Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Badass Mommies Book Review: The Maternal is Political

The Maternal is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change
Edited by Shari MacDonald Strong
I was interested but somewhat skeptical when I decided to read this -- skeptical about any of it applying to me, anyway. I couldn't think of anything indicating that motherhood had turned me into anything much different from the same timid, wishy-washy, non-confrontational person I was before I gave birth.
The book is quite interesting. As is often the case with this sort of project, most, if not all, of the contributors are quite highly educated, politically aware and articulate, so the reader must be aware of a possible lack of range. However, the writers do include a physically disabled mother, a mother who has spent time institutionalized for mental illness, a Guatemalan woman who has witnessed horrific atrocities, and a lesbian mother trying to adopt her partner's baby, so clearly there was an attempt to achieve a variety of viewpoints.
The essays are divided into three sections: Believe, Teach and Act. The 'Believe' section contains terms such as 'consciousness raising' and 'if we want a mother's movement... we have to give birth to it', which I have to admit tend to provoke a slight cringe reflex in me, although who can argue that consciousness doesn't need to be raised? The women in this section write about how becoming a mother expands your worldview, in both existential and practical ways. There's nothing like emerging from the rosy glow (or the sleepless fog) of the first few weeks or months of motherhood and realizing that your employment prospects, earning potential, benefits and personal freedoms have been severely impacted to suddenly make a woman sit up and take notice of certain practices that are unhelpful, if not downright hostile, to mothers (I apologize wholeheartedly for this sentence, I'm just too tired to rewrite it any more).
Trying to find suitable day care opens up many other cans of worms, including the reality of women from other countries caring for North American babies while spending years away from their own children. If nothing else, having children raises these issues on our radar, erases some of that blissful ignorance that might have accompanied a pre-child-encumbered state. Government policies on paid childcare leave, job protection, subsidized childcare, immigration -- these all become immediate and personal realities, which lead some women to start questioning, with varying degrees of loudness, the validity of certain protocols and assumptions.
In "Mom, Interrupted: Toward a Politics of Maternal Mental Health", Marritt Ingman interrogates the notion of postpartum depression, asking whether it is completely a matter of hormones, or rather "a falsely medicalized perspective on a problem that is at least partly political and cultural?" In other words, maybe they should be depressed, given that "for too many mothers, political reality is bleak". I tend to believe that actual postpartum depression is largely a matter of hormones and chemicals, but in a larger context Ingman's question is certainly worth asking. Violeta Garcia-Mendoza, in "Of Volcanos and Ruins and Gardens", writes about her decision to adopt a Guatemalan child, and the realization that "adoptive motherhood bears the secret that the lines we erect to partition ourselves off from others, to protect ourselves against the heaviness of the human experience, are arbitrary." The implication is that it is this inescapable realization that drives mothers to act politically not only on behalf of their own children, but for everyone's children.
Marion Winik's brave and unequivocal essay "Mothers Against Faith" really blew me away, given my own daily see-sawing between agonized half-belief and tormented skepticism. "Faith moves mountains, they say. That may well be true. It certainly knocks over buildings. Wonder, I think, may be a gentler way to live." I love this.
The "Teach" section, predictably, features educators with concerns about curriculum issues (stupid standardized tests), and also a woman with black sons in school, dealing with the reality of black men being viewed as athletes, entertainers or criminals rather than scholars, and a white woman living in India with her golden-haired fair-skinned daughter, who wonders why a rhyme they say at school reflects the reality of her appearance and not that of the Indian children (and I've done irreparable violence to another sentence). "All-Consumed: The Restoration of One Family's Values" by Alisa Gordaneer describes her really impressive committment to anti-consumerism, and how she has raised her children to be avid trash-pickers, recyclers, haters of 'cpc' (cheap plastic crap), and watchers of documentaries about how factories in China cause environmental damage. Her children prefer these, apparently, to Disney movies. Seriously. I'm thinking of asking her if she wants to adopt my children before I corrupt them any further.
The "Act" section actually answered one of my questions, which was something like 'can't I go to a political activism boot camp or something?' Beth Osnes, author of "Performing Mother Activism", actually presented a workshop called Rehearsal for Activism; she acknowledges "how similar activism is to performing, in that both force you to present yourself in public and express some predetermined content." This is what I was looking for, from someone; the admission that activism isn't something you can just leap into (okay, it isn't something I can just leap into) without some kind of coaching and encouragement. The other question floating around in my mind, which was something about how to act in the face of overwhelming odds and probably failure, was addressed beautifully by "The Mother is Standing" by Denise Roy. She writes about her passage from a former goody-two shoes rule-follower to getting arrested in a Good Friday protest at a nuclear weapons facility which did not change the world, but changed her and her community. She relates the story of A.J. Muste, a Vietman War protester who stood outside the White House nightly, and when asked if he really thought he would change U.S. policy, said "Oh, I don't do this to change the country. I do this so the country won't change me." That was one of those a-ha moments for me.
"Peace March Sans Children" by Valerie Weaver was honest and comforting, in its admission that "caring for the world or caring for the kids" are sometimes "incompatible", and that sometimes mothers of young children might need a little time off from the revolution, before coming back to "advocate from a deeper place within ourselves than we had known existed".
I'm glad I read this book. It gave me a lot to think about. And a few weeks after I had finished it, I was at a baseball game where we had some trouble with the other team's coach. The whole matter of the coach of a team of six-year-olds needing to win no matter what is a matter for another post, but at one point, when he was being fairly nasty and confrontational, I suddenly found myself up out of my comfortable lawn chair, on my feet.
I didn't actually punch out the coach, or get arrested or anything. Still... I think I might have been ready for a little activism. I am mother... hear me squeak in a vaguely threatening and self-assured manner.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Stop and Reflect (or the other way around)

A friend of mine got a ticket for not coming to a full stop at a stop sign a couple of weeks ago. It was a stop sign at a four-way stop near my house. Around the same time, I was riding with someone who I noticed making full and complete stops at every stop sign. In recent years, I've pretty much become the queen of the rolling stop. I sort of resent the whole business -- if there are other cars around, fine, but if there's no other visible traffic, isn't it a waste of time to step on the brake until you feel that little jerk that means you are now well and truly stopped, then have to get going again?
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creative commons license

OR is the fact that I think that just evidence that I'm buying into a fast-food, hurry hurry rush rush culture, too busy for courtesy, contemplation or correct behaviour? 

So I've been stopping for real at stop signs. Partly because I don't want to get a ticket, partly because it makes me feel a little smug (especially when I see the people behind me almost drive into me and then get mad, the same way I do when I think people stop for too long at stop signs), partly just to try something new. It's an interesting feeling. A little pause every so often, for no good reason (because I still think it's kind of dumb).

But yesterday I was driving back to my Mom's house from our house. My husband was away for a week and a half, then my brother in law was here for two nights, then my cousin who I've seen three times in twenty-five years was here on the last day of school and needed to be shown around Ottawa, then my sister and her two kids came on the last day of school and stayed for the week-end. My house is only a few minutes away from my Mom and Dad's, and we spent the week-end shuffling between the two houses and the beach and the waterpark with various combinations of kids and adults. And I realized why I rarely came to a full stop at a stop sign before. 

It's because sometimes, when you come to a full stop, it's really, really hard to make yourself go again.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

You Are Here

I turned thirty-nine on Monday. Really thirty-nine, as in next year I will, in fact, turn forty. I've spent the last couple of days in some cursory stock-taking. It would have been more in-depth stock-taking, but my husband's been in Tokyo for two weeks and we're in baseball playoffs, so instead of stock-taking I've been mostly not sleeping, stumbling through the day with Eve, weeping over grade three math homework in French, making dinner for four o'clock and rushing off to rookie baseball or minor baseball or baseball practice every. freaking. night.

Anyway. I'm pretty sure there are things I thought I would have done by the time I was thirty-nine. At one point I thought I would have finished my first novel by the time I was thirty. I know what it's supposed to be about, I can see certain scenes in my mind, I've made a few starts, but I'm lazy and easily distractable and prone to fits of despair, and therefore I have a few stranded chunks of text floating around in the ether and a few short stories. I have plucked up enough courage to send away a story a couple of times. Mostly it resulted in a nice letter saying thanks for coming out, but our journal has folded for lack of funding in the time it took you to mail us your submission. Once I sent a story to Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Gordon Van Gelder said my prose style was interesting, but the subject matter just didn't capture his attention ('alas', he said. I don't think I've ever used the word 'alas' in a letter. Nice touch, I thought). So I tried. A few times, twelve years ago, and never again.
I have a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature. I honestly can't say for sure whether I ever thought I would really use it. The dry-heaves and palpitations every time I had to walk into a new seminar room, never mind when I actually had to deliver a paper -- did I really think I could ever walk into a room of students and pretend I was going to teach them? Comparative Literature has a language requirement -- you need to be able to speak and write in two languages, plus demonstrate reading knowledge of a third. Well, we all know how confident and comfortable I am just in English -- imagine my delight at going head to head with the mean lesbian French professor every Tuesday.
So I don't know if I really believed I would be teaching in a university, but I know I thought I would have more years of full-time work under my belt by this point. As it is, I'm pushing forty and I've merely dabbled. Some special needs work... some audio publisher editing under fairly bizarre conditions (office full of people who were even crazier than me)... some bookselling... then I got pregnant. And my husband didn't exactly say 'you should probably just concentrate on not being the looniest mother on the block for a while', but it was definitely implied. I don't feel as bad about this as I thought I might. Up until a couple of years ago, it was freaking hard work. It's much easier at this point, but I still feel like I'm earning my keep. Next year Eve is in school full days, and then I'll have to figure something out. A few years ago I would have found this terrifying. Now I find it kind of exhilarating.
I would give full marks for the husband and kids category -- not that I think any of the credit is mine. What kind of kids you get may not be solely a matter of luck, but I have to think that luck is involved, because I know some great people that have some really challenging kids. You can say that you chose your husband for good qualities and because you were in love, but I think what kind of marriage you have relies in some part on luck as well. My husband is great -- thoughtful, hard-working, great father, funny, finally remembers that I don't like iced tea after fifteen years of living with me -- but it's down to luck that we haven't had to face anything horrible enough to really test our marriage. Other than the fact that he still leaves chewed gum stuck to tables and chair-arms -- we may be looking at counselling (or an assault charge) on that one.
I still have some basic personality flaws that I hoped I would have ironed out by now. It's one of life's great unfairnesses, I think, that sometimes you can see what's wrong with you so clearly, and yet be unable to fix it. Some things I have worked on and improved in, although it's still a struggle. I think that's good, in a way. Sometimes it's nice to be aware that you're doing something against your nature, that the wise little voice in your head has actually spoken up soon enough and loudly enough for you to be able to hear, and act accordingly.
I think I would have to say, on the whole, that I am happy. Joyful, even. There are things in the world that are horrible beyond horror, and things that are merely dreadful, and things that are just a real pain in the ass. Some of these things I doubt I can change, some I do tiny little ant-sized things towards, and some I am trying to learn to bear. I know that I'm my own worst enemy sometimes, and I'm working to loathe myself less. Because some really great people think that I don't suck. I think this is the first year I was on Facebook for my birthday. Facebook is really great for not making you feel like everybody you know forgot your birthday. For sure this is the first year I was blogging on my birthday. So there's that, too -- I'm writing more, and I'm sharing it with more people (twos of them!)
photo credit
creative commons license
So given my advantages and circumstances, it probably is true that I should have accomplished more by this point. But what's the point in lamenting that? All I can do is keep trying to be braver, more patient, more grateful, and more awake (on so many levels). But first, I'm going to make pear and parsnip soup for a bunch of friends and drink a lot of wine.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

At least I'm not usually naked

I know I hide it really well, but I'm a fairly anxious person. I think this has always been reflected in my dreams. When I was a kid, I frequently dreamed about being behind the steering wheel in a moving car on a busy road. Sometimes I was alone, sometimes my little sister was with me, and it wasn't always the same road, but otherwise it was the same thing -- the car going faster and faster, up and down hills, and I was in a complete panic with no idea what to do. Sometimes I think I'd like to take the kids -- Angus especially -- out to the car, sit them behind the wheel, and at the very least show them the brake, so if they ever have this dream they can think 'no problem, I'll just hit the brake'. But it seems just a little too weird, even for me, to give my kids driving lessons for their future possible dreams.
Once I learned to drive, I didn't have that dream any more, which was a relief. The other dreams had less of a physical danger aspect and more of a farcical, wrong-place-wrong-time tone. Usually I was either getting married or having a baby, always without the attendant planning, with everything going horribly wrong and accompanied by a feeling of doom. I'd be walking down the aisle and realize I hadn't washed my hair, or that I'd forgotten to invite my father, or that I didn't even know the groom. The baby dreams were even worse, of course. I'm a good Catholic girl (well, a bad Catholic girl), and I was having a baby without being married (or having sex, for that matter, but that was less of a problem). Once I had the baby I had no idea what the hell to do with it, and I would invariably misplace it or drop it. Once I washed it in the sink and it dissolved like an ice cube and slid down the drain.
You don't have to be Freud to see that these dreams were indicating a lifelong (and really tedious) fear of being inadequate or unprepared for certain milestones. It wasn't a big deal. I already knew I was neurotic -- if anything I was just slightly chagrined that my subconscious chose such a glaringly obvious tactic for highlighting it. I preferred the wacky, impenetrable dreams -- the ones where I organized Cambodian refugees into a kick-ass motorcycle taxi service but then we had to band together to fight some weird burning monster made out of forks and wire, or when I was guiding a group of people to jump off a cliff into a river, but first I wrapped up a biscuit and some toothpaste in a handkerchief for each of them.
photo credit
creative commons license

So now that I have a driver's licence, and I've had a great wedding followed by a mostly happy, occasionally exhilarating, periodically cranky marriage, and I've had two kids and managed not to lose either one for more than a few (very bad) minutes, I figured: what's left? My dreams should be pretty safe now, right?
I guess the lesson would be something like 'never underestimate the power of your neuroses'. Now that all that stuff is over and doesn't scare me any more (much), I have a recurring dream that some faceless academic body has found a problem in my transcripts and I have to go back and make up some credits. In undergrad. Or (wait for it) high school. In order to keep my master's degree. Which I don't use and probably never will. And the dreams consist of me racing around not being able to find the right classroom, or suddenly realizing I've accidentally missed every lecture in a course all term, or just realizing that there's no place in residence for my kids to live. In other words, my nightmares don't revolve around monsters. They revolve around grades.

My subconscious is a total fucking bitch.

Monday, June 1, 2009

What happens when you give a fruit to a nut?

I have a couple of reviews brewing. I'm reading The Maternal is Political and learning all about great mothers who move to India with their three-year-olds, engage their children in political debate and homeschool. I also need to review Sima's Undergarments for Women, by my friend-of-a-friend Ilana , who not only is younger than me and published her first novel before I've even finished one but delivers babies on the side. In the wake of all these inspiring women, what's been on my mind lately?
How much I hate my hair, mostly.
I know, I know. It's superficial. It's what's inside your head that matters. You don't change the world or get novels written by worrying about your looks. Still... why can't I just have normal hair? Even normal hair that doesn't look that good would be better. I swear, my hair spends all its time thinking up new and original ways to look dorky. Little bits appear from nowhere and stick out. One side flips out and gets frizzy and the other side turns under and sticks to my head like it's been glued there. Small sections sometimes turn purple. I'm certain that I would be accomplishing great things every day if I had better hair.
So today I went to the gym, stuck Eve in the playroom, worked out and then went down to get groceries. Our fruit bowl was empty, which for my apple-devouring oldest child is a disaster beyond bearing, so I was somewhere between apples and pears when I happened by a bin full of lychees. I stopped and looked down at the cartoonishly prickly little things and thought "I've never tasted a lychee. My children have never tasted a lychee. I'm a terrible mother and we don't go to museums often enough and they watch too much tv and clearly I'm not exposing them to enough exotic fruits!". Anyway. I bought a few lychees and after supper we gathered around the table for the Grand Lychee Experiment:
"What are those? They look like Pokemon."

"How are you supposed to peel this? Get me a knife."
"Ewwww! They look like brains!"
"I'm not eating that."
"They're terrible! I hate this lychee!"
"Can I have some cocoa rice krispies?"
So then they had bland, processed, culturally bankrupt cereal for dessert and they were trying to steal each other's and it was all funny and cute and then they kept doing it and suddenly I was infuriated and I told them if they spilled cocoa rice krispies all over they would never ever have cocoa rice krispies again. Because they would be dead.
I blame my hair.