities for well-paid part-time work, better family leave policies, and quality child care and schools. In some ways, the mommy wars are imaginary, stirred up artificially by provocative articles like this one.

My Conclusions

It should be clear by now, I tend to favor the arguments of the moms who value work and their husbands, even at the potential expense of time with their children. I feel like our culture has swung to one extreme in terms of the way women are expected to sacrifice everything for their children, and women who de-prioritize their children are working toward a more sustainable balance. My own choices reflect this. I work full time. My husband and I took a five-day vacation without our fourteen-month-old last year and hope to do so again this year if we can swing it. Most weekday afternoons, I take an hour or two for myself while my son is still in child care, rather than racing to pick him up as early as I can. So I’m sure that the way that I view these feminist arguments as well-considered and egalitarian is at least partly a rationalization of my own choices.

But at the same time, I recognize in myself and all of these women, the ones I agree with AND the ones I disagree with, the defensiveness of someone who fears judgment from others and thus is constantly composing justifications for her choices. This defensive posture comes from insecurity that has been inflicted upon all of us by a culture that expects sainthood of mothers without giving them any support. Here’s a smart description of how that works by Amber Rogers:

And that’s what the Mommy Wars are. They are women losing themselves. They are women assuming a new identity (one of ‘Natural Mom’ in my case), and in order to remain a Natural Mom you have to Buy all the (expensive) Things, and make everything homemade (out of really expensive and hard to find ingredients), and never ever ever let on that motherhood is anything other than absolute bliss. And in return, you get a sense of identity. And a sense of belonging. And a sense of superiority.

It makes sense why this identity clarity can be so seductive. It’s something solid to cling to when it feels like your world has been shaken to its core. But in that clutching, something inside hardens. In grabbing that certainty you have to reject its opposite, both in others and in yourself. To be that positive that you’re making the right choice, you have to decide that everyone else who’s doing something different is doing the wrong thing. That judgment alienates you from others and from yourself, and as this mother discovered, it’s hard to sustain.

My experience of motherhood so far has taught me to search for peace not in certainty but in humility and the acceptance of ambiguity. I feel I am best able to cope when I can be humble enough to let go of that comforting feeling of superiority and admit that I don’t know what I’m doing, that all of my decisions are provisional. And that’s not as easy as I make it sound here. I still want to be certain about these decisions that feel so crucial. Of course I want to feel sure I’m doing the right thing when the stakes are so high. It would be such a blessed relief to be certain, even about a single thing. If I could trust one expert to just tell me what to do, I could stop exhausting myself by doubting and second-guessing every decision I make. I could stop thinking.

But I’ve come to realize that beyond the extremes of abuse, neglect, and deliberately disregarding medical advice, there isn’t much that we’re sure about in parenting. There’s no one parenting technique that always works for every child and parent in every circumstance and every stage of development no matter what. And since that’s true, and certainty is just not possible, the healthiest thing to do is try to accept that and do your best. Which means that there’s no room for the judgment women heap on each other in their vain search for certainty.

I’ve found that the moments when I have actually connected with another mom have been when we were both vulnerable enough to admit that even though we were doing our best, it often wasn’t good enough (in our own possibly perfectionist opinions). Humility and vulnerability are scary, perhaps the most scary things we can exhibit in relationships. It’s understandable why lots of women want to avoid them, especially when motherhood itself already makes them feel unbearably vulnerable. But embracing ambiguity, humility, and vulnerability makes you a better person and makes your relationships and community stronger, so even though it’s hard, it’s the right thing to do.

I think that’s the reason why the worst things I can say about a mom is that she’s smug. False certainty makes people judgmental toward others and smug about their own oh-so-perfect choices. Knowing that a woman’s smugness comes directly from her insecurity makes me pity her rather than hate her, but that knowledge doesn’t make her any easier to be around. That’s why I have come to judge most writing on parenting by whether or not it condemns people who don’t parent the same way as the writer. And I choose my mom friends based on how vulnerable and humble they seem as we discuss our children.

If we could all drop the armor of certainty and smugness, we could learn from each other and support each other. Disconnecting our mom identities from defensive judgment is the internal first step to putting down our weapons and really ending the mommy wars.

The Mommy Wars, Part 1

Mommy wars. No matter how many times we try to settle them once and for all, someone’s always stirring them back up. I recently read two pairs of essays that seemed to encapsulate some of the conflicts that go by that name. As I began writing my responses to these debates, I found I had a lot to say and the post got way too long, so I split one post into two. Part II is tomorrow.

Children Vs. Marriage

These first two essays attempt to answer an eternal question: who should be a woman’s first priority, her children or her husband? (Not listed as options: herself, her friends, her parents, her siblings, her career, changing the world, etc.) If you want to read something manic and anxiety-ridden, check this out: “I’m 99% Mother and 1% Wife–And It Has To Be That Way” by Christina Vercelletto. Here’s a representative excerpt:

John’s a great dad, but I play a singular role in each of my kid’s lives. And as they’ve grown, the urgency to get it right screams at me, day and night.

The ship is going down, and I’ve only got three life jackets. Who am I going to give them to? John, you learned to swim a long time ago, right?

You’ve said you feel like a second-class citizen in our family, and for that, I am sorry.

I disagree with the essay’s title, it doesn’t have to be this way. Surely there are other ways to arrange one’s life so that things do not feel this urgent and dire all the time. Overwhelmed and All Joy and No Fun both point out that the current overscheduled way of parenting is not inevitable, but it’s a choice.

Secondly, I don’t understand the difference between John’s being a “great dad” and Vercelletto’s “singular role” in her family. What is it that she does that John is incapable of doing? Ever since I stopped breastfeeding, the goal in my marriage has been to split child care as equally as possible, and this seemed like only the most basic common sense. Vercelletto is pointlessly making a martyr of herself by taking on a responsibility no one ever asked her to have: #1 parent. No one who’s co-parenting can be #1 parent without someone else being #2, and that’s not really fair to the other parent. If she’s that anxious, she should get help, because there’s nothing about this situation that “has to be that way.”

This woman’s youngest kid is middle-school-aged. From where I sit as the mother of a toddler, with the first year still fresh in my memory, I have a hard time understanding how a middle school and high school aged kids could need the intense attention Vercelletto is determined to give them, even at the potential expense of her marriage. I mean, my toddler needs constant supervision so that he doesn’t hurt himself. Middle-schoolers, though, can be trusted around sharp objects and should be able to entertain themselves. And high-schoolers are unlikely to even want parents to be around that much. It’s admirable that Vercelletto wants to save her children from having student loans, but I think the fact that she sees this as within the realm of possibility kind of shows her privilege. She must be 10-20 years my senior, meaning that she went to college when graduating without loans was actually possible. Almost everyone I know my own age and class had some student loans; the idea of saving my child from them seems as unreachable as winning the lottery.

Vercelletto says twice that if she had to choose between her husband and her kids, she’d pick her kids, and to be fair, under duress I might say the same thing. Like if I were Sophie, and Nazis made me pick whether to send my husband or son to the gas chambers, I guess I’d let them take my husband. (Or I don’t know, maybe I’d figure a toddler wouldn’t survive the concentration camp anyway but my big strong husband had a shot. Or maybe I’d send off my husband knowing he’d prefer to die in place of our boy. Wow, isn’t it a great thing these choices never actually happen because there are no more Nazis?)  But I think the real issue is that if it feels like you’re literally choosing between members of your family on a daily basis, something is dreadfully out of balance. Vercelletto’s husband has told her he feels like a second-class citizen in their family. If she doesn’t see that as a wake-up call, I don’t know what she would. I think when you find yourself making extreme statements like these, when you feel that painfully conflicted between competing demands, you have to take a close look at your life and at least consider making some big changes. The very last thing to do at that moment is to dig your heels in and write a diatribe about how you’re a martyr sacrificing your marriage on the altar of motherhood.

I feel great pity for Vercelletto, and hope she gets help. Obviously, she’s overwhelmed, and probably struggling with perfectionism and time management. I feel kind of bad putting any extra focus on this embarrassing essay because she’s clearly trying her best, and while I hope my words might change her perspective, I’ve had enough experience with these debates to doubt they can. The reason I’m writing about her and linking to her is that when she said that her problem is an eternal truth of motherhood, she made the issue bigger than her own imbalanced family life. The statement that “it has to be that way” needed to be rebutted publicly, because it’s false. Allowing the damaging idea that devoted motherhood necessitates the sacrifice of a healthy marriage to spread without trying to quash it would be wrong of me.

Now, as a counterpoint, enjoy “Why My Husband Will Always Come Before My Kids” by Amber Doty. Ask yourself which of these two essays sounds more sane and balanced. Which family would you like to live in? Which mother sounds more content? Which of these women would you prefer to be married to? I’d pick this one every time.

Not only is the emotional tone of this essay more calm and rational, its conclusion is more farsighted and wise. Doty’s intuitions about the desires of children seem spot on to me. I honestly think that kids don’t really WANT their parents to prioritize them ahead of each other. Kids know deep down that it’s in their best interests for their parents to stay married and get along. If a parent channels the energy that belongs in a romantic relationship toward her children, she’s likely to overwhelm them with an excess of unwanted attention and focus. The child will feel burdened by the responsibility to make her parent happy, when the parent should be taking responsibility for her own happiness. It’s generally unhealthy for anyone to make their happiness too dependent on any one other person, and this principle is violated when parents’ excessive focus on their children damages their relationship with each other.

However, many will disagree with me and call Doty selfish and a horrible mother for saying that her husband takes priority over her children. This essay is remarkably similar to one by Ayelet Waldman that earned her tons of online vitriol. People hate it when a woman admits in public that anything is more important to her than her children, even if it’s her husband.

It’s telling that there’s one question that neither of these essays asks: Who should be a man’s first priority, his children or his wife? The question sounds odd, because I think most people assume a man’s first priority is his career, his personal growth, his ambitions. No one expects a man to immerse himself in the joyful drudge of child care; it is assumed that their natural habitat is the adult world of work and marriage. Things are shifting, though, so that men are becoming increasingly likely to say their family is their first priority. Men are allowed to put it this way, to lump their family together as a unit. No one expects men to make Sophie’s choice between spouse and children. Maybe that’s because their identities are assumed to be more multifaceted than a single relationship. They are assumed to have the capacity to care for and provide for more than one other person, while women are told that their focus on a loved one should be so intense and all-consuming that one relationship is all they can sustain. Waldman points out that her husband feels zero guilt for prioritizing his marriage over his children. To him such an arrangement is a matter of course, and he didn’t get hate mail over it.

Maybe that’s why there are no ‘daddy wars:’ because men aren’t expected to define themselves by their family relationships and the way they parent. The emotional and cultural baggage attached to fatherhood is minimal. I think everyone should get to parent that way, with their children as only one aspect of a full life. It seems so much more healthy and sustainable. That’s what I mean when I say that I want to be a parent the way a man gets to be a parent.

Tomorrow I’ll be discussing another pair of essays, a battle between a working mother and a stay-at-home mother. While today’s essays were a voice of reason and a self-destructing ball of stress, tomorrow’s includes a sanctimonious personal attack. So prepare yourself for drama..

The Buried Giant

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Ishiguro is best known for understated novels like The Remains of the Day, in which a British butler contemplates his life of service to a politician who colluded with and appeased the Nazis, and Never Let Me Go, in which a group of young people quietly accept slow, painful deaths because they are clones meant for organ harvesting. Many fans who eagerly awaited this novel were surprised that it fit into the fantasy genre, with its post-Arthurian setting, its knights, ogres, and dragons. Since Ishiguro is considered Literary, some looked askance at his foray into fantasy, a genre often derided as juvenile. Ishiguro had a fascinating discussion with Neil Gaiman on the topic here.

Personally, I like fantasy, and I like Ishiguro, and I agreed with everything he and Gaiman said in their discussion, so I was super excited to be reading a fantasy novel by a Literary author. The main theme is memory, both individual and collective, and what happens when we forget. The story is about an elderly couple who set off in search of their son. They have been living in the amnesia-inducing fog of a dragon’s breath, and don’t remember much of their pasts, or their son. As they journey, they meet Saxons, Britons, monks, orphans, and knights. They discover their own pasts, as well as the history of their country and its wars of conquest. The prose feels as spare and exact as any of Ishiguro’s other work, with a sweet, rich fairy-tale flavor. It’s thought-provoking and open-ended, a pleasure and a wonder.

Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian

Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian by Eoin Colfer

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In this last book of the Artemis Fowl series, Artemis Fowl’s nemesis, Opal Koboi, escapes from fairy prison with the help of her clone, and begins orchestrating the destruction of humanity. She hopes to resurrect fairy Berserkers buried on the Fowl property. Of course, Artemis and his fairy, dwarf, centaur, and bodyguard friends have to stop her. As always in this series, the book is jam-packed with improbable action scenes and witty banter. Artemis’s twin brothers are major characters this time, adding both to the humor and the stakes for their brother. Artemis himself completes the growth process that began in the first novel, becoming a hero capable of real sacrifice and impressive planning. It’s a good ending to a good series.