Category: Feminism

Climbing hills and trees: more thoughts on motherhood and work

How to pare down today’s thoughts into a blog-worthy parcel? First, I want to say thank you to the many who added their comments and experiences to the working-mom meets stay-at-home-mom post. So much food for thought. And I’ve been hungry. Here’s where your thoughts led me:

1. Six-and-a-half years ago, I read an essay by Carol Shields that both comforted me and rung true. In it, she offered the idea that there is enough time. She was writing the essay while dying of breast cancer, but even for dying, she wrote, there is enough time. When she was younger, she worried about fitting everything in, but in each stage of life, she discovered time enough. It wasn’t that she could do everything all at once, it was that she honoured and lived out each stage.

I loved that idea (still do). That I could enter fully into intense hands-on motherhood and take my time. And when the stage passed, I could enter fully into whatever came next. And in my untested theory, somehow those years of intense motherhood would be an asset to whatever came next: all the juggling of multiple demands and scheduling and coping with crises and being nurse / healer / calm-amidst-the-storm / psychiatrist / chef / chauffeur / event planner / and on and on as the moment required would be valued, and would add value to whatever I chose to do next.

A couple of big assumptions in my theory. a) That employers would value experience that couldn’t be validated or quantified. b) That careers could be built overnight or slipped into like a pair of shoes. c) That I would get to choose my career like an item picked off a menu. d) That I would have a clear idea of whatever came next. e) That the intense hands-on motherhood stage would pass.

Reading your thoughts, it struck me: my theory is entirely unproven. I’ve spent six years quietly and confidently assuming everything would fall into place at the right time. (And who knows, stranger things have happened.) But let’s just say things don’t. Let’s observe that intense motherhood doesn’t pass, exactly, things just calm down somewhat. Even a decade on, it’s still pretty intense (with children ages 10, 8, 6 and 3). Meeting their needs continues to occupy a large portion of my mind and my time. The stages of life, therefore, aren’t so clear-cut and tidy.

2. Beyond that, I’m feeling a deeper appreciation for the work that career-building takes. Success in a chosen field isn’t something you can step into. It’s a slow build, a steady climb; you have to be there in order to make connections and to stumble into the right place at the right moment. It takes hard work and commitment. And time. Time and commitment that I’ve chosen to put into my home life and my children. Not into a career.

3. But: At the expense of a career? I still refuse to believe that. Especially because I have been (slowly) building a career as a fiction writer, and, yes, it’s taken time and commitment. But as most writers of fiction will tell you, this ain’t a career known for wild profiting; or even, in all honesty, breaking even. Which brings me to …

4. How much do I prioritize financial independence? I am in a marriage with a supportive partner who has shouldered the burden of our expenses ever since we started having children (you could say, conversely, that I’ve shouldered the burden of caring for our children during that time; and that perhaps we both have made sacrifices–and gains–in this arrangement.) I realize that I’m fortunate even to be able to ask this question, but, if I had to choose between nurturing my creative life and becoming financially independent, which would it would be? Because, let’s be realistic, it may be that there isn’t time to be a mother, and a writer, AND a [fill in the blank] money-earner. At least not all at once.

5. Feminism. One reader commented that her mother strongly prioritized financial independence, for herself and by extension for her daughters; and I know my own mom was troubled by her lack of financial independence, and hoped for better for her daughters. I haven’t done much better, not yet. Why does this weigh on me? (Because it does.)

And, finally …

6. Experimenting freely. Does all of this worry and analysis leave out the most important part, the most exciting part, about where I stand, right this second? (Okay, I’m actually sitting.) Because there is so much possibility in the unknown. My imagination runs wild. Sometimes I’m afraid; but mostly, here’s how I want to frame this nebulous whatever comes next stage that no longer seems so well-defined and particular …

**Like I’m marching joyfully up a giant rock in my rubber boots to survey the fields all around.

**Like I’m climbing an old apple tree, not necessarily expecting to find edible fruit, but for the heart-pounding excitement of being up so high; and to test the branches, and my own bravery.

(Now, if you please … tell me what you think.)

Standing on the sidelines, kicking myself

**This is CJ’s drawing of the two of us. Yes, we’re upside-down. He’s the one standing on my head.

Today, I am feeling the effects of less sleep; it seems like there’s always a grace period after sleep-deprivation, followed by a crash. I’m in crash mode today, and hoping for recovery by tomorrow.

Yesterday, during the grace period, I burned through a crazy variety of activities while still flush from the after-effects of witnessing a birth. I napped in a dark room for two hours. I spent the afternoon with CJ. I made supper and vacuumed the house because the floor was nothing but crumbs. I packed a picnic for my soccer girl. I got ready for swim lessons, got kids snacked, changed, and to the pool, and then went for a much-needed run in the park across from the pool. It was gorgeous and sunny and I would have run and run and run had the kids not been waiting for me. I got back to the pool just in time, got kids showered and changed, raced home to put supper on the table, grab a bite to eat myself, and feed soccer girl.

We had less than half an hour to transition to the next activity: a soccer coaching clinic. Turns out Kevin and I are coaching all three of our kids’ indoor soccer teams (CJ isn’t old enough to be on a team, or no doubt we’d have managed to sign ourselves up to coach four). We’re not even sure how it happened. But Kevin is working quite a few Saturdays, which means that I will need to be there if he isn’t (with extra kids in tow? we haven’t worked out the finer details), so off AppleApple and I went to the coaching clinic. The coach leading the clinic is also coaching the U-10 rep girls team, so he had the girls come out to demonstrate. It was a pleasant stroke of luck that as part of the coaching clinic I also got to watch my soccer girl in action.

We spent three full hours at the indoor field, the last hour of which was just a great big game. The girls played, the rep coaches played, and the parent volunteers who had signed up to coach their children’s teams were invited to play, too. Only a few dads jumped in. I was one of two or three moms volunteering to coach, and we all passed.

I was invited to join the game! And I stood on the sidelines instead.

I was tired, yes, but that wasn’t why I didn’t play. I was chatting with a friend, but that wasn’t why I didn’t play either. It also wasn’t because I didn’t want to play; I actually kind of sort of really really did want to. Nope; I didn’t play because I felt intimidated. I haven’t played on a soccer team since the age of eleven. I’ve never practiced any of the skills and techniques the head coach was showing us last night. (Excuses, excuses.) All I had to offer, therefore, was fitness and a willingness to try. Except last night, I lacked the willingness to try. Why? On the drive home, AppleApple wondered why I hadn’t played, and when I confessed to feeling too nervous and not being skilled enough, she kind of huffed and said, of course you’d be good enough!

And she’s right. Because any willing participant would have been good enough. It wasn’t a test of my skills or abilities. It wasn’t about me at all. It was about running around, kicking a ball, and having fun. And those kids were having fun (so were the dads). Just look at my very own small and tough AppleApple who elbowed her way into the mix and stole the ball from the coaches and ran her heart out without once doubting that she should be there, doing that.

And so, regrets? I like to think of myself as a generally unregretful person. But it turns out I have a few. Many (most?) boil down to those moments when I let pride dictate in(action). When I don’t try. When I don’t take the risk, and join the game.

Women’s Writing: Discuss

Must must must link to this provocative and well-argued piece, by Kerry Clare, on women’s fiction, and how it continues to be viewed by critics as being of lesser value than men’s fiction, even now, long after Virginia Woolf wrote about the issue in A Room of One’s Own: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop–everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.” 
In her essay, Clare posits that the gestational approach to plot in a book like Lisa Moore’s February is indeed very much unlike the conclusion-driven fiction that we consider to be traditionally male; but that the layered and continual sock-folding nature of “feminine” fiction should not and cannot be dismissed simply because it approaches time and human transitions differently.
I guess my question is: do women really understand time and action differently than men do? Is this a feminine quality, or does it relate more to the fact that more women than men, even now, spend time folding socks, and completing repetitive daily tasks? Do our bodies call us to observe and reflect upon repetition and a less linear understanding of time, are women by nature gestational beings? Just asking. I don’t know.
Read the article. And then comment, because I really want to know what you think (… as I sit here, writing what seems to me to be a prototypically feminine book).

Why Are There No Women Who …

A recurring issue that’s been troubling me, lately: my children have begun asking why there are no women who … fill in the blank. Why are there no women who play hockey (in the NHL, in the playoffs, which are on every evening at our house). Why are there no women who coach kids’ soccer (thankfully, we found some women coaches to counteract that observation; but it’s still mostly true. It’s mostly dads out there on the field). I’m trying to think of another example of “no women who …” but can’t offhand. Anyway, it’s a good question. It reminds me that we aren’t, exactly, who we claim to be, as a society. Our relentless message is that girls can do anything, be anything, choose anything; and while it’s essentially true, there’s no counter-conversation about why so many girls/women don’t, and what, if anything, we should do about it.

If girls (and boys) can do anything, why, for example, are little girls supposed to wear pink and like fairies and princesses, and little boys supposed to wear dull colours and make truck noises and wrestle? Why are these gender differences so strongly endorsed, to the point of making little boys who once liked flowers and pink refuse to wear them lest they get teased for being different, and little girls, who once could care less what they wore, feel they must pay attention lest they get shunned for being different?
And, yet, there are some very real differences. For example, as AppleApple has observed, most women are not as physically strong as most men.

(In our family, we have one boy who makes very loud weaponry sound effects and who never took interest in any doll ever given to him; one girl who chooses her brother’s hand-me-downs over her own girlie options, most days, and who doesn’t like “princessy games”; one girl who would wear ruffled pink in perpetuity and who likes looking at pictures of fairies; and one boy whose favourite colour is pink, who pushes a stroller and gently tucks his doll in, and who likes to growl and pretend to be a crocodile attacking his older siblings. How much have they chosen for themselves, and how much has been chosen for them?).
Yes, a girl can grow up to be anything she wants to be. It shocks my children to imagine that this were ever otherwise; yet for most of human history, a girl could not grow up to be anything she wanted to be. Now, she really can. I do believe that. But just because she can, doesn’t mean she will. And the evidence does not match up with the story the kids are being told. They see it. It makes them wonder. Why are there so few women in any snapshot of world leaders? I am excited for this summer’s World Cup, but also realize, looking through my daughters’ eyes: there will be no women playing. And there is nothing comparable to point them toward. Thank heavens, they were able to see themselves reflected in our Olympians.
I haven’t done anything to change the balance, either. I had a good job before I started having children. Then I stayed home with them. That was nine years ago. I have benefitted from the unquestionable luxury of being a women who chooses to stay home with her children, supported financially by a willing and able husband. I don’t feel regret or guilt about my decision, and we’ve always looked at ourselves as a partnership, and continue to work toward an ideal balance of childcare and work, and domestic duties and pursuit of outside interests; but out of strict financial necessity, his work trumps mine. It has to. Would I have it any other way? Well, this is what I wanted to do. I got to choose, and I’m glad for it. It was a privilege to take this path. Many people would like to, and cannot, for a variety of reasons.

But, man, sometimes I would just like to go off to work in the morning, and leave someone else in charge. Someone else to do the daily laundry. Think up and prepare the daily meals. Schedule the appointments, contain the domestic minutiae.
Someone else could walk to school with an eager four-year-old and a fractious and contrary two-year-old who insists, simultaneously, on not riding in the stroller and not walking beside it. So we’re standing halfway up the hill, on a busy street, engaging in a mental tug-of-war … “Come on, honey. Keep walking. Or I’ll have to strap you into the stroller. Come on, sweetheart. We’re going to be late. We’re already late. This is driving me crazy. The kids will be waiting. I don’t want to have to strap you in. You need to walk, or else I’ll have to …” And on and on and on, inching, lurching forward, sometimes at full tilt, then coming again to a standstill, till finally the inevitable happens and we are so late that he must be strapped in (screaming hysterically) and I am running–and still arrive late. “Why were you late?” “I’m sorry. Do you remember that we have swimming after school today?” “I won’t go. I hate swimming.” “We have to go.” “But I won’t. I just won’t. I hate everything.” “Would you like a banana muffin? We baked them this morning.” [Translation: two-year-old howled for more chocolate chips while four-year-old and her friend mixed and poured batter all over the counter this morning]. Eldest daughter emerges, at last, very late. She’s holding a gigantic car constructed of recyclables: of all the days to bring home this project. “I don’t think you can carry that all the way to swimming, do you? Can you store it on your desk and bring it home tomorrow? Do you want a muffin?” She chooses to carry it. We’re late. We walk fast. She falls far behind. “I’m still not going swimming,” says the eight-year-old. “Okay, if you really don’t want to, you can wait for us in the stands, but unfortunately, I do have to go in with your little brother.” Silence. “Another muffin?” “I guess I’ll have to go then.” Two-year-old attempting stroller escape, thwarted by intrepid four-year-old, balancing precariously, with arms and legs akimbo to block all exit routes. More howls. More, “Maybe you could put that car in your backpack and rebuild it later?” More, “I hate this. This is stupid.” Finally, our destination. Eldest daughter races off to the bathrooms. We wait. We’re late. She’s back. We enter a changeroom. We’ve forgotten a hair elastic. Eldest daughter races to stroller to find one. We wait. Still late. She’s back. Two-year-old now naked. “Do you have to pee?” Yup, and he’s considering the floor. “Please, please, please don’t pee on me,” someone else could mutter while racing for the bathroom clutching naked two-year-old. On the way, observe the mother with two older children who has driven here instead of walking, talking quietly to her offspring, guiding them toward the pool with preternatural calm. Return with successfully toileted two-year-old to changeroom where own offspring are fighting over who should sit where. “I might have to start cursing,” someone else could say. “What does that mean?” “Nothing. I’ll tell you later. When we aren’t stuck in a public changeroom with holes at the top of the walls, and the judgement of strangers to guide us otherwise.” We emerge, eventually, store items in locker, trip over one another, why is everyone always standing exactly blocking the direct route to anything? Finally. Pool.
This is only half of the tale.
Now, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone else do that instead? Wouldn’t it? Or, maybe not. It is good material, after all.
It’s what I do.
And this afternoon, someone else (our babysitter) is walking to school on my behalf … in the rain, no less. I almost want to stop her before she heads out the door and say, go on home, I’ll do it, don’t worry. It’s my job.

How Does She Do It?

How does she do it?
How does the Perfect Mom manage to care for her children 24 hours a day, cook fresh and healthy meals from scratch, source her food locally, keep her house tidy and clean, launder her family’s clothing, arrange regular doctor and dentist appointments, read books to her children, spend special time with each individual child, ferry children to after-school activities, cope with conflict creatively, stay patient and calm amidst the great and constant storm of chaos, spend meaningful and romantic time with her partner, and even do paid work on occasion? Oh, and still make space to nurture herself.
I ask because this is the kind of mom I strive to be. And because we’re all familiar with that Perfect Mom ideal. We’re bombarded with images of her.
I also ask because it’s the kind of mom that I’m not.
I’m not against setting the bar high. I want to learn and achieve and strive to do better. But when I look at that list of Perfect Mom achievements, it becomes really clear that the ideal is not just impossible, but improbable, even mythical.
There is no way, for example, to do paid work while caring for children. I might be able to involve my children (with effort and time lost and extra mess afterward) in helping to cook a meal, but I can’t involve them in helping me write a story (my paid work). In fact, as anyone knows who’s ever chased a toddler around house, in order to do that work, I need my children to be elsewhere entirely, being looked after by someone else (though the television is also an occasionally effective babysitter). Which completely nixes the possibility of Perfect Mom-dom.
In fact, the answer to how does she do it? is: She doesn’t. Those of us who occasionally look like we’re achieving the impossible are working with smoke and mirrors. We’re magicians of special effects. We’re faking it.
And I wonder whether there’s something intrinsically wrong with that, have we created an image of motherhood that is both alluring and ultimately disappointing. And yet …
I strongly dislike wallowing, complaining, whining. I think negativity is corrosive and infects others, too. Part of my mothering goal is to be as positive as possible, to create an optimistic family culture, to live inside even the most difficult situations and cope with grace and humour. To forgive my own mistakes and be careful not to judge others, too.
Part of faking it is reminding myself of what is possible.
But maybe I should be reminding myself that there’s an imperfect human being behind the curtain. And sharing that conflicted, often harassed and frustrated self.
Are those ideals even my own, at heart? Really? How do I know?
One more question: Is there a Perfect Dad?
Note: This is cross-posted from my Moms Are Feminist’s Too blog, because it applies equally to what I’m doing here, and what I’d like to be doing there.

The Zine

Above is the hard copy of my women’s studies project. Some of you were involved in it, having responded to my questionnaire on a separate blog created for the project, called Moms Are Feminists Too. Thanks for your participation. I continue to feel inspired to add content and thought to that blog, even though it feels like I’m formulating ideas even as I go along. The above zine was produced with a great deal of self-doubt, and I almost didn’t hand it in, despite the effort behind it. I almost handed in an alternative production that was tidy and pleasant and not very activist-y (yes–that is how much of a keener, I am–I actually completed this single project TWICE). The zine you see above was produced late at night in a fit of scissors-ing, pasting, and scrawling. The words came from the heart and were not exactly well-planned, and I lost a few marks for that, but the emotion and purpose must have come through because the prof liked it enough to keep it.
I confess that the project surprised me in a number of different ways. It surprised me that I felt this passionately about motherhood and work, and the value (or cultural undervaluing, to be more precise) of children and childcare. I was surprised by how hard it was for me to step out and declare a position. It was difficult even to declare myself a feminist, with all the negative connotations associated with that word, and because this blog, Obscure CanLit Mama, has never had much interest in politicizing family. It doesn’t seem the place for it. I wonder why not?
Here’s another tiny and rather ironic revelation that came over me on the drive home from my last class, tonight. I thought: gee, I kind of took this class to see whether my brain could still retain information and regurgitate it on command (which is what most educational testing schemes require of students). Apparently, I still can. Really, it stands to reason that I’d be much the same student now as then. So why the heck did I think my capacity to be a “good” student might have changed? Easy. Because in between the last time I was a student, and now, I gave birth to four children. Somewhere along the line, I must have bought into that theory about “motherbrain.” You know, how motherhood fuzzes our brains, how we become all leaky and exhausted and incapable of rational thought. Forever. Um. Damn! I cannot believe that some part of me actually believed that theory enough that I needed to test myself, to prove myself. Personally, I think motherbrain is probably the same as fatherbrain–caused by severe sleep deprivation, and, generally, passing post-infancy. This is just one small example of how insidious these messages are, how ever-present, how we tell them to ourselves, and pull them into ourselves, and how they have the potential to keep us from exploring wider possibilities, or pushing beyond what’s expected of us–and what we expect of ourselves.
This class has actually been something I never anticipated it being. It’s been consciousness-raising. (And I already considered myself a feminist). Oh, how I would like to push my children’s gender boundaries just a little bit more, how I would like for all of them to share those best qualities that shouldn’t be gendered at all. Kindness, gentleness, empathy, grace, ambition. To be thoughtful, hardworking, confident, open. To lead, to share, to cooperate, to give. To be creative, active, brave. Never to fear judgement. To develop job skills and domestic skills, and to be loving caregivers.

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