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.
Have you seen him in his Strawberry Shortcake hat? He accessorizes with pink mittens, too. These are his choices, and I support them! The photos of Fooey were taken by her sister; I wanted to show how she’s posing for photos these days, very deliberately. I think it’s an effect of being photographed so often, and also of watching me photograph myself for the 365 day project. I often set up the camera and fool around with various poses and backgrounds … it can take quite awhile, and the kids are used to the beep-beep-beep of the ten-second timer going off, and run to check out the resulting picture. They’ll report, “That’s a good one, Mommy!”
Today, I have some news. It’s not of the good variety, but on the other hand, as I think my way through it, it’s not of the bad variety either. ParentDish, the Canadian version for which I’ve been writing regularly, is going on hiatus while the company retools the American site. That means I am temporarily out of regular writing work. My last column will publish tomorrow. The reason this news is not altogether bad, upon reflection (thank you, hot yoga) … well, a couple of reasons, actually. 1. Over the winter, I have been writing very little other than my columns, and have found it hard to focus, in the few extra hours available, on poetry or short stories. I will enjoy doing that again. 2. I also need to consider whether I would prefer to publish under a pseudonym were I to write a column like this again. Recent posts have gotten a number of comments, some smart and thoughtful, and others a bit hostile and weird. It’s made me go hmmm, if nothing more. I don’t mind having time to reflect on this. 3. There might be a third reason. I can’t remember it. It’s almost time to head to school.
The days go.
But CJ and I had a lunch date with Kevin today, and I thought, walking over in the breezy sunshine, of the great fortune of time that is mine. And I thought of that poem from a few posts back: “This is what the living do.” We get to walk in spring sunshine, and see another spring burst into bloom.
Writing day: organizing and planning for future interviews and columns, which takes more work than one might suspect. It’s the background hidden labour that will bear fruit down the road. Today I have almost too many ideas. Which is better than too few.
Something I’d like to figure out for my own children: how to involve them in the larger world, how to bring into their privileged and comfortable lives a desire to care for others, to be aware of need and sensitive to it; and to accept help, too. To treat everyone with dignity and respect. I’m not sure how to write a 600 word column on a subject I haven’t got a firm fingerhold on myself; but I want to know more. Where in my own life am I lacking this kind of compassion? How can I find time and space to do more? Where to begin? Small, I’m thinking. (Shoot–I should have accepted that cough candy from the Mormons
When Kevin broke his knee last winter, and I was run ragged trying to keep up with the demands of our life, I realized that despite my most sincere wishes otherwise, doling out seemingly endless help wasn’t bringing out the best in me or making me a finer, more patient person; instead, I felt squeezed like an empty toothpaste tube. I had nothing left to give. A smile to a grocery store clerk felt like more emotion and empathy than I could manage. But I still believe it’s always possible to give more, just in increments, like the way your body can stretch just that little bit farther when you’re holding a posture in yoga and following your breath.
But it comes to me: without that breath, farther isn’t possible.
Maybe that’s the key.
Oh dear. My morning has been thrown out of whack! Have to fly. Unexpected arrivals all over the place today.
This is the kid who’s off to preschool. This is the kid who’s home sick. This is the mother (not pictured; possibly wearing frowny face) who is not using her “work” morning to do much more than make peppermint tea with honey for said sick kid while fielding innumerable bored comments as he sits beside me and reads the words I’m typing.
I forgot to bring my camera to the preschool drop-off. Will have to stage the moment next Friday. It was the first time I’ve felt like a commuting, all-working, no-one-staying-at-home family; though in fact the feeling was pretend, because here I am, working from home. But anyway. We all ate breakfast, got packed up, headed out the door together, and drove to the preschool, where we said goodbye to Kevin and CJ, and then I drove the girls to school (Albus stayed in the vehicle and “spied” on people). On a Friday when no one is ill, this schedule will mean that I’ll return home to utter quiet. Today, not so much. Albus is all about the sound effects.
But even that possibility reminds me that once upon a time, Life was very quiet. I frequently returned home to an empty apartment. And while there is much pleasure to be found in quiet contemplation (or the potential thereof), I’m grateful for the noise and chaos and activity that these four extra personalities bring into the house and into my life.
Last night, despite a raging and persistent head cold, I went to hot yoga. This is my winter replacement for school. I’d gotten in the habit of leaving the house on Thursday evenings, as had everyone else, so I figured I’d better keep that habit up. Hot yoga it is. I walk into the room, lie down on the mat, and it’s like being on vacation in the tropics. Yoga is most effective when the mind turns off and empties out. I love it. By the end of class, I feel spiritually renewed. Each time is a little bit different. One time, I was moved to tears, though I couldn’t say why. There is something about emptying oneself out that makes room for more, for change.
However, I did not get to meet with Nina afterward, which was our plan, to discuss our words of the year. I’m looking forward to it. I think my word will be EXPERIENCE. I like the duality of the word, how it both honours the repetition of my mothering life and days, and points toward the new and challenging as well. Experience can only come from practice, and from putting in the time. It requires patience and commitment. But to have an experience can be quite a different undertaking altogether: it requires a leap of faith, openness, willingness, recognition, courage. Experiences drop out of the sky; sometimes you simply find yourself within them, and sometimes you have to look for them and seek them out. (I’m thinking of “experiences” as adventures, of a sort, but more mundane than that, too. Experiences can include anything: finding yourself in conversation with someone you don’t usually talk to, or sitting down to play the piano and finding you want to write a new song, or picking up a book and being unexpectedly touched and moved by a random sentence. ie. my definition is pretty wide open).
And now. I need to get to work. I’ve just pointed my sick son toward the television. I’m going to let him watch YTV, which is usually off-limits due to the wretched advertising. Does my child need to be inundated with the latest and greatest in toys, cereals and movies? No, my child does not. But an hour or two can’t hurt.
In about an hour from now, Kevin will arrive home with our youngest.
“He won’t be able to tell us about his day!” AppleApple pointed out, as we drove away from the preschool. Unfortunately, that’s true. Or mostly true. He likes to mention details about his experiences, but unless we already know and can make the connections, these are hard to piece together into a full picture. For example: Boat! Shoe! Shoe? Shoe! Daddy coming! etc.
In happy self-promotional news, I’ve learned that my story “Rat” has been nominated by The New Quarterly magazine for the National Magazine Awards, and the Journey Prize. These affirmations do the heart good. They really do.
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.
What a mess this house is. What a crumb-cluttered, toy-tossed, almost indescribable state of yuck. Here’s a stuffed duck I found inside a pot inside a drawer. Duck soup. We suffered complete pandemonium after tonight’s supper, for which there was no explanation. Both parents were too tired to rise from the table to staunch the inevitable tragedy-in-waiting. (Nothing too terrible happened). But, crikey, it was loud. You could have called it downright chaos. Anarchy.
After dish-washing, and lunch-packing, I corralled the older two children into helping me plan out new morning and evening responsibilities. Actually, there’s nothing new about any of these, it’s just new that we’re writing it up and posting it on the wall under the saleable titles of: Happy Day AM!, and Happy Day PM! (Chores, duties, and other words of that ilk did not feel quite so inspiring. Hopefully this is not a case of Orwellian double-speak). Thanks to both Janis and Marnie for their helpful suggestions on organizing and motivating feet-dragging children. We’ll see how this works, and for how long …
In other news, I’m discovering mixed emotions about my women’s studies zine/blog project (read the previous post if this is the first you’re hearing about it), though perhaps should not be taking its temperature minute-by-minute (curse you, internet, curse you!). Talk about a consciousness-raising project (sadly, it may only be raising my own …). But I spent part of last night surfing for blogs by feminist mothers, and found … so much anger and bitterness. Destruction rather than construction. I wonder whether this is the feminist that other women don’t want to define themselves as, and whether the word now means something other than what it once did. And maybe I’m a complete naif for never noticing that. I’ve always rather blithely defined myself as a feminist, without bothering to explain: oh, but not that kind of feminist. But I guess I’m not that kind of feminist, really. I’m not a natural activist, that’s for certain. I have an abhorrence toward violence of any kind, and rage causes me deep discomfort. I do recognize there are situations in which rage might be the only response. But I still don’t like it. I don’t like feeling angry myself or assigning blame. I’m wondering … can change happen … gracefully, gently, slowly? Can it be brought about by people asking: how can I make this better? What does better look like? How can I help?
Please go and read the responses to the questionnaire that are coming in. I’ve posted them here. They’re lovely and thought-provoking, and I thank everyone who’s taken time to reply. You’ve got me thinking, too.